Authors: Linda McLaughlin
Cumberland County, Pennsylvania,
For too long now, she had lived on the edge of fear and uncertainty.
By pure force of will, Mara Dupré roused herself from the numbness that weighed her down. She was tired, so tired. For months she had lain awake at night, listening to the sounds of the forest, wondering if she would survive the morrow.
Blinking to ease the burning of her dry eyes, she shook off her morbid thoughts and scanned the edge of the clearing. It was her turn to keep watch, listening for strange noises, while her husband, Emile, weeded the small vegetable garden they had planted beside the crude, one-room log cabin they called home.
She glanced his way. As if sensing her scrutiny, he looked up at her, his hazel eyes squinting in the sun, and smiled before turning his attention back to the soil. His face and hands had darkened over the summer, and there were new lines in his face. He no longer resembled the schoolmaster she had married nearly five years ago, but the farmer hed become.
Awkwardly, she shifted the musket she held in her arms. Though it was not heavy, barely ten pounds, her shoulders ached from the strain of holding it for long periods. But she did not complain, for she was comforted that it was
loaded and ready to use if need be.
Mara hated living in the wilderness where enormous trees shut out the light, creating a barrier that cut off each frontier cabin from the sight of its neighbors. She longed to return to her Swiss homeland, the bustling city of Geneva, and their cozy rooms above the bakery. It had been lovely to wake up every morning to the aroma of freshly baked bread. Instead, she and Emile struggled to eke an existence from this unforgiving land. She grimaced at the thought and then glanced over her shoulder at the cabin.
Home, she thought scornfully. Here, there were no busy streets filled with people, just the dark encroaching forest that begrudged every square foot of land they cleared so laboriously. Even the light seemed different here. Back in Geneva, the sunlight would glint off the lake and brighten the snowcapped peaks of the Alps in the far distance. Here, tall trees and trailing vines blocked the sunlight, creating ever-present shadows.
And danger, Mara knew, lurked in the shadows.
A flock of birds flew up out of the trees, twittering excitedly. A chill rippled down Maras spine. "Emile," she called in a soft voice. "Something is wrong."
Emile stood quickly and took the musket from her just as a group of soldiers emerged from the woods. Mara and Emile stared at them, relieved to see that they were dressed in British scarlet. The officers wore breeches with their waistcoats, but the men were curiously dressed in knee-length skirts. All carried muskets and swords.
"Emile, Mara." One of the officers took off his black felt hat and waved it. Sunlight glinted on his blond hair.
"Gideon," Mara cried out and ran to embrace her brother.
He hugged her to him with one arm, then released her to shake Emiles hand. "It is good to see you both." He motioned to one of his companions. "This is Lieutenant Shaw, who kindly allowed me to join his expedition."
The young officer swept off his hat and bowed to Mara. His auburn hair reminded her of maple leaves in the fall.
"Major Harcourt did not tell me he had such a beautiful sister," he remarked in fluent French.
Mara felt herself blushing under the compliment.
"Behave yourself, Shaw," Gideon warned half seriously.
The lieutenant smiled, his green eyes twinkling. "I meant no offense."
"None taken, young man," Emile said, offering his hand. "But I am curious to know what brings you here."
Gideon turned to Mara, concern written on his face. "A French and Indian war party has been reported in the vicinity. A man was killed yesterday not far from here."
"My God," Mara exclaimed, her hand at her throat.
Gideon nodded. "General Forbes has ordered three hundred soldiers into the forest to chase them out of the area, so you should be safe. When I heard that a group of Highlanders would be headed this way I asked to come along."
"Highlanders," Emile repeated, "ah,
He beamed at his brother-in-laws companions and switched to English. "Welcome, gentlemen. I wager youre all a bit thirsty. Come fill your canteens."
The soldiers followed Emile to the well, but Mara put a hand on Gideons arm to detain him. "How much danger are we in?"
He covered her hand with his. "Dont worry, little sister, the general intends to drive the French and their allies back to Canada. Soon there will be a battle."
"Do you think the British will win this time?" Mara made no attempt to disguise the concern in her voice. Three years earlier, the British decided to drive the French from the forks of the Ohio. The resulting defeat had been the signal for the Natives to begin raiding the frontier, leaving a trail of death and destruction from Pennsylvania to Virginia.
Gideon motioned to Mara to sit beside him in the shade of the cabin. "Who wins may depend on how much Indian support the French can muster. The politicians in Philadelphia are trying to work out a peace treaty with the Delaware and Shawnee. If successful, well have no trouble ridding ourselves of the French."
Mara touched one of the gold buttons on the sleeve of her brothers uniform. "I worry about you, Gideon. I still do not understand why you became a soldier. Life is uncertain enough without deliberately courting danger."
A shadow of annoyance crossed his face. "We have been through this before. The French killed our father, and I will do my part in defeating them."
On the day they had learned of their fathers death, Gideon had sworn revenge. Hed been seventeen to Maras ten. After completing his education, he had become a soldier, despite the fact that their maternal grandfather had insisted he follow in the family tradition and become a minister instead. To the best of her knowledge, Gideon was the only person who had ever won an argument with Reverend Ebersole.
Mara sighed. "It is not your place to seek revenge. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. It is up to God to punish the French for their sins."
"And the British army is his instrument. You are a woman and cannot be expected to understand such matters."
Mara bit her lower lip to keep from speaking.
I understand all too well. Man was born to fight and woman to mourn.
Gideon touched her hand lightly. "Let us not argue, little one. I have a request of you." He reached into a pocket of his scarlet waistcoat, pulled out a leather pouch and handed it to her. "I want you to keep this for me."
Opening the pouch, she removed a mans watch, the metal cold to the touch. With one finger she traced the name engraved on the silver case, Melchior Harcourt, and a shiver of foreboding passed through her at this reminder of the father she had barely known. She looked up at Gideon. "Wont you need it?"
"I have grandfathers as well. If Im captured, I dont want the French to lay hands on Papas watch."
Turning the watch over, she touched the raised silver
work depicting the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt. Shed always thought it a tragically appropriate image for an outlawed Huguenot minister, hunted down and hanged like a common criminal. "Why did Papa go back to France?"
Her brother sighed. "For several reasons. He felt it was his mission to keep the faith alive. And, I think, it took his mind off Mamas death."
Mara felt a pang at the mention of the woman who had died giving her life. From all accounts, her parents had shared a deep and abiding love, the kind Mara had always longed for.
Carefully, she put the watch back in its pouch and slipped it into her skirt pocket. "Father blamed me for her death. That is why he left us."
"No." Gideon tilted her chin up to face him. "He never blamed you, but the older you got, the more you reminded him of what hed lost. He couldnt look at you without seeing her."
"Do I really look like Mama?" Mara asked wistfully, fingering her blonde braid. "Papa always said she was beautiful."
"Indeed she was," Gideon said, a teasing glint in his blue eyes, so like her own. "And yes, you resemble her. Emile is a lucky man."
Mara turned her head away but said nothing. Gideon had been happy, and undoubtedly relieved, when she had married his best friend. But did Emile ever regret
Her thoughts were interrupted by a shout from Lieutenant Shaw. "Wed best get moving, Major Harcourt."
"Of course." Gideon stood up. "Id not intended to stay so long."
He reached down to help Mara to her feet. She caught his sleeve as he turned to go. "Gideon, if the British are defeated again, what should we do?"
"It is the French who will be defeated this time. But should the unthinkable happen, I want you and Emile to go to the nearest fort immediately. Will you promise me that?"
"Ill try, Gideon. Thats the best I can do." Mara lifted her hands in a gesture of futility. "You know Emile. He lives for this farm."
"And you do not?"
"Look at this place." She waved her arm to take in the log cabin, the small vegetable garden, the makeshift cow shed, and the small field of corn. "He is a good man, but if I had known he would drag me here, I might not have married him."
Gideon frowned. "I realize this life is hard, but what other choice did you have when grandfather died so suddenly?"
"None," she admitted. Her grandfathers death when she was eighteen had left her homeless and nearly penniless. The proposal from her brothers best friend had seemed heavensent at the time.
"Forgive me, I did not mean to make you unhappy."
Mara spoke without thinking, repeating the words drummed into her in childhood. "We were not put on this earth to be happy."
Gideon raised an eyebrow. "Now that is our grandfather speaking. I know some of his teachings rubbed off on you, but dont let Emile hear you say such things. He does not hold with grandfathers message of gloom and doom."
"No, if anything, he is too optimistic."
"Hes a good man."
"I know," Mara said. "I just wish we had stayed in Geneva."
Gideon put his arm around her and pulled her close till her head rested on his shoulder. "Everything will be all right. Ill ask Shaw if we can stop on our way back to camp, just to be sure."
"Thank you, Gideon." Mara hugged her brother one last time. She waved until the soldiers were out of sight, wanting to run after Gideon and beg him to take her with him. A flicker of apprehension coursed through her.
She and Emile were alone again.
For the short time visiting with her brother, her thoughts had been filled with memories of another time, another place. When they had been children in the old manse in Geneva. When her grandparents had still been alive, before Gideon had gone off to school. A time when she had felt safe, if not happy. A time when she had looked to the future with hope in her heart.
She glanced at her husband, and he grinned at her. "It was good to see your brother again. What did you talk about for so long?"
"He said we should go to the fort if there is more trouble."
Smiling with condescension, Emile moved toward her. "You worry too much. Well be safe now that the Highlanders have chased off the French war parties."
"But the army cannot patrol every mile of this great forest."
"Must you always borrow trouble?"
"You are a fine one to talk about borrowing trouble. We are caught in the middle of a war." Her voice rose an octave and she fought for control. "Perhaps coming here was not such a good idea after all. I am so frightened."
Emile sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "A life of fear is not worth living."
He was right, but oh Lord, it was so hard not to be afraid. Determined to have her say, Mara clasped her hands tightly. "I dont want to die in this barbarous land. Please, Emile, if we hear of further trouble
His mouth set in the stubborn way that she knew so well. "We spent the last two summers hiding out at Fort Augusta while the land lay fallow. This is the first crop weve produced in three years. I will not leave it to rot."
She struggled to keep her voice soft and even. "Emile, I know how important this farm is to you. But what will it matter if were killed tomorrow?"
He held up a hand. "Can we discuss this later? Now I must go back to work." He handed her the musket and headed to the small vegetable garden beside their cabin.
As she watched him walk away, resentment and guilt churned inside her. Resentment for the dreams shed given up for him. And guilt, that even when he came to her in the night, her heart still longed for those dreams.
Slowly Mara followed him with the musket that was their constant companion. Like the rest of the frontier settlers, they kept a state of constant vigilance, never knowing when danger might swoop down on them from the other side of the mountains. They did not fear the wild creatures of the forest, though mountain lions, wolves, and bears roamed the woods in search of food. No, the real peril walked on two legs and carried muskets and tomahawks.
A drop of perspiration trickled down her face and she swiped at it with her hand. She felt restless and edgy, unaccountably so, and her clothes clung to her skin. She was still not accustomed to the extremes of weather in Americahot, breathless summers when the sweat never dried on her body, and winters so cold the chill penetrated to her soul. But she looked forward to winter, for only then did she feel safe. The threat of sudden death diminished while snow clogged the passes, keeping the French and their savage allies on the other side of the mountains.
Again Mara focused her attention on the edge of the clearing and tensed when she realized the forest was unnaturally silent. Not even a birdcall sounded in the still air. Fear pricked the back of her neck.
"Emile," she called softly. "It is too quiet."
He glanced at her, his head cocked, then he jumped up and grabbed the musket from her hands. "Get inside.
Mara ran toward the front of the cabin, Emile close behind. But before they could reach safety, a man emerged from the other side and blocked the door. Tall and dark haired, he wore a breechclout and buckskin leggings. She skidded to a stop, her breath rasping in short shallow gasps.