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The Kentucky Trace: A Novel of the American Revolution

The Kentucky Trace: A Novel of the American Revolution

by Harriette Simpson Arnow

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A gripping portrait of life in the hard-bitten wilderness of Revolutionary Kentucky, Harriette Simpson Arnow’s The Kentucky Trace follows surveyor William David Leslie Collins as he struggles to survive. Collins finds his fellow settlers to be almost as inscrutable as the weather—at times, they are allies, and at others, they are adversaries.


A gripping portrait of life in the hard-bitten wilderness of Revolutionary Kentucky, Harriette Simpson Arnow’s The Kentucky Trace follows surveyor William David Leslie Collins as he struggles to survive. Collins finds his fellow settlers to be almost as inscrutable as the weather—at times, they are allies, and at others, they are adversaries. Collins battles nature, bad luck, and the quickly shifting political tides to make his way in a changing world. Showcasing Arnow’s ear for dialogue and offering a wealth of historical detail, The Kentucky Trace is a masterful work of fiction by a preeminent Appalachian writer.

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Michigan State University Press
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A Novel of the American Revolution
By Harriette Simpson Arnow

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2012 Thomas Arnow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-062-7

Chapter One

The wind died to a whisper, the pine-knot torches blown down to embers revived, and Leslie could again hear the about-to-die pray for the already dead: "—do thou give them rest there in the land of the living, in thy kingdom, in the delight of Paradise."

The English officer stood tall on the tailgate of the wagon, taller-seeming than when they had ridden through the woods together. It was the rope around his neck made him hold his head so high, the hangman's knot under one ear; his arms tied behind his back made him stand straight—or did he stand tall because he wanted to show these bastards he was not afraid to die?

The why didn't matter. Tall or short and a Tory into the bargain, the captain was a man, too much of a man to be hanged by anybody. These villains wanted him dead so he could never testify in court to their thievery.

The captain was going to die; the boy lieutenant was already dead because this rebel, William David Leslie Collins, had let himself and prisoners be tricked and captured by a gang of horse thieves and brigands. Prisoners was right but it sounded wrong; in their few days together, the men had seemed more his companions than captured enemies.

Lost, their long wandering had brought them and their worn-out horses, hungry as themselves, to his campfire. He reckoned they'd followed the scent of frying ham. He felt the rawhide ties tighten on his wrists. He was making fists again. Looking back was no good.

He looked at the driver of the wagon, a black man captured with the wagon and team of mules. His face was clear as he bent to firm up the chock under a wagon wheel; was that tears or rain on his cheeks?

The outflung hand against his knee seemed heavier now. The boy couldn't take it away. He lay as his angry murderers had dumped him, angry because he had cheated them of what they had wanted to do. He had on the tailgate of the wagon stood straight as the man there now. The scoundrel called Zach who appeared to be the leader had looked him over, laughing a little. "You're a pretty young thing to be in the King's army. No beard on your chin. You're not worth a piss against the wind, you little son-of-a-bitchen mama's darlen, but you'll swing anyhow."

The boy had looked out and away as if he were alone and could see beyond the black gulch below, where in the quiet a sapling sobbed out the pain of its drowning in the risen creek. The boy was still looking ahead when he said loud and clear: "I pledge allegiance to His Majesty King George III of England."

Then, as if he were running through the woods and found a little brook to cross, and because he was so filled with life and youth, he had given a great leap that sent him over the gulch and above the sobbing tree. The rope brought him back, no longer a leaping boy, but a struggling puppet, heels striking the tailgate Zach had jerked up. Darkness was spreading over one pant leg.

"The heathern's gone and killed hissef and pissed in his pants to boot," somebody yelled.

Zach had cursed the speaker. There'd been too much slack in the rope; if it had been short enough to make him stand on his toes, the boy couldn't have jumped. Tighten it up for the next man.

They had.

"There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the stars; for one star differeth from ..."

The voice of the officer, the rain, and the sobbing sapling—a sawyer, a boatman would call it—were buried in a wailing gust of wind that brought the flambeaux down to glowing embers swaying on the lower limbs of the old white oak. "A fine hanging tree," one of his captors had called it.

Leslie was glad that while the boy was still swinging a wind like this had come to blow down the torches. Nobody could watch or hear his death struggles. It had seemed a long while he'd swung in the wind. Was he dying, struggling for breath all that time, longer-seeming than any man he'd seen hanged? But then he'd never watched one die. The leap ought to have broken his neck. Could a man feel pain with a broken neck?

The villains had at last with oaths and obscenities cut him down and dumped him in such a way that one of his hands had fallen on Leslie's knee. He lifted his head to search the sky. Rain fell into his eyes and rawhide tightened on his throat. Neither star nor shape of cloud. Nothing but the blackness of a rainy October night in the dark of the moon. He dropped his head.

The wind roared as it shook the oak, screamed in the gulch below him, ran cold fingers up his back as if it planned to pluck him off the bluff and fling him down onto the rocks he couldn't see.

Under the screams of the wind as it fought the rock walls below were rustlings and whispers. The rustles came from the stiff, cold leaves of what sounded to be a sycamore, so tall its top was almost level with the bluff edge. The whispers were the voices of a hemlock, tall and close, else he wouldn't hear it.

A hemlock would be kind to him when he jumped into it. If he could jump, and he wouldn't jump without the captain—unless they'd already hanged him.

He was wasting the darkness. His captors had tied his ankles together with about a handspan of rawhide between, then brought the long strip up and around his neck. The three sons of bitches working on him had pulled so hard on the rawhide he'd had to squat or have his wind choked off; squatted to their satisfaction, his wrists were then tied together behind his back with enough rawhide left to tie his wrists to the knotted loop about his ankles.

Soon as they'd left him to prepare for the hangings, he'd dropped to his knees to slacken the rawhide enough that he could look around. In a short time he had seen what he thought might help; now in the darkness he kneed his way to a loose sandrock, small enough to get between his tied-together ankles. The sandrock, worn though it was, could still fray the rawhide when he pushed it back and forth with his fingers.

The wind quieted.

"That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand, and comfort the weakhearted." The voice was calm, quiet as the wind; under and around it Leslie could hear the rain on the rocks and last year's leaves, hiss of the flambeaux under the drops, and in the gulch the drowning sapling sobbed and gurgled.

There was again light; he could see the boy. The hand on Leslie's knee had fallen onto the wet leaves when he'd gone for the sandrock. The boy looked lonesome and cold, rain falling into his bulged-out eyes. Leslie wished he could at least cover his face.

"... and comfort the weakhearted." The captain had quoted that. Leslie Collins had been weakhearted, else he would have killed the captain and the boy when they came upon him. It were kinder had he done so. He hadn't. There were some who'd call him traitor to the cause; but then maybe he'd feel a traitor to mankind if in the woods he'd killed two men only because they'd worn the uniform of the enemy. They'd come with no white flag, only a polite request for directions to the headquarters of Major Patrick Ferguson.

No need to ask on which side they were. They had worn the uniforms of English officers. He ought to know; he'd made enough red coats grow redder. He told them what he'd heard: there had been a battle at a place called Kings Mountain; Ferguson was dead; his troops dead, wounded, or captured.

They'd taken the news like the men they were; but you could see the sorrow and the disappointment in the captain's eyes.

He'd stayed awake half the night, hoping to hear the good news of their sneaking away, and so save him the trouble and the shame of turning them over to some trustworthy man like John Sevier, who'd put them on parole. But he hadn't any idea of the whereabouts of Sevier then, shortly after the Battle of Kings Mountain.

"... and prosper all their consultations to the advancement of thy glory, the good of Thy Church, the safety, honour, and welfare of our Sovereign and his Kingdom; that all things may be so ordered and ..."

Another surge of wind scattered the captain's prayer and blew down the pine-knot flames. Leslie tried again to find the sky, but the boundless, shapeless blackness remained unchanged. It didn't matter. He knew where he was. Had the night been clear with stars, he would have seen the long wall of Clinch Mountain cutting off the bottom of the northern sky from east to west. And in between was Holston River, for he was on a branch of Reedy Creek that emptied into the Holston two or three miles away.

He straked his ankle ties over the sandstone, and wished he'd turned back to Marion's camp. It would have been a long trek for the captain and the lieutenant and their tired horses, but no farther than the long hard journey to their miserable deaths. Trouble was that Marion and his men in Loyalist country were hungry half the time, forage as they could. Anyhow Marion didn't have any prisoners.

They'd have been better off as prisoners from the beginning of their trip. Trouble and been in the saddle with them all the way. Over their first breakfast together, he learned from the captain they'd started out from Charles Town with guides, Loyalists, and so not worth a tinker's damn.

According to the captain, it wasn't noon when they got within sight of a tavern. The guides claimed it was time to rest and bait the horses; the scoundrels hadn't said so, but it was also the tavern's day for rum fustian. The guides had gone overboard with rum fustian. The officers, after getting directions from the taverner, had gone on alone to hunt Ferguson's headquarters as neither guide had been in shape to travel.

While listening to the captain's story, Leslie had collected words to tell the officers they would have to consider themselves his prisoners. Instead he'd told them he was paroling them to go where they wished, except, no different from other parolees, they could no longer be active in the war.

The officers had thanked him for the parole, but continued to ride with him. They were well armed. Leslie figured they could at least have tried to take him prisoner. It could be the captain was too much the gentleman to try to harm a man who'd saved him from starvation, or were they afraid of Leslie Collins? It was neither, he decided. The officers were prisoners, not of him, but of the rough country and the mountains they could see ahead. He misdoubted if they could have found their way back to Charles Town. It didn't matter. They had a friendly peaceable ride together.

He strained to hear the captain's voice below the wind. The voice reminded him of his father's saying the same words at morning prayers when he'd lately learned from a ship's captain that Parliament was in session. The two voices ought not to sound the same. His father was at least a fourth-generation Virginian; his people had come when Cromwell tried to make over England. Yet his father had always considered himself, his wife, and his children as loyal English subjects.

And why should he want to hear his father's voice? Never at home in his father's house, he'd run away for his first longish trip when he was seven years old. That time they were glad to have him back and for several times after. Running away from that public school in England to which his father and his older brothers had gone was a horse of a different color. That had pretty well cut father-mother-son relationships. He was nobody's son and nobody's brother any more.

He worked until the wind quieted and the flambeaux flared again. "And may our great leader, Major Patrick Ferguson, taken from us on the field of battle rest ..."

He'd be damned if he'd listen to prayers for that son of a bitch. Mean as Tarleton. "'Oh where are you going, my pretty maid?' 'I'm come to Camden battlefield to help the wounded, sir,' she said."

He'd never learned her name. To look at her had been enough—then. A beautiful filly with hair the color and brightness of the inside of a freshly opened chestnut bur, and her eyelashes long and black when she shuttered her dark blue eyes. And what a fine figure she'd made riding on a spirited stallion.

She was a good sight to see on that battlefield at Camden. The place was like something out of Revelation when it was over and he could take time for a look. Tarleton's dragoons had mowed down the panicked rebels like wheat. The men were lost with no leader. Their cowardly General Gates had run away; he had fleet horses; they had none.

Some of the women come to help had shivered and cried when they saw the sea of wounded men and bloody dead. Others had knelt over their own. She had never wavered, but began at once to carry water to the wounded able to drink. He had lost her in the fog. Where was she now? Safe at home? Or had Tarleton's gang burned out her people?

He was making fists again when he ought to be straking the rawhide over the stone. That pretty chestnut filly at Camden hadn't stopped his heart, but one of the enemy had. His line, what little there was of it left, was retreating, hacked to death, shot to death, trampled to pulp under the hooves of the chargers. All he could do was load and fire, no time for patching or measuring powder, but don't waste the priming powder; prick her touch hole, spit a couple of balls down her muzzle, draw a bead, quick, and fire. Plenty of heads above the red coats to aim at. He'd had a bead on one of Tarleton's officers riding high and sitting proud, bending only slightly as he swung his saber toward a fleeing rebel's neck. Leslie saw his face; shifted his aim, saw blood spurt from the shattered arm as the saber fell to the ground. He reckoned he'd wonder forever if his bullet had caused his brother Percy to lose his arm, or made a wound that went into gangrene and killed him.

He had expected Percy to take the King's side, but not under a commander evil as Tarleton. He had supposed he was somewhere far from South Carolina, maybe with his other brother, Francis, whom he'd seen near Philadelphia with an outfit under Howe. And where was his father? He'd be a red-hot Loyalist.

"Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down like a flower."

He hadn't noticed the hush in the wind. He'd frayed the tie so long it ought to be thinner now. That one tie cut would loosen his neck. He could then stand up and be a man, have a good chance to save the captain. Untied or no, he'd go over the cliff before he'd be hanged like a thief.

"O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength; before I go hence, and be no more seen."

The captain ought to pray for wind, darkness, and weak rawhide; there was no rawhide in the Book of Common Prayer; howsoever, he was saying a good deal not in the prayer book, and what was there, he'd mixed around.

The few flambeaux that had survived the wind and rain had flamed up, but so little light was coming his way he continued to strake the thong. And how was Kate making out? Hungry? Had the villains offered her nothing but raw pumpkin, the only thing they'd tried to feed him? Near the foot of the ridge they'd dragged her away while there was still light enough to see how she struggled to get to him. The very devil himself wouldn't treat that good and beautiful Chickasaw running woods mare that could make sixty miles a day where the going was good the way these blackguards had.

In a way Kate was luckier than the mules. They'd been beaten and forced to pull the wagon up the steep rocky ridge while a handful of his captors had walked ahead to cut brush and roll out rocks to make a road of sorts. He and the English officers had walked behind, hands tied, firelocks touching their backs.

The driver had quarreled all the way; they were killing his master's mules and ruining his wagon, he'd said. He'd tried to hold the mules back when, after reaching the place, Zach had ordered him to back the wagon until the lowered tailgate was over the bluff edge. They'd beaten him, but not into complete obedience.

"We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out, the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away."

The captain was wandering in and out and all around the prayer book. "Lord, I beseech thee: Let my cry for him come near before thee."

Leslie looked at the captain; he didn't think that prayer had a for him. That was for the boy.

He held the rawhide still above the stone. He thought he'd heard the faint sound of a body slipping through wet brush. He wasn't certain; his captors, eager for the hanging, were grumbling at the delay, but the captain was going strong, now in the Litany: "Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take thou vengeance of our ..."

Leslie straked the rawhide again while the once familiar words rolled on. Looking straight in front of him, he watched the off mule step away from the wagon tongue until he like the lead mule stood almost at a right angle to the wagon. The black man still had a rein on each, but had unhooked the trace chains to better his chance of not losing wagon and team over the bluff. This would give the captain a few more minutes of life. It would take a while to get both mules back over the traces and hooked in; unchocking the wheels would also take time.


Excerpted from THE KENTUCKY TRACE by Harriette Simpson Arnow Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Arnow. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. 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.

Meet the Author

Hariette Simpson Arnow (1908-1986) was born in Kentucky and later moved to Detroit, the setting of her best-known work, The Dollmaker. Arnow is among the foremost chroniclers of Appalachian life and the great postwar migration north.

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