Mingo stood on the porch of Daniel's cabin, his face turned towards the sky. The moon was shining bright, illuminating the lush foliage that surrounded it. He listened to the wind and allowed the cool breeze to play over his skin. It was the first Rebecca had allowed him out, and while he had appreciated her concern and constant attention, he longed to be free to return to the place where he belonged.
Wherever that was.
Two weeks had passed since the events of that night. For one of them he had been nearly incapacitated, unable to rise or even speak. Now he was better and the time had come for good-byes. Two days before he had bid farewell to his Creek friend. Arrowkeeper had joined the party that was to accompany the French commander Philippe Dulac first to the Cherokee village to speak with his chief and clear his name, and then to the nearest British camp which had connections with his own tribe. Hugh Oldham went with him. Together they were to see that Dulac took the blame for the raid in which Huntington and his men had been killed. The native had recovered sufficiently to relish the opportunity, and Hugh had looked forward to their time together. The older Englishman was due back in the morning.
And then it would be time for him - and for Rachel - to leave as well.
A long lanky shadow fell across him and he looked up to find Daniel blocking the doorway. "You all right?" the big man asked as he moved onto the porch.
Mingo sighed and lowered himself to the step. His strength was not what it had been and he found he tired easily. "All right?" He repeated the phrase. "No, I am not all right."
Dan moved to stand beside him. "No?"
Mingo smiled. The single syllable had conveyed his friend's dismay. "I presumed you wanted an honest answer, Daniel. Would you rather I had lied?"
"No, honesty is always the best policy." The frontiersman sat beside him and for a moment they simply shared the night and their love of the land. Together they gazed at the vast wilderness, at the trees and sky, and listened to the cries of wild animals and birds. Finally Dan said quietly, "Miss Cornell?"
Mingo nodded. "She and Hugh leave tomorrow. As he is not well, she is returning to take care of his estate. And to welcome her father home." He glanced at his friend. "Thank you for sending word to the Continental Congress and seeking their intervention."
"We have a lot of friends in France, and in England. And it seems Gerard was mixed up in all of it anyhow. I think he lied about Rachel's involvement and made it seem something more than it was."
"Yes?" He turned to look at his friend.
"Why did he hate you so?"
Mingo shifted and pulled the Indian blanket tight about his shoulders, staving off the autumn chill. So far none of them had spoken openly of John's death. He understood it to have been a necessary evil. Still, he was saddened by the loss of the man's potential - and by the loss of the man himself, who had once been his friend. "He didn't hate me, Daniel. He hated himself. He couldn't live with the choice his father had made - with the choice my father made. In me, he saw his own shame."
The two of them fell silent. The dark-haired man closed his eyes for a moment and listened to the sounds of his friend's family as they came from the cabin. He could hear Rebecca singing; her rich voice rolling the 'r' in the middle of the word, 'Tipperary'. Israel and Jemima were debating something; their voices raised in mock anger. A moment later all three of them began to laugh. He sighed and ran his hands over his face and then turned to find Daniel watching him. The big man was wearing a frown.
"What? What is it?"
Dan leaned back on his elbows. "Are you going with her?" He met his friend's eyes and what he saw there frightened him just a little bit. "Mingo, I - "
Mingo held his hand up. Then he shook his head. "Not now. I'm not ready for...that life yet. I may never be."
"And one day you may be."
He nodded then. "One day, perhaps. And perhaps, one day, I could do some good there for my people, and for this young country." He gazed at his friend and then laughed at his dismal expression. "Why, Daniel, I do think you underestimate your own powers."
"You said I should try it sometime."
Dan glanced towards the house. He smiled as his wife's lilting voice drifted on the night air, raised once again in song. "I'd miss you if you left, Mingo. Probably more than I know how to put into words. But having someone of your own - a wife and children - that's something no man should be denied. I - " The big man suddenly fell silent. He rose and nodded toward the path. A slender shape was moving down it towards them, its golden hair glistening in the starlight. " I think someone is here to see you." He touched his friend briefly on the shoulder. "I'll be inside if you need me."
Mingo's dark eyes went to Rachel's form. He stood as well. "Thank you, Daniel. I'll be in shortly. Tell Becky not to come hunting for me."
Dan laughed. He inclined his head as the woman drew near. "Good evenin', Rachel."
"Good evening, Daniel." She watched as he disappeared into the house and then turned to the man she loved. She stared at him a moment and then said, deliberately, "Mingo."
He frowned. "Mingo? Not, Kerr?"
"Uncle Hugh told me that first day that you had said Kerr was dead. I didn't believe him." She stepped up and laid her hand alongside his face. "I do now."
He caught her fingers. "And why is that?"
"When I came here, I wanted to believe you were still the young man who had walked away without an explanation ten years before. I wanted it to be as if you had never left." She shook her head. "That can never be. We've both grown and changed, and what happened can never be forgotten."
"I'm sorry I hurt you...."
"I'm sorry too.... Sorry I was so selfish that I would let nothing stand in my way; that I let John Gerard use me...."
As a tear trailed down her cheek, he shushed her and pulled her close. "It's over now. John is dead and at peace at last."
"Are you at peace?"
He pulled back from her and wiped the tear away. "No."
"But you won't come with me?"
He drew a breath. "No. Not now. It wouldn't be fair to either of us."
She was silent a moment and then reached up to touch the feathers in his hair. "You will seem a strange sort of Indian for a while."
He smiled. "It will grow back. It's inevitable." Into the silence that followed, he said, "Has Hugh returned?"
"Yes. Just now. Your friend has gone back to his people, and Uncle Hugh is ready to return to ours."
"And are you?"
She looked up at him. "I had thought of staying here. With you."
His dark eyebrows arched and he smiled. "To be a frontier wife?"
"Do you think I couldn't do it?" Her tone was suddenly indignant.
He laughed. "I have no doubt you could do anything you set your mind too. Even be a frontier wife."
"I thank you for that."
She touched her fingers to his lips, hushing him. "I have to go home with Uncle Hugh. He hasn't that many years left. I need to care for him and for the estate, and to be certain father is freed. After that...." She paused and looked into his eyes. "Do you think we will ever see each other again?"
He gazed at her a moment and then moved to wrap a portion of the blanket he wore about her. She frowned as he did.
"Whatever are you doing?"
He kissed her forehead and whispered, "To a Cherokee, this is the same thing as being betrothed."
She looked startled and then laughed. Taking his hand, she drew the coverlet close about her shoulders and leaned into his embrace. "And are we then, betrothed?"
He laid his cheek on her hair. "One day," he said, "I will surprise you. You won't have seen me and then suddenly - there I will be. I love you, Rachel."
She wrapped her arms about his waist and let him draw her into a kiss.
The next morning she was gone.