Into the Wilderness

Page 25


"Why should a business transaction such as the one suggested last night mean the end of peace?" asked Elizabeth. "It seems a likely solution to the problem."
"No one wants to sell their land to the natives," said Richard Todd. "And the reasons for that are both so complicated and so simple that I cannot explain."
"But the lands once belonged to them, didn't they? Why shouldn't they buy them back?"
"With what? With what will they buy it back? Do you really think—" Richard Todd stopped and made a visible effort to calm his voice. "Miss Elizabeth, do you believe that they have the funds necessary to buy such a valuable tract of land from your father?"
Elizabeth considered for a moment, looking over the forests under their cloak of snow. "Well, they may have at least part of what they were paid for the land in the first place. How much were they paid?"
Dr. Todd stopped, the corner of his mouth twitching. One eyebrow raised, he looked like a schoolteacher who suspected a student of posing a question constructed to show him up. "Are you really ignorant of the history of this valley?"
They had come to the top of a little rise and the village was spread out below them, the lake covered with ice reflecting silvers and blues in the sunlight. The mountains reached up like fists into the sky, their shoulders cloaked with hardwood and conifers.
"Well, I know it was once theirs," said Elizabeth. "And that we now have it. I assume that was done lawfully, with appropriate compensation. But perhaps," she said thoughtfully, "perhaps I assume too much."
"You assume that they think and feel as you do," Richard said with a new edge to his voice.
"I assume that they think and feel as any human being must, who must live and eat."
He let out a small grunt, and Elizabeth realized that for all his careful reasoning, Richard's stance on this matter was based on a simple dislike of the natives. Although she sensed that if she were to confront him with this, he would deny it.
The conversation had slowed them down a bit and now Julian and Katherine caught up just as they came around one last bend and found themselves confronted with Paradise's annual turkey shoot.
Some thirty men and just as many women and children had gathered in the late afternoon. There were horses and dogs, and a great deal of talking and laughter. The women were feeding a great bonfire, most of them wrapped in a variety of shawls, with reddened noses and eyes watery with the cold.
Anna Hauptmann, directing the attention to the bonfire, was also engaged in a number of distinct conversations and called out cheerfully, more than willing to start another one. Her children dashed by Elizabeth in pursuit of an outsized puppy. Molly and Becca Kaes called to Katherine, and the younger girl set off in that direction on Julian's arm. Elizabeth continued toward the shooting stand with Richard Todd, stopping to greet the villagers as she went.
The men were dressed in raggedy furs, buckskin, and homespun in shades of butternut and brown. Their heads were covered with a variety of caps and hats, some of ancient vintage, many trailing frayed tails of animals Elizabeth could not identify. Young and old, chests were crisscrossed with leather straps supporting powder horns, and small leather bags sagging with shot. Several of them turned as Richard Todd approached with Elizabeth, and they called out cheerful greetings. At the foot of the tree stump which served as the shooting stand, Elizabeth saw Dan'l and Nathaniel Bonner. Nathaniel's long hair had been gathered together with a rawhide string and hung down his back in a thick tail. His head was uncovered and his ears were tinged red. Elizabeth realized that she was staring, and she turned away.
It's a small village, Elizabeth said to herself sternly. You will have to learn to get along with others at close quarters. You cannot, you must not, act like a smitten schoolgirl. The sound of Katherine's laughter rose from the crowd and Elizabeth focused on this, willing her heart to assume a more normal rhythm. Leave flirtation to Katherine, she told herself. Nathaniel Bonner will speak to you, or he won't.
The contestants were growing restless, and in response a man pushed his way through the crowd and leapt up on top of the tree stump.
"Billy Kirby," said Richard Todd, confirming Elizabeth's suspicion. She observed him with some interest. He was built like an over full barrel, with a great breadth of chest and hamlike shoulders below a thick neck. Under a tricorn hat, odd twists of blond hair stuck out at all angles and blended into what must be at least three days' growth of reluctant blond beard. Between the bristles his skin was blotched red with cold, blemishes, scrapes. Thin lips bleached pale by the cold revealed tobacco—stained teeth. Elizabeth was surprised to see how young he was, perhaps eighteen or so.
Billy rested one foot on an empty fowl coop and surveyed the crowd. About a hundred yards farther on there was another stump, behind which a tremendously large tom turkey had been tethered by a short lead; it scratched in the snow, occasionally raising its spindly neck over the edge to observe the crowd with one bright black and mistrustful eye.
"It's a hard target, a skittery bird behind a stump," Richard Todd explained. "Billy will take in a nice profit."
Elizabeth answered without taking her eyes from the scene. "I see the Bonners are here. I expect Hawkeye came by his nickname with some reason?"
The doctor nodded. "He most certainly did. Even at his age he's a hard man to best with a long rifle. But I doubt whether he's got a spare shilling to place the necessary wager."