Journeys End by Marla F. Fair

Chapter Eleven

                        

            If a leaf had chosen to fall from one of the nearby trees at that moment, its death cry would have been heard, so silent had the glade become.  Becky turned and looked at the young man who stood beside Margaret MacKirdy.  His skin was like paste and he was trembling.  She wasn’t certain whether it was with horror—or with fear.  As she watched he left the side of the woman he loved and took a step toward Archie.  Before he could speak the elder MacKirdy had placed himself between them.  Archibald Sr. pulled his pistol from behind his belt and with cold calculation cocked the hammer as he pointed it between James’ eyes.

            “Father, no!”  Margaret screamed as she slipped between them.  “I won’t let you harm him. You’ll have to shoot me as well!”

            “Peg....”

            Margaret glanced at her mother.  “No, Mother, I will not back down.  Not this time.”  Her deep blue eyes sought out her nephew.  “Archie, tell Father that you are mistaken.  You have to be mistaken.  It can’t have been James.”

            Archie had regained some of his composure.  He left Rachel’s side and came to rest before the trio.  He looked directly into Payton’s face, studying it carefully.  Then his dark eyes went to his Aunt Margaret.  They were not without sympathy.  “I am sorry,” Archie whispered.  “I cannae deny it.  ‘Tis him.”

            “Margaret.  Move away.  Now.”

            Margaret ignored her father’s warning and turned her back on him.  Looking at the man she meant to spend the rest of her life with, she pleaded with him.  “James?  Tell them that they are wrong.”

            “I promise you, Maggie.  It wasn’t me,” Payton answered.  Becky knew that Archibald MacKirdy had told James what had happened to his grandson—how he had been kidnapped and held by men who were actually after Mingo’s young son, Daniel.  She glanced at Archie.  The boy’s dark eyes shot daggers at the young man as he went on, “I don’t understand what it is you think you saw....”

            “I told you the blood in their veins is bad, Margaret.” Archibald MacKirdy brandished his pistol as he spoke.  “You know what Geoffrey Leighton did to this family and to our friends.  You know how he threatened Rachel, and tried to kill Kerr as well.  There is no redemption for such wickedness.  Not for the father or any of his sons.  Now obey me and move out of the way.”

            Margaret wasn’t listening.  She was intent on James.  Becky noticed he had grown very quiet and a faraway look had come into his eyes, as if he had suddenly remembered something. 

Something decidedly unpleasant.  

            “James, what is it?” Margaret asked.

            “Maggie,” he whispered, “I am so sorry.  Dear God, I had no idea....”

            “James, what are you saying?”  She took a step back.  “You can’t mean you were a party to this?”

            James shook his head.  “Not intentionally.  Never intentionally.”  His eyes had misted over.  He raised them to look at Archibald MacKirdy.  “Maybe you are right.  Perhaps my family is doomed to repeat the evils of the past.  But you have to believe me, sir, I had no idea....”

            “Archie.”

            The young boy turned toward his grandfather. “Aye, sir?”

            “Get a rope from the horse.  We’ll need it to bind his hands.”  He gestured with his pistol.  “Margaret, come away.”

            As the young woman started to protest again, James Payton took her hand and forced her to meet his eyes.  “Let it be, Maggie.  It’s over.”

            Margaret looked frightened.  “Why?  What is it?  Tell me.”

            He lowered his head in shame.  “I can’t.”

            “Payton.”

            James raised his head at the sound of Margaret’s father’s stern voice.  “Yes, sir?”

            The elder MacKirdy nodded toward a tree some fifteen or so yards away as he took the rope from his grandson.  “Over there.”

            James made no protest.  He simply turned from Margaret and began to walk away.  As Archibald followed, Unatsi came to her daughter’s side.  There were tears streaking down Margaret’s face and she looked as if her heart was breaking.  “Yer faither wills nae harm th’ lad,” her mother said.  “When Mr. Boone an’ Cara come, they wills take him tae th’ closest town.  ‘Tis fur th’ best, Peg— ”

              “How could you know?  You don’t know what I am feeling.  You don’t know me, any of you!”  Margaret pulled her arm violently free of her mother’s grasp and began to run toward the trees on the opposite side of the glade.  “Leave me alone!  All of you!”

            “Peg, no!”  Unatsi started after her and then stumbled and almost fell.

            “Unatsi, let her be.”  Becky caught Margaret’s mother by the shoulders and steadied her.  She had watched the entire scene unfold with growing horror, and now could see the toll it had taken on the terminally ill woman.  Unatsi’s handsome face was a study in pain.  “She won’t go far.  She just needs to be alone.  And you need to save your strength.  Margaret will come back.  She knows where she is loved.”

            The Indian woman was silent a moment and then she nodded.  Reluctantly Unatsi allowed Becky to help her to sit on a nearby boulder and submitted to her ministrations as she placed a thick woolen throw about her narrow shoulders and tucked it tightly about her emaciated frame.  Becky motioned then to Rachel who, leaving Rebekah in Miriam’s care, came to her side.  “Will you watch her?” she asked.  As Rachel nodded, she added, “I want to ask Mr. Payton a few questions.”

            “About what?  He all but admitted he was a party to this.”  The petite blonde looked chagrinned. 

Becky remembered Rachel had supported the young man earlier.  She put a hand on her shoulder.  “I don’t think you were mistaken before, Rachel.  I don’t think he had anything to do with it.”

            “No?”

            “No.  Didn’t you notice?  He only stopped protesting when Mr. MacKirdy mentioned Geoffrey Leighton and his sons.”  Becky saw Rachel glance at Unatsi.  The older woman had sunk to the earth.  Her eyes were closed and her head was resting on the stone. “I think you had better go....”

            “Aunt Rachel?”

            Mingo’s wife swung around.  Archie had come up behind her.  With his eyes on his grandmother, he asked her in a small voice, “Whaur is mah mither?”

            Becky frowned.  She had forgotten about Spicewood and Verity, Mingo’s eldest daughter.  They should have returned by now. 

            “She went on toward Chota with Verity.”  Rachel glanced at the sky.  The sun was descending and it would soon be dark.  “It is getting late— ”

            “It is later than you think, Mrs. Moray.  Much later.”

            The trio pivoted.  A pair of ruffians flanked the tree to which James Payton had been bound.  One held a flintlock on the elder MacKirdy and had it pressed squarely into the middle of his back.  As Unatsi staggered to her feet and cried out for her husband, two more appeared from out of the shadows that had descended like a curtain with the setting of the sun.  They crossed the glade quickly.  One pointed a flintlock at the Indian woman’s head while the other aimed his weapon at Archie.  Still another pair threatened Miriam and her two small children.  The man who had spoken first moved forward until he had Danny in his sights.  There was a smile on the villain’s face and a feral light in his piggish eyes.  As he drew to a halt, he seemed to examine him.

            “The same skirt and sash.  Same bonnet and hose.  But blond-headed, and tall and thin.”  His grin widened.  “Looks like we got the right one this time, men.”

 

                                                                                                ###

           

            “Mingo?”

            His head pivoted toward the voice.  The sun had set and the pale light of early evening was quickly being replaced by shadows both dark and deceptive.  Still, he could see his friend’s face.  It looked troubled.  “What is it, Daniel?”

            Dan paused.  Then his brown head shook.  “Nothing.”

            Mingo laughed quietly.  “That does not sound like you.”

            The big man rocked back on his heels and blew air between his pursed lips.  “No, it don’t.  But then, maybe I ain’t like me anymore.  Mingo, I broke the law back there.”

            “For a just cause.  Crooked men, Daniel, can only make crooked laws.  What you did was right.”

            Dan nodded slowly.  “And back there in the hills?  Was what we did there right too?”

            Mingo glanced in the direction he was looking.  “You mean leaving the children?”

            “Yep.”

            He nodded.  “Yes.  That was right as well.”

And if it was not...  What else could they have done?

Mingo shifted uneasily.  It troubled him as well but they had had little choice.  In the end they had decided to leave Israel, Adohi, and Sunalei behind in Monlutha’s care.  Daniel had struggled with the choice.  Leaving his son had not been easy for him.  And for Mingo it had been hard because it meant going back on his promise to Copperhead to keep watch over his son.  Still, trouble had found them sooner than they had hoped or thought possible, and a hard choice had had to be made.

            He only hoped it was the right one.

            They had spent the better part of a day getting Whitehair’s tribe ready to move on, helping its members to break down their lean-tos and pack whatever meager belongings they could carry.  Then he and Daniel had watched as White Wolf took the lead and led them away from the waterfall and the clearing which had been their temporary home.  In the end only six remained.  He and Daniel.  Adohi, and Sunalei and Israel.  And Monlutha.  Neither Copperhead’s son nor Daniel’s were fit to travel, and Adohi’s sister had refused to leave her brother and her husband.  At first there had been some disagreement about who should remain behind with Whitehair to watch over him and who should lead the tribe to safety, Monlutha or White Wolf, but in the end friendship had been the deciding factor.  Israel and Monlutha had known each other for decades.  Mingo had sighed with relief when Menewa’s son had been the one to appear from out the trees.  He knew he could trust him with their lives.  And that was just what he had done. 

Monlutha was with the three of them now, in a cave in the hills, an hour or so beyond the glade where they had bid them farewell.

Mingo reached out and touched his friend’s shoulder.  “There was little else we could have done, Daniel.  I dislike leaving them behind as much as you do.  At least we know that Ketchum and the others have taken up our trail and missed theirs.  They are safe for now.”  He grinned.  “Safer than we are.”

Dan laughed too.  “Seems like old times, don’t it, Mingo?  You and me hidin’ in the bushes?  The two of us on the run?”

“I have missed you, Daniel.”

The big man nodded again.  “Likewise.”  He opened his mouth to say something more, but held his hand up instead.  “Mingo....”

“I hear them.  They have shifted direction. Do you suppose they have spotted us?”

“You and me?  Never.”

Mingo laughed again and then the two of them fell silent.  They had watched with the others earlier from the tops of the a low hills surrounding Israel’s camp as a group of men, some dozen or more strong, had sifted through what was left of it, searching no doubt for some sign of what way they had gone.  The tribe had departed no more than two or three hours before and they knew the trail of the weary women and children would not be hard to follow.  On top of that Ketchum and his men had horses.  The tribe had none.  Between the six of them, Mingo and the others had had one horse and only one hope.  Monlutha had taken the two wounded men and Sunalei and led them into the hills, seeking refuge in a cave the two boys had played in when young.  Menewa’s son had sworn he would die before anyone touched them, and both he and Dan knew that was a blood oath.  As soon as the others had vanished into the trees, he and Daniel had mounted the single horse and made a very noisy and somewhat visible retreat in the opposite direction.  Ketchum and his crew had followed them without considering what their motivation might have been.  At first they had had no idea where they were bound, but then they had decided—even though it might put the others in some danger—that they would head for the place where they were set to rendezvous with Becky and the others.  In the first place there was strength to be found in numbers.  And in the second, they knew Alexander, Finlay and Copperhead must be somewhere between them.  If they were lucky, they would run into the three men before they met up with the others. 

Mingo rose up on his knees and glanced out of their hiding place.  “Do you think we should move on?”

Dan shook his head.  “Let them pass us.  Maybe we’ll catch them between us and Alec’s crew.”

“Copperhead would appreciate that,” Mingo grinned.  Then he sobered.  “Though, in truth, I am afraid of what he might do.  He has been much abused.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more to help him, Mingo.  That business with the Pennsylvania lawyer all those years ago, it was bad.  On both sides.  I never met the man, but I saw what was left of him after the cabin burned.”  He closed his eyes.  “I still can’t believe my son was a party to that, even by consent.”

“Did you ask Israel about it?”

“What?  No.”

“Maybe he wasn’t a party to it.”  He paused.  “From what I have seen, I think White Wolf and Israel have very different ideas about what is acceptable in this ‘war’ they are fighting.  I imagine Israel did not condone the killing.”  As his friend fell silent, contemplating his words, a dozen shapes passed as shifting shadows by their hiding place.  Mingo nodded toward them.  “There they go.”

The failing light only partially revealed them, but what Dan saw was both encouraging and disturbing.  Several of the men were staggering.  Others swaggered and a few stumbled.  It was evident they had not left their flasks of ale behind in Boonesborough.  The fact that they were drunk would make them sloppy and more easily out-maneuvered.

It would also make them mean.

Mingo and Daniel waited perhaps a quarter of an hour after the last of the men had

disappeared.  Then they stepped out of their hiding place and began to trail behind.

 

                                                                                ###

 

James Payton shifted uncomfortably.  His hands were bound tightly behind his back and his arms tied to the tree.  He felt useless.  Maggie had no sooner disappeared than a band of brigands had appeared from out the woods to take their entire party hostage.  He watched as the men rounded up the others and looked from one face to the next.  He didn’t seem to know any of them and that gave him some hope.  James knew from what their leader had said that these must be the same men who had kidnapped Maggie’s nephew earlier, and the fact that he didn’t know any of them meant they had probably not been hired by John.  If that was the case, then maybe the Leighton curse was just a fiction.

Maybe it had not claimed his elder brother after all.

James closed his eyes and tried to remember.  How much had he told John?  He had been so excited when Maggie’s letter had come and she had finally accepted his proposal of marriage and agreed to come to Philadelphia with him, that he had shared the happy tidings with his brother.  John had seemed pleased.  He recalled now that his brother had asked him a few questions.  What had they been?  Abruptly, James’ heart sank.  John had asked him about the ship and when and where it would arrive.  And about who would be traveling with the MacKirdys.  Had he told him about the Morays?  He couldn’t remember.  He doubted that he had.  He knew John hated Kerr Moray with a passion and blamed him falsely for their father’s death, as well as for the ruin of their grandfather and the loss of the wealth that should have been theirs.  John was nearly seven years older than him.  He had been in his teens when their father had sailed to America that last time, never to return.  John had told him the elder Leighton had hoped to find information that would lead him to the man who had once been known as Cara-Mingo.  After the debacle at Lord Dunsmore’s Folly, he went on, their father had lost track of the half-breed pretender and it had rankled with him.  James knew nothing about that.  He only knew that by the time his father had left he had become a bitter man, old for his years, barely recognizable as the vibrant, caring man he had known.  

James’ eyes popped open.  Rachel Moray was confronting a bully of a man who was threatening her son.  “Daniel is going nowhere,” she stated emphatically.  “You keep away from him.”  It was almost a comical sight, the petite woman facing up to a dark, dirty criminal twice her size.

Almost.

“Mother....”

“Daniel, keep quiet.”  Rachel’s face was a study in control.  Her jaw tight.  Her deep blue eyes wide in a pale white face.  “What do you want with my son?”

“I’m following orders, lady.”  The ruffian shook his head.  “I don’t know and I don’t care to.”

“So you are simply hired muscle?” she shot back.  “What if I were to offer you even more money to leave us be?”

A dark light sparked in the brigand’s eye.  “You got money on you?”

Rachel hesitated.  “No.  Not here.  But I have a great deal back in Brushy Fork.... ”

“Sorry, lady.”  The man reached out suddenly and took hold of Danny’s arm.  As the boy started to protest, he pointed the gun at his mother.  “One word, boy, and she dies.  Henry, keep her in your sights.” The man paused as his cohort did as he asked and then met the boy’s eyes.  “You believe me?”

Danny nodded but he didn’t say anything.  His eyes went to his mother and pleaded with her to do the same.

She didn’t listen.

“Take me,” Rachel offered breathlessly.  “Whatever it is you want from Kerr, you can get it as easily with me as with my son.  Take me instead.”

The villain’s frowned.  “Women are nothing but bad luck and trouble.  We already have two of them to deal with.  Why would we want three?”

From behind Rachel, Unatsi spoke.  Her voice trembled with fear and fatigue.  “Peg?” she whispered.

The man gave her a short appraising look.  His disgust at her Indian heritage was apparent.  “That your daughter then?  The Indian who was walking with the white girl?  You should keep better track of your children, squaw.  Don’t you know the wilderness is a dangerous place for savages nowadays?”

Rachel Moray’s small frame had slumped.  She bit her lip and fought back tears.  James knew her oldest daughter was with the woman named Spicewood.  That had to be who the man was talking about.  Maggie didn’t look like an Indian.  There was no way he could have known she was.

“Please, let the others go,” Rachel continued, stepping toward the man, “you can see Unatsi is not well.  She needs...her daughter with her.  Take me instead.  There is nothing Kerr would not do to free me.”

The man actually hesitated.  He turned toward the other brigand who held his rifle on the elder MacKirdy.  They had made him sit on the ground with his hands laced behind his head.  “You know why the boss wants this one?”  He indicated Danny with a nod.  “The woman would be easier to handle.”

James almost laughed.  Obviously the man didn’t know Rachel Moray very well.

The ruffian turned back to her and shrugged.  “Orders is orders.”  He shoved Danny toward the trees.  “Go to Henry, boy, and don’t look back.”

Danny met his mother’s eyes.  He straightened his shoulders and gave her a brave look, and then started to walk toward the trees.  At that moment Alexander MacKirdy’s son, Archie, bolted from beside his grandmother and plowed into the man, knocking him over.  As his startled companions tried to decide between keeping their rifles trained on the others in the party and shooting the boy, Archie grabbed his cousin by the arm and propelled the two of them into the safety of the nearby trees. 

“Get after them!” the leader barked to one of the men guarding Miriam and her family.  As he was obeyed, he stepped forward and caught Rachel by the arm.  Rebekah Anne, who was with the other woman, tried to run to her mother’s side but Miriam caught her and held her tight.  Then the quartet was ordered to join Rebecca Boone and Maggie’s mother.  Once Archibald had been brought to his feet, the entire group was forced from the glade at gun-point.  James heard the leader order them to be ‘secured’. 

He only hoped that meant they would be left alive. 

Turning back, James watched as their leader caught Mrs. Moray’s chin in his grimy fingers and squeezed it tightly.  “I guess you’ll have to do after all,” he said.

Rachel did not back down.  She jerked her head away.  “You can stop this,” she said calmly.  “Let us go and leave, and you will not be hunted down.”

The man laughed.  “Hunted down?  Who, by you?”

“By my husband.  By Daniel Boone.  By Alexander and the others.  I warn you, if you do this, you will not live to see another sun rise.”

The man snorted.  “Why, Mrs. Moray, you took the words right out of my mouth.  Now shut up, lady, and get moving.”  He took his hand and put it in the middle of her back and pushed her.  Rachel stumbled to her knees and then got up.  Straightening her skirts, she began to walk with her head held high.  As they came abreast James, the man stopped and stared at him.  His piggish eyes narrowed and he frowned.  “Who’re you?” he asked.

“He’s a common criminal,” Rachel answered quickly before James could.  “If you free him, perhaps he’ll join you.  He is of your ilk.”  Her wide blue eyes were on his.  James could tell she wanted to trust him.

The man took hold of her arm and squeezed.  “Since you want it...  No.  He can stay there and rot for all I care.  Unless you’d like me to kill him for you.”  He cocked his pistol and placed it against his forehead.  James stiffened but made no sound. 

Her eyes still on him, Rachel said softly, “It makes no difference to me.” 

The man looked him over and then his eyes returned to her.  It seemed like he was going to move away and then he pivoted sharply.  James saw him wink and then raise his  pistol.

Just as he frowned, everything went black.

 

                                                                                ###

When he awoke the night had descended, the glade was silent, and he was alone.  James could taste blood on his lip and realized it was trickling from his nose.  The butt of the pistol had struck it hard.  He wondered briefly if it was broken.  The fact that he could breathe through it seemed to indicate that it was not.  James sat up as best he could and strained against his bonds.  They were as tight as ever. 

They had left him to die.

The man who had taken Rachel Moray was a ruffian but he wasn’t a fool.  He had most likely deduced from what she had said that she was trying to trick him.  Still, he had left him alive.  That had been his first mistake.  Somehow he would get free.  Somehow he would follow them and free the others.  He owed it to Maggie.  He owed it to all of them.  Somehow he had to prove he wasn’t his father, but only his father’s son.

James shifted again and gritted his teeth and tried to rub the rope against the tree’s rough bark, hoping to break it.  As he did, he felt something cold and sharp laid across his wrists.  He started to turn when a soft voice stopped him.  “Don’t move,” it said.  “I think you are being watched.”

James’ heart skipped a beat.  “Maggie?  Is that you?”

“Yes.  I waited in the trees.”  Her voice was trembling.  “I saw them take the others away.”

“Do you know where they took them?”

“Yes.”  She continued to saw away at his bonds.  “They are safe for the moment.  They are being guarded by several of those men.”

“Thank God they are all alive.  Is Mrs. Moray with them?”

“No.”  Maggie twisted the knife around and began to saw in a different direction.  “She and that horrible man left on horseback.  The boys were following on foot.”

“Dear Lord,” James spoke without moving his lips, hoping whoever it was observed him would not realize he was talking to someone, “they’ll be killed if they are caught.”

“That man, and whoever he is working for, has their mothers.  And Danny’s sister.”  Maggie grunted as the knife sliced through the top rope and she fell back.  “I don’t think anyone could have stopped them.  On foot they’ll probably fall behind fairly quickly.”

James nodded.  “That’s right.  Hopefully that will keep them safe.”  He wanted to turn around and look at her, but resisted the urge.  “Are you all right?”

When she spoke, her voice was strained.  “Did you do it, James?  Did you take Archie?”

His eyes closed.  “Maggie, no.”

“Then why did you say— ”

James remembered the man’s wink.  It had spoken far more than any words could.  “It’s my brother, Maggie.  It has to be,” he blurted out.  He drew a quick breath to settle his nerves as he glanced at the surrounding foliage, making certain there was no movement.  “I am sure it was my brother who took Alexander’s boy.”

“You mean John?”
“Yes.  It would explain Archie’s mistake.  Even with the age difference, we look

enough alike to be twins.”

“But you didn’t tell him....  Did you?”

He hung his head.  “I was so excited.  I didn’t think.  Dear God, what have I done?” 

“Put us all in jeopardy,” she said savagely.

“Yes.  And I have to make it right.  Maggie, will you help me?”

Her hand slipped into his and she pressed his fingers tight.  “For better or for worse.  I am yours, James, and you are mine.”

He nodded as he fought back tears.  He was not about to let the evil of his family take away from her all she held dear.  “I haven’t seen anyone.  Where did you think someone was watching from?”

“I am not certain.”  She shifted to the side of the tree. “I know I saw shadows

moving in the underbrush, coming this way.”
            “More than one?”

She nodded.  “Three.  Maybe more.”

All pretense gone, he turned toward her and whispered fiercely,  “Dear God, Maggie,

get out of here then!  They could have us encircled right now....”  James stopped.  He had heard the sound of a hammer being cocked.  A second later a tall figure appeared, silhouetted against the star-filled night sky.  James bolted to his feet and reached for her, pulling her close.  His hand went for his pistol instinctively.  Then he remembered Archibald MacKirdy had taken it from him when he had tied him to the tree.  

As his heart sank for a second time James heard a familiar voice say, “Sae whot do ye say, Finlay?  Dae we kill him noo, or gi’e the mon a chance tae explain whot he is doen in th’ wilderness alone wi’ aur sister?”

Another shadow joined him.  “Whot dae ye hae tae say fur yerself, James?”

Maggie’s slender form slumped with relief in his arms.  “Alec?  Finlay?”

Alexander locked his pistol behind his belt and glanced at Copperhead as the Cherokee drew abreast them with the horses.  “An’ a friend.”   Maggie’s elder brother stepped forward with a  grin.  “Whaur aur th’ others?  An’ whot aur ye doen haur mon?”

Finlay moved past his brother and came to their sister’s side.  “I thooght th’ twa o’ ye woulds hae been gone afore noo.”  He paused as he noticed the blood caked on James’ face and nose.  “God’s woonds, James, whot happened?” 

Maggie reached for her younger brother’s hand.  Her blond hair had broken loose of its tight, orderly bun and it fell about her face, framing her wide cheekbones and terrified eyes.  “There were men.  They came and overtook us.”

Alexander took a step toward her.  “Whaur aur th’ others?”

“They have them all.  Except the boys.”  Maggie shoved her hair away from her eyes.  “Archie and Danny got away.  A man took Danny’s mother and rode away with her.  The  boys were following them.  Alec, I am frightened for them.”

“Followin’ them?  It goes frae bad tae worse.”  Alexander sighed and then suddenly grew pale.  “Whaur’s Spicewood?”

“They have her, Alec, or at least that is what they said.  She was with Verity in the woods.”  Maggie gripped her brother’s hand.  “It all has to do with Kerr.  It’s why they took Archie earlier.  There’s something they want from him.” 

James sagged against the tree.  “If it is my brother behind this, then I know what that is,” he said.

Alexander stepped up to him and gripped his coat by the collar.  The moonlight struck his angry face as he drew him to his feet.  “Whot is it then, mon?”

“His death.”

   

                                                                                     ###

 

Rebecca Boone stumbled as the villains who had overtaken them herded them forward like cattle.  They were making them walk single-file and had placed a child between each of the adults, knowing in that way they could keep them controlled.  Close by each of the children was a man with a gun.  Miriam’s two were managing well enough, after all they had seen a great deal of trouble in their short lives, but Rachel’s little one had done nothing but wail since she had seen her mother taken away.  In the end, in order to quiet her, the men had allowed Mr. MacKirdy to carry the girl.  He was walking just behind his wife now who had been placed on one of the horses.  Unatsi’s illness had slowed them to a pace the men had not been happy with.  Becky was just grateful they had not simply killed her.  Some men she had known would have thought nothing of doing so.

Becky herself was at the rear of the line.  They had not seemed particularly interested in her.  One of them had even said she was ‘just another woman they had to put up with’.  Since they had started walking she had deliberately tripped and lost her footing several times, justifying the man’s disgust, and hoping to establish the fact that she was none too swift on her feet.  She also complained constantly to the man who was watching Miriam’s boy, Tobias, who walked before her, insisting she wasn’t used to such a pace.  After all, she was a city girl and knew nothing about surviving in the wilderness.

Now, if he only believed her.

Glancing from side to side again, Becky tried to determine whether or not this would be a good place to execute her plan.  She knew she would be no help to anyone trussed up and shoved into a cave to await rescue.  Unatsi and Miriam could look after the children.  She was not needed here.  She needed to be free.

She needed to find Dan.

Certainly, he would be headed back by now.  And if he was on his way with Mingo—as well as Copperhead and the Scots—the men would be able to quickly overcome these ruffians.  She knew Alexander would be none too happy when he saw how his family had been treated.  Becky chewed her lip.  Thinking of Alexander’s family made her wonder about Danny and Archie.  They had been very brave to escape, but what had Archie been thinking?  Hopefully he was on his way to find his father and the others.  Still, remembering the look on his face when he realized his mother had been taken, and knowing what her own son, Israel, would have done in such a case, she doubted it very much.

Becky shoved her copper bangs back from her face and frowned.  Where was Israel now?  Would he be with Dan?  Had they managed to mend the rift that had opened all those years ago?  Could they?  Would they?  They were both stubborn as mules and twice as ornery.  She knew it would take something pretty monumental to break through all the barriers they had erected.

She hated to think what it might be.

Off to her side Becky noticed that the incline was not so steep as it had been before.  She thought....  Well, she hoped she would be able to roll down it without being injured and disappear into the dark.  She didn’t really think they would shoot at her.  She wasn’t important enough to alert the entire forest to their whereabouts.

After all, she was ‘just another woman they had to put up with’.

Drawing a deep breath, Becky whispered a short prayer and as they rounded a bend, turned her foot over and stumbled to one side.  Even as she heard Miriam cry out in alarm, the group on the road disappeared as she tumbled down the hill.  Rocks and stones cut into her face and palms, and nettles pricked at her dress and caught in her hair.  She gathered speed more quickly than she had hoped, but then just as quickly came to an abrupt halt on a solid ledge padded with thick dry grass.  Holding very still she listened.  Miriam was pleading with the men to look for her.  Becky heard a gruff voice shout something in reply and then the light cast by their lanterns slowly faded away.

And she was alone.

Rising to her feet Becky glanced at the stars over her head to get her bearings, and then turned back and headed west toward the fort she had once called home.

 

                                                                                    ###

 

“Israel, you will sit down.”

The young man with the white hair looked at the Indian his father had left to keep watch over him and the others.  One pale eyebrow peaked.  “How long you and I known each other, Monlutha.”

The Cherokee scowled.  Too long.”

“That’s what I thought.”  He grinned through the pain that shot through his shoulder as he rolled it.  “Do you think I am going to sit down?”

“You will if I sit on you,” a light voice cautioned.

Israel turned and looked at his pregnant wife.  He laughed.  “Now, Sunalei, I know you got enough sittin’ there for two, but I don’t rightly think you can hold me down.”

“And you will not get any help from me.”  Adohi came to stand beside him.  “I will not stay here and be watched over like a babe while my family faces death.”

“Even though it was your father’s wish?”

Adohi was silent a moment.  Then he shook his head.  “Even though it was.  I have not freed my father only to lose him again.  I need to be there.  I need to help.”

Monlutha looked from one of them to the other.  Then he turned to Sunalei.  “And what of her?  Do you think she will stay behind when you go?”

He hadn’t thought of that.  Israel walked over to his wife and put his hand on her belly.  He felt the child jump at his touch.  “You have to stay here with Monlutha, you know that.”

“Do I?”  Her look was defiant.  “It is my family too.”

“This is your family.”  Israel was serious.  His blue eyes met hers as he repositioned his hand.  “Your child needs you to stay safe.”

“As your child needs you to do the same.”

Israel drew a deep breath.  A moment later he turned from her and walked stiffly to the mouth of the cave.  Outside the night had fallen.  If he and Adohi were going to go, it needed to be now.  Neither one of them was up to a fight and the dark would hide them.  Israel turned back and looked at his wife.  The fire Monlutha had built gave a copper glow to her hair and warmed her rich golden skin.  She was absolutely beautiful.  “Sunalei, I ain’t seen my Pa in three years, not ‘til now.  And Ma, well, it shames me that I never went to see her in all that time.  What if....”  He fell silent as he swallowed over the emotion in his voice.  “I gotta go and I can’t take you with me.  Monlutha, I need you to watch her.  I know you understand.”   He looked at his friend.  The Cherokee’s face was set and emotionless.  Israel knew why.  Monlutha had been there.  He had seen what the American army had done to Dragonfly’s mother.  The boy had only been a baby then.  They had found him alive, still clasped in her arms.  “Well?”

Monlutha drew a breath and held it.  Finally he said, “I will stay with her, if she will stay with me.”

Israel turned back to her.  “Sunalei?”

She looked at her brother and then back to him.  “Be as the snake, my beloved.  Strike from cover.  Do not let them see you.  Let your weakness be your strength.”  His wife crossed the space and stood beside her brother.  “If you find them, Adohi, tell them that I love them.  I am sorry for all the years we have lost.”

Adohi took her hand.  “I know.  They know too.”

Sunalei looked away from her brother and toward him.  “You must go before the light returns.”

Israel nodded as he came to stand by her and took her hands in his own.

When they parted, Monlutha handed him a bow.  As Israel tested its strength, the Cherokee said, “You can strike from a distance with this, and then run and hide.  Take the horse, you will need it to travel fast.  Since the men are ahead of you, stay on the road for as long as you can.”

Israel grinned.  “Good advice, friend.”  He placed his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “I wish you was comin’ with us.  But there ain’t another man on God’s green earth that I’d trust my wife...and my child to.”

Monlutha nodded.  “I wish I had a magic potion that would keep you safe.  But we are no longer children, and there is no such thing.”

“Yes, there is.”  Israel tossed his white hair and pointed toward to heavens.  “God’s grace.”

 

                                                                                            ### 

Rebecca Boone limped through the dark night.  She wished she had a knife or something to defend herself with other than the stick she had found and sharpened with a broken stone.  She had sprained her ankle in the fall and couldn’t move as quickly as she wished.  It made her wince every step she took.  As she labored on through the dense undergrowth, she tried to calculate just where she was.  The men had been herding them in an westerly direction, away from the old fort.  Dan and Mingo and the others should be coming from the east if they were on their way back from Boonesborough and whatever had happened there.  She wanted to be somewhere in-between.  She had been using the stars that pierced the dark blue vault above her head to navigate, but recently the sky had clouded over, making it difficult.  Still, she had managed to locate the North star and the Big Bear and thought she was going in the right direction.

As Becky rounded a narrow bend, a light appeared suddenly before her.  She stopped and held her breath.  She could hear leaves being crushed underfoot and the sound of a woman sobbing quietly.  Had she stumbled on Rachel and her abductor?  She had no idea which direction they had taken, so it was certainly possible.  Biting her lip to prevent any unwanted outcry, Becky moved forward carefully, hopeful that she might be able to free the petite blond if it was truly her.  As she forced her foot to bear her weight, tears streamed down her cheeks, but she pressed on.  Drawing abreast a brace of young oak trees, Becky stopped.  What she had seen was a small cook fire.  It stood in the center of a shadowed glade.  Over the fire a rabbit had been placed.  The savory scent of it roasting made her stomach growl unexpectedly—loud and long.  The sobbing stopped at the sound.  Then there were more footsteps. 

Becky hesitated only a moment and then, brandishing the pointed end of her stick, advanced slowly forward.  If the one sobbing was Rachel, then the footsteps might have been her captor hurrying back to her side.  Still, that didn’t seem right.  They had been too light.  More like a woman’s. 

Oh well, she was in for it now.  Whoever it was, they knew she was there.  “Hello?” she called.  “Who’s there?”

The question was met by silence. 

Becky moved beyond the trees.  The camp was deserted.  “Hello?  Is anyone there?” she called again. 

There was another long pause.  Then she heard an exclamation of relief.  A moment later a slender, battered but still regal woman with dark skin and hair rose from behind a tumble of boulders.  “Rebecca, thank the Lord!”

Becky gasped.  It was Spicewood.  Seconds later Mingo’s eldest girl, Verity, appeared at her side.  The girl’s dark eyes were wide and their rims red as berries.  It was obvious she was the one who had been weeping.  “Spicewood?  We thought you had been captured.”

The pair approached her.  “We were.  Briefly.”  A smile broke across Spicewood’s dirty face.  “They did not know who they had.  The daughter of Star is not so easily taken.  Or held.”

Becky’s hands went to her hips.  “I bet they thought you were just another woman they had to put up with.”  Then she laughed.

“I do not think these men have had much experience with Cherokee women.”  Spicewood glanced at Verity.  “Neither had this one.”

Verity gulped.  “Aunt Ruth, she yelled....  Well, it was something like a yell.  I have never heard anything like it in my life.  She took the man’s knife and....”  The girl’s voice trailed off in wonder.

At Becky’s look, Spicewood raised her hand.  “I did not kill him.  But I did leave him trussed like the animal he was.”  There was disgust in her voice.

“Did he...?”  Becky was horrified.

Spicewood glanced sideways at Verity as her hand made a cutting gesture.  “He tried.  I do not think he will bother any woman for a long time.”

Becky’s hand went to her lips.  “Oh, my.”

“What are you doing here, Rebecca?” the other woman asked.  “And alone?  Where are the others?”

“Taken by men who are no doubt working with the ones who took you.  Being held somewhere.  I think they are as safe as they can be.”  She met the dark-skinned woman’s eyes.  “Archie and Danny got away.  I tell you, that Archie of yours, he is something special.”

Spicewood smiled.  “Unatsi says my father’s spirit is within him.”

Becky frowned.  “But your father was a peaceful man.”

“You did not know Star when he was young.  Peace is only appreciated by those who have known and rejected war.”

Becky nodded.  “The boys escaped and then, when I had the chance, so did I.”  Her blue eyes went to Mingo’s daughter.  “I hate to have to tell you that the leader of those men took Rachel.”

“Mama?”

Her hand went to the girl’s shoulder.  “Yes.  But don’t worry.  I know Dan and your father are on their way.  They will rescue her.”

“He is not their leader, Rebecca.”

She turned back to Spicewood.  “No?”

“No.  Their leader was with us.  He is the man who took Archie.  Dark.  Hawkish.  In a green coat.”  She frowned.  “He moves and acts like a gentleman, though he is not.”

Becky nodded.  “I knew it wasn’t James.”

“James?  Payton, you mean?  Has he come after Margaret?”

“You know him?”

“He has come to the manor before.  I always felt Margaret was old enough to make her own choices, or mistakes.  Alexander....”

“Was like his father?”

Spicewood laughed.  “Do not tell him I said so.”  Then she added, “But you are right, it is not James.  It is his elder brother, John.”

“John Payton?”

“Leighton.  James does not use the family name.  John is the eldest son of Geoffrey Leighton who, as I am certain you remember, was the step-son of Oliver Gerard and brother to John Gerard.  They are all cut from the same mold.  That family has brought much grief to Cara and Rachel, and it seems now they intend to bring more.”

Yes, she remembered.  She remembered well.  After all she had been there when Geoffrey Leighton had abducted Rachel.  And on her wedding day.  “Love of family can do strange things to a man.  What is meant to be the greatest gift can become a dreadful curse.”   She shook herself and deliberately brightened her tone.  “Well, we can’t stay here.  There are many men afoot in the woods tonight and most are not our friends.  We need to head for the fort and hope to run into.... Wait, did you hear that?”

Spicewood was already alert.  “Yes.”

“What?” Verity clung to her slender frame.  “What did you hear?”

“Shh.  There, I think....”  Becky squinted.  Then she smiled.  “Yes.”

“Mither!”

Spicewood pivoted just in time to see her son burst out of the thick underbrush.  He ran to her side and embraced her fiercely.  Danny followed more slowly and when she saw him, his sister dashed across the glade and fell, sobbing, into his arms. 

“Thank you, my Lord,” the Cherokee woman whispered even as her son pulled back and looked up into her face. 

“Aur ye all richt?” he asked her.

“Are you?” his mother replied.

Archie had lost his sash and bonnet.  His clothing was rent, and both he and Danny had cuts on their faces and hands.  They looked as if they had been sent through a gauntlet of whirring knives.

He laughed as he followed her stare.  “Oh, this?  We tumbled intae a patch o’ thorn bushes tae escape those men whot waur followin’ us.”

“Men?” Becky asked, suddenly alert.  “What men?”

Danny drew abreast them with his sister.  “There are about a dozen of them.  I think I recognized one or two of them.  They were the men who accosted Father in the woods.”

“We saw th’ fire,” Archie said quietly.  “Most like they hae as well by noo.”

“Rebecca?”  Spicewood glanced at her.  There was fear in her dark eyes.  Not for herself, but for the children.

“The best thing we can do is keep going in the direction of the fort.  Dan should be coming.  And your fathers,” she said to the boys.  Danny looked defiant.  “I know you want to go after your mother, but your getting captured won’t help her.  Besides, the man who took her is on horseback.  They might be long away from here by now.”

The boy frowned.  Then he nodded.  “We should find my father.  He will know what to do.” 

Becky placed her hand on his shoulder as she glanced at the sky.  “Yes, he will.  Now we had best get moving.  Dawn will come all too soon and any advantage the night can give us will be gone.”

 

                                                                                    ###

 

“James, no.”  Margaret reached out and took his hand.  “I don’t want you to go.”

“I have to, Maggie,” he whispered as he touched her face.  “You know I do.”

She glanced at her elder brother where he waited near the horses.  It had been decided that he and James would pursue the man who had taken Rachel while she, Finlay, and the Cherokee man who traveled with them went to free the others being held in the cave.  Apparently the Indian was the husband of the woman named Miriam and father of the two children who were with her.  “I don’t know any such thing.  You— ”

He put his finger to her lips, silencing her.  “It is the only way to prove to your family, and to myself, that I can be free of this curse.  It is the only way I can leave the legacy of Oliver and John Gerard behind.  I have changed my name, but I have not changed who I am.  If I walk away now, Maggie, everything your father believes about me will be justified.”

“Finlay believes in you.”

James smiled.  “Finlay broke conventions to come and live in Philadelphia.  He is not afraid of new ideas, or to think for himself.  You know your father and mother think differently.”  He turned toward Alexander whose brow wrinkled in a frown as he watched them.  “Alexander doubts me.  This will give me a chance to prove myself to him.”

“Or to die.”

“I don’t think my brother would harm me, even though we do not see eye to eye.  We are family, and we are all that is left.”

“What do you think he intends to do?” she asked.

“Use Mrs. Moray as bait for her husband.  He hates him plain and simple.  John has failed in his own life, both in business and in love.  He has to blame someone other than himself.  Kerr Moray has been an easy scapegoat.  You must remember too that our father poisoned John’s mind against Kerr and his father.  I was too young to be affected— ”

“No, you are simply a better man,” Maggie said, smiling at him.  “You do not accept the judgement of others, but make your own choices.  It is why I love you.”

“Is that all?”  James laughed.  “I thought it was for my dashedly handsome good looks.”

“James?”

 She watched as he turned and looked at her brother, Alexander.  “Yes?”

“Tis time we waur goen’.”

The man she loved nodded and then turned back to her.  “Will you be all right?”

“So long as you come back.”

James smiled again.  “Oh, I will come back.  When you see your father, assure him of that.  I am not about to let you go.”  He reached out and ran his hand through her long blond tresses.  “You know, I like your hair down.  You should wear it that way more often.”

Maggie nodded but could find no words.  And as he kissed her, tears began to stream down her cheeks.  “Take care, James,” she managed to choke out at last.

“Always.”  He glanced at Finlay who had come to his sister’s side.  “Watch over her for me.”

Finlay nodded.  “Aye.” 

Maggie watched as James went to join her elder brother.  Within seconds, the two of them had mounted their horses and vanished into the trees.  A moment later Finlay’s hand came down on her shoulder.   She turned toward him.  “Yes?”

“Tis time fur us tae gae as well.”  Finlay paused then and looked over his shoulder.  The Cherokee was approaching them.  “Maggie, this is Copperhead.  A braw man an’ a guid friend.”

“I have heard of you, sir,” she said as she took his hand.  “From both Alec and Ruth.”  At his puzzled look she amended that.  “Spicewood.  I think that is the name you know her by.”

Copperhead nodded.  “Yes.  I know her.  She is a good woman.  I knew her father as well.  Miriam and I lived in Chota when Star was Peace Chief, and for some years after.  Do you know that my wife is with these men for certain?  She and the children?  And that they are well?”

Margaret’s eyes searched his face.  Copperhead was thin and worn.  His clothing was rent and soiled with blood and sweat.  But there was a fire in his eyes when he asked about his family, a ferocity of pride and passion tempered only by fear.

“I watched for some time.  The men who took them seemed only interested in getting them out of the way.”  She pointed toward the east.  “They marched them up that path, the one cut into the trees.”

“There are many caves there,” he said, following her finger.  “Too many for three to search.”

“Dae ye ken aught o’ them?” Finlay asked. 

Copperhead nodded.  “Many times have I hidden in their dark wombs.  Some are small.  Others large as a house with many rooms.”

“Well, there aur seven o’ them, plus th’ men who took them.  It needs moost be a grea’ cave.”

As Margaret watched Copperhead turned toward the hills and closed his eyes.  He grew very still.  Perhaps a minute later he nodded.  “The surest path leads up the closest hill and then winds around.  For a time it walks beside the river and then it ends.  There is a cave there, large enough for all.”

“Then thot is whaur we moost gae.”  Finlay turned toward her.  “Maggie, dae ye wont tae stay behind?”

“No.  It is my family too.  Besides, Mother may need me.  The strain of all of this....”

“Is it sae bad?” he asked quietly.

Her brother had not seen their mother in nearly ten years.  She met his eyes and nodded, and for a moment was without words.

“Maggie?” her brother asked gently.

“I want to see her have her wish.  I want her to make it home.  But I want....  I need to say goodbye.  Before I go with James.  Finlay, do you understand?”

“Aye.  Aye, Maggie, thot I dee.”  Finlay tossed his cloak aside and pulled a pistol from behind his belt and handed it to her.  “Ye’d best hae this then.  ‘Twill nae do fur ye tae be unarmed.”

She stared at it.  Her father had insisted she have some training in firearms, but it was not something she had relished—or minded much.  “Must I?” she asked him.

“If we waur tae be cut off....”  Finlay paused.  “If somethin’ were tae happen tae me an’ Copperhead....  Ye need tae be able tae make yer way alone.”

Margaret trembled as she looked around at the imposing trees.  “I hate this place.  I wish I had never come.”

“Tis nae th’ place ye hate, boot th’ evil men who ruin it.  An’ evil men aur every whaur.”  Her brother touched her face gently.  “Life is whot ye make o’ it, Maggie.”

After a moment she nodded.

“Aur ye ready then?” Finlay asked her.

She nodded again.

“Then let’s be off.”

 

                                                                                    ###

 

Mingo darted across the short open space and crouched behind a waist-high cascade of smooth round rocks.  At first he had thought he was mistaken, but then he had seen them again, moving slowly through the trees.  A man and a petite woman with blonde hair.  The woman’s hands were bound.  From them a cord led to her captor.  He had found their lame horse some miles back, dead beside the road.  The bullet in its head had made the sound that had caught his attention.  He still was not certain whether the woman was Rachel or Miriam.  The distance was too great and as the sun was rising, casting a warm glow over the land, he did not dare draw close enough to see.  So he had been right, even though Daniel had disagreed.  Mingo had known he had to follow his heart.  It had meant a parting of the ways for them, but in the end they had agreed that both paths encountered at the fork in the road merited attention.  The party of men from Boonesborough had gone the other way, heading directly for the place he and Dan had originally agreed to rendezvous with the others.  The grass on the right hand path had been trampled flat.  But there had been something about the other path, the one less traveled.  He couldn’t explain it, but he knew he had to follow it.  Daniel had been sympathetic, but he believed the way they could best help their families was to follow the men who might threaten them and not ghosts or sentiments.  And so, the two old friends had shaken on it and then gone their separate ways.  Mingo wondered if Daniel had caught up to the gang of ruffians yet, and what he would do if he caught up to them alone.  The odds were not good.

            But then, that had never stopped Daniel before.

            Cautiously Mingo continued to shadow the pair, careful to stop when they did, always working his way toward them, but remaining distant enough that they would not hear his footfalls.  The woman stumbled once or twice and finally fell.  Before he picked her up, the man struck her in the face and berated her.  As her jerked her to her feet, the dawning light finally struck her pale, tear-streaked face and Mingo’s heart stopped.

            It was Rachel.

            Rage rose within him as he watched the man haul her away.  Rage combined with indignation.  He wanted to rush to his wife, to free her, to lay the man low with a blow and shove his pistol beneath his jaw and pull the trigger, but he didn’t.  Instead he remained still, watching, waiting for the right moment.  Haste would only harm her and he knew it.  Besides, he needed to know where the man was taking her.

            And to who.

            His knuckles almost white on the handle of his pistol, Mingo began to creep forward, shadowing them again.  Some time later, as the sun brushed the shy side of noon, the pair entered a modest clearing.  The ruffian shoved Rachel again and told her to move toward a tent that had been pitched in the middle of the glade.  He followed her as she did so, and spoke to a man who came out to greet them.  The man was lean and fairly tall, with dark hair.  He was dressed as a gentleman in a coat the color of the grass beneath his feet.  He took off his hat and bowed politely and then walked toward Rachel.  As he came to her side one hand shot out.  He caught her under the arm and spun her around and then pulled her close to his chest.  A moment later he raised his pistol and held it to her head.

            “I know you are out there, Moray,” the man called.  “I know you are watching.  Show yourself.”

Mingo remained where he was.

“Do you know who I am?”  The man shifted his grip on her.  “Do you?”

Mingo studied his face.  It was partially hidden in the shifting light.  Still, he did seem familiar.

“I’ll tell you.  My name is Leighton.  John Leighton.  Does that mean anything to you?  Cara-Mingo?”

 His heart skipped a beat.  He had lived this moment before, seventeen years ago in another land, only then the man who had taken the woman he loved had been named Geoffrey. 

            It had been on their wedding day that he had nearly lost her forever.

 

 

            - Continued in Chapter Twelve -