My story begins before the Fall, in that Indian summer time when the hills are tipped with oncoming gold, and the light hangs just above the trees, dotting the Blue Ridge with gilded freckles. The mornings and the evenings are cool, but it is the mornings I remember most: waking before the men, wrapping a shawl around my shoulders and slipping out through the fields, the dry grass crunching beneath my boots. Drifting down from Tomassee Knob the mist would spread over Cheohee Valley in a great, rivering pool of gray, the sun rising in the east flecking the horses’ breath—suspended in the air before their nostrils—with slivers of shine. It was then the whole world was quiet, no crows eating my corn, the peacefulness not even broken by the bay of some wolf on the ridge, calling to the still-lit moon in the western sky. The whole world was silent then, and the Blue Ridge breathed beneath the deep purple earth. I thought I could feel it, a great heart beating in the wilderness.
He came to me in the morning. I had crossed the north fields and made my way to the creek at the edge of the forest, to check on the last of the Solomon’s Seals I’d watched cling to the embankment in the final days of summer. Ferns reaching the height of my elbows billowed out from the ground, spreading for what looked like miles. The smell of sap emanated from fallen pines where woodpeckers searched for tiny bugs and snakes lay still in the cool undergrowth. Every once in a while a squirrel or rabbit leapt from its camouflaged hiding place, skirting the path I walked.
Coals from a recent fire smoldered black in a pile a few yards from a bend in the creek, and I looked up and further into the woods, wondering if a Cherokee scout or perhaps a trapper had decided to take his rest on our land. But the woods were eerily still, and not a bird sang nor cricket chirped. There was no movement except for the creek itself, bubbling up against a tiny dam made by runaway branches, cane and weeds. My eyes came to rest across the creek on shadows at the bottom of an enormous oak. Suddenly, the shadows shifted, and the shape of a man stepped forward, seeming to emerge seamlessly from the trunk, his feet making no sound in the leaves.
The breath caught in a knot in my throat and I placed a hand there, the other fumbling in my skirts for the lady’s flintlock I’d been given. He walked closer, still without sound, and stood watching me from the edge of the creek bed. I pulled the pistol from its hold, pointing it unsteadily at the stranger.
“Come no closer,” I ordered, the words tumbling awkwardly off my tongue and echoing softly in the small dip of valley.
He raised his head, eyes emerging from beneath the brim of a battered farmer’s hat. Across that creek they looked as green to me as moss growing on boulders in the water. His hair was long, the fawn color of a well-worn leather saddle, and the ends were tipped with the same pale blonde that streaked through the rest, like he’d dipped his head in white paint. He looked like a white man turned savage, with his moccasin-laced boots and dirty, fringed deerskin shirt, a beaded strap crossing his chest, holding a hatchet and musket on his back. He did not speak, just looked at me from under that hat, shadows cast high on his cheekbones and the solid line of his jaw. The creek gurgling and my breathing were the only sounds. Soon, I knew, the settlement would awake, and the animals would need to be fed, the horses let to pasture.
Surely someone would notice I was missing.
It was the first time he had come to me, but it would not be the last. And though my story ends with him, he did not cause it to begin. I did that, on a midsummer day in the year of our Lord 1768, in the twenty-fifth year of my youth.
I was an unlikely adventurer, at least by all appearances. I knew what the people of Charlestown saw when they looked at me: a wealthy woman clad in the new fashions, small of stature but possessed of an unruly mane of yellow hair that made me seem taller—a bluestocking with a well-worn volume forever in hand, one who looked out at the world from a pair of disconcertingly direct blue eyes. The ladies, especially, would whisper “orphan,” and allow that the early demise of my parents could be reason enough for a man such as my grandfather to keep me a spinster at age twenty-five. The gentlemen viewed my person with vague calculation, surely wondering just how much—as the sole granddaughter of Campbell MacFadden, Esquire, heir by marriage to a profitable rice plantation—I was worth. And so when the trapper arrived in the hour before dawn, smelling of wood smoke and the sweat of a hard ride, I was ready: ready to abandon Charlestown and my life there, to shutter permanently those judging, prying eyes.
It was the banging on the door that woke me, more than the shouting. On the peninsula, banging on doors in the wee hours nearly always meant one of two things: a slave uprising, or a fire. On Tradd Street alone there had been three devastating fires the past year, conflagrations that destroyed entire blocks, and I threw off the covers and rounded my bed in moments, pulling a stout case from beneath my desk and dumping the contents of my drawers—papers, pamphlets, quills, stoppered inkpot—as quickly as I could. I heard Grandfather’s footfall on the stairs outside my bedroom door, his step bounding and spry.
“Hallo, the MacFadden house!” A man was shouting from the street, the banging commencing. “Hallo the house!”
With one arm I swept as many of my books as I could into the case, then latched it with twin thunks. I dragged it to the armoire, eschewing fragile slippers for my second-hand riding boots and yanking them on beneath my dressing gown. I caught the case up in my arms and rushed into the hall. Candles were lit in the foyer below, the open doorway casting edging dawn light and a wash of spring fragrance into the wide, high room. At the landing I halted, stunned by the sight of the man with my Grandfather: he wore muddy boots, deerskin leggings and a yellowed linen shirt, a knife at his waist and a rifle on his back, caught by a series of beaded leather straps. Hearing me, Grandfather turned and looked up, his broad Scots face ablaze with more than the excitement of the hour, and the stranger removed a grubby farmer’s hat, revealing a painfully freckled face and matted auburn hair caught back in a tail.
“Is there a fire?” I asked breathlessly, and Grandfather shook his head, more as if to clear it than in denial. Between his large, gnarled hands he was wringing something, and I squinted for a better look. Outside, the world was swiftly brightening, and through the transom window I caught sight of the lamplighter dousing the light across the street. So concentrated was I on my Grandfather’s expression that I almost didn’t catch the expected shout: “Six of the clock, and all’s well!”
“Grandfather?” I asked, confused, and that was when he opened his hands like an offering, and candlelight glinted on the object there: a thick, silver man’s ring embedded with a fat emerald, hung on a piece of rough leather.
“It’s Owen,” he said, a catch in his throat. He cleared it, louder now. “Quincy, he’s alive.”
* There’s also a much-longer excerpt available at the Keowee Valley page of the Bell Bridge Books website.