A Thousand Steps
The Latest Historical Novel from Anita Bunkley...
Excerpt from A Thousand Steps
Tama boldly took a step deeper into the yard, as if daring the man to approach. Her arm began to quiver from the tension in her grip so she slowly relaxed her fingers, but did not lower the knife.
The Indian started walking toward her. Tama sucked in a short breath but did not back up. Standing her ground, she kept her eyes riveted on the man, whose long stride put him, quickly, less than two feet from where she stood. Summoning all of her courage, Tama absorbed his presence. His bearskin cape was heavily beaded down the front and a wedge of silver as wide as the span of Tama's hand gleamed at his throat. Clearly, he was not a common rag-tag Indian out to pilfer food or steal livestock, but a man of some stature among his people. When he moved closer, Tama came alert.
"Stay back!" she warned, brandishing her knife, assuming he spoke English. Since the arrival of the missionary schools among the Indians, the majority of the Creek and the Cherokee in the Carolina mountains spoke English very well.
Without acknowledging her warning, the Indian rushed past Tama and stormed into the cabin, where he stood and looked around, as if searching for something in particular. Even though he appeared unarmed, she knew better than to relax her guard, so she raised the knife and followed him inside.
"Who are you? What do you want?" she boldly demanded, lifting the weapon to remind him that she was armed. "Are you the Indian that attacked a soldier?" she pressed, letting him know she knew what had happened. "If so, you'd better keep moving because men are on the mountain, looking for you."
"Where is your food? Your guns?" he threw out, as if she hadn't spoken.
"I have no food or guns," she tossed back. "You go! Leave me alone!" She waved the kitchen knife back and forth in a lame attempt to scare him off.
Without comment, the Indian began to search the cabin, kicking at heaps of broken wood and piles of rubbish as he tore through every corner of the shelter. Grunting his displeasure, he headed to the spot beneath the eaves where Tama slept, snatched up her blanket, shook it hard, and dumped the contents of her bag onto the floor. Squatting down, he raked through Tama's meager possessions, making it clear he had no use for the small items he found.
Tama stiffened in disgust, though relieved to have hidden the bark pouch of food beneath the bib of her dress. If he tries to take it, I will use my knife to slash his throat, she vowed, keeping her eyes on his back, struck by the star-like pattern of snowflakes on his dark fur cape. His head was uncovered and his shiny black hair was knotted in a tail that lay on his back like a slick black snake.
"They will catch you," she warned, watching the snowflakes melt. "Men with long guns are tracking you right now, and they will turn you over to the Army to be hanged."
For the first time since entering the cabin he actually looked into her face. "I'm not worried about the men who hunt me," he bluntly replied in perfect English. "They track far to the east and will never get to me." His bold assessment of the situation hung in the air, as if he had no fear of being captured.
"Others will come," Tama challenged.
"No one is coming here, you are alone."
"How do you know I'm alone?" Tama snapped. "You've been hanging around here, watching me, haven't you?"
The Indian frowned at her but did not reply. Instead, he shrugged off his thick bearskin pelt and placed it on the floor in front of the near-dead fire. Tama glanced down at her knife, and then back to the fugitive, considering her next move. Throwing the knife at his back would only escalate the situation, which so far did not seem threatening. He wanted food, guns, maybe shelter and warmth, so it might be best to leave him alone and see what he would do.
"I will go at daybreak," he stated, kneeling before the fire to press a handful of twigs into the smoldering flames. Immediately, pale yellow light bathed the gloomy space and cast his oversized shadow on the wall. Deciding to ignore him, Tama grabbed her blanket and moved into a corner across the room, but did not let go of the knife. Crouching down, she took her time studying the Indian, taking in the sheen of youth that glistened on his copper profile. Strong arm muscles bulged beneath his oiled deerskin shirt, which was tied at the waist with a knotted hemp belt strung with bits of yellow stone. His leather breeches were well constructed and fit his long legs like a second skin and they showed no scars of wear that naturally adorned the clothing of a more common man. His moccasins, soaking wet and splashed with mud, came nearly to his knees, giving evidence of his arduous journey.
"What is your name?" Tama ventured.
"Hakan," he replied without turning around to look at her.
"You speak English very well."
"It is important to speak the language of those who want to control my fate."
He's smart, Tama decided, struck by a spark of sympathy for him. She hoped he did not sense how truly unafraid she was or how much she welcomed his company. No one had ever turned to her in time of need and asked her for help. He was alone, on the run, and hungry. Just as she was. And it was clear he had no intention of harming her. Tama slipped a hand beneath the bib of her dress and removed the pouch of food the trader had given her.
"I do have a little food," she confessed, extending a dried piece of fruit and a strip of meat toward Hakan.
He turned then, a flicker of gratitude skimming his features as he looked at Tama, then down at the food she was offering. His expression initiated a sense of relief that made Tama begin to relax. "Take the food and warm yourself, but please be gone as soon as light hits the sky."
Hakan accepted the food, returned to the hearth, and sat cross-legged in front of the fire as he bent his head to eat. Tama retreated to a shadowy corner under the eaves and watched him as he ate. Was it bravery, curiosity, sympathy, or stupidity that made her feel so safe? Would she regret her impulsive act of kindness when he attacked her in the middle of the night?
Only time will tell, Tama resolved, suddenly exhausted, even though a calmness settled over her spirit. Sliding down onto the floor, she wrapped her fully clothed body in the striped horse blanket and willed herself asleep.
The Cincinnati port was a bustling tangle of men, women, children, horses, livestock, and brawny dockworkers loading crates and barrels of goods to be delivered up river. The scene was a rough and tumble mix of excited travelers and hardened crew, all eager for the Belle Ohio to get underway. The huge steamer, which could accommodate four hundred passengers and twenty tons of goods, gleamed white in the morning sunlight, and resembled a frilly three-tier wedding cake complete with turned spindles and gingerbread fretwork adorning every deck. Elinore tucked her white lace handkerchief into the sleeve of her charcoal gray traveling coat and lifted little Ben high, propping him up with both of her arms. Leaning against the steamboat's rail, she turned his face toward Sara, hoping to give her mother a final glimpse of the grandson she might never see again.
"Wave good-bye to Gramma," Elinore urged, taking hold of Ben's tiny hand to shake it at her mother, who was frantically waving her own white linen kerchief back and forth as the Belle Ohio pulled away from the wharf. Loud cheers erupted from the passengers as the steamer's whistle sounded and its huge paddles groaned to a start, initiating the vessel's journey up river. "I'll write …. as often as I can…." Elinore shouted down at Sara, screaming over the loud blast from the side-wheeler's horn. The rush of the flat wooden paddles as they churned the river water added to the cacophony of riverfront noise that drowned out her words. For a long time after the triple-tier steamboat slid into the swift moving Ohio River, Elinore remained at the rail, clutching her son, holding back tears, and watching as the crush of people at the dock gradually blocked her mother from view.
Now that Elinore’s trip was under way, she was determined not to falter. She had made her decision to abandon the comforts of life in the city with her mother, to leave civilized amenities behind, and there would not be any tears. Her chest grew tight when she thought about the long journey ahead, the dangers that awaited, the tests of will and perseverance that she would surely face, but she refused to let such worries take hold. She'd heard many horror stories about Indian raids, deathly sickness, intense hunger, and backbreaking travel that plagued the men and women who made the trip west, but she could not allow such talk to frighten her or tarnish her determination to be with Paul.
Looking down at Ben’s wispy yellow hair, Elinore knew she was doing right by her son,taking him to live with his father. Even though he would grow up far from the tight knit community she loved so much, where he would have been watched over and fussed over and adored by his widowed grandmother, she and Paul would give him a life filled with adventure and love. This was the sacrifice Elinore decided to make the day she married Paul, and if she wanted to hold her family together, this was the course she was willing to take.
The steamboat paddled its way up the river as the restless energy of the long-awaited departure faded. Elinore could hear the crew calling back and forth from the lower deck as they stoked the twin engines with wood, sending sooty plumes of black smoke shooting from the tall smoke stack. Passengers fanned out to find their assigned quarters, and Ben, dressed warmly in his rabbit fur leggings and jacket, toddled alongside Elinore as they pushed through the crowd of excited passengers to locate the cabin they would occupy for the next five days.
At the top of the hill behind the hotel, Julee stopped and turned around. She stared down the slope that ended at the river, where campfires burned among the jumble of wagons and people who were preparing for their long trek into the prairie. It was the most magnificent sight Julee had ever seen, and she yearned to be sitting beneath the flutter of white canvas when the wagons pulled out, listening to the clanking metal, the braying mules, and the river camp songs the people always sang. She was desperate to leave St. Louis but had few options: She could sign on with a white family headed to California, Oregon, or Colorado, but they'd work her harder than Daisy ever did and make her life even more miserable than it already was. She could leave Daisy's house and try to find a real paying job so she could save money to pay her way west. But that would take years, and she didn't want to wait that long.
Turning to face the boarding house, she was surprised to see a dim light shining in the window of her room. I'll bet Daisy's in there, snooping around, going through my things. Maybe even tossing them out, Julee calculated, her anger rising to recall how nasty the woman had been to her. The ham hocks Julee had taken to the family on the river had been so rancid they were hardly fit to eat, and the lady at the river had been so grateful she'd cried when Julee handed her the meat. Daisy was just mad because Julee had given the meat away rather than throw it out as she'd been told to do.
Moving faster, Julee headed toward the house, pulling in long breaths, determined to find out what Daisy was up to. The only good thing about living with the cranky old woman was that Julee had a room of her own, even though it was no more than a dark cubbyhole behind the kitchen chimney. Too warm, even during winter months when ice covered the windows and water froze in the pump.
The rain-soaked ground beneath Julee's boots was soft and squishy. Each step she took splashed mud onto her cotton stockings and dirtied the hem of her dress. Reaching into her apron pocket, she pulled out the key to the back door, which Daisy had forgotten to take from her when she ordered her out of the house. Julee slipped into the stifling warm kitchen, rinsed her face and hands in the pail of water by the chimney, and then went to the pie safe and removed a square tin box from behind the cracker barrel. Spilling the contents into her hand, she counted the money. Nine dollars and thirty-three cents. Not nearly enough to pay her share of expenses on a wagon going west. The familiar pull of disappointment cut sharp and deep as she curled her fingers over the assorted coins and paper. Her hazelnut hands were covered with rough red patches and there were deep cracks in her skin and fingernails from scrubbing charred pots, washing floors, and cleaning up behind the messy boarders who came and went at Daisy's.
Discouraged, Julee put the money back into the tin, pushed it deep into the corner, and then closed the pie safe door. She refused to keep anything of value in her room because Daisy had no respect for anybody's privacy. If she ever found Julee's money, she'd keep it. Daisy went into any room at will, and most likely through the boarder's things, too. After all, as Daisy always told Julee, didn't everything in the house belong to her?
Well, I don't belong to her, or anyone else, Julee inwardly vowed while spreading her quilt on the floor. She lay down close to the black iron stove and stared into the dark. "But I sure wish I knew where I did belong," she murmured, turning onto her side.
Author: Anita Richmond Bunkley www.anitabunkley email@example.com
Published by Rinard Publishing
Cypress, Texas USA
First Printing January 2013
Copyright © Anita Richmond Bunkley