INDEPENDENCE
Chapter 1
Kolkhorst farm, South Carolina colony, 1767

Rachel had finished her lessons for the evening, but no one would tell her if she had finished them correctly. The house was quiet. Christoph sat at the table with his legs propped up on Rachel’s chair, reading one of father’s books with a scowl of intense focus. Christoph was three years older, eleven to her eight, and Rachel was jealous that he knew Greek and she did not.

“Christoph?” she said. His scowl deepened, and he didn’t look at her.

“What?” he muttered. If father had been inside, Rachel wouldn’t have dared interrupt Christoph’s reading. But then if father had been inside, Christoph wouldn’t have dared put his feet on a chair, either. She did not know what father could be doing outdoors every night in the dark. It was as though he simply could not bear their company any more.

“I memorized a poem.”

Christoph didn’t look up. “And it goes like this: bok bok begaa bok bok begaa bok bok –”

He would never let her forget that she’d once reported in a lather of excitement that she’d heard the chickens clucking in iambs. But that had been two years ago! Rachel wanted to hit him, but she wanted him to check her work more. “Could you just –” she swallowed the words “shut up” and continued, “– see whether I’m missing any words?”

Christoph sighed and held out his hand for the poem, swinging his feet to the ground. Rachel brightened and gave him the folio before he could change his mind. She folded her hands in front of her skirt and began.

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

“The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea…”

Christoph nodded slightly to himself, eyes ticking down the page as Rachel continued her recitation, and she slowly gained confidence. The beginning of a poem was always the hardest for her to remember properly.

The door thumped open and shut behind her, and Rachel heard her father’s heavy tread. Her heart quickened. He had always taken pains with his children’s education, before, and she thought how pleased he would be to hear her now. Her voice grew slightly louder and she raised her chin.

“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

“Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

“Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,

“Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.”

Two quick steps. The door opened and shut again. Father was gone.

Rachel fell silent.

Christoph, his face closed, merely said, “Yes, I think you’ve got it,” even though the poem wasn’t even half complete, and he put the folio on the table.

As she lay in bed that night, while Christoph twisted and sighed beneath his blanket across the room – he never had trouble slipping into his dreams – Rachel wondered if father would re-marry. The farm sat miles upon miles from its nearest neighbor, and they almost never saw anyone. But perhaps someone will come anyway, she told herself. Perhaps someone will come, somehow. And she wished that it would be so. She was not sure whether it would be right to pray to God for such a thing, though, so she did not do that.

 

Her father and Christoph went out to work at first light in the morning, leaving Rachel to her chores. She worked quickly, the way mother had taught her. Wasting time was not just wrong but wicked. “Your family is a gift from God that you must spend the rest of your life earning,” Rachel’s mother had said many times when Rachel had wanted her to leave the chickens and the breakfast table and the dishes and the floor and the water and the bedding so that they could play. “When you have children, Rachel, perhaps you’ll bring them here, to your old parents in their old home.”

“And then we’ll play?”

Her mother would laugh. “And then you’ll do all the chores yourself without my help, and your children and I will play.”

That would not happen now, with mother dead. But in Heaven they would all play together, if only Rachel could earn her place there.

 

It was one of the first truly fine days of spring, and Rachel had thrown open the doors and windows for the sweet air to flush out the musty smells of bodies and old cooking. Now the honeyed sunlight enticed her as it danced on the fresh green leaves and sparkled in the clouds. She glanced through an open window with longing. She did not feel like reading or lessons today.

I could get some flowers for the table, Rachel decided. She loved to wander through the trees and grasses. Perhaps the flowers weren’t terribly important. But they were pretty, and surely someone would notice them, and perhaps even thank Rachel for her thoughtfulness, or remark how cheerful the little house seemed that day. So she tied on a bonnet and slipped a shallow basket over her arm, her mind made up to go. It occurred to her as she left that the weather might turn or the wind grow fierce while she was out, so she shut the windows and closed the door behind her. She always tried to be careful, when she remembered.

Rachel could see the distant forms of her father and brother in the yellow grass of the valley to the east. It looked like they were mending a low fence near the heavy brown shapes of browsing cattle. She darted around quickly to the other side of the house, hoping they wouldn’t see her. They might think she wasn’t working, though she was. The flowers were sure to be more abundant towards the west anyway, on the uneven ground by the edge of the woods where the cows never grazed.

A sweet breeze carried the scent of the fields and the clucking of the chickens. Rachel walked with a light step, swinging the basket at her side. She was pleased with herself, having memorized two poems last night and finished her chores early this afternoon, and the brightness of the sky and the warmth of the earth made it seem as though the world shared her opinion.

The tiny family cemetery lay on a small patch of land set off by a simple wooden fence about a hundred yards from the house. It contained her mother’s grave and four little graves beside it. An old oak stood above them, its budding leaves casting little shadow. Rachel lowered her eyes and walked more slowly, at a respectful pace, as she drew close. The graves were neat but bare, marked by gray and brown stones that her father had polished and carved himself. Rachel knew the scant details by heart.

Tobias Kolkhorst, 1755, aged three months; Renata Kolkhorst, 1758, aged one year; Angela Kolkhorst, 1762, aged one year. Then the most recent, the stones still clean and raw. Mary Donnelly Kolkhorst, 1766, aged thirty-two years, beloved wife and mother; and Infant Boy Kolkhorst, 1766, aged four days. Her father had not named that last child. A pang of guilt struck Rachel.

“I’ll bring flowers for you first,” she whispered, and she felt a little better.

She plucked a few black-eyed Susans she passed as she wandered towards the trees, because there were so many and their yellow petals were so cheerful, but they were a common sort of flower and she didn’t want to fill the whole basket with them, and she continued to the edge of the woods, where the delicate spiked lobelias liked to grow. After a determined search, she found one at last, its tall stalk thick with little wrinkled blooms, but its tough stem proved too hardy for her fingernails, and all her pinching and twisting accomplished was to mangle the poor plant. She’d forgotten to bring a knife.

“I’ve ruined it anyway,” she mused, and she plucked the pale blue blossoms from the crushed stalk. She couldn’t use them on the table without the stem, but she thought a pile of blooms would look pretty on the baby’s grave.

Then Rachel found some daisies, some goldenrod, and happily even a little mistflower whose powder-puff blooms would supply the blue she’d lost by her failure with the spiked lobelia. Time passed, and before she knew it, she’d filled the basket to overflowing. She examined her work and frowned. She didn’t have enough. Even a slender bouquet for each of the graves would leave nothing for the house. She sat herself down cross-legged in a sunny spot and spread her bounty on the ground, pinching the leaves from the stems with her fingernails to make more room.

The task absorbed her until a patch of cold damp touched her thigh. “Oh!” she exclaimed in annoyance, springing to her feet and twisting around to look at the back of her dress. It was soaked through with gritty mud. “Thoughtless, careless, stupid!” Of course she’d known it had rained yesterday. But today was so sunny, she’d forgotten. Her better dress was dirty too, so now she’d have to wash them both and go around all evening in wet clothes. She brushed at the mud without much hope that it would help.

A shiver vibrated through her legs as the ground beneath her trembled with a low note of distant thunder. Rachel looked up in surprise. She hadn’t noticed any clouds earlier; and yet yesterday’s rain might not yet be spent. But the sky remained a serene robin’s-egg blue. Perhaps she’d imagined it. But no; there it was again, a rumble in the air and a faint vibration beneath her feet. Rachel snatched up her basket, stuffing a few quick handfuls of flowers back into place, and glanced back at the house, wondering whether she should run for it. Perhaps she could save herself a soaking; but it also occurred to her that getting caught in the rain would give her an excuse for the state of her clothes. She looked at the sky again, hesitating. Nothing but the sun.

And yet the thunder grew louder, until Rachel realized it was not a storm, but horses.

But they never had visitors here.

When she brought her eyes down from the heavens, she saw them at once, nine or ten riders racing at a full gallop. The horses were pretty brown-and-white piebald creatures with long legs that stretched out almost to their full reach, seizing the ground greedily with every step. The riders’ black hair streamed behind them like ribbons of silk, and at first Rachel thought in blank amazement that a crowd of women was descending upon them as if in answer to her prayer for a wife to come for her father. But such terrible women – riding their horses astride and bodies tensed with purpose. And then just as Rachel realized that the riders’ course would take them close by her, an icy terror stabbed her through the heart. Not women. Indians.

She threw herself down into the sweet grasses and curled into a ball, squeezing her eyes shut. She’d seen them plainly. It was impossible they hadn’t seen her. But she was too frightened to run. And she couldn’t run far enough anyway.

“Idiot,” she mouthed soundlessly. Of course she should have run. Even an Indian couldn’t gallop through the trees, and she was so close to the woods. But now it was too late. The pounding of the hooves shook her body and filled her ears. Her shoulders clenched against the blow that would come any moment now. An arrow through her ribs, or a tomahawk cracking her skull, or a hoof shattering her spine. The pain would be terrible, but that wasn’t the worst thing, the worst thing was that she knew she wouldn’t get to Heaven, she just wouldn’t, because she hadn’t tried her best, she’d been lazy and stupid all afternoon, and you were supposed to love God with all your heart, and Rachel was always angry about so many things, and now…

The galloping faded.

Rachel opened her eyes. She was still in the same place, with the tangled grass in front of her and the discarded leaves she’d pinched from the flowers. There was her basket, just where she’d dropped it. Rachel felt over her scalp and body for blood or arrows. She was whole and unharmed. Nothing had happened. The Indians had passed her by.

She pushed herself with weak and shaking arms to a seated position and watched the Indians ride for the house. She had not known her father to have any dealings with the Indians. They lived in a separate world. She did not know what they could want with her family now.

The answer came in a wild, high scream and the tinkling of glass as the Indians shattered the windows with their tomahawks and veered away, twisting around on their horses’ backs to pour a volley of arrows into the house.

Rachel felt a strange, blank void open inside her – something was happening that she could not understand. They had no quarrel with the Indians. They had no quarrel with anyone. And yet her home was being turned into a ruin.

Her heart was loud in her ears. She felt nothing at all, only a strange frozen inability to move or think or feel.

She watched.

One of the Indians swung his leg over the side of his horse and jumped to the ground. He walked to the front door with a confident, dominant stride.

Good, Rachel thought, surprising herself. Let them destroy the house. Let them destroy it and go away. I’m safe in the grass, and father and Christoph are safe in the field. Maybe the house is cursed. They can wreck it, and then they can go.

The Indian banged the door once, then seemed to think better of it, and pressed the handle. The door swung open. He turned back to the others a moment. Rachel imagined he was grinning. She felt a surge of rage.

The house contained nothing – nothing but father’s library that he did not love any more. Let them take it all and go away. Surely the Indians could see that the house was empty. Let them take what they pleased and just go away, go away, go away…

“Rachel! My Gott!”

Even at this distance, she could hear her father’s anguished cry, and the Prussian accent that he never quite lost.

“You filthy barbarians – sons of whores – get avay from her!”

Rachel leapt to her feet. In the distance, she could see the tiny brown-and-white shapes of her father and Christoph running back to the house.

They were trying to protect Rachel, but Rachel was safe, if only she’d told them where she was going that afternoon, if only she hadn’t ducked out of sight, if only –

Her father brandished the axe he’d been using in his work. Christoph had nothing but his hands. He tried to sprint ahead of father, but the older man shoved him back roughly.

“Murdering dogs! She is a child!”

The Indians turned.

The one who had dismounted jumped back onto his horse.

They rode to meet her father and brother.

“Father!” Rachel tried to scream. “Father, it’s me, I’m safe!” Her lungs held no air, her voice barely more than a gasp. She waved her hands frantically over her head. It didn’t matter any more if the Indians saw her, if only her father did too. But no one heard her, and no one saw.

The Indians closed in on the two men. Rachel tried to scream again, but all she could hear was the rush of her blood, pounding, beating against her skin.

The knot of men and horses tightened into a flurry of quick activity and then abruptly relaxed. She held her breath. There was no trouble now, no fighting – of course her father must have explained to them that he was not their enemy, that everything was fine, that – The Indians turned around and trotted back to the house. Rachel searched the field feverishly with her eyes for her father and brother, but she did not find them. A few Indians dismounted and entered the house.

“Father?” Rachel whispered. But she knew where he and Christoph were. She was not stupid. They were lying in the grass, as she had been, only they would not rise.

The world stopped. Rachel went blank. There was nothing in her mind. Nothing in her heart. She sank down in the grass again and did not feel it when it brushed against her skin.

She smelled smoke in the air, but she did not look up to see her home burn.

 

Time must have passed, because she saw dimly that the horses stood around her, sweating and whickering with excitement. Their shadows covered her, blocking out the sky, and their massive hooves cut into the earth as they shifted. Nine Indians stared down at her with unreadable expressions. Smoke and dirt streaked their skin. One of them shrugged and remarked something in their own language to one of the others, who shrugged in return.

The Indian swung himself down from the horse and walked to Rachel. He stood in front of her and waited a moment, as if expecting her to say something. Two fresh scalps hung from his tomahawk.

The world started again, a slow, creaking start choked with confusion and pain. She could speak now, if she chose. But she would not. He wanted her to, so she would not.

She waited for death.

“Girl, you alone now,” the Indian said at last in halting but understandable English. “You come with us.” He reached down to take her arm.

Rachel shoved him away and struck at his face, her fingers curled into claws. The Indian slapped her. It wasn’t a hard blow, but it startled her. Before she could regain her senses, he slapped her again, and then his arm was around her waist, and she was hauled up onto the horse. He mounted ahead of her. The smell of untanned leather and smoke was strong enough to make her gag.

The Indian grabbed her arms and pulled them around his waist. He clicked at his horse, and it wheeled around obediently.

“You hold onto me,” he said. “We ride fast. You fall off horse, you die.”