Bitter experience has taught Matthan Hannar wound his way upriver, avoiding settlers that wanted to hang him, and Indians seeking fresh scalps. When he spied Zelda Shaw struggling for her life with a Shawnee brave, he could stay hidden no longer. But saving her life meant two people had to be protected from the cold, starvation and those who would kill them both. And Matthan was taking Zelda home, dowMatthan Hannar that to survive the harsh, untamed wilderness of the OhioValley in 1790, , it’s best to avoid all contact with settlers (likely to hang you) and Indians (even more likely to slaughteryou). Success on those fronts means he might not starve, drown, or freeze to death. But while he’s winding his way upriver as stealthily as he can, he stumbles across Zelda Shaw furiously fighting off a ferociousShawnee brave. Breaking his own rules means Matthan Hannar has s now got to keep Zeldab alive, too, or face the wrath of her kinfolk.
In order to do that he’ll have to kill off a hell of a lot more . . .
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Morning — January 7, 1792
It has been some forty odd years since the Ballard brothers ambushed me on the seventh day of January, 17 and 92.
Even if I live another forty years, I'll never forgive myself for letting them take such liberties with me. Before the day ended, my whole life turned upside down, never to be the same again.
I can remember everything about that cold clear morning. Before I met up with the Ballards, I was a mighty happy lad marching home along Wolf Creek, downright pleased with anything and everything. And why not? I was warmly garbed in moccasins, linsey-woolsey breeches, buckskin hunting frock, and pelt cap — nothing for courting the fair damsel in, I admit, but no better garments could be had for the hunting trail in crisp weather.
I toted a fine flintlock rifle that morning, a rifle that seldom failed me, and on my back I bore the quarters of the buck deer I'd slain with it just an hour before. And if warm bones, a fine rifle that smelt of burnt powder, and a heavy pack burdened with the meat of a fresh kill didn't come close to heaven on earth, downstream at our home place my stepfather, John Hannar, back from a venture up the Muskingum, and Uncle Jeremiah eagerly awaited my return. I chuckled. No jerked beef or salt pork would grace the Hannar table this night. We'd eat prime buck, and nothing less would do.
It had been a grand morning, and it tickled me I owed the brindle cow for my success. Yesterday afternoon she'd drifted away from her shed. A quick quartering of the ground at the edge of our clearing confirmed she'd moseyed along the north bank of Wolf Creek. I'd suspected right off she could be found grazing in the meadow across the ford a few miles upstream. Even in winter, whenever left un-penned or untended, she sought the last of the good grasses there.
Despite my confidence I followed her path those few miles with sweeping eye and ready gun. Just a few weeks back General St. Clair's army had suffered a horrendous defeat at the hands of the Ohio Indians, and the victors were free to kill and plunder throughout the territory. The cow needed bringing in, but not at the cost of my hair.
She was there in the far reaches of the upstream meadow all right, head down, feeding without a care for anything else. I stood firm in a copse of oak and eyed the woods about her. Satisfied she was alone, I loped across and slapped a lead rope round her neck. Just then I sighted the deer tracks. Four sets of hoofprints bordered the trees in each direction in an irregular, yet steady line. Each print seemed of the same size and depth. My heart quickened. They'd all been made by one animal.
Squatting, my probing finger found the freshest of the hoofprints firm-edged with only tiny leaf bits and little upturned dirt in the center. That made them no more than a half dozen hours old. The others, if aged by their content and how much frost and sun had blurred and flattened the edges of them, looked one, two, and possibly three days old. Their message sounded clear as the peal of thunder on a quiet summer afternoon. Coming first round the eastern hill in front of me, the solitary deer browsed northward every morning.
It was a perfect setting for the whitetail. The trees shielded the rising sun well past dawn, creating shadows through which he fed his way with a feeling of security for a morning drink at the creek. The animal, unless disturbed or spooked, would no doubt continue his sunrise ritual tomorrow. And I would be here awaiting. I led that poor brindle cow home at a pace just short of a gallop, shooting appetite thoroughly whetted.
Even the poorness of the evening didn't dampen my spirits. Uncle Jeremiah, tortured by a lame ankle, acted cross and snappish as a she-bear guarding her cubs, and Stepfather, just that day back from his Muskingum venture, proved no better company. The cough he'd acquired in the Harmar Indian Campaign of 17 and 91 doubled him up on the rope bed opposite the hearth. I tended the stock and quietly sought the husk bed in the sleeping loft.
Uncle Jeremiah, bless him, recovered in time and wished me Godspeed next morning. Out and under way before first light, I waded the creek below where the shoulder of that eastern hill nudged the opposite bank and padded for a spot between two large elms from which the length of the meadow could be seen. Stones gathered from along the edge of the water and mounded between the trees provided a solid shooting rest for my flintlock. I settled in, wedging a shoulder against one of the elms, and removed the deerskin cover from the lock of the rifle. With the hammer pulled to half cock, the frizzen opened freely. I primed the firing pan with fine grain powder, closed the frizzen, and snugged the hammer all the way back.
A white oak down at the other end of the meadow stood out clearly in the graying dawn, a perfect sighting target. By candlelight at the cabin I'd loaded the rifle with a full seventy-two grain charge of powder. Though I'd hold fire till my prey reached the midpoint of the meadow for a sure shot, that first shot had to be hard and telling. There'd be no time for a second before the deer gained the trees close at hand.
I started my watch. Spotting deer required considerable skill and Uncle Jeremiah had schooled me well. First you looked at the whole meadow at the same time, not just some likely section of it. That way, any movement stood out and told you where to look in earnest. Otherwise you trusted your ears, which, in light of how quietly deer sometimes skulked about, greatly limited the likelihood of making a successful kill.
I caught the flicking of a pair of large ears above a screening of brush long before the white-tailed buck pranced into the meadow and commenced feeding. He nibbled at twigs and small branches along the forest fringe, pausing every once in a while to scan his surroundings. A wary devil and for good reason. An antler stub flopped loosely on the side of his head and a long scar zigzagged down his neck. Some scuffle had taken a pretty severe toll on him. He fed his way patiently toward me, and I just as patiently let him come on.
He got within fifty yards when all of a sudden his tail twitched, his head popped up, and he stared straight in my direction. I held my breath. I hadn't moved. No wind stirred. He hadn't scented me. Then his ears jiggled and I knew some far-off noise too faint for my hearing was bothering him.
He listened long and hard. Eventually, deciding nothing really threatened him, he turned his head and stretched for a high branch, ully exposing the base of his throat and the top of his shoulder. I drew a bead on that juncture of his body and squeezed off my shot.
The slam of the ball buckled his knees. His tail dropped and he lunged for the trees in a staggering death run.
I let him go. Sticking with Uncle Jeremiah's teachings, I made ready in case the gunshot's echoing roll attracted hostile Injun attention. I scampered upright behind the elms, greased linen patch and metal pick from the box in the stock of the flintlock gripped between my teeth.
I measured with powder horn and charge cup, and with gun resting butt first on the ground, poured the precise charge of French black down the barrel. Next down the barrel, swathed in the greased linen patch and powered by a thrust of the hickory ramrod, went a ball from my shot pouch. I tamped patch and ball home and reseated the ramrod inside the thimbles and groove under the barrel with a slight snick of noise.
A flick of the wrist swept the butt of the rifle off the ground and balanced the weapon in my left hand with the lock at belly level. An off-hand tug set the hammer at half cock and exposed the firing pan. The tail of my hunting frock served as a handy rag for wiping clean the pan, the flint held by the jaws of the hammer, and the frizzen. A jab and twist of the metal pick reamed clean the touchhole in the bottom of the pan. Priming the pan with more powder completed the reloading, and off I went after the whitetail.
I disdained the open meadow, circled the shoulder of that eastern hill, and trotted northward along the bottom of a dry ravine. At the point I figured the buck entered the trees on the far hillside I started climbing. My luck held true. I topped the hill and over left of me, short of the crest, lay the buck, glazed eyes wide open, blood pooled 'neath his scarred neck.
I gutted and skinned him hastily, dressed the quarters and bundled them in the hide. Something had alerted that wild dead creature — some unnatural sound — and that festered in my craw. Being a fair distance from home and probably the only white man out and about for miles, I felt lonely and exposed even with close-by trees and brush masking my presence. The safety of the cabin and the companionship of Stepfather and Jeremiah seemed all at once of paramount importance.
I abandoned the rest of the carcass and back-tracked for Wolf Creek. Early on I stuck behind good cover, checked my back trail, and moved at a slow, careful pace. But as a boy is prone when the winter sun warms his homeward-bound backside, my stride lengthened and the worry faded the farther I walked and the more I dreamily relived the morning hunt. How I fairly wanted to burst out and whistle a tune. I marched past the creek bend short of our cabin as carelessly as a love-befuddled stag in the rut.
And there stood the Ballard brothers, Timothy and Joseph, one on either side of the footpath, rifles leveled and centered on my breastbone.
"Freeze right thar," Timothy ordered.
I done as I was told. Let me tell you, those Ballards never were anything much to look at, what with their sparse black beards, long noses, beady gray eyes, and flesh white as milk. On top of that their hats drooped with age, animal blood stained their greatcoats, and their leather boots were badly worn at sole and heel. They smelt of wood smoke and manure and appeared duller than opossums in a motherly way. Some joked on them. But not I. Uncle Jeremiah'd admonished me once these two boys enjoyed a lick of dirty work long as the pay followed right after in gold coin. Little, if anything, was beneath them.
"Matthan," Timothy said, "us'ens won't harm you lest you get contrary. Now Joseph is goin' round behin' you an' lay holt on that thar rifle. ... You understan'?"
I nodded my head.
"You put that rifle butt agin the groun' an' keep lookin' me right in the face. You look anywheres elst an' I'll blow a hole in your brisket. ... You understan'?"
I nodded again.
"What about his knife an' tomahawk?" queried Joseph.
"Pitch 'em," Timothy responded.
I stood quietly while they disarmed me.
Timothy shifted his feet. He fixed me with a gaze cold as dead ashes and said slowly, "Now, Matthan, we all gonna head down fur the edge of your clearin'. I'll be in front an' Joseph straight behin'. ... You understan'?"
He drew still another nod from me.
"Now, Matthan, donna get your pride up over this an' try somethin' stupid. Donna fret 'cause we tracked an' taken you so easy. And donna try warnin' your step-paw. If'n you give out with a peep or taken a misstep, Joseph's gonna blow your backbone in two. ... You understan'?"
I studied on his words — no fool this one. Nevertheless, I allowed as how once we were in single file and moving, the deer meat shielding my back might stop a shot from Joseph's gun and give me the opportunity to pounce on Timothy. But Timothy, studying on how I was right big for a lad of ten and nine years, thought right with me. He smiled a yellow-toothed smile.
"Best drop the pack before we leave out of here, Matthan. We wouldn' want anythin' twixt your backside an' a bullit, would we now?"
Respect for Timothy growing by the instant, I slid the straps from my shoulders and let the bundle of deer meat tumble into the dirt at my heels. The two of them had me in a box without a lid. I could only silently curse myself for letting them put me there without a struggle.
"Leave us go. Big people be awaitin'," snapped Timothy.
Noon — January 7
We started down the footpath as my captors ordered, Timothy in the lead, then me, then Joseph. Being marched home at rifle point, vitals a-jumble, mouth dry as an empty bucket, hands clammy, legs wobbly, made for an unsavory experience. The awareness my captivity stemmed solely from my own carelessness and foolishness didn't make it any easier either.
What upset me most were my fears for Uncle Jeremiah and Stepfather. I sensed that since I'd not personally slighted the Ballards or their as yet unknown "big people," they wanted me — needed me — under their control for getting at those I loved the most.
I kept my wits about me by speculating as to who or what had caused my predicament. Who were the Ballards' "big people"? What did they have against us Hannars? What did they have in store for us?
Much I didn't know. But I knew the Ballards, and with that bit of knowledge and some fast brain work I soon answered some of the questions puzzling me. My captors disliked hard labor and mostly hired out as long hunters, scouts, and guides, occasionally tracking down lawbreakers for the High Sheriff of Washington County. Like all men of the trail, they wore moccasins when traveling any great distance, so they wouldn't lay tracks instantly telling the redskins white men were afoot roundabouts. Yet both Timothy and Joseph wore flat-soled leather boots this morning which likely indicated they'd come from not far off, probably Waterford or Fort Frye, the closest settlements. So it seemed a good bet someone from one of those places with gold coin handy had hired the Ballards and sent them to fetch young Matthan Hannar. But why? We Hannars, by nature closemouthed upcreekers who farmed and trapped, shunned contact with them who preferred their living shoulder-to-shoulder. What contact we had with townsfolk resulted from necessity. I frantically fished my memory for some offense on our part that could have set the local populace against us.
What I remembered right then and there formed a raw lump in my gut. I commenced praying silently, praying my captivity didn't concern Abel Stillwagon and Stepfather's trading ventures with the Ohio Indians up north. If the settlers currently forted up over on the Muskingum at Fort Frye knew of their ventures, particularly the most recent, occurring as it had after St. Clair's bloody defeat at the hands of those same Ohio Indians, we Hannars indeed faced days of desperate bad trouble ... perhaps even a public lynching.
The lump in my gut hardened and grew when Timothy's "big people," none other than Colonel Van Hove and his son, Lansford, stepped from the trees crowding the path. The Van Hoves headed by stature and wealth the townspeople of Waterford and the newly built Fort Frye. The colonel forsook the comfort of his private abode with great reluctance. Hirelings tended his land holdings and operated his Wolf Creek grist mill. Even here in the raw wilderness the elder Van Hove dressed in silver-buckled shoes, silk stockings, and short breeches, leather belt with huge silver buckle, white linen shirt, and broadcloth coat. He'd armed himself with a .66-caliber, short-barreled, silver-decorated rifle best suited for close-range shooting. Lansford, though more attired for the outdoors in fringed buckskins and beaded moccasins, sported a belt with a huge brass cinch, and the stock of his long rifle was studded with shiny brass inlays. Such dandified clothing and flashy weapons, all showing little use and wear, told a lot about the Van Hoves. They were townspeople who sallied over the far hill away from the protection of their fellow men only when aroused and bent on punishing the transgressions of those of lesser attainments.
My heart sank. For the Van Hoves to stoop to hiring the Ballards, whom they despised, and trek this far from the succor of Fort Frye, they indeed believed us Hannars guilty of a gross sin. It couldn't be anything but the trading with the Injuns.
Excerpted from "Thunder in the Valley"
Copyright © 1995 Jim R. Woolard.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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