West to the Stony Mountains
"A mountain man tries to live with the country
Among the many adventures told of mountain men, there are still many yet to be discovered. Some are buried in history, others are held as private family heirlooms, and then there are pieces of mountain man lore yet to be conjured up by people like me.
In this story, Thomas Samuel “Tree” Bell starts out in the hills of Kentucky, well versed in the art of hunting, trapping, and simply surviving. Of Scottish and Cherokee heritage, the son of a Cherokee woman and a Scottish and Cherokee father, cattleman, horse trader, and farmer, Tree was well educated in many things: Scottish Gaelic (taught by his father until the man was killed in an accident), English, French, Spanish, and enough German to get by, as well as the Cherokee, Ojibwe, Shawnee, Choctaw and Chickasaw languages, lingua franca (American Indian sign language), history, agriculture, animal husbandry, communication and the art of training and riding horses and mules.
Tree also learned the Cherokee and Protestant religious beliefs, the latter from a Baptist missionary while he and his mother visited relatives in Georgia, and though he never really gave up his Cherokee beliefs, he was still able to quote from the Bible at will. He was indeed a very well-rounded young man who easily fit into either the American Indian or the New American cultures and populace in every way.
Named for two heroes of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams, Thomas tried his best to remain restrained so as to not appear to be taking advantage of his size, education, or family status, but as he grew and grew, it became harder and harder to remain unnoticed. In eighteen hundred twenty-two, at the age of eighteen, he stood six foot ten and weighed in at two hundred ninety-five pounds of well-built man, hence the name he was known by to most: “Tree.”
Among other young men his age, he was not only the strongest but also the fastest in his part of the eastern wilderness. Tree was tested at every turn with challenges from other big men as well as men with notable foot speed. More than once, he raced short distances against the fastest horses and won. He could lift more than any two “normal-sized men,” and no one could match him, pound for pound, when it came to lifting anything. But it didn’t end there, as he was also an excellent marksman with pistol, rifle or bow, and he handled a knife as though it were an extension of his hand and arm.
He was awash with good friends and had few, if any, enemies. And while there were any number of men jealous of his abilities, most were afraid of confrontation with him once they competed against him in friendly contests of skill. It was soon learned that it was much easier to accept and like the young man than to risk being on his bad side. Even talking about Tree in less-than-admiring terms became considered in bad taste and was immediately discouraged by his friends if and when it was heard. Tree was so good-natured, kind, and unassuming that it was easy to like him as soon as you met him. And he never forgot a name, something that quickly gained him many friends.
Tree was an uncommonly good-looking young man, in addition to all his other attributes, with light-olive skin color, clear blue eyes, and long, sandy-colored hair. All the young ladies of the area did their best to attract his attention, but so far, none had gained any more than a passing interest, no matter how hard they tried. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the attention or enjoy the female company, but he had other things on his mind, and settling down was not under consideration.
Living comfortably in his surroundings, it seemed unlikely that this young man would leave Kentucky unless forced. Not that forcing him to do anything was possible, as he held his own counsel and would not be pushed or intimidated. So, why did Tree leave his home and turn to the west to become a mountaineer?
“Tree, you see this here advertisement in the Missouri Republican? Says here a feller named William Ashley is lookin’ for men like us. ‘To Enterprising Young Men…’ Ah, hell, you can read it for yourself. Here,” Thomas Samuel Bell’s closest friend, Lemuel “Frog” Hamilton said, handing the newspaper to Bell.
“Frog, you bother to look at the date on this paper? It says February, and here we are in October, nearly November, not to mention that we are three hundred miles away as the crow flies. And it isn’t what I’d call a Sunday stroll, either. If I was to go, it would take me a week to settle my affairs here, pack and load up supplies, and pick up another pack mule, maybe two, even three. My horse needs shod again, and I would want to get the mules trimmed up before I started a long trip. I have taken the Lancaster rifle Great Uncle John gave me, as well as the one I bought off that German trader last year, to Günter’s Gun Shop to get the barrels cleaned and the firing mechanisms worked on. Also, I would like to have a couple extra pistols to take, if I were going to go, and one of those fancy saddle holsters to put them in. And I would need to double, even triple the number of knives I have, along with carry plenty of powder and shot. No, I think it would take me two weeks to prepare for such a trip, and what with fall already on us…”
“Tree, couldn’t you just say you ain’t interested an’ leave it at that?”.
“Now, that is not what I said. I was just saying how long it would take me to be ready to go, and what with winter breathing down our necks, and Christmas, Mother would have a fit if I left now, and so would yours!”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right. So, when do you think we should go then?”
“Well, if I am reading this right, I doubt this will be the only expedition this Ashley sends out. Since he put out this advertisement in the middle of February, I don’t suppose they planned to pull out until mid-May, maybe later, as they would have had to interview and select these hundred men first. Needless to say, from what we read in these newspapers, they are going into a hostile territory similar to what the first expeditions to Kentucky saw, and as a result will lose a number of those first hundred. And then there’s the weather to deal with as well. So, in the spring, they’ll be back looking for more men for a second trip. That is, unless the project goes belly up.”
“So, let me make sure I got this. You think the best time to leave is goin’ to be the first o’ March, which will give us time to outfit ourselves an’ be ready to go when we arrive in St. Louis.”
“Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. Plus, Frog, there are other expeditions going west every year. They have been going west to trap beaver for at least a decade now, if not longer. Uncle Jack was telling me about some men he knew in the last war with the English who just disappeared when their enlistments were up. He tells me that a few years later, several showed back up, telling about the huge mountains and all the tribes in the West, along with unbelievable stories of snowfall and animals and sights that boggled the mind. He got so excited talking about it that I began to think he was going west himself. And before you ask, yes, part of the reason I’m so willing to go is that it will give me the opportunity to make my own mark and not get trapped in my family’s history. Oh, and one more thing, Frog. I saw a similar advertisement in the St. Louis Missouri Gazette last week.”
“What? An’ you didn’t say a word when I started talkin’ ’bout it?”
Tree leaned back and then let go with his bellowing laughter, reserved for when no one who hadn’t heard it before could hear it, which was limited to Frog and a couple of other men they grew up with. After several minutes of it, Lemuel “Frog” Hamilton finally picked up a handful of small pebbles and tossed them in Bell’s direction.
Hamilton was not a small man by normal standards, but next to Bell, he looked like a boy. At six foot two and two hundred ten pounds of well-positioned muscle, he was an intimating figure no matter where he went, unless he was accompanied by his giant friend. His free man African father and Chickasaw mother insisted that he learn all he could from the white man, as well as all things Chickasaw, Tsalagi, and all the various nations in Kentucky at the time, and they encouraged him to stick close to Thomas Bell to accomplish that end. He and Tree had been friends for most of their lives and had been inseparable since the day they each turned four, being born the same day just a few hours apart.
“Yes, Frog, I have thought a great deal about it, which is why I had so many reasons not to go ready when you started talking about it. In fact, I wanted to have everything set in my mind before I brought it up to you, but you beat me to the punch on this one.”
“Yeah, I reckon it wasn’t much of a win, since you already knowed about it anyway. Say, I’m startin’ to get hungry again. We eatin’ at your place, ’r mine?”
“We are much, much closer to your sister’s place, and she’ll be happy to feed us, as long as we take something with us to replenish what we eat today. Like that big fat doe hiding behind the brush down in that gully behind you. She seems to think that as long as we are busy talking she can sneak right past us,” Tree said, nocking a turkey-fletched arrow into the sinew bowstring of his Black Locust bow. “Stay here and keep talking while I slip over to the edge of that brush and wait for her to walk past.”
Frog started jabbering on about nothing and everything all at once, switching languages several times. Tree slowly walked to the brush he had mentioned, moving silently, even for his size. He didn’t have to wait long, as the doe was still walking slowly, flicking her ears in Frog’s direction. The arrow slicing into her chest cavity took her by complete surprise, causing her to freeze in position. Then, suddenly, she tried to run but fell over instead. She tried to suck in her last breath, but her lungs had already filled with blood pumped in from the hole in her heart. Tree ended her misery by quickly slitting her throat, and then saying a silent prayer of thanks over her now-lifeless body.
“Dang, Tree, she is a fat one. Blue Willow will be glad to get this one. I see the arrowhead went all the way through, as usual for you, so push the shaft on through when I roll her over, an’ then let’s get movin’. Maybe, with any luck, Runnin’ Fox will be home an’ can dress an’ skin this one so my sister doesn’t have to.”
“Well, I suppose we should do it anyway, don’t you think?” Tree said as he shoved the shaft on through, grabbed it, and pulled it on out.
“Yeah, but you know how Blue Willow is. We will be her guests, an’ in her house guests are not supposed to do anything but sit back an’ enjoy. Anything else she considers an insult,” Frog said, hoisting the doe onto his shoulders. “I’ll take the first leg; you can carry our present the second half o’ the way. We’re only about a mile from her house, so that should be about right, eh?”
Tree nodded his assent, and the two friends started the short trip to Frog’s sister’s house. Their long strides ate the ground quickly, and they switched carriers without slowing down. Even though the terrain was up and down, they still made the trip in fifteen minutes. As they walked into the clearing where Frog’s sister and her family lived, Blue Willow and her husband, Running Fox, were already working on a deer but were just finishing up. Their four children were happily playing in the grass, oblivious to all around them but their game.
The two men were almost on top of them when Little Jay saw them and started screaming at the top of her lungs. “Uncle Frog! Uncle Tree! Uncle Frog! Uncle Tree!” she yelled, and then all four children ran as fast as they could to meet their uncles. Tree grabbed up one of the boys, leaving the other three to swamp Frog’s arms.
“Hello the camp! We brought you another one to dress, Runnin’ Fox!” Frog yelled out.
“Well, hurry up and get it over here. I’m getting hungry, and Blue Willow still has to finish cooking. She came out to get the liver, and I made her help me finish dressing this one. Woman, better put on four times as much as we normally eat, as these two will eat everything if you don’t,” Running Fox said with a laugh.
Setting the children back on the ground, Frog hugged his sister while Tree laid the deer on the bench Running Fox used to dress and skin his animals. “You want me to help you with this one?” Tree asked, already knowing what the answer would be.
“Naw, go get some coffee and play with the kids. They’re always glad when the two of you come to visit, as are Blue Willow and I. Thank you for coming, and for your gift. Around here, the way these children are growing, we can always use more meat. And these skins will make nice clothing as well.”
Nodding, Tree turned to join Frog and Blue Willow as they stepped inside, followed by the children right on their heels. Sitting at the table, occasionally getting a sip of coffee in between the children crawling all over them, Frog and Tree asked about many things, as though it had been a long time since they had visited instead of just two weeks.
Before long, Blue Willow shooed the children off to clean up for the meal, followed by the two men. Just as they finished, Running Fox joined them, and minutes later they were all back at the table, looking at platters full of steaming meat, vegetables, and fresh cornbread. Tree led them in prayer, and for the next hour, the table was silent except for the clinking of knives, forks, and spoons, and an occasional, “Please pass” whatever was desired from the offering.
With a fresh pot of coffee brewing, Blue Willow shuttled the children off to bed and then cleared the table while the three men talked and sipped the freshly brewed coffee. After a few minutes, Blue Willow joined the table, pouring a fresh cup for herself.
“So, Tree, what’s this about you and my brother leaving us in the spring? And going west? Why? Aren’t you two happy here any longer?”
“Sister, please. One question at a time. Give the man time to answer.”
“Blue Willow, it is time for us to make our own marks on this land and in this new nation. Our fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers have all made their marks in their time and place, and now we must do the same for us, and for our future generations. And I’m not positive we are going, or if only one of us will go. Uncle Jack has heard the stories of incredible sights and people and unbelievable tales of bravery and comingling of people, much like we Tsalagi and the Chickasaw have been doing for decades now. I believe that if he were a younger man and without responsibilities, he would have already gone to the new wilderness.”
“I, too, would like to go, if, as you say, I had no responsibilities,” Running Fox said.
“Yes, you men are always ready to go and do dangerous things, and we women will follow if that is what our man decides. But now, with four children, I would be hard to convince it was the right thing to do,” Blue Willow remarked. “Frog, Tree, how long do you think you will be away?”
“That is too hard to say, sister. It is a very long trip—one that will take most of a summer. If we were to turn around the followin’ spring, we would still be gone for at least a year an’ a half. So, if I were to guess, I would say at least three, maybe five years,” Frog explained.
“I agree with Frog, but I am not sure I would ever come back, especially if I have made a good mark and am happy and comfortable with where I am and who I have become. Would I miss all of you, and my family? Of course, but that is a choice yet left to the future and to the hand of God. But then again, things may change, and we might not even go. We may end up doing no more than talking about it. Thank you again for providing us with such a wonderful meal, but I believe it is time for us to go and rest,” Tree said.
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