The Archer by tyndale

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The Archer




SIX



       A few boys were pushing a small herd of cattle through a corral gate as Hawk reached the

northern end of Sky Crossing. A few barns and livestock pens were located there, as well as on

the southern end. The boys turned to watch, some slack-jawed, as Hawk rode by.

       A low, square, log building which turned out to be a blacksmith’s workshop was off the

main north-south road through the village. Smoke poured from the forge’s chimney and Hawk

could see the bellows pumping inside. Long, low, iron wheeled machines encircled the building.

Hawk recognized them as horse-drawn hay mowing and raking implements. A hammer clinging

on an anvil rang out sharply. The clanging stopped when the blacksmith noticed Hawk.

       Hawk had seen settlements like Sky Crossing, but never up close. On his trek west and

north he avoided contact with people, but had observed villages from a distance. The few he had

seen were all the same; a few dogs, a few horses, large herds of cattle and sheep, and low, dark,
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log or frame buildings. Those close to or in the mountains and forests had log buildings. Those

on the prairies and flatlands had masonry structures. But all of them were tight little islands in

the middle of prairies or inside a forest, like blemishes on a face. He had spent two days

observing the people at one village near some foothills. That village had an exterior wall of

upright logs with heavy gates at opposite ends. Cattle, sheep, and horses were herded in at

sundown and the gates closed. He knew that renegades were a problem, but he wondered it they

were the only reason for such protective measures. Perhaps, he had thought, the people in that

village were afraid of everything around them. From his conversation with Daniel Plowright and

his companions, the people of Sky Crossing lived in fear of what was unknown to them. That

was not life, in Hawk’s estimation. Living in fear was merely existence.

       During his first visit to Sky Crossing, Hawk had noticed that the main square of the

village was of a type of formed cobblestone. In fact, narrow walkways throughout the village

were all made of cobblestone and connected to the main square. At least there was no wall

around the village.

       The stallion whinnied sharply toward a line of horses tied to a rail. A group of men near

them, apparently busy amidst bundles and piles of equipment, stopped their activity and stared.

In the houses along the street, curtains were parted and faces peered out. People in the street

stopped to watch as Hawk rode toward the meeting hall. A few dogs barked tentatively. Hawk

sensed a disquieting, collective pause.

                                               ****

       The great oak table was wide and long, taking up much of the center of the room. At one

end sat the thirteen elders, at the other was Hawk. To his left were three empty chairs, to his
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right were five. Though he was not certain about the hospitality, the peppermint tea they had

given up was quite good.

         The last flash of sunset flared in a west window, and was gone. A row of candles down

the middle of the table was already burning. A fire crackled in the stone fireplace. The First

Elder was speaking.

         “So you see,” Efren Miller concluded, “we are unable to explain the losses. Nothing like

this has ever happened to us. We were hoping you might know something. Some of us were, in

any case.”

         Hawk slowly twirled the tin cup between his hands and watch the tea bouncing below the

rim. Getting a sense of the council’s mood was not easy. There was fear, some fear of him he

supposed, but also of something else. The unknown, he guessed, because something was killing

their cattle.

         “As I said yesterday,” he began, “I’ve seen this sort of thing before.”

         “Do you know the cause?” asked one of the men.

         “No, only a pattern and the overall effect.”

         “What was the pattern?”

         “Cattle died mysteriously every six, seven, or eight years on the Plains,” he explained.

“One epidemic moved very rapidly, wiping out herds from the Black Hills to the Great Muddy.”

         Efren Miller huffed. “That’s not the situation here, thankfully. This is the first we’ve

seen.”

         “Maybe not the last,” pointed out Hawk. “I would wager you acquired new herd bulls

some years ago.”        The elders exchanged worried, knowing glances. Jacob Cobbler pointed
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at a thick, leather bound book on the table. One of the women slid it to him. Turning the stiff,

thick pages, Cobbler studied them and nodded.

         “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “Six years ago we acquired four bulls from a place called

New Hope.”

         “Where is New Hope?” asked Hawk.

         “To the east,” replied Johann Wagoneer.

         Hawk pointed at the thick book. “If you’ve kept a sire’s record, I would guess that all of

the dead cattle were offspring of one, or all, of the bulls you acquired six years ago.”

         Jacob Cobbler consulted the book once again, brows curled in concentration.

         “You’re right again,” he announced.

         Nona Carver leaned up to the table. “There’s nothing to be done, then?”

         Hawk shook his head. “No. The cattle will keep dying until the sickness has run its

course. Any cattle that are not offspring from the bulls in question should be kept apart. Might

help.”

         “Well,” proclaimed Miller, “then it appears that our decision to trade for replacement

cattle is sensible. The sooner those men leave, the sooner they will return, and the sooner we can

begin to realize an end to this annoying situation.”

         “As long as you trade for healthy cattle,” Hawk pointed out.

         “What do you mean?’ demanded Miller sharply.

         “As far as I know, there are three kinds of cattle, three breeds; a type of longhorn, a black

white-faced variety, and a large Brahman type. All three are descendants of the few feral cattle

that were able to adapt and survive, about two hundred years ago. The Brahman type is the

hardiest. They had the symptoms of the sickness, but many of them survived.”
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       “I’m afraid your advice is a little too late, Mister Hawk!”

       “Efren!” Nona Carver bristled.

       The First Elder threw up his hands. “Nona, please, I agreed to ask this man here on the

chance he could help. Nothing he has told us so far has been the least bit helpful! As far as I’m

concerned, this meeting is over.”

       Nona Carver ignored the First Elder. “Sir! Mister Hawk!” she sang out. “We’re sending

some of our young men south, to a place called the Valley of Bears. Do you know the country in

that direction?”

       “How far south?”

       “Four hundred kilometers,” replied Matilda Baker, pointing to the map on the wall.

       Hawk went to the map and looked. “Sounds like Sleeping Warrior country,” he said.

       “What?”

       Hawk turned to the women who had joined him at the map. He pointed to a river that cut

through a range of mountains, to a valley dotted with lakes.

       “Sleeping Warrior Mountain is there,” he said, putting his finger on a spot. “I don’t

know what this place was called in the old days, but the name comes from this mountain. It is

shaped like a man, an Indian man, laying on his back asleep.”

       “Have you been there?” Nona Carver asked, stepping back to look up at Hawk.

       “No, but I’ve talked with people who have.”

       “What do you know of the Valley of the Bears?”

       “It is a large settlement, built on trading. It is in a valley along a river called the Snake, I

believe.”

       “Then they should have cattle.”
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       “Yes, but that’s not the problem,” Hawk said, lowering his voice. “The weather is. It’s

unpredictable this time of the year. That’s a long trip for someone who doesn’t know the

country, or how to survive in the open.”

       The First Elder approached and was standing with arms folded across his chest. “What

would you suggest?” he questioned darkly.

       “Don’t send them,” replied Hawk.

       “What?”

       “Unless they’re experienced out on the open trail,” Hawk cautioned. “There are

mountain ranges to cross, or go around. There are rivers. Not to mention the cold, snow, and

renegades.”

       “It isn’t your survival that is on the line, sir!” admonished the First Elder.

       “Send them elsewhere, someplace closer. There’s got to be other places that you know

would be willing to trade for cattle.” He studied the map and then put his finger on a place.

“What about this? Blue River it says. What do you know about it?”

       “A small settlement, like ours,” replied Matilda Baker. “No one has been there, but

we’ve heard of it.”

       “It would be a waste of time to send anyone there,” cut in the First Elder. “As Matilda

said, it’s small and wouldn’t have cattle to trade.”

       “But it is closer,” insisted Hawk. “Going anywhere is dangerous in the winter. If you’re

intent on sending anyone out, give them a chance. If you send your men to the Valley of Bears,

you’re condemning them to death.”
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       The First Elder’s stare into Hawk’s eyes was icy, but he turned away quickly. He saw

something in the stranger’s eyes that sent a shudder up his back. He retreated a few steps and

then turned.

       “You, of course, have the luxury of worrying about only yourself,” he said

condescendingly. “There are two hundred and sixty-four of us here. I—that is—we,” he

corrected, waving a hand at the elders looking on with interest, “must think in terms of large

numbers. Tons of hay, barrels of corn and beans. Therefore, Blue River is not a logical choice.

First of all, we know next to nothing about it—them. Secondly, we more than likely need more

than they can spare. There you have it.”

       Hawk turned away and pointed at the map. “At the most,” he said, “it’s a day, maybe

two, out of the way to the Valley of Bears. Time well spent. If Blue River can’t spare cattle for

trading, your men can then go south, and—“

       “If there are cattle at Blue River, it will be a much shorter trip,” concluded Nona Carver.

“Efren, that sounds quite sensible to me.”

       “My dear Nona,” retorted the First Elder, “at this point we’ve lost thirty-two cattle. At

that rate we need more than that to offset losses which will likely occur. From what I’ve heard

of Blue River, they’re no longer larger than we are and I seriously doubt if they can spare half of

what we need. Now, please, my judgment has been sound thus far, unless, of course, you have

all suddenly lost faith in me.”

       “There is another way,” offered Hawk.

       The First Elder rubbed his forehead in exasperation. “Please, Mr. Hawk, unless you have

a herd of cattle hidden somewhere, I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do for us!”

       “I don’t have a herd of cattle, but I have something just as useful.”
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        “And that is?”

        “The ability to supply meat. I’m a hunter.”

        Efren Miller’s face turned ashen.

        “Sir,” he hissed between clenched teeth. “I agreed to ask you here out of deference for

my fellow elders. We had hoped you could provide some answers. Beyond that, you have no

standing here! Now, please leave!”

        Hawk nodded. The First Elder was right. He had no place in Sky Crossing, and he didn’t

want to have a place here. It was time to go. Back in camp he had meat to smoke, jerky to

make.

        “Please pardon the intrusion, then,” he said. “I hope you can solve your problem.” But I

don’t think you have a clue how to do that, he thought. He nodded toward Nona Carver and

Matilda Baker and left the meeting hall.

        Ignoring a small knot of curious onlookers, he untied his horses and was about to swing

up on the stallion. A small hand tugged at his arm.

        “Young man,” said Nona Carver, “my house is near the south end. Please join me for

tea. I think there are some berrycakes, too, if my grandchildren haven’t found them all.”

        Hawk patted the horse’s neck. “That’s the best invitation I’ve had in months,” he said to

the horse.
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