The Accursed Thing
Mingo sat down heavily. He had paced the lean-to’s small enclosure, unable to remain still, until he grew light-headed and nauseous. Daniel and Catherine were right. He would have proved a liability to the frontiersman if he had insisted on going along to look for James and the others. Being trapped beneath the earth’s surface had taken more out of him than he was willing to admit. He had lied to Daniel before. It was not something he was proud of, but he had done it to spare his friend. He had wakened shortly after English Justice consigned him to his premature grave to the sound of heavy clods of earth striking the box’s wooden lid. He had lain there awake as the earth ceased to fall and everything became eerily silent. He thought he had made his peace with death, but he was wrong. Dying on the battlefield, with honor or the chance to sacrifice himself for some noble cause was one thing. Death by slow suffocation was another. It had only been at the last that he had lost consciousness.
Suppressing a shudder, Mingo pulled the woolen blanket Catherine had used to cover him close about his shoulders. He still could not get warm. It had finally stopped raining, but the low-lying fog had not dispersed and lay on the land like a thick gray snow. James was out there. Somewhere. And though Catherine assured him their son was with Pompey, he did not believe it was so. He had not forgotten the spirit truth whispered to him, that someone would die this day.
And he was still alive.
“I told you I could stop it,” a young voice announced from close behind him.
Mingo did not need to look to know who it was. “And I told you to go back to Chota, Walks Through.”
The Cherokee boy came to stand before him. He stared at him for a moment and then, impulsively, threw his arms around his neck. Mingo held him tightly. When he released him at last, the boy turned and looked into the distance.
“Death has come,” he said. “But not for you.”
Mingo tensed. “James?” he asked.
The boy glanced over his shoulder at him. Then he smiled.
At that moment the fog parted and Daniel Boone appeared. Three bedraggled figures followed after him. There was young man, leaning on a mulatto girl who seemed to be holding him up. And a black man he did not know. For just a moment, seeing the rifle in the African’s hand, Mingo feared the worst. But then he saw Catherine running toward the group and realized just who the wiry young man was as he fell into her arms.
His son had grown.
Mingo gave them a moment and then he walked slowly toward them. It had been nearly two years since he had said goodbye to James and seen him off on a ship bound for England. Since that time, they had corresponded regularly, but of late James’ replies to his letters had slowed.
He understood from Catherine that James had not wanted to come to the Colonies.
Daniel met him halfway there. “He’s all right, Mingo,” he said. “You have quite a boy there.” Then he handed him a braided piece of cloth that resembled a sling.
“What is this?”
Dan grinned. “The weapon David used to slay Goliath. English Justice is dead.”
Mingo stared at the instrument in his hand. It was made of linen braided into a rope. He glanced at James whose shredded shirttail was billowing in the wind. “James?” he asked.
“Puttin’ a braided cord to good use seems to run in the family,” his friend laughed as he slapped him on the back.
The word still took him by surprise. For so long it had seemed an impossibility, and then the reality of it had faded to a dream once James left. As Daniel moved away, he turned to look at the boy.
No, the man.
Mingo saw him looking too, noting his various injuries. He did the same. James had been beaten soundly. His flesh was bruised. He was ghostly pale, and his eyes were fevered. Pain narrowed them and tightened his jaw, and he was slightly hunched, as if his side or stomach hurt.
The battle was not over.
“James,” he said, not knowing what else to say. “I wish I could say you look well….”
James laughed, but sobered quickly. “Daniel told me. What they did to you.”
“I am here. I survive.”
His son held his hand out. Mingo took it. “I know,” James said, “I did too.”
Between them there was something unspoken, a bond no one else could understand or ever know. They had walked through the fire together, and they were stronger.
Mingo nodded and opened his arms.
And embraced his son.
Later that day, while James rested, Mingo went to see his father.
He found him kitted up and ready to go.
The older man was bending down, tying a few rations into a cloth. When he straightened up he saw him. His look was chagrinned.
“Son,” he said.
John Murray waited, he knew – for him to speak that word. He found, as usual, that he could not. The reason, he knew, that he had trouble with the word ‘father’ was this man and the meaning his actions had given to it.
“I see you are leaving,” Mingo remarked at last, avoiding using any name at all.
“Yes.” His father reached for his frock coat and pulled it on over a badly soiled linen shirt. “I harbor no false hope that I am wanted – or welcome here. It is time I went back to New York, and home.”
“You sail for England then?”
The older man’s pale blue eyes found his. “Unless my country calls me to duty. If it does, I must answer as I have always done.”
There it was. The thing that stood between them, just as it had that day this man had taken his hand beside his mother’s grave and walked him away from everything he had known.
The thing that had almost gotten him and his son killed.
“So, you have no regrets?” Mingo asked. There was more of a challenge in his voice than he intended. What good would it do to try to make his father think outside his particular box? One might as well flail a dead horse and expect it to rise.
“For what I did in Virginia? No. I have no regrets. You have to admit that I offered something to this country’s blacks that your vaunted saints in Philadelphia will never offer them. The price of white freedom may be blood, but the price of black freedom is economic disaster. Those in the South will fight to their dying breath to preserve their hideous institution. Even your godlike Washington.” His father drew a breath and let it out slowly. “But do I regret the price paid by so many for the choices which I made? Yes, deeply.”
“Have you seen James?” Mingo asked.
His father turned away quickly. He thought he had seen tears enter his eyes. “When he was sleeping,” the older man said as he shouldered his rifle. “I don’t imagine he would care to see me.”
“James loves you,” Mingo said quietly. “I think you are wrong.”
“And what about you, my son? What are your feelings for your father?”
The question was blunt, and it took him by surprise. He hesitated, unsure of what to say.
“Ah. So I thought.” John Murray moved to stare out at the green world just waking from the gray slumber of the night before. “I used to watch you with your mother. And her brother, Menewa. They were so at ease with you. They loved you for who you were.” His father looked back at him. As he spoke, his voice broke with realized grief. “I only saw the man you could – and should be. Kerr, I lost so many years. In trying so desperately to hold on, I am afraid, in the end, I also lost you.” At his look, his father smiled wearily. “Don’t look so horrified. I am an old man. I am allowed to become sentimental.”
“I…. I don’t know what to say,” Mingo answered.
“You don’t need to say anything.” The older man walked to his side and looked into his eyes. “When I saw you, lying there in that box, I realized that there was a very real possibility that we would never see each other again – never be able to say anything.” His father rested his hand on his shoulder. “Know this: I love you, son.” With a gentle squeeze of his fingers, his father turned and walked away.
A soft sound caught his attention, and Mingo pivoted to find Catherine watching them. He did not turn away to hide his tears.
“Your father’s leaving?” she asked as she came to his side.
She gazed at him a minute. “I’m sorry.”
“For your loss. For never really having had a father.” Catherine dropped her head. “And for my depriving you of your son.”
“I will not say I was not angry when I found out,” he admitted honestly. “I would never have willingly done to James what my father did to me.”
“Abandoned him, you mean?” Catherine wrapped her arms about her slender frame. “I don’t know why I didn’t write. Maybe I was afraid.”
“That you would do what your father had done. Come and take him away from me.”
“I would never – ”
“The Murrays are very powerful. What chance would I have had? And, since I didn’t have – you – well, at least I had a part of you.” Her smile was rueful. “You don’t care for me at all, do you?”
She placed her fingers on his lips. “Hush. It doesn’t matter. It was just a school girl dream. Besides,” she stepped back and sized him up, “somehow I don’t see you fitting into genteel society.”
Mingo laughed. “So you will go back to England?”
“I don’t know.” Catherine’s aspect darkened. “There are…certain things to be settled before any decisions can be made.”
“Catherine, what is it?”
She shook her head. “My convictions are being put to the test.”
“How is that?”
She took his hand. “Come with me.”
They walked across the camp together. Along the way Daniel greeted them and asked about his father. When he told him the older man had decided to travel alone, the frontiersman nodded, understanding. Then he told them that Pompey had found the wagon Serapis had used and was fitting it up so they could carry James back to Boonesborough where he could heal.
His son had fallen into a fever the night of their return. They had waited, hoping to allow him time to recover before subjecting him to the rigorous trip to the settlement. Now as a new day dawned they had all agreed.
It was time to go home.
Catherine led him toward the shelter Pompey and Daniel had erected over his son. Walks Through was there, a rifle in his brown hands, keeping watch. The boy stood as he approached and grinned.
“Walks Through, I must thank you for all you have done for my family.”
Family. Another word that sounded sweet but strange on his tongue.
The boy reached out and touched his hand, and then skittered away without saying a word. Mingo watched him for a moment and then turned back to Catherine. She met his puzzled stare and then nodded toward the enclosure.
Mingo brushed aside the blanket covering the opening and looked within. When he turned back to James’ mother, his ebon eyebrows nearly brushed his hair.
James was lying on his back asleep. The young mulatto woman, Minerva, lay by his side. Her cheek rested on his shoulder and one hand was on his chest. His arm encircled her waist.
“Oh,” he said. “I…see….”
It was quite a homecoming. Mingo was not certain he had ever seen a woman as much relieved as Rebecca Boone. Jemima had sent up the cry the moment she saw them approaching, and it had not taken long for Israel and the entire Boone menagerie – which included at the moment yet another bear cub, a wounded deer and goat – to join in the joyful proclamation. Rebecca came flying out of the house into her husband’s arms and before the tall frontiersman could say a word, smothered Daniel in kisses. Mingo watched them, all too aware of Catherine’s mute form at his side. This was the choice he had made. To walk alone.
At times like this it was hard.
“Mingo!” Rebecca gasped, turning toward him. “What happened to you? And Catherine, my goodness, look at you! Come inside, both of you, before you fall over.” Becky paused then and looked about. She paled as she asked, “Where’s James?”
“In the wagon. He and Wah-kah-mo-gah are not far behind.”
“Wah-kah-mo-gah? You mean Pompey is with you?”
He nodded. “The wagon he is driving has a pin that does not seem to understand it is meant to stay in the wheel.” Mingo massaged his neck as he said it, reminded all too keenly of what they had just escaped. “James will need care for some time.”
“He’s welcome here. You’re all welcome here!”
Catherine looked sheepish. “Even me?” she asked softly.
Rebecca planted her hands on her hips and wrinkled her nose. “You owe me a teapot.”
The Englishwoman sighed. “I owe you much more than that. An apology to begin with.”
Daniel’s wife waved her hand, dismissing Catherine’s fear. “There’s one thing no mother ever has to explain – protecting her children. Now come inside before you catch your death, both of you.”
“You go ahead, Catherine. I will wait for the wagon,” Mingo said.
She turned to him. “James will be fine. We’ll all be fine.” And then she squeezed his hand and followed Daniel and his family into the cabin.
Catherine had noticed that he did not mention Minerva.
He was not certain what he thought about his son and the young mulatto woman. It was not so much her color, as their age. James was nearly seventeen, and in many ways a man. Minerva, as he understood it, was close to a year younger, but life had compelled her to mature entirely too soon. On the trip back she had spoken softly of her own struggles, of her mother and how the gentle woman had come to love a man capable of such violence. She humbly told them how she had decided to defy English Justice, and placed her life in peril to save his son’s. Mingo respected her. She was strong. But it pained him to think what his son and this young woman would face should they choose to bind their fates together. It troubled him as well that their link had been forged through peril. They were young. It would take them time to sort out what they felt.
But the young were impatient as well.
Mingo remained on the porch, waiting until the wagon bearing his son rumbled into view. Pompey was at the reins. He could see Minerva’s brown head crowning just above the back of the seat. She was in the bed, keeping watch. Walks Through had left that duty to her, choosing as they neared the road to Chota to finally do as he had told him to and go home.
Pompey reined in the horses, drawing the wagon to a halt. He jumped down from the seat and approached him. “Where do you want the boy?” he asked.
“Rebecca will have prepared the back room,” Mingo answered. “We’ll take him inside.”
The black man looked him up and down. “No offense, Mingo, but I think I’ll go get Daniel to help me lift him. You look weak-kneed as a churchman!”
He started to protest, but then he saw Minerva rise. She glanced at him and then, as if frightened, quickly moved from the back of the wagon and headed for the Boone’s well. He nodded, accepting Pompey’s appraisal and, without a word, took off in pursuit.
By the time he caught up to her Minerva was pulling on the rope, hand over hand, lifting the bucket from the bottom of the well. She hesitated as she sensed his approach, and then began to pull even faster. When the bucket was resting on the stone, she filled a tin cup with water and turned back toward the wagon.
“James is thirsty,” she announced as she started to move away.
“Minerva, please. Wait.”
The young woman halted. She didn’t look at him. “What is it?”
“I’d like to speak with you.”
Her body tensed. For a moment she remained still, then she turned toward him. “You don’t like me, do you?”
“Whatever gave you that impression?”
“I seen you watchin’ me. And James. You don’t think I’s good enough for him.”
“Minerva, I think nothing of the sort. You are a beautiful young woman. Brave and self-sacrificing. What more could a father ask…for his son.”
Her hand went to her hip and she glared at him – looking so much like a disapproving Rebecca Boone that he almost laughed. “Then why are you lookin’ at me like that?”
She huffed. “Like you don’t like me!”
He thought a moment and then decided that honesty was the most promising policy after all. “I am worried for my son.”
“Because of what I am,” Minerva countered sharply.
“Yes,” he answered. That startled her into silence. “And, because of what I am. Minerva, I have had to live, divided, all of my life. It is not an easy road to walk.”
“You chose to be an Indian. You could have passed.”
So that was it. She and James must have discussed it. While it was true she might ‘pass’ as a white on sight, Minerva had far to go to fit in – even in a place such as Boonesborough.
“Yes, I could have. But I would not have been true to myself. I could not deny half my heritage. Half of who I am.”
“It ain’t the same,” she pouted.
And she was right.
“No, it is not. While some think of Indians as animals, and many revile them, we are not considered property. Well, at least here in the colonies.” He hesitated and then added, “I understand from what you have told us, that you are not a free woman.”
Minerva’s head sunk to her chest. “My mama and I, we run away with Janus. Her master weren’t a hard man. Mama thought he let us go.”
Mingo drew a deep breath and held it. She was so young. James was so young. And the world was a hard place for anyone who was different.
“Well, we will not settle this here and now. First James must get better and then, then we will see what the future holds for all of us. But know this, Minerva,” Mingo grinned, “I do like you. I like you very much.”
The young woman ducked her head and returned his smile. “Mister Mingo, I like you too.”