I was almost killed before breaking my fast.
I am sure this was not our father’s intention, when he sent for my sister and me to come to him at his post in the Wilderness, but then so many things had gone wrong since Papa had been ordered to the Colonies, that I was almost past caring by the time the Iroquois came screaming out of the murky green forest depths, weapons in upraised arms, to kill the escort party that was to take us to the fort.
“Alice!” Cora shouted.
“Alice!” Duncan called, his voice powerful in the mist of the early morning.
I tried to slip from my horse gracefully, but fell as if I were a sack of coal to the leaf-covered path. The noise around me was fearsome. Wild cries from the natives of this land, Duncan bellowing commands, Cora, my elder sister, trying to shield me as always, hushing me as if I were planning on screaming.
“Let me go!” I hissed at her, trying to squirm out of the tight grip she had. “I won’t embarrass you, I swear.”
I couldn’t hear what she said after that, for Duncan lunged next to us, grunting as he slashed at the Indian I hadn’t seen coming.
That did scare me, but I did not scream. I watched, holding my breath, as the brave, crimson coats of the escorting soldiers erupted in gouts of deep red blood.
Except for Duncan’s, of course. Why Cora continued to hold our old friend and her suitor at arm’s length was a puzzle to me and to Papa.
Oddly enough, I do not recollect the terror of the morning. I only remember the shock I felt when a gun came out of the forest, the bare nose of a carbine. “Cora!” I gasped, thinking that the weapon was aimed at my brave, practical sister.
But no, it wasn’t. Instead, the nose edged away, flame burst from the gun, and the Indian closest to us fell to the ground with a thud and pained outrushing of breath.
Duncan made as if to assail our rescuer, but Cora stopped him. Then, the rifleman emerged from the forest.
Before I go further with my story, let me just say that I had entirely forgotten my exhaustion by this time. Hunger, likewise, was not in my thoughts. I only remember studying the strangers who had, it appeared, rescued us. There were only three of us left standing.
Duncan, Cora, and myself.
The rifleman was a white man who looked, dressed and spoke like a Delaware Indian. Hawkeye was one name I heard for him. Cora would come to call him Nathaniel – his “white” name, I learned, though Hawkeye suited him – and me – better. Close behind him was an older man, a true Indian. He was Mohican. Old enough to be my father, he carried himself as a leader. He never said much – that I could understand – but both his sons loved him and honored him, I could tell.
It was the other son that I disregarded at first. At least, until he shooed away my favorite horse! “What are you doing?” I demanded of the dark-skinned young man who walked in silence and spoke deep and spare. “That’s my mount!”
After a moment, with only a glance at me, he strode past. “Too easy to track. We’ll do better walking.”
“We?” I whispered to Cora after a moment.
My sister frowned, but then her face gathered that ice that so characterized her when she was troubled. Dark brows furrowed, her bosom heaved as she marshaled her breath. “Listen, Alice. Stay with me. Shhh.”
Duncan got the Indians to take us to the Fort, as I understood what happened next. But there was no time for breaking fast. And since the younger son, Uncas, had sent my horse away, I had no food to eat in any event.
We began walking as soon as the men got their ammunition replenished from the stores of the dead.
It was the during the French and Indian War, as it would come to be called. Papa, Colonel Munro, served Britain in the American Colonies. I understood that much; at all costs, England would keep France from superseding the rights of the Crown over the Colonies. The land was so rich! Even I, a young lady of almost seventeen, knew that. Lush forests, fertile earth, rivers and streams and lakes everywhere one traveled. America was and is a glorious land. The fight for her possession was, to me, like a romance. A dreadful novel one would hide from one’s governess.
I told no one I thought so, of course. It would have been unseemly.
To many people, I tend to come across as the “little girl.” I blame the large brown eyes I inherited from Mama. And the thick, straight brown hair. I do. I didn’t ask to look like a mouse, I assure you. I cannot help the pale skin, nor the way my lips part as if I’m vacant in my “upper story.” I am not gape-faced, but I do tend to just let my mind wander occasionally, I know.
It was while following Cora and Hawkeye that I was first aware of the extra frisson of sensation on my skin. It made me press my lips together and pause before climbing another wet cluster of rocks next to the river. (We walked there on our way to the fort, Hawkeye explained, because the water would hide our tracks and scents from the Iroquois, should they pursue us.) I felt almost as if someone had brushed my cheek with their fingertips. A gentle caress, it was. I was frightened at first, but reminded myself that I do not believe in ghosts.
“Are you all right?”
I confess, I jumped and would have slipped into the rushing water to my left if he had not caught me. Uncas. It had been he who had spoken to me, stared at me, he who had stayed just behind me during our entire walk. Uncas, son of Chingachook of the Mohicans.
The names sorted themselves out in my mind in the instant Uncas took my elbow to help me climb the rocks. With an encouraging nod, but barely a smile glimmering in his onyx eyes, he braced me with his shoulder as I stretched my arms and then my legs under the heavy skirts to find footholds.
When I looked back to thank him, he was already close to me, as if he dared not let me far from his reach. I tried to meet that look...a deep, heart-touching look that penetrated past the pale face and parted lips most people see...but I could not. I blushed and dropped my gaze.
“Thank you,” I remember stammering.
He smiled; I could hear it in his voice so I looked up. “That horse never would have made it, here,” he said.
“You’re right. But,” I couldn’t help adding, “I would have been able to break my fast if you had warned me, first, so I could have retrieved my bag.”
The stern countenance, the implacable, narrow-eyed gaze rippled a bit. “Oh.” Before I could inquire, he ascended the wet granite as if he were born there and came even, far ahead, with his father. I watched them nod, gesture slightly, and nod again. It would not be the last time I witnessed them communicating thusly.
Thick black hair whipping over his shoulders, Uncas returned to me. “We will find fish at the top of the river, ahead,” he said, pointing as he helped me continue upward. “Hawkeye says that we will have a brief rest, then, and eat.” He stepped ahead of me again, his soft leather leg and foot coverings – stockings? Leather stockings? My cheeks heated up to think of that, for some reason. – gripping the wet stone without a slip. He extended his hand. “Come. We are almost there.”
I accepted his hand, noting the way his dark brown skin contrasted with my pale, though scratched, hand. I couldn’t do anything but follow, for in that moment, I came to trust him implicitly.
A long while later, after we had finally eaten and had traveled on, we broke through the seemingly interminable forest to a beautiful glade. Cleared land, level and turned for farming, met us. I saw smoke, off to my right. A welcome sight indeed, and I grabbed Cora’s hand in thankfulness as Uncas and the others went on ahead. Cora smiled at me, possibly thinking of the comforts of a roof over our head, a safe place where we needn’t worry about more Iroquois...
She cried out, quickly stifling the sound on the back of her hand as we stepped in great trepidation toward the log house. The welcoming fire I had believed I had seen was the smoke from the destruction this house had been subject to, not long before we arrived. Charred wood, broken furniture, and the people...
Oh, the people! Uncas hurried to a lady who lay, face down, on the grass. She did not move, but I saw him check her for signs of life. He found none. Hawkeye and Chingachook scouted around the house, seeking new danger, I was sure, but they found nothing. Only people. I made myself look at them, though. I made myself. I don’t know how I did, but I did, shutting the eyes of the woman with my own hands before Hawkeye warned me off.
“Stop it. Leave them as they are,” he growled at me.
Cora bristled. “We must bury them,” she insisted. “They are human beings, though strangers, and they deserve that much.”
Hawkeye and the other men strode rapidly away from the smoldering cabin. Duncan, Cora and I stood, appalled. “Come, now!” Duncan called, but not loudly. He was a cautious man. “We must do something with them.”
“No,” hissed Hawkeye. “We will not.” He kept striding toward Cora ‘til her back was all but pressed to the ashy log wall. I did not hear what was said, but shrunk back against Duncan because the white Indian man looked so...so fierce!
I turned from Hawkeye and Cora to look at the dead people again, to settle their faces – pale, frightened faces – in my mind. I tell you again, I am not a mouse in spirit, but I am quiet and may appear fragile. Appearances can be deceiving. I wanted to remember those people, the people of this land. They deserved that much, even if we were not to let them rest decently in the ground.
Cora spun, turning from Hawkeye with thin-lipped abruptness, to grab me by the arm. I think she thought she was shielding me from the horrors of the death we had seen, but I think that she was shielding herself...from Hawkeye’s wrath. And she needed a shield, I believe. For the coolness that was so much a part of her was cracking...cracking like a thin layer of ice on a pond in the spring thaw.
Was it Hawkeye who was the bringer of spring?
Fanciful thought. I knew it even as Cora and I hurried away, across the cleared field, over the rough fence and back into the darkening wood.
It was quiet, there in the wood. Uncas, Chingachook and Hawkeye took the lead, Duncan stayed with Cora and me. Dark was dropping overhead. Closing in on us.
Remembering how this long day had begun, with mist in the woods, I felt my stomach draw in on itself as light failed us. Yet, the men ahead seemed calm enough. Watchful, but calm. I tried to be, too.
The Indians spoke in their own language, very quietly, while we stopped at the bottom of a rise in the land. Heavy leaves barely moved around us as the Hawkeye and Chingachook made small sounds and smaller expressions with their hands. Duncan stayed next to Cora. I knew that he wished to marry my sister, and I guessed that she had refused him. I had to give the major credit for his persistence, however little I thought of his chances of success. Especially now that Cora had seen a man of this land.
I leaned against a tree, afraid to sit in the lichen on the rock at my feet.
“Why do you not rest?” Uncas asked, appearing at my side like a silent shadow. “You have not been bred to this life; are you not tired?”
I flipped my heavy skirt with as little sound as possible. Odd, how sound had become my preoccupation that day. “I am exhausted,” I informed him loftily. “I just feel that if I sat, even for a moment, I would never rise to my feet again.”
His face turned up to the canopy above us, then to his father. “I would help.”
“I don’t wish to need the help,” I stated. “I want to keep going until we can stop safely for the night.”
Ahead, Hawkeye began stepping through the underbrush again. I could not have told that by his sounds, but only by the white beads that shone through the gloom. “Does he never get tired?” I wondered aloud.
Uncas grunted softly. “Not that one. He is my brother; my father trained us both. We will not tire in our quest, Miss Munro. That I promise you.”
Single file, we followed Hawkeye. Night birds flew, disturbing the leaves. Small creatures darted far off our route, but I heard them because we, by contrast, were all but silent.
Absolutely so. My feet were hurting dreadfully, I wanted a bath, and I was hungry. Again.
No river would provide fish for our dinner, though. And I doubted mightily that a fire would be allowed in any event.
“Will we reach the fort soon? I am longing to see my father,” I asked of Uncas, who remained with me at the rear of our party as we reached the crest of the hill.
“Not tonight. We will stay here tonight,” he told me, directing me with a gentle push to one side. I blinked, seeing a sliver of moonlight weave through the thinner branches. Here, there appeared to be a low wall, perhaps a few hand spans in height. Hawkeye and Cora took one wall, stretching themselves half on the ground and propped on elbows. Cora wanted, I was sure, to give him a piece of her mind. Hawkeye, I had no doubt, would return the “favor.”
Duncan and Chingachook kept watch over another wall, while Uncas and I ducked down at a third. “Rest yourself, Miss,” he advised. “We will have to leave before dawn.”
“Please, call me Alice,” I requested softly, as the air closed in around the hilltop. “It is only right, since I must address you by your ... your front name.”
His smile flashed white for an instant. “That is fair,” he allowed, his voice low and almost rumbling. “Rest yourself then, Miss Alice,” he repeated, shrugging off his pack and patting it. “We have no supper, but I do have a pillow for you.”
Touched, I did as he bid and reclined. He turned to keep watch over the wall, his rifle at the ready.
“Can you shoot?” he asked softly.
“No,” I admitted. “Cora can, though. Papa never taught me.”
No sound came, then, and I believe I dozed off for a few minutes, hearing only the animal sounds around us and Uncas’ small shiftings against the wall. And his soft, even breathing. Will you wonder that I felt safe, safe for a few moments in a world I did not understand? I had awakened that morning in a bed, with a coverlet and a washbasin close by. I had washed, put up my hair, donned slips, corset, skirts and bodices before my boots, gloves, and bonnet. That morning, I had been Alice Munro, daughter of a ranking Colonel. That evening, I was hunted. Hungry. I had survived a full-out attack on our party that morning, had seen death close at hand, and had had to keep on walking, even so. That evening, I was merely Alice, grateful woman, feeling older than I had less than twenty hours prior, sleeping on the ground and thankful to be able to do that much.
I dozed, as I said, strangely secure, there on a hill in a land unfamiliar.
Until I heard the barest click of a rifle being cocked. For that, I woke instantly if not wisely, and rolled away from where I had been.
We were surrounded!
Even the night animals were stifled as intruders passed around our hill. I could see them from where I lay, peeking through brush over the low boundary wall of our sleeping space.
Indians were below, though they passed quietly enough that I did not get an accurate idea of how many there were. One man, though, was a French trader. I had seen his sort in Albany. Whiskers on his chin, a fur over his shoulder and a furry hat, plus an assortment of gear strapped around his waist and torso. The Frenchman did not compare to the minimal effectiveness of dress that the Indians adopted. Uncas himself wore a his leather stockings, a long tunic, and only a belt or two for his knife and powder, besides the pack that he had loaned me for sleep.
What need had they of more?
The Frenchman started up the hill! I panicked and skittered away. Rather, I tried to.
Uncas all but fell on me, wrapping his arm around me and covering my mouth with his hand.
He didn’t say a word; he obviously didn’t have to! I was trembling, all over, and I thought it was from fear that the Indians would find us. Why did the natives stay on the lower ground? It made no sense, if they were seeking us. The Frenchman said so himself; I had learnt French with my governess.
My heart pounded, hard. Uncas must have felt it, as close together as we were. His hand left my face and moved to my arm as he eased himself off of me. His eyes though, were trained on the closest group of Indians below us, and the trader who had started to climb. I could feel Uncas’ body tense, heard the small scrape of his rifle moving into a firing position, and I braced myself to see a hole blown into the Frenchman’s face.
Then, I relaxed. The Indians turned their backs on the trader and paced silently away. After a moment, the Frenchman followed. I could breathe again.
“Why didn’t they come up?” I whispered immediately. “I thought for sure we would be–”
“Hush,” Uncas whispered, coming to his feet in a fluid movement that belied the fact that he had been on his feet all day, protecting helpless females from themselves. One helpless female, anyway. “This is an old burial ground for the Iroquois. They will not come here. Rest,” he said, pointing to the makeshift pillow he had left for me. “You are safe, now.”
He left me to confer with his father and Duncan, as Cora and Hawkeye were settling down. Perhaps the men were splitting the watch-duty, I thought. In spite of all the excitement of that time, I was barely able to keep my eyes open.
Ignoring my stomach, ignoring the sticks that pricked my legs under my skirt, I did close my eyes, waking only when I felt a warm hand brush hair from my face a while later.
How can I describe the following day? I don’t know. It was much like the day before, but I started it knowing, knowing that my life had changed irrevocably. I missed Papa, yes. Missed the security of four walls around me, a lady’s maid to help me into my corset, and all that civilization entails. I missed it. All of it.
But this land was working a magic on me, I am convinced. A magic bred in open spaces, wild animals, and men who met both of these on their own terms.
We were still being careful, not knowing when that treacherous Mohawk scout would return with Iroquois men to finish the job they started the day before. Careful, yes, but I could sense a difference in all of us. I, you see, have always been a watcher of people.
Chingachook took the lead with Hawkeye, leaving my sister to walk just behind them.
Her hand often strayed to her pocket, where she kept the gun I saw her take from a dead soldier the morning before. Uncas came after, just ahead of me and to the left. He had his eyes constantly moving, watching for anything in the woods around us. Behind us came Duncan. I am sure he was heart-heavy by now, but Cora had obviously made her choice and it wasn’t our favorite major from home.
I was not at all sure how Papa would react, but allowed none of that to mar my own secret astonishment in my Mohican companion. We spoke not at all in the morning, as he was conversing with his father and white brother. We broke our fast with two small birds, killed for that purpose and roasted on an open fire. Cora and I aided one another in smoothing hair and fixing garments, and that was all we had time for before we set off.
Duncan joined us at first rest. “We should reach Fort William Henry by nightfall,” he told us. His wig had long since disappeared, revealing his light red hair. “Your father will be pleased to see you.”
“And I him,” I said, nodding at Duncan. “He will find we have been very brave!”
“Indeed yes, Miss Alice,” Duncan said with a smile. “Think of the stories you will have to tell your children.”
I let my gaze fall. Brown and wide my eyes may be, vacant they sometimes might appear, but I had no illusions about their ability to be read by someone who knew me as well as Duncan. “Indeed,” I echoed softly.
By nightfall, we could see the fort across a large river. “I cannot swim,” I reminded Cora.
“Nor I,” she returned. “I am sure Duncan will tell the others, and another way will be found.”
We huddled behind tree trunks and other growth as the sun sank. Duncan had been left to guard Cora and me. “What are they doing? Scouting a route?” I inquired of the major.
He shook his head, keeping his eyes on the river and the fighting beyond it. For myself, I was trying to block out the sounds...they terrified me and I didn’t want to confess that it would be better to turn around, right then, and head back to Albany!
“I think they’re looking for a boat.”
“A what?” Cora demanded, frowning. “You cannot be serious.”
A loud boom shook my bones as it rolled over the water. “I do not wish to sail into that,” I remarked to the air. “We’ll never make it.”
A soft sound behind us was the only warning we had. “Shh,” Hawkeye demanded of me, his blue eyes narrowed. “It is the only way.”
So it was I found myself huddling in an Indian boat, a canoe, Hawkeye called it, being pulled and pushed across a dark river while a battle raged ahead of me. I could hardly move, I was so frightened.
Our guides were skillful, though, and I trusted Uncas, as I have said, totally. Once we maneuvered around the water fortifications, we glided silently under a British-held dock and were helped out by the men. I was shivering.
Surrounded by our guards, we hurried up the slope to the side entrance of the fort. Inside, I knew I’d find Papa. And battle.
Papa was shocked to find we had journeyed to visit him; he had sent a message to us to tell us it was too dangerous.
It must have been intercepted. Perhaps by a party seeking us? I had no idea. I was just relieved that I was inside four walls again.
After being bid by our father to leave him with the Indians who had brought us, Cora and I left to find a room to freshen up, if such a place existed. Other women were at the fort, though, and they seemed happy enough to help us. I was loaned a hairbrush, and we were able to trade for some clean bodices and petticoats. I still wanted a bath, but made do with a washing-up.
All around us was the booming of cannon and the sharp crack of musket fire. At first, I flinched incessantly but soon was able to shut the awful noise of it from my mind. One of my father’s officers procured a real dinner for Cora and myself, and I ate as if I hadn’t eaten in days. Then, I sought to take a plate of supper to Uncas – and his father and brother, of course. I held back when I saw him hunkered down with Hawkeye and other white men. They appeared to be old friends, from their quick smiles and nods of understanding. I did not dare to interrupt, but I did catch Uncas’ eye and nodded to the plate I held in my hand. I left it on a barrel, offered him a brief curtsey, and turned to leave, almost ashamed at my boldness.
Almost. It was hard to be ashamed in the presence of a man with whom I had spent the night!
Shaking that off, I returned to the rooms Cora and I had found for ourselves.
Exhaustion suddenly rolled over me like an ocean wave and I needed to sleep more than I needed to breathe. Cora, melting more every hour, I thought, helped me again to brush out my hair.
“Rest, Alice,” she said. “I’ll make sure you get some sleep.”
I managed a small smile. “Before or after you take Hawkeye some supper?”
She stiffened. “I had planned to see Papa,” she informed me. “Not Nathaniel.” Her face relaxed. “Not that supper is a bad idea.”
I rested, lying flat on the pretended bed I had, and closed my eyes. Until the door came crashing open. “Cora. I have to talk to you.”
“Shh, Duncan,” Cora began.
Weary, I pushed up and off the bed. “No, I cannot be an invalid,” I mumbled. “I’ll go see if I can help...”
And I left them alone. Scandalous, I know, but so much had been, of late, that I didn’t notice.
For myself, I tried to wake up. A huge burst of musket fire helped and I had to lean against a wall to take a breath for a moment before continuing. Through a chink in the wall, I heard familiar voices, but they spoke Mohican, I knew. I could only wish I spoke it, too!
Trying to compose myself, I made my way to the room I had been spying on. “Do you have all you need?” I asked of the men.
“Where’s Cora?” came Hawkeye’s telling response.
His father’s face showed pleasure at the question and he lifted one brow at his true son, Uncas. Hawkeye grinned broadly and went off in search of my sister, I knew.
Suddenly, Uncas and I were alone.
Suddenly, I was very conscious of my need of a bath. Of my old clothing. Of the fact that we had, in fact, slept side by side the night before.
Suddenly, I was sure that my face’s glow would rival an exploding munitions store.
“I have all I need, now,” Uncas said. “Thank you for supper. It was kind of you to think of us.”
“I didn’t want to interrupt –”
He drew closer; I pressed back against the table, my heart pounding and my mouth dry. He stopped coming closer, but held out his hands to me, palms up. “You did not,” he assured me quietly.
I gave him my hands and then, only then, did he approach the table where I found myself perched like a schoolgirl. I felt foolish. My breath caught and I did not know where to look.
He captured my chin in the fingers of one hand, holding both of my hands with his free one. Seriously, intently, he studied my face. Curiosity, wonder, and pride started to shine in his eyes. “You are stronger than you look,” he murmured at last.
I found a smile. “A high compliment indeed,” I returned, borrowing a phrase I had heard Cora use many times.
Uncas did not smile. “A woman has to be strong, here, to survive.”
“I can imagine so,” I said. “But there is much to survive for...”
“I am sorry I sent away your horse,” he told me, moving closer and pushing my skirts a little aside. He smiled, then. The rarity of the expression made me know its value. My heart throbbed in my chest and I knew, then.
I knew I had fallen in love with a man of the Mohican people.
“I am not sorry,” I whispered with all the breath I had left to share. I meant it to mean the horse, but it also meant that I wasn’t sorry I loved Uncas. When he let go of my hands and combed his fingers through my hair, when he lowered his lips to mine, when he pressed me to him so close I could feel his heart beating like a wild drum in his chest...
I knew he understood all my meanings and that he wasn’t sorry either. Not for any of it.
When at last we parted for the night, he to his friends and I to what passed for a bed, there at the fort, I slept like a woman dead. Or a woman so secure in herself that nothing need wake her.
So deeply did I sleep that I did not move until roused.
“Alice! Wake up! We have been issued terms of a surrender, and Nathaniel says we are to stay close to our father.”
“What?” Bewildered, I could only gape at my sister as she told me all that had happened whilst I had slumbered. My eyes welled with tears. “I had no idea things were this bad! What do we do?”
What we did was to mount a horse together and ride near Papa as we left the fort the following dawn. Far behind us in the column was Hawkeye, in chains. I felt, though, that chains would not hold him one moment longer than he wished them to do so. Uncas and Chingachook walked next to Hawkeye, keeping an eye on the forest that started a few yards from the dirt path we took away from Fort William Henry.
I had learned from my previous journey. When the woods grew silent, so did I, and so did Cora. We watched, nudging our horse to the side a bit so we could get to cover if we needed.
Soon enough, a chorus of war cries sounded from the green cover of the woods. And then, the ambush!
Oh, for a gun, or a knife! I stood there, momentarily overwhelmed as the Huron people washed over us, bringing a tide of red, red blood. Cora and I just tried to stay out of the way, but when one Indian came too close, Cora just stood in front of him. Without expression, she took out her pistol and shot the man. Just like that. I was proud of her.
We could not stay there forever, though! Smoke started to fill the air around us, floating up into the sky. Screams, English and other, cut through my head and I winced, unable to shut them out. I tried to find Papa, but could not. Where was he? He was supposed to be on his horse, but the horse was gone, too.
That frightened me.
“Run!” Cora shouted suddenly, pulling at my hand until I joined her. “Run! We have to stay alive!”
From out of the grass, it seemed, painted men leapt to us, weapons raised. Knives, for the most part. I had heard of the hideous practice of scalping and can only assume that is what was intended for the two white women from the fort. I had no voice for defiance, but tried to keep my head down and my eyes busy.
They had to be somewhere, you see. Hawkeye and Uncas. They would come for us. I knew it in my heart.
Not having my sister’s pistol or her fighting skills, I did indeed go faint when she was captured at last, her hair pulled up by a quick Iroquois fighter. Hawkeye, though, was not so affected. “Cora!!!” He came through gun smoke and thick air, moving so smoothly that I stared. His rifle fired, he ran, and his knife came out, all in one movement, it seemed to me.
Cora’s attacker was dead. Uncas was standing over me, but not looking at me though his hand was extended. Up I came, as did Cora, and the four of us ran through the warring pairs of men, following Chingachook through the smoky haze of yet another battle.
I had lived two lifetimes in as many days.
We had returned to the river Hudson, finding more of those canoes. The five of us managed, somehow, to squeeze into one and the men paddled fast and hard. Water splashed back up into our faces, but I cared nothing for that.
I only cared that my father had been left behind. I knew not what had happened to him, then. I almost wish I had never found out how the traitorous scout had murdered him and taken his heart...
Checking back over our shoulders, Cora and I began to breathe easier. No one appeared to be following us. We sat up straighter in the boats, and I began to braid my hair over my shoulder, giving it some order as it was wet again.
“Here,” Chingachook directed.
The men guided the canoe to the edge of the river, right next to a towering waterfall. My eyes got huge, I know, but I could not help it. What if we had fallen over that?
“We could have been killed,” I gasped.
Uncas took my hand and led me away. “That is what we hope they think,” he told me.
The intense, mind-filling sound of the waterfall prevented any further conversation as, much to my surprise, we were walking toward it, along a wet and rocky path. I forgot to be terrified at the height, though, as we ducked under a rushing curtain of water. We were under the falls! Or, behind it, anyway.
The ambiance was breathtaking.
We had no fire to light our way, but Hawkeye and Chingachook might have called this place home, by how sure-footed they led us along a passage. One wall was rock, the other water. I was fascinated by the play of light through the water. It was beautiful.
The men said we could relax, finally, as we reached the end of the path. Normal conversation was impossible. Chingachook huddled with his sons for a few minutes, whilst Cora and I tried to figure out what had happened to our father and how we were to get word to him. We also, being female, wondered how we were going to try to feed everyone that night.
The men broke up their huddling together and Chingachook betook himself to a far niche in the rock. He sat down, leaned back, and stuck an unlit pipe in his mouth. Uncas swept by me, taking my hand as he did so, and I followed. He put his lips to my ear and I shivered. “We do not know if there will be a fight,” he said, trying to speak over the roaring water. “We have no gunpowder, but we do not think anyone has followed us. I will wait in the other cavern that we passed through to get here. Will you come with me?”
I nodded, unsure of my powers of speech at such a moment. No smile curved his lips, but I sensed he was pleased that I would be with him.
It was gloomy and wet in the first cavern. I stepped to the rock’s edge, anxious for some light, wanting to see beyond the water...wanting to see if we were being followed after all.
Perhaps my father would come for us? Better him than the Huron, I thought then, as I was not yet aware of what had happened to my father. I leaned forward a bit, hoping to see...something, anything, out there. All at once, I was pulled back, hard, against Uncas. “What are you doing?” he demanded in my ear. “What are you doing?”
I tried to explain, but he wouldn’t let me. Instead, he just pulled me down with him on the floor, leaning against a rock. “Don’t frighten me like that,” we both said at the same time.
Did he say that or did I? It didn’t matter, just then. The bare light that passed into the small cavern only touched his dark face, as I imagine it did mine. We sat there, my back to his chest, my head turned and his leaning forward so that our eyes met in a long, silent communication. Eventually satisfied, he relaxed further against the rock and I did the same against him.
No warriors came to find us and fight us. My father’s men came not.
Darkness fell, leaving a silvery edge to the waterfall. The noise had become customary by then, and I curled up against Uncas’ body, his arms around me, his lips in my hair.
“I do not think your father would approve,” he ventured after a while.
“I am not just my father’s daughter. Not anymore,” I replied.
He grunted; I could feel the vibration against my body. “Good.” Then, “Alice.” A pause. I had been relaxed against him, but the sudden tension in his body communicated itself to me and I looked up to try to find his dark, dark eyes in the darkness that surrounded us. He moved to cup my face in his hands. “Alice. It is a hard life, here. To survive takes... strength of heart. Of body. Of mind.”
“I would have much to survive for,” I reminded him.
“Say my name.” His hands firmed around my face.
I smiled. “Uncas, son of Chingachook.”
“Alice of the Munro family,” he said, “Will you share this life with me?”
I hesitated not at all.
I never returned to Albany. Cora and her Nathaniel kept a home there, but they, too, live mostly on the frontier. The country is in turmoil, now. I read in an old newspaper from Philadelphia, of all places, that America was declaring itself to be independent from England.
“Good,” Uncas grunted when he read the flimsy sheet. “Good.”
I have to agree with him. I am an American, and my daughters have the blood of the Mohican in their bodies, as well as the blood of the Scots. I could give Uncas no sons, which grieved us both. His father, Chingachook, lived on his own terms for many long years. When he died, he told Uncas that he, Uncas, was the last of the Mohicans.
Uncas only smiles when I mention this. “There will be grandsons.”
I can only hope.
>>> The End >>>