Into the Wilderness

Page 1

Part 1:

Discovering Paradise

Chapter 1

December 1792

Elizabeth Middleton, twenty—nine years old and unmarried, overly educated and excessively rational, knowing right from wrong and fancy from fact, woke in a nest of marten and fox pelts to the sight of an eagle circling overhead, and saw at once that it could not be far to Paradise. All around her was a world of intense green and severe white mountains, a wilderness of deep and bountiful silence, magnificent beyond all imagining. This was not England, that was clear enough. Nor was it the port at New—York where she had waited for months for the long trip north to begin, nor any of the settlements between New—York and Albany. Her journey was nearing its end.

They had set out early from Johnstown, leaving the MohawkValley behind to follow the Sacandaga river north and then west. At midday they had eaten a cold lunch in the sleigh while the horses rested and watered, and now, finally, Elizabeth found herself within only a few miles of a new home, and a new life.

Across from Elizabeth, her father and brother napped fitfully under piles of quilts, counterpanes, and pelts, their presence given away only by the shock of Julian's unruly hair, and warm clouds of breath which hovered over it. The only other person awake was her father's driver, Galileo, who perched on the box wrapped in many layers of patchwork mantle, pipe smoke trailing behind him in tendrils. Essentially alone, Elizabeth allowed herself to smile idiotically at her surroundings, struggling with her wraps until she could sit up straight. Then she drew in her breath both at the cold—she had never known such temperatures in England—and at the beauty of it. In the many years since her father had last visited England, he had often written of his holdings in upper New—YorkState, but his descriptions were limited to resources: so much timber, game, arable land, water. Although she had never said so, Elizabeth had thought it capricious and perhaps even imprudent of him to name the settlement Paradise. She saw now that she had been wrong.

Trees of more kinds than she could recognize covered the rolling landscape and moved up the hills and over the higher peaks without pause. The farther they traveled, the fewer the clearings: the track snaked back and forth, narrowed, approached the river and fell back again. Through birches and white pines, Elizabeth caught a glimpse of the frozen river now and again, the ice reflecting the forest and sky in a revolving blur of blues and greens. The woods cleared unexpectedly, revealing a sharp bend in the river backed by bluffs. A waterfall erupted from the cliff face, half frozen in mid—arch, half still falling in a crystalline rainbow to a break in the ice. Beyond the sounds of the river, the creaking of the harness, the rhythmic beat of the horses' hooves, and the rush of metal runners in the snow, the world was silent.

Then, in the woods between the sleigh track and the river Elizabeth saw movement. In the deep shadows a large deer was stepping gracefully through the snow, moving down toward the water.

At the same instant, there was a rustling in the underbrush just a few feet from the sleigh on its opposite side; Elizabeth turned, startled, to see a brace of hunting dogs emerge from a thicket, and close behind them, two men running quickly and silently. They were only in her line of sight for a moment, but Elizabeth took in the fact that they wore buckskins and fur, that they were both tall and straight, although one considerably older than the other, and that they bore long rifles held at a purposeful angle.

The team became unsettled and Galileo spoke to them sharply as they broke stride and slowed; this roused Elizabeth's father immediately.

"Galileo!" he called out, half—asleep."Galileo! What is the matter!" Judge Middleton rose as the sleigh drew to a halt.

Elizabeth stood as well, stretching to follow the progress of the hunters, who had melted into the woods which lined the riverbed.

From beneath his rugs and furs, Julian stretched and yawned expansively and finally stood up to observe, peering over the driver's box. Just then the hunters, doubling back, emerged from the trees not far from the sleigh. Julian followed their progress with sleepy amusement.

"Highwaymen in New—YorkState?" he laughed. "I thought we left that kind of thing behind us on the London road!"

Elizabeth gave her brother a half smile."Will you be serious, please. Surely you can see that those men are hunters. Natives, I suppose."

Her father was holding a staccato conversation with Galileo as he rumbled around in the front of the sleigh, and then he turned to face his children with his own gun over his arm.

"Come on, Lizzie," Julian said, making ready to leave the sleigh. "There are bandits at hand. We might as well join in the fun."

"You will have to learn to look more closely, my boy," said the judge. "Don't you see anything worth your attention except hunters? Look where they're heading. There! At the next bend in the river. That's the biggest doe I've seen in two winters. And I've got a new musket, which I intend to put to good use."

"Lizzie!" urged Julian again, gesturing toward her, but the judge shook his head.

"Stay with the sleigh," he called to his daughter as he leapt down and sped off with Julian close behind. Julian sent her a look over his shoulder which she knew well: he was sympathetic, but unwilling to champion Elizabeth in her less ladylike pursuits.

Elizabeth was not surprised to be left behind; that was a woman's lot. Then she remembered that this was not England, and that she might ask for—and do—things considered bold at home.

"Galileo," she called up."Can we move forward a bit so I can see what's happening?"

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