Thursday, October 27, 2011

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His moccasins made no sound in the grass along the edge of the meadow. At the far end, he turned and looked back at the cabin, smoke trailing from the chimney. It was the place of his birth; the farm in Kentucky had been his home all of his sixteen years.

“What’s got into you, Charlie?” The voice seemed unusually loud in the stillness of early morning.

Hell, what was there to worry over, anyways? Wasn’t he almost a man? And as for Ma and Pa, why, he’d never seen anything his pa couldn’t handle.

It was a day in late summer, and the grass stood tall and ripe. Many times Charlie Dobbs had come this way; he knew the best strategy. Chances were good that he would come upon deer within a mile or so of home.

His stride was not that of a man setting out to go a long distance. A hunter must step cautiously, be mindful of the direction of the wind, and know the habits of the animals he stalks.

By noon Charlie had covered several miles, and continued to work his way east along the foothills. Slowly the skies began to gray and darken, giving promise of rain. He began to pick up the pace, gauging time and distance to arrive at another likely area in late afternoon.

It was nearly sundown when he came upon it. Cautiously he skirted the willows along the creek. Nothing. It was strange, unsettling, as though he was the only living thing in these hills. Nothing else moved. Not game, not a bird—not even a squirrel.

The sun slipped slowly from sight, and dusk began to soften the afternoon shadows. In a hollow by the stream, Charlie rolled out his bed. He took out flint and materials for striking a fire, then set it aside and sat quietly as darkness surrounded him. He wasn’t sure why, just a feeling. Jerky from his pack would have to do for supper, since it did not have to be cooked.

Satisfied, he stretched out. Yet sleep was long in coming. The moon turned its face away -- even the stars hid their glow -- and in the blackness he kept seeing his mother’s face, the worry in her eyes. Again he heard her words of the previous morning as he prepared to leave.

“Charles? Did you hear? You pay heed to what I say.”

Martha Dobbs stood by the stove, hands on her hips. She was not a large woman, midway over five feet. In her faded dress, she looked haggard and worn. Life had been hard, and though scarcely thirty-seven, she appeared much older. Still, there was a sparkle to her eyes that told of a woman not unhappy with her lot.

“Ma, I’m always careful. I’ve hunted by myself many-a’time.”

“Don’t you sass your ma,” she said sternly. “Seth, you tell him.”

Seth Dobbs looked up from a breakfast of fried venison and potatoes, a rugged man with wavy, red hair.

“Boy, you Listen to what your ma’s saying,” he said. “Roy Perkins was by yesterday, and he said Injuns hit several places up along the Ohio. Wiped ‘em out.”

“But Pa, the Cherokees are our friends. I’ve know’d ‘em all my life.”

“These wasn’t Cherokee, Son. Roy didn’t know what they was; Shawnee maybe. They be from somewhere up north.” He paused for a swallow of coffee. “You best keep your eyes open. If we didn’t need the meat, I’d not be sending you out just now.

“I’ll be careful, Pa.

When at last Charlie slept, it was fitful. Once he woke, thinking he heard noises. Indians? Had they located his camp and now were sneaking up on him in the dark? For a long time he lay absolutely still, listening. Sometime later he dozed off again, but it was not a restful sleep.

Dawn was still an hour away when next he woke. Quietly he rolled his blanket, with his supplies and other gear stowed inside. A quick wrap of the cord at either end, and it became a bundle that he could sling over one shoulder. A couple of his ma’s biscuits, and he was ready.

Light of morning was beginning to give shape to objects about him as he moved silently upstream. At the edge of a large meadow, he paused, still in the cover of the timber. A likely place for deer to linger at first light, but it was still a bit early. He would have to wait for more light.

This was Charlie’s favorite time of day, yet on this particular morning he found little satisfaction in it. The urge was strong in him to turn around and head back. But why? He had seen nothing to give cause for alarm. Besides, they needed meat.

Slowly, increasing light revealed the hidden corners of the meadow. Nothing here, either. Charlie hesitated, contemplating his next move.

A mile to the east was the Parker place, their nearest neighbor. He’d best change directions, circle around to the north, then back to the cabin. This decision brought some relief. At least he would be headed in the general direction of home, rather than away from it.

Morning became afternoon, and a cool breeze began to clear away the clouds. He moved through a silent world, always watchful. Alertness was a thing learned early by one raised on the edge of the frontier. His eyes probed each shadow, each thicket. Slowly his course bent west-ward, and still no game. Finally he turned south toward home.

In late afternoon, he began to lengthen his stride. Time to be heading home. It wasn’t far now, no more than a few miles, and he wanted to get there before dark. He was going back empty-handed, but that couldn’t be helped. It happened that way sometimes.

Suddenly Charlie froze. At first he could see nothing, but there had been something, some wash of movement.

There. Coming toward him—an Indian. He shrank back into the shadows and waited. Now he could see others, following the first, walking single file. All were wearing paint.

Charlie moved deeper into the brush, careful not to cause movement in the branches overhead. The Indians drew closer, more than twenty in all, not of a tribe familiar to him. Their direction would take them directly past where he stood.

Now the warriors were a dozen yards away, and closing the distance. Charlie tried to shrink back against a large tree, make his form blend with that of the trunk.

One by one the Indians passed by, only a few feet from where Charlie stood. He looked away, in fear they would sense someone watching. When he turned back, it was in time to see the last man disappear into the forest. He could not see the man’s face, only that there were scalps on his belt, one of them with red hair.

Charlie froze, struggling with the wave of fear that came over him. These men had come from the south, from the direction of the cabin.

Ma and Pa. They might need his help. He wanted to run, to call out. But no, he must be careful. There could be more Indians about, others that he had not seen. The farm was still some distance away; it wouldn’t do to go plunging head-long through the woods, maybe be captured, or fall and break a leg. He felt sick, and leaned against a tree for support.

Finally, Charlie could stand it no longer. He had to get there, to know. Wildly he ran, leaping over downed trees, ducking beneath low-hanging limbs. One foot caught under a root, and he pitched forward into the brush. Getting to his feet, he picked up his rifle and stumbled on—a mile, then two. At last he dropped to the ground and lay gasping for breath.

Minutes passed. In control again, Charlie ran on. For a short time it rained, but he was unaware. At last he slowed, for ahead were the meadow and the cabin. He stopped and sniffed. Smoke.

Charlie checked the rifle, then moved cautiously forward. Again he caught the smell of wood smoke, now heavy in the air. Just a few more yards…

At last he could see it, the cabin—or what remained of it. Only the stone fireplace and chimney was still intact; the rest was a burned-out shell. Flames still danced along some of the logs.

Clouds of smoke billowed upward and swirled around him as he approached. A still, gray form slumped against a wheel of the wagon.

Charlie hurried closer, then stopped and turned away, unable to face what he saw. Yet, something compelled him to look again. He forced himself to go closer.

Seth Dobbs hung limply from rawhide cords that bound him to the wheel. The anguish in his face told of how he had suffered. It must have seemed a lifetime before death brought relief. Again Charlie looked away, fighting to not give in to the nausea that came over him.

What about Ma?

“Ma!” he called. “Ma?”

Charlie ran to the remains of the cabin, but she was not there. Then, momentarily the smoke cleared. Over by the corral—he ran toward her. She had been run through with a lance. He dropped to his knees and cradled her head in his lap.

She looked up at him, her eyes filled with pain. Her voice came in a hoarse whisper.

“Charles, you…you go live with Uncle Josh…” her voice trailed off.

“First I got to get you some help,” Charlie said, his eyes filled with tears. “I’ll be right back, soon as I can saddle up one of the horses.”

“No. They’s gone--everything. You get…get away from this place…fast as you can. Don’t stop for nothing. I don’t want to live anyways…after what they done.”

And life slipped away. Charlie lowered her gently, then struggled to his feet.

A long time he stood, staring but not really seeing. Then, at last, presence of mind began to return; he noticed the ground around him. He studied the jumble of tracks, traced the movements of the attackers to where they had split up. One group had gone off to the southeast, taking the three horses with then. The others had traveled north on foot, no doubt the ones that had passed Charlie earlier.

Night came on, a descending cloak that hid the scene from his eyes. Yet the darkness did not matter. This was a sight that would remain indelibly etched in his brain for as long as he lived.

Suddenly he felt alone. So very, very alone.

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