Chapter 1: The Message
Betsy peered under the long, low branches of the evergreen tree. Sure enough. One of the hens had laid a brown egg right up against the trunk. She’d have to crawl in the dirt and stickers to reach it. Tossing her shawl on the dry grass, she pulled the back of her ankle-length homespun skirt between her legs and tucked the tail into her front waistband. She crawled to the egg, cradled it in her left hand, and backed out.
“Hullo,” said a young man’s voice.
Cheeks burning, she jumped to her feet and yanked her skirt tail out of the waistband.
“I brought a message for Miz Larson.” The unknown visitor spoke each word precisely, but with a hint of a French accent.
“Ma’s at the barn—behind the house.” Betsy ducked her chin to hide her face and brushed the dirt off her skirt. Hearing nothing, she peeked over her shoulder. He was gone. She grabbed her shawl and ran into the log house.
The cloth-thin hides over the windows let in enough of the late afternoon sun to light her way to the cupboard. She opened it and put the egg in the basket. She felt safe for only a second. Ma would bring in the stranger and offer him a bowl of the rabbit stew warming over the coals.
Betsy flung herself onto the ladder and climbed into the divided loft where she and her two brothers slept. She ducked into her half and dropped face down onto her rope bed. No one could see her from the room below.
The back door flew open.
Taking care not to rustle her cornhusk mattress, Betsy edged forward until she could see the fireplace.
Ma, her brown hair flying loose from the bun atop her head, grabbed a candle from the mantel and lit it from the coals. Her shoulders heaved.
Betsy went cold all over. Her mother never cried.
“Ma,” Johnnie called from outside, “I don’t see Betsy anywheres.”
Ma took a deep breath. “She’s close by, I reckon. Run down to the crick and get George.”
“Your little girl is hunting eggs,” the stranger said.
Betsy curled her lip. He sounded way too young to be calling her a little girl.
Ma motioned for him to come in. “Would you like a bowl of stew?”
“Merci, but no. Perhaps I could take with me one of your fine apples?”
“With my thanks.” Ma went to the cupboard and took out two apples. “Is the road south toward New Orleans easy to follow?”
Betsy shivered, certain now that something awful had happened to Pa.
“It is more trail than road, Miz Lawton, but it is well marked,” the boy said.
“How long will it take to reach my husband?”
“On a strong horse, four days.”
Betsy squirmed forward until she could see a thin buckskin-clad figure with long crow-black hair tied back with a red band. She recognized the generous nose and prominent cheekbones of the boy who worked at the French trading post. Everyone called him Rabbit because he could run so fast.
He opened the front door and hesitated. “I go hunting every Sunday. If you wish, I shall bring you a deer haunch.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind.”
He stepped onto the narrow front porch. “Miz Larson, the trail may be hard for George to follow alone.”
“He won’t go alone. Now, you get back to New Madrid. It’ll be dark in half an hour.”
“I am the rabbit. I will arrive at the Mississippi before dark. Au revoir.”
Ma closed the door, pulled a chair from the table to beneath the beam where she hung plants to dry, and stepped up to pluck leaves from two medicinal plants.
The back door flew open. “Is Johnnie telling me another one of his stories?” George’s question began in a bass and ended in a soprano.
“No,” Ma said calmly. She stepped down from the chair and looked up at her son. “Your father sent a message. He sold our corn whiskey, apples, and the flatboat in New Orleans and started walking back. He had a bad attack of the autumn ague a little past Fort Pickering. He’s camped out on the Saint Francis River and needs a horse to ride home.”
George grabbed the musket hanging over the back door. “I’ll saddle up.”
Ma closed her eyes a moment. “Think, son. It’s almost dark and clouds are coming in. They’ll block out even the comet’s light. We’ll get ready tonight and leave at daybreak.”
“We? Who’s going with me?”
“I am.” She smiled. “Close your mouth. I rode a horse from Boonesboro to Upper Louisiana with Johnnie on a pillow in front of me and Betsy on deerskins behind me.”
George frowned. “But Ma, who’ll milk the cows and cook and—and everything? Betsy and Johnnie are just puppies.”
“Puppies! I’ll be fifteen in two weeks,” Betsy yelled. She scrambled down the ladder. “I can take care of the cows and chickens and Johnnie. You just go take care of Pa.” She put her hands on her hips and stretched to her full five feet one to glare at George. She wished she had more than plum-sized bumps on her chest to prove how grown up she was.
Ma reached out to push Betsy’s long, loose brown hair away from her face. “I know you can manage, and the neighbors will help, if need be.”
George snorted. “The Climsons? They ask for help, not give it.”
Ma sighed. “That’s so. You need anything, Betsy, you go to the McElroys.”
As the Lawtons ate their stew by the light of the oil lamp, Johnnie argued mightily that a ten-year-old is almost a man and should go along. Ma refused to give in the way she usually did, so he slid off his chair and under the table to sulk and sniffle.
She reached down to stroke his mop of sandy hair. “Betsy can’t manage alone. You’ll be the man here while we’re gone.”
He choked out a familiar question: “Can—I—go—deer—hunting?”
Ma frowned. “No, we have to take the musket.”
“You can go hunting with Rabbit, if he agrees.” She looked at Betsy. “Go to the trading post Saturday and ask the boy to take Johnnie along.”
Embarrassed at the idea of talking to Rabbit, Betsy opened her mouth to protest, but she couldn’t say no to Ma tonight.
Johnnie settled down enough to help pack the food and supplies Ma and George would carry. With Little Prairie and Big Prairie the only villages along their route, most days they would camp and shoot game for their supper.
When the boys climbed into the loft to go to sleep, Ma picked up the lamp and motioned Betsy to come behind the wall into the small sleeping room. Ma sat on the bed and patted the spot beside her. “I’m sorry to put this on you, but I know you got the good sense to take care of things—and to ask for help if you need it.” She turned her face away for a moment. “The big thing is to take care of the chickens and the cows. Freedom has gone dry, so you’ll only have Liberty to milk.” She thought a moment. “When you go to New Madrid to talk to that Shawnee boy, trade the eggs for knitting wool for mittens.”
Betsy’s eyes widened. “I thought Rabbit is French.”
“His mother was a Shawnee from that village near Cape Girardeau.” Ma rubbed her neck. “I’ll leave Boone here. That old dog will run off any varmints that come after the chickens, and he’ll sound off if any strangers come along.” She shook a cautioning finger at Betsy. “Don’t let strangers in the house. Two-legged varmints can be more trouble than the four-legged ones. You can drive off most of both with a big rock and a loud holler, but keep your father’s old hunting knife with you all the time, day and night.”
Ma pointed to the wood trunk. “The knife and the pistol are in there. I don’t s’pect you to need the pistol, but if you do, take time to aim.” She smiled. “Likely your biggest problem will be Johnnie. Give the boy something manly to do. Ask him to use his slingshot to keep the crows away from the chickens’ corn. And don’t either of you go out to the necessary at night. Use the chamber pot.” She squeezed Betsy’s hands. “If anything scares you, go to one of the neighbors, even the Climsons.”
Betsy swallowed the lump in her throat. “I can take care of everything.”
Ma hugged her. “My sensible child. We’ll be back in nine or ten days. By your birthday for sure.”
Betsy stood up on wobbly knees, but her voice stayed steady as she said, “I’ll let Johnnie turn over the little number blocks on the wood calendar to mark the days.”
“Good. He’ll like that.” Ma rubbed her forehead. “One more thing—if you need money, pry out that loose brick in the hearth. The coins to pay for spring planting and Johnnie’s school term are in my wedding pocket, the one with my initials embroidered on it.” The lines in her forehead deepened. “I hate to leave you two here alone.”
Betsy fought against panic. “Don’t worry, Ma. The weather’s more like November than December, and we got plenty of food stored. You just think about bringing Pa home.”
Excerpt From Chapter 5: The Big Dance
Roaring thunder woke Betsy, or perhaps it was Boone’s howls. The bed rose into the air and threw her onto the floor. The trunk brushed past her and crashed into the wall. The ladder to the loft slammed against the table. Chairs skittered across the floor. A tree cracked and thudded onto the roof.
“Get outside,” Betsy screamed, feeling for Johnnie as the room tossed her around.
He grabbed her arm.
She pushed him toward the door, snatched the buffalo hide from the bed, and stumbled after him. The house threw her down again. She crawled through the front door to the edge of the porch. A mist filled the air, but the comet gave enough light for her to see Johnnie stretched out on the ground a few feet away. She staggered toward him as the ground heaved. Pulling him up, she held on tight to his arm and kept moving away from the house toward open ground. When they fell hard, she held him against her and pulled the buffalo skin around them. They clung to each other while the ground rocked and angry thunder rumbled beneath them.
The wind whistled fiercely, but Betsy felt no breath of air on her face. She stared at the fruit trees outlined against the starry sky. The bare branches waved wildly, touching and moving back and touching again as they rose and fell.
Sure she was dreaming, Betsy closed her eyes. The ground still rolled under her. The roaring thunder and the wind still beat into her ears. She opened her eyes. The trees still danced.