It was the quiescent summer twilight that Tankawun had always quietly enjoyed.
She sat composedly by the bucolic stream and turned her dark eyes to assess her surroundings. The green-tipped trees swayed in the lull of a gentle breeze... why can I not live like the trees of our mother, the earth? So calm and undisturbed... The stream ran smoothly over the craggy rocks, the sound of the running water that had once soothed her now seemed to mock her.
Once, when she had been a young girl and before her father had passed to the Great Council Fire, she had accompanied him on a trading venture as he'd bartered pelts to Le Francais Canadians in the land of the Twin Rivers. She remembered seeing a large crowd of jeering Yengeese and heard the sounds of fierce growls and snapping of strong jaws. Her feet had carried her to the circle and she looked around the sea of bodies. Two wolves were chained to hefty wooden poles opposite each other, and they were fighting to the death. Starving, mangy, their eyes clouded with madness. Tankawun had flinched and shut her eyes as one of the wolves had clamped its powerful teeth onto the the neck of the other, who only keened loudly before collapsing with a broken spine. The wolves were sacred to the Lenape and Tankawun had never before seen one harmed.
Brother wolf, I know now what that must have been like for you, she thought bitterly.
Tankawun felt at once crushed and weighed down as she blinked rapidly to stem the stinging, the tears that threatened to escape from behind her lids. She felt so empty inside.
Tankawun had made the trip back to the Lenape camp on foot the previous night, flanked by Alemos and Mategwas. Tankawun had felt her heart pounding painfully in her ribcage but mostly with anticipative hope; soon she would see her dear friend Stephen, and things would be right in the world again. How childish were these light-hearted thoughts!
Upon entering the camp, the three girls had not been prepared for the scene that met them. Almost the entire camp was waiting for them in foreboding silence, as look-outs had alerted them of the trio's impending arrival. Mategwas had eyed them all icily as they stood opposite the crowd, daring them with her gaze to come anywhere near her. Even Alemos, though she shook as an autumn leaf, held her ground.
Wapashuwi, Tankawun's grandmother, had stepped up in the flickering firelight and said frantically how there had been a search all afternoon for the missing adolescents. The old woman's gaunt arms had shaken as she gesticulated, and her reedy voice had been anguished.
Tankawun had been mid-sentence- soothing her grandmother- when suddenly her neck snapped back painfully as her braid and scalp were seized in an iron grip. It was Chemames.
"Mother!" Tankawun screamed shrilly as she was brought to her knees with a powerful blow to her head. Mategwas and Alemos ran to aid her but Chemases berated the girls until they shrank into the crowd. There was nothing they could do.
Chemames dragged her eldest daughter into their wigwam and Tankawun groaned in pain as her head began to throb from the force of the stick that had struck her.
She was thrown inside and gaped at her mother, terrified. The older woman raised the knob-ended stick and Tankawun dodged the swing. Wapashuwi wrenched the cudgel from her daughter's grip with unexpected strength.
"I will discipline my daughter, not you, Mother! My patience has run out with her wild ways. No more." Chemames's eyes locked with her petrified daughter's, "No more! I have decided."
Tankawun hugged herself as she took steps back, quivering like a flame despite the warmth of the interior. "I can explain, Mother..."
"Explain what? That you have become the squaw of a Yengeese?"
"No! I have not even seen him for days-"
"That you constantly disobey my commands, flaunt your willfulness, ignore the young men who show you any interest, unworthy as you are?"
The words stung but a rebuttal was fast rising in her throat. "That's not true," she whispered, "you..." Tankawun's voice hitched, "you never let me be happy."
Chemames gaped at her daughter in wide eyed wonderment. "I never what? I never let you do as you please, perhaps! I realize now that you were entirely too spoiled, look around this entire camp!" the woman's voice thundered in the wigwam, "do you see any other empty-headed girls wandering about the forest all day, making eyes at Yengeese men, disobeying their elders?"
Tankawun tried to wriggle free as her mother's fingers grasped her chin forcefully. "But I have had enough of your embarrassing behavior, daughter. I have made my decision."
"What?" asked Tanawun in a tiny, ineffectual voice.
"Your uncle. Your father's people, the Unami who dwell on the eastern shores- you will go to live with them. I am sending you at first light."
"I am not going!" Tankawun screamed, knocking aside Chemames's hand from her face. Her mother and grandmother looked shocked, as Tankawun had never before raised her voice to an elder.
"This land is my home, I belong to this land," Tankawun continued resonantly, "if I must leave your wigwam, Mother, so be it. But I will not be thrown from the land of my ancestors."
Chemames had recovered her voice- and her rage. "What will you do," she sneered, "run off with that flame-haired monstrosity? His family will make you a slave and then you will regret the day you left."
Tankawun was strongly reminded of a hunting knife, hacking and sawing away at the soft hide of a deer. Her mother's tongue was sharp enough to wound; to cut.
Wapashuwi's voice was gentle as she bade Tankawun to go to the wigwam of Alemos and her family.
"No granddaughter of mine will leave this village," was the old woman's final say.
Tankawun shook her head dolefully at the memory. She had run to Alemos's wigwam. The family had taken her in in pity, although Alemos's father was very angry at the girls for running off as they had and putting themselves in danger.
Was there no hope for her? thought Tankawun, winding her fingers on her lap with agitation. She would not leave this land, she would not be banished to live with near strangers, even if they were bound to her by blood. Although the problem remained that her mother would not welcome her back, unless she ceased straying out of the Lenape grounds and communicating with Stephen and the other whites.
Tankawun could not. It had never once crossed her mind that she was rebellious or wayward, she simply did as her heart desired. And her heart desired to continue seeing her red-haired protector and loyal friend. There was no romance involving her and Stephen, she thought with an eye roll- she purposefully fought down the thought that there was at least a hint of it- because males and females could come together chastely as well.
Tankawun sat straighter, her thoughts suddenly would not sit here idly and watch the world drift by. She wanted to see her friend, and nobody (neither Indians nor white) would stop her.
"What are you making?"
Alice turned to view the speaker, a ghost of a smile dancing on her lips in the near darkness.
"I was attempting to make you buttermilk biscuits," she murmured as Uncas drew nearer. He raised a black brow, repeating the words back to her with his strange colonial intonation coupled with the halting manner in which the Indians spoke English. His own English was deep and strong, not as accented as his father's but he still retained a slight inflection, Alice noted.
Uncas smiled, the firelight reflecting in his dark eyes as he watched her restock the cabinets with the flour and pewter bowls. "Why can't you make them?"
Alice sighed, scrubbing her hands on Millie's sky-blue dress as she indicated that they should sit at the rickety table.
"I do not have all the necessary ingredients," Alice murmured distractedly, thumbing a smudge of dirt from Uncas's knuckles; he had been toiling outdoors most of the day. Alice continued, "Besides the flour, I have the dashes of salt and sugar needed, but failed to recall..." her face reddened.
Uncas kept his face even. "The milk and butter?"
The young woman nodded. "Yes. Hence the name." She rose with a sigh. "I wish to wash my face and hands by the stream. We will simply have to make do with the broth I made earlier today." Uncas nodded agreeably. He was not overly fastidious when it came to food, especially anything prepared by Alice. He always praised any dish or meal by her, conscious that she had only been cooking for about a year.
About an hour later, after washing up and consuming the weak broth- Uncas had added mealy little carrots he had found- Alice sat down by the fire and watched idly as Uncas stoked the flames. It was early evening, and the darkness of night was fast encroaching.
Uncas sprawled on the floor before the firelight with a sigh, cushioning his head with a strong arm. He gestured for her to come to him and Alice hesitated momentarily; she had never warmed much to the habit the red men had of laying or squatting about on the bare ground. Alice recalled that everyday she swept and aired the cabin, much to Uncas's amusement, in part penance and gratitude to Amelia. What harm can there be? Alice smiled and gamely curled beside the form of Uncas, sighing as he anchored a copper-skinned arm around her securely.
Uncas twisted a lock of yellow hair between his rough fingertips, almost captivated with the way the fire reflected off her tresses. Alice inched closer to his body and murmured her contentment. They had been together- and fully alone- in the cabin for three going on four days and nights. No word from the others... and this seemed to torment Uncas, the thought of not being able to assist his family in their hour of need. Twice now Alice had awoken in the hush of night and found Uncas sitting alone on the steps outside the cabin, looking off into the distance. Alice knew he had to stay where he was for her, Chingachgook had ordered him to remain with her and keep her safe. Therefore to see Uncas pine in silence was more than she could bear.
"I cannot wait to move into our cabin," Alice declared into Uncas's broad chest, "we have nearly missed planting for the spring, as autumn will be here in a matter of months and it will be harvest time."
"I know, Alice. I will take care of it all."
Alice's eyes were both concentrated and far away, "Oh, if only we had completed the home in the early spring! I will clear the land and plant as soon as we are situated... and if we were to acquire livestock we must be sure to plant red clover for the creatures to eat, so they do not become accustomed to eating all our grain or corn. Yes..." she nodded to herself, "I will make sure of that."
Uncas cocked his head and considered this wisp of a girl that lay before him, blonde hair spilling onto his arm. It was no fault of her own, but throughout the last year she had spent almost all of her free time with James and traces of this experience would most likely linger in her demeanor and words for a long, long time. Her manners were still refined, but she had become very outspoken and undaunted, a far cry from the catatonic little sparrow that she had been moons before.
Alice had adapted Anabel's shrewd train of thinking and mimicked James's behavior- "Her manner is becoming too free for a woman, Uncas. You will correct this." Chingachgook had muttered one afternoon as he watched Alice split wood for the pile- a man's duty- and toss her hair back to laugh as she observed Anabel screaming at James for his overindulgence in whiskey.
The issue at hand was that Alice had cultivated a sense of freedom while living with the Stewart's. Besides cooking and cleaning, truly a woman's domain, she also worked as a man, something Chingachgook did not approve of. Nathaniel could roll his eyes to the sky and shrug all he wanted while he defended her actions, but his wife was not the one who was swinging an ax about or mending fences and the like. Uncas did not know how to begin to even assess this, so for the time being, he let her do as she pleased. It was far better to have a wife who knew her way around a farm as well as a man, thought Uncas philosophically. It would just be another point in the long list of misgivings Chingachgook would detail to Uncas.
"I will clear the land, Alice." Uncas said this firmly but patiently. "I will build the fence and make any repairs. You will not be working as you have been at the Stewart's. Only cooking and mending."
Alice's eyes narrowed a bit and she pondered this. "I will not be useless," she whispered.
Uncas ran a finger down the curve of her neck until he reached her pulse point- he heard her breath hitch. He chose his words carefully. "You work harder than most people I know. It will not be so now. We can both farm and harvest, but I will split wood, Alice."
Alice groaned softly. "I do not see why it bothers you so. I will not harm myself, I am not dull-witted."
"I know. But it is not safe, especially when children may come."
Alice became very interested in the firelight, then. Though her face was turned Uncas could see the pink hue on her cheeks that bloomed like wild roses. "Whenever they may come." Uncas knew she thought of the second night spent in the cabin, now that they had established this physical conjunction, the rest of the evenings were spent in a similar fashion.
At least she was no longer blushing a deep red every morning and avoiding eye contact throughout the day.
"Shall we go to bed?" Alice asked lightly, her gaze switching to his and her another sweet, shy smile crossing her face.
"Yes," he nodded, his face stoic but his eyes ardent.
Gregory Newsom furrowed his brow and bent lower to the ground, carefully inspecting his handiwork. He had spent the majority of the day planting Indian corn and potatoes for Mrs. Mason. He had expertly plowed the soil, removed the weeds, sowed the seeds in anticipation of crops. In the next few days he would cultivate the ground to make sure enough water would be absorbed.
Gregory stood up with a muffled groan, conscious that his knees were simply not what had been in his younger days. He gingerly removed a lace kerchief from a pocket and dabbed at his dripping forehead. What a trial you have put before me, Lord. I bear it gladly. At least Stephen had returned home safe to his tearful mother, the lad would help him work the fields. The soil in this area of Pennsylvania colony was notoriously paltry as well as burdensome; why, if any intrepid harvester went to New York colony or anywhere along the Hudson River, they would find the terra firma to be fertile beyond belief! It is no wonder Pennsylvania colony produces nothing more than merchants and shipbuilders, thought Gregory with an elegant bob of his head, our fair colony shall never be renowned for its farming abilities.
Gregory's mind was churning with all of these possibilities when a shadow crossed his line of vision in the fading twilight. Looking up quickly found himself peering into the soft brown doe-eyes of a pretty Indian girl.
Gregory was aghast as he stared at her in complete shock. As per usual, his manners won out in the end.
"My dear young lady," he said with great amiability, bowing politely, "pray forgive my discomfiture. It is not seemly for a young lady to be so alone. Are you in need of assistance?"
The girl stared at him blankly, searching his face. Gregory soldiered on. "Please hurry on home, my dear. We cannot- we-" Please do not attempt to seek out Stephen. His mother has been through the fright of her life. Please go home, dear child.
"Steeben? Kexaptun nkata keku luwe." she said meekly, peeking around Gregory. "Awen hesh ki?"
Before Gregory could voice his bafflement, Lucy bolted out of the door with an earsplitting shriek that made the man wince.
"Tankawun! Mr. Newsom, this is mine and Stephen's friend!" the little girl jubilantly hugged the beaming Lenape girl. "Oh, I have so missed her! I like her so much and she likes me, too. Come inside, Tankawun!" Lucinda tugged on Tankawun's hand, yanking her towards the cabin entrance.
"Lucy, sweet child!" Gregory called out in great alarm- he did not want Elizabeth to see the Indian girl or to have her see Stephen, not yet at least, not until the storm had passed. Alice was still gone, as were the other men. There were enough hardships.
"Lucinda, I am quite certain your lovely friend will be leaving-" Yet again, Gregory was torn. It was not gentlemanly behavior to suggest that a young lady should leave.
Resigning himself, he entered just behind the girls. He came in just in time to see Elizabeth's face twist into a cringing look of horror. Speechless, she looked upon her son who immediately jumped to his feet, tossing aside the barrel chamber of a rifle he had been cleaning.
Stephen looked positively enraptured, his blue eyes widened and an ebullient laugh erupted from his chest as he ran to the girl.
"Stephen Mason!" Elizabeth said loudly, arms akimbo, "Stephen, we have already spoken on this matter. You cannot have anymore contact with the red men. I... I have spoken and my word is final. They-"
"Mama, this is my dearest friend in the world, Tankawun of the Lenape." Stephen turned his guileless azure eyes to his mother. "She must stay for supper, she walked all the way from the camp to see me!" Stephen flashed his boyish, lighthearted grin to his Mama.
"And me too! She came to see me!" Lucy piped in, nuzzling her fair-haired head against the older girl's midriff.
Elizabeth Mason looked at the three smiling youngsters, then at the worn, apprehensive face of Gregory. Elizabeth knew she could never bring herself to deny anyone food, to her it was a crime against decency. Sustenance was sacred.
"Let us sit." Elizabeth sighed, blowing a strand of honey blonde hair from her face. Gregory nodded fervently.
"Stephen, lad, pull the chairs out for the ladies."
Minutes later Gregory watched covertly as the two adolescents giggled and smiled at each other. Stephen and Lucy laughed with delight at the sight of Tankawun struggling to use the spoon she had been handed, and her woe-be-gone expression upon sipping the hard cider. Poor dear, thought Gregory sympathetically. I should have fetched her fresh water from the stream. At least Elizabeth has calmed herself. Gregory admitted to himself that he could easily see why Stephen had become so bewitched by the Lenape girl. Yes, she was as pretty as the dawn, but she also had an infectious, gregarious disposition that easily charmed. Her smile was warm and sincere, her deep brown eyes were artless and ingenuous.
"Stephen, you have been forgetful." Elizabeth suddenly said sharply, frustrated with her son's simpering, besotted smile. "I must insist you find out more about Alice and Uncas and the rest of our neighbors. Will you cease speaking nonsense to our lady guest, and ask her the relevant questions?"
Stephen blushed wildly. "Of course, Mama... but I already asked, I don't understand her words, I aint sure..."
"I am not certain," Gregory corrected tiredly, wiping his mouth with his lace kerchief.
Stephen nodded obediently, "Right. She aint- I mean, I don't reckon she can tell us much. I am not certain."
"Would it be too forward of me to presume your lady friend's sojourn here tonight is a mere social call?" asked Gregory Newsom lightly. Stephen blinked dumbly at the older man, unable to decipher most of that statement.
"Forgive me, my lad. What I meant by the question is... is she here to visit with you, or to relay any matter of great importance?"
"I reckon just to visit, Mr. Newsom. After supper I will walk her home-"
"You will do nothing of the sort, young man." Elizabeth whispered, glaring at her son. "Gregory-?"
He nodded his assent. "I will see her safely home, I will take her as far as I am able to without trespassing, within sight of the Lenape camp."
Stephen played with his food for several seconds, concentrating deeply. "Alright," he said at length, "but first, I want to speak with Tankawun outside. Alone. I have to tell her somethin'."
Stephen stood up energetically and indicated to Tankawun that they would leave. She stood up and placed a hand over her heart. "Wanishi."
As Elizabeth watched her son grab hold of the girl's hand as they exited, she closed her eyes as a barb of agony shot into her heart. Both of these youngsters were being beyond foolish, if they truly thought their innocent dalliance would result in any happiness. The world would never view them with kindness.
The next morning Uncas awoke in his usual manner: quickly, shaking off sleep with ease and assessing his surroundings with a hawk's precision. He slipped out of the bed quietly, conscious of Alice still in the deep throes of slumber beside him. Uncas quickly donned his dark green shirt had been tossed carelessly over a chair, then stepped up to the hearth to stoke the dying embers. He let out a small wince. He hated the white man's bed. It offered the back no support and he slept badly every night, wishing he could only lay the ground atop some hides. But that would mean sleeping apart from Alice.
Uncas turned and regarded Alice for several long seconds, his gaze admiring. How lovely she looked, her pale skin almost glowing in the near darkness of the pre-dawn hours; her hair, always resembling a field of sun-ripened grain with its yellow hue, now resembled a white man's angel with a golden halo. He had read the black book of the Yengeese in Reverend Wheelock's school, and heard the sacred stories the whites always squawked and preached about.
Uncas was immensely enjoying the new-found passion she showed him during those most private moments. He recalled with a stab of longing how fragile and slight she seemed when she was lost in his arms each night, hands light and unsure, her voice no more than a shallow whisper as she breathed his name and wound her arms around his neck.
These were the exact thoughts coursing through his mind when, quite suddenly, Uncas's mind sharply focused as he heard the unmistakeable tread of footsteps outside.
Uncas grabbed his hatchet and went immediately to door, glancing quickly at the still form of Alice. Opening the door a crack, Uncas maintained his posture of alertness and peered out, hatchet ready.
Before he had the chance to react the door was forcefully pushed by strong hands, sending him back a few paces.
"Father?" asked Uncas with amazement in Mohican as the elder man clambered inside, tugging a deer hide around his shoulder irritably. The hatchet was hurriedly lowered.
"Where are the others, Father? What has happened? Are they-" Uncas halted uncertainly, noting that his father's eyes had become narrow slits of anger and disapproval. He turned and cringed inwardly.
Alice. How could he have forgotten about her sleeping peacefully on the bed they had been sharing for days? Chingachgook had most assuredly not missed the fact that she was only wearing her thin shift, one white shoulder drooping out,tangled in the frayed and worn-thin blanket of the bed... there was an indentation beside her from where he had obviously slept.
"I know-" Chingachgook said calmly but his eyes were as two hot coals, "I know we had a conversation in which I ordered you not to touch her until she was in your cabin, under your care. You have both only been alone here for a matter of days."
Uncas swallowed nervously, vacillating between shame and the need to defend himself. She was as good as his wife now. She had consented. He had seen twenty three summers in his life, he was no green boy. "Father, I-"
"Furthermore," the old man cut in sharply, his brows connecting sharply into a V shape, "this is not your home. It belongs to that Yengeese girl. You disrespect her and you dishonor me."
"Father, Alice is my wife." Uncas said with great solemnity, striving to keep his voice as neutral as possible.
Chingachgook looked at his youngest son scornfully. "She will be your woman as soon as you act as a husband should, providing for her on your own terms. Not romancing her into bed in a home that does not belong to you."
Alice mumbled in her sleep and Uncas tensed; he knew she would be mortified beyond all belief if she awoke to see his father scowling over her. Alice merely turned and burrowed deeper into the blanket.
Chingachgook looked upon the young woman thoughtfully, but with no apparent anger. It was obvious he put the blame squarely at the feet of his son.
"Uncas. We are leaving. Wake the girl, and we are taking her to her sister and the Stewart's."
"Is everything alright, Father?" asked Uncas cautiously, tilting his head to the side as he worriedly scanned his father's lined face. Chingachgook did not answer.
"Where is my brother? Is he safe?"
For the first time that Uncas could recall, his father looked unnerved. Fear seemed to be as flames licking at his heels.
Uncas recalled something an old man from a far off tribe had told him as a boy... What is life? It is the flash of the firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter-time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
It was only now in manhood that Uncas could make sense of the words he had taken for granted in his youth. That life was fleeting. As delicate as a dewdrop on a maple leaf. The Master of Life breathed life into all beings, but it could be snatched at any moment.
His brother now hung in this precarious balance. Something was horribly wrong.
Uncas did not ask for any explanation, he only met his father's gaze unflinchingly. "I will awaken her. Let us go now."
This is mainly a filler chapter. The Indian "what is life?" saying is not mine, either.
Tankawun's Lenape conversation with Gregory N: "Steeben? I need to talk to him." "Who are you?"