THE BACKWOODS PRINCESS
Catawba River, North Carolina, May, 1776.
Bonnie Kate’s eyes narrowed, a grimace of indignation firmly etched on her wide, determined mouth. “I don’t want anything to do with this.” She’d hoped this day would never come—a day of dread and abomination. Nothing could be more wrong. The cabin, her life, her soul—empty.
With her back rigid and wishing for her china cup, she cupped her hands around a gourd of tea abhorring its murky taste. She ignored the chaos and disarray of everything they owned heaped in piles throughout the yard and scattered outside the barn. The one place not consumed with madness was the cabin, barren but for the planks of the kitchen table, two three-legged stools, four make-shift gourd cups, and a box of smuggled tea with its lid slid open. She fingered the box and glared at an unattended kettle of creek water bubbling slowly on a fire of dying embers.
Boots sounded on the kitchen stoop. Stomping through the door, Papa fumed, “Bonnie Kate, I could use your help out here. Now’s not the time to dawdle inside.”
Nothing new. She expected a bristling diatribe. Papa wore the family breeches so tight no one dared challenge him.
“Ain’t listening this time,” she muttered to herself, not lifting her head nor moving her fingers from the tea box. “Nothing he can say will change my mind.”
“Bonnie Kate . . .”
Refusing to budge, she firmed her chin and protested. “Moving is a waste. Don’t know why you’re making us go. Not my idea. I’m not loading no wagons.” She stirred her tea slowly to dissipate the steam from the hollowed gourd, but not from her mind. “Did my part yesterday in the cabin.”
He jerked her chair and grabbed her arm, pressing his fingers into her flesh. Tea as hot as his temper splashed onto the worn table planks anchored by squared posts to the smooth puncheon floor. “Look at me when I talk to you. When I say move, you move.”
“You’re hurting me. I’m no youngster you can whip.” She hated when he treated her like a child. Although she lived under his roof, at nineteen, she felt entitled to disagree whenever she thought him wrong.
Papa’s stubborn jaw protruded menacingly, eyes fiery black. “Wipe that sass off your face. Nobody slacks today.”
He squeezed her arm tighter and raised the back of his hand as if to strike, but was thwarted when Mama struggled through the door with a thrashing, screaming little boy.
Scowling at Papa and Bonnie Kate, she yelled, “Stop it. Both of you.” She turned to Bonnie Kate. “Here take Quillar, he’s under my feet and in the way. If you won’t help outside, the least you can do is keep him quiet.”
Papa loosened his grip, backed away, and yelled, “Girl, I ain’t through with you.”
“Come here baby,” Bonnie Kate cooed tossing a defiant head giving Papa a triumphant dismissal. “Let’s you and I go outside and play.” She’d tended her younger brothers and sisters since old enough to carry them on her hip, and with Quillar, she mothered him more than Mama.
Quillar eagerly stretched his arms squealing, “Take me, Bonnie Kate.”
She took his hand and led him to a small pasture behind the emptied cabin normally protected from the weather by cane breaks and scores of cattails near the Catawba River’s lapping edge. Not so, today. The cattails swayed sideways, their bent stalks nearly touching the ground. Fierce wind gusts whipped her hair across her face, her eyes smarted.
“When will PawPaw be done? I’m hungry.”
“You scamp. You can’t be hungry. Granny Kett gave you sugar bread.” Bonnie Kate pinched his cheek and wondered. What was a boy like Quillar thinking during all of this? Three years old. What would he remember? She smiled. He’s blessed—only has to understand eating, playing with puppies, and shooting his sling shot.
“Why can’t I eat?” His big eyes begged.
Squeezing him close to her, she whispered in his ear, “We’re going on a long trip, and you’ll get to ride with your cousins in a wagon all your own. Won’t that be exciting?”
Clouds swirled. Thunder rumbled. Gusts of cold, blustery winds scared her. She wanted to hurry back into the kitchen with Quillar and forget the whole thing. With nothing more she could do to stop Papa, she tightened her arm around Quillar and watched frenzied men and women, in their race against time, prepare a wagon train that could bear no more wind and rain before moving forward.
Bonnie Kate dug her toe into the grass and wondered again why they were going. Papa talked about moving months ago, but she hadn’t let herself take him seriously. She was tired of his argument that the possibility of expanding his holdings in Catawba was like a full bucket of milk that would hold no more. If he said it once, he said it ten times, “It’s those hair-brain, Tory bugtits crowding in here—ain’t room for decent folks. ’Tis like I say, if you can hear a dog bark, they’re too close.”
Grandpa Adam’s death two weeks ago removed the last barrier to Papa’s plans to move the one hundred and thirty miles north and west into the squabble land with the Cherokee—the raw edge of no-man’s land beyond the 1763 proclamation line.
The provisions for new Tomahawk stakes near Fort Watauga convinced Papa and her brothers that now was the time. Papa’s edict was final. “We’ve wasted enough time, we’re going.”
After yesterday’s frustrations, forgive Papa? Never. With her world turned sideways, she had resented sorting through her clothes and possessions and packing only what fitted into a small space in a wagon. She knew the belongings that could not be packed would be left for her cousins. Her heart spoke. She loved her blue velvet dress, the dreamy blue softness, the bodice edged with white lace and cut low revealing the valley between her breasts, and the wide skirt that swished teasingly when she walked. The dress she dreamed to be married in was now an orphan, hung on the last peg behind the curtain of her bedroom door.
With Mama helping her close her trunk, Bonnie Kate heaved a final sob. She thought of everything left behind that she didn’t want others to touch, but the more that came to mind, the more she cried.
Mama chided, “Don’t understand, Bonnie Kate, why you’re fussing so much over a dress. You won’t have an occasion to wear it. Need the space for blankets.”
“That’s exactly the point, Mama. I’ll have no civilized place to go.” Bonnie Kate scowled. Mama missed the obvious—she wanted to stay where she could wear her dress, live in decency, and birth her children. Her thoughts turned bitter. To wear a velvet dress and dance around a campfire in the wilderness woods—not likely. She was headed to no-man’s land.
Bonnie Kate’s thoughts pummeled through her mind much like the swirling wind. If only I was married, I could stay, she argued with herself for the umpteenth time. Everyone knew any girl over the age of fifteen was married or would be married soon. She was humiliated when people gave her that certain look, the one that silently reminded her she was unmarried. Then there were the questions, never ending questions.
With Papa one of eight brothers, she didn’t lack for aunties. They teased that at nineteen she was an old maid. She countered to the busybodies that not marrying was not for lack of suitors, but because no eligible young man captured her respect after she beat each in races and shooting contests. How could I love a man who can’t ride a horse better than me?
What was love? She didn’t know. The deep desires and breathless throbs her sister Susan whispered to her never surfaced. Infantile mouths, wet kisses, and awkward bodies left nothing to swoon over.
She yearned to be seduced by dancing eyes, fondled by magical hands, and led into an ecstasy that left her panting for more.
She pushed her thoughts to the far recesses of her mind and corralled a squirming Quillar in her arms.
Bonnie Kate wondered how much longer the loading would take. They started hours ago. Squaring her jaw, she settled her mind. Never would she ride cramped in a wagon. Ride Skye? If I have to go. . . well then, only if I ride Skye.
Suddenly sharp voices pierced the air and her time for memories vanished like smoke sucked through an open draft of a chimney. Papa and her brothers called their final directions. Mama and her sister shouted at their children to stay close at hand. Sharper lightning flashed behind clouds, and deep thunder roared from black northwestern skies, the direction their wagons were heading.
Papa shouted, “Weather’s breaking. Move out.”
Nobody, least of all, Bonnie Kate, believed him. Deathly afraid of storms, she feared something big and nasty was upon them. One thing certain, Papa never tolerated delays, this storm no exception. Papa’s command, echoing against determined gusts, pounded in her mind like an omen of pending destruction—an ominous warning from God they shouldn’t go.
Four heavily loaded wagons and three ox carts laden with this and that and everything else, including tiny tied parcels of slave belongings, obeyed Papa’s command. Wheels creaked and rolled forward. Her brothers, tall in their saddles, looped ropes and whipped horses and cattle to move to the front.
“Sam, I’m riding next to the youngun’s. Granny Kett needs my help,” Bonnie Kate called as she accepted the inevitable and assigned herself to ride aside the children’s wagon, the last, preceding the slave carts. “They’re wild Injuns.”
The procession lumbered on, the storm advancing faster than they could move away from it. Bonnie Kate pulled her horse next to Sam and yelled against the whining, high-pitched wind. “Stop. This isn’t an ordinary storm. Ain’t safe.” Their eyes met and held. She guessed something worth dreading was about to happen.
“Papa says the storm is breaking to the east and we should be out of it soon. If you ride on the lea side of the wagons, you’ll be protected.”
She heard uncertainty in Sam’s voice, but guided Skye to the far side of the wagon. Inside the black progeny of their slaves, her niece and nephew, and her younger brothers and sisters sang and played games together. They were family, if only in different ways.