The Accursed Thing

Chapter Four

 

            Daniel Boone opened his eyes and stretched, and then let out a discouraged moan when he saw it was still dark.  Mingo had taken the first watch and he had hoped to saw logs until his friend returned to rouse him.  Looking at the moon where it rode low on a bank of clouds he reckoned he still had about two hours before that would happen. 

            Sergeant Caragrew, on the other hand, was having no trouble cutting through the trees.  The British officer was snoring so loudly Dan was sure the Shawnee up in their village north of the Ohio must be able to hear him.  He thought about giving the man a nudge but quickly changed his mind.  Sergeant Caragrew was not a young man, and years of battle experience had probably made him mighty quick with that musket that lay only a few inches from his fingers.

            Rising to his feet Dan stretched again, working the kinks out of his long lanky legs, and then he ambled over to the fire.  The night was chilly but not cold, so they had let the fire burn down.  It was safer that way.  Still, the coals glowed and he could see their suppertime coffee pot dangling an inch or two above them.  Testing the pot with his fingers, Dan grinned.

            Yep. Still warm.

            Catching a tin cup from the ground, he poured himself a half cup and sipped it, letting the metal warm his hands.  Then he turned in a half-circle, checking for signs that would indicate which path his Indian friend had chosen.  It was then Dan noticed the other empty bed roll.

            Lord Dunsmore was afoot.

            Dan didn’t know what to make of the transplanted Englishman.  What he heard through official channels he didn’t much like.  Most of the folks he talked to who had doings with Virginia’s former royal governor-general didn’t use words he would have wanted to repeat in polite – or even impolite company.  People didn’t cotton too much to his uppity attitude, his taking of the powder at Williamsburg, or his calling on people’s slaves to rise up against their masters.  Dan took another sip and then tossed the remainder of the stale coffee into the grass.  There’d been a rumor that last one had ended badly.

            Still, the problem for Dan was not what he thought of Lord Dunsmore, the Royal governor, but what he thought of John Murray, the father of his friend.  He’s witnessed firsthand what Murray’s return two years before had done to the Cherokee warrior.  Mingo became another man.  But then his friend was close about his personal life.  Part of Mingo’s unease was probably just that – other people being in his business.  Still, down deep, there were undercurrents that ran between the two men that even the most experienced oarsman would have avoided.

            Dan stood for a moment, contemplating his next action.  Should he check with Mingo, or check on Lord Dunsmore?   He thought about it for a minute, and then hefted his rifle to his shoulder and headed after the older man.  Mingo’d just clam up like a shell.

            Maybe he’d have more luck with his father.

            He found the older man, not far away, perched atop a rock that overlooked a small stream.  Stripped of his elegant finery, wearing a deep blue hunter’s frock over a linen shirt and a pair of soft doeskin breeches with rough brown boots, with the moonlight staining his silver hair blond, the Englishman looked much as Dan imagined he must have when he first came to the colonies all those years ago as a young surveyor.

            “I see you too were unable to sleep, Mr. Boone,” Dunsmore remarked abruptly.

            Dan laughed.  “And here I thought I was gonna surprise you.”

            Lord Dunsmore turned, revealing the elegant Scottish flintlock he held his hand – one that had been concealed from view.  “I’ve been aware for some time that someone was approaching.  You forget that I once walked these lands much as you do, as a young man in search of adventure.”

            “Adventure?  That what brought you here?” Dan asked as he took a seat on another rock.

            “That and other things common to man – ambition, and a desire for glory.”

            Dan thought about that a minute.  “So you were lookin’ forward?  Not lookin’ back, hopin’ to leave somethin’ behind?”

            The older man turned toward him.  The moon was high and full and its argent light bathed the Englishman’s face, etching it with a sudden sadness.  “I believe now, sir, that you speak of my son.”

            “Lord Dunsmore – ”

            “No.”  He held up a hand.  “Do not use that title here, Mr. Boone.  It is not Lord Dunsmore who stands before you this night, but John Murray.  Nothing more than a man in search of his grandson.”

            Dan hesitated a moment.  Scratching his chin, he asked, “So what do I call you?  John?”

            The other man laughed.  “It is my name.”

            Dan grinned.  “Somehow it just don’t seem…well…eminent enough.”

            John Murray stepped down off the rock.  “His Eminence is eminently weary, Mr. Boone.  I grow tired of the game.”

            “Dan.”

            “Pardon me?”

            Dan shrugged.  “I gotta call you ‘John’, you gotta call me ‘Dan’.”

            Murray laughed.  “How about Daniel?”

            “That’ll do.”  Then he added quietly, “Like father, like son.”

            The Englishman’s eyes clouded again, and he looked away.  After a moment, Mingo’s father rose and began to pace.  After about fifty footsteps of silence, he turned back and asked, “Daniel, may I tell you a story?”

            Dan got comfortable.  “Tell away.”

            “A father went to his son’s room to find the boy missing.  It was late and there was no reason for him to be absent.  The father was angry.  He called the servants and questioned them one by one until his son’s tutor confessed that the boy had gone deep into the woods. 

            “The trail was easy to follow.  The boy had not yet learned how to mask his steps; how to remain invisible and to avoid those who would seek to harm him.  Following a trail of footsteps crushed into the grass, the father found the boy in the heart of the forest in a small hut with an old woman who was using magic to tell his future.  The father was livid.  He took the boy by the ear and dragged him back to the estate.” 

            Dunsmore paused.

“Then he thrashed him until he could not lay or sit.

            “It’s a familiar story, to most fathers, Daniel.  When your son is born you tell yourself you will let him be his own man.  You hope he will prove a better man than you.  Be stronger.  More capable than you are.  Then the time comes to allow it – to let the boy fly.  It is then that you realize you do not really wish to give him his freedom, but to chain him to the expectations of how great you had dreamed he would be.”

            Dan drew a breath, uncertain of what to say.  “I know you and Mingo have your differences, John, but – ”

            The older man’s smile was unexpected.  “Who said I was talking about Mingo?”

            “Oh.”

            My father did not approve of my interest in our people’s ancient ways, or of my coming to the colonies as a surveyor.  He feared I would expire in the wilderness and then, where would the family be?  Not being the eldest, I paid little heed to what he said.  Or wanted.”  John Murray crossed to the stream again and stared at the running water.  “It was not far from here that I first met her.  Mingo’s mother, Talota.  They called her Singing Wind.”  He closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.  “Even today, when I hear her son sing, I hear her.”

            There were plenty of jokes, most of them mean-spirited, about how and why an English earl’s son and a Cherokee woman had met, married, and had a son.  Dan knew a little of the truth of it from Mingo.  Apparently John Murray had saved Talota from the Creek, and – whether in gratitude or in love – in time she had come to love him. 

            “I told Mingo this was my castle, and for a short time it was.  But all too soon duty called.  My elder brothers died.  My father was dealt a blow from which he never recovered.  I was called home to take my proper place and to put the things of the child behind me.”  He paused and then looked back at him.  “I grew up.”

            “And Mingo never did, you mean.  That’s where you and he parted.”

            John Murray nodded.   “To quote the Bard, ‘I hold my duty as I hold my soul, both to my God and to my gracious king.’  Mingo holds duty to no one but himself.”          

            Dan’s jaw tightened at that.  And yet, in a way it was true.  His friend was a loner, a man with a keen conscience and deeply held intrinsic beliefs which no one could alter.   “That’s my friend you’re talkin’ about,” he said at last.

            “I know.  And I am grateful he has such a friend as you.  In England, as Kerr, he walked a tightrope of emotion.”  John Murray paused and looked up.  “Here, beneath Talota’s trees, he is free.”

            “You mean that?” Dan asked, astonished.

            “Mean it?  Yes.  But will I ever admit I said it?”  the Englishman grinned.  “Not even under oath.  Now, Daniel, allow me to ask you a question?”

            “Sure.”

            “Why aren’t you asleep?”

 

###

 

            Mingo stood on the crest of a knoll, looking back toward the camp where his friend and father lay sleeping.  The action he contemplated would anger them both.  And place them both in danger since they would be losing another pair of eyes and hands.  But the risk was a necessary one.  He could not shake the feeling that his presence among them was a greater threat, that somehow, he had become a magnet for destruction.  The sense of impending doom which had haunted him since the day his of his father’s arrival, had not abated.  If anything, it had grown stronger in the last few hours.  Someone was going to die.  And if he had any choice in the matter it would be not be Daniel or his father.  And certainly not James….

            It would be him.

            Whoever the villains were who had stolen his son, they had targeted James’ party.  But to what purpose?  To take a fourteen year old boy?  That hardly seemed likely.  No, much more likely James was only the bait – for him, or for his father.  He had asked his father what he had done.  Within John Murray’s eyes there had been written an answer.

            Only time would tell if he had read it right.

            Daniel would be angered by his desertion, but hardly surprised.  When he had left for the watch, his friend had not given his inevitable lecture that invariably ended with, ‘Now, Mingo, promise me you won’t….’  Daniel had not made him promise.

            That made it easier for him to go.

            Tucking his rifle under his arm Mingo headed north.  When he and Daniel had spoken to his father’s men, they had indicated the attack took place north of the settlement, up toward the Ohio and Shawnee country.  It was not a safe place for him to go alone.  He knew that.  But this way, he would not have to bear the burden of another life on his conscience.  And, in the end –

            James was his son.

             Mingo started to jog, keeping an easy even pace so he would not tire too soon.  From what the soldiers said, James had almost made it.  The party had been very close.  Less than twenty miles from the settlement when they were surprised.  The soldiers had given him directions, so he knew just where to go.  Not that he expected to find James there, but from there he should be able to pick up his kidnapers’ trail.

            About an hour later Mingo paused to rest.  Standing in the middle of a field of tall grasses, he waited while a deer he had spooked from hiding hurtled over the amber waves and disappeared into the foliage that bordered its eastern side.  Drawing his water-skin over his head he took a drink.  As he recapped it, a sound drew his attention back to the path he had already walked.

It was then he realized he was not alone.

            Dropping to his knees, Mingo listened.  It couldn’t be Daniel or his father.  Whoever was moving through the tall grass barely parted the blades.  Gripping his rifle, he waited – expectant, wary, prepared.  And so, when the grasses directly before him finally divided and a slender brown figure appeared, the stranger found himself on the receiving end of the barrel of his gun.

            Mingo scowled and then lowered the rifle.

            It was Walks Through.

            “What are you doing here?” he asked, his tone more strident than intended.

            The boy’s brown eyes were wide and dreamy.  He looked as if he had only just awakened.  “I want to help,” he replied.

            “Well, you can’t.”  Mingo rose to his feet and began to walk back the way he had come, pulling the boy along after him. When Walks Through dug in his feet and refused to move, Mingo became exasperated.  “How did you get here anyway?  Did you follow us to the settlement?”

            “Menewa needed supplies.”

            Mingo crossed his arms.  “And did he get them?”

            The boy looked sheepish.  “I sent Eats Corn back with them.”

            Eats Corn was Walk Through’s constant companion.  A chubby muddy-skinned boy who had earned his name for consuming the most roasted ears during one of their corn festivals.  “So you could follow me.”

            Walks Through wasn’t about to lie.  “You need me.”

            “I most certainly do not.”  Mingo couldn’t tell the boy his fear – that his death premonition might be for him.  Guilt washed over him at the momentary relief that thought brought, dislodging as it did the image of his finding his son’s corpse at the end of his journey.  “Come with me and we’ll share some food, and then you must go back.”

            At the edge of the field near where the deer had disappeared, they sat on the ground together and shared some jerky and water.  Walks Through disappeared for a few minutes and came back with several handfuls of bright berries stuffed in his pouch.  They ate in silence for the most part, but as they neared the end of their makeshift feast , the boy turned his rich brown eyes on him and pleaded, “Cara-Mingo, let me go with you.”

            “It is not safe, Walks Through – ”

            “No.  It is not.”  The boy hesitated, as if summoning a stronger will from deep within.  Then he pointed his finger at Mingo’s chest.  “It is not safe for you.”

            Walks Through was a curious lad, quiet, he kept to himself most of the time.  He had few friends other than Eats Corn, and theirs was an adversarial friendship brought on by the fact that Eats Corns’ mother had adopted him into their family.  There were few people he would allow in.  Mingo was not sure he was one of them.  His uncle, Menewa, was.  But then it had been Menewa who had found the boy wandering in the wild, his feet worn to the bone from walking so many miles.  To this day he had told them little.  His parents were dead; he would not say how.  All he was willing to say was that he had walked through the fire to come to the Cherokee; hence his name.

            The boy’s eyes were dark as a tidal pool on a moonless night.  They had a faraway quality, as if he were not seeing him, but seeing through him.

            “Walks Through, would you care to explain?”

             He looked as if he might.  Then he shook his head and looked at his feet.

            Mingo had a sense of what might fuel the boy’s reluctance.  He caught Walk Through’s chin with his fingers and forced it up.

            “You can tell me the truth.  Did you see my death?”

            Solemnly the boy nodded.

            Mingo released him and rocked back on his heels.  “I see.  Do you see things often?”

            Again, a nod.

            “And do they always come true?”

            Walks Through’s dark eyes flicked to his face and then he looked away.  There were tears in his eyes.

            “Did you foresee your parents’ deaths?”

            Another nod.  Then suddenly the boy reached out, wrapping his arms about Mingo’s waist.  “I do not want you to die.  Let me come with you.  I can stop it!”

            Mingo smiled as he laid his hand on the boy’s black head.  “No.  No one can,” he said softly.  “If it is the will of Ga-lv-la-ti  c-hi, the one who dwells above, then it is my time.  I am not frightened if this is true.”  He hugged the boy and then moved him out to arms’ length.  “Did you see James?  Did you see my son?”

            “He is in a dark place.  I cannot see him.  But I hear him, breathing.  Slowly...so slowly….”

             Mingo fought off a shudder.  Then he rose to his feet.  He held a hand out and when Walks Through took it, he said, “I must go on. And you must go back to Chota.”  At the boy’s protest he added, “Tell Menewa what you have seen.  He will believe your vision.  Then he will send men to my aid.”

            The boy’s eyes clouded with tears.  “They will arrive too late.”

            “Then so be it.  Just so James survives.  Now, you must promise me you will go home.”  He placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “Do you promise?”

            Walks Through could not look him in the eye.  He nodded, once.  “I will go home.”

            “Good boy.  And I thank you for the warning.  I promise to be careful and watch my back.”

            With that Mingo turned back.  He jogged through the remainder of the field and disappeared into the trees.

###

           

            “I should’a known,” Daniel Boone said with a knowing shake of his head, “all that talk of boys we was doin’.  This is exactly what Is’rul woulda done.”

            “Israel is eight years old!” John Murray exclaimed.  The older man was shaking with fury.  “Inconsiderate, uncontrollable rebel!  If just once he would listen to what I say.  He has no idea the danger he has placed himself in.”

            Dan waited a moment and then asked quietly, “Do you?”

            They had returned to camp to find Sergeant Caragrew on his feet and in a panic.  All three of them missing had given the old soldier quite a jolt.  He feared he had slept through some sort of massacre.  Once his superior had assured him that he had done nothing wrong, Caragrew had volunteered to assume the watch.  That left Daniel and Mingo’s father alone.

            It was time for the truth.

            “What is that supposed to mean?” John Murray snapped

Dan knew the drill.  Get angry.  Get the other guy angry and he’ll forget what you were talking about.

            Coolly, calmly, Dan answered.  “Just what it says.  I got a feelin’ you know more about this than you’re lettin’ on.”

            “You accuse me of knowingly putting my own in peril?”

            “Governor…John.  I don’t  know exactly what I’m accusin’ you of, other than not tellin’ the entire truth.  You’re holdin’ back, hidin’ somethin’.”   Dan moved closer, so he could see the other man’s eyes.  “And if that somethin’ puts Mingo’s life in danger, then I’d say ‘yes’, you’re puttin’ somethin’ or some one before your own.”

            Mingo’s father did not reply.  He turned back toward the water and watched the moon’s reflection undulate on its silver surface.  He drew a breath and ran a hand across his face and then said, “I think I might have some idea who the perpetrator is.”

            “Well, you might’a told us before Mingo took off on his own to catch them,” Dan huffed.

            John Murray turned back.  “Him.  He calls himself English Justice.”

            “That’s a strange kind of name.”

            “Once, long ago, in the West Indies he had another name.  It was lost, and he became English King.  Now, he calls himself, for some perverted reason I cannot comprehend, English Justice.  This man bears me a grudge – unfounded, of course.  Something to do with some military decisions I made.  He has threatened me before, but this….”  Mingo’s father looked him squarely in the eye.  “I never thought that it would come to this.  When it was decided to bring the boy back to America, I told no one he was coming.  No one knows who James is to me, but my immediate staff.  How this malcontent would know about him, or that Mingo is my son , I cannot even begin to guess.”

            “It’s obvious.  Someone’s betrayed you.”

            The older man’s face had grown haggard, drawn down by worry and the expectation of grief.  “Yes, I suppose that is it.  I have no idea who.  The men with me, they are of long acquaintance.”

            Daniel cast his eye along the path Sergeant Caragrew had taken.   “Caragrew?” he asked.

            “No, of him I am certain.  Caragrew has been with me for years.”

            “Through these ‘military decisions’ you made?”

            John Murray looked shocked.  “Well, yes, but….”

            “All I’m sayin’, John, is you can’t eliminate anyone.”  Dan paused and then added with a lopsided smile.  “Except me, of course.”

            The Englishman seemed to think that over, then he nodded.  Putting out differences aside, Daniel, I believe in this we can be allies.”  He held his hand out.  “Agreed?”

Dan shook it.  “Agreed.”

“So, now what do we do?”

            Dan thought a moment.  “Well, first off, we’ll break camp and get to walkin’.  If we want to catch Mingo up, we’ll have to keep a mean pace.  His legs may not be as long as mine, but he knows how to use them better.  And while we walk, why don’t you tell me a little more about this man who calls himself ‘English Justice’.”

            John Murray’s face was a mask.  “I’ve told you all I know.  He is a threat.  And has tried to kill me before.”

            Daniel’s shrewd eye assessed the older man, seeing right through him.  “Well, I guess killin’ you ain’t enough for him anymore.  He’s moved on.  Maybe you had better too.”

 

###

           

            Walks Through stood in the field amidst the waving grain, watching Cara-Mingo until his tall strong form disappeared.  Then he closed his eyes and lifted his hands to the one who dwells above, asking that he might be permitted to see once again the vision that had terrified him into lying to Eats Corn and then running away.  In a field there was a box, something like the one they had laid his Irish father in.  It was not as long as a coffin, but was close.  Not quite six feet long, and about one and a half feet high.  He walked over to it and touched its rough surface.  The nails were pounded in, but he easily pulled them out with his fingers.  It took all his strength to lift the heavy lid.  Trembling, he looked at the man who lay there – a man who had been buried alive.  He was cold as the earth and pale as ice; his black hair powdered gray with sawdust.  Walks Through reached into the pouch at his waist and drew out one of the golden coins the Englishman had given him.  Pressing it to the man’s lips he watched for a sign of life.

There was nothing.

            In his dream, Mingo was dead.

            Walks Through opened his eyes.  Shivering with the cold night and the fear of his premonition, he thought hard on the promise he had made.  The one who dwells above would not smile on him if he broke it.  For a moment, he hesitated, not wanting to save his friend with a lie.  Then, he smiled.

            The Shawnee village was north, the way Mingo had gone.  He did not have to lie.

            He would go home.