A few nights later, they camped below an ancient fortress. When the afternoon was still strong, the trapper led them on foot along a high trail above their camp on the Little River. The trail led them above the treetops along a path that was precarious and slick, barely room for one to walk with a sheer drop on one side. To fall would mean certain death. The roar of the falls washed away any other sound. The way was so narrow, Nest was unable to hold her brother's hand. She let him hold the fringe on her dress as he followed bravely. Suddenly, they arrived at a series of five caves, very large rooms with a partial wall built in a semi-circle in front of them. Her little brother came to life running from room to room. Most of them were connected with hand-hewn doorways.
Nest couldn't overcome her curiosity as her brother ran around exploring with the dog barking at his heels.
"What tribe built this?" she asked the trapper in Cherokee.
The trapper looked up surprised. "According to the old Cherokee Chief Oconostota this was the work of the Welsh Indians. This is called Lookout Mountain.
Nest felt a tingle on the back of her neck, more than the spray of the falls. Her eyes grew wide. This was her sacred ground. The Creek remembered her people and called them "People of Madawg."
"The Creek and the Cherokee kept driving them further up the Alabama River until they finally drove them off to the Ohio, then the Muddy River, the Missouri. Eventually, your people joined
up with Mandan a few hundred years ago. They built large villages with watch towers there, almost like castles. Those houses had several rooms each. A friend of mine saw the ruins of the foundations on an expedition up the Missouri. He said when he stayed with them, the Mandan knew many of the Bible stories like the flood and the Son of God coming years ago. They even had a pieces of an old Welsh Bible, but no one could read it anymore. It was on rolled up parchment, hand written. They asked my friend if he could read it, but he didn't know if it was in Welsh or Latin, or Greek; he just knew he couldn't read it. A few could still speak it though. Your mother knew some Welsh. Do you?"
Nest nodded. It grieved her heart that she had learned so little, just snatches of old songs mostly. It never occurred to her that her mother, her rock, would be taken so soon. There was so much more to learn. It also kindled in her heart a burning desire to tell her brother of his mother's people.
"As we go north, we'll encounter a couple of these forts. I've been this way before. This is probably the first one. It's so well fortified, it is practically invincible here. I've never seen any other tribes who built things like this. Some say it was built by the Spanish explorer De Soto, but the local tribes say it was the Welsh Indians.
Nest listened intently and for once hoped he would go on. He did.
"This old trapper said there were many in this light skinned tribe who were very tall, with blue or green eyes, blonde to red-headed to brunettes. Quite a few of these men had beards. The old ones'
hair was white. Their manners were said to be more refined than any tribe he had ever encountered. Some even had ancient brass buttons on their clothes. The stories of the Welsh Indians have been known among trappers at the rendezvous for many years, but I was astonished when I found out that your mother was one of them."
Nest thought, "I am one too." Her heart swelled with pride looking at the work of her people. She felt like dancing. Tonight when the other two were sleeping, maybe she would.
Her little brother came up out of breath begging, "Can we live here? It's perfect! No one could ever sneak up on us." The trapper only laughed.
Setting up their cam at the base of the falls, she went about gathering the wood and making dinner over the fire. Then Nest sat back and enjoyed watching her little brother running along the river bank shooting his stick arrows at an imagined enemy practicing his shrill war whoop. Tonight as he lay beside her, she would whisper the stories into his ear. She would not let him forget either.
That night after the whispered stories were told, and heavy breathing let her know they were sleeping soundly, Nest slipped quietly out of their camp and sat on a rock by the falls. The moon glowed and the stars glistened. She sang softly...
"Holl amrantau'r ser ddywedant
Dyma'r ffordd I fro gogoniant
Golan arall yw tywyllwch
I arddangos gwir brydferthwch
Teulur nefoedd mewn tawelwch.
O mor siriol, gwena seren,
I oleuo' Ichwaer oldaearen."
"All the star's eyelids say
This is the way to the realm of glory.
Darkness is a different light
That exposes true beauty
The heavenly family in peace...
O, how cheerful smiles the star,
To light its earthly sister."
Nest danced, arms reaching for the stars.
The moonlight touched the earth softly. Nest could walk by its light. Too excited to sleep, she followed along the base of the cliff running her hand along its uneven surface thinking of its history. Suddenly, she struck her toe against something thrusting up sharply that was buried in the leave. It threw her to her knees. Nest hoped that her cry of pain would not rouse the sleeping. After rocking, squeezing her hurt foot, stifling her moans, she felt along to find the offender. Her fingers felt something hard, like a walnut of iron sticking up.
Digging quickly, she unearthed more. Was it a sword or knife, a relic of her ancestors? Finally, using a rock and stick to break up the hardened earth, Nest pulled out an ancient dagger. The silver filigree on the handle was caked with dirt. As she brushed it and blew the crust away, it was possible to see the delicate shape of a dragon etched on the hilt, even in the moonlight. The dragon was a symbol from Wales. Nest shivered with excitement and raised her eyes to heaven with thanks. It was a treasure. She would have to keep it hidden. If the trapper knew she had it, he might trade it away. This was her gift from the moon and the stars and her mother. Nest tucked it into the folds of her deer hide dress and crept quietly back to her bedroll. The dog thumped his tail but did not lift his head. Surely, the others would hear the pounding of her heart and wake up. Her eyes stared into the depths of the stars until dreams lifted her far and away.
The next morning, Nest tucked the find between a pair of her mother's old moccasins, tied the pair together with a leather thong and rolled it up tightly in her bedroll. She limped a little from her injury. Nest's head swam with the secret. She made the porridge more water than mush. Her little brother complained loudly. Nest could only smile when he scowled. The trapper drank it. There was no use dipping finger in the pot of such a runny mess. She hummed the Welsh tune of the night before, repeating the lines over and over in her head to engrave them into her memory.
After following the Alabama River, they turned off onto the Coosa River. Whenever they stopped, her little brother took his sharpened stick and tried to spear fish. Nest preferred wading out in a quiet pool, standing still until a fish was caught in her quick grasp. It took longer, but was more satisfying when she met with success. Her little brother needed a lot more practice.
Her mother's basket to catch fish was lost in the flames during the raid when the village was burned. Every night the trapper set out his traps and checked them each morning before they moved on. That kept them in fresh meat and fish, much more pleasant than a dried jerky diet. She kept her eyes open to find fruits and plants to eat with their meat. Wild plum trees were promising, but not yet offering their ruby gifts. Sometimes Nest found a cherry tree, though peaches wouldn't be ripe until the sun was hotter. One day they even came across strawberries growing so thickly that they looked like a piece of a French trader's red cloth unrolled.
In many more days, their journey took them to another fortress, Fort Mountain, a very tall mountain. Nest realized the trapper was taking them out of the way, not just to hunt, but to show them the primitive Welsh Indian encampments. It was necessary because of the climb, to put her brother on the pack mule while she walked. She would not complain though the path stole her wind and the rocks poked through her moccasins. Even the trapper walked a good part of the way huffing and puffing.
The view at the top was breath taking. Again, her people had chosen a place that could easily be defended from enemy attack. The wall was very long. The camp overlooked the valley. It was peaceful except for the war whoops of her little brother playing. Nest looked over the vastness which lay in the valley below her. Suddenly, the earth seemed to move far away. It was a huge herd of buffalo spooked and beginning to run, a dust cloud enveloping them. Nest had never seen so man.y since she left the Muddy River of the Mandans. She realized how great the Creator was who made the mighty buffalo which moved like ants below her.
Even the trapper was too tired to set traps. Nest slept soundly after her climb. There was no dancing tonight. Only the dog dreamed of running, pumping his legs in his sleep as if he was chasing a rabbit.
The blast of a gun woke Nest. For a moment in the early light, she was back in the attack when her mother threw herself over her. She swallowed a scream. Her heart pounded and every muscle tensed.
"Da must have shot a deer," her little brother said sleepily.
Every drop of energy had drained out of her. She lay lifeless where only her heart flopped like a fish out of water. Nest forced herself to get up and woodenly went about the chores before he came back and would need help with the skinning.
The trapper came leaving a trail of dripping blood. He threw the deep slung from across his shoulders to the ground then hung the carcass from a tree to let it drain. Cutting a large steak, he tossed it to her to roast for breakfast. Bloody fingers and all, he put his hands behind his head lay back and fell to sleep feet to the fire. He had risen before dawn to hunt in the first light.
All at once Nest dropped the steak into the fire, grabbed her brother before kicking the trapper's feet. she stood watching three Cherokees approaching on foot.
The trapper's anger at being woken up turned instantly into his smiling manner he used for trading. The tension eased as he went over and cut some more steaks and helped her ready them to cook on sticks over the fire for their guest who squatted, settling in for a friendly visit. Nest stabbed the meat she had dropped into the fire and continued roasting it keeping her eyes only on her brother and the breakfast. Nest could not close her ears to one of the men who offered to buy her for his squaw.
Trapper threw back his head and laughed. "Who would cook for me and look after my little brave when I am hunting my pelts?"
One came over and felt of her curls. Nest jerked her head away. This time it was the Cherokee who laughed. She looked at the trapper whose mouth smiled, but not his eyes.
The meat was done. They ate, and the trapper offered the Indians the rest of the deer since he was moving on. Nest packed up quickly. They would be out of there before the cook pot cooled. This may be a fortress, but it did not keep these braves from surprising them. She was glad the path down took less time than yesterday's climb up. She couldn't help but look over her sholder to see if they were followed.
They encountered Indians almost every day now. Nest held onto her brother making him ride with her on them mule. She never let him play out of her sight when they made camp. In the dark of night, she had untied the leather thongs and took her treasure out of its moccasin hiding place. Nest now tied it to her thigh under her skirt. The dagger might be needed, and she would be ready. Maybe her mother sent it for a purpose.
Old Stone Fort was up north on the banks of the Duck Rive. Its walls were two teepees tall built up on high bluffs. Below were the longest walls yet as if built to be banks to a small river. Nest imagined the place covered with her people, tall men with beards and light skinned women beautiful like her mother with children happily playing.
It was too quiet. Her shaded eyes searching for her brother. Nest gasped as she turned and looked up. He was standing on the top of the wall above the cliffs. Afraid her screams would scare him and cause him to stumble, Nest prayed to the Creator of all to keep him from falling. The boy scrambled down as easily as he went up. He saw her face and grinned.
"I am the greatest warrior of the Cherokees."
"You are a Welsh Indian and Mandan. This is the ancient fortress of your people. Keep that honor in your heart."
"But the Cherokee beat them in the great battle even with such a fort. I'm of the victorious Cherokee."
"Never forget that you are the son of your mother. I wish you could have known my father. There was no taller or stronger warrior. Our mother loved him, and he brought us great pride. He was a brave buffalo hunter. We never went hungry." Nest's eyes glowed with intense pride.
"I hear my sister. I will remember." I am a Welsh Indian and Mandan."
She thought, but didn't say, "and son of a Scottish trader and trapper." It was not his fault that he did not share her father. She was his sister, and he was the son of her mother.
They stayed for many nights for the trap lines were good. Whenever the trapper left to collect his pelts, Nest told her brother all the stories she had ever heard and sang him the old songs. he was beginning to be able to sing a few lines as they practiced over and over. The fort of the ancients inspired them both. Nest felt her mother's smiles upon her.