The Accursed Thing
English Justice burned with hatred. Hatred of all white men. There be not one among them that could be trusted. The Americans enslaved them. The British betrayed them. Not one deserved to live.
Unless they be of use.
Choosing the men he trusted the most, English Justice left his camp and set out to take Lord Dunsmore’s son. Along the way they came upon a near empty homestead. Burning the house and barn down, they took what they needed – including a fine pair of horses. The white woman who was in the cabin took a shot at them and fled. They let her go. Now was not the time. Later, after Dunsmore paid, then it would be time to rid the land of its pale white blight. Flying fast as the wind, they took the road toward Daniel Boone’s home. A dozen miles from it they found tracks that indicated the prize was not to be theirs that day. It mattered little, he told his men, the man named Mingo be doomed all right. They saw the imprint of the wagon wheels. The bloody board.
Serapis had him.
The ghosts of Gwynn’s Island would soon be placated with his blood.
English Justice sucked in air as the baneful memory of that Hell on earth assaulted him afresh. His eyes grew crimson, reflecting the coats of the English soldiers. His ears pounded with the noise of their pipes and drums, beating out a martial air, counting each man’s step as they marched away. His soul screamed in agony, echoing the cries of the dead and dying; their pock-marked faces leering at him from the doors and windows of the hovels they occupied as both man and matter went up in flames.
It was 1776. Lord Dunsmore, he made his proclamation and raised a mighty army of Ethiopians. The black man fought for his King – but even more for their promised freedom. And they won! Victory was sweet, but short as well. All too soon things went terribly wrong. In the battle to take Fort Murray, they was out-manned and out-maneuvered. Even still, he and his men be ready to keep fighting, eager to keep fighting. But Lord Dunsmore, he was a cautious man and ordered a retreat.
In the heat, through the swamps, along dusty roads they marched. And then, the sickness came. Fleet fever, they called it, and the Pox.
Weren’t too long after that, Lord Dunsmore, he wrote a letter to another white man in England. News of it went round the camp. English Justice recalled it word for word. ‘I am extremely sorry to inform you, your Lordship, that the fever…has proved a very malignant one, and has carried off an incredible number of our people, especially the blacks.’
Especially the blacks. They had numbered 800 soldiers. 800 Ethiopians fighting for King and Crown. By the end, there was 150.
Lord Dunsmore, when he seen what was happening, he built himself a floating city – 100 fine, tall ships wintered off Tucker’s Point near Portsmouth. The ships, they was fine, but they was overcrowded too, and the sickness spread. In May, the Englishman made a decision to cut his losses. Dunsmore left the ones who could not live behind and ordered the fleet to another harbor.
North, to Gwynn’s Island in the Chesapeake, near the mouth of the Rappahannock.
On Gwynn’s Island Lord Dunsmore’s Ethiopian Regiment exchanged their bright, shiny muskets for shovels and picks to build fortifications. One camp for the whites, and another for the black soldiers and what family was with them. They worked to build a place to lay their heads, somewhere to rest and recover. But it be too late.
There be no fortifications strong enough to keep out that old grim reaper, walking with his scythe.
Over the next days and weeks hundreds died, and even more took sick. English Justice remembered seeing that Lord Dunsmore, standing proud on the deck of his ship, watching them sicken and die through his bright brass spyglass. Playing God with their lives. On July 9th, when it looked like the Americans was coming, that man, he added betrayal to betrayal by abandoning Gwynn’s Island and them. Dunsmore’s soldiers marched from the battery to Cherry Point – two miles, they marched – burning both buildings and bodies as they went.
That was the day Janus had died, and English Justice been born.
Janus, he be a slave – a slave to the white man he left lying in the dirt bleeding, the day he ran away. Since he had been taken in Africa, Janus had known nothing but hard work and beatings; first on the sugar plantations of the West Indies, and then in Virginia. Lord Dunsmore’s proclamation been the first real hope he had ever known. Why wouldn’t he – why wouldn’t any of them – take up a gun and kill the men who took them? Kill the ones who sold them in the market like animals? Why, they would have done it for nothing – nothing more than the promise that, in the end, they would never have to call any man ‘master’ again.
A good many of them didn’t make it. Most, if the truth be known. The old masters, they be wise. They keep watch once they knew what Dunsmore had done. They ran them down and chained them up, or shot and skinned them if they tried to escape. Many a man he knew ended in a ditch or a grave. But those of them who made it – him, Serapis, Caesar and the others – they walked with their heads tall. They had a piece of paper saying they be free – forever!
Anger passed to triumph in English Justice’s eyes, and then to pain. That piece of paper, it been the thing that made his Jinny agree to come along.
Their master’s plantations been beside each other. He and she, they worked the same fields from time to time. He met his Jinny and her little Min one fine day when they be taking a break. Jinny, she was the most beautiful thing he ever seen. Tall she was, with a neck like a filly; her hair brown running down her back and shining in the light. Jinny’s skin was coffee with milk. Her hands soft as butter from working in the big house. She told him she didn’t want to go. She was afraid.
He promised her everything, it be all right, and convinced her to go.
The last time he seen his Jinny, her body been bleeding underneath the skin. Her beautiful face, flushed and purple as grapes, broken open with weeping sores.
She died in his arms.
English Justice clenched his fingers and raised his fists to the sky. “There will be justice,” he proclaimed, promising both himself and God.
As he lowered his hands, he gazed down the path before him. At its end lay a cabin, a thread of gray smoke rising from its single chimney. A white woman with coppery hair had just stepped outside. A moment later, two more women followed. The redhead balanced a rifle on her hip, keeping guard while the others went to the well to gather water.
English Justice stepped back so the shadows masked him, and called his lieutenant.
“Before the sun rises,” he said, his voice greedy with the promise of revenge, “that’s boy’s mother. She be mine.”
Becky waited while the women gathered water, her eyes trained on the shifting leaves and the path they shaded.
“Did you see anything?” Catherine asked as she stepped up onto the porch. The Englishwoman indicated to her servant, Patsy, that she should hurry past with the water bucket. Then she turned back.
Becky shook her head. Everything looked as it should. But that didn’t change the fact that the hair on the nape of her neck was standing on end. It was a sure Boone sign that trouble was coming.
“Nothing,” she answered. “But that doesn’t mean much.”
Catherine Saynsberry took a moment to survey the moonlit path and the wilderness surrounding them. “How do you stand it?” she asked, her voice hushed. “I have never seen so many trees. And so little light. On the way here, I thought I would go mad from the darkness.”
“Dan says that one day the trees will be cleared away, and there will be great cities here in Kentucky, just like you have in England.” Becky turned to her and smiled. “Then it will be time for us to move on.”
“You love it here.”
“I love Dan, and he is here.”
A sadness overcame Catherine’s lovely face. She turned and leaned her back against one of the porch posts. “I don’t know what I expected to find here. James told me about his father, choosing the path of the Cherokee.” Her eyes sought Becky’s face. “He is quite different from the man I knew in London.”
“I would imagine!”
That brought a smile. “I always knew there was something. At first his father tried to pass him off to Mother as Spanish. But she wasn’t fooled. I’m not sure I ever put a name to what made him different, but different he was. I think that was what attracted me to him.”
“Mingo said your mother….”
“Was Lord Dunsmore’s mistress? Yes, she was.” At Rebecca’s look, Catherine continued,” Oh, I know it is not proper here, in this new land. London is another world. You married your husband because you loved him, did you not?”
“John Murray’s marriage was arranged, as so many are, as a matter of convenience. The imminently practical connection of two eminent families, more for business purposes than anything else.”
“What about children?”
“What are children but another business? A way to perpetuate what you have, what you have built. What you own.”
“That sounds like a kind of slavery,” Becky said.
Catherine shrugged. “Perhaps it is. Perhaps that is why Kerr – Mingo ran.”
She held her peace for just a moment, then she had to ask, “You love him, don’t you?”
“Do I?” the Englishwoman laughed, but sobered quickly. “I love the boy he was. I don’t know him now. But I think I could love him as a man.”
Becky chewed her lip. It hadn’t been that long since a certain young Englishwoman named Rachel Cornell had been in their midst. Though she had gone back to England, Becky knew that was where Mingo’s heart lay. Someday she was sure they would be together.
Catherine pushed off the post. “But none of that matters. Not until I know James is safe.” She swung back toward the path. “They have been gone a long time.”
“Not so long. You have to remember,” Becky pointed toward the horizon, “it takes a long time to walk between all of those trees.”
As Catherine smiled, her servant Patsy appeared at the door. “Mistress, your tea is ready.”
She nodded her thanks. “Will you join me, Rebecca?”
“In a minute,” she answered. “You go on inside.”
The other woman briefly touched her arm and then followed her servant into the cabin.
Becky remained where she was, staring at the vast ocean of green leaves bending under a brisk wind. She loved this land and everything about it – the trees, the brilliant blue sky above, the roaring rivers and high, jagged peaks, but Catherine was right, it was a dangerous place, filled with dangerous places, animals….
“Be safe, Dan,” she whispered, tossing a kiss toward the distant trees. At that moment there was a glint of light on the far horizon, low, near the road, just about where their land began. Becky stared at it, wondering what could have caused it. Moonlight could do that, but there should have been nothing but shadow there.
Pretending not to be frightened, she took another minute to straighten the chair on the porch and pick up her broom, and then she went into the house, closed the door, and dropped the bar in place.
“Put out the fire,” Becky ordered as she turned toward the two women.
Catherine and Patsy were seated at the table drinking tea from a china teapot and cups. James’ mother looked up at her, sensing her fear. “What is it?” she asked, rising.
Becky tried not to show it, but she was very frightened. She blamed herself for not having taken the women back to the fort the minute Dan left. But then, that was what she thought anyone seeking them would think she had done. She had hoped they would be safer here.
She was a fool.
“Someone is out there. I saw a glint of light. I think it was off the barrel of a gun.”
“Couldn’t it be your husband returning, or maybe Mingo?” Catherine’s face brightened. “Maybe they found James!”
“Maybe.” But Becky’s frontier sense told her otherwise. “If it is, they should be knocking at the door about now. It only takes a few minutes to walk the path.” They fell silent, listening. One minute passed. Then two. After three, she shook her head. “It’s not Dan. Patsy, put out the fire,” she reiterated as she headed for Dan’s other rifle. “Catherine, can you shoot?”
“Billiards,” she answered slightly chagrinned. “I have never held a gun.”
“Well, I can prime it. All you have to do is point.”
The Englishwoman went white as the china teapot.
“I can fire a rifle, Mistress Boone,” Patsy offered quietly. “My papa used to take me hunting. It’s been a while.”
“Good girl.” Becky handed her the other rifle. “Catherine, I’m sorry to ask you, but will you take the bucket of water and put out the fire?”
“They might try to smoke us out. If someone climbs on the roof, they can stop up the chimney. I know it will be cold, but – ”
“Not to worry. I can do that.”
Catherine was wearing a lovely gown of fine sapphire blue dotted with embroidered flowers and thread of gold. By the time she was finished, the flowers peered out from under a blanket of ash and wet soot.
So did her face.
Catherine laughed as she pushed a lock of brown hair away from her cheek with a sooty hand. “I’m afraid that is the first time I have tended a fire.”
“You did very well, Mistress,” Patsy said and then blanched at her own boldness.
Catherine set the bucket on the floor. “Let it never be said that one is too old to learn.”
“Mrs. Boone,” a man’s voice bellowed unexpectedly from just without the door, “I know you be in there. I be wantin’ to talk to you.” His words were resonant. They rang from the rafters like a preacher’s. “Open up your door.”
Becky motioned Catherine to her side and then sent Patsy to the far window. Pointing, she indicated the chink for the barrel of her rifle. As the girl slid the weapon’s nose into place, she answered, “I can hear you just fine. You can talk through the door.”
“Mrs. Boone, I been told you are a generous woman. My men and I, we come for supplies. Minerva, she told us you have them here.”
Minerva? Becky scowled, thinking, then she remembered – the young mulatto woman who had come to call. “We have nothing extra,” she answered. “You can go to the fort. Tell Cincinnatus that I said to take what you needed. Tell him, Dan and I will pay for it later.”
“That be kind of you, but we have no time. And you have somethin’ here that the man at the fort does not have. Catherine Saynsberry, be you in there?”
Becky started nearly as much as the Englishwoman. How would these men know she was here? Then she had it. The girl.
Catherine asked her with her eyes – should I answer?
Before Becky could reply, the man added, his voice pitched low . “I have a boy who be likin’ to see his mother.”
What little color Catherine had drained from her face. She hesitated only a moment, and then bolted for the door.
Becky caught her by the elbow. She shook her head. ‘You can’t trust them,’ she mouthed.
“A fine boy that one be. Dressed in fine clothes. Though not so fine now. I should be apologizin’. My men, well, they get carried away.” The man paused and, when he spoke again, Becky could have sworn it was with a kind of sick glee. “There be lots of blood, but they assure me, there be no broken bones.”
Catherine flinched. She sank toward the floor. Becky caught her and held her up. “That man will say anything to get you to open the door,” she whispered. “Anything!”
“They beat him….” Catherine’s eyes flooded with tears.
“Open the door, Mrs. Boone. We will take the supplies, and the woman, and leave you alone.”
“No!” Becky shouted as she turned back. “I am going to give you exactly twenty seconds to get off my porch. At twenty-one, this rifle is going off and anything in its way had better look out!”
“It would be better for you, Mrs. Boone, if you let us in,” the man said, his tone menacing.
“It would be better for you if you do what I say!” she shouted back.
“Rebecca, no,” Catherine was at her side, “I’ll go with them. Step aside.”
“No, you will not! I won’t have it!”
“But James…. I’ll be with him.”
“Yes, you will,” Becky snapped. “And you’ll both be dead!”
“Mrs. Boone…” the man called again.
Catherine slumped. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Worry for James has me out of my head. What can I do to help?”
Becky nodded. That was better. She thought furiously for a moment. “We need to close all the shutters and bar them in case they decide to try to break in. And check the rear door. It should be fastened tight, but sometimes Israel is careless and leaves it ajar.”
The Englishwoman nodded. “What are you going to do?”
Becky crossed to the wall. She lifted the rifle to her eye and sighted through one of the chinks in the wall. “I have a promise to keep. Twenty!” she yelled. “Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen.” She had made it to ‘five’ before she grew suspicious. Catherine had moved away, but suddenly, she was back – much to soon to have done what she asked. As she shouted ‘two’ Becky pivoted.
Just in time to see the china teapot aimed at the back of her head.
English Justice was impatient. He waited for the shot, but it never come. The Boone household be silent. He frowned as he motioned one of his men onto the roof. They would smoke them out. And if that didn’t work, then they would be attacking. A few well placed arrows with flaming cloth attached would work magic, opening the barred doors and shuttered windows. Daniel Boone’s woman, she be a brave one, but it do her no good. In the end, justice would prevail. He would take what he needed as he would take the woman.
She be yet another hostage Lord Dunsmore give to fate.
English Justice opened his mouth to call again, but stopped when the door to the Boone’s cabin opened. A white woman wearing a fancy blue dress appeared, framed in the rough wooden doorway. Her eyes went to his men and then locked on him. She stared at him a moment, and then walked stiffly to his side. The woman, she was pale and trembling. But Catherine Saynsberry, she was not afraid. As she met his eyes, English Justice saw something in hers that he understood – hate. Hatred for him. Hatred for what he had done.
A fierce love for her child.
“Take me to my son,” Catherine said.
Becky woke to the sound of Patsy sobbing. Catherine’s servant was sitting on the cabin floor beside her, cradling the remnants of the teapot the desperate woman had used to knock her cold. Beside Patsy lay Dan’s extra rifle and shot pouch. Becky reached up and felt the knot on the back of her head and sighed.
“She’s gone?” she asked as she worked her way into a seated position.
The girl sniffed and nodded. “The mistress ordered me to stay with you.” Patsy drew a deep breath. It came out in a heartfelt cry. “She’s gone with those men! They’ll kill her!”
Becky remained still for a moment. Her head was pounding and Patsy’s cries weren’t helping any. She felt like an idiot! She should have known. If it had been one of her children in peril, there was nothing on the face of the earth that could have stopped her from sacrificing herself to save them. Glancing at the door, Becky echoed Patsy’s hopeless sigh. The only thing was – with these men – she doubted very much that James was still alive.
“Yes, Mistress Boone?”
Becky smiled. “Patsy there’s no need to stand on ceremony with me. I was indentured once. I’m no different from you. Please, call me Becky.”
“You were a servant, Mistress?”
“Yes, dear. But in America, all men – and women – can be free. And it’s Becky, remember?”
The girl smiled sadly through her tears. “Becky.”
“Will you help me up? I’m afraid I am a little wobbly on my feet.”
“I’m sure Mistress Catherine didn’t mean – ”
Becky placed her hand on the back of her head. “Oh, she meant it all right..” At the girl’s look, she added with a smile. “I would have done the same thing for one of my children. Now, come on, help me outside. Let’s see if we can find out anything about where they’ve taken her.”
It took them several minutes to walk to the edge of their land, where a well-worn path ran in front of it. Her head was still throbbing and she was unsure on her feet. She had hoped to find evidence of Catherine’s kidnappers and follow them, but what she found when they got there told her any such gesture, while it might be noble, would prove futile.
Patsy noticed her look. “What is it, Miss – Becky?”
“Do you see those tracks?”
The girl looked and nodded. “Shoes, aren’t they? From horses?”
The men who took Catherine Saynsberry were mounted. That meant, as long as the road was sure, that they could fly like the wind. Even though they would have to dismount and walk at times, there was simply no way she could catch up to them on foot. She and Patsy could go to the fort and send the men after them, but that meant several hours more delay. It would be up to Dan and Mingo now, and Mingo’s father, to save the others.
There was nothing she could do but pray.