Many Sparrows is my fifth published novel, so I’ve written long enough now to know my first drafts always come out overwritten, screaming with the need to be trimmed (or whacked like a jungle of kudzu). Many Sparrows was no exception. One scene in the first half of the book hit the cutting room floor, along with a group of minor characters who slowed the story at a point where it needed to pick up momentum. I thought I’d share that scene with you and let those characters have their moment.
The scene falls at the point where newly widowed Clare Inglesby, her infant daughter, and her guide, frontiersman Jeremiah Ring, reach Wheeling Settlement on the banks of the Ohio River. On this shore is the Virginia frontier. Across the river is Shawnee Nation Territory and, possibly, Clare’s four-year-old son, Jacob. Left to tend her baby at a creek where a group of women are doing their washing, Clare has appealed to them for help in her search for the missing Jacob.
Though sympathetic to her plight, none of the women on the creek bank had heard of a little boy brought in from the mountains on the assumption he’d been abandoned on the trail in a broken wagon.
Holding back a flooding disappointment, Clare reminded herself she’d still the rest of the settlement to query. So many people.
She stripped to her stays then stripped the baby too, laid her naked on the moss, and focused on scrubbing worn clouts and her short-gown with a sliver of borrowed soap. Around her the women went back to chattering about their own concerns. Clare paid little heed until she heard a familiar name spoken. James Harrod.
“Never you mind I’d come all the way from Redstone, down the Monongahela to Pittsburg, then downriver to this place, and never you mind I’m as good a rifle-shot as my Saul, once Harrod decided he wanted no families along till they got cabins raised and corn planted, my man wouldn’t hear of me going an inch farther downriver.”
A young dark-haired woman—Becky, she’d said her name was—had voiced the complaint.
“We meant to join Harrod’s company,” Clare heard herself interject. “My husband and I.”
The gazes of those within hearing settled on her with lingering sympathy. Most had come upriver in the mass retreat from the frontier underway. They ranged in age from Becky, not yet twenty, to a woman whose snowy hair barely covered her scalp.
“What I can’t reckon,” Becky replied when other tongues remained locked in awkward silence, “is why ye took a wagon overland from Redstone.”
Clare swallowed back a swell of anger and grief. “There were so many wanting to go by water. It would have been weeks before we’d a suitable craft built. Philip wouldn’t wait.”
She caught a few of the women shaking their heads. With pity? Or scorn for Philip’s foolishness?
Becky took a different view. “Least he’d the gumption to try. And he was going to take ye with him? All the way to Kentucky?”
“I don’t know.” With Philip prone to changing his plans, there was no predicting what he might have decided once he learned other men weren’t bringing their wives downriver.
What did it matter? There would be no homestead in Kentucky for her. She wanted to abandon these women and go rushing through that thronging settlement screaming Jacob’s name. Had someone taken him from that wagon, brought him to Wheeling, only to move on from there already?
“Wish ye’d made Redstone afore we left it,” Becky was saying, swiping back a strand of hair slipped from beneath her cap. “Maybe had ye been along I’d have been allowed. Biding here has been everlasting tiresome and now comes my Saul hightailing it upriver saying we’re heading back to Redstone come morning.”
A middle-aged woman frowned. “Child, had you got your way you’d still be back here now, heading east until the Indians settle down.”
Becky flashed her dark eyes. “Least I’d have seen Kentucky! Set eyes on the place I mean to raise my young’uns and end my days.”
“You might’ve ended your days already,” the other woman insisted, “had you gone.”
A third woman with shadowed eyes spoke up shyly. “My man wants to bide here, see how bad it gets. I pray he comes to his senses afore…”
When she faltered, everyone studious avoided Clare’s gaze, save one woman she’d yet hear speak. Though her exact age was impossible to guess, soft lines fanned from the corners of her eyes and bracketed her mouth. Gray streaked the blond hair peeking from under a neat cap. The woman gazed at Clare with blue eyes direct and compassionate.
Clare didn’t hold that gaze. While the creek rushed over its rocks and the women resumed their work, she lifted the short gown and wrung it. Beside her the baby kicked. The sun fell warm on her shoulders, finding its way through spring leaves. The noise of axes filled the air, and that of falling timbers, hammers, voices, dogs barking, clanking kettles from makeshift camps, and the scent of drifting smoke.
Down the creek bank a ways the woman who’d caught her gaze stood with some article of cloth in hand and approached Clare. Tucking her petticoat beneath her, she knelt and reached to stroke the baby’s hand. Clare watched her daughter’s tiny fist latch on to the woman’s finger.
“You’ll not be recalling all our names,” she said, lifting a smile to Clare. “I’m Mary Willis. We—my husband and I—were part of Harrod’s party so I reckon we came nigh to being neighbors. Clare, isn’t it?”
“Clare Inglesby.” Clare gave the woman a nod as she shook out the short-gown and spread it over a nearby rock. She took up a clout, barely fit for use, and plunged it into the water, appliying soap while the woman watched.
“I’d like to offer you this for your little one.” Mary Willis laid the cloth she’d carried, a folded length of muslin, between them. “Along with my deepest sympathies for your losses.”
Clare’s hands stilled. The creek water washed cool over her wrists. She blinked. “Thank you.”
“May I ask your daughter’s name?”
“It’s Philippa.” Clare hadn’t said the name aloud since that first day on the trail with Mr. Ring. “I named her for…”
When she hesitated Mary asked, “Did I hear you say your husband was called Philip? A fine way to honor his memory.”
Guilt stabbed her. Had she wanted to honor Philip, or had she simply lacked the heart to give her baby’s name proper attention?
“May I make another inquiry?” Mary Willis paused until Clare looked up. “It’s only that I wonder whether Mr. Willis and I might be of help to you.”
Was the woman proposing to help her find Jacob? Had she possibly seen Jacob? Clare yanked the clout from the stream and held it dripping.
“Have you seen my son? Do you know where he is?”
Mary Willis grasped her wet hand. “Oh, my dear. Forgive me. I meant only to ask whether you might wish to journey upriver with us. We’re headed to Fort Pitt and will likely remain there until the present Indian unrest has passed, or until Mr. Willis decides he’s had enough of the frontier.”
Clare pulled her hand from the woman’s and bent to wring the clout. “Thank you, but I’ve only just crossed the mountains and it will likely take me days to speak to everyone here.”
“I see. And if you don’t find your son in Wheeling?”
It was the question Mr. Ring had asked, but this time it didn’t set Clare’s teeth on edge. “The man who helped me—you probably saw him—he has friends among the Mingos. I think he might be persuaded to take me to them.”
Could she dare such a thing?
For Jacob she could, that and more.
Her words had caught Becky’s keen ears. “Ye’re going to the Indians? Right into their town? I admire that brass.” The girl looked round at the other women. “See. No need for shrinking back on account we wear petticoats instead of breeches. I say we take a page out of the Indians’ book.”
Many voices admonished at once:
“What on earth?”
“Indians don’t have books.”
“It’s a figure of speaking,” Becky said with no little exasperation. “I’ve heard tell there’s a woman among the Shawnees who’s a chieftain of her own town. They say she sits in council like a man and goes to war. The Grenadier Squaw, she’s called.”
Into the creek-rushing silence that followed this astonishing intelligence, a male voice intruded. “Her name is Nonhelema. She’s sister to Cornstalk, the Shawnees’ principle peace chief.”
Clare turned with the others to see Jeremiah Ring standing near, one moccasined foot propped on a mossy stone. No one had heard his approach over the creek’s noise.
“Peace chief,” Becky said, looking Mr. Ring up and down in his leggings and fringed shirt with an admiration that stopped just short of brazen. “Ye don’t say!”
Mr. Ring paid the girl no further mind, but turned to Clare—with a nod for Mary Willis, kneeling beside her.
“Heard all I need to know from here. Crawford and his four hundred men are expected soon to help with the fort building. I’ve secured us a canoe. We can be away upriver whenever you’re of a mind to be.”
Either she and her children would emerge from that wilderness together, or none of them would. . . .
In 1774, the Ohio-Kentucky frontier pulses with rising tension and brutal conflicts as Colonists push westward and encroach upon Native American territories. The young Inglesby family is making the perilous journey west when an accident sends Philip back to Redstone Fort for help, forcing him to leave his pregnant wife Clare and their four-year old son Jacob on a remote mountain trail.
When Philip does not return and Jacob disappears from the wagon under the cover of darkness, Clare awakens the next morning to find herself utterly alone, in labor and wondering how she can to recover her son . . . especially when her second child is moments away from being born.
Clare will face the greatest fight of her life, as she struggles to reclaim her son from the Shawnee Indians now holding him captive. But with the battle lines sharply drawn, Jacob’s life might not be the only one at stake. When frontiersman Jeremiah Ring comes to her aid, can the stranger convince Clare that recovering her son will require the very thing her anguished heart is unwilling to do—be still, wait and let God fight this battle for them?
Lori Benton was raised east of the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by early American history going back three hundred years. Her novels transport readers to the eighteenth century, where she brings to life the Colonial and early Federal periods of American history. When she isn’t writing, reading, or researching, Lori enjoys exploring and photographing the Oregon wilderness with her husband. She is the author of “Burning Sky,” recipient of three Christy Awards, “The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn,” Christy-nominee “The Wood’s Edge,” and “A Flight of Arrows.”
Find out more about Lori at http://loribenton.blogspot.com.