The Beast by Marla F. Fair
“Israel Boone, whatever do you think you are doing?” Jemima planted her fists on her hips in unconscious imitation of her mother and glared at her little brother. She had found the ax he was supposed to be chopping kindling with leaning beside the stump in the back yard, and had followed his trail into the trees. Israel was standing, with one of their father’s extra rifles balanced precariously on his shoulder, aiming at one of their mother’s crock pots which was listing to the right on a knee-high boulder. “Israel!”
“Hush, Mima!” her brother said as he squinted and took aim. “Can’t ya see I’m concentratin’?”
“On what? Ma’s gonna skin you alive if you put a ball through one of her crocks. Did you think about that?”
Israel held his breath and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell but nothing happened. “It ain’t loaded, silly. I’m just practicin’ my aim.”
“Whatever for?” She crossed the short space and rescued the crock, locking it securely beneath her arm.
“That there beast they was talkin’ about the other night,” he answered with a scowl. “Now what am I gonna shoot at?”
“You were supposed to be asleep ‘the other night’. How’d you hear about that?” She had left him sleeping, she was sure of it. Israel had tried often enough to fool her.
“Heard you goin’ down the ladder. Woke me right up! Then I watched through the knot in the ceilin’. The one that pops out. Gosh, Mima. You’re getting’ old if you think I wouldn’t find a way to know what was goin’ on.”
Jemima sighed. She was getting old. In some ways she felt more a woman than a child anymore. But in other ways she was still very young – and wanted to keep it that way. She didn’t want the responsibilities her Ma had, but she did want the privileges. Her Ma had been married at about her age. Sometimes she wondered why she hadn’t met anybody who made her think of marrying. Jericho was fun, if a little loud and full of himself, but she didn’t really think of him as the type she’s want to settle down with and raise a family.
Jemima sighed. That was what he Ma called a ‘pipe dream’. Jeremy Larkin had a girlfriend and was from faraway back east. But maybe some day she’d meet someone like him. Handsome, smart, and sure of himself, but gentle as well and kind. Jemima smiled. Maybe he was already here in Boonesborough and she just didn’t know….
“Mima? Where are you?” Her brother was waving his hand in front of her face. You’re a million miles away.” He snorted. “Must be thinkin’ about some boy.”
“You just shut up!” she snapped. “You’re a child. What would you know?”
“Well, just about everything,” Israel smirked, scrunching up his nose.
“I’ll tell you one thing I know, Israel Boone. You better get Pa’s gun back inside before Ma sees it’s missing. Or she’ll tan your britches with a hickory switch!”
Jemima held her laughter until after her brother had high-tailed it through the back door, dragging the Kentucky long rifle behind him. Then she gathered up her basket and headed for the clothes line that hung at the front of the cabin. She had been going there when she noticed the ax lying idle by the stump. As she rounded the corner aiming for the two trees between which the line was suspended, she stopped.
There were five Redcoats in the front yard.
“Ah, Miss! May we speak to you?” The British soldier who addressed her was in his mid-twenties. He had dark blond hair and almost brown brows, and was very good-looking. Jemima took a deep breath. She had to remember that he was one of the enemy.
Placing her wash basket between them like a shield, she asked, “What about?”
“We are…seeking someone whom you might have seen. A French renegade. Have you noticed anyone suspicious? Or maybe just a stranger in this area?” he asked as he drew closer.
Jemima swallowed hard. Her eyes went to the dozen or so weapons the soldiers were carrying between them, while her mind flew to the cabin and the American major-general within. “No. No strangers here. Just family.”
At that moment, as if all those Greek gods and goddesses she had learned about in her schooling were bent on plaguing her like they did Ulysses and Perseus, the cabin door opened and Lafayette stepped onto the porch. The young Frenchman stiffened when his dark eyes landed on the British soldiers, but he recovered very quickly and continued toward her as if their presence was nothing out of the ordinary.
Jemima wondered if any of them knew him – or if he knew them.
Please God, she thought. Please...no.
“And who is this?” the British officer asked.
She thought quick. “My…cousin. From…Canada.”
“From Canada?” The soldier’s frown deepened as he inspected the general. “Then, he is French?”
Lafayette walked boldly up to the soldier and offered his hand. “Michel Chavaniac. And you would be?”
The officer hesitated for just a moment and then took his outstretched hand and shook it. “Bigelow. Lieutenant Justin Bigelow of his Majesty’s Royal Army. What brings you to Kentucky, Mr. Chavain – ”
“Chavaniac. I am a trapper by trade. There is little trapping in the winter, and so I have come to visit my cousins in the Colonies.” Lafayette put an arm around Jemima’s shoulders and squeezed. “May I ask what you are doing here, Lieutenant?”
Jemima noticed the general hadn’t said ‘in America’. She’d have to be careful too, not to let the British soldiers know her family supported and aided the rebels.
“As I told the young lady, we are looking for a renegade Frenchman who is murdering and butchering our troops.” Bigelow’s eyes trailed the length of the general’s lanky figure. “About your height and build…. Dark. Said to be attractive to the ladies.”
“But you are describing me, no?” Lafayette laughed. “But then, that describes a good many Frenchmen.”
Bigelow drew his pistol and aimed it at him. Jemima tensed.
”And how do we know that you are not the one we are seeking?” the officer asked.
At that moment those fickle gods must have changed their mind. Her mother stepped onto the porch and called out to them, as if she hadn’t noticed the crimson contingent occupying her front yard. “Jemima! Michel! Dinner is ready – Oh, my!” She left the porch and came to stand beside them. “Young man, what are you doing pointing a weapon at my nephew? And in my front yard?”
So her Ma had been listening. She got the ‘cousin’ part right.
“And you would be?” Lieutenant Bigelow asked.
Jemima saw her mother consider lying. But there was really no way out of it. All the soldier had to do was ask in Boonesborough.
“Boone,” she said finally. “Rebecca Boone.”
They all tensed, waiting. Fortunately, it seemed the young officer was new to the area. There was no spark of recognition in his eyes. “Boone. And the town is Boones-borough? Founded by your family?”
Her mother nodded as one of the other soldiers stepped up and whispered something in Lieutenant Bigelow’s ear.
“Are you Mrs. Daniel Boone?” he asked, frowning.
“Yes,” she admitted.
“Ah, I see. And is your husband home, Mrs. Boone?”
“Dan’s out hunting,” she answered, honestly, though Jemima noticed that her Ma forgot to add that Pa was hunting Redcoats.
The officer’s frown deepened as his gaze went from her mother to General Lafayette. “Michel, perhaps you can help me, since you are French. Have you heard of the Beast?”
Lafayette nodded. “Oui. In the old world – and the new.”
Lieutenant Bigelow looked surprised, as if he had just realized something. “Chavaniac? That’s in Auvergne, isn’t it? The area where the French le Bete roamed?”
“When I was a boy. Oui.”
Suddenly her brother’s voice rang out from the cabin. “Ma, are you comin’ back? Where did – Whoa! Redcoats!”
Jemima turned to find Israel standing on the porch, his mouth hanging open in surprise. Thank goodness he had seen the British soldiers before he said something like, ‘Where did Mr. Lafayette go?’
“Boy. Come here!” Bigelow called. His tone of voice made it more of a command than a request.
Israel looked at their mother. When she nodded, he ran to join them. As he did, their Ma put her arms around her brother’s shoulders and asked, “Is my household under suspicion of something, Lieutenant? Because, if it is not, then you are guests here – and rather badly behaved ones at that.”
Bigelow seemed to think better of whatever he had been about to say. “I apologize, Madame. I am just doing my duty. This ‘beast’, his eyes flicked to the Lafayette, “has been killing British soldiers – as well as the citizens of your colony. It is our job to ferret him out.”
“Well, you can’t think it is Michel. Look at him! For goodness sake, he can hardly stand on his feet. He’s been ill with a fever.”
Ma meant what she said as a cover, but from General Lafayette’s look Jemima wondered if that had been a wise thing to say. Not only did it tell the Redcoats that the only man who was there to protect them was weak, but the British soldiers might have heard that the hero of the Rebellion – the famous Marquis de Lafayette – had been sick and was now in hiding somewhere in the colonies.
“No one here is under suspicion – at the moment, Mrs. Boone. Though I would suggest that Michel stay put until this whole thing has blown over.” Lieutenant Bigelow’s eyes fastened on the general. “You never know who might take a fright, or prove of an excitable nature, and shoot before asking questions.”
It was a warning. And taken as such by everyone in the yard.
Lieutenant Bigelow executed a short polite bow. “Madame. Miss. And sirs. If no one has anything of use to tell us, then we will be on our way.” He hesitated and then asked, “Would you like me to leave a guard here, Mrs. Boone, for your protection and that of your children? Since Mr. Chavaniac is not his usual self.”
“I can protect my own,” the general said softly. And he meant it.
That was another warning.
The two men faced off for several heartbeats. Lieutenant Bigelow was the first to back down. “Very well, then,” he said as he nervously straightened his sword belt. “We will be stationed for the night about half a mile to the south on the road, and then we will rejoin our company under Colonel Maxwell. If you need anything, Mrs. Boone….”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
Bigelow nodded and then ordered his soldiers to make a quick march away. As they disappeared behind the trees her mother let out a sigh of relief.
“Thank goodness that’s over!”
Lafayette shook his head. “No, Madame Boone, it is not over. It is just beginning.”
Once they were in the cabin Becky turned to the young haunted-looking general. It was apparent he had not slept well the night before. There were circles under his eyes nearly as dark as his brown hair, and throughout the morning he had moved with a sort of leaden fatigue. This new development had set him on edge. He was filled now with a restive sort of energy.
Lafayette was a man of action, forced to inaction for too long.
“Do you think they knew who you are?” she asked him as he paced the floor of the cabin’s common room.
He shook his head. “It is a leap to think of General Lafayette – who should be in Boston readying to sail home to France – in Kentucky, in the home of Daniel Boone. But Lieutenant Bigelow suspects I am not what I said. Perhaps he thinks me this Beast they seek.”
“What should we do then?”
Lafayette pursed his lips and thought for a moment. He halted and met her concerned stare; his look determined. “I have to leave.”
“No! You can’t,” Becky responded. “You aren’t well.”
“Madame, I will not place you and your children in jeopardy. And if I remain, that is what I will do.”
“But, even if you could travel, where would you go?” she countered.
“I will try to catch up to Jeremy and your husband, and help them to find Sergeant
Boggs and the others.”
Rebecca sized him up. Lafayette’s breathing was labored and his skin had that sheen – the one that indicated a fever kept just at bay. He wouldn’t make it very far on foot. “You’ll never make it,” she said gently. “Maybe we could take you to the fort. Cincinnatus could look after you there.”
“Boonesborough is crawling with Redcoats, Rebecca, at least one of which is certain to have seen me before, or to recognize the Marquis de Lafayette from the descriptions and drawings in the newspapers.” His dark head shook again. “No. There is nothing for me to do, but to set out alone.”
Becky turned toward her daughter. ”What is it, Jemima?”
“I could take him to Chota,” she offered. “He’d be safe there.”
She hadn’t thought of that. Menewa was not a friend of the British as were most of the Cherokee. Lafayette would be safe with Mingo’s people. But to let her daughter go off into the forest with Redcoats and Indians all around, let alone this ‘beast’ the soldiers were so afraid of….
“I don’t know,” she said.
“And I won’t hear of it,” the general declared. “I will not put you in danger, Jemima, to save my life.”
“I’ve been to Chota. It’s not a long walk,” her daughter told him. Then Jemima turned to her. “And I could stay, Ma, so I don’t have to come back alone. I wouldn’t mind seeing Tekawitha, and Mingo can bring me home when he gets back.”
Becky had to admit it was a possibility.
“Can I go too, Ma? Please?” a small voice pleaded. “I know the way better than Jemima does.”
Becky had expected that. Wherever Jemima went, her brother was sure to want to follow. The thing was, in this case, he was right. Dan and Mingo had taken Israel to Chota so many times to play with Monlutha, to visit with the tribe, to learn how to hunt and fish, that the boy could probably get there with his eyes blind-folded.
“Rebecca, I will not hear of this!” Lafayette protested.
Becky thought a moment. She considered all of the possibilities and then met him toe to toe.
“General, on the battlefield I would yield to your skill and greater experience,” she told him, “but here, I am afraid you are going to have to do the same thing to mine. In your condition you wouldn’t last a day. Kentucky is a hard place, hard for men in the pink of health. And you are not in the pink.” She turned to her children then, who were waiting, eyes wide and hopes high. “And as to you two, while you do know your way to Chota, you don’t know your way around Redcoats and Frenchmen, let alone this ‘beast’, whatever it is.”
The pair looked downtrodden.
“Ah, Ma,” Israel hung his head and shook it. “We gotta do somethin’! Them Redcoats are gonna come back, and they’re gonna find the general, and – “
“We’ll all go!” Becky declared. “I can leave a note for your father that only he will understand, saying where we have gone. That way we’ll have a man to guard us on the trip there,” she smiled at Lafayette, hoping to repair any damage she had done to his male ego in suggesting he might not be able to take care of himself, “and a man to bring us back.”
“Yippee!” Israel yelled.
Becky pinned her son with her eyes. “Young man, this is serious. It is not a Sunday afternoon stroll. Now you go get the powder and shot from the cupboard, and then bring me that spare pistol of your Pa’s from the blanket chest.”
“Yes‘m,” Israel replied. With his head still hanging he went to do as he had been told.
“Jemima, begin to gather up some things. It’s only about a half a day’s walk, but we’ll want at least a day’s supplies to be safe.” Her daughter nodded and headed for the larder. Becky steeled herself and then turned to Lafayette. She found him smiling. That surprised her as she had expected him to be cross with her. “What? What is it?” she asked.
“Ah! If only we had had a few generals of your caliber at Monmouth and Vincennes,” he replied, the dimpled grin deepening. “We would have sent the British packing!”
She laughed. “I’m sorry. Sometimes Dan says I have a habit of taking charge before the battle’s even mapped.”
“Ah, but Madame,” Lafayette added softly, “that is the way to win the war.”
They were ready about an hour later. She had puzzled over the note to leave Dan, wanting to say enough that he would be certain they were all right and where they were, but not too much so a stranger reading it might be able to decipher its true meaning. Finally she settled on ‘Gone to see K. Murray and family. All together and well.’ She hoped Dan would realize that meant they were with Mingo’s family – in Chota – and that the young general was with them. And unless one of Mingo’s old acquaintances from his Royal Academy days just happened to be leading one of the Redcoat regiments hunting the ‘beast’, there was no way anyone should put two and two together and come up with the Cherokee village.
Becky sealed the letter and wrote Dan’s name on the outside, and then placed it on the kitchen table with an iron trivet to anchor it, positioning it where she was sure he would see it first thing on entering the cabin. And then, with a whispered prayer on her lips, she threw a shawl about her shoulders and followed the three young people out the back door and into the woods.
It had not been the best time of the day to begin a half day’s journey. He had known that, but there had been little choice.
Lafayette lay on a pallet of leaves, his cloak wrapped about him, shivering. He knew the boy and the women had to be fairing worse. They had left the Boone’s cabin to head for Chota mid-afternoon. About supper time, as the sun was setting, the weather had taken a sudden turn for the worse. It seemed Kentucky had remembered what the east had known all along – that it was still winter. The temperature had dropped some twenty degrees and a stiff wind had arisen, blowing ice-cold from the north. Even worse, the frigid night air contained a hint, if not the threat of snow. They did not dare light a fire for fear of discovery, and so the quartet had sought shelter under a jutting outcrop of brown rock, hoping to ward off the chill of the night….
And the grave.
Lafayette felt it to the marrow of his bones. There was nothing he could do to fall sleep. Nothing to stop the shaking. They had eaten a cold supper and then the three Boones had laid down together to sleep, Rebecca cradling a child in each arm. That had been two, perhaps three hours before. The moon was high now in a clear indigo blue sky and the stars winked, seeming to enjoy his discomfort – or so it seemed to a cold Frenchman alone, and a long way from home. He thought of his wife, Adrienne, and of the comfort of her petite, warm form clutched tightly to his. But then he shook off the dream, deeply grateful to Providence that Adrienne was not here to die in the cold with him.
Lafayette struggled within the makeshift woolen blanket of his cloak for a few minutes more and then, cursing the fates, rose to his feet and began to prowl. If he could not sleep, he might as well keep watch until the morn. They had all been so exhausted they had had to trust to God for their protection before. Now he would lend the Almighty his small mortal aid.
He walked the perimeter of the place they had chosen for their rough bed. It was more than serviceable with the rocky wall behind and a drop of nearly ten feet before. This virgin land was more than beautiful. Rebecca had smiled at his startled reaction when they had come to the middle of what seemed a flat open prairie and suddenly a deep, rustic gorge with a small waterfall had appeared before them. He stood now, staring at the rushing water below, thinking of the irony of man – man who was surrounded by such beauty, but who chose so often to seek instead the seamy underbelly of life.
Lafayette found a rocky seat and took it, settling in to wait for the sunrise. But even as he primed his pistol and rested it on his knee in anticipation of danger, a sudden cry from the direction of the camp he had abandoned brought him back to his feet.
A second later he was running.
“Rebecca! What…is it?” Lafayette shouted as he rounded a corner and entered the place where the Boone family lay.
Rebecca was standing with her daughter clinging to her. Jemima was crying.
Israel was nowhere to be seen.
“Where…is your…son?” he asked, panting.
“I don’t know. We woke up and he was gone!” Rebecca was obviously terrified. “We have to find him! We have to go now!”
“No.” Lafayette drew a deep steadying breath and shook his head. “It will do us no good to run off – how the English say – ‘willy nilly’? You and your daughter must remain here. Keep your husband’s pistol to hand. I will find Israel and return with him.”
“Israel has the pistol,” Jemima said, her voice hushed with fear and concern. “I told ma, I think he went off to find that beast. Israel hasn’t talked about anything else since….” The girl stopped, as if thinking better of what she had been about to say.
“Ce qui? What? What is it?” he asked.
Jemima looked at her mother. Rebecca had a look on her face – the kind of look a woman wears when she knows what she is about to say will give a man an excuse for doing something either very brave – or extremely stupid.
“It isn’t your fault,” she began.
He drew a deep breath. “Rebecca, tell me.”
She looked at her daughter.
Jemima winced. “Israel wasn’t asleep the other night like I thought. He heard you talking about that beast, the one you set out to slay in France when you were a little boy. He said he wanted to be just like you. I think – ”
“Mon Dieu! He has not gone off to slay le Bete?”
She nodded. “I think so.”
His head was spinning. What more harm could he bring to these kind people who had welcomed him into their home? Lafayette thought a moment and then removed his own pistol from his belt and held it out. “Here. Take mine.”
“No!” Rebecca insisted.
“Take it, Madame Boone. I will not take ‘no’ for an answer. When I find the boy, I will have his. He cannot have gone far.” When she looked like she intended to protest, he smiled and added quietly, “Rebecca, I survived a desperate sea voyage to come to this country, a severe wound at Brandywine, a sickness that should have killed me, and have made it through innumerable battles on your shores. I do not think Providence will allow my life to end while seeking one small wayward boy in the hills of Kentucky.”
Concern for her son finally won out. “Go with God,” Rebecca said, holding her hand out for the weapon.
He placed the pistol in it. “Find a place to hide. There must be caves nearby.”
Rebecca nodded. “There are.”
“I will find Israel and bring him back here. Return at noon. That should be more than enough time.”
She stared at him a moment, and then Rebecca stepped forward and kissed him on the cheek. Pressing his hand, she whispered, “God speed, Gilbert. And God keep you in His care.”
“Merci, Rebecca. Et vous.”
Lafayette watched her put her arm around her daughter and waited until the two of them had disappeared. Then he searched the ground for tracks and, finding the impression of the small boy’s boots, set out to follow them. He had not traveled a half an hour when he heard a strange sound – a low moan, almost a howl. Halting, Lafayette listened, trying to discern if it was animal or human. He was standing at the top of the rise that had continued on from the place where they had rested, now a precipitous ridge with a twenty foot drop. In the silence he heard two things – a soft subtle rustling of the underbrush behind him, and the cry of a very small, very frightened boy.
“Help! Help me, please! Ma! Mr. Lafayette! Help!”
“Israel?” he called.
“Help! I’d down here!”
Lafayette remained still, trying to ascertain where the boy was. The wind was blowing mightily, carrying Israel’s voice – masking the direction from which it came. “Where are you, Israel?”
“Here! I fell. I’m here! Down the hill!”
“Père compatissant!” Lafayette moved forward a few feet and then knelt at the edge of the cliff. There he was. Israel Boone hung some seven or eight feet below, clinging to a thick branch jutting out of the rocky face. Close, but just far enough down that he could not reach him with ease. “Hang on, Israel!” he called.
“My fingers are numb. I don’t think I can.”
The boy was not only frightened, he could tell he was growing tired. Lafayette pursed his lips and thought a moment. Sympathizing would probably only make Israel cry. “Private Boone!” he declared in the voice he used with his men. “I order you to hang on. You will not let go. Do you understand?”
Israel sniffed. “I….”
“Private Boone, that is an order! Is that understood?”
The boy nodded. He seemed to gather strength. “Yes, sir. I mean – yes, sir, General, sir!”
“That’s better.” He looked around. There was an overhanging tree, with its great roots half-exposed, just to his left. He caught hold of one of the roots to anchor himself and started down toward the boy. “I will hold out my hand. You must catch it and I will pull you up. Is that clear, private?”
Israel nodded, swallowing his tears – almost smiling. “Yes, sir!”
Lafayette hid his grin. “I am almost there. Hang on….”
Israel’s shout was not one of alarm for himself – but of warning.
“What? What is it?” he asked as his hand caught the boy’s.
“There! Up there! It’s him. It’s the Beast!”
Even as Israel spoke he heard the beast growl, it’s feral voice an undercurrent of hunger and fierce need riding just below the blustering wind. Lafayette pivoted and looked up and saw the slavering jaw and the savage golden eyes just as the wolf’s jagged yellow teeth snapped, barely missing his fingers.
With a cry he pulled away, losing his grip on the root, and the two of them tumbled the last twelve or thirteen feet down the slope. Lafayette angled his body so the boy landed on top of him breaking Israel’s fall, but sacrificing himself. The wind was knocked from his lungs, pain shot through his body, and everything went black as he entered a place as dark as the deep black shadows that masked the cave he had sent the Boone women to hide within.