Authors: Jill Marie Landis
Jill Marie Landis
© 1999 by Jill Marie Landis
To Rex and Betsy Wright, the ultimate southern Illinois research tour guides
To the Davis, Scott, and Wettaw families in southern Illinois and Indiana
To Virginia Murillo … university graduate. Congratulations!
To Phyllis Ruffin … you can do it!
What a guy
“If they say the mone is belewe,
We must beleve that it is true.”
Wm. Roy and J. Barlow
REDE ME AND BE NOT WROTHE
The Dictionary of Cliches
, James Rogers, 1987, Ballantine.
Early April, 1820
She would be nineteen tomorrow. If she lived.
In the center of a faint deer trail on a ribbon of dry land running through a dense swamp, a young woman crouched like a cornered animal. The weak gray light from a dull, overcast sky barely penetrated the bald cypress forest as she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, trying to catch her breath. She wore nothing to protect her from the elements but a tattered, rough, homespun dress and an ill-fitting pair of leather shoes that had worn blisters on her heels.
The primeval path was nearly obliterated by lichens and ferns that grew over deep drifts of dried twigs and leaves. Here and there the ground was littered with the larger rotting, fallen limbs of trees. The fecund scent of decay clung to the air, pressed down on her, stoked her fear and gave it life.
The young woman’s breath came fast and hard. She squinted through her tangled black hair, shoved it back, her fingers streaked with mud. Her hands shook. Terror born of being lost was heightened by the knowledge that night was going to fall before she found her way out of the swamp.
Not only did the encroaching darkness frighten her, but so did the murky, silent water along both sides of the trail. As she realized she would soon be surrounded by night and water both, a strangled cry escaped her. Behind her, from somewhere deep amid the cypress trees wrapped in rust-colored bark, came the sound of a splash as some unseen creature dropped into the watery ooze.
She rose, spun around and scanned the surface of the swamp. Frogs and fish, venomous copperheads, and turtles big as frying pans thrived beneath the lacy emerald carpet of duckweed that floated upon the water. As she knelt there wondering whether she should continue on in the same direction or turn back, she watched a small knot of fur skim over the surface of the water toward her.
A soaking-wet muskrat lost its grace as soon as it made land and lumbered up the bank in her direction. Amused yet wary, the girl scrambled back a few inches. The creature froze and stared with dark beady eyes before it turned tail, hit the water, and disappeared.
Getting to her feet, the girl kept her eyes trained on the narrow footpath, gingerly stepping through piles of damp, decayed leaves. Again she paused and lifted her head, listening for the sound of a human voice, the pounding footsteps that would mean someone was in pursuit of her along the trail.
When all she heard was the distant knock of a woodpecker, she let out a sigh of relief. Determined to keep moving, she trudged on, ever vigilant, hoping that the edge of the swamp lay just ahead.
Suddenly, the sharp, shrill scream of a bobcat set her heart pounding. With a fist pressed against her lips, she squeezed her eyes closed and froze, afraid to move, afraid to even breathe. The cat screamed again and the cry echoed across the haunting silence of the swamp until it seemed to stir the very air around her.
She glanced up at dishwater-gray patches of weak afternoon light, nearly obliterated by cypress trees that grew so close together in some places that not even a small child could pass between them. The thought that a wildcat might be looming somewhere above her in the tangled limbs, crouched and ready to pounce, sent her running down the narrow, winding trail.
She had not gone a hundred steps when the toe of her shoe caught beneath an exposed tree root. Thrown forward, she began to fall and cried out.
As the forest floor rushed up to meet her, she put out her hands to break the fall. A shock of pain shot through her wrist an instant before her head hit a log.
And then her world went black.
Heron Pond, Illinois
Noah LeCroix walked to the edge of the wide wooden porch surrounding the one-room cabin he had built high in the sheltering arms of an ancient bald cypress tree and looked out over the swamp. Twilight gathered, thickening the shadows that shrouded the trees. The moon had already risen, a bright silver crescent riding beneath a faded blue sphere. He loved the magic of the night, loved watching the moon and stars appear in the sky almost as much as he loved the swamp. The wetlands pulsed with life all night long. The darkness coupled with the still, watery landscape settled a protective blanket of solitude around him. In the dense, liquid world beneath him and the forest around his home, all manner of life co-existed in a delicate balance. He likened the swamp’s dance of life and death to the way good and evil existed together in the world of men beyond its boundaries.
This shadowy place was his universe, his sanctuary. He savored its peace, was used to it after having grown up in almost complete isolation with his mother, a reclusive Cherokee woman who had left her people behind when she chose to settle in far-off Kentucky with his father, a French Canadian fur trapper named Gerard LeCroix.
Living alone served Noah’s purpose now more than ever. He had no desire to dwell among “civilized” men, especially now that so many white settlers were moving across the Ohio into the new state of Illinois in droves.
Noah turned away from the smooth log railing that bordered the wide, covered porch cantilevered out over the swamp. He was about to step into the cabin, where a single oil lamp cast its circle of light, when he heard a bobcat scream. He would not have given the sound a second thought if not for the fact that a few seconds later the sound was followed by a high-pitched shriek, one that sounded human enough to stop him in his tracks. He paused on the threshold and listened intently. A chill ran down his spine.
It had been so long since he had heard the sound of another human voice that he could not really be certain, but he thought he had just heard a woman’s cry.
Noah shook off the ridiculous, unsettling notion and walked into the cabin. The walls were covered with the tanned hides of mink, bobcat, otter, beaver, fox, white-tailed deer, and bear. His few other possessions—a bone-handled hunting knife with a distinctive wolf’s head carved on it, various traps, some odd pieces of clothing, a few pots and a skillet, four wooden trenchers and mugs, and a rifle—were all neatly stored inside. All he owned and needed in the world, save the dugout canoe secured outside near the base of the tree.
But even the sight of the familiar surroundings, sparse but comfortable, could not help him shake the feeling that something unsettling was about to happen, that all was not right in his world.
Pulling a crock off a high shelf, Noah poured a splash of whiskey into a cup and drank it down, his concentration intent on the deepening gloaming and the sound of the swamp. An unnatural stillness lingered in the air after the puzzling scream, almost as if, like him, the wild inhabitants of Heron Pond were collectively waiting for something to happen. Unable to deny his curiosity any longer, Noah sighed in resignation and walked back to the door.
He lingered there for a moment staring out at the growing shadows. Something was wrong.
was out there. He reached for the primed and loaded Hawken rifle that stood just inside the door and stepped out into the gathering dusk.
He climbed down the crude ladder of wooden strips nailed to the trunk of the massive, prehistoric cypress that supported his home and stepped into the dugout pirogue tied to a cypress tree that poked out of the water. Noah paddled the shallow wooden craft toward a spot where the land met the deep dark water with its camouflage net of duckweed, a natural boundary all but invisible to anyone unfamiliar with the swamp.
He reached a rise of land that supported a trail, carefully stepped out of the pirogue, and secured it to a low-hanging tree branch. Walking through thickening shadows, Noah breathed in his surroundings, aware of every subtle nuance of change, every depression on the path that might really be a footprint on the trail, every tree and stand of switch cane.
The sound he thought he heard had come from the southeast. Noah headed in that direction, head down, staring at the trail although it was almost too dark to pick up any sign. A few hundred yards from where he’d left the pirogue, he paused, raised his head, sniffed the air and listened to the silence.
Instinctively, he swung his gaze in the direction of a thicket of slender cane stalks and found himself staring across ten yards of low undergrowth into the eyes of a female bobcat on the prowl. Slowly he raised his rifle to his shoulder and waited to see what the big cat would do. The animal stared back at him, her eyes intense in the gathering gloaming. Finally, she blinked and with muscles bunching beneath her fine, shiny coat, the cat turned and padded away.
Noah lowered the rifle and shook his head. He decided the sound he’d heard earlier must have been the bobcat’s cry and nothing more. But just as he stepped back in the direction of the pirogue, he caught a glimpse of ivory on the trail ahead that stood out against the dark tableau. His leather moccasins did not make even a whisper of sound on the soft earth. He closed the distance and quickly realized that what he was seeing was a body lying across the path.
His heart was pounding as hard as Chickasaw drums when he knelt beside the young woman stretched out upon the ground. Laying his rifle aside, he stared down at the unconscious female, then looked up and glanced around in every direction. The nearest white settlement was beyond the swamp to the northeast. There was no sign of a companion or fellow traveler nearby, something he found more than curious.
Noah took a deep breath, let go a ragged sigh and looked down at the girl again. She lay on her side, as peacefully as if she were napping, so very still that the only evidence that she was alive was the slow, steady rise and fall of her breasts. Although there was no visible sign of injury, she lay on the forest floor with her head beside a fallen log. One of her arms was outstretched, the other tucked beneath her. What he could see of her face was filthy. So were her hands, but they were beautifully shaped, her fingers long and tapered. Her dress, nothing but a rag with sleeves, was hiked up to her thighs. Her shapely legs showed stark ivory against the decayed leaves and brush beneath her.
He reached out tentatively to touch her, noticed that his hand shook, and balled it into a fist. He clenched it tight, then opened his hand and gently touched the tangled black hair that hid the side of her face. She did not stir when he moved the silken skein nor when he brushed it back and looped it over her ear.
Her face was stained with mud streaks. Her lashes were long and dark, her full lips tinged pink. The sight of her beauty took his breath away. Noah leaned forward and gently reached beneath her. Rolling her to her back, he straightened her arms and noted her injuries. Her wrist appeared to be swelling. She had an angry lump on her forehead near her hairline. When she moaned as he lightly probed her injured wrist, he realized he was holding his breath. Noah expected her eyelids to flutter open, but they did not.
He scanned the forest once again. With night fast closing in, he saw no alternative except to take her home with him. If he was going to get her back to the treehouse before dark, he would have to hurry. Gently he cradled her in his arms, reached for his rifle and then straightened. Even then the girl did not awaken, although she did whimper and turn her face against his buckskin jacket, burrowing against him. It felt strange carrying a woman in his arms, but he had no time to dwell on that as he quickly carried her back to the pirogue, set her inside, and untied the craft. He climbed in behind her, holding her upright, then gently drew her back until she leaned against his chest.
As the paddle cut silently through water black as pitch, he tried to concentrate on guiding the dugout canoe home, but was distracted by the way the girl felt pressed against him, the way she warmed him. As his body responded to a need he had long tried to deny, he felt ashamed at his lack of control. What kind of a man was he, to become aroused by a helpless, unconscious female?
Overhead, the sky was tinted deep violet, an early canvas for the night’s first stars. During the last few yards of the journey, the swamp grew so dark that he had only the yellow glow of lamplight shining from his home high above the water to guide him.
Run. Keep running
The dream was so real that Olivia could feel the leaf-littered ground beneath her feet and the faded chill of winter that lingered on the damp April air. She suffered, haunted by memories of the past year, some still so vivid they turned her dreams into nightmares. Even now, as she lay tossing in her sleep, she could feel the faint sway of the flatboat as it moved downriver long ago. In her sleep the fear welled up inside her.
Her dreaming mind began to taunt her with palpable memories of new sights and scents and dangers.
Run. Run. Run, Olivia. You’re almost home
Her legs thrashed, startling her awake. She sat straight up and felt a searing pain in her right wrist and a pounding in her head that forced her to quickly lie back down. She kept her eyes closed until the stars stopped dancing behind them, then she slowly opened them and looked around.
The red glow of embers burning in a fireplace illuminated the ceiling above her. She lay staring up at even log beams that ran across a wide planked ceiling, trying to ignore the pounding in her head, fighting to stay calm and let her memory come rushing back. Slowly she realized she was no longer lost on the forest trail. She had not become a bobcat’s dinner, but was indoors, in a cabin, on a bed.
She spread her fingers and pressed her hands, palms down, against a rough, woven sheet drawn over her. The mattress was filled with something soft that gave off a tangy scent. A pillow cradled her head.
Slowly Olivia turned her aching head, afraid of who or what she might find beside her, but when she discovered she was in bed alone, she thanked God for small favors.
Refusing to panic, she thought back to her last lucid memory, a wildcat’s scream. She recalled running through the cypress swamp, trying to make out the trail in the dim light before she tripped. She lifted her hand to her forehead and discovered a swelling there. After testing it gingerly, she was thankful that she had not gashed her head open and bled to death.
She tried to lift her head again but intense pain forced her to lie still. Olivia closed her eyes and sighed. A moment later, an unsettling feeling came over her. She knew by the way her skin tingled, the way her nerve endings danced, that someone was nearby. Someone was watching her. An instinctive, intuitive sensation warned her that the someone was a man.
At first she peered through her lashes, but all she could make out was a tall, shadowy figure standing in the open doorway across the room. Her heart began to pound so hard that she was certain the sound would give her consciousness away.
The man started to walk into the room, and she bit her lips together to hold back a cry. She watched him move about purposely. Instead of coming directly to the bed, he walked over to a small, square table. She heard him strike a piece of flint, smelled lamp oil as it flared to life.
His back was to her as he stood there at the table; Olivia opened her eyes wider and watched. He was tall, taller than most men, strongly built, dressed in buckskin pants topped by a buff shirt with billowing sleeves. Despite the coolness of the evening, he wore no coat, no jacket. Indian moccasins, not shoes, covered his feet. His hair was black as pitch, cut straight and worn long enough to hang just over his collar. She watched his bronzed, well-tapered hands turn up the lamp wick and then set the glass chimney in place.
Olivia sensed he was about to turn and look at her. She wanted to close her eyes and pretend to be unconscious, thinking that might be safer than to let him catch her staring at him, but as he slowly turned toward the bed, she knew she had to see him. She
to know what she was up against.
Her gaze swept his body, taking in his great height, the length of his arms, the width and breadth of his shoulders before she dared even look at his face.
When she did, she gasped.
Noah stood frozen beside the table, shame and anger welling up from deep inside. He was unable to move, unable to breathe as the telling sound of the girl’s shock upon seeing his face died on the air. He watched her flinch and scoot back into the corner, pressing close to the wall. He knew her head pained her, but obviously not enough to keep her from showing her revulsion or from trying to scramble as far away as she could.
He had the urge to walk out, to turn around and leave. Instead, he stared back and let her look all she wanted. It had been three years since he had lost an eye to a flatboat accident on the Mississippi. Three years since another woman had laughed in his face. Three years since he had moved into southern Illinois to put the past behind him.
When her breathing slowed and she slowly calmed, he held his hands up to show her that they were empty, hoping to put her a little more at ease.
“I’m sorry,” he said as gently as he could. “I don’t mean you any harm.”
She stared up at him as if she did not understand a blessed word.
Louder this time, he spoke slowly. “Do—you—speak—English?”
The girl clutched the sheet against the filthy bodice of her dress and nodded. She licked her lips, cleared her throat. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water, but no sound came out.
“Yes,” she finally croaked. “Yes, I do.” And then, “Who are you?”
“My name is Noah. Noah LeCroix. This is my home. Who are you?”
The lamplight gilded her skin. She looked to be all eyes, soft green eyes, long black hair, and fear. She favored her injured wrist, holding it cradled against her midriff. From the way she carefully moved her head, he knew she was fighting one hell of a headache, too.