It had been a few hours since he had given the Indians who trailed him the slip. After laying down a false trail on which he doubled back, he had managed to cross the stream at its narrowest point, using boulders and stepping stones to reach the other side. Once on dry ground, he had sprinted north, running through the woods at top speed, stopping only when he had heard the report of a flintlock close by. The sound of the weapon discharging rang through the woods like a church bell on a sunny summer Sunday. Dan stopped and listened intently. Even as the echoes faded to nothing, he placed the source; it was to his left, along the path to Boonesborough and home. Within seconds, he had calculated the distance. He figured he had maybe one, or one and a half hours between himself and whoever it was had decided to liven up what was promising to prove a dull evening with a bit of target practice.
Without warning the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. Running a hand over it, he shivered.
At least, that was all he hoped it was.
Mingo sighed. He had been unceremoniously dumped between two fallen logs and then left with only one solitary unsavory guard and a British musket between him and freedom. Still, with his hands and feet bound, he might as well have been in the tower with a regiment of His Majesty's finest fusilier's parading about it three men deep. He licked his lip and tasted blood. He had refused to tell the rather adamant young Chickamauga what he wanted to hear. Unfortunately, it had taken him remaining silent through a moderate thrashing to convince them he was serious. He drew a shallow breath and winced. It would take a few days for his ribs to stop screaming.
If he lived that long.
His dark eyes flicked to his captors. They seemed to be breaking camp. Their leader, Wildcat, had revealed little during the interrogation other than repeating the assertion that he was Nunna-dihi's brother, and that he had come to find her and to take her back. What bothered him was that he sensed in the young man little concern for the object of his quest. Instead of being worried or anxious, he seemed angry; almost embarrassed. But then again if he truly was her brother, the responsibility of righting this wrong their family had suffered should have fallen to him. Perhaps she had taken it out of his hands and brought shame upon him. If that was the case, it made it even more imperative he not reveal the fact that she was somewhere nearby in the woods. Dealing with the war woman was one thing. She was alone. Dealing with a band of vengeful Chickamauga who blamed Daniel for the raid on their village and the murder of their relatives was another. He sighed again and shifted so he sat straight up with his back against one of the logs.
Thank the Great Spirit, Daniel was nowhere near.
"Do not move."
The tall Cherokee stiffened. The voice had come from behind him, in the trees. A moment later he felt a blade slip between his wrists and suddenly, his hands were free.
"Can you loose your feet without the guard seeing?"
His dark eyes traveled to the brawny young man who waited a few feet away, champing at the bit like a stallion put in service to cart two elderly sisters to a church social on a Saturday night. "I think I can manage that," he whispered without moving his lips.
"I will kill him."
"No!" The sound was loud enough to attract the young man's attention. He glanced at Mingo briefly and then, satisfied that nothing was wrong, turned back to where several of his fellows were tussling in the dirt, staging a mock battle.
"It will be one less to follow."
"It will be one more life lost for no reason." He felt his jaw tighten as he accepted the knife from her and surreptitiously cut the cord binding his ankles. "Has anyone ever told you that you are a bit blood-thirsty?"
"When I am full," she whispered close to his ear, "then I will no longer thirst."
Mingo sighed. He glanced at the young warrior who had moved forward and was eagerly watching his fellows, and then crawled over the fallen trunk and slipped into the shadows that masked the bushes behind. As he paused to catch his breath, there was a sharp cry and the sound of a hammer being cocked. Pursuit was imminent.
He met Nunna's black stare. "Five miles south of here the stream forks. I will meet you there."
She frowned as the single cry was met by several others. A shot was fired.
Dan's brown head jerked up. He frowned and dropped to the ground. Someone had fired another shot. And if he wasn't mistaken, the accompanying whooping and hollering sounded a mite more like a ceremony in Chota's square than a Boonesborough hoe-down. He could hear the familiar ululating cries and, as he listened to them ride on the back of the wind, he realized they were not only getting more enthusiastic as time went by...
They were getting closer.
Still crouching, he began to move off into tangled undergrowth of the thick virgin wood, his fingers white on Tick Licker's notched barrel.
He hadn't been invited; so it seemed they were bringing the party to him.
"Nunna? Nunna-dihi?" Mingo paused near a thicket of cattails. Nearly three hours had passed. He was at the bend of the river and the Cherokee woman was nowhere to be seen. He was becoming worried. The sound of the pursuing Chickamauga had fallen away as they misinterpreted the signs he left as he had intended, and headed towards the east, but now he was beginning to fear the war woman had done the same. She should have rendezvoused with him by now.
Gripping his rifle he rose from hiding and stepped onto the path. As he did there was a rustling noise and the sound of a muffled cry. He pulled his hunting knife from its sheath and moved forward just as a tall figure wearing a coonskin cap stepped from the underbrush carrying something.
Dan met his startled expression with a lop-sided grin. "You lose somethin', Mingo?" He glanced down at the Indian woman locked in the crook of his arm. Her feet were off the ground and his broad hand was over her mouth. "Like a wildcat?"
"Ah, my friend, it is a long story. One that will have to wait for winter and a blazing fire with many logs." He smiled as he joined him. "Actually, her brother is Wildcat. This," Mingo cleared his throat, "fine example of feminine pulchritude is a Cherokee war woman from Tennessee."
"A war woman? Ouch!" Dan dropped the small woman like a sack of potatoes and took a step back. His hand went to his lips. "Pardon me, Miss, but haven't you ever heard it ain't a good thing to bite the hand that feeds you? I did just save you from that Indian brave who seemed bound and determined to take your head off."
Mingo was instantly alert. "A warrior? Here?"
"No." Dan leaned on his rifle. "Back a ways. I reckon one or two miles. I came across this one wandering like she was lost." His green eyes twinkled. "You two playin' hide and seek?"
Apparently Nunna had lost her sense of direction; another indication that fatigue and grief were catching up with her no matter how deep her sense of indignation, or desire for revenge. He drew a breath and met his friend's amused stare. "Daniel, I assure you...."
Upon escaping the tall man's grasp, the war woman had crouched beside the path, watching and listening. When she heard his name she was on her feet in an instant; her tomahawk in her hand.
Dan whistled and stepped back. "Now, little lady, I'd put that away if I was you. There's no reason to go and get hostile."
"You are his brother? Daniel Boone?" Her black eyes were wide and wild.
The big frontiersman glanced at his friend. "Brother?"
"Another long story." Mingo brought his hand down on the woman's shoulder, startling her. "Then you did not know it was him? I thought you said you had seen the man who destroyed your village. Nunna...." She was frozen; her face a mask. "Is this the man?"
The Cherokee held up his hand. "Nunna-dihi, Path-killer. Answer me."
She closed her eyes and swayed. "I saw him through the fire that became my family's grave. He was tall and wore buckskins, and carried such a weapon." Her eyes flew open. "But he did not wear a raccoon pelt on his head."
Mingo hid his smile. "So...is this him? Can you be certain?"
After a moment she relaxed the grip on her weapon and returned it to her belt. "I cannot say it is," she said softly, "but I cannot say it is not."
The Cherokee met his friend's confused stare. "Well, at least that is a beginning."
"So can you tell me anymore, Miss... Er, Ma'am?" Dan paused as he tossed the last of his coffee to the back of his throat. "Your village was attacked and your store of winter pelts stolen by these men who had come to trade with you. Many died - including your husband and your child. You went to your brother's lodge, but he refused to do anything about it since the man you were married to was not of his clan. He refused to revenge his blood though it cried out from the ground."
She nodded. "And so their spirits still wander looking for rest; rest only I can find for them, in the death of the man who did this." Nunna gazed at him but said nothing more.
"It wasn't me."
She refused the cup of steaming liquid Mingo held out to her. "So you say."
"Nunna, I don't understand," Mingo said, "even though your husband was not your brother's blood, your child would have been. Both connected by your mothers' blood and of the same clan. Why...?" Then he paused and rocked back, suddenly inspired. "The child is not dead?"
The war woman held herself very still. She fought the tears that filled her eyes but could not hold them back. "I do not know. I believe she is."
"They took her?"
"Or she was in the fire. I do not know. Wildcat," she spit the name, "said we should not kill the white trader and his men without proof. If we did, their people would cry for vengeance and we would die." She shook her head. "I do not care if I die. I only care that they do."
Mingo glanced at his friend and then returned his eyes to her. "I think I speak for both of us when I promise we will help you find the truth."
As she looked up, Dan nodded. "You seek to clear your name," she said.
The frontiersman's lips pursed for a moment before he spoke. "Yes. A name is a mighty important thing in the wilderness. Sometimes it is all that stands between a man and death; between a man and judgement by those who might accuse him falsely." He held up his hand as she bristled. "But more important than that is justice itself. Without justice this wilderness could never be turned into a home, or be a safe place for a man to live and raise a family."
"I have met your family, Boone. I do not think your wife would be married to a man who could do this thing."
Dan's green eyes flicked to Mingo as she spoke.
The Cherokee shrugged.
"Another tall tale for the winter fire?" Dan asked quietly.
Mingo smiled as he sat beside him. "I think I will allow Rebecca to tell you that one."
Becky heard a footstep on the porch. She put the pan of flour she held down on the wooden table and wiped her hands on her apron before turning around. "Israel, is that you?" Her boy was at the Lewis's, playing with their son, but she knew he could smell her apple pie from miles away. She waited. When there was no answer she tried again. "Israel? Or is it Cincinnatus?" She had left the cabin door open since the older man intended to drop off some supplies on his way to the Calloways. "Cincinnatus... "
A shadow crossed the threshold. Suddenly chilled to the bone she turned and headed for the mantel with the rifles, only to freeze in her tracks as two natives entered through the rear door which she had also left open for circulation. As Becky drew a sharp breath and stepped back, a heavy hand came down on her shoulder. She looked at it and then up and sucked in a startled breath. "Dan?"
But no, it wasn't him. Cloaked in shadows for a moment she had thought it was, but this man wasn't quite as tall or as solidly built. He did wear buckskins and carried a rifle that might have been Tick Licker's twin, but his hair was a deep coppery red instead of brown, tied up in a tail, and capped with a cocked hat made of dark felt. Just behind him stood yet another native, but unlike his fellows who were dressed in breech-cloths, he wore a hunting shirt over English britches and riding boots.
"Who are you?" she asked as one of the warriors caught her elbows and pinned her arms behind her. She shivered as the tall man in buckskins smiled. He would have seemed pleasant enough, if it had not been for the touch of the wolf in his eyes. When he spoke, a trace of a British accent colored his speech.
"You of all people should know, Rebecca," he answered softly. "I am Daniel Boone."
She waited as they searched the house, praying all the while that Israel would prove his usual ornery self and come home late, and that Cincinnatus would break his mold and be on time. Still, though she longed for his aid, she worried for the aging tavern-keeper. Even armed he would be no match for these young braves and the strange man who led them and claimed to be her husband.
The native who was dressed much like a white man returned to the cabin and came to the tall man's side. He whispered something in his ear. The white man nodded and then turned to Becky. "She was here."
"Do not play games, Mrs. Boone. You know well who; the Cherokee woman I have sent to do my bidding."
Rebecca frowned. "Your bidding? What do you mean?"
He fixed her with his hazel eyes. "Did she convince you she was hunting your husband because he had raided and destroyed her village?"
Becky's eyes were wide. She was certain the other woman had been telling the truth. "Yes."
"And that she meant to kill him?"
She nodded. "Yes. But she was after you." Her voice faltered and broke. "Wasn't she?"
He laughed at her confusion. "That is the beauty of it, Mrs. Boone. She hates me, and yet I have managed to turn her into a weapon; an assassin, if you will. She will kill your husband and I will take his place and destroy the myth much as she will destroy the man."
Becky struggled against the native's hands, but she was held fast. "Why do you hate Dan so?"
"Many years ago, Mrs. Boone, I was tried and almost hung on the word of your husband. As it is, I lost my reputation, my career, and my life." He smiled again and the gesture sat unpleasantly on his face. "Turnabout is fair play."
"If Dan did that, you deserved it."
"Did I?" He glanced at his companion who nodded and moved out the door. "Does anyone? Your war woman kills because she has been wounded, but then another is wounded and must kill in return. I did what I believed was right."
"So did Dan."
"And so we reach an impasse." He opened his hands wide. "And in the end it is not the strongest but the most astute that wins. I have heard it said that your husband is strong as a mighty oak tree. That may well be, but I am sharp like an ax, and I will hew him down."
Becky drew a deep breath and asked the question she feared she already knew the answer to. "Why are you telling me all of this?"
"The root must be pulled out as well as the tree cut down. And the sprouts burned. Take her!" His command was instantly obeyed and she was dragged kicking and screaming out of the cabin. Once she had been subdued with a gag through her teeth and ropes about her wrists, and placed on the back of a horse, he turned to the well-dressed native who had come once again to his side. "Black-racer, you will wait here until the son returns home, and then - with him in it - you will burn this cabin to the ground."
Cincinnatus watched the strangers place Becky on the horse's back and then ride away. He pulled at his beard and chewed his lip and puzzled about what to do. He hated to let them get several hours head-start, but he was on foot and even if he tried to track them, he would soon fall behind. If he was to rescue her, he would need more hands than just his own wrinkled and callused ones. He knew Dan and Mingo were both away with some strange Indian woman, searching for her kin or some such thing. Israel had told him before he had left the fort in the care of the Lewises as Mingo had suggested. He had best head there first and make certain the boy didn't come home to find an empty cabin and his ma gone. After that he and Jake could rouse the men in the settlement and set out after them.
Odd. At first he had thought the man who sat his horse beside Rebecca was Dan'l. But that wouldn't have made any sense as Becky was bound hand and foot and had been roughly handled. Dan'l would have never sat still for that.
Placing the sack of provisions he had been hauling to the Boone's cabin in the hollow of an old oak tree, he turned towards the west and the Lewis's homestead and began to run.
"So you are telling me that you were followed as well," Mingo said.
Dan nodded. "I was thinking you meant the brother of this woman here was the one who had come after me, but I see now there had to be two different parties."
"My brother was nowhere near you," Nunna insisted. "The ones who followed you were Boone's...." She paused at the look the big man gave her. "They called themselves Boone's men."
"Well, seeing as I ain't got any men, they must have been lyin'," Dan suggested softly. "And if they were comin' from the south, we should've run into them by now. They musta circled round and got ahead of us." His fingers tensed on his rifle. "Mingo, you know what this means...."
"I left Rebecca in the cabin alone, Daniel, but with instructions to keep your rifle to hand at all times and remain alert. She is a capable woman."
"Capable of mischief," Dan's smile was tinged with concern. "With Becky 'remainin' alert' means lookin' over her shoulder while she plants vegetables or hangs out the wash. You know her, Mingo. She thinks she can take care of herself."
"She can." The two men turned and looked at Nunna. She was adamant. "She has."
"Call me Joan."
Mingo almost sputtered. He raised an eyebrow.
Dan frowned. "Joan?" What kind of name was that for an Indian war woman?
His Cherokee friend smiled. "Accept it for what it is, Daniel," he nodded towards her, "an admission of uncertainty where your guilt is concerned. She has honored you with a name."
The big man cocked his head and shifted his cap back. "Joan it is then. Well, Joan, just how is it you think you know my wife better than me - having just met her, that is."
The native shook her head and turned her back on him. "I am a woman. You are not."
Mingo laughed. He watched as she set off down the trail and then gestured to his friend that they should follow. "And now, Daniel, you know."
They were headed back towards the cabin. They had agreed that was where the real danger lay. Nunna's brother was an aggravation and would have to be dealt with eventually, but at the moment their focus had to be on the man who claimed to be Daniel Boone. It was apparent his grudge was of a personal nature, and that he was using his likeness to the frontiersman to ruin Dan's reputation. They feared now that he would also use it to gain entrance to his home. As Mingo walked beside the silent and determined war woman, he was struck by another thought. He wondered if she had ever questioned whether or not she was being used; if the thought had crossed her mind that the man who had killed her family might be counting on her righteous rage, knowing she would kill Daniel blindly, without asking questions.
Dan was walking several paces ahead of them. He stopped and raised his hand and called them to a halt. Then he pointed.
Smoke was rising above the trees not far ahead.
Mingo's eyes narrowed. As he calculated the distance, they went wide with horror. "Daniel, that is...."
The big man nodded even as he began to move. "The cabin."
Nunna gripped her ax. She ran along with Mingo, keeping pace with both men's long strides in spite of her fatigue. "If they have harmed your wife or son," she promised him, "they are dead men."
"This time, little lady," he called as he outdistanced her, "I couldn't agree with you more."
As they entered the clearing where the cabin lay no one's head came up in terror at the war woman's cry which split the night. No arrows flew. No gun-fire answered the challenge of the frontiersman's voice or the crack of his friend's whip. Everything was deathly calm. Nothing moved saved the flames which, fanned by the wind, licked at the dry wood of the cabin seeking to consume it. Someone had moved the straw they had bundled against the coming winter, jamming it beneath the windows and shoving it in front of the door. Then they had set it alight and run like the cowards they were. Dan took his boot and kicked at the pile before the door, breaking it apart, and then thrust the most of it aside. Seconds later he flung open the heavy door and rushed inside.
"Becky?" He coughed as smoke billowed past him drawn by the fresh air. Apparently whoever had done this had packed the chimney to prevent the acrid black fumes from escaping. He steeled himself for the worst.
If anyone was inside....
"Becky! Israel?" Dan called again.
Mingo and Nunna came to his side. Without hesitation the woman dropped to the floor and crawled into the blackness, searching the floor. "Mrs. Boone?"
The Cherokee followed close after her as Dan made his way through the cabin to throw open the rear door. By God's grace, there didn't seem to be any flames inside; just smoke. "Rebecca?" he cried and then froze as his hand found flesh. A moment later he realized it was the war woman. She touched his cheek and shushed him. "What?" he whispered. "What is it?"
"Listen." She coughed and forced herself to take a shallow breath. "Do you not hear?"
"What? Hear what?"
She turned her puzzled face towards him and struck the floorboards hard with her hand. Beneath us?"
Dan had been standing in the door, staring at the ruin that was his home. But at her word, his green eyes lit with hope. He met Mingo's dark stare and it dawned on them both at the same time.
"The root cellar!"
Before Nunna knew what was happening Mingo had her by the hand and was pulling her out the door. Together the three of them raced around the cabin. Dan tossed Tick Licker to his friend and then knelt and brushed aside the grasses which had grown up partially obscuring the cellar door. Becky had chided him about not cutting them down just the week before. Thank God he hadn't listened to her.
"Daniel?" The Cherokee's voice was anxious. "Give it a try."
He nodded and pounded on the dry wood. It was locked from the inside. "Israel? Becky? Rebecca?"
A moment later there was a scuffing sound. A board slid out of place and as the doors opened, smoke rolled out - not so thick or so dark as what had been inside the cabin, but bad enough to make Dan cough again. Apparently it had seeped through the floorboards from above. Momentarily a sooty bewhiskered face appeared, winking and blinking in the light. "Is that you, Dan'l?"
Daniel Boone grinned with relief. "Cincinnatus, you old goat, where's my family? And what are you doing in my root cellar?"
"Well I ain't hibernatin' fer the winter, I can tell you that. Tarnation if it ain't cramped and uncomfortable down here as the hind end of a gopher hole. If it had'na been for the sound of footsteps above, we would've hopped out of here quicker than two jack-rabbits. As it was, we thought we'd best stay put for a spell." The older man paused and gestured to someone else. "Well, young'un.... You comin' or not?" As he stepped aside Israel Boone bolted out of the cellar and into his father's arms. "Pa! Pa! Injuns! They took Ma!"
Continued in Chapter Four