The Country of the Blind: Chapter 1

by Marla F. Fair

 

 

In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Desiderius Erasmus (1465-1536)

 

 

Dark.

Everything was dark.

Trembling fingers clutched stone. As he pulled himself along the rock wall, he frowned. Where was Israel? Jemima? They had been with him.

Hadn’t they?

He drew a deep breath and continued to move forward. He had come upon them in the woods. They had drawn too close to the place he had been watching. He recalled catching Jemima by the arm and tossing her out of the way. Then he had seen Israel standing beside the wagon. The boy’s white hair had stood in sharp contrast to the jet-black night; his small frame illuminated by the torchlight that glinted off of the bright brass buttons and highly-polished black boots of the man who was turning towards him. He had raced towards the boy and then....

Everything went dark. He had no memory of what had happened after that.

He paused and listened. No one called out for him to stop. Apparently the Redcoat who had been guarding the supply wagon was not at his post. Or....

Mingo stiffened. Even though he could not see them, he knew his deeply tanned knuckles were white.

Or no one else had survived the explosion.

The Cherokee warrior slumped against the stone wall. It was cool against his fevered skin. He closed his eyes and forced himself to remember....

He remembered the sound of the storm sweeping towards them. He remembered the rustling of the leaves in the trees. He remembered Jemima’s scream, and Israel’s face shining white. He remembered the soldiers crying out as a jagged bolt of lightning, in a one out of a million chance, struck the ammunitions wagon and set the gun-powder alight.

He remembered his own cry as he caught Daniel’s son in his arms and thrust him out of harm’s way even as the powder exploded, and the night gave way to a false dawn that burned and seared his eyes as if he had forgotten and stared into the sun.

Tears began to run down his cheeks. He opened his eyes again. Nothing changed.

He was blind.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two Days Before

“Oh, Dan, you stay away from that! You hear me,” Rebecca Boone whispered as her husband reached around her. She moved to block him, but realized too late he had only feinted left and then gone right, and had managed to snatch the bowl of icing off the table. Pitching her voice low, she scolded him, “Daniel Boone! That is for your son’s birthday cake. You put that back. You know how costly sugar is....”

“If’n it’s so valuable,” he grinned as he dipped his finger in the bowl and brought it out coated with the white stuff, “why don’t you come and get it?” He licked his index finger and then crooked it at her.

Becky placed her hand on her hip; the wooden spoon still in it. “Keep your voice down.” Her eyes went to the loft above their heads. Even though the ladder had been moved away hours before and their two children were sleeping, she didn’t want to take a chance. “This is supposed to be a surprise.”

One of Dan’s brown brows winged towards his tousled hair. He knew his wife had done her baking earlier in the day when Jemima and Israel had been away, and that the moist flavorful cake was nestled secretly in the cupboard awaiting its precious sugary coat. Their son was turning eight and a real cake with raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, and real sugar icing was one of his presents. Another was the Jew’s Harp he had bought him in Salem, and a third, a pair of handsomely-worked beaded moccasin boots Mingo was due to deliver any minute. “You might have thought of that, Becky, before you put somethin’ so temptin’ in front of a grown man’s eyes....”

Her blue eyes narrowed. “If you can’t resist a little butter, sugar and cream....”

“Butter, sugar and cream?” Dan whispered as he drew near her, holding the wooden bowl high above her head. “You mean, cream as white as that Irish skin of yours....” He tilted his head and smiled. “Butter as warm and golden as the light glintin’ off that copper hair....” As she started to smile in spite of herself, he bent towards her and kissed her lips. “And sugar? Sweet as that smile....when I can get it.”

Becky batted her eyelashes and motioned with her head for him to come closer. “Why Daniel Boone, you know sweet talk will only get you....” She watched as her husband drew near, and waited as his free hand went about her waist. With the other, he lowered the bowl to the table. When it was about an inch off the boards, and she knew it was safe, Becky smacked his fingers with the wooden spoon so he dropped it. As it struck the table with a solid thud and his fingers went to his mouth, she boldly met his outraged stare. “...stung!” She wrinkled her nose at him, and with a small bounce, caught the bowl up from the table and turned toward the cupboard where the freshly-baked and highly-decorated Irish Poor Man’s cake had been lovingly concealed.

Dan eyed her flouncing skirts and reached out just as a quiet knock came at the door. She turned, caught him in mid-gesture, and shook her head. “That’ll be Mingo. Be a good ‘boy’ and let him in.”

Dan winked at her, licked his finger again, and went to the cabin door. “Mingo?”

“Yes, Daniel. It is me.”

The big frontiersman lifted the bar that kept the world outside and opened it. His Cherokee friend was standing on the step, holding a wrapped bundle in his hand.

He could tell immediately that something was up.

“Mingo?”

The tall native lowered his head so his feathers cleared the doorway and entered the cabin. He smiled at Rebecca and offered her the package. “From the Iroquois woman, Winter Fawn.” The older woman was living in Chota briefly, waiting for her kin to come and collect her. She had been married to one of the Cherokee warriors who had died in the last battle they had fought against the Shawnee.

Becky took the package to the table and opened it. Her breath caught. “Oh, Mingo....” She held up one of the knee-high swamp boots elaborately worked with beads and strips of dyed leather. “They’re beautiful.”

“Yes.” He came to stand by her. His eyes moved over each delicate flower. “She is an artist. See here.”

Becky followed his finger and when she saw what it was he pointed to, her copper brows lifted. The beads had gathered in one place to become a white goose. “It’s Hannibal!”

Mingo laughed. “Yes. Hannibal.”

Becky looked at him. “Did you tell her?”

He nodded, and as he did, she noticed something else lying beneath the boots. She lifted one up and found a beaded belt tucked in the leather wrapping. “What is this?” she asked.

The Cherokee grinned at her. “My gift.”

It matched the boots perfectly. “Mingo, Israel will be thrilled.”

“Well, I know he is always admiring mine.” He turned and looked at Dan. The tall man was studying him; a frown on his face. “What is it, Daniel?”

“You know, Mingo, I would’ve sworn you had something on your mind when you came in just now.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “You have fine-tuned senses, my friend.”

“Or I just know you too well.” Dan laughed. “What is it?”

“Redcoats.”

“Redcoats?”

“Dan?” Becky put the boot and belt down and turned to her husband. Ever since he and Mingo had become involved in helping the Patriot cause, she had feared for them both. To the present government, they were traitors, and only good for being hanged.

Daniel Boone shook his head in answer to her unspoken question. “You know what they are doing here, Mingo?”

The tall native nodded. “Unfortunately they have been speaking to my people.”

As his friend took a seat at the table, Dan went to stand beside him. Becky put the icing in the cupboard along with the cake and then joined him. The big man put an arm around her waist and smiled at her concern. “To Menewa, you mean?”

At Menewa. He will not listen to them. But others do.” Mingo tossed his hair back and then rested his hands on the table-top with the fingers laced. “They want permission to cross the Cherokee’s lands. They are driving munitions, and wish to rest and make camp near the river that runs through the village.” Mingo’s dark eyes met his friends. They were dancing. “All those weapons and stores. Out in open. Where anyone could happen on them....”

Dan grinned and nodded. “I take it you encouraged this plan?”

“I am a good Cherokee, Daniel. The British are our friends.” The familiar grin spread across his face. “How could I not?”

Becky looked from one to the other. “What are you two....” Then she got it. “Dan, no. You can’t.”

Mingo looked up at her. “Rebecca, I know the man who is leading this expedition.”

“You do?” It was Dan who asked it.

“Yes.” The native shifted as if uncomfortable. “Many years ago. He was one of my father’s aides.”

Dan sucked at his teeth. It was a rare occasion when his Cherokee friend made mention of his father, Lord Dunsmore; now the governor of Virginia. “Oh...” was all he said.

Mingo laughed. “Yes. ‘Oh.’ ”

“What difference does that make?” Becky sat down across from him. “I mean, that you knew him?”

The tall Cherokee frowned and leaned forward to finger one of the beaded boots. “He is a rascal, Rebecca. My father almost dismissed him.”

“I still don’t understand....”

Dan did. “You mean, you think he might be willing to make a deal?”

Mingo nodded. “For an appropriate sum or reward. The patriots could use that ammunition, Rebecca,” he said as he lifted his eyes to her face, “and the muskets that are sure to accompany it.”

“You really think he would turn on his own?” Dan asked him. “Even ‘rascals’ have been known to be fiercely loyal to their homeland. Look at you and me.”

As Rebecca smacked her husband’s thigh, Mingo rose and went to look out the cabin window. He closed his eyes and remembered. Andrew Cummins had been a man he had liked. He had been fifteen or twenty years older than he, but that had not mattered. In the short time they had remained in the Colonies after his mother had died — before his father had taken him to the ship and back to England — they had come to be something close to friends. Then Cummins had been caught with a native woman whom the British suspected of passing information to her people, the Creek. He had helped her escape. After that, he had been disciplined and kept in irons until they sailed. Once in England, he had disappeared, and he had never seen him again. When he had asked his father what had happened to the kind man, he had been told to mind his own business.

Now, it seemed, Cummins had come back.

“I think, Daniel,” he said, not looking at him, “that Andrew Cummins’ ‘own’ may not be who the Crown expects.”

“You think he came back here for another reason then?”

Mingo could barely remember Tutka, or Fire. She had been the sister of his brother, Tara’s, father, and had come to Chota with his mother. She had been several years younger than Cummins and, as a Creek among Cherokee, had always kept to the shadows. She had been there, in the leaves, watching as he was taken away in irons. He had not seen her since. “Yes, Daniel. And I think if we could reunite him with his ‘own’; we might stand a very good chance of building up the arsenal of the Colonial Militia.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Israel Boone stretched and yawned. He scrunched his nose and stifled a sneeze. It wouldn’t do for his folks to know he was awake. He glanced at his sister where she lay gently snoring and then shifted over her and pressed his eye to the knot-hole he had worked loose in the cabin’s ceiling. Tomorrow was his birthday and sure as shootin’, his ma and pa would be busy preparing. He frowned and squinted. It was kind of hard to see the table, but he could tell three people were sitting there. He shifted and lifted his behind, so he could angle his head a little more, and just as he did, a hand slapped his rump.

“Israel Boone! Whatever are you doing?”

“Shh! ‘Mima. They’ll hear ya.”

“You’re supposed to be asleep.”

The white-haired boy pinned her with his blue eyes. “So are you.”

His sister frowned. “You’re spyin’.”

“So what if I am? Ain’t you ever spied on your birthday before?”

“Then there won’t be any surprise.” Jemima scooted over so she sat next to him. “Don’t you want to be surprised?”

The little boy lifted his head and stared at his sister as if that was all the dumb things she had ever said wrapped into one. “No.”

Jemima sighed and pushed her brown bangs back from her forehead. Then her eyes took on a sinister glint. “So what can you see?”

“Not much.”

“Get out of the way. Let me look.”

“Gosh Almighty, ‘Mima, you sure are pushy....” Israel hesitated.

“What? What is it?”

“Shh....” The little white-haired boy could see the cabin door. Mingo was standing beside it talking to his Pa. “Listen....”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Certainly I will be here, Rebecca. Neither dark of night nor Patriot duty will stay me from your son’s birthday celebration.” The Cherokee grinned. “How old is he?”

“Eight.”

“Eight?” For a moment the tall native’s thoughts drifted and he seemed far away. Then he stirred and added, “He is growing into quite a young man.”

“Mingo?”

He glanced at his friend. The big man’s eyes were narrowed and he was watching him closely. He grinned sheepishly. “Do you remember when you were eight, Daniel?”

“Sure do. That was the year my brothers decided I was old enough to swim.”

“I see. Meaning they tossed you in the water....”

“And I swam.” Dan laughed. “And you?”

“What?”

“What do you remember about turnin’ eight?”

Mingo paused. He didn’t answer.

“Mingo?”

Finally he shrugged his shoulders. “I have no idea what happened when I was eight, Daniel. In fact, I have no idea when I was eight.”

Becky came up beside them. She had bundled up the gifts and tucked them in the cupboard. While she was there, she had taken two cookies from a tray, and now she offered him one. “What do you mean, you have no idea?” As he accepted it with thanks, it dawned on her. “Mingo! You don’t know how old you are, do you?”

He held the cookie up and waved it. “I am afraid the Cherokee do not place as much importance on birthdays as do their white brethren.”

Dan was somewhat intrigued. “I thought you said you had big parties in England; ones your father threw.”

“I did. That was for my second ‘birth’, and the only one he marked; the day I arrived in London.”

“You mean to say Lord Dunsmore, your father, didn’t remember when you were born?”

Mingo’s look was odd. “If he did, he never bothered to inform me. Apparently it was not important to him.”

Becky touched his arm. “Is it important to you?”

The tall Cherokee looked at her. “While it is true my people do not mark the years as the English or the Colonists do, there are certain things which are decided by the time, or even the day a man is born. Children born during certain festivals may be blessed, or intended for particular roles. It is another,” he hesitated before adding, “another way a man may belong.”

Dan knew his friend had very few ways in which he felt he ‘belonged’. “Did you ever try to find out when it was?”

Mingo shook his head. “It is not that important, Daniel.”

“Would this man, Cummins, know?”

The Cherokee had turned to leave. He turned back towards his friend. “He was with my father from the beginning. Tutka, the woman he loved, attended my mother.”

“At your birth.”

The Cherokee shrugged again. “So I have been told.” Mingo hefted his rifle and laughed. “When I see him on Cherokee land, I will be certain to engage him in conversation and investigate the matter.”

“Well, couldn’t hurt to try. You said he was quite a likable man.”

Mingo murmured, “As rascals go. Good night, Rebecca. Good night, Daniel. I will see you at the gathering tomorrow and we can—make plans then. Tonight, I will do a little ‘celebrating’ on my own.”

Dan nodded. “Be careful.”

The Cherokee grinned broadly. “Am I not always?” And with that word, he was gone.

Becky turned and leaned against her husband; her hands about his waist. “Oh, Dan, how awful. Not to even know how old you are or when you were born, and to know your father didn’t care.”

Dan knew Becky knew something about ‘absent’ fathers. “Well, maybe we can help him find out.” He gave her a little squeeze. “What do you think?”

She squeezed him back. “I think I should have married Rory McIvers.”

Dan’s brown eyes winged towards his bangs. “Who?”

“Rory McIvers.”

“Who was he?”

She pretended to sigh. “A boy I knew, back in Ireland.”

“And why, Mrs. Boone, should you have married him?”

“Because,” she waltzed away, heading for the alcove where their bed lay, “he didn’t have an adventurous bone in his body, and he never got into any trouble whatsoever.”

“Sounds mighty dull and boring, if you ask me, Rebecca Bryan Boone.”

She sat on the bed and patted the comforter.

“And that is one thing, Mr. Daniel Boone, that you will never be accused of.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Israel Boone sat up and looked at his sister. He had to squint to see her in the dark. “Did ya hear that?”

“No,” she replied sullenly. “How could I hear anything when you’ve got your big head blocking the hole? What’d you think I was gonna do? Lean out over the edge and just wave ‘how’d ya do’ if Ma and Pa happened to look up and see me?”

Her brother stared at her a moment, and then shook his head. “Wimmen,” he declared, as if her words had confirmed some monstrous truth he had always suspected.

Jemima tilted her brown head and shoved her finger in his face. “And you got a big fat red circle on your cheek.” She crossed her arms and huffed. “Makes you look like a heathen.”

“I bet it looks better than yours did when you squished those berries and rubbed ‘em all over your cheeks before Flanders Callaway came walking by.” He pursed his lips and pressed the back of his hand to his forehead in imitation of her. “Oh, Flanders....”

“Israel Boone, you stop it! You....”

“Do I hear someone stirring up there?”

The two children froze. Israel put the wooden knot back in the hole where it belonged, and then the two of them dove for the pallet they slept on. Jemima grabbed the heavy quilt and threw it over their heads.

“’Mima? Is’rul? You awake?”

It was their Pa. Jemima placed her finger against her lips and shook her head. Israel nodded. Then she put her hands together, as if she was going to pray, and leaned her cheek against them. It was a signal her brother knew well.

Together the two of them pretended to snore.

Below in their bed, their parents barely managed to stifle their laughter. Dan had his hand over his mouth and Becky was wiping the tears from her eyes. “I don’t know, Dan,” she said loudly, “I think they’re asleep. How about you?”

“I reckon so,” he answered in like fashion, “must’a been the angels treadin’ on the boards, comin’ to tuck them in.” A moment later he leaned across his wife’s prone form to extinguish the candle that rested on the bedside table, and then settled back with a smile on his face.

“Dan?”

He touched her cheek and fingered her hair. “Just thankin’ God that I have an angel of my own.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

For several long minutes the children remained still, listening. When it became clear neither of their parents was headed up into the loft, Israel’s blond head emerged from under the quilt. “Mima?”

She appeared beside him. “What?” she whispered. “What is it?”

“I never got to tell you about Mingo.”

“That’s right.” His sister was all ears. “What about him? Is something wrong?”

“Gosh, Mima,” the boy began, “it’s awful. We gotta do somethin’ about it.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The next day, August the nineteenth, dawned bright and beautiful; just perfect for a young boy’s eighth birthday party. Half a dozen children from the settlement and a trio of young Cherokee boys including Menewa’s son, Monlutha, were in attendance. Mingo was there, as well as Cincinnatus, and many of the children’s mothers and fathers. The men held shooting contests, and the women quilted and chattered as the children played. Then they all gathered together as Israel opened his presents. He loved the Jew’s Harp Dan had bought him in Salem, and grinned at the beautiful beaver skin from the last season’s catch Cincinnatus had saved for him, but it was the beaded boots and belt that left him speechless. Becky watched him run to Mingo to thank him for his part in the gift. He hugged the tall native fiercely and seemed to hang on him a little longer than was necessary. Mingo ruffled his white hair and laughed. Then he turned him around and slapped his behind, and sent him on his way. She watched her son as he returned to the table to gather up the precious items, and as she did, her motherly smile turned to a frown. His small face was pensive. She started to ask him what was wrong, but just at that moment Dan emerged from the cabin carrying the iced cake, and the entire crowd burst into applause. Everyone had to have a piece, and as the cookies appeared and were also passed around and sampled, Cincinnatus caught her arm and drew her to center stage. Then he held a pewter plate over her head and declared her the world’s finest cook. She laughed as the applause thundered again and gave them a little bow. As she did, her eyes sought her son, but they didn’t find him.

He and Monlutha had disappeared.

Later, after everyone had departed and Dan and Mingo had helped her to clear the remainder of the dishes away, and bring the chairs and stools back inside the cabin, she sent Jemima looking for them; and then a little later, sent Dan after Jemima when she failed to reappear. She and Mingo talked quietly for a while, half-conscious of their absence, but it wasn’t until she realized the sun had gone down, that she really began to worry. Becky excused herself and went to the door. She was just stepping onto the porch when her husband emerged from the shadows, shaking his head.

“Dan?” she asked.

“They were all three down by the stream with their heads together,” he laughed.

Mingo moved past Becky to join Dan. He laughed as he gazed back the way the tall frontiersman had come. “Perhaps they are hoping to outdo their mother.”

Becky’s frown was almost comical. “Outdo me?”

Her husband grinned. “I think he means most likely they are ‘cookin’ up’ something....”

The Cherokee nodded. “Indubitably.” He grinned at Rebecca who was shaking her red head at him. “Though you need have no fear. No one could surpass you in the culinary arts.”

“You have that piece of cake for your chief?” she asked him.

Mingo smiled and raised the small basket he held. “As torturous as that duty will be; I shall deliver it untouched. Who knows? Perhaps a different kind of ‘peace’ will result from this gesture of good will.”

Becky planted her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes. “Sometimes Mingo, I think you missed your calling.”

“I should have been a diplomat, you mean?”

Her blue eyes pinned him. “No. A snake-oil salesman.”

The Cherokee favored her with an incredibly hurt look. “Rebecca Boone, I think I have just been insulted.”

“I know you have,” Dan laughed.

“And you....”

The big man straightened up. “Yes, Ma’am?”

“Go fetch those children of yours and tell them it is time for supper.” She glanced back at Mingo as she headed for the door. “You’re staying of course.”

He held up his hand. “No. No. I have to get Monlutha back to the village. And,” he inclined his head towards the burden he bore, “your cake to my chief.”

“Be sure you do that,” she teased. “You wouldn’t want to be responsible for another Cherokee war, now would you?.”

As she disappeared into the cabin, Mingo turned to his friend. “And I will see you tomorrow at dawn? At the agreed upon rendezvous?”

Dan nodded; his green eyes on the open cabin door. The shadows looked empty, but he had a feeling they had ears and eyes. “Can you see the boy home and get back by then?”

“One of Menewa’s warriors is to meet us halfway. He will escort him home.”

“Good enough.” Dan placed his hand on his friend’s shoulders. “Now, let’s go get those young’uns.”

“No, need Daniel....”

Dan looked up to find the children coming towards them. Israel was wearing the boots and belt. He had his arm about Monlutha’s shoulder. The Cherokee boy was holding Jemima’s hand. She pulled away when she saw her Pa, and ran up and hugged him.

“What’s this for?” he asked as he hugged her back.

She glanced up at Mingo who had moved to greet Monlutha. Then she gave her father a big kiss. “For being such a wonderful pa.”

“Yeah.” Israel came up behind him and hung off the back of his neck. “Thanks, Pa.”

As Dan frowned, puzzled by his children’s actions, Mingo and Monlutha came to join them. The boy was grinning and pointing at the basket hanging off his cousin’s arm. “What’s in the basket, Mingo?” he asked. Then his eyes lit with expectation. “It is more cake?”

The elder Cherokee’s dark brows winged towards his bangs. He shook his head and then met Dan’s amused stare.

The big man laughed loud and long. “This will mean war for sure.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sometime later, as she cleared away the supper dishes, Rebecca Boone stopped to stare at her husband. He had taught Israel how to make the Jew’s Harp sing a few notes and then tucked the tired boy into bed beside his sister. Then he had gone to sit before the fire. She had offered him a cup of cider and another molasses cookie and he had taken them, but fifteen minutes later both remained on the hearth, untouched.

“Dan?” she called softly.

He didn’t stir.

“Daniel Boone!”

His head came up and he looked at her. Then he smiled. “You’re a mighty fine-lookin’ woman, Mrs. Rebecca Boone.”

“And what it that supposed to mean?”

“Mean?” He laughed. “I think the meanin’ is pretty clear.”

“Oh, yes,” she put the cloth and bowl she held in her hand down on the table and advanced towards him, “it’s clear, all right. Clear as the stars in the sky on a cold winter’s night. You’re up to something.”

“Who? Me?” He did his best to look innocent.

She frowned. “You. And Mingo.”

He leaned his head against the high-backed wooden bench. “So you heard?”

“I heard.” Her fists found their familiar spot on her hips. “Keeping clandestine meetings at dawn.... What kind of a man are you?” Her tone was half-teasing; half-serious.

“Becky, come sit here beside me, and I’ll tell you.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” she said as she took his hand and let him draw her down onto the bench. “I will tell you. You are the kind of a man who is stubborn as a mule and just as single-minded, and who doesn’t have enough sense to know when to say ‘no’.”

“Rebecca....”

She placed her finger to his lips. “But you are also the bravest and most honorable man I know.” After a pause, she added softly, “You intend to take the ammunitions and whatever arms these British soldiers have?”

He nodded.

She chewed her lip, and then leaned against his chest. “Do you have to?”

He smoothed her red hair with his hand and then kissed it. “Well, I could let Mingo go alone, or let him take someone else instead, but I couldn’t very well sleep peacefully at night if I did. These are hard times, Rebecca.” He hesitated. She was laughing. “Becky?”

She shook her head and straightened up to look at him. “Hard times? These? And what were the ones before? What was the journey to Kentucky? And the winters without food? And what about the Indian raids, and all the thieves and vagabonds?” She smiled sadly. “Have we ever known anything but hard times?”

He was silent a moment. “Do you regret it, Becky?”

“Regret it?”

“Marryin’ me? Followin’ my dream?”

She was silent a moment. Then she rose to her feet and answered him. “I couldn’t love a man who didn’t have a dream. And as for marrying you, Daniel Boone, I have only one regret.”

He cocked his head and grinned at her; that crooked grin that was his alone. “Only one? I’m doing better than I thought. What is it?”

Her fingers found his chin. “Too many nights alone.” As he caught her hand, she asked him softly, “You told Mingo dawn?”

Dan rose to his feet. He caught her around the waist and kissed her. “Yep.”

She disengaged herself and started to move across the room. “Come to bed, Dan.”

He watched her walk away, noticing the way the light cast by the fire caught in her hair and made it glint like gold. And how her figure still looked like that of the young girl he had met and fallen in love with so many years before.

With her hand on the curtain that encircled their bed, she turned back and frowned. “Dan, what is it?”

He ran his fingers through his tousled bangs and smiled. “Mingo can wait. We’ll make it noon.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sometime later, as the moon rode high in the night sky and the stars glittered and twinkled like polished stones, soft voices drifted down from the loft of the Boone cabin.

“Are they asleep?” one whispered.

“Shh.... I think so,” the other answered. “The curtain’s drawn. Thank goodness they forgot to move the ladder away.”

Israel fingered the harp his Pa had given him and shoved it in his back pocket. Then he pulled on his boots. “Let’s go.”

His sister caught him by the arm. “Monlutha told you where this man was? For sure?”

The boy nodded. “He talked to him when they passed through the camp early yesterday. He said they’re holed up on the other side of the gorge; you know, the one with the falls.”

Jemima was a little scared. “And it’s all right to go talk to him?”

“He invited Monlutha to bring Mingo and come see him.” He shrugged. “I can’t see how’s we’d be any different.”

Still she hesitated. “Ma and Pa will be mighty sore if we ain’t back before they wake up.”

“You want I should go alone?” Israel was getting tired of all her questions. “If you’re afraid, I can, you know. Just go back to bed.”

“And who would look out for you, then? Won’t take one minute for you to find trouble, or for it to find you.” Jemima started to shimmy towards the opening and the ladder. “You just hurry up and follow me. We’ll find that Mr. Cummins and ask him about that lady he knew and Mingo, and then get back here before the cock crows.”

As his sister’s head disappeared below the wooden beams, Israel rolled his eyes. “Wimmen,” he whispered. Then he twisted and dropped his legs over the edge and started to descend, all the while mumbling to himself, “You’d a thought God coulda come up with somethin’ better’n that after working on it for seven days.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mingo hurried through the forest towards the place where he was to have met Daniel. The man his uncle had chosen to collect Monlutha had failed to show up, and he had been forced to take the boy many miles farther than he had intended towards the village. Finally, Smoke, a Cherokee warrior he had known for many years, had appeared. He explained there had been a skirmish with a second group of Redcoats who had bullied their way into the village and thrown their weight around, searching the lodges and terrorizing the women and children. Several warriors had been hurt resisting them. Hearing this, Mingo had handed the boy and the basket over, and turned on his heel and run. From what Smoke had said, this second contingent was following hard on the heels of the first. If he and Daniel were not very careful, they might find themselves in the middle of something larger than they could handle. Now that Andrew Cummins’ small party was not the only one to contend with, it might be best for them to gather additional intelligence and help, and seize the munitions at another time.

He stepped into a clearing and stopped to glance at the sky. As the night had advanced, so had the thick dark clouds that brooded near the horizon. As often happened in Ken-tah-ten, the bright sunny day had actually heralded a dark chilly night. The temperature had dropped precipitously, and the wind begun to howl. In the distance he could hear the rumble of thunder.

By the time he found Daniel, the storm would have overtaken him.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Dan. Dan!”

Daniel Boone rolled over on his side and stared at his wife. Her red hair was disheveled and fell in great waves over the shoulders of her white gown which was askew; showing one pale shoulder. She was absolutely beautiful. He patted the coverlet. “It’s mighty early to be risin’ and shinin’, Rebecca. Come back to bed.”

She turned towards him as the lightning flashed outside the cabin window. She had a candlestick in her hand and was using its meager light to illuminate the ladder that led up to the loft. “And it’s mighty early to find out you’ve been had.”

Dan threw his legs over the edge of the bed and scratched his knee where his tight-fitting leggings chafed it. Standing, he drew a shirt on over his bare chest. “Had?”

“By two little scoundrels masquerading as angels.”

He yawned as his eyes followed hers to the loft. “What?”

“The children! They’re gone!” The candle’s flame wavered. “I thought I heard something. I got up to check on them, and they’re not there.” Her bright blue eyes sought his face even as thunder rumbled in the distance. “Dan, where could they have gone?”

“Now, Becky, don’t panic. You know children.”

“I know yours,” she snapped. “They are just like you.”

Dan was hopping across the floor, pulling on one of his boots. He halted his little dance to look at her. “What do you mean, like me?”

“Contrary! Ornery!” She shook her head and the copper locks flew like fire. “Uncontrollable!”

He hopped over to her and gave her a quick kiss; then he snatched the candle and began to work his way across the cabin. “Why, thank you.”

“Dan, this is serious.”

“Now Becky, you don’t know it is yet. They might just be out in the woods near the cabin. You remember where I found them earlier?”

“Earlier?” She frowned. Lightning flashed again, washing the cabin’s interior with its pale blue light. “You mean after the party?”

“Yep.” He was reaching for his rifle. “With Monlutha.”

She relaxed just a little bit. “You think they were planning something?”

He stopped as he reached the door. His brown brows winged upwards. “You mean, you think they weren’t?

“Dan,” Becky took the candle back from him, “shouldn’t I come with you?”

He kissed her quick and then placed his cap on his head. “I already got half the family lost in the wilderness; I think I’d like to keep you here safe and sound.”

She watched him walk out the door and then stepped onto the porch after him. “What about Mingo?”

He stopped. “What about him?”

She held her hand out. A drop of rain struck it, and even as she spoke the thunder rumbled once more. “It doesn’t look like it, but it’s almost dawn.”

Dan glanced at the sky. The storm was coming and it promised to be a strong one. If he was going to follow his children’s tracks, he had best get to it before the rain erased them. “Don’t worry about Mingo, Becky,” he said as he disappeared into the trees, “he’ll find somethin’ to keep himself busy ‘til I get there.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mingo’s deep brown eyes narrowed. He was crouching behind the thick bole of an old oak tree, seeking a respite from the pounding rain. Quite unexpectedly, he had come upon a British camp, though he was not entirely certain which group of Redcoats it belonged to. It was not where Menewa had indicated Andrew Cummins would bivouac his men, but several miles closer to the Boone cabin; practically on the road to the settlement. The British were bold, if not very clever. But then, that was their style. They did not believe in discretion being any part of honor, or in choosing to run and fight another day.

In the end, it would cost them the war; he was sure of it.

He brushed a wet lock of black hair out of his eyes and frowned as he surveyed the camp. There were about a dozen men altogether, and three or four wagons. The one closest to him was guarded by a single soldier who stood at attention; his face stoic and his back stiff as he endured the wind and the stinging rain. One wagon had been partially unloaded. About half the barrels that had been on it had been placed in a tent not fifteen yards away. He frowned as the lightning crawled across the sky and the thunder boomed again. It looked like they were expecting someone.

Just as that thought crossed his mind, a pair of shadows emerged from the woods. He watched as they drew near, approaching the wagon from the soldier’s blind side. One of them appeared to be a woman, and the other, a child. His frown deepened as a gust of wind struck them and the woman stumbled. The child helped her to her feet and then, as another bolt of lightning lit the night, moved forward into the light. When he realized who it was, every muscle in his tall frame tightened. He glanced at the soldier. They were only children, but would he be able to tell that in the meager light of the torches? And if this was the second contingent of Redcoats; might they not shoot first, and ask questions later?

As his mind grappled with the question of just why and how the Boone children had come to be at the camp in the middle of a storm-tossed night, his body reacted to the growing danger they were in. Israel was drawing close to the wagon. Jemima was standing at the edge of the clearing, totally exposed; frozen in her tracks with fear.

He took off at a run and moved swiftly through the trees. Once he reached her, he caught her arm from behind and pulled her back into their sheltering embrace. Even as he did another bolt of lightning split the sky. He looked up to see Israel silhouetted against it, and the Redcoat turning with his flintlock raised. He shouted the boy’s name, but he didn’t—or couldn’t hear him.

“Israel!”

The thunder rumbled again and almost immediately the boy’s pale face was illumined by yet another bolt of lightning as it tore across the sky. Mingo dashed from the trees and caught him about the waist. Even as the boy reacted, he glanced up. There was no time to carry him away. With all the strength he had, he pivoted and threw him hard towards the tall grasses that banked up against the sussurating trees. As he did, the lightning struck and the wagon behind him exploded in a great white blinding ball of fire.

And then there was nothing.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jemima knelt beside her brother; her eyes fastened on the burning wagon. It was popping and hissing as the driving rain struck the ignited powder and sizzled away into steam. Several soldiers had mounted what was left of the wooden cart with blankets and canvas in hand to try to put it out. They worked quickly, and within minutes would have the fire under control.

Still, the damage was done.

She shook her brother. When he didn’t respond, she touched his forehead and called his name. Her fingers came away bloody. Terrified, she stood up and looked for Mingo. She had realized it was him when he took hold of her and pulled her into the trees. He had to be somewhere nearby. With one eye on the soldiers and the other on the burning wagon, she moved to the edge of the shadowed leaves and inspected the area before them.

It was then she saw the still form on the ground. There was smoke rising from its clothes.

Her hands went to her mouth, and she screamed. “Mingo!”

The young Englishman who had kept watch caught her as she ran out of the woods, even as a compatriot moved to search the shadows she had left behind with the tip of his bayonet. A minute later, the second man hesitated and knelt, and then rose with Israel in his arms. As the quartet drew abreast the smoldering hulk of the wagon, a tall officer in a deep red coat appeared, carrying a lantern. He glanced at Jemima and her brother, and then walked slowly through the steam until he stood beside the figure on the ground. After a moment he knelt and rolled him over onto his back. He stared for several heartbeats at his face and then rose and came to their side.

The officer removed his hat and wiped his face with the sleeve of his coat. He was soaking wet; his uniform covered with ash and soot. “And what have we here?” he asked. “Or should I say, whom?”

“Let me go!” Jemima shrieked. “Let me go to Mingo!”

“Mingo?” The officer repeated the name as he glanced back at the silent form. “That is his name....”

“Yes. Now let me go!” Jemima was kicking and screaming and trying to break free. The young soldier who held her looked at bit put out, but he kept his dignity and remained silent, even when she stamped on his foot. “Let me go!” she repeated as she sobbed. “He needs my help.”

The officer waited until she drew a deep breath, and then he spoke softly into the silence. “I am afraid he is beyond your help.”

Jemima’s big brown eyes filled with tears. “He isn’t....” she whispered.

“I am afraid so. Your friend is dead.”

 

 

Continued in Chapter Two