Authors: Don Coldsmith
Slowly, Nils realized that they were watching their only way home burn to the waterline. Without a ship, they had absolutely no way to return to civilization.
How could he have been so stupid? he fumed to himself. He had actually burned a ship that might have gotten them home. Now they were stranded in the wilderness of an unexplored land, probably to be hunted down and killed like animals. For some reason, Nils recalled the old saying of his grandfather’s, repeated throughout the years of his childhood.
“A man without a boat is a man in chains.”
is by far Goldsmith’s finest and most important work.”
—Max Evans, author of
“Goldsmith blends his extensive knowledge of history with daring speculation and a vivid imagination. His loyal readers will be pleased with this book. And new readers will find themselves transformed into fans.”
—Ron McCoy, Director,
Center for Great Plains Studies,
Emporia State University
Also by Don Coldsmith
HILD OF THE
AN OF THE
ONG OF THE
RACK OF THE
RAIL OF THE
ALKS IN THE
To Greg Tobin, editor and friend
without whose encouragement, interest, and confidence
this project might never have become a reality
lk Woman reached the top of the rise and paused to catch her breath. She turned to see how her young son was faring. He had done quite well, she thought, for a child of seven summers. It was too bad. One of the worst things about watching her world fall apart was the thought that she would never see Deer Mouse grow to manhood. He might survive this tragedy, though she doubted that any of them would. If he did, though, he would be raised as a captive foster child by strange warlike Shaved-heads. He would never know the joy of the Sacred Hills and Tallgrass prairie, the thrill of the great hunts astride a fine buffalo horse.
She did not feel the tragedy so deeply for herself. Her life was already over. It had ended three days ago when the Shaved-heads struck their party. Her husband, Shoots Far, was one of the first to fall. There had not even been time to mourn his passing, or to prepare his body. She regretted that; she would mourn for him later. If, of course, she lived long enough. She would try to protect Deer Mouse as long as she could. At the end, if there was time, she would mourn her husband. If not…well, she would join him instead. She smiled grimly at the irony in such a thought.
Deer Mouse now came struggling up the slope, carrying his small pack bravely. He looked tired.
We are all tired
, she thought.
If only we could rest
. But Tracker had kept them moving, at a punishing pace. There had been times when she
hated Tracker, these past three days. But, in her more rational moments, she knew that they were alive only because of his skills.
They were the only survivors. At least, she thought so. The Shaved-heads had been merciless in their slaughter and mutilation. The entire party of the People, some eleven families, had been destroyed in the massacre. They should never have come so far from their own Tallgrass country, she thought. But what else could they have done? A bad season, no buffalo … at least the hunt into the semiwooded country to the southeast had been moderately successful. There had been deer and elk, enough to store winter supplies.
They had discussed whether to winter here, in the shelter of the scrub oaks, or to move back into more familiar country and try to rejoin the rest of the band. No matter, now. The attack had come, and the Shaved-heads had seemed to strive for total annihilation. Even young women, younger and prettier than she, had been struck down and scalped. That was why she had little hope that she would be spared, even for a slave-wife. She hoped now only for the opportunity to take one or two Shaved-heads with her when she crossed over. That would help to avenge her husband.
Spirit Walker now struggled up the trail toward them, bringing up the rear. The old holy man was the fourth survivor. His medicine was said to be of great strength. Greater, possibly, than that of any holy man of the People since Red Horse recovered the white buffalo cape, several generations ago. It was said that Spirit Walker could walk on water. Elk Woman had never quite believed that. In his youth, maybe, but that was long ago. Now the snows of many winters shone white upon his head, and their chill was seen in the hesitancy of his stride. Spirit Walker was slowing their flight, perhaps more than young Deer Mouse, even. He had urged them to leave him behind.
“My medicine will protect me.”
“No, Uncle,” Tracker insisted, with his quiet smile. “We may need your medicine to save
It was a noble thing for the young man to do, Elk Woman thought, even though not too wise.
“You should save yourself,” she had told Tracker, aside, on that first terrible night, hidden in the rocky cleft.
“No, the People must stay together,” he had stated flatly. There had been no room for compromise.
So they had stayed together, four people, fugitives in a strange land.
“I am sorry about your wife and children,” she told him.
“And I, for you. Shoots Far was my friend.”
“I know. We must mourn them.”
Tracker had hidden them, cleverly concealing their hiding place with branches from the oaks.
“We will go south a little way to confuse the Shaved-heads,” he explained. “Then, turn west, and back toward our own country.”
“It is good,” agreed Spirit Walker.
But it was not good. Somehow, the Shaved-heads had realized the next day that some had survived. Wilted oak leaves on the brush that had screened their hiding place, perhaps. Since then they had been hotly pursued. By using all his skills, Tracker had kept them alive, so far. They had waded in the icy water of a stream for a long time, to conceal their tracks. Spirit Walker waded, too, confirming the suspicion of Elk Woman regarding his diminishing powers. The stream took them farther in the wrong direction, farther southeast.
When they finally emerged from the water on a rocky ledge, Tracker was confident that they had eluded pursuit. But he was mistaken. After he scouted the back trail that afternoon, he came hurrying to rejoin the others.
“They come,” he announced grimly. “Their tracker is good…better than I thought.”
exclaimed Elk Woman softly. “It is over!”
“We are not dead yet,” assured Tracker. “Come!”
They moved on, tired and hungry, still farther in the wrong direction. There were times when Elk Woman wished that she could stop and rest to gain strength for the final death struggle. Yet Tracker’s calm confidence did not seem to permit such an outcome.
He expects to escape this!
she finally told herself with some degree of surprise. With such a man leading the retreat, she could do no less than follow, both for herself
and for her son. So, she struggled on, every muscle crying out for a respite from the punishment. And, if her younger body cried in protest, how much more difficult it must be for old Spirit Walker.
“How is it with you, Uncle?” she asked as he came up beside her, breathing heavily. “Uncle” was the term of respect used by the People for any adult male older than oneself.
He smiled ruefully.
“I am here,” he said. “Not much more.”
Tracker was pointing ahead. There was a level, grassy valley before them, and a range of wooded hills to the southeast, beyond. Tracker glanced at the sun.
“We can cross this valley before night,” he announced. “There will be places to hide in the hills, there. We can rest tonight.”
And then, what?
thought Elk Woman, but she said nothing.
“I will scout the back trail,” Tracker said. “Go on ahead, and I will catch up.” He pointed at the distant ridge. “Head toward that notch.” He turned away, down the trail they had just ascended, shifting his flintlock rifle to the crook of his arm.
At least, the going was easier on the level plain. She found a game trail that wandered in the general direction of their travel, and followed it. The
direction, she noted to herself. And into the hills? Would it not be better to make the last stand in the open, like people of the prairie? The People did not cower in the trees among rocks. But, she had to admit, they were still alive. Tracker’s skills had proven effective so far. The People were survivors, willing to do what they must to survive. And Tracker was a very remarkable man. She had known of her husband’s respect for this friend, and was just beginning to see…but no matter, now. She led the way through the grasses toward the distant hills.
Shadows were beginning to lengthen when Tracker rejoined them. Elk Woman’s heart was not quite so heavy now, and she wondered at this. Their plight was no less hopeless, but she received strength and courage, somehow, from his presence.
“Come,” he said simply, leading the way up the slope on the faint trail leading into the hills.
“Do they still follow?” she asked, though she knew the answer.
Tracker nodded, but made no comment.
It was somewhat cooler in the shade of the trees. They were making their way upward along the edge of a ravine when Tracker suddenly stopped with an exclamation.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I do not know,” he said slowly. “Something…” He began to peer among the sassafras bushes.
“Danger?” she asked impatiently.
“No, no. Something else. A different spirit, somehow. Wait here.”
He parted the bushes and was gone. They waited impatiently. In the distance somewhere, Elk Woman heard the trickle of water…not a large stream … a spring, maybe. Its song was inviting.
The bushes parted again, and Tracker stepped out, a pleased expression on his face.
“It is good!” he stated. “An old trail, a cave, water. Come.” He held the branches aside. “Follow the path,” he said. “I will cover our tracks. Try not to disturb anything.”
Elk Woman led the way down the steep rocky slope. It was like another world, damp and mossy. Ferns sprouted from crevices and lichens adorned the gray stone that formed the walls of the canyon. There were oaks and nut trees, and plants she did not recognize. Birds sang in the shrubbery, and she heard again the song of the water somewhere below. The path was steep, twisting back on itself repeatedly.
Then she saw the cave. A heavy shelf of stone spanned a space between the shoulders of the rift, and beneath it was a concavity. A person could stand almost upright under this roof, it appeared. The floor was several paces across, and she could see the back wall of the shelter. She fought down the trapped feeling that assails a child of the open prairie in such a place. It would furnish shelter and protection, for now. She led the way toward the cave. Maybe Tracker would have some plan as to what they would do next. At least, tonight they could find rest. Let tomorrow take care of itself.
She dropped her pack and sank to the sandy floor of the cave. Deer Mouse crept into her arms and she rocked him gently.
Some distance on the back trail, the war party waited for the return of the scout. Fifteen warriors with shaved heads squatted on their heels, joking and visiting to pass the time.
“Their tracker must be good,” observed one.
“So says ours,” joked another.
It was a wry twist to their war party that four had escaped the destruction when they attacked the camp of the trespassers. Even worse, Sees All, their own tracker, had told them that three of the four were an old man, a woman, and a child.
Usually, it was just as well to let a survivor or two escape to tell the tale. It was a deterrent to further incursion into their territory. But in this case, it had become a matter of principle. It would be a loss of face to be outwitted by a woman, a child, and an old man. And for three days! They could not let this go, now. The tracker of the group they followed was, of course, a special quarry. A slow death would be reserved for that one. Release one of the others, maybe the woman, to carry the warning, perhaps. Or, maybe not.
Somebody grunted and pointed to the returning scout. “Sees All comes!”
“Yes! Ho, Sees All! Do we attack now, or in the morning?”
The scout made his way back down the slope, a serious look on his face.
“My friends,” he began, “this is a different thing, now. They have gone into Madman’s Canyon.”
There was a mutter of astonishment. Did the fugitives not
Of course, they were strangers to the area, and might not. … Black Bear, leader of the war party, spoke.
“We must consider this, my brothers. We will camp here, and hold a council tonight. Maybe they will come out in the morning.”
Elk Woman picked up an empty waterskin.
“I will go and fill the skins before dark,” she suggested, picking up the other one, also.
Deer Mouse was asleep, the deep sleep of the innocent, lying on his mother’s robe.
“I will go with you,” Tracker offered, rising. “It may not be safe.”
Nowhere is safe
, she thought. But it was a thoughtful gesture. He must be hurting as much as she. More, maybe … Tracker’s whole family was gone.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
She headed down an obscure trail in the direction of the water’s song. There was a seep spring at the cave, but she was seeking a deep, clear pool to fill the skins. Ah, yes, there! A wide spot in the trickle that wound along the canyon floor. The pool was scarcely two paces across, but cold and inviting. They drank from cupped palms, and then filled the water-skins. Elk Woman cupped more water to splash on her face and neck.
She raised her head, feeling somewhat better. She looked up the slope, and gasped in surprise.
“Look!” she pointed.
Tracker had instantly dropped to his fighting crouch, and his belt ax was in his hand. But this was unnecessary. Elk Woman was pointing at a massive slab of stone. It appeared to have fallen from a higher position on the canyon wall. It must have been long ago, because a sizable tree had grown up around its flank. It was a squarish shape, maybe three paces wide and two high, propped on edge. Even its thickness was massive, as thick as the length of a man’s arm.
Its flat face was nearly straight up and down. There were
other, similar stones along the canyon, but this one was different. A series of lines was carved in its face. Not the deeply scored scratches that were seen on some of the other stones from the shifting and grinding of past ages, but marks chiseled there by some intelligent being. Yet different there, also, Elk Woman realized. These were not the rock carvings of the Ancient Ones. Not pictographs of animals and hunters and Sun and Moon. The People were familiar with those, in their own territory.
These were straight lines, in a uniform row, but in different arrangements. The two climbed the few steps up to approach the stone, and to touch the characters. Each was about a hand’s span in height, carved deeply in straight grooves.
“Look,” Elk Woman pointed. “It is very old. Lichens grow in the bottom of the groove.”
Tracker nodded. He had, of course, noted the same thing.
Elk Woman was still staring in awe. “Can you feel its spirit?” she whispered. “It is very strange.”
“Yes. Go and bring Spirit Walker, Elk Woman. He must see this before it grows dark.”