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 the Keowee 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 farther 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.
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