The Accursed Thing

Chapter Eight

 

Dan had been following Mingo’s tracks for some time.  The athletic Cherokee had led him on quite a chase.  Shortly after he had parted from Lord Dunsmore, his friend had given up running and sprinted ahead like a deer with a hunter on its tail.  With a shake of his head and one eye trained on the ground, Dan had taken off after him, as determined to catch up with his friend as Mingo seemed to be to leave him behind.

As darkness fell Dan halted.  The moon was on the downward swing from full, but its three quarter face lit the night like a half dozen lanterns.  A cold crisp breeze ruffled his hair, chilling him, making him long for warm bedding and a cup of coffee.  He had to make a choice, either to go ahead, or to turn back and find Mingo’s father.  He had just about made up his mind to do just that when he spotted something at the side of the road.  The earth was frozen and held little sign, but there was something – a disturbance that didn’t look right.  He walked over and squatted on his haunches. 

“Well, what’a you know?  Wagons tracks,” he said.

The wagon had been a big one, parked here for a while, and then pulled away in haste.  He looked further and found evidence of a payload left sitting on the ground.  Dan frowned and straightened up, and then saw something else.  A small dark blot on the white grass crisp with evening dew.  Bending over, he picked it up.  It was leather worked with beads.  A small bag with a broken strap.  He knew it.

It was Mingo’s.

His friend didn’t always wear it, but when he did, it meant something Dan could only begin to understand.  Mingo had likened it once to Rebecca toting her Bible about.  Dan understood it to be some kind of shield against trouble but, more than that, a repository of everything the Cherokee warrior was about. 

Dan moved into the light with it and examined the leather strap.  It had been deliberately snapped – though whether by Mingo or the man who attacked him, he couldn’t know.  Walking slowly forward, following the wagon’s tracks, he made another discovery.  One that was disturbing.

A board, some two feet long, spattered with blood.

Dan’s fingers closed on the leather pouch. 

They had him.

For a moment he stood in the middle of the trail at a loss.  What he did next might determine not only Mingo’s fate, but his son’s.  And much as he liked to think himself a one man army, there was a lot to lose if he was wrong.  There were at least four men and, from the note Lord Dunsmore had let him read, he knew at least one of them wouldn’t hesitate to kill.  Alone, he might be able to save Mingo or James.  But the odds were against him rescuing them both. 

He needed reinforcements. 

John Murray shouldn’t be all that far back.  If the older man had kept up a steady pace, no more than an hour or so should separate them.  As ever, two would be better than one.

Dan gazed off in the direction the wagon had taken and came to a decision.  Tucking Mingo’s medicine bag into his pouch, he turned his back on whatever fate awaited his friend and began to run in the opposite direction.

 

###

 

            John Murray shifted his jaw.  He nodded his head in acquiescence and then began to walk again.  The Indian, unfortunately, had not been alone.  There were at least a dozen heathens dressed in leather and feathered finery.  They were not Cherokee.  He had addressed one of them in that tongue and been back-handed for his trouble.  That man –  tall, dressed in buckskins, wearing a headband and war paint – proudly sported in his beaded belt the Scottish Flintlock his father James had given him when he had returned from the colonies to take his place as heir to the earldom.

            He wouldn’t wear it for long.

            Their words were not entirely foreign, he had recognized one or two of them – Alagwa, the stars, and conee, snow.  They were Shawnee, which shouldn’t have surprised him since Daniel Boone had warned him that, in tracking Mingo, they were entering Shawnee territory.  It lay north of the settlement, officially over the Ohio, but the land between Boonesborough and that mighty river was one held in dispute by a half dozen tribes – the Shawnee, the Cherokee, the Miami and Delaware among others.  All claimed it and all hunted it.

            And each other.

            The Indians led him now along a winding path, down a narrow valley, round a bend; each step taking him farther away from his goal – each precious minute wasted, another stolen from his hope of finding his son and grandson alive.  He wondered as he continued to follow them why they had not simply killed him on the spot. 

            A chagrinned smile crooked his upper lip.  An old man, alone in the forest, staggering from fatigue and now unarmed…. 

            They probably considered it a worse fate to let him live.

            He was just about to try once again to speak to their leader, when the man threw up a hand and called them to a halt.  A second gesture brought another savage to his side.  The man held several filthy strips of cloth.

            “I say, what is this all about?” he asked.

            The Indian pointed to his eyes and thrust one of the strips under his nose. 

“You wear, or you die.  Your choice,” the leader said.

            “I see.”  John Murray took the rag between two fingers and tied it about his eyes.  When he had finished, the leader checked his handiwork.  “Good,” he said, apparently impressed that he had not tried to cheat, or left it partially undone.  Then he bound his arms behind his back.

            A hand on his shoulder directed him forward.  They passed through a shallow creek and up a fairly steep slope.  When the war party arrived at their destination, he was left to stand by himself while the Indians bustled about, doing Heaven only knew what.

            “Say?  Would someone remove this blindfold?” he called out.  “Hello?”

            “The less you see, the safer your life is, mister,” a man remarked, his voice resonant and so close by it startled him.

            “Who are you?” John Murray asked.

            “I was about to ask you the same thing.  My friends here, the Shawnee, they think you’re a harmless old man, but I don’t think so.”  There was a pause.  “Should I tell them what I think?”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “I saw you once, Governor, in all your finery, riding on that great white horse through the streets of the capital of Williamsburg.  It was back, oh, I don’t know, maybe two years ago.  Right after you promised my people that they would be free if they turned on their masters.”

            It was frustrating not to be able to see who he was talking to.  Obviously the man had been a slave.  “You have me at a disadvantage, sir.  Since I cannot see you.”

              “Oh, you wouldn’t know me.  I was just another black face in the crowd.”  The man paused, and seemed to come closer.  His voice was barely above a whisper now.  “Did you know when you made that proclamation, what it would do?  Did you even think?”

            “I offered to emancipate your people in return for their supporting the King in his just cause against the rebels.”

            “You put guns in their hands, all right, and guns to their heads.  If a man’s master was kind, he grew frightened.  If he was mean, he became a tyrant.  Any offense, the smallest one, and you were beaten.  Did you know, they especially like taking a rod to the feet.  If your feet are red with blood, you can’t run.”

            “Will you take off this infernal blindfold!  I have a right to see my accuser.”

            “I’m not your accuser, Governor,” the man said, moving away, “but there are men walking these woods who are.  My friends here have been watching them.  They’ve traded with them a bit and learned who they are.  They’re dangerous men.  Dangerous and desperate.”

             “Good God, man!  Did you see where they took my grandson?”

            “Your grandson?  The young boy marching with the Redcoats two days back?”

            John Murray strained at his bonds.  “Yes.  James.  Is he alive?”

            “I don’t rightly know, Governor.”  Words were exchanged, just out of his hearing.  The man who spoke to him must be checking with the Shawnee.  “My friend Tabuka says they saw the boy being carried through the trees.  They followed the men to the camp, but they didn’t see him again.”

             The man’s words hit him like a blow and he staggered.  A hand caught his arm to steady him. 

            “Governor?”

            “John, please,” he breathed.  “I am governor no longer.”

            “So you’re just a man, like the rest of us now?”

            He nodded slowly.  “Just a man, hoping to save the lives of those he loves.”

            There was another pause.  More words were exchanged.  A moment later his hands were untied.

“Go ahead and take it off,” the speaker said.

The Englishman reached up and did so.  For the moment it took his eyes to adjust to the moonlight, he saw nothing.  Then, slowly, a dark shape emerged, separated from the deeper shadows of the night.  A tall man, well-built and strong, his skin black as onyx.  He was dressed in native garb as if he was one of them, but his speech belied a village upbringing.  He had spoken of Virginia.  He must have been a slave of one of the better houses.

“I would introduce myself,” John Murray began, “but it is evident you already know me.”

“I know what you done,” the man said coolly.  “You do too.”

He bristled.  “I have done nothing of which I am ashamed.  Any choices I made were carefully weighed against the benefit of the whole.  You are still here.  Evidently the rampant chaos my proclamation unleashed did not effect you.”

“Oh, it effected me.  But not then.  I saw too many men taken on the road and flailed or hung.  It took me near a year to build up the courage to run.”  He shook his head.  “By that time, I knew better than to run to the British.  Everyone knew.”  The man drew close again.  “The ghosts of Gwynn’s Island are crying still for justice.”

    John Murray drew a deep breath.  Out of the frying pan….he thought.  “What do you intend to do with me?”

The man shrugged.  “It’s not up to me.  I’m just the translator.  Far as these fellows know you’re just an old man who lost his way in the woods.  I haven’t decided yet whether to tell them any different.”

“Who are you?  What is your name?  Would I know it?”

“Why, once I was a general like you,” the man laughed.  “Pompey, they called me.  Now I have another name, Wah-kah-mo-gah”

He thought for  a moment.  “Warrior?  That’s an odd name for a translator.”

“You never know.  More than one man’s been killed with words.”

           

###

 

            Dan Boone felt like a fool.  Now instead of two men missing, he had three.  He had backtracked several hours before he found a sign of Mingo’s father.  Lord Dunsmore’s boot-prints were unmistakable.  He watched them be surrounded by moccasins and led away into the trees.

            Shawnee.

            He’d felt them watching for about a day now, but figured if they were going to make a move, they would have done it before.  The Shawnee knew him well from his time among them and they usually left him alone unless, for some reason, they were at cross-purposes.  Somehow he doubted the vendetta of a slave from Virginia was any of their concern.  If English Justice wiped out a few white men, well, they might hold a feast in his honor, but most likely the Shawnee wouldn’t put their own necks in the noose to help him.

            Unless, that was, this particular band of Shawnee had something against the former Governor-general of Virginia.

            It had been about six months since he had seen Pompey.  And near a year since the slave hunter, Caleb Calhoun, had given the black man his freedom and Pompey had joined the Indians to live as one of them.

            Could he be involved with this man, English Justice?

            Dan thought about it.  Then he shook his head.  No.  When it looked like he might go to prison for helping Pompey, the black man had been willing to sacrifice his  freedom to save him from it.  He had willingly agreed to return with Calhoun before the Scot had a change of heart and let him go.  Pompey was a good man.  He wouldn’t be involved with men who would kidnap a boy and threaten to kill him.

            It just didn’t fit.

            Dan looked around.  This was fairly familiar territory.  He was pretty sure he knew where the Shawnee camp was located.  He stood in the middle of the trail with the moonlight beating down on him and the frigid north wind whipping his hair, at the same crossroads he had faced before.  Did he go after Mingo, hoping he could find James as well and somehow free them alone?  Or did he go after Lord Dunsmore?  One old man was hardly an army….

            But then again, there were the Shawnee.

 

###

           

            John Murray sat with his back against a tree.  The Shawnee had not bound him as he had no idea where he was.  He could have made an attempt at escape any time, but it would have done him little good.  As much as he hated to admit it, he was going to have to wait for someone to rescue him.  On his own he might very well walk into an even worse predicament.

            By now Daniel Boone had either found Mingo, or he was headed back to meet him.  When the frontiersman realized he had been taken, the prudent thing would be to turn around and return to the chase.  Knowing Daniel Boone only as well as he did, he thought ‘prudent’ was not at the top of his list of choices.

            He had been sitting for some time, wondering who this man Pompey was.  He seemed fairly well educated for a slave.  Pompey spoke of his people’s cause with eloquence.  The institution of slavery was the one dark blot on the Americans’ claim of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every man.  Every white man, they meant.  And even then, only every white man of wealth.

            England had struggled with it.  He didn’t deny that.  But then England had never made the claim that all men were equal.  There was a class system, unwritten law though it was.  Everyone knew their place from the lowest servant to the loftiest of the Peerage.  But slavery was a thing of the past.  Once on British soil, a black man could be free.  It was this he had told the Ethiopians chained to plantations in the American South, extending that right to the British soil now labeled by the rebels as these ‘united colonies’.   ‘All indentured servants, negroes, or others that are able and willing to bear arms’ his proclamation stated, all of them could be made free by joining his Majesty’s Troops.

            It had been a grand scheme.  And like most grand schemes, had come to an abysmal end.

            A disturbance in the camp broke into his reverie and brought him to his feet.  One of the Indians nearby, seeing him rise, gripped a rifle and took a step toward him.  A cry from another quarter stopped him.  The savage grew suddenly uncertain and, in the end, faded into the shadows at his back.  John Murray listened to the shouts of warning as they rebounded from tree to tree.  He had thought at first that, perhaps, Daniel Boone had been spotted.  But as he cast his mind back to his youth, seeking the remnants of a vocabulary long lost, he realized the Shawnee were not speaking of a man.  Apetotha, he heard.  Child.  And what he thought was the word for ‘lost’. 

            Lost Child?

            As he moved toward the center of the camp, he saw Pompey coming toward him.  It seemed the black man was not as frightened of this child as were his Shawnee brethren.  In the time it took Pompey to reach his side, all of the heathens had vanished.

            “What is this?” he asked.

            The black man shook his head.  “Someone saw something.  A boy.”

            “A boy?  A boy did this?”  He indicated the empty camp.

            Pompey nodded.  “You ever hear of the Water Spirits, Governor?”

            He shook his head.  “No.”

            “It’s a myth common to a lot of tribes.  They believe, sometimes, spirits live in the water.  They come up from time to time and take children and drown them.  Then those children come back as what is known as a Lost Child.  They have the powers of the water spirits when they do.  My people believed something like it, back in Africa.”

            “Is there really a boy?”

            Pompey looked at him.  His eyes were wide in the moonlight.  He nodded.  “I saw him once.  Standing on the edge of the camp.  Watching.  Tabuka says he’s a Cherokee witch, come to kill them for what they done.”

            “What did they do?”

            Pompey shrugged.  “Heard his family drowned.  That’s all I know.”

            “Well, this is quite a pretty – ”

            The black man’s hand came down on his shoulder.  “Look.  There he is!”

            John Murray looked.  Just coming into the moonlight, emerging from the path leading under the leaves, was a slender form.  A black haired boy in buckskins and swamp moccasins.  The boy moved as if in a trance.  He could hear the Shawnee muttering, and heard the rattles of their medicine man working charms against the intruder.  The boy paused to listen, and then walked straight toward him.

            When he saw who it was, he gasped.

            It was the little urchin from Chota.  The boy who had guided him to Mingo.  The one with the shell hanging about his neck.

            Walks Through said nothing.  His great black eyes went to Pompey, and then back to him.  With a slight smile he reached into the pouch he wore at his waist and then slowly drew out his hand.  When it opened, the moonlight struck two objects resting on his palm.

            The sovereigns he had given him.

            Pompey held his hand out and the boy dropped the coins into it.  He stared at them a moment and then met the former governor’s puzzled stare with an equally puzzled smile.

            “Looks like you just been sold.”