David Cullen stopped dead in his tracks as he reached the charred remains of his estate. Point Bruce, he had named it; in honor of the great Scottish King Robert the Bruce. Now it was only ashes and blackened splinters, like much of Scotland during the reign Edward Longshanks. White puffs burst from his mouth into the frigid air, steam of a Highlander's rage. He strained every nerve to keep composure, accepting the agony of his ruin legacy with dignity. His sons soon caught up, only to fall to their knees in despair. David steeled himself, forcing a stoic face as his last living sons, Solomon and Joseph, sniffled and wept.
"Dry your eyes, lads," David said softly but firmly. "The traitorous barbarians who've done this will have none of our tears."
"Why would the Cherokee do this?" Joseph growled, masking his weakness. "We have been loyal to crown!"
"There's no reasoning with them once they're on the warpath," Solomon snapped, as if it should have been obvious. "His Majesty's men cannot be bothered to accompany every war party. Some elegant English gentleman pointed them down this side of the mountains and told them to attack. How were they to know who to spare and who to slay?"
"We never bothered them before! Bloody hell! We traded with the buggers!" Joseph ranted, teetering once again on the verge of tears.
"You think they care?" Solomon snapped. "We've always been a thorn in their sides! And King George has been content to appease them all these years! He had to know this would happen! HE JUST DIDN'T BLOODY CARE!"
"ENOUGH!" David roared. Both teenaged boys silently submitted to their father's wrath. He hated to be a tyrant but knew exactly where the conversation was going. Solomon had always been partial to the Continentals, even with their outspoken distain for Catholics, such as the Cullens. Solomon, the oldest, had often quarreled with his brothers over the merits of independence from Britain, often resorting to curses and fists. Privately, David had sympathized with the Continentals too, but the outbreak of the war changed all that. Even if he could forget centuries of loyal service to the crown, he could never wage war against his brothers in faith. Scottish Catholics of the Carolinas had dutifully answered the King's call to arms. Point Bruce had stood in safety for years atop the lowest peak of the range, just above the foothills. Now, alas, his loyalty was rewarded with betrayal.
"Save your anger for those who've wronged us, lads," David softened his voice as he stepped closer to the crumbled, charred ruins. The war had already taken a heavy toll on the Cullen family. John, the youngest son, had died early on in the war. Barely old enough to hold a musket, he had ridden along as a bugler until he fell to a Continental marksman while sounding retreat. James had died nearly two years ago at the Battle of Hanging Rock. The rest of Cullen's mounted militia ran off as winter set in, for which David could hardly blame them. Food was so scarce his sons and him had slaughtered their own horses for food and made their way home on foot. Now here they stood in the infernal aftermath of the Cherokee warpath.
Joseph rushed past his father to desperately sift through the ashes of their home. David hesitated to cry out and beg him to stop, having no desire to see his wife Sharon's blackened bones, nor those of his daughters Elizabeth, Margret, and Mary. Bowing his head in sorrow, his keen eyes picked out faint tracks in the dirt, couldn't have been more than a day old. Moments later Solomon was kneeling beside him. Soon they exchanged glances and nods. The Cherokee had dragged the women out of the house!
"Joseph! This way!" David called out as Solomon and he unslung their rifles and followed the tracks north of the ruins. Joseph cried out in question, but quickly followed. Years of roaming the Piedmonts had made the Cullens skilled trackers. It was the Cherokee themselves who had instructed them. Now in the most bitter of ironies, they used these skills in pursuit of their native neighbors-turned-enemies.
The dead quiet of winter made their own footsteps deafening as they stomped after the footprints in the snow. The trail made a sharp turn at the edge of a cliff, David looked down into the gorge and immediately wished he hadn't. He could no longer hold back the tears, not looking down at the frozen body of his love.
"MOTHER!" both boys cried in unison as they followed their father's gaze. Both dashed off to where the cliff's edge gave way to a gentle slope into the gulley. David followed slowly, his muscles frozen in misery. The rest of his strength he focused on slowing the flow of his tears. Now more than ever he needed to display strength. By the time he reached the boys they were openly weeping over the woman who birthed them. Her hair long and silver, but her face barely touched by wrinkles. Sharon had been his first love. Of all David's riches and treasures, she was his most precious. He fell to his knees and joined his sons in embracing the Lady of the House. After several minutes of tearful grief, David reached down to softly shut her eyes and cover her face; frozen in her last horrible moments of life. Soon his sons' hands fell over his and they all said the Lord's Prayer.
After what felt like hours, father and sons stood, sniffled away their tears and covered Lady Cullen with snow. They had no picks or shovels and even if they did the ground was frozen solid. With a final prayer they promised aloud to return and bury her properly. Staggered footsteps shuffled through the snow above. Snapping out of their grief, David and his sons readied their rifles and rushed for the nearby slope. As they reached the top, they met the sickly face of a young man. He stood tall and proud, albeit trembling and desperately keeping balance with his rifle as a cane. His brown hair had grown thick as a lion's mane and his face was red as an apple with fever. The young man's eyes blazed with bloodlust and steely determination, the eyes of a man viciously refusing to let go of the last thread binding him to life. David liked him already.
"Where are they?" his trembling voice growled.
"Easy, lad," David said calmly as he stepped closer. In the blink of an eye the young man's rifle was up and at the ready. David held his rifle high above his head and raised his free hand in submission, equally to calm the stranger as to keep his sons from firing. "We mean you no harm, lad," he gently insisted. The stranger's eyes didn't soften, nor did his rifle lower, even as he lost balance and toppled over in the snow.
Stepping gingerly up to the young man, David deduced that he had succumb to his fever, but was still alive. Without a word he hefted the lad up on his back and ordered Joseph to carry his weapon. In minutes they found the Cherokee's trail and followed it until evening tinged the snow-covered hills and trees red. The young stranger laid silent against an old hickory tree as the others made camp, lit a fire and began roasting some horse meat. The sun vanished bellow the horizon and the moon rose high, casting a silvery sheen on the snow. David had taken his first bite of the stringy meat when the lad shot up from his slumber, glanced around in terrified confusion and felt frantically for his rifle and pistol, the latter David discovered has he set him down against the tree.
"Looking for these?" Joseph asked holding up the lad's weapons. The stranger fixed him with a glare that would melt iron.
"First a bite of this, lad," David held out a cut of meat impaled on his dagger. "Without food in your belly you'd hardly have the strength to hold a weapon, let alone shoot your rescuers," he finished with a smirk. The lad's glare softened to a gaze of mild contempt as he carefully snatched the seared meat from the dagger and ate ravenously. David turned to shake his head at Solomon for his disapproving grimace at their guest's table manners, or lack thereof. The lad clearly hadn't eaten in some time and David suspected the coming conversation would reveal greater disagreements than etiquette.
Once the lad finished scarfing down his dinner, David offered him his water skin, which he accepted with as much gratitude as he'd shown for the food, graciously returning the skin only half empty. David sighed with relief that he didn't drink as greedily as he ate. "So what's your name, lad?" he asked, only to be fixed with another piercing glare. "Come, come lad! You're among friends now!"
"Those kilts," the lad hissed at the Cullens' traditional attire. "You're Scots, Tories!" he spat venomously.
"As I suspected then, you are a rebel," David said thoughtfully. "Aye, lad, we are Scots. And what are you? Irish?"
"I'm American!" he snapped. David gazed softly back at him, waiting for a proper answer. "My mother and father were Irish though," he grunted sullenly.
"I thought so," David nodded. The lad seemed to calm slightly, likely recalling that most Irish were at least part Scottish, likewise the reverse. "So you were after the Cherokee who burned my land, murdered my wife, and stole my daughters?" The lad looked up in surprise. "The dogs of war know neither friend nor foe, lad. His majesty let them slip and now they wreak havoc on all in their path. I take it you're chasing them whilst still battling a fever has something to do with all that as well?" David paused, the young stranger nodded.
"They broke into my . . . my mother's cabin," the lad said. "My brother was dead, small pox, they took his scalp and they LAUGHED!" he briefly roared before going into a coughing fit. "They ransacked the house while I laid helpless in bed, stole everything my mother had to leave me, even her . . . " he paused to scowl at an unpleasant thought. "She died months ago onboard one of your King's prison ships. Those SAVAGES stole everything I had left," he finished.
David and his sons kept quiet a moment before exchanging glances and all nodding in agreement. "Our sympathies for your trouble's, lad. As you can see, his majesty has not been very grateful to his loyal servants, setting the Cherokee loose on us. Whatever our loyalties may be, it seems we now have a common enemy. We might benefit from combining forces. Besides, your own army seems a bit small compared with mine," David motioned to his sons with a smile. The lad's expression softened as he paused to think for a moment then nodded.
"Good, man!" David said jovially. "I am David Cullen, these are my sons Solomon and Joseph. What is your name?"
The buckskinned patriot hesitated a moment, did not return David's smile but soon answered, "Jackson, Andrew Jackson."
"Well, Mr. Jackson," David addressed the lad with a slight bow. "You best try to get some more sleep, we set out after the enemy at dawn. Keep close to the fire, I will keep it lit. And, God willing, tomorrow we will run the buggers down and reclaim what is rightly ours." Jackson quickly did as instructed and huddled close to the fire before graciously accepting his rifle back. David offered him another cut of meat, which he accepted eagerly. Jackson proved more talkative with a full belly, having been cooped up in a cabin with fever for months. He was pleased to learn of Washington's recent victory at Yorktown, the primary reason David saw fit to leave His Majesty's service and see to his home. The war raged on, but such a devastating defeat spelled doom for the loyalists. It was only a matter of time before the King pulled out the last of his troops. David had been certain he would have to sell Point Bruce and return the family to Scotland, or perhaps Canada. Unless he could beg the pardon of his rebellious neighbors, unlikely. Not that it mattered anymore.
Soon tiredness closed all but David's eyes and the night passed in blissful silence, save the crackling of the wood and Jackson's occasional coughs. Father and sons took the watch in shifts, waking their reliever every hour and keeping the fire lit with pine branches. At the first rays of dawn, the band of former enemies awoke, snuffed the last of the fire, and set off hot on the enemy's trail. David thanked God there had been no snowfall, leaving the Cherokee's tracks plain to see.
They followed the trail, carefully trampling up and down the wooded mountains. David scanned their surroundings intensely as they strode, keeping a watchful eye out for any signs of an ambush. If not for the cold and the sickly young man with them, David might have kept after the Cherokee all through the night. Thankfully wisdom had prevailed over impulse. Tracking them through the night would have made it impossible to bring along their fourth man. A Cherokee war party is bad enough with the support of an army, David would take as many as he could get. What's more the cold would be as insufferable to the Cherokee as to them, no doubt they made camp too. At this last thought David gripped his rifle tightly, willing himself not to think of what a night in their camp might entail for his daughters.
At noon the snow shimmered blindingly in the sun. Even the shade of the pine trees did little to block the furious sun rays. David squinted, shook his head and kept focused on the tracks. It would take more than sunlight and shiny snow to stop him. As afternoon dragged on, they neared a taller peak, just before the range grew even higher. Recognizing it as a likely spot for a Cherokee camp, David turned to his men and ordered there be no more talking above a whisper. His sons and Jackson all nodded, the sickly lad desperately muffled his coughs with his coat. David wondered for a moment if he had made a mistake bringing Jackson along, his coughing sure to give them away. The highlander shook the thought from his mind. He couldn't turn away another armed man, especially with a score of his own to settle. What's more, without companions the lad would surely die. David's honor would not allow him to abandon a teenaged boy in these frozen mountains any more than he could leave his daughters to their fate.
The sky began to redden as evening approached. A stream of smoke billowed up from the wooded peak. David smiled, found them! He turned to his lads, whose gazes shone brightly at the smoke in the twilight. The four of them crept carefully through the snow and up the mountain. Darkness had long since fallen by the time they came within eyeshot of the camp. Peering from behind a pine trunk, David breathed a sigh of relief as he spotted his daughters. Elizabeth, Margret, and Mary were all tied together to a wooden pole in the ground. A grouchy old Cherokee woman roughly shoved venison into their mouths. The warriors pointed and laughed at the girls' indignation as they carved their own shares of meat from a deer roasting on a spit. They cheered and whooped loudly as they guzzled whole bottles of wine. David cringed in disgust as he recognized the bottles. A fine vintage he imported annually from France for Sharon's birthday.
David's fury softened as he realized their fortune. His daughters were fully clothed and hardly a mark on their faces. Could have been they were saving them for later, or as trophies to flaunt before rival chiefs, perhaps even to give as gifts to other tribes. No matter, they had sown the seeds of their own demise. All the men and most of the women were drinking, soon to be fast asleep. The over confident fools hadn't even posted sentries, no doubt lulled into sloth by the frozen, lifeless wilderness. David was surprised they had even managed to find a deer. Now there was nothing but to wait until the wine dragged the last of their senses into inebriated oblivion.
In a soft voice, barely even a whisper, David shared his plan with the others. Once they were all asleep and the fire burned out, Joseph and Solomon would creep out of the trees and into the camp. They would go as slow and silent as they could, even if the savages did awake it would only be to slump back into their drunken dreams in the darkness. They were to silently wake the girls, cut them free and deliver them safely from the camp. David and Jackson would hide in the tree line to cover their retreat if the worst should happen.
"What about the Cherokee!" Jackson demanded in a soft hiss. "We can't just leave them! They'll be up at first light!"
"At first light, they'll stumble awake with throbbing heads and aching tummies," David chuckled with a wink. "Then we'll open fire, and with three more guns to support us!" Jackson blinked in confusion. "The girls, lad! You don't think I'd teach me daughters to take care of themselves? The girls will fire with our pistols, then it will be seven attacking them rather than four! Those we who manage to flee will think twice before walking the warpath here again!" he finished with a smile.
Jackson managed a smirk before turning his head to muffle another cough. He suddenly froze as his gaze locked on the Cherokee camp. His body stiffened, a fiery glare blazed from his eyes. David followed his gaze to a Cherokee girl wearing a dress, likely looted from a white settler's home. Another hastily muffled coughing fit snapped Jackson out of his trance and back into focus. "Let's just kill as many of them as we can!" Jackson growled. David gave a firm nod and held his finger to his lips, a clear message, not another word.
The Cherokee took longer to fall asleep than David thought. And a few of the women who hadn't drunk of David's fine wine stock stayed awake to prod the fire long past midnight. Among the sober girls was the one in the dress that Jackson took so keen and interest in. David watched as the lad silently seethed in the girl's direction, thankfully Jackson held his patience. The last girl fell asleep with the last spark of the once roaring fire. Joseph and Solomon crept forth.
Jackson and David laid prone in the trees, watching for movement among the sleeping foe. David's aging heart skipped several beats as his sons carefully stepped over and around sleeping Cherokee at a snail's pace. Sure enough, they made their way to their captive sisters. Solomon carefully grasped Elizabeth's mouth, she awoke with a muffled whimper of confusion before immediately going quiet. This process repeated twice for the others, then the ropes were cut and the sisters followed their brothers carefully out of the camp.
David strained himself not to sniffle and whimper as his beloved daughters embraced him in the snow. Shaking all emotion from his mind, David quickly explained the plan to his daughters. The girls eagerly accepted the pistols from their father and brothers and dutifully moved into positons at the tree line. Jackson approached to propose he and Joseph move to the opposite side of the clearing to cut off their escape. At first David hesitated to divide their forces, then considered the Cherokee might think themselves surrounded by a larger force. He granted Jackson his blessing, but urged them to stay together. The two nodded and were off. David also spaced his daughters and remaining son further apart and made certain they were well stocked in ammunition.
Dawn slogged lazily up the horizon, casting a reddish tint over the snow. David smiled grimly that the snow would soon grow redder. The braves began to stagger awake, thankfully Joseph and Jackson remembered his command that he should shoot first. More Cherokee groggily awoke, their speech and strides wobbly with the after effects of excess wine. One of them staggered into the now vacant pole, David sighted his rifle on the brave, pulling his trigger just as the man's jolting head gave away his realization that something was amiss.
A crash of lightning, a kick to David's shoulder, and the brave fell in a bloody heap. Whooping war cries were cut short as the rest of David's army opened fire from the trees. Cherokees fell in dead silence or agonized wails. Hung over braves stumbled to their feet to fire aimlessly into the surrounding forest, some shot their own tribesmen by mistake. David and his sons' Ferguson rifles reloaded much quicker than older models, keeping a steady chain of burning thunder on the panicked foe. David smirked that continuous fire would also exaggerate their number. His daughters coolly fired their pistols and reloaded again and again, the fire in their eyes blazed dark as they took revenge on their former captors. The Cherokee braves ducked low and quivered as they desperately reloaded. Some began firing arrows from bows, the medieval missiles harmlessly struck the pine trunks. Soon the two-dozen-strong war party was whittled down to less than ten.
The grouchy old crone of the party stood to wail like a banshee at her trembling young men. David's limited knowledge of the Cherokee language told him she was trying to urge the braves on, scolding them for cowardice. A rifle boomed and the old woman dropped dead. David blinked, having raised his sons to spare native women in battle when possible. But there was no time for victor's remorse, the victory was not yet won. With a shrill cry, one brave rose and made a dash for the trees at the far end of the camp. He was almost to the tree line when Jackson burst from the trees and downed him with a swing of his rifle. The feverish youth stood over his fallen foe, like a cat standing triumphant atop a mouse. He held his rifle high and brought it down hard with a lion's roar. A crack of bone caving to solid wood echoed. Jackson's face ablaze with carnal rage.
Musket balls and arrows flew past Jackson as his eyes blazed down upon his vanquished enemy. David and the others quickly took aim and downed the last of the braves. The shooting stopped, the only sound was Jackson's furious panting as he stomped laboriously towards the slaughtered camp. David stood and cautiously stepped out into the clearing, his children did the same. A soft shout went up and the Cherokee woman in the dress arose with her hands high, a frightened little boy clutching at her side. David tensed as Jackson's glare fell upon her. She turned at the sound of him cocking his pistol and froze in horror as he took aim at her.
"Andrew!" Joseph called out, rushing to intercept Jackson.
"STAY OUT OF THIS!" Jackson roared. The boy clung tightly to his mother's leg and began to cry. "TAKE OFF THAT DRESS!" the feverish lad demanded. David's heart raced, his pace quickened, closing the distance between them. "IT DOESN'T BELONG TO YOU!"
"NO!" Mary cried. "Father don't let him!"
"She was kind to us!" Margret begged.
"I SAID STAY OUT OF THIS!" Jackson snapped. "This is between me, and this thieving tramp!" he spat. "That was my mother's dress! It's all I have left of hers!" his voice began to break, tears trickled from his burning eyes. Joseph, Solomon, and Elizabeth all raised their weapons, shouting their objections.
"You've gone too far, Andrew!"
"She has no weapon!"
"Don't do this!"
"ENOUGH!" David thundered, silencing all. His children lowered their weapons at his sharp glances. With a deep breath he softened his face and slowly stepped closer to Jackson, coming within a yard of the raging youth. "Did your mother raise a gentleman or a savage?" he asked. Jackson blinked in silence, but held his aim. "That's what I thought, lad. And if that's not enough, I can give you three more reasons to let her have the dress. Firstly, without it she'll surely freeze to death, and in this wilderness, without his mother the lad is as good as dead. No child should die for the sins of the father, or mother. Second, she treated my daughters with mercy and I am obliged to do her the same. And thirdly, that dress was surely quite flattering on your mother, but it would look rather silly on you, lad," he finished with a gentle smile.
After a moment of thoughtful silence, Jackson slowly lowered his rifle, squeezing his eyes shut to dam the river flowing from his eyes. The young man lowered his head in shame, bringing his rifle down to steady himself as he stumbled. David fought the urge to put a hand on his shoulder, the lad was prideful, would only view such a gesture as patronizing. With a deep breath and a hard sniffle, Jackson raised his head with a snarling growl, desperate to hide his moment of weakness.
"Take your boy and go!" he grunted at the woman. "This war is over!" he turned to walk away, without looking at David or the others.
"It will NEVER be over!" the Cherokee woman snapped, glaring at Jackson in defiance. Jackson stopped but would not turn back to her.
"Then next time it will take more than a merciful Scotsman to save you," he growled before continuing back the way they came.
"Jackson," David called out, again he stopped but would not turn. "It'd be best to travel with us. We'll see you safely home."
"Thank you, Mr. Cullen, but I'll make my own way," he replied softly. "I'll need to from now on," he finished as he slowly struggled through the snow.
David nodded, seeing the futility in argument. "Godspeed to you then, lad," he said. Turning back to his children, he saw Joseph offering the woman a scrap of horse meat. Margret and Mary fetched deerskins from the camp for her and her son. The woman accepted the gifts with stoic gratitude before taking her boy by the arm and disappearing into the woods. David sighed, knowing she and her son would hate the Americans forever. But it was out of his hands now. His sons and daughters embraced each other with tears of joy. Chocking back his own tears, he warmly join their embraces.
After a moment, David broke away from their arms and cleared his throat loudly. "Now that the family is together again, we must also be on our way," he said. "Jackson was correct, this war is lost. And the Continentals will not forgive our loyalty to the Crown. We must make haste for the coast and board the first ship for England, or Canada. But wherever we go, we shall go as a family. We shall go as the House of Cullen." Tears streamed from his eyes as he finished. Soon there was not a dry eye to be seen in the clearing. The Cullens quickly composed themselves and followed David into the trees, slowly descending the Carolina hills.