“Be still,” said Jacob quietly. “You are the predator. You are in control.”
Sally’s skin puckered with goose flesh at the sound of his voice. He was right behind her. She held her breath, keeping the barrel of her shotgun level as she aimed it at the grazing stag. He was unaware of the predators gazing upon him during his final moments of breath. Her finger rubbed the trigger and time stood still as she pressed it.
The deer suddenly lifted his head and looked in their direction. She took in a slow breath of the cool morning air.
“Steady,” whispered Jacob.
She stared into her prey’s wary brown eyes. He couldn’t see her, but she felt strangely connected to the animal as they tracked him.
“Don’t think about the stag,” said Jacob. “Think of your survival. It is in your hands only.”
She stiffened. All went quiet. The stag lifted his head. She aimed for his beautiful temple and pulled the trigger. She fell backward from the force of the shot being fired and quickly rose to her feet.
She turned to face Jacob, who handed her his hunting knife. She gripped it in her hand and sprinted for the deer. Her ears rang as she ran for the kill, feeling ill and elated all at once. She stopped at the stag’s side and stared down at the still body.
She exhaled in relief. Jacob stood next to her.
“Excellent shot. You killed him instantly.”
Sally’s racing heart calmed at the relief of knowing she hadn’t caused the beautiful creature any pain.
“Show me how to skin and clean him.”
“I will, but we need to do this fast.”
Jacob picked up the deer like he weighed little more than a sack of potatoes and they walked back to his camp. Her initial fears of feeling too squeamish to complete the task melted away as she watched Jacob work with the bone, tissue, and cooling muscles with such precision. She helped him remove the inner organs out then they skinned it. She helped him separate the meat into sections.
He poured spices all over the meat and then started roasting it over the fire.
“This is a lot of meat,” said Sally.
“I hope you’ll come with me to bring this meat to a band of good people.”
“Band. You mean Indians?”
He studied her carefully.
“They are just people.”
His words stung.
“I’m not heartless. I know that they are people.”
It surprised her a little that a band of them lived so close to a white town after the Indian Removal of the early 1800s. She learned about it from Mama when she was small. So many of them died on the treacherously long trail of tears as they traveled west with little food and provisions. Yet, some remained even in a prejudiced state like Missouri.
“Your Papa managed to shoot me clear through the shoulder before I escaped that night. These good Cherokee people took me in while my wound healed.”
Sally felt her blood beginning to boil.
“I hate my Papa.”
Jacob’s eyes radiated sadness as he stared at her.
“I am very sorry that he is not who you thought he was.”
“Jeremy and I were going to leave here, but now he won’t leave his friend behind. I’m certain that he’s stuck on Mary, too.”
“Your Papa forced you to marry him, I reckon.”
“Do you want him to love you?”
Sally shrugged, inhaling the enticing aroma of roasting venison. As hungry as she had been, thinking about her life outside of the woods made her lose her appetite.
“I don’t know what I want anymore. Everything changed the night that I saw my pastor get murdered by my own father and the deacons.”
“They are monsters capable of doing anything, Sally. I will need to move on soon. I hope that you and Jeremy will leave this place soon, too. When it’s safe for you to do so.”
His words brought a wave of melancholy over her.
“Why did you stay here as long as you have?”
“I had someone I needed to look in on.”
“Here, help me package the meat and we’ll carry it over to the village.”
“Will they hate me for being white?”
“They already know about you. They will welcome you as a friend.”
“You told them about me?”
She trailed behind him as they journeyed through the woods toward the hidden village. Her thoughts screamed and echoed back and forth in her mind. People of colour were forced to live out in the woods away from established society while the white people ran it as they saw fit.
“White men,” she muttered.
“What was that?” asked Jacob, looking over his shoulder.
“I was just thinking out loud.”
He pointed ahead.
She followed him through a maze of tall tipis and averted her eyes from the people. An elderly woman emerged from a tent and greeted them. She hugged Jacob and said something in a foreign language. Jacob replied to her in the same language. The woman’s light brown eyes studied Sally before she extended her arms.
Sally hesitated before accepting the warm embrace. The kind Cherokee woman smelled of a pleasant, earthy perfume as they hugged one another.
“Welcome, child,” she said kindly.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Sally after they broke the hug.
She curtsied. Jacob and the woman laughed.
“She is beautiful, Jacob.”
“Like her mother.”
Sally tilted her head, staring at Jacob in confusion. She brushed it off as a simple compliment. Her mother was a lovely woman to everyone.
She looked around the village and found it calming to watch the men and women going about their day as the children played games. One lady carrying a baby walked by them and smiled at her. Sally returned it. The woman was stunning with her smooth, tanned skin and bright hazel eyes.
All of the Cherokee women wore their hair down and braided. Some wore bright headbands. Sally thought that it was a far prettier style than the chignons proper ladies of society were made to wear. She sometimes felt like she was hiding a great part of her beauty every time she pinned her hair up.
It amazed her that beyond the borders of white society, many other societies existed and thrived like the one she was standing in. It was a world that she knew nothing of, but it was just as real as hers. The people there seemed pleasant and happy.
“You’re a dreamer, aren’t you?” asked the Cherokee woman.
Sally blushed. She hadn’t realized how far her mind had wandered while the two older adults talked. She had been staring up at the overcast sky like an imbecile.
“It’s a fault of mine,” admitted Sally.
“No. You’re just fine,” said Jacob.
“Women dreamers are among the bravest humans who exist,” said the woman with a kind smile. “Be proud of your gift, Sally.”
Sally smiled back at her.
“Thank you, Ma’am.”
“You may call me Inola.”
“I hope we will meet again, Inola.”
“Perhaps soon, young Sally,” said Inola.
Sally and Jacob left the village behind. She wondered how many people in the town knew that it existed there. She shuddered and picked up her pace to walk alongside Jacob.
“The way that you spoke about my mama to Inola surprised me. It sounds like you knew her well.”
“No one has shown me more kindness than your mother.”
“In what way? Did she help you escape Papa?”
He shook his head.
“I stayed at their farm until the very end. Until we were freed and I had to go. She was very kind to all of my brothers and sisters. As much as she could be. Maybe one day you will see her as she truly is.”
“I love my Mama. I know that she is a wonderful person.”
“Your Papa suppresses her.”
“I wish you would tell me more about that time of your life. I know so little about you. I owe it to you to hear your story.”
“You owe me nothing. One day I may have a chance to tell you.”
It was nearly dark.
“Please don’t go yet,” said Sally.
His hand swallowed her hand whole as he gently squeezed it.
“I am so grateful that we have become friends, but I may need to leave abruptly. If that happens, I hope you will continue hunting and learning about the world around you. There are places far beyond here that will stir your soul. I hope that you will have a chance to explore them one day.”
She blinked back tears. The thought of him leaving her behind with her menial life made her insides ache.
“I would rather hunt with you.”
He smiled down at her, blinking quickly as he let her hand go.
“You will do just fine, Sally. You have your Mama’s kindness.”
Sally shook her head, remembering her harsh behavior toward both Mary and Jeremy.
“If only I were as good as you think I am.”
“I saw how your spirit came alive as we tracked that deer. The look of accomplishment when you shot it so cleanly. I was so proud of you.”
Sally bit her lip. She couldn’t remember anyone ever telling her that they were proud of her.
“Please be careful, Jacob. I hope to see you again.”
“You will. Now, go home before it gets too dark.”
She nodded and started back for the farm. She peered over her shoulder to see if he was watching her leave, but he had already vanished.