Prologue

 

Autumn 1831 along the Allegheny River

 

BUT FOR improvident fate, angry, boiling clouds would have unleashed nature’s cold fury upon this Yankee river valley the day he buried his ma and pa. Perversely a rose-hued dawn washed the tall forests and granite bluffs in a warm autumn glow.

Prosperous Tory farmers, his forebears rallied to Benedict Arnold’s American Legion during the Rebellion of the American Colonies, participating in the raid on New London. Their lands confiscated, their very lives at risk, the family joined the migration of a hundred thousand Loyalists to Canada and the Mother Country upon the Crown’s surrender to the victorious Continental rebels.

At the turn of the century, his pa brought the little family south from Toronto to unsuccessfully petition for the restoration of their prosperity, but old hatreds die lingering deaths, and Tories were subjected anew to high prejudices with the burning of the President’s House in the War of 1812. The Marquis de Lafayette’s return to these shores in August 1824, and the old revolutionary’s warm reception by James Monroe, the last American president to fight in the Rebellion, put the barm on the brew, sentencing the family to hard labor merely to meet the cain on farmland that once was their own.

Life doubly rocked the slender young man with hair the color of sandy soil and hazel irises shot with brown and green and gold when the tragic deaths of his parents in a farmhouse fire followed hard on the heels of a doomed affair with the daughter of a family of Patriots who had no use for Tories—real or reformed. The discovery of a hundred carefully hoarded gold English pounds in the ashes of the family’s cabin confirmed his determination to abandon this hateful land and retrace the footsteps of his boyhood idol, Jedediah Strong Smith, the legendary trapper and explorer of the Far West.

 

 


Chapter 1

 

Spring 1832 at the edge of the Little Island Mountains, the Dakota country

 

FROM OUR place of concealment, we silently watched the tribesman ease cautiously out of the draw and press up a steep slope littered with broken boulders and sparse-leafed mountain scrub, exposing himself to two warriors on sturdy Indian ponies methodically working the rims of the coulee below. One threw up a long gun and shattered a stone near the fleeing man’s shoulder. A third brave, nearer his quarry, loosed a wild yell and wheeled his pony, raising a tomahawk as the pinto churned awkwardly across the sharply pitched ground. His prey evaded the hatchet and snagged its wicked head, bringing down both man and mount.

The two adversaries tumbled in a dog-fall over the cruel, stony ground. Only one, the fugitive, staggered to his feet, swiped a bloody knife on his slain foe’s leggings, and broke for the scrambling pinto. A second shot roared. The pony screamed in pain and flopped to the ground, sliding in the loose scree.

The runner dropped behind the downed beast and clawed a weapon from beneath the heavy body. We watched silently as he eased the barrel over the horse’s side and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Abandoning the useless musket atop the dead horse, the brave slithered on his belly to the sanctuary of a narrow fold of rock and began a slow climb up the escarpment. The other two Indians, most likely believing their prey now armed, dismounted and carefully approached the fallen pony.

Hidden by a thin, serrated outcrop of granite crowning the ridge, we witnessed the deadly drama unfold below us. The lone Indian, clad only in breechcloth and moccasins, slipped through the thin cover of the slope, gaining significant advantage over his cautious pursuers in this ghastly game of hide-and-seek with human lives in the forfeit. I held strongly to the view red Indians are human, even though this brought me into conflict with much of society. I had the same opinion of black slaves. Neither conviction was oft voiced aloud.

Beyond the promontory we occupied, the high plains stretched below puffy thunderheads to the northern horizon broken only by a distant, barren mamelle. These broad, short-grass champains cut a swath through the country four hundred miles wide from Canada to Tejas, interrupted by occasional ranges such as the Little Islands at our backs and the Great Shining Mountains rising well to the west.

Splitlip Rumquiller surveyed things with an expert eye on my far right. Wild Red Greavy lay in the middle, taking in events through mere slits, and I anchored the left, shivering with excitement and a modicum of fright.

The runaway, making clever use of scant cover, was now close enough to distinguish his features. He was tall, appearing to be over six English feet, and well formed, putting me in mind of a statue called David I had once seen pictured in a book. The Indian, who was probably no more than my own twenty-and-one years, glanced up suddenly. I froze. To move was to invite discovery. In that brief moment, I was struck by how likely he was. Comeliness was not something I equated with the natives I encountered back east.

The horsemen, remounted now, crisscrossed below him, secure in the knowledge that he held no long-range weapon. The youth would have breached the ridge in a clump of mountain mahogany twenty paces to our right had not one rider suddenly urged his spotted pony straight up the slope, forcing his target into the shelter of a small draw leading to where we lay hidden.

The second brave reined his mustang left to box in their prey. Then both deliberately worried their way up the slope, no more than two hundred yards behind the man on foot. Within seconds, slight noises came from directly below us; strong red-brown hands grasped the upright granite, and the brave vaulted over the crest with his eyes scanning the slope behind him.

In an instant Split was on him, forcing the Indian onto his back in the dust. Red vaulted atop the savage, leaving me to grab a flailing right arm. It was all I could do to hold on. The fugitive tossed wildly before my weight gained the advantage. Split grunted a few guttural words, and the Indian settled down. Red, caught in the bloodlust of the moment, raised a knife high above his head. Without thinking, I thrust myself between them.

“Whut th—” Red was barely able to slow his killing stroke. I seized his wrist in both hands. Even so, the blade drew blood from my left breast.

The man beneath me stirred not a muscle, although I trembled with belated fear. Sweat popped out on my forehead.

“Don’t kill him!” I implored. Men slew one another, sometimes for no reason, but I did not cotton to being a party to it.

“Billy, you damned fool!” Red raged quietly. “That siwash’d lift your crown, he git half a chance. Now git outa my way.”

Splitlip’s quiet rumble brought us to our senses. “You don’t stop squabblin’, we’ll be in for it right quick. Them other two’s gittin’ mighty close. Red, keep a eye on this feller, but don’t do nothing rash.” Split beckoned me away from the ridge and silently signed for me to hurl a stone off to the left and below the horsemen. I gave it my best heave.

A moment later we returned to where Red sat atop the fallen Indian with a knife tip threatening the tribesman’s exposed throat. A quick look showed my companion had not given in to a murderous impulse in our absence.

“They’s taking the bait,” Split informed us in a whisper. Both he and Red spoke a form of English that was almost foreign to me, although my ear was becoming accustomed to it. “But it ain’t gonna fool them for long. They ain’t gonna be able to bring the horses straight up, so they’ll look for another way to the top. We’s hightailing it, and we’ll take this ’un with us. Ain’t gonna leave him for them to find and git curious. Let’s move!”

“Ya crazy old galoot!” Red grumped. Nonetheless he stowed the Indian’s knife in his boodle and came up with a set of manacles. Where they came from, I didn’t know and was afraid to ask. After securing the prisoner’s hands behind his back, Red fixed a rope to the chain and handed me the fag end. “You favor him so much, you kin nursemaid him.”

Mutely accepting the chore, I followed our shackled captive as he trailed Red into the pine forest on the high side of the ridge. Split tarried to erase our sign. After a short distance, I stopped casting about for hostile Indians and studied the one in front of me. Thick black hair, worn loose, tumbled over wide shoulders and cascaded down a muscled back that tapered to a waist no bigger than mine despite his larger frame. Firm buttocks, only half-covered by a leather apron, flexed with each step. Suddenly embarrassed, I realized I was studying a near-naked man the way I’d admired Abigail on the rare occasion she deigned show a spit of flesh. That was a queer thought for a Christian-raised gentleman, one I dismissed as excitement over my first proximity to a pure quill Indian.

Split joined us shortly before the light failed and picked a thick copse of locust for our camp. Nights were chilly at this altitude, but it was colder in the grave, so we dared not risk a fire—not with two armed and mounted warriors in the vicinity. If the flames failed to give us away, the smoke most certainly would. More than one immigrant party had been betrayed to hostiles by such carelessness. We took a cut of a meal, jerky and hardtack, me sharing mine with the Indian.

After we ate, Split sat cross-legged in front of our prisoner and talked gibberish for a while. Splitlip Rumquiller, who took his byname from an old hatchet wound, had preeminence among us by dint of superior experience. Nearing fifty, he spoke several dialects and knew the tribes to avoid and those who would do business with the white man. He had walked this particular route north of the Santa Fe Trail twice before. The Indians called him Splitrum.

At last the battered old frontiersman turned to us. “Name’s Cut Hand, because a that scar.” Split indicated a long-healed wound on the youth’s left hand. “Tribe’s sorta a cousin to the Sioux. The argot’s near the same. Understands me good enough, though some words is different. Calls his band the People of the Yanube. That’s a river off to the north. Pappy’s the misco, the headman. Cut Hand was off in another camp visiting a gal. Musta been good poontang, ’cause them others flat-out jumped him on the way back home. They kilt his pony, but he hightailed it for the hill country.” Split hawked and spat even though he’d used up his chewing tobacco a week past. “Been trying to shake them for half a day.”

Split turned to Red. “So’s you’ll rest easier, he’s gonna stay with us till we put some distance twixt him and his village. Won’t give us no bother less’n you have another go at him. When we’s satisfied, he’ll take his knife back and head home.”

Red was a small, grum man of rusty hair and crazy green eyes, who tended to rise at a feather. A shanty Irishman from somewhere around Boston, he reputedly had a wife and five carrottopped fry. No one knew why he had taken to the willows and appeared on the Santa Fe Trail five years back, although the set of iron ruffles that now confined our prisoner’s wrists might provide a clue.

“I say we just kill him,” Red proposed. “Ain’t no use taking chances. Then we’s free to worry about them others. Shoulda give them two a lead ball twixt the eyes when we had the chance. Now they knows about us, it’s bound to be harder.”

“Ain’t my way to kill without no need,” Split growled in a low voice.

Red gave in sourly. “Just don’t let him git in my way. And them irons stays where they is.” He shot a thumb at me. “You’re gonna have to watch him. You don’t git no sleep, that’s your plight.” He turned back to Split. “I’d feel better we git some water twixt us and his people. They a river anywheres close?”

“One south a us. Said to be another trail to Fort Wheeler thataway.”

Red spoke to me again. “I ain’t sleeping with him. Find yourself a place off in the woods and chain him to a tree. If them other los come, they’ll take your topknot and leave mine where it be.” I took “los” to be a scurrilous name for red men.

“Ain’t a bad idee,” Split mused. “Them others found our sign by now. If you got chores, best git on them. I’ll find a spot for you to bed down.”

“Chores?” Then understanding dawned. “Oh! Come on, Cut Hand.” I got to my feet. The big youth rose effortlessly, listened to Split for a minute, and then strode off, dragging me along by the rope.

We walked half a league before he found a spot he considered satisfactory. I shrugged. It appeared no different from a dozen others we passed without pausing. The Indian ignored my eyeballing his nakedness as he stepped out of his breechclout, but he spat staccato sounds until I stood on the other side of the bush as he went about his private business. I tied my end of the rope to a sturdy branch to perform my own, fully realizing this was a useless effort as he could easily escape by merely jerking it free.

As we washed in a cold, clear freshet, I was unable to keep my eyes off him. A tight black bush crowned his long, thick manhood. If he noticed my observation, he gave no sign. When we were finished, he was unable to tie his flap one-handed, so I did it for him. As I performed the awkward chore, my hand—necessarily, I thought—pressed against his thigh. My reaction took me by such surprise that I fumbled. I grew excited so abruptly, had I not already passed water, it would have been impossible to do so. My fingers lost their grip, dropping the leather apron to the ground. I bent to retrieve it and found my eyes on a level with his genitals. Purposeful or not, I lost my balance and grasped his thigh to regain my equilibrium. My thumb invaded his freshly washed pubic hair. I scrambled to my feet and aggressively went about fastening his drawstring without daring to meet his eyes.

That task finally done, I cast about for the way back to camp. Cut Hand gave a subdued snort and immediately set off in the wrong direction… leading us straight back to the others.

In our absence Split had scouted a spot fifty yards down the hill, well protected by a grove of hemlock and scrub. I laid out my bedroll while the old man and Cut Hand grunted at one another. Before he left, Split put the prisoner on a blanket with his back to a small, sturdy tree and ran the chain around the bole.

After slaking my thirst from a canteen, I tipped the container to Cut Hand’s lips. He finished drinking and nodded his thanks. I thoughtlessly wiped a dribble of water from his chest. As I touched him above the left nipple, I was lightning struck. My finger caressed his dark aureole independent of my will. My nerve ends jangled. The hair on my arms bristled.

Jerking back, I sat cross-legged in the gathering darkness faintly broken by moonlight filtering through the forest canopy. “I didn’t mean to do that. I don’t know why I did. Never met a real Indian before! That’s stupid!” I gabbled. He comprehended none of my protestations. To get off a treacherous subject, I put a finger to my own chest. “I’m Billy.” I touched him on the sternum, burning my digit. “You’re Cut Hand. I’m Billy!” I droned.

Sucked into a mysterious vortex, I flattened my palm against his breast, feeling the thud of a strong heartbeat and experiencing the power of his chest muscles. I swallowed hard and moved my fingers along his ribs and across his belly. Light-headed, giddy, and lacking the strength to resist, I dropped my hand to his groin, an act so heinous my muscles froze. Suddenly, he cocked his head.

“You fellers all right in there?” came Split’s raspy voice.

“Y-yes.” I snatched my hand away.

Split entered our little clearing. “Jest wanna make sure I kin git here in a hurry if needs be. They likely won’t come till first light, but that ain’t something you kin count on.”

“You think they’ll come?”

“Never kin tell ’bout Injuns.”

Cut Hand spoke in a low voice. My ears flamed in the belief my shameful actions were revealed.

“He says they’ll come,” Split explained. “They’s Pipe Stem warriors, long-time enemies. They knows who his pappy be. Be big medicine to count coup on the headman’s son. And he kilt one a them, don’t fergit. Asks you to chain him kinda loose, give him room to move. Do what you’re easy with,” he added, taking his departure.

As I nodded my thanks for not betraying me, Cut Hand lay back on the blanket with his arms confined above his head. I loosened my clothing and settled on the bedroll. My other coverlet went over the top of us. I boldly edged up so the whole of my backside rested against his thigh. Fighting a mysterious list for this strangely erotic plainsman and denying a lewd urge to mold myself to his long frame, I lay listening to the night sounds long after he slept. Too confused for keener introspection, I considered the events that brought me to this strange land.