Cara: When I found you, there was no life left. I thought you were dead.

Tara: And you buried me. A shallow hole in the black mud of the Ken-tah-ten, wet with cold swamp water and warm blood... The sun was hot on my face, then you covered it with mud—and sang my death song.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Near Chota, 1767 

            Cara awoke with a start.  He glanced at the sky and then slammed his hand against the rough tree bark, sending tiny fragments of it tumbling to the ground. 

What a fool! 

He had doubled back as planned and found the bend in the river.  It had been swollen with the recent rain, but he had managed to cross it, hopping from rock to rock;

finally fording the waist-deep waters to the other shore.  Unfortunately the effort had left him exhausted.  Climbing high into the limbs of a sturdy tree a few hundred yards from the bank, he had found a safe nest of intertwined branches and settled in, permitting himself just a few minutes to lean his head back and gather his strength.  Apparently he had fallen asleep.  Now he had lost not only several hours, but he’d also lost whatever lead he had had on his brother.

Setting recrimination aside, he shifted and surveyed the ground beneath the tree.  For all he knew his brother had already arrived and was laying in wait for him.  If there was one thing Tara had always excelled at it was the art of war; one important aspect of which was superior skill in tracking.  He would follow hard and fast, and be carrying multiple weapons.  If he could surprise him and wrest one of them from him—the whip or knife perhaps—he might be able to hold his own.  Still, considering the condition he was in; cold, tired, and famished, it was not likely he was going to be able to out-fight the well-rested, well-fed Creek warrior. 

He spent several more minutes listening and observing the area before he lowered himself to the grass.  There he crouched, waiting; his muscles tense.  Then, when it seemed nothing was going to happen, he rose to his feet and slipped quietly into the underbrush and began to run – back the way he had come. In order to live to see the next sunrise he would have to stop reacting and take action instead.  If he couldn’t out-fight Tara then he would simply have to out-think him. Of course, that meant putting himself in Tara’s moccasins; an odious task he was not certain he was capable of.  Still, if he guessed correctly, then he would be able to lay a trap and the battle would come to him on his terms.

Not his brother’s.

 

                                                                                    ###

The tall dark-skinned man knelt on a boulder that over-reached the river, staring at his reflection.  His black hair was parted and tied in two tails, each of which was decorated with hawk feathers.  He was clothed in soft buckskins with the fur turned inward to stave off the chill that had settled on the land early that year.  Across his narrow hips a low belt was slung from which a hunting knife and pipe tomahawk hung, as well as a bag of shot and his coiled leather whip.  With a frown he reached towards the icy mirror and made a fist. Soon only one would wear this face.  Soon the gods would know when they looked upon it, that it was him.  Soon he would be rid of this weak shadow, of Cara-Mingo, the living reminder of the shame of a Cherokee mother who had taken to her bed a white man, preferring him over his own full-blooded father, War Bonnet.  Tara growled low in his throat and gripped his British musket.  He pivoted towards the stand of trees behind him and lifting it, checked the sight, and then cocked the hammer.  A moment later he let a volley fly.  As it struck the side of an ancient willow, sending bark and bugs alike flying, he laughed loud and hard. 

If his little brother had not known he had arrived before; he did now. 

Reaching into his bandoleer, he began to prime the weapon again.  He knew Cara.  He was lurking somewhere nearby, trying to reason out a plan; intending to catch him unawares.  So superior and so smart, this son of a white man.  And so blind.  He would allow the Cherokee half-breed to think he had the upper hand and then, when he tried to spring his trap, he would kill him.

Tara-Mingo leaned on the weapon and gazed at the lightening sky.  Policha had been wrong to forbid him to return to Ken-tah-ten.  What better place could there be to begin his reign?  As the ancient ones had known, blood was needed to line the stones of any foundation that was to be sure—be it a building or a kingdom—and not just any blood, but the blood of a prince or king or chief.

He grinned.

Or perhaps an Earl’s son.

   

                                                                                ### 

Cara’s dark head came up as the sound of the shot echoed through the trees and resounded off the nearby hills.  Could it be Tara?  If so, it seemed a stupid thing to do.  But then as he began to move forward again, he thought about it.  His brother was not stupid, but he was supremely arrogant.  If it was he, most likely he meant to frighten him; to terrify him by announcing his arrival and make him do something rash.  It would never occur to the seasoned Creek warrior that he might decide to turn back and fight.  Tara considered him weak and incapable of such an action.  What his brother did not know was that five years in the wilderness had taught him many things, not the least of which was how to kill when necessary.  It was not something he relished, but it was something he had learned to do.

Parting the tall grasses that lined the river-bank, he slipped into the icy water and continued to work his way back. 

 

                                                                                ###

Sometime later Tara-Mingo sat with his chin on his chest, waiting and watching through lidded eyes.  He knew his brother would approach silent as the mountain lion to try and steal one of his weapons.  For this purpose he had deliberately left his musket several feet away—just beyond easy reach—propped against the bole of a tree.  In his hand he held his whip, but over it he had placed the fringed tail of his buckskin shirt.  His hunting knife and tomahawk both lay concealed beneath the patterned blanket he had tossed seemingly at random over the fallen log he leaned against. 

He pretended to sleep.

An hour at least had passed since he had fired the shot.  A quarter of an hour before he had seen movement in the underbrush and leaves shifting where there was no wind.  A dozen birds had taken sudden flight and winged into the early morning sky.  He had stirred the fire and then, yawning and stretching, taken his place.  He had allowed his head to nod twice, and finally appeared to succumb to sleep.  In the time that had passed since then, he had listened carefully.  He knew his little brother was also watching and waiting; trying to determine if his slumber was real....

Or if it was a trap.

The brush rustled less than a yard from him.  Several branches were withdrawn.  Tara’s fingers tightened on the handle of his whip.  As they caressed the braided leather, he smiled. Whoever had taught Cara had apparently neglected to warn him to look with suspicion upon anything the wilderness gave with ease.  His dark lashes fluttered and he drew a deep breath as a tanned hand appeared, working its way toward the musket and the  bag of shot that lay nearby.  He suppressed the laugh that the image of his brother’s perplexed face brought to mind.  What would the murderous Lord’s son do when he went to prime the weapon and found only sand and pebbles drawn from the riverbed?  

He watched as the barrel slipped into the shadows and then, fast as a serpent, sprang up with the whip in his hand.  The lash licked out.  The popper cracked and there was a startled cry.  Tara thrust his deep red fingers through and they closed on the other man’s arm.  With a triumphant shout he hauled him out of the bushes and tossed him into the middle of the small clearing.  The early morning light struck his captive’s handsome features and he froze.

It was not his brother.

 

                                                                            ###

Cara gasped and slipped back into the shadows.  He watched the musket fall to the ground and the smirking face of his brother appear momentarily before both men vanished, swallowed by branches and emerald leaves. 

“Dear God,” he whispered.  “Alexander.”

 

                                                                             ###

 

Spicewood crouched close to Cherry.  Shadowy figures moved about them,  whooping and calling to one another.  They had continued to travel north, towards the village, and had come to within only a few hundred yards of it before being cut off by the very men they had earlier escaped.  No longer frightened that a war party had come to destroy them, the painted warriors had pursued them and were now beating the bushes with their bayonets and spears; eager to take whatever revenge they could in order to restore their honor.  Already she and Cherry had passed the corpses of several of the Cherokee women who had been held with them.  She was still shaking from what they had seen.  One slender young woman about her age had been brutalized and left with little to identify her.  Only the beaded bracelet still encircling her bloody arm had marked her as the one she had comforted.  

Cherry nodded and pointed toward an opening in the trees.  Just beyond, a jutting cliff cast deep shadows in which they could seek shelter.  Unfortunately a golden prairie lay between them and it. “What do you think?” she whispered.

Spicewood glanced behind.  She could hear the sounds of the Creek drawing closer.  “We should go.  They are coming.”

“They will head for the village.”

“Yes.” Star’s daughter nodded.  “We must get there first....”

Cherry stared defiantly in the direction of the war party.  She was shaken and exhausted, but curiously energized.  “I do not mean to die.”

“You are a War Woman now.”  Her friend laughed in spite of their danger.  Then she caught her hand.  “I do not think you will.  Come. We will go together.”

The two young women rose to their feet.  As they did several arrows winged over their heads to embed their sharp tips in the trees.  Seconds later a deep male voice cried out. 

They had been spotted.

Spicewood lifted her voluminous skirts and screamed at her friend to run, but before she could, the two women were surrounded by a dozen battle-crazed warriors.  As the men advanced, they backed up against each other and held their ground.  Cherry palmed a wrist-thick branch and brandished it before her.  She jabbed at one of the natives as he darted towards her.  The man laughed and darted in again.

Spicewood’s heart pounded hard in her chest.  She felt certain she was going to die.  Her only remaining hope was that she could somehow create a diversion so Cherry could escape.  One of the warriors caught her wrist from behind and pulled her towards him.  She pivoted and clawed his eyes.  He growled and stumbled back.  As he collapsed in pain, his fall created an opening in the circle of warriors.  Seizing the moment, Spicewood dashed through and disappeared into the trees, praying to Yowa that most of the men would follow her. She knew Tara wanted her, as well as Policha, and that most likely the warriors had been ordered to take her captive.  As she plunged into the green leaves she heard Cherry cry her name.  There was warning in her tone.  Spicewood turned, just in time to see the sun glint off the barrel of a musket. The weapon discharged and she felt a fire in her shoulder.  When she touched it, her hand came away covered with blood.  She staggered and gasped as pain shot through her slender frame, and then screamed as one of the warriors grabbed her and shoved her to her knees.  A moment later his knife was on her scalp.

Perhaps they did not mean to take her alive after all.

Cherry gripped the branch and dashed towards her friend.  One of the men shouted but she paid him no mind.  The warrior who held Spicewood was grinning like a devil; his  fingers twisted in her hair.  There was blood on her forehead.  Cherry called to her and their eyes locked, but only for an instant.  The next thing she knew something heavy struck her from behind and she fell into darkness.

 

                                                                            ###

 

The warrior who pressed his keen blade against Spicewood’s flesh remained on his feet a mere  instant longer than Cherry.  Only instead of being struck from behind with the blunt end of a tomahawk, one was planted in his head.  The rich blue of the young woman’s damask skirts deepened to purple as his blood soaked them.  She lost consciousness and fell to the ground.  A moment later trembling fingers found her.  They probed her head wound and then desperately ripped her stained petticoats to fashion a makeshift bandage for it.  Several minutes of chaos followed during which orders were barked, challenges made, and flintlocks fired.  Then there was silence. 

Spicewood stirred once.  She frowned as strong arms circled her waist and someone spoke her name in her ear.  “Alexander?” she whispered as she lifted her hand to the man’s face.  “Uyahi?”  Then she  passed out again.

The slender sandy-haired man who knelt beside her stared at her a moment.  He touched her cheek tenderly and then began to systematically undo and remove her blood-spattered gown.  As he did, a member of the war party came to stand before him.  Instantly the Creek metizo’s demeanor changed.  “You were not to touch this one!” he barked.  “You knew that.” 

“One dead Cherokee is the same as any other.”  The man held his head high as he watched Policha toss the top of the gown aside and begin to work the skirts over her legs.  “What makes this one so different?”

“Tara-Mingo’s orders for one,” the scripture-quoting metizo snapped as he rose to his feet, cradling the wounded woman in his arms.  He inclined his head towards the damask  garments that lay on the ground.  “Pick those up and follow me.”

The warrior frowned.  “Why?”

“Because I told you to.”

Their eyes locked for a moment; then the warrior backed down.  Even though he questioned the half-breed’s sanity, he knew it was not wise to question his authority.  The man bent to gather the heavy gown in his arms, but as he did, he froze.  He had heard a sound; something like a sigh.  He followed it until he stood next a young Cherokee woman.  Her curly black hair framed a bloody face.  He shoved her with his toe and she moaned.  “Policha?”

The sandy-haired man turned back. “Yes?”
“What of this one?  She lives.”  The painted warrior’s hand went to his hunting

knife.  “Shall I finish her?”

“No.”

“But....”
“Leave her be.”  He pulled Spicewood close as he turned back towards the trees.

“She will be our witness.”

“Witness?”  The man turned.  He plucked the gown from the grass and followed him. “Witness to what?”

Policha smiled softly as he brushed the young woman’s shining hair with his fingers.  “To the death of her friend.”

“I do not understand— ”

“Nor do you need to.  But I will tell you anyway.”  The man who had been James Harper pinned him with his fiery hazel eyes.  “It is simple.  Tara wants this one.  It will be easier if they think she is dead.  Then they will not seek her....or those who attacked her.”  He paused to let that set in, then he added quietly, “You saw the bodies of the Cherokee women back along the trail?”

The warrior nodded.  “Yes.”

“You saw the one who looks like this one; approximately the same size and shape?”

“Yes.”
            “Take those garments and put them on her.”  Policha paused as though his plan was as of yet only half-conceived.  “Then bring the body here.  And Goingsnake....”

“Yes?”

“In my bandoleer, you will find a silver chain.  Put it near her.”

The man seemed puzzled, but finally he nodded.  “It will be as you say, Preacher.”

“You must make certain no one will be able to tell the body doesn’t belong to this one.”  He touched his lips to the blood-stained bandage that covered Spicewood’s brow and nodded  towards Cherry.  “According to Horse Dance, her friend was watching.  She believes her scalped.”  He glanced at the young woman in his arms and then at the warrior to see if he took his meaning.  “Once that is done, bring every corpse you find in the forest here...and burn them all.”

Goingsnake inclined his dark head once and then, bearing the remnants of the fine damask gown Alexander had ordered for his wife and the chain from which her crucifix had dangled, he headed into the trees.

 

                                                                                ###

Cara held his breath.  His brother was bearing down on Alec and he knew that, in the other man’s present condition, the contest would be short and one the Scot certainly could not win.  His rich brown eyes searched the area and then fastened on the forgotten flintlock near his feet.  With a prayer of thanksgiving on his lips he picked it up and, even as his Creek brother struck the first blow and knocked the wounded man towards the fire, he cocked the hammer and stepped into the waxing sunlight.  Then he cleared his throat.

Tara halted; his fist poised to strike again.  His back stiffened and then he began to laugh.  He pivoted sharply to find his little brother looking at him over the shining barrel of the British musket.  Behind him Alexander coughed and spat blood and then shifted away, a hand to his shoulder where the broken shaft of the arrow Waso had shot him with still protruded.

“For many heartbeats have I walked in the land of waiting.  The sun is high; the sky red like blood, and under its face we meet again, little brother.”  Tara took a deliberate step, back towards the exhausted Scot.  “But not alone.”

“Stay where you are, Tara.”  Cara closed one eye and took aim.  “You know I will shoot.”

“Would you kill me, brother?”  The tall Creek opened his arms wide and waited.  A black fire leapt deep within his cruel eyes.  Can you kill me?”

Cara stared at him and his finger lingered on the trigger.  Then he lowered the musket to the ground and leaned on it.  “It is not loaded, is it?”

Tara laughed.  He cocked his head and smiled.  “Would I place a loaded rifle in my enemy’s hands?”

Cara’s eyes flicked to Alec, who had made his way to an ancient oak and propped himself against its giant trunk.  He was breathing hard.

“You will not reach him in time.”  Tara stepped to the side and took hold of the edge of a patterned blanket that lay across a fallen trunk near the fire.  He flung it aside, revealing his hunting knife and tomahawk.  “But one of these will.”

“Leave Alec out of it.  This is between you and me.”

His brother’s words were quiet and full of menace.  Alec should have left himself out of it.”  As he spoke he struck like a viper, first catching up the hunting knife and then seizing the wounded man by the arm.  Remorselessly he drew him to his feet. 

Beads of sweat broke out on the Scot’s forehead, but he refused to cry out. “Cara,” he whispered, “I’m sorry....”

Tara pulled him close, placing the knife at his throat.   Then his eyes met his brother’s.  “What will you give me, Cara, so I will not kill him as he so richly deserves?”

Cara closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  Then he opened them and held the flintlock out before him; butt first.  “Only what I offered before; my life.”

“Cara, nae!  Ye cannae— ”  Alec’s protest was cut short as Tara hauled up on his wounded arm and twisted it mercilessly behind his back.  The Scot gave a sharp cry and then fell silent.  Tara scowled and dropped his limp form unceremoniously to the cold earth.

Cara flinched as his friend struck the ground.  There was little hope for either of them.  If he failed—if his brother killed him—in all likelihood Alec would die as well. As the Creek warrior gripped the rifle’s shining barrel and took it from him, he sighed.  “Now what?” he said at last.

“Now I do what I should have done before,” his brother answered.  “Turn around.”

Cara frowned.  “Why?”

The barrel was laid against Alec’s head. 

“You forget,” Talota’s half-English son said, “it is not loaded.”

Tara grinned and pressed it into the Scotsman’s flesh.  “And you forget, it does not  need to be.”

Cara did as he was told.  He turned and faced the trees and waited.  Behind him his brother smiled.  He hefted the flintlock and tapped its shining metal against his hand several times, and then, using it as a club, struck his brother savagely from behind.

 

                                                                                ###

As he awoke Cara became aware of the sound of rushing water and the fact that he was ice-cold.  He gingerly turned his pounding head to find that his hands and feet had been staked to the swampy ground.  All about him lay the shattered remnants of the thin icy skin that had covered it.  For a moment he thought his brother had abandoned him, leaving him to die from exposure, but then as he clamped his chattering teeth together and turned his head towards the dark trees, he saw three figures.  Tara was there—and Sharpknife—as well as a young boy.  His brother was giving instructions to the Creek aathollo.  They spoke for a moment and then all three disappeared into the forest.  Cara closed his eyes and tried to  concentrate.  It wasn’t easy.  He was shaking from head to foot and could no longer feel his legs.  They were partially submerged and quite numb.  Still, he had feeling in his arms and, though his fingers were stiff, he used them to work the stakes that pinned him down.  The ground was soft.  It yielded, if somewhat slowly, to what little strength he had left.  His brother must have thought him senseless.

He was not.

As he anxiously worked to free himself, his gaze roamed the area he was confined in.  Tara had made camp.  There was a fire.  Beside it was much of his brother’s gear.  He didn’t see the musket, but his whip was there, coiled and dangling like a black snake from the branch of a nearby tree.  Suddenly, one hand came free, but even as it did he sank further into the mud.  Its cold wet touch sent a shiver through him that stopped him for a moment.  Then he gritted his teeth and, using his frozen fingers, gripped his other hand and hauled back mightily.  It, too, came free.  A moment later he was sitting up and yet, even as he pulled up the stake that bound his right foot, he heard his brother’s voice.  Frantic, he pulled the left one free as well and rose to his feet.  And immediately fell.  Gasping, he raised his head and saw Tara’s tall form poised at the edge of the trees.  Unable to stand, he crawled, clawing the mud as he pulled his body towards the whip.  Then, even as his strength began to return and he stumbled to his feet, he heard his brother shout and begin to run.

The musket—no doubt loaded and primed—was in his hands.

Cara caught the tree branch with one hand and felt the leather of the whip close in his other.  He looked up.  Tara was on the move; the rifle raised, his thumb cocking the hammer.  He whispered a quick prayer and let the whip lash out.  It cracked.  His brother shouted and the rifle flew from his hand.  Stunned, the tall Creek stopped.  They stared at one another, and then at the weapon, and then both dove for the ground.

 

                                                                                ###

 

Policha watched silently as the Cherokee of Chota occupied the camp he and the others had made.  He had left Spicewood in the care of the Creek women who had traveled with them—their lodgings were close by, but far enough away so as not to be compromised—and had returned just in time to see it overrun.  Tara and his brother were nowhere to be seen.  Neither was Sharpknife.  Perhaps that explained how this had happened.  With their best and brightest committed to the tall Creek’s unending vendetta against his English-bred half-brother, there had been no one but weary warriors left to watch and defend.  He recognized several of the invaders as they passed close by, herding Tara’s black-faced warriors into a tight group. Smoke was there, as well as the one who wore the red coat and kept a white wife.  As Copperhead drew near, he withdrew into the shadows of the leaves and frowned.  Those who took matters into their own hands and ignored the voice of God often had to be broken before they would listen.  This was a time of reckoning for them all.  Tara must be rid of this obsession before it destroyed them and their plans. 

He shifted and stared through a chink in the leaves, watching as some of the older  Cherokee from the village freed the prisoners.  The powerful one called Arrowkeeper scowled as the ropes fell from his hands and began to search the fallen bodies until he found and ax and bow.  He hunted for a quiver, filled it with arrows, and then took off at a run in pursuit of Tara and his brother.  The one called Copperhead followed close behind. 

Policha shoved his glasses back on his nose and considered his options.  He had the woman and could just leave, but most likely—if Tara lived—he would hunt him down.  And there was still the matter of the People, and of their future.  No, he told himself, he would see it through to the end, and if the tall Creek did survive, he would take it as a sign that God was truly with him.

And whoever God was with, he couldn’t be against.

 

                                                                             ###

 

The world had turned to icy water and cold black mud.  On the banks of the river the two brothers struggled, first one gaining the upper hand and then the other.  Tara was the stronger but Cara, the more desperate, and his desperation lent him an almost super-human will that fueled his weakened body and kept him moving when by all rights he should have lain down and died.  He made a fist and, even though he couldn’t feel his fingers, smashed it into his brother’s face.  Blood flew, but Tara rolled to his feet quickly.  They squared off again, each breathing heavily.  The tall Creek grinned and inclined his head.

The whip was in his hands.

Then he frowned.

The flintlock was in his brother’s.

“It will do you no good,” Tara panted, sucking air in between his teeth.  “The powder will be wet by now.  It will not fire.”

Cara had his brother in his sights.  The weapon was primed and loaded, though as Tara suggested, it might be damp.  If that was the case it would misfire or explode in his face.  Maybe blind him.  He closed his eyes for just a second and then opened them with a shudder.  He had to, but he didn’t want to kill his brother.  “Tara....” he whispered.  “Do not make me do this....”

“I cannot make you do what it is not in you to do.”  The Creek’s voice fell.  When he spoke it was like a chant.  “We are part of each other, you and I; two hearts but one face,” he touched his chest and then his forehead, “two minds but one heart.  We need each other, you and I, if only so we can hate....”

The barrel did not waver.  “Brother....”

The hand was held out.  It beckoned him.  The voice was quiet and quite sane.  “Think what you do.  Will you take the part of Cain?  Will you kill your brother?  Will you chose freely to bear that mark for the rest of your days?”  He paused. “Would you be branded a murderer?”

You are the murderer....”

“I am your brother.”  Tara raised his other hand.  His arms were open; his palms turned outward in surrender.  “Blood of your blood.” 

Cara cocked the hammer, but still hesitated.  He repeated the words.  “Blood of my blood....”

“Brother.”  Tara-Mingo took a step towards him.  Now only a yard separated them.  He met his little brother’s eyes and his own crackled with dark laughter as his hand reached for the rifle. “Fool.”

Cara jerked back.  There was a loud crack, as if lightning had struck from the heavens.  Tara’s hands flew up towards his face which was covered with spattered blood.  The musket dropped from Cara’s fingers and he staggered back.  His brother was on his feet and gaping at him; his mouth open and his eyes wild.  Blood poured between his fingers, running in a crimson tide across his hand and down his buckskin shirt.  Cara took a step towards him and he stumbled back.   Tara’s feet hit the water and he hesitated.  Then slowly...almost deliberately...he pitched backwards.  The thin skin of ice that covered the river shattered and he disappeared beneath the black waves.

Cara remained frozen to the spot, unable to move.  He stared at his hands which were crimson with his brother’s blood.  He gazed at the water and then something broke in him and he fell to his knees.

Between the two of them, blood had only been for bleeding.

 

                                                                                            ###

 

Copperhead and Arrowkeeper found him sometime later lying on the riverbank, shivering and senseless.  They wrapped him in warm woolen blankets and carried him back to where they had left Alexander and tended to them both.  Late in the evening, as the moon began to rise, bathing the land and the water with its silver light, Copperhead departed.  It was his intention to find word of the women and bring it back to them.  His wife was safe, he knew, sequestered in the caves with Cornbeater and their son, but of Cherry and Spicewood they had had no word.  An hour or so later Cara awakened, trembling with shock and sweat.  Arrowkeeper caught him and held him tightly until the fit had passed; then they talked and decided they should follow their friend.  Alexander, when he awoke, agreed.  He would be no worse for walking, he said, and Galunadi’s medicine would be needed to make him better.  So the two tall men placed him between them and together, the trio began the long trek back to Chota.  Alexander and Arrowkeeper spoke softly for a few minutes before falling silent, but Cara said not a word.  Instead he continued to glance back over his shoulder, towards the river, as though he had unfinished business at the water’s edge.

 

                                                                                        ###

The night was nearly gone before they met up with their friend again.  Their journey had been without incident.  They had seen no one, and Cara had wondered more than once what had become of Sharpknife and the young boy he had seen beneath the trees.  Had Tara sent them back to the camp?  Had they been watching when the Cherokee attacked, and fled before they could be caught?  Perhaps they had met with James Harper and even now were plotting their revenge.  Or perhaps the aathollo had left the boy with the metizo and walked even now by the river’s side, searching for a sign of his dark leader.  He sighed at the memory of his brother’s bloody body being swallowed by the black waves.  It beckoned to him and he knew, sooner or later, that he would have to answer the call. Once Alexander was safe; once the women had been found, he would have to go back. 

He had to know for certain.

“Cara.”

His head came up at the tall Creek’s voice.  Arrowkeeper caught his eye and nodded towards the space before them.  The trees had given way to a path that led to a sheltered glade where a great fire burned.  An acrid scent filled the air; as if meat had been passed too many times over a flame.  He looked and saw Copperhead advancing towards them.  The weary native passed a hand over his face and then stared hard at Alec.  The Scot was only half-aware of what went on about him and missed the rueful look.  Cara didn’t and his heart went cold.   

Sensing something, Alec stirred and lifted his head.  He had been walking, for the last hour or so, somewhere between consciousness and that blessed realm of forgetfulness from which all men hesitate to roam.  His shoulder burned like the fires of Hell and his body was wracked with fever and pain.  He was not certain it was worth the fight to live.  Only one thing had driven him on; one and one alone.

He met the Cherokee’s deep brown eyes.  “Spicewood?” he whispered.

The native in the deep red coat drew abreast him.  He hesitated.

“Copperhead....”

He laid his hand gently on Alec’s bandaged shoulder.  “We have found her,” he said at last.

Alec became very still.  For a minute they feared he would collapse, but then—even though he had lost a great deal of blood and was very weak—fear awakened in him an inflexible strength.  He shook off his friends’ hands and stood on his own.  “Tak’ me tae her,” he said quietly.

“No, Alexander.  It is best if you do not.” 

“Best?  Best fur who?”  The wounded man was breathing hard.  “Fur me, ur fur ye?  I will see her an’ I dare any ain tae try tae stoop me!”

Cara knew it had to be worse than bad.  The grief in the Cherokee’s eyes was beyond expression.  He could not imagine what horrors he had witnessed.  “Alec,” he began, “perhaps it would be best— ”

The Scot exploded and, moving faster than seemed possible for a man who seconds before had been nearly incapacitated, he grabbed Arrowkeeper’s knife and brandished it.  “She isnae dead!  Dinnae tell me thot.  I wiltnae believe ye!”

“Alexander!”  Copperhead reached for him, but reared back as the knife nicked his flesh.

“Alec!”  Cara was outraged.  “Control yourself!”

“Nae, keep awa’ frae me!”  His dark brown eyes were wild.  His voice had risen in pitch until it was high and shrill as a woman’s.  He trembled from head to foot. “Ye aur nae gaun tae stoop me— ”

Arrowkeeper reached for his wrist and, ignoring the knife, began to speak to him calmly, seeking to draw his attention while Copperhead circled around.  “Alexander.  This will not help your wife.  Alexander, listen to me— ”

But Alec was wise to them, he flipped the knife over so the handle was up and pivoting, brought it up under Copperhead’s jaw knocking him momentarily senseless.  Then he shoved him towards the tall Creek and began to run.  Cara started to pursue him, but Arrowkeeper caught his arm and held him back.  “No, Cara.  Let him go.”

“What?  I can catch him....”

“You could.  But the harm done in holding him back can be no worse than that done by letting him go.”

Copperhead staggered to his feet.  “No man should have to see that.”  He shuddered and then he met Arrowkeeper’s dark stare and remembered the way the tall man’s wife had perished.  “I am sorry.  I forgot.”  He sighed.  “In this, you will be able to help him more than either of us.”

“She is dead then?” Cara whispered.

Even as the Cherokee nodded a horrified cry; a scream of disbelief and unendurable loss rent the air.  Copperhead closed his eyes.  He had hoped to spare his friend; to leave him with his memories, but it was not to be.  Now all Alexander would have to hold onto was the image of a charred corpse; a shapeless thing without a face he once had loved.

“Worse than dead.”

 

                                                                                    ###

It was just after dawn.  Alec had collapsed and fallen into a fevered sleep, but even that brought the devastated Scot no rest.  He continued to toss and turn like one in torment and cried out often, reaching for something he would never find again.  Finally one of the warriors who had training in herbs had had to drug him.  Copperhead and Arrowkeeper had left, returning to the village to bring Cornbeater and some of the other women so they could attend to the bodies and begin the mourning rituals that would hasten the departed spirits on their journey to the next world.  Smoke remained in the temporary camp as well as Nighthawk.  They kept watch over both the wounded and the dead.  Cara sat motionless in the center of the camp near the fire, staring at Cherry’s still form.  She had been found near Spicewood and the others; pale and weak from loss of blood.  Someone had struck her so hard a jagged cut had opened beneath her hair at the base of her neck.  She was fortunate to be alive.  He reached out and took her hand in his and felt a tear trail down his cheek. 

“I wish I could have loved you as you wanted,” he whispered.  “I wish....”  Cara closed his eyes and thought of his father, with whom he had never really made any sort of peace, and of his brother, whom he had killed.  ...of Rachel, left behind without so much as a goodbye. 

“I wish....”

“Cara...”

He started and looked down.  Cherry’s fingers were curled about his and her black eyes were open, if unfocused.

He brushed her forehead with his lips.  “Shh, lie still.  You most likely have a concussion.  You should not try to rise— ”

She had shifted and raised up on one elbow.  Her dark eyes looked around with alarm.  When she saw no one but wounded warriors laying about her, she whispered, “Spicewood?”

Cara hesitated.  He did not know if it was wise to tell her.  She was so weak.  “I should get you some water.” 

He started to rise, but she caught his hand.  “Cara?”

“Yes.”
“She’s...dead, isn’t she?”

He sat back down.  Words would not come.  Finally he nodded as another tear fell.  He had helped to lift Alec and to bear him away.  He had seen. 

She grew even paler as she lay back down.  Her fingers gripped his hard.  She was silent for a long time as the tears fell.  Then she stared at him and finally said, “And your brother?”

Cara bit his lip.  Then he looked away.  “The same.”

“How?” she asked.  And then, “Cara, who...?”

He was silent a moment.  “I shot him, Cherry.  He fell in the water.  I didn’t....”  He drew a deep breath.  “Copperhead and Arrowkeeper came.  Alec was wounded.  You....”  He shuddered at the image of his brother’s corpse lying on the riverbank; at the thought of buzzards and wolves....  “I left him there.”

“You have not left him.  You need to go back.”

He turned back to meet her eyes. “What?”

“You need to go back; to bury him.”  She blinked slowly.  “You must let him go.”

Cara shook his head.  “No.”
            “Yes.  He is still here,” she touched his chest, “in your heart.  He was your brother.” 

“He was a monster— ”

“But your brother first.”  Cherry frowned.  It was not easy for her to say.  She would have been happy to leave Tara-Mingo in the cold water; for his flesh to rot and feed the fishes and birds, but she knew for the man she loved, this could not be.  If he did not care for his own, it would haunt him eternally.  “Love does not have to make sense,” she blinked.  “It hopes where there is no hope.”

He stared at her.  “Cherry....”

Tears trailed down her soiled cheeks.  “Spicewood is avenged.  She will rest.  You will not if you do not do this thing.  You must say goodbye to your brother,” she pulled her fingers out of his and turned away, “even as I have said goodbye to you.”

“Goodbye?”  Cara frowned.  He reached for her.  “You are not— ”  

“I will not die, but I bear a wound which will never heal.”  She looked back. “Much as you.  When I am well I will go away....”

“No.” He shook his head.  “You can’t— ”

“I must.”  She reached up to touch his cheek.  “You cannot love me.  Spicewood is dead.  There is nothing and no one for me here anymore.”

“Don’t say that....”

“It is truth.  And now, you must go.”

He caught her hand.  “I won’t leave you.”

Cherry laughed gently. “You were never with me, Cara-Mingo.  And I do not need you anymore.  I will make my own way.”  She paused and her young face grew sober.  “But he needs you.  Go find your brother.  Bury him.  Sing for him.”

Cara shrank back as she withdrew her hand from his.  Sing for him?  I killed him.”

She nodded.  “And that is why you must sing.”

“I don’t understand....”

“You see, Cara,” she said as sleep began to call once again.  “I know you better than you know yourself.  You may not understand now,” she whispered, “but you will.”

“Cherry?”  He sat for a moment in silence, staring at her quiet form, and then he leaned down and kissed her forehead.  Then he crossed her hands on her chest and pulled the blanket over them and rose to his feet. 

So much loss; so much grief—too much almost for him to bear, and all because of his brother.  And yet, she said to sing for him.

Was she right?

 

                                                                                    ###

Cara remained in the camp for some time, walking and thinking; brooding on Cherry’s words.  Then, just as the sun topped the green hills that surrounded them and its rays turned the wintry world to gold, he made up his mind.  He waited until Nighthawk’s patrol took the Creek warrior to the far side of the clearing and then he went.  The air was crisp and bracing.  The grass crunched beneath his feet as he did.  He had girded himself both with weapons and warm clothes, but he felt naked; cold as the ice that crusted the river and dripped from the leaves.  What would he find? 

And what would he do when he found it?
The journey was shorter than the one the day before since there was no need to

double back or conceal his movements.  He traveled quickly and soon found himself on the river-bank.  The dawning light made it a ribbon of fire.  He stood a moment, staring at it, relishing the warmth of the sun’s rays on his cold skin, but tensed when something alerted him to the fact that he was not alone.  A brace of trees loomed close to his right, painted black by the rising shadows of the morning.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of them move.  He gasped and pivoted, expecting to see his brother, alive and newly risen from his watery grave.  But it was not Tara.  It was Sharpknife.  The Creek aathollo sneered and raised his knife.

“Where is he?” he demanded.

Cara remained very still.  “Where is who?”

“Do not play games, half-breed.”  Sharpknife’s breath came in harsh gasps, as though he was winded.  “You know who.”

He glanced from side to side.  It seemed the other man was alone.  “Oh, you mean my brother?”

The Creek witch shifted forward into the light.  His chest was smeared with blood.  He had seen fighting somewhere during the night.  Perhaps he had been near the camp when it was over-run.  If so he would be out for revenge.

“Yes, Tara.  You will take me to him.”

Cara stood his ground.  He had not come unarmed, but at the moment his whip was locked on his belt beneath his heavy leather coat, as was his hunting knife.  All he had at hand was the slender blade in his boot.  He hid his smile.  Old habits died hard.  The black dagger of Alec’s Highland ancestors had always traveled with the Scot even though he had adopted native clothes.  Somehow it had seemed appropriate to ‘borrow’ it for this journey.  Still, he would have to move fast if he was to palm it before the other man’s knife could slice his throat.  He took a step back.  “I am afraid I cannot do that.”

Sharpknife followed, shifting his weapon so it was battle-ready.  Where is he?”

Cara bent and reached for the dagger.  “Where you are soon to follow.  In Hell.”

The aathollo growled and bowled into him before he could draw it.  Cara barely shifted out of the way and began to roll just as his enemy’s knife sliced the air where he had been.  He came to his feet about a yard away.  Sharpknife stepped towards him, feinted to his left, and then jabbed to the right and managed to nick his hand.  Cara pressed his fingers to the wound and winced.  As he backed away, his foot seemed to catch on one of the upraised roots of the tree and he stumbled and fell to the ground.  The aathollo smiled and shifted the knife to his other hand and reached for his tomahawk.  As he did Cara’s foot shot out and caught his ankle and tripped him so he fell to the ground.  Within a second the Cherokee was on top of him.  Sharpknife growled again and brought his fist up under Cara’s chin, stunning him.  Then he gripped the slender man’s shoulders and rolled him over, gaining the upper hand.  As he did a small figure unexpectedly burst from the shelter of the trees crying something in Creek and waving his hands.

Sharpknife’s attention was diverted.  He looked up.  “Fofchokba,” he called, “keep away.  You must not— ”

The Creek froze.  His eyes went wide and he looked down.  Cara had pulled the concealed dagger from his boot and plunged it deep into the center of one of the mystic symbols that coated Sharpknife’s deep coppery chest.  The aathollo gasped.  Blood bubbled up and ran from his lips even as the dark demented light that was in his eyes dimmed.  He gave a strangled cry and fell back to the cold hard earth.

Cara extricated himself and rose trembling to his feet.  He looked toward the trees.  The boy stood there, highlighted by the growing light.  Tears ran down his cheeks as he raised his fists in anger.  Their eyes met briefly and then he was gone. 

Cara stood a moment longer and then fell to his knees and placed his head on the cold ground.  Breathing hard he remained still as death for several minutes, and then he rose again and began to stumble along the river’s edge looking for his brother.

 

                                                                                    ###

He found him about a mile downstream; his corpse half-washed up on the shore.  He knelt beside him and placed his hand on his flesh and found him cold.  He put his cheek to his lips and felt no breath.  The jagged wound in his brother’s shoulder was thick with black mud and blood that was no longer running red.  Cara staggered to his feet and simply stared at him; both relieved and horrified by what he had done.  

His brother....  Tara was dead.

Blood had killed blood. 

He turned away and gazed at the glistening waves for a long time.  What he had done was unforgivable by Cherokee law—killing someone of his own clan, and a close relative at that—and yet, Menewa had pronounced Tara an exile—no longer Cherokee.  He would be forgiven.  Even praised.

He looked back at his brother’s body.  Their uncle’s decree had severed him from the Cherokee, but nothing could sever the ties that bound them; not even death.  He fell to the grass and the tears began to fall; not for his brother—not even for himself—but for all they had never been and what each of them had lost.

Sometime later, his hands caked with blood and black mud, he lowered Tara’s body into the shallow grave he had dug and pushed the wet earth over him, last of all covering his face.  As he did, the rising sun kissed the cold flesh; warming it so it almost seemed alive. Cara shuddered. 

Then he rocked back on his heels and began to sing. 

 

                                                                                    ###

   Some time later, Copperhead found him sitting by the water’s edge, nearly frozen through.  He knelt beside him and placed his hand on his shoulder.  The shallow grave at the river’s edge told the story.  He did not have to. 

“Cara,” he said at last. “You must come away.  It is time to go home.”

The other man was quiet for a moment.  Then he stirred.  “Not Cara,” he said at last.

Copperhead frowned.  “What?  What do you mean, not ‘Cara?”

His friend shifted and rose to his feet slowly.  His dark brown eyes were haunted.  “There is only one now. 

“Call me Mingo.”

 

                                                                                ###

                                                                Kamassa's Camp, 1776

 

And from that day to this, that had been his name.  He had never gone by Cara again.  It seemed with his brother’s death, a chapter in his life had closed.  Alexander and Cherry both healed, at least outwardly, but within a year, they were gone.  The Scot returned to his ancestral home on the isle of Bute.  He had written a few times, but soon the ocean between them swelled and swallowed him, and it was as if he had never been.  And Cherry....  Dear Cherry traveled with Cornbeater to the village of her father’s mother and never returned.  He had no idea if she was living or dead.  Copperhead and Miriam remained in Chota a bit longer.  Adohi grew straight and tall and a sister was born, but soon after her birth a rider had come with a summons.  Miriam’s father’s death had left her an heiress, and she had to claim what by right was hers or lose it.  The family journeyed to Pennsylvania and was gone many years.  Arrowkeeper came and went, and then went and did not come.  And now he knew why.  The tall Creek had found meaning in being a father to his sister’s adopted son; to Kamassa.

Who stood now glaring at him down the sight of his weapon.

Mingo drew a deep breath.  He closed his eyes deliberately and then opened them.  “Now, Kamassa,” he said, spreading his hands wide, “if you wish to kill me you may do so.”

The boy’s brow was furrowed and he was shaking.  He tossed his head and his black hair flew in the wind.  “It is not true.”

“It is.”  His uncle laughed gently.  “If you kill me, it must be in spite of that truth.”

Kamassa whispered, “You speak as if he was a monster....”

“He was.”

The boy’s finger was on the hammer.  He began to pull it back, but then released it and let the weapon fall to his side.  There were tears in his eyes.  “Then what am I?”

Mingo hid his smile.  “Very young, Kamassa.  Very young.”

Kamassa shook his head.  “No, if he was evil; I am evil.  The sins of the father, the talking leaves say, come to their sons.”  He touched his chest with his hand.  “He was my father.”

Mingo frowned.  Policha had done his work well.  “The words you have heard have been twisted by a madman to his own end.  Yes, you are Tara’s son; as I am my father’s son.  But Kamassa, I am not my father.”

He could see the boy struggling to grasp his words.  “No?”

“No.”

“But why?  How....”

“Because I choose not to be.”  He took a step towards him.  “You can choose the same.  You can be so many things.  You have a gift....”

The boy stumbled as he turned away.  “ I have nothing; I am nothing.  My visions are not true.”  He dropped the flintlock and took a step towards the water as if he desired to vanish beneath the waves as his father had done all those years ago.  “My life means nothing....”

Mingo reached for him, but jerked back at the sound of a shot.  He started to turn but then saw the boy grasp his shoulder.  Kamassa staggered back and then, pivoted and fell.  As his brother’s son struck the surface of the water he meant to go to him, but the muzzle of a pistol pressed against his ear stopped him.  He drew a breath as James McInnery’s voice, quiet and commanding, spoke from close behind.

“But his death will mean so much.”  

 

- Continued in Nineteen -