The Accursed Thing
Mingo awoke to find himself tethered by ropes to the trunk of a gnarled tree. He shifted his back, which was aching, and winced as pain exploded through him. Oh, yes, now he remembered. The black man with the wagon and the broken wheel had chosen to express his gratitude by cracking a board over his head. He didn’t know which hurt more – the pain, or the realization that he could have been so stupid. As he closed his eyes and leaned his head gingerly against the tree, Mingo’s smile was chagrinned.
It had to be the latter.
“I see you be awake,” a low voice pronounced.
“No, you are wrong,” Mingo answered, “this is definitely a nightmare.”
The point of a knife placed beneath his chin brought his eyes open. A black man, perhaps twenty-five years of age, crouched before him. He had a broad face and was thick-set, with a mean look. The man was dressed all in dark cloth.
Just like the ones who kidnapped James.
“You think so now?” the man sneered. “You just wait ‘til later.”
As he spoke Mingo looked beyond him, canvassing the camp for a sign of his son’s presence. It was hastily thrown together, with the exception of a lean-to made of branches and cloth that looked to be slightly more permanent. There were three men he could see – his taunter and two others. One was standing guard; the other, eating. Behind him there was something more, crates perhaps, or boxes of supplies. He couldn’t be certain.
“Well,” Mingo replied, affecting an easy untroubled air, “ ‘tis expectation makes a blessing dear. Heaven were not heaven if we knew what it were’.”
The knife blade inched into his flesh. “You sound just like him”
“Him?” he asked as he felt his blood slide down the steel.
“Always quotin’ some fancy man’s fancy words. How come you don’t look like him?” With his other hand the man grasped one of his braids and hauled his head back, against the tree and away from the blade
Mingo winced as his skull was struck a second time. When he got his breath back, he answered, “I tend…to favor my mother.”
The black man’s face was close. He dropped his voice and spoke with a slick smile, as if they were confidants. “I heard about your father. How he likes women with dark skin….”
“What are you talking about?”
The man snapped his head back again – hard – and then rose to his feet. “You be askin’ Janus when he gets back. He tell you.”
“Here!” the man called as he pivoted toward the sound.
“Janus’ been spotted. He’s on his way,” Caesar said as he came to his side. “What we gonna do about….” The man’s eyes darted to him and then back to his tormentor. “About the other one?”
Every muscle in Mingo’s body tensed. He must mean James!
Dabney’s gaze went to the area behind him where the crates and boxes lay. “The nails be in the lid, hammered hard this time. The boy be there. That all Janus needs to know.”
A creeping horror overcame him as the two men walked away. Mingo’s chest rose and fell with staggering breaths as he fought to control a fear too strong to name. He closed his eyes against the pain and then forced his head to the right as far as it would go, so he could look beyond the tree.
They weren’t crates. They were coffins.
And there were two.
Pompey sat cleaning his rifle, using the hem of his frock coat to wipe down the lock face and pan. Around him were the sounds of his Shawnee brothers breaking camp. If it hadn’t been for the inconvenience, the reason for their going would have made him laugh. Tabuka and his men were fierce warriors; unafraid of beast or man. But they ran like frightened girls in the face of one little Cherokee boy. Using a stick, he pried free a remaining bit of powder and tossed both to the ground. Walks Through wasn’t magic, he was just damn lucky.
Well, depending on your point of view.
After the slave hunter, Caleb Calhoun, made his decision not to take him back to Virginia, Pompey had taken up Tabuka’s offer to live with the Shawnee. He was a free man, here to teach them what he knew about fighting. That had been nigh on two year’s ago. About one year into it, Walks Through had made his first appearance. One of the warriors caught the scrawny little Cherokee boy stealing food. At the time, Pompey hadn’t known his story, but had been startled when the warrior made the boy wait as he ordered one of their women to take a basket and fill it corncakes and other items. Then he gave it to Walks Through. The boy had been a wild thing then, all black hair and mud. He wore no clothes. In fact, the only thing about him that wasn’t bare natural, was the shell on a thong he wore about his neck. The next morning he asked Tabuka what it was all about. The Shawnee leader took another day to think about it. Then he told him.
Since the French and Indian war, things had been strained between the local Cherokee and Shawnee. Menewa’s band had no interest in the British. The Shawnee were their friends. This naturally caused some hostility between two tribes that were, for the most part, at peace. Menewa’s acceptance of Daniel Boone and his growing settlement had been the last straw and, not too long after Boonesborough was planted, all out war had been declared between the two tribes.
And war meant anything goes.
Walks Through and his family had been traveling along a rapid bit of water when the Shawnee spotted them. His father was a trader known for doing business with the Cherokee – and married to one to boot – and that made him fair game. The Shawnee attacked from the shore, piercing the man with arrows, and then using a musket to blast a hole through the bottom of the canoe. The rest of the family drowned – a mother, two boys and a small girl.
One of the boy’s was Walks Through.
The Shawnee camped on the shore that night, near where the canoe had gone under. They saw no sign of life. But in the morning when they woke, silhouetted against the morning mist, they saw a small boy. He was at the place where the water met the shore, watching them. When one of them tried to catch him, he turned into vapor and disappeared.
Pompey picked up some greased tow and began to wipe down his lock.
Or so Tabuka said.
The Shawnee found the bodies the next day. Walks Through wasn’t with his family. It was clear to the boy had simply managed to swim downstream and survived – maybe he found a log to catch on to, or maybe someone fished him out and sent him back alone. That morning he came to look on the men who killed his kin, and to memorize their faces. For when his own time came for revenge.
But none of that made any difference to the Shawnee. To them, the boy’s appearance was an evil omen and that meant it was time they move on.
Pompey stood. That was the hardest thing about living with the Shawnee. A man needed roots, and they never stayed in one place long enough to put them down. Shouldering his rifle, he moved to join his brothers, but stopped as a voice hailed him from the distant trees.
“Pompey” the man called.
Pompey’s brown eyes narrowed as he turned back. “Daniel? Daniel Boone?” As the tall frontiersman broke cover and came toward him, taking the hill easily with his long, lanky lope, the black man moved to greet him. He took the white man’s hand to shake it, and then realized something was wrong.
“Daniel, what is it?”
The frontiersman’s green eyes flicked to Tabuka and the pair of Shawnee warriors who were headed their way. “Can I count…on you to back me up?” he asked, slightly winded.
“Back you up?”
“A boy’s life depends on it, Pompey. And the life of a man I count as brother.”
He shook his head. “I won’t lie.”
One of Daniel’s brown eyebrows peaked. “Who said I was askin’ you too? Hello there, Tabuka!” he bellowed, sticking out his hand. “How you been?”
The Shawnee was wary. “Boone. What brings you here?”
“Maybe I just felt like visitin’ an old friend,” he answered, clapping his hand on the Indian’s shoulder. A scowl and a second later, he lifted it. “Well, maybe not. So, how’ve you been, Pompey?”
“Fine, Daniel.” The frontiersman was stalling, buying time to gather wind and strength. What was this all about? “How can I….” Pompey glanced at Tabuka who was not about to be distracted. “How can we help?”
“Well, it’s like this, Mingo and me, we was campin’ by the river…. You remember Mingo, Tabuka, don’t you?”
The Indian’s scowl deepened.
“I see you do.” Dan shrugged and continued. “We was campin’ by the river when all of a sudden up come this fog thick as Becky’s best puddin’. We heard bones rattlin’ and drums beatin’, and all of a sudden up from the river bank come this – ” The frontiersman halted in his story, genuinely puzzled. “Something wrong, Tabuka?”
The Shawnee had gone white as a winding sheet.
“You have seen the boy,” the Indian said.
Dan’s eyes flicked to Pompey. Boy? they asked. Then, going with it, he nodded. “Sure enough. Scrawny little kid. I couldn’t rightly see what he looked like – ”
“He is Cherokee.”
“Oh.” Dan drew a breath and continued. “Well, the next thing I know, I hear these drums again. They wasn’t Cherokee drums. And the voices, they weren’t chantin’ Cherokee. I didn’t know the words, but it was like they were singin’.”
By this time Tabuka had been hooked and reeled in. Pompey shook his head. Daniel Boone’s luck was legendary. How he had managed to hit on the one thing that would make the seasoned warrior do whatever he wanted, he would never know.
“What happened then Boone?” the Shawnee prompted.
Dan looked both ways and then leaned in closer. He dropped his voice to a whisper for effect. “Risin’ up out of the mist came six dark figures. Black men, Tabuka, wise and strong, and full of magic.” Then he shouted, pointing at Pompey. “They looked like him!”
Pompey grew uneasy. So that was where he was headed. This had to do with Janus.
“Powerful magic, my Shawnee friend. They sang that mist – and that evil boy away.”
“How, Boone? How?” Tabuka wanted to know.
Dan shook his head sadly. “I asked them. They wouldn’t tell me.” Then he grinned. “But I followed them to their camp and snuck in and took some!” The frontiersman reached into his pouch and produced a medicine bag. Pompey noticed how he carefully concealed it within his hand so no distinguishing features showed. “I’m safe now.” Daniel Boone paused and then let out a long, deeply grieved sigh. “Mingo, though, he wasn’t so lucky.”
“Is the Cherokee dog dead?” Tabuka asked, hope in his voice.
“Now, Tabuka,” Dan chided, “you know Mingo’s a good man. The black men took him, and I need help to get my brother back.”
“And why would we, his enemies, help you – another enemy?”
Dan held out the medicine bag. “For this. Magic, to protect you from the boy who comes from the river.”
“I will take what you have,” Tabuka said, stepping forward.
“Ain’t gonna work. There’s only enough here for one man.” Dan’s eyes flicked to Pompey, begging for his support. “This here magic comes from a place called the West Indies. That’s where these men are from. It’s powerful, but each man’s gonna need some hangin’ around his neck. Otherwise, the whole tribe is vulnerable. Ain’t that right, Pompey?”
Pompey hesitated. He was at home with the Shawnee – what would it mean if he was a willing participant in a hoax that shamed them? And yet, Daniel Boone had freed him – saved his life.
Who did he owe more?
At last he nodded. “Among my people there is strong magic.”
“And it’s right here in Kentucky,” Dan added quickly. “Tabuka, I think I know where they went. They took the path south. All I ask for showin’ you where to find them is that you help me save Mingo. And any other captives they might have….”
The Shawnee warrior considered it a minute. Then he nodded sharply and turned to his men with a shout. As the Indian moved off, Daniel Boone whistled low and wiped sweat from his forehead. “That was more luck than sense,” he said.
“What is this all about, Daniel. Who is Mingo?” Pompey asked.
“A brother, like I said.” Dan’s green eyes pinned him. “So you do know these black men?”
He shook his head. “I know of them. Like many of my people, they have been savagely treated. They have made the choice to return that savagery in kind. And who can blame them?”
“Does that include kidnappin’ a fourteen year old boy, and makin’ him pay for what his grandpa done?”
“So, it is John Murray’s grandson you seek.”
“I thought I tracked John here.” Dan looked around. “Where is he?”
“Gone.” Pompey smiled. “With your spirit from the water.”
He shook his head. “I will explain later on.” Pompey glanced over his shoulder. Tabuka had gathered his warriors and was returning. “You never told me, Daniel, who is this Mingo really? What is Janus’ interest in him?”
Dan nodded to the Indians and then answered in a whisper. “The boy, James – well, Mingo’s his father. And Mingo’s father is John Murray.”
If he had been tied to a stake, his flesh on fire, Mingo could not have known greater pain. The thought that his son lay no more than thirty feet away, sealed in a wooden box without light, without air, food or water, and that there was absolutely nothing he could do about it was nearly enough to destroy him. He struggled madly against his bonds, but it was futile. The knots were expertly tied in a military fashion.
These men knew their business.
As he leaned back against the tree, breathless, his head throbbing and his heart hammering in his chest, Mingo considered the implications of that fact. He knew his father had established an Ethiopian Regiment in Virginia, scheming to set slaves against their masters, hoping he might turn the tide in the ongoing struggle for the colonies’ freedom. From what information came to the Cherokee, this particular scheme had ended in disaster. Mingo’s gaze flicked to the men who held him. They were strong, and of the age of soldiers.
Perhaps they had a reason to hate him.
Regardless, he thought, straining against his bonds again, his father’s sins were not James’. His son was barely more than a child, and even more than that, a child who had spent the majority of his life in England, far away from the conflicts and choices his grandfather had made. When this Janus returned, perhaps he could reason with him – at least persuade him to release James. Mingo’s thoughts strayed to the coffin shaped boxes behind him. He had not forgotten his own sense of impending doom, or the vision of Walks Through. James was in a place ‘without light’. His son would die.
Unless his father took his place.
A sound at the edge of the camp drew his attention. Mingo looked and found a party of men on horseback had arrived. The riders wore dark cloth so that, with their black skin, they seemed to fade from view. All but one, that was. He frowned as he tried to discern the face of the bedraggled splash of blue and pale skin seated behind the powerfully built black man on the second horse.
Dear God! It was Catherine.
Catherine Saynsberry flinched as the man on the ground took hold of her and pulled her from the animal’s sweat-soaked back. The moment her feet hit the ground, she shook him off. A sneer curled his upper lip and he inclined his head in mock courtesy as he stepped away and returned to his post as guardsman of the villain’s camp. With a filthy hand she shoved a lock of brown hair out of her eyes. She had no idea how many miles they had covered since she had been taken at the Boone cabin, nor where in the wilderness they were. But that didn’t matter. Only one thing did. James.
He was here. Somewhere.
English Justice dismounted after her and was speaking to a stocky black man brandishing a British musket. So far the two men had ignored her – almost as if she didn’t exist. And most certainly as if she wouldn’t run. But then, of course, they were right. She wouldn’t leave James behind. Catherine listened to them for several heartbeat. Failing to discern their words, she grew suddenly impatient.
In for a penny, in for the pound, she thought.
“Where is my son?” she demanded. “You said you would take me to him.”
The pair turned to look at her. English Justice looked mildly amused.
“I said there be a boy here, wantin’ to see his mother,” he replied, “never said she could.”
Catherine shivered violently, with fear and the frigid morn. She had taken no thought for her own safety and had left the Boone’s cabin without cloak or shawl. The dawning day held the promise to be warmer than the last, but there was also a threat of rain. At the moment, it was freezing. Clasping her arms about her quaking form, she lifted her chin and met the man’s wickedly delighted stare. “Why have you brought me here then?” she wanted to know.
“To die,” he answered.
“What have I…. What has my son ever done to you? I had never even heard your name until today. Who are you? Why are you doing this?”
English Justice caught her chin in his hand. His grip was powerful. A bit more pressure and her jaw would snap. Catherine refused to cower. He nodded his approval before he spoke again.
“I ask you a question first. If I killed your boy, what would you do to me?”
Catherine’s jaw tightened beneath his fingers. “I would consign you to Hell.”
The black man bellowed. “Just so.” Then he sobered and his eyes became a demon’s. “So what do you think I should do to the man who killed my children, my wife, my soul?”
She fought hard to control her emotions. They were rampant; flying from fear to horror and quickly back to rage. Was James dead? Was English Justice only taunting her with the hope that he might still live? Where was he?
And what was this man talking about?
“I don’t understand,” she admitted finally.
“How could you? How could you understand a man, torn from his home, enchained and enslaved, forced to work in his master’s fields until his fingers bleed from liftin’ and breakin’ rock, until he collapses and dies from the sun? What would you – with your lily white skin, your fine expensive dress, and your educated words – know of such a thing?”
“But I agree with Mr. Sharpe,” she protested, her words a breath on the wind, “slavery is an accursed thing. I have campaigned for your people’s rights. For your freedom. So has my son….”
English Justice shook his head slowly. “Be that as it may. By the color of your skin you are judged guilty.”
“Of what?” she implored him. “What have we done?”
“Your son,” he said, ‘he chose the wrong father. And you, you chose the wrong man to love.”
“Kerr?” she asked. “Why? He holds no more with slavery than I do. You should know that if you have seen him.”
“Blood for blood,” the black man said. “Blood for blood.”
“You cannot mean to imply that Kerr had anything to do with the death of your family. I simply refuse to believe it!”
English Justice stood in front of her, towering above her. He was a large man, with a broad chest and arms. The deeply dyed cloak he wore eclipsed the area behind him as it snapped and billowed in the wintry wind. He held her gaze a moment longer and then stepped aside. Lifting his arm, he pointed across the camp to a distant tree where a forlorn figure dangled like the last leaf to die.
“You go to him, and ask him for your answer.”