The Spirit Keeper
An Excerpt From
The Spirit Keeper


This is the account of Katie O’Toole, late of Lancaster Co., Pennsylvania, removed from her family by savages on March the 2nd in the year of Our Lord 1747.

I wish I could say this is a true and honest account, but I see no way the likes of me can make such a claim. Still, I’ve no reason to lie in the pages of this ledger and plenty of reason to unburden my guilty soul. Mine is such a surpassing strange story. I honestly hope by writing it all down I’ll somehow see the truth of it.

I feared at first I might disremember how to write, especially in a language I no longer speak, but now that I’ve begun, I find my fears unfounded, as fears so oft prove to be. I wonder—?­what use is fear in a world where the worst catastrophes are those you ne’er see coming?

Ah, well—?­I’m too practiced a storyteller to fall prey to my own impatience. I’ll tell my tale apace, withholding my conclusions ’til the end.

I was the thirteenth child my mother conceived—?­a circumstance of some significance for her, I believe, as she took great pleasure in reminding me thirteen was the number of Christ’s betrayer. Her belief that I was an unlucky child was routinely cited as justification for beatings, and I grew to envy those children of hers who ne’er breathed air, believing they were, indeed, the lucky ones. Our home was always too full for comfort and there was ne’er enough of ­nothing—?­food nor clothing nor compassion—?­to go ’round.

By the time I reached my seventeenth year, my elder siblings had all married, thereby adding more children and chaos to our already o’erflowing household. On the morning of the attack, I was in the loft with a mob of children, readying them for the day. I cannot recall how many children were with me nor e’en which ones they were, but I recall with crystal clarity the shrill scream we heard in the distance.

At that moment all feuding and fussing stopt, and we stared at one another in stunned silence.

I peeked through the shutters and saw savages everywhere. Now I knew why various of our countrymen had warned against settling in this territory, the proprietorship of which is still in dis­pute, but no one ne’er could tell my father nothing, especially when he was liquored up, which he was, alas, every day I knew him.

When I was small, my gran told tales of how Father had been the son of a lord back in Ireland, how rich he was, and wanton, due to inherit the earth or such like. In trembling whispers, Gran de­scribed how her comely daughter schemed to advance herself by catching the young nobleman’s eye, only to cause the ruin of them both. Instead of becoming gentrified, Gran suddenly found herself the hapless chaperon of the exiled couple as they struggled to find a place for themselves in the crude colonies across the sea.

Gran was truly happy only when recounting the many miser­able failures of my father’s life. Unfit for any sort of honest labor, he had, she complained, worn out his welcome in at least a dozen em­ployments in three different colonies, eventually dragging us all into the wilderness of the Pennsylvania frontier. This, he said, was where he would at last restore his fame and fortune. For my part, I ne’er stopt longing to return to Philadelphia, where my brother James remained with his wife and children. I determined to find my way back there at the first opportunity.

Throughout my childhood, I listened wistfully to Gran’s tales of the Old World—?­the ancient cities with stone castles, shining cathe­drals, and cobblestone streets—?­but the only world I knew was filled with filth and toil and strife and turmoil. We siblings fought furi­ously o’er every scrap of food or cloth, except during those occasions when Father had a notion to school us. Then we must all sit together, boys and girls, reading as he instructed from the Bible or other books. No matter how poor we were, we always had piles of books. We soon memorized Father’s favorite passages, for if any of us made a mistake, he would deny supper to us all and drink himself to sleep, grumbling o’er our shortcomings as saliva dribbled from his lips.

If liquor made our father sloppy, endless labors and disappoint­ments made our mother cruel. I remember not a single gentle word from her lips, and the abundance of babies with which she had been blessed merely provided her with targets for her frustrations and rage. We girls were set to work from infancy, cooking, sewing, and tending to the younger ones. If we spilt a drop of stew or dropt a stitch or allowed a child to cry in Mother’s presence, she immedi­ately reached for her switch. Once when I let the cook-­fire die, I ended up curled in a ball on the floor, blood seeping from the switch-­cuts on my back and arms. Gran finally grabbed my moth­er’s hand and shouted, “D’ye mean to kill that child?” But e’en with that intervention, I must still wash the blood from my shift and sew it back together myself.

After Gran died, I oft dreamt of running away to the Old World and living amongst the castles and cathedrals, but I had no means to achieve such a purpose. Instead, once my monthlies were establisht, my parents bade me follow in the footsteps of my sisters and find a husband who could save them the trouble of providing for me. The very suggestion made me shudder. Having been ill-­used by men in the past, I desired no further dalliance, and e’en if I could stomach the notion of being pawed and slobbered o’er by a grunting lout, the pickings were slim in our remote community. My father spoke of wedding me off to a backwoodsman, in hopes of expanding trade opportunities for himself, but the fellow was ’round too rarely for arrangements to be made. My mother was much more interested in the bid offered by an innkeeper downriver who required a new wife to share the household burdens of his daughters, both of whom were older than I.

Determined not to be enslaved at a frontier trading post for the rest of my days, I tucked my few possessions into a leather bag, strapt a wool blanket beneath, hid this bundle under one of the beds in the loft, and prepared to run for Philadelphia upon the spring thaw. But before I could accomplish my flight, the children and I heard the aforementioned scream, and the long-­feared Indian at­tack was under way.

Through the crackt shutter of the loft, I saw a savage knock my father on the head with a stone club and fall upon him to rip off his ragged scalp. I had not a moment to mourn because I could hear my mother and sisters struggling to secure the doors and windows down below. Encouraged thus to prepare my own defense, I latcht the shutter and snatcht the boys’ musket from its hook. The weapon was useless, being old and missing several mechanisms, but I hoped it might serve ’til I could find something better. I then reached un­der the bed for my pack, but e’en as I drew the leather strap ’round my head and shoulder, I heard thuds from down below—?­wood splintering, screams, and scuffling. When whimpering children crowded ’round me, I pushed them into the darkest corner, hissing at them to be absolutely still or they would surely die. All grew quiet below as everyone was dragged outside. A long moment passed be­fore we heard another round of scuffling, a muffled cry, another thud. The children and I waited and waited in breathless silence.

Then we heard the creak of a riser on the stairs.

I raised the musket to my shoulder as I had seen the boys do a hundred times, but my trembling disallowed me to hold the barrel steady. A shadow at the top of the stairs became a savage slowly ris­ing into the ray of light from a crack in the shutter. He appeared to be about my age, and the fact that he was nigh naked unsettled me, but the thing that drew and held my eye was the long, sharp stone blade he held in his hand. It was dripping red with blood.

When the savage saw my musket pointed at his bare chest, he stopt cold and said something rapidly to someone behind him. His black eyes shifted from the gun to my face. He glared at me as I stared at him along the wavering barrel of the weapon.

I know not what I would have done had the savaged lunged at me, but before he could, his companion on the stairs pushed up beside him and lightly touched the hand holding the menacing knife. This second savage, more than a full head shorter than the first and perhaps a bit older, spoke with an urgency that surprised both me and my attacker. The first heathen lowered his blade, look­ing at his shorter companion in shock, and for a moment the chil­dren and I were forgotten as the Indians gabbled at one another in their strange tongue. Finally they both turned their eyes to me.

The short one smiled.

He spoke to me then, still smiling, as if trying to explain some­thing very important. Of course I understood naught, so I just scowled at him, pretending I was about to shoot. The short savage extended his hand, causing me to take a step backwards. In doing so, I stumbled on a child’s foot and would have fallen had not the short savage leapt to grab my arm. At that, the taller one shouted and the children screamed, but rather than molesting me in any way, the short savage was trying only to preserve me. His friend reached for my gun, but the short man stopped him with a sharp word. He then asked me something, but I was so distracted by his touch, his close­ness, and his uncanny smile that the only thing I could comprehend at that moment was that I was very likely to be very dead very soon.

The short Indian released my arm and repeated his question, his breath hot upon my cheek. I looked into his dark eyes, mere inches from mine. I wanted to tell him I could not understand him, but I could not for the life of me remember how to talk. I could scarce remember how to breathe. As if in a dream, I tipt up the bar­rel of the musket and held it out, hoping this would move him off me. He did step back, but only because his companion grabbed the gun. The taller heathen examined the musket, smelled it, and looked at me with a flash of vexation. He said something as he tossed the weapon aside, clearly telling his companion the gun was useless. At that, the short savage actually laughed. He turned back to me and grinned—?­a broad, bright, thoroughly irresistible grin. He held out his hand.

I took it.

And that is the account, as true as I can tell the tale, of how I came to be a captive of the Indians.


As to the events during and after the time the children and I were removed from the loft and escorted through the farm­yard, my memory is mostly darkness and terror. I clearly remember stepping o’er the body of a beastly looking savage at the bottom of the stairs, his red blood pooling across the floorboards. Outside was mayhem and I believe my two escorts were hard-­presst to protect me from the madness and murder taking place all ’round.

I have an all-­too-­vivid memory of my brother Thomas attempt­ing to douse the fire an arrow had establisht in a hay pile by the barn. Tom struck down every savage who beset him, swatting them aside like bothersome bees at a picnic. E’en when a flying toma­hawk finally knockt him into the fire, he continued flailing, trying to put out the flames. To no avail. His clothes caught fire and soon his twitching body helpt to feed the very flames he had been trying to extinguish. As the inferno rose to engulf the barn and flames shot thirty or forty feet in the air, I could hear Tom’s wife and children shrieking from their hiding place in the loft.

In the meantime, my captors directed me to sit beside the well, where my mother and sister Eliza huddled beside my fifteen-­year-­old brother William, who had been knockt in the head but was not dead. A few of Liza’s children were there, tho’ I do not recall now if they were some who came with me. I do know some of the chil­dren who had been in the loft ran off as soon as we stept outside, and at least one was grabbed by a savage and had his brains dasht out against a tree. But the fate of most of my family members will forever be unknown to me.

Tho’ the particulars of my removal are vague now, I distinctly recall my two captors making it abundantly clear to their comrades-­in-­arms that I belonged to them and was not to be molested in any way. Whilst they suffered me to be tied with a leather strap to my sister and mother, they permitted no one to push or prod me. My brother William, wounded as he was with a great gash on his head, was forced to carry a large load of goods looted from our farm, as were both Liza and my poor mother. But I carried naught save my own pack.

I saw immediately how unlike the others were the two men who had taken me from the loft. The few Indians I had seen heretofore were uniformly savage and vile, with heads plucked bald save for a tuft atop, and odd bones and stones woven through ears or noses or lips. Most were tattooed or painted with garish designs, and all sav­ages I had e’er seen were capable of understanding English if they did not, in fact, speak it as well as me. But the two who laid claim to me not only understood no English but clearly did not speak the same language as the others. They communicated with the main body of marauders only through an elaborate language of gestures, accompa­nied by grunts, groans, and a wide range of facial expressions.

Whilst we captives were marched through the woods like prize cattle, my two guardians remained always at my side. I quickly noted their peculiarities. Tho’ they, like all the savages, wore only breechclouts, they carried large packs which the others did not. Their skin was several shades darker than the others, neither wore paint (tho’ the short one did have a small tattoo on the side of his face), and both wore their long black hair in a single braid down their backs. E’en at a glance I could see the muscles of their arms, shoulders, and backs bulged disproportionately, making them ap­pear top-­heavy. Their faces were wider, rounder, plumper, and, in short, everything about them was quite unlike the others. As we stumbled through the forest, I passed many silent hours wondering about these two odd fellows—?­who they were, where they came from, and why they had taken such a particular interest in me.

Because there was no doubt about it. My mother and sister, bound to me at the wrist, immediately saw my situation. At first Mother hoped we might benefit from the keen interest, and it was certainly true I wanted for nothing. But when I tried to share the choice bits of food my guardians gave me, they intervened, making clear my family members were dependent upon the goodwill of the other savages. As the other savages were a monstrous bunch, my relatives suffered and blamed me for it.

I remember my sister questioning me about what happened in the loft and how it came to be I had time to gather provisions. I did not want to reveal I had long hoped to run away, but when I failed to explain my preparedness, she accused me of somehow knowing my captors and scheming with them to plan this event, which was such a bizarre accusation I could find no words to respond. William dismissed the idea as absurd and told Liza to stop lashing out.

Still, the intense favoritism of my guardians did little to dispel my sister’s jealousy and suspicions, and because I myself did not understand their interest, I suffered a great unease as the short sav­age worked to win me over. On the first night after our remove, for example, when Mother snatcht my wool blanket, the short man shyly offered me his thick bearskin. I was, quite naturally, terrified of what he might expect in exchange for this kindness, but his gen­tle smile and my violent shivering eventually persuaded me. I wrapt myself in the thick fur, grimly awaiting ravishment, but the short savage only smiled as he lay nearby under a thin hide. Oddly, I found I slept more soundly, knowing my peculiar protector was attending me thus. When I awoke in the morning, his smile was the first thing I saw, and after the first few mornings I could not help but greet him with a smile of my own.

I should note I was not the only captive being pampered. Three children were with us, two of whom were Liza’s sons, and none were bound. Instead, certain savages claimed them, and tho’ at first the youngsters naturally clung to us, as the days passed they, like me, became more comfortable in the company of their new masters. William, who understood some of the language, said the savages debated which of us they would adopt and which they would take to a French outpost for exchange.

In the two years since moving to the frontier, we had all heard tales of what happened to Christians held by the cruel and barba­rous heathens—?­tales of torture and torments that ended in being roasted alive. As relieved as I was to hear I was not fated for the firepit, I was naturally alarmed by this unexpected alteration in my fortunes. I had ne’er enjoyed living in the wild, and had, in fact, been planning to escape it as soon as practicable, yet here I was being dragged e’er farther into the demon darkness, faced with the very real possibility of ne’er seeing the light of civilization again. But, as Gran always sighed, mere mortals must bow before God’s Will.

After several days of hiking, I began to fear the special treat­ment I was receiving might bode particularly ill for me. One eve­ning the short savage, smiling as always, sat down beside me so that we might eat our meal together, and Liza eyed the tender fish he gave me whilst she and the rest had naught but tough strips of dried sinew. “Y’best be careful about enticing your new beau, Katie,” she said, one eyebrow raised. “He’ll make ye pay for that fish!”

I stopt in mid-­chew. Tho’, as my mother delighted in assuring me, no one could e’er consider me pretty, I was not unacquainted with the amorous advances of young men. Throughout my youth I made friends with whate’er boys lived near us, and more than one had declared his love for me, regardless of my ruddy complexion and crooked teeth. So tho’ I knew Liza’s spiteful jibe was prompted mostly by the considerations I was receiving, I also knew that what she said had more than a grain of truth to it.

I was, of course, doing nothing to “entice” the short savage, yet clearly he was enticed by one particular part of me—?­my hair. Like my mother and several siblings, I had what they called “good Irish hair”—?­thick, curly, and red as a flame. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the short savage had been talking to his com­panion about my hair e’en when we were in the loft. Every morning he watched in open fascination as I retied my hair in a bun, and once whilst I braided my hair for sleeping, he reached out to take one of my curls in his hand, holding it as if it were a tiny bird he’d found fallen from a tree. When I pulled away in alarm, he with­drew his hand, smiling sheepishly.

I found this most unsettling. After all, the savages are known to be peculiar when it comes to hair, plucking their own heads clean or torturing their locks into bizarre coifs, ornamented with feathers and bones. It goes without saying the heathens are notorious for collecting human scalps, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my short friend’s broad smile was prompted by picturing my bright red locks as the prized centerpiece of his personal scalp collection.

But e’en as the thought occurred to me, I knew it could not be true. Whilst I fully believed his taller companion was capable of murder, I knew in my heart this short fellow was far too gentle to be plotting evil against me.

As for his interest in me—?­well, e’en tho’ my mother snorted at Liza’s warning about the fish and said she’d drown me before she’d let me entice a savage, I knew I was in no position to reject this fel­low’s timorous advances should they grow bolder. Not only did my life depend on his good graces, but I could not help but be moved by his many kindnesses. No one had e’er been so solicitous of me, making certain I was as comfortable as possible under such extreme circumstances. How could I not be touched, e’en flattered by his obvious admiration?

I should add that I was not like my mother, who considered savages a scourge of nature, much like rats, fleas, or lice. In truth, I knew little about savages ’til we moved to the frontier when I was fifteen, and then all I knew was stories I heard about their crimes, atrocities, and outrages. The only real thought I’d e’er given Indians was to wonder why my parents were determined to live near beings they so disdained instead of returning to the bosom of civilization where I know I, at least, would have preferred to be. Thus it was that when I suddenly found myself at the mercy of these savage beasts and understood my very survival depended utterly on their peculiarities, you may be sure I was keen to learn all I could of their ways and gratefully accept any favor I was given.

The short savage attempted to make his name known to me, but all I could discern was that it had a lot of “s,” “sh,” and “w” sounds. It took some effort before I could say e’en one small part of his name to his satisfaction, after which he worked to explain in gestures what his name meant. I laughed at his contrivances, and he laughed along with me but continued trying to make me under­stand. Finally it dawned on me he was saying something about “dreaming” or “seeing things that aren’t there,” and my smile faded into shock.

For as long as I could remember, my mother chid me for being a dreamer, an idler, a gatherer of wool. She accused me of wallow­ing in dreams the way a hog wallows in mud, saying I used day-­dreaming to escape the tedium of my work-­a-­day world. I ne’er denied it, nor did I understand why the accusation was applied with such venom, but I did understand my mother considered idle rev­erie a sin. And now here was this man unabashedly proclaiming his very name meant “dreamer” as if it were a mark of great distinc­tion.

Syawa, as I came to call him, saw my shift in attitude and was concerned. When I tried to explain in gestures and grimaces that I, too, was something of a dreamer, he was nigh beside himself with delight. He turned to gabble at his companion with great anima­tion, and I watched uneasily as they discussed my shameful admis­sion.

For his part, the taller man was quiet and aloof, quite comely in his savage way, observing the scenes ’round him with detached cu­riosity, as I might watch ants on a sandhill struggling to carry off a crumb of cake. He showed not the slightest interest in me and, in fact, rarely looked my way if he could avoid it. His only concern was the safety and happiness of his companion, to whom he was clearly devoted. The bond between them was so warm and affectionate, I at first assumed they must be brothers, but quickly concluded they were too physically dissimilar to be closely related.

Syawa told me his friend’s name, but to me it was naught but a briar-­patch of unpronounceable syllables—?­almost none of the sounds have any equivalent in the English language. The best I could do was pick out an “h,” a “kt,” and an “r.” Thus I came to call the tall one “Hector.”

Once the lines of communication were opened, Syawa ne’er stopt talking. He wanted to know my name, of course, and when I told him it was Katie O’Toole, he laughed and chattered to his friend about this remarkable fact. Hector listened, half-­smiling as if he understood what Syawa was saying without necessarily agreeing. Impatient, Syawa turned back to me and asked in gestures what my name meant. I was hard-­presst to explain without words that my name meant only that I was my father’s daughter and my family called me Katie.

Syawa went on to make me understand that the sounds of my name were very similar to the phrase in his language which means “sun setting into the sea,” and because the fiery color of my hair reminded him of a sunset, he made much of this coincidence. I must have seemed as dubious as Hector, for my ear failed to hear a simi­larity between the sounds of his language and mine, but I did not complain when Syawa began calling me “Kay-­oot-­li.”

Unfortunately, the more I understood my new friend, the less tolerant my mother became of his attentions. She flinched every time he approached, snarling that he stank and was ugly and was clearly mentally deficient. In truth, the frantic pace of our forced march, day after day after day, through hardships of weather, ter­rain, and privation, had taken a toll on my mother, who was very near the end of her endurance. Liza and I held her up between us as best we could, but the leather strap that bound us frequently tangled in brambles, which made the savages grumble. William warned unhappily that he heard talk of dispatching her.

At some point, when Liza and I had to stop yet again to pry our strap from a bush, Syawa came o’er to cut the thong that bound me to my mother. The other savages protested mightily, clearly insist­ing I would run away, but Syawa flashed that relentless smile of his and pointed out I was helping my mother, for which I needed both arms. Then he turned to me. I lowered my eyes and breathed heav­ily, keenly aware all the savages were looking at me. Syawa asked me something, but I was too afraid to look up to see his gestures.

He put his finger on my chin and lifted my face. He smiled as if an exotic butterfly had just landed on his fingertip, and with his free hand he gestured, asking if I was going to run away. I shook my head, my heart pounding as much as it did when he and his tall friend first burst into the loft at home. He turned to the rest of the savages and gestured, assuring them I would stay.

Mother immediately began whispering that as soon as it was dark, I must untie her so we could flee. For the rest of the day, as I practically carried her through the forest, she pestered me about how it was up to me to save us all. Eventually Liza joined in, and we squabbled in whispers ’til William hissed that if we kept this up, the savages would kill us all long before nightfall.

We continued in silence. I spent the evening trying to decipher Syawa’s gestures as he told the assemblage of savages an elaborate story, during which my mother and Liza frequently urged me to untie them. When I continued to ignore them, they grew silent, but every time I glanced at my mother thereafter, I found her glaring at me in furious reproach.

She should have known her hate-­stare would have no effect upon me; it was, after all, pretty much the same way she’d looked at me every single day of my life.


I disremember how long we hiked after the attack on our Penn­sylvania farm, but ’twas surely a week—?­perhaps ten days. The most trying moments came when we were dragged ’cross rivers of various depths, but I scarce recall those ordeals, for in water I was terrified beyond reason. In any case, we eventually arrived at a sav­age village where we were received with much jubilation.

William was tied to a pole near the river, but Mother and Eliza were finally unbound as I. Rather than run off as they had urged me to do, they huddled with me and William as we all awaited the dispensation of our fates. Because we saw no more of our children, Liza fell into a deep despondency from which e’en the threat of pain to her own person was met with absolute indifference.

From our vantage point, we could see the village consisted of perhaps twenty or thirty squalid bark huts erected haphazardly amongst the trees on a small rise well away from the river. I cannot guess how many people lived there, for there was much coming and going, hollering, laughing, and merrymaking. The bloody scalps of our family were displayed and rejoiced o’er by everyone from griz­zled grandmothers to naked toddlers. O’erwrought youngsters oc­casionally ran down the riverbank to beat William with sticks, at which event we women could only cling to each other, cowering, praying the Lord to preserve him.

Soon after our arrival, a group of men removed William, whilst a group of women took me, Mother, and Liza to a secluded part of the river. The women explained in garbled English we must re­move our clothes and go into the water, but Mother howled, sure they meant to drown us. She had to be dragged into the river fully clothed, squawking and kicking the whole way. In the meantime, Liza and I slowly disrobed and, shivering, edged our way into the icy depths as the amused Indian women took turns plunging our wailing mother under the surface. They e’en managed to remove her clothes at last, at which point we were all scrubbed with sand.

Tho’ it felt as if the women wanted to scrub the white right off us, I soon realized the cold water was intended to remove only our lice and fleas, which was accomplisht. By the time we were allowed out of the river, our clothes were gone, replaced by new French-­style clothing. We quickly covered our nakedness and rejoined William, who had also undergone the indignity of a bath.

My two captors had set up their own camp alongside us, con­firming my suspicion they were strangers to this place as much as we, and curiosity-­seekers came to see them as much as or more than they came to see us. Syawa and Hector clearly enjoyed a certain notoriety, with the natives fawning o’er them the way my family and I might have behaved before the Royal Governor. The impor­tant men of the village met with them, and eager women regularly loitered nearby with flirtatious smiles. Occasionally one or the other of my guardians wandered off, and several times Syawa invited me to go somewhere with him, but I was too terrified to leave my fam­ily and he did not force me.

A day passed, and then two, with nothing untoward occurring. We O’Tooles comforted each other, our main preoccupation being to find food. Syawa still gave me a portion of whate’er he and Hec­tor ate, but because no one gave my family a thing, I felt I must share what I was given with them.

Hector was unhappy about this arrangement and eventually made his sentiments known. ’Twas clear by then that he was the one who procured my food, for Syawa rarely left my side and Hector was oft gone for extended periods, returning with fish or game. A disagreement arose after I divided my portion of a fish with my family, and I remember wondering why Hector was so unhappy—?­he had a third of that fish, whilst I had only one-­fourth of one-­third! Ne’ertheless, he said something to Syawa, who said something back to him, which caused Hector to expound his position at length.

Syawa listened to this tirade with his e’er-­present smile unaf­fected. When he replied, he did so in a cheerful and pleasant man­ner, as if Hector had just been congratulating him instead of complaining about my giving away food. Whate’er Syawa said to Hector was enough to cause the taller man to inhale sharply and hold his tongue. He walked off and said no more about our ar­rangement.

From what I now know of the Indians, I realize they expected us to trade for food—?­by sewing, gathering firewood, hauling water, or such like. We, on the other hand, considered ourselves helpless prisoners waiting to be fed. But the longer we went without ade­quate food, the more my mother suffered from hunger ’til at some point she urged me to press Syawa for more. “Tell him ye’ll do what he wants if he gives ye more food,” she hissed, nodding at the short savage. “ ’Tis the least ye can do to sustain the mother who has cared for ye all these years without so much as a word o’ thanks.”

I wanted to remind her that for most of those years I’d cared for her as much as or more than she’d e’er cared for me and that only a few days earlier she declared she’d drown me before she’d let me entice a savage, but I held my tongue and ignored her command, fearing that if I encouraged Syawa’s interest in any way, he might be unwilling to part with me when the time came. I was, after all, still determined to make my way back to Philadelphia and enjoy the fruits of modern civilization. How could I hope to escape the godless wilderness if I entangled myself further with this grinning savage?

And then there was the fact I was not altogether sure I could entice Syawa in the way Mother suggested. True tho’ it was he watched me all the time, he ne’er made a single lewd nor imperti­nent suggestion—?­indeed, quite the opposite. When he approacht me, he was respectful, reserved, almost in awe, greeting me with bowed head and demure smiles. But as measured as he was, he was not intimidated in the way I’d seen so many young men cringe be­fore the girls they courted. Syawa came to me with eagerness and confidence, in much the same way I approached the dear puppy I found when I was eight. In fact, his presumption that I must be as glad to see him as he was to see me began to vex me. My past, my plans for the future—?­these did not exist for him. All that mattered was that we were together here and now. I felt as if he expected me to be his little lap dog—?­kindly used and cared for, to be sure, but subject to his will, come what may.

On the other hand, if I had just cause to pull away from Syawa’s presumptions, I also had reason to use his affection as a shield. In addition to providing me and my family with what little food we enjoyed, Syawa’s sponsorship also made me an object of great inter­est to the villagers. Tho’ my brother was frequently abused and my mother and sister regularly taunted, I was only petted and pam­pered. Women came to touch my hair, jabbering together in excite­ment as they looked at my blue eyes. On one occasion, a group of elders came and consulted with Syawa, after which they all stood looking at me, nodding, discussing something at great length. For someone like me who had grown up in a cluster and for whom be­ing singled out was usually a very bad thing, all this attention was most disconcerting.

The one heathen who continued to be unimpressed by me was Syawa’s companion. Oh, Hector was respectful enough—?­e’en def­erential in his own stoic way—?­but for the most part he gave me a wide berth and avoided direct contact. As noted, he protested when I gave away the food he provided, but his protestations were ad­dressed to Syawa, not to me. Indeed, tho’ we had been in close prox­imity for nigh two weeks, Hector made no effort to interact with me. The only time he looked my way was when Syawa talked to me through his convoluted dance of gestures, at which time Hector watched his friend with what I can only describe as amused indul­gence. But if, during one of those pantomimed conversations, I hap­pened to catch Hector’s eye, he immediately looked away, his half-­smile converted instantly into his usual face of stone.

Whilst Hector refused to look at me, I oft studied his interaction with Syawa, ne’er ceasing to be struck by the depth and breadth of the bond between them. ’Twas obvious Hector worshipt Syawa, and when Syawa chattered on and on as he so oft did—?­for he was quite a talker—?­Hector listened with a warm light in his dark eyes. When Hector felt me watching, a flicker of vexation would pass o’er his face, as if I were intruding on a private moment. And tho’ I fre­quently saw Hector interact with other savages in a sharp and con­frontational way, his words and demeanor when addressing his friend were almost always soft and deferential—?­with the notable exception of the time he complained about our eating arrangements. Indeed, it was the abiding affection between these men which in­trigued me most about Syawa. Anyone who could inspire such de­votion from a companion must be someone worth ­knowing—?­especially when that companion was as formidable as Hector.

I should add I was not the only one who found the strange men compelling. Giggling young women regularly came to lure Hector away, and tho’ Syawa was neither as well-­formed nor as comely as Hector, he, too, could have enjoyed much female companionship had he desired it. Slowly I began to realize why so many Indian women were pampering me—?­Syawa was gently redirecting their interest in him. Thus did my obligation to this peculiar man con­tinue to grow.

On the third afternoon of our stay in this village, Syawa came to me with a small wooden bowl of pottage. I took it gladly for I was deeply distressed with hunger. After supping a mouthful to restore my strength, I took the bowl to William, who was still recovering from his head wound, but Mother lunged for it, causing me to drop the bowl and spill its precious contents o’er the dusty ground. Furi­ous and crazed with hunger, she grabbed my arm and slapt me re­peatedly about the face and neck as my sister fell upon the bowl to lick it clean. I was soon able to prize my arm away, but not before Mother snatcht a good handful of my hair and yanked me this way and that, howling all the while about what a wretched daughter I was to starve a mother so.

I did not enjoy being beaten in this manner, but I was so accus­tomed to it, having suffered such since birth, that I endured the in­dignity the same way I accepted the biting of fleas or the stench of the privy. My intention, as always when Mother whipt me, was simply to get away as quickly as possible and stay away ’til her choler cooled.

Before I could extricate myself from my mother’s grasp, how­ever, Syawa was upon us both. Small tho’ he was, his hands were powerful and sure as he reached in to grab my mother’s wrists. Startled by this sudden restraint, Mother shrieked in stark terror and collapsed, flopping and floundering to get away. My sister also screamed but managed to keep the bowl as she dove behind Wil­liam, who, in spite of his bonds, had arisen to try to pull Mother away from her apparent attacker.

Finding myself suddenly released from Mother’s grasp, I cata­pulted backwards only to have the wind knockt out of me when I hit the ground. I struggled to regain my senses, but by the time I could sit up, a crowd had collected and there was much shouting and whooping, especially from the savage children. To my horror I saw that tho’ Syawa still held Mother’s wrists, he was now very much on the defensive, for she was wildly kicking and biting at him as she wriggled and writhed. William was still trying to get between the two, as much now to defend Syawa as to protect Mother.

The encircling throng suddenly parted as Hector appeared out of nowhere, running at an unbelievable speed from some distant corner of the village. His face bloodless and drawn, his eyes black, his lips presst thin, he seemed to hang in mid-air for one breathless moment as he assessed the situation. Then he fell into the fray, grab­bing William by the neck and tossing him aside like a limp dishrag as he snatcht Mother’s arm and yanked her from Syawa. He dragged her ’round by that arm, with her all the while howling, kicking, and flailing furiously. I would have gone to her defense, but she was thrashing so hysterically I durst not approach. With a flip of his wrist, Hector tossed her onto her belly and held her down with a foot upon her back; almost immediately she stopt squirming and contented herself with sobbing into the dirt. By then I, too, was cry­ing as I cringed beside a bush, my arms wrapt ’round my knees.

Breathing heavily, Hector scanned the scene before reaching a hand out to Syawa, who had fallen backwards and now sheepishly accepted the assistance to rise. Syawa dusted himself off whilst Hec­tor anxiously looked him o’er, asking something repeatedly. As Syawa explained the situation, Mother quietly whimpered under Hector’s foot and the rest of us cowered, waiting to see what the furious savage would do next. With his jaw clenched and nostrils flared, Hector reminded me of that awful moment in the loft when I feared my murderer was upon me, and I once again felt the thrill of pure terror.

But just as at our first meeting, Syawa began talking in that quiet, calming, steady tone of his, and the tension dissipated. Hec­tor’s brow was still deeply furrowed, but after giving my mother’s back a final shove with his foot, he turned on the jeering children and shouted. E’en with the language barrier, everyone knew exactly what Hector said, and the crowd immediately dispersed.

After a long moment in which Mother moaned, I held my knees and trembled, and Syawa continued his soft, soothing placa­tions, Hector finally raised his hand to ask a question through grit­ted teeth. Syawa smiled and nodded, holding out his arms as if to say, “You see? I am wholly unhurt.”

Hector nodded, but before he turned to walk away, he gave me a glance that chilled me to the bone. He was angry, resentful, dis­gusted. But mostly he was accusative—?­clearly blaming me for en­dangering his friend. This, I suddenly realized, was probably why Hector had complained about my sharing food. He knew, sooner or later, my actions would threaten Syawa. I lowered my eyes, embar­rassed and ashamed.

Syawa would have none of it. With William and Eliza consol­ing Mother, Syawa squatted beside me to lay his hand on my shoul­der. He spoke softly, and tho’ I did not understand his words, I appreciated the obvious comfort he offered. He bade me rise and come with him, leading me to a dwelling at the edge of the village. Chattering away as if I could understand every word, he pulled me inside the hut and settled me beside the warm fire therein. He solic­ited the mistress of that place to give me another bowl of pottage, which I ate with eyes averted, thinking of my mother so hungry and abandoned in the cold. I would have wept for her, but Syawa was making funny faces as he babbled in an effort to make me smile. I did smile, of course, because he was so relentlessly cheerful and kind, but inside I was trembling, wondering what was to become of us all. I felt so very, very guilty about my mother.

She always said I was going to be the death of her, and I was beginning to fear her little jest might just come true.

The Spirit Keeper

The Spirit Keeper

A Novel

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