Late summer, 1757
She stared down at the body of the young soldier that had just tumbled not far from where she crouched, but the distress she should have felt at being so close to a dying man was curiously numbed. The almost deafening shots still echoed in her ears, along with her sister's shriek of terror--or perhaps, knowing Cora, it had been one of fury. For a few more moments, she clutched at the rough bark of the enormous tree that was partly sheltering her, drawing what minimal comfort she could from its realness, its solidity. Dragging her gaze back up to the treeline, she scanned it for some sign of aid, but there was nothing but the blur of green and brown, the movement of their attackers. Savages. They might well have been animals for all the resemblance they bore to any humans of her acquaintance.
Someone grabbed her elbow, and she whirled, losing her balance as she stepped on the long skirts of her heavy dress. The sound she might have made died in her throat when she realized who it was. Cora's face bore a smear of dirt along her left cheekbone and her hair, normally done up in curls and fastened under the modest cotton caps they both wore while outdoors, was partially coming down. "Run, Alice," Cora hissed, tugging on her arm. "We have to run!"
She shot a glance back at the trees, aware of movement there, wondering if the howls and screeches she was still hearing were starting to fade away. "Where...where are the other men?"
"Now!" Cora jerked her up almost completely, and Alice's legs finally agreed to support her and she stumbled forward. Their pale-colored muslin dresses were a flag against the greenery around them and they would surely have been spotted almost instantly were it not for the protection of the shoulder-high grasses that Cora pulled them into. They ran awkwardly through the field in the opposite direction of the site of the ambush. Alice could see nothing but Cora's thrashing body ahead of her, marked by slashes of fibrous green stalks as they whipped by, but the hand gripping her sweaty one was firm and unrelenting as if her older sister knew exactly where to go. For this she was grateful. If Cora had not come just then she knew she would have stayed by the tree until the worst happened. What the worst was, she did not quite know. Death, she supposed. She had already seen it in the eyes of the soldier who'd fallen near her. The soldier who had been one of several accompanying them on their journey to the fort. How will we ever get there now?
Her shoe, ill-suited with its small flat heel to such a flight, suddenly turned on her as they moved, and she almost fell, but for Cora's hand yanking her along again. There was a moment of fear then when she was sure they were being followed, but it was only her own movement they heard, her own gasps and labored breathing as she struggled to move within the confines of her clothing.
As they came to the end of the field of grasses, which bordered the forest, Cora stopped suddenly, pulling Alice to her, for a listen. It had gone silent. Alice didn't know whether this boded well or ill for them, but it was terrifying.
"We have to keep going," Cora whispered. The three years between them seemed like an immeasurable gap again, though since Alice had become a woman she had come to think of Cora as her companion rather than her superior, but in this new unexplored world she was again reduced to a child, despite her recently achieved sixteen years. "I think the river is down this way."
The Connecticut forest yawned open around them, a seemingly mild environment of trees and shrubs, sloping, but not too rocky or hard to navigate. Sunlight slanted through the branches from a benignly pale blue sky, in odd contrast to the madness of the scene they had just escaped. In the air void of human noise, they became aware of the sounds of smaller animals, of birds flitting from tree to tree, of huge chattering squirrels that leaped above them and scolded them for their very existence, their trespassing into a world to which they so clearly did not belong. As the two Englishwomen made their way down the slope, following the distant sound of running water, which they hoped would conceal their own sounds, a breeze sprung up, carrying with it the scent of pine needles.
Alice's dress clung to her. The bottom twelve inches of her skirts were stained and muddy from several days' travel. Her back prickled with sweat. The wind was welcome as it struck her face and lifted tendrils of her own blond hair, so unlike her sister's. It, too, had come undone in the past half-hour, and was hanging limp in her face. Cora's hair was naturally curly, but Alice had to tie hers up every night in order to induce it to curl even the slightest. Now, unpinned and flattened by sweat and travel, it was as flat as trailing seaweed. She brushed it out of her way with the back of her hand.
"Almost there," Cora murmured, still holding her hand as they made their way further down to the water's edge. What the river meant for them Alice didn't know, but she was willing to trust that her sister could lead them to safety.
Water gurgled and spat over treacherously slippery rocks covered by lichens and slick green moss. The river was not deep but wide, wide enough to present some danger if they were to cross it. Their shoes slid and stuck in the riverbed mud. The water grabbed at their skirts and soaked them. "Don't let go of me," Alice begged. She couldn't swim, though in England Cora had tried to teach her a number of times. She felt the insistent tug of the river on her legs, which, weakened by shock, felt barely strong enough to hold her up.
Cora waded ahead of her, down river, navigating the pebbles in the shallow spots and some larger boulders scattered nearer the middle. Her sister might not know where they were going, but she was determined to get them away from the scene of the ambush, Alice thought, and that was fine with her. The more distance they put between them and those howling red-skins, the better...she had known, of course, before coming to America that it was peopled by Indians, but Duncan had led them to believe that many of the Indians were halfway civilized.
Alice stared at the skirts of the dress swishing in front of her. She had not yet seen tears on the face of its owner. Fear, yes, anger, certainly, revulsion...all these things during and since the ambush in which Duncan had fallen...but no tears. She felt a sinking deep in her stomach, an ache that she was sure must just be a particle of the pain Cora was feeling. Biting her lip, she squeezed Cora's hand. Cora did not turn, but for a moment her fingers clenched tighter in response, in acknowledgement of the wordless communication.
They continued to make their way downstream, slowly in parts when it was required, but as quickly as possible. It was late afternoon and the sun was already slanting down in the sky. Alice regarded its descent with some concern. Many nights had passed in the company of their escorts in the wilderness, but at least there had been tents--and food--and now not only were they deprived of these basic things but also of their male guides. Alice could not even comprehend what it would be like to spend a night under the stars, just the two of them. She tried not to think about it.
Not paying close attention to where Cora was moving, Alice stepped too far to the side and suddenly the river bottom dropped out from beneath her. Water swelled up around her almost to her waist, shockingly chill. Her skirts ballooned up around her and she let out a small shriek of dismay as she floundered, having lost her grip on the hand of her sister. For a moment she was sure she would sink, but then Cora sprang after her and dragged her back onto more solid footing. Both of them clung together for a few more moments, shivering not so much from the water--it was not that cold after the initial contact--but from delayed shock of the previous events. "What are we going to do?" Alice said, knowing it was almost a whimper, knowing it was childish but too scared to care. She needed to hear something reassuring. Something she could focus on, look forward to. But Cora only held her, sweeping her damp hair out of her face and gazing at her with eyes so determined, so dark they were almost black.