Panther Crosses the Sky
“Well, if you and me don’t look like two drown-ded rats,” Yadkin growled as he shook his head, sending water drops flying.
Mingo glanced up at the blond man. He smiled wearily. “Speak for yourself. I like to think of myself as having more of the appearance of a sleek beaver following an afternoon’s swim.”
Yad laughed as he slicked his hair back. “If that don’t beat it. I was right about you, after all.”
The tall native frowned as he lifted the strange boy and pulled his wet coat off of him. “I beg your pardon?”
“You can run, shoot, hunt and fight with the best of ‘em, and use that whip like a expert, but you’re one of them there dandies at heart.” Yad shook his head. “Must be that there English blood. Makes a man kind of funny in the head.”
Mingo rolled his eyes. “Would you suggest I adopt instead your mode of dress, including your apparent abhorrence of morning ablutions?”
Mingo sniffed. “When was the last time you took a bath, Yadkin?”
The blond held his hat in front of him and wrung it out. Then he slapped the wet shapeless thing back on his freshly slicked head. “Tonight.”
The Cherokee laughed. Then he glanced at Daniel’s son and frowned. They had nothing to keep the two boys warm. Everything they owned was soaked through. Yadkin had found some dry grass and twigs near the back of the area protected by the rocky shelf. Using his flint Mingo had ignited them and built a warm fire. He had stripped Israel of his wet clothes and placed him close to it. As soon as he did the same thing for the native boy, he would put them back to back and use their body heat to keep them warm until one of the blankets or coats was dry enough to wrap them in.
As it was autumn and chill in both the mornings and the evenings, the native boy had been wearing a long buckskin shirt that fell beneath his knees, and leggings that ended in moccasin swamp boots. Mingo examined each item. All had been carefully hand-crafted. The shirt was decorated with strips of leather and beads. The boots and leggings had front seams and were exquisitely painted. Around his neck the boy wore a string of shells interspersed with animal teeth. Mingo frowned as he examined the necklace. The teeth were those of a very large cat. It was unlikely the kill had been the boy’s. He touched the child’s face and turned his head so the fire illuminated the boy’s right cheek.
It appeared to have been painted red before the rushing water all but washed it clean.
“Yadkin....” he called, his voice soft.
Yad was crouching, warming his hands over the fire. “What?”
“I think we might have a problem on our hands.”
The blond stood and walked over to him. “And what would that be?”
“Our young friend here.” Mingo slipped the wet shirt over the boy’s head and gently laid him back down. Then he began to unfasten his leggings. “He is obviously someone of stature.”
“He cain’t be more than seven years old, Mingo. How much ‘stature’ can a body grow in that time?”
“Among his people he is more than halfway to being a man. Already he wears the paint, and I would imagine – if he had not lost them in the river – carried both a tomahawk and knife. Perhaps even a bow just his size.”
“You mean he ain’t Cherokee?”
Mingo had finished with the leggings. He rose and showed them to Yadkin. “You see the center seams, and the design?”
Yad looked. He screwed up his nose. “So?”
“He is Shawanoese. What you call ‘Shawnee’.”
“Shawnee!” Yad’s blue eyes went wide. “Dad burn it, Mingo! Them Shawnee don’t take kindly to one of their young’uns goin’ missin’.”
“I hardly think any family is pleased to find a child is not where he is supposed to be – ”
“You know what I mean!” Yad pointed at the boy. “Look at him! He looks like death eatin’ a cracker. What if he up and dies? You know them Shawnee. They’ll burn the fort to the ground, and then maybe ask a question or two before dancin’ in the ashes!”
Mingo glanced up at the blond man. “Has anyone ever told you that you are a trifle excitable, Yadkin?”
“Trifle?” He scratched his head. “Ain’t that got somethin’ to do with pigs? You comparin’ me to a ‘pig’?”
Mingo ignored him and rose with the unclothed boy in his arms. “I am sure his people will be grateful for our taking care of him.” He laid him down beside Israel and then, deciding the shirt Yadkin had shed had dried enough, pulled it across both their legs. “Perhaps they will want to adopt you into the tribe.”
“Me? What about you?”
Mingo rose again and came to stand by him. “Me? Oh, they would probably kill me on sight.”
Yadkin’s forehead filled with furrows. “Eh?”
He shrugged. “Traditionally our tribes were friends. The Shawnee tend to be wanderers. They have acted as messengers for the Cherokee for decades.”
“But not no more?”
The Cherokee smiled. “Not no more. At least not here in Kentucky. The coming of the Long Knives, Yadkin, has changed much. This boy’s people are trying to survive, as are we all. Kentucky is not big enough for the Shawanoese and the Cherokee, the Tuscaroras and the Wyandot, and the white man. There is only so much game. Only so much land on which to grow corn.” He sighed. “If we do not unite, we will die. And we will never unite. There are too many old hatreds.”
He turned at the sound of a small voice. Crossing quickly to him, Mingo knelt by the boy’s side. “Israel, how are you?” he asked.
“Well...” the boy dragged the word out, “I been better. How’s he?” Daniel’s small son looked over at the Shawanoese boy. “Is he gonna be all right?”
“I do not know. I hope he will be.” Mingo laid his hand on the native’s head. The boy was pale and breathing unevenly. “There is no fever yet, but he took a hard knock and most likely has a concussion. We need to get him back to your parents’ cabin as soon as we can.”
“He saved my life.” Israel paused to lick his lips. “Well, he tried to anyhow.”
Mingo took a tin cup from Yadkin and, lifting Israel’s head, held it to the his lips. “He did? Indeed?”
“I was chasing after Tommy’s dog. Chance got all tangled up. I couldn’t get him loose. He was there.” Israel indicated his silent companion. “He tried to pull me out. Then he fell too....” Daniel’s son was beginning to ramble. Mingo laid Israel back down on the ground and he was asleep in seconds.
“So that’s what happened. Chasin’ after a dog! Consarn it! All this trouble over some good-for-nothin’ critter what not to have been out in the woods to begin with.” Yad shook his head as he looked at his friend’s son. “The boy shoulda knowed better than to take off like that without tellin’ me.”
The Cherokee rose to his feet. “Small or large, boys seldom think before they act, Yadkin.” He placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “But now, we must do both. The boy needs medical attention beyond that which I can give him here. We must take him to Daniel’s cabin and then find Cincinnatus.”
“Not to your village? Wouldn’t his folks want one of them there medicine men to look after him?”
Mingo thought a moment. “Our healer could help him, but if there is anything less wise than taking a Shawnee boy to the home of a white man, it would be taking him to the Cherokee village. If found there – in this condition – it might well start a war.”
Yad nodded toward the world outside the shelter of the rocky shelf. “Still rainin’ and black as pitch out there. You want to go now?”
“I think we should wait only long enough for their clothing to dry thoroughly. Two or three hours at most.” Mingo frowned. “Perhaps by then the rain will have stopped.”
“And perhaps by then,” Yad pointed to the boy, “this one’s folks will be lookin’ for him. The Shawnee can move awful quiet in the dark.”
“And so must we. Now I would suggest we try to get what sleep we can.”
Yad turned and picked his rifle up and headed for the edge of the sheltered area. “No, thankee, Mingo. I fancy my hair a bit too much to close my eyes if there’s Shawnee nearby. Seven years old or seventy, I wouldn’t trust a one of them no farther than I could throw him. I’ll just keep watch. You get what sleep you can.”
Mingo nodded and watched him go. He went to the boy’s side then and sat down and placed his hand on his chest, knowing that – even though he was unconscious – the touch might connect him enough to make the boy cling to the life he had known a while longer.
A moment later Mingo let his head fall to his chest and closed his eyes, and began to whisper a prayer.
It seemed only seconds later, but Mingo could tell by the change in the sound of the rain that some time had passed. It had almost stopped. Yadkin was snoring with his head against the stone wall and the Shawnee boy was laying still, with his eyes open, staring at him.
“Hello. Bezon,” Mingo said softly, using the boy’s own language. “Ni-la Mingo.”
The boy moaned. He said nothing.
“Do you speak English?”
The child’s cracked lips parted. The voice that issued from them was rough and thick with pain. “Yes.”
“You are with friends. Do you believe that?”
The boy’s eyelids fluttered as he almost lost consciousness. Then he roused. His eyes opened and were wary. “You...are not Shawanoese.”
Mingo nodded. “I am not Shawnee. I am Cherokee. But I am not your enemy. Do you remember what happened?”
“A dog,” the boy whispered. “A boy with white hair. The water....”
It made sense. The boy would not remember having been struck. The blow would have driven it from his memory.
“You have been injured,” Mingo explained. “We must take you to where we live. We will care for you and then take you home. Can you tell me who your people are? Your father’s name or his unsoma?” The Shawanoese were divided into septs, but more importantly they belonged to one of twelve unsomas or clans. Each unsoma was named after a certain animal. This animal or totem represented certain qualities its’ members had in common. If he knew the boy’s sept, he might be able to hazard a guess as to where he had come from. “Or will you tell me what you are called?”
“Msipesi,” the boy murmured. He winced and his blackened eyes glazed, and then he said no more.
Mingo reached out and laid his hand on the boy’s heart. It was still beating. Then he frowned. It was not the answer he had hoped for. The msipesi unsoma was a powerful one. From it came the Shawanoese’s greatest warriors. Of course, the boy could have meant it was his name. Either way, he knew now what they had on their hands.
“Ma! You’re gonna wear a hole in the floorboards with all that pacing!” Jemima put the plate she was holding down and went to her mother’s side. Rebecca Boone was staring out the window again. Her mother had been doing it for hours today, and for most of the night before. “Israel’s with Yadkin. And wasn’t Mingo supposed to meet them?”
Her mother nodded. “Yes.”
“Well, other than Pa I can’t think of two men more able to look after one little boy. Can you?”
Rebecca swung around to look at her. “I suppose so. It’s just that so many things can happen in the wilderness, and Israel is such a little boy.”
“Don’t you think you better sit down and eat some breakfast? You didn’t eat any supper.”
“Oh, Jemima, I couldn’t....”
“Now, Ma!” The girl’s light brown brows lifted. “If’n I was worried about something and told you that I couldn’t eat, what would you tell me?”
Jemima placed one hand on her hip and raised the other one to point toward the table. “You march right over there, young lady, and eat your breakfast! What good will it do if you are so weak you can’t stand on your feet? How is that going to help anybody?” She spoke with a stern voice and then finished with a smile. “Or something like that.”
Her mother laughed. “Just like that. All right, you win. I’ll drink some tea and eat a little bread. Good enough?”
“With jam?” Jemima asked as she turned.
Rebecca’s blue eyes misted over. “Israel always eats his bread with jam,” her mother sighed as she walked back to the window. “Where can that boy be?”
At that moment there was the sound of footsteps on the porch and a familiar voice called out wearily, “Becky, it’s Yad. Open the door.”
Jemima watched her mother literally fly the rest of the way to the door and throw it open. Then Rebecca Boone stepped back as the wet and weary woodsman came in, carrying Israel in his arms. Jemima’s hand flew to her mouth. Her brother’s hair was thick with mud and his clothes were all askew. One boot was missing and he was clinging to Yadkin as if his life depended on it.
“What happened?” her mother asked as she drew close.
“Let me put the boy down and then I’ll explain.” Yad looked over his shoulder. “Mingo, you comin’?”
“Put him in our bed.” Rebecca started to turn towards the alcove but stopped as the tall Cherokee came in the door. “Mingo!” she gasped.
Jemima looked. Mingo was soaked through as well and caked with mud, but more than that, she noticed the blood. It soaked his shoulder. “What happened, Mingo?” she asked as she moved to join her mother.
The tall native shook his head. “It isn’t mine. It belongs to him.” Only then did Jemima notice that Mingo held a small form in his arms, wrapped in his leather coat.
“Who is he, Mingo?” she asked quietly.
Her mother pulled Mingo’s coat back and looked at the boy’s face. “Where did you find him?”
“Hangin’ on for dear life in the same river as your son,” Yadkin said as he came to their side. “No need to worry for your boy, now, Becky, but he had a close call tonight.”
Her mother was silent a moment, then she said, “You can tell me later. Right now we need to get the spare bed for this boy, and someone needs to fetch Cincinnatus.”
“I’ll go, Ma.”
Becky hesitated for a moment. Then she nodded. “Take care on the way.”
“Rebecca,” Mingo caught her arm, “I can go.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll sit down and let me feed you something. You both look
dead on your feet. Go on, Jemima.”
Jemima nodded even as she threw her shawl over her shoulders. She hesitated at the door, staring at the strange boy. Then she turned and plunged into the dark, wet night.
“So you have no idea who he is? Just that he is Shawnee?” Rebecca asked.
“And of the panther unsoma.” Mingo glanced over at the bed where the wiry tavern-keeper, Cincinnatus, sat tending to the native boy. Jemima had returned quickly and the older man had followed a few minutes later, toting his box of unguents and ointments. Cincinnatus had confirmed that the Shawanoese boy had a slight concussion, but said it could have been much worse. The older man had tended to the wound left by the rough log and was now binding it with clean, fresh bandages.
So far the son of the panther clan had not reawakened.
“Do you think he is from around here?” she asked.
“It is hard to say. Many of the Shawnee winter in a hunting camp at Chalaghaawtha on the Little Miami above the Ohio. They come here in the summer and stay through the fall. Because of his young age, I would hazard a guess that those he calls his own are not far away. Still, Shawnee boys as young as five are encouraged to explore the woods and the forests on their own.”
“At five? Mingo, that’s outrageous!”
“Not for people who must survive by their wits and skills, Rebecca. This boy is very different from Israel. You must remember that once he wakes up.”
“You make him sound like a wild animal. You surprise me.” She stood and took his cup over to the dry sink and returned with some fresh water. “He isn’t that different from Israel. Or Monlutha for that matter.”
“Rebecca, the Cherokee have been heavily influenced by their contact with the white man. It is not the same with the Shawanoese. They do not want the Long Knives on their land.”
“I thought Chief Cornstalk made peace with the English.”
“A peace which was broken by the massacre of Chief Logan’s family. You will remember several of the tribe were killed when they came to investigate the shots.” He shook his head. “No, Rebecca, if the Shawanoese are at peace with the whites, it is an uneasy one, and only honored by a portion of their tribe.”
“Do you think it’s safe then?” Rebecca asked, walking over to look at the sleeping boy. “Having him here?”
Mingo rose and followed. “In truth, I hesitated to bring him here. I am uneasy, especially with Daniel not at home. That is why Yadkin will stay with you. And you must remember to keep the door barred at all times until I return.”
Rebecca swung towards him. “Why? Where are you going? You can’t go without rest. You’re obviously exhausted.” When he said nothing, she added softly, “Mingo, you’re only human.”
Mingo reached into the pouch at his waist and pulled out the necklace the boy had been wearing. “I must take this to the Shawanoese village and find his family. They must know he is all right and that we have not harmed or taken him, but are trying to help him. Only I can do this. No white man would dare walk onto their land uninvited.”
“I thought you said they hated the Cherokee more than they do us.” Yadkin had been standing by Israel’s bed. He came to join them. “And that they’d kill the likes of you on sight.”
“Kill you?” Rebecca’s voice was quiet and filled with fear for him.
“That is a risk I am willing to take to stop a war.” Mingo put the necklace back in his pouch.
Becky looked at the boy again. “You think he’s really that important?”
Mingo stared at the sleeping boy. Then he nodded. “Each Shawanoese child belongs to the whole village, Rebecca. They are raised by the village, disciplined and loved by it. But, I think there is something different about this one. Something more. I cannot say what, or why I believe it is so.” He smiled wearily. “Call it an intuition.”
Mingo watched his friend’s wife turn toward the older man. “Yes, Cincinnatus?” she asked.
“I need you to come here.” The older man rose from the edge of Israel’s bed and took a step toward her. “You’ll need to change this dressin’ several times a day, and keep watch to make sure he’s not sleepin’ too much. Now, I want to take a look at Israel.”
“Be right with you,” she answered. “Now Mingo....”
Her words were lost in the wind.
Mingo was gone.
- Continued in Chapter Three -