Mingo slipped quietly out of the back of the cabin and listened to make certain Rebecca slid the bar into place as he had instructed. Then he waited until he heard her move off towards the front door. He was taking no chances. Even though he had jested with the handsome redhead, a woman such as this one was not to be taken lightly. Her choice to assume the role of a warrior, even though honored by his people, showed that she was strong-willed and determined, as well as willing to think outside of the normal 'box'. And that would make her unpredictable.
He laughed. Perhaps she was not so different from other woman after all.
The tall Cherokee hefted his rifle as he stepped away from the cabin and began to move through the shadows with well-practiced ease. He had gone perhaps ten yards or so when he sensed something. His finger sought the trigger and he pivoted.
A moment too late.
After a short scuffle, he found himself weaponless and lying on the ground. A lithe muscular form straddled his lean form and a very large, very sharp hunting knife was pressed into his flesh so the tip rested just below his jugular. Above it a painted face loomed. The woman was breathing hard; her eyes wide and wild. She had hold of his leather vest and was twisting it, pulling the hair on his chest at the same time. As tears entered his eyes she tossed her long black hair and demanded, "Who are you? What is your business here?"
"I might ask you the same thing. Who are you?" Mingo cleared his throat. "And why are you holding a knife at my throat when we haven't been formally introduced?"
Her black eyes narrowed. "Do not mock me, dana das kagi."
He shook his head. "I am not your enemy."
The knife shifted. "Gaionunedv soqua," she growled.
"Your words are Cherokee. So you are Tsitsalagi. I thought so."
"What of it?"
Her skin was glistening in the moonlight. She was sweating and still breathing hard. He wondered how long it had been since she had eaten properly. "So am I. But I do not know you."
She lifted her head. The words she spoke were cruel, but her dark eyes were sad. "Nor I you, 'ama diyega'
Mingo drew a deep breath to steady himself. "There is no dignity to be found in insulting someone you have only just met." She had called him a 'water-carrier' which he knew she knew was about the worst thing a Cherokee woman could call a Cherokee man. "What have I done to harm you?"
She gestured towards the house. "You come from in there."
He swallowed, and shifted as best he could with her knees pressed to either side of his arms. "Could you perhaps move your knife the tiniest bit? It is cutting into my throat...."
The War Women smiled. She lifted the blade and then brought its razor-sharp edge up under his chin. "Better?"
Mingo sighed and let his head fall to the ground. "Thank you so very much."
"Why do you speak so?" she asked.
He pretended ignorance. "So?"
"Like a white man. Who are you?" She frowned. "And who are you to the Boone who lives here?"
He took a moment to study her before he answered. She was not very old; perhaps twenty-one or twenty-two years at most. And though she had the strength of her convictions and a dogged determination in her favor, she was actually very thin and her hand shook as it held the knife to his throat. If she had undertaken tracking Daniel as a quest, it was possible that she fasted often to remain in touch with the spirit that guided her journey. Or perhaps she was simply too sad to eat. Most likely-if the opportunity arose and she didn't slit his throat first - he could best her easily.
"Who!" she demanded.
He thought a moment. "I am...Daniel Boone's brother."
She spat on the ground beside him. "You are a liar."
Technically, perhaps, he thought, but not in any way that counted. "I am not. We are brothers."
She leaned back so the moonlight struck his face. "You are yonega?"
"White? Yes. In part."
"Boone is not part Cherokee."
Mingo shifted again and stared up at her lithe form. His back was aching and he desperately wanted to move his arms. "As delightful as this...position...is, do you not think you could let me up?"
The knife shifted to where it hung over his heart. "Answer the question," she said, ignoring his request.
"I would ask one instead, if I may."
The knife descended as she cocked her head. "You are not afraid I will kill you, Cherokee man?"
He laughed. "Oh, I am afraid you might kill me - given the right provocation. But I am not afraid to die."
She frowned and for just a moment, seemed to sway. As she caught herself, her anger seemed to intensify. She took hold of his vest again and pressed the tip of the knife into his chest. "Ask your question."
"Mingo?" She blinked. "That is not a question."
"No. That is a name. Mine as a matter of fact." He hid his smile as the woman sighed and rolled her eyes. It had been his intention to keep her talking until she grew either weary or careless. "My question is this; how do you know Daniel Boone is not part Cherokee?"
For a moment she was silent. "I have seen him," she said at last, her voice pitched low and colored with a rage beyond words.
"Seen him?" Mingo was startled. "Where? When?"
"Where I live." She shifted her weight and added more pressure to the knife. "Where I lived."
He gazed at her painted face, at the formally braided hair that framed it, and the fur and feather charms that dangled from the long black locks. His eyes took in her man's garb-the buckskin boots, shirt, and breechcloth that declared her a warrior-and somehow knew that underneath it all beat the heart of a deeply wounded woman.
"And where was that?"
Tennessee, the meeting place. The name the white men called it had come from an old Cherokee word. Knowing she came from there made him wonder if she might not be the wife of one of the natives who followed Dragging Canoe. Many had left with him after he refused to sign the treaty of seventy-six; the one that had given away much of their people's finest lands. Perhaps she was what was known as a Chickamauga. That might explain her village being destroyed. Even other Cherokees thought of them as renegades.
"Daniel has been in Tennessee, though not recently."
"He was there. One moon ago," she snarled. "I was there. I know."
"Daniel and I were together most of last month." It was October and they had spent the better part of the early autumn laying out traps.
She leaned forward, driving the tip of the knife in. "Perhaps you were there too. You know, Cherokee man," she whispered as she came so close her thick black hair brushed his cheek and he could smell her spiced skin, "it is my right to claim your life in exchange for those I have lost...if you are his brother."
He nodded as he felt the knife pierce his vest and come to rest against his skin. He had understood that when he had told her his half-truth. If she killed him believing he was kin to the one who wronged her, the debt would be satisfied. Daniel and his family would be safe.
Not that he wanted to die.
Her white teeth flashed. "Perhaps the death of one he loves would be a more fitting punishment for a man who can stand and laugh as a village; as women and children burn until they are nothing but ash."
"But Daniel wouldn't...." Mingo stopped as she raised up on her knees and lifted the knife, intending to put her full weight behind the thrust. "You must listen...."
He closed his eyes as the blade began to descend and wished he had had more than a moment to prepare. Just as he did there was a resounding clang followed by a dull thud as the war woman's body fell on top of him. Startled, his eyes flew open.
Rebecca Boone was standing over them with a frying pan in her hand and a slightly amused expression on her handsome face. She looked at the pair lying on the grass and cocked one red eyebrow.
"I was wondering why it was taking you so long...."
"Mingo, you can't be serious. She almost killed you!"
"Rebecca, there is no other way. She has committed herself; vowed that she will do this thing. She will never give up. I must prove to her that the white man who burned her village was not Daniel." He was packing his kit with the day-old bread she had had in the cupboard and a surplus of jerky.
"Here," she pouted, "don't forget the coffee."
He smiled as she placed it in his hand. "Do not worry, Rebecca. We will find Daniel, and then she will see." The tall native paused. "Your husband's appearance is quite...unique. The moment she sees him, she will know it is not the same man."
"But Mingo," she glanced at the woman who lay sleeping in her bed, "she knows how to track, otherwise she wouldn't have made it this far. She doesn't need you to find Dan. What if she tries to hurt you again?"
"I will be on my guard." He briefly touched her sleeve. "And after all, she is only a woman...."
"You keep saying that." Becky gave him the same look she often did her bull-headed husband when he was being particularly thick. "She didn't look like 'only' a woman when she had you flat on your back and was ready to...." She hesitated at his look, and then finished with fire, "....stick you like a pig!"
Mingo cleared his throat. "Yes. Well, she caught me off-guard. I will not allow her to do so again."
Becky continued to stare at him, wondering once again what God had in mind when he created men. Obviously it had been intentional since it didn't matter what color or make they were; they were all the same. She rolled her eyes and then crossed to the alcove she shared with Dan and gazed into the woman's face. In spite of Mingo's protests, she had taken a cloth and wiped away the sweat and grime-and most of the paint-revealing a prematurely lined but very beautiful face. She had cleaned her arms and legs as well, and laid a cool compress on the knot the blow from her well-wielded skillet had left. It nearly broke her heart to think that one so young had been made to bear so great a sorrow.
"Do you think she would mind if I prayed for her?"
Mingo stopped what he was doing and looked up. "I am certain she would grateful --if she understood the gesture."
Becky shifted a lock of the raven hair away from the Cherokee's eye. She had cleaned it and combed it out so it lay like a blanket of black velvet across the white sheets "She's barely more than a child."
The tall native crossed to her side. He looked down at the woman. "Yes. Far too young to know such grief." He sighed. "All too many Cherokee women have known a similar loss: their village ransacked, their men killed, and their children...."
"What would have driven her to put on these clothes?" she asked as she fingered the deerskin shirt. "Why would she have to take revenge herself?"
He frowned. "Perhaps she had no male relatives left to do so. Or perhaps," he laid his hand on his friend's wife's shoulder, "she is simply a determined woman who will not take 'no' for an answer."
Becky scowled. Her hands went to her hips. "Mingo....are you implying something?"
"Who me?" The Cherokee's face broke with a smile. "Rebecca Boone, you know me better than that. Am I not always open and forth-coming with everything?"
She narrowed her blue eyes and tilted her head. "Do you really want an answer to that?"
He raised his hands in mock surrender. "No."
She turned him around and shoved him toward the table. "Go finish packing."
Mingo laughed. "I will. But first I am going to check the area surrounding the cabin to be certain she has no companions waiting in the woods. Are you comfortable here, alone with her?"
"She's not that much older than Jemima, Mingo. I'll be fine."
His handsome face sobered. "But she is not like Jemima, Rebecca. She will kill."
Becky glanced at the woman. She was tossing and murmuring in her sleep. "Do you think she already has?"
His black eyebrows winged towards his bangs as his hand went to his vest and he pulled it back to reveal a bloody stain.
Becky gasped. "Mingo...."
He nodded. "If not, she was certainly ready to step over the line tonight. Bar the door behind me and keep your rifle close."
Becky stood by the bedside of the sleeping woman, the rifle in her hands. She remained still a moment and then came to a decision. Walking deliberately to the hearth, she returned the weapon to the pegs above it. It was her intention to not handle it again. Waking up to the barrel of a flintlock was not something she would have preferred, and if she was going to win this young woman over, it was not what she was going to have her do. She drew a deep breath and returned to her side. Kneeling on the floor, she bowed her head and quieted her heart. A moment later her lips began to move. She spoke softly, but aloud, so the Devil would know what she was about as well as the Lord, and know that any mischief he had in mind was clearly in jeopardy.
"Dear Lord," she said softly, "I know this young woman doesn't know You in the way that I do, but I also know she is one of Your children and dear to Your heart. I know the people living in her village were too, Lord, and I pray for their souls-that they are at rest and with You in Paradise. I ask as well, Lord, that the ones who did this terrible thing will come under Your wrath and Your vengeance, and as surely as I know my husband did not do commit this crime," she drew a deep breath, "even if it was him, Lord, I would ask the same thing." Becky shifted on her knees. "And last of all, Lord, I ask peace for this poor woman. Let her find what she is seeking, and dear Lord-as only You can-please mend her broken heart and restore what she has lost."
She laid her hand on her chest and rose. Then she opened her eyes to find the Cherokee woman staring at her.
"Oh my!" She exclaimed softly. "I didn't know you were awake."
"You speak to the Creator?"
"And you mean all you say?"
Becky nodded. "On my knees before my Lord, I cannot lie."
The young woman closed her eyes and turned her head away. "You shame me."
"Oh, no. I don't mean to do that. Please...."
Without turning to look at her, she asked, "Do you have only the one child? The small boy who was here?"
Rebecca sat on the edge of the bed and arranged her skirts around her. "I have a daughter. She's married now."
"I had a daughter. And a husband. And a home...." There was no anger in her voice now. Just grief. "All are ash now."
"As am I."
"No." Becky reached towards her. "You are a young woman. You can go on...."
"No." The native woman sat up, tossing off the coverlet Becky had laid across her. "It will end when those who destroyed my village are dead." Her black eyes sought the white woman. "No matter who they are."
"You can't get up yet. That knot on your head is as big as a goose egg! You might have a concussion...." Becky fell silent as the woman began to run her hands over her freshly-washed skin.
"You have taken my paint off?"
"You were filth...." She paused. "You were dirty. The paint came off with the grime. I'm sorry."
She touched the ebon locks. "And my hair?"
"I combed it." She lifted her shoulders. "I can braid it for you again if you like...."
The woman growled and pushed past her, heading for her weapons which were arrayed as if for battle across the table-top. She spoke as she began to strap them on; first the tomahawk and then a small sharp dagger. And finally the curious stick with a swan's wing at its end. "Where is Boone's brother?"
Becky blinked. "Who?"
The woman's dark head came up. Her ebon eyes fixed her. "Mingo."
She stuttered. "Oh.... Oh, Mingo. He went out to...catch some game. He's preparing a kit. He thought he would go along with you to look for Dan."
"He is outside? Alone?"
The redhead nodded. "Yes. Why?" The woman seemed unduly concerned-especially considering she had tried to kill the tall Cherokee less than four hours before. She couldn't understand why. Unless.... "Were you not alone?"
The War Woman had begun to braid her long hair. "I came alone. There is no one but me."
"Then what are you worried about? Mingo is a grown man. He can take care of himself."
The woman froze with her fingers entwined in the black locks, and then she did a strange thing-she laughed. "Can he?" Her young face sobered. "Can any man?" She finished the second braid and tossed it over her shoulder and then began to tie the feathers in her hair. "There are men who follow me. From Tennessee."
Becky glanced towards the door. Mingo could look out for himself; couldn't he? "Men?"
The woman stood straight and tall. "Your husband's men."
The handsome redhead sighed. "My Dan did nothing to harm you. You'll see." She bit her lip. "Tell me. What do you intend to do with him when you find him?"
The woman slid her knife into its beaded sheath. "Kill him."
Becky pressed on. "And then? Once you have done that?" She tried to keep her voice light. "What then?"
"Then?" The Cherokee frowned.
"Go back to cooking and tilling the fields?" She shrugged. "Or stay dressed as a man and fight men's battles?"
The woman looked away. "I will die."
Becky bit her lip. That was what she thought. The death song had been her own. "I want you to make me a promise."
The dark head jerked towards her. "A promise?"
"If the one who did this is not my Dan," she said as she came to stand before her, "then I want you to come back here and tell me that. To my face." There was a soft knock on the door. Becky recognized it as Mingo's. She ignored it for the moment. "Well?"
The native woman stared at her. "And why would I do this?"
"Why?" The redhead held her head high. "To repay the wrong you do me."
"Rebecca, is everything all right?"
"Just a moment, Mingo," she called, knowing he was worried. "I'm fine."
The Cherokee woman continued to stare at her. Her nostrils flared and then she let out a great deep sigh. A moment later she nodded.
"And one more thing...."
Becky laughed. "Give Mingo a chance. You'll find if you do that he is quite a remarkable man. As is my Dan."
The War Woman shoved the wooden handle of the tomahawk behind her beaded belt. She tossed her head and glanced towards the door behind which the Cherokee man waited.
"We will see."
"What is your name, if I may ask?"
The woman glanced at Mingo. She had not said anything since they had begun their journey. "You may ask."
"And you may not answer?" He suppressed a grin. "What if I need to call you? Or to introduce you to someone?"
She frowned. "I give my name only to those I honor."
"And I do not yet qualify?" Mingo shifted the strap that held his rifle on his shoulder. "Very well, I shall have to make up my own name for you then." Hesitating in the middle of the path, he narrowed his dark eyes and pretended to examine her. Finally he declared, "I have it."
"Yes. I think I shall call you 'Joan'."
"Joan?" She had withstood his inspection with barely concealed distaste. "Who is 'Joan'?"
He curbed his smile and met her stare with a serious expression. "As in, 'Joan of Arc.' A white warrior woman. And a very fiery determined young woman she was too." At her look, the well-contained grin escaped. "Yes, I think it suits you. She was...er...rather fond of men's clothing as well."
The black eyes narrowed and she fingered her knife. "You are laughing at me."
He shook his head. "No. I respect your grief, and I respect what you are doing. But I know you are wrong."
"And what if you are wrong?" She countered. "What would you do if your brother had done this thing?"
The handsome man's face sobered almost instantly. "I had a brother once, who did such a thing. I killed him," he said, and then fell silent.
The warrior woman held his eyes for a moment, and then as if acknowledging her belief in his words, she nodded. The two of them began to move again and continued on in silence for some time. Just before they topped a ridge and the sun began its long descent to the cradle of the waiting trees below, she turned and looked at him. "Mingo?"
He noticed the use of his name. "Yes?"
"I do not think I will kill you today."
The tall Cherokee watched her as she pivoted and continued on ahead of him. "Well," he whispered, "tomorrow is another day."
Daniel Boone kicked dirt on the ashes of the fire he had kindled. Leaving the temporary camp, he began to move ahead in the dark. He had rested from midday until the moon had sunk behind the low ridge that separated him from that particular patch of virgin wilderness he called home, and now, he was ready to move on. Gripping Tick Licker tightly, he left the well-worn paths behind and headed off through the tangled undergrowth and sapling trees with one eye to the rustling leaves, and the other to the shifting shadows behind his back.
So far he had been the hunter. And he intended to keep it that way.
Three weeks before he had left Will Briggs behind. Since that time he been making his way home slowly, enjoying the scenery and taking time to fish and hunt for game. Then, suddenly, two days back, the hairs at the base of his neck had stood on end-a sure sign that something was on the prowl; most likely something two-footed, interested in doing more than just filling its belly or protecting its young. It was a sign he never ignored, and was probably the biggest part of what had kept him alive all these years. Becky believed it was his guardian angel. Yadkin had called it plain dumb luck. Mingo, on the other hand, insisted he was simply 'highly perceptive and sagacious beyond the norm'.
The lean Cherokee was a good friend, but sometimes you had to wonder why he couldn't put it plain. In other words, he was the kind of man who understood that if you bedded down with the dogs, you rose with the fleas.
Dan paused and removed his coonskin cap. The night was humid and hot and he was sweating. He leaned on his rifle and gazed out over the wide expanse of moonlight-brushed trees below him. Becky was probably sewing by the fire after winning the daily argument with Israel over his bedtime. He didn't really have a sense that they were in danger. Was it Mingo he was thinking of? Had his English-bred Indian friend gone and gotten himself into some kind of trouble again?
After tucking his cap in his belt, he started to remove his heavy buckskin jacket, but stopped as the sound of a boot snapping a twig alerted him to the presence of someone other than himself. He dropped to his knees instantly and crawled through the underbrush back towards the camp he had just vacated. Parting the tall grasses that lined a small meandering creek, he watched as several Indians inspected the fire he had extinguished and read the signs his heavy boots had left. One of the Indians stood up and pointed almost directly at him.
Dan's brown brows touched his unruly hair and he whistled softly.
It seemed maybe Mingo wasn't the only one in trouble.
The raven-haired Cherokee stared over the rim of his tin cup at the woman he traveled with. She was sitting with her eyes closed. Her hands were on her knees and she was humming softly. He recognized the melody. It was as ancient as the role of the Cherokee woman; a cradle song sung to a newborn child. He listened for a moment and then drew a breath.
The humming paused, almost imperceptibly, and the woman's fingers tensed.
He hid his smile as he cleared his throat and tried again. "Joan?"
"Do not call me that."
Mingo shifted so his back rested against a fallen tree trunk. "I have asked you what your name is before." He shrugged. "If you continue to refuse to tell me what it is, then I shall have to continue to- "
"Nunna-dihi." Her black eyes opened and she raised her head as if daring him to challenge her.
He took a sip of his coffee and frowned. 'Path-killer', or literally 'he who kills on the path'." It was both a man's name and a warning. He hesitated for a moment and then said, "But that is not your real name."
"It is the only name I know now." The woman shifted and stretched her legs before her.
"Nunna," he said, using the part of her name that acknowledged the path she was on, but refused to recognize her wish to kill, "what happened? Why are you here now, alone?"
Her dark eyes clouded with pain and she looked away. "Did the white woman not tell you- "
"I want your words, not Rebecca's." Mingo leaned forward and offered her a bit of the bread from his haversack.
She shook her head. "I do not eat."
"Then you do not live. You cannot go on indefinitely existing on nothing but water and will...."
"I live on hate," she whispered between clenched teeth, "and the need for justice.."
" 'Justice in the extreme is often unjust' ", Mingo said softly, quoting the French playwright Jocasta.
"You think I do not have a right to take this man's life? Is your heart not red then? Is the white blood in your veins the stronger?"
"I believe you have a right to seek the truth. That is why I am here. But I also believe Daniel has a right to answer your accusations before you strip him of his hair or plunge a knife into his chest." His voice had risen with his indignation. Drawing a deep breath, he finished more softly, "I would like to understand what started you on this path so that I may be a part of its end-whatever that may be."
The woman stared at him. "You are like him, you know," she said softly.
"Inali." She turned away. "My husband."
The name meant Black Fox. "How am I like him?"
She shifted and rose to her feet. "He was educated. He spoke the white man's tongue." Her jaw tightened and her fingers closed on the pommel of the hunting knife lodged in her beaded belt. "He was an interpreter."
"Did he interpret for this man who claims to be my brother?"
"Did he also die?"
"You ask too many questions," she said as she turned away.
"You give too few answers." Mingo rose to his feet and stepped towards her. He caught her arm. "Nunna, if I am to help you- "
"I do not want your help," she snarled as she pulled from his grasp. "I do not want you here! Men are fools. They are blind. If the trap lay open in the grass before them, their eyes would see only the distant mountains and the stream and they would fall with its teeth in their flesh."
Mingo cleared his throat. "Yes. Well.... I am here. There is little you can do about it."
"The Boone woman said you could take care of yourself. Is this true?"
He was a little taken aback by the question. "I would like to think so. Why....?"
She turned to stare at him and a curious smile lifted the edge of her full lips. "I will keep the first watch," she said, shifting so the heavy tomahawk was in her hand. "Sleep well, brother of the white man I will kill."
He watched her go with some amount of trepidation. On the one hand, he was completely secure in the fact that she was capable of protecting both him and their camp. On the other hand, he wasn't certain protection was what she had in mind.
It was going to be a very, very long night.
One dark brown eye opened. Mingo drew a breath and waited as the stealthy footsteps made their way towards him. He could tell by the soft sure-footed movement that the one approaching was wearing moccasins and was most likely a native. Drawing a deep breath, he kept his eyes closed and waited. It was disheartening that the woman had chosen to attempt to attack him. He thought, perhaps, they had been coming to some sort of an understanding, and that perhaps she had learned to trust him enough she would actually allow him to lead her to Daniel and sort this whole thing out.
Apparently, he had been wrong.
Placing his hand on his own hunting knife, he whispered a quick prayer that he would not have to use it, but tensed his muscles and readied to spring to his feet as soon as Nunna drew near enough anyway. Then, just as he was about to rise, he saw a shadow of movement in the trees before him. The moon was riding high and the dark Kentucky night shone like a white day, fully revealing the figure that waited on the edge of the wood like an avenging spirit.
It was Nunna.
Continued in Chapter Three