he came back—with a Creek war party. There was a battle, there was victory and
defeat. But for us, it was brother against brother. No victory, no defeat—just
a shallow grave on the bank of the Kentucky. I shot him, Daniel, and I buried
him. But he lived—and came back to bury me. Not as a warrior. Not even as an
But as a brother.
Near Chota, 1767
* * *
He stood on the top of a rise, his long raven hair whipping in the strong autumn wind. The day had grown dark and the sun’s retreat spoke of an approaching storm. Catching one of the long black locks and casting it over his shoulder, he lifted his face toward the sky. Far off in the distance the thunder’s angry voice answered the lightning that shot through the field of deep gray velvet like a needle trailing silver thread. Cara-Mingo frowned and touched the beaded necklace at his throat. The month was October, and the day the same as the one on which Star had died five years before. Shifting uneasily he turned his dark head, which was crowned with twin turkey feathers in honor of the lessons learned that year, and used his strong fingers to grip his flintlock in anticipation of trouble. Galunadi had warned them weeks before that the dreams he had dreamed portended both death and destruction. His word had almost been enough to turn Menewa from the hunt, but the growing season had been poor and they needed the meat and fat for the coming winter, and so he had gone; taking the majority of their seasoned warriors with him. His departure had left the village all but defenseless.
Cara frowned as cloud-shadows blanketed the forests and hills, deepening the false twilight. It would make the way harder for his friends. The four of them had met at dawn and each one, Alexander, Copperhead and Smoke, had been given the same task as he— scout out a vast area of wilderness, note if anything was out of the ordinary, and then report back at the appointed hour. Dressed as wolf, owl, fox and raven, the quartet had been left to guard the village of Chota in its War Chief’s absence; a duty and an honor to which they had pledged their hearts and their lives.
He shivered in the rising wind and pulled the fox cape he wore tight about his bare shoulders, leaving its tail to trail down the front over his painted vest. The long brownish-red skin partially obscured the bright blue broadcloth pants with the crimson stripe he had purchased in the Spring and begun to wear on a regular basis. Their choice was not traditional, and perhaps it did echo the rebellious spirit some of the tribal elders ascribed to him, but then he had always been something of an outsider. Even though his mother’s people had accepted him wholeheartedly, as they did the children of all Cherokee women, he had never truly felt as if he belonged. With a wry smile he acknowledged the fault was most certainly his own. No matter how much it wanted to, a heart divided could not find a home.
Chiding himself for being too introspective, he shook off the gloom that had settled on his broad shoulders and turned towards the village and contemplated whether to start back without the others. As he did, a plume of smoke appeared on the far horizon, rising light gray against the darkening sky. With a frown, he stepped towards it and as he did, a familiar figure appeared at the edge of the trees. Leaving the rustling leaves behind the man approached him; a longbow in his hands. He stopped when he reached his side and turned to face the same direction. “It is to the south. Below the village.”
Cara-Mingo glanced at Copperhead and nodded. “Yes. Perhaps that lightning strike?” At his friend’s look he added, “What is it? Do you have word otherwise?”
The native shook his head. “No. Smoke patrols that quarter.”
“Yes. And Alec, the east. I have not seen either of them.”
“Nor I.” Copperhead stared at the single gray plume for a moment and then seemed to dismiss it. Abruptly his mood lightened and he smiled. “Perhaps Alexander returned to the village early to oversee his wife’s purchases from MacIntosh.”
Cara laughed and his dark brows arced. It was the time of the month when the trader, Daniel MacIntosh, made his way through their village, tempting the women with his copper kettles and fine English needles and glass beads. They had had word from a trapper that he was on his way before they left. “You seem worried. Why? Does Miriam hold the coin purse?”
The Cherokee with the deep brown hair sighed dramatically. “Yes, and that will mean the end of the profits from last winter’s catch.” He laid his hand on his friend’s shoulder and laughed aloud. “She was speaking of china teacups last night. And books for Adohi.”
“And cloth for your trousers,” Cara teased.
“Yes.” Copperhead adjusted the cloak of raven feathers he wore over his bare chest. “I think perhaps I have less love of buckskins than you, my friend.”
The other man shook his head emphatically. “No one could have less love of those dreadful coarse skins than I.”
As he spoke another figure emerged from the forest. He was Cherokee as well; his form slender, and supple and thin as a reed. Like Copperhead, Smoke was a full-blood and one known for his skills at stealth and espionage. He had been patrolling south of the village near where the billowing smoke whose name he bore rose into the storm-tossed sky. As he approached they noticed his face and hands were blackened by soot and streaked with tears.
“Dear Lord,” Cara whispered as both he and Copperhead rushed to him. “Smoke, what is it? What has happened?”
The lithe man ran the back of his arm across his broad nose. Then he shook his head. For a moment he was without words. Finally he spoke, but when he did, his voice shook. “Death. Much death. The ones to the south, the Cherokee without lodges....”
Cara nodded. He knew them. They were something like nomads. “Yes?”
“They are no more.”
Copperhead caught his arm. “No more? All of them. There were children....”
Smoke’s black eyes closed. As he paused the wind lifted and tossed the long owl feather cape he wore. “All. No one is left to avenge them.”
“Nae a mon boot us.”
The trio turned as Alexander MacKirdy left the nearby trees to join them. With the exception of the plaid sash he wore about his waist as a belt and his grandfather’s claymore which he continued to carry, all vestiges of the Scot’s civilized life had vanished in the five years he had lived among the Cherokee. He had let his hair grow until it fell in rich black curling waves halfway down his back, and he no longer wore breeches and a hunting shirt, but had chosen to don the traditional garb of the native; a decorated breechcloth embroidered by his wife, worn over a pair of thigh-high buckskin boots. A brown and gray wolf-pelt covered his deeply tanned shoulders and chest, fitting like a second skin. Anyone seeing him would have thought he had been born to the forest.
Anyone hearing him might have been a bit confused.
“Thaur wasnae anyain left?” he asked, his accent as thick as ever.
Smoke shook his head. “No. Still, I told the spirits watching they would be avenged.”
Alexander nodded. He knew the other man meant it. Though clan often dictated whether or not a Cherokee felt obliged to seek revenge, so did wanton savagery. Such despicable acts seemed to transcend all conventional boundaries. “Tis as I feared.”
“Alec?” Cara met his eyes. “Do you know something?”
His friend shook his head. “Dae I ken somethin’? Nae.”
The young man adjusted the wolf-skin hood so it sat back on his head. “Aye. I suspec’ a grea’ deal. Thaur hae been rumors flyin’ tae th’ east.”
“Rumors?” Copperhead, who was acting as War Chief of Chota in Menewa’s absence, frowned. If there were, he had not heard them. “Such as?”
“Tis said a beast hae returned tae th’ woods.” Alec’s eyes flicked to Cara-Mingo. “A beast wi’ a whip.”
“No.” Cara felt his heart sink. “No. He would not— ”
“But he has my friend.”
So intense had been their discussion the four companions had not heard the other men approach. Arrowkeeper had arrived silently and stood just without the embrace of the lengthening shadows. As they turned towards him, two others came to his side. He nodded to them and then moved to join the Cherokee.
Cara looked at him. The other man seemed to be tired, as though he had traveled long and hard with little sleep. His skin was flecked with mud and his buckskin pants and shirt, dusty and torn. Only his eyes were bright with a fierce light that was almost frightening. He nodded to him. “I recognize your one companion, Arrowkeeper. But the other...?”
The tall Creek who had been only infrequently seen for the last several years by the Cherokee glanced over his shoulder. “Nighthawk you know. The other is Waso.”
“Waso?” Cara frowned. The name was familiar. Then his fingers tightened on his rifle as he remembered. “He was my brother’s man.”
Arrowkeeper nodded. He was silent a moment and then he said, “He was. No more.”
The Cherokee’s jaw was tight. “What is he doing here?” His eyes left the strange native and flicked to his old friend, and once his enemy. “What are you doing here?”
“Waso brought information about your brother to the village I was living in. The council believed him. They sent him, along with Nighthawk, to warn your People. I chose to come along to warn you.” He held the other man’s skeptical stare. “Still you do not trust me?”
Cara backed off. After Star’s death he and Arrowkeeper had, at the dying Cherokee’s request, come to a sort of peace. Arrowkeeper had stayed in the village, in spite of the anger and resentment of many of its inhabitants, and had continued his education, teaching him all he knew of forest and stream; of how to hunt and to stay alive. Then, something less than three years before, he had asked his permission to depart, saying he wished to see his home again. Only recently had there been rumors of his return. “I trust you to do what you think is best.” Cara’s dark eyes narrowed. “I simply have no faith that what you deem best will always coincide with my well-being and that of my tribe.”
Arrowkeeper was silent a moment and then he nodded.
“I pray this time it will be.” He
turned to the renegade Creek behind him. “Waso.”
The warrior had been talking to Nighthawk. He nodded and then came forward. “Yama?”
“Tell my friend what you told the council.”
Waso was a short broad Creek. He had seen many battles, and many marks of honor crossed his strong-boned face, leaving it a field of scars. “After your brother was defeated and he escaped, he and the one called Policha went to the south, to Georgia to begin again.”
Cara couldn’t help it. He was trembling. “To begin again?”
Waso smiled. “Tara-Mingo will be chief. Nothing will stop him.” The man’s head came up as the thunder again rumbled through the hills. “Or so we thought.”
“Was my brother defeated again, by someone else?”
The Creek’s upper lip curled. “Only by that which blinded him to all else.”
“I do not take you meaning. What blinds Tara-Mingo?”
Waso looked at Arrowkeeper. The tall man nodded. He faced his friend and answered, “His hatred of you.”
The small group huddled under a jutting rock abutment as the rain began to pound, rendering the forest paths slippery and impassable. They kindled a small fire and sat close by it, relishing its light in the face of total darkness, each one knowing the moment the storm relented they would have to fly. With Tara-Mingo on the loose, there was no telling what might happen to Chota in their absence. Alec who had his wife there, and Copperhead, his family, were both on edge and anxious to depart. As they bided their time Arrowkeeper spoke, recounting what had happened in the council. He explained why the men of his village had chosen to trust the one named Waso, and what the renegade Creek had told them of Cara’s brother’s plans.
“He left here intending to return immediately to kill you, but Policha had other ideas. He believed his God had driven them from Ken-tah-ten to the south, for their own good. He told your brother that all that had happened here had been for a purpose. He had studied his books and come to believe that Tara-Mingo had been chosen by the Master of Breath to save his people from their growing reliance on the white culture invading our shores,” his eyes sought Cara’s, “and from the chaos and disorder intermarriage between the two peoples brings. Policha whispered of divine destiny in your brother’s ear, and soon his hatred of you was not so important. He told him, in the end, that vengeance was God’s and that He would see you paid.”
“James is half-white himself.”
Arrowkeeper’s smile was rueful. “A fact he refuses to acknowledge.”
Cara shook his head. “He is mad.”
“Yes. But there are many who turn to madmen when the world no longer makes sense. The white men do kill and drive us from our homes. They bring things to the people; other ideas, different ways of thinking....disease and death.” He drew a deep breath. “The People look for someone to save them.”
“But my brother? He’s a beast. A killer and....”
“He is strong. He is sure. A mighty warrior with many kills and scalps.” Waso spoke up. “I followed him.”
“Then why are you here?” Copperhead stood. He moved to the edge of the overhang where the rain pounded down, and stared out towards his home. “What made you break with him?”
“He changed.” The Creek’s voice was low; rough. “One day he went to the white man’s fort to trade and when he returned, he spoke of nothing but killing this one.” He nodded towards Cara.
“Someain told him somethin’?” Alec had been brooding over a piece of meat roasted on a stick. He handed it off to Nighthawk as he found he had no appetite. “Ur he foond it oot?”
Waso turned to Alec. “I do not know what it was, but it overwhelmed him. No longer did he care about being chief. No longer did he care about his men. He became reckless. Many died.”
“And that is when you left?” Cara asked.
The Creek nodded solemnly. “Our talofa was attacked by the white men hunting him, and he did nothing.” Waso growled.
“Did you ask him why?”
Waso gazed at the pounding rain and Copperhead’s lean figure which stood silhouetted against it. “Yes. He said he had more important game to hunt. And then he laughed. I left him soon after.” He glanced at the other man who had accompanied him and Arrowkeeper on their journey from the south. “Nighthawk was among us then. He spoke to me, and I came here.”
Arrowkeeper answered Cara’s puzzled look. “Nighthawk has always been my man. He was there watching. Over the last year I became aware of your brother’s movements.” He paused. “I too have been watching.”
“Over me?” The English-bred Cherokee shook his head. “Still?”
The tall Creek nodded. “Yes, Cara-Mingo, as Star asked. Though you have not seen me, I have often been near.”
Cara’s frown deepened as he turned back to Waso. He had a sense from his old friend that the tall Creek was not entirely sure of the other man’s motives. He would have to talk to him alone later when he had the chance. “And you have no idea what changed Tara? Or why now, after five years, he would choose to return?”
“I only know it was against Policha’s wishes,” Waso answered, “though he is still with him. And that whatever the reason may be, it was overpowering.”
Cara stood and adjusted the fox skin that covered his shoulders. He looked to the horizon. It seemed the clouds were parting to reveal the late afternoon sun.
Copperhead met his eyes and nodded. “The rain is slowing.”
He acknowledged his friend’s unspoken need for haste and then turned back to the stranger in their midst. “And these other deaths? The Cherokee village burned today....” The thought was almost beyond him. “You mean to say all those people died just because my brother hates me....”
“I cannot be certain. It may have been him.”
Copperhead came to stand behind his friend. He put his hand on his shoulder. “The act has the mark of the beast.”
The English-bred Cherokee froze. Waso and the others who had never read the white man’s Bible had no idea the picture those words wove for one who had. He nodded solemnly as his friend continued to speak.
“The way will be treacherous, but we must go,” the native in the raven cloak said. “Now. There is no time to wait. Menewa is gone. We are here. Those who defend Chota are few or old. If it is your brother....”
Cara drew a deep breath and held it against the pain that stabbed him like a knife. Star had died by his brother’s hand, and both Alexander and Copperhead had almost been killed. Many women had wept and worn ashes once before, and cried out the names of the dead because of him.
How many more?
“Dear God,” he whispered softly, “and I let him live....”
Arrowkeeper’s hand came down on his shoulder. “It was not for you to do then.”
Cara’s fingers tightened on his flintlock.
“It is now.”
Spicewood smiled as Cherry lifted the whale-bone corset and held it before her face. The pretty young Cherokee woman scrunched her nose and tilted her head, puzzled. “And what is this?” she asked. “Is it a chest-plate?”
Miriam grinned. “You might call it that.” She took hold of the linen garment and positioned it in front of her. “It goes under you clothes. It is to make your waist appear smaller.”
“Smaller than what?”
The white woman laughed. “Than is humanly possible. They are extremely uncomfortable.”
“Then why wear it?”
Miriam tossed the under-garment on top of the patterned shawl she had doffed which lay spread across her friend’s bed. “Fashion.”
“Fashion?” This time it was Spicewood who spoke. She had opened the smaller of two wrapped bundles delivered by Daniel MacIntosh. It had contained this curious piece of clothing as well as several pure white petticoats. The other she suspected held the garments Alexander had ordered for her several months before when they had visited a seamstress in a nearby settlement. The white woman had fussed over her, telling her how pretty she was, and then had tied strings around her breasts and waist and measured her for what her husband called her ‘troo-so’. “Kamama, what is ‘fashion’?”
Copperhead’s wife smiled tolerantly. She still could not believe the Kentucky-born and bred native woman had agreed to journey across the sea to her husband’s ancestral home. Alexander had received word through a ship’s captain that his father was not well, and as the eldest son, had felt it his duty to return home until either his father recovered or his family’s affairs were settled. He had admitted as well, with a shy smile, that he missed his mother and his youngest brother and longed to see them again; though he insisted he had no desire to return to Scotland permanently. “Fashion? Ah... Let’s see. What is fashion? Some would say it is an excuse to sell goods. Others a means to an end; a way to catch a handsome and wealthy husband—or wife.” She looked at the curly-haired Cherokee who was now sporting a ruffled white mob cap. “Why do you wear what you wear, Cherry?”
The native glanced down at the soft doeskin gown covered with beads and feathers that clung to her multiple curves. “So Cara will notice?”
Spicewood slapped her friend’s arm and grabbed the mob cap. “I have told you; he will not marry. You know that.”
Cherry suddenly grew sober. “That does not matter. I have told him I will wait, and I will. There is no one else for me.” She paused then and her eyes went to Copperhead’s white wife. “If I wore one of these...” She indicated the corset and skirts which accompanied it. “Do you think....”
Miriam’s stern look froze the reply on Spicewood’s full lips. “Cara feels everything so deeply, Cherry. The way someone dresses means nothing to him. He loves them as they are.” The woman paused. “He loves you as you are; just not as you want.”
The young woman fell silent, her eyes averted.
“Cherry?” She took a step towards her. “I am sorry. But the truth—”
The buxom woman cut her off. “I will go fetch Adohi from the women’s lodge,” she said, and abruptly turned and left the room.
Spicewood started after her, but Copperhead’s wife caught her arm and insisted, “Leave her be.”
The Cherokee woman frowned. “It has been five years. She must let him go and find another.”
“Five or fifty; he is her first love,” Miriam sighed, “she will never let him go. Now,” she brightened as she laid her hands on the second bundle and began to unwrap it. “Let’s see what your husband has....” The white woman drew a deep breath as the paper fell away. “Oh, my....”
Spicewood moved to stand beside her. “What is wrong?”
Miriam sniffed and shook her head. Before her on the rough bed lay a dress of deep royal blue damask. It was an open robe with a stomacher, elegant but suitable for traveling, heavily embroidered with flowers and worked with gold. Included in the bundle were a painted fan, a black winter mask, a reticule, and assorted pieces of fine jewelry.
The Englishwoman smiled sadly. “It is just....” Then she shook her head again as she dismissed the thought. “This must have cost Alexander a winter’s catch. Or maybe two.” She picked the dress up and held it before her friend, smiling as it transformed her. “You shall be outfitted like a queen.” The she smiled impishly. “Put it on.”
“What?” The Cherokee blinked. “I am not going anywhere now.”
“Alexander is due back soon, is he not?”
Spicewood nodded. “Yes.”
“Then why not surprise him? He can’t be certain this has arrived.” Miriam observed her friend closely. “Spicewood? Is something the matter?”
The native woman shook her head. She did not know how to give voice to the fear that gripped her. The white woman would not understand; not even after so many years among the People.
“I do not know how,” she said at last.
Miriam laughed. “I do.” She tilted her head and placed her finger on her chin. Then she reached for the black locks that lay in a shining wave on her friend’s shoulders. “But first, we must do something with your hair....”
Alexander and Spicewood’s lodge was on the edge of Chota, near the stream, well away from the common square and surrounded by ancient willow trees. Walking without a lantern or torch, Cherry had only the light of the stars to show her the way to Cornbeater’s lodge. She moved slowly, without real purpose; her bare feet cold and muddy. The rain had passed leaving the path slippery and wet, but she paid it no mind. Her thoughts were far away with the man who had left that morning wearing the fox pelt; who wandered silent and sure through the night. As she thought of him, tears streamed down her cheeks. Through the many moons that had flown since Cara-Mingo had rejoined his people, they had become fast friends, but that friendship left a wound in her heart that would not heal. Some days it was almost more than she could bear to be close to him, knowing there would never be anything more. He spoke little of the one he had left behind in England, but she was ever present between them. Once she had believed he would be able to forget—or if not forget, at least to set aside his feelings—but the days had run into months and the months to years, and still he had not. She had told him she could live with his divided heart.
He had said he could not.
Cherry stopped and closed her dark eyes, leaning her head against the rough bark of the tree. The night had grown cold in the aftermath of the storm and she could see her breath. She was being reckless; inviting the spirit of sickness by her actions, but she did not care. She could not remain in the lodge with the two women who had the love of the men they had chosen, not without explaining the tears, and she would not—could not—explain, for to do so meant she would have to face the truth.
There was no hope.
A soft sound behind her made her lift her head and sigh. No doubt Spicewood had come to find her and to apologize. She opened her eyes and turned to face her friend, but when she did, it was not Alexander’s wife she found—nor was it a Cherokee—but rather, a painted face from a nightmare past.
Before she could scream one rough hand clamped over her mouth and another encircled her slender waist and lifted her from the ground. She struggled vainly for a moment and then grew quiet as a second figure moved from the shadows into the growing moonlight. For the space of a single heartbeat she had thought she had been saved. But then she knew.
It was the other one.
“Cherry? Cherry, where are you?” Miriam pulled aside the mat that covered the opening into the lodge and gazed out into the night. What she saw made her tense. Or rather, what she didn’t. The stars were shining once again and their clear cold light revealed the path that led into Chota. It was empty. The problem was, it should not have been. Not only should the young woman have been on her way back by now, but the sentry her husband had posted at the edge of the village should have been in sight.
“Is she not there?” Spicewood spoke from close behind her.
“No.” Miriam hesitated as she stepped outside. “No one is.”
“No one?” The Cherokee woman came to the door and peered out. As she did the light of the candle Miriam held struck the gold filigree on her English gown and set it afire. It struck the enameled comb in her coifed hair and glinted off the silver chains which encircled her neck and lay against her rich brown skin. She picked up her skirts and shifted past her friend, and as she did she stumbled and almost lost her balance.
Miriam caught her arm. “It’s the heels. You will grow used to them.” She seemed distracted; her eyes on the shifting shadows.
Spicewood reached down and removed the shoes. A moment later, she remarked, “It is too quiet.”
Copperhead’s wife nodded. “You noticed that too?”
“Where is the one who watches?” the other woman asked as she tossed the shoes into the lodge.
“ ‘His watchmen are blind; they are all ignorant. They are all dumb dogs. They cannot bark; sleeping, lying down, and loving to slumber’. Good evening, ladies.”
The two women froze at the sound of the familiar voice tinged with an Irish brogue. Miriam drew her petite frame up to its full height and stepped in front of Spicewood. “James Harper, is that you? Show yourself if it is.”
A slender man moved into the circle of the candlelight and paused, allowing them to get a good look at him. Miriam frowned. As European as her friend looked in her blue damask gown, with her black hair piled high on her head, this man looked native. His sandy hair was long and cut off in a straight line just above his shoulders. He wore no shirt, but was dressed in a patterned breechcloth; the short garment hung over a pair of black leggings which were stitched up both sides with white thongs and bordered by a fringe of multi-colored leather. Upon his head sat a matching roach of white deer tail and possum quills dyed red, yellow and blue.
“James Harper is dead. I am Policha..”
“Why are you dressed like that?”
His eyes went to Spicewood. She had spoken from behind her friend. He laughed as he took in her European garb. “I might ask the same thing of you. It is ironic, is it not?”
Miriam started to answer him, but then she realized the shadows that shifted behind and about him were sentient and that he was not alone. Her stomach sickened as she guessed who it was accompanied him. “Where is Cherry? What have you done with her?”
Policha smiled. “She is in good hands. Is she not, Sharpknife?”
The aathollo’s powerful figure appeared from out the shadowed trees. In his strong grip he held the terrified woman. He nodded as the knife he wielded flashed at her throat. “None better.”
Another man appeared beside him. He paused and then walked forward. Stopping before Spicewood his face registered disgust as he noted the clothes she wore. Then he turned to the woman who had made a fool of him five years before and as he did, Tara-Mingo’s face lit with an acid smile.
Catching her chin he added with relish, “Unless those hands be mine.”
“Dead.” Copperhead looked up at Cara and Alec as he turned the sentry’s head to the side and showed them the deep cut in his throat. They were on the east side of the village, opposite the willow glade the Scot called home. “Murdered.”
“Spicewood,” Alec breathed sharply as he set his foot on the path that led through the village and towards his lodge.
Copperhead rose to his feet and caught his arm. “My lodge lies that way as well, but it will do my wife and my son no good if I give these beasts an easy target.” He pressed the other man’s flesh. “Be as the wolf, Alexander. Sharp. Keen. Wary and wise.”
Cara nodded. “Yes. You cannot undo what is done. If we are in time, we will defend them.”
The Scot’s brown eyes were wide with terror. “An’ if we aur nae in tim’?”
Copperhead’s fingers curled into fists as he released him, and his voice shook. “We will avenge them.”
Alexander was silent a moment and then he nodded, reluctantly bowing to the wisdom of his commander and friend. He glanced at the Creek who attended them. “Thaur aur six o’ us. How shoulds we gae?”
“Two by two. One Creek. One Cherokee.” The native in the raven cape sought Arrowkeeper’s eyes and waited for him to challenge his call. When he did not, he continued. “Fan out. Approach from different directions. Alexander, you and Waso go left, and circle past the council house. Arrowkeeper and Cara to the right. Nighthawk....”
“You come with me. We will pass through the village. And Alexander....”
The other man pulled up short. “Aye?”
“Be careful. You would not want your wife to live, only to find you had died.”
As the serving War Chief of Chota moved through the sleeping village with the Creek at his side, a few stragglers greeted them, eyeing the stranger with suspicion. Copperhead stopped one elder and asked him if he had heard anything. He told him he had not. The village had been quiet, and all who should be were in their beds.
The Cherokee and the Creek exchanged glances. They had found the sentry dead. Was the whole world sleeping with the devil at its door?
Several minutes later they arrived at the lodge. Having taken the straightest route, they were the first. But not by much. As they approached the dwelling, their four companions emerged from the trees.
“They are coming,” Nighthawk said.
“Yes.” Copperhead reached for the mat that covered the door. He had hoped he would have time to check and to be able to prepare Alexander for the worst if it had happened. Of course that meant he had no time to prepare himself. “Keep them out while I go inside.”
“Would you rather I....”
Copperhead paused for just a moment before ducking under the covering. When he turned to the Creek, his eyes were steel. “I will go.”
As he disappeared Alexander arrived with Cara at his side. He started for the opening but Nighthawk caught him and held him back. “Copperhead said you were to wait.”
“Why? Whot is it? Whot dae ye—”
“He knows nothing,” Cara said softly. “None of us do. You must wait for....” The man in the fox skin fell silent as his friend appeared at the door. His face was grim.
Alexander broke away from the Creek. “Whot? Whot’s wrang?”
Copperhead shook his head.
“I am gaun in. Oot o’ mah way.”
“There is no need.” He met Alexander’s terrified gaze. “There is no one there.” In his hand was the shawl his own wife wore to shield herself from the cold. “The women are gone.”
Cara watched his old friend closely. He seemed calm, but he knew the Cherokee well enough to know that he was not. Miriam was in grave danger. Not only had she escaped Tara’s clutches before, humiliating him, but she was a white woman and the wife of a sworn enemy. He knew as well that Copperhead was torn. As acting War Chief he had to weigh his responsibilities to the village against his own needs and desires.
When at last the handsome native stirred and spoke, it was to say, “I must check my lodge, and then I will send the women and children away, and position what men are left to guard the village.”
Cara nodded. “Do you think Adohi was with Miriam? ”
The Cherokee’s fingers closed on his wife’s shawl. “I did not see anything to indicate he was. But I do not know. I must seek him first— ”
“You do not need to seek the boy. He has come to you.”
Copperhead pivoted to find the beloved woman Cornbeater standing at the end of the trail. Her gray hair was disheveled and unkempt; her feet bare and her clothing mud-stained, but her aged fingers were firmly clamped around those of his small son. The child looked puzzled but not particularly frightened.
“Adohi. Then he was not— ”
“He was with me, at the lodge. They came.” She paused to let that news sink in. When she spoke again, her words were guarded so as not to alarm the small boy. “We played a game. We were very quiet and we hid in Selu’s arms; in the corn.”
Copperhead closed his eyes and allowed some of the tension to leave him. Then he knelt and opened his arms. When his small son ran into them, he scooped him up and held him tight. “Miriam? And the others?” his asked, his eyes brushing Alexander.
“With them. Your wife, the daughter of Star,” the old woman looked at Cara-Mingo. “Cherry. And one or two other young women.” She shook her head. “There were many men.”
Adohi’s father approached her and laid his hand on her wrinkled arm. “I thank you, grandmother, for his safety.” As she smiled he turned to Cara. “Be warned. Be armed. Take Alexander and the Creek. Smoke will stay with me. I am sorry I can spare no more.” He drew a deep breath as his son cuddled against his neck. “I will come as soon as I can.”
He watched as Cara nodded and turned to go, but then he called him back. “Cara-Mingo....”
The other man glanced over his shoulder. “I will find her, and bring her back to you.”
The Cherokee nodded. “The Great Spirit be with you. And, my friend....”
Copperhead nodded toward the pacing Scot. “Watch Alexander. If something has happened to Spicewood, I do not know what he will do.”
Several heartbeats passed. Cara remained silent; his eyes turned toward the cold wet earth. When he spoke at last, his voice shook. “This is all my doing. My brother....”
“...is evil, and he alone is responsible for all he does. Not you.” As Adohi whimpered and clutched his neck tighter, Copperhead added quietly, “Must I worry for you as well?”
Cara-Mingo laughed and looked up. “No. Let the moment’s troubles be sufficient. Mine will hold.”
His friend observed him for a moment. “Do you think you will kill him?”
The English-bred Cherokee pursed his lips and nodded.
The women were huddled together in a hastily constructed lodge some miles away from Chota. They had been herded there, along with several other female captives from different villages, and left alone. Outside the night had grown still as it often did after a storm, but the cold air carried with it soft voices, and they knew their captors were near. Miriam hugged her arms about her slender form and glanced from one frightened face to the other, trying to think of something to do. The air inside the lodge was filled with whimpers and cries, and she knew if she did not do something constructive soon, it would not be very long before her own were added to their desperate song. She closed her eyes and thanked God that Adohi had not been with her, and that when they had arrived at the women’s lodge, Cornbeater had already spirited him away. She didn’t know how the wise old woman had known danger was at the door, but at least it meant he was safe.
Copperhead was another matter. He would be coming after her.
Leaning over so her face was close to Spicewood’s, she whispered, “We must try to escape.”
Her friend turned towards her. She had been offering comfort to another young Cherokee woman who was paralyzed with fear. “There are guards without.”
“I know that,” Miriam snapped. “I have eyes.” At the other woman’s look, she softened her tone. “I am sorry. When I am anxious my temper gets the best of me.” She rose then and stared at the opening in the lodge wall. “There has to be a way.”
“No.” Spicewood’s words were without hope. “Sometimes there is not.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” The Englishwoman’s hands were on her hips. “I thought there was something wrong before. What is it?”
The young native stared at her a moment. She released the stranger’s hand and stood. Walking to her friend’s side, she said quietly, “Death comes tonight.”
Spicewood paused. “I saw my father.”
Miriam blinked, at a loss. “Star? But.... Oh, you mean in a dream?”
The brown-skinned woman nodded. She turned her head and her fine features were silhouetted against the fire that burned in the center of the lodge. “Yes.”
“Spicewood, a dream is just that; a dream. This is the anniversary of his death. You must have been thinking of him.” She took the other woman’s face between her hands. “You have a long life ahead of you. Many years.”
“You are not Tsitsalagi. You do not understand.”
“I have been adopted into the People. I am one of you. I am Cherokee.”
“Not in this. It was not a dream. My father came.” Her dark eyes went to Cherry as she joined them. The young woman had just awakened. She had fallen asleep soon after they had been confined, exhausted by all she had been through. “You know what that means. Do you not, Cherry?”
“You will not die,” her native friend whispered. “Alexander will come. Copperhead will come, as will Cara.”
“Then maybe one of them will die.” Spicewood was truly frightened. “I could not stand to lose Alexander. Without him— ”
She fell silent as the mat over the door was pulled away and the Creek Sharpknife stepped into the lodge. He met her stare and nodded towards the door. “You will come with me.”
“Why?” Miriam stepped between them.
“I do not speak
to you.” The Creek aathollo said
as he shoved her out of the way. “Come
with me now— ”
“Leave her alone, you great brute!” The diminutive woman struck back at him, kicking his knee. “Spicewood, run!”
“Miriam, no!” Star’s daughter cried out, but it was too late. Sharpknife backhanded the Englishwoman, striking her hard enough to propel her across the room so she landed near the fire. Cherry ran to her to make certain she was not burned as the other native women huddled together in the corner, weeping and wailing.
The Creek’s dark eyes sought the one who stood trembling before him. He reached out and touched the sleeve of her damask dress. “What is this for?” His deep voice rumbled through the small space.
“This dress. Is it for a wedding? Or a burial?”
Spicewood drew a deep breath and held it. She understood the threat. Raising the voluminous skirts she was so unaccustomed to, she took a step towards him.
“I will come.”
“You will take those clothes off. Now.”’
She looked from the man who addressed her to the one who lingered in the shadows, watching. Policha’s hazel eyes never left her, but he made no move to interfere. “No,” she answered defiantly, “I will not.”
“They are not fitting.” Cara-Mingo’s brother stepped close to her. “You are not a white woman. You are aati, of the People. These rags,” he took hold of the front of the damask dress and jerked hard, tearing the expensive fabric, “dishonor you.”
“They were a gift from my husband,” she whispered, catching the fine cloth with her fingers and holding it over her breast.
“Another dishonor. And this,” he hooked his finger under the chain that circled her neck and lifted the silver crucifix from her brown skin. “This is the white man’s god. Why do you wear it?”
“It is my God now.”
Tara’s lips curled and he laughed. “By the end of this night your husband will be dead and you will be mine.” He pulled hard and the soft silver chain broke. As she cried out and reached for it, his fingers closed about the cross. He waited a moment, holding her terrified gaze, and then tossed it to Policha. “If my prayers are answered, yours cannot be. The Master of Breath cannot honor both.” He reached out suddenly and caught her face with his hand. Then he kissed her hard. “Tonight he honors mine.”
Spicewood took a step back and was surprised to find Policha had come up behind
her. She glanced at him and fell silent as he moved her aside and placed himself between them. “Leave her be, Tara. You have no time for this tonight.”
For a moment silence filled the small space, and then Tara-Mingo laughed. He laid his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “As usual, Policha, you speak wisdom. The moon rides high in the clearing sky and my brother yet lives.” He nodded towards the native woman. “Time for this one tomorrow. See that she is given new clothes, and does not wear that,” he indicated the cross, “again.”
The man who had been James Harper nodded. “I will.”
Tara strode to the door and then turned back. The torch that hung beside it caught his strong-boned face and cast his demonic eyes into shadow. “Before the sun rises in the east I will return with many scalps on my belt. My brother’s will be one. I think you will know the others as well.” He smiled then and pivoted, leaving the terrified woman alone with the other man.
Policha touched the hooks on the back of her gown. “Do you want me to get one of the other women to help you with these?”
“Where is my cross?”
He held it up, but even as she reached for it, he closed his fingers around it. A moment later he tucked it in his bandoleer. “I will keep it safe for you.” On impulse, he reached out and touched her upswept hair. “I will keep you safe. I promise.”
Spicewood took a step away from him. She recognized the hunger in his eyes. Softly, she replied, “Perhaps one of the women should come.”
Cara glanced at Alec. His friend was high-strung as a stallion and moving without caution, pressing them forward too fast in his need to find his wife. Near the bend of the river, they had suddenly lost the trail. As if by magic, the war party’s footprints seemed to have vanished. He turned in a circle, looking at the terrain. The river was rushing hard, swollen by the sudden storm. Impressions which would have been there an hour before, had no doubt been washed away. There were boulders nearby as well, but the women would have been hard-pressed to scale them. Still, it was not beyond the realm of possibilities. His brother was a hard master.
Arrowkeeper drew alongside him and nodded toward the other man. Alexander was scrambling up the side of the gray rocks, looking for sign. “He takes chances.”
Cara nodded. “I know. And Waso and Nighthawk?”
“In the trees. There is nothing.”
“They cannot simply have vanished.” His fingers gripped his rifle hard. “Perhaps Alexander is right to think....”
Both dark heads turned as one. The Scot was standing atop one of the boulders, his lean form outlined by the light of the risen moon. He held something aloft in his hand.
“Alec,” Cara-Mingo cried, “get down! If someone is watching— ”
“Boot tis Spicewood’s. Frae MacIntosh...” He stopped suddenly and his dark head whipped to the left. “Whot aur ye...?” Abruptly he stiffened and without a sound, fell to the ground.
Cara and Arrowkeeper exchanged a look and began to run. As they drew near their friend’s still form the Creek Waso rounded the boulder and raised a bow fitted with an arrow which he pointed at Cara’s heart.
“What is this?” Arrowkeeper placed his long form between them. “You betray us?”
“I betray only those who deserve to be betrayed.” He whistled sharply and at his signal several dozen figures poured forth from the trees; their faces blackened, their arms and legs painted yellow. One of them held Nighthawk, and in the others’ hands were the weapons of war. Waso smiled as he added, “Only those who deserve to die.”
Cara’s hands had been tied behind his back. He walked beside Arrowkeeper. The tall Creek had fallen silent after confronting the man, Waso, and being struck in the face with the blunt end of a pipe tomahawk for his boldness. He knew the other man had never fully trusted the one whose name meant ‘wolf’, but had felt compelled to abide by the wisdom of his tribe’s council and his friend’s word. According to what Nighthawk had witnessed, Waso had joined in many raids against the renegade Creek, exposing and even killing the men who walked with Tara-Mingo. Through this he had seemed to prove his fealty. Now they knew it to be but another master deception of his brother’s devising. Nighthawk had simply been mistaken, and his reward for trusting unwisely was to be herded along with the rest of them toward some unknown destination.
Alec, with an arrow through his shoulder, had been left at the river’s edge to die.
All of this only went to prove his brother’s depravity. But then Cara had always known he was capable of such things. As a child Tara had killed animals simply for the pleasure, offering no prayers and allowing their carcasses to rot. As a youth he had found great joy in battle, showing his enemies no mercy, and maturity had only increased his savagery. Star had been of their clan and he had killed him without compunction. To a Cherokee, there was no act more heinous or inexcusable than killing one of your own clan.
Unless it be to kill your brother.
His head came up as they drew to a halt within a circle of torches. Against the night sky their fire blazed, reflecting off the weapons of the warriors and dancing in the puddles at their feet. Everything was deathly still. The aathollo Sharpknife stood to one side. A young boy was with him. Both had mystic symbols painted on their flesh, and while the elder’s lips moved without sound, the youth rattled a gourd and chanted softly. Every once and a while the Creek would start and his eyes would fly open without focus. Cara stood still watching him. Preoccupied he failed to notice the warrior who had came up silently behind him until he slid a knife between his hands, freeing them, and then thrust him forward without warning. Losing his balance, he fell to his knees. As his hands hit the muddy ground, the wet earth splashed in his face and eyes. When he had wiped them clean, he realized two booted feet had come to rest before him.
Drawing a deep breath, he said, “Tara.”
Tara-Mingo remained silent for a long moment. When he spoke the words came slowly and with deliberation, as if great thought and weight were placed behind each one. “Do you remember, my brother, when the tail of the comet rode the back of the night; the day I left the Cherokee?”
Cara rose to his feet and wiped more mud from his face with the back of his arm. “I remember it well. You said that night you should have killed me, and you were right.” The English-bred Cherokee stood tall. “Since you did not, I will kill you.”
His elder brother laughed. “Brave words from one who ran from my death before, as if from his own.”
“That was a mistake,” Cara answered quickly, “which can be easily rectified. Give me a rifle now and we will see who runs.”
Tara-Mingo began to circle him. He did so three times and then he stopped. “Do you remember your father?”
Cara frowned. It was not the question he had expected. He nodded. “Yes.”
“I do not remember mine. I did not know him. Do you know why?”
The other man bit his tongue, as the answer on the tip of it was not prudent and had something to do with his brother’s dubious lineage. “He died. I know that.”
“He was murdered!” Tara’s hand moved swift as a water-moccasin to the whip on his hip. The popper cracked, catching his younger brother’s shoulder and splitting the skin. As Cara staggered back, the Creek warrior moved in and wrapped the leather lash about his throat and brought the handle up under his chin. “By your father!”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Do not pretend you do not know, son of John Murray; British officer and loyal subject of the Great White Father, the English king. It was the volley from your father’s weapon that struck my father, causing his lifeblood to spill out, soaking the earth like the rain which pours from the heavens this night.” He tightened the lash until it was choking. “Your father took my father’s life.”
He had always known there was something she had not told him. He had seen it in his mother’s eyes when she looked at his father and when she looked at him, John Murray’s son. Yes, there had been love, but there had been more than that; she had worshipped the Englishman. And no wonder, he had been her savior.
Cara cleared his throat. “If you would...like an...answer. You might...allow...me to draw a breath.”
His brother laughed and thrust him backward so he stumbled. “An answer then!”
“I make no pretense, Tara,” he coughed as his fingers went to his throat. “Choose to believe me, or not. I did not know.”
Tara-Mingo stared at him. Then he smiled. “But you do know what I claim.” His dark head came up as he met his brother’s eyes. “It is my right.”
Cara stared into the twin pits of hate and hunger and as he did, he swayed. The warriors about them had joined the young boy and were chanting now, their voices low and rhythmic. Sharpknife was whispering; his eyes still closed, weaving what he believed was some spell of making. The night was cold but he felt warm; almost feverish. “Yes. A life for a life.”
Tara nodded slowly; almost solemnly. “Yes. Yours for War Bonnet; for my father’s.”
“I claim the same.” Cara straightened his back. “Your life for Star’s.”
The tall native fell silent. Then he laughed long and hard. “You are bold, little brother.”
Talota’s half-white son shrugged his shoulders. “I have nothing to lose.”
His Creek brother studied him for a moment. “I know you. You have an idea; a proposal. Some trick fit for the son of an English dog.”
Cara wet his lips. “First tell me why you destroyed that village south of here.”
“Because it was Cherokee.”
He shook his head in disbelief. “But even you say my father was English. Why....?”
The red hands coiled the whip and anchored it on his hip in plain sight. “Because you are Cherokee.”
Cara’s voice was soft and even. “Tara, so are you.”
His brother glared at him and then faster than a lightning strike whirled and kicked him in the stomach, knocking him to the ground. A moment later he planted his boot on his chest. “You will not say that.”
“It is the truth.”
Tara leaned down, putting his weight behind it. He drew his knife and threatened him. “It is not my truth.”
“Of course it is your truth.” Cara was finding it hard to breathe. “After all, brother, what is a lie but the truth in masquerade.”?
The other man lifted his chin with the knife. “I could kill you now,” he whispered as the blade jerked and nicked his flesh. “Here. Without honor.”
“But it would bring you no joy. No satisfaction. And your father’s spirit no rest.” Cara gasped and twisted away from the blade. “Did your father suffer, do you think, Tara? Did they hunt him down like the rabid beast he was? On their fine horses with their shining weapons, did the English pursue him like a rat and kill him as he burrowed into his hole?”
Tara struck him hard with the back of his hand. “Silence.”
Cara licked the blood from the corner of his lips. “There is no silence like the grave, brother.”
The other man paused. “You will soon know,” he said as he stood and wiped the knife on his leggings.
“May I ask what you intend to do with me?”
Tara laughed. “Kill you.”
Cara-Mingo took a deep breath. He coughed as he shifted and sat up. “Are you willing to give me a sporting chance?”
“If a rabbit pursued by hungry wolves thinks it sport, you will have your chance.”
“And the others?”
Tara sheathed his knife. “Others? These men....”
“Them too. But I mean the women you took from the village. What would it take for you to free them?”
“Why should I free them?” He shook his dark head. “They are mine, and so are you.”
Cara nodded. “But not willingly. Let them go and I promise I will play your game. I will not try to escape. It will be just you and me; a hunt to the death.”
Tara stared at him long and hard. Then he offered him his hand. His brother took it reluctantly and was pulled to his feet. “You are a fool,” he said.
“ ‘The fool doth think himself wise, but the wise man knoweth himself to be a fool.’” He grinned and wondered if he looked as mad as he felt. “Well, brother? What do you say? Will you let them go?”
Talota’s Creek son nodded once. Then he caught the eye of the boy next to Sharpknife. “Fofchokba, when your brother wakes, he will know what to do.” Then he turned back to his own little brother and smiled savagely.
of John Murray and Talota, prepare to die.”
“It will be dawn soon,” a deep voice proclaimed.
Cara opened his eyes but did not look up. “Yes.”
“Gaze upon it, brother. It will be your last.”
He sighed. “Or perhaps it will be yours.”
For a moment Tara-Mingo did not reply. Then he said, almost conversationally, “Do you remember, brother, the story of Jacob and Esau your white father used to read to us?”
The bound man shifted and sighed. “Yes.”
The tall Creek was looking toward the horizon. “Policha has taught me another.”
“Oh? And what is that?”
“Cain and Abel.”
Cara laughed sadly. “I know it well. ‘And Cain talked with Abel his brother, and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.’ ”
Tara knelt before him and met his eyes. “And....”
“ ‘And the Lord said unto Cain, ‘Where is Abel thy brother? And he said— ”
“ ‘I know not,’ ” his elder brother completed the verse. “ ‘Am I my brother's keeper?’ ”
One of Cara’s black brows winged. “And is history about to repeat itself?”
Tara stood. He did not answer him. “We begin in one hour,” he said, “as the sun wakes and spreads its cloak over the land.” And then he turned to go.
“The women? You released them?”
“Yes, my brother.” Talota’s Creek son turned back towards him. “They are being returned to Chota.”
“How do I know you speak the truth?” Cara shifted and straightened against the tree. “My brother?”
The Creek warrior smiled. “You will have to trust me.”
Cara held his gaze for a moment and then he looked away. It was true. There was
nothing else he could do. “And my other friends?” He had not seen Arrowkeeper or Nighthawk since they had been brought into the Creek camp the night before. “Where are they now?”
“Held in my hand like young birds. Easily crushed. If I so desire, I have but to close my hand.”
“You intend to kill them?” It was what he had suspected. And yet, even knowing his brother’s evil, he had hoped....
“If you die today; they die. Slowly.”
“And,” Cara lifted his face towards the rising sun, “if I win?”
Tara laughed. “They will still die, but their deaths will be quick.” He turned then and began to walk away. “Rest while you can, my brother. Soon the game begins.”
Cara watched him until he disappeared into a group of his men. Then he closed his eyes.
Rest would not come. He knew that. Not in this life.
Cherry walked beside Spicewood, their hands linked. Miriam was some way before them, surrounded by Tara-Mingo’s men. The Creek Sharpknife was keeping the white woman close, determined not to underestimate her again. For some reason the curly-headed native could not determine, they—along with the other female captives—had been roused from sleep well before dawn and forced to begin the slow march back to Chota. One of the renegades had told her the brothers had made a bargain for their freedom, but she knew better. Even though it would have been like Cara to try, Tara-Mingo would not have let them go; not unless freeing them could, in some way, wound his brother even more.
She closed her dark eyes and shivered. When the Creek had come, flinging wide the mat that covered the door, and had begun to drag them from the lodge, she had been dreaming of him. His dark brother had a knife to his throat and meant to kill him. She had screamed his name and run towards him, and then awakened to find a young boy kicking her in the side and telling her to get up. Later she had learned the boy’s name was Fofchokba, which meant Green Hornet. Cherry rubbed her ribs and winced as she stared at him where he walked just ahead of her. The sting of his bare foot with her still.
She shivered again as the morning air lifted her long black hair and tossed it in her face. There had to be something she could do; something to aid Cara. Even if it was nothing more than helping the women who walked with her gain their freedom so their deaths—as well as hers, and Spicewood’s and Miriam’s—would not weigh on him. She glanced over at her friend. She was once again wearing the English dress Alexander had bought for her. Before they had left the camp the man Policha had returned it to her, telling her to put it back on. He said he did not want her to become ill. Then he had disappeared into the forest. Cherry looked at the long full skirt which was now tattered and torn.
It would not make it easy for her to run.
She smiled at her friend as their eyes met and squeezed her hand. Then she looked away and sought Miriam. Just as she did the woman’s blond head came up as if she had heard someone call her name. She began to glance about but then turned her face towards the aathollo’s back and continued on as if nothing had happened. Cherry imitated her, keeping her head straight, but permitted her eyes to roam. It only took a moment to realize someone was shadowing them; moving through the trees with stealth. She prayed there would be others as well—perhaps a whole Cherokee war party come to rescue them—but then she remembered Menewa was away and all the men with him. Very few were left in the village, and several of those had already fallen to the knives of Tara-Mingo’s men. She chewed her lip and came to decision. Dropping Spicewood’s hand, she glanced from side to side. One warrior walked close by with his long hunting knife held loosely in his brown fingers. Summoning courage she did not know she had, she began to inch towards him.
“Cherry,” Spicewood whispered. “What do you....?”
The young woman shook her head. She was only about two feet away. As they rounded a bend thick with leaves and bracken, she pretended to stumbled and struck the warrior’s hand, knocking the knife from it. Quicker than thought she grabbed it and within seconds had sprinted forward and was holding it to the young boy’s throat. Sharpknife pivoted and reached for Miriam, to take her as a counter-hostage, but as he did an arrow winged through the air. It glanced off the back of his shoulder.
If he had not moved, it would have struck his heart.
A voice called out loud and clear even as he picked the arrow up from the ground and broke it in two. “Stand where you are. There is another like it aimed at each of you.”
Cherry was certain this was a lie. Most likely the Creek suspected the same, but had no proof.
“Miriam. Cherry. Spicewood. Gather the others and come towards me.”
The blond woman smiled. She had thought she heard him before, calling to her as he had when they were children, imitating a songbird. “Copperhead?”
“Yes. Leave them and come to me.”
Relieved, Miriam moved towards him, but as she did Sharpknife reached for her. She squealed and ran into the leaves, just escaping his grip. The Creek war party hesitated. When no volley of arrows followed this disobedient action they began to grumble and finger their weapons.
Cherry and Spicewood looked at one another. The buxom woman nodded. She held the knife close to the boy’s throat and turned towards Sharpknife. “You will let us go or I will kill him.”
“You will not.” The aathollo’s eyes were dark; his voice commanding. “You will let him go. You cannot do this thing.”
“Try me,” she answered as she began to back toward the trees. “Spicewood. Go. Now.”
She glanced at her friend. “I am coming.” Cherry continued to back up slowly until she felt the leaves close about her. Then, knowing she could not drag or control the young boy who was squirming in her arms, she shifted the knife and brought it down at the base of his neck, rendering him unconscious. Startled by the violence of what she had done, she dropped it even as Spicewood came abreast her and caught her hand.
“Miriam?” she whispered.
“Gone with Copperhead. They are heading south.” Spicewood’s large brown eyes were wide with fear. “We are separated by the Creek. We must go north, now!”
Cherry nodded once and even as the warriors began to whoop and charge, exploding into action, they disappeared into the underbrush, seeking a place to lay low until it was safe.
Cara had just topped one rise and rested, panting, at its base, weaponless and alone. His brother had stripped him of his whip and, before throwing it away, had used his knife to cut the vest from his back so he was left bare-chested and exposed to the cold. Without a flint, he had no way to make fire since the ground was so wet, and so he stood, shivering, watching his breath come in small white puffs. He consoled himself with the fact that at least as long as he could see it, he knew he was alive. Shuddering, he used his bare feet to break the crust of ice on the shallow water beside the creek that ran along the base of the hill and, employing his toes as the women did, located a few coarse tubers at the ends of the green stalks that swayed in the wintry wind. Kneeling, he pulled them up at the roots. He had had no food since the light meal he had shared Alexander and the others, and that had been nearly thirty hours before. Without sustenance he would not last long.
Of course, that was what his brother intended.
As he munched on the tasteless plant, he glanced at the rising sun and calculated the time. The two hour head-start Tara had given him was nearly up. Any moment now his brother would come looking for him. He rose quickly to his feet, intending to be on his way, but found he had to wait for the world to stop spinning first. It was just like his brother to take unfair advantage, freezing and starving his prey so it could not escape. Most men would have felt their victory lessened by such trickery, but not Tara. He would simply consider it a matter of cunning.
Tossing the remainder of the wild carrot in the creek, he followed the small tributary, knowing eventually it must lead him to its larger kin. He was heading for the bend in the river where, when the water was low, a man could walk across without fear. If he was lucky, he might fool his brother and cause him to lose his trail. If it worked, he would then circle round and return to free the others; then, together, they could go looking for the women. He shuddered again, but not with the cold. He knew his brother would not keep his word and knew the women were in terrible danger. Still, he hoped by getting them away from the Creek camp that others—perhaps Copperhead or Smoke—coming from the village might find and free them.
As he began to jog, pacing himself and conserving his strength as best he could, he pictured them being driven through the forest. Miriam’s thoughts would be with her husband, fearing even as he sought to free her that he might perish. Cherry would be thinking of him. And Spicewood....
Spicewood would be praying she would live to return to Alexander; Alexander who most likely was already dead.
Cara forbid the tears and concentrated on staying alive.
Tara-Mingo coiled his whip and smiled at the touch of the soft supple leather. Soon Sharpknife would lead the Cherokee women back to their village and the destruction of Chota would begin. He had ordered him to take them there, and then to make certain all but the one named Spicewood died. When he caught up to his little brother he would tell him this, and as he lay dying, he would relish the added pain their deaths brought him. And then, once Cara was dead, he would assume possession of their land and he would be chief, here, where his mother had lived. Here, where his father had been killed and where he had known defeat before. And if Policha did not like it, then he could leave. The metizo had always told him that he was meant for great things; it was his choice that they begin here.
Lifting his face towards the sun, he determined the hour had come. He fastened his whip on his hip and checked that his hunting knife was sharp and in its sheath. Then he held his hand out and accepted one of the shining flintlock rifles they had recently bought from the British, grinning as the cold metal warmed to the touch of his flesh.
“Today, father,” he whispered. “You will be avenged. Today, my brother
As Tara-Mingo set off alone into the wilderness, not hurrying, but enjoying the journey and the prospect of its end, a figure shadowed him. The man moved slowly, but with a dogged determination that drove him forward. He had lost the plaid sash he had used to bind his wound somewhere, and about an hour before had finally given in and abandoned his grandfather’s heavy claymore. It had been slowing him down when he couldn’t afford to be slowed down. There was no room for sentiment when his wife’s life, as well as his friends’, depended on him being able to move.Alexander paused beside the still water to draw a deep breath. Then he gathered his strength and, wedding it to a stubborn refusal
to die, disappeared into the trees.
- Continued in Chapter Eighteen -