Autumn 1784, Theof Western Virginia, the
~A Blustery Autumn Night
Hard-won instinct warned Jack to stay awake, though lethargy weighed him down. That blast in the night came on the heels of a hellish journey through the mountains. He had a vague awareness of the astonished folk gathered around him, and caught himself fading in and out of consciousness.
He fought to remain alert. A bed made up before the hearth would have suited him just fine, but the two McNeal men half-carried him through the parting host and into one of the back rooms.
The pain in his shoulder roused him to greater awareness as they hoisted him onto a bedstead curtained in checked maroon cloth. Ages ago, he’d slept in a bed, but not one with feather ticking, sheets, and his head cushioned on a bolster with pillows. If it weren’t for the gnawing ache he might’ve thought he’d died and gone to heaven.
He closed heavy eyelids, opening them again to find the candle in the iron holder on the bedside stand alight. Another glowed from the top of the washstand. The dancing flames cast long shadows on the plastered log walls and the faces hovering above him.
This definitely wasn’t heaven.
His mother’s imposing husband, John McNeal, stood over him with grudging acceptance in his keen blue eyes. Mister McNeal’s strapping son, Thomas, appraised him with narrow-eyed skepticism. If Jack were able-bodied, there’d likely be a reckoning with these two formidable males—might still be. Reckonings were all too familiar in his world.
Joseph swam into Jack’s vision. Little brother regarded him as though not fully persuaded he wasn’t a spirit. Ah, but Joseph was the ghost, the image of their big auburn-haired father.
A pang knifed through Jack. He didn’t know exactly when his father had died, or his mother remarried. Not that he begrudged her bettering her lot with the McNeals, but his father had been a fine man. Jack faintly recalled his even temper and hearty laugh. He’d been a crack shot, a skill Jack had inherited but failed to use tonight. He hadn’t gotten off a single volley at his attacker, the sneaky bastard.
Joseph slipped Jack’s buckskin pouch and powder horn from his injured shoulder and laid them on the bedside stand along with his tomahawk. Sliding a strong arm beneath Jack’s neck, he tilted his head and held a mug to his lips. “Sip this.”
Jack gratefully swallowed sip after sip. The brandy warmed his raw throat and he prayed it would numb everything else.
“Are you daft, Jack?” Joseph pushed him down onto the mattress. “I’ll see to your horse in a bit.”
“Stallion—take care—” he cautioned through gritted teeth.
Joseph held him still. “I know about stock.”
Peki meant far more than that. Jack chafed to think of such a valuable animal left to stand out in this foul weather for any length of time, then John McNeal drew a wicked looking knife and gave him something else to worry over. Jack could only hope the older man still retained full use of his sight as he sliced through his bloody sleeve, spoiling his favorite shirt—damn, his lucky shirt. Well he was alive, wasn’t he?
John’s gruff voice intruded on his mute protest. “Sarah, sit you down before you drop. Neeley’ll wash the wound.”
Head in her hands, Jack’s mother slumped on the stool at the end of the bed. The poor woman couldn’t cease to weep and seemed on the verge of collapse. His conscience goaded him, a rather unfamiliar, disagreeable prodding. Clearly, she’d held him dear to her heart all these years, while his memories of her were dim. Nor had he made any effort to return sooner.
Jack slid his eyes over the people hovered about him in search of the angel he’d seen earlier and spoken to briefly, but she was keeping her distance. Some females took time to grow on him before he found them pleasing. Not this fresh beauty. Her face and slender figure grabbed him the instant he’d spotted her. She wasn’t at all as he’d imagined.
It crossed his clouded mind that he’d frightened her and must make amends if he hoped to have another word, or anything else, with this rare creature. Of her heritage, there could be no doubt. It was stamped in her face and coloring, but the bewilderment in her blue-gray eyes betrayed her ignorance.
She didn’t know. How was that possible?
Before he had the opportunity to conjecture, the matriarch called Neeley bustled into the room with a steaming basin of what Jack supposed, from the herbal scent wafting in the mist, was a medicinal wash.
“Thomas, see Sarah gets to bed and brew her a cup of betony. That’ll calm her,” Neeley directed.
“Come on, Sarah. You’ll do better with a rest and some tea.” Thomas helped his stepmother to her feet and guided the unsteady woman from the room and through the assembly clustered beyond the door. Murmurs of sympathy accompanied her departure.
Then Neeley set the white porcelain bowl on the washstand and squinted down at Jack like a hen hunting for spilt grain. She gestured with bent fingers at the girl peering from behind John McNeal’s bulk. “Karin, come closer. You’re my hands, lass.”
Her eyes, too, Jack suspected. Looking past her, he watched in fascination and relief as Karin edged nearer the bed. He much preferred her to tend his injury, but if he spooked her she’d bolt. A skittish mare if ever he saw one. Teeth clenched against the pain, he tried to appear unthreatening. Maybe he could entice her closer.
Mister McNeal cut away the last of Jack’s sleeve and slid his eyes over him without a flicker of expression. He handed the bloody cloth to Joseph. “Toss this in the fire and go see to his horse. We’ll tend your brother.”
Joseph hesitated, loathe to leave his long-lost sibling, perhaps. No. His eyes shifted protectively to Karin with more than a trace of yearning in their depths.
So, that’s how the land lies. Jack wondered if she felt the same about Joseph, annoyed that he cared if she did. Why should he give a damn who she favored?
“Karin will bear up. She’s seen worse,” John assured the reluctant young man.
This left John McNeal, Neeley, and Karin, but she still hung back. Neeley had banned everyone else from the room. Evidently she was in her glory now. Dipping the towel in the aromatic water, she lit into Jack. “What the—” he jerked and nearly swore.
The old woman didn’t falter and sponged the blood from his arm and throbbing shoulder. No doubt she tried to be careful, but failed.
“John, you’ll want to take these wet clothes off him before he catches his death.”
Jack balled his hands into fists under the zealous healer’s ministration. “Not just yet,” he intervened, unwilling to drive Karin away. The modesty he sensed in her would surely balk at such a manly display of bare flesh.
A wince crossed Karin’s expressive features as if she, too, were in pain. “Let me see to him, Aunt.”
She gave a nod. “I’ll fetch fresh water.” Dropping the crimson rag in the bowl, she sloshed from the room.
Karin took a clean linen towel from the rod above the washstand. “Never fear. I shall be gentle, sir.”
Jack hadn’t been called sir ever and it bemused him that this hesitant maiden fretted over his emotional state. Someone, perhaps his mother, had brought her up to be a lady. “I’m sure you will, Miss.”
She dabbed his shoulder dry, then dipped her small hand into the pungent crock. Pursing rose-tinged lips, she smeared the aromatic paste on his wound. “I’ll give the salve a while to work before I dig the ball out and stitch you up. Ever had woundwort, sir?”
“Dulls the pain right well.” Jack hid a grimace. Even her soft touch stung like the devil, but he wouldn’t push her away for anything. He was too distracted by the dimple in her chin, the purity of her lightly bronzed complexion, the sweep of her dark lashes, and the way her smooth brow puckered in concentration.
A tendril of hair as black as a raven’s wing with the beguiling tendency to curl slipped across her blushed cheek. He wanted to reach out and smooth it back, and her mouth fairly begged to be kissed, though he doubted she’d ever felt a man’s heated lips on hers before. Joseph struck him as far too cautious to press her for anything so daring without her full compliance.
“I’ll see you properly bandaged and dosed,” she continued, seemingly unaware of Jack’s absorption. “Aunt Neeley taught me about tinctures and fever drinks, Mister McCray.”
“I’m obliged to you. Call me Jack,” he coaxed, willing her to look at him.
“We’re nearly family,” he reminded her, instantly kicking himself for the incestuous implication.
She lifted clear eyes to his in unwavering innocence, like twin stars rising in the twilight blue. “You don’t seem a bit like my stepbrother.”
He smiled at her despite the bite in his arm. “Good. You aren’t in the least like a sister.”
“Humph,” John McNeal grunted. “You’ve an able tongue in your head for one accustomed to Indian talk.”
Jack shifted his gaze to the grumbling patriarch. How could sweet Karin come from that old he-wolf? “My adopted father wanted me educated. I spent many hours under the tutoring of a captive minister.”
Mister McNeal gave a cursory nod. “I like to see a fellow get some learning so he can read the scriptures.”
“I can read anything, even Latin,” Jack muttered, remembering the endless drill.
“That so? You been with the tribe all this time?”
The dubious Scotsman rubbed his hand over the gray stubble on his chin. “The Indians let you go?”
“My adopted parents are dead and my older brother couldn’t keep me on my lead. I come and go as I please now.”
Eyes narrowed, John McNeal stabbed a thick finger at him. “Then why in blazes didn’t you return sooner?”
Jack bristled in turn. “There was a war on.”
“Aye. There was. Which side did you fight for?”
He met his stepfather’s glare in simmering defiance. After a tight lipped standoff, he said, “War’s over, Mister McNeal. Remember?”
“You watch that talk, John McNeal,” Neeley scolded as she reappeared with the steaming basin. “This young man’s been through only God knows what. Don’t you go growling at him.”
“That’s no excuse. The traitor.”
Karin’s hand shook against Jack’s shoulder. “Grandpa, please. We don’t know his story yet.”
Fire shot through John’s McNeal’s blue eyes and they burned into Jack. “’Tis a tale I don’t want you hearing, lass. If he’s to stay with us, he starts fresh. And don’t you go getting over friendly with my granddaughter, Jack McCray.”
A condition Jack had no intention of honoring.
“Ms. Trissel’s alluring style of writing invites the readers into a world of fantasy and makes it so believable it is spellbinding.” ~Camellia at Long and Short Reviews
***The Bearwalker’s Daughter (A revised version of Daughter of the Wind) is available for .99 in Amazon Kindle.