Blood Was Only For Bleeding
Israel blinked several times and yawned. It was terribly warm and stuffy in the cramped space he had squeezed his small body into, between the inner wall of the cabin and the roof, and he had fallen soundly asleep. He sat up, rubbed his eyes with his balled up fingers and tried to remember what was going on.
Like a hickory switch on a bare bottom, it struck him.
There had been men outside the door. His Ma had been standing by the window holding his Pa’s spare rifle; then she had helped him pull up the ladder and told him to hide in the bolt-hole his Pa had made for him and Jemima. He had done so reluctantly, cutting himself off from both her and whatever was about to happen inside the cabin. As he crouched there in the darkness he had heard someone cry out twice and then there had been silence.
Trembling, he pressed his ear against the hard wood and leaned forward to listen. There was no way he could tell how much time had passed or whether or not the men had gone. Once inside the bolt-hole it was mighty hard to hear. His Pa had told them always to wait twice as long as they thought they should, just in case someone might be in the loft walking in their stockings or hiding in the cabin below waiting for a sound. He wanted to stand up in a powerful way, but didn’t know whether he should lift the bar that held the door in place and peer out, or just stay put until his Ma came to get him.
If she came to get him.
If she was still in the cabin. And alive.
The little boy shuddered and then jumped as a noise loud enough to penetrate his hiding place resonated through the wooden beams at his back. It sounded like someone had slammed something heavy into the cabin wall. Driven by curiosity and hopeful that it was his Pa coming back, he reached for the bar and lifted it. A moment later he laid his shoulder to the door and pushed as hard as he could, remembering to be careful to make as little noise as possible. The loft was pitch-black as he entered it and so he dropped to his knees and crawled forward, stopping only when his hand made contact with the ladder. It was laying at a crazy angle half across the opening. He hesitated, knowing he had lowered the hatch into place, and then realized the fact that it was open meant someone had come up through it and left it shoved aside. Someone who had been looking for him.
He held his breath and shifted forward far enough that he could see, and remained hidden in the shadows.
The cabin below was dark except for one flickering light which seemed to be floating of its own accord across the room. As he continued to watch it bobbed like the ghosts in the scary stories old man Leary liked to tell on All Hallows Eve and came to rest beside his parents’ bed. Then he heard a low moan. Frightened, he curled into a tight ball, but stayed put as if spell-bound. A moment later he heard a ‘huff’ followed by a long low whistle. And then a familiar voice spoke an even more familiar word.
“Tarnation! Who’d have thought anyone so skinny could weigh so much!”
Israel let the breath out slowly. The light wavered and then began to grow until a golden circle illuminated the alcove where his parents slept. He frowned and shifted until he was able to make out Cincinnatus’ spindly form bending over the bed. He bit his lip and waited, curling even tighter, fearful that any sudden move on the tavern-keeper’s part might reveal copper hair on the pillow, or a dress and petticoats hanging over the edge of the thick downy mattress. But when the older man did finally turn away, he saw instead a deep burgundy coat and breeches and realized it wasn’t his Ma who had been hurt, but the young Scotsman, Finlay. His embroidered silk waistcoat, which had been light as the boy’s own hair, was now the color of his suit. His dark skin had grown pale and he was silent and still.
Just like Charlie.
Cincinnatus moved cautiously through the darkness, circumventing the Boone’s table, which he noticed had been dragged into the center of the cabin, to retrieve Rebecca’s medicine chest. Taking care, he toted it across the room and placed it on the floor beside the bed that held the young man. Reaching over then he began to undo his sullied waist-coat, only to pause. Picking up the lamp, he took a closer look. The ivory fabric was blood-soaked and it was obvious the young man had been savagely treated, but the worst of his injuries had already been tended and the loss of blood lessened by what appeared to have been very professional treatment. The tavern-keeper pulled the soiled bandage away slightly and whistled again. The Scot’s tanned side had been sliced like a piece of fresh meat, but it appeared the blade had not penetrated more than a quarter of an inch or so. It was a cruel wound—the kind left by a bear or a panther’s claws—but it had not been meant to kill him. At least not immediately. Unless he was careless and reopened the wound, or infection set in, he would probably make a full and speedy recovery. Cincinnatus thought to check the young man’s forehead for fever, but as he twisted his grizzled beard and tried to puzzle out what had happened, he stirred.
The Scot’s black eyelashes fluttered. His eyes opened and he looked towards the ceiling without focus. “Alec?” he whispered, and then he licked his lips and coughed.
Cincinnatus left his side to retrieve some water from the bucket Becky kept near the hearth. It wasn’t the freshest, but he figured in his condition the young man wasn’t going to care. Carefully slipping his arm about the Scot’s shoulders, he lifted his dark head and helped him to take a few sips. Then he laid him back down. He watched him for a few moments and then said softly, “Mr. Mac-Kirdy?”
The young man’s brown eyes grew clear and he moaned. “Mrs. Boone.... Rebecca. They hae her.”
The older man laid his hand on his arm. “And Israel?”
“I dinnae see them...tak’ him...boot they moost hae.” Finlay tossed in the bed and attempted to sit up. “I hae tae gae af’er them.”
“You will do no such thing, young man.” Cincinnatus took hold of his shoulders and with very little effort won the short-lived battle as the Scot fell back onto the bed exhausted. “You might as well have been a catfish and had someone try to gut you. That knife wound is bad, son. The skin is split right in two. It could become infected. And you could bleed to death if you open it again.”
The young man grew quiet and then, with effort, lifted his hand and pressed his fingers into the bandage. He turned his head slowly and whispered, “I thank ye fur carin’ fur me.”
The tavern-keeper ran his fingers over his chin and shook his graying head. “Can’t take the credit. It was done afore I came.”
Finlay stared at him for a moment, confused, and then he turned away and closed his eyes. “McInnery,” he sighed.
Cincinnatus’ brow furrowed. “Mac-Innery?” he echoed.
“Th’ mastermin’ behin’ all o’ this.” Finlay winced as he shifted his body. “Thot body is th’ de’il himself; an educated Seminole whot is bent on stoppin’ th’ white mon. I woulds nae call a native a ‘savage’, boot he is....in e’ery sense o’ th’ word.” The young man stopped to draw a deep withering breath. “He left me alife sae I coulds tell Mr. Boone who took his folk. He will harm th’ guid’ lady an’ th’ lad if he does nae follaw....”
Laying above their heads, Israel gripped the rungs of the ladder until his knuckles turned white, uncertain of what to do. This man, the one called ‘Mack Innery’, had taken his Ma. Finlay wanted to go after him and Cincinnatus didn’t mean to let him. The boy breathed in slowly through his nose, filling his lungs with air, and then let it out even more slowly to steady himself. He wanted to shout. He wanted to tell the two of them he was there and have them promise him everything would be all right, but if he did—if he revealed himself—he knew the older man wouldn’t allow him to go after her either. So, instead, he held very still and continued to hug the floor and to listen to every word.
“You will only hurt yourself if you try to get out of that bed.” Cincinnatus shook his head and laid his hand on the young man’s arm once again. “Now look here, son. You are lucky someone bandaged that wound and you’re still with us. Don’t you go and do something stupid now. I’ll take care of getting a posse together to go after Becky and Israel, but first,” he hesitated and waited for the Scot’s eyes to find his, “I need you to promise me you will stay put until I can get to the fort and bring back one of the women to look after you. If that knife blade wasn’t clean, infection is bound to set in unless someone opens everything up again and cleans it out proper-like.” He stared at the young man’s pallid face and shook his head. His dark eyes had closed and it seemed he had lost consciousness. “Mr. MacKirdy?” He scratched his beard as he tried to recall the Scot’s Christian name. “Finlay?” he said at last. “Do you hear me, Finlay MacKirdy?”
The young man sighed and turned his face toward the wall. “Aye.... I hear ye.”
“But are ‘ye’ listening to what I am saying, son?”
The dark head nodded, just barely. His words were beginning to slur. “I...am... listenin’....”
“Do you promise? Finlay?” The older man lifted his hand and laid it on the Scot’s forehead. “No fever yet,” he said to himself, “that’s a good sign at least.” Cincinnatus turned then and, picking up his old blunderbuss, headed for the door. He paused when he reached it to look back. He hated to leave the young man alone, but really had little choice. If he didn’t organize the men and get them out after Becky and Israel soon, the trail would grow cold.
With one last look at the sleeping Scot he crossed the threshold and, pulling the door tight behind him, moved off into the night and headed for the fort.
Israel waited as the cabin fell silent once again. His lay still, his small fingers tracing the whorls in the wooden rungs of the ladder that had been polished until they glistened by the oil from his and his sister’s hands. Below a single lamp continued to flicker, illuminating the night. After a moment, he shifted and took another look at the bed.
It was empty.
Startled, he rose up onto his knees and twisted so he could see the cabin door. Finlay was on his feet beside it, breathing hard and staring out the window. As he watched, the young Scot turned and searched the cabin until he found his abandoned pistol and a bag of powder and shot. Sitting wearily at the table, he laboriously loaded it and then, after cocking the hammer, leaned his head on the solid wooden surface. A sob escaped him, and then he straightened up and rose and headed for the door. Without stopping for food or water, he opened it and staggered out into the night.
Israel counted to ten and then shifted so his head was framed by the black square that was cut out of the ceiling. Gazing down into the cabin he noted the table was in the middle of the room, directly below him. Shifting so his feet dangled from the opening, he dropped onto it. Once there, he slipped silently to the floor. With his hands on his hips, he gazed about the empty room and noticed his Pa’s extra rifle laying where his Ma must have dropped it when the men took her. Before retrieving it, he turned back to the table and, taking a square of cloth, gathered up some bread, dried meat and cheese. Tying off the bundle, he searched until he found one of his Pa’s haversacks and placed the parcel in it. Then he went to the cupboard and found a bullet bag and brush and pick, as well as all the other items his Pa had let him handle but never use on his own, and tossed them in after it. Next, he located a linen-covered canteen and filled it with the warm water out of the bucket. And finally, even though it was half again as big as him, he picked up his Pa’s extra gun and held it in front of him, gripping the shining metal and polished wood with both hands.
Somewhere out there was his ma and his pa. Mingo and Arrowkeeper too. And now Finlay, the young man who had been so kind to him, was hurt and needed his help.
Gritting his teeth, he walked through the open door and out into the night.
He wasn’t about to let anyone else die.
Mingo stared at his brother’s son as he moved past him, still not quite believing he existed.
Kamassa spoke slowly, almost as if he were drugged or had just awoken from a deep sleep. “I have seen him. I know his face,” he said as he came to a halt, facing the lodge door. Mingo noticed that while the boy walked with a rolling motion, favoring one side, he did not seem as crippled as other children he had known who had been born with a similar deformity. Abruptly the youth pivoted, straightening his back and lifting his head as he did. Pain flickered in his eyes as he lifted one hand and pointed. “It is your face.”
Mingo held still. Perhaps it was simply the setting, but he began to understand what Arrowkeeper meant; there was something about the boy; something ethereal, as if he did not belong in this world. “And how has my brother’s son seen this face? How does he know it?”
Kamassa’s large dark eyes closed. “Nine moons ago,” he said, his words so soft they might not have been heard had a breath been drawn or someone shifted in the room, “he came to me. He showed me his first death....” The ebon eyes opened to settle on Mingo’s face. “...and the one who brought it upon him.”
The Cherokee drew a sudden breath. The face was not the same, but for just a moment, his brother had looked at him out of the boy’s eyes. He had to physically restrain himself from taking a step back. Arrowkeeper had said Kamassa was a thinker; that his heart was only red on one side. He had to believe there was hope for him. Here he stood, before him—part of his flesh and his blood—not a son, but the son of his brother, and his nephew. He let the breath out and said quietly, “Will you tell me of this vision? What exactly is it you saw?”
The boy continued to stare at him and, as he did, Mingo noticed that his pupils were inordinately large. The older man’s jaw tightened and his fists clenched as he realized Kamassa was under the influence of some potent medicine. While it was normal for seers and priests to use such things in a ceremonial fashion, he suspected here—with his brother’s son—there was more to it. Someone was controlling him.
Tara’s son blinked and stirred. He smiled briefly and then, haltingly, lowered himself to the earthen floor. One hand stretched out indicating Mingo should do the same. As he complied, the boy closed his eyes and leaned back. He laid his hands on his knees and lifted his face towards the veiled sky.
“I was in the hot-house alone, seeking a vision of the men of our village who had gone on a hunt and were late returning. I did not find them. Instead I saw a river, broad and wide, rushing endlessly towards the sea; above it, the summer sky, clear and blue as the glass beads the traders carry and use to rob us of our land. I stood on the bank of the river and gazed at my reflection.” Kamassa paused, but did not move. “But it was not my own. A man stood there; a tall man and strong. His hair was gathered in two tails,” the boy’s hands moved, as if they caught and held the black locks, “one on each side, bound with leather and with hawk feathers that brushed his broad shoulders. He was dressed in the skins of deer he had caught and killed, and in his hand was a whip.” His dark lashes fluttered, but his eyes did not open. “He was waiting. Waiting for his brother.
“Soon the wind began to howl. The sky darkened. The sun fled before the man’s anger, and the river turned to blood. In his hand the whip was heavy. In it was death. For one or the other.” Kamassa drew a deep breath and lowered his head. His voice grew stronger as the images played out once again upon his mind’s eye. “I turned and the man turned with me. I looked, and I saw him again. Only this time his hair flew free. The feathers that spoke of honor stood tall and straight upon his head. Again there was a whip in his hand.” The boy’s eyes flew open to pin him. “But there was another weapon; a rifle.”
Mingo placed his hands on his legs and felt his fingers tighten. This had to be a true vision. In the final hours that followed what had become a death hunt, all others had been left behind. Only two men stood on the banks of the Kentucky; two brothers. Cara and Tara. Jacob and Esau. “Yes. I shot him. Your vision is true.”
Kamassa’s expression was unreadable. “But he did not die.”
“No. His anger...his hatred would not let him.” Mingo paused to draw a breath. “You said this vision came nine moons ago. But what you describe happened long before that. My brother— ”
“My father,” a hint of rancor crept into the boy’s even tone, “came to me again. Six moons ago. The second time he met his brother, the sky was clear, but the red river of blood flowed again. And this time, he bent to the will of the Master of Breath, and he agreed to die.”
Mingo frowned. What was the boy talking about? Tara’s stiff neck had never bowed to anyone. If Daniel had not intervened, it would have been him lying beneath the black Kentucky mud now and not his wolf of a brother. The renegade Creek had not simply rolled over and allowed him kill him. “Agreed to die?”
The boy rolled to one side and slowly rose to his feet in a practiced fashion. He drew the feathered cape close about his shoulders and moved past him towards the dais and the flickering torchlight. “To prepare the way for the one who would come after him, who will be greater than the sum of all those who have gone before.” Kamassa paused. He was staring at the firelight and, when he spoke again, his voice was tinged with awe. “At first I did not understand what I saw the second time he came: burned villages, a woman’s tears,” he reached out as though he might touch the pictures in his mind, “a white man named Boone and a broken body lying on rocks.” He limped forward. “It has been explained to me. I know what was done. And I know it was the Master’s will. My father’s star had to fall, so mine could rise.”
Mingo stirred and rose to his feet. For the first time, the boy’s words did not seem to be his own. He hesitated and then asked softly, “And who has explained this to you? Arrowkeeper? Or someone else?”
Kamassa pivoted sharply. His fingers clenched as his eyes reflected a wound soul deep. “You will not speak that name to me.”
“Why not? I have traveled here with him.” He took a step forward. “He has come to see you, to speak with you— ”
“To me he is dead. Dead men cannot speak.”
The youth’s uncle hesitated. Was this the root of the tall Creek’s recent erratic behavior—a young boy’s rejection because of what he took to be his surrogate father’s betrayal? Mingo kept his voice even as he continued. “I believe he has sacrificed much to try to save you....”
“Save me?” The boy scoffed. “He would save me from my destiny.”
Mingo’s black eyebrows arced. “And just what is your destiny, Kamassa Chaffaaka, son of my brother?”
The boy haltingly approached him. He stopped no more than a foot away. He was, perhaps, eight or nine fingers shorter than Mingo and several stones lighter, but he was not cowed. In fact, everything about him—from the tilt of his head to the dark fire that burned all the way from his red heart to his black eyes—spoke of power and certainty.
“I will unite our people, all of the Red Hearts,” he said as he struck his chest with his fist, “and we will reclaim the land of our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers. Together we will kill the white parasites that infest the fields and the forests. We will burn their houses, destroy their settlements, and those who do not die, we will drive away to warn others not to come again.”
“And what of your red brothers who do not agree?”
The boy laughed and a savage joy lit his dark eyes that spoke of the taint of his father’s blood. “My uncle.... Is it not for one brother to kill another, when the cause is just?”
Mingo did take a step back this time. He shook his head. “Kamassa, my brother—your father—was evil. I do not wish to hurt you by the words I must speak, but you must hear me. Things are not always as they seem....”
“No. I do not need words. I have seen. My eyes,” Kamassa touched his eyelids with his fingertips and then lifted his hands towards the sky which hung black and starless above the thatched roof of the lodge, “do not lie. The visions come. These lips speak them and others see the truth.”
The older man frowned. “Others? And are Kamassa’s visions not his own,” Mingo asked quietly, ‘must they be interpreted by other men?” He found it suspicious the boy had mentioned Daniel by name. Even though he believed in visions, and had known men in whom they were true, he suspected that—in spite of his natural gift—this child was being fed more than narcotics. “Who told you this was the will of the Master of Breath?”
“It is said,” words came from behind them, “ ‘and thy life shall hang in doubt before thee, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life.’ A prophet’s words for your future, Cara-Mingo.”
Mingo pivoted. A dark shape stood just within the lodge door. He recognized the light voice. It still carried a bare hint of an Irish brogue. “James.”
“Ah, but James is dead, my friend. You of all people should know that.”
A slight smile touched the boy’s full lips. “Policha?” he whispered.
The slender man moved forward until he was fully revealed by the flickering light of the torches. He was still wearing the ornamental white shirt and buckskins, but his lightly-tanned skin had been painted. His chin was red now, and on one side of his face there were five black fingers. A feathered turban sat jauntily on his head, covering his short sandy hair. “Yes, Kamassa Chaffaaka?”
He pointed towards his uncle. “This one says the brother of the woman who raised me is here.”
Policha’s hazel eyes narrowed. “That he is.”
“You will bring him to me.”
The man who had been James Harper hesitated briefly. Then he inclined his head. “As you will.” He started to turn away, but stopped and turned back. “May I ask why? I thought you did not wish to see or speak with him.”
“I will not speak with him. He will not speak. He will listen and he will watch.” The boy limped past Mingo and then, when he had come to Policha’s side, he pivoted and pinned him with black eyes filled with hate and loathing. “This is the one he has spoken of. His friend. His brother....
“I would have him know his fate.”
Finlay Dougal MacKirdy splashed cool water in his face from the winding stream and then leaned back against the great weeping willow that hung over its soft sandy bank. He closed his eyes briefly and sought to control his ragged breathing. Every time he drew a deep breath— which was often as he fought the pain and fatigue that threatened to overwhelm him—his riven side screamed. Once he had even blacked out and not known where he was when he awoke a short time later. He placed his fingers on his side and shifted carefully so his back was square against the tree and looked about. The sun had risen in the east to cast its golden glow across the verdant Kentucky landscape; the land of his mother’s birth and his brother’s pain. It had not been easy for Alec to return. He knew he had done it for him. And that was why, even though it had meant leaving Aileen for a time, he had agreed to accompany him—first to Virginia to meet with their Uncle, and then to the land he still referred to as ‘Ken-tah-ten’. Their chosen path to Boonesborough had led them near the Cherokee village where Alec had spent the better part of the years between twenty and thirty, but he had refused to seek them out, saying the pain was still too fresh—even though the final blow had been struck some four years before.
Finlay sighed. Then he reached into his waistcoat and drew out the blood-spattered locket that held Aileen’s portrait. He clenched it in his fingers and tried to imagine what it would be like to have her taken from him, and then to find her dead. He found he couldn’t. A moment later he returned the soft gold metal to its haven beneath his fine linen shirt and then he pressed off of the tree and rose shakily to his feet.
Rebecca and her bonny lad meant just as much to Daniel Boone as Aileen did to him—as Spicewood had once upon a time to his brother—and they had been his responsibility.
Whether or not it killed him, he intended to find them, and to bring them back to their home alive.
Israel glanced over his shoulder again. He couldn’t believe Cincinnatus or some of the other men from the settlement hadn’t caught up to him yet. He wasn’t moving very fast. Still, the woods of Kentuck were broad and wide, and his Pa had told him a man could get so lost in them without even trying that he’d have a beard below his toes by the time he puzzled his way back out. Sure that they would stop him if they found him, he had been careful to mask his tracks, walking on stones and splashing through gullies filled with rainwater whenever possible. The only thing that bothered him was that the man he was tracking didn’t seem to care. So far he had been able to follow the young Scot’s trail without trying too hard; he’d left broken branches and footprints in his wake, and an occasional smear of black blood on a rock or tree where he had rested.
It seemed Finlay’s Pa hadn’t trained him very well.
Israel left the path he walked and followed the signs to the stream. Once there, he laid his Pa’s rifle down and knelt to draw some water from it, splashing some on his skin. Turning back, he noticed the bright red stain on the trunk of the old willow that overlooked it and knew, even before he touched or smelled it, that this time it was fresh. Finlay had been there; probably within the last half hour or so. And he was bleeding again. From what Cincinnatus had said back in the cabin, that wasn’t good. The boy hesitated, staring at the thick liquid on his fingers. He closed his eyes as a chill ran the length of his spine and froze him to the spot. He could see Mingo coming out of the cave again, carrying a body. But instead of Charlie Jacobs, it was Finlay who was cold and still, and bound up tight in a blanket.
Israel blinked back tears. As much as he wanted to drop to the ground and curl into a ball like a fat old cat, he wasn’t going to. He was going to go on.
Returning his Pa’s rifle to his shoulder, he began to move forward again, unmindful of the light-footed shadow that paced him, watching his every move.
Arrowkeeper ducked as he entered the lodge in the company of half a dozen painted warriors. Leaving them quickly behind, his long legs carried him forward until he stood beside Mingo. Kamassa had returned to the dais and waited at its center, forcing the two of them to look up at him. Policha occupied the position of his lieutenant, standing slightly behind and to one side. As he adjusted the wire-rimmed glasses on his nose, his lips curled in a triumphant smile the boy could not see.
Arrowkeeper met those eyes and snarled. He glanced at his Cherokee friend and then took a step towards his adopted son. “Kamassa....” he began.
“You will remain where you are.” The boy tried valiantly to keep his voice even, but it shook in spite of his best efforts. “And you will not speak until you are spoken to.”
“No.” The tall Creek took another step towards him. “I will not be reined in like a horse. I will speak my mind— ”
“You will be quiet,” Kamassa’s voice grew in power as he lifted a hand and pointed one of its long fingers at Mingo. “Or he dies. Here and now.”
Arrowkeeper turned as the fierce warriors behind them brandished their knives and spears. Then he closed his dark eyes and clenched his fists. The boy’s words had stabbed him in a way their weapons never could. He shuddered—not so much at the prospect of his friend’s death and his own— but at the thought of what these men had done to one so young. He opened his eyes and faced the boy again, inclining his head. “I will be quiet.”
The boy’s eyes narrowed and he smiled. “Policha tells me you are with us now. Is this true?”
The Creek’s jaw tightened. “I have come to be with you,” he answered as he avoided
“Now! Now you come! Before, I did not matter. Before, he was all that mattered.”
Mingo frowned as the boy pointed at him as he haltingly descended the stairs. When he stopped, anger was written into every muscle of his slender frame. “When I was called, you were not there.” Kamassa struck his chest with his fist again. “You do not believe I was chosen. You do not believe in my visions— ”
“I believe in you!” The tall Creek shouted. “I do not believe in him!” He pointed at the one called Preacher who stood silently by, watching and weighing every word. “I do not want his voice to be yours.”
“Policha believes in me.” The boy bit off the words. He was shaking now and no longer languid, but animated and on fire. “He knows what I am to be. That I am to be great. Powerful— ”
Arrowkeeper sighed. He reached out toward the one he had known as a son. “You will be what he wants you to be. Nothing more. Kamassa, you are being used....”
The boy laughed. He held his hand up before his face and clenched it. “I will not be used. I will use....” His face hardened as he raised a fist to the sky. “I will be strong as my father was strong.” He turned his young face towards Mingo. “It has been ordained.”
Mingo watched him and then his eyes flicked to Policha. “I hear your words, James. Have you told the boy he will be the savior of his people?”
Kamassa made a sudden gesture and one of the warriors stepped up to strike the Cherokee in the back of the knees. As he fell to the ground, the boy completed his descent to stand over him. “Do not mock me, Uncle. One word. Only one. And you die. I hold your life here. In my hand.” His black eyes narrowed as he leaned forward. “You cannot know how much I desire to end it.”
“Oh, I think I do.” Mingo’s dark eyes went to Policha. “I know you have told the boy of his father’s end, but what have you told him of his own beginning? Does he know the truth? And if not,” he lifted his head to meet Kamassa’s tormented eyes, “what excuse does your belief make for that lie?”
“My father, my real father was a great warrior like his father before him. My real mother was of the Tyger clan. The night my father left his mother’s people, the Master of Breath claimed him; a star shot across the heavens in thanksgiving.” The boy’s voice broke as he turned on Arrowkeeper. “I, his son, was born for great things. Without Policha, I would never have known. You lied to me. You did not tell me. You told me my father was Black Beetle, your sister’s husband. Even when he and she who raised me were dead, still you lied! You walk in lies, and breathe and eat them!” The boy drew his hand back and struck the tall man so hard the sound of it echoed through the lodge. He choked back tears as Arrowkeeper reached out towards him again.
“Sometimes, Kamassa,” the older man said slowly, “the truth is more painful than the lie.”
“Take him away! Take them both away! I will not hear any more!” The boy careened away and as he did, he put his full weight on his twisted leg and cried out in pain.
“Obey him!” Policha shouted as he caught him. “Take them to the holding place and bind them well.” As his orders were carried out, he lowered the young man to the dais and wrapped his arms protectively about his narrow shoulders. He stared over the dark head at the two men being dragged out the lodge door. A moment later his fingers found the boy’s silky hair. Petting it, he whispered soothingly, “You will not have to hear any more of their poison, I promise. This day, as we prepare for battle, they will die.”
Kamassa drew a deep breath that ended in a sob. His black eyes sought the opening through which his adopted father and his uncle had gone. His fingers curled in the soft fabric of James Harper’s linen shirt and then he turned his face into the darkness and cried.
“Sometimes the truth is more painful than the lie?”
Mingo gritted his teeth as he shifted and tried to ease the tension on his arms. He and Arrowkeeper had been placed in the middle of a small hide-covered lean-to at the edge of the encampment, back to back, and were bound firmly to one another and to one of its center poles. Leather thongs encircled their chests, their hands, arms, and throats. Outside the temporary structure, the torches had been gutted, the sun was rising on a new day, and men danced and chanted, preparing for war.
Arrowkeeper rested his head on the pole. “You could not understand.”
“I could not understand what? That you couldn’t bring yourself to tell the boy about the monster that was his father, and how he rejected him and tried to kill him? That Kamassa then rejected you when he found out you hadn’t told him what he now believes to be the truth—that Tara was some sort of a ‘John, the Baptist’ preparing the way for the coming of the Creek messiah? That you felt you had to join them to be with him, to protect him from them—and from himself?” He paused and strained with all his might against the bindings. “Oh, I understand that well enough. What I don’t understand is why I am here. Surely not to save my life.... Or were you really foolish enough to think they would not have turned the boy against me? Or that you could stop him from seeking revenge for his father’s death?” Mingo drew a breath and his voice fell. “And rightly so.”
Arrowkeeper was not listening. “My thought was to protect you. You are stubborn. Willful. Like Star.”
Mingo’s dark brows lifted towards his bangs. “Why, thank you....”
“You know you are. You would not have listened. You would not have left if I had warned you. You would have tried to stop them from harming Boone and the other whites, and you would have died. I thought that if you were here with me, I would be able to keep you from harm.” He laughed bitterly and then fell silent for a moment. “I was a fool. I did not know how much Policha’s power over Kamassa had grown, nor did I believe they would tell him as much of the truth as they have. So many words about his father should have brought questions they would not want to answer.” He paused to draw a breath. When he spoke again, his voice was wistful. “And I had also hoped....”
The tall Creek turned towards his friend, ignoring the leather thong that cut into his throat. “I had hoped that seeing you, that knowing someone of his blood was alive, might create some connection; draw him away from them.” He paused. “I did not know of these visions of his father, nor of how these men would twist their meaning to their own ends.”
“So you guessed that as well? When he mentioned Daniel by name, I knew. I wonder who told them.... One of those Creek renegades who traveled with my brother would be my guess. Still, Daniel and I buried them.” He tugged at the leather again and felt it give. “Though I suppose we could have misplaced one....”
Arrowkeeper’s tone was disapproving. “You laugh at a time like this?”
Mingo leaned his head back. “If I do not laugh, I may start crying. And that would not help us to escape, now would it?”
“Escape? Are you mad like a rabid wolf? Do you not hear them? Hundreds of men and more are here. Women as well. Many have brought their wives and daughters to cook and clean and hunt as they dance and seek signs in preparation for battle.” He tossed his head. “They are all about us, outside this tent. In the fields and the trees.... Can you not hear? Do you not see?”
“I see, my friend, that you are defeated before the battle has even begun.” Mingo wiggled his fingers and pulled his hands apart. “Is it not easier to hide among several hundred than in an empty room? Besides, they are caught up in what they are doing and seem to be paying us little mind. ...Arrowkeeper?”
The Creek’s voice was tired. “Yes?”
“Pull at your restraints. I believe I am working mine free.”
The tall man sat up. He tugged at the leather thongs. “They are tight.”
“Yes, but they are pliable. Work them, the leather is weak and seems to stretch.” As the other man began to comply, the thong on his neck tightened uncomfortably. “But carefully.”
Arrowkeeper grunted and continued to move his hands from side to side.
Mingo was silent for a moment, then he asked quietly, “Did you know they were drugging the boy?”
The other man stiffened. “What?”
He nodded and grimaced as the neck strap continued to pinch his skin. “I could see it in his eyes. But then, I noticed, as he grew angry it seemed to lose its potency. He became quite lucid and felt the pain in his leg more.”
“So it is good he grew angry?” Arrowkeeper asked with a wry smile.
“The boy has managed to raise the art of self-pity to a new height.” Mingo laughed but sobered instantly. “He did remind me of my brother then.”
“He is not like your brother,” the other man countered. “He has a gentle soul.”
“Buried beneath layers of flesh that are hardening even as we watch.”
The tall Creek fell silent and stopped moving.
Mingo waited a moment. “Arrowkeeper?”
“They said they would kill you.”
“Yes. I am sure they will. Policha knows I will not keep quiet. I will tell Kamassa the truth. They will have to kill me to silence me.”
“I have wronged you. I have dishonored my promise to Star. I have put you in danger when I meant to save you from it.”
Mingo sighed. “Yes, you have, but now is not the time for self-examination or recrimination. If I know Daniel—and I do know Daniel—he is following after us. You can honor your debt to me by helping me save him and Boonesborough.”
Arrowkeeper remained still.
Mingo tried to turn his head and regretted it. “What? What is it?”
“Tastanagi.” The other man spoke the name as if it were a curse.
“Big Warrior? Is he here? I know you said he was the chief of these men in Kentucky, but I have seen no one so far but Policha.” He frowned. “I find it hard to believe Tastanagi would give such authority to one who has so much white blood in his veins.”
“He has not. He awaits the arrival of the one from the south who does. Together, the three of them stand at the red heart of this all.”
“You mean the plot against Daniel? And the taking of Israel? That was deliberate then, and not just wanton savagery?”
“It was deliberate. I argued against it and thought they had listened. When I came here.... When I saw him with my brothers of the Bear clan, I began to know I had been deceived....” He drew a deep breath. “Mrs. Boone is in danger as well.”
“Rebecca? Dear God....”
Arrowkeeper shifted uncomfortably. “They know what is important to a man, and what can be used to make him do as they will. If Boone’s family is in their control....”
“Daniel is in their control.” Mingo paused. “You said they mean to kill him....”
“Yes. For all to see.”
“And you knew this before you came here?”
“Yes. It was the council’s decision that the men of my village join them. They would not listen to me.”
“And you meant to prevent me from stopping it?” His voice had risen.
“To save you from yourself. Yes.”
Mingo closed his eyes and leaned his head back. “Did you learn nothing from Star’s death? Do you not know that life is not all? If Daniel were to die because of me....”
“How is that different, my brother, than if you were to die because of me?”
For a moment the Cherokee was without words. Then he cleared his throat. “Well, we will just have to find a way to make certain no one dies....”
“Including your brother’s son?”
“Kamassa? How is he in danger?”
Arrowkeeper pulled against the leather that bound his hands again and growled in frustration. “You remember Hukstalgi?”
“Yes. Your former chief. You and I met with him during the affair with John Gerard. He had just lost his adopted son, John’s half-brother. He was dying if I remember....”
“He was an old man. One of the few who knew the truth of Kamassa’s parentage, and knew as well that he still lived, and where.”
“And why is that? He wasn’t—”
“Family. Ilhicha Kano’s father. The boy’s grandfather.”
“You said she was of ‘royal’ blood.”
“Yes. It broke the old man’s heart the night the boy was taken away, but so long as
your brother lived, the child could not return. Once word came to him that Tara-Mingo was truly dead, he wanted him brought home. He sent one of his trusted warriors to my village to seek him out.”
Mingo didn’t miss the emphasis on the word ‘trusted’, nor the sarcasm that colored the tall Creek’s tone. “Not...”
“Tastanagi. Who, along with Policha, used the memory of the promise of greatness your brother held—the star that coursed across the sky the night he joined the Creek and his seeming ‘rebirth’ after dying on the river bank at his brother’s hand— and knowledge of the boy’s visions to convince others that Kamassa was sent from the Master of Breath to free his people. They, and another called McInnery, were only waiting for a sign.”
“So even my brother’s demise has worked for evil.” Mingo sighed. “But you still have not told me how the boy is in danger.”
Arrowkeeper drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “When I confronted them—after Policha had taken Kamassa and left our village—Tastanagi warned me.”
“If they do not succeed, they will blame the boy.” His muscles tensed and he pulled his hands apart sharply, stifling a moan. Mingo heard the leather snap. “They will take the Red Hearts and they will turn them against him, and they will tear him apart.”
Israel stumbled and fell, dropping his Pa’s weapon. He sat in the dirt and wiped the sweat from his eyes and sighed. The day was hot and humid as only late autumn could be. The sun was sinking in the west and still there was no pursuit from Boonesborough. And while that didn’t exactly make him unhappy, he wondered now if the men had run into trouble. Even though he hadn’t seen them, he had heard Indians moving through the trees and had had to lay low a couple of times. He hoped Finlay had done the same. Since the young Scot was not being careful, he was afraid for him; afraid the redskins would catch him and kill him like they had Charlie.
He remained seated where he was for some time, listening to the sounds of the woods. Then he opened his haversack and pulled out a bit of the bread his ma had baked and began to chew on it. He hadn’t let himself think about his home for a while because thinking of his ma made him want to cry, and for some reason, when he thought about his pa, he got angry. Thinking about Mingo and Arrowkeeper made him angry too. He was scared for them, but he was mad that they had gone off by themselves in the first place, and even madder at his pa for following them and leaving him and his ma all alone. Then he stopped himself. He hadn’t left them alone. He had left Finlay.
And nearly gotten him killed as well.
The little boy closed the sack and stood. He picked up the rifle and started to move forward again, but halted when he heard voices close by. Dropping to his knees, he crawled into the thick underbrush and headed for the trunk of an old hollowed-out tree he had spied just ahead. As he crawled forward, something lying in the tall grass blocked his way. He reached out to move it and unexpectedly touched warm flesh. Rearing back, he started to yell, only to be stopped cold when someone clamped a hand over his mouth. He struggled wildly for a second, but then his eyes fell on the still form amidst the brown weeds and he quieted as he realized it was Finlay. The Scotsman had either fallen or been knocked down by a blow to the head because his temple was bleeding and he was unconscious. Israel squirmed again as a soft voice whispered, “Nochobaachi. Aa ankochoolo inkankochi.”
A chill ran through him. It was an Indian. He nodded, even though he didn’t know what they were saying. A moment later the hand released him. As it did, he screwed up his courage and scooted away. Then he turned around and looked. “Criminetly,” he exclaimed, “you’re a girl!”
The young Indian woman put a finger to her lips. “Nokchooba!” Her brown eyes narrowed as she tilted her head toward the stream. “Atinloska.”
She frowned as if her head hurt and touched the side of it with her long fingers. Then she pointed to the silent man. A moment later she gestured to Israel. She wanted him to come and sit by her again. As he continued to stare at her, puzzled by her behavior, a sharp report sounded, like rifle-fire, and smoke appeared above the bushes. Jumping into her arms, he hugged her tight as she whispered unexpectedly in English, “Devils.”
Israel watched as several men appeared, rushing between the trees, their long firearms held before them. They were dressed like the ones who had taken him and Charlie. His pa had called them Muskogees, like they were something special. They moved through the forest with stealth and little sound, and then they were gone. Israel felt the young woman who held him sigh as she let him go. Curious, he turned around so he could get a better look at her, thinking she might be one of the women from Mingo’s village. She smiled at him, but turned away quickly so only her profile remained outlined against the dark green bushes. She was very pretty, with a wide heart-shaped face and deep brown eyes. Her slender throat was circled with silver; at least three necklaces lay against her deep copper skin including a Christian crucifix. Her ears were pierced and in them she wore metal hoops tied off with leather and decorated with feathers. The skirt her narrow hands rested on was woven of red and yellow ribbons of dyed leather and fringed with small turkey feathers like he had seen before, but the blouse she wore might have been his ma’s. It was white and had lace at the throat and cuffs. Her hair was twisted and pulled over to one side where it was piled high and fastened on her head with a beaded comb. He started to ask her something, but she shook her head. “Nochobaachi.”
He guessed that meant she wanted him to keep quiet.
The young woman stared at him for a moment and then shifted onto her knees so she could reach Finlay. She touched his bloody temple and then gently rolled him over onto his back. For a moment she sat very still, and then she laid her hand alongside his cheek and simply stared.
“Uyahi?” she said, her voice suddenly changing inflection. Then she whispered, Beloved?”
The woman did not move.
Israel crawled forward and leaned over the young Scot so he could see her eyes. “Ma’am, can you help us? Finlay’s hurt awful bad. We sure could use your help. Ma’am?” He touched her and was surprised when she jumped to her feet like a startled deer. He frowned and reached towards her again. “Do you need help?”
She touched the tips of his fingers. “Aya gasohi natlagu,” she whispered, her tongue working around the words as if they were foreign. Then she laid her hand on his white hair briefly. A moment later she stepped through the bushes and disappeared. Israel rose to his feet. He was going to follow her, but as he watched she joined three other similarly dressed Indian women who were coming from the stream leading horses whose backs were laden with baskets full of fish.
Israel sighed and dropped to the ground beside the injured man. He placed his head in his hands. “Eye gas-high knot-log-you...? I sure hope that means she’ll be back.”
Mingo nodded to Arrowkeeper as the tall man ducked under the hide wall and followed him into the waning sunlight. In silence and with stealth they moved from the shadows of one structure to the next until they crouched behind the back of the great lodge where they had left Kamassa and Policha. All about them red and black-faced warriors continued to whirl and to dance, howling like mad creatures. Medicine men from the various tribes in their horned hats and feathered robes, carrying rattles and power sticks, moved from circle to circle, chanting and blessing each of them as dozens of women laughed and sang, working joyfully, preparing their husbands, their brothers and their fathers for the war that would free them; the war that would make the land theirs once again.
The war that would bring either Daniel’s death or his nephew’s. And most likely their own.
“They can’t help but miss us soon. We must get back to Boonesborough and hope that Daniel does the same, or that we meet him on the road. I am afraid it will take more than settlers and long rifles to stop this.” He drew a breath. “We are going to need the militia, and that will take time....”
“You go. I cannot.”
He turned and stared at the imposing Creek. “I need you to come. You know what these men are about. You know their plans....”
Arrowkeeper closed his eyes and leaned his head against the rough wall of the lodge. “I cannot. I cannot leave Kamassa. I cannot let you go and I cannot stop you; not and remain your brother.” He placed his hands over his face. “I am lost. I do not know what to do.”
Mingo caught his arm. “For now the boy is safe. They need him. They will not harm him. We need to warn Daniel....”
The tall Creek remained still. “They need him, but every moment he is with them is another moment that stirs his hate, that makes his heart red. What if, by the time I find him again, there is no more white in him?”
Mingo knew his friend was in torment. If he didn’t do something, the tall Creek was liable to simply give up. He drew a breath and squeezed his firm flesh. “Must I call the debt you owe me?
Arrowkeeper’s eyes flew open. In them there was something close to gratitude. He nodded again. “If you would have me go; if you would go, you must.”
“Then I call it—on one condition.” His dark brown eyes met the other man’s. “When this is over.... When Daniel and his family are safe, and Kamassa is safe, the debt has been discharged. You will owe me no more. It will be the end of my brother’s evil.”
The tall Creek stared at him a moment and then he held out his hand. As Mingo took it, catching him at the elbow, he inclined his head toward the trees. “This way— ”
A sudden clamor stopped them as every voice in the war camp was abruptly raised in unison. The sound of triumph and fulfilled expectation was blood-curdling. Mingo edged back to the end of the structure and peered about it, wondering if it was the call to arms. Then he froze.
“Dear God,” he whispered.
Arrowkeeper shifted so he stood by his side. He followed his friend’s gaze and saw Kamassa standing before the lodge. Policha was with him, and Tastanagi. The trio faced another elegantly dressed man who stood cloaked in arrogance before a company of fine black horses. Upon the back of one of the horses was a slender disheveled red-headed woman.
Mingo closed his eyes.
Continued in Seven -