Just what have I done to myself this time, William Fowler wondered to himself silently? He stood here wiping sweat from his forehead with his rag of a neckerchief while holding his salt stained hat under his arm at his side. Every day he plodded out here to the edge of the forest with his axe and fell trees all day long in the humid Virginia heat. When one of the old large pines, chestnuts or other trees were finally on the ground he would trim it down, save what could be hauled and used, then burn the rest. Later he and the other indentured servant would take the team and remove the stumps. This clearing of new fields for tobacco was monotonous unforgiving drudgery with no end in sight.
This new life in the Colony was not what he had dreamed it would be when he agreed to the compact to get out of England. He had run away again here to the edge of the world, now there was no place to run. William had arrived only three months ago and had most of his five years yet facing him. It seemed like he had already been here a lifetime with day after day, after day of this same back breaking labor.
William had run the first time from his father and family in Shrewsbury. They were not of the line of Fowlers who had served with the old king, William the Conqueror. His family had been Saxon peasants, the Fowler name came from his father and his father’s trade not any honored lineage. William’s mother had named him for the old king though as many did hoping it would be a good omen on their life, it had not. One night during his thirteenth summer he simply crept out of the cottage in the dark and never returned having dreams of making his fortune down in London town.
After four years on the streets just staying alive and occasionally just ahead of the law or less than desirable money hawkers and fences. He sought out what he had heard about of the possibility in agreeing to five years of indentured service to a planter in the colonies to pay for passage to the new world. This he thought had to be the place he was meant for. Again it seemed he had been in error for this was not the life he was seeking.
Two days later he had to venture again to a spot at the edge of the plantation alone to start a new clearing area. This always concerned William because there had been trouble with Indians occasionally, even a few attacks in the not too distant past. This morning however he almost tripped over a find he was now staring at with conflicting feelings. At his feet was a forgotten musket, probably from some past altercation, maybe even dropped by someone fleeing or eventually captured by Indians or worse.
If he took this back to his master it could be taken from him as that would be his right. But if he kept it in secret it would be his and although the musket was in definite need of some repair it could be of use to him some day. Keep it he would and he knew he could clean it into a useable weapon. That day he worked harder when he chopped and cleaned at the gun in between. William came back to his quarters later than usual as well making sure all his work was done.
Over the next few weeks the musket regained its working capability and it began to look like a very serviceable weapon. Since William always carried one of the plantations muskets to the field for protection he began to squirrel away a ball or pinch of powder occasionally in a possibles bag he had made for his own ammunition. He had also come across an old skinning knife with a broken handle that was set aside as unusable and put it in with his musket and ammunition. The knife he honed to razor sharp as he worked a new handle onto it and found enough leather scraps to make a new sheath for it as well. These weeks now passed somewhat more quickly even if more tiring at times due to William now working at different tasks simultaneously.
No one was suspecting anything as William was just as tired and not any more sociable than he had been since arriving at the plantation several months ago.
The slaves were now working daily in the tobacco fields reaping the ripe leaves and setting those to cure at the overseer’s direction in the storage and curing barns. That was the only thing William thought one day passing them working in a field, One day I can leave here a free man, they are here forever.
Late one evening as William was sitting on a primitive three legged stool outside his quarters and smoking a pipe he had fashioned out of a corncob like the slave men used. He listened to music coming from the main house of the owner where a party was going on and his determination became rekindled. He could not relax and enjoy like that and he was not going to put his youth off for four more years.
As he sat there one of the older black men came by and offered him a drink of some contraband rum. William accepted the proffered drink swilling down a large gulp before the full strength of its content slapped him in the face. William lurched forward bent almost double and coughed until he could regain his countenance as the old slave started to chuckle under his breath. Laughing at any white man could be dangerous but this quiet one you could not be sure of. William looked up at him and just laughed a little himself.
“That stuff has a surefire kick. Mind if I try one more, I’ve never had anything like that before?” William asked him?
“Yes suh, its jest squeezins though.” He answered.
William took another pull on the man’s jug but this time not quite so deeply and swallowed more slowly savoring the flavor and feeling of warmth it gave him. Then he bowed his head to the man in gratefulness.
That night with the added false courage from the liquor William decided it was time leave. He waited until morning and then walked toward the area he had been clearing as usual. It was not long after the first full rays of the sun shone brightly in the sky as William uncovered his small stockpile of weapons and ammunition. He pulled the possible bag over his right shoulder and the powder over his right. Then he picked up his musket, left his tools where they lay except for the trimming hatchet which he inserted into his waistband and walked off into the woods headed west.
As he crossed a well used trail he turned onto it following it with a little quicker pace. With any luck he would not be missed until late that day when he did not show up for his evening meal or maybe even to pick up what he would have carried to work the next morning. But at the latest by the morrow someone would start looking for him, the master of the plantation had invested too much money on him to just let him walk off. This was at least a case for the magistrates and would not bode well for him. If they were going to catch him though they were going to have to find him first and that he was not going to make easy.
He walked the entire day stopping only for short rests. He occasionally drank a small amount of his water but did not eat until late in the afternoon even then he ate sparingly. William had decided to go on as fast as he could for as long as his strength lasted and only stop when he was so tired that he could go on no longer and then sleep. He could find water and then game later. He was not sure where the settlements might be but he knew he must avoid them; he had nothing to trade anyway and no coin. To be seen by anyone would leave someone to give information to those that would be tracking him, he was not going back.
For the next two weeks William followed the trails that in general kept him going in the direction of the setting sun each day. He had to take circuitous routes through thickets and dense growth once to avoid a settlement he came upon. Hiding for a short while in two different places to watch and listen to the people. It became apparent that his time in London had not been without positive consequence for his years there had taught him how to hide and steal. William now had a better cloak, an old blanket, a larger pack now stocked with some food and more powder with shot. But no one spoke of a runaway servant.
There had been farmsteads to avoid for a while as well. He thought about taking a horse at one of the homesteads but had decided that would possibly bring more people chasing him for another reason and another criminal act to answer for.
It had now seemed to be a long time since he had blundered into anyone or came across any remnants of another white man being in the vicinity of where he trekked. He was following a river that’s course was flowing in the same direction as William was trying to head. The local scenery had changed as well; the mountains were more gentle rolling hills with larger open glens or wider valleys, some of the trees and shrubs were different as well and rivers were now joining together into a very large single current flowing west and sometimes gently south.
There now blocking his route of travel was a large Indian village along the river. He had slowed and become more vigilant when he came upon the first footprints in the trail. Now William was hiding again not moving at all in the daylight, what he could hear sounded garbled and he couldn’t understand any of it. There were long arched roofed bark and hide covered houses, hide racks, campfires and even canoes pulled up on the riverbank. Reddish brown skinned people were everywhere working, children playing and laughing, women washing clothes at the river, men coming and going into the woods or in canoes on the river at times.
This was the first time that William realized that in the near future winter would be starting to settle in and if he was not settled somewhere in time he could be in another kind of danger and that in doing so he would be more likely to be found by someone. Now it would be more possible to be an Indian rather than another white man. In the twilight somewhere between the last Indian falling asleep and the coming of the first grey hints of a dawn in the eastern sky William crawled down to the far riverbank at the eastern edge of the village. He found the last canoe farthest downstream quietly lay his belongings in the bottom, slid it into the river without so much as a splash and rolled over the edge into it once in the water and gently guided it into the flow of the current. In an hour or so it would be missed, so once away from the village William took up the paddle and struck the water repeatedly with all the force he could muster. At the end of that day he came out of the canoe on a rock at the river’s edge on the other side of the watercourse after putting some rocks into its bottom so it would continue on downstream before beaching itself. He hoped this would appease the owner and they would not follow him past that.
Another week later after crossing another large river just upstream from where it joined the one he had been following William climbed the high bluff bordering the riverbank. He stood on the knoll it created and stared out at the far horizon to the west and wondered had any white man ever seen this land before. He decided that somewhere out there he would make himself a home, a life on his own terms and the devil with everything behind him.