A Valley Too Far
Catrina Davis held her breath and ran her hand along the mare’s underbelly, blazing a trail of worry through sweat. When a tiny hoof finally knocked against her palm, she closed her eyes and exhaled, straightening her back and uttering thanks to God in German, the language of her youth. She wiped her hands on her skirts, then patted the mare’s neck, thick with muscle. “Good girl, Willow. Good girl.”
Trees made absurd names for horses, but no one could tell Jacob that. No, her son-in-law knew everything about their fine plow horses, including when to breed them.
Willow was far too young.
“Jacob should name your baby something more fitting, like Mercury or Hercules, ja?”
It was a silly wish, of course. If Willow carried the foal to term, and if the foal survived, Jacob would call it Ash, Poplar, Elm, or some other ridiculous name, leaving Catrina to bite her tongue. Again.
Ah, well, silence seemed a reasonable price for keeping a roof over her head. She owed Jacob amenability at the very least. He could have taken Marie and little Hans to the frontier without her. He hadn’t. For that kindness, she would mutely tolerate many wrongs, including the nonsensical naming of superior horses.
Willow whinnied through the open stall window.
Heinrich, a stallion named long before Jacob’s arrival, answered from the pasture.
Willow danced in place, raising the acrid scent of urine and obliging Catrina to dodge trencher-sized hooves.
“I know, girl, I know.” She longed to turn Willow out of the humid stall and even suggested it at the morning meal, but Jacob—using the vast wisdom gained in his six and twenty years—refused to relent. The pregnant mare must be confined until she foaled.
Catrina pushed Willow to the back of the stall, then seized the manure fork, its handle smooth from heavy use. It’s the Sabbath, she thought as she flipped manure and soaked straw into a barrow. I should be in church.
She would be, her brown hair smooth and smelling of rosewater, if Jacob hadn’t uprooted them to follow Sam Bigham into the infinite forest, where God existed, but churches did not. Piety and respite had not followed them across the mountains. Here, in the godless wilderness of the Tuscarora valley, they toiled all day, every day, even on the seventh.
She slipped out of the stall, latched the door, then gathered up her skirts and pushed the full barrow toward a dung heap steaming in the morning chill. How many women her age were spending today—the Sabbath, Gott forgive her—mucking out stalls? Not many, she reckoned. Ah, well. Keeps me young. Besides, Marie was at the dough board. Nothing made chores less wearisome than knowing warm bread awaited at the end of them.
Inside a split rail fence, the heavy stallion showed off by thundering in a wide circle with its meaty neck arched and tail held aloft.
“Ja, Heinrich, wir sehen dich. The mares are captivated. The birds are captivated. We are all captivated.”
Heinrich bucked, expelling a blast of wind.
She laughed. “You are as suited to grace as I am to marriage.”
The unembarrassed horse tossed its tow-colored mane and galloped away to join the six mares grazing unseen in the stubborn fog.
The mist cloaking the valley banished Catrina’s good cheer. She despised murky mornings and moonless nights. Death prowled in both. Not a peaceful death surrounded by loved ones, but a measured execution carried out by barbarians.
She shuddered, remembering the shock of last October, when the devils shot the horse out from under Jenny McClain as she fled toward Patterson’s fort, just fourteen miles away. No one saw Jenny since, nor did they find the women and children abducted from the Penn’s Creek settlement the same month.
She tipped the barrow, determined to think no more on their perilous situation. What was the point? She lost the argument against returning to Chester County months ago. A woman’s opinion held little value. A widow’s held none.
Staccato hoof beats carried all seven horses out of the fog, their ears pricked and nostrils flared. They fanned out with military precision to inspect the valley below, where the Tuscarora path stretched unseen across the backcountry. Once a narrow track, the path broadened three years ago as land-hungry settlers migrated west. It grew wider still last autumn, when Indian raids sent those same men racing off the frontier carrying what little they could.
Only the desperate or foolish remained in the valleys west of Tuscarora Mountain now. Jacob fell among the latter, believing God would reward him for persevering. The women under his roof wept bitterly while rational men bolted off the frontier. They cried again when the stream of deserters evaporated. They were abandoned, left in the care of a reckless man blind to the blood-tinged blades slicing ever closer to their throats. As summer’s weeds choked the path, erasing their lifeline to civilization and safety, Jacob’s obstinacy strangled their hope. In time, both disappeared, leaving them with nothing but rancorous acceptance.
Catrina strained her eyes to determine who or what used the abandoned path now. She felt a presence as surely as the nervous horses smelled it. It could be a traveling preacher, or maybe a trader, though those were few and far between now that the governor banned trade with Europe.
Heinrich snorted and stamped a feathered hoof.
Her father’s advice, given long ago, returned to her. Watch the horses, Cat. The horses always know.
“Jacob!” She balled up her skirts and ran for the open door of their log cabin, nearly stumbling over an exposed tree root.
Jacob’s face appeared over a musket aimed from the doorframe. “What is it?”
She raced past him to pluck a second firearm from the wall above the hearth.
“What is it, Mama?” Marie stood behind a mound of half-worked dough on the board, strands of her golden hair escaping her linen cap in ringlets. She pressed Hans’s cheek to her hip, leaving streaks of flour on his skin.
“I know not.” Panting, Catrina crept behind Jacob, who still aimed the long barrel through the doorway. “The horses—”
“They’re nervous.” Jacob pulled the hammer of his musket to half cock.
Catrina did the same with hers. She would hand the heavy gun to Jacob the moment he fired the one he held. If he fell first, she would defend the cabin to her last breath. God’s grace, she would not outlive her child.
Jacob squinted. “It could be a bear.”
“Or deer.” Marie traded fear for excitement. “Or the pigs!”
Many fleeing settlers had been unable to take their livestock with them. One feral pig already hung in Jacob’s smokehouse. He’d been trying for weeks to shoot another.
“Ja,” Catrina muttered, furious at their predicament. “It could be a bear or a deer, or it could be that thing that no one wants to mention; the thing that cleaves skulls and takes scalps. It could be that thing.”
Marie’s blue eyes widened. She covered Hans’s ear with her hand. “Mama, please . . .”
“Both of you, shush,” Jacob said, his angular cheek still resting against his gunstock.
A whinny floated up from the valley and sent Heinrich into a rampage.
Catrina’s heart banged in her chest. A horse meant a man. She tightened her grip on her weapon.
Jacob pulled his musket’s hammer to full cock, steadied his aim, and waited for the mist to present him with a target.
Chattering teeth exposed Marie’s terror. “God-d, help-p us.”
Catrina turned to reassure her daughter, but Marie wilted to her knees to embrace five-year-old Hans, whose suppressed sobs racked his slight frame.
Heinrich’s ropey haunches bulged as he hammered the ground along the fence. He stamped, neighed, and tossed his mane.
The incoming horse answered him, much closer now.
Blood roared through Catrina’s ears. Her knees turned to soup. She trembled and stared at the fog until dryness forced her to blink.
Behind her, Marie lost the fight to keep Hans silent.
He wailed into her bosom.
“Quiet, Hans,” Jacob hissed.
Marie tried her best to calm their son. “H-Hush-a-b-bye, H-Hans.”
Pins and needles pricked Catrina’s arms. The hair stood up on the back of her neck. She blew out a breath, hoping to conquer her escalating fright, then sank to one knee to avoid the flash that would come when Jacob fired his musket.
Outside, a shadow in the fog deepened and took the shape of a man on horseback.
“Meyer, ye up?”
Jacob lowered his musket. “Praise God.”
“Meyer,” the voice called again.
Catrina rose to her feet, her fear giving way to relief, then annoyance as she recognized their visitor’s voice. She glared at Marie. “It’s Stewart Buchanan, that no-good Indian peddler.”
Marie knelt under the oak tree, a scowl carving lines above the bridge of her nose. She wrapped a cabbage leaf around a dough ball, then nestled it among the other loaves baking on the coals of a dying fire. “Mama, I beg you, do not call him an Indian peddler again.”
Catrina stirred a pot of broth hanging from a tripod. “Pray, why not? Is that not what he is? He probably supplied them with the very guns they use against us, you know.”
“You have no way of knowing that. Regardless, it is not a nice thing to call him.” Marie looked over her shoulder toward the cabin door, left open so the men inside could take advantage of the daylight. She lowered her voice. “I fear you will offend him.”
“You need not worry that he’ll hear us, Marie, what with Jacob’s mouth running like a swollen river. Besides, men do not care what women talk about. They think us altogether incapable of meaningful conversation.”
Her work finished, Marie sat back on her heels, her scowl giving way to a wry smile. “I think him handsome.”
“Have you lost your wits?”
“He looks . . . distinguished somehow. It is perhaps the gray at his temples.”
Catrina guffawed. “A distinguished Irishman. Indeed, I pray you jest, daughter.”
“Surely, you must admit he’s robust for a man of his years.”
She would admit nothing of the sort.
“His eyes twinkle when he smiles. Have you ever seen eyes so blue?”
Catrina stirred her broth, though it was no longer necessary over the low heat. “You have blue eyes. So did your grandsire.” Sorrow provoked the bear hibernating in her chest. “Need I remind you it was an Irishman who took him from me?”
“Surely, even you would not blame an entire race for Grandpapa’s death. The neighbors left to us in this valley are nearly all Irish, and I find them altogether decent.”
Catrina pointed the dripping spoon at her. “Mark me, they have passions like powder kegs. They are easily riled and not far removed from wild beasts. Hannah Dieffenbacher once suggested I marry that awful James McHenry, remember? That ghastly man who bought your father’s coopering tools?”
“He seemed nice.”
“Nice, indeed! He was a no-good scoundrel, which is exactly what I told Hannah Dieffenbacher at the time. I maintain, Marie, any deutsche Frau who falls for the wicked charms of an Irishman—”
“Walks a valley too far.” Marie rolled her eyes. “So you have said. Many times.”
“It is true. We are better off among our own kind.”
Marie cocked a brow only slightly darker than her golden hair. “Were you better off among your own kind?”
“I do not know what you mean.”
“I think you do. You blamed the bruises on the horses, but everyone knew better. I certainly did.”
Catrina’s voice abandoned her.
Marie suffered no similar want of words. “I hated Father for what he did to you.” She stabbed a wooden wedge under a loaf of bread to lift it for inspection, sending up a deliciously fragrant puff of steam. “I still hate him for it.”
In a bizarre contradiction, the men inside the cabin laughed.
It was Catrina’s turn to lower her voice. “This is no way to talk about your father, Gott rest him.”
“Why should God give him rest? Did Papa allow you any rest during your twelve years of marriage?”
“He was good to you, Marie.”
“He was not bad to me. There is a great difference.”
Catrina laid the spoon across the top of the pot and looked toward the cabin. She whispered, “Now is not the time to—”
“Like you said, they cannot hear us. Mama, do you know what I did the day Zeus kicked Papa? I thanked God. I thanked Him for saving you when I could not. Whilst everyone cried and whispered prayers in the drawing room with Reverend Klossner, I skipped to the barn and fed Zeus an apple.”
Catrina pressed a hand to her belly, thankful for the stiffness of her stays. “Let us turn our conversation away from unsavory matters. We are not to speak ill of the dead.”
“Why?” Marie scoffed. “Does being dead make them better?” She flinched at an exploding spark. “I thought we might die today. It bothered me that I might never talk to you about this. I was just a little girl when Father treated you so poorly. I wanted to save you, but I did not know how. Zeus did. It is like you say, the horses always know.”
Catrina obeyed her weak legs and knelt beside her daughter. “Had I known you bore witness to . . . I would have . . .” What? Run away? To where?
She took Marie’s hands in hers. They were hot from the fire. “Women have so few choices. What about you, Marie? Pray, be truthful. Does Jacob . . . that is to say, is he . . . is he at all . . . like your father?”
Marie jerked her hands away to stifle a giggle. “Mercy, no.”
“Praise Gott. If a man ever laid a heavy hand on you, I would cut off his slaw bag and serve it to him between two johnnycakes.”
They giggled behind their hands.
“I believed Jacob kind, but one cannot know what really goes on behind closed doors. Even the best marriage can be rather”—she searched Marie’s face for comprehension—“relentless.”
Marie screwed up her face. “Indeed. I submit as I must. Hans is my reward.” She cast another glance toward the cabin, then leaned in to whisper, “Rebekah Todd once told me that some wives find their duty tolerable. Pleasurable, even. Can you imagine, Mama?”
“Elizabeth Todd would die of shame if she knew Rebekah discussed such matters.”
“It does make you wonder though. Mayhap, some men know how to make it less . . . troublesome.”
There was definitely a trick to it, Catrina believed, although she’d never say so aloud. A skilled eavesdropper could sometimes pick up fragments of bawdy conversation during social events, when matrons chattered in secretive corners. At weddings, they often frightened young brides with unsolicited insights. “You’re about to find out something you never knew!”
How right they were. Catrina would never forget Matthew’s crushing weight as he grunted on top of her, or the rasping of her unaroused sex, or his fury when she bore Marie two miscarriages later.
I need a son, not a worthless girl!
She wondered whom she would have married, had the choice been hers. Maybe Yellow Bear, the Conestoga boy she played with in her youth, if he’d survived the pox.
The silence stretched until Marie broke it with a new subject. “I love to hear him talk.”
“No, silly. Buchanan.”
Though men like Buchanan considered themselves Irish, thanks to a few generations in Ulster, their burr-festooned speech and confident swaggers marked them for what they were: stiff-necked Lowland Scots barely out of the heather and whin.
“He wears a fine coat for a ruined man,” Marie said.
That was a rumor delivered by Thomas Martin, the last trader to pass through the valley. Nearly every one of them lost at least one warehouse after Braddock’s defeat at the Monongahela last year. Many were now bankrupt. If Buchanan wasn’t already insolvent, he was perilously close.
Catrina could not forget the look on Martin’s face as he stood next to his string of empty packhorses.
“I’m ruined, thanks to the governor’s embargo,” he’d said to Jacob. “It’s back to Philadelphia for me, and from there, who knows?”
By banning European trade, the governor meant to stop unscrupulous men from supplying the Indians with rum and weapons, but the embargo did not discriminate. Honest traders spiraled toward insolvency along with the rest.
“I would wager Buchanan’s better off than folk think,” Marie said.
The lean horses tied to the back of the chicken coop suggested otherwise. Catrina would waste no sympathy on Stewart Buchanan, but it was a shame for his horses, which looked underfed and hard used.
“He would not leave the safety of Carlisle unless he had to,” she said. “Only desperate men cross the mountains nowadays.”
Marie touched a finger to one of the loaves. “We shall soon find out. The bread is done. Bring the broth.” Halfway to the cabin, she turned, looking apprehensive. “Try to be polite, I beg you.”
Catrina rolled her eyes and carried the pot into the cabin.
Marie set her loaves on the table, where Buchanan sat chatting with Jacob. “Will you stay the night?” she asked the trader.
Dear Gott, say nein.
“My thanks, Mistress Meyer, but I must press on.” He doffed his hat, revealing the gray streaks that Marie found appealing. Stubble on his face painted shadows of a mustache and beard.
Catrina set the pot on the table and unintentionally met his gaze.
A slight grin lifted the corners of his mouth, deepening his crows’ feet and igniting an impish flicker in his uncommonly blue eyes. There it was, the Irish charm.
She pressed a hand to her stays and whirled away, mouth agape, her face and chest flushing. At the cupboard where Marie kept the wooden bowls, she paused to compose herself.
Surely, the light in his eyes had been nothing more than a reflection of the open door and not . . . desire. She was long past her prime, a widow, and a deutsche one at that. Didn’t he know their cultures simply did not mix?
If only she hadn’t spun away. She should have met his gaze with indifference or even hostility. Had he noticed her undignified reaction?
“. . . should try to make it to Patterson’s before nightfall,” Jacob was saying. “If you cross the Juniata too late, you risk a welcome made of lead.”
Buchanan laughed. It was a nice laugh, a hearty one reserved for the self-assured. “Right enough, the Pattersons are trigger-happy, and deadly accurate, thanks to plentiful targets and two fine rifled guns.”
His chair squeaked as he turned in it.
“Your father made those guns, aye?”
Though she still had her back to him, she knew he addressed her. “Indeed.” She pretended to search for something inside the cupboard.
“Few Schneider guns come to me for repair. That is a testament to your father’s skill, mistress.”
The mention of her father brought the crush of grief, as always. She spent her life’s happiest moments in his shop carving gunstocks. No one knew that, of course. Girls didn’t carve gunstocks. At least, not after their fathers took new wives. When their fathers took new wives, girls didn’t ride horses bareback or play with Native children, either, even if they were Christian converts. No, when their fathers took new wives, girls donned silk gowns and learned to sew and cook. And, when their fathers died, they were married off to the first abusive man to consider fifty pounds and three draft horses an acceptable dowry.
An eternity seemed to pass before Catrina mustered up the strength to lift the bowls off the shelf. She set them on the table, careful to avoid Buchanan’s gaze.
Marie ladled broth, then gave thanks.
“Amen. Och, I nearly forgot.” Buchanan pulled a bilbo catcher from a leather bag. He handed the toy to Hans.
“For me?” the boy squealed, his face bright.
“Aye.” Buchanan rumpled Hans’s flaxen mop. “Go on and gi’ it a wee try whilst the broth cools.”
Catrina eased onto her chair, smiling in spite of herself.
“How generous of you.” Marie frowned at Hans. “What do you say to this good man?”
“Thank you, sir! Thank you!” Hans hopped off his chair to swing the ball on its cord. He caught it with the tiny cup on the end of the stick, then looked around to make sure everyone witnessed his grand feat. “I got it on the first try!”
“Why, ye’re a lad of unparalleled talent,” Buchanan declared.
Hans swung again and missed.
“Suffer no shame, sir. Many’s the lad who tried the cup in front of Old Buchanan, and ye’re the only one to get it on the first clip.”
That pleased Hans, who puffed out his chest and grinned.
Jacob’s dark eyes turned stern. “One more try, Hans, and then you must sit up to the table.”
When Hans used up his last attempt, Buchanan patted the boy’s back. “Well done. Now, then, let us see how well ye can fill that belly.”
Catrina marveled at his skill in guiding Hans back to the table. She knew him to be a widower, but recalled no mention of children. His easy manner with Hans suggested he had some. Where were they now? In Carlisle? Or, had he gone deep into the woods to drop blue-eyed babes among the brown?
“What brings you over the Tuscarora, Mister Buchanan?” Marie asked.
“Deerskins. Meeting a man by the name of Thomas Downey at Patterson’s.”
“Another Irish peddler,” Catrina mumbled.
Marie glowered and gave her a mighty kick.
Buchanan shot Catrina a triumphant look. “He’s an Oneida half-breed by a French father. George Croghan gave him the nickname because he looks like an Irish shipping merchant Croghan once knew.”
Catrina sipped her broth, its steam worsening the heat spreading across her cheeks.
If Buchanan noticed her chagrin, he ignored it. “Downey wrote to say he would be at Patterson’s by the end of May. I figured a week extra could nae hurt, what wi’ the trouble brewing in these parts.”
The hard angles of Jacob’s jaw pulsed as he chewed a bite of bread.
“Do ye come by much news?” Buchanan asked him.
Jacob swallowed. “Very little.”
“Ye do know aboot Jenny McClain and the attack at Penn’s Creek, I hope?”
“We do. God preserve them.”
“And that a month later, warriors attacked McDowell’s Mill using weapons taken from Braddock?”
The color drained from Jacob’s face. His lips pressed into a taut line. “They stripped the bodies?”
“Aye.” Buchanan delivered more bad news. “And in March, a band of Delawares used those same weapons to fire upon Patterson’s fort. They carried off Hugh Mitcheltree.”
Catrina clapped a hand across her mouth. That was just three months ago and only fourteen miles away. Maybe now, Jacob would move them off the frontier. She exchanged a hopeful glance with Marie, whose eyes were beginning to well.
Buchanan slid to the edge of his seat. “I hope ye plan to move your family to safety.”
Sense. From an Irishman. What was the world coming to?
Jacob flopped back in his chair, hugging himself. “We have never had problems with the natives of this land. Besides, we have forts, three of them now, all within a day’s easy ride.”
“All three are short on men and munitions. The Assembly refuses to fund our defense. Why should they, when they are nae the ones sleeping wi’ one eye open? Three months ago, the Ohio tribes took up the hatchet. They use Kittanning as their base now, a village along the Allegheny River. Each week, they range oot a wee bit farther to kill and capture folk.”
Jacob’s fist hit the table, bouncing everything that sat upon it. “Governor Mifflin must do something!’
“He did. He declared war on the Delawares. There are rewards for Indian scalps now and promises of fair pay and land bounties for any man willing to enlist. I masel’ drill in Carlisle. To be plain, we’re naught but a ragged force of backwoodsmen who caught the scent of wages. It’s only a whiff we’ve had thus far, I might add. If the Assembly does nae soon send the paymaster, the men will abandon the forts and go back to their farms. I tell ye this, sir, so ye know the full measure of the risk ye take by staying here. At any moment, ye could be entirely isolated and at the mercy of providence alone.”
Jacob closed his eyes and shook his head. “I take no issue with men defending their homes, but war is never the way.”
Buchanan leaned on his elbows. “I would expect a Quaker’s son to say so. Mercy, man, it is one thing to hate war, but it is another thing entirely to farm the damned battlefields.”
He blushed and bowed his head at Marie. “Pardon the oath, mistress. I forget masel’ at times.” He sat back in his chair. A long silence passed before he addressed Jacob again.
“Ye must have kin who could take ye in until this madness passes.”
Catrina and Marie looked at each other again, then at Jacob, who pursed his lips as though he might yet be swayed.
Oh, please, Jacob. Listen to sense.
Jacob stood, then walked to the doorway. “Come.”
Buchanan swallowed a bite of bread and joined him.
“What do you see?”
Buchanan, shaking his head, returned to his seat. “Save your words. I know what ye’re gonny—”
Jacob’s voice turned resolute. “A mare in foal and the most promising crops I have ever—”
“What aboot him?” Buchanan gestured toward Hans, who had seized the opportunity to abandon his broth and play unnoticed with his new toy. He pointed at Catrina. “And her?” Then Marie. “And her? At the very least, send them to Carlisle, or to Bigham’s fort, if naught else. By all accounts, sir, the Delaware chiefs, Shingas and Captain Jacobs, mean to invade every valley between Kittanning and Carlisle. They can call upon—.”
“I can spare no hands.”
Buchanan sighed, clearly exasperated.
Jacob returned to the table. “I am glad of your concern, but we will fare well.”
Catrina could stand no more. In all the years she knew him, Jacob never once listened to reason. He was a stubborn, foolish man who would get all of them captured . . . or worse.
She found Buchanan’s news disturbing, though not unexpected. Everyone knew the Delaware tribes longed to reclaim the lands sold by the Iroquois to the Penns. What nobody wanted to discuss—at least, not in front of their poor, mindless women—was that Britain had another enemy in America: France. Both wanted the contested, fur-rich lands of Ohio and Pennsylvania. How long before the French united with the Indians against the vulnerable settlers?
She longed to add her opinions, to beg Jacob to see the wisdom in Buchanan’s advice, but she was a woman. Worse, she was a widow, resident in her son-in-law’s house by his mercy alone. Frustration overcame her.
“I beg your leave, gentlemen.” She stood. “I must see to the horses. Hans, do you want to go see Angela?”
“Can I take my toy?”
“Of course.” She was glad he wanted to join her. It was not good for him to hear such frightening things.
She took his tiny hand and led him to the barn. “Shall we give her a treat?”
“You mean ja.”
She hated that her family absorbed the language and mannerisms of their Irish neighbors.
Hans was not as tall as the grain barrel, so she set a crate beside it for him to use as a step. With the barrel rim cutting into his midriff, he retrieved a scoop of oats.
They took it to the fence, where Hans stood on the bottom rail while Catrina whistled.
Angela abandoned the grazing herd to trot over to them. She was knock-kneed, ungainly, and downright pointy in places.
Catrina recalled with sadness the fluid movement of the mare’s youth. Angela had been her father’s best brood mare, one of three given to Matthew Davis as a dowry.
When the old mare stuffed her grass-scented muzzle into the scoop, her probing tongue sent Hans into a giggling fit. His laughter faded as an idea struck him. “Here,” he said. “You hold it.”
She took the scoop from him—it was nearly empty anyway—and watched him pull his bilbo catcher out of his pocket.
“Look, Angela.” He skipped a few feet away, then tossed the ball.
Catrina rubbed the warm spot under the mare’s mane. “How is my old girl, eh?” In spite of plentiful food, Angela’s backbone grew more pronounced each week. Copious gray hairs flecked her chestnut coat. Five summers ago, her muzzle, belly, and hoof feathers turned white.
According to Jacob, Angela wouldn’t see the coming winter. She was too old for breeding and, like a widowed mother-in-law, now a burden. He made it clear last week that his stores of clemency were bare. No amount of weeping would force him to feed a worthless mare past the first frost.
Tears pricked Catrina’s eyes as she thought about losing the last of her father’s original stock. She couldn’t bear to think of Angela hanging in the smokehouse, covered in salt.
“I hope what I said in there did nae frighten ye.”
She reeled, dropping the scoop at Stewart Buchanan’s feet.
He picked it up.
She sniffled and turned her back to him, not wanting him to witness her tears.
His voice turned panicked. “Och, Mistress Davis, I did nae mean to . . . I see I’ve upset ye.”
Well, there it was. He knew she was crying. So what? She would not allow him to take credit for it.
She wiped her cheeks and faced him. “The tears are not your fault, Mister Buchanan. They are hers.” She gestured toward the horse.
“Aye, she’s seen better days.” He rubbed Angela’s blaze. “Haven’t we all?”
The mare stretched out her neck to sniff him. Her velvety lips made a smacking noise as she nibbled his cheek.
He chuckled. “She likes me.”
The horses know.
“Grandmama.” Hans tugged on her skirt and jabbed a chubby finger at the rooster, a hostile bird he loathed.
“Ja, Hans, I see him. Take your toy and go back inside.”
He raced away, his fine curls bouncing.
Buchanan scratched the mare’s neck. “Your daughter married an obstinate man.”
“Do you know any other type of man?”
He ignored the question. “Leave wi’oot him.”
“Leave wi’oot him. Toss the lad on top o’ this old horse and go wi’ Marie to Carlisle or Shippensburg.”
If he had any idea how much she longed to do just that . . ..
She said, “We have seen Natives before, even fed a few—”
“I know what ye’re thinking—that past benevolence will preserve ye. That is a very Christian hope, Mistress Davis. Shingas and Captain Jacobs have nae mercy in ’em.”
“You do not know that. Perhaps—”
“When ye left the hoose, I told Jacob aboot a man named Sheridan.”
“The Quaker in Sherman’s Valley?”
“I know him,” she replied. “We watered at his spring on our way here. He and his sons came over to help us raise the barn.”
“Aye, well, I’m sorry to say they’re all dead but one.”
“What?” Catrina pressed a hand to her stays.
“Scalped and left for the buzzards to pick clean.”
“But . . .” She swallowed rising panic. “Quakers like Sheridan have been friends with the Indians since William Penn first set foot upon this land.”
“Aye, and that’s why Sheridan felt safe enough to invite the bastards in for a meal.” He looked at his shoes. “Apologies, mistress. I forget masel’ so easily these days.”
“Pay no mind, Mister Buchanan. I am used to oaths. My late husband swore often.” Whilst he beat me.
“Regardless, I do apologize. My anger overwhelms me at times.”
Passions like powder kegs . . . too easily riled.
Without warning, he gripped her shoulders.
“Unhand me, sir!”
He ignored her. “What if I stop on my way back from Patterson’s to help ye o’er the mountains? If it’s the horses ye’re worried aboot, we can take them to the corral in Carlisle, and then, on to Chester County. Surely, ye still have kin there? Someone who could take ye in until things settle doon.”
She shrugged his warm hands off her shoulders. “And Jacob?”
“It might convince him to follow.”
“Ha! Convince Jacob? Like all men, Jacob finds no worth in anything a woman does.”
He smirked, reigniting the tiny fires in his eyes.
For a moment, she entertained the notion that he was indeed quite handsome.
He made a small bow. “He could use a lesson or two from a good Irishman. We appreciate a woman wi’ her own opinions.”
She spat a thoughtless reply. “Many battered, Irish wives would disagree with you, Mister Buchanan, women who raise children on nothing whilst their husbands drink up the wages.”
Though she intended to discourage his flirtation, her words did more than wipe the smile from his face.
His lips parted, but he said nothing.
“I . . . I . . .” She pressed her palms to her cheeks and sought a way to express her remorse, but found none.
He shook his head, turned on his heels, and muttered, “Well, then,” leaving her alone with her shame.
Why had she been so cruel? He was only trying to help. Oh, if Marie ever found out . . ..
Disgrace chased her into the barn, where she hid for an hour or more, too embarrassed to face him. By the time she contrived a fitting apology—and practiced it several times on the grain barrels—he was gone.
By the light of a grease lamp, Catrina looped a thread across a coin and tugged.
Cat, her father once said, if trouble ever comes, sew your money into your shift.
Hans snored beside her on the straw-filled mattress, his curls glued by sweat to his temples. How unfair that his earliest years would be marked by constant upheaval and fright. If he lived to adulthood, he would despise the stubborn father who plunged him into the terrifying world that formed him.
Her gaze fell to the bilbo catcher, still loosely clutched, even in sleep. It was a kind gift to a disadvantaged boy—his first, she believed. Disgrace scorched her cheeks. She owed its giver an apology. God willing, she would survive long enough to offer one. With luck, he would pass by on his way back to Carlisle. If not, someone in the valley would eventually go for salt or gunpowder. She could send a letter to Buchanan with them.
On the other side of the bedchamber wall, Marie beseeched Jacob, “What about our boy, Jacob? You heard what Buchanan said about Sheridan.”
“We do not know the truth of that story,” Jacob replied.
Catrina fought the urge to comfort her only child.
“Jacob, I beg you,” Marie sobbed. “If not to Chester County, then to Carlisle. We can take the horses to Philadelphia and sell them on market day.”
“Marie, I have had enough of this.”
“At least, let us go to Bigham’s fort.”
“We will, at the first sign of trouble.”
“Do you mean that, Jacob?”
“I mean it if it shuts your yap, woman. Now, can we please go to sleep? I want to get an early start on the upper field.”
“Do you promise?”
“That we will go to Bigham’s at the first sign of trouble?”
“For the love of man, Marie, I promise. Now, say your prayers, and go to sleep.”
It was an absurd promise. If Indians attacked, Marie would never make it past the apple tree, let alone a mile away to the fort. They should go now, before an attack.
The lamp sputtered. Catrina knotted her thread, then bit it off. Five shillings sewn fast to her shift were better than none. The rest would have to wait until sunrise. She dared not refill the lamp. In Penn’s wilderness, grease was too precious to squander.
She slid out of bed. In the dying light, she lifted a floor plank to return the clay pot to its hiding place, pausing a moment to savor the coolness rising up from the ground beneath the cabin. Except for the five shillings weighing down her shift, the pot held all of her savings. No one else knew about the cache, not that it was substantial by any stretch. Her father’s farm went to Anna, who still lived in Philadelphia, as far as she knew. Matthew’s debts gobbled up everything else but a few horses. Those went to Jacob.
She replaced the plank, then blew out the lamp, sending the windowless room into smoke-tinged darkness. Just past the deerskin curtain separating her tiny bedchamber from the main room, the low fire they kept for light crackled softly, adding to the stifling heat. Outside, a chorus of crickets and frogs sang a resounding opus that stretched to infinity, underscoring the vastness around their little cabin.
She crawled back into bed, where the memory of Stewart Buchanan’s astonishment stole her prayers. He winced at her words. She rolled onto her side and tried to recite The Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father . . .” Buchanan winced again.
It would be a sweltering, turbulent night.
Though nothing would cure the heat, an apology would expunge her guilt. She calculated the number of days until she might offer one. Two, she guessed. He should be nearing the river now. Would he cross at night? There had been a lot of rain lately. The creek was swollen, and if the creek was swollen, then the riv—
A horse screamed.
She sat up, the roar of her own blood instantly obliterating every other sound. Painful sparks shot to her fingertips. Her heart lashed against her breastbone. Sweat trickled down her back.
There. There, it was again. A horse. Screaming.
She leapt out of bed and into her shoes, then ripped the curtain aside. Dashing into the main room, she nearly collided with Jacob.
He tipped the backlog to raise the light, looped his shot bag and powderhorn around his neck, and then plucked the musket off the wall for the second time that day.
“Jacob?” Marie trembled in her shift at their bedchamber door, the shadows of her face elongated by worry and dim lighting.
More horses screamed.
Marie’s hands flew to her mouth. Firelight glittered in her eyes.
Bile rose to the back of Catrina’s throat. “What should we do?”
“Get dressed,” Jacob said.
Marie’s voice turned shrill. “Why?”
“Just do it!”
Catrina could not bear to tell Marie that surviving the exposure of captivity might depend upon a decent set of clothes. She dressed quickly, though she was sure that in the dimness, her shaky hands pinned her stays crooked.
On the other side of the bedchamber wall, Marie squealed for more light.
“No,” Jacob barked when Catrina went to the mantelpiece for the lantern. “The light of the backlog is enough. Any more will make it hard for my eyes to adjust to the darkness when I open the door.”
Marie reappeared, her eyes frightfully wide. “What do you mean when you open the door?” She rushed to him, her partially fastened stays drooping like a daisy petal. “Why would you open the door? Why would you open the door, Jacob?”
She turned her back to him and wept into her hands. “My baby. What will they do to my baby?”
Hans toddled out of Catrina’s bedchamber, the wooden ball of his bilbo catcher knocking across the floor as he dragged it behind him. “Mama, have the devils come for us? Papa?”
Shrill war cries sent him flailing against the blue and white stripes of his mother’s petticoat. Satan’s own death halloos pierced the night. They raced around the cabin, lassoing the Meyer home and pulling the noose tight.
Marie pressed Hans’s keening face into her skirts. She slapped her free hand across her heart and stared openmouthed at her husband, who stood with rounded shoulders regarding the family he murdered by sheer pigheadedness.
Catrina ran to lift the spare musket from the wall. Wheezing with panic, she aimed it at everything—and nothing.
Outside, the horses still screamed.
Gott, der Allmächtige, how long does it take a horse to die?
She dropped to her knees with the musket balanced across her thighs, then slapped her hands over her ears. Please, merciful Gott. Silence our poor beasts.
Jacob paced, bumping into furniture, knocking baskets off of tables, and tipping chairs. His expression was dismal. “I have to do something.” He cocked the musket and headed for the door.
“No, Jacob. No!” Marie leapt for him, dragging Hans—who clung to her skirts—along with her.
“I have to. The horses!”
“No, Jacob.” Marie pulled on his arm. “You need to stay here and protect us. Our son! You cannot let them take our son!”
The milk cow went next. It bawled pitifully, accompanied by cackling chickens.
An orange glow shimmered at the threshold.
“They’ve fired the barn,” Jacob said.
Marie stared at the radiance, her expression of terror replaced by something far worse: acceptance. “The house will be next. We will die. Our Father, which art in heaven—”
“Mayhap they will take the animals and let us be,” Jacob said.
“Hallowed be thy name—”
“Marie.” Catrina rose from the floor. She reached for her daughter with an arm made of lead. “Listen.”
There was nothing now but a deadly calm broken only by chirping crickets and her own thrashing heartbeat.
Marie’s cheeks glistened. She clutched her belly. “Merciful God, have they gone?”
A thump on the roof provided a reply.
Marie lost all sense. She screamed until her eyes bulged. A shadow blossomed on the hem of her skirts as homespun linen wicked up her urine. Smothering Hans in her arms, she paced from one log wall to another, squealing like a branded sow.
Smoke coiled into the room.
“Damn them, they plugged the chimney!” Jacob fired the musket at men thudding across the birch shingles above him, adding more smoke and the sulfuric stench of spent gunpowder to the room.
Catrina looked up through the haze, her ears ringing from the shot.
They coughed and rubbed their burning eyes as blazing shingles fell around them.
Marie dropped to her knees, rocked her inconsolable child, then began singing a German lullaby.
“I . . . can barely see . . . to reload,” Jacob sputtered.
Catrina buried her face in the crook of her elbow and held the heavy musket out to him. A falling shingle narrowly missed her shoulder.
He took the musket and looked rueful. Fire brushed a crimson sheen across his sweaty forehead. “I have to open the door.” He coughed. “It is our only chance.”
“Jacob, no!” Marie crawled toward him, dragging a yelping Hans through mounds of burning shingles.
Jacob flung open the door. The barrel of his musket moved left and right as he sought a target.
Welcome air poured into the cabin . . . and nourished the inferno.
A shot rang out.
The back of Jacob’s skull exploded, sending a spray of brains and blood sizzling onto burning shingles.
He fired his musket by reflex alone, hitting nothing, then fell across the threshold, making it impossible to close the door.
With both muskets fired, they had no hope. Catrina screamed and ran to Marie, who gawped at her dead husband.
“Marie!” Catrina shook her. “Marie!” Her hand stung as she slapped Marie’s face hard enough to return her to her senses.
They locked their arms around Hans and, choking on smoke, huddled against the back wall.
More shingles bashed against the floor, showering the room with sparks. Marie’s skirts caught fire.
Catrina coughed and stamped out the flames. Her lungs burned with want of air. The skin on her face felt hot enough to split.
Through the open doorway, she saw the barn, now fully engulfed. Lithe silhouettes frolicked in front of the flames. Two of them hauled on a rope and tried to bring down a rearing horse.
The screaming stallion thrashed its head and wheeled its front legs.
“Mama.” Marie coughed and gestured to Hans, now limp between them.
They would die here.
A warrior’s shadow darkened the doorway. He yanked Jacob’s corpse outside to the woodpile, then bent with another man to retrieve Jacob’s spent musket, powderhorn, and shot pouch.
Their ghoulish work finished, they tramped into the cabin, waving away smoke.
Marie fainted on top of Hans.
In spite of the heat, Catrina’s limbs turned to ice. She crawled in front of Marie and Hans to shield them.
The two men rushed at her, their eyes only visible in their faces by the reflection of firelight. One of them twisted her arm and heaved her to the hearthstone where she struck her wrist. She rolled onto her back, coughing, burning her hand on a shingle.
The room began to close in.
One warrior scooped up Hans. The other tossed Marie over his shoulder as though she weighed no more than a sack of grain.
Catrina wobbled up to her hands and knees, then lunged for the warriors’ ankles as they headed for the door. She missed, pitching forward, then slamming against the planks.
They dropped Marie and Hans onto the grass next to Jacob.
Ignoring the smell of singeing hair and the agony of burned palms, Catrina patted up the wall. She found the handle of Jacob’s broad axe, which hung to the left of the hearth. Mustering all the strength left to her, she lifted it off its pegs and dragged it, staggering, to the doorway. In the shadow behind the door, she knelt to cough into the crook of her elbow, then gasped fresh air that cleared her lungs and strengthened her limbs.
A rod away, one brute straddled Jacob and sliced off his scalp in a single, violent cut. Two others fiddled with a length of cord near Marie and Hans. The taller of them carried a curved club with pewter studs that brushed against his thigh and reflected the horrors of the night. He hauled Marie to her feet by her hair.
Fueled by maternal rage, Catrina ground her teeth together and charged at him, swinging the axe.
His eyes flashed white. With the speed and grace of a panther, he parried her blow.
Momentum sent her tumbling to the cool grass, where the heel of Jacob’s axe head sank harmlessly into the ground.
Half-naked men gathered around her, bringing with them the reek of bear grease and vermillion-stained faces decorated with black stripes and circles. All of them laughed except the tall warrior, Catrina’s intended victim. That man spoke, and the rest fell silent.
A black stripe crossed his face just below his nose. From there up, ebony dots decorated skin so red it looked like he’d fallen headfirst into a cauldron of melted tallow. The only hair left to him was gathered at the top of his scalp and adorned with a crimson deer’s tail that fluttered in a breeze made by fire. The rims of his ears were cut free and stretched into grotesque rings. In them, he wore copper baubles that matched the band encircling his sinewy arm and the triangle dangling from his nose. All of his trinkets seemed to vibrate—all but one, a beaded sheath hanging from a cord at his breast.
His scalping knife.
She stared at the weapon until he yanked her to her feet. She squeaked and cupped a blistered hand over her shoulder.
He towered above her glaring with the heat of a blacksmith’s forge.
Insanity spread across her like butter on fresh bread. “Du tierisches,” she shouted. “Du schmutziges Schwein! Think you the first to strike me? Ha!” She rose up on her tiptoes to get as close to his stinking face as she could. “Do you want my fear? My pleas for mercy? How about you take this instead?”
She gave him what Matthew always deserved but never received—a mouthful of her spit.
Disgust contorted the warrior’s features, then seething hatred, as he wiped her saliva off his face.
She stabbed a finger at him. “Mark me, if you lay one bony finger on—”
He shoved her against a fellow warrior, and that one shoved her against a terrifying man with one eye. His deformity created no handicap, for he pushed her more brutally than the others.
“I will kill you with my bare hands!” she wheezed. Ignoring dizziness, she cursed in German and clawed at their faces, her arms like windmills.
They took turns heaving her for sport, the disfigured man laughing as her wild swings barely missed his good eye.
The tall warrior put a stop to it with a single word in a language she did not know. Then, he cocked his war club, and the world went dark.
A VALLEY TOO FAR, coming Summer of 2019 from Soul Mate Publishing