Excerpt – The Valley

Malachi Fisher was a young, wiry greenhorn, newly arrived to the frontier last fall as the first snow began settling to the ground. He could shoot fair enough and was getting better, but there was a long road to travel before he shed all the habits of his coastal city upbringing. The promise of a better life, an easier life, seemed somewhat empty so far. It was a much harder lifestyle than he had imagined. With close-cropped black curls and little facial hair, he resembled in some ways a boy short of manhood. Bright green eyes reflected the spark of youth. Born to parents of moderate means, he was raised in Philadelphia. His father was a printer who dreamed of his son following in his footsteps and began his instruction as an apprentice at an early age. Malachi tried as he might to love the work his father held dear, but much to the latter’s dismay, the wilds of the forest beckoned to the young man stronger than the printing press.

Grudgingly acquiring his parent’s blessing, and some monetary assistance, Malachi obtained passage on a ship to Charleston and set off for the mountains in late summer of 1753. When he arrived in the valley, the evenings had just begun to cool and the leaves were in early stages of their bright fall transformations.

Cradled between ridges in the high mountains, the valley stretched for 20 miles east to west, split by a small river winding its way through hills and outcrops. Ten miles across north to south, the heavily forested terrain rose steeply from the uneven basin to the surrounding ridges. Hardwood interspersed with pine and hemlock gave way to fir in the upper elevations. Rhododendron and mountain laurel adorned the moist slopes and banks of the numerous creeks cascading down to join the river. Underbrush, ferns and moss covered logs blanketed the forest floor. Fields of boulders rose from the earth in places and nature’s elements had uncovered portions of others, seen intermittently among the carpet of green. Random color was provided by an assortment of wildflowers throughout the warmer months.

Deer, elk, wolf and bear were abundant, providing a large supply of food for each other and the human residents of the valley. Otters played in the river, squirrels and chipmunks chased each other through the leaves and up the trunks of trees. Raccoon, skunk, and groundhog were of the smaller less visible of the mammal denizens. Mountain lions also roamed but were rarely seen. They tended to avoid human contact more than the others, but their almost inhuman cry was often heard in the distance. Hawks and other raptors patrolled the skies above the more open areas and owls ruled the nocturnal aerial darkness.

There were only two roads, if you could call them that, which snaked into the valley. They were actually only Indian paths worn barely two feet across at the widest spots. The main road cut through from a southeasterly to west and south direction providing passage out of the mountains either toward the main Carolina colony to the east or southwest toward the lower Appalachians and the Tennessee River. The second road angled along a winding route north into the lowlands of the Tennessee plains, connecting there with more traveled trails to other settlements along the northern slopes of the Appalachians. A myriad number of other paths used by the Indians and a few settlers crisscrossed the area.

The terrain was rugged, not resembling other valleys along the foothills, and contained only sparse plots conducive to homesteads. These cabins were built from hewn logs on small areas found scattered through the vicinity and the homes themselves sat on the only ground that was moderately flat. Many were leveled by having more rocks on one end of the foundation than the other.

Vegetable gardens were near the house with larger plantings along gradual slopes. Corn was grown in the moist soil along the creeks or in hollows which tended to hold water longer than other areas. Barn, shed, corn crib and spring house, if present, were constructed and leveled in the name manner as the cabins. Ownership of livestock was not widespread and the few who did have a cow or mule, loaned them to others for plowing and other chores.

The peacefulness of the untamed mountains was deceiving for those not accustomed to frontier life. It could be unforgiving and lessons had to be learned quickly, nothing taken for granted. The work, arduous, and its reward, accepted daily. It was subsistence living at its most basic. The fruit of toil and successful hunting trips filled the home’s stores and fed the family. If there was excess, it was given to others if needed. Some surplus was saved to take over the mountains to trade for other supplies needed, flour, sugar, black powder and ammunition, salt, coffee, tobacco and possibly fabric.

Help could be garnered from others on nearby homesteads, but several miles lay between them. It could be arranged ahead of time, but if something came up out of the ordinary, no immediate assistance was at hand and it was dealt with as best could be done. Often, many days would pass without seeing anyone else in the valley.

The Cherokee had lived in these mountains for centuries, ranging up and down the chain of mountains hunting, raiding and fighting off enemies. The arrival of the English created tension as both cultures felt out the other. There were clashes, disagreements and even blows but time healed and the interaction now was mostly amicable.

Malachi spent a few days wandering the valley in search of a place to call home. He settled on a small parcel in the back end of a cove sheltered by slopes and hardwoods and set about acquiring the logs to build a cabin with. After taking an exceedingly long time, in his estimation, to fell only two trees, he sat against a rock and pondered his situation. This was going to take longer than he thought and would be a slow process.

“How are you doing there youngster ?”

The voice caused Malachi to jump to his feet and the axe slid from his grasp. The reaction was met by subdued laughter. He stared wide-eyed and agape at the two men who seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Standing just a few feet away, they both leaned nonchalantly against trees, rifles resting in the crook of their arm, and slight smiles matching the humor apparent in their eyes.

The black man spoke, “Now, listen, you cant be all jumpy like that out here, you will get yourself killed.”

“Letting someone sneak up on you like that will get yourself killed too,” chimed in the white man with him.

“True,” answered the black man, “but being all jumpy like that AND letting folk sneak up on you, well then you might as well dig your own grave.”
They now seemed to be having a conversation among themselves oblivious to the young man standing there silently following the speakers with his eyes.

“Well now,” laughed the other, “that could take awhile, especially if he is as good with a shovel as he is with an axe.”

This jolted Malachi from his stupor, “Now wait a minute, I’m from Philadelphia and….”

“And are not accustomed to cutting down your own trees ?” smiled the white man.

“Well, yes, but…..”

“How did you make it this far, son ?” asked the black man.

“What do you mean ?”

“What he means is how did you survive your trip from Philadelphia ?”

“I walked. I can hunt. I can make a fire and cook on it,” Malachi shot back.
The white man smiled, “Finally some grit. Inexperience is plastered all over you.”

Malachi straightened his back and answered stiffly, “Why do you say that ? Just because I said I am from Philadelphia ?”

The black man pushed his hat up with a finger and glanced at his companion. The other waved his hand and black man looked back at Malachi.

“Son, its as obvious as the changing seasons. That being one of the first signs right there. The leaves are changin and the nights are gettin cool. They will quickly turn to cold and the days will follow as the leaves get blown all over the place. There aint enough time to be building a cabin ‘fore winter gets here. There aint no community barn raisings around here, especially this time of year. Now, not saying you cant get no help in these parts, just not the right time of year. Another sign is how easy we came up on you and you didn’t even know it. We could have cut your throat and walked away and you would never have know anyone was here, ‘cept the being dead part, but you get my point. See, you shoulda had your rifle in hand and asking US,” with a thumb in his chest for emphasis, “what we were doing. Where is that anyway, your rifle ?”

Malachi scanned the ground nearby and his heart jumped. He did not see the rifle or his gear. With embarrassment, he looked back at the black man.

“Its alright son, its over there ‘xactly where you left it,” pointing at a moss-covered log a good 50 yards away. “O’ course that’s a far off from your hands in case you need it. It aint just men you need to worry about out here. There are bear and mountain lions. The one aint that bad, but them big cats, if you see one, its usually too late and they would get you ‘fore you crossed all the way over to that gun of yours. Besides, what if a big deer or elk was to walk by, heck that would be a great dinner for sometime for just one person. But you would scare it off running to your gun.”

His face and tone grew very serious, “Keep your rifle close and stay wary out here. Them two things will keep you alive.”

His smile reappeared as he continued, “Then there is the way you were swinging that axe. Looked like you were attacking the poor thing instead of choppin it down. I think there’s enough bark by that last one to make a basket from.”

“Ok, I get the point. How long have you two been out here ?”

The white man now spoke, “Since this past spring. You learn a lot out here quickly. Now out of all that’s been said here, there is one to be taken care of first. You need shelter and quick.”

Malachi stammered, “Can you two help me with the cabin ?”

“There isn’t time. We have some harvesting to do and hunting to fill our smokehouses. However, I know of a place you can use to get through the winter.”

Pointing back over his shoulder at the low ridge behind them, “On the other side of that ridge is a small cabin, its about a half mile. You can have that place and it might still have some stuff in it.”

“Whose cabin is it ?”

“It belonged to Porter, that’s the only name we knew. During the summer, he came by and said he was going back east, giving up. The place has been empty ever since. I don’t see why you cant have it.“

The black man looked at the sky and nudged his companion, “Light is failing and we are close enough to make it home ‘fore dark.”

He bent and lifted a deer carcass to his shoulders before lifting his rifle and turning to leave. Malachi had not even seen the animal laying on the ground at their feet. The other man agreed and turned to walk away.
“Take care of yourself, young man. Get on over to that cabin tonight and get settled.”

“I surely will. Thank you. And what is your name ?”

“Carver, Harry Carver,” he said as they walked into the growing gloom of the woods.

Though it was dark by the time he climbed down the other side of the ridge, the cabin was found as described, dark and musty and abandoned. Apparently, Porter had been in such a rush to head east, he had left the larger things not easy to carry, such as bed, tables and chairs.

Days passed quietly with only sporadic contact with a few others in the valley, including brief conversations with passing Indians. The biggest change to his new life in the valley would come in the form of Shannon Martin. They met when her brother-in-law, Harry Carver, gave him shelter one evening.