In The Lion's Mouth
Canonchet noticed her interest. To Roger he said, “The woman studies my weapons like a warrior.”
“She means no harm.”
“I don’t care for it.”
“Shall I tell her of your concern?”
He gave him one abrupt nod.
Roger turned to Grace. “You’re eying the sachem’s bow. He wonders why you do so. Such weapons should not concern women.”
“Not a woman’s concern? Is that so?” Fire came into her face coloring her cheeks, and she went to rise from the blanket. Only Owen’s hand on her arm and his “easy, Grace” kept her from leaping up.
Absalom shot a glance at his uncle. He sat unmoving. Not a single muscle rippled. But the woman’s spurt of anger had not gone unnoticed, of that he was certain.
He heard her speak softly to Roger in that musical way she had. “Tell the chieftain I’m saddened to have left my bow and arrows in my old country. My father made my bow of yew wood. ‘Twas a gift I treasured.”
Canonchet heard, also. And understood. Absalom saw a question come into his eyes as she spoke. So his uncle did know more of the white men’s speech than he let on. Pretending he hadn’t noticed, he translated for him as usual and waited for his response.
“Some of our women use small bows to kill birds and rabbits. The bow she stares at is a man’s bow. It is beyond a woman’s strength.”
Absalom repeated his words in English.
“Could I try it and see?” Grace asked.
Again, Owen laid a restraining hand on her arm. “This woman is a brave hunter. She has slain deer in our mother country risking death to do so.”
Canonchet’s eyes flared wide. Surprise catching him unaware, he didn’t hide his understanding. “Ask them how she risked death in slaying a deer. They are not marauding beasts.”
Absalom asked, and Owen answered, “‘Twas against the law to hunt for food. If she had been caught, she would have been killed.”
His dignity forgotten, the sachem looked across at Grace, his jaw agape. “This cannot be. The fruit of the earth is given to all men. Without it, life is not possible.”
“That is why they have come to us,” Roger said in his halting Algonquin. “To make a life.”
Lowering his voice, Canonchet spoke only to Absalom. “Could there be truth in this tale? She is but a female, not overly robust. I have known no woman who could bring down a deer with the large bow.”
“Roger never lies.”
“Roger didn’t tell us of her exploits. Her man did.”
Absalom glanced over at the visitors. Roger looked uncomfortable. The hard ground caused pain to his bones. Her man’s expression, to his credit, was neither anxious nor impatient, even though his future fate lay in a successful trade. The woman smiled across at them, her eyes meeting the sachem’s directly without the fear most white women showed in his presence. Perhaps she did not know her glance should not meet his so boldly but be cast down in modesty before him.
Absalom’s lips twitched. It would not do to smile back. To quell the urge, he averted his gaze, concentrating for a moment on a branch where a squirrel played, before turning aside to his uncle. “There is one way to prove the tale.”
“Allow her to try your bow.”
“What!” Canonchet reared back on the blanket. “This has never been done.”
“So?” Absalom shrugged. “If they have lied, refuse them the land.” It was a chance, but one worth taking. If she performed well, she would overcome any misgivings, and he could tell from her shining eyes that what Owen claimed was true.
“Ah.” Canonchet looked at him with more favor than he had of late. Without further deliberation, he stood and lifting the bow from its resting place, he held it out to Grace.
She scrambled to her feet and grasped it in both hands. She ran her fingers over the smooth beech wood, caressing every inch before holding it flat in her palms to test it for balance. Finally, she held it upright and plucked hard at the rawhide string. “The stave flexes nicely with good resistance. It has a long cast, I warrant.” She stroked the bow once more before handing it back to Canonchet. “Thank you kindly. ‘Tis a beautiful instrument.”
He took it and turning to the quiver of arrows removed two. He gave one to Grace, waiting while she examined it, her face flushing with pleasure. “‘Tis light to the touch and bends, but not too much, I see.” She spoke in her own tongue as if the sachem could understand every word she spoke. And he could, Absalom thought wryly. “The flint arrowhead is not too heavy,” she went on, “tailor made for the bow. They’re the finest match I’ve ever seen.”
“Take the bow, Absalom,” the sachem ordered. “Choose a target and strike.”
“As you say, uncle.” He walked over to Grace. “I’ve been ordered to choose a target. First I’ll shoot and then you will. Understood?”
She nodded and handed him the weapons. “Aye. We’ll have a competition. My father and I often competed for sport. But I think today ‘twill be more than a game.”
“Yes,” he said, pleased that she understood.
An oak tree at the edge of the clearing bore a scar in its trunk where a storm had loped off a limb. He would aim for its heart, a pale indentation in the wood.
He took his position, held up the bow and, aiming with care, let fly. The arrow struck the scar dead center and held, quivering for an instant, in the trunk.
“Perfect,” Grace said, her eyes aglow.
“Give the bow to the woman,” Canonchet said. “Tell her to aim for the same target.”
He translated and held out the bow. She took it, her expression grave, and sent a quick glance to her man. A look passed between them. So they both knew the stakes were high.
She stepped up cheerfully, placing her feet into the exact spot Absalom’s moccasins had vacated and raised her weapon. The bow was large for her, a handicap for certain, he noted with misgiving. She would be better served by one curved closer to her height. But plainly, she wasn’t expecting the rules to be altered in her favor.
If the bow’s size worried her, she didn’t reveal it, but took a marksman’s stance, one leg slightly forward, one back, and positioned the arrow. Her arms, though slim, were strong, and stretching the rawhide to its limit, she held it taut and straining. Then fast, without hesitation, she released the bow. The arrow flew to its rest coming close enough to his to shear feathers off both shafts. Together, side by side, the two missiles created a new hollow in the old scar.
As she lowered the bow, Roger and Owen clapped, the white man’s way of showing praise. Ignoring their noise, Canonchet remained motionless, nothing about his posture revealing his thoughts, except, perhaps, his eyes as they focused on the arrows in the tree. After a lengthy silence, he said, “Tell the woman she shoots like a man.”
Absalom translated the sachem’s words. “High praise, indeed,” she replied with a twinkle in her eyes.