Cincinnatus was sure it was the last night of his life.
As the tavern keeper lay in the dark, he set out to recall all of the memorable events of his sojourn on earth. He realized in a shilling of time--he had a scarcity of memorable events. It seemed to him he had lived his entire life cowering in the dark waiting for Indians to attack. One thing he knew for sure, his crossing paths with Daniel Boone and Carolina E. Yadkin had decided his woeful fate. He punched his pillow.
The residents of Boonesborough had a fitful night. The fort yard brimmed with restless Indian warriors on the brink of bludgeoning their enemies for any small offense. The tense horses outside the fort stomped and pulled at their tethers. Their neighs drew cries from the Boonesborough babies swaddled in the tavern.
How could he sleep between Cherokee and Shawnee? Cincinnatus asked himself. Their snores sawed at his tavern walls. He had to keep one gray eye open.
Gunfire popped in the distance about midnight.
"Sounds like they found 'em," someone whispered in the dark of the tavern.
"Yep," someone else answered.
"Ma?" Israel anxiously called out.
"Israel, go to sleep," Becky answered.
"I can't sleep Ma. What's gonna happen if those bad men come here lookin' for protection? Won't they smell a rat? What if they see the Indians here and start shootin'? Won't they--"
"Oh dear," Becky said with a sigh. "I don't know, Israel. I suppose your father has a plan."
"Do ya, Pa?" Jemima asked.
"Of course I do," Daniel answered. "Now go to sleep."
Cincinnatus had his doubts. He rolled over, accidentally fell asleep and dreamed of dancing horses. He was awoken by a loud ruckus--a volley of gunshots then shouts. The tavern door swung open and Jericho yelled, "Mr. Boone, Stokeburn and his men are here and demand protection."
The room erupted with questions and exclamations.
Cincinnatus stumbled out of bed and lit a lantern. "Shush up everyone. Let Daniel think."
Daniel lifted his coonskin cap from his face. "Jericho, tell Stokeburn he'll get no protection here. If he or his men try to take those horses, shoot at their feet first, then their heads."
"Mr. Boone, are we to shoot at the horses' or--"
"The men, Jericho, the men."
"Yes, sir. I'll tell 'em."
Flint-locks went off…one…two…then angry shouts and nervous neighs. More gunshots followed.
It wasn't long before Jericho returned. "Mr. Boone, he won't listen to me. He wants to talk to you."
Daniel threw back his blanket and sat up. He slipped his boots on. "Come on Cincinnatus."
"Daniel Boone, what do you think you're doing setting those Injuns on us?" Stokeburn stood with his men before the closed fort gates. The moon shown brightly upon all but it was hard to sort out the long shadows made by man and beast on the meadow.
"I'm the magistrate here, Mr. Stokeburn," Daniel said from palisade. "I need your presence for a trial."
"I'm not agreeing to no trial."
"If you come inside this fort, you are."
"What is my crime?"
"A civil suit has been brought ag'in you for wantin' flimflammin' that removed the breadwinners from two families."
"Those Indians are out for our blood. There must be a hundred of them out there in the dark. How can you do this to your fellow white men?"
Daniel chuckled. "Mr. Stokeburn, the longer you stay here, the closer you are to being captured. I'm not sure what those warriors are gonna do with you boys. They're riled up good over those wild horses running off their herds. They might take your scalps and sell 'em to ole Hamilton the Hair Buyer up in Detroit."
"You mean to say you're just going to let those Indians capture us?"
"Yep. That's exactly what I'm sayin'. I told them they could have the lot of ya. The only chance you got is to make it through the Cumberland Pass before they catch ya. You might make it if you just start runnin' southeast from here and don't stop for three days."
Stokeburn jerked his felt hat off his head and threw it on the ground. "Boone, you're evil."
"And you were the angel that sold me up the river to the army?" Yad yelled.
"That was just business," Stokeburn answered.
"I suppose you were just being kind when you forced me to sell those worthless horses just to make your own pocket fatter?"
"Just business, Sergeant Yadkin. Have you decided to desert the army, boy? Desertion is a hanging offence."
"He's being held here as a witness," Daniel said.
A flurry of owl hoots wafted upon the air from the distant trees. The horses shifted about as if disturbed from some unseen force.
"Boone, in the name of mercy, let us in that fort."
"Sorry, we are closed to all flimflammers and skinners tonight."
"At least give us our horses."
"Nope. Those have been confiscated until the end of the trial to cover any judgments' made in the favor of the plaintiffs."
"Stokeburn, we gotta get, those Injuns are close," one of the skinners yelled in a trembling voice.
"Boys, they're so close they can hear you breathin'," Daniel said with a wide-mouthed grin. Chuckles arose along the wall.
Cincinnatus noticed Stokeburn treading cautiously across the meadow after his men. "Where's your boots, Stokeburn?"
"The Indians got everything. They got our boots, they got our guns, our food…"
The men on the palisades roared with laughter. The skinners kept moving towards the river.
Daniel yelled, "That river's too fast to swim across boys! Maybe you can catch those wild ponies and get a ride out of Kentucky…if you can hang on!"
Daniel and Cincinnatus returned to bed and went to sleep.
At dawn the next morning, Cincinnatus couldn't believe his old eyes when he saw long-legged Mingo striding across the meadow through the shifting fog. The twenty skinners trailed behind him, tiptoeing and stumbling in their stocking feet, roped together with strands of thick Virginia creeper. The two blue-coated soldiers walked free along side--still in their boots and smiling.
Cheers arose along the wall.
Daniel opened the gate. Menewa and Blackfish stood with him.
The frontiersman greeted his Cherokee friend with a big wide grin. "You didn't hurt anyone did you?"
"Dark Panther twisted his ankle trying to avoid being trampled by wild horses," Mingo said. "Otherwise, no. Blackfish you will find him at the buffalo crossing on the river north of here. The horses came through that narrow trace at full gallop as if spooked."
"Spirits?" Daniel asked with a contemptuous smile.
"Well," Mingo glanced at the two Yankee soldiers, "let's just say I had some spirited help."
Blackfish nodded. He motioned quickly for his men to follow him. They left the fort quietly and horseless.
"Caramingo, winner of all horses?" Menewa asked.
"Yep," Daniel said. "He took all the checkers on the board, Menewa."
Menewa crossed his dark brows for a moment then relaxed in a smile. The chief nodded contently.
"Mingo, what are you gonna do with all of these horses? Get Yad to sell 'em for ya?" Cincinnatus asked with a chuckle.
"I am going to give them to Yadkin."
Daniel raised his brows in surprise.
"One hundred head of horses for General Washington. Gift of the Cherokee people. And before I forget--" Mingo pulled a large bag out of his vest and shook it. It rang with the sound of coins. "I believe this is Yad's handiwork."
"It's not your war, Mingo," Daniel said.
"No, but Yad has found a cause that is bigger than his appetite. I don't want him to fail. I want to help him—as a friend."
"Why the sudden change of heart?" Cincinnatus asked.
"I had one unforeseen advantage." Mingo gestured towards the two soldiers. "I freed them first and they graciously assisted me when I told them I was Yadkin's friend. It seems Sergeant Yadkin has earned the respect and admiration of his men as well as General Washington. It made me feel I had been too dismissive of him."
Daniel smiled and nodded.
"We are gathered this morning to hear my decision regarding the sentencing of those found guilty in the cases of Hicklebein vs. Stokeburn and Wellit vs. Stokeburn."
"Amen!" Rance hollered.
Daniel frowned. "Rance this isn't church," the magistrate growled, "it's a court. "Now, only those called upon to speak are to speak."
"Oh, sorry, Dan'l, I got carried away," Rance said. The room erupted in chuckles forcing Daniel to put his hand up to quiet the unruly spectators.
"A prison for life would be the most appropriate sentence for the offenders gathered here," Daniel continued. "But seein' that we don't have a prison and no funds with which to buy one, I bestow instead the following sentences: I hereby sentence Mr. Strom Stokeburn to the payment of five dollars to Mrs. Hicklebein; then the plowing and seeding of the Boone fields until completion. The remainder of the money he garnered from the sale of the wild horses will be donated to the Continental Army. At the completion of his labors, he will be turned over to General Washington to do as his Excellency pleases with him."
"As for you skinners--"
"Dan'l," Cincinnatus called out. "Don't you forget my floor!"
"Cincinnatus, I'm gettin' to that."
"You skinners will be divided into two separate groups and proceed to undertake the plowing and seeding of the Hicklebein farm and the Wellit farm under the watchful eyes of these two fine soldiers who are skillful New England farmers. At the end of your labors, you will return to the fort and sand and plane this here floor under the supervision of Mr. Jones the proprietor of this much abused establishment."
Cincinnatus hooked his thumbs under his apron and smiled in triumph at the woeful skinners.
"Once you have completed your tasks of retribution," Daniel continued, "you will be turned over to General Washington to serve two years on the front line."
"Who's gonna oversee Strom, Dan'l?" J.D. asked. "Why, he don't even know the back from the front end of a plow."
"Does it matter, J.D.?" Meeley said. "Dan'l can hook him up to either end."
"I was gonna ask Sergeant Yadkin to be Strom's task master. What do you boys think about that?"
"Well, that's a judicious Amen!" yelled Rance.
"Strom," Yad bellowed, "I want those furrows straight as arrows now, or you'll be doin' it all over again." Yad stood next to Israel who sat on the split-rail fence grinning from ear to ear.
Stokeburn wiped his brow of the profuse sweat that had gathered there under the noonday sun. He glared at Yadkin but slapped the reins on the mule's back and trudged through the thick clod-strewn Kentucky black dirt that covered Daniel's wheat field. His former shiny boots were dull and covered with dust.
Daniel strolled out of the cabin with four cups of coffee. He handed one to Yadkin, one to Cincinnatus and one to Mingo. "Lookin' good, Yad. I couldn't have done it as well myself."
"That's for sure," Yad said.
"If he did it at all," Cincinnatus said.
"All right," Daniel said, "no need to rub my nose in my lack of talent in the farmin' trade."
"Yad, you're not gonna leave us now that we've got ya back?" Cincinnatus said.
"I gotta, Cincinnatus. I gotta return to General Washington and complete my enlistment."
"But that's not fair," Israel said. "You didn't sign up for that willin'."
Yadkin studied Israel for a minute. "Israel, just the same, General Washington gave me a second chance when he could o' hung me. He thinks I'm a good man. You don't want him thinkin' I'm just another Strom Stokeburn do you?"
Israel's pout made it clear he was not happy at all about Yad's talk about leavin'. "You can take me with ya. I'll tell General Washington about it all. I'll stand up for ya."
Yadkin smiled and glanced up at Daniel. "Israel, your gracious offer means a whole lot to me, but I'm not deservin'. Have you forgotten what I said to you before my trial?"
"Ah shucks, Yad, we all say things we don't mean when we are under a dress."
The men chuckled and grinned at each other.
"Israel likes to try out your big words, Mingo," Daniel said.
Mingo bent over and whispered, "I think you mean under duress, Israel."
"Yeah, that's what I said," the boy mumbled, annoyed at being the joke.
"Pa," Israel said, "why don't you just write a letter to Mr. Washington and tell him what happened. He'll let Yad stay here."
"Israel, I've offered to write a letter for Yadkin, and go with him back north to clear his name."
"Your Pa's done enough for me, Israel. Don't you think it's about time I done somethin' for myself?" Yad's blue eyes twinkled. His cheeks glowed a healthy pink when he grinned at the boy sitting at his shoulder. Boy and man were exactly the same but for size. "Listen, boy, I ain't gone yet. If we get Strom movin' a little faster, you and I can go fishin' this evenin'. How 'bout that?"
Israel smiled and looked off at Strom who was turning the mule to come back. "Strom, shake a leg dad-burn it. We ain't got time to sit here and watch you all day."
The men laughed, but Becky yelled from the cabin door, "Israel Boone, you don't talk like that to any man. That's Mr. Stokeburn to you young man."
"Oops," Yadkin said with a sheepish grin.
Israel jumped down from the fence. "Yad, can you help me catch that black and white horse before you leave? He wants to be my friend. He just can't find me."
"That horse don't wanna be caught," Yad said. "He's happiest runnin' wild and free. You want him to be happy don't ya?"
Israel dropped his chin to his chest.
"Israel," Daniel said, "the horses are grazin' in no-man's land north of the Kentucky river. Son, whenever we go for salt along the Blue Lick, we'll look for your stallion. Maybe we'll fetch home one of his foals."
"That sounds like a wonderful idea, Israel," Mingo said. "That would be a very special horse indeed that you raise from the time of his weaning."
Becky and Jemima came out on the porch. "Yad are you gonna have dinner with us today?" asked Becky.
Yad glanced worriedly at Daniel.
"You got that mutton and turnips ready?" Daniel said with a grin. "Yum."
"Oh Pa, you hate that as much as Yad," Jemima said. "We fixed Yad's favorite."
"And what would that be, Jemima?" Cincinnatus asked. "It sure does smell delicious."
"Chicken pot pie."
The men looked at each other with wide eyes. Mingo and Yad sprinted for the house. The women scurried inside screaming. Israel started to run after them, but Daniel grabbed his shoulder and stopped him in his tracks.
"What's wrong Pa? Ain't ya hungry? Yad and Mingo will eat it all."
"Oh, your Ma made enough to feed an army. I can see you're feelin' pretty sad right now because you had your heart set on that horse. But Yad's right. A wild horse is happiest free without the shackles of society. You just have to love 'em when they're with you, mostly from afar so as not to spook 'em, and let 'em go when they want to go."
"You mean like Yad, Pa?"
Daniel raised his brows obviously surprised that his son found a different lesson in his words than the one he intended. "Yep, I reckon that's so, too. You understand then?"
"Yeah, I reckon. I'm sure gonna miss him, but I'm glad we found out he's alive. I kept thinkin' on how that b'ar got him….now I don't have to think on that no more. There's somethin' that's been botherin' me though. I gotta ask ya…"
"Why didn't you go lookin' for Yad when he come up missin'? Didn't you think he might be hurt and need our help?"
"Yad and your pa had a row, Israel," Cincinnatus said. "They just about come to fisty-cuffs. Funny thing is I can remember that but I can't for the life of me remember what they were fightin' about."
Daniel groaned. "There was that supply haulin' fiasco when Yad hired those convicts and signed my name to their release papers. I was sorely mad at him for many moons over that."
"Hee hee, you sure were, Dan'l. That's what it was. I guess when Yad disappeared you thought.--" Cincinnatus stopped short and glanced at Israel.
Daniel grimaced. "Go ahead and say it, Cincinnatus—It's the truth--I was glad of it."
"Have you forgiven him for that, Pa?" Israel asked. "Has the good Lord changed your heart as Ma would say?"
"I don't know, Israel. Adult friendships are complicated." Daniel drew in his breath and held his mouth in a tight line as he let the air out slowly. "Israel, I was truly thankful to see Yad alive again, but I had a whole bundle of other thoughts that sort of crowded around and shouted that one down."
Cincinnatus chuckled. "I had the exact same experience upon the resurrection of Carolina E. Yadkin in the fort yard. I have to admit though I had missed that rowdy son-of-a-gun. Yad is a resourceful fella, but sometimes his thinkin' is all cattywhumpous to the way the rest of us think."
"Might be my anger drove him to Salem that day and made him careless," Daniel said. "Might be I need to talk to Yad about that. Israel, would it be all right if I join you and Yad at the riverbank after dinner?"
Israel's eyes lit up like two blue marbles. "Sure Pa! But I'm gonna catch the mostest and the biggest fish."
"We'll see about that. I've got some magic bait."
Israel scrunched up his face. "Let me see it."
Israel swung himself around on his heel and head for the porch. "Ah, I ain't afraid o' no magic invisible bait."
"Cincinnatus might you suffer to stay here and keep an eye on Mr. Stokeburn?" Daniel asked. "I'll bring you a big platter of chicken pot pie."
Cincinnatus scratched his chin. "Well, now, I should be servin' my custom back at the fort. I hadn't had much since Yad showed up--"
"Jericho can run that tavern for a couple of hours."
"That's what's got me worried. I'm a workin' man who should be about his work but I reckon I could be persuaded to sacrifice for the greater cause. Mr. Stokeburn do you have any objections to my company?"
Stokeburn grunted past Cincinnatus with the mules. "Just shoot me now," he mumbled between wheezy gasps of air, "so I don't have to look at you no more."
Daniel laughed on his way to the porch with Israel. "Cincinnatus just perch yourself up there on the rail and let him get a good look on every pass. It'll be the easiest work you've ever done."