Walker's Trail

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Alone and lost in the mountains with his six-year-old sister, fifteen-year-old Zach Walker is faced with the task of keeping them alive while finding help for their parents who have been kidnapped. To make matters worse, Zach is being followed by a man set on killing him and another whose intentions are unknown. Walker’s Trail is a story of survival, love, and a boy becoming a man in the 1870s.

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Chapter One

He wanted to hit my pa; I could tell it. He tried not to let it show, but it was in his eyes. They were squinting, and his jaw was tight. And to tell the truth, I wanted to hit my pa too!

Instead of hitting him, Grandpa restrained himself and sat silent a moment, chewing the piece of beef he had just put in his mouth, letting his jaw relax as Pa’s words sunk in. When he had chewed it sufficiently, and gathered his thoughts some, Grandpa swallowed and took a long drink of water before clearing his throat to speak. The rest of us just sat there watching and waiting as the tension mounted in the room.

“Tennessee?” Grandpa finally said, repeating my pa’s words.

“Yes, sir. I think we could make a fine living in Knoxville and I aim to take my family there.”

“You got a fine living here, Gerald. You have a house, a job at the sawmill,” he said with a wave of his fork, then added, “and most importantly… family.”

“I know, Mr. Palmer,” Pa said leaning forward, “but I want to make my own way. I want to provide for my family.” He had his fork in his hand and bounced it with every word.

Grandpa sat silent for a moment, then quietly asked, “So, when are you planning this trip?”

“As soon as possible. I’ve already wired ahead and got us a place to stay. All we have to do is pack a wagon and we will be heading out in the next day or two.”

Grandpa put his fork down and took a deep breath “What… you’re not taking the train?”

“No, sir… we’re going by wagon.”

Pa’s words hung in the air like an unpleasant smell for a moment, then he added. “I don’t trust ’em with all the robberies lately. Besides, I don’t want to leave my things.”

“That’s crazy talk,” Grandpa said glaring at him. “You can ship it by rail. If you don’t have the money…”

“It’s not a matter of money, Mr. Palmer. It’s what I want to do.”

Grandpa pushed his plate away and leaned back in the chair. Breathing deeply, he said, “It’s too dangerous, Gerald. Chances are better by train.”

“Too dangerous for me, you mean. You’ve made that trip many times yourself… once even in winter,” Pa objected.

Grandpa took another swallow of water, then looked at his wife across the table from him. Quietly he said, “coffee.”

Grandma nodded and left the table for the kitchen, followed by my ma.

That was the last of the conversation I heard ’cause Grandpa looked at my little sister and me and motioned to the door.

It was the next morning when we learned for sure that we were going to Tennessee to live. As soon as I found out I went to Pa with the idea of speaking my mind. The night before was the first I had heard of Pa’s plans and after we left Grandpa’s, Pa and Ma talked quietly. I know it would not be the right time to make my feelings known as they seemed to be having a disagreement as well.

Now would be my chance, and I was going to tell Pa I did not want to go and would appreciate it if he would let me stay with Grandma and Grandpa. I planned it out, going over everything I would say, practicing it in my mind.

Pa was in his study at the time, which was once a bedroom he had claimed for his writing desk and books. Just so happened he was looking over maps when I entered the room and waited for him to acknowledge me.

Glancing over his glasses, he smiled slightly. “What is it, Zach?”

Stepping closer, I held my head high and spoke clearly, as my grandpa had taught me to do when talking businessman to man.

“I want to stay.” I finally blurted out. My words sounded strange, like someone else was saying them.

Pa nodded slightly, “I thought you might.”

“Pa, I’m nearly sixteen now. I think I’m old enough to make the decision.” Even as I said it, I wondered if I had been too bold and should have eased into it more.

Pa leaned back in his chair and motioned to the chair beside his desk for me to sit. I plopped myself into the chair and waited for him to respond. His response was not at all what I expected.

“Yes, you are, Zach. You are more of a man that I was at your age, and a lot of that I owe to your grandpa’s influence. And, I understand you wanting to stay. Your mother is none too pleased about leaving either. But, Zach, truth is I need you. This trip north is not going to be an easy one and certainly not one for a man and his wife to take alone.”

“Then why go now, Pa? Why not wait until spring?” I had heard Grandpa propose the same question the night before, but did not hear Pa’s reply to it.

He lowered his head and gathered his thoughts for a moment.

“Because the job I’m going to is expecting now,” he said flatly. “And, because I am a man, and a man must make his own way,” he added honestly. “Living here on your grandpa’s land and working in the sawmill has been good, but it just isn’t who I am.”

Pa was telling the truth about that and I knew it. He was not one for heavy labor, nor was he one for farm life. Had it not been for falling in love with my ma he would have never tried to settle here.

They met for the first time not far from this very house. Pa had been working for an outfit that supplied sawmill parts in Knoxville and had traveled here to sell my grandpa a new sawmill. That’s when he saw Ma picking up goods at the store. One thing led to another, and he ended up leaving his job and working for my grandpa. Less than a year later he and Ma were married, and in another year I came along.

Pa never intended on staying here this long even after marrying ma. He had made plans to move when I was about ten, but then my little sister, Emma, came along and postponed things for a while.

Given Pa’s background, one could hardly blame him for wanting to travel. His pa had been a tinker. He had grown up traveling from town to town with his ma and pa and did so until he was just a year younger than me. That was when his ma died, and after, his pa left him with one relative or another while he continued to travel. The last anyone heard of Zacharia Walker, he had gone west and disappeared.

That’s where I got my name, Zach, from Zacharia Walker. Got my middle name, Palmer, from my ma’s family. Her pa, my grandpa, is named Right Thomas Palmer. He got his name from his grandpa, who when he saw he was a boy said, “finally got one right, so they named him Right”. Grandpa was the youngest and the only boy out of five children. He got his middle name, Thomas, from that same grandpa. Most folks though just call him RT. Folks around here call me Lil’ RT because I spend so much time with my grandpa.

Not that my pa isn’t a good man; he’s just a different man. He’s more at home in the city whereas me and Grandpa like it in the woods. And to be truthful, Pa was better at raising Emma than he was me. As far back as I can remember I loved hunting, fishing and learning about the outdoors, and Emma is more into stories and books.

I do enjoy reading and I do pretty good in schooling too, but I’d rather be somewhere hunting a big buck with my grandpa than sitting in a classroom.

Pa tried to get me interested in business things, and last year he did take me on a few business trips with him. Not being the laborer type, Grandpa set him up in buying and selling for the sawmill.

Even though he tried, Pa could see that I wasn’t much for business and was more of a hands-on kind of person. Since then, me and Pa sort of grew apart, not that we didn’t like each other, but we just had so little in common.

“I understand,” I told Pa honestly when he said he had to be his own man. I just hoped he could understand that I did, too. “But Pa, Grandpa needs me here too,” I tried to reason.

Pa nodded and lowered his head.

“I know this is your home, Zach, but you are my son. I need you to come with me and your ma.”

His words had that final tone to it, and I knew pressing further would only cause trouble, so I sat silent.

“Tell you what,” he said looking me in the eye again with a slight smile. “You will come with us and stay for a year… then if you don’t like Knoxville, I’ll let you come back to stay with your grandpa. You’ll be seventeen then. Plenty old enough to make the trip on your own.”

I was disappointed, but I knew I didn’t have any more argument. I stood, knowing he was good for his word, and stuck out my hand, and said, “Yes, Sir.”

The day before leaving, Pa decided to ride into Springfield and stock up on supplies we would need for the journey. Springfield wasn’t much of a place, but it did have the only mercantile in the area unless you took the trip to Savannah. We would be needing things like sugar, coffee, flour and such for the journey. From home to Knoxville was over four hundred miles and we were looking at somewhere around eight to ten days to make the trip, depending on the weather.

Grandpa offered to come with us and asked his log foreman, Joe, who we all called Big Joe, if he would ride along too. Big Joe was usually out working the crew, but he had gotten laid up recently when a log slipped and landed on his foot. He was just now getting to where he could walk on it a little.

Big Joe, as his name indicated, was a big, strong man. He was a former slave who had bought his freedom some years back. He settled in Ebenezer and went to work for Grandpa, and later married a young slave girl. Grandpa bought her freedom from a neighbor.

Even with his game foot, Big Joe could still outwork the average man. Grandpa knew if he left him behind, he would be doing just that, so he brought him along, telling him he needed him to drive the wagon.

When we arrived in Springfield, I went ahead in the mercantile with Pa and Grandpa whilst Big Joe tied the horses outside. He followed us in a few minutes later.

It was while Pa was going over the list of things we would need with the owner, Mr. Pritchard, that we heard a voice call out from the front of the store. The voice sounded angry. “Pritchard! What’s he doing in ’ere?”

Well, Mr. Pritchard looked like somebody had slapped him in the face, and he stood staring with an open mouth snarl. We were all a bit bewildered at his look and at first, I didn’t know what he was talking about. When I realized he meant Big Joe, I quickly looked to my grandpa. I watched as Grandpa slowly turned to the sound of the man’s voice.

“Well, Pritchard, what’s he doing in here?” he said again, motioning in Big Joe’s direction with his head. It was old Mr. Johnson in the doorway.

“Who, Mr. Johnson?” Pritchard asked, sounding rather timid, to which Mr. Johnson managed to get his face redder than it was and yelled, “This slave! He’s got no business in a white man’s store!”

“He ain’t no slave,” Grandpa said calmly. “Mr. Joe is my foreman an’ I brought him here.”

Johnson stood fuming and spat, “You… you got no respect!”

Grandpa took a step toward the man, and Johnson took a step back. “Perhaps you should leave and come back later if it bothers you,” Grandpa offered.

Johnson glared at Big Joe for a moment, then abruptly turned and stomped out the door. Without another thought, Grandpa turned back to Mr. Pritchard and continued his conversation.

According to Pa, Harvey Johnson lost three boys in the war and was still a very bitter man. Harvey, himself, did not fight in the war but instead fought in politics. Grandpa said the man was big in the Democrat party, which was strange to me. If it was a party about democracy, why was Harvey Johnson always so bitter?

Anyway, without any further interruptions, Mr. Pritchard went about filling my pa’s list. While they were going over things, one of the boys who I had gone to school with, Jesse, came in, and we went outside on the porch to talk. He had already heard we were leaving and had a ton of questions for me.

“Y’all really going the whole way by wagon?”

“Yep, that’s what Pa’s wanting to do.”

“My pa says it’s foolish to traveling ’cross those mountains this late in the year,” Jesse said. “Y’all should ought to wait until spring.”

“Not my choice,” I said truthfully. “If up to me I wouldn’t be going at all.”

“Why not stay ’ere then?”

I shook my head, “Wanted to, but Pa needs me. I do plan to come back next year. Pa said when I turned sixteen I could go if I wanted.”

Jesse pulled a splinter of wood from the post on the mercantile porch and put it in his mouth. “Lot kin happen in a year. Ya might just end up likin’ it there.”

“Not likely,” I said with a shake of my head.

Cutting his eyes at me, Jesse smirked, “Might find a girl up there. That could change yo’ mind.”

I grinned back at him. “Nope. If’n I do, she’d have to come back ’ere with me!”

We were both laughing and funning when Pa came out with Big Joe and told us to move the wagon around back to load it. With that, Jesse said his goodbyes. I figure he wanted to head out before somebody offered him a job helping us.

On the morning of the move, we packed everything we could carry in a modified version of an old Conestoga wagon. Grandpa had used it back before I was born to carry goods between Savannah and Atlanta. It was lighter than a traditional Conestoga and a bit narrower, so it could navigate the mountain range of the Atlanta area and could easily be pulled by four mules.

With everything we could think of for the journey, we gathered outside my grandpa’s house to say our goodbyes.

After many tears and hugs, my ma climbed into the wagon along with Emma. Me and Pa mounted our saddle horses. Grandma had gone into the house as we were mounting, and I figured it was because she couldn’t bear watching us leave.

I was about to say my final goodbye to Grandpa when he told me to hold on a minute. He said Grandma was coming with one last thing to give me. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure what it could be, seeing how she had already given us everything you could think of for our journey, to include baked pies and pickled fruit.

A moment later she came from the house carrying what looked like a buckskin rifle scabbard and handed it off to Grandpa.

“We picked this up in Savannah,” Grandpa said, handing it to me. “It’s just a single shot, but it’s time you had a gun of your own.”

Guns were nothing new to me. Grandpa had me shooting and hunting ever since I was big enough to stand, and I had shot everything from handguns to shotguns, but I had never actually had a gun of my own before.

Burned into the scabbard were my initials, ZPW. On the side of the scabbard was a small button-up pocket filled with .22 shells.

Slipping the rifle out, I looked it over carefully. It was a .22 single-shot breech-loader with a fine walnut stock. My initials had been burned into the stock as well.

“Thanks, grandpa,” I told him while still admiring the gun.

Grandpa nodded and gave me a little smile. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was fighting something hard not to tear up. If he had, I would have certainly embarrassed myself crying.

With a final goodbye, we started toward the main road. I looked back only once to see Grandma and Grandpa holding hands as they walked toward the house. It was hard watching them and leaving the only home I had ever known, a home that was a big part of who I was.

Just prior to 1850, Grandpa purchased several hundred acres in Effingham County and made his home a few miles west of the old Salzburger settlement, near the Ebenezer Creek. There, he had access to the Savannah River and the Central Rail Road to ship his timber to both Savannah and Atlanta.

During the War, Grandpa was fortunate enough to be ignored by the Union Army marching to Savannah in 1864, as the army had its hands full with several thousand freed slaves

Grandpa didn’t fight in the war, but his sons did. Thankfully, all of them made it through the war and were back home. Chad, the oldest, did lose his right arm just below the elbow when a Union bullet shattered the bone. He gets along fine without it, though. He even stayed in the army after losing his arm and fought all the way to Pennsylvania.

Grandpa was asked to join the army, and they even offered him a position of command, but he declined. He said the Palmer family had given enough.

While Grandpa didn’t join the fight between the states, he did supply lumber to the Confederacy and other supplies when needed. Although he didn’t hold to slavery, he didn’t care for the cruelty of the Union troops either. As if to make his point, most of the freed slaves that followed the Union Army drowned while trying to cross the Ebenezer when the army removed the pontoon bridge and abandoned them there. A few of those freed slaves who survived the incident at the Ebenezer Creek found their way to my grandpa’s place and went to work for him. He allowed them to buy a piece of his land for themselves and help them build houses.

I envied those freed slaves now. They had a home, and I was being forced to leave my behind.

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