The Heroine

The magnificent horse flew down Virginia’s Midland Trail. It was broad daylight, not moonless night, and no Indians pursued. Yet the rider pushed the horse, loving speed for its own sake and wanting to make good time. But the stallion needed water and a short rest. The rider was weary, too, and knew of a cabin just over the next ridge where the homesteader made unusually good whiskey. They’d stop there before pushing on toward Lewisburg.

 

Six year old Nan peered around the door frame. The wizened stranger looked like any backcountry woodsman: filthy leggings, ragged hunting shirt, well-oiled rifle at hand. Only this woodsman—woodswoman, for she appeared to have bosoms–was tying the finest stallion Nan had ever seen to the Pritchard porch.

Mam looked up from her sewing. “Who’s here?”

“Don’t rightly know,” Nan said, twisting her apron. “Got a nice horse.”

“Well, go see. You got to be my feet when I’m this far along.”

Nan didn’t like being Mam’s feet. She’d much rather hide when strangers came. But as being eight months forward did nothing to improve Mam’s temper, Nan forced herself through the door and onto the porch.

“Well Come! I’m Anne Pritchard,” she said, dropping what she thought was a curtsy. “They call me Nan.”

“My name’s Anne, too. Been here before, but you were just a wee thing. Know your pa from the militia. Served with him at Point Pleasant.”

Mam made it to the porch right fast when she heard the stranger’s voice, with its hint of an accent Nan couldn’t place. “Mistress Bailey, ‘hit’s such a privilege to see you!” Mam said, beckoning the visitor inside. “Please sup with us. We got a hearty stew on–my oldest shot a ten-point buck not two days ago.”

“Why thank’ee, missus, but I’ll sup in Lewisburg. Not as young as I used to be, but I’m still fast. At least my horse is.” She cackled at the joke, revealing missing teeth and blackened gums. “But I wouldn’t mind a taste of whiskey, if you have any about.”

“Course we got whiskey! You know my Reuben makes the best in the county.” She turned to Nan. “See to Sallie while I serve Mistress Bailey.”

Sallie–the littlest of the Pritchards, leastwise till the baby came–had woke up fussy. Nan scooped the child from the bed, never once taking her eyes off the famous Anne Bailey, who downed the proffered whiskey with noisy gulps.

“Got any letters I can deliver in exchange?” she asked as she wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “Don’t like to be beholden.”

“Got a letter for my Pa in Frankford. You get it to Lewisburg, somebody there will send it on.” Mam walked over to the mantle where the letter was waiting for the next person headed east. “What brings you to these parts? I hear you ride mostly ‘tween Charlestown and Point Pleasant.”

“Got a commission. Captain Clendenin wants twenty tame geese. Should be a slow trip back, and a noisy one.” Cackling again, she stood up. “Thank’ee, missus, for the drink. Give my regards to Reuben.”

They exchanged tankard for letter and Mam walked the heroine to the dooryard, where the beautiful beast had drunk his fill at the water trough. Nan followed them as far as the porch. She watched Mistress Bailey check the horse’s hooves for pebbles, then speak softly in his ear while feeding him an apple. Before mounting and riding off, she turned and grinned at Nan, then tipped her hat. The child smiled in return and waved.

Nan’s brothers were sore disappointed about missing the visitor. Jake even kicked over one of their two chairs, getting himself backhanded by Mam. For all her talk about moving slow, she could be pretty quick when she wanted to.

“Oh, Mam!” he said. “Why didn’t you make her stay?”

“I did invite her, son. Couldn’t hardly tie her to the table, could I?”

“But I always did want to meet her!” he wailed.

“Well, mebbe you can get the chance when she comes back through. She’ll be driving a gaggle of geese and might be plenty happy to stop for the night.”

Still, the bullheaded boy wouldn’t let it go until Pap threatened to beat him. Jake made himself scarce after that.

But later that night, after the dishes were done and the stock was fed, Pap allowed that telling Anne Bailey’s story would be a fitting end to the day. So they gathered around, Pap taking his time getting started, filling his pipe with fresh tobacco, and taking several long draws.

“I cain’t say ‘once a upon a time’ ’cause it happened just a few years ago,” he said. “And I cain’t say ‘far, far away’, ’cause it happened right here. I could say our story begins when Indians attacked Fort Lee, but I reckon it started long afore that, when Anne was a young girl and came over from England, from a place called Liverpool. She married a ranger and settled down in the Valley of Virginia. I met her man during Cornstalk’s War.”

The children booed at Cornstalk’s name.

“General Lewis–he weren’t no general then, just a colonel–he called up the militia and we marched all the way to Point Pleasant to force them red devils back to their side of the Ohio River. ‘Twas a fierce fight, I’ll tell you that. Could have gone either way. The Indians fought hard, but we fought harder and won.” Everybody cheered, even Mam. But Pap paused, posing dramatically with one hand over his brow. “But t’weren’t no victory for Anne. Her husband was kilt. Ever since that day, Anne has hated redskins with a passion.”

Without success, Nan tried to picture the toughened old woman she met earlier as a young bride. She rolled over on her side and accidentally bumped Jake, who kicked her in the shin. Pap gave him a look and he settled down.

“Anne burned to avenge her man’s death. So she became a messenger for the rangers, riding ‘tween all the backcountry forts, gaining a reputation for being brave, reliable, and fast. After a time she married Richard Bailey, another ranger, and followed him to Fort Lee on the Great Kanawha River. There, in 1791, just six years ago, Indians attacked!”

They booed again. Pap paused, taking a long draw on his pipe while the children begged him continue.

“Anne was inside the besieged fort alongside her man. Though they fought bravely, everyone in Fort Lee knew they couldn’t hold them redskins off for too long–their gun powder was running low.

“The captain asked for a brave man to break the siege and ride to Fort Savannah for powder and re-enforcements.” Pap looked each child in the eye, holding Jake’s the longest. “You could have heard a pin drop in that room. Not a word was spoke. Not a man raised his hand. Nobody wanted to risk being caught by the devils surrounding that fort. Then they heard a voice that put them all to shame. Anne’s voice. ‘I’ll go’, she said. ‘Give me your fastest horse and I’ll leave in the dead of night.”

Pap’s voice went quiet and they all strained forward to hear him. “Anne left as soon as it was full dark. Her luck held, and she got through the siege. Once away, she rode hard and fast to Fort Savannah. Didn’t stop, didn’t even slow down. Over a hundred miles she rode, down the Midland Trail. In fact, she galloped right by this here cabin and we didn’t even know it!

“Fort Savannah promised to send a troop and plenty of gun powder, but Anne wouldn’t wait. She wanted to get back afore full dark and sneak in the same way she snuck out. Captain there didn’t think too much of Anne’s chances, but gave her the powder anyways, and the fastest horse in the stable. Soon Anne was on the trail again, headed back to Fort Lee. But–” Pap paused as if he could not go on and began ringing his hands. This time the boos were directed at him. “But just as Anne was nearing the fort, them Indians caught sight of her. She made a run for it, dashing through the gates as every last one of them shot at her. And d’you know what? Not a single bullet hit our Anne Bailey. Not one. Nor her horse, neither.” The boos turned to cheers. “The Indians decided she must be a charmed being and refused to fire on her ever again. Now that’s God’s honest truth.

“With the new gunpowder Fort Lee was able to mount a sortie and break the siege. When re-enforcements got there a day later the Indians were gone. The Kanawha River settlers owed their scalps to Anne Bailey and they knew it. How could they repay her? They had no coin at hand, nor land that was theirs to give. So Fort Lee and the settlers gave Anne the beautiful horse she had ridden back from Fort Savannah, a black stallion with a white blaze on his chest. She named him Liverpool, after the place of her birth.

“In time Anne and Richard settled on the Elk River. Richard seems content enough, but Anne gets restless and finds reasons to take Liverpool on the trail. She carries letters and messages or buys things on commission. On occasion she gets down this away, and stops at the home of Reuben Pritchard, Homesteader and Distiller.” He tipped an invisible hat, then bowed formally, as the family clapped and cheered. “Anne Bailey knows well where she can get the best whiskey along the Midland Trail.”

“Pap, don’t forget the best part!” Nan shouted. Of all his stories, this was her favorite.

“The best part, Nan? How can you better a story where a lone woman saves a whole fort full of folks from certain death?”

“Reuben, don’t toy with her so.” Mam sounded cross, but Pap just grinned.

“The best part of the story, at least for the Pritchards, is that Mam was carrying a little girl when the great Anne Bailey made her ride. Our girl was born not five weeks later and we named her Anne Bailey Pritchard. We call her Nan.”

Nan preened. Jake elbowed her, hard, but Mam saw and he got backhanded again. Then she sent all three boys up the loft ladder to bed.

“Help me get Sallie down, Nan. It’s late.”

Nan was not in the least sleepy and chattered as she changed the toddler’s nappies. “I’m going to be just like Anne Bailey when I grow up,” she said. “Well, not just like. I ‘spect I’ll be a sight cleaner. I’m going to be a heroine, and save settlers from Indians. And be famous.”

“Child, I do hope there ain’t any redskins left in these parts by the time you’re growed up.”

“Well, then I’ll save folks from robbers and other heathens.”

“Mebbe you can do that. For now you’re a big help to me with this baby coming.” Mam grabbed Nan’s braid and tickled her nose with it. “Now to bed with you.”

Touched by the unaccustomed affection, Nan dragged her sister to their trundle bed. Sallie soon drifted off, but sleep would not come for Nan. It was true Mam depended on her, but there was nothing heroic about minding Sallie or doing housework. And Indians hadn’t threatened this far east in years. But it could happen again. Then Nan would run and give warning to their neighbors, or carry gunpowder in her apron, or maybe even kill an Indian herself. Then Anne Bailey Pritchard would be somebody special, not just the fourth child of a homesteader better known for his whiskey than his farming. When sleep finally came, Nan dreamed of fame and glory.

 

The famous rider was sleeping on a feather tick in Lewisburg, courtesy of a toadying tavern keeper. Anne’s room was meant for travelers with money, real grandees, not for the likes of her. She should have known better than to stick her nose inside the tavern. But she had wanted a hot dinner and dram or two of whiskey, and once the owner saw her he wouldn’t hear of anything but of Anne staying in his best room. At least he didn’t put her in his own bed.

Still, Anne wouldn’t take back her famous ride. She did what had to be done. Fort Lee needed every fighting man during that siege. Her one talent, her incredible riding ability, was useless while forted up. Going for gunpowder and re-enforcements was the only way she could help. Richard understood that. Everybody at Fort Lee did, too. If she had died, she’d have been just another casualty of the Indian wars. Had she made it back inside without being seen, she’d have been celebrated for a time. It was getting fired on and not getting hit that had made her famous. Overnight she went from being mannish Mad Anne Bailey to a frontier heroine. Even the infernal Indians made her some kind of saint.

So there she was having babies named after her and getting free lodging. It wasn’t so bad up near home where people were used to her. But farther away Anne was petted and fawned over. It was enough to keep her on the homestead, except she was no farmer. Richard might be happy growing corn and potatoes, but Anne needed the sun on her face, the wind in her hair, and Liverpool’s lean muscles under her. So she traveled on occasion. Still, she doubted she’d be coming back so far east anytime soon.

Anne rolled over, leaving a smudge of dirt on the fine linen sheet. She rubbed at it with a greasy finger, only making it worse. Maybe the next time they’d let her sleep in the stable loft like she had wanted. With a soft cackle, Anne Bailey blew out the candle and settled down to sleep. She didn’t dream of her husband or Indians or famous rides. She dreamed of Liverpool, England and the life she left behind so many years earlier, years when being a heroine was the last thing that ever crossed her mind.

2 Comments on "The Heroine"


  1. I really enjoyed The Heroin, both the story and the glimpse of our past in the tale within the tale. If only all history lessons were this pleasant.

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