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Chance Down the Mountain (2002)

Chance Down the Mountain (2002)

©2002, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (2002). Chance down the mountain. Unpublished novel.

In 1834, fourteen-year-old Chance Early is forced to leave his home in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. Before his return he will have survived a duel, a steamboat explosion, and the Battle for San Antonio, and acquired a slave who refuses to be freed.

 

About Chance Down the Mountain

I was born in Asheville, North Carolina and lived there several times. I love all the ranges of the Blue Ridge, including the Black Mountains, where the Early family settled as part of the great migration down the spines of the mountain from Pennsylvania.

The Black Mountains are isolated and rugged now and were rugged and even more isolated in the 1830s. I set my novel in that decade because the land was still wild, yet quickly becoming settled.

The settings and events in the novel are described as accurately as possible. In most cases I was able to verify place names and and the dates and circumstances of historcial events. I was even able to determine the going price for turkeys in the mid-1820s.

Synopsis (Spoiler Warning!)

 Synopsis

Chance Down the Mountain

A Novel by Dallas Denny

 

It’s June, 1834. The place is Yancey County, North Carolina, high in the Black Mountains. Fourteen-year-old Chance Early has just killed a man, and Sheriff Bob Carvis is at his doorstep. Carvis hasn’t come to arrest Chance, however, but to gently suggest that if Chance ever “had a hankerin’ to see the wide blue sea or a big city or the western mountains” this would be as good a time as any.

Knowing that if he stays, his family with be thrown into violent conflict with the Webb clan, Chance elects to leave his home and “go down the mountain” to the lowlands to make a life for himself.

As he walks, Chance, feeling sorry for himself, is bitterly homesick, reflecting on his home and family. On the second day, however, he meets Doctor Elisha Mitchell, an actual historic personage and explorer of North Carolina’s high peaks. In the few short hours in which they are together, Mitchell exposes Chance to ideas far outside his experience. Mitchell discovers, by accident, that Chance can read; this is a surprise to Chance.

Continuing down the mountain, Chance mulls over the new ideas. When he reaches Asheville he seeks a Baptist preacher and asks for God’s—or at least the Baptists’—position on ice ages and an earth that may be millions of years old. In my favorite passage, he poses his questions and gets the standard Baptist response and manages to enrage the preacher by asking difficult theological questions. It’s at this point in Chance’s journey that his sense of humor, diminished by his recent troubles, begins to reassert itself.

The fall finds Chance in Newport, Tennessee, trying unsuccessfully to hire on as a drover for any of the many herds of livestock or flocks of fowl that are being driven through on the way to the markets of the east. He chances on Rolly Newsome and Tom Long, two frightened and penniless boys alone with a herd of turkeys. Chance hires on as their drover, and the three take the herd east. Along the way, two “desperate men” appropriate the flock, planning to kill the boys. Chance runs away, but returns, and with the help of his great-grandfather’s sabre (taken from a ‘kilt’ British officer in the Revolutionary War’s Battle of King’s Mountain), unhands (literally) one of the bandits and chases away the second. Unfortunately, Rolly is killed in his sleep by a shot from one of the mens’ pistol.

When they reach Asheville, Chance plays social worker with the Dissledorp’s (a farm family he met earlier in his journey), suggesting that Tom, whose father is a “bad drunk,” might find a home with them. In town the next morning, Chance encounters that same bad drunk passed out on the sidewalk. They strike a deal, and Chance buys the Long’s half of the flock, using money he obtained by selling gold nuggets and flakes he had brought with him from his mountain home. Chance then puts a pistol in Long’s face and tells him he’ll kill him if he ever sees him again. Because of Chance’s age, Long is resistant, but by happenstance, one of the bandits walks by and, seeing the pistol, runs away, pleading for his life.

Chance tells Long (untruthfully) the bill of sale he has given Long transfers ownership not only of the turkeys, but of his son Tom. Long demands more money, and Chance provides it. Long says, “He’s worth more than that,” to which Chance replies, “Not accordin’ to you.”

When Chance and Tom and the turkeys arrive in Greenville, the market is depressed and the price down. After trying unsuccessfully to get a fair price, they sell turkeys door-to-door until they’re stopped by an angry merchant in the company of a deputy. The merchant agrees to buy the rest of the flock.

Chance accepts his wages from Tom, but refuses to let Tom reimburse him for buying the flock. In a prophetic moment, Chance allows Tom to pay him the twenty dollars he paid Tom’s father for him, saying, “I took it, as the last thing I wanted was to own a man.” Tom departs for Asheville and a life with the Dissledorps, and Chance, who has a vague notion of going to sea, takes a stage to Charleston. His appearance offends a Savannah matron, who, when he introduces himself, calls him mountain trash; this amuses fellow passenger Vance Chambers, who waits to see Chance’s response.

Chance, who has been building his vocabulary, thanks to a dictionary given him by Dr. Mitchell, mimics the woman’s low-country speech, saying, “Today, the Lord be thanked, we are all, mountain trash and cracker trash alike, Americans, and we should be thankful for it.”

When the stage arrives in Columbia, the matron, claiming that Chance has committed an offense against her honor, provokes a man named Raddison Pressley, who threatens to have his slave, Lloyd, trash him. Vance prevents this by showing a gun, and suggests that Raddison and Chance settle the matter like gentlemen. Raddison declines to duel and offers a half-hearted apology.

After a muddy trip to Charleston, Vance takes Chance to see the ocean. Later, to pass the time, they watch a slave auction. Raddison had threatened to sell Lloyd, and sure enough, Lloyd is on the block. Due to misadventure, Chance buys a grievously wounded Lloyd for only five dollars; he makes the purchase only so he can get Lloyd medical help. To everyone’s surprise, Lloyd recovers.

When Lloyd is able to walk, Chance tries to free him, but Lloyd refuses to be manumitted in the unhealthy social environment of Charleston. He also refuses to walk with Chance to a free state, saying “Massa Raddison, least he let me ride up on top the coach.”

Vance, who was once a riverboat pilot, suggests they ride a packet boat to New Orleans and journey up the river by riverboat; this would allow Chance to free Lloyd in Indiana or Illinois. They take the packet, with Chance, who is now low on funds, paying his passage by serving as cook. In New Orleans, Chance takes a job as pilot of the Magnolia, and soon the three are steaming upriver. Unfortunately, there is a disaster (brought about by steamboat racing), and Chance finds himself in the river. He finds Lloyd, but there’s no sign of Vance.

Faced with the prospect of walking to Illinois, Lloyd decides he would prefer to ride to Texas, and he and Chance throw in with Routier and Constantine, two mountain men.

In San Antonio, Chance is confronted by Gus Webb, who has followed him for months, and in the fight that ensues, Gus is blinded. Chance, conscience-stricken, seeks out a priest, who talks to him of redemption and contrition. Chance, figuring he can buy redemption, arranges room and board for Gus and writes Gus’ family, asking them to come get him.

When they reach New Mexico (then a part of Mexico, where slavery is illegal), Chance formally emancipates Lloyd, who immediately knocks Chance from his horse, saying, “Ain’t personal, but you was my massa, and shouldn’t no man own no other man. I just give you somethin’ to remind you of it.”

Chance arrives back in San Antonio in December, 1935, to find the city under occupied by Mexican General Cos and 1500 troops and besieged by an army of Texans. Chance fights with the Texans and Cos is defeated.

Chance finds Gus Webb still in San Antonio. In a true act of redemption, he takes the disabled Gus all the way back to Yancey County, where, facing death, he confronts the Webb family.

Chapter 1

 Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 1

 

When I got to the house the day after I killed Joe Webb, I was hungry and feeling sorry for myself, for I had laid out in the woods all night getting cold and wet and feeling miserable. I could see word of what I had done was out, for Sheriff Bob Carvis was sitting on the front porch of the cabin. He was come to arrest me, I was certain. He was marking time, waiting for me to show, making pleasantries with Ma and Meemaw Hope and my sister Jessie, Jessie with a baby on each hip. I was hungry and thirsty and it made my mouth water to see the jug they were passing around— it would be soft cider, as Ma frowned upon the use of alcohol. They were all nipping at the jug and spitting into a clay crock with a big crack in it. The sides of the jug were stained dark brown with tobacco liquor.

When they saw me, Ma and Jessie smiled and waved; Bob tilted his head and looked at me in that way he had. Bob was sheriff of our newly-created county, a big man, a good six-foot-five and weighing enough that it would take two strong men to lift him. And it was all bone and muscle, too.

I knew I wasn’t in Bob’s good graces due to the incident with the chickens. That had happened three years before, in 1831, when I was just eleven. Bob had forgiven me, but he never let me forget it, which is precisely why he made a good sheriff; he remembered and kept track of every troublemaker in Yancy County, even troublemakers-in-training. In his mind, I was sure, I was Chance Early the boy chicken rustler, no good from the get-go. I was certain he had come to arrest me and lock me up because of what had happened the night before. I was equally sure that following the arrest I would be tried and convicted and hung for man-killing.

I had been doing some thinking while I was lying out in the woods, and had come to the conclusion that for the peace of the community and the good of my mortal soul, I might as well turn myself in and make peace with the Lord and take my hanging like a man.

I looked past the cabin to the misty blue lines of the Black Mountains, range upon range piled upon one another, each higher than the last, fading into the distance. They were as peaceful and beautiful as I was not. Then I walked over and leaned the long barrel of my Kentucky rifle against the chopping stump and stepped up onto the rickety porch and plunked down in the rocking chair I’d carved and caned the same year I borrowed Bob’s chickens. My stomach rumbled as I caught the scent of bacon and biscuits. “Morning, Bob,” I said. “Howdy, Ma. Hello, Jessie, Meemaw.”

It didn’t take long for Bob to work his way around to the point of his visit. It was about the Webb boys after all, but not about last night’s tiff with them; Bob was behind in his news. He had come all the way up from Burnsville not to arrest me, but to warn me that Mark and Joe Webb had been bragging to anyone who would listen that they were going to kill me.

This was on account of I had whipped their brother Augustus in a fair fight in the dirt in front of Penland’s Dry Goods. I’d been picking up a basket for Ma— flour and salt and sugar and tea and coffee and a packet of sewing needles and a bolt of gingham and a handful of horehound candy sticks for the babies. We Earlies provide most everything else for ourselves. As I was standing there at the counter watching Penland’s man Mayfair Ricker tally up the bill, that no account Augustus Webb had just for cussedness come up to me and yanked the top button from my shirt. Gus was a good forty pounds heavier than me and two inches taller, and I guess it made him think I would just stand there and take it. When he reached for a second button, I hit him between the eyes with the heel of my hand as hard as I could, then I dragged him outside while he was dazed. When he came to himself, I gave him a thrashing while his pretty sister Carlene watched. I was well-grown for my age, tall and lanky— I got my growth early like most of the Early men— but I had no notion I could whip Augustus Webb, who had a good five years on me.

“Joe and Mark say you jumped Gus from behind,” Bob said, pushing his forelock to one side with his palm. He accepted the cider jug Ma was proffering. “They say they’ll take your life for it. They will, too, if you don’t watch out. Those Webbs are mean as snakes.”

What Sheriff Carvis didn’t know was that the Webb boys, all three of them, had jumped me the night before as I was skylarking my way home along Sang Branch. My head had been filled with thoughts of their sister Carlene, and I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings. I knew I was in trouble when Mark, the oldest, stepped out of the rhododendrons in front of me. I knew Joe or Gus, or both, wouldn’t be far off. Mark was carrying a big old D-handle pig sticker, and he wiggled it in my direction. I figured he was there to draw my attention while one of his brothers shot me or stuck me or knocked my brains out from behind.

I’d been on the lookout for squirrels, so my rifle was loaded and primed. I swung it down from my shoulder and thumbed back the hammer and shot Mark right in his middle. Before he could fall I spun around, and there was Gus, almost on top of me. I could see bruises on his face from our earlier scrap. I thumped him upside the head with the stock of my rifle, as hard as I could.

As Gus fell backward, Joe stepped around him and flailed at me with a knife, slashing my arm. He backed off, expecting me to draw my own blade.

Instead, I bent down in the creek bed and picked up a smooth round stone as big as I could close my fingers around and flung it at him, as hard as I could. Joe tried to dodge, but it caught him on the temple and he dropped where he stood. Augustus, who had regained his feet, lit out, no doubt to fetch every Webb in Yancey County. In a short time, I knew, I would have a dozen or more of his kinfolk to deal with, and they would be out for black murder, because Joe— well, I reckon I’d hit him harder than I had meant to with that rock, for when I checked him he had quit breathing.

I thought Mark might live, because he was hollering and cursing at me. I had to smack him a couple of times before he would sit still and let me bandage him, which I did with pieces I tore from his shirt. I gathered moss and applied it as a poultice to his wound and to my arm; it was a trick I’d learned from my Indian friend Long Dove. I still remember what Mark said: “Damn you, Early, that’s my only shirt. Why the hell don’t you use yours?” I told him I figured I might as well use his, as it already had a hole in it.

As I sat there on the front porch, with Bob looking at my bloody sleeve, I knew I had to tell him what transpired up on Sang Branch. Certain my young life was over, I related the sad story of the shooting and the smiting and the killing of the Webb brothers. “You can take me away now,” I said. “I have confessed.”

Bob looked at me for a long minute, then said, “Chance, I watched you drag Gus out to the street, and I saw you allow him to get his wits about him before you took him apart. It was a fair fight. And I’ll always remember you told the truth when I nabbed you for taking those chickens. Even at that young age, you showed character. There’s no shortage of forty-year-old men who’ll steal chickens and lie when you catch them with feathers in their hair. I expect you’re telling the truth about last night, but that’ll make no difference to those Webbs. They’ll set their whole outfit against you. They’ll hunt you down and kill you.”

“My pa and brothers will make them pay for it,” I said. And they would, too.

Bob chewed on that for a moment. “Yes, they would, and we’d have a feud that would last maybe twenty years and leave dozens of Webb and Early bucks in the bone yard and the women on both sides crying and cussing. Is that what you want?”

I looked down at my worn old boots, the first pair of shoes I had ever owned. “You know it’s not.”

“Well, can you think of any way to avoid it?”

I thought about it for a moment, then said, “You’re not arresting me?”

Bob shook his head.

“Then are you telling me to light out?”

Bob said, “No, I’m just saying.”

“I’m an Early. Nobody’s going to run me off.”

“I’m not running you out of the country, son. I’m just asking if you ever had a hankering to see the wide blue sea or a big city or the far western mountains, is all. If you ever did, this would be as good a time as any. In a year, maybe two, you could come back to Yancey County. But right now, you might as well have a target on your back.

“If you decide to go,” Bob continued, “I might be able to talk sense to Pap Webb, remind him his quarrel is with you and not your people. He won’t want a running war with you Earlies; at least I don’t think he will. He’s a man with some good sense, even if he did raise a bad brood.”

Sheriff Bob did have a point. It all came down to me. “Maybe I would like to see the ocean,” I said, “to see the waves on the water and smell the salt and see if she’s truly as big as they say she is.”

Ma wasn’t saying anything, but there were tears in her eyes, and I reckoned her heart was breaking at the thought of me leaving home. I sat there and rocked, thinking of my brothers and the dozens of cousins and uncles on both the Early and McDermott sides and watching an inchworm make its languorous way up the long barrel of my rifle. If I stayed, how many would die? And how many of my sisters and aunts would suffer because of those deaths? I knew Bob was making sense. If I remained on the mountain, the Webbs would feel honor-bound to kill me, and they would manage it sooner or later. Then my people would be obliged to take a couple of Webbs in retaliation. Before it was over, many of my kin would be dead, and Webbs I had never even met, and for what? What would it accomplish?

“I’ll go, I said, and picked up my hat.

Ma touched my shoulder with her work-worn hand. “You don’t have to go, boy. Neither your Pa’s family nor mine ever ran from a fight. If you stand, we’ll be right alongside you.” She had begun to cry.

While we were talking, assorted members of my family had wandered up. “We’re proud of you for defending yourself, Chance,” my sister Joanna said. And from Clay, Ma’s eldest, “This is your home, younger brother. We’d rather you stay. We’ll fight alongside you.”

“I couldn’t bear the cost,” I said, and my eyes were burning.

Just then, Pa stepped out onto the porch, hitching up his britches. “Ain’t no need for you to go, Chance,” he said. “As your ma said, no Early ever ran from anybody.”

“I’m not scared of all the Webbs in tarnation,” I said.

“Then don’t run,” he said.

“I think I have to,” I said.

He looked at me hard, as was his way. “You’d be the first Early in memory to back off from a squabble, and maybe ever. You want that name for yourself?”

“I’ll fight them single-handed,” I said. “The whole clan. But when they kill me, will you promise me no Early or McDermott will take revenge?”

“I can’t promise you that, boy. You know we’d have to kill three or four of them.”

“Then I have to go,” I said. “I’m not going to get myself and my family slain when I can keep everybody alive just by going down the mountain.”

“It’s a matter of honor, boy.”

“It’s a matter of foolish pride,” I said.

“The boy has a point, Rans,” said Sheriff Bob.

Pa turned and squirted tobacco juice in the dirt near Bob’s feet. “You stay out of this, Carvis. It’s no affair of yours.”

“It is so far as my being sheriff is concerned,” Bob said. “If you or your boys murder any Webbs, you’ll hang for it, just as the Webb boys will hang should they kill Chance here.”

Ma spoke up, addressing Pa. “It’s a bloody business, Lorenzo. I don’t want the boy to leave home, but if he went away it would keep him safe. And I don’t want to see his brothers and maybe you drawn into it and dead, either.”

Pa lowered his head and shook it slowly. “It’s vexing, Opal, but like I said, it’s a matter of family honor.” He turned toward me and looked me up and down. “You’re grown, or close to it. You can make up your own mind. You do what you think best. But if you leave, don’t you come back. Don’t you ever show your face in these hills again. You’ll be branded a coward and a quitter, and you won’t be welcome in your home land, and not only by the Webbs.”

I turned to go.

Pa continued. “It’s not that I don’t love you, boy. You know I love you. But if you leave, your name won’t mean much around here, so long as there’s a Webb to badmouth you. And there may be the law on you, too.”

“He needn’t fear the law,” Bob said. “It’s pretty much up to me whether to arrest him. It was three on one, and the Webb boys had been talking murder. If it happened like Chance said, it’s unlikely there’ll be charges. Besides, hanging the boy wouldn’t solve the problem; you Earlies wouldn’t take that lying down.”

“Then just a bad name,” Pa said to me. “That’s shame enough. Boy, don’t you came back here again, not so long as there’s a Webb left alive and hating you.”

I was a well-grown fourteen years old and I wasn’t going to cry. “I won’t, Pa, I swear. Not until there’s peace between me and the Webbs.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Pa said.

“Probably not,” I said, and went to get my things.

Scarcely an hour later, my goodbyes said and my stomach full of ham and grits and biscuits, I set off down the mountain. Pa had rubbed salve into the cut on my arm and given me his hunting knife and a water skin. On my back was a home-made knapsack made of canvas, containing some boiled sweet potatoes and what was left of ma’s morning biscuits, It also contained a side of salt meat, a supply of jerked venison, a burlap sack of corn meal tied shut with a length of twine and matching sacks of dried beans and rice, small rawhide packets of salt and sugar and baking powder, every last bit of Ma’s coffee and tea, a tin cup, a beat-up tin pan and a spoon, and flint and steel. I had rolled up the blanket from my bed and tied it on top.

My brother Jefferson had insisted I take his new boots, as mine were badly worn and our feet were more or less the same size. I had in turn insisted that he take my rifle. Pa’s musket had given out years before and my Kentucky shooter was the only firearm the family owned; it was essential both for protection and for bagging varmints like rabbits and squirrels and possums and coons and deer and bear and wild turkeys for the cook pot.

For a weapon, I carried an old army saber. My great-grandpa, for whom I had been named, had been one of the Over Mountain Men in the War for Independence; he had brought it home after the redcoats were defeated at King’s Mountain. He took it from a British officer, who had, he once told me, no further need for it. That meant he was dead, I supposed. The blade had rested for generations on pegs over the mantle, and now it was in use once again, slapping at my side, as bright and sharp as ever, even though the leather of the scabbard was cracked and dry.

Chapter 2

 

Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 2

 

I walked away down the mountain, passing for the last time the places and things I had known my entire life. There was the log barn where I had once fought imaginary battles with my cousins, and there the little spring where for four generations the Earlies had drawn drinking water. There was the truck garden, there the little patch of tobacco, there the orchard of fruit and nut trees, now in full leaf, with hard little nubs that would soon grow into apples and pears and chestnuts.

I remembered a thousand and one things from my time on that land: Pa coming in from the fields of the evenings, smelling of wet soil; my younger brothers and sisters arriving in the world pink and wrinkled and crying; the sharp bails of the tin pails cutting into my young fingers when I would carry water the long hundred yards from the spring to the cabin; the sweet smell of new-mown hay in the fields; topping tobacco in the hot sun and picking beans and digging potatoes and sweet potatoes; climbing high in the big oak tree that grew beside the cabin; enduring the infernal winds that blew down winters from Mt. Gibb; plowing the rocky fields with Sam, our hardheaded mule, who died of snakebite when I was seven or eight. I had been struck by that same snake, trying to get Sam away from danger, but I survived, maybe because that copper-headed viper had put most of his poison into old Sam.

Yaller Kew, Pa’s pet hound, suspecting there might be a romp on, trotted out from his resting place under the smokehouse to touch his nose to my fingers, wagging his tail hopefully. He sighed and lay down on the path behind me when I told him to stay.

It was early yet for corn, but the stalks in the field were already chest-high. They would soon be taller than a man. By searching around a bit I found a dozen or so little finger-long nubbins that were tender and edible if one had some imagination. I twisted them off the stalks and stuck them in the pack on my back. Then I was past the homestead and into the woods, the peaceful, shady Appalachian forest, my favorite place in all of creation.

My home and family were behind me, gone forever. I was going down the mountain. The big trees closed over my head like the roof of a cathedral in a picture book. The smell of the firs was pungent and familiar. It felt as if I were walking away from God and His heaven, and in a way, I budxx I was.

Jeff’s boots, though better than mine, were worn and comfortable, and they made for fine walking with no blisters. It took me four hours and the first stars were out by the time I arrived at Black Mountain Gap. I kept going until I came to a little branch, then, as it had gone from what Grandpa called Can See to Can’t See, I stopped for the night.

Flat on my belly, I drank deep from cool, sweet waters that had originated high on Mt. Gibbs. Today it’s known as Mount Mitchell, named for a man I would soon meet. I rounded up dry twigs and branches, and before long I had a fire blazing on a level spot close to the water.

When the coals were right, I buried the little roasting ears in the ashes. When they were done, I dug them out and shucked back the husks and silk and had home-grown baby sweet yellow corn for supper, good, if far from ripe, and blast me for not bringing along some butter. I cached my knapsack high in a tree to keep it safe from bears, made a little bed of green spruce boughs I cut with pa’s jackknife, and turned in.

Wrapped tight in my blanket and slicker for warmth, I thought sad thoughts about my homelessness. Just about the time I was beginning to believe I would never get to sleep, I did.

I was wakened in the middle of a night by a scream. It sounded like a woman. There being nobody else in the vicinity, I knew it had to be a catamount. They say the big lions are gone from the hills now, and some say they were gone even in those days, but anyone in Yancey County will tell you there are still a few about still— and there were a lot more then. Whatever it was, it was hard by. I tossed branches on the fire and blew on them until they caught, and sat there with the drawn sword on the ready as the big cat called again and again in the black of the night.

Mountain panthers have been known to take a man on occasion, but will almost always avoid a fire. This one must have given up on me, or maybe it was hunting something else, for after a while it moved away up the mountain. I went back to sleep.

In the hour just before dawn, a black bear of considerable self-importance wandered into the camp and nosed around, waking me. It snuffed at me for a moment, then stood on its hind legs and tried to get at my pack, which no doubt smelled like breakfast to a bear critter— but it was hung beyond her reach. Since the sky was beginning to show light and my sleep was ruined, I sat up and told that bear to please go away, which it did.

A body should be wary of black bears, but they don’t scare me much; they’ll push down a door in a minute to get at grub, but they’re not likely to eat a full-grown boy like yours truly. A bear might attack a man if he were to blunder upon it, especially if cubs were about or the bear happened to be of a bad disposition, but any man with sense can tell when to stand and when to skedaddle. I didn’t suppose I was in much danger, even with that sweet-smelling bacon about.

Now, you might think me a pudding head, but I knew that bear meant me no harm, just as she knew I didn’t mean her any. When I asked her politely to leave, she moseyed off as fine as you please.

Grizzlies are another story. I would rank them above panthers on the danger scale, for just like human beings, they’ll attack a body just for spite. Once they had been plentiful in the Black Mountains. They say the mountain man Big Tom Wilson bragged of killing more than one hundred with his musket, although I suspect some were black bears he puffed up for the record. Due, no doubt, to foolish men like that man Wilson, grizzlies are gone in the Carolinas now, but that year of Our Lord 1834 there were plenty of the big bears still afoot in those North Carolina Mountains. They had a poor record with humans, too; Pa’s sister Helen was taken by one when she was barely seven. She had been picking blackberries. It dragged her off in full sight of Meemaw Hope and Pa. Pa chased after it and shot at it two or three times, hitting it at least once, he thought, but it disappeared into the woods with Helen. They never did find her, although a week later a posse of men and hounds tracked down that bear and killed it. Pa told me it was old and skinny and had lost most of its teeth, so maybe it took Helen out of desperation.

Those were just the biggest of the varmints I saw and heard that night. I woke once to see a possum standing on her hind feet gnawing at a corn cob, her progeny staring at me from atop her back. I woke again to see a ghostly beast that turned out to be an albino polecat. I had my arm drawn back to chuck a stick at it before I realized what I was. Just as well; if I had thrown that branch, I would have spent the next day washing skunk stink out of my clothes. And there were bats swooping among the branches for bugs, and an owl calling from somewhere nearby, and I saw a hellbender salamander a good two feet long which marched by without even glancing at me, and no end of frogs and toads. Just the evening last, I’d gone hunting with my rifle with the eight-sided barrel and seen nothing bigger than a squirrel. Now here I was with creatures abounding and only a sword and a few round creek rocks handy. No worry, I told myself; when I ran low on vittles I’d make a sling or set some snares.

I breakfasted on a cold sweet potato and a day-old biscuit and brewed up and drank some coffee, then put out the fire and packed up and continued my way off that mountain. First thing, I cut the tracks of that cat in the mud alongside the little branch. She had come less than a hundred yards from my camp. I shivered at the thought that she might have been stalking me. But what made my blood run cold was the print of a big bear laid over one of the cat’s pug marks. It was thre times the size of any black bear’s track. There had been a grizzly about last night. I reckoned I would have had no luck telling him to skedaddle.

My mind was as muddled as it had been the day before. As I walked, I thought about many things, but mostly I just felt sorry for myself. I wondered how my people would get along without me. Would the Webbs make war on the Earlies, or would Sheriff Carvis be able to keep the peace? I thought of that sloe-eyed Carlene Webb. I had always fancied her. She was just my age, and she sometimes looked at me as if she wouldn’t say no if I asked to call on her. I’d never worked up the nerve even to ask her to slow dance with me, although we would sometimes find ourselves looking at each other across the floor at the hoedowns. I thought of the palms of her hands, always sweaty when we would wind up paired in a square dance. But Carlene Webb was lost to me now, the same as my family. More so.

I pondered for a long time on honor: what it was, and what it meant. The Earlies and the McDermotts were proud folk, and Pa had always told me that at the bottom of things all a man really had was his good name. I wondered: was I doing the honorable thing by leaving, or would the honorable thing have been to stay and let whatever would happen happen? By leaving, was I taking the coward’s way out? Or was it worth dying to keep one’s good name?

I reflected on my fight with the Webb brothers on Sang Branch. The Good Book said murder was a sin. I’d killed one Webb boy, and double that if Mark were to die. Would I go to hell for it? Was killing always wrong, or was it sometimes justified?

Jesus, I knew, said if someone smote you you should turn the other cheek. Should I have stood there in the dry goods and let Gus yank the buttons from my shirt one by one? If a man struck my cheek and I turned the other, what if he hit that cheek, too? Seemed a man would soon run out of cheeks. Did Jesus mean for a man to just stand, turning his head back and forth while some fool beat him to death? Somehow, I didn’t think so.

After a time it came to me that since Jesus often spoke in parables, maybe this was one. Maybe His meaning was that a man should keep his pride in check and not get into foolishness just because he got himself all riled up. Maybe He meant a man should avoid trouble when he could and face up to it when it kept coming at him.

The more I thought about that, the more sense it made. There were times when a man could bite his tongue over an insult or hold his hurt inside and still keep his self-respect. Looking over the disputes in my short life, I reckoned most of them had been like that. I could think of a half-dozen fights I could have avoided if I hadn’t been so hot-headed and hard-headed. I could have turned the other cheek when Gus Webb pulled that button from my shirt. If I had, maybe there would have been no incident on Sang Branch. Then again, maybe it would have only delayed a reckoning with the Webbs.

I tried to remember my holy scriptures. Had Jesus ever been in a scrap? I didn’t think so, but then a lot of the time I hadn’t paid close attention when Pa’s brother Elroy would read from the King James Bible of the evening or at church when the Baptist circuit rider preached his fiery sermons.

I wasn’t sure just where the border of this issue lay, but I was pretty sure I was within hollering distance of it. I would think more about it later, amen.

A wave of homesickness washed over me, and that got me to feeling even sadder. I’d spent most of the walking time the day before and all this morning feeling sorry for myself; now I tried to get past that a little and contemplate what it would really mean to leave the mountains. I was born and raised a ridge-runner, wandering up and down the Blue Ridge and the Smokies. I intimately knew all the ranges: The Blacks, the Great Craggies, the Newfound, the Swannanoa, the Elks, and a dozen more that made up the great mountains of North Carolina. I had hiked up and down them and across them, going as far as Kentucky and the Cumberlands to the north and west and Auraria, in Georgia, to the south. To the southwest, I had once stood on long Chilhowee Mountain and gazed out over the flat lands of the Tennessee Valley, and to the east, I had one time come down the escarpment with Pa and Clay, who were going as far as Pleasantville, South Carolina to buy a mule after Sam was poisoned by that copperhead. I was a child of the mountains, bone and blood; I wasn’t at all certain how I would make out in the lowlands. Already, it seemed, I could hear the Blue Ridge calling to me. “Don’t leave, Chance,” the mountains said. “Don’t leave. Stay with us.” Oh, could I ever go home again?

Chapter 7

Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 7

 

That road— it was more properly called the Buncombe Turnpike— had been finished around 1828 or 1829. It would have heavy traffic come fall, but it was mostly empty now. The big flocks and herds wouldn’t be coming through for another couple of months. I couldn’t tarry in Buncombe County until then; there was too much chance of running into one of the Webbs. I had an idea where I could go to pass a couple of months, but there was a thing that wanted doing first. I needed to settle my mind about something.

I tramped back up the Swannanoa to a Baptist church I had passed. There was no steeple, just a cabin in the woods with a rude wooden cross atop the gable and a hand-painted sign on the door. It not being Sunday, business would be slow, so I figured the preacher might have some time to spare. I took off my hat and banged on the open door of the parsonage, and he came to the threshold with a napkin tucked into his shirt front and a spoon in his hand.

“Come in, boy,” he said. “Your soul troubling you?” He led me to his kitchen and motioned me to a chair. He sat back down to his meal, a big bowl of soup beans. He picked up a green onion and waggled it at me. “So what’s your problem, son?”

Ever since my visit with Doc Mitchell, I’d been feeling a need to run his ideas by someone who could speak for the Lord. I couldn’t very well call on the Reverend Norton back in Yancey County, so this fellow would have to do. I thought I knew just about what he would say, but I needed to hear it from his mouth. So I stood there and blurted it out. “Do you believe thousands of years ago all the land was covered over with ice and snow and the world was all frozen up?”

He sat for a while, then said carefully, “The Lord destroyed the world once with water, and he’ll destroy it again with fire. The Good Book don’t say nothing about no ice.”

“Do you believe there were woolly elephants on this land, and long-toothed cats, and before that, great lizards?”

He was beginning to be perplexed. “Could be, son. We know the critters Noah couldn’t round up were drowned in the great flood. If there’s bones of such beasts lying about, as I hear there is, they come from the time before that flood. What you got on your mind, young’un?”

I told him the whole story as related by Elisha Mitchell: how the world wasn’t mere thousands of years old, but much further along; how it had begun as a red-hot ball; how a Scotchman named Hutton had written a book about how the rocks were upwards of six million years old, how—”

I got no further. The good reverend had been building a head of steam, and I’d expected him any minute to begin whistling like a teakettle. He burst out: “Blasphemy! Perfidy! Sacrilege!”

“I just—”

“Silence, boy! Don’t interrupt me while there’s fire in my belly!”

I reckoned what was in his belly wasn’t fire so much as beans and onions, but I heard him out as he delivered the most rooting-tootinest sermon I’d ever heard. His face red as the beans he’d been consuming, he preached to me on false witness, on the mysterious workings of the Lord, on all men being born evil, on man’s senses leading him astray, on Satan— he was Baptist, so I’d known the devil would come into it sooner or later— on old Lucifer whispering untruths into the ears of the unsuspecting, on thou shall not do this and that, on the lion lying down with the lamb and telling the sheep from the goats, on smiting with rods and staves, on suffer the little children and the blood of the lamb and Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, on the Holy Ghost, on taking the Lord into our hearts and being reborn or we would burn in hell forever and ever. It was hellfire and brimstone, damnation of the finest sort.

I guessed neither Doc Mitchell nor that Mr. Hutton were old Nick, but I was almost moved to amen that preacher, his words were so powerful. Why, he was working everything in except maybe Daniel in the lion’s den, and if he could have found room to slide old Dan in there sideways, I’m sure he would have done so.

After a while he began to run down. I just sat waiting until he stopped, wheezing and sweating.

“I thank you for giving me the Lord’s viewpoint,” I said. “Or the Baptists’, anyhow.”

“Boy, you just gave me Sunday’s sermon,” he said. “Where’d you come by all that mess?”

I told him I’d heard it from a man I’d chanced to meet in the Craggy Gardens.

“You met up with Old Scratch, boy. It was the devil himself, waylaying the innocent passerby.”

“I reckon it was just a man, Rev,” I said.

“If it was, then Satan was on his shoulder.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but I spent two weeks with the man, and I didn’t see any devils on his shoulder.”

“Who was this sinner man?” he asked.

I thought it might be wise not to taint the good doctor’s reputation, so I said, “I, uh, didn’t catch his name. He said he was a professor down in Wake Forest.”

“He professes ignorance and evil,” the reverend thundered. “His words are Satan’s words. It’s damnation to you if you heed them.” He picked up his spoon, which he had dropped during his tirade, and said. “Get down on your knees, boy, and let’s pray.” I did, and we did.

After a while he told me to stand up and said, “I trust I’ve set you straight, boy.”

“You have,” I said. “You’ve made clear just where the church stands. And I thank you, and would like to make a little donation to the well-being of this house of the Good Lord.” I pulled two bits from my pocket and plunked the coin on the table.

“Thank you, son,” he said, scooping up the quarter neat and fast and jamming it deep in his own pocket. “I hope you’ll come for services on Sunday.”

“I’d like to, your honor,” I said, “but I imagine I’ll be long gone from here by then.”

“Well, bless you, young man,” he said.

And then I did it. Call it deviltry, if you want. Call it mischief; I suppose it was both. I knew what I was about to say would touch him off again, this time on me as the sinner, but I said it anyway. It had been bothering me, and I was pleased to get it off my chest. “Sir, is the Lord God mighty?”

“No just mighty, boy, he’s almighty!”

“He’s powerful?”

“He’s all powerful!”

“He knows no limits nor bounds?”

“Nary a limit, nary a bound”

“And ain’t nothing he can’t do?”

“Nothing on heaven nor earth!” he thundered.

“Then Rev, how come it took Him six days and six nights to whip up the land and the seas and the firmament and the animals and the birds and fishes and Adam and Eve? And how come He had to rest afterwards? If He were all that almighty, wouldn’t He have done it snap, just like that, in an instant and not worked up a lather at all? And He must have got himself into a sweat, or else why would He need to rest on the seventh day? And if it took Him six days to create the heavens and the earth, why not a million years? Why not six million?”

“Get out of here!” he roared, snatching up his bowl to sling at me. “You devil, you!”

I snatched up my hat from the table and skedaddled, ducking out amidst a rain of pinto beans, and although I still believe in the Lord, I’ve not been in a Baptist church since.

Chapter 11

Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 11

 

And so I did the bravest thing I’ve ever done, perhaps. I walked right into that camp, favoring my arm more than I needed to.

“It’s me, boys,” I said. “I’m shot. I’m coming in.”

Josh was on his feet in a flash, his pistol held straight out in front of him. I heard a click as he pulled back the hammer. “Just you move slow, and don’t try no tricks,” he said.

“I’m up to no tricks,” I said. “I’m wounded, sir. I fear I’m dying.” I knew that even in the dark he could see the blood that had soaked my shirt.

“I could give a damn if you die, you little bastard,” he said. “Two boys is more than enough to drive them turkeys.” He waved the pistol at me. “You just come on in here, slow-like, with your hands up.”

I walked in, wobbling, and not all of the wobbling done on purpose, taking pains to steer myself close to the tree, keeping my good arm toward the trunk and my wounded arm toward Josh. Josh kept the pistol aimed at me. I hoped I wasn’t about to be shot. Instead, he stepped up and slashed at me with the pistol. He had neglected to put the hammer to rest. When the barrel hit my forehead the gun fired, but the ball went wide. I heard it thump into something. Good. Now he couldn’t shoot me.

Spiteful was on his feet by then, watching. Josh raised the pistol and came at me to strike me again. He was so enraged I believe he would have beaten me to death if I had given him the chance. Instead, I ducked his blow and stepped fast to my right and reached down and without even a fumble found the hilt of my grandpa’s salvaged British sabre.

Blood was running down my face and into my eyes, half-blinding me, but I had no time to wipe it away. I turned my head and looked at that man out of one eye, like a chicken. I dashed my wrist to the right to sling the scabbard away, and it hit Spiteful in the knees and made him jump. I saw he had his knife out, looking for a chance to stick me, but what happened next made him take to the hills.

Josh was pressing me. I jumped and the barrel pistol hit me on my bad shoulder. The pain caused me to see stars, and I thought I might pass out again— but I didn’t. He lunged at me again. By then blood was in both my eyes and I could barely see. I struck out blindly with the blade, aiming for his head, slashing as hard as I could. In the dark, he must have thought the sabre was a staff or a tree branch, for he stepped back and raised his arm to block it and the blade caught him just above the wrist of his upraised right hand.

I was just trying to keep Josh away, not maim him. But I hit him hard, and with the edge of the blade. It was a lucky stroke, to be sure.

I thought I had knocked the pistol from his hand, for I heard it fall into the leaves. Josh made the mistake of going to his knees to grab it. I put my bare foot on his backside and gave him a push and placed the point of the blade on the back of his neck.

“You daren’t,” he said, but he held still.

I do dare,” I said, “but I’ll let you go if you promise to get out of here and leave us alone.”

“What about my outfit? What about my weapon?” he said.

“You leave it all,” I said, pressing a bit on the blade.

“Ouch, dammit! All right, all right, you crazy juvenile. Just let me out of here. You’ll never see me again.”

I called to Tom to come and pat him down for my gold and coins. When he stepped away with the sack I eased up on the blade and Josh started to push up with his hands. The right one wouldn’t support him, and that’s when he realized his hand was gone, or nearly so. He looked at it, hanging by a flap of skin, as if he didn’t believe it. When he was done screaming and cursing, he said, “I’ll kill you for this.”

“You were going to kill me anyway,” I told him. “Just remember I have your pistol and I’ll shoot you with it the next time I lay eyes on you.” He started to scramble away, then stopped and looked at me and said, in a pitiful way, “Ain’t you going to doctor this for me?”

“Here’s your doctor,” I said, raising the blade, and he went for the bushes.

If I had known what I would soon find, I believe I would have jabbed that blade right through his scrawny, no-account neck.

Chapter 24

Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 24

 

T.J. said, “Chance, do you have any idea what you’ve done?”

“Never mind that,” I said. “We have to get that man to a doctor.”

“You’ll play hell finding a white doctor to treat him,” he said. “I doubt you’ll find one in this town. Here, boy,” he said to a little fellow about nine or so. “Is there a doctor who treats you people when you get sick? Someone who doctors black folks?”

The boy’s mouth hung open and he nodded. T.J. pitched him a half-penny and said, “See that man lying yonder? He needs a doctor. You go fetch one and I’ll give you two bits.” The boy shook his head yes and ran off, and I wondered if we would ever see him again, or a doctor.

We tried to go to Lloyd, but the auction company wanted their five damn dollars first. By the time I had signed the required papers and we had reached him, the boy had returned. He hadn’t come back with a doctor, just a granny woman, stooped and gray-headed. Her black skin was dry and dusty-looking. She stood over Lloyd, waving a geegaw made of furs and bone and chicken feathers.

“Dis de doctor,” the boy said.

T.J. was laughing. “Witch doctor, it appears,” he said.

The granny lady looked up and spoke in a tongue that was pleasing to the ear and curiously familiar, but difficult to understand.

“That’s Geechee,” said T.J. “the language of the coastal blacks. I think she wants us to help her take him somewhere.”

“How far?” I asked.

“Half mile,” she said in plain English.

I asked a white man at the farmer’s market if I could rent his donkey cart, but he wouldn’t hear of it when he learned what for. I was smart enough to ask a black man the next time, and he helped me and T.J. with the loading. Lloyd looked like a dead man, but the old woman had stanched the bleeding from the knife holes and was working hard over him, and not just with witch medicine, either. She had all sorts of salves and she had poulticed and bandaged him tidily. She climbed up in the donkey cart with her patient and told the driver where to go.

T.J. and I walked along behind as the cart made its way along dirty streets lined with ramshackle huts. When we passed what I judged the worst of a bad lot, the granny lady said something and the cart stopped.

We carried Lloyd inside a low-ceilinged building and laid him on a straw pallet. Since I was the one who owned him and therefore the responsible party, I gave her two dollars and told her to buy whatever medicine she might need and to take good care of him, and I would be back in a day or so to check on him. Then T.J. and I beat it out of that bad neighborhood.

We bought a basket lunch and ate it in a little park. T.J. looked at me and shook his head and said, “Chance, what are you going to do if that man lives?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m speaking English. Suppose Lloyd pulls through. What are you planning to do with him?”

“I have no plan,” I said. “I just bought him so I could get him to a doctor. I’ve not thought beyond that.”

“You’d best begin to think. For better or worse, you own him. If he makes it, he’s your man.”

“I don’t want a man,” I said. “And especially not Lloyd. He’s not good company.”

“Well, if he lives, you’ll be responsible for him. You’d better start thinking about that.”

“He’s bad off. I doubt he’ll survive.”

But when I checked on him the next day, Lloyd was still hanging on. I tried to give the granny lady more money, but she wouldn’t take it. I came back the next day, and the next, and on the fourth day she told me Lloyd was still in desperate condition but had managed to sit up that morning and take some broth. She said by great good fortune the wounds hadn’t become infected. If he made it through the next couple of days, she said, she thought he would recover— slowly, but he’d pull through.

I told T.J. Lloyd was likely to survive. “Uh-oh,” he said.

“Uh-oh’s right. What am I going to do with him?”

“You could put him back on the block,” he said. “Make a handsome profit.”

“I can’t do that,” I said, horrified.

“You mean you won’t.”

“Can’t, won’t, it comes to the same.”

“Then you’ll have to take him with you wherever you go.”

“I have trouble enough just taking care for myself,” I said. “I don’t need a slave to fetch and carry for me, nor do I need an extra mouth to feed. You’ve seen how he can eat. He’d drive me to ruin, just on pork alone.”

An idea had been growing inside me, and now I gave it voice. “Maybe I could just turn him loose.”

“Manumit him, you mean?”

That was a word I had missed, or forgotten. “Free him,” T.J. said.

“That’s right. I’ll set that man free. Emancipate him.”

“Manumission is the word you want. You can emancipate all slaves, but you manumit a single slave.”

“It is, huh?” I said. “Then I’ll manumit him.”

“You will, huh?” T.J. said, mocking me, but I knew he approved.

Once the idea had been voiced, it took root immediately. “That’s just what I’ll do, by gum. I’ll make him a free man.”

“And just how will you do that?”

“What do you mean? I’ll just tell him he’s by god free and good riddance to him.”

T.J. shook his head. “It’s not so easy as that, not in Charleston. They don’t cotton much to free blacks around here. First time someone saw him wandering around on his own and he couldn’t produce a master, he’d be taken for a runaway and hanged or put back in chains again.”

“You mean he’d have to be a slave all over again?”

“That’s about the extent of it. If no one claimed him and they didn’t string him up, they’d sell him again. To manumit him, you’d have to go back to Columbia and take it up with the legislature, or else get him to a free state. You’d have to take him north. New York, maybe, or Massachusetts, or the like.”

I had given no thought to going north. “Isn’t there another way? Could I take him to sea with me?”

T.J. thought for a minute and said, “I’ve been hearing Britain has freed all its slaves. Since the taverns are full of Limeys, that means there’s an English man of war in port. We could ask the master if he could do for Lloyd.”

A man of war turned out to be a ship and not a man, and there was indeed one in port, a British frigate, riding high and proud in the harbor. It had been on the prowl for slavers and had come in for supplies, said a stevedore who was loading it and who was friendly enough once he understood we hadn’t come to compete for his job.

We hired a boat and rode out to the frigate and T.J. asked permission to come aboard. They asked him to state his business, and he did, and they allowed us to climb the ropes and come on board. It was by far the biggest boat I’d ever seen, with masts as big around and as tall as trees. Its sails were curled tightly, high in the masts, and there was hardly any smell at all.

A man in a hat that sat sideways on his head came up to us and said he was the mate and asked what he could do for us. The way he was looking me over, I realized that if it had just been my raggedy self he wouldn’t have given me the time of day. T.J., however, was a gentleman, and if there’s one thing those highfaluting Englishmen understand, it’s someone else who is high pocketed like them. He stood us to a glass of rum on the quarterdeck and heard us out.

“Aye, we’ve freed ’em, and a bloody mess it is,” he said. “I’m not sure they’re any better off. It’s a bleeding shame what’s happening in the Virgin Islands.” He told us that down in the Caribbean as soon as word had come that the blacks were to be freed, they were signed up for indenture and put back to work under the same conditions as when they were slaves. They were free in name only; nothing else had changed. They were still beaten and starved, still worked to death. “That wouldn’t do for your man,” he said. “Now, if he were able, I could enlist him in the Royal Navy.”

But that wouldn’t happen, for the ship was ready to sail and Lloyd, if he lived, would be a long time on the mend.

“Damn and blast,” said the mate. “He sounds like he has the makings of a good hand, and we’re short. How about you, boy? You look a likely lad.”

“I’ve been thinking about going to sea,” I admitted.

“He’s old enough to make a seaman,” said the mate to T.J., “and he’s big enough the crew wouldn’t use him, if he’s willing to fight. You know how to fight, boy?”

“I can fight,” I said.

“I was thinking he would make an officer,” said T.J.

The mate gave me a harder look.

“There’s more to him than appears,” T.J. said. “Don’t let that ragamuffin appearance throw you. Just look at his bearing. He can read and write, and I can testify he keeps his head under pressure.”

“If he’s literate, as you say, and if he cleans up properly, and if he can spring for the uniform, the captain might agree to sign him on as a cabin boy— though he’s too old, by far— and jump him up to midshipman once he’s proven his mettle. We’re down some officers. Fever, you know.”

“Can I bring my slave along?” I asked.

“There’s no slavery in the kingdom now, but he could sign on, were he able. Clearly, he’s not, and there you go. The captain would never put up with an invalid.”

There it was, my chance of going to sea, and only a slave lying in a shanty was keeping me from it.

Truth to tell, I wasn’t sure how I felt about serving under a foreign flag, especially that of a country with which we had lately been at war. Nor did I feel comfortable signing onto any endeavor that would tie me down for five long years. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure how I would take to being in the midst of all that water on a boat with four or five hundred other men. Try as I might, I just couldn’t picture how so many men could fit in a space so small. Barely, I concluded. Could it be I wasn’t cut out for the sea after all?

Still, it was easier to blame Lloyd than myself, so I did.

Chapter 27

Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 27

 

I was wrong about me being the only one dumb enough to want to buy Lloyd. Raddison showed up at the hotel the next morning and called on me as I was having breakfast with T.J.

“Have some bacon and eggs,” I said.

“I heard you bought my man Lloyd,” he said.

“Fair and square,” I told him. “He’s my man Lloyd now. I’m thinking of changing his name to Chester.”

“I always liked the name Chester,” T.J. said, leaning back with this thumbs in his suspenders and a big grin on his face.

“I want to buy him back,” Raddison said.

“My ma always said you wish in one hand and you-know-what in the other and see which one fills up faster,” I told him.

“Spare me your crude humor,” he said. “How much do you want?”

“Lloyd isn’t for sale,” I said.

“I know how much you paid for him,” he said. “You stole him.”

“I was high bidder and got him when no one else wanted him. That includes you, Red.”

He didn’t like it when I called him Red. “I insist you sell him back to me. I’m willing to give you a hundred dollars for your trouble and fifty more for his doctoring and room and board, but I’ll have him.”

“But you can’t have him,” I said.

“I will have him.”

I stood up and looked him square in the eye. I almost had to stoop to do it, even if he did have ten years on me. “You threatened me once, mister, and I let it slide. I’m not putting up with it again. You walk now, and if I ever see you again, I’ll have satisfaction.”

Red was trembling, but he stood his ground. “Mister Chambers,” I said, “are you still willing to be my second?”

“Yes I am,” said T.J.

I had been reading about gentlemanly goings-on in one of the hotel’s books. I had no glove, so I picked up a napkin and folded it with the clean side out and slapped Raddison across the face with it, not hard, just enough to be an insult. “Now it’s on,” I said.

Red wasn’t about to back down twice from a duel with the same man. He said he would have his man call on my man and stomped out.

“You’ll have to kill him quickly,” said T.J. “That packet boat leaves at dawn.”

“They might stay over to see the fireworks,” I said, and that’s just what they did.

That afternoon who came by but Raddison’s uncle Pressley, and with a long face. “Mr. Early, it seems my nephew can’t keep himself out of your affairs. And now it’s my duty to inform you he has set the time at sunrise.”

“And his choice of weapons?” I asked.

“Pistols,” he said. “He’s seen your sword, and he fears you know how to use it.”

“Pistols it is,” I said.

He produced a wooden box which held two fine-looking flintlocks and asked me if they would be satisfactory. I picked one up and it had a trigger and a barrel, so it was all right with me. Then I gave it to T.J. to examine. T.J. looked it over closely and pronounced it acceptable and the pistol went back in the box and the box went under Pressley’s arm. “I must warn you,” he said, “Raddison’s a crackerjack shot.”

“Worse luck for me,” I said. “Where are we meeting?”

“In the field behind the big barn on my plantation. It’s on the Ashley, upriver about three miles.”

“I’d be honored to be killed on your spread, sir, but there may be a problem. Mr. Chambers and I have made arrangements to sail at dawn. Do you think Red— do you think Mr. Pressley would accommodate me by setting an earlier hour or selecting a location closer to the docks?”

“I’ll ask,” he said, and left. But an hour later he was back, saying, “Nothing doing. He insists on dawn, and he insists it be on my property.”

T.J. said, “It’s an out, Chance. It gives you an honorable way out of this.”

“There’s other boats,” I said to him. To Pressley I said, “Sunrise. I’ll be there.”

Chapter 35

Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 35

 

I had been standing on the Texas deck, half in and half out of the wheelhouse. I saw flames beginning to spurt from under the deck on both sides, and then suddenly I was flying through the air a good thirty feet above the water. I cleared the rail of the main deck by a good five feet and fell through the fireball and smacked the river hard and went down deep.

Any river you can plow holds little promise for visibility when you’re beneath the surface. I couldn’t see a darned thing. I didn’t know which way was up and which way was down. I hoped desperately the big wheel of the Natchez wasn’t churning directly above me. I shrugged out of my new coat and kicked off my brother’s boots. As I released the second boot I followed it with my fingers as it headed in the direction I was pretty sure was down, and thank the Lord for gravity. I struck out in the opposite direction, hoping it was indeed up. I had begun to think I had made a bad choice when my head broke the water, and just in time before I drowned, too. I took a big gulp and then another and looked around in the gathering darkness.

The current had swept me a good way from the Magnolia, which was burning off to my left, and the Natchez was directly in front of me with the wheel stopped now. Men were scrambling to lower her boats. Bodies and parts of bodies were everywhere in the water. Some were moving, some not. I struck out for the Natchez, but it was soon clear the current was carrying me away down the river.

I knew I had to strike out for one shore or the other, but both banks seemed a mile away. I picked the west bank and began to swim, and straightaway bumped into something that turned out to be a woman. She latched onto me and nearly pulled me under again. I pushed away from her and grabbed her by the hair of the head and pulled her along as I dogpaddled for the shore. She thrashed for a while and cursed at me, but finally settled down and started kicking to help me.

We might not have made it, but someone’s horse swam by, kicking strongly, and I latched onto its tail and it carried us along. It seemed hours before the shore came near, and then it was nothing but high banks with no place to climb up. We must have floated a good two miles downstream before I found a place I thought we could climb up. I turned loose of the horse and paddled us over to a tangle of branches and grabbed one. We huffed and puffed for a good long while, catching our breath and getting our wits about us before we tried to climb, and then it was tricky business, as we had to make our way through a thicket of downed trees, big ones. Most were rotten, and the branches we grabbed snapped off in our hands. Once the woman nearly fell, and twice I nearly did, but finally we were at the top of the bluff. The moon had come up and we could look out over the river at the tops of the stacks of the Magnolia. The rest of her had disappeared under the water. The Natchez, her lights blazing, was making slow circles, tooting her whistle and searching for survivors.

We were still far to the south, but it was January and the water had been freezing. Now the wind was freezing us and we had no shelter. I knew we had to warm ourselves if we were to survive the night.

The woman was weeping and didn’t want to move. I told her she had to or else she would die, for I was too weak and shaky to carry her. We made our way downstream along the face of the bluff, which gradually lowered until it came right down to the water line, just at a bend in the river. I could see dark shapes bobbing in the water and waded out and pulled in two or three cotton bales. Then a body floated by and I snagged it and dragged it to shore. I pulled off the boots and put them on and gave the dead man’s jacket and trousers to the lady.

We must have been at just about the only low spot on the banks thereabouts, for within fifteen minutes half-drowned men and women began to splash up; I helped them onto shore, getting soaked all over again. I dragged ashore two more bales of cotton and pulled the clothes from another dead man.

One of the men we pulled out of the water was Lloyd.

Chapter 43

Chance Down the Mountain

Chapter 43

 

We caught up with the Indians the next day. Billy Bogartson poked me in the side to get my attention, and when I looked at him, he told me it was a hunting party. They didn’t look like much to me, mostly hair and stink and ponies, but the Rangers were respectful. “Tonkawa,” Billy told me. “Used to be they were a troublesome tribe. Most Comanche still are, but not this bunch. They’re more or less peaceable.” We gave them some beef and tobacco and they went on their way.

Two days later, as we were riding along, a brave rose from the tall grass and ran a lance deep into the flank of Routier’s chestnut. The Indian’s face was painted in crazy colors. Routier, who had been riding point, twisted out of the saddle, pulling his rifle from its scabbard as he leapt clear. He shot his man as his horse went down.

There were screams and yells all around. Every man was busy trying to keep himself alive, and that went double for me. A young brave charged at me with his lance raised and I shot him at five yards with my rifle. He stumbled into Junior, his lance still held high, and I grabbed it from his hands and spurred Junior and rode him down.

There was no time to reload, but that lance was a handy weapon from horseback. Just in front of me a brave was hacking at a Ranger with a hatchet, and I got the lance into position and ran him through. Then we were all galloping to get clear and the Indians were sprinting for their ponies. “It’ll take them a while,” said Billy. “The horses couldn’t be too close or we would have seen them or heard them and spoiled their ambush.”

The country was almighty bare, and I would have sworn there was no place an Indian could have hidden, much less a couple of dozen of them. “It don’t take much for a Comanch,” said a young Ranger everyone called Succotash. “Just a little dip or low place in the prairie, or some sagebrush or a rock to hide behind. Sometimes I think they can just go invisible, by willpower. They just appear out of thin air.”

Captain Macon, having made many forays into West Texas, knew the country by heart. He took us straight to a wash just deep enough to get our horses out of the line of fire. We tied them together and lay on the bank and waited for the Comanches to come.

Come they did, and on horseback. Our first volley picked off two or three of them, but they kept right on charging. Those in our party lucky enough to have pistols knocked down a couple more. I just had time for a second shot before they were upon us, and then it was man to man, tooth and nail.

My Comanche was about forty, heavyset, and madder than a nest of hornets. He was all knives and gouges. He seemed disappointed I didn’t just lay down and let him kill me. He slashed at me with his stone knife, cursing at me in Comanche, and I slashed back at him with the big blade Constantine had outfitted me with, calling him every name I knew, and then he screeched at me and latched onto a pony racing by and all of a sudden he was on its back— I’ll never know how he did it so fast— and he reached down with his bare hand and laid it gently on the chest. Then he was hotfooting it along with the rest of them and the Captain was calling roll to see who had been killed or wounded. He told Billy to check the downed Indians and finish any who weren’t dead. Billy took a Ranger named Tate with him. “You be goldurned sure to shoot anything that twitches out there,” Billy told Tate. “Except for me, of course,” and trudged away into the sagebrush, rifle in one hand and Bowie knife in the other. Before long I heard a couple of shots, so I guessed someone had been playing possum.

Billy’s count was six dead Indians. “Comanche, sure enough,” he said, spitting in the dust at his feet. “Long Arm’s band.” One Ranger— it was young Succotash— was dead and another so badly wounded he died minutes later. Routier had an arrow in his arm that had to be dug out.

“Boys, we were lucky,” said Captain Macon. “We’re lucky we had this draw for cover, and lucky there weren’t more of them, and lucky that fool young brave jumped the gun and took the first man in the party instead of waiting like he should have. It could have been worse. We’d best get the graves dug before it gets dark. Routier, how are you feeling?”

“How do you think?” said Routier darkly. “A man who will benefit financially from my death is coming toward me with a big knife to cut off my arm.”

“I ain’t going to cut it off,” said Constantine softly. “Not unless it goes gangrene.”

Later, Macon said to me, “Welcome to Texas.”

“It ain’t what you got here that worries me,” I said, echoing Billy Bogartson, “it’s that you got so much of it.”

He grinned at me. “You done good. Have you ever thought about joining the Rangers?”

It shocked me. “No sir, I haven’t.”

“Well, you look me up if you ever should decide.”

Lloyd had fired his musket. Unlike rifles, muskets have a smooth bore, making it difficult to hit anything, especially something that’s moving and screaming and wielding a knife. Still, Lloyd was sure he had killed his man. “First time in my life I fired on someone,” he said. “I feels free already.”

I said, “If killing someone makes you feel positive, there’s something wrong with you inside.”

He looked at me. “Didn’t say better,” he said. “Said freer.”

“Alright, then,” I said.