OUT IN THE YARD the sun is already beating down although it is barely midmorning. Susanna puts down the bucket for a moment and feels for the sliver of rowan wood in her pocket. Then she feels in her other pocket for the turkey hen bone that her father once gave her. The bone is her good luck talisman. Sirus found it in a field of wild rye after a herd of buffalo ran through it, crushing the stalks into carpet. Susanna still remembers the sound of their hooves like a waterfall moving closer and then away. Afterwards, Sirus walked into the rye to see what they’d trampled. It was the last buffalo they ever saw.
Susanna picks up the bucket again with her two gloved hands so she won’t get blisters and turns her back to the settlement’s few clustered buildings: Amos Spendlove’s iron goods shop, the public stable, the wheelwright, and their own cabin and store, all connected by a raised pine walk. On the other side of the walk are bare lots, empty spaces for a courthouse and a jail someday when there are resources to pay for them and people to put there. Once a Wyandot village stood in this spot but that village is long gone, and the Wyandots sold the land ten years ago to the settlers for horses. Every so often they come back to hunt or to meet with other tribes; with all the rivers and streams here the area is easy to reach by canoe. A few tribes are meeting now. Susanna has seen them. Last week a group of Kickapoo men with pounded muskrat pelts came to their store, followed by a Kickapoo woman selling baskets. A few days later some Wyandot men looked in, wanting salt.
Frogs croak in competing choruses and pockets of newly hatched insects are buzzing about in the air, but there is not one person in sight. All the farmers are out desperately planting before the next rain, and the settlement feels deserted and lonely. After she pours out Saul’s slops Susanna straightens two of the pen’s fence boards, one of which needs to be replaced. Some people believe that pigs can see the wind coming but Saul rouses himself only for food. A sour old beast if ever there was one. Susanna knows that she ought to tell Penelope about the loose board but Penelope will probably just tell her to make a new one herself and then not like how she did it. She wishes they could leave for Philadelphia right now. A room with an even floor and long glass windows and a proper brick fireplace: this is what she pictures when she pictures what she wants. A place where they can buy cut wood and the milk is delivered.
After a while the heat makes her turn back. The heft of Thieving Forest is to her left but there are a few stands of maple trees between here and their cabin, and she makes her way toward their shade. She doesn’t want to be just the younger sister who never does anything as well as the others. What if I just never go back, she wonders. What if I saddle Frank or Bess right now—Frank is gentler—and ride to Risdale, and find some way to get to a coach stop, and go east by myself?
She imagines writing her sisters: while you were quarreling I made my decision. Maybe they would see the sense of her actions and follow. That would be something, to have her sisters follow her lead for a change. Just as Susanna reaches the last of the maple trees Black Peter, Aurelia’s rooster, makes three sharp crows. He is standing in the doorway of the henhouse. Something tugs at her memory but before she has time to think what it is all the frogs abruptly stop calling out. Later she couldn’t say if it was this or something else that made her look toward the forest, but that’s when she sees the Indians.
At first she can’t tell who they are—Shawnee, Wyandot, Potawatomi, Kickapoo? Six of them—no seven, she counts. Maybe a few customers for the store at last. She watches as they step out from behind the trees like long-legged spiders, walking carefully over the bracken in their ankle-high moccasins and looking at the ground as if hunting small game. They wear straight sewn skins decorated with paint and beadwork, and a few have painted their hair and faces, too.
One of them steps neatly over the low wattle fence into Beatrice’s bean garden where he makes a complicated signal to the others. They are not going around front to the store. Susanna’s heart begins beating hard and high up in her chest. She steps behind the widest tree and looks down at her hands. Ellen’s gloves are dirty but still white. She tugs them off and stuffs them into her pocket. Then she takes off her bleached sunbonnet and drops it into the long grass beside her. She wants to scream, but who would hear her? Her throat feels suddenly very dry, too dry to reach above a whisper.
Another sharp crow makes her look toward the henhouse again and that’s when she sees Aurelia, astonishingly enough, standing there with a bucket of feed. When did she leave the cabin?
“Au-re-lia!” Susanna hisses.
But Aurelia doesn’t hear. There is a good fifty yards between the maple trees and the henhouse with long yellow grass in between. Susanna can see Aurelia talking to her hens. Her face, pale from her recent illness, looks even paler out in the sun. She hasn’t noticed the Potawatomi. The hens bob toward her as if offering kisses but really they are just greedy for their feed.
Suddenly as if on a signal the Potawatomi all let out a shout and run into the cabin. Aurelia jerks her head around at the noise, and Susanna steps out from behind her tree. Now is her chance. She waves both her arms at Aurelia, Come here! There are two other maple trees on either side of her, both wide enough to hide behind.
But Aurelia doesn’t move, and Susanna realizes that the shrieking she hears is coming not from the Potawatomi but from Aurelia’s hens. She shouts her sister’s name. Aurelia looks over at Susanna with a wild, frightened expression but still doesn’t move. Susanna doesn’t know what to do—should she rush to the henhouse and grab her? But before she can take a step three Potawatomi come out of the cabin, one holding Beatrice by the arm and one holding Naomi and the last one carrying their mother’s blue pieced bed quilt. Susanna steps back behind the tree, beckoning to Aurelia—there is still a chance if she runs now.
At last Aurelia steps forward but instead of running to Susanna she picks up Black Peter, who immediately flaps his wings and makes such a noise as Susanna has never before heard. What is Aurelia doing? Is she in shock? Two Potawatomi run to the henhouse, both holding up axes, one with half of his face painted red. The other one, smaller but with a thick white scar running down the side of his face, begins to cut off the heads of any chicken he can grab, felling them neatly with one blow each. Black Peter, released from Aurelia’s arms, half flies and half jumps back to the henhouse door.
“Stop!” Aurelia screams at the man with the scar.
The Potawatomi with half his face painted red looks at her and then he says something to the man slaughtering the chickens, who puts down his axe and begins to tie the ones he’s already killed together by their feet.
That’s strange. Did the Potawatomi just spare Aurelia’s hens? But even stranger is this: he suddenly turns and looks right at the maple tree where Susanna is hiding, and in that first moment she swears that he sees her. He stares directly at her. She draws back, suddenly aware of her red hair and white neck and each glistening black button marching down the front of her dress. She pulls her head down and looks at her boots. She waits, her heart rocking in her chest. She hears Black Peter crow hoarsely again.
And now she remembers. A rooster crowing in a doorway means visitors are coming. An old Scottish superstition.
The saying fixes itself in her mind like a stone while she waits for the Potawatomi to come drag her away, and when no one comes she makes herself look again. The area by the henhouse is deserted. Aurelia is now on the other side of their cabin next to Beatrice and Penelope and Naomi, and the Potawatomi are roping up bags of loot.
Susanna grasps the tree trunk in front of her with her bare hands, feeling for any small holds in the rutted bark. Her mouth is so dry that it hurts. She can’t see her sisters’ faces but wisps of their red hair, each one a different shade, lift in the wind. Their black mourning collars and dark dresses bleed into the color of the trees, and only Beatrice has a cap on her head. One Potawatomi wrenches Naomi’s violin out of her hands and ties it up to the bundle of dead chickens. Then he pushes her with the handle of a spade—their father’s spade—and drives her and the others into the bracken and trees and the vines of small, unopened roses that mark the edge of Thieving Forest.
North American Book Awards Winner for Best Historical Fiction
Independent Publishers Silver Medal for Historical Fiction
Reader’s Favorite Award
“…if you are looking for an enjoyable read, look no further.” (Historical Novel Society)
Cover illustration and web site illustrations by John Steins, www.johnsteins.com