Panther Crosses the Sky
The light was bright in the sky. The thunderbirds flew overhead, their keen eyes flashing even as the roar of their wings filled the air. The boy shifted slightly and one of the great birds took notice. It turned and rode the night toward the rustling grasses where he lay. He was not afraid. He blinked and, as he did, the bird began to change, shrinking in size even as it plummeted toward the earth. Its brown feathers molted and fell away, revealing a sleek black skin beneath; one that rippled with muscles and power.
Soon it had no beak, no tail-feathers, no talons. Only one thing remained the same.
But now they stared at him out of a sharp angular face with pointed ears.
The panther growled as it completed its descent and straddled his body. From its whiskers starlight trailed. The boy did not tremble or cry out, but waited.
He had been here before.
“Msipesi,” he whispered. “My totem.”
The ebon animal growled low in its throat and cocked its head.
“Are you not happy with me?”
The panther stared at him a moment more and then leaned forward and licked his cheek. Then it planted its warm muzzle beneath his shoulder and urged him to rise.
The boy’s hand went to its sleek hide. He gripped the black fur with trembling fingers and let the animal draw him to his feet. Once on them, he leaned into the panther’s strength.
The big cat purred and waited.
“I know,” the boy said as he slowly mounted its back to ride.
“It is time to go.”
“Israel! You come back here and sit down.”
The white-haired boy halted in mid-stride. He turned back from the curtained-off area and looked at the slightly agitated redhead who had given birth to him.
And who looked like she might be regretting it.
“Ah, Ma! I just wanta— ”
“You want to what, young man?”
Israel sighed. “Sit down and take my medicine,” he mumbled as he dragged his heels and returned to the table and her side.
His mother nodded. “And?”
Israel plopped his behind in the chair with a thud and rested his elbows on the table. “And I won’t bother our guest.”
She placed the small glass bottle of medicine on the table and then knelt beside him. “Do you know why I have asked you not to disturb him?”
Israel couldn’t help it. He jumped to his feet. “Ah, Ma! He ain’t dangerous. Mingo must be funnin’ you. He and me woulda drown-ded— ”
“You and that boy were caught in the same trap. If he wanted to live, he had to— ”
“No, Ma! It weren’t like that. He saved me. Deliberate-like. Or at least he tried. He ain’t like most Shawnee.”
“Israel Boone! You have no way of knowing that!” his mother declared, rising to her feet and pointing. “Now you sit back down.” As he obeyed, she added, her voice vexed. “You just wait until your— ”
He slumped down in his chair. “’Til Pa gets home. I know.”
“Your Pa was taken by the Shawnee and lived with them for six months. If anyone knows what to do with this boy, it will be him.”
Israel nodded. He fixed his eyes on the amber bottle before him and scrunched up his nose. “Do I gotta take that…stuff?”
His mother ran a hand through his hair and then felt his forehead. “There’s no fever. And your eyes look clear. How do you feel?”
“All right.” Israel paused a moment. Then he added quietly, “Kinda hungry.”
“Hungry?” His mother brightened. “Then you must be better.”
He hadn’t had an appetite since they had been rescued from the river. Truth to tell, he didn’t have one now. He just wanted to get rid of her.
Just for one minute….
Just long enough to peek behind that curtain she and Cincinnatus had set up and see if the Shawnee boy was awake.
“What are you hungry for?” she asked.
He paused as if thinking about it. “Eggs?” he said at last.
His mother beamed. “Eggs, it is then. I’ll have to go gather a few. You stay right….” As she reached for her shawl, she hesitated.
Oh-oh, here it came. If she ordered him to stay put…not to move…to stay away…. Well, a fella couldn’t just lie. It weren’t right.
Her eyes went to the curtain. She stepped over and looked behind it. Then, seemingly satisfied, she headed for the door. However, once she had reached it, his mother turned back. “If he wakes up, you come get me, you hear?”
Whew! That he could do. “Sure thing, Ma!”
“Your sister should be back any minute anyhow,” she said as she lifted the board that held the door shut and set it aside. “You mind her, now!”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Israel sighed as the door opened and closed.
He better take a look before Mima returned.
Israel moved the curtain aside and stepped into the room. Then he stopped.
The Indian boy’s eyes were focused on him. And they weren’t black, like most Indians. They were a light brown, almost hazel-green.
“Hey!” Israel said. “You’re awake! How come Ma didn’t say any….” Then he understood. The boy must have pretended to sleep when she had looked in.
It’s what he woulda done.
The Indian blinked slowly, as if focusing his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was real quiet and weak. “Owa he,” he said.
Israel was about two yards away. He thought about what his mother had said about the boy being dangerous.
For about two seconds. Then he dismissed it and approached the bed. “Yeah?”
One of the boy’s coppery hands fingered his throat, searching for the missing necklace. His eyes asked a question.
Israel answered it. “Mingo took it,” he explained.
“He’s my Pa’s friend. He took your necklace with him to your village. He’s gonna find your family and tell them you’re all right.”
The boy seemed to relax. Then suddenly he reached out and caught Israel by the wrist. Israel almost jerked back but caught himself. The boy didn’t mean to hurt him. There was no threat in his eyes.
“Ne at a rugh.”
Israel shook his head. “You gotta speak American. I know you can. Ain’t no time for translatin’.” He glanced at the open curtain and past it, to the door. “My sister’ll be here soon. Or Ma. ”
The grip on his wrist tightened. “I must go.”
“No. You ain’t well enough. Your head’s still bleedin’. And you don’t look so good.”
It was true. The bandage on the back of the Indian boy’s neck was stained crimson, and his skin was pale and all puckered with pain around his eyes.
The other boy scowled. He touched the bandage. Then he gripped it and pulled it off.
“What are you doin’?” Israel’s voice was quiet but fierce. “Are you crazy? You wanta bleed to death?”
The boy glared at him and then abruptly sat up and swung his legs over the side of the low cot. He rose to his feet and then just as abruptly sat on the floor.
Israel knelt beside him. “You see? I told you so.”
The boy was breathing heavily. He leaned his head back against the cot and moaned. “I must go. Now!” he insisted. “Msipesi wills it.”
Israel watched his fingers reach for his missing necklace again. “Was that Mih-she-pay-she’s claw you was wearin’?”
The boy glanced at him. “Yes.”
“How come you know how to speak like an American?”
The Indian hesitated. Then he said, “My father.” Anger entered his light eyes. “To defeat your enemy, you must know them first. Understand them.”
Israel was silent a moment. “Am I your enemy?”
“You are Shemanese,” the boy said softly. “A son of the big knives. I do not— ”
Israel held up his hand, calling for silence. He had heard his mother and sister speaking just outside the door. “Quick! Get back in bed!” he directed.
The boy frowned with fatigue and sickness as Israel slipped his arm around his waist and helped him to his feet, and then back onto the cot. As he pulled the blanket into place, Israel said, “I don’t wanta be your enemy. What can I do to be your friend?”
The Indian boy frowned as he laid his head back on the soft pillow. He turned his face toward the window and the dying light. “I must go,” he repeated.
Israel thought about it a minute. He thought about what his Pa would have done. He thought about it some more and then stepped up to the curtain. As he gripped it and began to pull it into place, he nodded.
“I’ll let you know when.”
Becky’s son started guiltily and turned to face her. He was standing just in front of the curtain that cloaked the Indian boy. “He just woke up, Ma,” Israel insisted. “I heard him and I came over to take a look— ”
“Come here!” Becky ordered.
“He ain’t gonna bite me, Ma.”
“Israel!” She tried to keep the fear from her voice. After all, this was silly. Behind that curtain was an eight or nine year old boy. Not a seasoned warrior.
“Israel. Are you listening?”
Her son obediently let the curtain drop back into place and came to her side. “Yes, Ma.”
Becky placed her arm around his shoulder and directed him toward the table. As she did Jemima entered with the basket of eggs, asking as she headed for the hearth, “You want me to start these, Ma?”
Becky nodded. Then she added, “Mima?”
“Yes, Ma’am?” her daughter asked as she turned back from the hearth.
“You said Jake Lewis told you he had seen your Pa?”
“Said he’d seen him day before yesterday.” Jemima’s smile was brilliant. “Pa should be here tonight.”
“Thanks goodness!” Becky shoved a handful of copper hair back from her forehead. “I am worried about Mingo.” Her eyes shot to the curtain and her thoughts returned to the Shawnee boy. “And other things….”
She felt a tug at her skirts and looked down. “You gonna talk to him, Ma? He’s still hurtin’ pretty bad,” Israel said.
“Did you talk to him, young man?” she asked sternly.
Israel squirmed. “He’s took his bandage off. His head’s bleedin’ again.”
Becky frowned. That was her son’s way of saying, ‘Yes,’ he had done what he wasn’t supposed to have done. No answer. No lie. “Israel….”
“Ma. He needs help.”
Becky drew a deep breath. She wished now Mingo had not told her quite so much. She had developed an almost unnatural fear of this child. Almost as if—like a viper—he would strike without warning. She steeled herself and walked to the curtain and pulled it back. The boy was lying with his face to the wall. His pillow was streaked with blood. One hand lay upon his chest and the other nervously kneaded the blanket that covered him. At the sound of the curtain being withdrawn, he turned her way.
His eyes were incredibly sad.
Her heart melted.
Becky went to his side and knelt. She reached for his hand, but then held back, remembering Mingo’s words. “Can I get you anything?” she asked softly.
He shook his head and turned away.
“Nothing? Not even something to eat?”
The dark head shook stubbornly again.
She hesitated. “Maybe I should introduce myself. My name is Rebecca. Rebecca Boone. You know Israel. And this is Jemima – ”
“Boone?” The boy’s head turned toward her. There was interest in his eyes.
Becky nodded. “Yes. Boone. Should I know you?”
“Yes. He’s my husband. Why?”
She turned. Jemima stood framed by the withdrawn curtain, staring at their unexpected guest. “What is it?” Becky asked.
“The eggs are ready. Israel’s eating. Do you want me to bring him a plate?”
Jemima was as unsure as she was. She could hear it in her voice. “Would you like some eggs?” she asked the Indian.
The boy’s eyes locked on Jemima and then seemed to go past her to the table where Israel sat eating. Then he nodded. “Thank you.”
Becky’s coppery brows shot toward her bangs. “You’re welcome…. Did you say what you are called?”
The Indian met her gaze. “No.”
And apparently he wasn’t going to.
“Well,” Becky said as she rose to her feet. “We are going to have to call you something. Since you are as dark as Israel is light, how about Esau?”
He frowned at her. “Ee-saw?”
Suddenly her son was at her side. “That means you and me are brothers!” Israel proclaimed. “In the Good Book Israel was Jacob’s second name, and Esau was Jacob’s brother.”
Becky hadn’t thought of that. She looked at the Shawnee boy. He was dark. His long brown-black hair fell in ebon waves over his shoulders. He was lean and mean, and tense as a nervous cat. His unusual eyes shone with a keen intelligence that was frightening.
Or would have been if he hadn’t chosen that moment to smile.
The boy held out his hand and before she could do anything about it, Israel had stepped forward and taken it.
“Nee the tha,” the Indian said. “Israel, my brother.”
Mingo hesitated near a winding stream just outside the Shawnee village. In his hand was the panther-claw necklace he had taken from the boy. Just possessing it put his life in danger and yet, how else could he prove that he had the child and that he was safe?
Would the Shawano believe he was safe?
He had passed a heavily armed party of warriors along the way. They had been headed toward the fort. There was nothing he could do. There had been too many of them. If he had approached them, most likely he would have been dead before he had a chance to speak. He was on their territory after all.
And the Shawano had every right to defend it.
Replacing the necklace in his bandoleer, Mingo focused on a group of several young women who were standing near the stream. He recognized the one who was washing clothes. She was Cherokee.
Or had been Cherokee.
Since the Henderson Purchase bad blood had arisen between the Shawano and the Cherokee. There had been many raids. Young men and women had been abducted and made to fill in for slaughtered members of both tribes. This young woman, if she was who he believed, had been taken some five or six years before. The age of the child at her feet would seem to indicate that that was about right. Her name was Nokisi, or Meadowlark. Her father had been one of Menewa’s men. She had been thirteen or fourteen at the time.
Old enough to remember those she had left behind.
Mingo crept closer to the group of women, hugging the side of the stream and the tall grasses that lined it. Nokisi was singing. Her lovely, throaty song carried over the water. He smiled when he recognized the tune.
It was Cherokee.
Mingo glanced at her companions. There were two other women close by. Neither seemed troubled by her choice of songs. Perhaps they, too, had been captured. Still, he felt it best not to hazard contacting her until they left. He waited until they moved off in search of berries and nuts and then decided to chance it. Shifting into the grasses he entered the water and drew close, and then began to sing along.
At first the woman did not notice. Then her fingers froze on the rough cloth she was running over a stone. She stopped and looked up abruptly. “Who is there?” she whispered.
“Nokisi?” he asked softly.
The woman seemed stunned for a moment. Her jaw tightened. She turned and spoke a word to her small son and sent him off in search of something. Then she turned back and spoke in Cherokee. “Nokisi no longer lives, but I was once her.” He watched her glance around, seeking the source of his voice. “Who are you?”
Mingo shifted forward and parted the grasses, momentarily revealing himself. “Do you remember Menewa?” he asked.
Her brown eyes grew round. “Yes.” The word was quiet. Small.
“And his nephew, Cara-Mingo?”
Nokisi nodded. “I know you. You are the one who is English.”
“My father is English,” Mingo corrected her gently. “I am Cherokee.”
Nokisi nodded. She understood. Even though her child was born of a Shawanoese man, he was of her blood. Her son was Cherokee.
At least in the Cherokee’s eyes.
“Have you come to rescue me?” she asked unexpectedly.
“I did not know Nokisi was here,” Mingo answered honestly. He glanced in the direction the other women had gone. The way was still clear. Reaching into his bandoleer he pulled out the boy’s necklace and handed it to her. “I came to find the family of the one who wears this. If, after I do this, I can help you, I will.”
The young woman’s eyes narrowed. She took the necklace and stared at it. “Methoataske has cried many tears,” she said softly as she looked up and met his eyes.
“Methoataske?” Mingo frowned. The name was familiar. As Nokisi handed the necklace back, he placed it. “The wife of Puckeshinwau?”
The young woman nodded.
Mingo’s frown deepened. Puckeshinwau had been a Shawanoese chief. He had died at the battle of Kanawha.
A battle his own father, Lord Dunsmore, had been responsible for.
In September of seventy-four his father, as governor general of the Virginia Territory, had signed peace treaties with the Delaware and Six Nations of the Iroquois at Pittsburgh. Lord Dunsmore had then started down the Ohio River to give battle to the Shawnee who, under Cornstalk, had allied themselves with Chief Logan’s warriors and vowed to turn the frontier ‘red with Long Knives’ blood.’ A contingent of settlers and woodsmen marched north to join him. However, before his father’s forces could arrive, Cornstalk, the chief of the Shawanoese, attacked the settlers, and the white and red forces engaged in a bloody battle that raged all day. Eventually the firepower of the frontiersmen proved superior. Two hundred and thirty Indian warriors were killed.
“So this boy is Puckeshinwa’s son?”
Nokisi nodded. “Is he dead?”
Mingo shook his head. “No. No, he is very much alive, though injured.”
The young woman looked frightened. “Injured?”
“A concussion. He hit his head. He will be all right.
She smiled with relief. “I did not believe the Master of Life would take him. It is
known he is meant for great things.”
“How is that?”
Nokisi spoke in a voice of awe. “The night he was born, the panther crossed the sky.”
Mingo knew the legend. The panther was a powerful Shawano spirit. Every night it passed somewhere over the earth to seek its lair, trailing stardust from its whiskers, but was rarely witnessed. When it was, it proved a very good sign.
“I must speak to the boy’s mother. Let her know he is all right and will be returned.”
The young woman did not answer for a moment and, when she did, it was with a question. “Where is he now?”
Mingo hesitated. He chose his words carefully. “With friends of mine.”
“Cherokee or English?”
“Neither. Shemanese.” Mingo held up his hand to halt her protest. “They are good people. Their son saved the boy’s life.”
Nokisi answered no more hastily than he had. “You must speak with Chiksika or Tecumapease,” she said at last. “And now you must go.” She indicated the path. The other women were returning from the woods, their baskets laden with ripe red and black berries and nuts. “We go to feed and to serve the soldiers who camp nearby.”
“The English are using you as slaves?” he asked.
She nodded, indicating the soldiers interest ran deeper than food. “Return in the morning. I will bring Chiksika or his sister to this place.”
Mingo hated to let more time pass, but it was obvious her mind was made up. She had a right to protect herself. “Very well. I will return at first light.”
Nokisi nodded. She turned away as he retreated into the tall grasses. He watched the young woman call her son and place her unfinished wash in a basket and then go to join the others.
Mingo hoped she would not be punished for returning with dirty clothes.
He waited until she had vanished and then moved off into the brush intent on finding a campsite which would allow him to remain close by in case the Shawano did something unexpected. It was not unheard of for an entire village to disappear overnight if needs arose. He had not traveled far when he heard the sound of male voices and heavy boots trampling the earth. Creeping silently along the edge of an embankment, he peered over it and was surprised to see several Shawano warriors breaking from the cover of the trees. They, like his own people, were usually by necessity fleet of foot and silent as the deer. Frowning, Mingo adjusted his position and rose up to take a closer look.
The sound of a throat being cleared froze him in his tracks. He continued to rise slowly and then turned around.
The barrel of a musket capped with a two foot long bayonet was pointed at his chest. “Raise yer hands, mate!” the British soldier who held it ordered as the he took a step toward him.
Mingo sighed and did as he was told.
- Continued in Chapter Four -