A Conversation Between the Characters of Mountain Laurel by Lori Benton

1793 Pennsylvania

Once upon a muggy summer twilight I came upon a solitary traveler, camped along the road. With darkness falling, fireflies lighting the verge, and nary a public house in sight, he kindly welcomed me at his fire, introducing himself as Mr. Cameron, lately come from Boston. While our horses grazed at the firelight’s edge, we fell to talking of ourselves—or I did. Realizing I’d been doing the lion’s share, after a pause of flame-crackling silence, I began to question him. 

“Might I have your given name?” I asked, having provided him mine. 

“It’s Ian,” he said. “Ian Robert Cameron. I’m called after my da—that’s the Robert. Ian is after one of his half-brothers who fell in battle at Culloden—the Jacobite Rising in ’45. Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that.”

“That was in Scotland, right? But you said it’s Boston you call home?” Ian Cameron had taken off his cocked hat, baring tailed hair, dark blond in the firelight that cast his features in shadow. Still I caught the wry glint in his blue eyes.

“Where I call home? Ye’d think that easy enough to answer, but I’ve lived so many places—beginning with Scotland, though I was barely more than a bairn when Da sent for us—Mam, my brother, and me—to join him in Boston, where he’d set up as a bookbinder. It was Boston through the war and beyond. But until this spring I spent the past five years in Upper Canada with my mam’s younger brother, a fur trader. Now…”

“Now?” I urged when he hesitated.

“I’m headed to North Carolina, to another uncle. His farm’s called Mountain Laurel. I’m reckoning to take up a planter’s life.”

“A planter? Had you some experience farming tucked in there somewhere?” 

At that Ian Cameron laughed, a little ruefully. “Not a bit of it. I failed to mention I also lived in Cambridge—near enough to Boston—from the time I was apprenticed to the age of eighteen, when I hied off to Canada. I learnt the cabinetmaking trade.” 

He nodded at a heap of baggage piled nearby. The tools of said trade, I presumed. “Why Canada? Why didn’t you set up for a cabinetmaker after your apprenticeship ended?”

Ian Cameron shifted where he sat. “Aye. Well… my apprenticeship didn’t exactly end. I mean, it did, but… it was complicated.” 

“Complicated?” I suspected a story there, but he merely shook his head when I pressed. I let it be. Perhaps this uncle in North Carolina would get that story from him. “Does this uncle you’re headed to have a family?”

“He does. A wife and two stepdaughters.”

“No son?

Ian Cameron reached for a stick and stabbed at the fire’s edge. “Not anymore. He hopes to make of me a fitting heir.”

“You sound doubtful of the prospect. Is there some catch?” 

His eyes flicked to me, alert and wary. “If ye must know, he doesn’t farm alone. He owns slaves—they do the work, along with an overseer.”

“And you don’t hold with slavery?” I asked. 

He wasn’t comfortable with the question. “I suppose I haven’t thought much about it. I never had to—until lately. My parents are against slavery.” 

That surprised me. “Did they approve this North Carolina venture?”

“Aye. That says something, doesn’t it?” When I merely stared, he added archly, “It speaks to the level of my Da’s disappointment—in me. Not that I can fairly blame him, after all my false starts at settling to a useful life. Thomas would say…”

“Thomas? Who’s that? Your brother?”

“In a manner of speaking—” 

Out in the darkness a stick cracked. One of the horses whickered. The way he gazed around, it seemed Ian Cameron suspected something—or someone—was out there beyond the fire’s light, creeping about. 

“Thomas is a friend,” he said. “I left him behind.” 

Still his glance strayed toward the dark. “Are you worried about something? You seem a little jumpy.”

“I am worried,” he said. “About a good many things. Whether my uncle or his wife or anyone at Mountain Laurel will approve the man they’re getting. Whether I’m suited for the life or doomed to find it fits me like an ill-made coat.”

Not wanting to ruffle his feathers further, I transferred my attention to a garment folded beside his bedroll. “Speaking of coats… might I have a look at that one?”

“That? I suppose.” He handed it to me, careful of the flames between us. While I spread it across my knees he asked, “Have ye never seen quillwork? That’s what that is, the red, white, and black designs. Made by an old Chippewa woman. It’s generally known as a half-breed coat.” 

The coat—cut little different from those one might see on the streets of Philadelphia—was made of tanned hide and heavily fringed, besides the colorful quillwork adorning it. I looked at him, tanned himself, with more experience than his years should account for staring from his eyes. “I suppose you’ve had your share of adventures, on the Canadian frontier?” 

“Aye,” he agreed. “I’ve hunted elk and bison to help feed a village. I’ve tracked a panther—and been tracked by one in turn. I’ve watched wolves take down a bull moose and—with my uncle’s help—driven them off it long enough to take a portion of the kill. I’ve feasted on bear, fished for sturgeon, and harvested rice from an elm bark canoe at the edge of a lake so vast ye cannot see its other side—though I paddled my way to it more than once. I can use a bow and arrows, tan a hide, and boil maple sap for sugar. I’ve learned to make my way by stars and to count the months by other names than June, July, and August. I’ve four times run a trapline in the depths of a winter more brutal than ye can imagine and survived an attack by an Indian warrior that nearly cost my life. And while I cannot shake the notion that none of that has prepared me for what I’m walking into at Mountain Laurel,” he finished with a prodigious yawn, “I think I’m done with talking and ready for sleep. If ye don’t mind.”

I didn’t, and told him so. In short order he’d checked his horses, his rifle, and lay down on his bed roll with his back to the fire, and me. 

I followed suit, thinking that whatever challenges awaited him in North Carolina, I suspected he’d find the wherewithal to meet them. Even so, as I lay beside his fire that night, I said a prayer for the soul of Ian Cameron, who was gone from camp by the time I stirred next morning, having slipped away as silently as the panther he claimed to have tracked. 

Lori Benton was raised in Maryland, with generations-deep roots in southern Virginia and the Appalachian frontier. Her historical novels transport readers to the eighteenth century, where she expertly brings to life the colonial and early federal periods of American history. Her books have received the Christy Award and the Inspy Award and have been honored as finalists for the ECPA Book of the Year. Lori is most at home surrounded by mountains, currently those of the Pacific Northwest, where, when she isn’t writing, she’s likely to be found in wild places behind a camera. Her latest novel, Mountain Laurel, releases in September. 

Lori’s Website | Instagram | Facebook

Original photography by author Lori Benton

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