Panther Crosses the Sky

Chapter Five

   

The man’s face was hidden.  His figure cast in silhouette by the single lantern that occupied his cluttered field desk.  He leaned forward and steepled his fingers, studying him.  “I know you,” he said at last.

Mingo sighed as he looked up at the British officer.  The light in the tent was meager at best, and yet it was enough to reveal the tent’s extravagant interior with its silk hangings and oil paintings, as well as to glint off the elaborate sterling silver tea-set prominently displayed on a Chippendale stand in the corner.  Mingo glanced at the sergeant who stood close by, watching him closely, and receiving permission to reply, answered, “I very much doubt it.  I believe we travel in very different social circles.”

“No.  No.  Truly.  I do know you.  Something about the eyes.”  The officer sat back and continued to study him for a moment.  Then he slammed his palm down on the desk.  “I’ll be damned!”  he exclaimed.  “Sergeant!”

“Sir!” the man snapped to attention.

“The savage’s hair.  Pull it back.  Away from his face.”

With a look of disgust the sergeant complied.  Mingo frowned but did not resist.  Humiliation was something he had become uncomfortably comfortable with.

“That’s it!”  The captain’s fingers snapped.  “Murray, class of ’74.  The Academy.”  As the British officer rose from his chair and started around his desk, his tone darkened.  “You deserted.”

Mingo felt the grip on his hair tighten.  “One cannot desert something to which they never truly belonged.”

The officer paused beside the desk, eyeing him.  He was smartly dressed in the deep crimson coat of the British army, with white breeches and black boots oiled to perfection.  His hair was sandy, but grizzled; graying at the temples and forehead.  “There is English blood in your veins.  You belong to England.”

Mingo’s temper flared and he almost snarled.  “England wants no part of me and so, I am no part of her.”

The captain reached out and picked up his riding crop.  It had been resting on the edge of the desk which was scattered with documents and cheap trinkets such as the British often used to impress and swindle the country’s native population.  The English officer slapped the crop across his open palm and then pivoted and pointed it in his face.

“And so, Murray, you have chosen to ally yourself with the Rebel’s cause instead?  To become a traitor?  To bite the teat of the one who weaned and succored you?”

Mingo’s fought to control his anger.  Giving this pompous buffoon satisfaction was not something he had planned to do when he awoke that morning.  “Surely you did not capture me just so you had a captive audience to recite England’s attributes to.  What is this?”  Mingo paused at the man’s look.  “Wait.  You did not take me by accident.  Did you?”  The soldiers had come from the direction of Boonesborough.  It was likely they had followed him.

Did that mean they were watching Daniel’s house?

“Nothing happens by accident where His Majesty and His royal forces are concerned, my friend.  All is well-calculated.  Every action executed with well-planned perfection.”  The crop caught him under the chin and lifted his head so that he was forced to meet the captain’s gleeful gaze.  “As are his enemies.”

The crop was withdrawn and the officer signaled to the sergeant to release the grip on his hair.  Mingo fought off a sigh of relief and shook his head,  tossing the black wave back over his shoulders.  He watched as the captain, Oldwine was his name, took hold of a wooden chair and turned it so its back was to him.  Then he straddled it and sat.

“Sergeant,” he called.

“Sir!” the enlisted man’s response was instant.

“See that the savages bindings are secure, and then you are dismissed.”

“Sir!”

The sergeant did as he was told and then exited the tent.  Most likely to wash his hands, Mingo mused as he relished the thought of the smell of the bear grease that must be clinging to the soldier’s lace cuffs and braided sleeves.  With the enlisted man’s departure, the tent fell silent.  Captain Oldwine watched him and then indicated with a lift of one reddish brow that it was permissible to speak.

“Did you really know me at the Academy?” Mingo asked.

“Lord Dunsmore’s little Indian folly?”  Oldwine laughed.  “Certainly.  Greek literature.  Fourth seat.  Second row.   I believe you were the one who lit the hot-seat under the proctor in Mathematics second term, were you not?”

Mingo was always amazed at how ill-kept the secret of his heritage had been.  He knew his father had paid thousands of pounds to get him appointed to the Royal Academy and then into Oxford.  At the time he had thought everyone’s father had done the same.  Later he had come to realize that the gold had been used as much to close mouths as to open doors.

“Just practicing,” Mingo answered with a grim smile.  “Come to my mother’s village and I will show you how far I have advanced in the knowledge of building fires.”

Captain Oldwine laughed out loud.  “Check, Murray.”

He shook his head.  “Cara-Mingo.  Kerr Murray is long dead.”

Oldwine shifted back and reached for his pocket.  “Not according to some, he isn’t.  Not yet.”

“What?”

The captain produced an official-looking packet from the depths of his crimson coat.  He held it out toward him and laughed at his expression.

“A packet from home.”

 

                                                                                ###

 

Dan stopped at the top of the rise that led down to the stream that bordered the Shawnee village and scratched his head.   Yadkin turned to him with a concerned look on his face.  “Dan’l?  What’s puzzlin’ you?”

“Yad, we been trackin’ these boys for some time now.  They were headed for the Shawnee village and just now, suddenly, they turned back.  Now if I know Israel,” Dan’s green eyes met his friend’s, “and I think I do, he ain’t headin’ for home and the whippin’ that’s waitin’ for him there.  Must be somethin’ else here we ain’t seen yet.  Somethin’ that forced them to change their minds.”

“Like these?”

Yadkin had moved down the hill and was staring at the ground.  Dan went to stand beside him, careful not to disturb the tracks.  Or to disturb them any more.  There were a jumble of them, one right on top of the other – at least a dozen moccasins and boots.

“You make anythin’ of it, Dan’l?”

Dan frowned as he knelt and examined the prints.  “This one’s Shawnee,” he said pointing at first one set and then another.  “And this.  And this.  Soft-soled, one piece moccasins.”  He scooted over a bit, “Now these two were walkin’ barefoot.  I heard the Chickamauga do that.”

“Chickamauga?  You thinkin’ these here men are some of the ones the Continental officer warned you about?  The ones come to make trouble with old Menewa and Blackfish?”

Dan nodded, thoughtful.

“You think those two rascally young’uns are followin’ them?”

“I sure hope not, Yad.  There’s a third type of prints.”

Yad knelt beside him.  In the morning light it was hard to see.  The blond shifted so he was free of his own shadow and then looked where Dan was pointing.  “Redcoats!” Yad exclaimed.

Sharp, crisp boot prints.  Obviously mass-produced.  And every one so like the other as to be indistinguishable except for the depth their owner’s weight drove the studded heels into the ground.  “English soldiers, Yad.  A good half-dozen of them.  Marching in file except for this one.”  Dan’s finger traced the print of a soft-soled moccasin entrenched in a sea of hard uncompromising boots.

“A prisoner, you think?”

Dan’s frown deepened.  “Yep.”

 “You thinkin’ it’s Mingo?”

With a wry smile Dan turned to his friend.  “You thinkin’ maybe it’s not?”

“Well, seein’ as that Cherokee attracts trouble like molasses draws flies, you’re most likely right.”  Yad paused and then added softly, “You sure it’s a smart thing to keep him around?”

Dan rose and gripped Ticklicker tightly.  “Well, he’s found the Redcoats for us.”

Yad indicated the sets of two small footprints laid on top of the bigger ones.   “And the boys?”

“Let’s hope he’s found them too.  Come on, Yad.  We need to— ”  Dan paused and held his hand up.  Gripping Yad and hauling him into the cover of the underbrush, Dan whispered, “Someone’s comin’.”

As they watched a young Indian woman stepped onto the trail. She hesitated, looking from side to side.  Taking a few steps forward, she paused again and then startled them by calling out softly, “Cara-Mingo?  It is I, Nokisi.  Cara-Mingo, are you here?”

Dan glanced at Yadkin and then left the foliage that hid them.  Tipping his coonskin cap he said, “Ma’am, looks like you and me got somethin’ in common.”

The woman jumped.  She gazed at him, a frown marring her face, and then shook her head.  Then she pivoted and held her hands out wide.  “No!  Chiksika, do not shoot!”

Even as she called out, Dan ducked instinctively.  It was a good thing he did.  A heavily-feathered arrow sporting a huge flint point whizzed past him, tearing through the edge of his soft buckskin jacket before embedding itself in a tree.

It had been aimed at his heart.

Dan heard Yadkin cock the hammer of his flintlock.  He straightened up and turned toward him, his hands wide as Nokisi’s.  “Yad, hold your fire!”

“Dan’l, are you plump loco?”  Yad answered from his place of concealment.  “Them Injuns’ll kill ya!”

Dan turned back.  Nokisi was glancing desperately from the rustling foliage to him and back again.  “I don’t think so, Yad.  Hold your fire.  And while you’re at it, come out here and lay your rifle down.”

WHAT?”

“Yad.  Do it!”

Fortunately Yad’s grumbling kept his curses from being understood, otherwise the earth might have opened up and swallowed him straight down to Hell.  “Dan’l Boone, if you ain’t the most confounded, aggravatin’ man God ever gave long legs to and set walkin’ on the earth!” Yad protested as he did what he was told.

Dan moved forward slowly, placing Ticklicker on the ground beside Yadkin’s rifle.

“I got a bad feelin’ about this, Dan’l….”

“Nokisi,” Dan called out as he straightened up, careful to keep his tone even.  “I am seeking the one called Cara-Mingo as well.  What do you know of him?”

The woman started to reply, but before she could, a tall, slightly-built but powerfully-muscled warrior stepped out of the trees behind her.  He was dressed in colonial breeches and wore an open hunting shirt.  His long swamp-boots of leather reached to his knees.  His hair was short, either by design or from a recent battle where it had been cut to keep the long tresses from becoming an advantage to the enemy.  About the warrior’s neck hung a leather thong and on it was a single panther’s claw.

Dan studied the young man as he drew near.  When the warrior was within ten feet, he held his hand out and said boldly, “I greet warmly as a brother, Chiksika, son of Puckeshinwau, mighty chief of the Shawanoese, and ask of him a favor.”

The young man stopped and stared at him, puzzled.  “Do I know you?” he asked in clear English.

“We have never met, but I knew your father.”

Chiksika’s rifle hung heavy in his hand.   “I do not remember you.”

“You were away when I lived with your tribe.  My name is Sheltowee.  But in the white man’s world I am called Daniel— ”

“Boone.”

Dan nodded.  “Yes.  Chief Blackfish is my adopted father.”

A slight sneer lifted Chiksika’s upper lip.  “Many have doubted the wisdom of Blackfish’s ‘gift’ to the tall Shemanese called ‘Boone’.”

“Is Chiksika among them?”

“He has been counted among their number,” a new voice answered.  “Though my brother is not afraid to change his mind.”

Both men pivoted.  A striking Indian woman, perhaps twenty years old, had emerged from the underbrush.  Her face was grave and beautiful.  She wore a traditional dress of skins, decorated with quills and beads.  She nodded to Nokisi and then came to rest beside them. 

Dan smiled and offered his hand again.  “Tecumapease.”

She seemed surprised.  “You remember me?”

“So lovely a flower of the Shawnee nation could not be forgotten.  Nor her kindness to a Shemanese lost and far from home.” 

She nodded curtly, acknowledging his greeting and then asked abruptly, “Where is my brother?  Where is Tecumseh?”

 

                                                                              ###

 

Mingo waited as the captain broke the seal on the packet of letters and began to rifle through them.  Oldwine smiled as he tossed them one by one onto the cluttered desk.  “Seems to be quite a few from someone named ‘Johnny’.  A child’s scribble.”  The officer’s grey eyes flicked to him.  “Perhaps a bastard of your own?”

Mingo did not rise to the bait.  Johnny was his younger brother.  The only one of his father’s children by his English wife, Charlotte, that he had ever formed an attachment to.

“Another here concerns some property.  And one in a woman’s hand….”  He sniffed it.  “Fond of Bergamot, is she?  Ah, here is the one I have been looking for!!”  Captain Oldwine extracted one letter with an official seal and tossed the remainder on the table.   “Aren’t you curious?” the officer asked with a wicked grin.

Mingo scowled.  “Not in the least.”

“Well, I will read it to you anyway, since you are my ‘captive’ audience.”  Oldwine opened the document and began to read it.  It recited a long list of grievances, actions and intentions, and ended with a declaration proclaiming Kerr Murray, the son of John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunsmore, an enemy of the Crown.  Oldwine closed the parchment and laid it across his lap.  He raised his grey eyes to Mingo’s face.  “Do you know what happens to enemies of the Crown, Mr. Murray?”

Without hesitation Mingo answered, “They are summarily executed without a trial.”

“A pity, but true.”  The captain stood and laid the order on his desk.  He paused a moment and then turned back.  “You know, no one need ever see this but me and you.”

Mingo drew in a breath.  Here it came.  “Really?”

Oldwine picked the document up and held it near the lantern.  The dull light flickered, showing the brown ink and official seal now broken in two.  “I could easily drop it into the fire.  But first, there is something I need you to do for me.  Will you do it?”

“To save my life?” Mingo asked.  “Name it.”

Oldwine paused.  Almost as if a little disappointed that the game was won so easily.  Then he nodded.  “I thought so.  No honor among the savages is there?  Your Cherokee blood is telling, Murray.”

Thinking Captain Oldwine quite the savage, Mingo nodded.  “No.  There is no honor among savages, red or Red coat.”

Oldwine laughed and shook his head.  “You know why we are here?”

“To speak to my chief.”

“His Majesty has sent his soldiers to obtain your chief Menewa’s assurances that he will join with his Chickamauga brothers – and their brother Shawnee – against our common enemy, the Shemanese.  Is it not the Americans who steal your people’s land and rape your women and children?  Burning and looting villages?  And all so they can steal the Cherokee’s land?”

Mingo closed his eyes briefly.  It would not be a hard fight.  Most of what Oldwine said was sadly true.  Chota had known too many losses, too much death at the hands of the white settlers.

But not all white settlers were the same.

Opening his eyes, he said, “Go on.”

“You will lead me to your chief and convince him that my offer is genuine; that it is for his good and the good of his people to join with us against the settlers.”

Mingo shifted and let a slow smile spread across his face.  “You know, you did not need to bind and threaten me for me to do this.”

Oldwine’s reddish brows peaked.  “What of your well-known Rebel sympathies?”

Mingo shrugged.  “A charade.”  He paused and, as best he could while bound, assumed a casual, arrogant air that mimicked the captain’s own.  “Do you really think that one who has lived in Stirlingshire Manor and dined with Kings would be content with a cold lodge, bearskins, and fried fish over an open fire?  This is a ruse, Captain.  Well-thought out by my father.  I am his ears and eyes on the frontier.”

Oldwine did not seem convinced, but neither was he entirely certain Mingo was bluffing.  He placed the parchment in his inner breast pocket and then turned toward the tent door.  “Well, then, it seems my insurance may prove unnecessary.  Still….”

Mingo fought off surprise.  “Insurance?”

Captain Oldwine had reached the door.  He paused and looked back at him.  “Didn’t I mention it?  How remiss of me.  Two young boys – a most unlikely pair – have become our guests as well.  I think you know one of them.  Daniel Boone’s young son.  Isaac, isn’t it?”

“Israel…”  

“Yes, and the other one – Puckeshinwa’s brat.  I think Chief Blackfish might take quite an interest in his welfare.  Especially when he and his warriors find the boy’s dead body within the confines of Daniel Boone’s settlement.”  The captain sneered and exited the ten.  His smug words remained behind.

“Checkmate, Mr. Murray.”

 

                                                               ###

 

“Allies, then?” the white man asked.

Chiksika stared at Daniel Boone’s hand.  It was extended in friendship.

“Brother?”

The young Shawanoese warrior turned toward his sister, Tecumapease.  Her great dark eyes were pleading with him.  Tecumseh was special to all of them, but more so to her.  Their mother, Methoataske, had not been the same since their father’s death.  Tecumseh was as much his sister’s son as their mother’s.  He took a step toward her and touched his sister’s face.  “For you,” he said softly.  Then he turned back to Boone.

The Shemanese’s hand was still there.  It looked so like the hand of the man who had pulled the trigger that had killed their father.

Could this one be different?

“A truce then?  At least until the boys are found and safely home?” Dan asked.

Chiksika extended his hand.  “So long as my brother safely reaches my sister’s arms, I swear I will not raise this hand against you and yours.  But betray me, Boone, and I warn you….”

“Fair enough.”  Chiksika watched as Daniel Boone glanced at his companion who had been standing silently by.

The one called ‘Yad’ nodded in agreement.  “You got my word, Injun.”

“Yad may not understand the social graces,” Boone said wryly, ‘but he’s an honest man.  That means somethin’.”

Chiksika lowered his hand and clasp the white man’s.  The Shemanese had long fingers and heavily callused palms.  Boone held his grip for a moment and then released him and stood back.

“Time’s a wastin’,” Boone acknowledged.

Chiksika nodded.  “Now we go.”

 

- Continued in Chapter Six -