Salem, North Carolina
“This sure is livin’,” Drew Reardon drawled as he lazed back in one of the barn-shaded chairs lining the front of Salem’s livery. Stretching out his long legs in the sultry afternoon, he crossed one Indian-moccasined foot over the other. “Yes sir, just sittin’ here next to the road and watchin’ all of North Carolina go by.”
“What y’all means is, watchin’ me go by, totin’ water while you sits dere on yo’ lazy behind.” Drew’s Negro hunting partner growled his displeasure in a fair imitation of his Indian name, Black Bear, as he trudged from the well with a bucket in each hand. But unlike the furry creature, sweat beads glistened across his wide brow.
Drew stifled a chuckle, but a one-sided smirk managed to slide upward. “Now, Joshua,” he said, calling his partner by the name he’d gone by as a small child—before he and his family escaped the slavery of a Virginia plantation and found refuge with the Shawnee. “You knew you’d have to pretend to be my ‘boy’ if you wanted to come east of the mountains. And we got us a string of horses that need feedin’ and waterin’.”
Bear swerved toward Drew, stopping directly in front of him, his wide-set eyes turning to angry slits.
Sensing a dousing might be in the offing, Drew sat up straight.
“Are you sho’ tomorrow is June third?”
Drew relaxed slightly. “Positive.”
“Well, dat teacher fella better show up den, cuz I’m gettin’ shed a dis place with or without him.”
“Now that’s gratitude,” Drew quipped. Nonetheless, he prudently came to his feet—those buckets were mighty full. “Here I took the trouble of lettin’ you come all this way with me to fetch back Reardon Valley’s very first schoolteacher, and all you want to do is get outta here. Just cuz you gotta wear those raggedy ol’ clothes and keep your mouth shut when we’re out in public. Oh yes, and walk three paces behind me, keepin’ your eyes lowered to the ground.” His teasing grin spread wider.
Jaw muscles knotting, Bear took a chest-expanding breath that nearly popped the wooden buttons of his too-tight shirt. He plunked the oak buckets on the ground, sloshing water over the sides. “Wipe that smirk off yo’ face, or I’ll do it for you.”
“Ah, but then you’d be settin’ yourself up for a hangin’ . . . a slave hittin’ such a charmin’, good-lookin’ master. Folks round here got no sense of humor, a’tall.”
Nonetheless, when Bear’s fists bunched, Drew knew he’d gone too far with his teasing. Besides, what he’d said was more true than even he, a white man, ever wanted to admit. He placed a hand on his friend’s rock-solid shoulder. “I know it’s hard, seein’ all your kind bein’ treated no better’n workhorses. But you knew that’s how it was gonna be. Stick it out one more day; then we’ll both head overmountain again.” Drew glanced up the vacant street lined with mostly one-story tradesmen shops and stores shaded by an occasional tree. “If that teacher ain’t late gettin’ here from Richmond.”
The tension drained from Bear, and his expressive dark eyes became pools of suffering as they had too often this past week since the two hunters had accompanied blacksmith and preacher, Brother Rolf Bremmer, overmountain. This was Bear’s first trip this far east since he and his family escaped bondage when he was six years old. “I jus’ don’ understand. Folks round here’s supposed to be Christians. All dem fancy churches we counted comin’ down into here. Da good Lord ought’a rain a whole mountain a fire an’ brimstone on dese hypocrites for what dey’s doin’.”
Now Drew really did feel guilty. “I know. But try not to lose sight of the fact that sooner or later everyone will face a reckon’. I know it’s of little comfort at the moment, but . . .” Drew shrugged. “Prayer. We’ll just have to keep ’em in our prayers day and night . . . the slaves and the souls of their masters.”
An unexpected grin eased across Bear’s generous mouth. “An’ jus’ when did you take up prayin’ day an’ night?”
“Since we come on this trip with Brother Rolf. Thank heavens, he’s visitin’ with that minister friend of his till tomorrow. I’ll swan, that man would pray over a weepin’ willow.”
A chuckle rumbled up from Bear’s chest. “He’s jus’ practicin’ up for all dem gals you go off an’ leave a-weepin’.”
Drew felt himself start to bristle. “Just cuz I don’t want to get myself rooted down by one of them females Ma and Annie keep tryin’ to foist off on me. Like I said before, there’s too much wilderness left to explore. We’ve hardly scratched the ground on the far side of the Mississip’.” He eased off, not wanting Bear to know how much his mother’s matchmaking riled him. “It’s not that I ain’t interested in a purty face . . . so if one of you comes up with a gal who’s willin’ to run a trapline and don’t mind sleepin’ out in the snow, then I’ll take a second look.”
Bear snorted. “You ain’t gettin’ any younger, y’know. Seein’ as how yo’s nigh onto thirty.” White teeth flashed a brilliant smile in contrast to his ebony face.
“Not for four more years. You’re only two winters younger than me. Plumb old, I hear, for a bridegroom in the Shawnee towns.”
“You know I made a solemn promise to my pa dat I’d waits till I finds me a God-fearin’ woman like my mammy was. I didn’t say nothin’ about it before, but dat’s da main reason I risked comin’ east of da mountains. But now I sees da folly in dat. I ain’t seen a solitary Negress—Christian or no—what was free to say yea or nay about nothin’, let alone about jumpin’ da broom wit’ me.” Bear’s brief moment of good humor had disappeared. Reaching down, he retrieved the water buckets and started toward the wide barn opening.
As Drew settled into his chair again, he made one more attempt at levity. “I know you think you’re a handsome devil, but even if you found one who could choose, I doubt she’d be any more likely to go traipsin’ off into the savage wilds with you than them gals Ma and Annie parade in front of me ever’ time I go home. And I know I’m irresistible.”
Bear stopped just short of the entrance. But instead of the expected retort, his attention was on something up the sleepy main street of Salem.
Drew followed his gaze.
Two young women—one white and one black—came walking purposefully up the dusty rutted road from the direction of a traveler’s inn, just as if they’d been ordered specially for the two frontiersmen. The Negress was keeping a prudent two steps behind as each shaded herself with a parasol. The white woman’s parasol was, of course, much more lavish. Trimmed with lace and striped in pink and beige, it matched her voluminous skirts. Though Drew couldn’t see her face beneath its deep shade, she had the promise of being a beautiful woman. Considering his own considerable height, he also liked the fact that she was taller than most women.
As the twosome neared, they veered toward Drew.
Grateful for a chance to see what was hidden under the lacy umbrella, Drew rose to his feet, wishing he’d taken the effort of putting on his town clothes rather than the usual belted overshirt, deerskin breeches, and moccasins.
“Pardon me,” the young woman called, her full skirts swishing as she came closer. “Are you the proprietor of this establishment?” Her voice was soft and pleasurable, like a feather being drawn slowly across Drew’s palm.
“No, but perhaps I can help you,” he stalled as he strode toward her for a better look. If she knew that the liveryman was napping in his house next door, she’d most likely make a beeline toward the white clapboard dwelling.
She cast her parasol to the side. Haloed in the afternoon sun, her dark auburn tresses seemed to catch fire. She was as beautiful as her voice had promised. Her eyes, a few shades lighter than her hair, smoldered in the shadows, and her complexion was flawless, her thick lashes . . .
“I was told at the inn down the road that this is the only livery in Salem. Perchance, has a Reverend Bremmer left his stock in your care? I am to rendezvous with him here tomorrow.”
“Bremmer? Rolf Bremmer?”
“I suppose Rolf could be his Christian name. Am I to presume he has arrived, then, from Tennessee?” Gold flecks sparked in her chestnut eyes as she smoothed a hand over the striped day gown.
The young woman whirled to her servant. “Did you hear that, Josie? Reverend Bremmer’s here to fetch us. See, I told you there was nothing to worry about.”
Drew stepped up behind the lovely woman, who gave off a mind-stealing mix of exotic spices and blooms. Skimming his gaze across the top of her head, he trained his attention on her servant. Shorter and more curvaceous, the young woman probably would have an infectious smile. But at the moment she wore an exceedingly solemn expression.
The servant, Josie, glanced furtively behind her.
Drew followed her gaze but saw no one else on the street in the wilting afternoon heat. “The name’s Drew Reardon, ma’am,” he said to the lady, remembering belatedly to sweep his beat-up hat from his head. “I accompanied Brother Bremmer here. Am I to presume you’re with Professor Hazlett?”
“More or less. Are you the Reardon the valley in Tennessee is named after?”
“More or less,” he repeated with a teasing smile. He wasn’t yet ready to tell her that, in reality, it was his two older brothers who’d founded the township while he’d spent most of his time trading with the native tribes and exploring. “We weren’t aware that the professor was bringin’ along a wife—not that we won’t be mighty pleased to escort a lovely lady such as yourself to our valley.”
“Is that your slave?” Bear had moved up behind Drew unnoticed. He didn’t sound pleased.
“Why, yes,” the lady said, a small frown marring a spot just above her perfect nose. She obviously was not accustomed to being questioned by a Negro. Her attention returned to Drew. “I’m afraid there’s been a slight misunderstanding. Professor Hazlett has indeed married, but not to me. He’s gone to take up residence with his new wife’s family. I am here as his replacement.”
“You? But you’re a woman.”
That perfect nose hiked a notch. “Am I to assume you believe females are incapable of higher learning? or of imparting that knowledge to others?”
Drew threw up a hand as if to ward off the accusation. “Not me. I wouldn’t dream of assumin’ anything when it comes to females, even though I never heard of a woman hired on to teach a mob of boys before. But then, I can’t think of a single thing I’d like better than to have you for a teacher.” This trip overmountain had suddenly become a whole lot more interesting.
The last hint of pleasantness fled her lovely features as she arched a censuring brow. “I’m sure you can’t.”
But it didn’t damper Drew’s own high spirits in the least . . . until he remembered the big German. “Brother Rolf—now he might be a tougher nut to crack.” But not too tough, Drew hoped. “I’m afraid he’ll have the last say about whether or not you can come with us. He’s not one to take real quick to newfangled notions.”
Her chin shot up another notch. Her spine straightened. “Lead me to him.”