THE FOREST lay across the land like a rough, bristling blanket. High pines moved in the winds, disputing the upper air with towering sycamores and walnuts. Below their leafy tops their thick boles pillared a cool, dark world where tiny animals scampered on the rotting vegetation of its floor. The forest stretched from the marshlands of the Carolinas to the great river that was known as the Mississippi.
It was a silent world, except when the beat of hoofs told where a fallow deer fled a tawny panther, or when the paws of rabbits rustled the dry leaves near a windfall. There were all manner of trees here, yellow poplar and ash, oak and chestnut. Just as the fallow deer hid from the panther, using the wide bole of an oak, so the thickets could hide a gray wolf watching the nearing rabbit. The forest was impartial. Life and death, the sharp bleat of a felled creature, the onrush of padded feet, came and went; only the eternal silence recorded what had happened.
The soft loam absorbed the blood that sank into it. Falling autumn leaves and pine needles erased the evidence that the wild things wrote with claw and fur during the spring and summer. Drifting winter snows would press those leaves and needles into the ground, to give needed sustenance to the trees. When spring came again, the forest was again ready for its people, with all record of their past misdeeds and errors gone forever.
Long, long ago a squat, hairy man had come into the forest, carrying a stone-headed ax. After him had come other men, and women, and small children. All of them wore the skins of beasts. They did not pause in the forest but went on until they reached open land where the grass was bluish in the sunlight, and there they built their mounds.
Some of their mounds were hollowed out and used to worship strange gods. Others were only tombs. Some even furnished an earthen lodge for the tribe. All were in varied shapes: some curling like a traveling snake, others straight as
a sapling trunk, still others high and domed. Here they put their stone weapons and their fishhooks, the ashes from their fires, and the bones of the animals they ate.
They stayed a long time, but then the mounds grew old and the wind came chill with winter and there were none left to hear its wail.
After them by many, many years came a tall man with red skin and black hair braided long, hanging down on his chest. He wore deerskin garments, and there was a bow in his hand and a quiver of arrows on his back. Usually the red man ran with many of his fellows, for this part of the forest world was strangely shunned, as if there were a curse upon it. The red man ran along a narrow dirt path built by the steady pounding of countless moccasined feet. It was the Warriors' Trace. It took red men north from the lands of Cherokees and Chickasaws into the northern world of Shawnee and Huron and Iroquois. For two centuries the red men ran along this path before the first white man saw it.
His name was Boone. Daniel Boone, of the Yadkin Valley in the Carolinas. He carried a long rifle made by a Swiss gunsmith in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He wore frayed buckskin jacket and leggings, and at the belt around his middle hung a knife and a powder horn, and a leather pouch. His ax he carried in his hand. His ax was the most important part of all his equipment. It meant that he was coming back into the forest when he left it. With the ax, he marked the boles of certain trees, under the second lowest branch.
The year was 1769.
In 1777, in Kentucky, men were attacking the forest.
The ring of ax-blades sounded from the far clearing, where a group was preparing a field for a vegetable patch. Already, behind them, log walls and corner blockhouses loomed square and dark. The smell of wood-smoke hung in the air where men turned the spitted body of a huge bison, roasting above a fire close by the shed smithy. The blacksmith's hammer on a bent hoe blade rang out with terrifying sharpness.
Alan Brant wondered if the Shawnees would hear that sound. At his thought, he smiled. It was not so much whether they would hear it-they heard the sigh of a bird passing through the treetops, those red men!-but whether they would do anything about it, that bothered him. He shifted the rifle in his hands, and leaned on it. It was a long rifle, with an octagonal barrel. It had been made by a Swiss gunsmith in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Almost every man at Mallory's Fort had such a gun. It was a kind of trademark.
Alan watched the half-naked men working in the garden that was just outside the palisade. He studied Jabez Hart, a little man from Alexandria who wore a stocking cap all the time to hide the baldness of his head. Why had he come so far from civilization into this wilderness? To escape a nagging wife, or an unborn bastard, or was it just fate that gave him a fiddle-foot as it gave him a bald head? Beyond him, Lucian Travis worked steadily, almost monotonously. His arm-strokes varied less than a fraction of an inch each time he struck at the loose earth. There was no imagination in Lucian Travis, with his lusterless eyes and unkempt mustache. He was here-well, why was he here? Why were Ambrose Thorpe and Haley Sanders here? A love of adventure drove some men, as it drove Dan Boone. Flight from fear drove most of the others, or flight from some other unpleasantness.
Fear drove him, Alan admitted glumly to himself: a fear of being caught and hung.
He was a murderer.
He lifted his rifle into his hand and moved away from the spawning garden. His senses were uneasy. There was no strange smell in the air, nor any unusual sound. And yet there was a difference. It had come suddenly, as suddenly as a red hand could lift. a branch and peer out under it at white men working in a garden.
He did not know why these little things reacted in him. Once, long ago, when he'd had a home and a mother and father, he'd also had a dog. A big Irish setter who could hunt until the legs buckled under him. The setter always found game. He had an instinct for it. Maybe he had an instinct too, like the dog.
Alan Brant had been raised on the edge of the frontier.
At night, when he slept in the twig and grass bed that had been pushed back against the wall of the east blockhouse for him, his eyes stared at the hand-hewn log beams of the ceiling, but he saw a roadside tavern, back in Maryland. His father had been orphaned at five, and adopted by an Iroquois sachem, Nickas Brant. Raised by the Mohawks, his father often said his skin was white, but his heart was red. The wood lore and trail craft that old Nickas Brant had patiently taught him, Stephen Brant as patiently taught his son. His father and his mother-she was lovely even now, twenty years after she had met his father, so what had she been like then?-ran the Stag's Horn Tavern on the Cumberland Road. The winding wagon trains of settlers and the traveling coopers and land speculators had made them more than comfortably well off.
Homesickness would come like a bubble in the throat to Alan Brant at such times. His lips would taste the tart October apples in the ducking pans, the coolness of apple cider, the hot creaminess of freshly baked crullers. His ears would hear the rattle of the tin biscuit oven and the sour cream tub in the tavern kitchen where his mother worked with Nancy Witford, grown lean and testy with the years; and they would hear the chatter of the magpies that came to rob the corn-crib behind the big red barn. He had developed his skill with the long Lancaster rifle shooting at those feathered thieves. He would chuckle in the twig bed, remembering, and the lump of nostalgia would grow even bigger.
His eyes would see the red hair of his laughing mother as she teased his father, or see the manner in which the black buckskins his father wore could blend to statuesque stiffness on the hunting trail. The big common room with its blue and white delftware tiles, the trestle table in the kitchen, the east meadow where the family and some friends from Wills Creek used to picnic: all these were visions his staring eyes would see. When his eyes closed against the sight, he would discover that it did no good.
Then he saw Thomas Herrion, and that was worst of all.
For it was Thomas Herrion he had murdered.
He would roll over in the bed, trying to forget that warm night, and the many pewter tankards of rum and mulled ale that had gone down his gullet. His head had been big with liquor, and his legs and hands unsteady. He joined the others in singing Molly Lauder beneath the huge wooden beams of the Crown and Scepter, with the smoke dimming the huge red barrels that held the ale, and pretty Moll Lovett serving the mugs, the bare tabletops all wet with spilled drinks. The fire from the big field-stone hearth was cheery, and he could still see the drying herbs hung in bunches on the wooden beam above it, at ceiling height.
Thomas Herrion—no one ever called him Tom, as far back as he could remember, and that was a strange thing—was a local power. He'd come up into the Wills Creek country ten, twelve years ago, with a creaking wagon and a chest of gold. Gossips said he'd killed a man and stolen his gold, but Wills Creek was still frontier country, and nobody ever thought to write Governor Henry Dunmore in Williamsburg. He loaned out money at times, when he was not catering to the settlers in his apothecary shop.
This night, Herrion was becoming abusive. Tall and muscular, his face was white and pinched, as if it did not properly belong to the body below it. Everyone said his body was that of a woodsman, and his face the face of an under taker. He rarely allowed himself the pleasure of drinking to excess. Some said that was because he had many enemies, for when his gold was not repaid, Thomas Herrion went and took land and goods, and he always made a profit.
Alan could not remember the exact details. The rum was hot in his middle, and Moll Lovett had been overbold in cuddling against him when she was setting the pewter tankards before the others. There had been laughter. His hand had been on Moll's leg, stroking it from the calf upward under her skirt, to the soft nudity of her full thigh, when harsh voices raised. A leather jack fell and rolled with a hollow sound. A boot scraped the floor. Someone shouted. Moll was bending to give him her ripe red mouth as something hurtled into him, knocking him clear off the bench to land on his rump with a thud.
Dazed, he'd sat staring dumbly as a hand came down to clasp his linen shirt and lift him off the floor.
“Clumsy, stupid oaf!” a voice rasped.
Then the hand hit his cheeks, back and forth.
Anger came swirling up through the liquored dizziness. His fist went out and struck and the man went down across a tabletop, shouting hoarsely. It was then that he recognized Thomas Herrion. Alan stood straddle-legged, shaking his head to clear his dancing eyes and misty brain. Then other men were between them, shouting and laughing and treating it as a rare joke, for this was a bachelor party, two nights before the day when Herman Trent was to wed Cecily Partridge.
"Easy, Alan! Easy!”
“Get him out of here, somebody! Herrion's a bloodthirsty bastard! He'll want satisfaction unless we cool him down!"
"Go on, get moving!”
Soft hands clutched his arm, drawing him back and away, and Moll's voice was frantic with fright. “Quickly, master Alan. Go quickly!”
"And run from a fight?” he asked in his pride.
"There's a full moon,” Moll wheedled, pressing against him.
“Oh. A full moon!"
More than once he'd visited Wills Creek to see Moll when the moon was a pallid saucer overhead. With the unpredictableness of the drunkard-how many tankards had he downed this night?—he moved away with her, grotesquely maudlin, fumbling at her bodice.
He remembered being in the moonlight beside the smokehouse, with Moll urging him on toward the stables, pausing to kiss him in order to hasten the stumbling of his feet. Her hands aided him into the saddle of the bay mare he'd ridden from the Stag's Horn Tavern, whispering feverishly for him to come back the next night, for she was so upset with what had gone on just a few minutes before that she couldn't be properly loving now.
Then someone was running in the night, a pistol primed and ready in his hand and lifting it up to him.
"Herrion swears he'll follow and kill you, Alan. Take this pistol for your defense. And now, ride, for the love of Heaven. He's like a maniac, inside!”
His toes jabbed the mare and he was off in swirling dust.
The Indian had come out of the shadows a mile away, big and dark, with two feathers dangling from his long black hair. He had been so surprised at sight of him that he'd sawed the mare off the narrow dirt road. Any Indian this close to Wills Creek, skulking in the night, was up to mischief. His father had taught him to track like a Mohawk. Alan slid out of the saddle. With the pistol in his hand he crept forward slowly.
Later, he realized with all the shame in him that he must have slid and blundered a dozen times. The Indian would know he was following and would be long gone from the roadside. Doggedly, he went on.
He came to a white fence with its gate open. Unthinkingly he walked up the flagged path with the pistol ready. The house was new, in the fashionable Georgian styling with white wooden pilasters, cornices and molded windows. Its long, sloping dormers gave it a slightly Dutch look. Three red brick chimneys towered upward from the shingled roof. He should have recognized it, but he was concentrating with owlish gravity on the Indian. A
Only when he came around the corner of the gravel drive and stood less than twenty paces from Thomas Herrion did he realize where he was. Herrion shouted harshly, and his pistol came up into the moonlight.
Alan raised his own weapon and fired.
Thomas Herrion gave a harsh cry. His legs buckled under him and he went down on his face. Only then did Alan see that what he had mistaken for a pistol was a silver snuffbox. I shot too fast, without waiting to discover more than moon light flashing on metal! I did not wait for the sight of barrel or trigger-guard! And then came the numbing thought that drove the fumes of the oily rum from his brain: who would believe him?
He fled from the fine new house and grounds that Thomas Herrion had built for himself two years before. He drove the bay mare with jabbing heels along the hard-packed dirt of the Cumberland Road, fleeing with haste from his guilt. As he had fled that night, so he had fled for the sixteen months that followed it. His father and mother had helped. His father had gone to Wills Creek and learned that Herrion had been shot down in cold blood by his son. The Herrion housekeeper, awakened by the shot, had peered from the dormer windows and seen young Alan Brant running off. A warrant was being issued for his arrest.
"You'll have to fight the charge, Alan," Stephen Brant told him, his face grave. “There are extenuating circumstances. Perhaps a jury will be easy with you."
“No!” his mother cried. “Alan didn't kill Thomas Herrion. I know he didn't!"
"I did, mother," he admitted. “I shot. I saw him fall."
“You were dazed with liquor. You said so yourself.”
In the end, he went away one night in his buckskins, with his long rifle and powder horn. He went south toward the Watauga settlements and there he met with a train of men moving through Cumberland Gap into Kaintuck country.
The hairs on the nape of his neck were disturbed now as he moved past the men working in the garden. His rifle was in both hands, his forefinger just grazing the trigger. Something was moving in the brush at the edge of the clearing. His left hand went into the air, waving.
When the men saw his hand, they dropped their hoes and rakes and began to run. The group of woodsmen clearing a field at the edge of the stockade wall shouted and reached for the rifles that lay close by, on top of tree stumps or across fallen logs.
Then the Shawnee that Alan Brant had seen crouching in the hazel thicket realized that his surprise attack was a failure. His throat quivered, sending his war cry into the warm May air. At the same instant he half stood, hurling his tomahawk.
As the man came to full height, Alan lifted the Lancaster iron and fired. He did not wait to see the man fall. At such a distance he could scarcely miss. The tomahawk, turning swiftly end over end, he dodged easily.
For a moment, he paused in his running to slide his eyes from one end of the log palisade to the other. He was a hunter for the colony, and it was his duty to make sure that no man remained outside the protection of the palisade to be hauled off to a torture stake in a Mingo village along the Ohio.
“All in,” he grunted, and ran like a deer, his moccasins just touching the ground.
A musket roared behind him and he felt the breeze as the leaden ball whipped past his ear. Then the gates were towering overhead, being slammed shut as he lunged through. The wooden bar dropped into its sockets behind him as five leaden pellets plunked into the logs.
"Everybody on the wall walk," roared Bemus Mallory, who was the unofficial captain of the fort.
Mallory's Fort, like Boonesboro and Harrodsburg, was a small frontier fort in this Big Lick River region of Kentucky. Log blockhouses stood at each of the four corners of its heavy log walls. There were slits in walls and fort sides, to allow rifles and muskets to be poked through and fired. From the wall walk, a man could look across fifty yards of shale and gravel to the silvery waters of Slate Creek. The men in the fort had floated their belongings down that creek nine months before, to begin their building before the winter cold.
Alan put a hand on the wall walk and vaulted up. One glance told him these were Shawnees: their manner of wearing feathers, the styling of the porcupine quill-work on their moccasins, the cut of their deerskin leggings, were different from those of the Delawares and Cherokees who often fought beside them. Resting his rifle on a crevice between the stockade pilings, he fired.
There was unrest among all the Indian tribes west of Pennsylvania and the Virginia settlements. The defeat of the French by the English at Fort Frontenac and Quebec was a Pandora's box destined to let out trouble for the Indians. While France had contested the land with the British, Shawnee and Cherokee and Iroquois walked their wilderness trails in peace, able to balance one against the other and retain the inviolability of their ancient hunting grounds. Now all the land was English as far as the Mississippi, and colonial settlers were coming west in their hooped Conestoga wagons,
When the flatboats took to the rivers in their spring turbulence, Indian canoes went to meet them, stopping some and turning back others, yet unable to check the irresistible flood of household effects and tools, men and women and children that the Atlantic seaboard spewed out along the Ohio. From Fort Pitt to Fort Prince George they came, branching into Muskingum River country and the lands of the powerful Creek Confederacy. They were even in Kentucky, which was a great hunting land set aside by the Indians themselves. No one settled in Kentucky, not even the Indians. The hunting was too good. Fire-smoke and cabins would frighten away the game.
Governor Henry Dunmore of Virginia decided that the Indians must realize land was too important to be used solely for hunting and fishing purposes. People in Virginia and other colonies-as long as Virginia got the land, Dunmore was content to let York State and Pennsylvania send him new citizens—wanted to expand. By traveling westward, these people would extend his own dominions, which he held for his Britannic Majesty, George III. Dunmore was in favor of the idea.
He was so much in favor that he took an army of Virginia riflemen and fiddle-footed colonials from Winchester and led them by way of Fort Pitt and Fort Fincastle into Shawnee country. Colonel Andrew Lewis gathered a number of volunteer Virginia militiamen and came up the lazy waters of the Kanawha to effect a rendezvous.
Cornstalk, who was head chief or king of the Shawnees in that late summer and early autumn of '74, gladly went to meet them. His war parties had been up and down the Salt Lick River to the Green and back, taking prisoners for torture, killing and burning cabins. They had met with such success that Cornstalk moved boldly against the colonials. Perhaps he remembered a general named Edward Braddock and the British grenadiers screaming at the torture stakes outside Fort Duquesne, nineteen years before.
These were no uniformed blunderers with Dunmore and Lewis. They were as wary as any Shawnee under Cornstalk. And they shot much straighter.
Cornstalk was whipped thoroughly one October day at the juncture of the Ohio and the Kanawha. More than a hundred men died there. Ironically, the land was named Point Pleasant.
Officially, the war was over. Surveyors and settlers could move out into the disputed territories. Men could stake out their log homes and clear the ground for vegetable gardens. Yet the Indians persisted in their attacks. Sometimes a Cherokee chief named Hanging Maw would come up the Warriors' Trace where it wound through Cumberland Gap and Kentucky into Ohio and Pennsylvania. After each of his visits, the Shawnees and the Delawares would paint up and come raiding again.
To add to the confusion, a solitary hunter who'd stopped by at Mallory's Fort only the week before reported that the Canadian expedition of Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery was a failure, and that General Lord William Howe was chasing George Washington across Jersey, hitting him at Trenton twice and once at Princeton.
“Whole dang country's in a mess,” the man said, biting deeply into his tobacco plug. “Man can't rightly say which end is up, no more. Some say we'll win this war with Eng land, some say we'll each of us hang on the nearest tree for treason. Me, I don't know. I'm heading out into Spanish country, around New Orleans way."
As he felt the stock of his rifle buck against his shoulder, Alan thought, Maybe I ought to head for Spanish country, too. This land where he fought now was rich and productive, but he had no urge to callus his palms with a hoe handle. His share of the land was still virgin forest.
“I'd go if I could break through that Shawnee ring,” he growled, pouring glossy gunpowder from his horn into the barrel of the Lancaster iron.
Cautiously he lifted his head above the log points, rifle rising with him. The edge of the forest was silent now, seemingly deserted except for the fallen red bodies that lay face down on the ground near the hazel and the berry thickets. He turned from the logs and shouted at Bemus Mallory.
“Looks like they've gone. Want me to take a look?”
Bemus Mallory was a big man, unkempt and gross. There was a compelling stubbornness in him that showed at his bright little eyes and hard, stubbled jaw. He had come into Kentucky with Boone, eight years ago, when Judge Richard Henderson of North Carolina financed their hunting party. Some folks said Boone had booted him out of camp for hiding food. Others claimed it was not food he stole but whiskey, and that Dan Boone got shet of him fast when he caught him pawing an Indian girl. It wasn't the girl's virtue that worried Boone as much as the fact that if he were seen by Shawnee braves—who were strangely moral for Indians—none of their lives would be worth a broken butter scoop. All anybody knew about these things for certain was that Bemus Mallory hated Daniel Boone with a silent, morose hatred.
And yet Bemus Mallory was a good man, in his way. He knew the woods. He was brave and filled with energy. He could swing an ax longer than any man Alan Brant ever knew, and his booming voice could praise and scold with equal ease. He was one for getting things done, this Bemus Mallory. His mind was set on building a frontier town to better Boonesboro, and he was well along on his path.
He eyed young Brant as he dropped from the wall walk beside him. His fingertips scratched at his bluish beard stubble. "All gone, hey? You sure of that?"
"As sure as I can be, without going outside and taking a look. You want me to do that?"
Mallory hesitated. There were twenty-three men at Mallory's Fort. None of them could shoot with this brawny young Marylander with the cold gray eyes and strawberry blond hair. He'd rather send anyone else, even go himself, in order to keep his long rifle at the wall slits. Only thing was, he admitted, young Brant was probably the only one among them who could go out into that forest and get back alive, even if there were Shawnees in the hazel thickets.
“Go ahead, boy. But be careful.”
It was just a matter of cold nerve, Alan told himself as he slid out the partly opened stockade gates into the clearing. Walk as if you're not afraid. Keep your eyes up and moving. Be ready to fall at the slightest sound, and make your fall backward, so the ball will miss the head and only scrape the chest. At least that was the theory, as Stephen Brant had told him so many times in so many different ways during the days of his boyhood and early youth.
It was so much easier, though, to sit before a roaring fire in the hearth of the tavern kitchen and listen and absorb knowledge than it was to carry it out. Alan felt naked and alone as he walked through the jewel-weed stalks, and between the ash tree stumps. His knife bobbed rhythmically at his hip. It was tattooing a warning, that beat into his mind with heavy insistence: you go too far, you go too far.
The hazel thickets and the Indian pipes were deserted. The Shawnees were gone, back to Scioto, or Chillicothe, or whatever village it was that they called home. He sighed, feeling confidence come back as the nervous air in his aching lungs eased out.
"They've gone,” he shouted, and plunged into the dog wood saplings, merging his shadow with their own.
After a while he found their tracks, converging from log windfalls and canebrakes to the narrow footpath that stretched through the forest to the Ohio. For half an hour he trailed them, moving easily in the half-stride, half-lope that was so much the Indian way of running. His eyes searched the yellow toad-flax and the horse nettles that he found at the side of the path, thrusting up their orange berries. He found no sign that any of the Shawnees had left the main body to circle back, no crushed white petal of the jump-seed plant, or downtrodden bit of forest nettle. Then, at a distance, he saw them. Some of them had fresh scalps dangling from their twist-belts.
It was nearing dusk when he came back to the fort.
Dinner was being cooked over the fire-stone embers where a big elk and a wild pig swung on fire-hardened sapling poles, roasting slowly. Only three of the men attended the fires. The others were grouped around Bemus Mallory.
“Alan, over here!” Mallory shouted when he saw him.
He grounded his rifle, and stood waiting. The men were looking at him with wry expressions; almost pitying, he thought for the moment. Bemus Mallory was finding it difficult to put his thoughts into words. A little of the tension that had been in him went out of his body with his amusement.
"You've another chore for me,” he smiled slowly. "And it isn't nice, judging by the way you look at me. Well, get on with it. A rotten egg isn't any better for cooking it another minute.”
Mallory tried to return the smile, and failed. “It's about the women, Alan. We've begun to fear for them."
"Women? In this wilderness?"
The big Irishman let his jaw out, and a touch of ugliness came into his black eyes. “Boone has his womenfolk at Boonesboro. There's females over at Harrodsburg. What they can do there, we can do at Mallory's Fort!”
“God help them when the Shawnees learn about them. Where are they now?"
Mallory squirmed uncomfortably. His eyes went from face to face as if seeking someone with a more nimble tongue than his own. At last he blurted, "They’re due any day at the river fork beyond Big Bone lick. Someone has to go and guide them here. We figured you'd be the best one of us all to do it.”
Alan Brant was aware of incredulous amusement. “One man, alone against the Shawnees and Delawares? With a parcel of women to watch over like a mother hen her chicks?”
"Somebody's got to go," a lean Carolinian said wryly.
"None of us would last five minutes out in them woods," said another.
They grew bolder with the sound of their own voices. They were farmers and tradesmen out of Yadkin County and Charles Town. Their hands were more used to the smooth wood of a hoe handle than they were to the curving butt of a long rifle. Their feet walked confidently between rows of pumpkins and cornstalks, but they were clumsy noise makers in the cool depths of the forest. Every man of them new what Alan Brant could do in the woods. All of them had seen him perform miracles more than once.
Robert Mercer, the stocky man with the peculiar scar at his receding hairline, well remembered the day Alan Brant had come out of nowhere when a scalping knife was at his temple. And Jonathan Morse, with shoulders like an ox and a brain like a peahen: even he knew he owed his life to this woodsman, whose rifle—from two hundred yards away—had felled the Mingo whose knife came ripping upward for his guts. Or Paul Taggart, with the perpetual squint: Alan Brant had come over a log windfall with a tomahawk for the brain pan of the Delaware about to fire from ambush at him.
They knew him, and they respected him; but they wanted women.
“Only man could have a chance is you, Alan," said Jabez Hart.
They all thought the same thing, and said so. What bothered him most, Alan realized, was the fact that they were right. He had a chance, but it was a slim one. Almost none at all. Alone I can go to the river fork and back a dozen times, he thought, but I can't take twenty giggling females with me when I do!
As if to allay the doubt in the woodsman, Bemus Mallory pressed on. “You see, this fort's only a bunch of logs unless we get womenfolk here. I ordered myself a wife from the parson back in Charles Town. Writ him, askin' him to find me a wife and marry me to her by proxy. I'm hopin' he's done it.”
In later years they were to call them bridal boats, these flat bottomed barges that crept laboriously up and down the waterways of the expanding colonies. There was always a surplus of women in the more crowded districts of Maryland and Virginia and the Carolinas, women who were eager and anxious to live in a log fort and work from dawn to after dusk, if a man and a home and babies went with it. The men were not jaded sophisticates. They asked for neither a pretty face nor a shapely haunch. All they wanted was a healthy female.
Alan remembered Moll Lovett, and sighed. More than once of late he wished he could be seeing her of an evening over a pot of mulled ale and later, in the hayrick close by the tavern stables. His lips twisted in a wry grin. If only Moll herself were on that boat!
“I'll go," he said, and felt their hands slapping his back, heard their voices shout their delight at his decision.
They escorted him to the cooking fires and seated him as comfortably as they could on the flat stone that served the fort as a bench. One man brought him steaming stew in a wooden bowl; another ran to fetch a leather jack of milk; a third offered to clean his rifle and restock his pouch-bag with lead balls.
"If you treat me like this, what will you do for the women?” he grinned.
They would get the same service too, for a while, until the novelty wore off and they settled into the mutual happiness or distrust or fear or hate or whatever it was they would make of their frontier unions. Alan dipped a chunk of corn bread into the stew, remembering his mother and father and their constant delight with one another still, after all these years.
“How many women are there?” he asked.
“Twenty," said Bemus Mallory, scowling faintly. He hesitated, then went on. “Only Lucian Travis wanted no woman. There's twenty-one of us, not countin' you and Travis. And we met you coming over the Gap into Shawnee country.”
"I was only asking."
Mallory studied the Virginian a moment, seeing his whip cord body in its taut buckskins with the long fringes on sleeves and breeches. For the first time, he tried to see Alan Brant the way a woman might look at him, with his reddish hair and gray eyes, his good looks and height and strength. After a while, the Irishman scowled more blackly.
Heavily, he sat on the wide, flat stone.
“Alan, the men and women of this fort are going to be thrown pretty much together for a while. Every man here will have a woman but you and Travis. I know Lucian Travis. I've known him a long time. He hates women because-well, because of something that happened a long time ago. You, now: you, I don't know at all. Do you hate women?”
Alan laughed, remembering Moll Lovett. “No, I don't hate women, Mallory. No more'n you do."
“That's why I'm talking to you. I don't want no ruckus raised here in my fort. If one of these females is a lollygag or a mistress round-heels, she'll cast her cap for you. You're young. You aren't any saint. You'll meet her more'n halfway, and there'll be hell to pay. Maybe more than one woman will go for you. Five, perhaps, or ..."
Alan began to laugh. Bemus Mallory glowered until the thought of his own words began to ring in his mind. Slowly he smiled, and his chuckle came rumbling up from a thick, hairy chest. “Mayhap I am a worrier. But it's better to worry than sleep under a tree when the lightning comes. Just heed my words, boy. Injuns are bad business, but there's nothing like females rutting after the same man to smash whatever peace a community like this knows."
“I've no mind to steal one of your women," Alan said coldly. A faint flicker of anger began to grow inside him.
"Good! We're agreed," said the Irishman heavily.
"I'll be leaving before midnight. The river fork is a good seventeen miles from here. It'll be just as well to start while most Indians are home in their cabins and longhouses."
He walked across the fort yard to the little corner blockhouse where his twig bed was laid against one wall. A tanned deer-hide covered the twigs and grasses on which he slept. Where his matching pouch-bag lay, there was also a small rucksack that housed the few treasures he'd taken with him from home. Alan stretched out on the twig bed, putting his rifle, shot-pouch and powder horn within reach of his waking hand. Then he closed his eyes. He'd learned this trick of sleeping when and where he could from his father. When a man depended on such habits to stay alive, he learned easily. And quickly.
Two minutes before midnight, Alan Brant rose and put on his powder horn and shot-pouch. He belted his knife, pulling the buckle tight. Then he bent and lifted his Lancaster iron into a hand.
Jabez Hart and Bemus Mallory were at the log gate. The Irishman swung it open, muscles rippling under the black hairs covering his naked arms, and nodded silently at him. Jabez Hart reached out and touched his shoulder. Then the hand fell away and Alan was outside the stockade, running humped over, crabwise. There is little violent motion in such a run. At night, the moving branches of trees make shadows that are curiously similar to the shadows a man makes when he runs like this.
Takowa lay on the ground and watched the buck-skinned man come at him. For many hours Takowa had lain here with the hole in his side where a lead pellet had ripped through flesh and bone. With Shawnee stoicism, he stifled the groans that bubbled into his throat. He had lost blood, but he had slept, and he knew that he would live.
Hate flickered in his black eyes, hate for this man and others like him who were coming into Shawnee hunting country and building log stockades, cutting down the trees and frightening away the game.
His hand went out and closed on his red cedar bow.
Strong fingers closed convulsively on the hide grip.
He was too weak. He could not lift the bow and kneel to use it. He must lie here and watch the buck-skinned man run past him into the forest. The man did not see him. He was intent on standing enemies, not on a badly wounded one who lay at moccasin level.
Takowa grunted. If the pain in his side had not weakened him so much, he might have laughed. The fool was leaving the safety of his logs, and coming into the Indian world of trees and shrubs. Biting hard on his lip, Takowa turned slowly on the ground and began to crawl after the buck-skinned man like a crippled snake.