The cloudless August day dawned with a sky so blue, the air so crisp, it bespoke the change of seasons. Tessa rose before first light, swinging the kettle on its crane over the ashes she’d banked carefully the night before. Breakfast was a blur of bowls and mugs and terse words as her brothers hurried to their tasks at field and ferry. Ma was never so missed as at peep of day. But she’d made peace with Ma’s going just as her brothers would make peace with her going in time.
Six days had passed since she’d seen Clay. Would he ride in on the Sabbath like last week? Or would some fort matter keep him rooted? She filled a wash bucket with lye, scrubbed her brothers’ shirts clean, and set out her own Sabbath best. Draping the laundry across a near fence, she pondered what needed doing next.
Taking the whetstone she’d gotten from the creek bed, she began sharpening knives, the sound rasping her nerves. Next she gathered the last of the greens from the garden, braiding the onions to hang from the rafters. For supper she’d make fried mush with maple sugar that Zadock had expressed a hankering for. Such required a rasher of bacon.
Bent on the smokehouse, she took a step toward the open cabin door when the hard, shuddering thwack of an axe stopped her. The thud had an odd sound unlike her brothers’ wood chopping. The jarring thwack came again, right outside the door. It sent her back a step. A dark form filled the doorway that had been so flooded with light but a second before. It reminded her of an eagle’s shadow in passing. Her bare skin turned to gooseflesh.
A lone Indian looked at her, tomahawk in hand, one moccasined foot clearing the threshold. His eyes were like flints in his lean face. Half his features were swathed red, the other half painted black. A bold paw print–a wolf’s?–marked his left cheek. The garish display nearly tore a scream from her throat.
He circled behind her, the hard thwack against the cabin’s outer logs continuing. He’d not come alone then.
Lord, spare us.
Her legs twitched. She fought the impulse to run like a rabbit before a red-tailed hawk. Slowly, the intruder prowled through the cabin, poking at this or that with his tomahawk. A string of dried beans rustled like a rattler. A basket of cleaned wool was emptied. With one menacing sweep of a tawny arm, their prized salt-glaze pitcher tumbled from its mantel perch and shattered with a fearsome clatter.
Her back pressed against the cold hearthstones, Tessa watched him, riveted to his tomahawk. If she turned her back to him, mightn’t she find that terrible weapon sunk into her scalp? She had no means to fight with but an iron poker. Her rifle rested nearer the Indian than she.
The warrior passed outside the cabin, taking her rifle with him. Woozy, she leaned into the trestle table, Pa’s fate taking hold of her afresh. God was here. God was near. Yet terror held the firmest grip.
Clenching her shaking hands, she looked at the steaming pot ready for the mush she’d been about to make. Outside, the tomahawk throwing continued, accompanied by loud, wrathful voices. Would they hack the cabin to pieces?
The wolf-marked Indian was at the doorway again, a hand on the hilt of his scalping knife. Tessa turned her back to him against her will, dumped the cornmeal she’d ground into the waiting pot, and stirred it, as she would have done had she been making supper for her brothers.
Would she meet a bitter end before this hot hearth?
Excruciating moments ticked by, the mush finally made. Raising a hand, she pushed back a strand of damp hair before heaving the pot off the crane and moving toward the door. Bypassing the Indian, she now faced nearly a dozen outside. They regarded her with steely silence, their painted features and ready weapons nearly buckling her knees.
An empty sugar trough rested at the edge of the garden. She set the pot down and turned into the springhouse, a squat Indian following. When she emerged with a crock of milk, he poked a finger into the creamy top and tasted it, shadowing her as she poured the mush into the waiting trough. Thick and hot, it spread down the length of the wooden vessel in a pale stream, then mixed with the milk she poured next. Setting her jaw against her rising panic, she went back into the cabin to fetch molasses and spoons.
She knew her brothers. Surely these redmen were the same. A full stomach was far better than an empty one. Her very life depended on it. Hardly aware of what she did, she handed each Indian a spoon before adding molasses to the trough of mush. Were these men Shawnee? Wyandot? Lenape? Stepping back, she dredged up one of the few words Keturah had taught her.
The warriors’ watchful intensity switched to momentary surprise. Again every eye was upon her.
“A-i,” one brave uttered. What that meant she did not know.
She gestured to the steaming trough. They soon ringed it, dipping their spoons with relish. All seemed hungry, even famished. When one grew especially greedy, he received a rap on the head with a tall Indian’s spoon and a terse warning, as if he’d violated some rule of Indian decorum. Unbidden, Tessa felt a beat of amusement.
At a whippoorwill’s trill on the path to the fields, a fresh fear overtook her. If her brothers came into the clearing . . . Though she’d delayed the danger, she couldn’t shake the certainty something dire was coming. Some soul-crushing moment where both the past and the future would be forever altered.
The trough emptied. The spoons were dropped onto the ground. The warriors were all looking at her again as if silently deciding her fate. One gave a shrill war whoop, turning away the instant Ross came around the barn.
Dear Lord, not Ross!
“Run!” She took a step toward him only to collide with the tall Indian, who blocked her way. With a practiced ease, he slipped a cord around her wrists, bound her hands behind her back, and pulled the rawhide so tight she winced.
Ross came on, straight toward her. As if he could help her. Save her. His rifle was in one hand, the barrel pointed at the ground. What could he do against so many Indians? She well knew what they might do to him.
Something more than these warriors had bleached his face the hue of new linen. Her gaze fell from his stricken expression to his shirt. A scarlet stain covered one sleeve, another splash of scarlet across the shirt’s front. Was he hurt? Nay.
Had the Indians come upon Jasper and Zadock in the fields before coming here? She saw no dangling scalps. Two Indians strode toward Ross, one wresting the gun from his grasp. Ross let it go without protest, his odd gaze still on her. He was trying to keep peace, protect her, not provoke them into a fury.
Her voice broke. “What about the others?”
He shook his head as if unwilling to say. Or so eaten up with grief he could not. His scarlet shirt bespoke much. He stood still as he was put in a neck noose, his hands bound like hers.
Two braves entered the smokehouse and emerged with a ham and other provisions. At that instant she was shoved from behind, past the garden and around the back of the springhouse and into the woods. One look back at Ross earned her another shove, this time so hard she nearly fell. In the melee of the moment came the distressed whinny of horses. They were her brothers’ prize mounts, now being rounded up by the Indians.
Their party waded through the shallow water, her stockings and shoes sodden, the hem of her skirt making walking a chore. If her hands were free she’d leave a trail, bits of fabric from her threadbare apron, along the way. As it was she could only press her heels deep into the ground once they left the water to try to mark her hasty passage. A broken branch here, a trampled flower there.
The Indians were having trouble with the horses, high-strung mounts, all but Blossom. Tessa could see the concern in their dark faces as they attempted to curb the stomping, rearing animals. One brave mounted and was thrown. With no bridles or saddles or even a whip, the most that could be done was drive them forward till they tired. The stony creek bed soon bore the harsh clatter of hooves.
The tall Indian seemed to have charge of her. He led the party, his stride strong and purposeful. His muscled, swarthy skin bore a sheen of something rank, some grease. Bear fat. Coupled with the hot air, the strong smell spiked her wooziness. She tried to match his pace. Her life depended on it.
Never far from her thoughts, he’d been all but forgotten in the nightmare of the last half hour.
Lord, help him get to us. We might have a chance if Clay came . . .
For now, Ross consumed her, his stricken face betokening some unspeakable grief. Deep in her spirit she sensed at least one of her brothers was with Pa. Not knowing who plunged her into the blackest pit, her mind and heart racked with angst.
Their party vanished over the brow of the hill that marked the boundary of Swan land, pressing farther west than she had ever been before. Up creeks and streambeds that left no trail, past waterfalls spilling from clifftops like a giant pitcher poured from on high, through laurel thickets she could not admire and ripe whortleberries she could not pick. Once, her foot caught on a grapevine and she stumbled, nearly pitching headlong into the tall Indian. He turned midstride, never slowing, his look forbidding. She’d oft heard the tragic penalty for falling behind, for slowing them in their dash to distance themselves from any settlers in pursuit.
In time they mounted the horses, which were now trail worn. Bareback, she missed her familiar saddle. Strength ebbing, she clung to Blossom’s mane to help anchor her atop the unforgiving ground.
These red warriors were untiring, taking to the heights like goats. One of their party scouted ahead to inform them of danger, one behind to watch any approach from the rear. The bony ridge was dry, the sun pulling to the west and throwing a veil of gossamer light over the unbroken forest below. She tasted dust, her throat so dry she could hardly swallow. That beloved spicy-sweet scent of autumn had taken hold, but now it held a bitter taint. She rode toward the setting sun, dazed, winded, and disbelieving.
’Twas milking time, that sweet, earthy half hour atop her small stool, head pressed against the cow’s warm side, the noisy stream of white steady inside the dark pail. But here and now they were making a sort of rest stop beside a miserly trickle of creek due to some fuss about a gun.
Ready to drop from exhaustion, Tessa leaned against her mount, eyes burning from too much sun and dust, finding no solace in the spectacle before her. Ross stepped up to the Indian with the broken musket, taking the weapon in hand like it was his own, his rapt expression an aggravation to Tessa.
Tears of fury blurred her view. Long minutes ticked by, followed by some tinkering, and then a pleased grunt and unintelligible word signaled the stolen weapon was fixed. The surrounding Indians eyed Ross with unmistakable respect. New interest. Her beleaguered spirits simmered. ’Twas the first time in memory she’d been vexed by her brother’s resourceful bent as he helped the very Indians who might have killed Pa, who no doubt had dispatched another Swan this very day, who might well strike them down next. Turning, she spat into the dirt, earning a wicked glance from the wolfish warrior.
(C) Laura Frantz, from An Uncommon Women, used with permission from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2020
Unflinching and plainspoken, Tessa Swan is not your typical 18th-century woman. Born and bred on the western Virginia frontier along with her five brothers, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Quiet and courageous, Clay Tygart is not your typical 18th-century man. Raised by Lenape Indians, he returns a hero from the French and Indian War to the fort that bears his name, bringing with him Tessa’s long-lost friend, Keturah, a redeemed Indian captive like himself.
Determined to avoid any romantic entanglements as fort commander, Clay remains aloof whenever he encounters the lovely Tessa. But when she is taken captive by the tribe Clay left, his hand–and heart–are forced, leading to one very private and one very public reckoning.
Intense, evocative, and laced with intricate historical details that bring the past to life, An Uncommon Woman will transport you to the picturesque and dangerous western Virginia mountains of 1770.
About Laura Frantz
Laura Frantz is a Christy Award finalist and the ECPA bestselling author of several books, including The Frontiersman’s Daughter, Courting Morrow Little, The Colonel’s Lady, The Mistress of Tall Acre, A Moonbow Night, and the Ballantyne Legacy series. She lives and writes in a log cabin in the heart of Kentucky.