The Accursed Thing

Chapter Fourteen

 

            It was hopeless.

            The box had only been a foot or so down.  They’d freed it from the earth surrounding it.  But it had been well-constructed, of a hard wood, and they’d broken one of the shovels and the axe trying to pry it open.  As the dirt shifted away, the rock had settled firmly on the lid.  They feared it’s weight might prove crushing.  Dan had watched as John Murray knelt beside the wooden casket and called his son’s name, and then turned inconsolable eyes on him when there was no reply.  As near as he could figure, it’d been about a half an hour.  If Mingo was alive – and not hurt too bad – odds were he was alive.  But it was cold, and a steady rain had begun to fall, washing the dirt back into the hole and threatening to fill it with water. 

            It was like standing on the shore, watching your best friend drown and being able to do nothing about it.

            At first Catherine had leant a hand, but as the dirt turned to mud and she was no longer able to help, she began to pace.  The Englishwoman was soaked to the skin and shaking so hard he could see it from where he was.  John Murray had noticed too.  There was grief in his eyes as he watched her.  Dan realized why.  Mingo’s father could lose everything tonight – his son, James, even the boy’s mother.  Everything.  And at heart, Lord Dunsmore had no one but himself to blame.

            It would probably kill him too – only more slowly.

            As he watched, the older man picked up the shovel and began to scoop the water from Mingo’s premature grave.

            Dan understood.  He had to do something.

            Picking up the axe head that had fallen to the ground when the handle split, Dan headed for the box, determined to somehow force the lid open.  As he moved he heard Catherine gasp, suddenly startled.  Since Ticklicker was safely tucked away out of the rain, he prayed to the Lord above as he turned toward the Englishwoman that it was not English Justice returning. 

He looked.  And looked again.  A scrawny Indian boy had appeared at the edge of the camp, seated on a dark brown horse.  When John Murray noticed what he was doing, the older man stopped shoveling long enough to look.

            “Walks Through!” John cried.  And then, “Daniel, a horse!  Now we can move the stone!”

            Dan was already on it, walking the camp in search of a strong rope.

            It took near a quarter of an hour to rig a harness and secure it around the boulder.  Each minute that passed was an agony.  Catherine took over the shoveling and worked feverishly to keep the rain water mixed with mud from rising around the box.  Walks Through guided the horse.  Dan, along with Mingo’s father, added his strength to the animal’s and pulled for all he was worth.

            The boulder shuddered.  It listed.  And finally pitched off the box, splashing mud into their faces as it struck the sodden ground.

            Dan was on his knees in seconds, the axe head in his hand.  He placed it between the lid and the side of the wooden box and leaned on it with all of his might.

            And was rewarded with a resounding crack.

            Catherine cheered.

            Moving down the box he did the same to pop six more nails.  That left four on the other side.  Tossing the axe to the ground, driven by pure adrenaline, he pressed his shoulder against the wood and lifted even as Mingo’s father gripped the lid from above and pulled.

            And then, it was off.

            Mingo lay on his side, his knees pressed against the wood.  At six feet the box was shorter than him and he had been crammed into it, like too much tow in a tin.  Whoever had crafted the coffin had known their business.  It was water tight.  Mingo’s clothing was dry.

            And he was very still.

            It took everything in him to do it, but Dan stepped back to make way for John Murray.  Catherine gripped his arm in fear and anticipation, and together they watched as the Englishmen knelt by his Cherokee son and placed his fingers on his heart. 

            John Murray’s head fell and he shivered.  There were tears in his eyes when he looked up.

            “He’s alive.”

 

###

           

            James slipped and barely caught himself.  The rain was beating the land now, driving the mud in rivulets, making footing on the riverbank precarious.  But he feared leaving the river.  He knew in his weakened condition, with his thin clothes and stockinged feet, that he would not last long in this weather – even if he managed to escape English Justice.  He thought his best bet of running into someone who might help him lay along the waterway.  He recalled from his short time among his father’s people that the natives in the area came to the water several times a day.  Surely one of them would give him aid if they realized what was happening.

            As he made his way along the bank grasping tree and root, stumbling on rounded pebbles and falling, only to rise and do it all again, he wondered about Minerva.  Had she found Pompey and safety?  It terrified him to think of what would happen if English Justice found her.  After all, he’d caught her in the arms of a white man. 

            He’d probably kill her too.

            Every so often the man tracking him would call out, taunting him.  The mist was thick, he knew he couldn’t see him, but English Justice was wiser in the ways of the woods than him and it was only a matter of time.  James tried to remember what his father had taught him two years before during the month he had stayed with the Boones, but it was dim – like a dream.  He had no need to hone tracking or hunting skills in London, where the only beasts he knew walked on two legs and haunted ivy draped halls.  What he had learned in England was how to defend himself.  His military training had not all been in vain.  If he only had a weapon, he might have been able to overcome his enemy, but he had been foolish, failing to pick up either the knife or the child’s tomahawk Walks Through had left them.

            “I hear you, boy, breathin’ hard.  Your heart beatin’ like a drum in your chest.”  The black man’s deep voice boomed close by, echoing across the water.  “I’m comin’, boy.  It won’t be long.”

            James crouched where he was and ducked into the trailing roots of a tree pasted to the river’s edge.  He wouldn’t dare stay here long or he would be trapped.  But the black man was right, he was weary and winded.  And, truth be told, near finished.  What strength he had was fading fast.  A few moments before he had found shelter, a blackness had descended before his eyes and he had nearly fallen.

            Think! Damn it, man.  Think!  James looked frantically from side to side.  Maybe there was a branch he could wield as a club, or a stone big enough he could throw it and –

James froze.  That was it. 

            His military training.

            Sinking even farther into the roots’ embrace, he frantically pulled his shirttail out of his breeches and began to tear it into strips.

 

###

                 

            Thank God for the lean-to, Dan thought as he laid Mingo down on a bed of blankets Catherine had arranged.  He glanced around as he rose to his feet, wondering who it had been built for.  It had the feel of a woman. 

            “I imagine this was for Minerva,” John Murray said as he stepped into the dry area. 

            Dan wondered how the man was still on his feet.  Mingo’s father was gray as the mist rising from the land.  None of them had eaten for more hours than they could remember and what strength they had was exhausted.

            But Mingo was alive!

            “Has he wakened yet?”

            Catherine shook her head as she placed another blanket over Mingo and pulled it up around his shoulders.  “Do you think he’s – ”

            “He should be fine,” John assured her, touching her shoulder briefly.  “My son is a strong man.  His injuries, while severe, are not life-threatening.”  He turned then and looked out into the night.  “I pray the same can be said for James.”

            “What’s that?” Dan asked him.

            The older man indicated they should move away from Catherine.  She was sitting holding Mingo’s hand, not really aware of them, but he did as the Englishman wanted.

            “James was brutalized,” John Murray said.  “He was complaining of pain in his abdomen.  I think the boy has internal injuries.”

            “Bad?” Dan asked.

            “With battlefield experience as my only guide, it is hard to tell.”  John Murray scowled.  “Soldiers seldom have only one type of injuries.”

            Dan glanced at the hanging sky, gray as shot.  “It couldn’t be worse weather.”

            “Do you think your man, Pompey, has found them, and that they are on their way to the fort?”

            “Hard telling.  It would have taken him about an hour to get to the river.  If he did, they should be long gone by now.”

            “Mr. Boone?”  Catherine had risen and was staring at him. 

            He had meant to tell her all night, but had never had a chance.  “Call me Daniel, Ma’am.”

            The Englishwoman looked frightened.  “Daniel.  Did I hear you right?  Did you say that Pompey went to the river to find James and this girl?”

            “I left them there, secure in an old sycamore, Catherine,” the older man said, moving toward her.  “Why do you ask?”

            The Englishwoman bristled.  “After that man – I refuse to call him English Justice, for justice has no part in him –  after that man hammered the nails into that abhorrent box, I heard him shout orders to his men.

            “They were headed for the river.”

 

###

 

            James could hear him now.  Close and above him.  Walking on the river bank.  For what he had constructed to work, he would have to show himself – have to let English Justice get close enough that he could see him.  His only hope lay in the fact that the man wanted to kill him with his bare hands, so the odds were he wouldn’t shoot him if he had brought a gun. 

            That was a small – a very small consolation.

            “I bet you wondering why no one be lookin’ for you.  Aren’t you boy?” English Justice said as he continued to move along the bank.  “I be sorry to tell you –  there be no one left to look.”

            He’s bating you, James told himself.  Ignore him.

            “That mother of yours, she be a fine lookin’ woman what with that ivory skin and long brown hair.”  The black man paused and then added menacingly, “Or at least she was.”

            James heart was thudding in his chest.  He could have guessed her hair was brown.  He could have guessed.   

            “And that father of yours, why didn’t you be tellin’ me the truth – that he was an Indian?  He be strong, that one.  He fought mighty hard when we put him in the box.”

            English Justice’s words were like the hammer blow of the nails being driven into his own prison – but they pierced his heart.  James couldn’t breathe.

            “He be dead by now.  Swimmin’ in mud and blood, two feet below the earth.”

            He closed his eyes and fought a wave of nausea that threatened to sink him.  “Mother,” he whispered.  “Father….”  James fingers clenched.  From them, there hung a four foot strip of braided cloth.  He had made a sling.  In its center there was a makeshift pouch, ready and waiting for a projectile.  As tears trailed down his cheeks he caught the release cord between the thumb and finger of his other hand, and then loaded it with a dull round stone the size of a child’s fist. 

            Then he waited for English Justice to find him.

 

###

 

            Mingo burst into consciousness, gasping for air and striking out with his hands.  Other hands gripped his – strong ones – and held them still.

            “It’s all right, Mingo.  You don’t have to fight.  You’re free.”

            It took him a moment to recognize the man’s voice.  When he did, he relaxed and fell back to the softness that cushioned him.  “Daniel….”

            “And you accused me of havin’ a strain of mule in my background.”  The frontiersman’s smile was hard won.  “I know you were worried about your boy, but takin’ off on your own….”

            “James, is he here?”

            Dan shook his head as he released him.  “Wah-kah-mo-gah’s got him.”

            “Wah-kah…?  Ah, you mean, Pompey?”  Mingo’s head hurt, and thinking only made it worse.  “The slave?”

            “Former slave.  Yep.  It’s a long story, Mingo.  One I think I’ll save for tellin’ over a mug of cider by the home fire.”  Dan paused and then asked, “How’re you doin’?”

            “For a man who has been in his grave, I am doing very well.  You know, this unfortunate incident might even leave me with a bit of sympathy for my brother.”  He managed a weak laugh at his friend’s sour expression.  “Or maybe not.”

            “Mingo….” Daniel’s face was stricken. 

“What is it?  Not Catherine…” he asked.

            “No, she’s here.  She’s safe now.”

            “Then what?”

            “I almost didn’t make it this time.”

            For a moment, he didn’t understand.  Then Mingo realized his friend was as much in need of healing as he was.  In his usual fashion Daniel Boone felt responsible for not saving him fast enough. 

            Mingo reached up and touched the knot on the back of his head.  “Fortunately, I was aware of very little of it.  I woke briefly, but the lack of air soon rendered me unconscious again.”

            Dan didn’t look convinced.  “You were fightin’ hard enough just now when you woke up.”

            “A nightmare, nothing more.”

            His friend placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Good to have you back, Mingo.”  Then he rose to his feet.

            “Is my father here?”

            Dan nodded.  “It almost killed him, Mingo, findin’ you like that – fightin’ to save you.  He was the one who realized you were probably alive.”  The strain in the frontiersman’s voice told him what it took to admit that he had given up.  “He was determined to go after James, but he wasn’t able.  He collapsed.  Walks Through’s lookin’ after him.”

            Mingo rose up on one elbow.  “And that is precisely what I need to do.  Go after James – ”

            “Whoa, there!”  Dan pressed his shoulder back down.  “You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

            “My son – ”

            “Would like to have a father when he gets back to the fort.  Mingo, no.  I’ve seen you rise up out of a sickbed before, and walk three miles with a bullet in your chest.  And keep goin’ though you’ve been beat within an inch.  But this is different.”

            “How?” he demanded.

            Dan’s jaw grew tight.  “I seen you once tonight in a grave.  I don’t intend to repeat that any time soon.”

            “I have to find my son….”

            “Let me speak to him, Daniel,” a soft voice called from close by.  “I have been known to work miracles before.”

            It was Catherine.  She was standing just within the lean-to, a pale smile lighting her lovely if worn countenance.  She had located a shawl and used it to cover her torn bodice.  It galled Mingo still to think how she had been used.  And he had no idea what had happened after he had been laid in the grave.

            “Never argue with a lady, “Dan said as he turned to leave.  Then he looked back.  “Now, you remember that, Mingo.”

            Mingo smiled his agreement even as Catherine slipped into Daniel’s place and took his hand in hers.  “There is nothing you can do,” she said softly.  “But take care of yourself.”

            “I must go – ”

            “And do what?  Die?  You have been beaten.  You forget, I saw it.”

            “I have been beaten before.”

            “Why?  Why do you remain in this place?”  Catherine’s tone was bitter.  “It is savage and brutal.”

            “Men are savage and brutal,” he answered quietly.  “It matters not whether they are here in the colonies, or there in the Old World.  English Justice, I imagine, would argue that my father is more a villain than he.”

            “You cannot defend that man!”

            “No.  No.  But I can understand his pain.  It is the same as yours and mine.  A parent, a husband, bereft of wife and child.”

            Catherine fell silent.  She turned and looked out into the wild night.  A dense fog had arisen, blanketing the land, obscuring even the closest trees.  “There will be no tracks.  No way to find him.  Unless God guide that man’s steps.”

            “What do you mean?”  Then he had it, “Daniel?”

            She sighed as she turned back.  “He has gone to find James.”

           

###

 

            “I can smell you, boy.  Smell your fear.”

            James held very still as a shower of pebbles indicated English Justice had stopped directly above him. 

            This was it.

            He knew from experience that he would only get one throw.  For it to count, he would have to be fairly close to the other man – the fog would prevent any kind of lengthy shot.  And in order to move his body into position, he would be forced to expose himself.  That meant, after he made the overhand throw releasing the stone, he would be vulnerable to attack.  If English Justice was still on his feet – between the black man’s larger mass and his own weakened condition –  a hand to hand fight would be no contest.  As he shifted out of his hiding place, James tried to remember what the instructor at the Academy had told him.  The slinging action required only one swing.  Any more and he would chance the stone wobbling.  He needed to turn his body sixty degrees away from the target, with his weak hand closest to the object he meant to hit.  The trick was to move his entire body – legs, waist, shoulders, arms, elbows and wrists – all in the direction of the pouch in order to add as much speed as he could to the stone.  He needed to release the projectile near the top of the swing, and to calculate when to let it fly so it would be at the right height.

            It had to be a killing blow.

            Gathering courage, James counted to ten and then stepped out of the shadows and onto the pebbled riverbed. 

            “Where be you, boy?  No sense runnin’,” his pursuer called.  “It’ll be over sooner if – ”

            He had seen him.

            James remained still.  He prayed the braid in his hand was not visible, that the linen cord would simply fade into the drifting fog. 

            Like a black ship riding on a white sea, English Justice’s massive frame sailed toward him.  He moved at an even pace, not hurrying, no doubt savoring his anticipated victory.  James held his breath, waiting, counting down the distance between them as his killer and his fate approached. 

            When the man was fifteen feet away James shifted and rotated the sling and let the stone fly.

            Even as he did, English Justice laughed.  “Who you think you be, boy?  King David – ”

             Goliath was dead before he hit the ground.