The Shadow Hunters
Chapter 1 - Part 1
"You don't finance your dreams ... you follow them!"
Abbey Chase, 1835
Even though she lived on the fringe of the great north woods, Abbey Chase
never gave the 1830s wilderness more than a passing thought. To her the
forest was a place for others, men mostly, the strong, rugged, silent types
who lived by wits and brawn and unwritten codes. They were trappers,
loggers, Indians and pioneers. But she had no plan or desire to explore the
big woods for herself, much less live there, love there, or ... die there.
Abbey wasn't sure about everything in her life but, most of the time, she
was sure about herself; she was a smart, pretty woman who lived a quiet,
orderly life. She was opinionated, determined and an enigma, but as
dedicated to doing for others as she was in getting her own way. And though,
even at her age, she hadn't yet married, she fully expected to ... someday;
but for now she figured it was better to go without a husband than to settle
for one. Though, truth be told, this was something else she wasn't so sure
This attitude, this free spirit and irreverence for the male dominated
world, especially on the frontier in the early 1830s, landed Abbey into
trouble from time to time. She didn't go out of her way to slight anyone,
though she had her own agenda and stuck to it. Be damned to anyone who tried
to push her one way or the other. Though, there were plenty who tried. She
always bucked the system, or so thought some of the men who came into
contact with her. In fact, it almost got her killed when she became entwined
in a scary encounter with a free trapper known only as, Big Frenchy. An
incident that would change her life.
It was a crisp autumn day; a few fluffy white clouds floated across an azure
blue sky. Abbey's cheeks were rosy, though she wasn't cold. All around her
the leaves had changed color. The maples alone were an array of vivid reds,
oranges, and yellows. The bright yellow popple leaves clattered in a gentle
breeze like an applauding audience. The oak leaves had turned brown and
brittle but she knew they were the most rugged, the toughest, of all the
leaves and most of them would cling to their branches all winter long. The
bugs were long gone this time of year. It was so good to be finished with
swarms of mosquitoes and flies. The air was fresh and clean and still
carried a hint of sweet apple as the harvest in the orchard behind the house
had just been completed. It was the kind of day she thought about whenever
she thought about autumn.
Abbey made her way along the path that connected the large yellow two story
house on the hill to the little town below. Many years before her father
Matthew Chase had built the house. He picked the trees and cut the boards by
hand. It was one of the very few structures in the region built with nails.
He ordered thousands from the local blacksmith. Matthew owned and operated
the lumber mill in town. Though, Prairie could hardly be considered a town
by a back East description, a village maybe, but most likely this early
enclave along the northern stretch of the Mississippi River would be
considered a settlement. So be it, it is still the only place Abbey ever
At the foot of the hill was Main Street with several board constructed two
story commercial buildings along one side and homes and cabins along the
other. It wasn't really a street, but a muddy road half the year and a dusty
trail the other half. It was just wide enough to let two wagons pass each
other, but barely. To the south, the road wound away from town passed the
big red trade barn where, among the livestock and other products auctioned
there, slaves were bought and sold in the dark of night and then sent down
the river. Many of the town's people hated the slave trade but they all
looked the other way. The frontier was a wild, wide open place when it came
to the law. Prairie was a 'keep your nose out of your neighbor's business or
get it shot off,' kind of place. Besides there was too much money to be made
selling slaves and too many men hired to keep the protesters away. All that
aside, dealing in human bondage was tolerated.
The road went farther south past a small army fort on the river and through
the few bluff side apple orchards. It finally just sort of disappeared into
the woods from lack of use. To the north the road traveled for almost ten
miles through river bottom farm land and big timber forests. Over it all
towered the high, rock faced cliffs and tree covered bluffs that lined this
part of the big river.
In those early years Prairie was a growing town thanks to the fur trade and
the army fort, but mostly because of the lumber mill. There was always a
new house, or barn, or building of some sort going up. On the end of town
next to the church, on the banks of the river, a 20 room hotel was being
constructed. It won't be long Abbey thought before I won't know everyone in
Rough sawn lumber built this town. The lumber yard and sawmill were located
on the river bank where the river current was harnessed to power saws. Most
of the logs came from up north and were floated downstream in massive
drives. A few years before steam powered boats began to appear on the river
and dock at the mill to load the finished lumber and forest products for
shipment down river.
There was another road in town. It ran along the river and separated the
rear of Main Street stores from the lumber yard and docks along the river
bank. Even though it was named Front Street this road along the docks was
considered back street after dark. The place where gamblers threw dice and
drunkards and thieves hid in the shadows. It was surely not the place for a
lady to travel alone.
There was a livery stable with 20 stalls, a hay loft, and a big side corral
on this road, and two working blacksmiths. The echo of pounded steel against
an iron anvil rang out through the town and off into the surrounding
countryside from dawn to dusk.
The church boasted a tall steeple and bell that would clang the Sunday
morning church goers awake with little regard for sinners or the early hour.
A saloon was tucked into a building at the center of town. It was not large;
inside the bar was hardly tall enough to lean on, though that didn't stop
men from lining up in front of it several deep at times. There were also a
few tables and chairs spread throughout the one main smoke filled room where
clusters of men played cards and dice. There was rarely a night went by that
some kind of disagreement didn't mix badly with the liquor and a fight would
The saloon did a brisk business with boat and barge men, with soldiers and
scouts, woodcutters and trappers. Under the tavern, with outside access
through a stairwell out back, was the ice house. The whole town used it. It
was just a small basement room really, no more than 12x12, the walls were
made of tight fitting hardwood timbers more than two feet thick. A carpet of
sawdust covered the dirt floor. In the winter men would cut huge chunks of
ice from the river and use horses to pull them to town where they could be
slid down planks laid over the stairs and into the ice house. The room
stayed cold and ice lasted well into summer.
There was a bank building, too; every morning, except Sundays, the
spectacled little banker would stand in front and look out across the town
like a king surveying his realm. It was his money that helped to build the
town. This building also served as a sheriff's office, though there was no
jail, no court, and no sheriff. There was an assortment of other shops and
offices along the street.
It was to the last building on Main Street, at the end of the wooden
boardwalk that ran in front of all the commercial buildings, that Abbey was
headed. McFarland's General Mercantile.
Though it was a quaint little town, at times Prairie was a bustling place;
and because there was a church there were wives and children. It wasn't just
a blood and guts man's settlement with fighting and cussing and drinking,
though there was, indeed, a lot of that, too.
The sweet aroma of fresh baked bread filled the air this day and it pulled
Abbey toward the Mercantile like a rope around a stray pup's neck.
McFarland's was a favorite stop, not just for supplies, but to socialize,
too. The tall, skinny Irishman had set out several tables and sold brewed
coffee, tea, and fresh bakery, and at this time of year ... walnuts that
came by the barrel on supply boats. The river wasn't just a route to ship
goods and supplies out, but also to ship in a few luxuries too, like the
McFarland had been born and raised in a saloon back East. His father and
mother worked 18 hours a day at the bar business. Growing up in a flat above
the barroom and doing his school work from a stool at the end of the bar the
younger McFarland learned to love the hustle and bustle, the friendships he
made in the tavern. Years later when he arrived to Prairie on one of the
first boats to come that far north, the settlement already had a tavern, but
not a general store. As a store keeper McFarland said he still had the
friendship and togetherness of a community center, "without the blood or
puke." It was a favorite brag of his.
The Mercantile was also a two story structure. The only real difference in
most of the buildings was the size and sign out front. They were all of the
same style, open retail space on the first floor and living quarters on the
second. They were constructed of what became faded lumber from local timber.
The Mercantile was a little larger than the other buildings along the road.
It measured 30x40 feet and was mostly open area with high ceilings and
several tables and chairs. There were two wood stoves on either end of the
room and rows of shelves filled with all sorts of products: grain sacks,
bushel baskets filled with apples, potatoes, and even sometimes carrots and
corn. And there was much dried food and fruits: cherries, raisins, plums and
apples. There were preserves and jellies put up in little crock jars, and
household staples like sugar, flour, corn meal, coffee, tea, smoked beacon
and other meats and even wild rice. Other shelves held bolts of fabric and
sewing needs. This was a well stocked store. The walls were also covered
with product: steel traps of several sizes, chains, ropes, tools for sale,
there were lots of farm tools and logging equipment: axes, hatchets, saws
and shovels. There was even a few nail bins, but nails were considered a
real luxury and very expensive. Even the ones made by the local blacksmith.
There was a long counter, too, where McFarland did his book work and checked
customer's purchases out. It was lined with penny candy, licorice whips,
cinnamon sticks, and such, and pickled meat like pig's tongue and feet, and
deer heart, and there was even a couple of jars of cigars. But the biggest
difference in the mercantile building were the windows. McFarland invested
in large front windows with leaded glass. There were several across the
front of the store, and they made the store a bright, airy place to shop or
sit and have a cup of tea and fresh conversation. It was a place to watch
the town go past. This was the most popular place in town, not counting the
Abbey made it to the edge of town and picked her way across muddy Main
Street to the wooden boardwalk. Shopping in town would be nearly impossible
without this walkway above the mud. The merchants knew it and built it while
the lumber mill supplied the boards free of charge. She walked along the
nearly empty boardwalk, the thick high heels of her fancy button down boots
clanked loudly with her every step. Her long, powder blue winter dress with
white collars and cuffs swished back and forth as she moved along. The
closer she came to the store the heavier the sweet aroma grew. She stepped
quickly, she was hungry.
Abbey pushed through the heavy oak door. A little bell attached to the top
jingled to announce her arrival. It was mid-morning and already the place
was crowded. The population in Prairie was small and varied. But at this
time of day, a few hours before the noon bell sounded, the men were all
still working and the crowd was usually all women. On this day, however,
there was an exception. One lone man, Big Frenchy a trapper from up north.
He was sitting at a table in the corner.
The ladies all ignored him. They came to town for the same reason Abbey
did, to socialize, to pick up a few supplies like a loaf of fresh baked
bread, or one of the homemade apple pies. McFarland sold pie by the slice,
too. In the summer he offered fresh baked berry pies. McFarland also served
a meaty venison or ham sandwich at lunch to a lot of the men from the lumber
mill and docks; if the ladies didn't get their bread or pie first there was
never anything left after lunch. The hungry men made short work of all the
prepared foods. This time of year the ladies came to buy nuts, too. Abbey
not only cracked them with a hammer and ate them right out of the shell, she
also used them in baking.
Abbey moved through the throng smiling and greeting her friends and
neighbors. Everyone knew Abbey and she knew them. When McFarland saw her
coming toward him he excused himself from two ladies who were choosing
material for winter clothes.
Abbey was a favorite of his, not just because she was the daughter of the
richest man and principle employer in town, but because Abbey was genuinely
nice to be around. A pleasant person with a good heart. Before McFarland
could reach her though, a commotion rose from that corner table near the nut
" . . . get the hell away from me you squaw bitch."
The voice boomed through the one room store. It was that trapper! Abbey had
seen him in town before; a hush fell across the crowd of women.
"You ain't worth it. I ain't wastin' these good nuts on the likes of you.
Not at these prices."
The trapper's face was barely an inch away from the beautiful face and fine
features of a young Indian woman. She was small and dressed in buckskins and
kneeling at the table side. Abbey hadn't even noticed her when she came in.
Now the Indian woman cringed under the loud verbal assault. He called her a
cheap whore not worth her keep. He told her she was ugly and no good. But
then it got worse! When he finished his tirade, he slapped her. Her head
jerked violently to the right then back again when he back handed her, too.
Blood droplets flew out into the room. Then the trapper grabbed her by the
front of her shirt, blood streamed from her nose and ran down her face, her
lip was split, he picked her up and shoved her backward into the corner. She
hit the wall hard and the thud echoed across the quiet room. With her back
to the wall, and only half conscious, she slid to the floor. When he stood
up and stepped toward her she cowered low and raised her arms weakly in an
effort to fend him off. He feinted a kick toward her head.
"Ha," the trapper laughed as he turned to return to his seat. "You stay
there 'til I'm done crackin' nuts."
The young Indian woman was scared and she shook visibly, but she did not
cry. Then he kicked some broken shells he'd thrown on the floor at her.
"Here chew on these if you're so hungry."
With that he split open the walnut in his hand and downed the meat inside
like he were throwing back a shot of whiskey. When his madman gaze swept
across the room no one would meet his eyes. A low murmur rippled through the
store. The women, the community would go about its business, this was life
on the frontier. It wasn't that they didn't feel sorry for the woman, they
were just glad they weren't in her predicament. They'd seen other trappers
treat their Indian wives like slaves with indifference and cruelty. Besides,
there really wasn't anything they could do. This too would pass. When the
big trapper was sure none of these lily white women were going to give him
trouble he grunted, smiled a wicked, self satisfied grin and went back to
sit at the table and crack nuts.
Abbey had watched the incident unfold in surprised horror, a chill ran
through her. Her heart went out for the Indian woman, and her hate for the
man had grown. Her feelings, her utter disgust came from some place deep
inside of her. To stand up for the woman was something natural to her, a
protective, human instinct, a civilized reaction. It was an unconscious
decision she made at that instant, the decision to help the scared and
injured woman. In fact, when she thought about it, there was really no
decision to it at all.
As protective and gentle as her father raised her, the fact was, Abbey was
brought up in a frontier town and, at least part of the time, at a lumber
mill. She spent a lifetime around rough neck lumber men and hard nosed
woodsmen. She'd watched, wide eyed, from a very young age many an argument
settled with fists. She surely didn't have the muscle and strength of those
men when it came to fighting, but maybe, as important, she had every bit of
Abbey turned way from McFarland and walked toward the trapper. She wasn't
exactly sure what she would say, or how she would do it, but she did know
she would rescue the girl away from this man, away from what must be a
living nightmare and she wanted to do it without anymore blood-shed. The
crowd of women parted out of her way as she walked to the trapper's table in
what seemed like slow motion.
The closer Abbey got the faster her heart beat, fast like the hunter's heart
as he prepared to slay the quarry, so why, she wondered did she now feel
more like the hunted.
"Don't do it, Abbey," came a whisper from among the women.
"Abbey, mind your own business," came another warning from the crowd.
She ignored them both and stepped to the trapper's table.
"Hello," Abbey said.
Her tone was friendly enough but a nervous squeak gave away to her great
apprehension. Why, she wondered, did she feel so nauseous? Though, she knew
the answer. She pushed wispy strands of long strawberry blond hair from her
face. The trapper didn't look up at her.
"My name is Abigail Chase and I'll come right to the point," Abbey said,
though she was surprised at the sound of her own voice.
The direct approach Abbey decided, it's the best way. That's how she was
raised. "Tackle a problem head-on, then get out of the way!" If her father
said those words once he said them a thousand times while she was growing
"The woman, the girl really, will be coming home with me."
Yes Sir Abbey thought, that was quick and to the point. She knew her father
would be proud of her. She stared down at the big man at the table covered
with broken shells. He still hadn't looked up at her. Abbey noticed that he
was a lot bigger close up than he'd been from across the room. His arms were
huge, his hands like fattened hams, giant paws really. Now that she was this
close she realized those were scalps hanging next to a large knife on his
belt. Abbey wished her father were actually there, with her, and not just
It was too late to worry about that now though, Abbey knew it. She had said
what she said and was now standing alone. She didn't run away. She couldn't
... she was too scared to move. A hush returned to the room, save for the
sound of nut shells cracked easily in the trapper's bare hands. His head
came up slow, a condition of the solitary trapper's life in the woods. There
was no fast move, no excitement in the face of danger; he was expressionless
behind his bushy beard and cold, dark eyes. He didn't respond and Abbey
didn't offer another word. She treated this like a business deal, something
else her father had taught her, she'd made her pitch then fell silent; the
first one to respond loses. She would wait for him to talk, she didn't care
if she had to stand there until noon.
"I traded two ponies that I brung back from the prairie," the big trapper
finally offered. Ponies and horses were one of the more popular forms of
currency on the frontier. But he sounded more like a man making an excuse
rather than a point. "I stole them fair and square from the Pawnee; plus I
also give a fairly good Tennessee long-rifle for that squaw! She's mine! I
aim to keep her, least wise 'til she's all used up ... I reckon maybe then
I'll be interested in sellin' her."
That was it, matter-of-fact and finished, too; just like Abbey. But she knew
men of the wilderness were of few words. Those long, lonely, winter nights
can turn a man inward with only the wind for conversation and a flickering
candle flame for company. Some of them turn this solitude into strength,
others become void of their fellow man, the feelings of their fellow man is
not for consideration.
None of this was of any consequence to Abbey. She acted whenever she thought
she should. If she saw a chained dog she would free it, a badly wounded
animal she would dispatch it, or a cruel brutal act ... she would end it, if
The crack of another nut shell could be heard from across the room. All eyes
were on Abbey, for none of the audience dared look at the trapper.
"I wasn't offering a price," Abbey said. "I was stating a fact."
Abbey was angry all right, and determined to see this through, but the
longer the trapper sat and cracked nuts the more apprehensive she grew.
To her surprise a smile curled at the corners of the trapper's mouth. It
sounded to him like she'd just issued some kind of challenge, and a
challenge was something any man of the woods could appreciate and something
he would never turn down. His life in the woods, whether it was a
temperature of 50 below, or a deep river to cross, or even a grizzly bear to
face down, was a series of challenges. He popped the meat of another walnut
into his mouth with one hand and produced the large skinning knife from the
sheath on his hip with the other. The blade was thick and shiny and flashed
in the sunlight when he raised it up. Abbey caught her breath, but she
didn't move away. Then without a word the trapper brought the blade down to
stick the tip deep into the table top in front of him. The thud from the
knife and the hush from the women echoed through the room.
Oh no, Abbey thought as she swallowed hard. She had gotten herself into it
now, she knew that for sure. The bell on the door signaled the arrival of
another customer, or maybe someone had slipped out; escaped, she thought.
Abbey wanted to turn and look, or maybe just turn and ... run! But she
couldn't, or at least she didn't.
"Woman," the trapper said to Abbey. "Unless you've come to offer me
something a whole lot sweeter than these here nuts, you're barking up the
The trapper's voice started out low, but grew louder and meaner, like a
growling dog gaining courage from his own bravado. When Abbey didn't answer
he stood up slow and pushed the chair backward across the hardwood plank
floor behind him. There was a funny little smirk on his face. Abbey took in
his entire spectacle. His hair was long and stringy and hung to the top of
his shoulders. Besides his beard he had coal black bushy eyebrows. His
buckskins were a tan color, or at least they started out that way. Now his
pants and shirt were dark with filth. He was a gross, ugly man and she could
hardly believe she even talked to him. He leaned close to Abbey, she could
smell his odor. Wood smoke, whiskey, and body odor combined to make a stink
that burned her nostrils. She'd encountered bad smelling men coming off the
frontier before, but it was nothing like this. Her stomach tumbled when his
eyes moved to stare directly into hers.
"'Course a red haired scalp of such luxury might get me that rifle back."
Then Big Frenchy laughed out loud while the other women behind Abbey, way
behind her she noticed, became exceedingly restless. The front door bell
tinkled again. This time Abbey was sure someone slipped outside. But here
inside, she held her ground, even though the inkling of regret that shivered
through her now began to grow. Only a glance at the Indian woman cowering in
the far corner restored her resolve. The woman was obviously from a tribe up
north. Her clothes were heavy, she wore furry leggings and a doe skin shirt
with loose fringe down the front and along the arms and legs. An ingenious
way to channel rain water off the garment. Abbey also noticed the moccasins.
They were buckskin and knee high up over the leggings, but the seam was
different then most. It ran up the length on top of the foot, which was not
the style of sewing from the local tribes, the Ottawa or Potawatomi or even
the Fox or Sauk Indians, who were common to this hardwood ridge and river
bottom region. The moccasins were Ojibwa made and she was a long way from
home. But then Abbey saw something besides the fear in the Indian's eyes,
something that made her glad she had stepped in; for now Abbey noticed a
glimmer of hope in those soft chocolate brown eyes.
But what now? What was she going to do now that push, looked as if it was
escalating into shove? Abbey's mind raced for an answer short of bloodshed,
especially when it seemed like it could very well be her own blood. She
remembered something her father said often in his business dealings.
"If you can't deal from strength ... bluff!"
Bluff, Abbey thought. Good advice. But how do you bluff when you're dealing
with ignorance? Then the idea came to her, she would appeal to his maleness,
to what usually proves to be an Achilles heel for a lot of men, she would
appeal to his ... ego.
"I, I was thinking more of a, a ... contest." Abbey blurted out the words
before she became the hulking trapper's second course. "Yes, yes, a contest.
A big strong man like you wouldn't be afraid of that ... would you?
Big Frenchy blinked, she had him.
"Let's see, what can we do. Yes, that's it, a knife, maybe we could," Abbey
stopped abruptly as she reached over to touch the handle of the skinning
knife sticking in the table top. A little voice inside of her was now
telling her, no, no, no! "No, no, not a knife a, a ... nut."
"Huh?" was the trapper's unintentional response.
Abbey's mind was raced for an idea, though she was making it up as she went.
"Who, whoever," Abbey stammered as she tried to think of a contest she could
win. She had his attention for now. She might even have him back-stepping
just a little, too. If only she could think of something. But she had no
idea what to say other than to say something, anything, before he started
liking her stupid knife suggestion. Big Frenchy became impatient and picked
up a walnut. Without a thought about it he squeezed it in his big hand and
cracked it open. A nut, Abbey thought. How dangerous could that be?
"Cracking, yes, cracking nuts," Abbey said, though she was still making it
up as she went. "Whoever cracks best ... wins."
Abbey was still stalling, still searching her racing mind for a better
answer, an out, a ... then, from the recesses of her mind the foggiest of
ideas began to take shape. If only she could get it all out. But it's all
she had. She ground the heel of her shoe into the floor and plows ahead.
"Yes, yes a contest of strength." Abbey said it but she had a hard time to
believe it. "You aren't afraid of that, are you? I bet I can crack more nuts
than you ... winner gets the girl."
Big Frenchy laughed right out loud and watched Abbey's face flush red. It
was such an outlandish bet, an absurd thought that this delicate, dress
wearing lady, this prissy town woman was stronger than him. It was such an
easy bet the trapper didn't bother to point out that he already owned the
Indian woman. When he finished his laugh he agreed to the terms, with one
"Winner gets you, too."
The smelly trapper pointed a finger at Abbey and growled. She swallowed
hard, she had him going all right, though not going in the direction she had
anticipated. Even so she couldn't stop herself and nodded her head, she had
to save face and take on the challenge herself. That's when she realized ego
wasn't reserved for men. Big Frenchy laughed out loud again. Now, he
thought, who has who?
With the contest set the big trapper wasted no time. For he wasn't just out
to win, but to show off, too. He swept up a walnut from the table top, and
squeezed. His fingers wiggled under the pressure for but an instant when
Abbey heard the sound of the walnut crack open, some of the shattered pieces
of shells and nut meat fell from the palm of his hand. This amazed her as
most folks used a nut cracker, or even a hammer, to get inside the tight
shell. Never had Abbey seen one of these walnuts cracked so easily with bare
hands, it was, indeed, a feat of strength.
The cracking sound was loud; scary loud Abbey thought. She'd had experience
cracking these nuts before and just one was a handful to get opened. The
shells were so hard she always used a hammer to crack even one nut. But to
crack one so fast. When Big Frenchy opened his hand and held out his palm
she knew the worse was confirmed. How could he do that with his bare hand,
she wondered, then she worried, for she was sure she couldn't equal it with
both hands and the hammer.
The door bell tinkled as more customers hurried away. The trapper laughed
again. Abbey breathed a long sigh and looked at the Indian again. The look
of hope was gone.
The big trapper wasn't finished. He threw the remaining contents of his
hand, shells and all, into his mouth and crunched it down like the beast he
was. Then he looked down at Abbey, for he towered over her. Now the crowd in
the little store became real uneasy, for now it was Abbey they all felt
sorry for. This was a first all right. They knew she couldn't possibly win
this contest, they knew Abbey was aware of that, too. What they didn't know
is what, if anything, Abbey could do. But as horrible as it all sounded, no
one could turn away.
McFarland wanted to object, but he didn't. What had Abbey gotten herself,
gotten him, into he wondered?
It was the one thing McFarland hated about the bar business, the bullies,
the fights. His father never had a problem. He'd out bully the bullies. On
the occasion that an extra tough customer wouldn't back down, his mother
wheeled a thick hard club the size of a porch rail. McFarland had seen more
than a few heads split wide open by that club ... oh how he wished for her
and her club about now.
"Your turn little lady," the trapper said, he was excited. His eyes were
wild and longing at the same time. He was used to these little contest of
strength. He was used to winning them and taking his winnings with him. "I
call that, just one nut. There's no way you can beat Big Frenchy, eh."
Abbey watched the trapper pick up a walnut. He tossed it in his hand a few
times then tossed it to Abbey. She caught it out of reflex. The shell was
hard and she knew she'd never be able to crack it in one hand.
"I'll give a break," Big Frenchy said. "You crack just this one little nut
with both hands and you win. After all, it has never been said that Big
Frenchy is not a fair man."
Big Frenchy laughed again. Abbey looked around the room for help. There was
none, and now it was the trapper's turn to finger the knife without actually
taking it out of the table top. Abbey smiled. But it was a nervous grin. She
knew it was now or never!
Abbey looked up when she realized the impossibility of it all. The aroma of
walnuts now served to make her stomach churn. She became nauseous. Her gaze
went from face to face of the other women, her friends and neighbors most of
them. Their faces showed pity, even fear, they truly were ... agasp! But her
friends were not helping and had become mere witnesses to her predicament.
There was old man McFarland, too. He looked worried all right, but
frustrated, and hoped this would all end friendly. He really liked her, she
McFarland had already resigned himself to what was the inevitable. He'd
let her play this out, but if push came to shove, yes, he would stand
between her and the trapper. Even though he wasn't sure that would stop the
mad trapper, or even, for that matter, slow him down.
The big trapper was enjoying the fear and frustration he read on the faces
of the crowd of city slickers, and he anticipated tears from his pretty
opponent. For he figured that's all she had left. In fact, that is what
Abbey was now thinking, too. He could hardly wait for her to beg for his
pardon. He had to admit she had guts, but so did lots of men he faced down
and it never helped them.
"Both hands, huh," Abbey said. She stalled for time ... but then, that
inkling of an idea she had earlier bore its own kind of fruit. She stomped
the heel of her boot into the floor. "How about a foot too? Please."
All of this grand emotion finally overwhelmed the trapper and he could no
longer hold his mirth back. He had won, he knew it, or at least he soon
would win, and then he planned to collect on this white beauty who needed to
learn her place. He'd have her, no matter how much pardon she begged. No
matter how much she screamed or cried. A bet was a bet. He laughed. Laughed
out loud. Laughed in her face, in their faces. Laughed with anticipation.
Laughed because he could, and he knew she wouldn't dare laugh back at him.
Now, he threw his head back and roared in his mirth. His bushy beard shook
like wind swept sage brush. Now who was ...
"Underestimate," Abbey whispered as she tossed the hard shell walnut in
front of her. She remembered yet something else her father had taught her
many years before, "never underestimate your opponent ... or yourself."
"Admit it, Woman," the big trapper said around his chortles. "You can not
beat Big Frenchy."
The trapper showed no respect. Abbey knew it was now or never.
"You said I only had to crack one nut it's true," Abbey said out loud. She
tossed the walnut in her hand to the trapper. "But I'll go you one better
... I'll crack two!"
Then with the agile stroke of a ballerina she brought her foot up; swiftly,
higher, with all of her might, she ... kicked. Her foot made contact with
his crotch and slammed hard against his body. A direct hit.
The trapper's hardy laugh changed instantly to an agonized scream with
barely a grunt between them. His knees buckled, he staggered. A great
misery raced up from his groin to grip his entire body. His guts cramped up
in unbearable agony. He wanted to vomit. He did. His face turned red, then
quickly blanched white. His eyes filled with tears. He grabbed his crotch
and managed a single, staggered step before the great, great pain paralyzed
him and sent him crashing head first to the floor. The table and chair
toppled over with him. Nut shells went flying. The big trapper landed and
quivered in a heap among his scattered shells, a heap of jiggling flesh. He
lay not too far from where the scared Indian woman sprawled. The trapper
moaned like the wounded animal he was, he moaned in pain and in panic. He
showed no embarrassment and clutched tighter still to his injured privates.
Abbey stood very still for a second or two, like a hunter who waited to see
if her shot was good. It all happened so fast. Then she straightened out and
took a cautious step toward the downed trapper. She looked down at him and
knew he wasn't getting up any time soon.
"Well Sir, I call that, two!" Abbey said with a smile of her own. "It sure
looks like I'm the only one standing. Everyone knows, in this neck of the
woods, the last one standing is the winner. It's kind of a rule. Of course,
you don't have to take my word for it, but maybe Mr. McFarland here, a
totally neutral party, would like to be the judge and make a ruling."
McFarland cleared his throat. He was as surprised as the trapper had been,
only, he noted to himself, he stood in a much better spot than Big Frenchy
had been. The storekeeper felt great relief now that he wouldn't have to
confront the trapper after all. He would make the ruling all right.
"Well Sir," McFarland repeated Abbey's words. "The contest was to crack just
one nut, but I think you did him one better Abbey, and please pardon my
French ladies, but that sure sounded like a couple of cracked nuts if I ever
heard them. And two cracked nuts sure enough beats, well, er ... a, Abbey,
Abbey smiled. She had, indeed won, for now. But in spite of McFarland's
relief and the obvious relief and smiles on the faces of the other ladies,
Abbey knew it wasn't over just yet. "When you have the opponent on the run,
close the deal fast, close it hard." It was just good business she learned
from working in the office at the mill. She bent down low to the trapper who
whimpered and writhed in pain. The table top was tipped over and close. The
big knife still stuck out of it. She grabbed hold of the handle and pulled
the blade free. Then she bent close and waved it in the trapper's face.
"The Indian girl goes with me," Abbey said to him so all could hear. "Winner
takes all. Fair and Square."
Then Abbey bent closer still and lowered her voice so no one but Big Frenchy
could hear. She flipped the knife expertly in her hand and barely nicked the
skin on the tip of the trapper's nose. A drop of blood rolled down onto his
He still lay quivering in pain.
"If you try to find her, try to take her back, you will see, first hand, my
talent isn't really cracking nuts, but cutting them ... off!"
Now it was the trapper who looked a little scared. He had reason to believe
what she said and at the moment he was in no condition to argue with her.
With that Abbey straightened up, she was still holding the wicked knife by
the handle. Only now she didn't hold it like an expert, she let it dangle
between her finger tips before she flipped it clumsily away. Then Abbey
turned around and went to the frightened, confused Indian woman. She smiled
and helped her to her feet. The store crowd stood and stared as Abbey and
the woman started for the door. When she reached where Big Frenchy still lay
Abbey smiled and kicked him in the testicles again. Big Frenchy screamed out
in pain, then fell unconscious. The silent crowd of women gasp in unison.
"Good day," Abbey said to the trapper in a calm voice.
Then she walked up to those town ladies. She wanted to say something, but
"Good day." It was all she said to them, too.
It amused Abbey when the ladies all jumped backward and out of her way. She
took note of how good the tinkling door bell sounded when it was her who was
Abbey helped the injured Indian woman along the wooden walkway, across the
muddy road, and up the hill. She provided a room and shelter in her big
family house on the hill.
The woman stayed for just a few weeks. Just until she regained her
strength. She didn't say much in all that time. Her name translated from the
language of the Chippewa Indians to Blue Morning Sky. Abbey just called her
Dawn ate ravenously, the trapper had fed her very little and only every
other day or so. Out in the woods she made do eating bugs and frogs and
anything she could catch with her bare hands and eat raw. When she wasn't
eating in the kitchen of the big house or wasn't sleeping in a quiet
upstairs bedroom - for it was the first real rest, first deep sleep she'd
had in months - she was sitting out on the side porch facing north, facing
Dawn didn't speak much, or any English and for the better part of her days
she sat quietly on that porch, a big wrap around porch. It covered three
sides of the house. The front faced down the hill to the town and the river
below, and west to the bluffs across the wide river on the opposite banks
more than a mile away. There was the sunny porch, it faced south. But the
Indian woman liked the north porch. Sometimes Abbey's father sat with her,
next to her in his rocking chair and he faced north too. "Birds of a
feather," Abbey whispered to herself at the sight of the two quiet dreamers.
What a place this Up North, this Big Woods must be to take such hold of
people Abbey thought.
Abbey made a conscious effort to give her guest as much space as possible.
Dawn had just been through a terrible ordeal and if she wanted to be alone
Abbey would oblige. For the most part there was nothing really different
about her than most folks. She seemed grateful for Abbey's help. And there
was the one night, well after the woman had arrived, when Abbey couldn't
sleep. As was her habit in the summer she would sometimes go to her window
and stare out through the moon lit countryside. That night while she was at
the window she spotted movement near the back of the house and noticed, to
her surprise, Dawn was there, and she was naked. Abbey watched as the woman
walk slowly around the perimeter of the garden of all things. The silvery
moon light barely glistened as it shown off her rich copper skin. Abbey
wasn't aware that this was a fertility ceremony for the garden. Three times
around by a naked lady of the house would assure good crops. It was all Dawn
had to offer as payment for the kindness she'd been shown here.
Then, one day the young Indian woman thanked Abbey and left, by herself, for
the big woods. She carried no weapon and no baggage, she had no map, but
she was going, and there was no question in her mind she would make it home
safely, deep into the great north woods, by herself. Abbey took notice, she
admired the woman's resolve and courage to set out all alone. It made her
question her own resolve. She wondered if she had what it took to accomplish
such a life feat on her own. But the thought of leaving home caused a chill
to run across her shoulders. She couldn't imagine such a scary scenario.
Though it was a lesson that would serve her well sooner than she thought.
Abbey was an accomplished woman, well rounded and cultured in spite of an
up-bringing on the frontier, at the edge of the great north woods
wilderness. What she lacked in a school yard education she made up for with
manners and a smile as bright as the morning sun. It wasn't that she didn't
have the chance to go away to a fine school. When she was growing up and had
finally read all the books in the town's one room school house her father
wanted to send her back east for college. But she would have none of it. She
wasn't leaving him or Prairie, not now, not ... ever!
Abbey could do many things well; she loved to garden and cook though, unlike
most women on the frontier, she didn't really know how to use a weapon. Not
even a rifle. She'd never really been taught properly and the times she did
try she ended up wasting much powder and lead with missed shots at tame
targets like crows and raccoons in her garden. Even still, she rather liked
her father's fancy and accurate, Kentucky long rifle. This long, heavy rifle
with a curly maple stock and silver inlays fit her shoulder and at times her
temperament well. Though she never felt comfortable holding it.
On the other hand in business she excelled. She had inherited her father's
drive and fearless personality and was born with a head for numbers. She was
blessed with a good imagination and her mother's penchant for tact, although
she never knew her mother. She possessed many of the skills needed to
compete in business, and in life, too, for that matter, with any man.
Abbey's imagination was limitless, which could be both an asset or
liability. At times she would just plain think too much. But this trait was
balanced by her ability to size a person up, to judge character quickly and
accurately. It was one thing her father sorely lacked.
Besides managing the daily household, and doing the housekeeping, and some
of the cooking, Abbey also loved to work in the family orchard that
surrounded their large two story country home on that hill overlooking
Abbey knew everything about planting, pruning, picking, and even profit in
the apple orchard business. She spent a lot of time at work, which kept her
mind from wandering, her imagination from running wild, and sometimes, her
feelings from hurting. Her father Matthew Chase was not just in the timber
and lumber business, but in the fur trade, too. A successful business man he
had accumulated a fortune since helping to found the settlement many years
before. Succeeding so well was no easy accomplishment in the Wisconsin
Territory of the early 1800s. This was a time when capital and business were
centered far away in the East. This was a hurdle in itself. But nothing
compared to the fact that out here on the wild frontier shadows could still
very well hide a savage or mad trapper type looking to lift a scalp for
trading purposes up river in the wilderness. Matthew conquered it all to
prosper and live well.
Matthew was a widower, his wife died a few hours after Abbey's birth. He
blamed himself all these years for not having his wife close to a doctor for
the birth of their only child. Instead she bled to death in the bedroom of
the new house he had just finished building for her. The newborn baby lay in
the arms of a local Sauk Indian woman who wept for the woodcutter and his
new daughter. Ever since he, too, worked hard to keep his mind occupied.
Both Matthew and Abbey knew all too well about a pain in the heart that
would never really go away. There were diversions from it, but never total
Matthew had his own agenda and worries while Abbey was growing up. He tried
to be as good and dedicated father as he could and was comforted when he saw
certain qualities, good, strong qualities come out in his daughter. Abbey
wasn't very old before he was confident she would succeed at anything she
put her mind and effort to. He remembered back to a fateful day when Abbey
was three years old. They were out walking in the winter woods. They were
really only a few hundred yards into the woods behind the orchard when she
decided she was tired of her hike and wanted to go home. He told her that
was all right and to just follow their tracks in the snow and that her nanny
Mrs. O'Harren was waiting at home for her. But Abbey said "no" she wouldn't
follow their tracks back but would instead make her own trail back to the
house. It was a moment to make a father proud! He knew then and there that
she was a very capable person. Besides, that's the way he raised her, to
never say, "I can't," and he would remind her daily when she was a child
that it was just a "crutch for laziness and a symptom of failure. We don't
waste energy saying, I can't." Oh how she hated hearing those words. And
now, though she was an adult and he said them less often, he still said them
and she still hated them.
The orchard turned a profit several years running. Abbey felt good about
that. It was further proof, when she put her mind to something; nothing got
in her way. At least, nothing so far.
Abbey's beauty was pure and statuesque. She was tall at nearly six feet
with a full bosom atop a willowy frame and comfortable hips. She was yet to
feel the pinch of a girdle or corset around her middle and she was not
ashamed, on occasion, to wear pants to town. This was something a headstrong
woman could get away with on the frontier. There were other women - mostly
trappers wives who wore britches and Indian woman who wore buckskin pants.
Abbey always carried herself with grace and an easy going manner. Her body
had yet to be ravished by the effects of child bearing and she turned heads
when she walked along the plank boardwalk that lined Main Street. And though
she'd loved to be appreciated for her intelligence and demeanor, at least
once in a while, she knew her persona had nothing to do with the looks she
received from the old men, or whistles from the young ones. This made her
Abbey wore a thick, long crop of wavy strawberry blond hair; it would
cascade across her shoulders in a loose natural wave before falling to the
middle of her back. Her skin was fair and sunburned easy, and her features
were finely chiseled. She had a smile that was wide and genuine, for it was
rooted directly to her heart. But it was her eyes that set her apart from
other women; they mesmerized men and were her most stunning quality. Jewels!
Framed by that rusty hair, they were a shade of blue so vibrant, so lovely,
one just knew the Almighty painted them with the same brush He used to paint
the skies in heaven.
Abbey's beauty affected men differently. But it affected all of them. She
decided most men fell into two basic categories. On the one hand there were
those who wouldn't give her anything, especially credit for good ideas,
simply because she was a beautiful woman. Although, this never really
bothered her. She learned that being underestimated can actually create
opportunities in life. Then there was the man who would give her everything
in the world because of her beauty. She learned to use these misjudgments by
men to her advantage, too. Men would play it both ways, but she could too.
In business she'd size up a man then go for the throat. That's the way it
was. She'd learned to use her beauty for her benefit at a very young age.
As she matured Abbey combined her looks with her brains to come out on top
most of the time. On the occasions she worked at the lumber mill for her
father she liked to not only earn the respect of the businessmen she dealt
with, but best them if she could. She sold finished lumber and arranged to
ship it down river from one hand and purchase timber with the other. She
haggled fur prices with every fur company or single trapper who came through
the door with a single pelt or a whole pack. Though there were times, as
with Big Frenchy, when she bit off much more then she could chew.
Unfortunately she never realized this until it was to late.
For the most part Abbey liked people. She had the personality and grace to
interact comfortably, even among strangers or before crowds. She was
gregarious and could strike up a conversation with anyone. Though there was
another side to Abbey, too. A private side. The hidden part of her
character. She very much prized her time by herself; she always had, and
now, the older she got the more private she became. Indeed, at times, there
were two different Abbeys; happy and outgoing most of the time, and then sad
and even sullen other times. She realized she did like to be alone. Even as
a child running through the apple orchard, there were times to not smile or
laugh, or try to make someone else happy. There were times when she just
wanted to cry and not explain why, to be by herself, on her own.
Though Abbey's was a happy, comfortable life, at times it was as joyless as
a gray winter sky. For of all the things her father's success and money
could bring her, it couldn't bring the one thing she thought about most, the
one thing that could soothe the burning ache that was always present in the
pit of her stomach and in the back of her mind.
Abbey Chase never felt the warmth and love of her mother. She never saw that
smile or felt those arms around her, a special hug, a mother's hug. And
though she never felt the love from a mother she hoped some day she could
still give a mother's love, give a love she had never received. It's just
the right man hadn't come along yet, at least she didn't think he had.
Abbey had certain ideas about the right man, and falling in love. She
remembered once when she was down on the docks behind the lumber mill as a
passenger steam boat docked. The craft had originated way south in St.
Louis. On it was a local woman and her two daughters returning from a
pleasure trip to visit her relation. On the dock waiting for them was her
husband and the girl's father. He had a bouquet of flowers for each of them.
But for her, his wife, he had a the biggest, most colorful bouquet of all.
When they came down the gang plank he went to his wife first and hugged and
kissed her and you could tell by the look on his face, oh, how he'd missed
her. That's how Abbey wanted a man to feel about her, too.
Until then she would spend her life under a protective wing of a worried,
well meaning father.
Matthew was a good man, a good father and, from the beginning, he tried his
best to be a good mother, too. But providing the nurturing that a mother
would give was the one test in his life Matthew had failed. In fact, because
of it, unintentionally he made Abbey feel it was her fault she had no mother
and as a result she had grown up in an atmosphere of guilt. It was all her
fault her mother had died and her father was lonely. He said so all the
"I've already lost one girl," he would often say, for any reason from why
she shouldn't climb in the stately old oaks in the yard when she was a young
tomboy, to why she shouldn't spend time alone along the docks or in the
woods surrounding the town. Her father's well-meaning but selfish words
drove the stake of guilt further yet into Abbey's innocent heart. Because of
it she had trouble putting her faith in anyone. "I don't want to lose you,
It was an unconscious deed on Matthew's part, this spreading of guilt, for
he adored his daughter and indeed, at times doted over her. He tried to
divide his time equally. Half his waking hours were spent at home, watching
his daughter grow from a bouncing baby to a dimple cheek little girl, to a
feisty know-it-all teenager who could manipulate her father with a smile.
This was also the time in her life when she wanted more time to herself. She
spent a lot of time alone in the apple orchard behind the house at the foot
of the rocky, rugged bluffs that lined the river valley. Sometimes she'd
even climb trees the way she did as a kid and eat apples all day long
beneath those protective outcroppings above. She loved the solitude there
and the sweet smell of the apples were almost intoxicating. She never tired
of it. The orchard was her own little refuge.
From the tree tops she could see the town nestled at river's edge.
Especially the tallest structure, the church steeple. She loved to listen to
the old iron bell echo through the countryside. Clang, Clang, Clang. She
loved the way the sound vibrated and skipped out across the river's surface
as it beckoned the faithful to come through its doors. Abbey had spent every
Sunday morning in that church. Matthew was a devout man and he enjoyed
taking his daughter up to the first pew for all the congregation to see.
The other half of Matthew's time he spent at work in the office and in the
yard of the lumber mill on the riverbank. This was the land of plenty for a
lumber man like Matthew. The older Abbey grew and the more successful his
business became, the less time Matthew had to spend with her in their
beautiful house on the hill.
Business was good on the frontier in the 1830s. This area was settling and
growing. There was a call for lumber ... all the lumber that Matthew's men
and saws could produce. His crews of lumberjacks would float huge log drives
down creeks and rivers up north and out into the Mississippi, and finally,
downstream to the mill. There were behemoth hardwoods: oaks, hickory, and
maple trees from the bluffs and coulees in the local region, and tall
straight pines from farther north.
Prairie took on barge traffic, steamers, from the south which could deliver
any kind of goods from the more civilized world back east and south. In
return they ferried out exotic goods like beaver pelts, bear skins and many
other furs; they stacked as much finished lumber on the decks of these steam
driven river vessels as they could hold. Matthew could get many times the
money for finished and rough cut lumber delivered on a boat than he would
receive by sending down a float of raw timber logs.
Since a good business man knew to diversify and to always have an eye on the
future Matthew invested money in a second business. A fur trading and
trapping business. Though, up north, the main thrust of the fur trade
business had come and gone almost 30 years before by now the resource was
coming back. There weren't the beaver pelts to be had as in years gone by,
but there was a market for other fine and exotic furs still to be found in
the northern forest. Wolf, coyote, bear, especially grizzly bear hides, and
even deer and elk hides brought a price. As did the forest buffalo hides.
These giant beasts lived mostly in the woods surrounding the St. Croix
Barrens way up north. Matthew intended to hunt them someday. There was also
great profit in trade goods, too. Goods like weapons, blankets, pots and
pans, trinkets, beads, clothing, material and many others.
No one doubted Matthew's motives for wanting a second business. The
investment made good sense because trappers and traders are in the woods all
the time. They see the territory. They know the wilderness up north and know
where the best stands of timber grow. They know where the streams and rivers
begin and end. Through this partnership Matthew received first chance at
virgin timber. It helped him stay ahead of the growing competition and it
would make him so much richer.
It was Matthew's great misfortune he wasn't as good at judging a man's
character as he was at grading timber. The problem wasn't his business
partner, an unseen investor from back East, where the money came from, but
the investor's representative right here in Prairie. All the business
transactions, all the paper work, the money, would be handled through this
representative on the frontier. He was the biggest fur trader in the
territory, but was also reputed to be a ruthless, conniving man who'd been
accused, but not proved, of committing many serious offenses. Stealing and
murder among them.
Sam Jackson was his name, and Matthew learned soon after he became
encumbered with this man that his back East partner probably had accumulated
part of his wealth through dirty deals and blood at the hands of Jackson.
Matthew was determined not to let this happen to him. He'd match Jackson wit
for wit. But that could all wait for now, he knew what he was doing, after
all, he figured, if making money and building an empire was easy, everyone
would do it.
Jackson's employer and Matthew had traded half interest in each business in
a plan to make both grow. It worked, too. Both business thrived. Although
Matthew had endorsed much more than a simple partnership agreement when he
signed a business contract with Jackson. The contract he signed contained a
clause granting the right of a surviving partner to own both businesses free
and clear. Matthew did plan to have that changed and it could be changed,
too with a certain penalty fee. After he was gone he definitely wanted Abbey
to have it all, the businesses the house and wealth. But he didn't change
the contracts right away. "Everything in its time," he told himself whenever
the thought of a new business contract passed through his mind.
This survivorship was a technicality as far as Matthew was concerned. He
didn't plan to die for a good long time and he dragged his feet about
changing it because, for one reason, there was a lot of paper work involved
and the penalty was a good amount. As far as he was concerned he had enough
paper work on an everyday bases and didn't need anymore. Truth be told,
Matthew would rather spend a day felling trees or working in the pit at the
bottom of a whipsaw cutting logs into lumber by hand then work an hour
pushing papers. Besides when the partner back East died first Matthew
would get it all. He wasn't really that worried about doing business with
Jackson. He dealt successfully with roughnecks all of his life. If he was
one to back down from an angry scowl or a vulgar word he'd still be living
back East himself and counting someone else's beans. Besides, it was all
only rumor about Jackson's strong-arm tactics and Matthew knew you didn't
run a business on whispered rumors. So even once the deal was done Matthew
assumed there was plenty of time to make any necessary changes in this
agreement to protect his fortune for Abbey.
In the course of these transactions Matthew did, however, negotiate one
exclusive. Some of the investment money went to a deed for ownership of 6000
acres of forest wilderness and the right to harvest and trade timber, furs
and goods with trappers, traders, loggers and Indians, and harvest natural
resources exclusive of Jackson and any of his employees or contract trappers
and or prospectors. The claim was in the far northern forests, at a place
designated by an X and a hand written name on a territorial map on his
office wall, and was Matthew's 'ace in the hole' in the agreement with
Jackson. On the map were two curvy lines colored blue designating the wild
rivers St. Croix and Namekagon. These picturesque little wilderness rivers
meandered their way through a large green forest wilderness way up north and
only a few days hike south of the big lake that the native called
Kitchi-gami. At the place where these rivers met on the map Matthew had
written the name of a small Ojibwa Indian village. It was located on one of
three river islands that the trappers called Dogtown for the many, many dogs
the natives kept. It was Matthew's fervent hope to someday explore and live
among the Indians in the far reaches of that wilderness. He would not sell
or barter these rights away for they were more than a deed, they were his
dream and he aimed to keep this exclusive agreement out of Jackson's hands
Jackson and his back East employer agreed to these terms in principle but
with certain restrictions. Matthew, or in the event of his death, his heirs,
had just ten years to establish this trading post or he, Jackson, in the
name of his employer could move in on this region, claim the land, and owe
Matthew or his surviving heirs, "if there are any," Jackson was fond of
saying, nothing! Since Abbey would be grown by then Matthew figured she'd
marry soon and he'd be free to follow his dream in just a few years.
Time passed quickly and Matthew woke one sunny autumn morning and came to
the realization that it was almost nine years since all this had taken
place. And though Abbey hadn't married yet, time was running out for that
too. He had to act now or lose it all.