We sit by the Boone family hearth, sipping hot cider and eating pumpkin pie. A medley of savory scents hangs in the air: cinnamon, nutmeg and hickory wood. The orange and blue flames in the great fireplace make dancing lights upon the log walls. Outside the snowflakes as big as your palm drift down like goose feathers loose from the ticking. White ice tinsels the trees and hangs like icing along the roof edge. Winter has dressed the land for holiday but we must work at dawn to clear a path in the snow even though we know the cobalt blue air will sting our faces and freeze our breath. After the work, we will share a bountiful breakfast of sizzling pork bacon and fluffy biscuits slathered with sorghum and butter. Then we will part. Cincinnatus and Jericho will return to the fort. Yad and Daniel will leave for Salem. Mingo will head home to Chota with his captured Shawnee ponies. The ponies stomp and snort in the makeshift shed Mingo, Daniel and Yadkin built. The beasts are warm with the pelts and venison packed on their backs. Yadkin and Daniel's loaded pack mules are keeping the ponies company. Tonight we sing an old sentimental song in three-part harmony with Daniel on sweet-talker, Mingo on guitar, and Cincinnatus on fiddle. Then we sit quiet for a long spell. We hear the crackle of the fire and the soft sifting snow striking the window glass. The silence wraps us snug and secure like a mound of Grandma's great warm quilts. We are taken aback as we gaze upon our glowing faces for we have seen us for the first time and we know ever-ticking time like a clever fox will steal us away. Israel pops corn. Becky cracks chestnuts. Jemima knits a pink blanket for a friend's New Year baby. Mingo and Yad play a friendly game of checkers. Our cheeks are rosy and our eyes sparkle with a healthy joy. Then Jericho says, I plan to head back east in the spring. I'm going to be an artist and paint miniature portraits of rich people and make cutout paper silhouettes of their pets and children. I want to take Jemima with me to be my wife—if that's all right with everyone.
Ooh, that rash Jericho! I feel the hot flush of my face and I cannot hide. How can he do this to me? I told him last week I would think on it. I'm only fifteen. This decision is bigger than me. It's bigger than the domed blue Kentucky sky. I have to talk to my friends. My married friends seem happy but…Betsy has to skin deer and beaver and tan hides all the day long. Her beautiful hands are now calloused and wrinkled. Mary and Katie both married farmers. At least their men are at home every night, but they are now mothers with two hungry children apiece and one in the oven. They are no longer dancing young fillies, though not one of them is over seventeen. I love my Pa dearly, but I don't want my Mama's life. No, not at all.
If I have to stay in this stinkin' kettle of backwoods misery one more day, I'm going to die. I don't care what anyone thinks of me but Jemima. She says she understands, but why does she hesitate when I offer her an escape? That itinerate artist that came last month studied my pile of drawings and said I had talent. Can I help it if I like to draw the animals instead of shooting them? Cincinnatus laughs at me. He says I'm going to doodle my life away. He calls me a doodlehead. I don't want to be like him living my life out here hawking wares. That's no life at all. When I'm not hauling and toting for Cincinnatus, I'm sitting by my lonesome in that stuffy cramped storeroom not big enough to stretch my legs in. If she loves me like she says she does, why doesn't she just come out and say yes? What is there for a girl to think on?
Jemima a wife? Will Jericho sleep with Jemima and me in the loft? Am I gonna lose my bed? No, he's takin' her away back East. That's a relief. I'll have the loft to myself and I'll get her share of the pie.
The Shawnee burned out Katie and her husband last summer so now they have no money and are living on credit like everyone else. Only Cincinnatus has money. What does that old liquor-peddling codger do with his silver? Does he sock it away somewhere? Jericho says he keeps it in jars buried under the storeroom. How does Jericho know that, is he a thief? Oh…do I love him anyway?
Poor Jemima. He wants to be an artist. I wonder what Dan thinks? I can imagine what he'll say, well…that's about what I'd expect of the boy. He ain't much good at woodcraft…and he don't like to work. Painting doodads ain't work. But, what if Jericho could make a living at it? If that itinerant artist thought he had talent maybe he really does. The life of a town lady could fit my pearl, Jemima, like a silk glove. I would spare her this lonely scratching, clawing, wanting and waiting life if I could. Is it vain to want your daughter to keep her beauty and your grandchildren to have nice clothes and go to town schools? I will let Daniel advise his daughter. It's hard. It's real hard…
An artist? That explains why the frontier and Jericho are not a good fit. He sees the world differently through shape, color, line and design, not by practical utility. He must follow his instincts and his gifts or he will not be content. His people will not understand. Already Cincinnatus belittles him for being different. That is the way of the world. We are all misfits.
I'm a tree. Dan'l says I grow a layer o' bark each year and pretty soon I'm gonna grow roots and be a durn tree.
The durn fool. What's Dan'l gonna think of that? An artist? The durn fool. Why doesn't he think on inheritin' my business and my money? I got a hoard o' money 'cause I got no one to spend it on. I'm too old to marry and have children. I know these younglings think o' me as the fort ogre. Their wants are often a puzzle to me. I've told the boy the way to wealth is to take risks, as long as you don't end up burned out and knocked in the head by Indians. He says, yeah, Cincinnatus that there is the problem with your thinking. What good is money if you're dead? I got no family though and now this Jericho is talkin' 'bout leavin' to go back east to be an artist. The durn fool.
…but most of all when you lie stiff at night wondering if your husband is going to make it home alive, or if he makes it home will he have enough deer hides to pay down the debt. The debt. It hangs like a gray veil around us. How much of that does Jemima know? Daniel and I never speak of it in front of the children, but late at night when Jemima is abed on the down in the loft, do our whispers tickle her ears?
Now Jericho tells me he wants to travel all over Europe like artists are supposed to do. The Grand Tour he calls it. Where did he get these notions in his head? I can't imagine me in Europe. I would feel like a waddling quacking duck at a fancy ball. Is it anything like Williamsburg with its cobbled streets and whale oil lamps? Oh, but to walk the same streets as Shakespeare or Voltaire! What an adventure that would be. I giggle at the frightful vision. Pa knows I love adventure but I would miss my family here—well all of them but Israel. He's such a brat! Jericho says if we are to wed, I have to decide now to go with him because he isn't coming back. Does he still dream of that Creek girl? How could he love her enough to risk war with the Creeks one day, and love me the next day? Oh, when is Pa going to say no and put an end to Jericho's nonsense? Do I love Jericho?
Jemima has fallen in love with a pretty face. She'll be torn up inside like a bag of rags thinking on it. I know my girl. She is bold. That's her father's share. She is sensible. That's her mother's share. But, will she stay and wait for another…or go? I dare not guess. My heart will crack like this chestnut I hold and I will cry sweet bitter tears. I know Dan will say they don't have enough money to marry, but what did I and Dan have when we wed? Only the promise of a future together. A promise can't hold water.
I shoulda married Donna back in Carolina. She said yes. I told her I was born to be a trail blazer and a trail blazer I would be. She said no. I still remember Donna's kisses and caresses. She was all girl—frilly and fussy, soft and pretty. She pleaded with doe eyes sure that I'd be the hunter who'd take her home as a pet. It scared me to death, but she made me laugh. O' course, I loved her. People don't think I remember 'cause I let on that I don't care. I'll ne'er find another like Donna. I ain't no tree.
I shan't waste time thinking on it till Pa speaks his mind. Why doesn't he say something? Will Mama be disappointed if I say yes--or if I say no? Jericho is the only man on hand not counting Yad and Mingo. They're my uncles, I can't very well marry one of them, though I love them both dearly. At least they behave like men, not boys, or do they? They calmly play that silly game of checkers when my life is teetering on the very edge of a cliff. I wish they would tell me why they aren't married, but I know they won't and I shan't ask. It was just yesterday I wanted to marry them both and made them laugh. It was their eyes. Torn between Mingo's deep murky black and Yad's clear sky blue, I thought I could have them both. I was a silly girl. I'm so confused. Do I love Jericho? Does love or money make a marriage? I have to talk to Ma and Pa about it tomorrow. Oh, knit five purl three knit five. I will have to take out all these stitches and do it again. I'm going to bed.
How can anyone blame me for picking up drawing? If the good lord gives you a talent aren't you to use it? We were cuddling and kissing like two squirrels out by the woodshed when I tried out the idea of going back east. She froze and pushed me away as if I were a stray mutt. Is she astonished at my boldness or repulsed? That's not a manly thing to be doing with your life Jericho, she says without a blink of her blue eye before she scurries up the ladder to the loft to bed. I am stunned and deflated like a gutted calf. Oh, well. I guess I'll stay here and work for Cincinnatus a year and save my money so my bright jewel Jemima can say yes. I hear tell they paint houses back east in colors like yellow, blue and green making the streets gay and lively. Imagine that? Maybe I'll be a house painter and paint Boonesborough. I'm going outside to cool off.
I will enter Chota with a proud strut with my ponies, pelts and venison. Everyone will see that Caramingo still has his youth, his skill and his cunning. But, when I am old, childless, visited by the village widows, no longer able to steal ponies or hunt deer, what will they think of me then? What of that other Mingo? The Oxford graduate that runs along beside me like a phantom deer? He too is skillful, cunning, sharp like a knife's edge. He is wealthier than a king and refined like vintage wine. His doting wife and children will care for him when he is old. He lives in a grand home built of stone with a hearth and oiled wood bookshelves full of leather-bound books. I can smell that leather. I fear that phantom is overtaking this Cherokee and there is no woman walking this earth who can accept both of me.
I'll be a hunter when I grow up just like Pa. What else can a man do but hunt? But, Pa says we may have to move again to go where the huntin' is good. Ma and Pa talk about money all the time. They don't think I hear but I do. It's worrisome. If you ain't got any money you can't buy gunpowder to hunt. If you can't hunt, you starve. If it comes to that, I'll take Hannibal and run away so we don't get et.
Well, the woeful blissful day has come. Jericho wants to go back east to make his life and he wants to take my darling daughter with him. I had other pictures in my mind of how 'Mima's life would be. They all hinged on my own dreams of glory, wealth and freedom on the frontier. I got a farthing's worth of the first, a shortage of the second and am plumb drunk on the third. I'll let Becky advise her daughter. I'm still as shocked as a corn sprout that my Becky said yes when I proposed. I can't tell Jericho he's wrong headed. He's just an unhappy harnessed ferret on the frontier. That's plain to see. So what if he heads back east and this art thing doesn't work out? He'll get a job like any other man and Jemima will be safe and sound in a town. He'll see that she is cared for and that's all that I ask.
We sit and smile and drink more cider. In a flickering moment, out of the cold Kentucky darkness, the sun of our encircling love shines radiant and warm. But, alas, it is the same with such moments and snowflakes: they fade just as you grab them and pass into fragile memory. Israel burns the corn. Becky clamps the nutcracker down on her thumb. Mingo beats Yadkin at checkers for the hundredth time so Yad must toss the game board and checkers across the room. They fall with a clatter to the floor awakening dozing Cincinnatus from his mumbling dream. Daniel breaks a string on sweet-talker ending his tune with a tinny twang. Jemima goes to bed. Jericho trudges out in the snow for more wood. He runs back in and says, "Mr. Boone, the wind has caught that makeshift shed and blown it to kingdom come and the ponies and mules must have flown with it 'cause they're all gone."