Fit for Freedom (part 11)
Northwest Territory, just north of the Ohio River
The trip to Louisville had been a good one for Black Fox. He sold all of his remaining furs for more than he had anticipated and got in and out of town without any of the usual bumps along the way. Perhaps people had been accustomed to seeing him there or perhaps the way he carried himself and his mannerisms had become more like the whites without his noticing the change. Whatever the reason was, however, he was glad to have been spared the often abusive and always unequal treatment to which he had been subjected in the past.
The trading post outside which he had just hitched his horse was relatively new; it was so new, in fact, that he had never visited it before that morning. Provisions were much easier to come by in Louisville (even as small a town as it remained from the present time), but he had still been able to stock up on supplies at relatively little expense before he had left town. Thus, although he really did not need to agree to any kind of trades, he felt compelled to stop briefly at the new post to see whether the place was one that would be worth adding to his usual circuit.
Black Fox approached the small, log building and found that there was no door, but rather a thick canvas sheet that was pulled back to one side. Ducking his head a little to step into the dimly lit interior, he thought that he could almost still smell the sap coming out of the logs. The aroma that attacked his nose instead was the sharp sting of homemade liquor, emanating from the three men who were huddled around the table in the corner playing cards.
“Who’s that?” one of them growled. He took a swig from an ancient-looking brown jug and then dragged his forearm across his mouth, creating more of a mess in his bushy red beard than had been there before.
Black Fox tipped his hat and started to back away. He had not yet determined whether the white man's whiskey was a destroyer or a revealer of character, but he had no desire to find out the hard way.
“Good day to--” he started to say, but was cut off by one of the other men. He was clean-shaven, but at least twice the first man’s size, stooping lest he hit his head in the low corner of the cabin.
“We don’t sell whiskey to your sort,” the man slurred. He swallowed hard before continuing to speak, crossing the distance between himself and Black Fox with two unsteady steps. “So if it’s the ‘firewater’ you’re wantin’ you best--”
“No need for that friend,” the third man said, sliding quickly in between Black Fox and the liquor-sodden giant. “I’ll see the mongrel out.”
As the man took hold of Black Fox’s shirt he noticed that the left side of his face was covered in horrible burn scars. In his other hand the man held a walking stick or a cane. He was not nearly as tall as Black Fox and the mess of graying hair on his head made Black Fox think that he could probably subdue the man. But given the man’s drinking companions, he did not want it to come to that. He allowed himself to be guided outside without a struggle. They walked to the hitching post and Black Fox began to untie the horse.
“Hold on there a moment,” the man said. Black Fox realized at that moment that there was no whiskey on the man’s breath. In fact, he was perfectly steady on his feet and seemed not to be intoxicated at all. “Those two are harmless, I think--or they would be if they were sober. I know the type all too well. But I didn’t want them to run you off before I could ask you some questions.”
Black Fox draped his horse’s lead rope back over the post and asked, “Who are you? And why should I help you?”
“Fair enough. My name is Nathaniel Aldridge. I usually work as a thief taker and debt collector for Mr. Peter Tobin of Philadelphia, but I don’t suppose that would mean much to you.”
Black Fox shook his head and folded his arms, waiting to see if the man would say anything worth hearing.
“You can see that I’m far from Philadelphia, but my job is essentially the same. I find things and that’s where I’m hoping you can help.”
The ability to read people’s faces was crucial in the business of fur trading, especially for a Shawnee like Black Fox who dealt frequently with many white people who would cheat him at a moment’s notice. At this point in his life, he felt rather confident about being able to separate the liars from those who were in earnest. This man seemed to fall into the latter category.
“What questions do you have?”
“Thank you. Do you ride around these parts very much?”
Black Fox merely nodded.
“Fur trader, I take it?”
Black Fox thought that this was a technique he had seen before: sneak around the edges of the real topic by making the other person feel at ease. If it worked with fur traders and the like, he supposed it must also work for these thief takers.
“Then if you spend much time in this country, you would probably be one to notice unusual things.”
“What kind of unusual things?”
“Muskets. Not just here and there, but large crates of them showing up all at once. Have you seen anything like that?”
“No. I haven’t seen anything like that. Crates of muskets is something I would not forget.”
“Ah. I see. Well, you know, I have to ask anyone I can find so--”
“But there is other information that might interest you,” Black Fox said in a slightly lower voice.
“Don’t worry. Those men will be passed out under the table by the time I get back in there. What is it?” Nat said, jerking his head slightly back toward the cabin.
“I’ve been hearing men whisper about a big fight between the Indians and the whites,” Black Fox continued. “I know because I hear the white men at their trading posts and the Indians in their camps and they all seem to say the same thing.”
“That might be something.” Nat scratched his head. “But it does me no good if I don’t know where to go next. I can adapt to almost any city, but this wilderness may prove too much without a guide.”
Black Fox started to unhitch his horse again.
“You could do it, couldn’t you?” Nat asked. “I’d be willing to pay you fairly . . . when the job is finished, of course.”
Black Fox stared at Nat in silence for a moment. He had his doubts about the rumors of a fight or a war, but fighting was bad for trade. He was getting by pretty well, but he felt that his success depended at least partially on his being able to go in and out of the white as well as the Indian settlements. He would be shut off from at least one, if not both of those, were there to be another prolonged period of fighting. Perhaps helping this man from the city look for his muskets would help preserve the seemingly peaceful present situation. Besides that, Black Fox judged that it would not be quite the right time to go back and set his traps in the usual places. This seemed as useful a way to pass the time as anything else would have been.
“I will help you Mr. Aldridge.”
“Good. Let me get my things and we can go.”
Sealing the arrangement with a handshake seemed like it would have been the usual ritual with a white man, Black Fox thought to himself. Perhaps this white man was different from so many others.