Authors: Louis - Sackett's 04 L'amour
A cold wind blew off Hanging Dog Mountain and I had no fire, nor dared I strike so much as a spark that might betray my hiding place. Somewhere near, an enemy lurked, waiting.
Yesterday morning, watching my back trail, I saw a deer startle, cross a meadow in great bounds, and disappear into the forest. Later, shortly after high sun, two birds flew up suddenly. Something was following me.
Warm in my blanket, I huddled below a low earthen bank, concealed by brush and a fallen tree. The wind swept by above me, worrying my mind because its sound might cover the approach of an enemy creeping closer. There he could lie waiting to kill me when I arose from my hiding place.
I, Jubal Sackett, was but a day's journey from our home in Shooting Creek in the foothills of the Nantahalas, close upon Chunky Gal Mountain.
All the enemies of whom I knew were far from here, yet any stranger was a potential enemy, and he was a wise traveler who was forever alert.
Our white enemies were beyond the sea, and our only red enemies were the Seneca, living far away to the north beyond Hudson's River. No Seneca was apt to be found alone so far from others of his kind. The Seneca were a fine, fierce lot of fighting men of the Iroquois League who had become our enemies because we were friends of the Catawba, who were their enemies.
Whoever followed me was a good reader of sign for I left little evidence of my passing. Such an enemy is one to guard against, for skilled tracking is a mark of a great hunter and a great warrior. Nor do I wish to leave my scalp in the lodge of some unknown enemy when my life is scarce begun.
What was this strange urge that drove me westward, ever westward into an empty land? Behind me were family, home, and all that I might become; before me were nameless rivers, swamps, mountains, and forests, and beyond the great river were the plains, those vast grasslands of which we had only heard, and of which we knew nothing.
About me and before me lay a haunted land whose boundaries we did not know. What little we had heard was from the tales of Indians, and they shied from this land, hunting here but always moving and returning to their homes far away. When the night winds prowled they huddled close to their fires and peered uneasily into the night. There was game here in plenty, and when the need was great they came to hunt. We did not know what mysteries lay here or why the place was shunned, but they spoke of it as a dark and bloody ground.
Why, in such a land of meadows, forests, and streams, were there no habitations? Once it was not so, for there are earth mounds, and friendly Indians had told us of a stone fort built they know not when nor by whom.
Who were those who vanished? Why did they come, build, and then disappear? What happened upon this ground? What dark and shameful deed? What horror so great that generations of Indians feared the land?
There was a legend of white men, bearded men who came to live along the rivers in a time long past. All were killed. Some said it was done by the Cherokee, some by the Shawnee, but it was an old memory, and old memories have a way of escaping their origin, carried by word of mouth or by intermarriage from one tribe to the next.
There are rumors, also, of a dark-skinned people who live in secluded valleys, a people who are neither Indian nor African, but of a different cast of feature who hold themselves aloof and keep strange customs and a different style of living. But we know nothing beyond the rumor for their valleys lie far from ours.
I do not come to solve mysteries, but to seek out the land.
My father was Barnabas, the first of our name to come to this place beyond the ocean from the England of his birth. Of Barnabas I was the third son, Kin-Ring and Yance born before me. My elder brothers had found homes among the hills. My younger brother, Brian, and my one sister, Noelle, had returned to England with our mother, my brother to read for the law, my sister to be reared in a gentler land than this. I do not believe I shall see them again, nor hear of them unless it be some distant whisper on the wind. Nor shall I again see my father.
I had been called the Strange One, like the others but different. I loved my brothers and they loved me, but my way was a lonely way and I went into a land from which I would not return.
Of them all my father understood me best, for with all his great strength and magnificent fighting ability there was much in him of the poet and the mystic, as there is in me.
Our last evening together I would not forget, for each of us knew it was for the last time. Lila, who prepared our supper, also knew. Lila is Welsh and the wife of my father's old friend, Jeremy Ring, and had been a maid to my mother ere they departed from England.
My father, Lila, and I have the Gift. Some call it second sight, but we three often have pre-visions of what is to be, sometimes with stark clarity, often only fleeting glimpses as through the fog or shadows. All our family have the Gift to some degree, but me most of all. Yet I have never sought to use it, nor wished to see what is to be.
I knew how my father would die and almost when, and he knew also when we talked that last time. He accepted the nearness of death as he accepted life, and he would die as he would have wished, weapon in hand, trying his strength against others.
We parted that night knowing it was for the last time, with a strong handclasp and a look into each other's eyes. It was enough. I would keep his memory always, and he would know that somewhere far to the westward his blood would seek the lonely trails to open the land for those who would follow.
A faint patter of rain awakened me and I eased from under my blanket, preparing a neat pack. Daylight, or as much as I was likely to see, was not far off. It had been snug and dry where I had slept, but with only a few inches of overhang to shelter my bed from the rain. I had shouldered my pack and girded my weapons before the thought came to me.
Smoothing the earth where I had slept, I took up a twig and drew four crosses in the earth. The red man was forever curious, and to most of whom we call Indians four was a magic number. He who followed would come upon this mark and wonder. He might even worry a little and be wary of seeking me out, for the Indian is ever a believer in medicine, or as some say, magic.
So it was that in the last hour of darkness I went down the mountain through the laurel sticks, crossed a small stream, and skirted a meadow to come to the trace I sought.
Nearly one hundred years before De Soto had come this way, his marchings and his cruelties leaving no more mark than the stirring of leaves as he passed. A few old Indians had vague recollections of De Soto, but they merely shrugged at our questions. We who wandered the land knew this was no "new world". The term was merely a conceit in the minds of those who had not known of it before.
The trace when I came upon it was a track left by the woods buffalo, who were fewer in number but larger in size than the buffalo of the Great Plains. The buffalo was the greatest of all trailmakers. Long ago the buffalo had discovered all the salt licks, mountain passes, and watering holes. We latecomers had only to follow the way they had gone, for there were no better trails anywhere.
When I came upon the track I began to run. We who lived in the forest regularly ran or walked from place to place as did the Indians. It was by far the best way to cover distance where few horses and fewer roads were to be found.
My brothers ran well but were heavier than I and not so agile. Although very strong I was twenty pounds lighter than Kin-Ring and thirty lighter than Yance.
Our strength was born of our daily lives. Our cabins and our palisades were built of logs cut and dragged from the forest. The logs for the palisade stood upright in ditches dug for the purpose. Only in the past few years had we managed to obtain horses from the Spanish in Florida, who broke their own law in selling them to us when they departed for their home across the sea.
Every task demanded strength, for the logs used in building the cabins were from eight to twenty inches thick and twenty to thirty feet in length. There are "slights" and skills known to working men that enable them to handle heavy weights, but in the final event it comes down to sheer muscle. So my brothers and I had grown to uncommon strength, indulging in wrestling, tossing the caber, and lifting large stones in contests one with the other.
Our Catawba friends marveled at our strength, for quick and agile as they were, and very strong, nothing in their lives called for the lifting of heavy weights. Unaccustomed to lifting, their muscles were longer and leaner. They were excellent wrestlers, however.
At an easy trot I moved through the forest, my moccasins making no sound on the damp leaves underfoot. Emerging upon a hilltop not unlike the balds found in the higher mountains, I drew back against the wall of trees, letting my soiled buckskins merge with the tree trunks and brush, scanning the vast stretch of land that lay before me.
For the moment the rain had ceased, although far off against a mountainside I could see a rainstorm drawing its gray veil across the distant hills. Never had I seen a land so lovely.
Carefully, I studied my back trail or that portion of it visible from where I stood. There was nothing in sight. Had I escaped my unknown pursuer? Not for a moment did I believe that.
Somewhere before me lay the river called Tenasee, and the long, narrow valley of which we had heard. My father had put this task upon me, to find a new land to which we could move if necessary.
My father was a fugitive from England, sought because it was mistakenly believed he had recovered King John's lost treasure from The Wash. Also, we had settled upon our land with no grant from the king or governor, although we had proved useful to the powers that were in Virginia, and they had not been inclined to cause trouble. Yet a new governor might be appointed at any time and my father had warned us that we must seek a new land further west and make our plans if something were to go wrong. We could then, at a moment's notice, pick up and move west beyond the reach of the king or his minions.
"See to it, Jubal," my father had said. "Find us a westward way. The king does not realize the size of this country nor how that size will affect its governing. In the old country, land was held by the king and given to his great lords for their services to him, and it was farmed by serfs. There one must cling to one's place or become a landless man. Here there is land for all, and no man need work for another."
He paused and looked into my eyes. "Do you remember your brothers, Jubal, and all who bear our name. 'Tis a wide and a lonely land, but if we stand together we have naught to fear."
"I shall not forget."
"And pass the word, Jubal. Let your sons remember, and your daughters.
"My envy for you is great, Jubal, for I, too, would see the lands where you will walk. I wish I might feel their rain, accept the shade of the trees, and smell the fragrance of those distant pines." After a moment he added, "I, too, shall go west, Jubal."
"Where the chips fall, there let them lie."
"It shall be so."
For too long I stood staring across that vast and lovely land thinking of my father and the long way he had come from his birth in the fens of England to his arrival here, among the first of those who came to this land.
The far-off veil of rain diminished and then faded. A shaft of sunlight falling through a hole in the clouds revealed a long, loaflike mountain.
Chilhowee ... from there I would turn north. I did so abruptly ... and it saved my life.
A hard-thrown spear thudded into the tree where I had been standing, its shaft vibrating with the force of the throw.
Dropping to the earth I rolled swiftly over and over, coming up near a fallen tree, bow bent and arrow ready ... waiting.
My position was a good one, and above all, I had his spear before my eyes. It was a very good spear, handsomely crafted, and he would not wish to lose it. Therefore I had only to wait, and when he came for it I should have one enemy less.
It had never been my way to seek trouble, but if one is attacked by a man whose time has come, who would stand in the way of fate?
My back was well covered by a gigantic uprearing of roots and earth from a fallen tree, and scattered near were many pine cones on which nothing could step without making a sound. Nevertheless, I could take nothing for granted. My bow bent slightly, I waited.
For a long time there was no sound. The Indian is a great hunter and as such he has patience, yet my life in the wilderness had taught me patience also. One learns to adapt to the land in which one lives.
My ears were tuned for the slightest sound, my entire body alert to move or adjust. Nothing happened, and the slow minutes plodded by on lagging feet. The low-hanging branches held shadows away from the sun, and the tree trunks were dark columns with only small spaces between. It needed a quick eye to catch any movement among them.
A thrush flitted from one branch to another and then took off down a long lane of the forest toward the trace I had followed. Somewhere a squirrel chattered irritably, but I heard no other sound, and even a moccasin whispers lightly when it moves.
Glancing about I managed to keep a corner of an eye upon the spear. Suddenly, a faint sound. My head turned. Quickly I glanced back. The spear was gone!