New York Frontier, 1784
The woman who had been Burning Sky had kept off the warrior path that came down from the north through mountains, along the courses of rivers and creeks. Doing so meant traveling slow, over steep ground unfriendly to trudging feet, but she had not wanted to be seen by men on the path. Red men or white men.
She’d slept on the cold ground thirteen times before she saw the stone that marked the end of her journey—and the boundary of her papa’s land, the place she once called home. Time had not dimmed it in her memory. The stone, tall as a man and pointed as a blade, thrust from the crest of a ridge. But with her step quickened and her gaze fixed on it as she neared, she failed to notice the dog slithering out of the laurel thicket below the stone, until the muddy animal stood in her path and showed its teeth. The woman who had been Burning Sky halted, shaken less by the dog than by her own inattention. If Tames-His-Horse had been there, he would have scolded her for it.
He was not there, but another was.
The sun had slipped from behind clouds and sent a shaft of light lancing down the ridge into the laurels, full across the man lying in the thicket, showing her a booted foot, a length of knee breeches, a hand cradled on the breast of a brown coat. A white hand.
She caught her breath, while the blood thundered in her ears. When neither the man nor the dog moved, fear began to sift from her like chaff through a winnowing basket. The dog was only standing guard. But over the living or the dead?
It was tempting to assume the latter, but for this: the man lay on her papa’s side of the boundary stone. The significance of that settled on her, a heavier burden than the long-trail basket she’d carried on her back these
many days. Maybe the man was dead and it would not matter what she did, but she could not turn her back and walk on as though she had not seen him.
There was still the problem of the dog in her way. It was one of those bred for bullying sheep, black and white, rough coated. The English word for it surfaced in her mind: collie.
The woman who had been Burning Sky slipped the tumpline from her forehead and the cord loops from her arms, lowering the basket to the ground. She gripped the musket slung at her side, even as she spoke kindly in the language of the People. “You are a good dog, guarding your man. Tohske’ wahi. It is so?”
The collie did not alter its rigid stance.
It occurred to her the dog might not know the speech of the Kanien’kehá:ka, called Mohawks by the whites. She tried English, which felt to her like speaking with pebbles in the mouth.
“You will let me near him, yes?” She took a step toward the laurels. The collie moved its matted tail side to side. “Good dog.”
She set her musket within reach and turned her attention to the man. He was too tangled in the laurels to have crawled in. Likely he’d fallen from the ridge above. Not a long drop, but steep. Closer now, she could see his face. Even for a white man, it was pale, the hollows of his closed eyes bruised, sickly. Hair almost black stuck to his brow in stiffened curls. While the dog nosed her heels, she wrenched away twigs, keeping one eye on the man’s still face. With the small hatchet from her sash, she hacked away larger branches, sending down a shower of leaves and insects, until she knelt beside the man. He had not stirred, but the warmth of his breath against her palm told her he lived. From the way he cradled his right arm across his chest, she knew it to be injured. His legs lay straight and seemed undamaged, save for scrapes where his leg coverings had torn in the fall. Not leg coverings, she thought. Stockings.
She did not know about his ribs, or what hurts might lurk beneath them. Moving him might cause further injury, but he could not remain as he was, unless she stayed and cared for him. She tipped back her head, lifting her eyes to the boundary stone, then to the sky at which it pointed. Why the man? Why now, so near her journey’s end?
Neither the stone nor its Maker gave answer. For whatever inscrutable reason, the Great Good God—the Almighty—had placed this man in her path, as He’d removed so many others from it.
It did not seem a fair exchange. But sitting there, wishing it was not so, would change nothing. This she well knew.
Returning to the basket, she found a length of sturdy basswood cord. With the hatchet, she cut cedar saplings to serve for poles and crosspieces, then retrieved the elk hide from her bedding. Through all this and the building of the travois, the dog milled about, whining. She met its fretful gaze but had no promises to make it. She would do what she could. Though she was strong for a woman, and tall, the man’s deadweight proved no easy burden. While she maneuvered him out of the laurels, she expected him to rouse. But not until she knelt to secure him to the travois, sweating from the exertion, did she look up to find his eyes open. He had blue eyes—the drenching blue of trade beads—and they were fixed on her in glittering bewilderment and pain.
Responding to his pain, she touched his face to reassure him. His beard was coming in. The rasp of it against her palm stirred memories. Papa’s face had sometimes rasped with stubble, against the touch of her childish hand. Not black stubble—reddish brown like her own hair. Was it red still, or had the years made it white?
Then she thought she should stop touching the face of this man who was not Papa, whatever memories he stirred, but her fingers stayed pressed to the cold, bristly cheek.
While she hesitated, bewilderment fled the man’s blue-bead eyes, replaced by something like awe, then a look she had not seen in another face since the day she watched the longhouse burn. He was gazing at her with the trust of a child, innocent and complete.
“Oh, aye, that’s all right, then,” he said. The warmth of his breath brushed her face as he exhaled, closing his startling eyes.
The woman who had been Burning Sky sat back on her heels, stabbed beneath her ribs by a blade so sharp she wanted to beat her breasts to drive it out. Never again had she wanted to see that look of trust on the face of the sick, the dying. She’d fled far, thinking she could outdistance that sorrowful pairing. Had she not seen suffering enough to fill a lifetime?
A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench. The words settled in her mind like a hand on the shoulder, large and steadying. She drew a breath through lungs that fought with grief for space inside her, and looked at the man on the travois. A bruised reed. There would be many such scattered over the land, broken and uprooted by the war just past. She was not the only one.
Though she was no longer adept at judging the ages of white men, this one seemed young. Not as young as she, though she doubted he was past thirty winters. No white threaded his hair, and the lines at the corners of his eyes were faintly drawn. The quality of his woolen coat marked him a man of consequence. Not a farmer, she thought.
She could not begin to guess why he was there, fallen on the edge of what the whites called the Great Northern Wilderness, a sea of forest rolling away in mounting crests to Canada, where the redcoat soldiers of the defeated English king had retreated since the war to lick their wounds.
Was he someone Papa knew, here by his leave? If so, Papa would be glad she helped him.
She wanted Papa to be glad when he saw her again. If he saw her again.
Though the long winter had finally ended, the day was chill for the moon of budding leaves. She unrolled her rabbit-skin cloak and spread it over the man. She gathered the few belongings she found scattered around him and secured them on the travois. One of those was a small glass bottle, dark with the liquid it contained. She uncorked the glass, put it to her nose, and grimaced at the bittersweetness of opium dissolved in spirits. Was this the reason he’d fallen, or had he found it afterward and dosed himself to bear his injuries? It explained why he had remained unconscious, save for that brief moment.
Perhaps, even then, he had been in a dream’s grip and had not really seen her. Perhaps that look of trust had been for someone else. She greatly hoped so.
She corked the bottle and dropped it into her carrying basket. The snow thaw had passed on the lower slopes, leaving only the marshy places impassable with mud. There on the ridge, the ground was moist but not saturated. Gripping the travois poles, she hoisted her burden and picked herself a path through the wide-spaced trees, while the dog followed.
Though the going now was even slower, the land beneath her feet grew more familiar with each step. In her mind she rushed ahead, seeing it in memory—its fertile dips and rocky ridges, the broad noisy creek called Black Kettle, the lake with its tiny islet, the broad flats where Papa grew his corn and wheat. The clearing where the barn and cabin stood. So close now. Relief and dread warred in her belly.
She found the little stream where she remembered it to be, and the footpath that followed its winding course south, then east, then south again. She saw no tracks of men, but the deer had kept it clear. Though the travois passed with little hindrance, the man’s weight dragged at her shoulders, causing a burn across the muscles of her back and arms. The basket’s tumpline, tight across her brow, strained the bones of her neck. She turned her mind from the pain, continuing as she had done through each day of her journey. One foot, then the other. A step, and another. As she went, she spoke aloud a name, one she had not heard for many years, and so she said it with care, her enunciation precise.
The collie trotted up beside her, ears perked, already accustomed to her voice. The woman who had been Burning Sky nodded to the dog, whose name she did not know.
“Wilhelmina Obenchain,” she said, more assuredly this time. “But you may call me Willa.”