It seemed his brother had decided to opt out of giving him a choice.
Kerr sat up and placed a hand against the back of his head. There was a knot the size of a goose egg beneath his long dark hair. He found himself in a cave, the opening of which was filled with interlocking branches bound with leather thongs to create bars. A steady draft indicated an opening somewhere behind him - blocked off, no doubt, to fashion the prison he was in. The sound the wind made as it rushed past was haunting, and must have been what had given the place its name. He had heard his brother call it the 'Cave of the Whispering Wind'. Tara and his henchmen had brought him here and left him.
And gone to lay a trap for his father.
Tara had also stripped him of his red coat, borrowed breeches, linen shirt and boots, leaving him bare-footed and dressed in an over-sized hunting shirt and leggings of buckskin. He could only assume that meant Tara had gone to take his place. Or at least, that he meant to try to. Kerr wondered at his brother's thinking. It would not take his father long to figure out that it was not him. A civilized man might impersonate a barbarian, but a barbarian would have a very hard time choosing the proper fork and remembering not to pick his teeth with a knife.
Kerr gripped one of the thick branches that locked him in with both hands and rattled the makeshift gate. As he did his brother's man, Green Snake, appeared without warning from out of the shadows cast by the nearby trees. The dark-skinned native raised his rifle and pointed it at him in warning.
"Give me a reason, English man," Green Snake said as he raised his rifle, his voice dripping with hate.
Kerr swallowed hard. The native was serious. Apparently the order his brother had given that his life was to be preserved on all accounts had been rescinded. Kerr backed away from the bars and raised his hands. "May I ask you a question?" he said.
Green Snake looked over the sight of his rifle. "What?"
"Where is my brother?"
"Near the river," the native answered.
"Near it where?"
Green Snake just looked at him.
"Well?" Kerr asked again after a few seconds.
"Near the Holy place."
"The Cherokee graveyard, you mean?"
Green Snake nodded, but volunteered no other information.
Kerr drew a breath and let it out slowly in an attempt to control his mounting frustration. "Doing what?"
Green Snake nodded again.
Kerr frowned. Green Snake, it seemed, was not much of a conversationalist. "May I ask, waiting for what?" Kerr thought he knew all too well, but hoped he was wrong.
The native's white teeth flashed in his deep red face. "The other English man to come."
That was what he had been afraid of. "My father, you mean."
Malice sparkled in the depths of Green Snake's black eyes. He nodded a third time and then turned his back to him and faced the horizon. Kerr stared at the native's solid muscular form a moment and then looked beyond him. The day was ending. If his father did meet Tara, his brother had chosen the time well. At dusk it would not be so easy to tell them apart.
That was, unless Tara tried to carry on anything close to a normal conversation.
"Does my brother really think he can fool my father?" Kerr asked. "He is not an Englishman."
"You wear the same face," the native replied without looking at him.
"Yes, but there are other things that make a man...his ability to converse intelligently being one." Kerr waited, but Green Snake seemed to have entirely missed the insult.
Green Snake turned then and walked toward him, stopping less than a foot away from the bars. The native pointed the flintlock at him again. "You need to be quiet, English man. You talk too much."
"I think it might be more apropos to say that about my brother. Have you noticed his penchant for lengthy dissertations and poetic imagery?"
The native frowned.
"And his exhaustive use of comparative language coupled with alliteration and metaphor?"
Green Snake's frown deepened. The barrel of his weapon poked through the bars. "Be quiet."
Kerr shrugged. "I just found it unusual in a savage. I thought most of you were stupid."
Green Snake growled and stepped so close his angry face was framed by one of the squares created by the crossed bars. "You will die for such words, English - "
Gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg, Kerr darted forward almost faster than the eye could follow and caught hold of the native's rifle. Then he jerked inward. As Green Snake's head came through the opening, the bar beneath his chin jammed into his throat, cutting off his wind. Kerr reached out then and gripped the back of his head and kept it there until the warrior passed out. Then he let him fall to the ground. Kneeling, Kerr stretched his arm out as far as he could through the lower bars and managed to catch hold of the native's rifle. After pulling it into the makeshift cell with him, he reached out again and searched the ground around Green Snake's prostrate form for a key.
When he didn't find one Kerr rocked back on his heels and studied the gate. Only then did it dawn on him that there wouldn't be a key.
There was no lock. There were only leather thongs, out of reach, wound tightly about the branches and tied off.
Sitting down with the rifle on his lap, Kerr stared at the insensate native and sighed.
"Well, Green Snake, guess who gets to take the prize for being stupid this time."
Dan turned toward his friend. "What is it, Yad?"
The blond nodded toward the structure on their right. "Over there. Behind that thar lodge."
Dan shifted his gaze sideways and looked. There was a typical Indian lodge made of branches and grasses. Beside it was a thicket and a clump of trees masked in shadow. "What is it?"
Yad frowned. "I seen somethin' movin', Dan'l. Near them trees."
Dan looked again. He could see nothing. "You sure, Yad?"
His old friend crossed his heart. "An' hope to die..." Yad whispered, "...in say, somethin' close to about a hundred years. Of course."
Dan laughed. "Of course." He looked again and then pointed to the left side of the Cherokee dwelling, indicating Yad should go that way while he went right. Yadkin nodded and almost immediately disappeared into the trees. Dan hesitated before entering the tall grasses. They were looking for Kestrel. The Indian had left them a short time before to go looking for Kerr. Sergeant Thomas had gone with him.
They hadn't seen either of one of them in more than an hour.
Pushing aside his concern for his friend and the English sergeant who, up until a few days ago, he would have considered an enemy, Dan began to work his way around the lodge. Just about halfway along the side of it he heard a whoop and a holler, and then a decided 'thud'. Dan came around the corner like a greased pig shooting out of a farmer's hand only to stop dead.
Then he started laughing.
Yadkin was on the ground. A skinny little Indian girl was sitting on top of him. She had him by the hair and was lifting a knife above his head. "Say, Yad," he called loudly, making his presence known. "You gonna introduce me to your friend?"
Yad made a disparaging noise as the Indian girl bolted to her feet. She growled at him and planted a moccasin firmly on the center of his chest. She was probably about thirteen or fourteen, and was so skinny you could have squeezed her between the boards of a corn crib without much effort. Her skin was light for a Cherokee. She had the usual deep brown hair, and her deep brown eyes were enormous and fixed on both him and his rifle.
"Miss, I'll make you a bargain," Dan offered. "If you'll put down that pig-sticker you're holdin' on my friend, I'll be more than obliged to give Ticklicker a rest."
She continued to look at him, but didn't move.
Dan frowned. He took his finger off the trigger and pointed Ticklicker's barrel toward the sky. "I think you'll find if you take Yad's hair, ain't much of anyone would want to pay for his scalp. Although there is some speculation that it's already been pressed and steamed to give it that glossy shine. Or maybe that's just the bear grease."
"Dan'l Boone, this ain't no laughin' matter!" Yad yelled from his position under the girl's moccasined foot.
Dan started laughing again. "Sure looks like one to me, Yad."
The girl's expression changed abruptly. She blinked like a doe caught in the lantern's light, and then she lifted her foot and stepped away from Yadkin. A moment later she approached him. "Daniel Boone?" she asked.
He tipped his cap. "Yes, miss."
"The one and only," Yad added with a touch of disgust as he dusted himself off and came to join them.
Dan smiled at him and then turned back to the girl. "Do I know you?"
She shook her head. "No. But I know you. I am Menewa's daughter."
He and Yad looked at one another. "Excuse me, miss....?
"Tekawitha," she said.
"Miss Tekawitha, but I ain't rightly heard that Menewa had a daughter."
"I have not always lived here," she said softly. Then the girl jumped as a long ululating cry sounded from the nearby woods. "They are coming back! You must go."
"Firemaker's men," Tekawitha said. "They are hunting you."
"Over there?" Yad lifted his cap and scratched his head. "What in tarnation made them go in that direction? I thought Indians were supposed to be so good at followin' tracks."
Tekawitha smiled. "Indians are also good at laying tracks."
"False ones?" Dan asked with a smile.
"Why? Why try to help us?" he asked.
"Only because he would not want me to. Because I hate him."
"Firemaker, you mean?"
Tekawitha nodded again.
"Does Menewa know you are here?" Dan asked her.
Anger filled her deep brown eyes. "He would not let me go with him from the village. Nor any of the women."
Dan nodded. Menewa probably thought they were safer where they were. And he knew as well that they would keep each other safe. "I am sure your father had a reason,. Tekawitha."
The Indian girl nodded. "That is why I am still here."
"I think, Miss, you may be here for another reason. Did you see the Englishman who was brought in, maybe a day ago?" Dan asked.
Tekawitha frowned. "There were two. But I think you mean the one who looks like Firemaker. Yes, I saw him."
"I'll have to take your word on that since I ain't never seen Firemaker myself," Dan said. "Where is the Englishman? Can you tell me?"
The whoops and cries had become louder. The girl nodded even as she responded to the sound and faded into the shadows beneath the trees. "Seek him in the Cave of the Whispering Winds."
And then, like the wind, she was gone.
"The 'Cave of the Whispering Winds', you heard of that, Dan'l?"
"Can't rightly say that I have, Yad. But I bet Kestrel knows. If we find him, we can find the cave."
"If'n we find him. I swear that man turns to ash and blows on the wind. It's harder to pin him down than a frightened filly in a field of mud."
Dan laughed. "That's how he stays alive, Yad. C'mon let's go."
"Do you see 'im?" Thomas Strong asked.
Kestrel stared at his odd companion. It seemed ironic. He and his chief, Menewa, were working hard to keep their people from aiding the British, and yet here he was, crouching in the underbrush with the English sergeant, seeking to rescue his English Captain.
Life was never what you expected.
"Kerr is in the cave. It is used by the Cherokee as a jail. But there is something lying in front of the gate. I cannot see what," Kestrel answered him.
"Let's move in closer then."
Kestrel thought about it. He nodded and then said, "But slowly, and without sound."
Several minutes later they halted behind a tumble of boulders on the western side of the clearing near the cave entrance. Kestrel rose up and peered over the top. Sergeant Strong did the same. "I see it," Thomas said. " There's a savage - " The Englishman stopped. He glanced at him. "Oh, beggin' your pardon, Mr. Kestrel, 'savage' ain't a proper word for someone what's 'elping you. There's a ruddy 'eathen laying on the ground."
Kestrel hid his smile. "Yes. And he appears to be unconscious. We will approach with caution. It could be a trick."
Thomas Strong agreed. "You want I should go first?"
The native turned back and looked at the English soldier. Thomas's concern for his captain was etched into every line of his deeply-tanned face. Kestrel placed a hand on the sergeant's shoulder and nodded. "I will follow close behind. There could be more than the one guard."
Thomas grinned as he slipped past him. "Well, I jolly well 'ope so. If there ain't, we don't stand to 'ave much fun."
Kerr had nodded off. He jerked awake. So far Green Snake had not stirred. The only thing moving about in the clearing was a small gray squirrel that was hopping in and out of the bars, taunting him with its freedom. Earlier there had been an eagle - much like the one who had circled above him when he had been traveling with Daniel Boone. The regal bird had been sitting on the ground just beyond the native's prostrate form, staring at him. Kerr seemed to recall that an eagle doing such a thing had a particular significance in his mother's people's culture, but he couldn't remember what.
Kerr drew a deep breath and sighed as he glanced at the thick branches barring him from the outside world. He didn't need to worry about his brother killing him.
He was going to die of old age.
Kerr's head came up. Whoever had spoken had an English accent. He rose to his feet with the rifle in his hand and limped to the gate. "Thomas? Is that you?"
A second later Thomas Strong, his missing sergeant, rounded a cluster of boulders and stepped into the clearing. The soldier stopped beside the unconscious native and shoved him with the toe of his boot. When Green Snake didn't stir, Thomas asked, "There any more of 'im about, Sir?"
Kerr shook his head. "Not that I know of. Thomas, how are you here? How did you -?" He stopped short. A tall, familiar, feathered figure had appeared behind his man. "Kestrel," he said, acknowledging the Indian's presence.
Sergeant Thomas Strong glanced at Kestrel and then looked back to him. "Kerr-a-Mingo? Sir?"
Kerr leaned on the gate. "It's a long story, Thomas. One I will gladly tell you after you get me out of here." He gripped the bars and rattled them. "I need to find my brother. And stop him."
"So this Firemaker, Sir," the sergeant said as he drew his knife and stepped up to the gate, " 'e is your brother?"
Kerr smiled. "Meaning I am a savage too? Yes, Thomas, it's true."
Kerr turned toward the tall native who had just spoken. Kestrel was binding Green Snake's hands and feet. "I beg your pardon?" Kerr asked him.
Kestrel glanced up and smiled. "Nothing." Then Kerr watched as the Indian quickly finished his work and pulled the warrior's bound and gagged form off into the underbrush.
"Just...a minute...." Thomas was sawing through the leather that bound the branches together to form the gate. It was hard work, but the sergeant was strong. He had to have been to have survived the world of poverty and violence that was the east end of London. "I'll...'ave....you....out of there, Sir.... There!" The last leather hinge split and the gate dropped an inch toward the ground. Thomas took hold of it and swung it out.
And he was free.
Kerr clapped his sergeant on the back as he emerged. "Well, done, Thomas! I thought I might have a beard down to my toes by the time anyone found me. I - " Kerr stopped. Thomas was looking at him strangely. "Thomas, what is it?"
His sergeant rushed forward suddenly and grabbed him, giving him a short, manly hug. Then he backed off just as quickly. "Beggin' your pardon, sir. I'm just that 'appy to see you alive."
Kerr was a little taken aback. He had no idea he inspired such affection in the man. "Quite all right, Thomas." He grinned as he laid a hand on the sergeant's shoulder. "I am that happy to see you alive as well." Still, he could not help but notice the marks Tara's beating had left on Thomas's face and chest.
That was another score he had to settle with his brother.
"Kestrel," Kerr called out suddenly.
The native reappeared from out of the leaves. "Yes?"
"My brother intends to impersonate me. The Governor General of Virginia is coming here tonight. Tara means to waylay him. And kill him."
"Blimey," Thomas whispered. "Won't that start a bleedin' war?"
Kerr nodded. "Tara does not care. He only cares that the Governor General dies."
"And why would that be, Sir? What's he got against the ruddy Governor General?"
Kerr felt Kestrel's eyes on him. How did the Indian know he had not told his men who his father was? He turned and met his sergeant's eyes. "The Governor General is my father, Thomas. My brother hates him because he thinks that he stole my mother away and was responsible for the death of his father. My mother was Cherokee. Her name was Talota. She married Lord Dunsmore after Tara's father died, and then I was born." The words had come rapidly. Once started they could not be stopped. Kerr drew in a breath of air.
Free at last.
Thomas was looking at him skeptically. "An' just who's your grandfather then, the bleedin' Earl of Derby?"
Kerr laughed. "Close, Thomas. Very close."
As his sergeant shook his head and tried to puzzle it all out, Kestrel spoke. "I know where he will go."
"Who?" Kerr asked.
"Oh? And where is that?"
Kestrel came to stand beside him. "To your mother's grave."
Lord Dunsmore parted the tall grasses before him and climbed the mound that led to her grave. His eyes sought out and found the bier they had placed her on. The animal hides were still there as were the tokens and trinkets decorated with feathers and beads. All that was left of the woman he loved was buried beneath them. And that was only bones and ashes.
Only ashes and memories.
The man also known as John Murray removed his hat and approached the raised platform. As he did, a tall figure separated from the shadows beside it. The man held a rifle in one hand. The other was balanced on the whip that hung from his hip. The darkness painted his red coat the color of old blood. As he stepped forward his face remained half-masked by the shadows cast by the brim of his unflapped cocked hat, but his father knew and recognized the long, black hair. It fell in a shining wave across his son's broad shoulders.
"I see you received my message, Kerr," Lord Dunsmore said. "So Major Halpen made it through."
"Yes," the familiar voice answered.
"And you knew I would be here? I take it then you have come to terms with the ghosts of your past?"
The man laughed. "Oh, yes."
"You're mother's bier.... How did you find it?"
There was a pause. "How could a man forget his mother? Or a father, his son?"
John Murray frowned. His son was in an odd mood this night. Perhaps the result of returning to his natal land. "Kerr, what is this? You sound bitter."
"The eminent Lord Dunsmore," Kerr intoned as he approached, "trying to resurrect a cemetery of forgotten yesterdays...."
"A cemetery, yes, Kerr. But not forgotten. Not forgotten." John Murray waited. When his son said nothing more, he asked him, "These words you speak...something troubles you. What is it?"
"I would have an answer," came his reply.
"An answer? Then I must ask, 'What is the question?' "
"Why did you take me from my people? Why could you not let me be?"
"You were my son."
"No. Not your son. The voice I speak with is the voice of she who you stole away." Kerr's hand lifted and he pointed at the raised platform that held his mother's wasted form. "I speak for her, Talota. Why did you take her from her people? From her son?"
"What?" Lord Dunsmore's frown deepened. Kerr was speaking slowly, deliberately, almost as if he were drugged. "What do you mean, 'from her son? Kerr, what is this?"
"Have you forgotten then? My brother? Her firstborn son, Tara-Mingo."
"Dear God," Dunsmore whispered as the blood drained from his face. "Is that wretched creature here?"
As he watched Kerr moved forward, leaving the shadows. He raised the rifle and pointed it straight at him. The familiar face parted with a smile and a feral light entered his dark eyes.
And suddenly he knew.
He knew it was not his son.
Lord Dunsmore took a step back. "Tara. Where's Kerr? What have you done with him?"
"If the great white father pleads I may tell him...." Tara placed the end of the flintlock's barrel against his chest and cocked the hammer, "And if he pleads well, I may even let him watch as his beloved son dies."
"Well now, don't that just beat all. Ain't it like an English man not to have the God-given sense to wait around until a body could rescue him." Yad scratched his head. "Where you think they up and got to?"
"One thing's for sure," Dan rose to his feet. "Kerr's with Kestrel and Sergeant Strong. I recognize their tracks." He frowned and fell silent.
"What? What is it?"
"Well, Kerr ain't wearin' his boots for one. He's in moccasins."
Yadkin tried to puzzle that one out. "You think he done gone over to the other side?"
Dan shook his head.
Yad waited. Then he said, "Well, he's about as smart an English man as I ever met. Maybe he done figured out them there boots were markin' him as a Lobsterback."
"Could be. Though I've seen Indians wearing borrowed boots before...."
"You think that's what happened? Some Injun took a fancy to them and stole them from him?"
Dan pursed his lips. When he spoke, his tone was serious. "Yad, what I'm worried about is that that ain't all someone stole from him. You remember what that skinny little Indian girl said?"
Yad rubbed his chest where the girl's foot had rested on it. "I remember she warn't that skinny, Dan'l. Tekawitha, you mean?"
Yad ran a finger over his chin. "Cain't rightly say that I remember what she said. She weren't prone to string too many words together at a time as I rightly recall."
"About Kerr and Firemaker," Dan prompted.
The blond thought about it. Then he snapped his fingers. "You mean about them lookin' alike?"
"What if Firemaker took Kerr's clothes and he's wearin' them? We know he's been dealin' with the British, Yad. That's what Menewa has been fightin'. What if he has some use for pretendin' to be our Captain Murray?"
"But what could that be, Dan'l?"
Dan shook his head. "Can't rightly say as I know, Yad." He hefted his rifle and nodded in the direction the tracks led. "But I think we better find out."
Kerr came up silently behind the tall Indian. Kestrel had been standing for some time watching the dawning light grow in the sky. The native had been absent for a part of the night and since his return, had kept to himself. Before he could say a word, Kestrel spoke.
"It would be best if we split up," the native said. " I can move faster on my own."
"How did you know I was here?"
Kestrel glanced at him. "How could I not?"
Kerr frowned. "I do not agree. I think we should remain together. There is strength in numbers."
"When all of that number is whole." Kestrel pointed toward his breeches. There was blood running along the seam.
"I'm fine," Kerr insisted, placing his hand over it. "I won't slow you down. "
"Yes, you will.
He frowned. "Then take Thomas with you."
The tall native shook his head. "No. He is needed here. With you. I will seek out your brother and see if he has your father. Then I will return for you. You must remain in this place at least two hours. It will take that long for me to make it to the Holy place and back."
Kerr thought about it a moment. Then he nodded. "And you think Daniel should be on his way?"
"Yes. Perhaps he will find you."
"Or you. His rifle would be helpful against my brother."
Kestrel eyed him strangely. "Yes. But I do not think he will find me. I am meant to go alone."
Kerr glanced behind at his sergeant. Thomas had fallen asleep beneath one of the tall trees. He was exhausted from his ordeal and finally willing and able to rest. He was glad the practical-minded soldier was missing this conversation. It was heading in a direction that he himself was not entirely comfortable with.
"Meant to?" Kerr asked.
Kestrel turned and met his gaze. "As it was ordained for you to come, it is ordained for me to go. Now." The native bent to the ground and picked up his rifle. Then he began to walk away.
Kerr's hand shot out and caught his arm. Kestrel had been acting strangely ever since they had shared a light meal the evening before. Afterwards they had sat for some time, quietly conversing. Then Kestrel had risen and disappeared into the woods. He tried to think back over their conversation, but could find nothing out of the ordinary in it. Kerr had told him about his conversation with Green Snake, about how he had overcome the warrior, about the tormenting squirrel and the eagle outside his cage. Kerr frowned. The eagle. It had meant something to the half-Cherokee. What was it?
What else had he forgotten?
"This has something to do with that blasted eagle, doesn't it?" he asked.
Kestrel seemed surprised. "You remember?"
"Damn it all, man, no, I don't! But I can tell you do. And I am not letting you leave here until you tell me."
The tall native stared at him. Kestrel was silent for a moment and then he said, resignedly, "Very well. Release me and I will tell you. But you should awaken Thomas as well. This concerns you both."
Kerr sighed. He turned toward his sergeant. As he did, out of the corner of his eye he saw the tall Indian shift his footing and raise his hand.
He was unconscious before he hit the ground.
Thomas Strong was dreaming of Nelly, the girl in the London dance hall with the golden hair and voice. She was singing one of those songs he loved; the ones where she swayed back and forth, lifting her skirts and showing her shapely legs. Nelly caught him watching. She left the stage and came to his side. He felt her weight press against him as she leaned on his shoulder and he reached out to touch her shining yellow hair with his fingers.
Then he awoke with a start.
Nelly was moaning.
No, it wasn't Nelly. It was the Captain.
Thomas sat up, causing his captain's semi-conscious form to slide down the side of the tree. Horrified he watched as it hit the ground. Scrambling quickly to his knees, he leaned over him, checking to see if he had been wounded. When Thomas was certain the blood on Captain Murray's leg was from the old wound, he sprang to his feet and made a quick circuit of the area.
They were alone.
Returning to his captain's side, Thomas gently rolled him over and then went to fetch his canteen. He poured some of the precious liquid on a cloth and then bathed his captain's face with it. The officer shuddered and came awake with a jolt.
"Kestrel. Where is he?" Kerr asked as he sat up.
"Ain't seen 'im, Captain. I figured 'e was off reconnoitering. "
Thomas watched as his captain slumped. He was silent a moment and then he leaned his head back against the tree. "No. He's gone."
"To meet my brother." The captain had gone pale. He swallowed hard. "To meet his death, I fear."
"Kestrel's death, Sir?"
His captain nodded. "I remember now, Thomas. The Cherokee place a great deal of stock in dreams. You remember last night when Kestrel quizzed me about the eagle I had seen outside the cave?"
Thomas nodded. "I thought that was a bit odd, Sir. Seemed to be very important to 'im - whether you really saw an eagle, or dreamed one."
"Or had a vision of one." Captain Murray rose to his feet and looked off toward the horizon. "I realized I didn't know which it had been. Whether the bird had been real or something I had dreamed."
"And why would it be important, Sir?" Thomas asked as he rose to his feet and joined him.
"The Cherokee believe all of nature is connected; man, animal and plant. And that the motions of one can influence - or indicate what will happen to the other. An eagle seen sitting beside a body in a dream can mean only one thing."
"And that would be, Sir?"
Captain Murray glanced at him and then headed for the opening in the trees that led toward the Cherokee village.
"Someone is about to die."
Kestrel knew death was calling. He did not know for certain, but he thought the one it called was the Englishman. The eagle had appeared to CaraMingo. It had haunted him for days from what he had said. And yet Kestrel knew in his heart that the Englishman was not meant to die.
The tall native gripped his rifle tightly as he moved through the thick underbrush. Was this what he had sensed when he first saw the him in Daniel's cabin? Kestrel remembered Israel asking him what his Pa could have been thinking, bringing an English redcoat to their cabin. He had replied then that it was a bad omen.
Kestrel glanced at the sky, searching for the eagle.
Perhaps, after all, the omen had been for him.
He and Daniel had been friends for several years now. He had enjoyed the frontiersman's company, but their friendship had put a strain on his relationships with his own Peoples. Many of the Cherokee did not understand. And even fewer of the Shawanese. His brothers had not lived with the settlers as he had. They refused to believe that there were good and bad white men, just as there were good and bad native men. Most of his brethren simply wanted to kill them all; to make them go away as if they had never been.
A thing that was never going to happen.
Recently the anger of his father's people, the Shawanese, had been increased by the senseless destruction of several of their villages; villages filled with innocent women and children. Angry, drunken settlers had burnt the lodges and council houses to the ground and committed many atrocities, supposedly to avenge the wrongful deaths of their own loved ones. In this act was the shape of things to come. Now there was talk of war. The young men of both tribes, Cherokee and Shawanese, were allying themselves with others from outside; with those like Firemaker who talked of nothing but hatred and destruction. They had been set afire by rumors. Once the war between the English and the settlers ended, these newcomers warned, if the settlers won, the white men would take all the People's lands and leave them nothing. There would be no more game in the forests. No fields to cultivate.
The newcomers called for an allegiance with the British to drive the settlers out, and then intended to kill all of the English as soon as they had gone.
Kestrel knelt behind a thicket of tall cat-tails and waited, listening. The last time he had gone home, he had been called on to choose. One of the young men of his father's clan had challenged him. Would he fight with the People, or against them? Was his heart, in the end, red or white?
He had not given him an answer.
He had not known.
Kestrel shifted and rose to his feet. Whatever threat he thought he had heard had not materialized. He knew it might be his imagination. He was close to the Holy place now. Before him were the spears thrust into the ground by the Priests ages before; their tattered feathers and frayed leather thongs flying in the breeze. From the ground the bones of his ancestors cried out to him, protesting against the Creek marauders who walked the Cherokee's land, seeking to bring war when all the dead desired was peace. Cautiously, reverently, Kestrel entered the Holy place. He found it deserted. Kneeling, he searched the ground beneath the raised platforms for prints and found that two pairs of boots had recently rested there.
He remembered Kerr had told him that his brother would be dressed in his red coat and using his voice. Firemaker meant to trick the man who had given Kerr life and call him to his death. Kestrel tracked the boots for several yards. They had left single-file. One captive and one captor.
There was no way to tell which man was which.
Kestrel rose to his feet with a sigh and, unable to resist, crossed the hallowed ground to one of the raised platforms. On it was not the body of Talota, but of his own mother. He raised his eyes to where she lay and started to find the pallet empty. Then, beneath the raised platform, a shadow stirred. A young native woman appeared. She smiled and held her hands out to him.
Kestrel heard the sound of approaching footsteps. Above him, in the sky, the eagle cried and circled. As he watched, it came to rest on the wasted form of the woman who had given him life.
Kestrel closed his eyes.
Death had come.
"Captain, might I ask what it is you think you are doing?"
"Going after him." Kerr had a freshly bandaged leg. He had cleaned the wound again and bound it tight. He shouldered his borrowed rifle and nodded toward the trees. "This is my fight. Tara is my brother. It is my father he threatens. I am not staying behind."
"Kestrel said to give 'im two hours."
"It's been nearly that. I am not waiting any longer." Kerr looked up into the heavens. "I feel I mustn't." He glanced at his sergeant. "I can't explain."
"Ain't no explanations needed by me, Captain. I follow orders plain and simple." Thomas shouldered the rest of their belongings. "Point me in the direction, Sir."
Kerr indicated a path that had been beaten through the trees. "To the Cherokee graveyard. Beyond that...." He paused. "As the Bard said, 'This day's black fate on more days doth depend. This but begins the woe, others must end.' "
Kerr was sober. "Can't you feel it, Thomas? It's in the air."
Thomas was frowning. "And what would that be, Sir?"
He glanced up. The eagle had reappeared. It was circling above the trees. It halted momentarily, as if aware of his gaze, and then flew off, making a beeline toward his mother's resting place.
The entrance to the graveyard was before him. Kerr drew a deep breath and, with a glance at his sergeant, moved forward past the spears. He had not missed the fact that they had been moved. Before they had stood as sentinels guarding the path to the graves.
Now they were crossed in warning.
He and Thomas had been traveling for something more than one hour and less than two. His injured leg had slowed down their progress. He had never been able to give it time to heal and now the fever had returned as well to tickle the edge of his consciousness. Something else was tickling at it as well. Not fear or danger, but a sense of inevitability. As if, no matter what path he chose, the outcome would be the same. Kerr smiled grimly. What had Kestrel told him? 'Ordained', the Cherokee had said.
His arrival at this time had been ordained.
Thomas was standing beside him. Kerr looked at him. His sergeant's face had gone white as a sail turned into the noonday sun. "Thomas? What is it?"
"Over there, Sir."
He looked where Thomas was pointing. The dawn light had increased. The sun had topped the trees and its magnificent rays crept through the uppermost branches, casting several of the raised biers into silhouette. He could see that something had been tied to the leg of the one that stood next to his mother's.
It was a man's form.
"Dear God," he whispered.
It was Kestrel.
When they took him down, he was still breathing. Kerr caught him as Thomas cut him loose and laid the native gently on the ground. As he opened Kestrel's shirt to check his wounds, a coppery hand gripped his with surprising strength.
"It is done. All that is left is the grave."
Kestrel had been beaten. The marks of a whip scarred his flesh. But the death blow had come from a knife. Kerr shook his head. "I will send Thomas for aid."
"There is no time." The Cherokee drew a deep, shuddering breath. "It was...your brother. And Black Sun. The Englishman...was with them." The native's fingers gripped Kerr's tighter arm as a spasm of pain wracked his ravaged form. "I am...a message."
Kerr shook his head. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. "A message?" he whispered.
"For you. Your brother says...come alone or.Dunsmore dies. Tara-Mingo is waiting...by the river. Do not.grieve for me, CaraMingo." Kestrel's lips curled in a slight smile. "I am...going home."
Kerr tried to return it. "I will try not to."
Kerr waited. "Yes?"
The native smiled again. "It was meant to be."
And then he died.
Kerr sat there a moment, breathing hard. He had seen men die before; men he had known and loved. But this death hit him exceptionally hard. Not only because he felt it had come as much by his hand as his brother's, but because Kestrel had come to mean so many things to him. In many ways the native represented the life he had been denied. The one he should have had.
And here it was, taken away from him again.
Kerr felt Thomas's close presence. He shook his head. Words would not come.
"Sir? Are you all right?"
Kerr laughed grimly. He sat still for a moment with his hand on Kestrel's, and then rose and nodded. In an odd way... Yes, he was all right. Kerr shook his dark hair from his shoulders and turned toward his sergeant. "Thomas, I need you to do something for me."
"Whatever you ask, Sir."
"Stay with him."
Thomas's jaw tightened. He nodded sharply. "Sir." Then he frowned and added more quietly, "Beggin' your pardon, Captain, but just where might you be goin'?"
He looked toward the trees. "After my brother."
"Kerr, no. That's just what that devil wants."
Kerr grinned. "You called me by my name, Thomas."
His sergeant blushed. "Sir."
Kerr laid his hand on his shoulder. "This may be the last order I ever give you, Sergeant Thomas Strong of His Majesty's Royal Army. Maybe the last order I ever give. You will stay here with Kestrel's body until his people come looking for him, and then you will accompany them home. Once he is laid to rest...." Kerr paused. He glanced at his mother's bier. "You are released from my service. Make your way back, Thomas. Go home to your family."
"Not without you, Sir."
Kerr shook his head. "Yes, without me." He turned and looked at the crossed spears, left as a challenge by his Creek brother. "I am going to stop Tara or die trying. And if I do stop him, I am not going back to England. I do not belong there.
"I never have, and I never will."
Sometime later Sergeant Thomas Strong started out of a deep sleep. His captain had been gone several hours. The noonday sun was high in the sky above his head, though it was veiled by a thick bank of clouds. The air was heavy with moisture. A steady breeze rustled through the leaves about him, sounding like breakers on a shore. He knew the signs. A storm was brewing; one of the kind that came quickly to these hostile lands, seemingly between one breath and the next. It would only be a matter of moments before the rain started to pummel the earth. Thomas glanced behind the tree trunk that propped him up hoping it had all been a bad dream. But Kestrel's body was still there, wrapped in a blanket. He and his captain had taken the faded cloth from one of the graves. When he had questioned the wisdom of desecrating a Cherokee grave, Captain Murray had only smiled sadly. The woman would not mind, he had said.
She had been his mother.
Thomas frowned. He still had trouble picturing his captain as a boy running through these woods in buckskins and feathers. Still, there had always been something about the captain. Something different. Something special. It was why his men loved him so. He had the common touch.
Perhaps it had been bred into him in this place.
Thomas stood up and stretched his arms wide. It might be days before the Cherokee came looking for their missing companion. His captain had helped him move the Indian's body past the spears and out of the graveyard so that when they did, he could not be accused of violating that holy place. Still, Thomas was sure it was going to take more diplomatic skills than he possessed to convince Kestrel's people that he had not had a hand in his death.
Thomas bent down to the ground to retrieve his standard-issue rifle. As his fingers touched it, he heard a sound. For a moment he hesitated, listening. Then, leaving the weapon where it was, he straightened up and looked toward the horizon.
It was lined with tall, feathered figures.
Before he could manage to stammer out the few Cherokee words his captain had been able to give him - words amounting to 'My name is Thomas. I am your friend' - one of the warriors raised his bow and aimed an arrow straight at his heart.
Continued in Chapter Six