The Accursed Thing
It sure was a long way from Virginia to the Kentucky Territory. Oh, maybe not if you got to ride in one of those fine carriages the white folks had, or maybe, if’n you had a horse. But step by step, mile by mile, hour after hour, it was a mighty long way to freedom.
Minerva stopped in the middle of the road to get her bearings. It was late at night, or more rightly early in the morning, and though the moon was full, it was playing peek-a-boo with the clouds and at the moment doing her no good. No good at all. She couldn’t see her hand before her face, and she couldn’t be sure she was at the right spot. Janus had drawn her a map that she carried in her head. Take the northern road. Look for the place where the road bends, and when you see the tall corpse of a tree blasted white by lightning, that’s where you need to wait. I’ll come and get you, he said.
And so she was waiting.
Minerva sighed. She was sitting on a big white boulder beneath the tall white tree and she felt like a dark spot on a dawning day. In spite of her best efforts, her mind kept going back to the Boone cabin and the hospitality she had been offered there. They was good people, the Boones – kind, not hateful. And the lady staying with them, that Catherine, why, she didn’t believe in holding no slaves. Her maid Patsy, she got a wage. A wage!
It had made her feel awful – knowing what she did. Janus said he had his reasons, but in her mind there weren’t reason enough to take a child from his mother. The poor woman had been wrung out with weeping. Minerva had wanted to comfort her, but it was too hard. She was afraid she would say something she shouldn’t.
Something that would make Janus awful mad.
So when the women wasn’t looking, she had slipped out and gone. Her belly was full and that had given her the power to make it this far. Now all she had to do was wait for Janus or one of the others to come for her. He was a good man, Janus, but dark with his troubles. Maybe some day she could ease them.
If only he would let her.
A bird call close by brought her to her feet. She answered it in kind, and then watched as a lean figure wrapped in dark cloth stepped out of the underbrush to greet her. He was leading a black horse on which they would ride, moving with speed along the road to their destination. His name was Serapis, and he was a runaway slave she had known back in Virginia. As he came to her side, he asked her, “How did it go? Did they let you in?”
Minerva nodded reluctantly. “Was just a couple of women there. No men. No one else.”
“Then we’ll be able to get what supplies we need.”
Her hand caught his arm. “They’s good women. Kind to me. I don’t want no trouble for them.”
“Won’t be no trouble, Minnie. English Justice’ll see to that.” At her doubtful look Serapis added, “You trust him, don’t you?”
She trusted Janus. She trusted him to do whatever it would take to get what he wanted – no matter who or what got in his way. A long time ago English Justice had been her mama’s man. His name then had been Janus. And like that old god of the Greeks, he had two faces – one kind, the other a devil.
“He take care of us, I know that,” she said at last.
“Damn right!” Serapis took hold of her arm. “Come on now, Minnie. He’s waiting. Lot’s happened since you been gone.”
She had been sent to scout the Boone cabin for supplies and ammunition that would help them on their way to Ohio. There was plenty there, though she thought the Boones would have likely given it to them if they asked. Stealing just didn’t seem right.
“Is Janus here?” she asked.
“Don’t you go calling him that to his face, Minnie. You know better.”
“Janus was a good man,” she said quietly. He had cared for her dying mother until the end, never leaving her side.
“Janus died on Gwynn’s Island, with everyone else. Don’t you go trying to resurrect him.”
“I miss him. He was my papa.”
Serapis touched her shoulder briefly. “Now he’s everyone’s pa. And he’ll bring justice for us all. He’ll make that old white man pay.”
“They’s dead, Serapis. Dead. Nothin’ he does now can bring them back. More killin’ ain’t gonna help.”
“English Justice says it ain’t killing. It’s justice.”
Minerva frowned. “Since when is killin’ a man’s son or grandson for what he done justice? It ain’t justice. It’s revenge. And you know what the Good Book says about revenge. It ain’t ours. It’s the Lord’s.”
“And I be the messenger of the Lord,” a voice proclaimed, resounding through the woods. English Justice stepped out of the trees and opened his arms. “Minerva, child, welcome home!”
She ran into his arms as she was wont to do – as she had for nearly five years now since her mother had joined this man in his cause. He held her tightly and she felt his strength, but more and more every day Minerva was beginning to believe that it was a strength born of madness.
“What be the news you bring us?” he boomed.
Minerva looked down, not wanting to speak, but his presence was more than she had the power to resist and soon, she told him. “I been to the Boone’s home. Ain’t no one there but women. Mrs. Boone and some Englishwoman with her servant.”
“Some Englishwoman?” he prompted.
She inclined her head, afraid to face the light of evil in his eyes. “Catherine Saynsberry.”
“Ah! The boy’s mother. And Mrs. Boone. Both might come in handy if things go awry. Serapis!”
The former slave stood at attention like a soldier. “Sir!”
“Watch the cabin. See that they do not leave.”
“What will you do with them?” Minerva asked him nervously. “They was kind to me.”
“Why, we will keep them safe, Min.” English Justice placed his arm about her shoulder. “It is good to have you with us again. Come, and you can tell me everythin’.”
Once Janus’ touch had filled her with warmth, making her feel safe and secure. Since the horrible events of Gwynn’s Island all of that had changed. Now, it made her shudder. Janus had died, as Serapis said, and in his place had risen a phoenix from the ashes – a dark man bent on revenge.
A man named English Justice.
James groaned with waking. He licked his cracked lips and shifted his head. Around him was the familiar black nothing he had come to expect, a black nothing that echoed the despair in his soul. He had lost track of time and had no idea how long he had been in the box. All he knew was that he was freezing and so thirsty he thought he was going to die. Whoever it was that called him, his voice was the first he had heard since English Justice had ordered the nails pounded in, sealing his fate.
“Go away,” he moaned.
must listen to me.
“No. Leave me alone. Let me die.”
is your father.
It was hard to tell if his eyes were open or closed. No light penetrated his prison. James squinted, closing them tightly, and then opened his eyes wide so he knew he was awake. Then he let his head sink back against the hard wooden floor of the box.
I must be going mad, he thought.
Within you, James, is the seed of me. My blood runs in your veins. We are connected and can never be parted. James, do not despair. Do not lose hope. I am coming.
He knew it could happen. Hi military instructor at the academy had explained it. Men in solitary confinement lose touch with reality. But it usually took weeks if not months. Maybe he was just that weak.
You are strong, James. You will survive.
“Who are you? Get out of my head!” he shouted, growing irritated.
James. I am reaching for you. Reach out to me. Help me find you.
He was breathing fast now, truly frightened that he was losing his mind. James strained at the shackles that bound his wrists and backed as far as he could into the corner of the hated box, as if it could offer him sanctuary from this creeping madness. Like a caged animal, he panted, his heart racing, his chest rising and falling rapidly.
And then a strange thing happened.
There was a light in the darkness.
Far away a man stood on the crest of a knoll, his hands stretched out. Behind him a fire blazed. His silhouette was cut against a shower of sparks that rose into the night sky like fireflies on the wing.
And suddenly, James was no longer in prison.
He was free.
He found himself standing at the bottom of the knoll, looking up at the man who had given him life.
Cara-Mingo of the Cherokee looked down. His strong features were partially obscured by the night and the fire’s light, but his eyes – brown and sure as the bones of the earth beneath his feet – sparked with love and determination.
James. You must hold on until I can find you.
“But I’m tired,” he answered, “and it is so dark. So dark inside the box, Father, that I feel the blackness in my soul.”
Are you in
the box now, James?
He thought a moment. “I must be, for I cannot get out.”
Am I in the
James shook his head. “No.”
A man sits in total darkness. Imprisoned. His heart in despair. He thinks he cannot live, cannot go on. Believes it would be better to die. Then he hears a bird singing and suddenly he knows – he knows, James – that he is free! He is not in prison at all, but outside, in the night. When you think you cannot go on, come here. Come to this place.
Come to me.
“Father.” James reached toward him. “Are you really here?”
Mingo knelt and his fingers moved toward his son’s. I am in your heart. It is there you must go to survive.
James extended his hand as far as it would go. His father’s fingertips were barely an inch away. As he stretched even farther the fireflies rose to engulf his father’s strong frame and for a brief moment he saw him as he really was, seated at another fire, far, far away. Mingo’s eyes were closed and his hands lay limp on his legs. His lips moved in fervent prayer.
James awoke sweat-soaked and shaking.
But at peace.
Minerva had come back to the camp and set about her chores. Back in Virginia she had lived in the big house on the plantation and been a lady’s maid. Miss Harriet had been kind to her. She never beat her or spoke unkind words. When one of her dresses wore out, why, Miss Harriet would always give it to her ‘Sweet Min’. From the time she could remember, she had taken care of the master’s youngest daughter. They’d been more like sisters than anything else.
Until the day Miss Harriet died and everything changed.
The old master was an angry man. He wore his own wife down to nothing and drove away most of his kin. The only one who could do anything with him was Miss Harriet and, once she was laid in the cold, cold earth, there was no stopping him.
Minerva pressed her fingers to her shoulder. Wearing the fine blue dress Miss Harriet had given her last, you couldn’t see it, but she knew it was there. A scar six inches long that crawled across her shoulder and ended at her throat. The master had come to kill her. He blamed her for Miss Harriet’s death. She’d tended her when she was dying, but even the doctor from the city had said weren’t no way she could live with the cough. The master found her when she was alone. He slapped her hard and threw her to the floor. Then, screaming, cussing, crying, he ripped her dress right off and struck her with the riding crop he carried, slicing her flesh.
Weren’t all that long ago, Minerva reminded herself as she picked up a pair of britches and her sewing kit. Weren’t nothing wrong with still being afraid, even if it’d been years ago. As she picked up her stitching and sat down, her eyes flicked to Janus where he stood talking to another of the men over by the fire. Janus had been hiding in one of the barns on the plantation, working on his plan, recruiting men to go north with him so he could take his revenge on the man he blamed for all his woes. Serapis heard her screaming and went to get him. Janus had burst in.
Old master wouldn’t be hurting no one no more.
Even as a slight smile curled her lips, Minerva pricked her finger on the needle. God was pricking her conscience, she thought. Telling her that taking joy at such a thing was wrong. Old master was hurting and so he hurt her. Janus was hurting, and so he hurt the master. She was sure the old master’s men were still hunting them, wanting to hurt someone again, and Janus wanted to hurt this Lord Dunsmore.
Where would it end?
She looked up surprised. In the time she had been thinking, Janus had crossed to her side. Laying her sewing in her lap, she asked, “Yes?”
“Serapis and me, we be going huntin’. I need you to keep an eye on the boy. Will you do that for me?”
She had wondered about their prisoner. When she came into camp, she had expected to see the young Englishman Serapis had told her about. It had been a terrible thing, full of killing, they had done to take him. She hadn’t been there. Wasn’t allowed to be. But Serapis had told her about it before he sent her on her way to the Boones’.
Laying her needlework down, Minerva rose to her feet. “You know I’d do anythin’ for you. You my papa.”
Janus laid his hand along her face. “I love you, child. You know that. I be doin’ this for you as much as for me. For you, and all the motherless children.”
He believed it. She’d tried to tell him no killing was gonna make her happy. But he wouldn’t listen. The demons had him, and Janus was bent on Hell.
“I know you loved my mama,” she answered quietly.
For just a moment a softness entered his eyes. He crushed her close and she felt he might almost weep. But then he pushed her back and the flint of vengeance struck hate in his eyes. “Lord Dunsmore took her from me. And now I will take from him all he holds dear.”
Minerva shivered. She pulled her shawl about her shoulders quickly, so he would think it was with the cold night. “Where is the boy?” she asked.
He stared at her a moment and then stepped back. Turning, he pointed to a secluded corner of the camp. There was nothing there but an old tree and one of the odd boxes he had had Serapis craft once they set up camp. That had been Serapis job at the plantation, he was a carpenter, like she was a seamstress.
“I don’t see nothin’,” she said. Then, she saw it in his eyes – a kind of joy. The kind she had felt when she thought about Janus and the knife and what he had done to her old master. “He ain’t – in it – is he?”
“Somethin’ be wrong with that?” he asked.
“He’s a boy,” she said. “Ain’t no man who done somethin’ to you or yours.”
Like a snake Janus’ hand struck, catching her throat, forcing her to confront the demon in his eyes. “My boy did nothin’. My girl, she did nothin’! Your mama…did nothing…. None of them did nothing but die. Someone’s gotta pay.”
“I thought Lord Dunsmore was the one you wanted to pay.”
Janus face broke with a grin – one as wicked as the old Nick’s heart. “I do. I does. And he will pay, Minnie. Oh, how he’ll pay. First he’ll lose everything that he holds dear….” Janus’ eyes grew distant. “And then he’ll live forever in Hell.”
She knew he was speaking of himself. That’s where Janus was.
Minerva turned toward the tree under which the box lay. She couldn’t imagine being trapped like that. Unable to move. To breathe. “You just gonna leave him in there…‘til he dies?”
“If he’s lucky,” Janus snorted.
“You’re bein’ cruel. No person’s meant to live like that.”
The older man looked on her with sorrow. “You don’t know. You don’t know how it be. It is only justice.”
Janus had been
born in the West Indies and brought to the colonies in a slave ship.
She remembered now how he had told her they had been chained to the
floor, in a space no bigger than a coffin, unable to sit or stand; left to
wallow in their own filth and urine, chained to the rotting bodies of those who
did not have the will to survive the journey – or who chose to die.
She had never known such things. She
had been born to her mother on a plantation in South Carolina, and traveled to
Virginia with her when she was sold. And
that weren’t even in a wagon, but a coach.
Maybe if she had seen one of the ships she could understand. But she didn’t think so.
Her mama had always told her, Minerva, girl, two wrongs don’t make
“What you want me to do?” she asked. “Tend him?”
Janus looked at her and laughed. He kissed her on the top of her head and then began to walk away. Over his shoulder he threw back, “You just make sure them nails, they stay in place.”
“Boy. Boy, you in there?”
James slowly opened his eyes. For a moment, he felt as if he was going to fall, but then recognized it as the dizziness that had become his constant companion. His heart was pounding rapidly, and as every hour passed he felt less able to think, to draw a breath. He knew he was probably dying.
“Boy? You hear me?”
Closing his eyes, James rested his head on the floor of the wooden box. Every so many hours the man named English Justice had come rapping on the lid, startling and taunting him. He had learned to ignore it and just go back to sleep.
“Boy. Please. Tell me you’re alive.”
Something in the voice penetrated his lethargy – the unexpected sound of compassion. He lifted his head and moaned, but his cracked lips would give no answer.
that!” The voice was close.
It whispered, “Thank the Lord! Can
His mouth was so dry, there was nothing there to wet his lips. Speaking was painful, but he managed to croak, “Yes.”
“How long you been in there? One day?”
“God in Heaven!” There was a pause, then the speaker continued. “I ain’t got much time. He’ll be back soon. I don’t know what I can do….”
“Water….” James gasped. “I need…water.”
The voice grew closer, as if the speaker had moved or leaned in over him. When they spoke again, he realized it was a woman, which surprised him. “You wait a minute. I be back,” she said.
Those words left him bereaved. “No….”
“I be back. I promise.”’
The minutes were agony. The hope of compassion was almost more devastating than the reality of the pain he suffered.
Then, blessedly, she returned. “There’s a hole here. A knot in the wood that’s loose. Can you see it?”
James blinked. All he could see was blackness. “No.”
“Reach out. Feel the side of the box toward the top.”
Painfully, he did as he was told. The chains restricted him, but he used his fingers to crawl as far as he could along the smooth seam where the two planks met to make the box’s side and floor. Suddenly, unexpectedly, his fingers made contact with flesh.
“That’s it! You feelin’ my hand. Take what’s in it.”
The woman’s fingers dropped something into his palm. It was small and smooth and cold.
“What’s…this?” he asked.
“A pebble. Back where I come from they used to put people in boxes. Sometimes for weeks. My mama told me if I was ever to be put in one to take a pebble with me and suck on it. It ain’t water, but it’ll keep you from losin’ your mind ‘til I can figure out how to get you some.”
“Suck on it?”
“Yes. And don’t breathe through your lips. Keep your lips closed tight and suck in through your nose.” The woman hesitated and then said, her words falling quickly, “I gotta go. He’s comin’.”
“Wait….” James called.
“What? I gotta go.”
“Why? Why…are you…doing this?”
There was another pause. A long one.
“Because I can’t do nothin’ else.”