Red Belts - Hugh Pendexter - ebook

Red Belts ebook

Hugh Pendexter



The whole story revolves around the Northern Valley, which at the end of the 18th century had a great debt for the state, about 5 million. This noble kingdom, from which the state of Tennessee was to be created, was conquered by the confiscation and rifles of the settlers over the mountains and cost North Carolina neither blood nor money. The republic was too young to develop. This is a historic event for North Carolina. How could she get out of this situation?

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With its sixty cabins and new log court-house Jonesboro was the metropolis of the Watauga country. The settlers on the Holston and Nolichucky as a rule lived on isolated farms, often entirely surrounded by the mighty forest. Outside the tiny communities along these three rivers the Western country was held by red men, wild beasts and beastly white renegades. There were no printing-presses, and it required thirty days for a backwoods horseman, familiar with the difficult mountain trails, to make the State capital five hundred miles away.

The Watauga region contained reckless and lawless men, and anarchy would have reigned if not for the summary justice occasionally worked by the backwoods tribunals. North Carolina did not seem vitally concerned about her children over the mountains. Perhaps “step-children” would more nearly describe the relationship, with the mother State playing the rôle of an indifferent dame.

On a July morning in 1784 the usual bustle and indolence of Jonesboro were in evidence. Men came and went in their linsey trousers and buckskin hunting-shirts, some for the fields, some for the chase. A group of idlers, scorning toil, lounged before the long log tavern kept by Polcher, quarter-blood Cherokee and whispered to be an agent of the great Creek chief, McGillivray.

The loungers were orderly enough, as a rule, almost secretive in their bearing. Plotting mischief to be carried out under the protection of night, honest men said. Polcher seemed to have complete control of this class, and more than one seriously minded settler in passing scowled blackly at the silent group.

On this particular morning, however, Lon Hester was disturbing the sinister quiet of the tavern with his boisterous manners and veiled prophecies. He held an unsavoury reputation for being strangely welcome among hostile Cherokees, even free to come and go among the “Chickamaugas”–renegade Cherokees, who under Dragging Canoe had withdrawn to the lower Tennessee to wage implacable war against the whites.

Polcher followed him anxiously from bar to door and back again, endeavouring to confine his loose tongue to eulogies on the rye whisky and the peach and apple brandy. The other habitues saw the tavern-keeper was deeply worried at Hester’s babblings, yet he seemed to lack the courage to exert any radical restraint.

“Got Polcher all fussed up,” whispered one with a broad grin.

“He carries it too far,” growled another.

Hester, reckless from drink, sensed his host’s uneasiness and took malicious delight in increasing it. Each time he came to the door and Polcher followed at his heels, his hands twisting nervously in the folds of his soiled apron, he would wink knowingly at his mates and say enough to cause the tavern-keeper to tremble with apprehension.

This baiting of the publican continued for nearly an hour, and then Hester’s drunken humour took a new slant. Reaching the door, he wheeled on Polcher and viciously demanded:

“What ye trailin’ me for? Think I’m only seven years old? Or be ye ’fraid ye won’t git yer pay?”

“Now, now, Lon! Is that the way to talk to your old friend?” soothed Polcher, fluttering a hand down the other’s sleeve. “There’s some fried chicken and some bear meat inside, all steaming hot and waiting for you.” Then, dropping his voice and attempting to placate the perverse temper of the man by adopting a confidential tone, he whispered, “And there’s things only you and me ought to talk about. You haven’t reported a word yet of all that Red Hajason must have said.”

With a raucous laugh Hester openly jeered him, crying:

“It’s ye’n me, eh? When I quit here, it was ‘Ye do this’ an’ ‘Ye do that.’ Now we must keep things away from the boys, eh? ––! When I git ready to talk to ye, I’ll let ye know. An’, when I bring my talk to ye, mebbe it won’t be me that’ll be takin’ the orders.”

“I’ve got some old apple brandy you never tasted,” murmured Polcher, trying to decoy him inside.

“Ye’re a master hand to keep things to yerself,” retorted Hester, readjusting a long feather in his hat. “But mebbe, now I’ve made this last trip, the brandy will be ’bout the only thing ye can hoot ’bout as bein’ all yer own.”

Several of the group grinned broadly, finding only enjoyment in the scene.

The majority, however, eyed the reckless speaker askance. They knew his runaway tongue might easily involve them all in a most unwholesome fashion. Polcher’s saturnine face suddenly became all Indian in its malevolent expression, but by a mighty effort he controlled himself and turned back into the tavern.

Hester glanced after him and laughed sneeringly. As he missed the expected applause from his mates, his mirth vanished, and dull rage filled his bloodshot eyes as he stared at the silent men and saw by their downcast gaze that he was rebuked. Standing with hands on his hips, he wagged his head until the feather in his hat fell over one ear. In the heraldry of the border the cock’s feather advertised his prowess as a man-beater, insignia he would retain until a better man bested him in the rough-and-tumble style of fighting that had left him cock-of-the-walk.

“What’s the matter with ye all?” he growled, thrusting out his under lip. “Don’t like my talk, eh? Ye’re lowin’ I oughter be takin’ orders from that sand-hiller in there? Well, I reckon I’m ’bout done takin’ any lip from him. Ye’ll find it’s me what will be givin’ orders along the Watauga mighty soon if–”

“For Gawd’s sake, Lonny, stop!” gasped a white-bearded man.

“Who’ll stop me?” roared Hester, leaping from the doorway and catching the speaker by the throat. “Mebbe ye ’low it’s ye who’ll do the stoppin’, Amos Thatch, with yer sly tricks at forest-runnin’. Who ye workin’ for, anyhow? Who gives ye orders? –– yer old hide, I reckon ye’re tryin’ to carry watter on both shoulders.”

“Don’t, Lonny!” gasped Thatch, but making no effort to escape or resent the cruel clutch on his throat. “Ye’re funnin’, I know. Ye know I’m workin’ same’s ye be.”

“Workin’ same as ye be, eh? Ye old rip! Fiddlin’ round in the same class that ye be, eh?”

“Don’t choke me! Let’s go inside an’ have a drink. Too many ears round here. Too near the court-house.”

With a wild laugh Hester threw him aside and derisively mocked:

“Too near the court-house, is it? Who cares for the court-house?”

And he grimaced mockingly at the figure of a man busily writing at a rough table by the open window. Then, believing he must justify his display of independence, he turned to the group and with drunken gravity declared:

“The time’s past, boys, when we have to hide an’ snoop round. There’s a big change comin’, an’ them that’s got the nerve will come out on top. The time’s past when court-houses can skeer us into walkin’ light when we feel like walkin’ heavy. I know. I’ve got news that’ll–”

“Now, shut up!” gritted Polcher, darting out the door and whipping a butcher-knife from under his apron. “Another word and I’ll slit your throat and be thanked by our masters.”

As Hester felt the knife prick the skin over his Adam’s apple, his jaw sagged in terror. Sobered by the assault, he realized he had gone too far. Instantly the loungers crowded about him to prevent outsiders from witnessing the tableau. Old Thatch whispered:

“He’s dirty drunk. ‘Nolichucky Jack’ must ’a’ heard some of it. I seen him stop writing and cock his ear.”

“To –– with Chucky Jack!” Hester feebly defied. “I ain’t said nothin’.”

“If you had finished what you’d begun, you’d never said anything more,” hissed Polcher. “You can drink your skin full every hour in the day, and that’s all right. But you’ve got to keep your trap closed. I’ve tried soft means, and now I’m going to rip your insides out if you don’t keep shut.”

Hester glanced down at his own bony hands and the long finger-nails, pared to points for the express purpose of scooping out an opponent’s eyes, then shifted his gaze to the grim faces of his companions. He read nothing but indorsement for Polcher.

“I can’t fight a whole crowd,” he jerkily admitted.

“You don’t have to fight none of us,” warned Polcher, lowering the knife and hiding it under his apron. “All you’ve got to do is to fight yourself, to keep your tongue from wagging. You say you’ve brought something. Is it for me?”

“No, it ain’t for ye,” sullenly retorted Hester, his small eyes glowing murderously.

“Then keep it for the right man. Don’t go to peddling it to Chucky Jack and all his friends,” said Polcher.

Glimpsing a stranger swinging down the brown trail that answered for the settlement’s one street, he motioned with his head for the men to pass inside. To mollify the bully he added–

“You understand, Lon, it’s yourself as much as it’s us you’ll be hurting by too much talk.”

“It’s that last drink of that––peach brandy,” mumbled Hester. “I’ll stick to rye after this. I can carry that.”

“Now you’re talking like a man of sense,” warmly approved Polcher, clapping him heartily on the shoulder. “Lord, what fools we all be at times when we git too much licker in. The boss combed me once till I thought he was going to kill me just because I got to speaking too free. Now let’s join the boys and try that rye.”

Outwardly amiable again, Hester followed him indoors; deep in his heart murder was sprouting. He knew Polcher wished to pacify him, and this knowledge only fanned his fury higher. And he knew Polcher had lied in confessing to babbling, for the tavern-keeper’s taciturnity, even when he drank, was that of his Indian ancestors.

The whisky was passed, Polcher jovially proclaiming it was his treat in honour of Hester’s return from somewhere after a month’s absence. Hester tossed off his portion without a word, now determined not to open his lips again except in monosyllables. Old Thatch sought to arouse him to a playful mood with a chuckling reminder of some deviltry he had played on a new settler over on the Holston. But even pride in his evil exploits could not induce Hester to emerge from his brooding meditations.

For the first time since he had won the right to wear the cock’s feather he had been backed down–and, at that, in the presence of the rough men he had domineered by his brutality. Of course it was the knife that had done it, he told himself, and yet he knew it was something besides the knife. If Old Thatch had held a knife at his throat, he would have laughed at him. No, it wasn’t that; it was the discovery that there dwelt in Polcher’s obsequious form a man he had never suspected. The knowledge enraged while subduing him. He recalled former insolences to the tavern-keeper, his treatment of him as if he were a humble servitor.

It was humiliating to know that, while he was sincere in his behaviour, Polcher had played a part, had tricked him. He knew that Polcher would gladly have him resume the rôle of bully, swear at him and treat him with disdain. He had no doubt but that Polcher would meekly submit to such browbeating. But never again could he play the bully with Polcher, and all this just because he understood how Polcher had fooled him by submitting in the past. This was gall to his little soul. The man he had looked down upon with contempt had been his master all along.

His smouldering rage was all the more acute because he had believed he had been the selected agent in mighty affairs; whereas, he had acted simply as a messenger. On entering the settlement early that morning he had smiled derisively at beholding the tavern and the usual group before the door. He had supposed himself miles above them in the secrets of the great game about to be played. Now his self-sufficiency was pricked and had deflated like a punctured bladder.

Being of cheap fibre, Hester had but one mental resource to fall back upon: the burning lust to re-establish himself in his own self-respect by killing Polcher. He had been grossly deceived. He had been permitted to believe–nay, even encouraged to believe–the breed was only the vintner to the elect. It was while wallowing in the depths of this black mood that the sunlight was blocked from the doorway by the arrival of the stranger Polcher had glimpsed up the trail.

The newcomer paused and waited for the sunshine to leave his eyes before entering the long and dimly lighted room. His hunting-shirt was fringed and tasseled and encircled by a bead-embroidered belt. From this hung a war-ax, severe in design and bespeaking English make. His long dark hair was topped with a cap of mink-skin. In his hand he carried the small-bore rifle of the Kentuckians. The loungers drew aside to both ends of the bar, leaving an open space for him. He took in the room and its occupants with one wide, sweeping glance; hesitated, then advanced.

It maddened Hester to observe how servilely Polcher leaned forward to take the stranger’s order. The other men, seemingly intent on their drink, quickly summed up the newcomer. A forest-ranger fresh from Kentucky. He stood nearly six feet in his moccasins and carried his head high as his grey eyes ranged deliberately over the two groups before returning to meet the bland gaze of Polcher.

In a drawling voice he informed–

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