were brothers in every sense except one—ambition. TaraMingo lived only to
be a great warrior and a great chief. To him, honor was a word, and loyalty no more than ashes in a dead fire. He bribed, he cheated, he killed—and finally, he was exiled from Cherokee fires.”
Was Only For Bleeding
The Creek’s black-brown eyes narrowed to slits and he sighed. Something was not right. And if he had been honest with himself, he had known it all along.
Arrowkeeper ran his hands over his face and leaned back. He was crouching, concealed, at the edge of the temporary camp they had erected nearly a week before, observing the comings and goings of the men he had chosen to walk with. Tara-Mingo was not there—he waited at the appointed place for Copperhead’s woman to be delivered to him—but James Harper was. He stood just without one of the mud and branch lodges. The aathollo or male witch, Sharpknife, had just entered the same building, followed by two warriors dragging an injured man.
Who it was he could not tell.
Still, one thing he could tell was that the man had not been white. By his coloring he was a native and most likely Cherokee, since his long hair reflected back the sun’s rays with a coppery-brown sheen rather than a blue-black one. Arrowkeeper shifted and glanced behind, making certain the Creek warriors he had left in charge of the haatka tayki, or white woman, were not mistreating her. As he stared at her a vision rose unbidden before his eyes—that of his own wife, Oe Kiwa, in the door of her father’s lodge; her large brown eyes filled with the horror of a world gone mad. As quickly as he could, but with less than his usual practiced ease, he replaced it with the image of her scorched corpse and their children’s bleached bones.
This woman’s people had killed them, he reminded himself; white people.
Arrowkeeper shook himself and turned back to the compound in time to see Sharpknife emerge from the lodge. The painted warrior and Harper conferred for a moment and then turned to greet another man who was rounding the side of the temporary shelter. When he saw who it was, his heart lurched. It was not a Creek, nor even a Shawnee or Wyandot, but a white man in a red coat much like the one the Cherokee Copperhead wore. The sun struck the fringed epaulet on his shoulder and the golden gorget around his neck, and glinted off the handle of his military sword. He was of medium height and close in age to Menewa, War Chief of the Cherokee. He would have guessed his years at somewhere between forty and fifty, though his hair was still as black as the moonless sky, and his form, fit and trim like that of a younger man.
Arrowkeeper turned and signaled the closest of the two men who accompanied him. Upon his arrival he whispered in his ear, explaining he was going to move in closer and that he was to keep the woman hidden and unharmed. The warrior nodded once and moved to do his will. It had not been Nighthawk who had challenged him before, but Tara’s follower, Waso. Kitini, or Nighthawk, was his man, and he knew he could trust him to do as he asked.
As the warrior disappeared into the trees, he crawled closer to the edge of the camp. Once there he stared at the metizo, Harper, wondering once again at Tara-Mingo’s growing dependence on him. When he had challenged him about it earlier, Cara’s half-Creek brother had said that his presence was a necessary evil; that to conquer someone, you had to know them—and know them well. Still, from the day James Harper had joined them he had found himself on the outside, sent farther and farther away; kept occupied directing raids, foraging for food, and collecting information on the disbursement of the British troops in the neighboring colonies. Tara told him it was because he was trusted. Now he began to wonder if there had not been another reason. And if after all, as the white woman had said, he was not a fool.
From his safe haven of shadows and rain-soaked leaves, he watched the muscular Sharpknife pluck something from the ground and then return to Harper’s side. As the slender sandy-haired man held his hand out, the rising wind shifted and carried his words to him.
“...as I promised.”
The officer snatched the object from his fingers and glared at it. Then he folded it and placed it under his arm as his gaze went to the rough lodge. “Is he alive?”
Harper nodded. “Yes.”
The man paused a second. “Pity. Still, I will deal with him later. Where is my daughter?”
“Being escorted here by one of our trusted allies, who has instructions to seek me out before entering the talofa. She is then to be taken to the meeting place where Tara waits.” He paused. “It seems your hands are empty, Foxwell, as are your men’s.” Harper inclined his head in the direction of the building. More soldiers waited behind it. “You will not have her—or him—until you fulfill your end of the bargain.”
“I will not fail. Have no doubt of that.” The man held himself erect. His manner was both aristocratic and arrogant; his accent English. “A simple village of Cherokee will be no match for the best and the brightest of the British Empire.”
Arrowkeeper’s heart was pounding. His fingers gripped the sodden branches before him. What was this?
“Then I suggest, Colonel Foxwell,” the slender man spoke softly, barely disguising the contempt he felt, “that since you have had your day’s ‘entertainment’, you might get to it.”
“Watch your tone, Harper.”
“Or what?” James shifted his wire-rim glasses and gazed over them. “You haven’t the Cherokee. You haven’t your daughter yet. And you haven’t the man who is about to betray your fine upstanding empire. You take him, and bring him to us—and we will allow you to take the Cherokee and your daughter, and do with them as you will.”
“You say you care so much for your red brethren,” Foxwell snorted, “and yet you care little how many of them die to advance your cause.”
“ ‘In their streets they shall gird themselves with sackcloth; on the tops of their houses, and in their streets, every one shall howl, weeping abundantly.’ ” James Harper shrugged and shoved his glasses back with a thin finger. “It has happened before. It will happen again.” His thin lips quirked. “There is no such thing as an innocent.”
Colonel William Foxwell of His Majesty’s Royal Army stared at the thin man before him. “You’re a mad bastard, Harper.”
James laughed. “Ah. Well, yes.... No prophet is accepted in his own country.”
“So now you are calling yourself a prophet?” Foxwell snorted as he pulled his gloves on and adjusted his waist-belt. “If you are a prophet, it is only to prophesy the world you intend to create—you and your...” his eyes went to Sharpknife who stood brooding nearby, “...aboriginal friends.”
“Are we so different, then, Colonel? If the world we intend to create is to become a part of your empire?”
The Englishman placed his hat on his head and nodded once. “When this is over, Harper.... When the Cherokee are once again firmly on the side of the British and this traitor is done away with, what is it you expect? What do you think you will gain? Power? Approval?”
“We want only what I have explained, to build our own sovereign nation—allied with the British Empire—comprised of all of the lands south and west of the Ohio. And we will have it, or the lack of it will be written in the blood of white men like you.”
“Like me? What about you, Harper?” Foxwell sneered. “What about half-breeds like you? You are white as well.”
James Harper sighed. It was not something he needed to be reminded of. He was forced to confront his tainted blood every time he looked in a mirror, or paused beside a placid lake. Like windows on a soul already condemned to perdition, his hazel eyes reflected the burning fire within.
“There will be no more half-breeds,” he whispered. “It will not be allowed.”
Colonel Foxwell nodded once. “On that, we agree.”
The British officer pivoted sharply, and as he did, Arrowkeeper hugged the shadows cast by the rustling leaves. The path from the talofa would lead Foxwell directly by his hiding place. As he waited, his rich brown fingers went to his temples and he pressed hard. Not only was Harper in league with this white man, but Sharpknife as well. And that meant they had Tara-Mingo’s approval. Perhaps the trio meant to use the man, and then to turn on him when the time was right. But if this was their purpose, why say nothing to him?
Why keep him in the dark?
Sharp footsteps brought his head up. Not one, but a dozen or more smartly uniformed British soldiers were moving in formation past him. Foxwell brought up the rear. He and another officer had mounted light grey horses and were trailing behind. The Englishman was staring at the object James Harper had handed him. As his mount paused to strike the ground with its dark hooves and whinny, Arrowkeeper dared to part the green leaves before him and take a better look.
What he saw caused his stomach to sicken. It was as he thought; the tattered garment belonged to the Cherokee, Copperhead. He recognized the antiquated cut of the coat and the frayed golden braid on the cuffs and collar. Glancing back towards the talofa, he realized his had been the body he had seen dragged into the lodge. Harper had said he was alive; that meant he was a prisoner. But why? And who was this other Cherokee, the one the metizo spoke of who intended to betray the alliance their tribe had with the British? Was this true or merely a figment of James Harper’s diseased mind?
Or was it part of a scheme of which he had no knowledge?
Torn, he rose to his feet and watched the grey horse as it disappeared into the trees. Cara. Alec. Star. All who had befriended him—the inhabitants of Chota who had graciously accepted him even though he was not of their tribe, when in fact his people were most often to be counted among their enemies—were in danger. It had never been his intention to harm his red brothers; only the white men whose insatiable lust for land and power had taken his home and his family, and threatened to destroy his way of life. He lingered in the shadows and looked one last time at the Creek camp. The half-breed, Harper, was crouching in the mud, running his finger through it as if leaving a message for a generation yet to come.
Arrowkeeper shook his head and then plunged into the trees, heading for his men and the white woman. He would escort her out of the woods and then send her with Nighthawk to the fort over the river where she would be with her own. Then he would return and confront Harper. Even if he had wanted to, it was too late to warn the Cherokee village.
It was doomed.
Star laid his hand on the arm of the young man’s hunting shirt to get his attention. Then he shook his dark head and pointed. Alec frowned. He raised his hand and shaded his eyes, squinting against the dappled sunlight that struck the wet leaves and grass and made them glint like a pile of gold in a king’s counting house. A strong wind carrying the promise of a storm caught the brown feathers in his hair and lifted them. His deft fingers captured them before they could take flight.
“Whot? Whot is it?”
“Take a moment. You will know.”
The Scot’s puzzled look intensified. There were shadows within shadows before them, but he saw nothing out of the ordinary. “Nae. ‘Tis nae a thin’.”
“Do not use your eyes, Alexander. Remember what you have learned. You must trust your ears and your other senses.” Star smiled in spite of the danger. “If you cannot see, you can feel...and hear.”
The young man held very still. He closed his deep brown eyes and hearkened to the voice of the woods; to the rush of the river nearby, the soft fall of rain on a million leaves, and the sigh of its kindred wind. And then he heard what his wife’s father had without even trying; a voice. Two voices.
One was a woman’s.
His deep brown eyes popped open and he grinned. “Aye. I hear them. Tae th’ left,
near th’ stream.”
Star nodded. “Yes.”
Alec turned to look at the Cherokee. His smile faded. Suddenly Star seemed old;
almost defeated. He laid his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Whot is it, mon?”
His friend shook his head as he rose to his feet. “Do you not recognize
Alec stood as well. He listened intently for a moment and then sighed. “Is
“What do you mean, you want me to go alone with this man? Why? I thought you were taking me to this talofa of yours. Now you are sending me over the Ohio alone? With him?” She turned and stared at the painted warrior called Nighthawk. “No. I won’t go.”
“It is not up to you. You will do as I say.”
“I will not.” Miriam was trembling. So far she had managed to keep up a brave front, but her courage was fast dissolving into terror. “Please,” she whispered as she came to stand before him and gazed up at him, her great blue eyes wide with fear and with tears, “please just let me go. Let me go back to the village. I will never make it to the fort. I will die without my husband and my child.” She drew a breath and touched his arm. “Please, Arrowkeeper, if you were ever any kind of a friend. Let me go.”
The tall Creek stared down at her and, for just a moment, did not see a white face, but only a woman, and a wife and mother. Then he shook his head. “Even if I could. It would not be safe.”
Miriam was on the alert immediately. “Why? Is it happening? Now?” Suddenly she was desperate. “Oh God, I sent Cherry back there. And Adohi.” She turned in a blind panic, meaning to run. He caught her by the wrist and held her back. “No!” she screamed as she clawed at his strong fingers, “let me go! My child— ”
“He is safe, Kamama.”
The woman’s blonde head came up just as the warriors who accompanied them pivoted and cocked the hammers on their shining flintlocks. She twisted and watched as two figures emerged from the forest. Then, as the elder of the pair stepped into the golden light which accompanied the fine mist that continued to fall from the heavens, she felt her knees buckle. Before she could strike the ground, a pair of strong coppery arms caught her. She looked up into Star’s black eyes and whispered, “My son...?”
“Hidden. Safe.” He gently sat her on the ground and then turned to meet Arrowkeeper’s eyes. “As you will soon be.”
The imposing Creek crossed his arms. One black eyebrow arced as he cocked his head. “Old man, what do you want?”
Star signaled Alexander to come to his side. Arrowkeeper’s men moved to block the young Scot’s way, but at a word from their leader, they stepped aside and let him pass. As the trio watched, Miriam took his hand and rose to her feet. Then, leaning into his strength, she followed him to a dry spot under a great bent willow.
Star watched them go, and then turned to the man he had once called ‘friend’. “What do I want?” He shook his head. “That is not the question.”
“Then what is?”
He held the Creek’s gaze. “What do you want?”
Arrowkeeper scoffed. “You know what I want.”
“No. Not anymore. Once I thought I knew.” Star remained motionless. “But the man I traveled with, the man whose heart longed for justice; that man may well be dead. You must tell me.”
The tall native sighed. His black-brown eyes closed and then opened again on a pain that would not go away. “I want the white man to leave this land.”
“No,” Star countered. “That is not what you want.”
Arrowkeeper laughed and shook his head. His hands spread wide. “First you say you do not know, and now you say....”
“I do not.” The older man’s dark eyes remained locked on his face. “But you do. Within you is the truth. Not the ‘truth’ of others, nor the ‘truth’ with which you have blinded yourself; but the truth. What do you want?”
“I want....” The big man brought his fist up in front of the Cherokee’s face and opened his mouth to speak, and then he realized the words were not his own. They were the words the brother of Cara-Mingo had whispered in his ear ever since that first meeting; words meant to stoke the fire in his heart and feed the bitterness in his soul. “I...want....”
Star took a step towards him, heedless of the warriors who had their rifles trained on his back, and laid a hand on his arm. “Arrowkeeper, what do you want....?”
“War? Killing? Men broken and defeated and their dwellings burned?
Women without husbands?” The Cherokee turned towards Miriam and Alexander, drawing the Creek’s attention there. The Scot was kneeling, holding her as she sobbed. “Children parentless? Alone?” Star’s strong-boned face might have been carved of stone. “Bleached bones on the dead grass for a father to bury?”
The tall native’s body shuddered. “I will not listen....”
“You will.” Star drew a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “How is what you are doing to this woman any different from what the white man did to you?”
“It is not the same....”
“It is.” The older man’s voice was quiet; his words pitched for one man’s ears alone. “It is the same. You are the same. Arrowkeeper, you have become what you hate.” He shook his head and sighed. “It is not the color of a man’s skin that matters, but the color of his heart. Yours has become red. Red like this white woman’s blood. Like her husband’s and her son’s.” Star paused. “No different from your wife’s blood or your children’s that watered Mother Earth, as do this woman’s tears.”
The tall Creek had become very still. He was aware of his men watching and waiting close behind him. They could not hear the Cherokee’s words, but knew something of import had passed between them. He glanced at Nighthawk who met his eyes and nodded. Whatever choice he made, the young warrior was with him.
Star touched the Creek’s tattooed chest above his heart, drawing his attention there. “What is it you want, here?” He finished as his hand went to the other man’s forehead, “And not here.”
A single tear trailed down Arrowkeeper’s high-boned cheek.
The big man held his breath. He shook his head, unable to answer.
“What?” Star demanded, his voice rising for the first time. “Tell me.”
The Creek stifled a sob. He answered with one word. “Peace.”
“And you seek it in the heart of war? You seek to bury your pain in the pain of others?” The Cherokee backed away. “To fight death with death?”
“I am shamed.” Arrowkeeper lowered his head. A moment later he fell to his knees and hid his face in his hands. “I am lost.”
As Star knelt beside him, the man who belonged to Tara-Mingo shifted nervously and gazed at his companion. Nighthawk’s black eyebrows rose as he turned his rifle away from the pair and pointed it at him. With his other hand he drew a coil of rope from his bandoleer. Alexander, who had been comforting Miriam, noted his actions and wondered what they meant. He kept his arms about her and waited as the drama—more poignant than any the Bard had ever penned—played out.
The older man spoke softly. “There is still time to find yourself.”
“No. There is not. It is too late.” Arrowkeeper looked at the two beneath the tree. “Even now her father moves on Chota. I do not know why. There are many soldiers with muskets; others on horseback.” He turned back and met the Cherokee’s eyes. Star did not seem alarmed. “Did you hear me?”
Star nodded. “No one will die. We were warned.”
The Creek frowned. He shook his head. “How?”
“A young girl, carrying her friend’s child.” The older man’s smile was rueful. “An act of kindness from a Red Heart.”
Arrowkeeper sighed. “My battle is not with women, or with children.”
“No. Your battle is with yourself.” Star’s black eyes had taken in the shift of power between the Creek warriors. As Nighthawk bound and rolled Tara-Mingo’s man, Waso, into the underbrush, he called Alexander to his side. “Take Miriam and go. Get her away from here.”
“Boot I cannae leafe ye. I ga’e Spicewood mah word....” The Scot shook his head. “I promised her I woulds see ye hom’.”
“I will follow shortly. I must talk to Arrowkeeper.” The older man rose to his feet. His voice brooked no disobedience. “You must take her to the place of shelter—where the other women are. And then you must seek out the men who wait and watch. Soldiers are coming to the village. Many soldiers.”
“God’s body,” the Scot whispered.
“I will join you there when I can. But first I must speak with...” he turned and his eyes sought the tall Creek “...my friend. Alone. ”
Arrowkeeper stared at him. His eyes were moist. “I thought the man you knew was dead.”
Star smiled and laid his hand on his shoulder. “I think, perhaps, he was only sleeping.”
Alec kept his arm about Miriam’s waist and held the woman’s fine-boned hand in his. She moved like someone in a dream. Carefully, with soft words and patience, he directed her through the tangled forest. Though the midday sun continued to pound down upon the earth, the clouds that masked it cast ominous shadows, so it seemed midnight claimed the path they walked. Several times Copperhead’s wife stumbled, and finally she fell. He caught her before she hit the ground, and then sat holding her until she cried herself to sleep.
Gently placing her on a soft bed of grass beneath an old ash tree, he took a position nearby and kept a careful watch. As he waited, his hunting knife drawn, it surprised him to find that he was trembling. Then he remembered he had stumbled out of bed and had no food since the meal he had shared with his clansmen before the wedding ceremony. Abruptly, he realized he was exhausted. Giving himself a moment’s grace, he slid down the trunk and let his head rest against the rough bark. He glanced at Miriam and laid his hand on her arm.
A moment later he was asleep.
Soon a dark shadow separated from the wild rustling leaves and the form that cast it moved forward until it eclipsed the sleeping pair. Its owner remained still for a moment, and then used the toe of one beaded moccasin to nudge the sleeping Scot. As Alexander started and jumped to his feet, the man laughed. “You are far from home, my friend.”
The Scot’s hand was shaking, but he held the knife before him. Then, as he came awake, he breathed a sigh of relief. Cornbeater had told him when he spoke to her that Cara had taken off that morning with James Harper. Apparently they had been headed this way, or he had heard of Miriam’s kidnapping and come to offer his assistance. The weary Scot felt like crying; instead he laughed. “Cara. Ye scared a full year’s growth oot ‘a me. Is James wi’ ye?”
The lean shadow shifted. “He will be here soon.”
Alec frowned. His friend’s voice was rough, and pitched lower than was the norm. “Aur ye all richt?”
“I am fine.” The tall man stepped into the dappled light and smiled his usual dazzling smile. He was dressed, as was his habit since returning to the Cherokee, in broadcloth pants and a long hunting shirt. There were no feathers decorating his hair, but he wore a silver necklace, and his now familiar whip was coiled and hung over his shoulder. He nodded toward the woman lying on the ground. “Miriam?”
“Worn oot frae worry, an’ pure exhausted.” Alec knelt beside her and laid his hand on her arm, gently shaking her. “Miriam. Can ye hear me? Miriam? We needs moost get gaun.” As the woman stirred, he rose to his feet. “Look ye, who cam’ tae find us....”
Miriam had her hand to her head which was swimming. At his word, she glanced up and recognized the brooding figure looming over him.
He watched her eyes go wide with terror. “Miriam? Whot’s wrang? ‘Tis Cara....”
“Alexander.” Her head was shaking. “That’s not Cara....”
As the words crossed her lips, it came to him. At the same instant he felt the braided lash loop about his throat. Dropping his knife, he tried to pull it away, but before he could, the leather coil went tight and he began to choke. As he started to black out a sharp edge was pressed against his back and a familiar harsh voice whispered in his ear.
A second later the knife slid between his ribs and he saw no more.
Cara had only just realized that he was not in his own clothes. Copperhead had fallen unconscious and he had risen to his feet and crossed to where the light fell through the smoke hole in the ceiling in a brilliant white beam. He had suddenly become aware of the fact that he was itching, and that could mean only one thing; he was in buckskins. He had backed into the light and stared at the unfamiliar trousers and deer-hide shirt which covered his deeply tanned flesh and then whispered a single word.
No, not a word. Not even a name. A curse.
Cara glanced at his friend’s ravaged form and began to pace. He ran his hand over his face and then pivoted sharply and drove it into the wall. “‘Angels and ministers of grace, defend us,’” he whispered before sucking his bleeding knuckles. Prince Hamlet had not known from whence his father’s ghost had come or who was his enemy, but he knew; he knew that James Harper, the Creek, Sharpknife, and his brother, Tara, were a blast from Hell. Somehow, in some way, it was their intention to destroy Chota. No, not to destroy the village, but to weaken it; to strip it of its leaders through bribes and lies and murder, so his brother could become the War Chief. Or perhaps, the chief of all. But where did Copperhead’s father-in-law fit into the equation? Why Foxwell? What could his brother want with a white Englishman—the one creature on the face of the earth he seemed to loathe the most....
He put his hands to his head. It was pounding. He had to escape; had to warn the village. But, if he did.... He pivoted. What of Copperhead? The Cherokee needed immediate attention, and beyond that, he simply couldn’t leave him. Foxwell had already done his best to break him. Killing him would be next.
As he stood in the middle of the lodge, unable to decide on a course of action, the mat that sealed the door was raised and a familiar figure appeared in the opening. He drew a breath and held it as Arrowkeeper and another lean muscular Creek ducked beneath it to enter the room. The tall man took a step towards him and then hesitated as his eyes fell on the man on the floor. As he continued forward, Cara moved to block his way.
“Don’t you think you have done enough?”
The Creek met his eyes. “If I live to be as old as the earth I walk,” he replied, his voice heavy with sorrow, “I will never be able to do enough.”
“What?” Cara snapped.
Arrowkeeper held his gaze a moment more and then knelt and lifted the semi-conscious Cherokee from the floor. As Copperhead moaned, he said quietly, “Policha is resting. We will go now.”
“But the men outside....”
The Creek who was with the tall man smiled and hefted his knife. “There are no men outside...now.”
Cara shook his head. “We can not simply just walk out of here.”
“We can.” Arrowkeeper’s tone was firm. “No one but Sharpknife or Policha would dare question me.”
“Or my brother?”
The Creek shifted his grip on the wounded man. “He is not here. He waits for this one’s wife to be delivered to him so he can use her to manipulate her father.”
“Dear God. Miriam? Is she— ”
“She is safe. With Alexander.” Arrowkeeper moved toward the open door. “And Star, by now.”
Cara nodded as Nighthawk handed him a deadly-looking knife and returned his whip. “Star? He’s here?”
“There is no time to explain. The old man and your Scottish friend came after her.”
“Who took her in the first place?” He caught the tall man’s arm and held him back. “And why? To make a bargain, you said....”
The tall Creek
sighed as he met his friend’s puzzled gaze.
“I took her. Under orders
from your brother. I was told to
bring her here, and from here she would be taken to the fort over the Ohio.”
Cara moved in front of him. “Did you know about this? About Tara taking my clothes and most likely my name, and using both for some vile scheme involving this Foxwell and his soldiers against the Cherokee?”
Arrowkeeper shook his head. “No. You may not believe me, but I did not know.” He nodded towards Copperhead. “This one’s wife told me I have been blind. She is right. And that blindness may yet cost lives.” He started to move past him. “There is no time for this now. We must go.”
“Go where?” Cara demanded.
“After them. To find your brother and to stop him.” He began to duck under the low doorway but stopped when Cara caught him once again by the arm. He turned back. “What?”
“Does my brother know you have turned against him?”
Arrowkeeper’s laugh was bitter. “How could he? When I did not know myself until I walked through this door?”
Star moved confidently through the trees after Alexander and Miriam, knowing they should be straight ahead. He and his daughter’s new husband had agreed—barring some unforeseen danger— that they would follow an ancient route left by centuries of migrating deer and other wild creatures. It hugged a low ridge that offered natural cover and ended near a small pond circled by wild grapes. He had known the pair was exhausted and might well need sustenance before they were able to move on, and so he had told the young Scot to wait there if he did not find them on the path. Every two or three hundred heartbeats he paused and listened for the sound of their passage. Neither was well-trained in stealth and it should have been fairly easy to track them.
But there was nothing.
As he began to move forward again his thoughts flew to the tall man he had left behind and the words they had exchanged. He was not certain why, but he knew it was important Arrowkeeper listen to him and heed what he said. The rift between him and the son of Talota must be mended. Somehow, their destinies were intertwined; their lives linked in a long series of events that would—before their end— influence the paths of not only the two proud men, but their peoples and all whose lives they touched. He had had a sense of it at that first meeting in London and had known, even then, that his life had been renewed so he could stand between them as a bridge.
Star halted and drew a breath of the warm moist air. He turned his face heavenward and let the gentle rain strike it, for the moment just allowing himself to feel. Raising his arms to the sky, he waited, as the distant voice of the thunder rolled across the verdant hills of Ken-tah-ten. And then he heard something else. A soft moan, like the cry of a wounded animal. He opened his dark eyes and pivoted, searching the shifting shadows, and then came to a dead stop.
A pale hand protruded from a tall stand of brown grass. As he approached he saw the rent and tattered sash lying across its breast, and his heart sank.
Star parted the thick blades and knelt by the Scot’s side. The young man’s usually tanned skin was a pale as a white man’s, and clammy to the touch. He laid his hand on his chest and then closed his eyes and gave thanks that his heart beat still—even though the pulse of it was rapid and thundered like the hooves of a herd of startled deer. Opening his black eyes, he began to examine him. There was no wound that he could see. But then, just as he began to think that perhaps the Scot had taken a severe blow to the head, he noticed the telltale signs of crimson on the underside of his shirt. Gently rolling his daughter’s husband over, he understood why. The handle of a knife protruded from his ribs. As he hesitated, trying to determine the best course to take, the young man’s eyelids flickered and he moaned again.
“Alexander,” he said softly.
The deep brown eyes opened without focus. The wounded man was confused and disoriented, and as his lips moved without sound, his hand went to his throat and he tried to rise.
“No. You must remain still.” Star held him down firmly and spoke his name again. “Alexander. No!”
The Scot fought valiantly for a few seconds and then sank back to the ground. His large dark eyes blinked several times and then he seemed to remember where he was. He licked his lips and whispered, “Whot happened?”
“You have been wounded. Do you know where you are?”
Alec nodded. “In the forest....” He fell silent as he looked about, and then suddenly his pallid flesh grew even more waxen as the remaining blood drained out of it. His fingers clutched his father-in-law’s arm. “Star! I coulds nae tell. I thooght it was Cara.” He was breathing hard and shaking, but still he attempted to rise.
“Alexander! Do not move!”
“Boot he has her!” he gasped as he met his eyes. “Tara. He took her wi’ him. Ye
ken he will kill her. I cannae lie haur an’— ”
“There is nothing you can do.” Star’s face was sober. “You have a knife in your side. It must come out. I must bind your wound and seek herbs....”
“Nae! Ye moos’ gae af’er her! Star,” his finger’s tightened on the copper flesh. “She has a wee sucklin’ bairn.... Better mah life shoulds be lost.”
The Cherokee closed his eyes and sighed. When he opened them again, he asked quietly, “And would my daughter agree?”
Alec groaned as he shifted, and then bit his lip to restrain the sound. A moment later he whispered, “Ye ken she woulds.”
The older man stared at him and then nodded. He retrieved Alexander’s tartan sash and, shaping it into a roll, used it to prop the young man’s back so the bone handle rested off the ground with nothing pressing against it. “I will leave the knife where it is. That way there will be less loss of blood.” He laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “But more pain.”
“I will joost mak’ a pretense thot tis nae thaur.” The Scot’s lips parted in a forced smile. “I may aye be passin’ fair as a warrior—boot I am pure guid at actin’.”
Star smiled in spite of his fear. “A warrior’s strength is not to be found in bows and lances, or how well he yields them, but in the strength of his heart and his courage. You are a warrior, Alexander.” He touched the young man’s chest and then his forehead. “The Great Spirit watch over you, when I cannot.”
“I tolds Spicewood I woulds watch oot fur ye,” the Scot whispered through gritted teeth. “I shoulds be gaun wi’ ye.”
The older man stood. He gazed into the sky and felt the rain strike his warm skin. “What is to be, is to be.”
With that he turned and disappeared into the woods.
Cara remained silent as he kept pace with Arrowkeeper. The tall Creek moved swiftly in spite of the fact that he continued to carry the unconscious Copperhead. Behind them, his companion, Nighthawk, brought up the rear. He had asked his one-time friend about the warrior and Arrowkeeper had explained the muscular young man was not only of his clan, but directly related, and that his loyalties lay with him—and not with Tara-Mingo. His answer had put him a little more at ease with the silent painted warrior trailing after him, carrying a primed flintlock.
But only a little.
They had been on the move perhaps three-quarters of an hour when Copperhead moaned and began to wake. They stopped immediately. At Cara’s word, Arrowkeeper propped him against a tree and backed away so he could kneel before him. He knew the wounded man would be disoriented and confused. There had been no time to seek clothes for him, so they had wrapped a soft blanket about him and now, as he struggled towards consciousness, he fought against its enfolding embrace as if caught in a deep undertow.
He placed his hands on his shoulders and called his name to quiet him. “Copperhead. Copperhead! Can you hear me? You must hear me.” As the Cherokee continued to thrash feebly from side to side, Cara glanced at the tall Creek who stood close by and wondered if he would ever be able to trust him again. Just as he did, Arrowkeeper nodded to the warrior who traveled with them and tossed his head in the direction they had come. Nighthawk nodded as well, and then disappeared into the trees. With a frown, Cara turned back to Copperhead. His friend had stopped fighting. His eyes remained shut, but it seemed—this time—he slept naturally. Briefly, he touched his forehead to check for fever. Relieved that he found none, he pulled the blanket tight to shield the Cherokee’s ravaged flesh from the rain, and then rose to his feet. Crossing to the imposing Creek, he asked him point blank, “What do you think you are doing? Where is Nighthawk going?”
“Not to give away our position or bring your enemies down on your head, Cara-Mingo,” he said wearily, “but back to the talofa to keep watch on Harper.”
“And how do I know that? Shall I take your word for it?” He hesitated and then spoke his mind, “And just what is the word of a traitor worth?”
Arrowkeeper’s long fingers tightened into a fist. “If I had done different, I would have been a traitor to all I believe. I still do not think the white man has a place here. In that, nothing has changed. But my war is not with the Cherokee. Nor with any of my red brothers....”
“And what about your brothers or sisters whose hearts belong to a white man or woman?” He glanced at Copperhead. “What would you do with them?”
“If there were no whites....”
“There will never be no whites.” Cara shook his head. “In spite of my brother’s promises, it is not possible. You have seen the white man’s world. You know his power; his ability to create weapons that kill many with one blow, and to cross great distances with ease and take what he wants.” He drew a deep breath to steady himself. “Arrowkeeper, you are not a stupid man.”
The Creek’s head came up sharply.
“Our world as we knew it is finished. You must face it. The white man is here to stay, and only madmen like James Harper believe it can ever be otherwise; madmen, and savage killers like my brother who think that if they slash enough throats and spill enough blood, they can force it to happen.” He was trembling from head to foot. Rage forced the words out with the power of shot. “Which one are you?”
Cara pivoted sharply at the sound of his friend’s voice. Copperhead was on his feet and leaning against the tree. A shaking finger pointed towards the path. He turned and froze as he saw a warrior emerging from the banks of leaves. Then he relaxed as he realized it was the young Creek, Nighthawk. The native was covered with sweat and breathing hard as if he had been running.
Arrowkeeper took a step toward him. “What is it, Kitini? Does Harper come?”
“No.” The young man’s brown fingers clenched his rifle. “But there is something you should see.”
A few minutes later Arrowkeeper and Cara were moving through the dense underbrush, headed for a small glade. Nighthawk had given them instructions and then remained behind with the wounded Copperhead. The sun was riding high somewhere in the sky, but the pendulous clouds which the wind had carried on its back now cast a pall on the day, bringing a false twilight that masked the path and made their way difficult. Carefully and cautiously, in total silence, they moved through the wet trees and over the slippery ground until the tall Creek brought them to a halt. He caught Cara’s sleeve and pointed. Just where his man had said there would be, a body lay in the grass. The man was on his side, with his knees pulled up tight. There was no telling whether he was alive or dead.
Arrowkeeper indicated he would circle around and approach from the back, while Cara moved in from the front. His companion agreed. A few minutes later they paused within sight of each other and waited. The figure had not moved. Finally Cara nodded and as one they advanced. Within seconds they were at the man’s side. Arrowkeeper leaned down and then rose with something in his hand. He held it out to him. Cara gasped.
It was a tartan sash covered in blood.
“Dear God,” he whispered as he dropped to his knees. “Alec.”
Star waited and watched. He had seen two figures approaching and had faded into the shadows beside the path. As they drew near one stumbled and fell. The other pivoted sharply and jerked it to its feet. There was a cry, and then the sound of a woman weeping.
Moving silent and swift as the deer, he drew close.
“I can’t go any farther,” she sobbed. “Why don’t you just kill me now, and be done with it?”
He knew the voice. As he thought, it was Copperhead’s wife, Miriam.
“That I will not do, white woman. You are valuable to me. But that husband of yours, the Cherokee.... Him, I will kill, and slowly, so the pain is as great as my enjoyment.”
Star held his breath and crouched so the shadows took him as he came alongside the pair. If Alexander had not warned him, and his ears had not heard the man’s words, he might have thought it was Cara who stood before him; in his brother’s stolen clothes, the half-Creek half-Cherokee looked just like him. Still, he would have believed it for only the space of a single heartbeat. Tara-Mingo’s bearing and spirit were that of a predator, and his red heart beat with so loud a voice that any pretense of the white soul of Talota’s younger son was deafened by its sound.
Miriam continued to sob. Her soft doe-skin gown was rent and stained with dirt and tears. Her face and arms were bleeding; lacerated by a frantic journey through the trees and underbrush. Her golden ringlets hung in straight hanks and framed a pair of wide terrified eyes. “Copperhead? You don’t.... I don’t believe you....” Her voice was small. “He was with Menewa.”
Tara dipped like a hawk and caught her throat with his long supple fingers. “When your husband’s scorched corpse is carried back to your desolated village, you will believe. When you kiss lips,” he lifted her chin and pinched her pale beautiful face pulling it towards him, “burnt black, you will believe.”
Miriam struggled to break free. “Don’t touch me.”
Tara-Mingo laughed as his other hand caught her waist. “And who will stop me?”
Star had risen to his feet. His knife was in his hand. He started forward, but froze as an unfamiliar voice rang out.
“Release her, savage, or I will be compelled to forget that we are supposed to be allies. One more dead Indian matters little more than another dead deer or rabbit to me.” The speaker paused to draw a breath. “Rather less, since your carcass will be good for no one but the worms to feed on.”
The native smiled as he rose to his feet and pulled the woman after him, placing her before him as a shield. “Foxwell? I hear you. Show yourself.”
Colonel William Foxwell emerged from his place of concealment and came to a halt twenty or twenty-five paces away from the pair, still protected by a canopy of leaves. His pale blue eyes went to his daughter and then to the tall raven-haired creature that held her. An almost uncontrollable rage coursed through him, brought on—he knew—not by the image before him now, but by the thought of other brown arms having done the same. He shifted his feet and drew himself up to his full height. Well, he had shown that savage right enough. Now it was this one’s turn.
“You will let
my daughter go.”
“Where is Menewa?” Tara glanced at the flintlock pistol in the officer’s hand and deliberately moved back so the dappled shadows masked him and his captive. Holding Miriam tight with one hand, he drew his hunting knife and brought it up under her chin. “If you would have her throat remain white, Foxwell, you will show him to me.”
“No.” The officer took another step. “You will surrender her first.”
Star watched the stand-off with keen interest. They had known Tara meant to betray Menewa, but had not expected him to move so soon. And what had Miriam’s father to do with it? Was this some new treachery? Sheathing his knife, he began to move silently through the trees once again. If the Cherokee chief had been taken, he might be able to circle behind the Englishman and free him.
The tall Creek shook his head. “I think I do not believe, white man, that you have him.”
“Oh, I have him,” Foxwell said as he took another step. “Safe and sound.”
It was a lie. By the time they had reached the Cherokee village it had been deserted; no one had been left. Someone had warned them. The officer shifted his grip on his weapon and took another step forward, alert for any sign of movement behind his daughter and her captor. His man Hopkins was out there in the trees, somewhere, waiting for his signal. He and the young lieutenant had taken off on horseback immediately after the aborted raid, leaving the rest of the company to trail behind on foot. Glancing at the angle of the sun behind the clouds, he frowned. They seemed a long time in coming.
Perhaps the village had not been so deserted after all.
He cleared his
throat. “I am in command here,
savage. You will release my
daughter and send her to me now.”
“I would rather die!” the fiery young woman shouted. “I would rather die than return with you! And if you take me by force, I will escape and throw myself over a cliff!”
“Miriam,” her father shook his head. “ You are simply overwrought....”
“Overwrought? Overwrought!” The words tumbled out, somewhere between laughter and hysteria. “You make me sound like a school girl who didn’t get her own way when she asked to go out and play. I am a married woman. With a child.” At his horrified look, she pressed on. “Yes. You have a grandson. Born in that village you meant to burn to the ground.”
“When my husband finds out what you have done, he will come. Nothing will stop him. You wait and see. He will— ” She gasped and fell silent as her father deliberately moved out of the shadows and into the meager light cast by the shrouded noonday sun. Behind her Tara-Mingo laughed. His malevolent eyes had seen the same thing as hers; what her father was wearing.
Copperhead’s deep red coat.
Alec nodded his head and accepted a small amount of water from his friend’s hand and then looked past him to Copperhead, who was breathing heavily and leaning against a tree several yards away. Arrowkeeper lingered in the shadows nearby, looking as if he had heard a banshee wailing at the window. “Aye. Star has gaun af’er Miriam.”
Cara’s deep brown eyes flicked to the tall Creek and then to his Cherokee friend. A few minutes before he had been forced to separate them. Copperhead had wanted to take the other man apart, and rightly so, but he had finally convinced him that now was neither the time nor the place. He turned back to Alec. “You have yet to say who took her,” he stared at the Scot’s pale face and added softly, “and who did this to you.”
He and Arrowkeeper had carefully bound Alec’s wound and then carried him to the place where the others waited. The Creek, Nighthawk, had greeted them before returning to the trees and thence to the camp, to watch their backs and make certain James Harper did not escape.
Alec’s eyes closed and opened again. His words came slowly and were somewhat slurred by loss of blood and the shock he was in. “I thot it was ye at first. He was wearin’ yer clothes....” He nodded towards the black leather lash coiled over Cara’s arm, “An’ carryin’ ain o’ those.”
Even before he had mentioned the whip, Cara’s stomach had knotted, as if fear had made a fist and struck him in it. “Tara. Tara has her.”
“Aye, th’ cauld-hearted de’il.” The young man was upset. He was breathing hard. “I thot he was ye....”
“Fool. Thot’s what he called me.” His brown eyes sought his friend’s. “He was richt. Ye ken thot. An’ ye waur richt aboot him. I was a fool; a pure fool tae troost him as I
“You had your reasons. I wish Tara could have been like Archie, but he is not.” Cara laid his hand on his friend’s chest. “Though in one way, he is like you and me....”
Alec frowned. “Whot is thot?”
“I think my Creek brother would have made a masterful actor.” He paused and shook his head. “You are not a fool, Alec. Just a good man who made a mistake in where he placed his trust.”
Alec was silent a moment. “Aye, th’ black-hearted monster woulds hae mad’ a pure guid Uncle fur Prince Hamlet....”
His dark head pivoted. It was Arrowkeeper who had called. The Creek was nodding towards the path that led into the trees. Copperhead had dropped the blanket from his shoulders and was limping down it alone. Cara rose and sprinted the few yards to his side and came to a halt in front of him.
“And where do you think you are going”
The Cherokee sighed. “Out of my way, Cara.”
“No. You cannot go. You are injured. Some of the cuts may be infected.” He shook his head firmly. “You will die.”
His friend’s brown eyes locked on his. “Without her, my heart will die.” He shook himself and began to push past him. “What is this...flesh? This body? I will not give in to it...” Without warning he staggered and fell to his knees, crying out as he did.
Cara knelt beside him and placed his hand on his shoulder. “This flesh, though it holds a will as strong as the earth we walk, is weak and wounded.” He helped him to his feet. “You must rest. I will go.”
“Cara, no!” Copperhead shook his head. “She is my wife....”
“And my friend.”
“And you forget, Tara is my brother. It is mine to do.”
“Star is there already,” he continued. “Together we will free her, and bring her back
to you. You must remain here and help with Alec.”
“Yes.” Cara paused. Then he smiled. “Must I have Arrowkeeper sit on you to keep you here?”
“Perhaps you will have to have him sit on me, to keep me here.”
Cara glanced up to find the tall Creek had come to their side. “What?”
“I will not let you go alone.”
“I will not be alone. Star is there.”
“Yes. Look at him!” He pointed at Copperhead and then pivoted towards the man lying on the ground. “Look at Alec! Someone has to care for them, and,” he paused and looked directly into the tall man’s eyes, “they are your responsibility.”
“Do I have a say in this?” Copperhead asked, a bit of his wry sense of humor showing through in spite of the pain.
Cara snapped, “No!”
Arrowkeeper began to protest. “I will....”
The furious young man cut him off. “No! You won’t! You will stay here. Both of you.” He watched as the pair exchanged a look and realized, even with the Cherokee injured, the two of them would have no trouble sitting on him to make him stay put. He ran a hand over his face and then said softly, “Please. You have to understand.....” He hesitated as images from his past flooded his eyes; dark images of the deeds done by a man wearing a face that was—and was not—his own.
“This is for me to do.”
Overcome by exhaustion and terror, Miriam had fainted. Star watched her go limp in her abductor’s arms. As Foxwell moved towards them, Tara-Mingo callously let her fall to the earth and then stepped over her small body as if it was nothing. He palmed his whip and went to meet the British colonel who still held the flintlock trained on his chest and left her lying just within the embrace of the shadows cast by the rustling leaves. Star whispered a prayer of thanks to the Creator and began to edge towards her, every sense alert to the world about him.
“You are an ill-mannered brute.” Foxwell waved the pistol before his face. “Get out of my way, savage.”
“Where is Menewa?” Tara stopped; his hand on his whip. Then he cocked his dark head and smiled. “I do not think you have him.”
“Then you are a fool.” The colonel’s retort came a little too quickly. “If she is harmed...” he growled.
“If she is not—she will be.” The Creek raised his hand and struck the other man’s chest. “As you will be, if you mean to deceive me.”
“You know I would not do that.” Foxwell took a step back. The savage’s black stare was unsettling. “By bringing this Cherokee traitor to justice I am advancing my own cause—as well as yours. I will get my promotion to Major-General, and you will get to prove to the Crown that you are not a deserter, and that the white blood in your veins is stronger than the red. Think how valuable you would be as a double-agent.” The British colonel swallowed over the lump in his throat. When he had agreed to treat with Lord Dunsmore’s half-breed son, he had not expected him to be such a devil. “Of course, all of this is secondary to my desire to be reunited with my child. I would not try to cross you, Cara-Mingo. You know that.”
Star paused in mid-stride. Cara-Mingo? So, even to Foxwell he pretended to be his brother. They had known Tara-Mingo meant to kill Menewa, to take his place as War Chief and lead the young men against the whites, and perhaps the other tribes. They had not realized he would use the British to accomplish this. Perhaps as Cara-Mingo, who was known to be part English, he had told them Menewa worked with the French, or would side with the settlers. It mattered little what the lie. The damage was done.
And if not for Arrowkeeper’s gesture in freeing the girl, Cherry, and Miriam’s small son, it might have been completed.
“The words you speak seem wise but, as the reflection of the moon on still water, they are only a pale likeness of the truth. You think you know much, white man. You think you are better than the ignorant savages. But I tell you; you are the fool. I care nothing for you or your promotion.” He tossed his dark head towards the shadows that loomed behind him. “Or your child. She is as ashes beneath my feet. I care only what you can do for me.” The tall man struck his own chest with his fist. “Now, where is Menewa?”
When the Indian mentioned his daughter, Foxwell’s eyes had gone to her recumbent form. As they did he breathed a silent sigh of relief. A shape was moving in the shadows near her. Knowing it had to be Hopkins, he smiled and admitted, “You are right, I do not have him...yet.” He waved the flintlock as he shrugged his braided shoulders. “Someone had warned the village. The women and children were gone, as were the men.” He paused. “I came here alone to meet with you at the appointed time. My soldiers are on their trail; they will have him. It is simply a matter of time.”
“Time.” Tara-Mingo frowned. “That is the one thing you are out of, white man.” The native lifted the hand that held the whip and signaled. As he did, several painted warriors moved into the glade. They raised their bows and pointed bright shining flintlocks at the Englishman’s stiff form.
Foxwell cocked the hammer on his own pistol. “You bastard. You said to come alone.”
“Yes.” Tara faced the weapon unafraid. He nodded, and a moment later another of his followers tossed the body of the British lieutenant into the center of the glade. “As with a white colonel, a leader is always alone—though he be surrounded by his men.”
Star had observed the feathered shadows on the move in the dark. He had avoided them and watched as the young soldier had been taken and killed, and waited as Tara-Mingo’s adherents entered the glade and slowly closed the circle around the white officer. Now, he was directly behind Miriam. Since she had fallen, she had been ignored, as if her life was nothing more than a bargaining chip in a game of power waged by two madmen. Reaching cautiously through the leaves, he caught her wrist and slowly drew her towards him. Once he had her in his arms, he carried her a short distance and propped her against a tree. Then he took her hands in his and chafed them, and gently called her name in an attempt to rouse her. He could have carried her the rest of the way, but unconscious she was vulnerable. Awake, if trouble came upon them, he could send her on her way and face it alone.
“Miriam,” he called again, “You must wake. Miriam?” The petite woman moaned. Then she started and began to struggle as he placed his hand over her mouth to quiet her. “You must be still. Peace,” he said as her wide blue eyes popped open, “you are with a friend.”
She sobbed once and then nodded. As his hand came away, she whispered, “Star....? Thank God.....”
He glanced back the way they had come and listened for a moment before saying, “Can you rise to your feet and walk?”
She nodded again. “Yes, I....” Then the words caught in her throat and she shook from head to toe. Her pale skin grew white as new fallen snow. “Copperhead....” The tears streamed down her cheeks. “My father.... I think he has killed him. His coat....”
Star touched her cheek. “Miriam, you do not know that. Where there is no knowledge, yet there may be hope.” He took her by the hand and helped her to her feet. “Now, we must fly before we are discovered. We must— ”
“It is too late, old man.”
Star pivoted. Before him stood an embodiment of evil, clothed in a breechcloth and boots and painted like a devil. The warrior held a flintlock. It was pointed straight at them. The Cherokee hesitated only a moment before charging straight at him.
“Run! Miriam, run!”
The woman blinked and took a step back. “No....”
“Think of your son,” he cried as he began to duck and roll. “Run!”
The Englishwoman heard the weapon discharge and watched as Star dropped to the ground. As his strong form struck the other man and knocked him off his feet, she plunged into the ocean of leaves and shadows and disappeared. As she ran heedless of the direction, sobbing, her eyes blinded by tears, she had no way of knowing whether the volley from the weapon had struck him or if he had simply chosen to sacrifice himself for her.
It didn’t matter; either way he was dead.
Foxwell started and then took an involuntary step towards the sound of the rifle shot. As he did his eyes fell on the space his daughter had occupied. She was gone. He turned back towards the half-breed savage with the question on his lips, but it died even as he did—at the end of a thick-bladed hunting knife thrust into his bowels and driven by a maleficent hand.
“My God,” he gasped, “this isn’t possible. You can’t....”
“Can not what? Win?” The tall native withdrew the bloody knife and took a step back as the officer fell first to his knees, and then to the ground. “I can,” he said as an a obscene smile lit his face, “I have.”
The tall Creek wiped the blade on the man’s buff-colored waistcoat and then pivoted just in time to see Sharpknife emerge from the bank of trees at the edge of the glade. He had another man with him whom he shoved to the ground. Tara-Mingo approached the pair. A slow grin spread across his face as he recognized his brother’s close Cherokee friend. He waited a moment and then said softly, “The last time we faced each other, old man, you had the upper hand. It is yours no longer.”
Star’s head came up. He met the Creek’s malevolent stare and in it saw an end and a beginning. He closed his eyes and offered a brief prayer to the Creator to keep his child from the grasp of this man when he no longer could, and then he opened them and said, “I have no fear of you. Your hand is weak, Tara-Mingo. The only way it can master a man is with aid, from a blade or a bow or a whip.
“You have no power over me.”
The Creek caught his leather vest and drew him to his feet. Then he brought the pommel of his whip up under his chin.
“We will see.”
Cara had finally made them see reason, Arrowkeeper and Copperhead. He had left them behind with Alec and was moving as rapidly as he could through the tangled underbrush. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed in the distance as the soft rain which had fallen throughout the early part of the day began to pound the already sodden earth. His heart was pounding as well beneath his soaked hunting shirt, and he found he was light-headed and slightly disoriented. In the space of a few hours the world he had returned to—and come to love—had been plunged into chaos, and the blame lay squarely at his brother’s feet. Oh, James Harper owned a part of it, and the Creek, Sharpknife, but it was Tara who had made every choice, plotted each step, and executed the plan like an amoral general whose only thought was to win—no matter what the means to that end.
And it was up to him to stop him.
The thunder rumbled again, indicating that the storm was coming closer. He crouched and took advantage of the shelter of a low rocky shelf to stop and collect his thoughts. Arrowkeeper had given him the location of the meeting place where Miriam was to have been delivered. Apparently he or one of his men was to have gone there and received fresh orders from his brother. He clenched his fists and closed his eyes. He had held Copperhead back, but it had been all he could do to keep from striking the tall Creek himself. Still, he had seen the pain in the big man’s eyes, and knew he had come to regret the dark path he had chosen. Unfortunately that did not alter in the slightest the choice itself—or the consequences of it which were even now being played out.
He rose to his feet and began to move forward again. A minute or so later, he drew to halt and ducked behind a tree. Something large was plunging recklessly through the trees ahead of him. He held his breath and waited with his knife unsheathed. Abruptly a pale bedraggled creature fell to the earth not ten feet in front of him. Sobbing and shaking, it rose to its feet and then collapsed to the wet earth and lay still. Cara returned his knife to its sheath and stepped from the shadows, careful to keep his voice soft so as not to terrify her anymore than she already was.
The woman’s head came up sharply. Her great blue eyes were wild. The rain caused the tears and blood on her face to run in a pale pink river. As he moved to her side and knelt, she reared back in terror. “You! No! No, keep away from me!”
“Miriam,” he reached out towards her. “It is I. Cara. You have nothing to fear. I am here to help you.”
Copperhead’s wife had been clawing the wet earth, desperately trying to crawl away in spite of her weakened state. As he continued to speak, she quieted and turned back to stare at him. “Cara?” she sobbed. “Is it really you?”
He remained very still, making no move she might interpret as threatening. “Yes. I have come to find you. How did you get away?” He glanced at the trees where she had broken through. No one followed. “Where is Star?”
Miriam’s small form shuddered. She shook her head, for a moment unable to speak. “He sacrificed his life for mine,” she said at last. “He’s with your brother and that horrible man, the savage one who always wears paint.” She shook again as she ran a muddy hand across her forehead. “He may already be dead. There was a shot...”
Cara couldn’t speak. He couldn’t see. It was as if a tide had washed over him, dragging him down, pinning him so he could not breathe. He sat very still for a moment, waiting for the feeling to pass, but it never did; it only intensified. “How long ago was this?” he whispered.
“A quarter of an hour. Maybe more. I don’t know.” She turned her blonde head and glanced behind her. “I was certain they would be after me. I thought I heard....” She fell silent as the sound of someone moving through the trees was carried to them by the wind.
Cara shifted quickly so he knelt behind her and wrapped his arms about her. “I will not let them harm you. I promise— ”
The leaves parted and a wet weary figure emerged. There was a moment of silence and then a familiar voice whispered, its tone incredulous. “Miriam?”
He felt the Englishwoman’s small form go rigid and heard her sharp intake of breath.
It seemed Copperhead had not seen reason after all.
Star opened his eyes slowly and drew a deep shuddering breath. His fingers pressed the remnants of his leather vest into his ravaged side, but he knew it would do little good. Mother earth called to his blood and it ran in a stream to join her. He sighed and glanced at the empty glade. The two murderous Creek had gone; dark shadows swallowed by other darker shadows that marked the absence of the light. Thunder rumbled overhead and the lightning flashed. The storm was come and he doubted he would live to see its end. He allowed his head to fall back against the ground. He had refused to tell the wolf-pair where the Cherokee were hiding, and for that—if not for the sheer pleasure of the killing and the pain his death would bring his brother—Tara-Mingo had cut him while the painted one had looked on and laughed.
He had thought the first time he heard her that he was dreaming. Now he smiled at the gentle voice that did not intrude upon his pain, but seemed to soothe it. He opened his eyes and against a field of starlight saw his wife, Cloud, leaning over him. Her beautiful face was young as when first they had met and her brown eyes lit with a holy fire.
“Now?” he whispered as he lifted his hand towards her.
She smiled, but shook her head. “Soon, beloved. One more thing yet must be done.”
He closed his eyes as his hand fell back to the earth. “I do not have the strength.”
“You do.” She rose and turned to gaze into the trees. “One life only must be lost this night. ” As the spirit of the woman Oologiluh watched, a rain-soaked figure appeared; a handsome young man with raven hair whose heart was breaking. “And a path chosen.
“Soon, husband. Star....”
“Star?” There was a pause, and then he heard his name again. “Star!”
“Oologiluh? Cloud....” he whispered. “Wife, do not leave....”
“Dear God....” Cara fell to his knees beside his friend. The pounding rain had caused the blood that flowed from his wound to swell into a pool which engulfed them both. He pulled his shirt off even as Copperhead and Miriam followed him into the glade, and rolling it into a ball, pressed it into the massive gash in his friend’s side. “My God....” he whispered and then fell silent. There were no words. Nothing but tears.
Miriam fell to the ground beside the pair while her husband remained standing nearby. When she turned to look at him, he shook his head. A moment later he moved to touch his friend’s shoulder. When he failed to react, he called his name, “Cara.”
The young man drew a deep breath and released it slowly. “You must take him home.”
He started. It was not Copperhead who spoke, but Star. He grasped his hand as the older man raised it towards him.
Every muscle and sinew in him tensed. “He did this,” he breathed between clenched teeth.
“Yes. He is headed for the village.” Star’s voice was weak. “He guesses the safe places. He says he will kill....” He paused to draw a ragged breath. “...all. And he means to take my daughter.”
Cara’s heart was racing; his knuckles white where they gripped his friend’s cold fingers. “I will kill him.”
He stared at the wounded man. “What? How can you say that?”
“He is your brother. His blood is yours.”
“Do not remind me of that shame....”
“Stop him. Bring him to justice.” Star moaned and shifted. “Do not embrace hate.”
“I have embraced it. I hate him....”
“Then you hate yourself. It is not in you to do this,” the older man’s hand was shaking, but it found his heart, “not out of a need for vengeance and personal gain. If you do, you will die,” he tapped his chest lightly, “here.”
“I will go with you.”
Cara glanced at Copperhead. The Cherokee’s rich copper skin was like paste. A thin sheen of sweat covered his exposed flesh. He looked feverish. “No. You must go for help. And then take Miriam....” He looked at the young woman. She had fallen silent, overwhelmed by loss. “...and Star to the village—if it is safe.”
Star’s hand touched his. “Alexander?” he whispered.
Cara gripped his fingers. “Alive when I left him.”
“And I.” Copperhead nodded. “Arrowkeeper is with him.”
The older man actually smiled. “Then he has chosen at last.”
“Too late. Look at you....” Cara was trembling from head to foot. “Too late to prevent this....”
“Not too late, if you too choose the right path.” Star struggled to sit up, to gaze into his eyes. Cara stopped him and trembled as the cold fingers gripped his own warm flesh. “If you do not, then I die for nothing.”
A sob broke from him. “You will not die....”
“I will.” Star’s grip became weak as he fell back to the earth. “It is time. One thing must end, for another to begin.”
As the older man’s hand fell away and he lost consciousness, Cara rose to his feet. He shook off Copperhead’s hand and crossed to the middle of the glade. He stopped there with his face turned toward the weeping heavens; his fists clenched and lifted towards the sky. He had not felt this lost since the night his mother had died and he had known that the world he cherished was lost to him. Deep within him that little boy awoke to this new grief and he began to scream; crying out to the One who watched and guided that this too was not fair. Somehow, something had gone terribly wrong, and it was up to him to make it right.
And then he remembered; he remembered the words his brother had spoken to him that night, in answer to his declaration that he would never be like him.
‘You say this, but you do not know.
One day your heart will burn and you will know the fire that is in mine.
You will kill, and you will do it because it brings you pleasure, not
because you must. One day, you will look into this face, at these eyes, and
they will be your own.’
He fell to his knees and pounded the rain-soaked earth with his fists.
That day had come.
- Continued in Chapter Thirteen -