Charlotte, North Carolina
“ ‘Scuse me, ma’am!”
Annie McGregor caught her balance—and the unwieldy round of cheddar she carried—as a young man in a great hurry careened past her on his way out the door of the mercantile.
Mr. Jewett, the storekeeper, as openmouthed as Annie, watched the fellow race away. Then a smile cracked his sparse lips. “Reckon I’d be as excited as him, iffen I was still spry enough to go chasin’ overmountain into Tennessee country for some of that cheap land.”
Cheap land? Annie’s pulse picked up at those words. “How cheap?”
Recognizing a receptive audience, the storekeeper continued. “You ain’t heard, have you? Isaac Reardon, of the Salisbury Reardons, has built a fort on some land him and his brother got for fightin’ the war. A purty little valley, he says, out past Henry’s Fort. Ike Reardon’s here in town, lookin’ for settlers to take back with him. Says they’ve planted enough grain and vegetables to winter thirty people and their livestock. And all he’s askin’ is fifty cents American an acre.”
Fifty cents? I could have ten acres for five dollars . . . plenty of land to start her own dairy—land out of reach of her pa’s greedy hands. And she’d still have four dollars and two Spanish bits left over to pay for ferry crossings and such. Could this be God’s answer to an entire year’s worth of prayers? No, it sounded too good to be true. “Why would Mr. Reardon want to be so generous?”
The hollow-cheeked storekeeper chuckled as if Annie’d said something amusing. “It’s more crafty than generous. He’s come home to fetch the workin’s to a gristmill that won’t make a profit if he don’t have no folks comin’ to him to have their corn ground. And I think maybe he likes the notion of foundin’ his own town, too . . . one with his own religious bent. Comes from a family of Baptists. That’s why he’s over to the smithy’s right now. He’s lookin’ for a minister, and it seems the German what works there used to preach all that dunkin’ baptism business back where he come from.”
Though a Presbyterian herself, Annie had naught against the Dunkers. She’d heard they didn’t hold much with drinking hard liquor and dancing, but after her seven years of servitude to Mr. and Mrs. White and one more as their hired dairymaid, Annie had never acquired a taste for those worldly pleasures anyway. And it could even work in her favor. If she were allowed to travel with folks bent on keeping to their beliefs, she wouldn’t have to worry about being bothered by any of the men. A trickle of hope skittered through her. This truly could be God’s answer. Her way of escape.
“Please, Mr. Jewett,” she said, handing him Mrs. White’s grocery list along with the cheese she had brought to trade, “could you be quick with this? I have other business that needs tendin’.”
Sweat beaded Isaac Reardon’s forehead. It tracked into his sun-bleached brows and ran down his temples. The heat was intense. But for once, he was glad for it, because he was standing in the middle of a busy four-man blacksmith shop. He’d spent most of the past few years a good three days’ ride from the nearest smithy. When the flintlock broke on his Pennsylvania rifle last fall, he’d lost a week’s work just going to get it repaired.
And now he’d be taking one of these tradesmen with him back to his own valley.
Ike walked past two workers in heavy leather aprons to reach Rolf Bremmer—the stocky German blacksmith he’d come to see. He stopped a couple of feet shy of Bremmer’s ringing hammer and flying sparks, waiting to gain the busy man’s attention.
Just then young Ken Smith burst through the wide double doorway of the barnlike building, his face flushed as if he’d been running for his life. Pausing only a second to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light, the strapping lad charged straight for Ike and grabbed hold of his shoulders. “Mr. Reardon!” he shouted out, breaking into the biggest toothy grin Ike had ever seen. “She agreed to go! My Betsy. She said yes!”
“She did?” Ike took hold of the young man’s arms and gave them a squeeze, as relieved and pleased as Smith seemed—if that were possible.
“Alleluia!” boomed Rolf Bremmer, waving a tong-held piece of fiery red iron as if it were the new American flag. “Anodder family is coming mit us,” he added in an enthusiastic mix of German and English.
This was a day for rejoicing. As young as Kenneth Smith was, he’d been raised by a barrelmaker and had spent several years as an apprentice to a wheelwright. With those skills added to Brother Bremmer’s and with the mill machinery Ike himself was bringing, they would have a great start for a settlement. Three other families had also pledged to complete their business and dispose of their property in time to relocate to the Reardons’ holdings when he returned for them next spring. One even talked of starting a settlement store.
Ike’s dream—most of it, anyway—was taking shape.
For the next few minutes, he reveled in the pleasure of answering questions about the distance to his valley, the challenges they might have crossing the rivers and mountains, the slim chance of any hostilities with the Cherokee or Creek tribes. Even the Chicamaugas—as a group of renegade Creeks and Cherokees now called themselves—had not been on the warpath for more than a year.
Bremmer and Smith were eager to get started. And Ike was glad to hear it. “How about a week from today? We’ll meet outside the smithy’s next Monday morning, ready to roll.”
When the other two heartily agreed, Ike turned to tell his partner, who’d come into the smithy with him. Jigs, who’d been nicknamed in accordance with his love of dancing the lively jig, hadn’t even been listening. The much shorter man stood several feet away, staring at the doorway and grinning as if he had no sense.
Then Ike saw why. A young woman stood silhouetted in the opening. Leave it to Jigs to notice her first.
Taller than most women, she wasn’t just skin and bone like so many women her height, but nicely fleshed out. She took a step, then stopped and checked the tuck of her plain shawl collar before coming forward.
As she moved into the muted light of the shop, Ike saw that, though her eyes were unusual—gold-rimmed jade—her complexion was darker than one would expect. On closer inspection, he realized she’d not kept herself sufficiently shaded from the sun’s rays. Adding that to the coarse homespun of the woman’s attire, he surmised that she was some poor farmer’s wife sent to have a tool repaired. A simple, hardworking young woman. Certainly not someone his former betrothed would deign to have to tea, now that she’d become mistress of her fine new house.
Sour grapes again. Would he ever get over his intended’s betrayal? Or his own lack of good judgment? The fact that he’d believed her when she’d said her dream was the same as his had shaken his confidence in his own intuitive abilities. Why hadn’t he seen through her beguiling lies? Sylvia had known when she accepted his proposal that, as the third son, he had inherited no land from his father—only mill machinery. She’d also known the new congress could not afford to pay his back army wages and had cashiered him out with acreage of his choosing west of the Tennessee River.
“Gentlemen,” the woman began. “I’m searchin’ for a frontiersman by the name of Reardon. Would one of you be this man?”
“Ain’t you the woman with the cheese?” Ken Smith asked, a strange expression accompanying his question.
“Aye. Could you tell me where I might find Mr. Reardon?”
“That’s me.” Ike turned to fully face her. Perhaps the woman had come on behalf of her husband, seeking information about the planned trip. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m here about the land you’re sellin’ in Tennessee country. Is it true that the askin’ price is fifty cents an acre?”
“I also heard it’s in a valley. Does that mean it has good-growin’ bottomland?” There was nothing coy about the straightforward gaze she maintained from beneath her simple straw bonnet.
“And is the money to be paid before or after folks get there so they can take a look for themselves?”
Ike quirked a one-sided grin. The woman was downright suspicious of him. As calloused of hand and lean of body as he was, he was amused that she could think he might make his living as a shiftless flimflammer. “After we get there and after we agree on the parcels, then I’ll take their money. If I might ask, for whom are you inquiring?”
She straightened her capable-looking shoulders, shoulders without the fashionable slope to them. “For myself, of course. Annie McGregor of Mr. Vernon White’s dairy farm. We’re the only maker of hard cheese in two counties. And we keep European bees.”
“Excellent. But I’m afraid you’ve come to inquire at a very late date if you wish to go with our party this year. We’re leavin’ next Monday. Could you and your husband conclude your affairs and be ready to travel in so short a time?”
An eager smile transformed a merely pleasant face into a thing of beauty. “Yes, yes. I’ve been preparing for this day for almost a year. You’re the answer to my prayers.”
“Wonderful. Cheese makers. We’re glad to have you along.” Why couldn’t Sylvia have understood the thrill of building something of one’s own all from scratch? Or Smith’s wife? Or Bremmer’s, for that matter? They’d both been reluctant to come along. Only his brother’s betrothed had displayed an eagerness, and Ike suspected Lorna Graham’s enthusiasm was due more to a desire to escape her father’s eagle eye than in anticipation of their destination. “Will you be bringin’ honeybees, as well?”
Her smile relaxed into one no less pleasant. “Yes, indeed.”
“But be advised that the valley is several days’ ride from the nearest settlement store, so you must carry everything you’ll need with you. I’ll be takin’ care of business here in Charlotte until this evenin’. Have your husband seek me out, and I’ll provide him with a list of things he’ll require for the trip.”
She glanced away. Then, leveling her gaze on him again, she took a deep breath. “I fear you misunderstood me. This trip I will make alone. I have no husband.”
Ike’s head jerked up. No husband? Alone? Poor thing. Most likely she’d lost her man to the war, like so many other young brides. Nonetheless. . . . “I am sorry, ma’am. But it isn’t possible for you to accompany us . . . ‘lessen you have someone to take charge of seein’ you safely there and settled.”
“No, I have no money to spare for such luxuries. But I assure you, I’m quite capable of takin’ care of myself.”
She certainly didn’t lack determination, just good sense.
“Ma’am, it is my responsibility to see that all who travel with me arrive safely, along with all our goods, and I take that responsibility very seriously. Without someone who is capable of lookin’ after your outfit and who knows how to use a rifle if the need arises, I simply cannot allow you to join our party.”
Ike had forgotten that the other men were listening until Jigs intervened. “Aw, let her come if she’s so set on it.” The dark-headed charmer turned to the McGregor woman and doffed his tricorn. “I’d be real pleased to offer the lady my assistance and my protection.”
Ike grazed the rake with a warning glower. “You’ll already have your hands plenty full. You have a wagon loaded down with millworks to get over those mountains, remember? Trails to be widened, rivers to cross.”
“Mr. Reardon is right,” Brother Bremmer added in his thick accent. “Is not goot for da voman to make da long chourney alone.”
The widow’s gilt-edged green eyes took on a bleakness, erasing the beauty that had lit up the sooty furnace-hot shop only moments before. “Is that your final word?”
Ike had no choice. “I’m afraid it has to be.”
“Why, God?” Annie cried out, once she’d driven her horse and cart far enough from town not to be overheard. “In your Bible it says I’m to have joy and peace. Night after night, Mr. White has read that you’re a loving and merciful God. Yet, when my one chance comes, you let that man shut the door in my face. Is it just me you don’t love? Is there something so wrong with me? I’ve tried. You know how hard I try to be good.” Her last words came out on a strangled sob as hot tears spilled down her cheeks.
Feeling sorry for yourself again, aren’t you? Pressing her lips tight, Annie swiped viciously at the evidence of her weakness. Just because that frontiersman wouldn’t let her go with his party didn’t mean she couldn’t go somewhere. But where? With only nine American dollars and two Spanish bits, where else could she buy ten acres of her own? Certainly not here in North Carolina. She’d have to go over the mountains for land that cheap.
If she was ever to have anything of her own.
She couldn’t fault Mr. and Mrs. White on that count, though. They had been more generous than any bond servant had a right to expect, allowing her to keep any tips she received while making deliveries and letting her work the extra year to get her start—or her dowry, as Mrs. White always insisted on calling it. Her elderly mistress assumed Annie was accumulating possessions so she’d have a better choice of suitors. And Annie never had the heart to tell the kind lady that she had absolutely no intention of being enslaved again.
Land of her own was what she needed. She now had two milk cows and a bull to start her dairy. The crates that would carry the chickens Mrs. White promised her were already built. And bless Mr. White—he was giving her a hive of domesticated bees. Honey was liquid gold since almost everyone had a sweet tooth.
For two years now, Annie had been trading and scrounging and scavenging—seeds, tools, household goods. So she could tote all her property, Mr. White had given her an old hay cart, along with a double yoke and chains, for the price of having the axle replaced. Most important, though, Annie had her dog. She’d match Cap against any cow dog in the county.
She was as ready as she’d ever be. It was time to go, past time. She simply had to get far enough away so her pa couldn’t find her and drag her back. But she couldn’t just take off alone. Desperate as she was, she wasn’t that much of a fool.
What could she do? She bit her lower lip, studying on her predicament.
Then it hit her. The answer was so simple. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?
Annie could hardly contain her excitement and her trepidation as she and plump-cheeked Mrs. White, both in their mobcaps and fresh aprons, rose to clear the evening meal’s dirty dishes from the kitchen table. Annie could almost see her galloping heart bumping against the fabric of her gray linen bodice. Yet the moment when she planned to ask her elderly master if he would release her a week early was still a quarter hour away . . . after Mr. White’s nightly sharing of a Bible chapter.
Once they were all settled, Mr. White put on his spectacles, then carefully opened the old book to the place he’d left off the night before, marked by a satin ribbon. It would be in the Psalms. He’d been reading from those chapters for the past couple of months.
Tonight it seemed as if he was taking a deliberately long time to set the ribbon aside and smooth the pages with his gnarled and weathered hands, but Annie knew better . . . her impatience merely made it seem that way.
“Chapter sixty-one,” he began at last in his rumbling, lumbering monotone. “Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer. From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy.”
Mr. White continued to the end of the psalm, but Annie heard nothing past those first verses. It was as if God was speaking directly to her. She rolled the words over in her mind, in her soul. Hear my cry . . . attend my prayer . . . my heart is overwhelmed. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. Oh, yes, she prayed silently, for these past eight years, Lord, you have sheltered me. Now it is time for me to be led up to that high rock. I thank you, O Lord. You have answered my prayer. On the very day I needed it. And gracious Lord, I ask your forgiveness for my lack of patience, and most of all for doubting that you care.
After finishing the chapter, the farmer closed the Bible. Taking a sip of the tea left for him, Mr. White wiped his mouth and grizzled beard on his shirtsleeve and started to get up.
“Sir?” Annie reached across the table. “I would have a word with you, if you please.” Annie’s mouth went suddenly dry. Everything depended on her making the old couple understand. She swallowed. “I spoke to a man in town today—a Mr. Isaac Reardon. He’s guiding a group of settlers overmountain into Tennessee. He’s offerin’ good bottomland for fifty cents an acre.” She swallowed again. “I’m set on goin’ with ‘em.”
“You? A girl alone? Nonsense.” Mr. White scooted his chair back.
Annie sprang to her feet. “Please, I beg of you. Hear me out.”
Her master hesitated, his strong fingers gripping the edge of the table.
“When I went home last Christmas,” Annie said in a rush, “I learned my younger sister had married.”
“That’s a good thing, dear,” Mrs. White said. “And there’s no reason to think you won’t find a husband, too. Especially with the dowry we’ve been helping you gather.”
“No, Mrs. White, I’m afraid the marriage was not a good thing. No dowry was settled on her so she could make a mutually pleasin’ match. Instead, my pa gave her to a widower who has five children still at home. Or should I say, Pa sold her. The man traded him a crib of corn and two hogs ready for slaughter. My sister never had a say in it. And she doesn’t even like the man. I’ve been prayin’ that she’ll grow to care for him. But I never saw such a miserable girl as Emma Jane, ma’am.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mrs. White sympathized. “You should have mentioned this sooner. We would have prayed for her with you. Wouldn’t we, Vernon?”
“At the moment, I’m just praying Annie will come to the point.”
Annie straightened and spoke faster. “My pa as much as told me, he’ll be lookin’ for a good prospect for me, too. And a good prospect to him means someone he can profit from. I have no doubt that he will take everything I’ve worked so hard for—the cattle, the beehive, cart, everything—all for hisself—when he marries me off.”
Mrs. White sighed heavily. “I’m sure,” she said in a wistful voice, “your father loves you and thinks he’s doing right by you.”
“He doesn’t think about us girls much one way or the other. When my ma finally started givin’ him sons—after us four girls—that’s all he’s cared about.”
“The man’s still your pa,” Mr. White said gruffly.
Annie had anticipated his every argument and knew her next words were vital. “Sir, I feel that my pa sold his rights over me when he indentured me to you. No dire straits forced him to sell his second daughter into servitude. We had food on the table, clothes on our backs, and he already had more land than he could put to plow. He had no urgent need—’lessen you count his greed for more land. So I say, he’s already received his ‘thirty pieces of silver’. He forfeited any right to sell me again.”
“I’d hate to think those pillowcases and napkins I embroidered for your chest wouldn’t go with you when you marry,” her plump mistress said. “Vernon, I’ve grown very fond of Annie, and she’s worked so hard for us. Don’t you think she deserves to find what happiness she can?”
Bless Mrs. White. She was standing up for Annie, pleading her cause. Annie barely restrained herself from kissing the old woman.
“She should have a chance to make a good match for herself,” Mrs. White concluded with unusual vigor.
The farmer stared at his wife a long moment . . . then grunted a response in what sounded like agreement.
They agreed. Maybe. Annie’s spirits soared as she dared to hope she’d interpreted correctly. She pressed her cause. “That’s why it’s so urgent for me to leave now, get as far away from my pa as I can, whilst I have the chance. He’ll be comin’ to fetch me at month’s end.”
“But, dear, you have no husband. No one to look after you on the trip.”
“The German blacksmith and his family are goin’, and you know what fine upstandin’ Christians they are. He’s to be given his own church in the valley. I’ll be fine, just fine.” Annie felt a twinge of guilt. She knew she was deceiving her mistress by leaving out the fact that the leader of the party hadn’t accepted her.
Mr. White stroked his beard thoughtfully. “You’ve always been a fine hand at chopping wood and fixing what’s broken. And I suppose you could trade your milk and cheese and honey for what you can’t do, like raising your cabin.” He tucked his chin and eyed her. “Or did you think you could do that by your lonesome, too?”
Annie held her own. “Like you said, I’ll trade for what I can’t do.”
“Well, you’re not going off into the wilderness ‘lessen you can load and shoot a musket—and hit what you’re aiming at.”
“But, sir, I don’t have the money to buy a weapon.”
“Ye’ll not leave here without one.”
Annie felt her hope dashed. She’d had no plausible argument when Mr. Reardon brought up the matter of her safety either. But if she used her money for a musket and powder, there’d be none left to get her to Tennessee and settled on her own place.
“I’ll give ye mine. Haven’t done much hunting the past few years anyway. It’ll be my contribution to your dowry,” her usually terse master ended with a rare smile.
Unable to contain her joy this time, Annie flung her arms around the old man. “Thank you! Bless you! Thank you!”
Grinning wide now, he unloosed Annie’s stranglehold and held her at arm’s length. “I’ll also be sending along a good supply of paper and ink. We’ll be expecting to hear from you real regular.”
By now, Mrs. White had risen and wrapped an arm around Annie, hugging her tight against her comforting plumpness. “And my New Testament. You’ll need more protection than some old gun. I expect you to put all that reading I taught you to good use.” She kissed Annie’s cheek. “And we’d better learn you’ve found yourself a good, hardworking husband before the year’s out. You shouldn’t have no trouble. I hear overmountain there’s ten men for every woman. Plenty for you to pick from.”
Annie’s eyes stung with unshed tears. No one had hugged her or kissed her since the day she said good-bye to her mother. This childless couple had always shown through their deeds that they cared about her. But now, for the first time, they were surrounding her in an embrace, even Mr. White. They loved her. And, she remembered, so did God.
Now all that was left was to prove to that tall, rangy Mr. Reardon that she had the grit to make it on her own. And that would be easy enough to do. She would simply start out before the others and stay ahead of them until she had trekked so deep into the wilderness that the wagon master couldn’t possibly refuse to accept her. Or could he?