Fit for Freedom (part 38)
As Fit for Freedom comes down to the last few posts I’m thinking of new writing projects to work on. I have at least half a dozen ideas that range from just a sentence or two to several paragraphs of a synopsis.
I’m also thinking of features that some of you might want to see if I offered extras for paid subscribers. If you have any thoughts about that (what you would like to see more of, early access to certain posts, etc.), please let me know in the comments.
Several days had passed since the signatures had finally been affixed to what everyone seemed to be calling the “Treaty of Louisville.” The tribal delegates had returned to their lands and the white men to theirs. The title of “treaty” seemed more of a goal than a reality; time would tell.
Black Fox was more surprised than anyone when Governor Tyler presented him with a hefty purse as reward for his assistance and “compensation” for his “troubles.” It was intended as a joint gift from the leaders of Virginia and Kentucky, but only Governor Tyler and Camden Page were there for the less-than-ceremonious presentation.
“He’s a good lad,” Nat had said when the two of them were alone again, but Black Fox was not sure it made up for the slight to his honor. However, the fact that Nat had lingered in Louisville for so long did not escape his notice.
The following day the two of them went to the ferry together. There was no particular need for Black Fox to hurry back to the other side of the river, yet he felt that he could not stay. Likewise, there was no particular need for Nat to accompany him to the river, but he insisted.
“I know you’ve been over and back dozens of times,” he said, “But since I’m here anyway, I’m going to see for myself that you make it back across this time.”
When they reached the banks of the river, the ferry was still on the other side.
“There’s a man who’s supposed to be coming across at noon,” said the man minding the crossing.
Black Fox trying to hide his frustration, said, “I was told yesterday that—”
“I don’t own the ferry, gentlemen,” the man said, looking at Nat and casting a side glance at Black Fox. “The ferryman went over to meet this particular passenger and I’m just here to watch things until he returns.”
The companions settled in for the wait. By Black Fox’s estimate, the river could not have been much more than half a mile wide at that point. Yet there was no telling how long the ferryman would remain on the other side; even after the ferry started back southward it did not exactly fly across the water at any great speed.
Feeling compelled to make conversation, Black Fox asked “What will you do when you return east?”
Nat had pulled out a knife and begun whittling away at a stick he had been working at for the last few days. It was a habit that he seemed to have picked up only since the council.
“I was thinking about that, actually,” he said. “The best option for me seems to be heading back to Philadelphia and setting back in to work for Mr. Tobin and some of his acquaintances. The commissions are fair and, well, I rather enjoy the work.”
“It seems that you have thought it through well.”
“Mostly, I suppose. But there is one part I’m still thinking about.”
Black Fox was curious, but did not ask. He had learned enough about Nat by now to know that if something were on his mind it did not have to be dragged out of him—nor could it be if he wanted it to remain secret.
Nat handed Black Fox the small, wooden figure he had been working on.
“How does that look?”
The small shape resembled, as far as Black Fox could tell, a cow. Turning it over in his hand, he thought that he had seen much better, but for someone who had just started it was not bad.
“Now I might not be made to carve wooden dogs, as you can see,” Nat began. “Even if I do have a small amount of skill where that’s concerned.”
Black Fox turned the figure over again and reassessed Nat’s skills as Nat continued speaking.
“But I’d be a fool to set up shop here in Louisville and try to make a living at it, wouldn’t I?”
“More than you know,” Black Fox thought.
“So I think you’d be doing almost the same thing to head back across that river and go back to what you were doing before all this. You can trap and trade, but that’s not what you were made to do.”
Nat wore a look as serious as any Black Fox had seen him make since their captivity in Red Cap’s camp.
“Come work with me in Philadelphia. Men with a certain set of skills and a certain way of moving through the world are the ones who succeed in my line of work. You are that kind of man.”
Black Fox was not quite sure what to think about the proposal. He tried to make Nat see his difficulty.
“I thank you for the kind words,” he began. “You are one of the best at what you do, I have no doubt.”
“But?” Nat interjected.
“But even here in Kentucky where many of my people lived until not that long ago, you see how I am treated. It would only get worse the farther east I go.”
Nat turned to stare out across the river. “But it’s not that much better even with your own people. You’ve said so yourself.”
“You are right,” Black Fox continued. “I am not fully at home among the white men or over there. But over there, even when I have no friendly place to make my fire at night, I have the freedom to go where I will and do as I please. Can Philadelphia ever offer me that?”
They sat in silence for several minutes before Nat spoke again, finally answering the question that had been hanging in the air.
“No, I suppose Philadelphia can’t offer you that. Nor do I suppose I can get you to change your mind. But if one day you ever decide to exercise that freedom of yours to wander as far east as High Street in Philadelphia, know that you have a friend there who would be happy to have you as a guest.”
Turning to look at Nat, Black Fox saw that he was extending his hand. He extended his own and they clasped one another firmly. It was a small gesture, but a meaningful one to Black Fox. He had kept to himself for years and convinced himself that he didn’t need company, let alone friendship. Sitting there on the banks of the Ohio, waiting to venture back into the wild country that he called home, he realized that in all the time he had spent convincing himself that close companionship was unnecessary, he had not yet succeeded in convincing himself not to want it.
“I am honored to call you my friend, Nathaniel Aldridge.”
The ferry slowly made its way across the river over the course of the next quarter of an hour. Though the water was not high that day, a stiff breeze was keeping the current at a pace that required careful navigation. Nat shared the last of some of the dried venison he’d traded for earlier in the day. The ferryman and the passengers disembarked and in a few short minutes Black Fox had paid his fare and was waiting on the ferry for the ferryman to return from a quick visit to his house just up the street.
“Will you go back immediately to Philadelphia?”
“I probably should. Mr. Tobin is a patient man, and he understands that the stakes were high here, but every man’s patience has its breaking point.”
They shook hands once more. Nat clasped not only his hand, but also Black Fox’s forearm that time. It was a gesture that was unfamiliar to him, but Black Fox took it as a sign of closer friendship and returned it.
Moments later the ferryman returned and they began the slow float away from one people’s idea of civilization to the only place—as wild and unruly as it was— where Black Fox felt at home. The ferryman was there to do his job and collect his fare, but was not one for much conversation, so Black Fox kept his eyes fixed on the far shore until they were about halfway across.
Turning back for a parting glance at Louisville he saw that Nat had not gone very far after leaving the ferry landing. Though he was wearing no distinctive clothing, Black Fox recognized him by the way he stood with his arms crossed, leaning slightly to one side. From the vantage point that Nat had chosen on a small hill that rose abruptly from the bank, Black Fox knew that Nat would be able to see clear across the river to the ferry landing on the other side.
Rather than try to call out over the distance, Black Fox raised his arm. Nat did the same, holding his hand aloft for several seconds, before he lowered it, turned up the hill, and disappeared back into town.
After the ferry came to a stop on the other side, Black Fox strapped on his pack, but decided it would be best to wait until the ferryman was out of sight to prime and load his pistol. He was about to thank the ferryman and begin his trek, when the man stopped him.
“Your friend asked me to give this to you once you were across.”
He handed over a small envelope, sealed with a tiny bit of wax, and then pushed off on his return journey.
A slight bulge signaled that there was something inside other than just words, but it was only later that evening, after making camp, that Black Fox retrieved the envelope from his pocket and opened it. A small metal disk was inside with a note that read:
Please accept this gift as a token of our friendship. It was given to me as thanks for my service in the late war. Your help these past months has been just as valuable. Your friend, Nat
The disk, Black Fox realized, was actually more like a coin or a medal without a ribbon. He held it up to the light of the fire to examine it. Though the letters were familiar, the words were not: SUPREMO DUCI EXERCITUUM ADSERTORI LIBERTATIS COMITIA AMERICANA. Only the two words “GEORGIO WASHINGTON” stood out, and then he understood that the face engraved there must have been that of the famous general.
It was far too grand a gift, he thought, which explained why Nat had enlisted the ferryman’s help: Black Fox surely would have refused to accept it had he been given the chance. He dug the purse out of his pack and slipped the medal inside. Later he would store it someplace safer, but he was tired from a long day’s walk and there was not enough light to sew anyway.
He arranged his blanket on the ground and made a sort of resting place for his head, huddling as close to the fire as he dared. The days were getting shorter and the nights colder. He began drifting to sleep, alone in the wilderness once more, but not so alone, he thought, as before.
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