Daniel Boone’s actual experiences provide the frame
and foundation of this novel and much of its substance as well. However, this is indeed a novel, and some characters and plot
events are fictional, or have been dealt with imaginatively. Where I have fictionalized, I have sought to do so plausibly,
to create strands of plot that weave naturally with the true parts of the story, and fictional characters of the sort who,
though they were not part of what really happened, easily could have been.
The Yadkin Valley
Early Summer, 1755
Crouched by the roadside, his face twisting in a grimace of pain, a wagoner named Nate Meriwether opened his mouth slowly,
gingerly, and allowed a fellow wagoner to peer inside.
“Turn your head a mite, Nate—no, the other way,
for the light. That’s good. Pull down your lower lip.” The sufferer complied, adjusting his posture awkwardly,
head tilted back and mouth gaping skyward as the other leaned over him to closely eye a row of yellowed, long-neglected lower
teeth. “Nate, that tooth’s been let be as long as it can. It’ll have to be pulled before it goes to poison.”
closed his mouth and looked very sad. “I feared it would come to this,” he mumbled. “I dread it.”
a pulled tooth hurts a little while, but a rotten one hurts without end,” the other replied. “We’ll take
care of this here and now. You’d never be able to endure that pain all the way to the Monongahela.”
wagoner about to turn tooth puller was Daniel Boone. He pivoted on moccasin-clad feet and headed for his wagon, which stood
in a queue of assorted parked wagons and tumbrels extending far back along the twelve-foot-wide road. Ahead was a moving armory,
a conglomeration of horse-drawn cannon, howitzers, and light mortars. Even farther ahead and momentarily out of sight of the
wagoners because of the swell of the terrain, were continental soldiers under the immediate command of Lieutenant Colonel
George Washington. Beyond them were the soldiers of the British regular army of Major General Edward Braddock, chief commander
of this campaign in the Pennsylvania wilderness. And at the very lead and far out of view, chopping away the brush and saplings
that had grown on this wilderness route since the Ohio Company had hacked it out three years earlier, were engineers and ax
men whose duty it was to broaden the road, to erect crude but stout bridges over the many streams, and to pave marshy areas
with logs laid side by side. The entire processional reminded Daniel Boone of a great, long worm chewing a westward course
into the hills and mountains. It was a worm that chewed and crawled far too slowly to suit him.
eyes glanced up the line of wagons, horses, and drivers. Should have forgone the wagons and used only packhorses and tumbrels,
he thought. He couldn’t count the number of times he had run that same thought through his mind since this expedition
began. Packhorses and tumbrels alone would have progressed more quickly and easily than those big wagons Braddock had commandeered
from Pennsylvania farms, and would have required much less road clearing to accommodate them. Horses bearing packs or pulling
light tumbrels wouldn’t have tired nearly as fast as the horses they were actually using: big draft horses pulling more
than their proper limit in weight. Should have used only packhorses and tumbrels. It was simple common sense. Daniel had already
discovered that General Braddock’s decisions often had little to do with common sense. The man was courageous, dedicated,
authoritative, and thoroughly trained, but he was as out of place on the American frontier as a crown prince in a swine pen.
loosened and pulled back a section of the heavy oiled cloth covering his wagon’s cargo and fumbled around until he got
a grip on the rawhide handles of a massive, handmade wooden trunk. With a grunt of exertion he pulled the trunk up and out,
then put it on the ground beside the wagon, opened the wooden latch, and flipped back the lid.
The trunk contained
an assortment of tools: farrier’s hammers, chisels, beak irons, a variety of tongs—hoop tongs, hammer tongs, tongs
with round bits and square. These tools and others, particularly the wagon jacks, had been called into service time and again
since the departure from Fort Cumberland many days ago, because some of the overloaded wagons had literally been jolted to
pieces on the rugged, stumpy road. Each time, it was necessary to stop, unload the cargo, fix the damage, then load up again
and go on until the next calamity. Occasionally wagons damaged beyond repair would have to be abandoned altogether, their
cargo distributed to other wagons. Should have used packhorses.
The wagons stood unmoving because the army ahead
had halted again. None of the wagoners knew why, and there was little point in asking. If the wagons weren’t breaking
down and holding back the army from behind, the army was blocking the wagons from the front. It was jolting, monotonous, laborious
agony to move Braddock’s army across the wilderness, and anyone with a head on his shoulders knew it would only grow
more difficult, the deeper they went into the mountains. Often the long processional moved so slowly that the gaggle of camp
followers, prostitutes and wives and children, almost outpaced the wagons.
Daniel Boone, like Nate, his neighbor
and frequent hunting partner, joined this campaign as a volunteer militiaman from the Yadkin River area of North Carolina.
Any who saw Nate and Daniel together inevitably thought that Daniel was several years older than Nate, when in fact he was
only two years Nate’s senior. Nate’s boyish face and the seasoning effects of Daniel Boone’s more extensive
experience on the frontier accounted for the appearance of greater difference in their ages.
Daniel probed about
until he pulled out two tools, one a pair of long, flat-bit blacksmith’s tongs, the other a much smaller set of farrier’s
pincers. Rubbing his chin, he studied both, then rose lightly and carried the tools over to the sorrowful-looking Nate Meriwether.
“Nate, I don’t know which will give me the better pry on that tooth,” he said. “I could wrench harder
with the long ones, but these here pincers might bite in some and get me a stouter grip.”
in’?” Nate repeated, going pale. “God preserve me,” he murmured. “I’m to be tortured like
a captive of savages.”
Daniel ignored him. Nate tended to whine. Daniel pursed the thin lips of his wide and
slightly down-turning mouth and nodded firmly. “Pincers it is,” he said. “And if that don’t work,
we can always try the tongs.”
Nate Meriwether looked as if he might jump up and run away. Daniel eyed him sympathetically
but sternly, then turned and called to another man still seated on his wagon three vehicles back from Daniel’s, his
head lolling as he took advantage of the halt for a catnap. “John Findley! Come here; I need thee . . . need you.”
Daniel blushed, embarrassed by the lapse into one of the old speech habits of his Pennsylvania Quaker youth. It still happened
from time to time, even though his Quaker days were long behind him.
John Findley was a thirtyish man whose clever
mind, masked by his humble-looking face, was revealed in sharp, intelligent eyes. He lifted his head and tilted back his wide-brimmed
beaver hat. He blinked, yawned, and stretched. “Aye, Dan. On my way.”
Findley leaped lithely down from
his perch, his fluid motions reminding Daniel of the manner common to Indians. Perhaps Findley had unconsciously picked up
that manner while living as a Pennsylvania-licensed trader years before, in Indian country few white men had seen. Findley
came to Daniel’s side, yawned and stretched again, then fixed him with a curious expression, awaiting direction.
got to yank out Nate’s bad tooth,” Daniel explained. “He’s dearly suffering with it.”
do you want me to do?”
“Hold his head tight. I doubt he has the gravel to hold still himself. He’ll
probably pee his pants when I yank it.”
Nate frowned at Daniel’s unflattering words but did not dispute
them. Findley grinned, his eyes brightening with mischievous delight; it made him look very much the native-born Irishman
that he was. Like Nate, who hailed from Suffolk, England, John Findley was an American colonial by immigration, not birth.
His Irish accent had faded substantially in the fifteen or so years he had lived in the colonies, but for Nate’s aggravation
he deliberately stirred it to life again. “Ah! A chance to enjoy the suffering of a bloody Englishman! What finer pleasure
for a man from the Green Isle, eh?”
“May you roast in whatever pit of hell the Almighty has reserved
for the Irish,” Nate replied. Even though he had been a colonial since age three, he still clung proudly to his English
heritage, a fact Findley had ascertained and had much fun with since this expedition had brought them together.
a stout grip on him, John,” Daniel directed, opening and closing the pincers to get the right feel of them.
moved around behind the squatting Nate, cracked his knuckles, then bent, looped his right arm under Nate’s chin, and
fixed his left hand on his brow. “Open wide, Nate,” he said. Then, with a wink to Daniel: “You know, these
English always do have blasted sorry teeth.”
Nate was about to respond, but Findley pulled back on his brow
and closed in tight on his jaw, cutting off words and most of his wind, and forcing his mouth open besides. Nate watched Daniel
advance with the pincers and squeezed his eyes shut as the cruel-looking tool descended toward his throbbing tooth. As soon
as metal touched enamel, he let out a high moan. Tears streamed from beneath his tightly squeezed eyelids. Findley grinned
like a cat.
Good thing it’s a front-and-bottom tooth, Daniel thought, otherwise I’d never get these big
pincers in there. He had never noticed before what a small mouth Nate Meriwether had. “Get ready, Nate, you’re
about to lose her,” he said, and closed the pincers tight around the cavitied tooth.
Nate writhed and cried,
tongue wriggling about in his up-turned mouth like the head of a snake with its tail in the fire. Findley’s strong arms
clamped down as if he were trying to crush Nate’s head like a walnut. Daniel closed the pincers so tightly they cut
into the tooth, and pulled up with a twisting motion. The tooth didn’t want to let go; he wrenched harder. Nate’s
eyes opened wide and rolled back in the sockets so far that only the whites showed as a final twist pulled the tooth free.
His mouth flooded with blood. Findley let him go, and Nate groaned and slumped to the ground, eyes still rolled up as if he
were trying to see inside his own skull.
“Danged if he ain’t fainted,” Daniel said. He held up
the bloody prize. “And no wonder! The root of this thing must have run nigh to his chin.”
beside Nate, turning his head to the side so he wouldn’t swallow blood. Then he gently shook him, urging him out of
his swoon. Nate moaned, opened his eyes, and pushed upright, spitting blood onto the ground.
an Englishman as ever I met!” Findley said, slapping Nate’s shoulder. “Well done, Nate Meriwether.”
muttered a curse. Daniel trotted back to the wagon, stuck a hand into his rifle pouch, which lay on the seat, and returned
with a couple pieces of patching. “Nate, bite down on these until the bleeding stops. That tooth will be giving you
no more pain now.”
Nate’s color was beginning to return. He bit on the patching a minute or so, then
glanced up at Daniel and nodded his thanks. He pointedly failed to do the same to Findley, delighting the Irishman, who had
found no greater pleasure along Braddock’s Road than getting Nate Meriwether’s goat as often and in as many ways
as possible. Winking again at Daniel, Findley returned to his wagon, whistling an Irish tune. Moments later an official call
came down the line: the advance was resuming.
“Are you fit to drive?” Daniel asked Nate.
fine,” Nate replied through clenched teeth. The bit of patching, very bloodied now, stuck out across his thick lower
lip. His sparse beard, usually rich brown, now was rusty red because the bloody drool had soaked into it during his tooth-pulling
ordeal. But he grinned weakly, and Daniel knew that though Nate looked a sight, he already felt better.
tooth can kill a man if it gets bad enough,” Daniel said, wiping the pincers on his trousers. “I seen it happen
once, and it’s no way to die. It’s good we got that chomper out.”
The wagons ahead were already
creaking into motion. Hurriedly returning to the trunk that bore his blacksmithing tools, Daniel put the tools inside, closed
it, put it back into the wagon, and strapped down the cover. He launched himself into the driver’s seat and set his
wagon in motion just as it was his time to roll out.
Ten minutes later he was sniffing the air and noting that a marsh lay ahead, its muddy scent distinctive even in the
overwhelming reek of the draft horses. Distinctive, at least, to Daniel Boone, who had spent his youth among the scents and
sounds of the outdoor world and had become adept at distinguishing and interpreting them. In boyhood days he had roamed the
hills and forests of this very colony, keeping watch over his father’s cattle, and, until Squire Boone presented him
with his first rifle at the age of twelve, hunting rabbits and other small game with a hurling club he had devised from the
gnarly-rooted trunk of a sapling. He got very good at this primitive hunting, just as he was very good at doing most anything
having to do with life in the wilds. Even in youth he had known that he was unusually skilled at surviving, even thriving,
in the wilderness. No arrogance grew out of this knowledge. It was simply a fact Daniel accepted as he accepted any other.
looked around him as he drove, thinking that by coming to Pennsylvania he had in a fashion come home again. But no, this wasn’t
home. He wasn’t the kind of fellow who looked back once he had left a thing or place behind. Daniel preferred to look
Even so, Daniel’s memories of his Pennsylvania Quaker boyhood were vivid and precious to him. He had
enjoyed life in this colony, but he was old enough now to understand how different it had been for his parents. They had been
affiliated with the Exeter Meeting of Friends, but difficulties had arisen: his sister Sarah married a young man who was not
a Quaker, who had gotten her with child before the wedding besides; and a brother, Israel, repeated the offense of marrying
a non-Quaker, causing the Friends to come to Daniel’s father, Squire, and demand that he discipline his wayward children.
Squire declined to do so and soon after was expelled from the meeting, as Sarah and Israel had already been.
had seemed harsh, alien territory for Squire Boone after that. North Carolina called, and Squire answered, moving south, lingering
for a time in the Shenandoah Valley, then continuing on to the Yadkin River. Now the Boones were Carolinians, Pennsylvania
Quakers no more. Life in Pennsylvania was part of an increasingly distant past, and Daniel’s return there to join Braddock’s
march against Fort Duquesne was a journey of patriotism and adventure, not of sentiment.
He and Nate Meriwether had
signed on with the North Carolina militia together and had headed for Fort Cumberland, Maryland, right on the border of Pennsylvania,
with no clear notion of what experiences military duty would bring them. Even without specific expectations, Daniel had been
surprised by one thing: General Braddock, for all his arrogance and disdain for colonials, seemed downright inept at his job.
was condescending to his young lieutenant colonel, George Washington, who commanded the blue-coated colonial troops, a group
Braddock clearly regarded as greatly inferior to his red-coated British regulars. Daniel knew that on wilderness soil the
opposite was true. Even Nate knew the same, despite his native British pride and the fact that one of Braddock’s regulars
was his eldest brother, Frederick Meriwether. Frederick was the only Meriwether brother who had not come with the family to
the colonies, yet he had been shipped there anyway on military assignment. The middle Meriwether brother, Clive, was a Pennsylvania
farmer living west of Carlisle. Nate had talked some about wanting to see him while he was in the area.
Braddock’s arrogance and incomprehension of the realities of wilderness military campaigns had spread through the colonial
troops even before they’d set out from Fort Cumberland. Ignoring the advice of Colonel Washington and Philadelphia’s
noted Benjamin Franklin, who had helped provision Braddock’s force, Braddock insisted on a full supply train of wagons,
and on marching his regulars at the front of the ranks, placing the colonial men, who were far more familiar than the regulars
with the terrain and Indian warfare, farther back. And he would give no heed to any notion that mere savages could prevail
over his red-coated army. The Indians that the French had recruited to help them fight might be a threat to “raw American
militia,” Braddock told Franklin, but against “the king’s regulars and disciplined troops” it would
be “impossible they should make any impression.” As for Fort Duquesne, the French-held outpost Braddock intended
to capture, it would fall easily in two or three days at the most.
The wagons rolled, and Daniel’s anticipation of a marsh ahead proved true. He guided his team carefully onto the
makeshift pavement of logs laid across the wet earth, and felt his teeth jar in his skull with every bump of the wagon. What
a road! What a campaign! Should have used packhorses.
So far Daniel had held his silence about Braddock’s ineptitude.
Daniel was just a young wagoner, after all. His job was to move the baggage of an army, not to second-guess trained officers.
But he couldn’t help but worry about one thing: if Braddock was incapable of advancing an army through the wilderness
in the most sensible way, would he do battle in the wilderness any better? Would he expect Indians and frontier-savvy Frenchmen
to fight by formal English rules of warfare? If so, the lesson he was bound to learn would be painful and bloody.
wagons trailed the soldiers deeper into the dark and rugged mountains. That night around the fire, John Findley talked about
the Kentucky country. Daniel Boone was transfixed. Three times before on this expedition he had listened to Findley’s
talk of that dark and rich land, where buffalo grazed in herds so vast a man had to look twice to see them all, where broad
stands of tall cane gave evidence of the richness of the land, where beaver, otter, mink, and deer roamed in such abundance
that a man could make himself rich with their pelts with hardly any effort.
But it was a dangerous land, too, prized
and protected by the Indians. A man could gather wealth easily enough, but whether he could make it out with his wealth and
his scalp was another matter altogether. It was only because of such calamities, Findley avowed, that he hadn’t come
out of Kentucky a rich man.
Daniel asked him if he would ever go back. Findley replied that he surely would, someday,
and make another try at riches. Kentucky was a wonderful place, a virtual heaven, except for the Indians. It lay there spread
out under the sky waiting for clever men to come pluck its treasures like so many ripe grapes. And if any didn’t believe
the word of John Findley on how fine a land Kentucky was, they could go seek out Thomas Walker, commissary general of this
very expedition, or Christopher Gist, Washington’s scout. Both had seen the Kentucky country. And Walker had spied out
a big gap through the mountains, the mountain notch the Indians called Ouasioto, through which ran the old Indian trail of
Athawominee, what the white men called the Warriors’ Path. By this route a man could cross the mountains from North
Carolina, or travel down the great valley from Virginia, and enter Kentucky by land rather than river.
eyes flashed as he listened to FindIey’s enticing words. Kentucky accessible by land through a route not very distant
from Carolina! Hearing Findley talk about it made the journey seem much more possible. Kentucky was a place he intended to
see one day. It was a closed, virtually unknown land now, but not forever. Someday it would be opened, and Daniel Boone would
be there when it happened. Or such was his dream . . . the dream of a young man who was at the moment only a wagon driver
on a plodding military campaign.
That thought brought him back to his present situation. Before he could turn his
attention to chasing dreams, there were challenges to meet: Braddock’s Road to travel, Fort Duquesne to capture. No
point in getting stirred up by a momentarily unfulfillable wanderlust. Daniel Boone rose and left Findley’s fireside
with a sense of resignation and regret, resenting the immediate and mundane.
The next morning the march began again,
and it was as before, but worse—more wagons breaking down, horses falling exhausted or injured or dying, carrion birds
flying above like grim omens, waiting to descend and feed on the fallen beasts. Time and time again the engineers found themselves
facing obstacles too big to overcome. The army would divert to a new course, winding along difficult and rocky trails, under
massive cliffs, across waterways that threatened to wash away wagons and cannon. Exhausted, frustrated soldiers began to grow
sick. Nate heard that his brother was among the ill but was still forced to march, and openly cursed the name of Edward Braddock
for having advanced this expedition to begin with.
They crossed the crest of the mountains and struggled on. George
Washington, himself beginning to fall ill, complained to Braddock that their current course was hazardous. By the time they
reached Fort Duquesne, the men would be weak and sick, unable to fight. For once Braddock listened and, at Washington’s
request, divided the force, taking part of it forward at somewhat greater speed and leaving the rest as a rear division, to
approach more slowly.
And so it went until the early days of July came, and the army at last neared the Monongahela
River. George Washington, carried in the bed of a wagon, was sicker than before. Fort Duquesne was not far away, and barring
a French surrender, the battle would soon be joined. From all indications Daniel Boone could see, Braddock still believed
the fight would yield a quick and easy victory. What other notion could explain why the general continued to march the more
experienced colonial troops to the rear of regulars who knew almost nothing of the frontier? Where were the scouts, the flank
guards? Did Braddock not realize the dangers of this approach?
Then came the morning of July 9, and the shining Monongahela.
And across the water, disaster that awaited like a crouched catamount ready to spring and kill.
All his doubts about Braddock’s way of making war were not enough to overcome rising excitement in Daniel Boone
as he drove his wagon across the Monongahela River. The crossing was quite a spectacle, done in typical British military fashion.
Certainly there was no secrecy about it. The “Grenadiers’ March” rang out across the river, shrilly piped
on fifes, and the soldiers resplendent in their bright uniforms, sunlight glinting off their weaponry. The British military
knew how to put on a proper show, Daniel would say that much for them.
Fort Duquesne was within easy marching distance
now. Knowing the French were surely aware of the force coming against them, Daniel wondered if they were afraid, and if they
would fight hard or give in easily, as Braddock was predicting. So far no opposition at all had arisen.
entire force was across the water, a brief rest was called, and the officers conferred. Where were the French and Indians?
Might they have fled already, or might they be waiting to surrender at the fort? Hope and concern made an uncertain mix.
decided to advance with great caution. Braddock sent out a small lead unit, followed by a larger force under Lieutenant Colonel
Thomas Gage, with the ax men coming behind. The rest of the army followed, wagons and cannon proceeding after, and more soldiers
backing them. The arrow point of the force moved into a narrow wooded slash in the mountains, the Turtle Creek Ravine. It
moved through without difficulty, followed by Gage’s men. The rest of the force was about to enter when trouble began.
wagon was directly behind Daniel’s. “They ain’t going to fight us, I don’t believe,” he was
saying. “I’m hearing rumors that the Indians have run off and maybe killed the Frenchies their selves!”
don’t put much reliance on rumors,” Daniel replied.
A popping noise rose far ahead, followed by others.
He pulled his wagon to a halt and stood on the seat to see what was happening. Commotion, smoke rising through the trees.
More pops—gunshots—and shouts in English and in French. And the unmistakable war cries of Indians.
happening, Dan?” Nate asked from behind.
“Ambush!” Daniel shouted.
The shots and yells
grew closer. There were screams now, death yells, cries of pain. Daniel saw red coated men running, falling, crying, bleeding.
There! He saw Braddock himself, mounted, moving among his men with sword uplifted, urging them back into formation, to fight
an enemy who was invisible. Braddock tried to force his troops into tight ranks in their brilliant scarlet coats. And now,
among the colonials, Daniel saw Washington. Fevered or not, he had left his wagon bed, mounted a horse, and was moving with
reckless abandon among his troops, who were taking to the cover of trees to fight on terms this enemy understood.
of the wagoners was trying to wheel his big vehicle about; an officer swept past on a horse, ordering him to remain where
he was . . . there would be no surrendering, no retreat. As soon as the officer was gone, the wagoner continued his effort,
then gave up, leaped from his seat, and began running back toward the river on foot.
“Frederick . . .”
Nate said. “My brother’s up there, Daniel!” He grabbed his rifle and jumped down, obviously intent on running
into the thick of the fight to find his brother.
Daniel vaulted out of the wagon seat and alighted directly in front
of Nate, cutting him off. “No, Nate. You can’t do any good up there. You won’t help him by dying.”
can’t let him . . . I have to . . . Get out of my way!”
Daniel put out a hand, grabbed Nate by the shoulder.
Nate shrugged it off. The sound of rifle fire and death screams grew closer, and the wind carried the stench of spent gunpowder.
going up there, Dan!”
Daniel Boone drew back his fist and hit Nate squarely in the jaw, knocking him down.
Nate lay stunned, gazing at the bright sky. Daniel followed up with a kick to the head that knocked him senseless.
his knife, Daniel raced to his draft horse and slashed the lines binding it to the wagon. The great beast’s eyes were
big with fear. Daniel led it around and stopped to scoop up Nate and throw him across the horse’s back. The horse lunged
forward, and Daniel raced to catch up. He managed to grab one of the lines and guided the horse to a stop. Clumsily, he gathered
up his rifle, then Nate’s, from the wagons, while still holding the horse and leaning against Nate’s legs to keep
him from falling off the beast. Daniel feared he would never be able to ride and keep Nate in place at the same time. Could
he tie Nate in place somehow? Was there time? He could abandon the rifles, but he didn’t want to be left weaponless,
not with a horde of French soldiers and Indians close behind.
John Findley rode up; he too had cut free a horse and
was fleeing. He saw Daniel’s predicament. “Give me the rifles!” he directed. “You just get Nate out
of here. Was he shot?”
“No,” Daniel replied. “Struck in the face.” There was no time
or need to explain further. He shoved the rifles up to Findley, who immediately galloped away toward the river. Danie leaped
astride the horse. The fighting was much closer now; his heart was hammering and his mouth was dry.
limp form with his right hand and guiding the horse with his left, he let the animal run hard toward the river. He splashed
across, as Findley had already done, then up the far bank and away, going as fast and hard and far as the horse would take
him, leaving the smoky, bloody Turtle Creek Ravine behind.
Dark stories spread among the soldiers fortunate enough to survive the two-hour carnage in the gorge. Everyone knew that
Braddock himself had been shot and was expected to die. Officially it was said that the foe had brought him down, but the
story among the men was that Braddock had lifted his sword against a Virginia soldier who had angered him, and the soldier’s
brother had put a ball into the major general’s back.
Daniel Boone didn’t know the truth and didn’t
think it mattered much; a rifle ball was a rifle ball, and dying was dying, so it was all the same for Braddock no matter
who shot him. Daniel wouldn’t grieve much over the man, who he believed had endangered his own troops by insisting on
formal battle tactics against a very informal foe. Only the continental troops under Washington had fought sensibly, taking
to cover in the trees and behind rocks, but Braddock’s battle style had put even them in more danger than necessary,
and far too many had died. About all the credit Daniel was willing to give Braddock was that the man had displayed tremendous
grit. Witnesses were saying that five horses had been shot from beneath him before he finally received his wound, and not
once had he balked before the enemy, even though it was an enemy he couldn’t comprehend.
Daniel was glad that
George Washington had come through unscathed. It was surely an outright miracle that he had. After the fight he had found
four bullet holes in his coat, and combed fragments of lead from his hair. It had appeared to some witnesses that several
Indians had specifically targeted the brave Virginian, yet none had brought him down, even though he rode defiantly in the
most exposed areas. Two horses had been shot out from under Washington, but still he had fought on, reckless in the face of
slaughter. Divine protection, several solemnly declared. Daniel would never forget the stalwart soldier’s courage.
was afoot now, as were most all the former wagoners. The horses that had come out of the fight had been given over to carrying
the wounded and dying. Groans and cries of pain punctuated the unending rustle of trudging feet and plodding hooves. Some
men whistled softly, trying to put a bright touch on a dismal retreat, but most didn’t even try. Shoulders slumped,
eyes vacant, faces gaunt, they moved like hollow men along Braddock’s Road, grateful only that they were still alive
and that the French and Indians had not pursued them. Beyond gratitude there was little to feel but a general soul-sickness
and the pain of whatever injuries they had received in battle or flight. The sorrowful, defeated mood was heightened by the
gloom of the thick forest, so shaded that even at noon little sunlight pierced the foliage arching overhead.
grimaced and rubbed his jaw. It was very sore, thanks to Nate Meriwether, who at the moment marched several paces ahead, keeping
away from Daniel. Nate was very angry, when he had regained consciousness after Daniel kidnaped him away from the ambush.
He had exploded in anger at having been restrained from “helping” his brother and struck Daniel with his fist.
Daniel did not retaliate. He understood how Nate felt. Still, he knew he had been right to stop his friend from plunging into
the fight. If Nate had done that, crazily hoping to find a single individual out of all the milling British regulars in that
hellish ravine, he would surely have died, just as most of the redcoats and half the provincials had died. Out of three Virginia
companies in the fight, only thirty men remained alive. The officers had fared about as badly. Of eighty-six English officers,
sixty-three had fallen wounded or dead.
The dead had been left behind with the supply wagons and artillery. Daniel
could easily imagine what desecrations the Indians had performed upon the corpses, and what had happened to the dozen or so
English troops who had been unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner by the Indians. If they had expected decent treatment
and later release, they surely had already been relieved of that vain hope at the fire stakes of their captors. He hated to
think of it, especially as Nate’s brother Frederick had not shown up among the surviving British regulars. The odds
were he had died or had been captured. If the latter, he was probably doomed for execution at Indian hands.
approached Nate cautiously that first night. Despite his assurance that he had done the right thing, he was bothered by Nate’s
anger. At first Nate rebuffed him, refusing even to talk to him, but then emotion suddenly broke through and he cried like
a child. He was not the only man to cry without shame on the shadowed road back to Fort Cumberland.
have helped him, Nate,” Daniel said. “You’d have died out in that ravine. That’s why I stopped you.”
know,” Nate replied through his tears. “I know.”
Braddock died the third night after the Fort Duquesne
battle, declaring in his final breaths that the next time he met such a foe, he would know better how to deal with him. Daniel
thought that comment not only pitiful but also terribly ironic. There had been plenty of advisers around Braddock who had
known better how to deal with the foe. Braddock had simply refused to listen.
By torchlight Washington read Anglican
funeral rites over Braddock’s grave, dug in the middle of the road that had come to bear his name. The army tramped
and rode over the grave so it would not be found by the enemy, who would certainly exhume and desecrate the general’s
corpse if they had the chance.
The retreat continued until the remnants of the army reached Fort Cumberland, only
to find it abandoned. They marched on to Philadelphia. Washington departed with his troops, and Daniel Boone and Nate Meriwether
headed back to the Yadkin.
But not directly back. Nate had not yet visited his brother Clive, the Pennsylvania farmer.
Now there was more reason than ever for Nate to see him. He had news to give—tragic news about their brother Frederick.
have people of my own here I’d like to see before I go home,” Daniel said to Nate. “I’ll be glad to
go with you to see your kin if it won’t belabor you to come with me to see mine.”
“It will not,”
Nate replied. “Now, let’s be off. I’m eager to leave this cursed army, though I dread to tell my people
what has happened.”
“All trials are easier when their weight is shared, or so my mother has always said,”
Daniel replied. “There is another thing she says too, and that’s that heaven will seldom let a man be smitten
without soon giving him a good thing to make up for it. If that’s true, then there will be good things coming to you
soon. Or at least you’ll be spared more tragedy.”
“Your mother is a fine woman, Daniel,”
Nate said. “But I hold no faith in proverbs. And there’s nary a thing good enough to make up for losing Frederick.
Nary a thing.”
They rode together to the little farming community where Clive Meriwether lived. Nate had never been to Clive’s
home and had to inquire about its whereabouts. It seemed a simple question, but from the first time it was asked, the responses
it evoked were inexplicably, disturbingly odd.
One woman went pale and withdrew silently into her house after Daniel
identified himself and Nate and asked about Clive Meriwether’s whereabouts. A man farther down the road stammered and
declared he knew nothing of Clive, when obviously he did. By then Daniel was full of dread, fearing that, contrary to the
sentiments of his mother’s proverb, the heavens were about to hand Nate another tragedy, after all.
something was wrong with Clive, and nobody wanted to say what it was.
Finally, at a cabin about a mile from the creek
upon which Clive was believed to live, Daniel’s worst fears were confirmed.
“Aye, aye, Clive Meriwether’s
gone,” a toothless old man there told them. “A sorrowful tale, his is. The redskins, cursed murdering savages,
slaughtered his family and carried Clive hisself off with them, slapping him with the very scalps of his loved ones. Burned
his place to the ground behind them. The dead wife and children were left behind amongst the ruins. A boy who seen it all
from hiding said the red devils took Clive off with them to kill somewhere else for sport, no doubt. Poor Clive was a friend
of you men, was he?”
“He was my brother,” Nate said in a whisper.
“What was that?”
the old man cocked his ear toward Nate, cupping it with his hand.
“Clive was his brother,” Daniel said.
“Nate here didn’t know nothing of this until now.”
“Brother, you say? Oh, aye, aye. I had
heard Clive speak of a brother or two. Mighty sorry to be the one to tell you such sad news. Clive was a good one.”
don’t know for a fact that he’s dead, do you?” Nate asked in a noticeably tightening voice.
he must be. It was redskins who took him. Ottawas. They show no mercy I’ve ever heard of. He had fought hard and angered
them. They surely killed him.”
“Where did Clive’s house stand?”
The old man pointed
west and gave directions. “But there’s naught there to see no more,” he added. “I told you they burnt
it to the ground.”
“I’m inclined to see it, anyhow,” Nate said. “Thank you, sir, for
Daniel could see little point in going to Clive’s place, but this was Nate’s business,
not his, so he followed along in silence. Though he ached to comfort his friend, he could find no counsel to give. Life had
handed Nate Meriwether two hard trials in succession, and there was nothing for him to do now but suffer through them. It
was as simple as that.
They found the cabin, now merely a burned-out shell. The sad remnants of the meager furniture
of the humble place still sat within the blackened walls. Nate dismounted and walked to where the front door had been and
stared sadly, then lifted his eyes and looked around. Nearby were three graves, marked with wooden crosses, all made of charred
wood left after the fire.
“That’s where his wife and children are buried, I reckon,” Daniel said.
“He had but two young ones?”
“That’s all, last I knew of it. Merciful heaven, what’s
happening to my family, Daniel? Smote down right and left by battle, fever, redskins . . .”
know what to say to you, Nate.”
“God himself is against me, Dan. It ain’t fair. It ain’t
right. Here I am, coming out here to do my righteous duty and fight the French, and what happens but my brothers are killed!
There’s nothing fair nor right in it.”
“It don’t seem so, no; though I won’t presume
to judge the Almighty.”
Nate shook his head and swore, first beneath his breath, then louder and louder again,
until he was shouting curses to the sky. Words yielded to tears, and he sobbed pitifully nearly half an hour until he had
no strength left. He was seated cross-legged beside the grave of a sister-in-law he had never met, rocking back and forth
from the waist, like a distraught child, sniffing quietly, wiping the last of his tears on his sleeve. Daniel saw he was wept
out, scoured to the soul by his grief, and knew that was good. The only thing a man could do in a situation like that was
to get past the tragedy and get on with living.
Daniel went to Nate’s side and knelt, putting his hand on his
shoulder. “Nate, you ready to move on toward the Yadkin?”
Nate sniffed and nodded. His face looked
very puffy and blotched.
“I am, too. But I’m right hungry. Yonder is a promising-looking grove that I’ve
seen three fat squirrels poke their heads out of in the time we’ve been here. If you’ll build us a fire, I’ll
wager you half a horn of powder I can bring back all three before another half an hour has passed.”
weakly. “You’re a cocksure old crow-bird, Dan Boone. I’ll wager you won’t bring back more than two.”
won the bet, and better, bringing in four squirrels before Nate had even got the fire coals worked down to a good cooking
level. They skinned and spit-roasted the squirrels and ate some hard, dried biscuit Nate had carried all the way from Carolina.
Afterward, they kicked dirt onto the fire and left. Daniel was pleased that Nate didn’t pause to look back on the destroyed
cabin or the graves. Not looking back was the best way. The only way a man could get by, oft times.
Daniel picked up a stone, squinted upward at a knot on a branch above him, took aim, and threw. The stone shot upward,
falling short of the targeted knot, and arced over and down, splashing into the water of the Schuylkill River. Daniel shifted
about to a more comfortable sitting position on the riverbank, dug another stone from the mud, and tried again. He missed
the knot by an even greater margin than the first eleven times he had thrown at it. Sighing, he lay back on the bank and put
his hands behind his head, staring up into the sky.
All was amazingly peaceful there along the familiar old Schuylkill.
Alone, far from home, free now from military duty, Daniel could close his eyes and almost convince himself that all the intervening
years since his boyhood on this very river were but a lazy afternoon’s daydream, and in the evening he would rise and
find his family awaiting him at the supper table in the old Squire Boone house in the Yadkin Valley, young manhood, and the
sorrows of Braddock’s Road still far in the future and unseen. Along this beautiful stretch of river there seemed to
be no such thing as time, and Daniel found its lack nothing to grieve over.
Farther down the stream he heard a faint
splash. Opening his eyes, he saw that Nate had reappeared with a bottle in hand. Daniel didn’t know where he had gotten
it, but it didn’t surprise him. Nate always found liquor when he wanted it. Probably he had obtained this bottle somewhere
in nearby Exeter. The splashing sound had resulted when Nate kicked something into the river, probably a stone, judging from
the painful grimace on his face and the way he was limping. He slumped down to the riverbank and rubbed the injured toe with
one hand while unstoppering the bottle with his teeth. Daniel decided to keep quiet and not draw Nate’s attention just
yet. If Nate was intending to get drunk, Daniel figured solitude to be a preferable companion.
Enjoying the sun’s
warmth, Daniel closed his eyes and forgot about Nate. His mind drifted back across the years to this very riverbank, to a
spring day, when the shad were running and the sky was clear and warm.
His mother had been with him then, cleaning
shad he had caught after a particularly good morning of fishing. The Schuylkill on such spring days was always lined with
Pennsylvanians out to take advantage of the abundance of fish, and several neighbors had been nearby as well, harvesting catches
of their own.
The warm sun had lured Daniel onto a flat rock ledge jutting out into the water. The rock wasn’t
occupied by a fisherman at the moment, which seemed a great stroke of luck to Daniel, who knew this rock had perfect contours
for a young fellow to fit the lines of his body into, a process which, if done just right, would make the hard stone as comfortable
as a feather bed. Within minutes Daniel had found that perfect niche and was drifting off into sleep, the voices of chatting
neighbors blending with the rippling of the river into a soothing backdrop of sound. It was wonderful, heavenly existence
as it was meant to be enjoyed.
All came to an abrupt end with a cold and shocking splatter. Roaring in surprise,
Daniel jolted upright, breathless, swiping at the unidentified and gruesome something that had been thrown onto him from somewhere.
realized the foul substance consisted of water, blood, and fish entrails when he heard the insulting sound of feminine laughter.
Fury rising in him, and with fish guts hanging from his hair and smearing his face, he looked up and saw two neighbor girls
enjoying his predicament. One of them held an oaken bucket from which the mess had been thrown.
Daniel roared. He
wanted to swear, but he was too angry for that and at least subliminally aware that his mother was within earshot, so he merely
roared, like a provoked beast. Lunging forward, he pounded one of the girls in the face with his fist, drew back, and gave
the same to the other. It was done before he even realized what he was doing.
For a good Quaker boy to strike anyone—even
worse, a girl—was unheard-of. After the deed was done, Daniel stood panting and heaving, the girls gaping up at him
from the ground, the first signs of bruising showing where his fist had struck them. Bursting into tears, they leaped
up and ran to their mother and told what the terrible Boone boy had done to them and for no reason except that they had played
a simple prank on him.
Lying on the bank now, with that spring day years behind him, Daniel still had to smile as
he recalled how his mother had risen to defend him for the indefensible. Challenged by the girls’ mother to account
for her son’s act, Sarah Boone had stood up straight and declared, “If thee has not raised thy daughters to behave
better than they have toward my boy, then it is time they be taught manners. My Daniel has given them no more than they deserved.”
the bank Nate dropped his bottle and it broke. Opening his eyes, Daniel sat up. Nate was cursing, stomping clumsily about
with a jagged piece of the bottle in each hand and his clothing wet with spilled and wasted liquor. With a final oath Nate
threw the pieces of the bottle into the river, walked back up the path, and sat down against a tree, arms crossed over his
chest, back turned toward the river. A petulant child, he seemed to Daniel Boone. An unappealing characteristic, but Daniel
supposed if anyone had cause to be childish at the moment, it was Nate.
Daniel stood, yawned, and stretched. Giving
one final look to the peaceful river, he turned reluctantly and headed toward the pouting, semi-drunken Nate. It was time
to begin the long journey home to North Carolina. Already he had visited with his kin and a few old friends in and about Exeter,
including the family of the girls who had slopped him with fish guts years ago. The incident was long ago forgiven on both
sides, and now the subject of much nostalgic laughter.
In any case, there was no longer any reason to linger in
Pennsylvania and lie about on warm riverbanks, pleasant as that might be. There were loved ones to return to on the Yadkin,
kin who were probably even now worrying over him. They deserved to know he was safe, especially since word of the disaster
near Fort Duquesne might reach home before he did and make them worry even more. And besides, Nate needed to get away from
Pennsylvania, back to a place associated with home and happiness, not tragedy and death.