“Didn’t women hold the histories of all of us?”
Smith captures the ebb and flow of the Antebellum South in 1788 as three strangers join together in the
Southern woods of what will become Alabama, a territory caught between Europe and the Native Nations, boundaries not yet defined. After the violent ambush that leaves a party of men dead, the strangers are followed by a French tracker--“a gentleman adventurer” seeking justice for the atrocity committed.
In an odd twist of fate, the three men, now sought for murder, come together for safety on the road, each seeking freedom, each on his own journey: Bob, an escaped slave from a Pensacola plantation; Istillich of the Creek Indian tribe, who has witnessed his family’s destruction, his fortune stolen; and Cat, a white man whose “father is his mother”, a woman’s touch a foreign thing in his sparse life. The three are bound in mutual purpose, their unity made more critical after the ambush of a group of travelers laden with silver, an action inspiring outrage and the certainty of a posse to capture the miscreants.
Separately, each man makes a decision to leave his home, in the slave’s case, the gradual rooting of an idea, a growing discontent: “For the first time, my boyish grief took on the color of rage.” Trusted by his master to trade with a group of Indians, Bob treads the path between plantation and Indian camp, accepting the contours of a life without choices until finally he sets out with no intention of returning. A talkative fellow, it is Bob who first encounters the white man, Cat, when he wakes to find Cat holding a knife to his throat.
The most tragic figure of the three, Cat has been raised by a brutal father to know only want, too little food, no affection, and the casual consistency of violence. His definition of the world and his own self-worth is built of fragments, a loose confederation of assumptions that appear reliable only with the discovery of a young woman whose open-heartedness heals his jagged wounds, if not completely assuring his trust in the beneficence of life. A tragic end to that magical, healing time sets Cat upon the road where he encounters Bob.
The Indian, Istillicha, later joins the others. On his own private trek from betrayal to revenge, the Indian has left his village, vowing to return one day to restore his family’s honor. Quietly he slips into the strange fraternity of the talkative Bob and the silent, furtive Cat, his patience and ability to provide fresh game lending balance to the group. It is the Indian and the slave who scent opportunity should they steal the passing travelers’ silver, the weight of murder less burdensome with the promise of what it will purchase in freedom.
The power of the law (retribution) lies with the French tracker Le Clerc, who plans to arrest the perpetrators of the roadside massacre. Le Clerc has forsaken home and family to study the men who inhabit this wilderness in the Antebellum South: “Give me your actions for a day and I can find the thought to match them.” The narrative forms in his mind as he follows the trio, longing to know the motivations of his quarry and why these strangers have bonded together. The tracker, a civilized observer, imagines fame and fortune from his adventures in the wilderness, his mission to capture the spirit of the country still in flux. Though he watches his quarry, eavesdrops on their conversations, he can never understand what has brought them together or the humanity that links them in mutual purpose.
This disparate call to freedom is braided together by men leaving the known for the unknown.
Their stories are made richer by the women in their lives, both lost and abandoned, each undeniably changed by their relationships, softened and embittered--even Le Clerc, though less significantly. Smith steps comfortably into the past, recreating the ambiance of opportunity, uncertainty and hopes as each man’s direction becomes clear, joined by the loose knot of friendship in time of need.