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Burning Sky from Lori Benton

Lori Benton

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.

“Wil-helm-ina O-ben-chain.”

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.”


Excerpted from Burning Sky by Lori Benton Copyright © 2013 by Lori Benton. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn from Lori Benton

Lori Benton

Western North Carolina
September 1787

To Jesse Bird’s reckoning, any man charged with driving forty head of Overmountain cattle to market best have three things in his possession—a primed rifle, a steady horse, and a heap of staying power. Jesse had the first two, one balanced across his thighs; the other tired, fly bitten, and dusty between them. As for staying power…with miles to go before he’d be shed of those forty beeves, he was making a studied effort
to let patience have its perfect work in him.

Looking back across their brown and brindled ranks, he spotted Cade and the packhorses rounding a bend in the river trace, where sunlight still speared the hazy air in moted streaks of gold. Riding behind the drove at the mercy of its dust, Cade had a kerchief tied across his mouth and nose, hat pulled low to shield his eyes. Though Jesse hadn’t ridden rear guard since midday, the choke of that same dust gritted his throat. Grime coated the foot drovers too, spread out through the summerfattened herd, armed with rifles and staves, eyes darting glances at the crowding wooded slopes.

Grasshoppers whirred beside the trace, leaping clear of trampling hooves that crackled the weeds. The sun hung to westward, its warmth fading, leaving rivulets of sweat drying on Jesse’s neck, sticking his shirt where the straps of bullet-bag and knapsack crossed. He was thinking they’d reach their next camp a nip ahead of dark, with time to pen the cattle before swimming the dust off his hide, when something with the force of a slung stone clipped his hat brim. Thinking a deer fly had marked him for a meal, he reached for the hat, meaning to swat the pest. The hat was gone clean off his head. It dangled from a nearby tulip poplar, pinned by a feathered arrow.

Jesse gave a whoop, then was out of the saddle and ducking behind a clump of rhododendron, putting his horse crosswise between himself and the beeves. From across the river came a spotty rain of arrows, pinging off rocks, thunking into trees along the bank. The drovers ducked behind the cattle on the hill-slope side of the trace, rifles shouldered.

Jesse’s mind raced. Was it Creeks or Chickamaugas? Either held an everlasting grudge against the Overmountain settlers. Hang it all, it could be Shawnees. With a wordless prayer that it wasn’t, Jesse aimed his rifle at a tawny flash across the river and fired. Powder smoke plumed out white from the barrel. On the tail edge of the report, he heard Cade’s war whoop. An answering ululation came shrill and defiant from across the water, raising the hairs on Jesse’s arms.

The cattle milled and bunched, kicking up a dust blind. One took an arrow in the flank and went down in the middle of the trace, bawling in pain but thwarting the bulk of the herd’s bolting.

Rifle shot cracked. Powder smoke hung on both sides of the river now, sharp and sulfurous. For the moment they had the water for a buffer. The attacking warriors wouldn’t risk exposing themselves to cross unless sure of taking them down. Surprise was a weapon spent.

A brindled cow broke from the jostling herd. It plunged down the riverbank and crumpled in the shallows, shot through the neck. The front of the herd not blocked by the downed cow pressed up against the hillside and then shifted in Jesse’s direction, threatening to stampede off down the trace. More broke for the river. Busy reloading, Jesse could do little but pray his horse stood its ground.

A musket ball ripped through rhody leaves near his head. Back down the trace Cade’s rifle fired. A warrior across the river fell through brush, lay thrashing, and was dragged back into cover. Another such loss and the warriors would likely break and run. If they could hold them off a few more seconds…

New voices shattered a lull in the firing. Tremolo cries like the warble of crazed turkey cocks sounded up the slope behind them.

Fear jarred through Jesse. Faster than thought, he yanked free his belt ax and whirled to throw it—and almost too late recognized the two Cherokee warriors. He shouted to the drovers to stop them firing on the blueshirted figures leaping down the rocky slope, dodging frightened cattle.

The Cherokees took cover on the bank, both with rifles, and commenced to putting them to use.

Jesse blazed a grin of welcome at the younger of the two now at his side, rammed patch and ball to powder, and fired across the river. A final arrow sailed over the cattle’s backs. Then stillness fell, with smoke and dust drifting high on the river breeze.

The drovers moved among the beeves, soothing them with staves and words, settling their own nerves with rapid glances toward the river. The warriors had melted back into the forest, taking their wounded with them. It had been a hunting party, taking their chances on an unplanned raid. If it had been a tracking party out for scalps, there were far better spots to stage an ambush along their steep and winding route from  Sycamore Shoals. A second attempt was unlikely. Jesse knew the thinking of such men as well as he did his own.

After sliding his rifle into its saddle sling, he mounted and wheeled his horse after the few cows that had bolted up the trace. By the time Jesse had them headed back, Cade had sorted the herd and ridden up through their ranks, leading the packhorses. His gaze raked Jesse head to heel, relief deepening the creases beside his eyes. He took in the cow with the arrow in its flank, then the dead one reddening the river shallows, and yanked down his kerchief to show a mouth narrowed in regret. “That dead one looks like Tate’s.”

“’Fraid so,” Jesse said. It was always a risk, pushing beeves down the mountains under the noses of Chickamauga warriors eager to cripple the Watauga settlers who depended on the sale of their stock. Jesse and Cade had hired on for this drove each September since the war with the British ended, tracing the Watauga River east to its mountain headwaters, then down to the Catawba River and the Carolina piedmont. The beeves were bound for the market cow pens, Jesse and Cade for Morganton to barter furs and hides for supplies and then hire on as guides for any settlers heading back Overmountain before snow fell.

“We’d have lost more’n cows had these wild turkeys not flushed from hiding.” Jesse nodded at the late arrivals to the fray, both Overhill Cherokees. While the drovers cast half-wary looks at the two, Cade and Jesse slid off their horses to greet them.

“Friends of yours, Cade?” asked the white drover, owner of ten head of cattle and the two slaves helping drive them.

“Yours too, I’d say.” Cade looped his mare’s reins around a sapling and grasped the arm of the elder Indian, a stocky man with gray threading the hair flowing from under his turban. “Whatever brings you across our path, brothers, you’ve our thanks.”

Despite Cade’s half-breed Delaware blood, little distinguished his looks from the men he greeted, save that his black hair was tailed back, not plucked to a scalp-lock, as was the younger Cherokee’s. Cade’s hat brim, pinned with a hawk’s feather, shaded eyes one expected to be as dark as the battered felt but were instead as golden brown as Jesse’s—nothing to remark upon for a man of Jesse’s coloring. In Cade’s tawny face, they often drew a second look.

“Thunder-Going-Away,” Cade said, naming the elder Cherokee first, by way of introduction. “And Catches Bears, his son.”

The drover gave a wary nod. “Elijah Rhodes.”

“Jabez and Billy,” Jesse added, with a nod at Rhodes’s slaves. Billy, fourteen and on his first drive, was shaking in the wake of the attack—with excitement as much from shock, Jesse thought. “Think one them Injuns was Dragging Canoe? Them bad Injuns, I mean,” Billy added with a sidelong look at the Cherokees.

“Doubt it.” Jesse grinned at the boy, who’d prattled on about the infamous Chickamauga war chief since starting from Sycamore Shoals.

“Dragging Canoe would’ve crossed right over that river and lifted our scalps. Ain’t you heard? He can swim like a fish and fly like a raven.” The boy’s eyes whitened around the rims.

Jabez, an old hand at droving, slapped Billy’s back, raising dust. “He pulling yo’ leg, boy. Canoe ain’t no demon-bird. Just a man like me and you.”

“Huh,” Billy said, looking unconvinced.

Cade was eying Thunder-Going, a question in his eyes. “You’re a long way from Chota.”

Thunder-Going raised his chin, nodding back toward the northwest. “Tate Allard said we missed you by three sleeps. We trailed you.”

“Not hard to do,” Bears said, nostrils flaring wide, “with the stink these cows leave.”

Thunder-Going hid a smile in the lines carved beside his mouth. “We meant to catch you coming back from Morganton, to invite you to a feast. My daughter is to join blankets with a husband.”

“White Shell? ’Bout time.” Three pairs of eyes turned to Jesse when he spoke. The Cherokees and even Cade were looking at him as if he ought to say more on the matter. “What?”

Bears snorted. “You see? He does not know.”

Jesse frowned. “What don’t I know?”

“My sister wanted you,” Bears said. “But you had no eyes to see her, so she chose one who does.”

“My daughter was not the one for you,” Thunder-Going said and shrugged away what looked to Jesse like mild disappointment. Then the Cherokee inquired of Cade, though he still eyed Jesse, “Is it to be Allard’s girl, who follows this one like a puppy?”

Jesse cut in before Cade could answer that. “I have not found the one. I will know when I have, and maybe then I will tell you about it.” They’d fallen into Tsalagi, the Cherokee tongue. Switching to English, he said, “Oughtn’t we to be pushing on?”

Rhodes was in agreement. “How far to the next camp?”

“Mile or two,” Cade said. “Have to tend the downed cows first.”

Bears and his father exchanged a look. Thunder-Going said, “You go on with the herd. We will skin out the dead one. Better the hide than nothing, eh? For a share of the meat, we will bring that along as well. As much as we can carry.”

The plan agreed to, Jesse mounted up. Behind him Cade said, “Where’s your hat got to, Jesse?”

It still hung from the poplar, neat as on a cabin wall. Cade reached it first. He wrenched out the arrow, his face gone a shade like greened copper. In his eyes a heap of words clamored to be said, but he handed Jesse the hat and went to deal with the wounded cow on the trace. Fingering the hole in the hat’s brim, Jesse watched Cade snap the arrow nearer the wound, leaving enough to grasp. Cade urged the cow to its feet. If the cow made camp, he would take the arrow out there.

Thunder-Going descended the bank toward the cow lying dead at the river’s edge. With a wolfish grin, Bears drew the hunting knife from his belt. “If the other cow does not make it, leave it lying. We will see to it as well. Then you can tell Allard and the rest you got every one of their stinking cowhides to market.”


Excerpted from The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn by Lori Benton Copyright © 2014 by Lori Benton. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.