"Eh, beggin' your pardon...."
Kerr's dark head pivoted as Rebecca Boone let out an audible sigh of relief. From a brace of trees to the side of their property her husband and his friend, Yadkin, emerged. With Ticklicker resting on his shoulder, Daniel Boone continued to lope toward them in his easy, casual way. When he arrived, he stopped and greeted the Cherokee spokesman with a nod.
"Black Sun. You're in the wrong neck of the woods. You miss a turn somewhere?" he asked.
The native was not amused. "Boone."
Kerr watched as the frontiersman glanced from Black Sun to him, to his wife, and then back again to the native, sizing up the situation with one long stare. "Am I welcome at this here powwow? Or is it by invitation only?"
"They came looking for Kestrel, Dan," his wife told him.
Boone's green eyes narrowed. "I take it you didn't find him."
Black Sun shifted. "Not yet. But we will. He has much to answer for."
"So does your new chief."
The two men fell silent, their gazes locked, and then the native broke away to turn toward Kerr. "You are most welcome in the village any time you care to come, Kerr Murray. We will spread the word to make certain your passage is clear." Black Sun's eyes flicked to the tall frontiersman, 'Firemaker welcomes any son of his great White father, the King."
"I'll come with you now," he said quickly.
"Now, hold on, Kerr." Daniel reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. "You ain't fit to travel anywhere any time soon."
As he started to protest, Boone's friend Yadkin poked his head in. The blond made a clucking sound with his tongue and then pointed toward Kerr's legs. As Kerr looked down, Yad said, "You might think about puttin' some breeches on before you go. We wouldn't want one of them savages mistaking you for a squaw, now would we?"
Kerr sighed. He had forgotten he was still wearing the nightshirt in which he had awakened. And beneath it, his thigh was red again. He started to protest, but the frontiersman's hand tightened on his flesh. As he looked at him, Daniel Boone said quietly, "It's not the time."
"We would be happy to escort you now," Black Sun offered. "Our healer could look after that wound." The native paused and then added with a sly smile, "Our chief is most anxious to meet you."
"Anxious?" Kerr asked. "Why...?"
"Your friend has spoken much of you. He, as well as we, await your arrival." Black Sun nodded to him and then turned and walked away without another word. His men followed silently.
Becky had been holding her breath, as well as a hand to her heart. At a sound she turned toward the cabin. Then she nodded. Her children came quickly to her side.
"What was it, Ma? Why were they here?" Jemima asked.
"They wanta hurt Kestrel," Israel declared. "You ain't gonna let them, are you, Pa?"
Daniel Boone turned to Kerr and held his hand out for his spare rifle. The Englishman smiled, chagrinned, and then dropped the weapon into it.
"I'm not going to let them hurt anyone, son," Daniel said. Then he nodded to Rebecca. "Becky, why don't you and the children go to the fort and get the fixin's for that meal we promised Kestrel? And while you're there, get the young'uns a treat."
"Really, Pa?" Israel leapt with joy. "Can I get some licorice?"
"Yep. And bring some home to share."
"Wow! Come on, 'Mima. Beat you to the path." And with that, he was off.
"Keep in sight, Israel." Becky said as she stepped off the porch. "That boy."
"Yes, darlin'?" Dan asked as his daughter came up to him.
"Is everything all right?" The girl glanced at their unexpected guest. Kerr Murray was limping back into the cabin, apparently gone in pursuit of his clothes. "You are sending us away, aren't you, Pa?"
Dan stroked her hair. "I just need to talk to Kerr. Alone. Everythin's fine."
Jemima stared at him a moment and then planted a quick kiss on his cheek. "I love you, Pa.
See you when we get back."
"I love you too, 'Mima." He watched her go and then turned back to the cabin as Yad came up beside him.
"You gonna tell him?" the blond asked.
Dan shrugged. "I think I have to - what with what we just saw."
Yadkin frowned. "I told you, Dan'l. I told you that English man'd put one of them there bayonets in your back the first time you turned around."
"We'll see. We don't know yet, Yad, whose finger is on the musket's trigger. Kerr might just be followin' orders."
"I thought he weren't supposed to be a soldier no more."
Dan handed Yad the extra rifle. "We'll see about that too. You keep watch, Yad. 'Case those Indians decide to double-back."
"Will do, Dan'l. And you watch your back."
The tall man frowned. "Will do."
Kerr was standing at the foot of the bed, still in his nightshirt, rooting through the chest. He had found his boots and his red coat, but his breeches seemed to be missing.
"I had Becky burn them."
He pivoted to find Daniel Boone watching him. "What?"
"They were ruined. And seein' as how you aren't an officer anymore, I didn't think you'd have need of them." Boone pointed toward the bed. "Or the coat."
Kerr's dark eyes narrowed. There was something in the man's tone - something different. "I see." He turned and faced the frontiersman squarely, held his head high, and stiffened his spine. "Am I to take it that you no longer believe me?"
Daniel Boone placed Ticklicker against the wall and came to stand before him. "I ain't quite sure what to believe." He reached into his buckskin jacket and drew out a packet of papers tied with a ribbon. "That silver epaulette ain't the only thing Becky found in your pocket."
Kerr paused. "You read it?"
The tall man was silent a moment. "Yep. Felt like I had to."
"Understandable." The letters within the packet contained Kerr's orders from Lord Dunsmore to contact the Cherokee, as well as guarantees of gold and weapons in return for their sworn allegiance to the King.
Boone held it out, "This what you're here for?"
"Yes," Kerr answered without hesitation. Then he added softly, "Well, it was."
Kerr retreated to the bed and sat on it. He was still weak from loss of blood and tired easily. Too easily. "Since I arrived in Kentucky things have moved so swiftly." He paused. "I have...personal reasons as well for coming here."
That seemed to surprise the other man. Daniel Boone pursed his lips and leaned back against the wall. "But you are still a Redcoat, in the King's employ?"
Kerr hesitated. He knew he should lie but found he couldn't - not in the face of those clear green eyes. "Yes."
"So the stripped coat is just a ruse?"
His dark brown eyes danced. "Oh no, that is my coat. I hate ostentatious show."
Boone shook his head. "You're an odd kind of Redcoat."
Kerr laughed. "My father would agree with that assessment."
Kerr stiffened. Too much information and he might find himself with a rope around his neck. Better to play the recalcitrant son. "Father is a part of the...establishment. I am expected to behave in certain ways. To want certain things." He paused. "I am afraid he despairs that I will ever conform."
"I see." Daniel Boone fell silent. He walked to the table and propped his hip on the edge of it before speaking again. "I soldiered once."
"Yes, I know. You are a captain as well, I believe."
The tall man nodded. "So I know you are bound to follow your orders." He indicated the packet with a nod. "And your duty is to the Governor General of Virginia."
A 'duty' which went deeper than the frontiersman could imagine. "Yes," he answered.
"Which leaves me with a dilemma."
Kerr smiled grimly. "Yes, I am afraid, it does."
Boone paused again. Then he said, "If you leave here, where will you go?"
Again, he couldn't lie. "To Chota."
"Because of your orders, your friend, or this personal matter?"
Kerr frowned. "All three. In a way, I believe all three are linked."
The tall man nodded. "That's what I thought."
Dan rose and walked to the door. He glanced at the packet and the Englishman who was sitting with his head in his hands and called out, "Yad!"
A moment later the blond appeared in the open doorway. "Dan'l?"
"I need to do some thinkin'," Dan said softly, lowering his voice. "I want you to make certain our 'guest' here is comfortable, and that he doesn't decide sudden-like to leave."
Yadkin tipped his cap as he fixed unfriendly eyes on the Englishman. "Sure thing, Dan'l. And if'n he tries, I'll make certain they have to ship him back to fat ol' King George wrapped in a sheet and stuffed in a box."
Dan reached out to catch the barrel of his friend's rifle. "No, Yad. No killin'."
"Well, why in tarnation not?" One grubby finger jabbed him in the chest. "He lied to you, Dan'l. And he's about to bring the Cher-o-kee and the British army down on our heads."
Dan glanced back at the man who was sitting quietly on the edge of the bed. "I don't know, Yad. There's somethin'. I can't put my finger on it. But somehow, I think Kerr belongs here. He just doesn't know it yet."
Yad looked from the stranger to him. "You know what I think, Dan'l Boone?"
Dan started out of his reverie. "What?"
"You got your coonskin cap on backwards and the tail is blindin' your eyes."
The tall man laughed. "Maybe." He turned back into the cabin then. "Kerr?"
The Englishman looked up. "Yes?"
"Yad here will be keepin' you company 'til I come back. You need anythin', you just ask Becky once she gets home."
The dark-haired man smiled grimly. "I take it I am under house arrest?"
Dan grinned. "Well, I don't know as I would have put just that name to it, but if that's how you want to see it...."
"And what would happen if I just walked out the door and went to rescue Thomas?" There was an edge to his voice.
"In that get-up?" Yad laughed.
Dan quieted his friend. "Well, I'd have to go with you or stop you, and seein' how I've got a few things to check out, I think the stoppin' would come first."
"And since Dan'l ain't gonna be here. I'll be the one doin' the stoppin'." Yad gripped his rifle and raised one blond brow. "And I ain't known for bein' the gentle type where Englishmen are concerned."
Rebecca Boone and her children had returned and gone about their normal routines. Kerr had washed and dressed - putting on a pair of buckskins and a hunting shirt his host had loaned him - and then wasted some time reading one of the books he carried with him while the redhead bustled about the cabin. Then, as she began preparations for the noonday meal, he had offered to help, and his help had been gratefully accepted. So he had spent the morning snipping green beans and peeling potatoes, cleaning out the hearth and stacking kindling. After their meal was finished, he had offered to take her daughter, Jemima's, place and help her with the dishes. As the girl ran off to spend the unexpected free time with her friends, he had talked with Boone's wife. She had expressed her surprise at how domestic he was. Kerr had laughed and told her that, as a boy, he had felt more at home with the servants in his father's house than with his brothers and sisters, or his peers. He had always found the lower classes to be more honest and real. Now, hours later, as he sat by the fire reading from his volume of Shakespeare's 'MacBeth' to Daniel Boone's son, he found himself filled with a sort of longing for this kind of peace and contentment. He had known little of either in his life. As the boy turned the next page, Kerr acknowledged to himself how grateful he was that the tall frontiersman had not felt it necessary to tell his family what he had found out about him. Their acceptance was genuine and he valued it.
The tavern-keeper, Cincinnatus, had come and gone earlier in the day, leaving him with a warning that his leg was not healing as it should. If he wasn't careful, the older man said, mortification could set in. Or if it healed wrong, it might leave him with a limp. Kerr had nodded and assured him he would take care. If things had been different, he would have used any excuse to remain in this safe haven as long as possible.
But Thomas was being held prisoner and he had to free him.
Near the end of the day Kerr had noticed his blond jailer was missing from the porch. After that, when Mrs. Boone had mentioned needing water, he had offered to walk to the well to obtain it. She had agreed readily enough. He had walked the short distance and drawn the water as requested, but set the bucket on the ground and, with one last glance at the Boone cabin, had started across what might have been called their 'yard', intending to make good his escape. As he drew abreast the trees that lined it, a shadow had shifted beneath one of them, and the man named Yadkin had showed himself. He had shaken his head slowly and pointed with the rifle back toward the cabin. Kerr had acknowledged his presence and the warning, and turned back just in time to have the Boone's small son call out to him to come and read.
And so here he was. Kerr closed the book and looked at the little boy who was nodding. "I think it must be your bedtime, young man."
The boy sat up suddenly and opened his eyes wide. "No, it ain't. I'm wide awake. I could go on for - "
Israel looked up to find his mother watching. "Yes Ma'am." Sliding off his knee, the boy turned and grinned at him. "I didn't think I could like a Redcoat, but I like you."
Kerr smiled. "I like you too, Israel. Thank you for allowing me to read to you."
The boy frowned. "Ain't I supposed to thank you for readin' to me?"
"I have no children of my own, and I have never been particularly close to any of my brother's or sister's children. I enjoyed it."
Israel shook his head. "You think mighty funny, mister."
Kerr held up his hand. "No. It is all right. Most anyone who knows me would agree."
He watched as she took the boy by the hand and led him to bed. He was still sitting, staring at the book in his hand when she returned. So intent was Kerr in his thoughts, that he didn't realize Rebecca Boone was there until she sat beside him and said his name.
He started and straightened up. "Yes?"
"May I ask you something personal?"
Kerr opened his hands wide. "Dear lady, I have unabashedly partaken of both your food and your hospitality, and yet you ask no recompense. I hardly think an answer to a personal question is payment enough, but you may have it if you so desire."
She laughed. "You speak like a poet."
"Very well." Rebecca Boone straightened her skirts. "Why are you so sad?"
"Sad?" He shifted uncomfortably. "Do I appear to be so?"
"Yes. You seem.... Well, lost." When he said nothing, she continued. "Why is it you aren't close with your brothers' and sisters' children?"
"Half-brothers and sisters," he corrected her, and then immediately regretted it. If he was not mistaken she would require an explanation, and he would have to give her one - unless he wanted to be rude.
"Half?" she asked, as expected.
Kerr nodded slowly. "My mother was...native to the Colonies. My father met her while he was here surveying."
"And you have a step-mother now?"
"What happened to your mother?"
"She died when I was relatively young." He stood and taking the poker, stoked the fire. The cabin had grown chill with the descent of the sun. "My father took me back to England then. I have been there ever since." Kerr laughed. "Well, until now."
"So have you come here to find your mother's kin?"
That startled him so he almost dropped the poker. He met her blue eyes and asked, "What?"
"Her kin. Your American relatives. Was her family among the early settlers?" Rebecca Boone reached down and picked up a sampler she was stitching. "That would have to have been, when? In the forties?"
"Yes. I think they met in forty-three or forty-four."
"She must have died young for you to have had no other full brothers or sisters."
"She was young...." His voice trailed off as a distant memory surfaced. He frowned.
He returned the poker to its place on the hearth and sat heavily beside it. "My God," he whispered.
Becky put her sampler down and leaned forward to touch his hand. "Are you ill?"
"No. It is just that..." He paused. When he looked up at her, it was with chagrin. "This is going to sound rather impossible, I'm afraid."
"My mother was...married before. She lived with her husband's people for a time. He was killed." He spoke slowly, trying to remember. "She married my father and they went to live in her village. I was born, but...."
His dark brown eyes fixed on hers. "I think I might have another brother. Here."
She leaned back. "You think?"
He nodded. "I remember another small boy in the lodge. He was bigger than I was. He was only there a short time, and then someone came for him. One day, he was simply not there any longer."
"And your mother never spoke of him?"
He frowned. "No. Nor my father either." Kerr drew a deep breath and leaned back. Had his father known? What reason would he have had not to tell him? Or had he forgotten as well?
"Perhaps he died," she suggested. "Some people never speak of the dead."
"Perhaps." He nodded again, slowly. "I have to find out. Mrs. Boone -."
"Becky. Or Rebecca, please."
"Rebecca. I have not seen your husband, is he home yet?"
She shook her head. "I think he went looking for Kestrel. Dan hoped to get some information on your friend. He should be home soon."
Kerr was surprised. "Information on Thomas? Why?"
She stood and laid the sampler on the seat of the chair. "Since he couldn't let you go, I think he wanted to make certain he was all right."
"What?" Kerr's mouth fell open. "Couldn't let me go.... You mean, you know?"
She smiled. "That you are here for your King, and that you aren't a deserter after all? Yes."
"But?" Her blue eyes were slightly amused.
"You have treated me with such kindness. I might be here to destroy everything you hold dear."
"You might be," she agreed. "But until you try you are just a man, and you need food and a bed, and care just like any other. Now, if you will excuse me. Dan will be here soon and he'll be hungry."
Kerr watched her go, astonished. Never in his life had he known people such as these, who paid more than lip service to the tenets of their faith. He was a stranger and they had taken him in, and treated him as if he were one of their own.
How could he repay such kindness with betrayal?
Kerr thought of the letters Daniel Boone had returned to him. He was a soldier. He had his orders. And yet if he obeyed them, he would put these people, their settlement, and everything that mattered to them in jeopardy. He knew it was his father's intention to drive them out. Kerr glanced about the Boone's home. It was simple. Compared to all he had known and all he stood to possess one day when he inherited the peerage from his father, it was nothing. But there was something here. Something more than wealth. Something better. Here, there was love.
"Would you like some cider?" Rebecca called softly from across the room, startling him.
Kerr shook his head. "No, thank you. I think I will just sit here by the fire and read - if you are not in need of further assistance."
"No. You just rest. You did more than enough earlier."
Becky turned away from the Englishman and walked to the cupboard to fetch a cup and plate. She stood there for a moment with her back to him, a frown marring her handsome face. His mother's husband's people, he had said. Not kin. And he used the word, not as if he spoke of her family, but of a group to which he had belonged. Kerr had also used the word 'village' instead of town to describe his boyhood home, and said they had lived in a lodge. Becky pivoted with the dishes in her hand and as she laid them on the table, she took a long hard look at him. Kerr's figure was cast in silhouette by the roaring fire. He was tall man, well formed, if a little on the thin side. His hair was black as the sky on a night without a moon, its highlights blue as that same sky on a sunny day. His skin was a sort of coppery tan, rich like leather. But then, that was not unusual. Dan's was almost as dark in the summer months when he labored long hours beneath the sun. She watched as Kerr closed the book and rose to his feet and walked to the window. He pulled the curtain back and, as he did, the last rays of the dying sun struck his face.
It was strong-boned. The cheekbones high and wide. And slightly familiar.
Kerr turned toward her. "Rebecca, is something wrong?"
She shook her head. "No. Everything is just fine."
At that moment the door opened and Jemima stepped in. She had been on the porch shucking peas, but the basket she carried did not hold the fruits of her labor. Instead it was brimful with corn. Her daughter nodded to their guest and then came to the table and placed the basket on it. "Look, Ma." Jemima held up one of the ears. Its kernels were blue, rust, and yellow. "Isn't it beautiful?"
"Where did you get - " Becky smiled as a man followed her daughter through the door.
"You're all right then."
The native smiled. "So it would seem. For the moment Black Sun and his renegades have other matters to attend to." He glanced at Kerr. "There has been another Englishman in the village of Chota."
Kerr came to his side. "What?"
Kestrel nodded. "Seeking word of whether or not you had been seen. It seems someone has missed you."
The Englishman hesitated. "Did you know his rank?" he asked.
"I did not see him. One in the village who is loyal to Menewa brought word. He said only that he was a soldier, and wore a red coat."
The native turned toward her. "Yes, Rebecca?"
"Is Dan with you?"
"He follows. He is speaking with Yadkin."
She gestured to her daughter. "Jemima, go find them, and tell them there's food waiting."
While she had been busy with Jemima, Kestrel had crossed to their guest. "Have you eaten?" he asked him.
"Yes," Becky heard the Englishman answer. Then Kerr added, "Why do you ask? I take it you are not overly concerned with my welfare...."
"Do you have the strength to walk with me?" Kestrel asked.
The native smiled. "You have been in England too long. There does not need to be a destination. The walk is all."
"Kestrel, don't you want some supper?" Becky stepped between them. Her voice was strained. She didn't know if Dan was aware of what the native was planning. "You must be hungry."
Kestrel smiled that maddening smile at her. "The trees and river are my sustenance."
Becky couldn't help but laugh. "You mean to say the trees and the river are more filling than my Mince pie?" At his look, she added, "Don't you think you should wait on Dan? "
Kestrel walked to the bed in the alcove and returned with Kerr's red coat. "You will need this," he said to him. "The air is chill and you are not whole."
She watched as the Englishman took the coat and slipped it on. "Very well." Kerr motioned toward the door. "Shall we then?"
Kestrel laid a hand on her arm in passing. "Do not worry, Rebecca. I will bring him back."
As the two of them disappeared out the door, she bit her lip.
Don't worry, he said. Somehow she had the feeling, the worrying was only beginning.
The two men slipped off the porch into the darkness. They walked in silence for some time. Kerr pulled his coat tight. The night was cold for early autumn. As he shivered he glanced at the other man. Kestrel was only wearing a hunting shirt and no coat, but he appeared not to notice. There was something about the man that was as solid as the earth they walked. As they rounded a corner and faced a fork in the road, the native paused and turned to look at him.
"Which do you choose?" he asked.
Kerr frowned. "Which? Which what?"
The Englishman shivered. "Well, I suppose that would depend on where I was headed."
A slight smile lifted the corner of Kestrel's lips. "Yes."
"Yes, what?" Kerr waited. When the other man made no response he snapped, "You know, you can be quite infuriating." He was cold and tired, and all of this seemed to be leading nowhere. "Why have you brought me here?"
"I did not. You have chosen this path. Like it, you are divided."
"I have no idea what you are talking about."
"Yes, you do." The native reached out and touched the breast of his jacket. "Here. In your heart, Cara-Mingo. Listen to it, and it will tell you all you need to know."
There was that name again. "Why do you call me that?"
"It is your name."
"It was," he responded quickly. "Once."
"Can a man leave behind who he is by leaving behind his name? It was given to you. It is who you are."
"No. Not anymore. I barely remember Cara-Mingo. He might as well be dead."
"Did he have to die then, for Kerr to live?" Kestrel asked quietly.
"No. What are you trying to say?" He began to protest, but then stopped. It was true. Cara had had to die so Kerr could live. He had had to bury him, and bury him deep. Kerr tossed his head and stamped his feet, trying to warm himself.
"Why do you ask?"
The native's eyes were fathomless in the dark. "Will you trust me?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I would take you somewhere. It is on Cherokee land. The journey is not safe. For you or me. Still, I have asked the Creator, and he says you must go."
"You asked the Creator?" He was stunned. "You mean you have been praying for me?"
Kestrel smiled. "Does that bother you?"
He shook his head. "But you do not know me."
"No. I do not know Kerr." Kestrel paused. "But I knew Cara-Mingo. Long ago, when I was a boy."
The Englishman blinked. "You knew me? Here?"
"Will you come?"
Kerr considered it for a moment. Then he nodded. "Which way?"
Kestrel stepped back. He held his hand out. "You tell me, Cara-Mingo."
Kerr frowned as he stared at the two paths. One was even and well worn, as though it was used regularly. The other was rough and over-grown. The harder path.
And the obvious choice.
He pointed toward it. "This way."
"He took him where?"
"I don't know Dan. I hoped you knew what he was doing."
Dan shook his head. "Nope. Kestrel is not exactly what you'd call predictable, but this isn't like him." He glanced at Yad. "You see which way they went?"
The blond shook his head and swallowed. "Didn't see hide nor hair, nor feather of 'em, Dan'l. What do you think he's up to?"
"I'm not sure." Dan wiped his mouth and stood up. Then he placed his cap on his head and accepted Ticklicker from his friend's hand. "But I guess I'll have to go find out."
He stopped and looked at his wife. "Becky?" She seemed uncomfortable. "What is it?"
"I think you should leave them alone."
"What are you talkin' about, woman? What if that there Englishman overpowers Kestrel and takes him to them renegade Cher-o-kee? You know what them letters said. He's here to buy their loyalty. Turning Kestrel over would do that right enough."
"I don't think he's interested in that, Yad," she said softly.
Dan rested his rifle on the table, "Becky, what do you know?"
With a frown, she said, "Dan, describe Kerr to me."
"Yes, describe him. I know I must seem slightly mad...."
He glanced at Yadkin who seemed to say by his expression that all women were slightly mad and he might as well humor her. "Well, he's a tall feller if a mite on the skinny side. He has an open face. Likes to laugh. You can tell that by his eyes. They're dark brown, and his hair is black as coal."
"And his skin?"
Dan shrugged. "Coppery, I'd say. A mite dark for an Englishman."
"Does he remind you of anyone? Think about his hair and eyes, and that skin."
Her husband frowned. "Come to think of it, he kind of reminds me of old chief Menewa."
Becky nodded triumphantly. "Exactly!"
"What in tarnation are you two gettin' at? You sayin' Menewa is British or somethin'?"
Dan laughed as Becky rolled her eyes and said, "No, Yad. I am saying Kerr is native. At least in part. He told me his mother's people were from around here." She looked at him and added solemnly. "I think he's part Cherokee, Dan. And I think Kestrel knows it."
"Where are you taking me?"
"You will see."
Kerr sighed as he scrambled through the underbrush. "Are all natives as enigmatic with their answers as you are?"
"We do not think as the white man thinks. There are not always answers. Answers are an end. Questions bring new beginnings."
Kerr gritted his teeth as he stepped off a fallen log and landed with a jolt on the path. "Is that a 'yes'?"
Kestrel's hand shot out. He paused for a moment and then whispered, "Into the leaves. Now."
Kerr obeyed without question. As the two of them disappeared into the rust-colored foliage, a group of natives appeared. Under the light of the risen moon they seemed more as shades than living men. Still, Kerr recognized one of them as Black Sun. He watched with interest as they passed, and noticed they all deferred to the man who was in the lead. He was tall and wore his hair in two unbraided tails that hung past his shoulders. He was dressed in light-colored buckskins and moved quickly, as if he feared no one and nothing.
A minute later they were gone.
"What were they doing here? Are we near Chota?" he asked at last.
Kestrel nodded. "The village is a mile to the north."
"Thomas," Kerr said, and rose.
A hand restrained him. "You would only doom him and yourself if you attempted to rescue him without help. Is that the act of a friend?"
He looked at the native. "I will rescue him."
Kestrel rose as well. "I know. But not tonight. Do not worry. They will not harm him."
"How do you know?" Kerr asked.
"He is more important to them alive."
"Why? He means nothing to them."
Kestrel started to move. "No, but you do."
"I don't understand."
The native glanced at him. "Come with me. You will."
The two of them continued to move through the dark night with the moon as their only light. As they did, Kerr began to grow fatigued. His leg ached and he felt dizzy and light-headed. The tavern-keeper's words came back to haunt him, and he wondered idly if infection was setting in. He was just about to ask his companion if he could rest for a minute when they drew to a halt.
"We are here."
Kerr glanced around. They were in a glade, surrounded by tall trees. There was no structure. Nothing to make it stand out as any place that could be called 'here'. "Where?" he asked. It looked like any other part of the woods to him.
"This ground is sacred," the native said quietly. He sat down and laid his hands on his knees with the palms up. "I will sing while you go forward."
Kerr frowned. "You are not coming with me?"
"No. This is not for me. It is for you, Cara-Mingo. Like a river the white man's life runs, always moving forward. Never looking back. Always rushing to arrive. For the native, life is like a still pond. Each life is a stone tossed into that pond. The ripples interlock. They go, and they return." Kestrel glanced at him. "So have you."
"But where am I going. Should I...?" He stopped as Kestrel closed his eyes and began to hum. "Never mind. I'll find out myself."
Limping slightly he passed the seated native and began to climb a small rise. As he continued forward, Kerr began to pass a series of spears that had been driven into the ground. On them feathers and trinkets hung, reminiscent of the remembrances Medieval knights carried into battle. He passed about a dozen of them before breaking through a thicket and entering a small clearing. Then he stopped. Before him was a raised platform. Something lay on it, covered with animal pelts. As he walked up to it he heard Kestrel's strong voice lifted in a sad lament. Kerr frowned and knelt. On the ground there was a scrap of leather that had once been covered with beads. He picked it up and held it out so the moonlight illuminated it. It was a child's moccasin.
He staggered and fell to the earth as the memory overwhelmed him. Kerr could see his uncle kneeling beside him, tying the small leather shoes to one of the four posts that supported his mother's dead body. "Now she will always walk wherever you walk, Cara-Mingo. And you will carry her in your heart wherever you go." The older man stood then. He held his hand out and the little boy, his face streaked with ash and tears, rose after him. Together they walked to where a British officer waited, his white face sober. The man stood at attention with his tricorn hat tucked under one arm. Menawa placed both hands on the boy's shoulders. 'It was her wish,' the native said. 'It is not mine'" The soldier nodded sharply. 'I know.' He held out a gloved hand. 'Come, Cara. It is time to go home.'
Home. A sob racked him and Kerr began to tremble.
He was home.
Kerr had remained where he was for some time, listening to Kestrel sing. He did not know the words, but the sound of it had conjured memories long thought forgotten and he had become lost in them. He looked up. "Yes?"
"It is time to go."
He wiped away a tear. "Must we?"
Kestrel nodded. "This," he indicated the platform and the area surrounding it, "is a tomb. Would you choose to remain here, with the dead?"
Kerr rose to his feet. He held the faded and torn moccasin out to the other man. "My uncle told me this would make my mother walk with me wherever I went. He was wrong."
"My feet.... My heart remained here." He looked at the bier. "I never left this place."
The native remained silent for a moment out of respect. Then he asked softly, "So, is Cara-Mingo entombed here as well?"
Kerr took the moccasin back from the other man and placed it gently on the earth; returning it to where it had lain for nearly twenty years. "I suppose so."
He couldn't answer for a moment. And when he did, it was only to say, "I honestly don't know."
Kestrel smiled and placed his hand on his shoulder. "That is a good start, my friend."
Several hours had passed. Yadkin had left to return to the fort where Donna awaited him. The blond had growled and grumbled, but had also mentioned at least three times how she had walked all the way from the settlement to bring him something to eat while he stood guard. Dan had traveled with him part of the way and then returned to polish off the last of the mince pie before seeing his daughter to bed. He was just about to put on his cap and pick up his rifle and go looking for the Kestrel and the stranger, when the two men came knocking at the door. When Dan opened it, the Englishman stumbled in looking like he had been through a war. Kerr was pale and trembling, and seemed to be in shock. Dan's green eyes shot a question at his friend as the two of them helped him into the spare bed Becky had made up in the corner, but the only answer he received was a shake of the native's head.
As Becky moved in to tend him, Dan pulled Kestrel aside. "Where have you two been?"
"At a fork in the road," the native said softly.
"What does that mean?"
Kestrel looked weary. "I have spoken with Menewa."
Dan frowned. "Yes? I don't see how that - "
"Menewa believes this one's return was...." Kestrel inclined his head toward Kerr. "I believe the Christian word is 'ordained'."
Dan nodded to his wife. She was walking by and told him in passing that the Englishman was already asleep. "Meanin' he was meant to be in this place, at this time."
Kestrel shook his head. "It is not for - "
"Not for you to say." Dan shook his head. "Kestrel, you know I honor your traditions, but if this threatens the settlement and my people - my family - I need to know."
The native was silent for some time. When he spoke at last, his voice was heavy with fatigue. "The storm is gathering, Daniel. You and yours will hear the roar of the Thunderbirds, and see the light flash in the sky from their wisdom-eyes, but for the moment, it does not threaten you or yours." Kestrel shook his head. "Only Chota. Only the Cherokee."
"You're sure about that?"
The native adjusted his rifle strap as he turned toward the door. "I am sure the sun will rise tomorrow, Daniel. With man, one can never be certain. But it is what I believe."
Dan nodded. "Is Menewa here?"
Kestrel paused as if considering his answer. "He waits near the Holy place." He glanced at the figure on the bed. "In the caves."
"I'd like to talk to him."
The native nodded. "I will see if it can be arranged. Good night, Daniel."
Dan walked his friend to the door and then put the bar in place behind him.
Becky had finished her preparations for the coming day and was headed for the alcove and their bed. She came to his side instead and placed her hand on his shoulder. "It's late, Dan. Tomorrow will come soon enough without worrying about it."
He smiled and circled her waist with his arm. "What would I do without you, Mrs. Boone?"
She frowned. "Let's hope you never have to find out, Mr. Boone."
Kerr sat up. The cabin was quiet. He tossed off the coverlet Rebecca had thrown over him and glanced toward the curtained alcove where the Boones slept. He couldn't see them, but he could hear their steady breathing. Rising as quietly as he was able, he located his boots and pulled them on. Then he caught up his red coat and, tossing it over his arm, headed for the door. Moving the bar without sound was not the easiest thing he had ever done, but he managed it. Kerr frowned as he placed it on the floor. He didn't really want to leave the cabin's occupants unprotected, but if he was going to go, it would have to be now. He stood for a moment in the open doorway and glanced back into the cabin, hesitating. He told himself he was doing this so he could free Thomas. He reminded himself that even if he had not wanted to save his friend, it was his duty to do so. And he reasoned that, in doing his duty, he might just be able to help his mother's people - and himself.
Kerr pulled the door too and turned, heading for the steps that led down off the porch.
A long arm clothed in buckskins barred his way. He stopped short and pivoted to find himself face to face with Daniel Boone.
The tall man's lanky form was silhouetted in the moonlight. He shifted and rose to his feet. The smile on his face was grim. "Goin' somewhere?"
Kerr held his gaze. He nodded sharply. "Yes. I am going to free Thomas."
Dan indicated his side. "Unarmed?"
He had thought of that, but there hadn't been much he could do. Somehow rooting in the chest at the end of the Boone's bed for his flintlock had not seemed a viable option. "I had intended to improvise. Necessity is the mother of invention, you know?" Kerr frowned. "What are you doing out here?"
Dan shrugged. "Well, I had been waitin' for you, but it took you so long to get a move on, I was actually takin' a little nap just now."
Kerr was incredulous. "Waiting? For me? What do you...?"
"Here." Boone handed him a kit filled with provisions and then pulled his Scottish flintlock from behind his belt and offered it to him. "And as to improvisin'," the tall man turned to the chair he had occupied and produced the Englishman's whip, "you still haven't shown me how to use this thing."
Kerr shook his head, astonished, as he accepted it. "I don't understand."
Boone's look was thoughtful. "Well, Kerr, I've been studyin' you. You're a man who feels things deeply. Perhaps too deeply. You think you are responsible for your friend bein' held by men who might do him harm - "
"I am responsible."
"No, you're not," Daniel Boone shook his head. "He's a soldier, just like you, and, just like you, he knows the risks a soldier takes. But that won't stop you shoulderin' the guilt if somethin' happens to him. I knew you wouldn't be able to rest until he was freed."
Kerr frowned as he hooked the whip on his belt. "You seem to think you have me all figured out, Mr. Boone."
He laughed. "Daniel."
"Nope. Not all. But I'm workin' on it." Daniel paused and drew a breath. Then he called out, "Becky?"
Kerr jumped as the redhead's voice answered from within. "Yes, Dan?"
"Bar the door. We should be back by breakfast tomorrow mornin' at the latest."
"Be careful, Dan."
The frontiersman grinned as he put on his cap. "Always am."
As they stepped off the porch, Kerr looked at him. "And if we are not back by breakfast?"
Daniel hefted Ticklicker and pointed north with her barrel. "Well, I guess then, we'll just have to improvise."
Continued in Chapter Four