Sometime later, after he had bathed his son's face and hands and made certain he wasn't injured, Dan placed him beneath the old oak tree and told him to tell his tale. The boy admitted he had left the Lewises without telling either Jake or Ethel. He had been worried about his ma and Mingo and was sure they wouldn't let him go. As he accepted his father's gentle reprimand he continued, explaining how Cincinnatus had met up with him in the woods and taken him on to the cabin.
"Just as we got to the cabin, Pa, we saw them sneaky Injuns waitin' in the trees close by. We pretended to go inside and then snuck out the back and down into the cellar."
"You were lucky, Israel, that the natives this man left behind to commit this heinous crime were not civilized," the Cherokee said softly. "I do know what a root cellar is and where to find it."
"But you're Mingo," the little boy replied, looking at his friend. "You've been edicated."
"Was there a white man with them, Cincinnatus? Could you tell?"
"That there was. He was a big man." The tavern-keeper pulled at his graying beard. "In fact, he looked a lot like you."
"So I've heard." Dan rose to his feet and looked off towards the horizon. "Any idea where they were taking her?"
The older man shook his head. His complexion was gray and the smoke had left him feeling sick. "I watched them as long as I could. They went north. I figgered I had better see to Israel and then raise the men. Dan'l, I...."
"You did right, old friend." He placed his hand on the tavern-keeper's shoulder. "I am in your debt. Mingo?"
"Yes, Daniel." He came to stand beside him and followed his gaze.
"You know what that means. They went north."
Mingo's knuckles were almost white on his rifle. "Towards Chota and home."
Becky kept looking for an opportunity to escape but one never seemed to come. She had been well-guarded from the moment they had left the cabin until now, when the 'civilized' Indian who traveled with the nameless man who pretended to be her husband had placed her under a tree and removed her gag to permit her to eat. As she finished she tried to engage him in conversation, but he was taciturn as stone. She had hoped to draw him out; to find out why they were headed for the Cherokee village. Perhaps Chota had been his home once upon a time. Still, as she stared at him and thought about the company he kept, she was afraid it only meant that Mingo's people were to be the next target of their hate. Apparently along with destroying Dan's reputation, they were bent on starting an Indian war.
"Will you tell me one thing?" she asked at last.
The native turned to look at her.
"What profit will you derive from this?" Becky shook her head at what she saw as insanity. "What will you gain from seeing a village belonging to your own people destroyed?"
"They are not my people."
Her copper brows rose towards her bangs. He spoke. "You are Cherokee..." She frowned. "Aren't you?"
"No more. When my people signed away our land, they became no longer my people. If it seems Daniel Boone has destroyed this village, the clans will go to war and drive you and your kind out. There will be no need for more concessions." He glanced over his shoulder as the man he followed spoke his name, calling him. "In time, even the British will leave, and we will have our lands again."
"But they will know it isn't Dan," she shook her head. "Menewa and the others; they are our friends."
"If no one can speak, there will be no one to know." The native rose then and began to walk away. He left the gag laying by her side.
Becky blew hair out of her eyes and glanced from side to side. As she did the man who pretended to be her husband approached and knelt by her. She might have thought him handsome if he had not already proved to be a devil. As he removed his hat, he ran a hand through his chin length hair and smiled.
"Comfortable, Mrs. Boone?"
"At least my conscience is clean, Mister...."
"I've never heard of you."
"And you never will. Nicholas Parnell is no more. I am Daniel Boone."
"You can't fool everyone all of the time, Mr. Parnell. Someone will figure it out." She glanced at his silent companion where he stood, tending the horses. "Or someone will betray you in the end."
"Are you trying to cast aspersions on my compatriot? I assure you Black-racer will not turn on me."
"Oh? He doesn't seem to like you all that much."
Parnell laughed. "He doesn't need to. Our arrangement is mutually beneficial. In fact, the germ of this scheme was his, and the first village destroyed, his own." He reached out then and caught her by the chin, laughing as she struggled futilely to get away. "He has no loyalty to the Cherokee. He would just as soon see them all wiped from the face of the earth."
"And you? What do you want?"
"At the moment, other than your husband's destruction, dear lady? Nothing."
"What has Dan done to harm you? Why do you hate him so?"
Parnell picked up the gag. "That is a story for another day, Mrs. Boone."
"No one will believe Dan destroyed the Cherokee," she spat out quickly. "They'll know better."
"Oh, but I beg to differ. It will seem the poor man was mad with grief. You see, his wife's body will be found, bound," he lifted the cloth towards her lips, "and gagged, among the carnage. I think when that fact is known, the few Cherokee who survive will be hunted down, don't you? And then their brothers will rise and drive the settlers out, and soon no one will be left. Except me."
"You are mad."
"Am I?" A frown touched his brow. "I believe Prince Hamlet put it best. 'I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw'."
Becky shifted back as the gag brushed her lips. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"
Parnell laughed as he tied the cloth in place. "Wouldn't you like to know."
They had seen Cincinnatus off to the fort and sent Israel with him before starting on their way. The little boy had complained when he found he couldn't accompany them, but after his father had explained things, he had followed orders like a good soldier. Of course, the fact that Mingo had pulled him aside as planned and told him he was needed to guard the older man on the perilous journey back hadn't hurt. Dan smiled at his small son's courage. Israel's heart, like his own, was out there in the woods with his ma. He hadn't been able to keep his voice from choking as he bid the boy goodbye and promised him he would bring her back. He wasn't a man to take a promise lightly nor to make one he wasn't certain he could keep. The big frontiersman closed his eyes and whispered a prayer, asking that his mission not become a companion to the war woman's, and their grief the same.
A hand touched his elbow and he looked down to find her watching. Deep shadows cradled her black eyes. Fatigue had leeched her brown skin almost white. "I am...sorry, Mr. Boone. I brought these men here."
"No. No, you didn't. Their own greed and hate brought them first to your village, and then to my home. I don't hold you responsible."
"Mingo spoke words before..." She paused, seeking to remember. " 'Justice in the extreme is often unjust.' I have been blind."
Dan nodded. "I sometimes have a tendency to be a mite single-minded myself," he said softly. "I think you had just cause."
She nodded and then swayed.
He caught her by the arm. "Don't you think it would be wise to fuel that fiery furnace a little bit, Joan, before movin' on?"
The woman's laugh was weak. "Nunna. My name is Nunna-dihi."
Mingo appeared at their side. He held out a hunk of cheese cut from the wheel Cincinnatus had delivered to the cabin. "Take this. You will need food if you are to go on. And there is coffee by the fire."
A tear ran down her cheek. She nodded and took a step.
A moment later she was lying on the ground.
Mingo bundled her in a blanket and placed his rifle at her side. Though she wore many weapons, all were of a striking nature and could not offer the long-range protection she might need while left on her own. He brushed the black hair from her face and rose, placing his hand on the whip at his waist. Then he smiled at his friend. "Ready?" he asked.
"Primed and loaded." Dan answered as he patted Tick Licker. He nodded towards the sleeping woman. "You think she'll be all right?"
"She came here all the way from Tennessee, Daniel, she will be fine." Mingo paused. "Though I imagine when she wakes she will be extremely angry with us for having left her behind. The man who killed her family is still out there."
"Well, then, we'd best be about our business and find him before she wakes up. Come on, Mingo. Becky's waitin'."
The Cherokee nodded and the two of them vanished into the woods.
Becky was waiting. She had been taken from under the tree and marched several miles to a different camp where she was deposited without ceremony in a smoke-filled lodge. Her hands had been tied again, this time in front of her, and she had been thrust to the floor. Across the square space a half dozen Indian women labored grinding corn. Several children ran at their feet. Some of the women appeared to be captives, while others seemed as if they might have been the wives of the men who traveled with Parnell. She stared at one who held a baby who was suckling. It seemed odd to her that she would have chosen to travel such a distance with one so young. At her side another child, perhaps two years old, jealously awaited his turn. The woman smiled at him and then, pulling the babe away, placed it on the floor and ignored it as it began to cry.
Becky's growled low in her throat. What sort of a mother...? Then she paused, suddenly struck by a thought. What if the woman wasn't the child's mother? What if she had been nursing her own and a strange infant, perhaps from another clan, had been forced upon her? What if this woman was merely wet-nursing the baby?
Could this be Nunna's child?
"They have made camp, Daniel. Nearby. Not far from the village."
"Did you warn Menewa?"
Mingo waited to catch his breath. He had returned on the run. "Yes. We need not fear for Chota."
"Is any help coming our way?"
The Cherokee frowned. "I could not tell them Nunna's clan. No blood has been spilt that they can lay claim to. They will not come until one of their own is attacked or killed."
Dan cocked a brown eyebrow. "They may not have to wait long."
"I tried to tell them...."
"Never mind, Mingo. I guess it's up to us. As usual."
Mingo laughed. He leaned back in the grass and cocked his head. "You have a plan, I take it?"
The big man paused and then nodded once. "The usual."
The native put his hand to his chin and pretended to think. "And...that... would...be.... Let me see. We shall descend upon them whooping and 'hollering' like banshees, taking them by surprise, and together the two of us - against, oh, the dozen or so of them - will route them; killing and capturing them to a man."
Dan's brown brows formed a 'v' as he narrowed his eyes. He pondered it a moment and then said simply, "Yup."
With a devil-may-care smile Mingo rose to his feet and held his hand out.
"Lay on, MacDuff."
The English-bred Cherokee laughed. "Lead on."
Nicholas Parnell ran his hands over his face. He doffed his hat and, loosening the tie that held his chestnut hair in place and shook it free. The memory of that day spent on the Mountain of the Dead was still present with him. When he closed his eyes he stood on its side again, watching as the painted savages the French had bought with baubles and beads swarmed down on the line of British soldiers under General Braddock's command. Certain the stand of trees he had scouted out earlier would conceal him well, he had perched on a boulder, enjoying the show, until one of the soldiers had suddenly appeared less than thirty yards away from him. Falling to his knees, the frantic man had begun to dig in the dirt as if hunting something. Curious, Parnell had stepped out from behind the rocks to see what, just as a young wagoneer had come scrambling up the hill, seeking to escape the carnage. Ducking back quickly beneath the leafy cover, he had watched then as the soldier and the man in buckskins, who he know knew to be Daniel Boone, came to blows. A scuffle followed, ending only when the soldier went over the edge of a cliff. Uncertain as to what had transpired and why, he had waited some minutes and then, when he deemed it safe, had moved out from under the cover of the leaves. Unexpectedly he had encountered the wagoneer. Boone had paused to catch his breath and was still there, standing in the middle of an open space. Their eyes met and they acknowledged each other's presence, but nothing was said. Still, later, when the British soldiers had come to arrest him, he had known whose word it had been on. Boone must have told them. There had been no one else there to see, or to surmise his part in the whole affair. And when he had come to trial, the Daniel Boone had appeared and damned him by telling his simple truth; his story corroborating the fact that he, Parnell, was a traitor and had been working with the French.
He had vowed then that Daniel Boone owed him. And now, all these years later -- after time spent in hard labor and a daring escape with a renegade Indian at his side -- he had come back to the Kentucky territory to collect the debt.
The Chickamauga who had fled the prison with him came to stand at his side. "We meet the traders within the week at the Falls of the Ohio."
"Good. Their gold will make the next leg of our journey possible," Parnell said. Money from the sale of the Cherokee women and children they had captured would book them passage on a fast sailing ship. Once Boone and his settlement were no more it was his intention to return to the Old World and, still employing his assumed identity, to use the information he had gathered about the fledgling movement toward independence in the New to reinstate himself with the British Crown. Black-racer intended to seek an education and to bring what he learned back to his people, the Chickamauga of Dragging Canoe, to help them drive out those who had stolen their land. The other warriors he would reward with pelts and trinkets and turn loose once the deed was done.
Tonight Chota would fall. Tomorrow Boone would be blamed and most likely, his fort burned to the ground. The day after that....
A noise brought his head up. He called to Black-racer and the native came to his side. Without warning there was a flash and even as Parnell awakened to the danger, the native spun and fell to the ground. A moment later the big man grasped his arm. Blood filled his sleeve from a knife lodged just above his elbow. The other natives who had been resting jumped to their feet and reached for their weapons. As they did a full dozen Cherokee stepped from the darkened foliage to the rear of the camp and trained their weapons on them.
Dan and Mingo had run headlong into the center of the camp. The big frontiersman had let Tick Licker roar and Mingo had tossed the knife that speared Parnell's arm. Now they stopped, the Cherokee with his whip in his hand and Daniel with his rifle half-primed. He tossed his head in the direction of the painted warriors. "I thought you said Menewa wasn't going to send any men."
Mingo swallowed hard. "I don't believe they belong to Menewa, Daniel."
Dan glanced up then. Two of the Cherokee who encircled the camp had their weapons trained on them. "Wildcat then?" he asked quietly.
Mingo handed over his whip and raised his hands. "I am afraid so."
Nunna moaned in her sleep. She was no longer in Ken-tah-ten, but back in Tana-see, dropping to her belly to crawl like a snake through the thick smoke that billowed out of her lodge in search of her husband and child. Inali she found almost at once. He lay near the door, an arrow through his heart. He caught her hand and squeezed it and then he died. Tiny Tili she could not find. Already the skins and hides which covered their beds and kept the cold night air from their home had blackened and split. The herbs and dried plants that filled the rafters were ablaze like fiery stars in the sky. All about her burning debris fell, striking her, singeing her hair and clothes, but she would not let it stop her. Then, just as she reached the heart of the flaming inferno, praying she too would die, rough hands caught her ankles and hauled her back, away from the peace of death and out of the burning lodge. She rolled sharply to her feet and struck the one who held her and turned to go back, but another painted warrior barred her way. Beyond him, past the roaring flames, she saw the man the other had called 'Boone'. He was standing in the shadows, laughing; his tall silhouette outlined by the risen moon. Her eyes left him and went to her home and she watched her world burn, consuming the form of the man she had loved and all the things they had shared, including the child of his loins, and as she did, a rage such as a woman was not meant to bear filled her. Her hands went to the man's throat and she squeezed, pouring her anger and her tears into the hold, bearing down and down until she heard something snap. Finally the one called Black-racer pulled her free. She screamed and kicked and brought her wedded hands together to strike him on the chin. He reeled back and then simply stood watching her as she ran into the trees and disappeared.
Not knowing if they pursued her, she ran until she felt her heart would burst; past the stream and across the prairie, unaware of the sharp grasses cutting her skin and tearing her clothes, until she reached her husband's village.
It was the same. Corpses and burnt-out lodges spoke eloquently of a loss no one would avenge.
No one but her.
Her pain stood as a mute witness to the injustice of the world as the initial shock of what had happened waned and she began to feel again. She thought she would not survive. As she wrapped her arms about her waist, feeling sick, her trembling fingers touched the pouch attached to her belt. It was singed, but still intact. She caressed it then, remembering. In it was a present for her daughter. Inali had ordered it made for her from the silver he had made interpreting for the man named Boone. Not really knowing why, she opened the leather pouch and felt in it, closing her burnt fingers about the tiny rattle. Then she fell to her knees and began to sob.
The war woman woke with a start and sat up, her hands reaching for something she would never hold. A moment later she came to herself and, breathing deep of the night air, sat with her fists balled, waiting for her head to clear. Then she stood. Almost instantly she noted Mingo's weapon at her side. Glancing about, she realized the two men were gone.
With a shake of her head, she caught the rifle in her hand and began to run.
They were only men.
They would not be hard to find.
Becky had been watching the woman carefully. She was now convinced the young child by her side was hers, but that the baby was not. She had seen the infant out of its blanket and noted it was thin and not at all well-cared for. And she didn't think the mother was among the other women in the room either; none of them seemed to care in the least if the baby cried or went hungry. Knowing what Mingo had told her of the ways of the Cherokee, the child was probably of another clan, or its clan was unknown, and so the custom-driven natives didn't know what to do with it.
Given half a chance, Rebecca Bryan Boone knew what she would do; take it home and clean it, poor thing, and put salve on its sore skin and feed it milk and gruel. And even if its mother didn't prove to be the war woman, she would find someone who would care for it, or do it herself. She caught the woman watching her and lifted her hands towards her indicating she would like to be freed. The native shook her head. "Tla," she said softly.
Becky knew that meant 'no'.
Suddenly there was a commotion outside the door that drew the woman's attention as well as her own. Curt words were exchanged and then one of the men who had accompanied her on her forced journey - one of the young strong ones - entered the lodge and pulled her to her feet. The curse on her lips was hampered by the gag, but if looks could kill, the one she shot him should have been enough to bring him down. Instead he laughed and turned her so he could catch her about the waist and lift her from the floor. Before he was able to, though, she brought her foot down hard on the top of his, jammed her elbow in his stomach, and bolted out of the door.
Right into another painted warrior's arms.
At his look, she shrugged her shoulders and then submitted as he led her towards one of the horses they had brought with them. She knew where they were taking her; to Chota, to die. They wouldn't kill her here as it would be easier to have her sit a horse or walk, than it would be to transport dead weight. She swallowed hard as she gazed at the back of the chestnut mare. This was it. And Dan wasn't anywhere around to save her.
The warrior knelt and offered her a foot up, but as he did, a strange thing happened. A pebble skidded underneath the bay and struck its foot. The native didn't seem to notice, but she did. Then another one followed. The horse jumped and pranced a bit. A third set it to rearing. The warrior cursed and grabbed the horses' mane, struggling to control the jittery animal and while his attention was diverted, a pair of hands snaked out of the underbrush to grab her and haul her back into the trees. Almost instantly a hue and cry arose in the camp, but it was quickly answered by a man-made storm as half a dozen flintlocks discharged at once. Becky's bright blue eyes were wide as she pivoted to look into the face of her savior.
The older man grinned as he freed her from the gag. "Rebecca Boone, 'peared like you was in need of a mite of help. You're lucky we happened along just when we did."
"Cincinnatus!" She stared at the wrinkled face a moment, stunned, and then wrapped her arms about his neck. "I'll never let Dan call you an old goat again!"
Nunna-dihi shook her head as she stormed through the forest. Men. Fools every one. Either, like her brother, they could not see beyond the rules and so obeyed them, ignoring their own feelings; or like Inali, they felt too much and trusted too easily, obeying their heart and forsaking their head. These two, Mingo and his brother, they were the same, and like Inali, if she did nothing, they would die.
Shifting closer to the makeshift camp, she searched for them and found them tied back to back and sitting beside the fire. There were others there as well, bound and held. No doubt they were the men who had followed her from Tennessee, including the one who claimed to be Daniel Boone. Her brother had captured them and now he held this man - this murderer - keeping his death for last, so he would have to watch the others die and their pain and terror would increase his own. At last Wildcat had what he needed. Men of their clan had been killed and now he could justly kill the ones who had broken the law. And if in doing so he avenged his sister's dead husband, then all the better. But it was not the reason he had come.
The warriors who traveled with him had painted their skin many colors and they danced about the fire with abandon, brandishing polished knives and spears. Nunna-dihi knew what would come next. The two men would be tortured and then burned. It was the way of her people. It was what she had wanted, but now she knew she had been wrong. Their death - even the death of the one who had done this thing - would not give her family rest.
That was something only she could do.
She watched a moment as the men continued to whirl and then held her breath as her brother spun about and planted the nose of Daniel Boone's own flintlock in the hollow of his throat. As he pulled back on the hammer, taunting him, she cried out and stepped into the light, the pipe tomahawk with the silver rattle dangling from it in one hand, and the swan's wing cane in the other.
"Tla!" she called out. "Wildcat, no!"
Her brother turned to look at her. His face was wild and his aspect fierce. He was breathing hard and for a moment it seemed he did not recognize her, but then he straightened and took a step away from the fire. "Usti Litama," he said sharply, using her given name, "this is for you. For the loss of the tribe."
"No." She stiffened her spine and held her head high and walked forward. "No." She took the swan's wing and, looking into first Dan and then Mingo's eyes, covered each of them in turn. "It is my right as a war woman to claim them. They are mine."
Wildcat frowned. "And what of the others? Would you save them too?"
Nunna shook her head. She drew a deep breath and crossed the fire-lit clearing to stare at the tall white man with the deep red-brown hair. He looked up at her and at the wand. Her lips curled and she lifted her hand and struck him across the face.
The painted warriors had fallen silent. They ringed the fire, watching and waiting, wondering what she would do.
"Do you claim him as well?"
She turned and stared at her brother. Then she walked to the fire and knelt, freeing first Mingo, and then Daniel Boone.
The frontiersman nodded to her. Then he rose and went to her brother and asked for his gun.
Nunna nodded. "Give it to him."
Wildcat hesitated, and then he held the weapon out. His men's eyes were on him and he dared not defy her. As a war woman it was her right to pardon prisoners, as well as to claim them.
"Nunna-dihi," Mingo said softly as he came to her side. "Let us take him to the courts of the white man for justice. He has wronged them as well."
She shook her head. "No."
"No." Without another word she walked past him. She paused at Dan's side and then continued on until she was only a shadow at the edge of the clearing. "We must find your wife, Daniel Boone. Do you come with me? Or is this man more important than her life?"
Dan hefted Tick Licker. "You know the answer to that."
She turned back towards him. The moonlight struck her face, rendering it grave and beautiful. "Prove that I do."
The frontiersman turned towards the man who had stolen his name and almost ruined his reputation, who had taken his wife, meaning to kill her, and set fire to his home. On the walk from Chota he had recognized him and remembered. It had been a dark day for justice when he had escaped the rope. "What about Parnell?"
"I leave him to what he deserves; my brother's brand of justice." She turned away from the light. "Come, Daniel Boone."
He frowned and started to protest, but Mingo caught his arm and began to draw him away. "The better part of valor, Daniel. Walk away. And live to fight another day." He glanced at Parnell where he was rising to his feet. "He is not worth it."
Dan pondered his friends words. One thing he had learned in his time in the wilderness was that not all justice had to be dispensed by a bewhiskered magistrate within the four walls of a cabin in a town. Still, it went against his grain to leave a man to be tortured. "Mingo, I don't know...."
"Just this once, Daniel. Let us do it our way."
"Boone! Boone! You can't do this!" Parnell was straining against several of the painted warriors, terror written into his face. "Boone! For the love of God, Boone!"
Dan tipped his hat back and shook his head. "Sorry. Not my name."
On the journey back they ran into Jake Lewis and some of the other men from Boonesborough. Their friends told them Rebecca had been rescued and the rest of Parnell's men routed or killed. Relief slowing their frantic pace, the weary trio finally arrived at the Boone cabin just as dawn was breaking in the sky. Dan entered immediately and went to seek his wife and son. Mingo hesitated at the door as the war woman remained on the porch and stared at the rising sun.
"I am glad you are here, but I am not entirely certain why you came back," he said. "Is there something you hope to find?" When she failed to answer he walked to her side. "Nunna?"
She did not look at him. "That is not my name."
"Joan then?" He grinned as her head tilted and she smiled sadly. "No? And here I thought perhaps you had grown fond of it...."
"My name is Usti Litama."
"Usti Litama?" Mingo grinned. "Little Wren." He looked at her, standing as she was, bathed in the morning light. "It suits you, you know? You honor me by sharing it."
"You honor me with your gift of friendship," she whispered as she moved to lean on the post. "If not for you, I would have had innocent blood on my hands."
"Yes. Most likely mine." He laughed as she turned towards him and placing a hand on her shoulder, looked into her sad black eyes. "But you did not answer me before. When first we met you, you said you wanted only to die; that once the man was found who had killed your family.... The death song you sang was for yourself, was it not?"
"Yes. But I gave Mrs. Boone my word that if her husband had not done this thing, I would return to tell her so. It is a debt I owe."
"And is that the only reason? Once the debt is discharged," he held her gaze, truly concerned she would still try to end her life, "do you still mean to die?"
Usti Litama placed her fingers on the tomahawk which bore the little silver rattle and lifted it from her belt. Then she held it out to him. "I no longer need this. Or this." She gave him her hunting knife as well, retaining only the small sharp dagger for protection and the stick with the white swan's wing. "I will speak to Mrs. Boone and then I will go." She smiled and added softly, "But not to die."
"Where will you go?"
She drew a breath and held it. "I do not know. I have no home. I am no longer a woman of war, and so I also have no purpose."
"You could come to Chota," he suggested. "You would be welcome there."
"No. I must go back and face...." She paused as Daniel Boone appeared in the doorway. "Mr. Boone?"
"Call me Dan." He grinned as he stepped outside the door. "And please come inside. Rebecca's asking for you."
The raven-haired woman nodded. She walked to his side and then stopped. "I am sorry, Mister Boone.... Dan. I was wrong. My hatred was such that I could not see past it to the truth." She glanced at Mingo. "Even though you and your good wife...and brother," she glanced at Mingo, "told me it was so."
"Well, if we weren't all wrong now and then, how would anyone else ever be right?" He grinned. "Besides, you had plenty of reason to suspect me, and no one you respected at the time to tell you otherwise." He laid his hand on her back and pressed her forward. "Go on inside."
Mingo watched her go and then met his friend's green eyes. They were dancing. "Daniel?"
The big man crooked a finger and invited him inside. "Come and see."
The Cherokee looked dubious. "What have you cooked up?"
Dan held his hands up. "Not me. I'm innocent as a - "
Unexpectedly Israel's white head appeared beneath his father's arm. His deep blue eyes were wide with mischief and delight. "Did you tell her, Pa? She still looked mighty sad."
The big man placed his hand on his son's head. "That's for your ma to do."
"Tell her what? Daniel?" Mingo started to press the other man, but then fell silent as he had heard a cry, so deep and so heartfelt that it cut right through him, but not like a knife; it was more like the warmth of a ray of sunshine striking the skin on a storm-tossed day. A moment later he followed his friend and his small son inside. The woman he had called Nunna for so long was there, standing in the middle of the cabin. She turned and smiled at him. There was a baby in her arms; a tiny native child that was playing with the ends of her long black braids.
He stepped towards her. "Is it....?"
She nodded, at a loss for words.
Mingo laughed and shook his head. Then he pinned his friend's wife with his deep brown eyes. "Rebecca Boone, how did you work this miracle?"
"When the men raided her village in Tennessee, they took some of the young ones for slaves, Mingo." Dan answered for his wife. "Men, women and children. Becky spotted one of the women nursing Nunna's baby. Apparently Parnell had a contract with someone who wanted a small native child." He saw his friend tense and anger flare in his deep brown eyes. "Let it go, Mingo. The man's dead by now."
"And well on his way to a reward richly deserved in Hell," the Cherokee added through clenched teeth.
Dan laughed. "I didn't know you believed in Hell, Mingo."
His friend moved forward and reached out, allowing the tiny child to catch his finger. Then he met the war woman's eyes. "I believe in divine justice, Daniel. And in God's mercy."
Becky laid one hand on the war woman's shoulder and the other on her tiny child. "Amen."
Two days later Mingo waited for the woman, Usti Litama, outside his friend's cabin. It was early morning and they were to set out for the village of Chota where she had agreed to live until such a time as she regained her strength and felt able to begin the long journey home. She had accepted Rebecca's invitation to remain with her family while he made preparations and located members of her own clan. This he had done and had been delighted to find that she was actually related to the beloved woman, Cornbeater, who was - in his estimation - one of God's finest creations. If she was willing, the old woman would soon help to ease her grief and pain, and teach her to use the lesson learned to comfort and console others who had lived through similar misfortunes.
The sound of the cabin door opening brought him back to the present and he turned to find a very different young woman from the one who had knocked him to the ground and held a knife at his throat less than a week before. All traces of the war woman, Nunna-dihi, were gone. She wore no paint. Her hair had been released from its severe braids and brushed, no doubt, a thousand times until it shone like the coat of a pampered Arabian and spilled over the shoulders of the simple soft linen dress she wore. Rebecca had given it to her as they had no Cherokee clothes. He found it suited her well, complimenting her delicate beauty. As she stepped off of the porch, the child in her arms cooed and reached towards him.
"And so, Nunna-dihi," he said softly, using her chosen war name, "have you found your path at last?"
She smiled at Rebecca as she and her family crowded the door, lifting their hands to wave goodbye. Usti Litama kissed her infant daughter on the forehead and then lifted her dark eyes to meet his. "Yes."
Later as they continued on and the sun's glistening rays turned the path they walked to gold, he remembered words Cornbeater had spoken to him when he was but a small boy.
'Being a warrior; it is a willingness to sacrifice everything except your truth, your way of being, your commitment. The ultimate stand is to your commitment to do something with your life that will make a difference."
He reached out and touched the woman's cheek. She glanced at him, puzzled. He smiled and whispered, "Amen."