The priest had just finished the funeral for their stillborn when Hans heard the gunshots. All three heads turned west—down toward the valley and his millpond.
They couldn’t see it from up here—not now that the leaves were out, but across the old dirt road lay a weedy, rocky field, where travelers sometimes camped. There were wagons there last night, probably getting underway now in the cold and dreary, early morning mist.
His young wife Ava stood to his left, their hands clasped, side by side in their silent, stony grief. He turned towards her and saw the questions in her blue eyes—a new worry added to weariness and grief. At least this was a problem Hans could do something about.
He drew her hand to his lips, kissed it, squeezed once, then hurried off—down the winding, mountain path to the house to get his gun and gather news. But for the moment his mind stayed behind.
They had buried her next to the other one, up here in the little meadow on the side of the mountain behind the mill. The priest had been kind enough to come. It wasn’t a real funeral. Stillborns didn’t count, they said. But the three of them had done this twice.
Once was a simple tragedy. But twice? Twice meant little chance of having children at all. Twice changed everything.
They had sailed from Germany six years ago, newly wed and determined to start a new life in this new world. Mr. and Mrs. Mueller had found this place, Millers Valley, and thought it was perfect—a narrow valley with road and streams, coming down from the Appalachian plateau, a mill and millpond, barn and fields, farmhouse and meat house. They sunk their inheritance into it, worked hard at getting established here—making a living, repairing, restoring, rebuilding, preparing for many wonderful years and many wonderful Muellers.
Now their dream had broken. They could no longer pretend. There would be no little hands and hearts on this homestead.
His feet finished the final slope of the hidden path, then carried him through the great rhododendrons that guarded the wall of the mountain. As he stepped back into the world of the valley floor, the unsettled murmuring of the approaching caravan grew suddenly loud enough to bring his mind back to the task at hand.
He crossed the narrow footbridge over the deep channel of the mill stream and quickly strode between the house and the barn to where he could see the road. A pair of men on horseback led two covered wagons—one up front, one at the rear—with a smaller cart between them. The men seemed tense and wary, the horses skittish.
Anyone could see how Hans got his nickname, “The Bear.” Tall, heavy, muscular, grave and black bearded—no one but his beloved wife would even think to call him what she did in private, when she gazed into his dark brown eyes—Mein Bärchen, My Little Bear.
When the men saw him, they seemed somewhat relieved—which surprised him. It was not the typical reaction.
Hans saw one of them exchange a few words with the driver of the lead wagon—a clean-shaven man just starting to grey and fairly well-dressed for someone on the road—and watched as they led their train to a halt in front of him. Hans noticed a cane on the seat beside the older man and a holstered revolver.
“Good morning, sir. I’m Mr. Williams,” said the driver. He paused for a moment for a polite response, but getting none hurried on. “I reckon you heard the shots.”
“I did,” was all he said. But it was enough for anyone who cared about such things to notice his heavy accent. Mr. Williams was unfazed, but Hans saw suspicion replace relief on the faces of his armed escorts.
“We’ll hurry on our way, but you should know what we shot at. Surely that’s your millpond back there and your land.” Then Mr. Williams continued hurriedly, alternating between earnestness and embarrassment at hearing his own tale.
“It was twice a man’s height—or at least it seemed to be. We were just moving out after breaking camp when we saw it peering at us through the trees across the road. Of course, it’s a dim morning, and maybe it was just some giant bear or something, but I have family with me. It terrified them, and—bear, monster, or whatever—we didn’t want it charging us, so we shot at it. It disappeared, but whether we hit or it just ran, I don’t know. We had no interest in investigating, having pressing business elsewhere.”
While Mr. Williams spoke, one of his men rode his horse slowly towards Hans, staring intently into his face. The worn out patrol cap on his head might once have served a military man, but any insignia of rank, role, or allegiance were long gone. He was tall and lanky, but would have had to look up at Hans on his own two feet.
As the horse lent him height, he seemed to think that volume would lend his voice an air of command. Addressing the leader, but still staring at Hans’ face, the Loudmouth called out, “And pressing, it is, Mr. Williams. Let’s leave this boxhead and git movin’.”
“Boxhead”—Hans had heard this and other slurs before. It didn’t bother him, but affirmed his opinion of the rider.
Just then something behind Hans caught the Loudmouth’s attention, and Hans watched his lips curl with distaste. He thought it best not to turn his back on the rider just then and waited.
“Hans,” Father Montgomery called out and strode up beside him. “Hans, excuse me for interrupting, but I must go. Ava wanted to tarry by the grave. Under the circumstances, I advised against it, but she insisted that she would be fine up there. I thought it best to let you know before I leave.”
Hans saw on the Loudmouth’s face that some entirely new idea was taking shape under his worn-out cap. He felt his open hostility subside, so turned to the priest. “Thank you, Father. I’ll check on her.”
“Hey, Bob,” the Loudmouth called out to his companion on the other horse, “these people are Catholic boxheads.”
Calmly, but firmly, the priest took up their defense. “Whatever you may think of our religion, please show some respect for the dead. This young couple has just buried a child.”
Unnoticed, Mr. Williams had climbed from his seat and walked over to join them. “I’m very sorry to hear that, sir. We won’t trouble you any further.” Then turning to the Loudmouth, “Mr. Thatcher, let’s move out.”
“Yessir,” said the Loudmouth. “We should put some distance between us an’nat monster. He was right there by this German’s millpond. No tellin’ what damage he mighta done.”
“Aw now, Fox, you can’t know that,” remarked his partner with some exasperation. One got the impression that this was just the latest in a long series of such conversations, as if the Loudmouth often made claims that his partner did not believe or understand.
“All the same,” he replied and looked directly at Hans. “Best check it out. Hey, I’m just bein’ neighborly. We wouldn’t want the German here to think he weren’t welcome.”
Mr. Williams had had enough. “Bill Thatcher, I hired an escort for this trip to prevent trouble, not make trouble. Now can you and Bob do the job you were hired for?”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Williams,” Bob spoke up, suddenly concerned. “Fox an’ me, that is, Bill an’ me’ll keep trouble away. Won’t we, Fox?”
The Loudmouth ignored his partner. “Speakin’ of which, it’s time for us to scout ahead again. There’s a bridge acomin’ up that’s sometimes out. Iffen it is, then we need to know soon, so we can go the other way.”
“All right, you go check it out,” replied Mr. Williams, who seemed relieved to get back to business.
The riders turned to ride away. Before breaking into a run, the Loudmouth called back, “And we’ll keep an eye out for any other strange creatures makin’ mischief.”
Hans kept watch on the riders until they reached the crossing in the distance and turned north onto the main road. “Fox!” he scoffed to himself. “I doubt he earned that.”
The Loudmouth reminded him of Christoph’s father—although Mr. Schneider was a better man. A Lutheran, he was well-known for his confrontational dislike of Catholics—although he had some excuse: His brother had been injured in a fight with some hot-headed Catholics and for the rest of his life he walked with a limp.
When Hans was twelve, the Schneider’s bought the neighboring farm, and he soon had his first run-in with the son, Christoff. Nothing serious, just name-calling, but it was the first time Hans had faced such a thing, and he didn’t know how to handle a younger boy, goading him into a fight. Eventually they became fairly good friends, although secretly because of the father, and then only for those few months.
Those were troubled years in his native community, and it was partly to get away from all the deep-rooted problems and troubling memories that they emigrated. There was no German community here, like in some of the bigger cities, and now and then they ran into men like the Loudmouth, but mostly life here was better.
Better? The pain of his loss brought him back to the present.
He didn’t trust the Loudmouth, but Mr. Williams seemed honest enough and sounded genuinely scared by something. He would stop at the house for his rifle, revolver, and hunting knife.
Rather than take the road, Hans decided to hike back up the mountain and follow the trail that ran atop the ridge. It curved around behind the millpond from above. He wanted to scout out the area of the sighting from behind before he took the road down to examine the area more closely.
Also, the mountain trail went through the little meadow, so he could check on Ava as well.
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