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BOOK: Judith E French
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The sun rose hot and bright; the heat felt good on her throbbing arm. She had told Brandon the truth; the scratch would heal fast enough if she found the right medicine to cleanse the wound. Still, it was nothing to ignore. She had seen men die from smaller injuries.
Leah laid her cheek against the rough bark of the tree trunk and thought of the kiss she and Brandon had shared. Why had she done it? One minute she was laughing at the running bear, and the next . . . She had thrown herself into his arms. She had kissed him. No, she corrected herself, they had kissed each other. It had been a very satisfactory kiss if she remembered correctly. Brandon’s mouth was clean and tasted of mint.
She moistened her lips with her tongue and swallowed. Brandon’s manner was arrogant, but his kisses were not so. She had been kissed by enough men to know the difference. Brandon was forceful without being overpowering. He desired her—that was plain—but there had been no insistence in his demands. It was clear that he had been willing to go as far or as short a distance as she wished. That was right and proper for a man.
She chuckled, wondering how far she would have allowed matters to go. Apparently, she had been so involved with his kiss that she had ignored an arrow flying past their heads. “Aiyee,” she murmured softly. There was more to her Englishman than she had first realized. Perhaps it was not necessary to have such a distance between their sleeping mats. She shut her eyes and let the delightful dream images of Brandon surface again.
“Leah!”
She opened her eyes. What was he shouting about now? She wondered why the English were so loud. Quickly, she began to climb down the tree.
“Leah, where the hell are you?”
She dropped to the ground, landing lightly on the balls of her feet, and picked up her quiver of arrows. Slinging it across her shoulder, she hurried down to the stream bank where Brandon was washing his hands.
“Oh, there you are. I thought maybe the bear had eaten you.” He stood up and dried his hands on his breeches. “Did you find out what you wanted to know?”
She shook her head. “Nothing more. The bear be gone, the man be gone.”
“Do you think it was a Seneca who shot at us?”
She spread her hands palm up before her. “The arrow was Seneca.”
“But you have doubts?”
“The dead ha’ no doubts.”
Brandon scowled. “Can you for once say what you think, woman?”
Her eyes clouded with perplexity. “I do. ’Tis ye who speaks in riddles, Englishman.”
“And it’s the
dead have,”
he instructed, “not
the dead ha’
. And it’s
you
, not
ye.”
“You,”
she said sharply, “ha’ . . .
have
made a mess o’ this deer.” She pulled the knife out of the ground and examined his butchering job. To Leah’s dismay, there were several cuts in the deer hide other than those made by the bear. One front quarter of the venison was ruined, but both hindquarters were virtually untouched.
“At home, we have huntsmen to do this sort of thing,” Brandon explained.
“Ye—you dinna have to apologize.”
His jawline firmed. “I didn’t intend it as an apology, merely a statement of fact.”
“No matter. We’ll wrap the meat in the hide. Your load will be easier than yesterday. I’d not linger here longer than we have to.”
“And your Seneca? What if he comes back?”
Leah sliced the deerhide into pieces and began to divide up the venison. “A man alone could be a scout or an outcast from his tribe.”
“We’re hunting. Why couldn’t he be doing the same?”
“This is Shawnee land. An Iroquois hunting here is hunting scalps.”
“You said Seneca.” He squatted down beside her and helped her make a bundle of part of the meat.
“The Seneca belong to the Iroquois League of Nations. Sometimes. You never ken what a Seneca will do.”
“Like a woman.”
She ignored his comment. “One Seneca I can deal with. A war party would be verra bad. We dinna wish t’ meet them without Shawnee warriors at our back.”
“But why would this Indian shoot once, then run away?” Brandon persisted.
“I dinna ken, Brandon mine, and that is what frightens me.”
They set out without eating; both of them carried a portion of the venison on their backs in packs made of the animal’s hide. A short distance from the stream, Leah stopped to cut off a young sapling. As they continued walking, she stripped the bark from the wood and shaped a crude bow with her knife.
“It will not shoot as well or as far as my hickory bow,” she said, “but it will give us more than our empty hands to fight with if we do come up against an enemy war party.”
Brandon rolled his eyes; it was obvious to Leah that he had little faith in her hastily constructed bow of green wood. She couldn’t blame him; green wood had no strength. She paused again long enough to notch the tips and tie the bowstring, then slung it over her back, and they continued walking.
I should have armed Brandon when we left the village, she thought. Then we wouldn’t be defenseless. But she hadn’t trusted him—she still didn’t. She trusted him more than she trusted the Iroquois, she admitted to herself. One thing was certain, she’d not be taken alive. The Iroquois were rumored to have adopted the white man’s disgusting habit of rape. She’d fight as long and hard as she could, but if capture seemed imminent, she wouldn’t hesitate to take her own life. In that case, Brandon would have to look after his own skin.
They entered a section of very old oak forest. The massive trees formed a canopy overhead, nearly shutting out the light. There was almost no underbrush, and the walking was much easier. Brandon lengthened his stride and caught up with Leah.
“You’re a widow.”
“Aye.”
“What happened to your husband?”
“Among the Shawnee, it is not good manners to speak of the dead.”
“We’re not among the Shawnee. You haven’t even told me his name.”
She felt her cheeks grow hot. “I canna speak his name. That be an even greater taboo.” She walked faster.
“You’re educated, Leah. Surely you don’t believe in primitive superstitions. How did he die?”
“An Englishman shot him.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Why should you be sorry if you didn’t kill him?”
He stopped and caught hold of her arm. “Leah, don’t be like this. Last night we—”
She stared up into his sky eyes. “I be not in mourning for my son’s father, if that what ye—you—wish t’ know. We were nay good for each other. If he had lived, I would have divorced him.”
“Somehow, I didn’t think you were.” He let go of her arm and brushed her chin with the tip of his index finger. “I’ve never met a woman like you, Leah . . . and that’s truth, not—”
“Not what a man tells a
wench?”
Amusement flickered in her dark eyes.
“I can’t stay with the Shawnee forever,” he said huskily. “We both know it.”
“Aye,” she admitted. She gazed into his deep blue eyes and felt suddenly breathless, as though she had been running.
“But . . .” His finger traced her lower lip. “While I’m here . . .”
She smiled and stepped back out of his reach. Her lip tingled where he had touched it, and there was a warm, bubbling sensation in her chest. He was still very close. A lock of his yellow hair had come free of its rawhide thong, and she had a strong urge to tuck it back into place.
“Taktaani,”
she said. “I’ve nay decided yet.”
“I want to kiss you.”
She laughed. “And I would like to be kissed.” He reached out to her, and she shook her head. “But not enough to lose my scalp for it. Come, Brandon. Let us go while we can. There will be time enough for kissing when we smell the smoke of my village campfires.” She whirled around and set off at a steady pace. With a shrug, Brandon followed.
It was late afternoon when Leah led the way into a gully, made a sharp turn to the left, and motioned him to get down. “We’re being followed,” she said. She’d suspected it for an hour. Then, a few minutes ago, she had heard a flock of crows behind them fly up and call out in alarm.
“I didn’t hear anything.”
“Nay. You’d not hear bagpipes unless they were under your chin.” She slipped off her pack. “You wait here while I—”
His fingers closed around her arm. “If there’s danger, you’re not going out there and face it alone.” He caught her other arm and forced her to sit down on the ground .
“And what help would ye be against a Seneca war party?” she hissed. Fear made her heart pound in her chest, but she was determined not to let him know how scared she was.
“More than you suppose.” She tried to struggle up, and he pushed her down again. “Give me that damned excuse for a bow.”
“What would ye do wi’ it?”
“More than you, girl.”
“But ye dinna have the stomach for blood, remember?” she taunted.
“That’s hunting. This is survival. Two entirely different situations.”
“Ye ken nothing of—” Leah froze and clutched at Brandon’s hand as a bone-chilling war whoop rent the still morning air. “Iroquois,” she whispered.
“Great. I was hoping it was only the bear.”
Chapter 5
T
he seconds became minutes as Leah and Brandon waited motionless. The ground beneath them was damp, and the air still and hot. Leah listened intently, separating and identifying the woodland sounds that filtered down to their hiding place. Overhead, a squirrel scurried back and forth, padding its nest with leaves and barking to an unseen companion. To the right, at the top of a beech tree, a woodpecker drilled into the bark searching for insects. The
rat-ta-tat-tat
echoed through the tall trees, drowning fainter rustlings of birds and animals.
Brandon leaned close and whispered in Leah’s ear. “What now?”
“We wait.” She tried to keep her tone light, masking her fear. She had almost convinced herself, earlier, that the man who had shot at them by the stream was not an Iroquois. Now, raw terror threatened her ability to think clearly.
Since Leah had been a child, she had heard stories of the Iroquois and their atrocities. Mothers used the tales to frighten children into staying close to camp; old warriors relived past glories by relating spine-chilling feats of battles against the Iroquois. The difference between those tales and the ones about Matchemenetoo, the devil beast, was that Matchemenetoo was a legend. The Iroquois were all too real and more terrifying than any imagined demon.
Leah’s aunt, Amookas, had been captured by the Iroquois when she was wed to her first husband. Amookas’s infant son had died on the trail, and her husband had been killed trying to get her back. Amookas still bore the scars of running an Iroquois gauntlet, and she had told in brittle words of seeing her dead husband’s heart sliced from his warm body and eaten raw by Iroquois warriors. Leah’s grandfather had led the Shawnee war party that later rescued Amookas. Her grandfather was gravely wounded in the ensuing battle and had died of his injuries the following winter.
When Leah was eight, Iroquois had attacked her village. She’d come face to face with a painted Mohawk brave, and he’d seized her by the hair, ready to dash her brains out with his war club. Alex had gotten off a snap shot, putting a musket ball neatly through the enemy brave’s forehead and saving her life.
“How many do you think are out there?” Brandon whispered, pulling her back to the present with a start. “Just the one, or a war party?”
She shrugged. “I dinna ken. We’re close to the camp for a single brave to stalk us, but . . .” She shook her head. “Seneca, they dinna think as we do. I canna tell ye.”
“Do they know where we are?”
She shrugged again. “If ye’d give me back my bow, I’d—”
“Forget it. You’re not going to—”
A covey of quail flew up a few hundred feet to their right. The sudden burst of noise sent Leah to her feet. Catching Brandon’s hand, she ducked low and began running down the gully away from the quail.
“Kschamehella,”
she cried. “Run.”
The matted roots of a fallen tree blocked their path like a wall of solid earth. Leah ducked to the left and scrambled up the bank.
“Drop the venison,” Brandon ordered.
“Mata!”
She slipped on the wet moss, and he caught her around the waist and boosted her up.
Something hard struck him in the back, and he dropped to one knee.
“Are you hurt?”
“No.” He caught hold of a sapling and pulled himself up the last few feet. They dashed toward a clump of hemlocks as another arrow sped past.
Hidden by the low-hanging boughs, Brandon yanked off his pack and notched an arrow into the bowstring. Cautiously, he parted the feathery green foliage and scanned the forest. Nothing moved. “I don’t see him,” he said.
“There was only one mon.”
“What makes you so sure?”
Leah peered through the branches. There was no sign of their pursuer. “We be alive.” She tugged at his arm. “See. I was right nay t’ drop our venison.”
Brandon glanced down at his pack. An arrow protruded from the bundle of meat. “That’s why it didn’t hurt when I was hit.” He chuckled. “And I thought it was because I was so tough.”
She laughed softly. “Ye be tough enough . . . for an Englishman.” She looked out at the woods again. “We maun wait a wee bit, but I dinna think he will trouble us again this day.”
“Why do you say that?”
“’Tis a feelin’, Brandon mine. I canna explain, but in the same way I ken his coming, I ken the leaving.” Absently, she fingered the amulet at her throat.
“Spells? Witch sorcery?”
“Nay,” she replied sharply, letting go of the triangular-shaped bauble. He reached out for the amulet, and she jerked away.
“Mata!”
She flushed. “’Tis no witchery. Just a charm my father left me when he went away.”
“And you’ve worn it ever since. You must have loved him deeply.”
“Aye.” Her tone grew cold and distant. “But I was
geptschat,
a fool. He left me and my mother to return to his English wife, his white-skinned child.” Unconsciously, Leah’s small hands tightened into fists at her sides. “My father went awa’ in the time o’ new leaves, and when the first snow fell, it cast a winter pelt on my mother’s grave. She carried his bairn—a son, but they buried him wi’ her. Born too soon in a river o’ her blood.” Leah shivered. “I could have stood my father’s leavin’, but did he have t’ take my mother wi’ him?”
“I’m sorry,” Brandon said. “Life is hard for an orphan. My mother and father took in my cousin Charles when his parents died of the plague, but it was never easy for him. Nothing we did or said could make up for the loss of his family.”
Leah stiffened. “Among the Shawnee, there are no orphans. Each child is cherished, a gift from Wishemenetoo. I had Amookas and Alex.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “Alex is a Scot. He was a soldier and my father’s friend. He chose to remain among us—to stay with his redskinned sons and his Shawnee wives, after he lost his leg in battle against the Iroquois.”
“Wives?”
“Here a man often has more than one wife. Alex is married to Amookas and to her sister, Tahmee.”
“At the same time?”
“Of course.”
“Must be a cozy arrangement.”
“Each wife has her own wigwam.”
“And where does Alex live?”
“Sometimes with one wife, sometimes another. Usually, he stays with Amookas. He likes her cooking best.”
“This Alex must be an interesting gentleman.”
“He is a great man, verra wise. It is Alex who taught me French and kept up my English.” She inclined her head slightly. “My Scot. He taught me sums and the history of war. I can tell ye the manner in which the great sachem, Alexander of Macedon, made war against the Persian tribes on the plains of—”
Brandon threw up a hand. “Enough!” He grinned at her. “I had tutors enough to hear something of Alexander’s exploits. Are we to stand here until your Iroquois comes back with his entire nation, or shall we make tracks while we can?”
“Aye, ye speak sense, Brandon mine.” She shouldered her pack once more and set off at a quick pace eastward. With a final glance behind them, he followed her.
 
A village sentry caught sight of them and signaled the boys keeping crows out of the cornf ield. The youngest slid down the pole from his stand and ran toward the village, shouting the news that Moonfeather and her English captive had returned from the hunt bearing meat.
By the time Leah and Brandon reached the edge of the town, half the village, including the children and the dogs, had come out to meet them. Leah called warm greetings to her friends and relatives, all the while scanning the crowd for one particular naked child. “Kitate?” she asked an old woman. “Have you seen my—” She broke off with a cry as a small brown body hurled himself between a brave’s legs.
“Mama! Mama!” the boy cried.
Laughing, Leah caught her son in her arms and spun him around. She hugged him tightly against her and showered him with kisses. “How’s my pumpkin?” she murmured. “Have you been good for Alex and Amookas?”
“Did you shoot a bear?” Kitate demanded, clinging to his mother’s neck.
“No, but we saw one, didn’t we, Brandon? The biggest bear you ever dreamed of.” She lifted Kitate high and nibbled his warm belly. “Big enough to eat you in one bite,” she teased. Kitate giggled, and she lowered him to the ground. He held tight to her hand and walked along with them as they continued toward the central clearing.
Leah raised her voice, speaking formally in Algonquian. “Behold, my husband brings fresh meat for the village. Bring your bowls. You are welcome to whatever we have. Share with us the bounty of the forest.”
Matiassu came from behind a wigwam and blocked their way. He glared at Brandon with hate-filled eyes and muttered something under his breath.
“You must speak English if you want him to understand,” Leah said. “He doesn’t understand our tongue.”
“And he’ll not live long enough to learn it,” Matiassu replied harshly.
Brandon smiled innocuously. “Grant us the favor of the path, you trug-moldie sprag.”
Matiassu’s dark eyes narrowed suspiciously, and his hand moved toward the knife at his waist. Leah’s head snapped up, and she stared at Brandon. He was still smiling.
“Matiassu,” Leah said quietly. “Let us pass.”
Someone in the crowd whispered loudly, and Leah heard her name linked with Matiassu’s. An old man craned his head to see. Matiassu’s muscles tensed, and his scarred fingers tightened around his knife hilt.
“Leah, lass!” Alex called out heartily. He hobbled toward them on his crutch, his tall sons flanking him on either side. “Welcoom home. We were worried aboot ye when ye didna coom back last night.” Alex slapped Matiassu on the shoulder. “Fresh meat. Be certain ye take some for yer lady. She’s been fussin’ aboot the lack o’ it in yer pot.”
Amookas squeezed her ample body between Matiassu and Brandon. “Moonfeather, child,” she cried in Algonquian. “I’ve been worried out of my mind. What were you thinking to spend the night in the forest with a barbarian?”
With a final sullen glare, Matiassu stalked away.
Alex motioned with his head. “Ye’ve nay seen the last o’ him, lass,” he warned. “Take care.” He turned his attention to Brandon. “And well for ye, ye didna harm m’ lassie,” he said. “She trusts where she shouldna. There be ways and ways for a mon t’ reach the gates o’ hell. Do ye bring hurt t’ Leah, I’d find a way t’ make certain ye—”
“Brandon will nay hurt me, Alex,” Leah assured him. “He is my husband. And English or not, he is a good man. He had plenty of chances to run in the forest, and he didna. He helped me drive off a bear and fight off an Iroquois.”
“Iroquois?” Amookas frowned. “What is this of Iroquois?” Her two sons crowded close. “Tahmee!” Amookas called to a tall, thin woman scraping a deerhide. “Come quick, sister, and hear what’s happened.”
“Someone shot at us in the forest,” Leah explained. “We saw Seneca arrows last night and again this morning. And we heard an Iroquois war cry, not an hour’s march from here, at the place of
Thee-po-a-thee
. I think it was one man, rather than a war party, but our warriors must be alerted.”
“Aiyee!” Amookas raised her hands in shock. “To come so close.” She glanced anxiously at her sister. “Iroquois,” she repeated for Tahmee’s benefit. “Moonfeather and the
Englishmanake
were attacked by Iroquois.”
“Oooo.” Tahmee’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Those butchers! They dare to come again to our hunting grounds!”
“Let us sit,” Alex said. “Coom to the house and let us hear this tale from beginning to end. Aye, wife?”
Amookas nodded vigorously. “Yes, yes. Come to my fire and eat. I will divide the venison, and we can all hear of these evil happenings.”
Niipan, Alex’s son, went to fetch the council members who were present in the village. In minutes, nearly everyone in the camp had gathered around the entrance to Amookas’s wigwam to listen to Leah’s recounting of their encounter with the bear and the unseen Seneca.
Matiassu volunteered to lead a scouting party of young braves to search for sign of the intruder, and Tuk-o-see-yah, the sachem, ordered a heavy guard set around the village.
“No women or children are to leave the camp or cornfield areas,” Tuk-o-see-yah ordered in Algonquian. “This Seneca may be a lone warrior seeking to win honor by taking captives or scalps, or he may be an advance scout for a major attack. We will risk none of our people.”
Leah respectfully repeated her suspicion that the unseen attacker might not be an Iroquois at all, but someone using Seneca arrows. The sachem refilled his pipe with tobacco, lit it, and puffed slowly while he considered her idea.
Brandon took a hard look at the old man. Even though he’d understood almost nothing of what had been said, it was obvious to him that Tuk-o-see-yah was some sort of chief or man of great importance. The sachem was short and bony, his sagging face a mass of leathery wrinkles. His hair was white as milk and hung in two braids to his shrunken thighs. The aging leader wore a mantle of silver-tipped fox fur despite the heat of the August day. His leggings were of scarlet trade cloth, adorned with silver bells; his leather moccasins were worked with red, blue, and silver beads in an intricate floral design. Copper disks dangled from his ears, and a small cap woven of turkey feathers crowned his receding hairline.
“What you say is so, daughter of a peace woman,” Tuk-o-see-yah admitted finally. A small girl-child wiggled into his lap, and he bent his head to kiss the back of her neck. The child’s mother called her away, and Tuk-o-see-yah focused on Leah again. “The Seneca may not be a Seneca at all.”
“What if it was not a man?” Tahmee called, gathering her small sons into her arms. “What if the bear was really Matchemenetoo in the skin of a man?”
“Woman’s fancies,” a grizzled warrior muttered. “Let us seek out this Seneca, I say. Let us ask him why he has brought violence to Shawnee land.”
BOOK: Judith E French
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