Panther Crosses the Sky

Chapter Eight

  

            Jemima halted, face to face with this new painted warrior.  He was older than the other one.  More experienced.  And in his hand he held a rifle.  It was not quite leveled at her, but was at the ready.  Most likely both primed and loaded.  In his other hand was a portion of rope.  To bind her with, she figured.

            She swallowed hard.  If he caught her, that was that.  There would be no getting away.  No helping her mother and the Indian woman.  And most likely, no helping herself.

            This one looked like he might have more than just binding her in mind.

            In one hand she held the heavy basket.  In the other, concealed within her sleeve, was the knife her mother had given her.  At this range neither was an effective weapon.

            She would have to allow him –  no – encourage him to come closer.

            Terrified, Jemima remained completely still.  She could hear the whoop and holler of the attack beginning behind her.  Her breath came in hard gasps.  Her heart hammered in her chest.  She wanted to scream.  To run.  To hide….

But she knew what her Pa would do.  Stay calm.  Draw the enemy out.  Pull him into your court where you held the power.

Jemima said and did nothing as the young Indian circled her.  She flinched but did not move as he fingered her brown hair and reached for her throat.  She allowed his coppery fingers to trail down her pale white skin, to unfasten the first of the pins that held her dress together…to come up behind her and press his sweat-soaked form close against hers.

            Then she whirled and drove the knife into his side, thrusting up with all her strength.  A moment later she joined her hands together and struck him on the side of the head.

            The warrior’s eyes went wide with shock and his fall was as silent as the snow.

            Jemima stood looking down at his crumpled form, proud of – and horrified by what she had done.  She glanced back to see if the scrawny Indian was following her, but the trail was clear.

            And then she took off running for all she was worth toward the fort and hope.

 

                                                                                         ###

 

            When Dan and Chiksika drew abreast the combined British and Chickamauga camp, they noticed that it had been left in a state of confusion.  Far in the distance red-coated soldiers shouted orders while Indians cursed, crying out in fury, seemingly frustrated.  Dan signaled to Chiksika to move in closer.  As they did, they came upon an unexpected sight:

            An English corporal, bleeding from the midsection, obviously in the throes of death.

            Dan moved quickly to his side.  The man wasn’t old.  Maybe thirty.  Maybe a few years more.  His hair was brown and matted with blood.  A gaping wound had been opened in his left side and he had been left to die.

Alone.

Dan knelt beside him and placed his hand on the man’s forehead and was surprised when the soldier’s grey eyes flew open.  The corporal gasped, and blood bubbled and trailed his chin.

            “What happened?” Dan asked as he slipped behind and supported the dying man.

            The corporal drew a ragged breath.  His gaze was unfocused.  “I couldn’t…do it. I had to let…him…go.”

            “Who?  Who did you let go?”

            “The…savage,” he breathed.

            Dan glanced at Chiksika.  He saw the same question in the Indian’s eyes.  Did the man mean Tecumseh?  Or was there another unknown native being held captive here?

            Chiksika knelt beside them.  He took hold of the man’s red coat and demanded, “Savage?  What savage?”

            “The child….  I had to let the child go.”  The soldier’s gaze wandered until it landed on the angry Indian.  His dying form shuddered and he tried to lift a hand.  A slight smile touched the corner of his mouth, but the effort to sustain it proved too much and the expression faded as quickly as it appeared.  “Tecumseh, you made it….  You survived.  Thank God, they did not take you again.”

            “You let him go?” Dan asked, incredulous.

            The corporal nodded.  “At first I thought….they will not notice.  But one did.  The soldiers blamed the Indians.  The savages blamed my men.  But it was me….  Dear God!  So many…. They…fell on each other….   They….”  The soldier reared up suddenly, as though he had the strength of a normal man.  His fingers gripped Chiksika’s arm.  “Fly!  They will find you here!  Go.  Go!  Now!”

            The Shawnee warrior hesitated a moment.  Then he took the corporal’s hand and held it tight.  “Be at peace.  It is over.  You have saved me,” he intoned with only a quick glance at Dan.  “Your fathers await you.  You have kept your honor.”

            As the man’s long form relaxed, Dan asked quietly, “What’s your name?”

            At first it seemed he had not heard.  Then the redcoat answered, “Kilgarran.  James Kilgarran….”  His strength spent, he fell back against Dan, his eyes still on Chiksika’s face.  “I told you.  I would do my duty…to God and my country….”

            A moment later Dan laid the silent form on the ground and rose to his feet.  “He’s dead,” he pronounced solemnly.

            Chiksika stood as well.  He looked around.  There were other silent forms laying on the field.  “He must have freed my brother.  Someone must have seen and done this….”  The Indian looked around.  “And now, they are hunting Tecumseh.”

            “Where do you think he would go?” Dan asked.

Chiksika shook his head.  “I do not know.  Home, perhaps.”  He laughed.  “Or he might circle around and follow them, to revenge himself or this man.”

 Dan leaned on Tick licker.  “Well, I know where I have to go.  The trail of the men we were following is still headed for Boonesborough – toward my wife.”

“And my sister.”

            Dan glanced at Chiksika.  The warrior seemed torn.  “You’re going after him. Aren’t you?”

            The Shawnee warrior hesitated.  Then he shook his head.  “My brother is free now and can take care of himself.  I must see that Tecumapease is all right.  Then I will return and seek my brother.”

            “The boy is wounded – ”

            “Tecumseh is strong.”  Chiksika’s face reflected his inner struggle.  “And Tecumapease is his heart.  He will not forgive me if I fail her.”

            Dan nodded.  He understood.  No matter how often he was called on to choose between the settlement and his family, Mingo’s safety or Becky’s, Israel’s or the settlers, the choice ripped out a little bit more of his heart. 

            “Let’s go then,” Dan said.  “The sooner there, the sooner back.”

            Chiksika nodded and the pair disappeared into the trees.

 

                                                                                            ###

   

Tecumseh stumbled away, heading in the direction opposite the British soldiers and Chickamauga warriors.   His own village lay near the water, west of the Cherokee town of Chota.  He did not think he had the strength to make it.  And yet, Msipesi was with him.  He could feel the panther’s hot breath on his skin; sense its strength infusing him in place of his own.  By fixing his eyes on the ebon cat’s retreating back as it walked before him, he managed to continue to put one foot in front of the other.

At least, for a time.

Somewhere near midnight Tecumseh stumbled and fell.  And did not rise.

 

                                                                                  ###

 

            The next time he became aware, he opened his eyes and realized it was morning.  A thick fog clung low to the land.  The sun had not yet fully risen to burn it off.  Tecumseh struggled to his knees and lifted his face toward the sky, seeking guidance.  Msipesi had disappeared with the night and he was alone.

            Or was he?

            Voices carried through the mist.  Not the voices of the Long Knives, but of the men who hunted and hated them – the ‘English’ ones who had murdered Corporal Kilgarran.   Tecumseh searched with his fingers until he found a low depression in the earth and then crawled into it, hoping to remain hidden.  As the men approached their words became clearer.  He rested his head on the ground and waited for them to pass, only slightly interested until he heard a name.

            ‘Dunsmore’.  One of the men mentioned Lord Dunsmore.

            His father’s murderer.

             Tecumseh’s fingers clawed the earth, pulling up remnants of dry grass.  He held very still as the party of men drew abreast him.  Orders were barked and several took off, seeking a path through the trees.  Two pair of shoes stopped close by him – one polished black leather, the other soft buckskin – as their owners sought to get their bearings.

            “This is the path to the village.  I am certain.”

            The first voice was cultured.  Educated.  Smooth.  Like honey on the tongue compared to the vinegar of the man who spoke next.  

            “’Ow can you be so sure, mate?” he growled.

            “I have walked it a thousand times,” the first man answered.  “I know it well.”

            “Well as you know the streets of old London-town?”

            “I have not walked the streets of London since I was a young man of two and twenty.  My…exile…here began then.”  The cultured voice paused.  “In order to be of assistance to my father, I had to become what I needed to appear to be.”

            The sour voice laughed.  “Well, you’re right convincin’, mate.  Who would’ve thought that the son of a bleedin’ English peer would be walkin’ in the New World wearin’ beads ‘round ‘is neck and feathers in ‘is ‘air?  An’ smellin’ of bear grease.  Don’t seem right some’ow.”

            “A necessary deception.  Why would the Cherokee listen to me if I did not appear to be one of them?”

            “That Lord Dunsmore, ‘e’s a right cracker ‘e is!” the second voice pronounced loudly.  “Comin’ up with somethin’ like that.”

            “A right cracker?” the smooth voice seemed amused . “I will have to remember to tell him that the next time I see him.”

            “Now, Mr. Mingo, you wouldn’t really go an’ do a thing like that, would you?  I was just makin’ light….”

            “Have no fear, corporal,” Mingo said.  “When next I see my father, I doubt you will be the topic of conversation.”

            As Mingo finished speaking the other soldiers returned and the black and brown boots moved away; the forms that bore them disappearing with their voices into the mist.

            Tecumseh waited a hundred heartbeats and then rose shakily to his feet.  He stared after them.

            Mingo.  The one who had rescued him.  The one to whom he owed his life.

Mingo.  The one who had stolen his totem, and who was the son of Lord Dunsmore, his sworn enemy.

            Mingo.

                                                                                            ###

 

            “But Yad!  I don’t wanna stay here!  I wanna go with you!”  Israel stamped his foot and folded his arms over his chest as if pronouncing judgment.  “You ain’t goin’ no wheres without me!”

            It hadn’t taken Yad long at all to find the trail the British soldier and Daniel’s son had taken, and only a little longer to manage to free Israel.  He had overcome the Redcoat soldier, bound and gagged and dragged him to a cave, and abandoned the Englishman there with just a small prayer that the Shawnee would find him and teach him a lesson about trespassing on other people’s property.  Gathering Israel in his arms, Yad had turned back to rescue Mingo, only to have that prayer answered a little sooner than he would have liked.  Just as they started down the hill a war party of Shawnee had appeared from out of nowhere and parked themselves at its foot, trapping him and the boy.  There was nothing for it but to return to the cave and the British soldier inside.

            Daggone if it didn’t seem sometimes that God had a mighty warped sense of humor! 

            And now Israel was being stubborn.  Insisting on coming with him. 

            “Boy, you don’t rightly think you can ac’ttly tell me what I’m a gonna do?”

            “Yad….”  Israel’s tone softened.  His blue eyes grew wide and his lower lip trembled with practiced ease.  “You cain’t leave me here alone!” he insisted with a whimper.

            Yad wasn’t buying it.  “You won’t be alone.  You got Mr. Lobsterback there for company.”  He gestured toward the English soldier who had awakened and was watching them.   “Israel, all I gotta do is sneak down to that there camp and free Mingo.  We’ll come right back for you.”

            Israel’s voice rose as he grew more insistent.  “What if Mingo’s gone already?  What if you cain’t find him, Yad?  What if – ”

            “What if you just sit yourself right down and be quiet!”  Yad’s whisper was fierce.  “There’s a whole dang party of painted Shawnee down that hill.  If you want’a hang onto that white hair of your’n, you better learn to keep your voice down!”

            “Yad.”  The lip trembled even more.  “I’m scared.”

            Yadkin glared at him and then rolled his eyes.  He wasn’t sure now that Israel wasn’t really scared.  He dropped down on one knee and called the boy over and gathered him in his arms.  Israel sniffled against his shoulder.  “Now, now, boy.  Don’t you worry none.  I promise I won’t leave you.  We’ll just outwait them dang Shawnee and then pick up the trail.”  He placed his hand on Israel’s head as he stared out the opening of the cave.  “Mingo can look after himself.”

            Israel nodded and sniffed.  “I’m awful tired, Yad,” the boy said as he wiped the end of his nose on his shirt sleeve.

            “Well, you just lean here against me, young’un, and catch a few.  Ol’ Yad’ll keep you safe.”  Yadkin slid back until his shoulders rested against the cold stone of the cave wall.  He was powerful tired himself.  He leaned his head back as Israel slipped down and lay with his head resting on his buckskin-covered thigh. 

“That’s right.  Ol’ Yad’ll…keep…you…safe….”

 

                                                                                              ###

 

            Sometime later Yad awoke.  He stretched and sat up, surprised to find he had dozed off.  He turned and looked at the English soldier.  The man lay where he had left him, bound and gagged.  Yad rose to his feet and took a step toward him and then he saw it in the soldier’s eyes.  They were lit with amusement.  It took Yad a moment.  Then he realized what it was.

            Israel was gone.

            Yad crossed the cave in six long strides and tore the gag from the English soldier’s mouth.  “How long’s the boy been gone?” he demanded.

            The soldier shrugged.  “Who?”

            “The boy, dang it!  You had’ta see him leave.”

            “Did I?  Did I indeed?”  The soldier paused, obviously delighted to be in a position of power.  “And what is it worth to you to know just what I saw?”

            Yad knelt beside him.  He took hold of the soldier’s buff-colored lapel and lifted him from the cave floor.  “Let me ask you a question.  What’s it worth to you for me not to walk out of here and leave you tied up, just waitin’ for them thar Shawnee to stumble across you and skin you alive?”

            A bit of the bravado faded from the soldier’s eyes.  “It would seem we are at an impasse.”

            Yad frowned.  “A what?  Speak American.”

            “A stalemate, you chaw bacon!”

            “You mean, ain’t neither one of us likely to budge?” Yad asked, ignoring the insult.  He liked bacon.

            The soldier suppressed a sigh.  “Something like that.   Let us make a bargain – ”

            Yad rose abruptly, thrusting the soldier back toward the cold stone.  He turned his back and headed for the cave mouth.  “I don’t make no bargains with Lobsterbacks.”

            “The boy told me where he was going.”

            Yad stopped.  He pivoted.  “Don’t take no gee-nee-us to know that.  He’s headin’ fer Mingo.”

            The soldier shook his head.  A slight smile lit his face.  “No.  No, he is not.”

 

                                                                                          ###

 

            Mingo was a grown-up.  He could take care of himself.  He had to save Tecumseh.  He just had to.

They were brothers, after all.

            Israel Boone was sitting beneath a tree, just breathing.  He had made it past the Shawnee war party.  There had to be two dozen of them if there was a’one.   He wondered what they were doing here.  Were they on their way to join with the others; with the British soldiers and the Chickamauga?  Or were they maybe doing the same thing he was – looking for Tecumseh.  Maybe they were his kin.  Maybe he should talk to them.

            Israel swallowed hard as he remembered the painted faces, the bows and arrows; the war shields and bright shiny muskets.

            Or maybe not.

            Israel shifted and looked back toward the hill that held the cave.  He hated to fool Yad, but hadn’t really had much of a choice.  Sometimes grown-ups were just plain thick-headed, if you asked him.  How could Yad think he could stay behind at a time like this?   Israel just hoped his Pa’s friend would be all right since he wouldn’t be there to protect him from the Redcoat.

Sometimes it seemed Yadkin attracted trouble like honey did hungry bears.

            Israel rose to his feet.  He straightened his cap and then, after getting his bearings, headed for Boonesborough and home.

 

                                                                                               ###

 

            Daniel Boone stood in his cabin, surveying the damage.  He scowled as Chiksika pulled the ax from the door and followed him in, and came to stand beside him.

“That ax belong to a Shawnee?” he asked, surprised to find that he hoped it did.

            The warrior shook his head.  “No.  This was not my people.”  Chiksika indicated the ransacked cabin with a nod.  The native’s frown deepened as he crossed the wooden floor and knelt beside the hearth.  When he rose, he held out a broken string of beads.

            “Your sister’s?” Dan asked.

            Chiksika nodded as his fingers closed on the beads.  “They have taken them both.”

            “But why?”  Dan crossed to the table, righted a chair and sat in it.  “If they meant to kill Tecumseh and blame Boonesborough for it, then why take Becky?  Or Tecumapease?”

            “The Indian woman was a bonus, Mr. Boone.  And your wife?  Insurance,” a voice pronounced.

            Dan stood so quickly he knocked the chair over again.  Chiksika started forward, the ax still gripped in one hand.  Dan moved quickly and held him back.

A Redcoat captain stood in the open door.

            “May I enter?” the stranger asked.

            Dan drew the Indian warrior over with him to the table.  Then he righted the chair and sat in it again, indicating Chiksika should find another one and do the same.  “Look’s like you’re already in, Captain…?.”

            The captain had taken his tricorn hat off and, locking it in the crook

of his arm, crossed the threshold.   He inclined his head in greeting.  “Captain Theophilus Oldwine at your service, Mr. Boone.”

            Dan leaned back.  With a quick glance at Chiksika, he said, “I doubt that.”

            “You keep rather…interesting company, Boone.”  Oldwine’s eyes were on the Indian.  Dan thought there was just a hint of fear in them.

            Wise man.

            “You seem to have a fondness for savages.  This one.  Lord Dunsmore’s illegitimate brat….”

            Dan’s eyes flicked to Chiksika.  He saw him tense.  He hadn’t told him about Mingo.  Figured it wouldn’t do any good.  Dan rose to his feet and crossed to where he towered over the short but self-important English officer.  “Where’s my wife?” he demanded.

            “Safe.”  Oldwine fingered his sword and took a step back.  “So long as you do as you are told.”

            “You still mean to start a war then – ”

            Oldwine glanced out the door.  Beyond it were several more Redcoats - with guns.  “The boy will be recaptured.  Things will proceed as planned – with only a minor delay.  Interfere, Mr. Boone, and your wife dies.”

            “What of Tecumapease?” Chiksika asked rising and joining them.

            Oldwine looked him up and down with disgust.  “The Indian?  Your squaw, perhaps?”

            Chiksika’s fingers tightened into fists.  He had wisely abandoned the ax on the table.  Probably didn’t trust himself not to hack this officious little twit in two.  Their eyes met briefly and Dan could see how much restraint the Shawnee was exercising.

“My sister,” Chiksika said simply.

            “Ah.  She is unharmed – for the moment.  But breathe wrong, Shawnee, and I will give her to the Chickamauga Cherokee to use as they will.”  Oldwine pivoted and headed for the door.  “You may consider yourself under ‘house arrest’, Mr. Boone.  Stay put and your wife lives.”  He glanced back.  “Attempt to stop us, and….”

            The sentence went unfinished.  Captain Oldwine exited the room and the door was pulled shut, leaving them alone.

            Chiksika’s fingers were balled into fists.  He was trembling.  “I cannot stay while my family is in danger….”

            Dan stared at him a moment.  He nodded as if he understood, and then went over to the cupboard.  Opening a few doors, he rummaged around inside until he found a couple of pieces of pie.  “You hungry?” he asked as he placed them on the table.

            The Indian looked at him as if he had lost his mind.  What?”

            “I asked if you were hungry.  I always say a man can’t think clearly on an empty stomach.”  Dan nodded toward the wooden chair.  “Take a seat, Chiksika.  I’ll get you a fork.”

            “Boone?  What is this?”

            Dan met his companion’s puzzled stare and then jerked his head to the left, toward the window.  The Indian looked and saw.  There was a flash of red and a glint of metal.

They were being watched.

            “Now, sit down and enjoy your pie.  Becky makes the best apple pie this side of Salem, even if I do say so myself.”  Dan shoved a pewter plate across the table and held out a two-pronged fork.  Chiksika reluctantly accepted it and sat down.  Dan grabbed another plate and did the same.

            “Now let’s you and me see just how quickly we can figure out the recipe.”

 

                                                                                             ###

 

            Tecumseh followed Mingo and the British soldiers, trailing close behind them.  He found their choice of path odd.  They should have come to the Cherokee village long before this.  The tall native with the turkey feathers in his hair had deliberately turned aside from Chota at least twice, leading the soldiers in a wide circle, but had been careful to avoid taking the same path – as if he did not wish the British to know.

            Was he not working with them?  It seemed Mingo’s words said one thing.

            His actions, another.

            Tecumseh hesitated within the tall grasses.  He watched as Lord Dunsmore’s son called a halt.  Mingo gestured toward the dying sun and told them that they could not possible reach the Cherokee town before dark.

            Another lie.

            The tall native chose a place for the soldiers to make camp and as the Englishmen began to cook their supper, he was taken to a tree and bound against it.  Tecumseh heard the soldier who did this apologize, explaining that even though they trusted him, Captain Oldwine had commanded it.

            Mingo only nodded and settled in without complaint.

            Tecumseh snuck through the shifting grasses and stealthily approached his enemy.  As he did, his msipesi walked with him once again.  He could feel the panther’s breath on his cheek and hear its steady heartbeat pounding in his ears; could feel its power infusing him, making him something greater than he was.  He slipped his knife from its sheath and palmed it, feeling the power of its spirit; knowing that this thin sharp piece of metal could take a life.  A smile curled the edges of his lips.

            “My father,” Tecumseh breathed as he drew close to the son of Lord Dunsmore who sat with his head down.  He could not tell if Mingo slept or merely feigned sleep.  It did not matter.  He would be revenged for his loss.  For the emptiness that filled him when he thought of his father.  For the loss of Puckeshinwau’s presence, his knowledge – his father’s heart.

            Tecumseh hesitated only a moment and then, mindless of the soldiers, slipped around to the front of the tree, the knife ready to plunge into his enemy’s heart.

            “Tecumseh!  No!” a voice cried out.

Tecumseh looked, and was startled to see the son of the Shemanese Daniel Boone, running toward him.

            Israel, his brother.

            Lord Dunsmore’s son’s head came up at Israel’s voice.  Fear filled his eyes – not for himself, but for Tecumseh’s friend.

            “Israel!  No!”  Mingo screamed.  “By all that is Holy!  Run!”

 

        - Continued in Nine -