Kentucke, Indian Territory, 1777
In the fading lavender twilight, at the edge of a clearing, stood half a dozen Shawnee warriors. They looked to the small log cabin nestled in the bosom of the greening ridge, as earthy and unassuming as the ground it sat upon. If not for the cabin’s breathtaking view of the river and rolling hills, arguably the finest in the territory, most passersby would easily dismiss such a place, provided they found it at all. The Indians regarded it with studied intent, taking in the sagging front porch, the willow baskets and butter churn to one side, and the vacant rocking chair still astir from the hurry of a moment before. Six brown bodies gleamed with bear grease, each perfectly still, their only movement that of sharp, dark eyes.
Inside the cabin, Ezekial Click handed a rifle to his son, Ransom, before opening the door and stepping onto the porch. His wife, Sara, took up a second gun just inside. A sudden breath of wind sent the spent blossoms of a lone dogwood tree scurrying across the clearing. From the porch, Click began speaking in the Shawnee tongue. Slowly. Respectfully. A smattering of Shawnee followed—forceful yet oddly, even hauntingly, melodic.
Sara and Ransom darted a glance out the door, troubled by every word, yet the unintelligible banter continued. At last, silence came. And then, in plain English, one brave shouted, “Click, show us your pretty daughter!”
Within the cabin, all eyes fastened on the girl hovering on the loft steps. At thirteen, Lael Click was just a slip of a thing, but her oval face showed a woman’s composure. Her pale green eyes fastened on her father’s back just beyond the yawning door frame.
She put one cautious foot to the floor, then tread the worn pine boards until she stood in her father’s shadow. She dared not look at her mother. Without further prompting she stepped forward into a dying shaft of sunlight. A sudden breeze caught the hem of her thin indigo shift and it ballooned, exposing two bare brown feet.
The same brave shouted, “Let down your hair!” She hesitated, hearing her mother’s sharp intake of breath. With trembling hands she reached for the horn combs that held back the weight of fair hair. Her mane tumbled nearly to her feet, as tangled and luxuriant as wild honeysuckle vine.
Woven in with the evening shadows was a chorus of tree frogs and katydids and the scent of soil and spring, but Lael noticed none of these things. Beside her, her father stood stoically and she fought to do the same, remembering his oft-repeated words of warning: Never give way to fear in an Indian’s sight.
Softly she expelled a ragged breath, watching as each warrior turned away. Only the tallest tarried, his eyes lingering on her as she swept up her hair with unsteady hands and subdued it with the combs.
At last they were gone, slipping away into the wall of woods. Invisible but ever present. Silent. Perhaps deadly.
Evening was a somber affair, as if the Shawnee themselves had stayed for supper. To Lael, the cold cornbread and buttermilk that filled their wooden bowls seemed as tasteless as the cabin’s chinking. Somehow she managed a sip of cider and a half-hearted bite now and then. Across from her, her mother managed neither. Only her younger brother Ransom ate, taking his portion and her own, as if oblivious to all the trouble.
Looking up, she saw a hint of a smile on her father’s face. Was he trying to put her at ease? Not possible. He sat facing the cabin door, his loaded rifle lounging against the table like an uninvited guest. Despite his defensive stance, he seemed not at all anxious like her ma but so calm she could almost believe the Indians had simply paid them a social call and they could go on about their business as if nothing had happened.
He took out his hunting knife, sliced a second sliver of cornbread, then stood. Lael watched his long shadow fall across the table and caught his quick wink as he turned away. Swallowing a smile, she concentrated on the cabin’s rafters and the ropes strung like spider webs above their heads. The sight of her favorite coverlet brought some comfort, its pattern made bright with dogwood blossoms and running vines. Here and there hung linsey dresses, a pair of winter boots, some woolen leggins, strings of dried apples and leather-britches beans, bunches of tobacco, and other sundry articles. Opposite was the loft where she and Ransom slept.
The cabin door creaked then closed as Pa disappeared onto the porch, leaving her to gather up the dirty dishes while her mother made mountain tea. Lael watched her add sassafras roots to the kettle, her bony hands shaking.
“Ma, I don’t care for any tea tonight,” she said.
“Very well. Cover the coals, then.”
Lael took a small shovel and buried the red embers with a small mountain of ash to better start a fire come morning. When she turned around, her ma had disappeared behind the tattered quilt that divided the main cabin from their corner bedroom. Ransom soon followed suit, climbing the loft ladder to play quietly with a small army of wooden soldiers garrisoned under the trundle bed.
Left alone, she couldn’t stay still, so taut in mind and body she felt she might snap. Soon every last dish and remaining crumb were cleaned up and put away. With Ma looking as though she might fall to pieces, Lael’s resolve to stay grounded only strengthened. Yet she found herself doing foolish things like snuffing out the candles before their time and pouring the dirty dishwater through a crack in the floor rather than risk setting foot outside.
The clock on the mantle sounded overloud in the strained silence, reminding her the day was done. Soon she’d have to settle in for the night. But where was Pa? She took in the open door, dangerously ajar, and the fireflies dancing in the mounting gloom. She sighed, pushed back a wisp of hair, and took a timid step toward the porch.
How far could an Indian arrow fly?
Peering around the door frame she found Pa sitting in the same place she’d found him years ago that raw November morning after his escape from the Shawnee. They had long thought him dead, and indeed all remnants of his life as a white man seemed to have been stamped out of him. His caped hunting shirt was smeared with bear grease, his deerskin leggins soiled beyond redemption. Except for an eagle-feathered scalp lock, his head was plucked completely clean of the hair that had been as fair as her own. Savage as he was, she’d hardly recognized him. Only his eyes reminded her of the man she once knew, their depths a wild, unsurrendered blue.
Tonight he was watching the woods, his gun across his knees, and his demeanor told her he shouldn’t be disturbed. Without a word she turned and climbed to the loft where she found Ransom asleep. There, in the lonesome light of a tallow candle, she shook her hair free of the horn combs a second time.
The shears she’d kept hidden since the Shawnee departed seemed cold and heavy in her hand, but her unbound hair was warm and soft as melted butter. She brought the two together, then hesitated. Looking down, she imagined the strands lying like discarded ribbon at her feet.
A sudden noise below made her jerk the scissors out of sight. Pa had come in to collect his pipe. Her sudden movement seemed to catch his eye.
“You’d best be abed, Daughter,” he called over his shoulder, his tone a trifle scolding.
She sank down on the corn-husk tick, losing the last of her resolve, and tucked the scissors away. If she changed her mind come morning, they’d be near. Catlike, she climbed over the slumbering body in the trundle bed beneath her, surprised that a seven-year-old boy could snore so loud.
The night was black as the inside of an iron skillet and nearly as hot. She lay atop the rustling tick, eyes open, craving sleep. The night sounds outside the loft window were reassuringly familiar, as was her brother’s rhythmic breathing. All was the same as it had ever been but different. The coming of the Indians had changed everything.
In just a few moments’ time the Shawnee had thrown open the door to Pa’s past, and now there would be no shutting it. She, for one, didn’t like looking back.