Panther Crosses the Sky

                Chapter Seven

  

The Indian woman seemed nervous.  Becky poured the remainder of the fresh water Jemima had brought in that morning into a pewter cup and turned to offer it to her.  Tecumapease was no longer in her seat.  She was standing by the window looking out, a frown marring her lovely face.

“Is something wrong?” Becky asked as she drew alongside her.

Tecumapease did not look at her.  She nodded toward the yard.  “The shadows have shadows.”

“I beg your pardon?”

The Indian woman did turn then.  She met her puzzled stare.  “We are being watched.”

Becky pulled the curtain aside and looked out the window.  Everything seemed perfectly normal.  Jemima was close to the house, hanging wash on a line.  A gentle breeze stirred the leaves on the trees.  “I don’t see anything.”

“They do not mean you to.  But look –   Beyond the fence.  Beside the road.  Below, in the brush.  They are there.”

At first Becky could see nothing.  Then there was a movement in the tall grasses –

counter to the wind.  Her hand went to her chest.  She turned toward the door.  “Jemima!  I must call her in!”

The Indian woman caught her arm.  She shook her head.   “No.”

“What?  I can’t leave her out there!”

“You must.  Go out to her.  Tell your daughter what is happening if you can, but leave her free.  If you bring her in, all of us will be taken.  You they will hunt down.  You are Daniel Boone’s woman.  Me…”  Tecumapease turned back toward the window with a shrug.  “They will probably kill.   Jemima might have a chance to escape.”

“She’s only a child!”

“In my village we are mothers long upon her years.  She is a woman, Rebecca.”  The Indian woman met her frightened gaze.  “Allow her to be strong.”

“We should all three run.  If they will harm you – ”

“Think, do not feel.  If all run, all will be captured or die.  If all stay within, they will burn us out.  I know these men.  Some are from my village.  They are on fire with anger and will not listen.  And those who fuel that fire will be with them.  The Chickamauga Cherokee.”

“But the Cherokee are friendly,” Becky protested.

Tecumapease shook her head.  “Not these.”

Becky reached for her shawl and tossed it about her shoulders.  She hesitated with her hand on the latch.  “So you think I should call Jemima to the porch and tell her what is happening, and then send her back out there?  Alone?”

“Can you trust your daughter to do as you say?”

  Becky nodded.  “Of course.”

“Tell her we are being watched.  Have her to remain close to the house.  When she can, tell her to slip away and seek help.”  Tecumapease crossed to her and handed her a bone knife which had been secured at her waist.  Her face was sober.  “Give her this.”

Becky swallowed hard as she accepted the weapon and hid it in the pocket under her apron.  “But won’t they try to capture her before they take the cabin?”

Tecumapease thought a moment.  “It is a risk.  But if she is within, she is captured for sure.  I counted eight men.  I am strong, as are you.  But even our combined strength cannot stand against eight armed warriors.”

Becky opened the door.  “Do you think they will wait for nightfall?”

She nodded.  “They will come at dusk.  That is the time when it is easiest to become one with the shadows.  They will move in an hour.  Maybe two.”

“Poor Jemima,” Becky sighed as she stepped onto the porch.  “I’ll have to think of something more for her to do.”

 

                                                                                  ###

 

“Ma?”  Jemima called, careful to keep her voice from shaking.

Her mother’s slender form appeared, framed by the doorway.  A freshly kindled fire within backlit her coppery hair.  The sun was sinking.  The day growing dark.

Dusk was here.

“Yes, Dear?” her mother asked.

“I’m goin’ out back to get some kindling before I come in.  You need anything else?”

“No.  Just take care.  Supper’s on the table.”

Jemima could hear the fear in her Ma’s voice.  She only hoped the Indians who were watching from the shadows couldn’t.  She knew, most likely, that one of them at least was separating from the others now, heading for the back yard to catch her while his companions mounted a full-scale assault on the cabin.  She clutched the knife her mother had secretly passed to her under her apron and rounded the edge of the cabin, holding her breath.

Then she let it out.

There was no one there.

Still trembling Jemima headed for the basket she normally used to cart kindling.  It was by the back door.  She had asked her Ma when they spoke on the porch why she and Tecumapease couldn’t join her, using the door to escape.  Her mother told her the Indians would follow them as surely as winter did fall.  If just one of them escaped, there was hope.

She hadn’t wanted to accept that, but saw the wisdom in it.

Jemima picked up the basket and reached into it.  A few small scraps of wood lay within.  She tossed out the useless shards and shook it free of bugs and bracken, and then turned back toward the woodpile only to gasp and freeze in place.

A young native stood between her and the pile.  He frowned seemingly puzzled that she had not screamed, and stood waiting, watching her.

“Hi,” she said softly.

The frown deepened.

Jemima inspected him.  He was awful young and kind of scrawny.  The others probably sent him after her thinking surely he could handle one skinny little white girl.

Little did they know just which skinny little white girl they were dealing with.

Keeping up the pretense that she knew nothing of the trouble about to visit them, Jemima bent and began to gather branches, placing them in her basket.  She picked a thick one up near his booted feet and then moved past him.  After a moment she turned and straightened up, placing her hand on her hip.  “Well, you gonna stand there gawkin’, or you gonna help?” she asked.

When he failed to answer she shook her head, bent to her task again, and moved closer to the woods and freedom.

The Indian followed her slowly. 

As she picked up a large branch and placed it beneath her shoe to break it, Jemima dared to look toward the front of the cabin.  There were shadows moving within the shadows of the coming night.  She could see the feathered figures circling her home; halting, one to each window and door.  Turning in the opposite direction, she surveyed her escape route.  Nothing stirred there. 

Apparently the scrawny warrior had been deemed enough to subdue her.

Swallowing over the lump in her throat, Jemima took a bold step.  With a wave at the Indian hesitating behind her, she called out, “Looks like a good pile over there in the trees.  See you later!”

She didn’t run.  But she didn’t move slowly either.  Skipping like a little girl, she hastened toward the woods.  Just as she entered the fringe of tall grasses that surrounded the tall trees, the young warrior seemed to wake and started after her.  At the same moment a scream rang out into the night.

Jemima’s heart lurched.

She  knew her mother’s voice.

The Indian yelled something as she hesitated and began to run toward her.  Jemima didn’t move.  She drew a deep breath as he came close and, using his own momentum to strengthen the blow, whirled in a tight circle and took him in the side of the head with the heavy kindling basket just as he reached for her.

She ran for all she was worth as he struck the ground.

It should have worked.  Even though she saw him move and knew it would not be long before he staggered to his feet and came after her.  She was fast.  She had a good lead.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone.

 

                            ###

 

“Get up, boy!  Now!  Or we will kill you here!”

Tecumseh lifted his head and glared with hatred at the Chickamauga warrior who had struck him in the face and then kicked his side.  Blood trickled down his forehead and his vision was blurred.  Still, he was a warrior and would not be shamed.  Drawing a deep breath, Tecumseh forced himself to his feet and faced the man; his head held high. 

“Only a coward draws pleasure in overcoming an enemy weaker than he is,” he stated, his voice ragged but filled with an inner strength.

The warrior tensed at the insult and raised his hand to strike him again.

The blow never fell.  A white hand in a red sleeve caught the warrior’s wrist and held him back.  The British soldier, a corporal named Kilgarran who had been assigned to him, regarded the Chickamauga with disgust.  “The child is right.  Now go!  Get out of my site, savage!”

Tecumseh swayed on his feet even as the warrior backed down and moved away.  He fought the need to sit as he met the British officer’s curious stare.  “Why do you help me?” he asked.

“There are bullies in every race,” Kilgarran replied.  “Cowards who hide behind any mask of might and power they can grab – be it paint, or stripes on their sleeves.”   He shook his head as he glanced after the retreating warrior.  “If we are not strong enough to show compassion to a child, then we are weak.”

Tecumseh’s eyes flicked to the group of soldiers and natives who had gathered about the fire.  Some ate.  Others played at cards.  Though it was only dusk, a few had already rolled up in their blankets and were fast asleep.  They meant to travel when the moon was high.  Their party was less than a day out from Boonesborough.  They camped on the road to the Cherokee village.  Dawn would bring them within sight of the town.

And him within sight of his death.

“Your captain means to kill me,” he said simply.

The soldier’s face went blank as he looked away.   His words came without expression or emotion.   “Yes.  For God and Country, Oldwine means to start a war.”

“So my people – the Shawano – will do the work he does not want to do.”

Kilgarran nodded.  “So your people will kill the settlers, and then we can kill your people.”  The corporal kicked the ground.  “It is all a game.  Check and mate.”

Tecumseh remained silent for a moment.  Then he said, softly, “Is this not also the work of a coward?”

The soldier looked at him; his eyes tormented.  “Child, you should not say such things – ”

“Let me go,” Tecumseh told him.

“No.”  He shook his head.  “I cannot.”

“Then kill me.  Now.”

Kilgarran seemed horrified.  “I cannot do that either.  I have a son.  Near your age. No.”

“That is not your choice,” the native boy continued.  “If you do not release me, then you kill me.  Tomorrow, is it not you who carry out the Captain’s order?”

He was silent a moment.  Then he nodded again.  The corporal looked away to the west, toward Boonesborough, and after a moment began to speak – almost as if to himself.

“I came to this country as a little boy.  My people emigrated from Northern Ireland where they had been granted land by the king.  I became a man here, on this soil.”  Kilgarran’s fingers worked the braid on his sleeve.  “Growing up, the Indians were my friends.  I returned to the mother country for a formal education and found that was not acceptable.  I grew up a second time, and understood what it took to get ahead.  I became an officer and was sent here to….”  He glanced at Tecumseh.  “To kill those whom I had once befriended.  To betray them.”

Kilgarran drew a breath and then slammed his fist into his palm.  “Oldwine is a pompous ass.  A self-important son of a barrister who fancies himself a peer or better.  He cares little for this land.  Only for his own advancement.”  The corporal stared at him hard and then laughed.  “Why am I telling this to a child?”

Tecumseh had listened carefully.  “You are a good man,” he said.

The corporal’s head shook.  “No.  No, I am not.”

“You know what is truth.”  Tecumseh held his gaze.  “No one man should control the destiny of so many.”

The soldier shook his head again.  “You are a most unusual child.”

Tecumseh did something then he had not done in a long time.

He smiled.

“And you are a most unusual Redcoat,” he replied.

Kilgarran laughed again but his eyes remained haunted.  “So I have been told.  So I have been told.”  He straightened his coat and sword-belt and then, with a glance at the natives sitting and sleeping about the fire, told him, “I must be about my duties.  I will send another man to look after you – one of my own.  It seems these Chickamauga Cherokee are not to be trusted.”

“And you?” Tecumseh asked as Kilgarran started to move away.  “Are you to be trusted?”

The corporal stared at him long and hard.  The laugh came again.  Bitter this time.  Filled with disappointment in himself – and the world.  “That depends.”

“On what?”

“On whose side you are on.”

            As the soldier withdrew Tecumseh sank to the ground, exhausted.  His hands were bound and the ropes cut into his flesh.  He crawled a little ways and leaned against a tree and, even as the soldier who was sent to look after him took his place, called upon his msipesi to give him courage and strength and wisdom.

Somehow here – far from home – he felt more like a little boy than the great panther that was his totem.  Closing his eyes, Tecumseh thought of his family.  His mother and sister would mourn.  His brother would seek revenge.  And his dead father?  His father who walked the world beyond would be angry.

Why have you joined me so soon? he heard Puckeshinwau ask.  Were you not born for great things?

            Tecumseh sat up so suddenly the guard turned and looked at him. 

The comet could not have been wrong.  There had to be a way out of this.  No matter how dark it seemed.

He would not quit.  Not give up.

            Never.

            As the numbness of extreme fatigue threatened to call him back to oblivion, Tecumseh shook himself and, finding a sharp rock buried in the earth, began to saw back and forth on the ropes that bound his hands, determined to be free.

 

                                                                                        ###

 

            “Did she make it?” Tecumapease asked.

            Becky had cried out when she saw the Indians advancing, hoping to give her child warning.  Then she had run into the cabin and slammed the door shut, barring it.  Now she stood with a gun balanced on her shoulder, taking sight out the narrow window.  “I think so.  I saw Jemima enter the woods.”

            “Help will come then.  They will follow our trail and find us.”

            Rebecca Boone nodded even as sparks flew and she felt the kick of the flintlock drive the rifle’s butt into her shoulder.  They had to put up a convincing fight, even though it was doomed to failure.  Otherwise suspicion would fall on Jemima and the men might suddenly decide to hunt her down.

            Becky drew a breath as she handed the Indian woman the empty gun and reached for another.

Tecumapease stopped her.  “There is no more powder.  It will do no good.”

“No more?”

The Indian woman drew the curtain aside and looked out onto the night.  “As soon as they realize there is no more fire, they will come.”

            Becky backed away from the window.  As she did, she reached for the other woman’s hand and pulled her away.  “Tecumapease, do you believe in prayer?” she asked as they approached the dying fire.

            The Indian woman nodded.

            Becky knelt and drew her down beside her.  Her knuckles were white against the woman’s deep red skin.  “The Lord is my shepherd,” she whispered.  “I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.  He leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul.  He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’ sake.”

            Outside the world had gone silent.  The night-birds’ song had ended.  The crickets no longer chirped.

            “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.  Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.  Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies – 

            A sharp rap on the door startled her.  There was another, and then the head of a hatchet protruded through the thick wood.  Becky gasped and clutched the other woman tightly.  She continued speaking even as the door of the cabin slowly opened inward.

            “Thou annointest my head with oil.  My cup overflows.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my lives, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever….”

            Tecumapease rose to her feet as a half dozen painted and tattooed warriors poured in through the door.

            “Amen.”

 

             - Continued in Eight -