Jim R. Woolard’s classic frontier epic of a young man raised to survive any battle he might encounter in a wild, savage, untamed land . . .
Young Ethan Downer may not look old enough to shave, but he was raised by his father to survive a harsh, unsettled land crawling with enemies eager to spill his blood. When Ethan joins General St. Clair’s troops on a hard march toward Ohio’s Wabash River, his hard won lessons will be put to the test like never before . . .
On a cold dawn in 1791, St. Clair’s exhausted army awakes to find itself surrounded by a well-planned Indian ambush. As the battle wages fiercely, the outcome is clear—there is no hope for survival. It’s a slaughter on a monumental level and only a desparate, futile plan might save a few lives. And Ethan Downer is unafraid to ride straight into the jaws of the enemy, guns blazing.
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After Midnight, 4 October 1791
Every now and again, if you suffer a misstep at the outset, the events that follow such a blunder seem to slide from bad to worse as if they have a will of their own. Never was this truer than throughout my experience with the St. Clair campaign, for I found myself in great danger even before I laid eyes on any of the general's forces.
My first inkling of trouble came in the deep hours of night. Hardy Booth and I were working ten head of riding stock up the Great Miami River, bound for the general's newly built Fort Hamilton, and had camped at dark below where Blue Rock Creek joined the river from the east.
I wasn't certain at first what had awakened me in my blankets, but once propped on an elbow and listening, I was immediately aware we were no longer alone in the shadowy river bottom. To the north, on the same bank of the river as our camp, plumb where the Blue Rock joined the Miami, hooves struck rock and splashed water.
Somebody was moving horses, and moving them fast!
That realization routed the sleep from me. It didn't take any more brains than those necessary to tell right from left to reckon no one of the same skin color as Hardy and me would be moving horses under cover of darkness. We white folks unfailingly trailed in full daylight when we didn't run the risk of injuring our stock and could keep a constant watch roundabout. So, if it wasn't our kind out there shoving for the Miami jack quick, it was those we dreaded meeting the most ... the redstick enemy.
I pulled my flintlock from twixt my thighs and shook Hardy's ample shoulder. He awakened with a puzzled grunt. I clasped a palm over his mouth and spoke softly into his ear. "Quiet now, there's Injuns yonder hazing a sizable bunch of horses."
Hardy was a jovial soul, prone to fun anyone, anytime, anywhere, but he wasn't prone to foolishness of any stripe if his scalp might be at stake. He curled fingers 'round his own long rifle and stared past me toward the creek. The whites of his straining eyes were faint smudges in the shadowy night.
"What are we to do, Ethan?"
Hardy was two years my senior, but he would look to me, as Paw had put me in charge of our sojourn south into Kentucky to purchase mounts for General St. Clair's officers. And when Caleb Downer said how it was to be, everybody in his pay done as he was told. Paw might forgive a man 'most anything else. Never would he brook insubordination.
I rose to a knee, Hardy crawling alongside of me. "We can't let 'em come onto us. Get over to our animals and watch for sign they've heard what's happening at the creek."
"What do you intend for your ownself?" Hardy asked in a whisper.
The moon slipped clear of the clouds left from the afternoon rain, and four-legged shapes, a few bearing hatless riders, sprang into view forty-plus yards upstream. The river valley ran flat to the west in the direction the Injuns were traveling. On the near bank of the Miami, wooded hills swept down within a few rods of water's edge, hiding all but the mouth of Blue Rock Creek from our sight.
"I'm gonna skirt along the hillside and get a count of how many horses they're making off with. Paw will likely want to report what we're seeing to the general and his staff."
Hardy stiffened. "It ain't important enough to get killed over, for chrissake," he contended. "A damn good guess would do just fine."
"Never you fear," I quietly assured him. "They're in an all-fired hurry, and I ain't aiming to draw a step tighter to 'em than necessary. They won't spy us back here in the willows less'n we attract their attention. Besides, any of them inch our way, I'll scoot back here like a spooked rabbit. Now, ease back down the bank, and keep our own stock quiet."
For a usually bumbling fellow, Hardy slipped through the willows sheltering us slick as a prowling weasel. I looped the shoulder straps of my shot pouch and powder horn over my head, then held fast a brief spell, gathering my nerve. I was no stranger to Injuns. I had, in fact, faced them painted and screeching in the loft of our family cabin. But that experience had put a fear of them in me steady as I sucked wind. You reached near a blazing flame, you took every caution lest you might get burnt terribly bad.
Once free of the willows, I angled uphill, seeking solid footing on the high side of the looming tree butts. What undergrowth that couldn't be avoided rustled gently against my leather leggins and linen frock, sound too faint for distant ears. I stalked as Paw had taught me, head level and steady, knees bent, each stride a deliberate step, feeling with the toes of my moccasins for anything that might snap or roll under my weight. Maybe I wasn't stealthy as a woods panther, but two-legged game seldom heard me approaching. Years of laying the sneak on your own wily brothers can be downright helpful once you're somewhat growed.
As I gingerly crested the hilltop separating me from a look-see into the creek bed where all the commotion was occurring, the moon ducked behind a thick cloud. My brief glance before the moon disappeared left me with the disturbing notion it was riding stock the Injuns had stolen. If that were true, given their large number, more than a few of General St. Clair's mounted cavalrymen were perhaps going off to war afoot. On the opposite hand, if those were packhorses wending past beneath me, the blow to his campaign was damaging but less severe. No matter how much gold or federal scrip you had in your fist, good riding mounts were much scarcer than toting animals south of the Ohio. Either way, the general would welcome an accurate report of his losses, the sooner the better.
I slipped over the crest of the hill. Problem was, the lower I descended twixt the thick beech and oak trunks, I still couldn't see a whit better in the dim, murky light. The ground leveled at the bottom of the hill, and the brush thickened as I neared the creek. Fearing I'd arrive too late for my look-see, I forged ahead, trusting to the darkness, the splash of water under pounding hooves, and the yipping of the horse-hazing redsticks to mask my presence.
The moon suddenly reappeared, and to my right, at the outer fringe of the brush overgrowing the creek bank, not four paces from the muzzle of my rifle, rode an Injun. My innards tried to climb into my throat, but I stifled the fright welling inside me with a forceful swallow, halted in midstride, and hunkered down in the screening brush. Not a part of me moved afterward except the balls of my eyes.
Curiosity replaced surprise when I saw the rider hadn't spotted me, for he was a most peculiar specimen of enemy. His chest wasn't bare and painted. He wore instead a wide-sleeved, ruffled, satiny white shirt with large pewter buttons. A flat-crowned hat covered the top of his skull where heathens always displayed roached topknots. And lo and behold, wasn't that a braided pigtail of hair descending well below the nape of his neck? A good goddamn if it wasn't.
I resisted the urge to scratch myself somewhere. Injuns shunned hats when on the warpath and rarely, if ever, wore their hair long and braided on such ventures. I stuck my chin forward and peered harder. Best I could tell, what with how the rider was holding the reins so awkwardly in front of his fancy shirt, his hands appeared to be tied at the wrists. What I next made out popped my jaws apart. Be damned if a leather gag wasn't tied over his mouth. My heart thudded and thumped.
I had stumbled upon a white captive!
What followed shocked even me. I suspect the taking of my ten-year-old brother Aaron by the Shawnee from the sleeping loft we shared, never to be seen by kin again, had much to do with it. So did the fight that broke out among the stolen horses farther downstream. Squeals and whinnies rent the night air, drawing the rearmost Injuns past their prisoner to the Miami and leaving him untended for a scant minute smack in front of me.
Whatever blunted what little sense I possessed and goaded me into action, soon as the unexpected opportunity to attempt a rescue presented itself, my feet were moving almost before I realized what was happening. And once I stepped forth into the chill waters of the creek, there was no retreating.
Standing as I did within two inches of six feet, it was no great challenge for me to rise on my toes in the shallow Blue Rock and wrap an arm 'round the waist of the Injun captive. With a hefty tug, I yanked him toward me. Thank the Lord his legs weren't bound in any way. He came clear of the saddle without hanging up in the stirrups, the gag in his mouth muffling a yelp of alarm.
Not wanting to tarry for a second, gentleness was the last thing on my mind. I took full advantage of the lightness of the body I held and lunged for the protective cover of the creek bank. I extended an arm in front of me, parted brush with the barrel of my flintlock, and without hesitating, scampered for the hillside and its beckoning woods, my freed captive bouncing on the point of my hip with each jolting, stretching stride.
The ruckus downstream at the river was petering out by the time the ground began slanting uphill. By then, too, my rescued captive was squirming and kicking, undoubtedly from my rough handling. His protests threw me off balance, and to avert a nasty fall for the both us, I cast him nose down at the base of a massive tree trunk.
I let him lie there while I listened for any pursuit and regained my wind. When he didn't stir whatsoever, I grew concerned that I had done my new traveling companion harm. Stepping across his prone body with my right leg, I reached under his chest to roll him over and got the biggest surprise yet of what was proving to be the most unusual night of my young life. My fingers hadn't grasped the hardened muscle of a male rib cage. They were folded around a female breast large enough to fill my entire hand.
My clutching grip froze in place. God's bones, a woman! How the devil had a woman become prisoner to Injun horse thieves? And more astounding, why had they burdened themselves with her while fleeing in the depths of the night?
My subsequent squeeze to make certain I wasn't mistaken was my undoing. The bound hands resting on the ground above the former prisoner's now hatless head flew upward in a blurring arc. Bent over as I was, I made a perfect target. Flesh slapped bare flesh, and heat blossomed on my cheek.
Stunned though I was, I'd survived enough brawls with my male counterparts to know what was coming next. The slap had turned her onto her backside and, sure enough, the knee I quickly raised caught her kick short of my vitals. It was mean and had to hurt, but I lowered my weight onto her legs, pinning them flat before she tried the same with her other foot.
Damn vixen, she'd been fooling me all the while!
I lay hold of her lashed wrists, then bent over her again till my lips brushed the leather gag covering her mouth. The curve of her cheekbones gleamed in the moonlight. The memory of that firm breast still fresh and vivid, I can't claim I didn't wonder how she would look with the gag removed. But I'd no intention of untying it any time soon.
She stilled completely, eyes boring into mine. "I'm white and a friend. You understand what I'm saying here?" When I got not a hint of a yea or nay from her, my temper grew foul. "Nod or I'll slap you liken you did me. Damned if I won't!"
She nodded sharply.
"Good girl," I acknowledged. "There's horses and more help just over this hill. It may not suit you, but I'm gonna lead you there just as you be so we won't get separated in the dark. An' we'll leave that gag stay put, too. Thataway, you take a spill, you won't yell out and tell the Injuns where we be. You understand?"
Her head cocked to one side and I swear I saw red darken those gleaming cheekbones. She didn't like it even a little bit. I straightened, raised an open palm in a threatening manner, and without further delay, she gave me the nod I sought.
It crossed my mind that it would be a right smart idea if I were prepared for an assault by tongue and anything handy that she could throw whenever I did cut her loose. I suspected this particular female wasn't inclined to suffer insult easily under any circumstances.
Injun calls in the creek bed floated to my ear. They had discovered their captive was missing. They would search close about, then upstream since that was the quickest escape route for anyone fleeing them. And while the redsticks nosed around a tad and moseyed the wrong direction, we would sally over the hill, rejoin Hardy, and withdraw a distance down the Miami. The enemy wouldn't hunt futilely for long, for St. Clair's troops might be in rapid pursuit of their lost mounts. They'd want to be across the river and well westward come daybreak.
Fortune seemed to further favor us, for the moon found another cloud to slide behind. I stood in the welcome darkness, pulled my hot-tempered mistress upright, and hiked for the safety of the far hillside.
It took only a few uphill strides for me to appreciate the litheness of my new companion. She clung within a half step of my heels and sustained without hint of a solitary falter the rapid pace I set. Whenever I halted for a quick glance and listen to the rear, she nimbly crouched out of my line of sight as if she had a string attached to my thinking. She was a girl who hadn't spent her days tied to a hearth cooking and baking.
Fresh shouts in Injun tongue echoed twixt our position and the creek. They had undoubtedly found sign of our passage. Tracks would be almost impossible to discern in the continuing darkness, the same with slightly disturbed brush. That left only one solid possibility — my companion's missing hat. Cursing myself for an oversight that could result in our deaths, I resumed our upward climb.
I kept an ear cocked best I could over my labored breathing. We had one distinct advantage in our rush to escape. The Injuns believed they were seeking an unarmed captive. Otherwise, they would have hunted silently rather than giving away their locations by yelling aloud to each other.
Beyond the crest of the hill, I broke into a run. Down we plunged, making surprisingly little clatter for our haste. At the bottom of the incline, I stopped once more to listen. The brief respite also gave me time to slash the leather thongs binding my companion's wrists with my knife, for if she were soon to sit a horse, I preferred she could mount on her own if need be. The gag I left to her.
"Follow me less'n you want to travel with your Injun friends again," I whispered hoarsely while gasping for breath.
I was turning away to lead off along the riverbank when her loosened gag hit my hat brim and sailed past me into the darkness. "Don't worry, you big oaf, there's no danger of you outrunning me."
I took her at her word. With nary a peek her direction, I zigzagged through rocks, reedy bogs, and willows across the clearest path to where Hardy Booth waited. The complete absence of Injun sound behind us, instead of heartening me, made speed seem even more paramount. Tap Jacobs was always reminding us Downer boys that it was too late after you were dead to try and explain how you had underestimated the cleverness of the Shawnee and the Miami.
It was Hardy Booth's forethought that gave us any chance of escape at all.
We came up to him on the dead run, and he was waiting with our personal mounts saddled and the horse string tied nose to tail and lined out down the riverbank. For all the merriment Hardy provoked, he could show an uncommon amount of sense in a tight situation.
The moon bathed the river bottom with a new wash of light, and the waiting Hardy stood out like a Bible-thumping minister poised before his flock on a bright Sunday noon. His stammering, "What the hell!" at the spectacle of a strange white girl dogging my heels was overwhelmed by Injun war whoops that flowed from every quarter. A plume of red flame spewing yellow arcs of burning powder shot out of the willows flanking the horse string. At such close range, the instantaneous boom of the large-caliber musket was deafening. The ball hit Hardy twixt the shoulder blades, and he lurched toward me. His outthrust hand, reaching desperately for help, thumped limply against my chest. Then the narrow trace threading the willows erupted into a nerve-jangling jumble of whinnying, kicking, bucking horses and howling brown bodies charging from our rear brandishing spiked clubs and war axes that killed swift as any bullet.
Excerpted from "Blood at Dawn"
Copyright © 2001 James R. Woolard.
Excerpted by permission of The Berkley Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Praise for the novels of Jim R. Woolard,
Part I - Fort Hamilton,
Part II - The March Upcountry,
Part III - Fort Jefferson,
Part IV - The March Resumed,
Part V - Blood at Dawn,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Having read & loved all of Jim Woolard's previous books I was looking forwarding to reading this new one. And once again he delivers a great read with an excellent plot, very interesting characters and the ability to make the place & time come alive in such a way that I feel I'm there. The narrative prose is among the best I've ever read and reminds me a great deal of Louis L'Amour books and this one of the reasons I enjoy Woolard's books so much.