Autumn, 1784, the Allegheny Mountains of Western Virginia, the Scots-Irish Gathering in the McNeal Homestead
Guilt pricked Karin’s conscience. Stealth was at odds with her nature, but an inner voice summoned her, an irresistible melody. She instinctively knew where the music came from and that she must heed the age-old rhythm.
She crept into the main room. The dancers had succumbed to grogginess. Shadowy figures slumbered before the reddish-orange logs in the hearth, rolled up in blankets and deerskins on the floor boards. Other dark forms were bedded down in the loft overhead. Some hardy souls had ventured out into the wind-tossed night after the startling end to the celebration. They’d headed home, but many folks remained within the stout walls of the homestead.
Popping wood settled in the hearth with a shower of orange sparks. Karin paused in mid-step.
No one stirred, except to snore and grunt in their sleep. Generous draughts of strong drink contributed to their unresponsive stupor. Saint Peter himself would have been hard-pressed to wake them. Like a vagrant spirit, she easily stole through the sprawled assembly and into the chamber where they’d taken Jack McCray.
A single candle burned on the circular bedside stand. The fringed pouch which laid on its walnut surface had been stained with use and the horn worn translucent so that it revealed the black powder within. The potentially lethal tomahawk gleamed in the flickering light. That same glow illuminated its owner stretched out in Joseph’s place, his long torso and legs spread the length of the mattress.
She needn’t worry that Jack grew chilled. Two brown striped wool blankets snugly wrapped him. She stopped beside his slumbering form, trembling with the cold and shaken by her daring in being where none would want her, except possibly the recipient of her scrutiny. Thankfully, he was unaware of her presence.
Had Jack even known what words escaped his lips when he’d whispered that strange message to her? Likely it was simply the wanderings of a confused mind borne of injury, but mystery veiled everything about the handsome stranger. Even lying there senseless, he drew her as if on the keenest wind.
She trailed her eyes over his face, pale beneath his bronzed skin, though not as drained of color as she’d feared. The covers rested partway down his muscular shoulders and chest. White linen swathed his upper right arm where she’d applied the bandage. As far as she knew the only clothing he wore was an elkskin breechclout and a woven belt at his waist. He wouldn’t part with his knife. Grandpa had stripped off all else.
The restraints of modesty posed no hindrance to Neeley who’d sponged more of their guest than was seemly for Karin to do. An herbal scent clung to Jack’s clean skin and his freshly combed chestnut hair spread over the pillow. Unaccustomed to a man in this state of undress, Karin returned her close study to his face, disturbingly attractive with a familiar quality in his youthful but ruggedly masculine features.
His even brow and nose bore a strong resemblance to Joseph’s, not so large as to be out of proportion, but distinctive and definitely McCray. Beneath the dark whiskers roughening his firm chin she saw the same small cleft, a family trait. Jack lacked his brother’s reddish tones, though, and was a warm brown from his sun-kissed skin to his hair. More like Uncle Thomas.
Here lay no boy newly sprung to manhood, but a well-honed frontiersman and Lord only knew what else. Joseph paled in comparison with his striking brother, partly because Jack was new and different. Wonderfully so. But she couldn’t stand and stare at him all night.
She laid her hand on his forehead, relieved to find no sign of fever. Neeley was familiar with all the healing herbs and had taught Karin well. Jack’s robust health would also aid his recovery. Confident he was on the mend, Karin let her curious inspection drift to the white stone suspended from the leather cord around his neck. Pink lights in the quartz shimmered with rosy iridescence. Intrigued, she reached out her hand to the polished surface—freezing as he groaned.
His eyes opened. In that instant, any resemblance between the brothers vanished. Jack’s seeing, yet not seeing, gaze fixed on her with a feral gleam.
Fear rushed through her. Snatching her hand away, she spun around.
Not fast enough.
She gasped as he snagged her wrist and jerked her down onto the bed. Snaking his sound arm around her chest, he pinned both arms at her sides. His injured limb was equally able—the pain seemingly forgotten in his craze.
Whipping out his knife, he poised it at her throat. Just like that, she was a heart-pounding slice away from death. Surely her chest would burst.
“What do you want?” he demanded hoarsely.~
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***The powder horn and pouch pictured above once belonged to Daniel Boone but has been stolen. For more on that visit: http://www.boonesociety.org/articles/danielboonpowderhorn.htm
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