Grandpa Ephram’s Flintlock


Nathan Wakefield could hardly wait for dawn to break across the paddock. Today was his eleventh birthday, and Father had told him last night that in the morning the big flintlock rifle that hung over the cabin door would be his. “I have the Winchester,” Father said, “and you’ve been carrying a man’s load around here for some time now. You’ve earned Grandpa’s flintlock.” Then he looked deep into the lad’s eyes and added, “But be wise, my son. These are God’s mountains.”

Nathan sat in his rumpled nightshirt in the small, upstairs log bedroom, staring out into the predawn chill and dreaming about the big rifle. It had first been used by Grandpa Ephram as he, along with other frontiersmen, blazed trails through the wilderness for those who would follow. There were few primitive woodlands that had not heard the crack of the old musket as it spit fire and smoke—felling great beasts, warding off hostiles, and echoing the sound of brave men moving west.

Nathan’s father inherited the long gun and had used it all these years to keep his family in meat and to safeguard their stay in the rugged Montana mountains.

Perhaps, more than anything else, it had been the tales told about the old gun that had whetted Nathan’s yearning for the ruggedly handsome piece—tales told and retold around the fire-warmed hearth on cold, howly winter nights.

Nathan held his breath and his eyes widened in anticipation when the first rays of frosted light finally slanted across the top of the gray woods and lit a place on the paddock.

The young farm boy hardly tasted his breakfast that morning. Quickly wiping the goat’s milk off his chin, he bounded out the door with a leather pouch of homemade bullets strapped on his waist, a powder horn bouncing over his shoulder, and the long musket held firmly in his arms.

The woods were still more dark than light as Nathan waded through the high drifts of snow that bordered the icy white, mist-wrapped timberline. He tingled with a strange new sense of power as he pushed deeper into the eerie wooded silence. Nathan longed to become a part of the history of the big Wakefield flintlock, and these woods were full of opportunities!

Suddenly, a snow rabbit hopped into a clearing a short distance away. The animal paused to lift its head toward a myriad of silver slivers of light, shining like tinsel on the ice-coated branches above. Nathan hurried to load the musket, but in his excitement he hit the butt of his rifle against one of the great spider-leg roots, and the rabbit disappeared at the sound into the gray morning light.

Next time I’ll be more careful. And I’ll make a kill, he promised himself as he pressed deeper into the hush and haunting grandness of the living wood.

Nathan suddenly stopped dead still. Through a tangle of brushwood he spied a fawn in a patch of cold sunlight, nibbling on the leaves of a low-hanging limb. The young hunter lifted the flintlock, rested it across the bow of a small tree, and cocked the hammer. The fawn raised its head, pricked its ears, and its soft brown eyes stared into the brushwood and at the boy beyond. Nathan’s heart pounded and his eyes stung. His lips became summer-creek dry as his finger began to squeeze the trigger. His face twitched with excitement at the anticipation of a kill. Then his finger seemed to freeze in position. Was it from the cold? No—from somewhere his father’s voice came. “Be wise, my son. These are God’s mountains.”

The boy slowly lowered the rifle. And for a long moment the young deer and the young hunter traded looks.

The sun was high in the sky when Nathan emerged from the woods and crossed the frozen field toward home. Father paused in his woodchopping as the boy, toting the long rifle across his shoulder, stopped by the woodpile. “Well, son, what did you find?” he asked, leaning on his axe.

Nathan’s eyes shone. “Wisdom, Pa. I hope I found a little bit of wisdom.”

Nathan walked into the cabin and got a chair. But before he stepped up onto it to replace the flintlock over the door, he took out his pocketknife and carefully carved a small NW on the stock of the gun next to his father’s and Grandpa Ephram’s initials. Then he went outside to help his father cut wood.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dick Brown