The Country of the Blind: Chapter 3

by Marla F. Fair

 

 

The two men looked at one another and then at the young, somewhat stunned, soldier standing in the doorway of the tent. Dan tilted his head towards him even as Tailor’s hand went for his musket. His captain winced but nodded.

A second later the sergeant was lying on the ground.

Cummins frowned as he knelt beside the soldier’s prone form and touched his jaw where the skin was already beginning to redden. He glanced up at Daniel Boone who had stepped over the young man and shifted the tent flap to peer out. “Did anyone notice?” he asked.

The tall frontiersman shook his head. “Nope.” He turned back towards him. “What now, Captain?”

Cummins rose to his feet. He lifted his flintlock pistol from behind his belt and grinned. “It appears, Mr. Boone that, like your children, I am about to become a fugitive from His Majesty, King George, the Third.”

Dan’s crooked smile answered him. He stepped back and waved his hand towards the green expanse beyond the camp. “The Rebellion can always use one more.”

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

Mingo awoke. He opened his eyes.

Curious. From the sound of the birds and the scent of the air, he had expected it to be early morning. He was supposed to meet Daniel at dawn, wasn’t he? He remembered leaving the Boone’s cabin and traveling through the woods. As he had, he had spied something red flashing within the trees and followed it. He recalled arriving at the edge of the British camp —

Abruptly it all came back to him. The children. The soldiers and the powder. Tutka. The Shawnee. And the thunderbirds with their flashing eyes, battling the evil spirits of the air as the rain pounded an already sodden earth.

He was correct; it was morning. It was he who was in the dark; perhaps forever. He who was blind.

With a moan, he righted himself and as he did, his fingers slid into mud. Startled, he jerked back and then, shifting slightly sideways, began to feel outwards. It seemed he had landed just shy of the angry rain-swollen stream that rushed through the ravine. For a moment he sat quite still contemplating Black Kettle’s words. Perhaps it would have been better if he had fallen into it and drowned. What good could he be to anyone now? What was a warrior without his sight? Or for that matter, even an Earl’s son? He would be dependent for the rest of his days on the kindness, as well as the hands and eyes of others. He would never read again, never witness another sunset or moon-rise; never again run and hunt with his own.

Images of a life spent anchored to a chair, bound in a blanket; enfeebled and old came to him and frightened him into rising where he stood. As his feet slipped on the wet earth, he drew a deep breath and closed his useless eyes and remained still, listening to the world around him. The birds were still there, and he could hear as well the voice of the trees and the water as it crashed through them. He could smell the cedar and the pine. And, not too far off, he could distinguish voices. Someone was speaking.

No, two someones.

Blind or not, he had his hands and legs; his hearing, his sense of touch and his strength of will. Reaching out, he caught hold of the wet grass and began to pull himself along the bottom of the ravine. If he could, he would follow Tutka and save her, and if he could not, then he would die as he had lived.

Trying.

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

“What is it, Mr. Boone?”

He turned towards the man in the red coat. “Call me Daniel, Captain. We don’t stand on formalities here in Ken-tuck.”

Cummins smiled. “And deserters need no titles.” He held out his hand. “Andrew, please.”

“Andrew.” Dan took his hand and shook it and then, after releasing it, pointed towards the ground. They had been working their way through the woods following his children’s trail. It seemed to be leading them to the place where the lightning had struck the British supply wagon, which meant they were probably headed for the cave where Mingo’s unconscious form had been placed. “We’ve been followin’ Jemima’s heel-prints. They disappeared for a bit.” He glanced behind at the tumble of boulders they had just circumvented. “I think she and Israel crawled over those rocks back there hoping to throw off any pursuers. But see, here they are again....”

“Yes. But you seemed to imply by your tone that something was amiss.”

Dan nodded. He crouched and slipped a finger into the indentation. “She’s only showin’ one now.” Pushing the wet grass aside, he began to search for something. A minute later he lifted up a small wedge-shaped wooden object. “Yep. Here it is.”

“So she has lost a heel. That will slow them down,” Cummins smiled, “which, considering the age of this ‘deserter’, is probably a good thing.” He glanced at the frontiersman who still squatted on the ground. He was frowning. “Daniel?”

“It might mean something else,” he suggested as he rose.

Cummins stared at the tracks. The left print, which represented the shoe that still bore a heel, was impressed more deeply than the other. He glanced at the other man. “You think she has injured her ankle? Perhaps, sliding down from one of the boulders?”

Dan nodded. “When she was little Jemima could climb a tree faster than a cat with a hound on its heels, but since she’s become a lady,” he grinned, “those skills have given way to.... Well....”

“Other more subtle ones?” Cummins laughed. “I take it there is a boy?”

The big man laughed as well. “Several.”

The Englishman straightened his coat and then nodded as Daniel indicated they should begin to move again. “ I do regret never having had any children. But a soldier’s life....”

“You may yet, Andrew. You’re not too old.”

“Well, I may not be too old, but I feel too old. Perhaps if I am able to locate Tutka.” He fell silent as they came to a well-worn path and crossed it; careful to hug the shadows of the trees. As they dropped over the edge and moved into the woods on the other side, he added reflectively, “I wonder if she will still remember me.”

“Well, Mingo remembered you fondly.” Dan grinned. He had related the Cherokee’s words to him, including his use of the term ‘rascal’.

“If somewhat colorfully,” the other man laughed. “I felt sorry for him. I know what it would have meant for Tutka to have been stripped of her native persona and wrenched from her people. You know, Daniel, even if she and I had not run into the trouble we did, I am not certain how things would have ended. I was a young man in His Majesty’s army, working my way up the ranks. It was all that seemed important at the time. I do not know that I would have been able to make the choice to stay here with her. And she, most certainly, would not have come with me.”

“No?”

“No,” Cummins said firmly, “nor would I have asked her too. London is no place for her, or any of her kind. They are too honest and childlike.”

Dan pushed aside some leaves and nodded for them to move forward again. “You mentioned fate earlier, Andrew. Do you believe it in?”

“‘Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate; all but the page prescribed their present state,’” he answered, quoting Pope. “Yes, I do.”

“Seems to me this is the place and the time for you and Tutka. I reckon you’ve burnt every bridge you’ve left behind. Don’t you?”

The Englishman’s graying brows peaked. “I imagine the blaze was so bright King George himself saw it from his balcony in London.” He smiled at the other man. “Thank you for those words, Daniel. I can see why Mingo values your friendship.”

One of Dan’s brown brows arced in return. “Well, that and there’s no one else quite as good as me at pullin’ his feathers out of the fire, if you take my meanin’.”

Cummins laughed again, but even as he did Dan’s hand shot out and pulled him back into the shadow’s cloaking embrace. “Someone’s — ”

“Coming. I heard.” The Englishman hesitated; listening. “And it is not the children.”

The two men fell silent as they waited. The noonday sun penetrated the thick covering of leaves above their heads and fell in yellow shafts to the forested floor, creating a canvas of light and shadow onto which a small party stepped. Several native men were in the lead, dressed in buckskin breechcloths and loose leggings that were gartered above their knees. They had cloth hats on their heads and wore long loose shirts girdled at the waist which were decorated with dyed porcupine quills, brightly colored feathers, and paints. From their garments, both men recognized them as Shawnee. Following close behind came a second group of men, less elaborately attired, and in their midst, the bent form of a woman. She was dressed much the same, though her linen overblouse was longer and of a European design. Her long black hair hung loose and hid her face. She did not appear to be in any danger, but it seemed — from the way she walked and the way her head hung almost to her chest — that she was without hope.

Dan noticed Cummins stiffen. He turned to him. “Is that her?”

The Englishman shook his head. “I can’t be certain. But she was to have been brought here by a party of Shawnee.” He stretched his neck and tried to get a better look at the men. “I recognize that one. He was Black Kettle’s messenger. He’s called Waytheah or Long Shanks. See, the tall one directly behind — ” His breath caught. The woman had turned back to scowl at the lanky warrior who had just shoved her, and the sunlight had fallen on her face.

It was her.

“Andrew?”

The older man shook his head again. He shifted forward through the leaves until he was almost exposed. She was much as he remembered her; slender with willowy limbs the color of a copper penny, and hair that fell to her waist in black waves. But the way she moved and the look out of her eyes was different. She seemed like a bird thrust unexpectedly from the nest, waiting to be pounced upon. He clenched his fists and started out of the trees.

A hand caught the tail of his red coat and pulled him back. He almost struck out at the tall frontiersman, but then — before the other man could say anything — he held up his hands. “I know. Forgive me. I was just — ”

“If that had been Rebecca, it would have been you holdin’ me back.” Dan watched as the party moved past and disappeared into the shadows. He tipped his cap back and narrowed his eyes as he looked at the Englishman. “I take it you’re goin’ after her?”

Cummins nodded. “I must.” Pain had entered his blue eyes. “But your children. And Mingo....”

“I’ll look after my own — which includes Mingo. You go look after yours.”

Andrew Cummins’ face lit with gratitude. “After I free her, I will return. I would like the opportunity to apologize to both your children and Mingo. And I understand there is a burning question that the lady I intend to liberate could hold the key to.”

“Israel and ‘Mima will be happy if she knows the answer, that’s for sure.” Dan gripped his rifle tight. “Still, the Shawnee can be a mite ticklish about losin’ their captives. I’ve had experience with them. Watch your back, Andrew, and your front.”

Cummins nodded in reply and began to move into the underbrush. A word from the big man made him turn back. “Yes?”

“I intend to invite you and your lady over to supper once this is done,” Dan said softly. “Don’t go gettin’ yourself killed.”

“I shall certainly endeavor not too.”

“The good Lord watch over you.”

“And you, Daniel. God speed.”

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

“Ouch! I told you it hurts. Leave me alone!” Jemima batted away her brother’s hand. She then laid her own on her swollen ankle as she fought back another wave of tears. “Stupid rock!” she exclaimed.

Israel looked at her sideways. When he fell or tripped, it was always his fault, but whenever his sister did the same thing, it always seemed to be the fault of whatever innocent rock or root she had stubbed her toe on. He shook his head. “If’n you didn’t insist on wearin’ those silly heels....”

Jemima scowled. “I still have one left to clout you with.” She was in her stocking feet. The offending shoe without a heel had been tossed several feet away in frustration. The one with the heel was still in her hand. “One more statement like that and I will.”

The little boy frowned as he stared at her ankle. “I think it’s bigger than it was an hour ago.”

She nodded and a tear slipped down her cheek. “I thought I could walk on it, but now I don’t think I can.” Her eyes rose to her brother’s face. “How are we gonna get back to Mingo? You’ll have to go without me.”

“Gosh, ‘Mima, I can’t do nothin’ like that. Yer a girl!”

Her fingers gripped the shoe tighter as she raised it. “And what has that got to do with it?”

Israel took a couple of steps back. “Anythin’ could happen. You could be carried off by In’juns or you know, laid way by highwaymen or somethin’, or even sniffed out by some big mountain lion who thinks you’d make a nice supper.”

She smirked. “And you couldn’t? Just because you’re a boy, I suppose.”

“Criminetly, of course I could.” His hands went to his hips in imitation of his Irish mother. “But I’d be able to get away. I got ‘gumption’, you know; common sense when it comes to that sorta thing. Or so Pa says.”

Jemima narrowed her brown eyes. “Do you know what Ma says?”

Israel had seen that look before. He was almost afraid to ask. But he had to know. “No, what?” “That neither you nor Pa has the sense to come in out of the rain.” She put the shoe down and placed her hands behind her back and started to push off the ground. “Now help me up. We gotta go find Mingo. We can’t just — ’ As he came to her side, she put weight on her foot. A second later she sucked in air and went white as a ghost.

“‘Mima?”

She leaned on her brother’s shoulder and fought a wave of vertigo. “Israel, I don’t know if I can....” As her voice broke, she glanced around at the trees and their menacing shadows. “I don’t want to stay here alone.”

Her brother looked into her face and saw she was really scared. He helped her to sit back down on the ground and then placed his hand on top of hers. “How about if we make a splint for you, and you use a branch like a cane? Would that help?”

She was massaging her ankle again. She sniffed and then nodded. “I guess so.”

“And I’ll get some cool mud and moss to put on it. Maybe that’ll take the swelling down a little.”

Jemima’s face was a veil of tears and dirt. “Do you have to go?”

He nodded. “There’s a ravine over there, not a hundred feet away. I can go down to the water’s edge and get some mud and moss. And there’s plenty of branches along the way for the splint. While I go, you rip off some of your petticoat and make some strips to tie around the wood.” He glanced about and frowned. Then he placed his hand on her shoulder. “I think you should scoot back into the bushes before you do, though, so’s no one can see you. All right?”

She wiped her face with her sleeve and then nodded. As he began to move away, she called him, “Israel?”

He turned back. “What now?”

“Thanks. You’re a good brother.”

Israel shook his head as he turned away.

There went his reputation.

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

As the little boy disappeared into the trees that masked the ravine, Jemima shifted and pulled herself back by her hands until she was eclipsed by the leaves. They were still soaked from the rain and she jumped as cold water fell from them, spattering her dress and exposed skin. She shuddered and felt the urge to sneeze. As her big brown eyes flicked from one side of the silent wood to the other, she tried to suppress it. She lifted her hand and pressed a finger to her nose, and held it there until the feeling passed. Then she drew her uninjured leg up and ringed her knee with her hands, and placed her cheek on it. While she waited for Israel to return, she grew drowsy and felt herself drifting off. She knew she shouldn’t give in, but she was so tired. She hadn’t had a wink of sleep since before they left the cabin. Her dark lashes fluttered and her eyes closed.

Maybe just a few minutes.

High above her a brown squirrel grew curious. Wondering just what this thing was that was sitting beneath its tree, it leapt from one branch to another, and inadvertently sent a shower of morning dew cascading down towards the sleeping girl. As the icy water hit her neck, she started.

And sneezed.

A moment later a deep voice said, “Hello?”

Jemima drew a breath and held it. Someone was there; close enough they had heard her. She waited, and as she did, she felt a familiar — and most unwelcome — tickle in her nose. Horrified, she clamped her hands over it and her mouth.

She was not going to sneeze again.

And then, just beyond her sheltered hiding place, a pair of booted legs moved into view. The man stood in a square of sunshine and turned from side to side, as if seeking someone. After maybe thirty or forty hard beats of her heart he moved away.

Jemima sucked in a little air and swallowed. He was taking the direction Israel had gone.

She didn’t know what to do. It wouldn’t be wise to reveal that she was there; everyone knew the kinds of things that could happen to a young girl alone in the woods. But Israel was little. If this was a highwayman, or even a native, they might hurt him or take him to be sold as a bondservant or slave. Jemima lowered her hands and quickly located a round stone. She meant to toss it in the opposite direction to misdirect the man, but as she raised her arm and leaned back to throw it, she disturbed the leaves again and another shower of ice cold water hit her skin.

This time she sneezed twice.

The man stopped and turned back, and started to come her way.

Jemima kept hold of the stone. If the stranger leaned in and tried to grab her, she could hit him in the jaw with it, or maybe up-side the head. She drew a deep breath and her muscles tightened. The leaves were parting....

And they revealed a familiar face wearing a lop-sided grin.

“You plannin’ on usin’ that, young lady? Seems to me whoever taught you your manners fell a mite short when it comes to meetin’ and greetin’ strangers.”

A smile burst on Jemima’s face like sunshine after a storm. “Pa! Pa!” She leaned forward to grab his neck, but as she did, she put pressure on her leg and cried out instead. “Oh Pa, I can’t believe I was so dumb....”

“Seems to me,” he said as he gently fingered her swollen ankle, “it was that old rock that was dumb.”

Jemima grinned. “How’d you know it was a rock?”

He reached into his pouch and pulled out her missing heel. “You know, ‘Mima, the next time you slip out in the middle of the night, you might think about wearin’ moccasins. They’re a mite easier on the ankles.”

“Oh, Pa, we weren’t really sneakin’....” Jemima paused. She had remembered her missing brother. “Pa, Israel went to get some moss and mud for my ankle. He shoulda been back by now.”

“Can you stand?” Dan rose to his feet and as he did, offered her his hand.

She shook her head. “I tried that earlier. It won’t hold me.”

“Then, milady, we will simply have to hire you a coach.” Dan knelt. He placed his arms under her and lifted her up. “Now just point me in the right direction.” The tall man paused. His daughter had an odd expression on her face. “Jemima?”

“Pa....”

Dan frowned. A moment later he heard the sound of a hammer being cocked. He tightened his hold on his child and turned to find a British officer with a flintlock pistol pointed directly at him. For a moment he thought it was Andrew Cummins, but then he realized this man was younger.

And meaner too.

Dan drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Captain Banks, I presume,” he said at last.

The man nodded. He was impeccably attired in a dress uniform, with a shining silver gorget at his throat and a white wig beneath the black tricorn hat on his head. “Mr. Boone.”

“Now, I can tell by your epaulet that you are a captain, but how can you be sure that’s who I am?”

“Your reputation,” Banks frowned in disgust, “as well as your penchant for buckskins and quaint ring-tailed caps proceeds you. Though I somehow suspected you would be involved in this when I realized it was taking place so close to Boonesborough.”

“This?” He shifted Jemima’s weight and smiled at her. “Somethin’ goin’ on I should know about?”

“It will be made clear at the trial.” The English captain waved his pistol in the general direction of Cummins’ encampment. “If you make it to trial.”

“And what exactly am I bein’ accused of, Captain Banks? Seein’ as how we just met....”

The officer was not amused. “Where is Cummins?” he asked curtly.

“Who?” Dan frowned as his daughter’s eyes went wide. She buried her head quickly against his neck to hide her reaction, but it was too late.

“I can tell your daughter recognizes the name, Mr. Boone. Captain Andrew Osborn Cummins; the traitor.”

Dan appeared to think for a minute. Then he shook his head. “Nope. Never heard of him.”

Banks pursed his lips and frowned. Then he gestured to two of his men and called them to his side. A second later they flanked Dan. “I have heard this rich Kentucky air can do strange things to a man. But I had not heard it could rob him of his memory. Still, I am certain the information I need is not so completely buried as to be out of reach if the right ‘incentive’ is given. Carter!”

Another of his men, a corporal, came to his side. “Sir?”

“Take the girl.”

Dan stiffened. His eyes went to Ticklicker where it lay on the ground in the shadow of the leaves, just where he had placed it when he knelt to pick Jemima up. There was nothing he could do, not with her there; nothing, that was, but play for time and hope Andrew Cummins rescued his native love quick as a rabbit and came hopping back to help.

As Jemima was taken from him the barrel of the pistol was placed against his neck. Involuntarily his green eyes flicked to the surrounding trees. He wondered if his son was in them, watching, or if the boy had gotten lost or maybe even hurt. Jemima’s white face gazed at him over the shoulder of the young soldier who carried her. The same question was in her eyes. He smiled and nodded. Israel had made his way home through the woods before, he tried to tell her. The boy would be all right.

The metal pressed into his flesh and a voice told him to move.

“Dear Lord,” he asked silently, “let him be all right.”

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

Israel had walked some way along the bottom of the ravine. The place he had chosen to descend had caved in behind him and the mud-slide had almost shoved him into the fast running water. He had had to abandon his quest and been forced to catch hold of jutting roots and anchored stones to pull himself back onto the bank. Once his footing was sure, he had started to move along the water’s edge, looking for a suitable spot to climb out. Earlier, he had thought about calling out to his sister, but had decided against it. There was no knowing who or what might have been in the woods, and yelling, he reasoned, would only have put them both in danger. Now, almost an hour later, he was about to throw caution to the wind. It didn’t look like there was a way out. Any handholds or footholds he had seen had been at least three feet above his head. He kicked a rock with the toe of his boot and sighed out loud. “Criminetly,” he said softly to himself, “you sure got yourself into a mess, Israel Boone.”

Suddenly, above him, he heard movement. He waited a minute and then, when he heard a female voice, opened his mouth to call out. As he did, an arm encircled him and a dirty hand found his face and clamped clumsily over his mouth. It was an Injun. He could tell by his copper skin. Israel reared back and kicked the man. He struggled, but couldn’t get free. He did manage to turn around so he could look, and when he had, what he found stunned him into silence.

It was Mingo.

The Cherokee didn’t look at him. He was listening intently. Israel just stared at him. The skin on one side of his face was burnt and it was wet, like he had been crying. Leaves and bracken decorated his hair. The whites of his eyes were red, and they looked like they hurt. The boy glanced down at the native’s clothes and noticed they were filthy. The leather was singed. The beads and lacings had been torn away, and the knees that showed through his rent blue trousers were bloody.

He looked real messy and not at all like Mingo.

Israel pried at the fingers that covered his mouth. “I can be quiet,” he insisted.

Mingo nodded. He removed his hand, but said nothing as he continued to listen. A moment later he seemed to relax. He let him go and then sank to the ground beside the boy. “They are gone.”

“They? You mean that was Jemima?”

“And your father.”

Israel turned towards the slope that led up and out of the ravine. “Then why’d you stop me from callin’ — ”

And the British soldiers.”

The boy turned back. “Oh.”

“Yes, oh.”

Israel watched as Mingo ran a hand across his face and batted back one of his tangled braids. He seemed lost in thought. The boy stared at him a moment and then walked to the water’s edge. As he picked up a stone to toss it, Mingo began to talk to him as if he were still seated beside him. Israel turned and looked at him more closely. He was holding his head funny and not even looking at where he had been.

“Israel?” Mingo felt the ground and found it empty. He started to rise. “Israel, where are you?”

“Right here.”

The native jumped and sat back down. The boy was directly in front of him. “It seems,” he sighed, “that small boys move more silently than panthers.”

Israel put his hand out and waved it in front of the dark-skinned man. He didn’t react. “Can’t you see?”

Mingo drew a deep breath. “No, I can not.”

“You mean you’re blind?

The Cherokee paused. “Yes,” he said at last. “I am blind.”

Israel chewed his lip. Finally he asked, “Was it the lightnin’ and the powder?”

The older man nodded. “Yes. I was too close. Hopefully it is only temporary.”

He waited a moment but the boy said nothing. “Israel? Are you still there?”

“Yes.”

Mingo heard the catch in his voice. “What? What is it?” Somehow, he had not anticipated pity from a child. “Israel?”

“I’m sorry, Mingo.”

“Sorry? What for?”

“If it hadn’t of been for me,” the boy began, “this wouldn’t have happened. If I hadn’t been near the wagon....”

Mingo reached out and caught his arm. “Israel, you are not to think such a thing. I had intended to be near that wagon anyway. Do you hear me? This is not your fault.”

He heard him, but it was apparent by his response that he didn’t believe him. “If you say so.”

“I do. Your feeling sorry for something that is not your fault will not help me or our situation in the slightest, but there is something that will.”

The boy’s tone brightened. “Yeah?”

“You can tell me what you and your sister were doing approaching that British encampment. You should have known it was dangerous. In the dark it is next to impossible for anyone to distinguish male from female, or tell a child from a crouching man.” Mingo drew a breath. “And what were you doing out at night in the first place?”

“We was comin’ to see Mr. Cummins. Monlutha said he had invited him to come and see him.”

“I am certain he did. During the day, no doubt. And not at three in the morning.”

“I suppose so.”

“Israel, I am waiting.” He forced his tone to be stern. “Why were you there?”

“We was goin’ to ask him how to find Too-ka.”

“Tutka?” Mingo frowned. Somehow he suddenly felt as if he were in the middle of a comedy of errors. “Why find Tutka?”

“To ask her when you was born.”

“When I was born?” He knew he probably looked as astonished as he sounded. “Why? What for?”

“It ain’t right, Mingo, you not knowin’ and your Pa not carin’.” Israel pulled his arm away. “Nobody givin’ you no presents or nothin’. Why, you can’t even have a party.”

The Cherokee was silent a moment, wondering where this crazy idea had come from. Then it dawned on him. “You were listening; the night before your party.”

He heard the boy’s feet shuffle. “Well, sorta....”

Mingo laughed. “The next time I will ask your father to step outside.” He paused then as he thought things through. He had been traveling for some time along the bottom of the ravine, unable to find a way out, as he had no eyes to search for foot and handholds. He held his hand out and waited for Israel to take it before speaking. Somehow the contact was more important now that he could not see. “I think it is time we get out of this ravine, do you not agree?”

Israel nodded. Then he remembered Mingo couldn’t see him. “Yep,” he said.

“I think that, together, we might be able to find a way.”

“Together?” the boy frowned. Then he grinned, “You mean I get to be your eyes?”

The Cherokee nodded as he rose to his feet. “And I will be your legs and arms. You can ride on my back. Would that be acceptable?”

“You bet! I saw a way out back there, but I wasn’t tall enough.” Israel watched as Mingo knelt. He hopped on his back and wrapped his legs around the native’s muscled chest. “We gonna go after Pa and ‘Mima then?”

Mingo allowed the boy to direct him and as they began to move, he smiled.

“You bet.”

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

Tutka shifted uncomfortably on her seat of stone. The Shawnee warriors had left her alone and moved across the clearing to toss dice on a piece of ground that had no grass. She tested the shackles that bound her wrists again and frowned. Black Kettle had obtained them from the British and liked to use them whenever possible. She knew the possession of the White man’s tool made him feel powerful. She had not belonged to him for very long, and for that she was grateful. She had been even more grateful when she found out the White man’s powder and weapons were more important than she, and that he meant to trade her for them. Even though she could not begin to understand why the white strangers would want her, anything would be better than being his slave.

She straightened her shoulders and leaned her black head against the young tree behind her and as she did, the chains that ran from the shackles around it clinked. She glanced at the men, but they were not paying attention. She did not want them to think she was trying to get away and to come to check on her. She was tired of their endless words and unwanted caresses. It was now early evening and the sun was just sinking behind the trees. Black Kettle had called a halt to their march so he could rest. He meant to attack the camp of the red coats as soon as the light faded and the shadows ruled the land. He had spoken to her of the Thunderbirds and their flashing eyes, and repeated that the lightning strike had been an omen that these men must die.

Tutka closed her own eyes and allowed her thoughts to drift from the present to the past. Men in red coats. Once she had loved one of them. Once, long ago, she had waited as she did now, beyond the camp of the men called ‘English’; waited for a tall young soldier with black hair and laughing blue eyes to come and claim her. A tear trailed down her cheek. He had never come. And when she had found him, he had been bound in chains — even as she was now — and other soldiers had taken him away.

The years had flown by after that like the water in the river, moving to an end she could not see. Each day she wondered where he was. Each night as she lay waiting for sleep, she asked the Master of Breath, if he was still alive, to care for him. ‘Suey’ta’, she had called him or, ‘he is chosen’, for she had chosen him for life. And when he had gone away, he had taken that life with him.

“Please. Don’t say anything. Remain quiet.”

The native woman stiffened. A hand had touched the back of her arm. The fingers were rough and warm.

“If you will, just nod your head for the moment. Is your name Tutka?”

She remained still. It was a man and his tongue was White; his accent the same as the ones who wore the red coats.

“Please,” he repeated. “Tell me, is Tutka your name?”

Her eyes went to the Shawnee who were still rolling the dice. They were quietly laughing and jostling one another. They were many feet away and she did not think they could see her, hidden as she was by the shadows of the leaves. After a moment, she nodded once.

The man fell silent. Then his fingers closed on her arm. “Thank God,” he whispered. “Thank You, God.”

Tutka opened her eyes. She did not turn her head, but let it fall to the side as if she had succumbed to sleep. She could just see the man’s hand. A scar ran across the pale flesh and above it, there was a deep red sleeve. As she watched, the hand disappeared, and then a moment later she felt him lift the chain that bound her and pull against it. “Who holds the key?” he asked a second later.

She frowned. “Black Kettle. He who owns me.”

The man was silent. The chains were tried again. She heard him mutter something soft and low, and then shift to the side of the tree.

“Who are you?” she asked, still not daring to look. “Why do you care what happens to Tutka?”

The hand returned from out of the darkness to caress her hair. “Gasu’yeu,” he answered. “I am choosing.”

Tutka drew a sharp breath. It was the name he had called her. “Andrew?”

His other hand gripped her shoulder. “Yes. It is I, Andrew.”

The woman fought the urge to turn around. Her eyes flicked back to the Shawnee men. One of them was standing. “You must go,” she whispered fiercely. “They are too many.”

“Though they were an army, they would be too few. I am going nowhere without you.” His tone was adamant. “Where is Black Kettle?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Tutka, where? If I am to take you with me, I must have the key to these shackles.” His voice fell off abruptly and there was a pause.

“Andrew?”

“Forgive me, I am being presumptuous.”

A tear trailed down the Creek woman’s cheek. She wanted to laugh. It was Andrew. He had always used words she did not understand. Still, it had not mattered. They had communicated anyhow. “Pre-sum-shus?”

Andrew did not laugh. “I assumed.... I mean, do you still want to come with me?”

Tears began to stream down her cheeks. Words failed her; so she simply nodded.

A moment later she felt his lips brush one of her bound hands. Then he spoke again, “Black Kettle?”

Reluctantly she told him. “He rests. Near the water. There is a guard.”

She heard the man behind her laugh. “There ‘was’ if you mean the tall fellow, Waytheah, with the crooked hat. Are there any more?”

Tutka shook her head. “I do not know.”

He pressed her hands between his. “I will return momentarily, my love. Keep an eye on the ones playing dice. If they should break it off, do something to let me know. Call out. Something. But make certain it is nothing they will repay you for if I am captured.”

She heard fear in his voice; not for himself, but for her. “Andrew....”

“Be brave. ‘Stay but a little. I will come again.’” And with the Bard’s words on his lips, he released her and moved off into the night.

Her eyes returned to the Shawnee. The warrior who had risen was seated again and a new game had begun.

She prayed to the Creator that they would not tire of it soon.

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

Andrew Cummins stole through the rustling leaves, led by the sound of water rushing and crashing over rocks. He knew the ravine that ran through this particular tract of land bottomed out nearby into a narrow gorge bordered by a small clearing. He and his men had camped not too far away from it when they had passed through earlier. It was a wise choice, backed on one side by the water, and ringed by rocks and trees on the other three; its entrance easily protected by one or two well-chosen sentinels. Fortunately he had explored it himself and knew it well enough to guess where such guards might be. There had only been one. He had caught the man unawares, bound and gagged him, and tipped him into the ravine. Now, as he made his way through the trees towards the clearing, he glanced at the sky. The sun was setting in blood and the moon had not yet risen. The period of blackness before it did would be the perfect time to effect Tutka’s escape.

He paused as he came upon the clearing where he thought the Shawnee man known as Black Kettle would be, and then crept cautiously around its exterior until he had almost come to the edge of the gorge. Then he found him. The native man was asleep with one copper hand on his rifle and the other on the tomahawk that hung from his belt. Nearby two horses grazed. Cummins frowned. He was not so concerned about the weapons. He had overcome worse odds before, but the animals were a risk. They might prove to be skittish, and if one of them should decide to whinny or stamp its foot as he approached, it would all be over before it was even begun. As he hesitated, puzzling out what to do, one of the horses did just that; it snorted and struck the earth with its hooves. The Shawnee leader was awake instantly. He rose quickly to his feet and looked in his direction.

Cummins crouched. He was uncertain what had alerted the animal, but had to be prepared to run. Then, as he waited, Black Kettle turned away from him and watched as another man came into view.

“P’catewah Achqua,” the man said.

“Yes. What is it?”

“You told me to call you when the face of the sun was hidden behind the trees.” The man pointed towards the darkening sky. “That time is now.”

Black Kettle gazed up. He nodded. “The white men sleep now. They are not wise as the Shawnee who move at night like the wolf, but are stupid and lazy as the sheep they breed. And like those sheep they huddle in one pen where they can be easily found. Are the scouts returned?”

“Yes. There are only two White soldiers guarding the camp. They walk, always along the same path, and at the same time.”

The Shawnee leader spat. “Englishmen. Our children have more wisdom than their elders. It does no honor to kill them, for they are not worthy of us.”

“Do you not mean to kill them then?,” the other man asked. “I thought you meant to kill them no matter what. Even if they had given us the powder.”

Andrew Cummins had been ready to return to Tutka to try and free her some other way, but when he heard the native’s words, he froze. Kill who? The Englishmen?

Dear God, what was this?

“Yes. They will die.” The Shawnee leader paused and then went on. “Gather the men. We must cleanse ourselves before we begin, and give thanks to the One who created us for this opportunity. The powder and rifles these men bring will make us strong and powerful, and give us meat for the winter, and offer protection for our women and for our land.” Black Kettle gripped his rifle as he began to move towards the rest of his men.

“And the woman?” the other man asked.

The Shawnee warrior thought for a moment. “Bring her along. She can watch and see what it means to cross Black Kettle. Let her bear witness with her eyes to the death of her hope.” He paused to lift his rifle above his head and shake it twice. “Tonight we will finish what the Thunderbirds have begun!”

The Englishman hiding in the trees rocked back on his heels. So, from the very beginning, they had meant to kill them all. And now they would. They would murder Milligan, the physician, Scot and Carpenter; Sergeant Tailor, and all of the other bright young men who had followed him into this wilderness. He rose to his feet and leaned against a tree. Jacob Milligan had a wife and three little boys. They had seen him off at the docks. The oldest could have been no more than five. James Carpenter had told him he was his mother’s sole support, and that half of his pay was sent home to keep her in room and board. And Tailor. Dear God, Tailor was remarkable man; not only a soldier but a self-educated scholar, and the son of a friend of his family’s.

Could he allow them to die? Could he make good his escape by a road which would be paved with their blood?

And if he could, what kind of a man would that make him?

Pushing off the tree, he moved quickly through the forest and returned to the place where Tutka had been. The man Black Kettle had spoken with had already freed her and was pulling her after him. If he timed it right, he could intercept them, and snatch her away. They could run. Disappear. They would be together.

But they would never be free.

Not if he let his men die.

Cummins frowned as Tutka’s lithe form was swallowed by the rustling leaves. He watched the place where she had been for a moment, and then turned and deliberately plunged into the shadows and headed for the British camp.

Now, if one of his men just didn’t shoot him before he could save them.

 

Continued in Chapter Four