By Carrie Pagels
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This is one of the early chapters but not the first in this WIP.
The scream swirled and echoed above the tall Southern pines then settled in William’s ears. His horse whinnied softly as he and his father urged their mounts on. He leaned low, ducked several limbs, then spotted the gate to the fort. His father dismounted before him but William was right behind.
Two guards peered down at them. The taller one cupped his hand around his mouth to call, “Colonel Christy!”
Neither hoisted a musket so it was not a siege bringing about the ruckus. A loud crack was followed by a man’s moan, and both men in the watch towers winced. William’s heart hammered in his chest.
“Open those gates!” his father commanded. Smoke wafted up behind the heavy colonnade. Potash stung his eyes while roasted venison beckoned him forward. An odd but not unfamiliar combination and a welcoming one were it not for the distress within.
Hoof beats of other riders announced their arrival. Shad Clark jumped down and took William’s reins. To their right, Private Jones emerged from the shadows of the woods. His face was redder than normal as he panted, “I tried to stop them.”
The massive log gates creaked opened. In the center of the dirt yard, a man was slumped over, stripped to the waist, his hands tied to rings. Another soldier stood several feet behind him, whip in hand. Against the wall of what he presumed to be officer’s quarters, a wooden hut-type building, stood a tall and rotund officer. William recognized something about the man’s florid face and fishy eyes.
“What is the meaning of this, McCready?” Christy demanded. The nerve next to his left eye jumped, a sure sign of a coming explosion. “Untie that man!” he called to the private, who stared at him, his hands trembling.
McCready did not move, surveyed Christy under heavily lidded eyes. “Complete the rest of his punishment soldier,” the portly officer called out, each word distinct. In the distance, sounds of thunder rippled over the forest.
“Did you not hear me?” Christy raised a hand to the private who was staring at McCready.
“He has disobeyed my orders.” McCready pointed at the man who had been whipped. McCready’s arrogance was clear even to William. Did he mean to beat the man to death?
“I resume command of this fort and order you to stand down!” With his father’s words, William’s right hand closed on the warm wood and cool metal of his hatchet as his left slipped down toward his knife.
McCready stepped forward, “Not for long…”
William’s weapon hit its mark with a thump, clearing the officer’s shoulder by several inches, and lodged in the wall behind McCready. William knew his hand was empty, regretted that he did not recall throwing it, and then sighed in gratitude for its accuracy.
“William!” his father turned to him, his face ashen.
“Arrest that half-breed,” McCready pointed a beefy paw at William, as he rubbed his shoulder and flexed his jaw.
William raised the knife as Private Jones stepped between him and one of the other soldiers who was eying both Colonel Christy and McCready. A woman, her thin dress wet, stood behind the whipped man, incongruously stirring a large kettle of what William presumed to be laundry. She smiled at him, winked, and then continued to wash the uniforms.
Christy recovered, straightened and raised himself up to his full height, which was none too tall, though he did look dignified, despite his buckskins. “This fort is under my command and I will speak with Lieutenant McCready in my quarters. And release that man and treat him. Good heavens is it Private Davis?”
His father strode across the packed dirt yard, pulled a hunting knife up out of his belt and cut his favorite soldier down in two quick thrusts. William stared at McCready, beads of perspiration popping up on his broad lined forehead. Davis was the one boy his father had planned to have sent back to his parents because he had been so ill throughout the winter. Father told him that the young man was not cut out for military duty. “Indeed,” he had said, “under the conditions I see at present, not many of us are prepared for this type of fighting which is one reason I wished for you to be beside me.”
With his father’s back turned, William was upon McCready before the beast could blink. William’s moccasin covered feet were swift and deadly quiet. He stared into the man’s pale watery eyes, then cursed him first in the Cherokee dialect and then in French, and retrieved his hatchet. The incompetent had not bothered to learn either language. William sniffed at the man’s cologne – vile, like rotted dandelions. He jerked his head back, and adding another epithet, this one in Shawnee, just for good measure, then spat on the ground at McCready’s feet.
“You’ll be sorry,” he heard the man say, but he wasn’t sure who the comment was meant for. He turned and faced the officer as he had been taught. Never show fear. To fear is to be weak. To be weak is to die.
McCready’s face registered both outrage and disbelief.
“Now? Ici – here?” William waited. McCready’s wide eyes were examining his face, his mouth gaped open yet he gave no reply. “Do you challenge me?” Energy coursed through his arms and his hands flexed toward his weapons. Rain began in thick drops.
McCready’s brow furrowed further, almost as though he recognized something in William that gave him pause and weakened his defenses. William’s own grip slackened as he tried to read the man’s intentions.
The steel trap of his father’s hand closed around his own and prevented him from unsheathing his knife. His father shook his head, his silver eyes glinting at him then turned to the soldiers. “Clean Davis up in the infirmary,” he called to the two privates who carried the young man between them.
“McCready, I’ll talk with you now. Bring us some water, Jones. William, go wash up. We’ll eat as soon as I’m done.”
Many eyes followed William as he sought out the well.
“Hope yer old man orders the lieutenant whipped,” a dark haired sargeant whispered as he pulled up the bucket for William. Frank admiration and a little fear shone in the soldier’s eyes, not a bad mixture in environs such as this. William would use it to his advantage.
“You have mail, Colonel Christy,” the quarter master called out and his father gestured for William to go get it from the tall man, whose hard eyes challenged the younger man. William’s arm muscles twitched as he ran toward the soldier with all the speed he could muster, practically charged at him. Yes, he was satisfied that the man’s white hand trembled as his own brown one closed over the packets.
“Thank you,” William used the same clipped aristocratic tones that McCready had used, though his had a Philadelphia accent dampening them. He bowed slightly to the man, whose mouth hung open. “My father will be most grateful for these missives, I am quite sure.”
Across the yard, his father motioned for him to return. As William strolled back, he spotted a letter in the bunch that was from Suzanne and Johan. He paused and opened it in the middle of the yard. They were leaving. All of them. Gone soon. Had purchased land along a river in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. William’s chest squeezed tight. A hand slapped William’s back and he expelled all the breath he had been holding. There would be no one home when they returned. Suzanne and Johan’s newest baby was now one - another boy. He smiled at the little drawing Sarah had done for him – a large heart, a sun, small trees, and a stick figure girl holding a boy’s hand. He laughed at what must have been her idea of a house. It looked like a lopsided square with a triangular chimney and a crooked front door. “I luv ew Wilyam,” she had scrawled on the paper. Suzanne, in her perfect hand, had added, “We hope to see you before we leave.”
William rifled through the remainder of the post. Nothing, no word from his mother, not that she had ever written to them before, but she did have ways of getting word to them should she wish to do so. But she hadn’t, not in years. One day he would stop watching, stop waiting, and release her from his memory.
They had finished their evening office and returned the Book of Common Prayer to the desk. A clean cot was placed next to his father’s bed. Tonight he would not sleep on the moist earth but with a soft woolen blanket atop his skin. Not quite as sumptuous as his room in Philadelphia, but a comfort nonetheless. He had removed his buckskins, to air out, and even bathed with some hot water and soft soap. Because Father was an officer, this wooden structure was somewhat larger than some of the other dwellings within the compound. The quiet lulled him to sleep.
As he closed his eyes, his mother’s beautiful metis face appeared. Her lips were moving, her eyes flashed, and her nose flared.
“We have to leave this place,” his mother insisted. In his fitful sleep, William heard her call to him. “That man, that soldier, he is a danger to us, to everything. We must go.”
He was six, could barely see over the table, covered with silver trays. The auburn haired officer seemed very serious about something, wanted to talk to his mother. William ducked under the table, watched as the man’s feet, black booted, came closer, his dark pant legs close to his mother.
“Don’t!” she had said. “Don’t touch me.”
“I am looking,” the man’s voice quavered. He wanted something very much, this William knew, for it sounded like his own plea for pudding for dinner.
They had left Philadelphia the next day, without his father. The man and their leaving and his two years in captivity were intertwined. It had something to do with this man, this McCready and he must find out why.
William shook himself awake. His father’s cot was empty. Low voices murmured in the adjacent room.
“This can’t be correct,” his father’s voice was urgent. “They gave him the promotion and the general sent these orders for my return?”
“Tis true,” the sergeant replied.
“Tomorrow, perhaps the next day.”
“Myself, you, Davis, and these men.” William heard what sounded like parchment being slid across the wood table.
He did not hear the reply.
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