Feathers of His Wings

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HIS WORDS MAKE ME GASP as my stomach drops. Not able to conceal a grin, I throw my arms around his waist. "Where Papa? Where is he?"
He inhales sharply, placing a hand to my arm as if to prepare me for the news. "A Dragoon camp—less than a day's ride from here. It's all I know, but I've been told that Kel and Tomah have found details." He smiles brightly, nodding. "They arrived just before I did. They'll brief us so we can plan a rescue."
Hardly able to gather my thoughts, hearing him mention a rescue, my eagerness overtakes me and I quicken. "Please, Papa, let me come to the meeting.
He watches me for a moment, silent, then slides out of my grip and motions to the girls. "You should stay with our new guests, Maddie. You will learn of everything soon."
"I'll stay with Lydia," Miss Annie interjects. She shakes her head firmly. "We won't step outside the tent until you return. Maddie should be with you."
Papa watches her and folds his arms against his chest, fingering his coat's material. "Alright. Maddie, come with me."
I feel my eyes widen. Trying to contain my excitement, I come up behind him as he exits the tent. Smiling back gratefully to Miss Annie before stepping out, I soon emerge back into the chaos of camp. It takes every ounce of restraint within me to not ask questions just yet. Papa's strides are terribly long, making me strain to keep up with him. Thankfully the headquarters tent is not far, and men are already gathered under the large canvas waiting for Papa to begin the briefing.
Upon entering, Papa nods to Brenley.
Brenley's face brightens with a grin of relief. "Sir! We were just about to get the report from Kel. Thank the Lord you made it back from River Springs without encountering those Dragoons."
Papa starts without a moment to waste. "I've confirmed for myself that River Springs is in a grave state. But we have hope." He points a finger to the tent's ceiling and nods firmly. "I understand the Lord blessed us this day with information on where the Dragoons are camped and confirmation that Michael is okay." He turns to one of his most trusted soldiers."Kel, let's hear what you've got. I'm guessing the Lord used Tomah's gift for tracking to help get this information?" He looks to the Indian.
I had not even noticed that Tomah was in the headquarters tent. He's filthy from a full day and two entire nights of tracking and probably little to no sleep, but grinning from ear to ear due to the success of his efforts. I'd rarely ever seen an Indian up close until this adventure started a few days ago, and now I've seen him smile in a way that makes him seem like one of the family.
Kel steps up to the table, pointing at the map as he speaks. As the youngest soldier of the elite four that Papa has personally walked alongside, his eyes are still young and bright as he leans on the table with folded fists against his chin. "We started following Peterson two nights ago. Fields, Tomah, and myself. He had a few hours ahead of us and was smart enough to leave fake trails headed the wrong way in several places. But Tomah figured it out and we discovered the Dragoon camp by noon yesterday. We waited until nightfall to get a closer look." Kel raises thick eyebrows Papa's way, showing a smirk. "That patience paid off in a big way. Fields is still back there watching their movements with the understanding that he is to race here immediately to signal if the Dragoons break camp."
I can't stop from interrupting. "But what about Michael? Did you see him?"
Kel smiles, looking at me with gentle eyes. "Yes. Fields can sneak up on anyone or anything and he managed to get close enough to both hear their plans and confirm that Michael is still okay. But there was no way for us to get him out without more men to cause a distraction. We need at least three more men for an effective extraction."
Relief floods over our small group at the mention of Michael being alive and well. All seemed relieved except Papa, who is intent on getting every detail possible. "Plans? What plans did you hear them discuss?" Papa holds his hand in the air in question, eyeing Kel. "Tell me everything Fields learned."
    Kel hesitates only for a second, looking at the map then straight into Papa's eyes. He seems to pause as he considers the right words. "They want you, Sir. Something about orders to use whatever means necessary to capture you alive."
    Liam speaks up, seeming fully recovered with an intensity of purpose in his voice once again. "Yes, we heard as much from witnesses at River Springs." He turns to Kel, curious, and lifts a hand to the nape of his neck frustratingly. "Why? Were you able to discover anything about their reasons?"
Kel's look of bewilderment does not help, but his words reveal more than anyone in the room except Papa and me could know. "They kept talking about some general. Akers?" I fumble with my dress as he struggles. "No, Ashton, that was it. General Ashton."
At the sound of the revengeful name of the general, my Papa's eyes flash with contempt. I only know half of the story between the two men, but it goes all the way back to when my mother was alive, as her beauty was the main cause of their feud.
Quickly, Papa changes the subject, looking down for only a moment. "What about Peterson? Were you able to confirm how much information that spy able to give them?"
Kel does not miss a beat. "Thick as thieves, he's definitely one of them. But if Grover is in on it, then Peterson had no idea because he was laughing to the other Dragoons that Grover was foolish enough to send him out, which made the perfect escape."
Brenley shakes his head side to side. "Grover's definitely not a spy. I'm convinced he only sent Peterson because he knew the colonel wanted Liam to be the one watching over Miss Holt." I bite my lip. My eyes flicker over to Liam and I hope Papa doesn't notice. Liam stares hard at the dirt ground in thought, arms folded.
Papa has been deep in thought since the mention of General Ashton. Perhaps he's trying to figure out why the general would let their personal animosity consume such a valuable tool of the British as their Dragoons. The mention of Peterson being with the Dragoons snaps him back to the conversation as he glances up, brows raised. "That means they know the location of our camp, the number of our forces, even our routine. This regiment is in grave danger."
    Kel is nodding quickly, as if reading Papa's mind. "And that's exactly what they were arguing about in the Dragoon camp. Whether to attack our camp and take you by force or send a message to lure you in. They believe we are fairly matched and some did not want to risk a frontal assault."
    Brenley is suddenly excited. "Well now, it appears the tables have turned and we are the ones with the information and the advantage. I say we break camp immediately and attack their camp before they reach a decision!"
    "No!" Papa's voice seems to shake the tent's walls. He pauses, flexing his jaw. "Michael would never survive the attack. First, we initiate a stealth rescue . . . tonight." His eyes dart from side to side furiously, an image of rescue forming in his mind. His voice peaks with vigor. "That's the only chance to save Michael. It has to be a small group to avoid detection. Get in, get Michael, and get out without being seen. Once Michael is safe, then we can attack if circumstances are right. Kel, I trust your judgment." He turns to the solider. "You think six of our best is the perfect number?"   
    Kel nods confidently. "I do, Sir. We have an excellent lay of the land, we watched their movements for a full day and night, so we know when they change overwatch. We already mapped out their weaknesses."
    Liam moves beside Kel, pointing to them both, then Tomah and Woods. "Sir, you've trained us for exactly this type of mission. We know what to do. We'll get Michael back to you."
    "How far to the Dragoon camp?"
    Kel clears his throat. "Two hours by horseback, but I'd suggest the last three miles by foot to avoid detection." He looks back to Liam with raised brows. "They have spotters stationed two miles out from camp. That will add at least another two hours even at a steady pace."
    Papa nods in agreement. "Then we leave as soon as possible. Your squad of four plus me. We'll meet Fields there."
    Liam turns to his men while everyone turns to the map. "Tomah, you're going to take out two of those sentries one at at time, using your blade. That will clear our path and provide Kel and myself with Dragoon uniforms to get into camp. We'll be right behind you, so simply make your move and drop the Dragoons. We'll get the uniforms once you've taken out the second one, then you move close enough to the camp to keep an eye on the tent where they are holding Michael." Liam points to a clump of trees outside the two mile scout perimeter of the camp. "Go." He motions to Tomah with the raise of his hand. "Relay the plan to Fields and meet us here." Tomah leaves without saying a word or even nodding.
    I shudder at the thought of Liam waltzing right into that den of evil. But before I can think too much about it, he has moved to the next man on the team, and I'm captured by the way he takes command with respect and leadership. I'm captured by the way he moves when he talks. Confident, yet humble. "Woods, you're our best at distance. Find high ground and be prepared to take out anyone blocking our path out of camp once we have Michael."
    I notice a sly grin creeping up on Woods face, but it erases just as quickly with a serious nod. Kel points to a place on the map. "There, Woods. It's a perfect place for overwatch. You'll be able to see their entire camp and see us coming in from the southeast here." He sweeps across from the ridge chosen for Woods to the place where he and Liam will enter the camp dressed as Dragoons. Kel turns to Liam. "Lieutenant, they change posts at three a.m. That's when we have to make our move. Fields will be able to direct us to Michael's tent."
    Papa has watched them make their plans and listens intently, trying to defer to his men for the plan. "I should be with you to get Michael so that he knows it's us, knows we're friendly. He will not recognize either of you."
    Kel thinks intently for a long moment. "I don't think so, Sir. You'd be recognized as an officer, definitely not a sentry since you are so much, um, well—"
    "Older?" Papa let's a smile loose.
    Kel releases a sigh, fumbling as Liam rescues him. "Colonel, you're the one they want." His brow tightens. "We should not have you marching into the middle of their camp when we will be so outnumbered. You said it best earlier. In and out, without being discovered. That's our best chance. And I really like the idea of knowing you are out there with Woods and watching the whole thing, able to send him wherever is needed during the mission."
    Papa looks at Liam, doubtful. "I appreciate the thought, I'll keep my distance unless it's absolutely necessary to intervene—"
    "Wait, wait, I know how you can let Michael know you're with us." My mouth gets ahead of my head as I interrupt the exchange, causing Papa to look at me with disapproving eyes. I fumble with my dress and reach for the treasure in my pocket that I've carried with me every minute of the last three days to remind me to pray for Michael constantly. "He'll recognize this." I hold up the wooden soldier, Uncle Henry's fine work. "He saw it the day of the attack when I tried to give it to him, but Sarah . . ." I shake my head, tensing. "Never mind that, the point is he'll know it's from me." I shove the piece towards Liam. "Take it, take it. I promise it will work."
    He reaches for it, letting it fall in his hands. "I'll take good care of it. And of Michael." Liam's rich eyes send a ripple of warmth through me. "I'll place this in his hands myself, Maddie. I'll tell him you've sent us." He places the wooden soldier in his bag.
    All of the men turn to the maps on the table to run through the plan once more before moving out. Meanwhile, I try to figure out where I fit into all these plans. Once they seem to be close to wrapping up, I gently try to get his attention.
    "Papa?"
    No response.
    "Papa?" I say louder, squeezing between him and Liam. "What can I do? I should be there when Michael is rescued."
    "You will be, Maddie. You'll be at our home in River Springs waiting for us. We'll be there by sunrise. I'm sending William and Simpson with you. I need you to check on the people back home, see what you can do to help Dr. Rush. He needs you more than we do right now."
     Help the Doctor? He wants me to wash rags and stitch wounds instead of helping with the rescue?
    "But Papa—"
    "No, Maddie. There is no time, and that Dragoon camp is no place for you. Please just do as I say. Michael's life could depend up on it."
    My protest is useless. His mind is made and he's probably right. My sneaking out from Sarah is hardly proper training for the stealth needed on this mission.
    "Yes, Papa."
    "Good." His eyes say more than his words, as if he understands my yearning. He nods, as if to say there will be another day, a different time for me to do my part.
    Papa turns to Brenley. "Start organizing a break of camp and move the entire regiment just outside River Springs. It will take you a full day's march to get there. It is nearing noon. Leave within the hour and march through the night. If the Dragoons change their mind and move for a surprise attack tonight, you'll already be gone in the opposite direction. Hopefully they stay put and we can extract Michael by morning's light, then meet you in River Springs." Papa looks across the eager faces of the men, each of them ready for action. "Any questions?"
    "Sir, if I may." Liam seems to not want to question a decision of the colonel.
    "Speak, lieutenant, but make it quick."
    "Are you sure River Springs is a safe place for your family?" Realization dawns on Papa's face even as Liam is finishing his thoughts. "Once we rescue Michael, why would the Dragoons not just head straight to River Springs and attack again? We are evenly matched, but all of those citizens and especially your family will be caught right in the middle if there is a battle."
    Brenley nods, rejoining the conversation. "Safe Haven, John, we need a safe haven for your family and the people of River Springs. Remember that valley southeast of Green Mountain, where we camped after Fort Dobbs was attacked by the Cherokee?"
    Papa's face lights up with recognition as Brenley's suggestion weaves perfectly into his plan. "Yes, it's ideal for food and water, as well as security with the ridges on all sides where we can place spotters! We'll evacuate River Springs, take the regiment there until I can report to Continental Headquarters and determine the next course of action." Papa grins, pleased. "Excellent idea Brenley, I'm counting on you to lead the regiment there immediately and set up the new camp, securing the area. As discussed, still have William and Simpson take Maddie directly to River Springs. She can tell the people of our plan and by the time we get there at sunrise, they should be ready to move out for the new location." His settled mind casts his confident gaze from Brenley to Liam and then settles on me, full of hope.
    Brenley and his men are quickly in motion and out of the tent.
    Liam turns to Kel and Woods. "Get the horses ready, enough food and water for twenty-four hours. Pass the orders to William and Simpson. They are to take Maddie to River Springs tonight and we'll meet them there in the morning." They nod and immediately are on the move.    
    Papa stops them, calling after. "Kel, also have William and Simpson break down your tents and mine, bringing only the light essentials to meet us in River Springs tomorrow. We'll have at least one night of camp between there and the safe haven. Send the rest of my things with the regiment."
    Liam is turning to leave but quickly stops, turning back to me and placing a hand on my shoulder. "I'm bringing Michael back to you, Maddie. I'm going to make this right." Before I can respond, I barely catch the flash of his green eyes and he's out of the tent, leaving Papa and myself in the tent alone.
    Papa, looking even more serious than before, looks at the entrance of the tent to make sure everyone is gone. He turns his full attention on me. "Maddie, I don't know what will happen tonight. I don't know why after all these years Ashton would still want revenge. But if we fail to rescue Michael tonight, if they capture me . . ."
    I squeeze my eyes shut. "No, Papa, I can't even imagine—"
    "Hush now. I do not believe that will happen. Liam and his men were chosen for this regiment because of their skill and I've trained them personally. I believe we'll get Michael and be in River Springs by morning." Papa looks behind my shoulder, lowering his voice as his eyes pierce mine. "But there is always a risk and you must know what to do next if I don't arrive."
    I stumble a bit, trying not to acknowledge the possibility while also trying to show him I can handle this. "I—I understand. I do. And I can obey orders." Firmly, my gaze snaps back to his.
    "You have to get back to the regiment and arrive at the new safe haven."
    I tighten my brow, conflicted. "But how would I find them? Does William or Simpson know the location?"
    "You know it." Papa takes my shoulders. "Remember the Turtle Rock? The one so high it took us all day to climb?"
    I feel a smile, nodding. "Of course, Papa."
    "Get there. Once on top, you'll be able to see the regiment's new location and find your way to them."
    "But there won't be a need," I read his eyes, breathing fast, "because you'll get Michael tonight and you'll be in River Springs by sunrise to lead the evacuation, right?" I don't like what I see behind his eyes. It's not the certainty I was hoping for, but there's at least some sense of hope that Michael will soon be free.
    He lifts his gaze up. "I will pray throughout this night as we travel that the Lord prepares our path and guides our steps." I see and taste the peace that comes over him and fills the tent.
    Leaning into his side, I whisper only for him. "I don't want to leave, Papa. I can't leave you." I look up to see compassionate eyes. I know he understands, but I also know he'll do everything in his power to protect me.
His hand strokes my hair. "Little one, do not fret. Have you forgotten so easily that the angels are on your side?"
I look down, ashamed.
How could I have forgotten so easily? I barely look up, almost hoping to see a flicker of doubt in his eyes as well, to know I'm at least not the only one. But steadfast hope lies there instead.
How? How are they so strong, while I'm so weak?
Papa, obviously eager for justice, says nothing more, simply kissing my forehead and then turning to walk away swiftly. Watching him disappear, I suddenly realize that it's the first time I am eager to see him go. Excited that he's on his way to rescue Michael.
And I'm somehow at peace, knowing that even on a mission as dangerous as such, his steps are secured by the Almighty, covered by the feathers of His wings.

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