I came fully awake, but remained motionless and took some time to get oriented. The sun was low in the east, dispatching long blades of daylight to peel away the layers of darkness. Various species of birds were chirping a point counterpoint melody. The beauty of the song accentuated the awesome solitude of the ridge and green majesty of the surrounding peaks and valleys.
“Half the day’s gone, lad,” a voice said gruffly, startling me to attention. It was a thick brogue and its owner was close-by. “I’ve been watching and waiting for awhile.”
I tilted my head to the right and saw a rough-hewn man squatting less than ten yards from where I had my back against a tree trunk. He was in a wedge of deep shadows. The flintlock rifle cradled in his left arm had a menacing appearance.
I leaned forward and studied the visitor. He wore a floppy slouch hat fringed by a furry animal pelt, and had a wild-eyed look about him. “Watching and waiting for what?” I asked, sharp and challenging.
“Easy, lad. I be looking for no trouble.” He stood—he was long and lean, swaddled in a ragged buckskin outfit. A grizzled tangle of chin-whiskers dominated his face and swept down to the middle of his chest. “I saw a flash of strange lightning and came to investigate. I found a man sleeping against a tree.”
“Jodat. Jedediah Jodat.” I offered a shrug and spread my arms in a friendly gesture.
“I am called Shamish.” He surveyed the area with satisfaction. “These mountains are good for my soul.” A smile creased his lips and spread upwards to ignite a sparkling delight in his dark eyes. “You’ve got a fine site here, Jodat. A natural shelter with a lively spring nearby—easily defensible if it ever came to that sort of thing.”
“Is that sort of thing coming?”
His manner became blunt and adamant—his face wrinkled into a steely mask tinted by sorrow. “Not from me. I’m a peaceable man, but others are not.”
“Are you being followed?”
“Always,” he quipped, giving a who-cares bob of his head. “Get a cook-fire going while I gut and skin these scoundrels I snared.” He held up a pair of good-sized jackrabbits, one of which was still twitching.
I patted my pockets. “I got no fixings.”
“You’re an odd duck, ain’t you now?” He narrowed his eyes and gave me a thorough look-over. “Whatcha doing in this wilderness with no rig? And what was that shiny flash that brought you here?”
“I’m just passing through, my friend.”
Shamish balanced the long-rifle, scrounged inside his jacket, and came out with a frayed pouch, which he tossed in my direction. “Here’s my flint and striker. You ain’t too tenderfoot to put them to use, are you, Jodat?” There was just a hint of mockery in his tone—a bit of endearing laughter which he punctuated by wagging a finger at me before slipping beneath a canopy of branches to prepare breakfast.
I busied myself building a campfire.
“You got any particular claim on this spot?” Shamish asked, licking his fingers. He’d finished off his rabbit—I was still eating mine, enjoying every savory bite. It was a dandy meal. The skins were staked out to dry in the sun because, as Shamish cheerfully explained, hides could always be put to one use or another.
I tossed a slick bone into the fire. It sizzled and hissed. “Nope. To my way of thinking it’s God’s country.”
Shamish pursed his lips in approval. “Aye, you’ve got that right, lad.” He whittled off a chunk of tobacco and stuck it in his mouth. “I’m heading north to the Rolling Thunder, but I got time to camp here for a few days. You’re welcome to partner up with me if you’re a mind.”
“I’m of a mind,” I answered quickly. “What’s taking you north?”
“I’ve got me reasons.” His eyes gleamed for the briefest of moments, then grew hard and wary. “There’s a nasty squabble stirring up back there and I want no part of it.”
I wondered what he meant, but was distracted from pursuing that trail by a sound that sent a thrill of goosepimples down my spine. An eagle screeched—its shrillness shattered the stillness of the morning and captured us. We watched it glide across an endlessly blue sky, a white-hooded sentinel whose view must have been spectacular.
Shamish spat a brown gob, lazed back on an elbow and gestured to the west. “See that patch of river? It’s a wandering tributary of the Susquehanna. In Iroquois it’s called Onayutta, which is translated Standing Stone. Bin all along it and I’ve yet to see any special stone, standing or otherwise. I suspect the rock was gone before I came into this country. It ain’t easy to know the meaning of things.”
Silence settled between us for a spell. It gave me a few moments to consider his words and perspective. He was a natural storyteller and explainer of the whys and wherefores of life.
The eagle was directly overhead, in the arc of an ever-tightening circle. I got the distinct impression that it was keeping vigil to warn us of approaching danger. It was wondrous to behold its effortless flight.
After several long minutes, curiosity chewed free of its box and I had to know what Shamish wanted to avoid. “What’s the nasty squabble about?”
He grunted. “You mean back in Philadelphia?” His mouth puckered in disdain. “Nasty squabbles are always the same. The haves want to keep their possessions, the have-nots want a bit of the stew for themselves. The sides don’t matter do they? ‘Tis the redcoats and colonials for this go-round, but it never changes.”
“Feuds and warfare are our lot,” I agreed, sounding somewhat scholarly. “History is grim testimony to the heart of man—it wants what it wants, and it’s filled with many dark deceptions.”
“Aye, I’ve seen it my whole life, lad. I was born to it. My clan was always a-scrapping in the highlands.” He released a splatter of tobacco juice, wiped his mouth and pulled on his beard, then continued, “My ma put me on a ship when I was twelve. Bin making my way ever since, and staying clear of knock-downs and battle royals has been my aim.”
“I’ve been jammed into the middle of a few of those,” I said flatly.
“Sorry to hear that, lad.” He got up, stretched out a kink or two, then gave me a stern look. “The day’s getting away from us now, ain’t it? Let’s be to it.” He gave me his hatchet and instructions on organizing the campsite, then shouldered the flintlock and was gone on a hunt.
I went to work, being careful of every detail. A large, sturdy lean-to was put together using pine boughs for the roof and floor. Rocks, some round and others flat, were placed to form a barrier around a shallow fire-pit. Wood was gathered and stacked for convenient access.
When all the labors were complete, I found a boulder on the brink of a steep drop-off to sit on and commune with the Creator. I came to know the truth spoken by my new companion—these mountains were indeed good for my soul.
Life & Love
That evening was a gentle time. While dusk spread its blanket over us, fresh cut venison steaks simmered on a spit over the fire. Shamish had also dug up some roots to brew a pot of tea that was steeping on a hot rock. I nursed a tin cup of the boiled concoction—it had a sweet taste that was rather delightful.
A swarming array of lightning bugs darted hither and yon, which evidently reminded Shamish of an unanswered question. He hardened his eyes on me. “What was that shiny flash that brought you here? Was it a giant firefly?”
“If that’ll end the matter for you,” I replied, grinning.
“Suppose it’ll have to. You ain’t gonna be any more helpful.”
“I reckon not.”
Shamish abruptly changed the subject. “Ever been in love, lad?”
I started to form a negative reply, but then Beka Steele’s dancing smile became vivid and real in my mind’s eye. “Yes, I believe so.”
“Be careful, lad,” Shamish said sternly. “A lass can get under your skin and never let you go. I bear witness.” A glint of tenderness showed in his eyes. “I got a lovely lass up by the Rolling Thunder. At least she was there two summers ago when I got itchy feet.”
I nodded knowingly. He moved over to tend to the meat, seasoning it once more with a sprinkle of pungent herbs. I surely enjoyed his company—I hoped that our journey together would be one of those longstanding partnerships, but the reality of the jump-factor was forever unpredictable.
The fire crackled and popped. Off in the distance an owl gave a lonesome hoot. We ate our supper with much enthusiasm, and soon got back to the business of tracking down the mysteries of life and love. We kept sharpening the conversation to a fine point as we talked some philosophy long into the night.