Cincinnatus Jones hugged his broom and ruminated on the state of his world in 1776. There was that pesky war with England, but it was far away and out of mind. The proprietor of the Boonesborough trading post was happy. Well…almost happy -- his Puritan conscious annoyed him with that tired old chant "pride goeth before destruction..." He glanced about cautiously with darting eyes. Had he died in the night and awoke in heaven? Heaven was the fresh scent of his newly planed and sanded puncheon floor. Heaven was the setting sun's ginger rays spread across his tavern's doorway like a golden crown upon the newly exposed wood—which just the week before was hidden by two years of ground-in frontier offal. He took that as evidence that he was a righteous upright man deserving of his awards—some might think him a mere fur peddler--but he was a fair one.
Stirred to share his inner bliss like a mule released from his burden is want to kick up his hind legs, the wiry proprietor leapt into the air and clicked his heels. He danced a spritely jig with his broom as he swept the last of the sawdust out the door. His audience, a few people supping in the tavern, chuckled and applauded; the dancer turned and bowed deeply. He would have rummaged for his fiddle in the storeroom and continued the impromptu celebration but for a bellowed announcement from the palisade wall.
"Buckboard and critters approachin'!"
The merchant was distracted from his moment of glorious mercantile satisfaction. He hobbled across the fort yard and peered with one eye through a crack in the gate to take a quick look-see.
Behind a mule-drawn buckboard a parade of spritely colorful critters swayed, jumped, and jolted like a kite string in the tall Kentucky grass. The unknown driver wore a wide-brimmed felt hat and city clothes-- matching coat, vest, britches and glossy leather boots. The other feller with the long-legged gait that walked along side was no stranger. He wore buckskin from head to toe and a cocked hat adorned with a bodacious feather.
"Well I do believe it's Carolina E. Yadkin," someone hollered. "Best find Dan'l Boone. Looks like Yad's back and he's draggin' trouble behind him."
Men scrambled to open the tall wooden gates. Yadkin swaggered into the fort yard. He doffed his feathered hat and revealed his unruly prodigious blond hair. "Howdy!"
"Howdy, Yad," Meely Beckum yelled. "Long time no see. What's ya got out there?"
Yad's sun-tanned face lit up with a gracious moustache-crowned grin. "Meeley, don't you know a horse when you see one?"
The clump of critters became horses tethered to a single rope that led off the back of the wagon. The idle fort occupants filled the gate opening, hands in pockets, mouths catching flies, taken a gander at what reckless Yad had dragged in.
The festive ruckus in the fort yard drew Daniel Boone and his son, Israel, from their supper in the tavern.
"Yad!" Israel yelled as he bolted on his short legs like a rat-terrier towards the lofty newcomer. The boy leapt from the ground into the man's arms. Israel wept with joy for he hadn't seen his kindred spirit in a year.
"Glory be, youngin', you've gotten bigger since I last lifted ya."
"Yad, is that really you?" Daniel asked wide-eyed astonished at the apparition before him.
Daniel's best friend still filled his clothes like a buck fills his own skin, but for the tell-tale sign of four or five worn belt holes in the hitched belt that half hung at his waist.
"Howdy, Dan'l," the trapper said sheepishly. The familiar impish blue eyes sparkled.
A slow crooked grin crept across Daniel's face. "We thought a b'ar got ya."
"Oh." Yadkin let Israel slide to the ground. The tearful boy kept his arms gripped about the trapper's middle like he might up and disappear again. "Might be I oughta explain--"
"Later." Daniel clamped his arms around his prodigal friend and swallowed him in a big bear hug as only Daniel Boone could do. "It's good to see ya—alive."
Cincinnatus stood nearby with his arms akimbo, scratching his whiskers and shaking his head. "Here I've been thinkin' I lost my best connoisseur of flip and have plumb forgot how to make it. If you help me Yad, I'll brew up a batch."
Yadkin's thick curled moustache rose up at the edges in a big toothy chipmunk grin. "Surely 'Natus, but first I gotta bed down the livestock. Ya'll still have that pen on the west side o' the fort?"
"Yep," the tavern keeper said. "The rails might need a little pickin' up as there ain't been nothin' in it since Rancey's old bull kicked out and bolted. Haven't seen hide or hair of him since."
"Rancey or the bull," Yad asked with a grin.
"I'm still here, Yad, and you still owe me five," a burly voice yelled from the wall. The growing crowd at the gates jittered with laughter but kept their attention on the motley circus outside.
"Well, howdy, Rance," Yad shouted. "I ain't forgot that five." He turned back to Cincinnatus. "I'm gonna borrow that pen awhile if that's all right."
"Sure. What's you got out there, Yad?"
"Why, just the finest horseflesh this side of the Mississippi." Yadkin winked at his old flip-drinkin' hucksterin' partner--a gesture Cincinnatus knew well as an invitation to trouble. The old tavern keeper sighed in resignation as he pulled at the whiskers on the bottom of his chin. Heaven would have to wait-- Yad was back.
With Israel attached at his hip, Yadkin pushed his way through the crowd at the gate and disappeared. The fort gawkers followed.
Cincinnatus eyed Daniel. "What's ya think he's up to, Dan'l? You gonna go see?"
The big frontiersman furrowed his brow and shook his dark head. "Don't know, but I best go warn Becky that Yad's back."
Meely, Rancey and J.D. helped Yad replace the fallen railings about the split-rail enclosure with Cincinnatus supervising. Other Boonesborough men--a mix of farmers, trappers, traders and ne'r-do-wells--stood around gaping at the proceedings.
With the pen secure, Yad pulled off some rails to make an opening then motioned for the teamster. The buckboard made a wide circle bringing the critters abreast of the rough pen so everyone present had a good look at 'em.
They were horses, on the small side. An assorted lot of sweet natured lambs on hoof that'd as soon kill a man as look at him. They jumped, kicked, jittered, and yanked on their ropes. Roped they were, like goats trussed up by a child. For sure, they wanted to be somewhere else and had not signed up willing for the walk.
Grungy J.D. asked, "What the blazes is Yad up to?"
"Looks to me like he's gone into the horse peddlin' business," lanky Meeley drawled as he gnawed on a blade of switchgrass. "We best warn the new folk. That Yadkin can sell-up an Injun on his last wampum bead."
It was the time of the year people around Boonesborough had money in their pockets for buying seed. Cincinnatus glanced nervously over the assembled crowd. "I'd sooner buy a jack-rabbit to ride. You men surely aren't thinkin' about puttin' your seed money in Yad's pocket for one o' those critters?"
"You think Yad owns 'em?" bearded heavyset Rancey bellowed. "Yad never owned nothin' in his life but his huntin' gear and he was likely not to own that on any given day. I bet that fancy feller drivin' the buckboard owns 'em. Who's he?"
Cincinnatus stroked his grizzled chin and studied the driver. The driver glanced at the gathered men but looked at none of them. About that time, bandy-legged Heck Stokeburn came struttin' up. "Maybe ole Heck here knows who owns those ponies."
"Nope," Heck yelped as he crossed over and leaned back on a railing. "Wonder how Yad got them critters tied up like that." He pulled his felt hat down low to keep the setting sun from his beady gray eyes.
"Mores the wonder how he's gonna get 'em untied," Meeley said.
Yad hoisted Israel from the ground like a flour sack and deposited him onto the buckboard.
"Ya'll watch yourselves," Yad drawled, "these ponies can be as gentle as kittens but they've had a long walk and are a bit touchy--"
A horse kicked his hind legs and thumped Yad on the hip. "Yowl!" the brawny horse handler yelled as he returned the favor with a kick on the horse's rump. "You yellow-bellied, hay-burnin' idle-brained idjut, get on there." Yad slapped his hat against the animal's side then threw out his arms like a great grizzly. The horses backed away snorting and stomping backwards towards the corral pulling the wagon with them. "Yaw, yaw."
The spectators scrambled as the beasts were not inclined to enter their pen without a fight. The horses stomped, jumped and jerked the rope that bound them but they would not gain ground. Yad broke off a long branch from a nearby willow tree and slapped at the horses' noses like he was swatting flies. "They'll settle down after they've been worked a bit."
A sharp whip crack snapped the air making everyone jump. The horses moved back hurriedly. They jerked the wagon violently pulling it halfway into the pen. The driver caught hold of the wagon seat to keep from toppling backwards. Israel rolled like a ball into the mound of hay that covered the buckboard bed.
"Yadkin, it is astonishing to see you again in such good health."
Yadkin grinned and glanced at the Cherokee who was coiling his whip methodically. "Howdy, Mingo. Yeah, I heard of my demise. Wisht I'd a known. I might've grieved for myself.
"Where did you find that many four-legged friends to purchase? I thought there was a shortage due to the war." Mingo said with a smile.
Yad apparently didn't hear Mingo's question or didn't want to answer it.
Daniel strode up. He grabbed his son off the open buckboard and placed him feet first on the ground.
Israel put his hands on his hips and stuck out his diminutive chest. "Pa, I gotta help Yad with them critters."
"Your Ma said to send you home for bath and bed."
"Ah, Pa…" the boy grumbled as he turned about and stomped his booted foot on the ground. He stood defiant for a moment before he turned his head to say, "Yad, I'll be back to help ya tomorrow bright and early." Then he scampered down the shade-dappled river trail towards home.
Yad grumbled out of the side of his mouth, "They're a bit skittish 'cause they ain't been rode…in a while."
Rancey asked, "Since when have they been rode?"
"Ah-um," handsome Mose grunted as he sauntered up, "let me guess. When they crossed the Cumberland on a ferry a few days back?" The men around the pen chuckled.
The forgotten wagon driver turned his head to see how his load fared; the sun illuminated his visage like a big orange pumpkin. Cincinnatus recognized the flat-nosed pudgy-jowled face. "Why if it ain't Strom Stokeburn. "Yad since when do you keep company with a Stokeburn?"
Yad looked around nervously first at Cincinnatus, then at Daniel. The latter studied Strom with a penetrating gaze. "Ah..well--"
"You think you're gonna sell that wild horse flesh 'round here?" Mose asked.
"Mose, these horses can handle the terrain better than mules," Yadkin replied, "and they're twice as eager. Don't ya'll believe they're gentle?"
"Gentle as wild-cats," Mose mumbled. "Their eyeballs are rollin' around in their sockets like they're unhitched from their brains."
"I'll prove it to you," Yad drawled.
The former trapper strolled to the rear of the clumped-up horses. The herd watched him as he ambled by. Some kicked, but he dodged the hooves. When he reached the last horse now standing in the pen, he yanked his knife from its sheath at his back. "Come here, little doggie."
The bold horse-handler grabbed the horse's nostrils and twisted it's head violently; his other arm circled the horse's neck and closed down like a vice. The horse wheezed and snorted trying to catch its breath.
The animal threw it's head down and whipped it's backend in a vicious coil that swung Yad off the ground. The man hung on for the ride; his neck muscles showed the strain--like rope pulled taut. He slid his knife up and cut the rope that held the horse to the tether line. The muscular beast bucked its hind legs up into the air trying to detach the trouble that held him. Yad came down to the ground feet first and dug his heels into the dirt. He grinned at his astonished audience then jumped back with his arms wide.
The freed horse fled like lightning across the pen and rammed into the far railing. It fell back on the ground and lay there thrashing its legs in the air in a mock gallop. Then it stopped, quiet, stunned, catching its breath, thinking things over. It rolled and scrambled up on its legs then galloped and bucked about the pen.
"They're a mite spritely 'cause they're bored. It'll work outa 'em," Yadkin said.
Mose stared wide-eyed and open-mouthed at Yad.
"Mr. Stokeburn, I suppose there's no use askin' where you got these horses," Daniel said.
"If they are horses, Dan'l," Cincinnatus said. "They may just be painted-up rabbits."
"They came from down south," Stokeburn answered with a smooth drawl. The lethargic man spat brown tobacco juice on the ground at Daniel's feet. The frontiersman didn't flinch. He just kept his sharp green eyes pinned on Strom.
"Yad, that true?" Daniel called to the busy man setting the horses loose in the pen. The freed beasts sprinted and bucked about. They gathered themselves into one flow of mane, teeth and hoof then dashed from one side of the pen to the other. The earth shook with the thud of their hooves.
"Yep, Dan'l. Down Georgia way."
"Yad are these ponies Cherokee or Creek?" Mingo asked with a hint of unease in his voice.
"Neither that I know of," Yad answered, "but they ain't mine anyways."
Mingo glared at the team driver, who had just jumped to the ground. Stokeburn brushed the trail dust from his gloves and glared back with deep-set wolf eyes. "You got somethin' to say, Cherokee?" Stokeburn asked.
The Cherkoee apparently didn't.
After the horses were penned, Yad backed the buckboard into the enclosure and pushed their feed off to the ground. The horses sauntered up and proceeded to take to the hay like rabbits to a garden. He unhitched the mules, led them from the pen, and left the buckboard behind. The mules, he tied to a tree. He then wrapped his brawny arm around Cincinnatus and lifted him from the ground. "'Natus, how 'bout some o' that belly bustin' flip o' yourn?"
"Sure thing," the proprietor said nervously, "just put me back on the ground big fella and I'll be happy to oblige."
Yad chuckled as he dropped the skinny tavern keeper back on his feet.
Cincinnatus led Daniel and Mingo back to his tavern for a night of reunion with their old friend Yadkin. Strom sauntered in a few minutes after the friends sat down over a pitcher of flip. Stokeburn sat in the shadows in the far corner of the tavern with his back to the wall. He nodded when the tavern keeper asked him if he wanted ale.
They plied Yad with several pitchers of flip, but the men could not get a clue from him as to who owned those horses or who owned them before they showed up in Boonesborough. Yadkin just explained it had been a rough year and he took this job when it came along and he told the same story before the liquor as after the last drop. The herdsman retired early. He said he would be on the buckboard so he could keep the wolves from his herd.
Strom left the tavern soon after Yad, leaving Cincinnatus, Mingo and Daniel alone and pondering deeply.
The tavern keeper slapped the pocked-marked oak table with his hand. "Why, I plumb forgot to ask Yad what the heck he's been doin' that kept him away from Boonesborough for so long."
"Daniel, there has been a great deal of black market dealings in guns and horses since the war began," Mingo said. "Is it possible Yadkin has become involved in that? Might he purposely deceive you?"
The hunter stuck out his lower lip and drummed his fingers on the table. "I've never known him to before. He might stretch the truth a bit, especially if he's a-tradin', but Yad never was a very good swindler. He has too big a heart."
"Yad ain't lyin'," the tavernkeeper said defensively. "He don't know what Strom Stokeburn's up to. Strom is so good at keepin' mum, his own relatives don't know what he's up to. In fact, he probably don't even tell himself."
Mingo squinted his dark eyes at Cincinnatus. "But what is Yad 'up to', Cincinnatus?"
"Yad'll sell every one o' them critters if he has a mind to. He'll turn grown men into boys bickerin' over those horses and climbin' all over each other to get one. That's how good Yad is. It don't matter what he's sellin'."
Daniel nodded as if agreeing, but he just sat quietly taking another sip of his flip.
"If Strom Stokeburn gets a toe hold in this territory," Cincinnatus said as he absentmindedly refilled his own tankard, "he'll own the whole place in ten years. He'll drive me out o' business in one."
"You've been skinned by him before have ya?" Daniel asked.
"Yep. He can't be touched Daniel. He's cold as ice."
"It seems to me anyone who wanted to buy a horse would want to know who owned it." Mingo said.
"If you're bein' skinned, Mingo," Cincinnatus said, "what difference does it make who walks away with your money?"