The Thirty-Ninth Man
“Damn it mon . . . ya beat me again.” McAllister threw down his cards with venom while the Indian seated opposite cackled in glee at the Scotsman’s misfortune. It was the third hand in a row and Jacob was wild-eyed, in part due to blathering intoxication.
In general, things came easily to Jacob McAllister. He enjoyed good looks and physical stature beyond most men, and women adored him; tall, a superb athlete, but with a failing centered on alcohol, a lazy disposition, and a total lack of moral character.
They had been at it for seven hours, drinking cheap whiskey over the game that turned heavily in favor of the Indian, and Jacob’s bile overflowed. As his left hand slammed the remainder of his stake on the table, his right reached to his side, and with purpose rose to bury the blade of his knife well into the planks serving as their gaming table. “One more hand ya naked savage and I slit yer blasted throat ear-t-ear.”
The Indian, eyes placid under the influence of substantial amounts of alcohol, misunderstood the action and instead of seeing it as a threat, viewed it as a bet. Jacob’s knife was of unusual beauty with a keen edge that never dulled and was widely admired by all who saw it, and the Indian greatly desired to have it as his own. Thinking it of extreme value, he instructed his Algonquin mates, themselves weak of leg from too much drink, to retire to his lodge and fetch his most valuable possession. They soon returned, since his lodge was the closest to the emporium in which they sat, leading his reluctant daughter.
Through dull eyes, foggy mind, and heightened expectations, Jacob viewed the Indian’s wager with carelessness and accepted the ante.
Cards were dealt and played, and Jacob stumbled from the saloon with his prize in tow while the poor Indian sat in incredulous dismay, watching his daughter dutifully exiting with the Scotsman.
Upon awakening the following afternoon, Jacob stared through painful eyes at his prize, and determining the folly of his actions, reasoned he would return her and demand restitution.
The makeshift camp in which the saloon was located was a conglomeration of diversity. This was a gathering place for immigrants with a desire for total independence and prosperity unavailable to them in their homelands. Among them were many with shady pasts, escaping to avoid prosecution for misdeeds back home. Most were French, some English, Scots, Swedes, and Irish, all there to try their hand at the fur trade, all lusting for the fast track to wealth. Spread among the tents and half-built structures were pockets of Algonquin Indians seeking employment as guides to rich trapping areas known only to them.
With the woman in tow, he stalked the camp looking for the man who had lost her. He found him on the backside of a wooden shed, sound asleep, leaning against the rough-cut planks that formed the shed wall. With careless ease, he placed his boot on the man’s shoulder and pushed him over.
“What the hell ya mean, dumpin’ the squaw on me?” Jacob yanked the woman by the wrist and propelled her toward the Indian who was now awake and trying to stand. She narrowly missed plowing into him before slamming into the shed wall.
The unfortunate Indian, not understanding a word, struggled to comprehend what was happening. His head hurt, his mouth was dry, and he had to throw up, and in front of him stood a very large white man who was yelling and gesturing wildly while another person lay on the ground to his left.
Using the wall for support, he straightened and did his best to stop the world from spinning. He stood in an unsteady fashion for a short time before the spinning began anew causing him to lose his balance and stagger in the direction of the invectives being hurtled his way. With arms outstretched, he reached for the white man to avoid falling on his face.
Jacob viewed the move as a threat. Stepping to one side, he drew his knife, and as the Indian fell forward, he plunged it into his chest.
Realizing the impact of his action, he lit out for the wild land to the south figuring to make the White Mountains, where he could hook up with one of the logging outfits known to operate in the area.
On his third night out the weather turned and the high winds drove frozen pellets of snow into the open sleeves and collar of his tattered Mackinaw. With fingers unable to grasp and feet numb from the cold he squatted beneath a large cedar, and hugging its trunk, reconciled his death.
The ethereal figure drifted among the blowing snow closing the distance between them as Jacob struggled to fully open frozen eyelids, then he had the sensation of floating toward the unnoticed opening in the rock wall . . . before he lost consciousness.
She was taller than most, thin and angular of body with a wide nose centered on a broad impassive face that would have been more at home on a stodgy squaw. Her Algonquin name was Kanti—Woman Who Sings, and she had been on Jacob’s tail the past three days, fearful of approaching him, yet unable to return to her people. The dishonor of her rejection by the white man ensured her outcast status and a life forever on the fringe of their encampment in virtual servitude. Her best chance was acceptance by the cruel Scotsman who had won her on a bet, so she dogged him, moving with the ease of a deer, following the unmistakable trail left by the man in front.
The signs of a pending storm were evident, and seeing no attempt by the Scotsman to find shelter, she broke away, making a beeline for a promontory ahead, hoping to find a place to ride it out. As if by providence, she happened upon a substantial cave. Blackened rock around the entrance told her it had been used before, and inside was a heap of deadwood, unburned, awaiting the flame. There she huddled by the warmth of the fire for several hours while the wind packed the hard driven snow into exposed crevasses and made huge drifts on the leeward side of trees and boulders. She thought about the man outside, fearsome in countenance yet childlike in his inability to see the signs. She knew she must try to save him.
Leaving the warmth of the cave, the fierce wind slamming ice pellets against her skin, she found it necessary to hold her hand in front of her face, peering between slightly parted fingers to protect her eyes. Struggling forward through the blinding snow, unable to see more than a few feet through the foggy whiteness, the Great Spirit interceded and a momentary calm fell about her, lifting the veil of white and exposing the figure hunkered in the stand of cedars twenty feet to her left. Approaching without hesitation she clamped on to the neck of his Mackinaw and dragged him toward the shelter of the cave.
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