Into the Wilderness

Page 27


"Perhaps you'll tell me how you came to be called Hawkeye," Elizabeth suggested. "It must be an interesting story."
"Too bold a tale for young women of good family," Hawkeye agreed. "But I'll tell you anyway, lass, if you catch me in front of the fire one day and ask me nicely. Here's what we'll do," he continued, grinning broadly. "If I take that bird home to roast, you'll come up and eat it with us and listen to my stories. I could use a fresh audience. Folks around here don't appreciate my offerings much lately."
Elizabeth laughed. "Yes, I'll take you up on that," she said. "But there won't be any bird for you to roast if you don't take a chance."
"Well, me and the boy have still not come to a conclusion on how we should spend this one shilling we got between us," he said. "Nathaniel! How's that shoulder feel?"
Elizabeth wondered how she could offer them a shilling so that both could have a shot at the turkey, but nothing occurred to her which wouldn't embarrass them, and so she kept still, listening instead to their banter.
The cloud of gunsmoke had grown to considerable proportions and the crowd of shooters had dwindled. Billy did his best to keep a good thing going. "Now, I know some of you out there got the price of this bird," he called. "Step up and be counted. You, Nathaniel, you still leaning on that sore shoulder of yourn?"
There was a moment's silence, and then Nathaniel nodded. "I'll have a shot," he said calmly, and moved forward to hand Billy his entrance fee.
"Four quarter bits, four quarter bits, that's right, that's all it takes." Billy nodded, but his tone was much more subdued now, and it was clear that he thought the bird's life was about to come to a quick end.
Elizabeth wondered why she was so very agitated; it was only a bird, after all: she could see it very clearly, its very long, spindly neck and bobbing head, the wattle bright red against the background of snow. Not such a very hard shot, she thought, not for a good marksman with steady hands. The crowd was calling advice to Nathaniel as he stood up to the shooting stand and checked his rifle once more, the well—worn stock glinting in the sunlight.
"Come on, Nathaniel, we're depending on you!"
Yes, thought Elizabeth, it seems that everybody does depend on you.
There was silence as Nathaniel took aim. He was very much like his father, Elizabeth noted. He had the same long, straight back, and he held his head tilted just the same way, a blue vein pulsing lightly in the slight indentation of his temple where the dark hairs were drawn back. The line of his arm, the juncture of gun with shoulder, the very cloud of gunsmoke seemed to settle into stillness for a small moment. Elizabeth held her breath.
"Don't think about the shoulder," called Hawkeye gingerly. "You're made of stronger stuff than a little torn muscle."
"Think about Miss Elizabeth across the table from you instead!" called Charlie LeBlanc, just as the powder flashed in the pan.
"Well," said Hawkeye after a goodly pause. "He pulled too far to the left, ye see. Nicked the bloody bird's beak." He spoke to Nathaniel's back. "The shoulder's too wound, I told you so." And he set off down the snowy embankment toward the turkey with Billy Kirby and the other men in tow.
Nathaniel set to reloading his rifle straightaway. For the moment they were alone. Elizabeth watched as he removed the plug from his horn and poured a measure of powder into the barrel. From a pouch on his belt he took a greased cotton patch—Elizabeth noted with some surprise that it was brightly colored, the kind of fabric a woman would use for a skirt—and wrapped it around a lead ball which came out of his bullet bag. He detached the ramrod from its brackets and shoved this all down the rifle barrel with one firm push. Then he poured more powder into the priming pan. All of this took less than a minute's worth of quick and economical movements, and the whole time, Nathaniel seemed to be more focused on Elizabeth than he was on his job.
"I'm sorry," Elizabeth said, meaning that he had lost his shilling. Then she wished she had remained quiet.
Nathaniel grinned. "Well," he said. "I suppose I'll have to forgo your company at my table. At least for the time being."
Elizabeth looked away toward the men arguing over the state of the turkey. "I wouldn't have thought you would give up so easily."
He raised an eyebrow, amused. "There are other birds in the forest," he pointed out. "And as far as getting you to my table, I expect that won't be too difficult, either."
"Talk is easy," Elizabeth said lightly, causing Nathaniel to laugh out loud.
Down the embankment, Dr. Todd was called to officiate. The bird was pronounced scared half to death, but whole enough for the competition to continue.
"Maybe you'll get a taste of the bird anyway," Nathaniel was saying to Elizabeth, and she looked up with a start to see her brother at the shooting stand. She had been so involved with Nathaniel and the scene at hand that it had never occurred to Elizabeth that this was a sporting event—and that Julian's promise to refrain from participating in such events was being tested for the first time since leaving England.
"Julian," she said. Then louder, calling to him: "Julian!"
Her brother turned, an eyebrow raised.
"You can't shoot," Elizabeth said.
Julian ignored her, but Katherine came up, flushed with cold and excitement. "Richard loaned him his rifle. Your brother's agreed to champion me," she said brightly. "Father would be very glad of the bird, and I thought it worth a shilling."