The Accursed Thing
Minerva shivered in her bed, pulling close the woolen blanket Janus had laid over her before he went off with the others in search of the man named Mingo. They was gonna split up – Janus heading south toward the Boone home, and Serapis and Marcus going back to the place where the boy had been taken two days before. Janus was bound and determined to have both men before he would even listen to talk about moving on. Sitting up, she glanced across the camp. There was two boxes beneath the tree now. Both the same size. One empty.
The other, holding a boy who had to be freezing to death.
The camp was near deserted, but there was one or two men left and she knew
Janus had set them to watch her. What she didn’t know was what she was gonna do about the boy. Even if she defied Janus – if she opened the box – what then? Did she lay a blanket over him, say a quick prayer, and then close the lid and let him die of thirst?
What would the Good Lord say about that?
Minerva closed her eyes and leaned back against her pillows. All the night long she had been missing her mama, thinking about her and wishing she was here to talk to. Her mama had been something. What the whites called ‘bright’, like her, and pretty as a spring day. Her mama’s papa was a ship’s captain, one of the men what brought slaves from Africa to the New World. He gave her the name ‘Jinny’ when she was born, and after she was sold and taken away, that was what her new master called her. But her mama told her she had another name. A secret name no one could take from her. Zuri. It mean ‘beautiful’.
When her mama was about her age, near sixteen or so she reckoned, one of the sons of the big house noticed her. He started visiting after dark and, soon, she was born. Her mama gave her a secret name too. Huria. That meant ‘freedom’.
One day, not long before her mama took the malignant pox, Minerva had asked her about that man. The one who had took her and got a child on her. Weren’t she angry, she asked? Didn’t she hate him? Didn’t she hate all white men for what they done?
‘Huria, child,’ Mama answered, ‘ain’t our place to judge. That be the Lord’s. Your papa, he loved me, but there weren’t no way for us. Even if things had worked out, there weren’t no place for us to go.”
“What happened to him, mama?” she had asked.
She remembered to this day her mama’s tears, and how her sadness had penetrated to her soul. Mama wouldn’t tell her no more. But after she died, one of the other women did. White men found out about them. One night when the master’s son was visiting, rocking her in his arms, white men had come and taken him away. They beat her mama and left her crying in her cradle. Mama’s young man they beat too. He died of a mortification of his wounds a month later. The family said it was highwaymen what done it.
But everyone knew.
That was when she and her mama had been sold to the old master in Virginia. Her mama wasn’t yet thirty, but the master said he didn’t cotton to old women. It was Minerva he liked.
She were lucky he hadn’t got a child on her. She touched her belly. It would end with her. When she had a child, it wouldn’t end up a slave, waiting for no master to come and use it for his pleasure. Her child would be free to make its own life, free to choose where it wanted to go, what it wanted to do.
What it believed was right.
She looked again at the box beneath the tree. Her mama had taught her another thing. Didn’t matter whether a man was black or white, when he was wrong, he was wrong.
Minerva’s fingers were clenched in fists. She drew a deep breath and held it, and then she made her choice. Rising to her feet, she looked left and right. Caesar was standing guard near the box that held the boy, but far enough away he wouldn’t see her in the dark if she put on her black dress and tore off all the fine white fixings. She’d have to be careful lest he hear her. Still, he was leaning on another tree and his head was nodding, and Caesar looked like he was right on the edge of sleep. The other two still in camp, Jonas and Dabney, were snoring to wake the dead. Trembling, Minerva crossed to the wooden casket she had carried with her all the way from Virginia. In it was an old rag doll her mother had made her and a cameo pin. It had been her mama’s – a gift from the pa she didn’t remember. Pinning it inside her chemise, she started to unlace the bodice of her bright blue gown. It took her several minutes to change into the black one and to strip it bare of lace. When she was finished, the only ‘bright’ thing on her was her hands and face. She took a few more minutes to arrange her bed, using the pillows and some coverings to make it look like she was laying there, and then gathered together a small kit with food and medicine. Last of all, she tossed several woolen shawls over her shoulders and tied them in place and then, for good measure, added a rolled up blanket, anchoring it on her hip with a cord.
Poking her head outside the lean-to, Minerva checked first to make certain the sentry wasn’t watching, then she crossed to the fire and took some soot from it to smear on her face and hands. After that, she headed for one of the supply wagons. There were tools in the back, she knew. Including a chisel. Janus always carried one in case they ran into any escaped slaves still dragging their chains.
Minerva didn’t know how she was going to do it, but she would have to pry the nails out of the lid before she free the boy.
“Lord,” she whispered, “I know this is right. But you gotta do somethin’ to help me. I’s only one. Ain’t no way I can distract them men over there. You gotta do it for me.” She paused and a slight smile curled the corner of her lip. “I don’t mean to be tellin’ you, Lord. Just askin’.”
And with that, Minerva headed for the boy in the box and the unknown.
When she got to the box, Minerva crouched beside it. “Boy,” she called, “boy, you hear me?” She listened, but there was nothing. No answer. No sound of movement or sign of life.
Rising up, Minerva peered over the top of the box. Caesar had slipped down the tree to the grass and was snoring in chorus with the others. Keeping one eye on him, she leaned down and gently rapped on the lid.
Minerva listened. Still nothing.
Ducking down, she pressed her ear to the knot hole. “Boy!”
It was faint, but this time she heard an answering moan. Good! she thought. She sure wasn’t gonna risk her life for a corpse!
“I’m gonna get you out of there. Hold on.”
Minerva’s hands were ice in spite of her fingerless gloves. Her hands shook as she grasped the chisel and fought to wedge it beneath the first of the nails. Luck was with her – they had big square heads and no one had taken the time to pound them in completely. Still, there was barely enough room to work the fat chisel between them and the wood. But she’d manage! Using all of her strength, Minerva leaned into the chisel and pressed down. The nail moved, maybe a half inch, but it screamed as it gave up its hold.
She froze and ducked behind the box. After a minute’s panic, Minerva rose up and peered over it again. The three men was still sleeping. God had made sure they was snoring loud enough to wake the dead – and that masked what she was doing.
Reassured by the hand of the Divine that the path she had chosen was right, Minerva repeated the action two more times until the first of the nails came free.
“You hold on, boy! Won’t be long now.”
There were six nails in all. Two on each end, and two more in the middle. Four of them came out right easy, but they was the ones on the ends and she couldn’t shift the lid until at least one of the middle ones gave way. All the time she worked she kept talking to the boy, but he never did nothing more than groan. Once she had the lid off, she wondered, could he walk? And if he couldn’t, what was she gonna do? If Janus came back and the nails were out, even if the boy was still in there, he’d know.
Minerva glanced nervously at the second box that lay close by.
That one’d fit her skinny little body just fine.
Trembling even harder, she turned her attention to the last two nails. They had both been driven in deeper than she realized. The only way to open it was to put the chisel under the wooden lid and pry up. And the Lord only knew what kind of racket that would make!
“Give me strength, Lord, and stop that man’s ears!”
As she leaned into it, determined to try, Minerva heard a cough and a curse. Her prayers, it seemed, had fallen on deaf ears. The guard, Caesar, woke abruptly and jumped to his feet, his rifle in his hand. He shouted, waking the two others and together they turned –
Away from her!
Minerva didn’t move. She held still with the chisel in her hand. Her heart raced. Something was happening. She could hear a wagon rolling down the forested path toward them. For a moment she was at a loss, and then she remembered – Serapis had said he was gonna steal a wagon when he headed out to look for the man named Mingo. He must be returning. She hoped it was empty-handed.
Using the noise of the wagon rolling into camp to cover her actions, Minerva stood and leaned all her weight on the chisel. With a ‘crack’ the lid lifted, leaving the fifth nail dangling free.
Minerva gagged as the stench of two day’s confinement assaulted her. Sweat and blood mixed with urine and fear. In the dark she couldn’t tell much about the boy other than that he was white and had hair blacker than hers. His stained and soiled clothes looked like they belonged to a gentleman. His shoes were missing. Reaching in, she shook him.
“Boy!” her whisper was fierce. “Boy, get up!”
As he groaned, her eyes flicked to the men. The wagon was almost in the camp. The men were clustered around, walking, talking to Serapis who was in the driver’s seat.
“We only got us a minute. You gotta get up!”
“Can’t…” he moaned.
“Well, you better, less you want to die! You’re free, boy. Don’t you go letting that go.”
He blinked. His tongue tried to lick his lips but failed. “Free?” he croaked, as if he had forgotten the meaning of the word.
Minerva steeled herself to reach into the box, through the remnants of bloody matter and vomit, past the smell of an animal in the pen, She placed her arm beneath him and lifted him up. He was lighter than she expected. He weren’t a big thing to begin with, and two days without food had shrunk him.
“Take hold of me!” she ordered. “We gotta go!”
The boy nodded, but made no move to act. She shook her head and – with a prayer on her lips – lifted him up and out of the box. As soon as his feet hit the ground, he crumbled to his knees.
Minerva looked at the men again. They had thrown the tarp back and were staring at something in the wagon. Dabney jabbed at it with the butt of his rifle and they all laughed. Kneeling by the white boy, she looked into his face. He might’a been handsome. It was hard to tell.
“My name…” he breathed. “Is…James.”
Minerva’s face split with a smile. The air must have revived him a bit. “James, I’m Minerva. Can you walk?”
She glanced at the wagon. Dabney was on the ground. He and Serapis were talking.
“Well, you best make up your mind. If we ain’t out of here in a minute, I fear we ain’t ever gonna be.”
He nodded. Weakly. And then rose to his feet.
Minerva wrapped her arms about his waist and began to walk him forward, like a baby, into the welcome shelter of the trees.
“Well, if that ain’t a sight! I thought ‘Mingo’ was an strange name for the son of the Governor-general of all Virginia.” Dabney shook his head and hooted. “I see it ain’t only black women old white master’s interested in.”
Serapis nodded. English Justice hadn’t told him, if he had known. He had been just as surprised as the next man when Lord Dunsmore’s son turned out to be an Indian. He had expected an older version of the boy they had placed in the box. Serapis’ eyes flicked in that direction. It seemed mighty cruel to treat a boy that way, no matter what his kin had done.
“All white men are the same,” he said, “at least those what got power.”
“What about this one?” Dabney asked, indicating the wagon’s bed.
“Take him out. Tie him to this here tree. We’ll wait for Janus to return before we do anything else.”
“That there second box for him?”
Serapis nodded. If English Justice had his way, father and son would soon be buried beneath the Kentucky soil.
He understood the older man’s burning hatred. Shared it, in fact. He had signed up with Lord Dunsmore’s Ethiopian regiment too, and been abandoned like the others to Gwynn’s Island. But it didn’t quite set right with him to kill a man’s kin to hurt him. Somehow, it made them no better than him.
Serapis stepped back as Dabney and Caesar lifted the Indian from the wagon’s bed and strapped his unconscious form to the tree where he had been standing watch. There was an ugly gash on the left side of the man’s head, and a growing bruise on the skin that showed beneath the collar of his painted leather coat. Hitting him like that with that board had been brutal. It should have made him feel good – English Justice would have told him that it would. But it didn’t. He hadn’t ever done that – hit a man from behind when he wasn’t looking.
It didn’t make him proud, but ashamed.
“You make sure he’s tied up nice and tight,” he said. “I’m gonna check on Minerva. Janus said to make sure she was safe.”
Caesar looked up. “Ain’t nothing happened here since you been gone. The girl’s sleeping.”
“Don’t make no difference. Justice’ll ask, and I needs to have an answer for him.”
Serapis left the other men to their work and crossed the camp, heading for the small lean-to English Justice had ordered them to construct for Jinny’s child. Since her mama had died, the tall brooding man had made Minerva’s welfare his first concern – after his need for revenge. He saw to it that, even if they didn’t eat, the girl did. And that she was always warm and comfortable. She had pillows and blankets and a chest full of food. He loved her like he loved her mama – with a passion that was almost frightening at times.
When Serapis arrived at the lean-to he looked in. A pile of blankets showed where the girl was sleeping. He nodded and turned to leave, and then something struck his eye. The wood casket the girl always carried with her was open. Some of it’s contents was strewn on the ground.
Curious, he picked his way past her sleeping form to peer into it, wondering if one of the men would have dared to steal from her. As he did, his foot hit her shoulder and a strange thing happened.
Minerva’s head went rolling.
Stunned at first, Serapis knelt and touched the black mass. It wasn’t her head at all! The girl had placed a brown jug under a black shawl edged with fringe. He took hold of the covers and threw them back, revealing a body carefully sculpted of pillows and clothes.
She was gone!
Rising to his feet, Serapis turned in all directions, at a loss. Why would the girl have run? Justice treated her like a queen. Then he remembered. He remembered the look in the girl’s eyes when English Justice told her he had put the English boy in the box.
Before the thought was finished, Serapis was running hard. When he arrived at the place where the box lay, he cursed.
It was open and the boy, gone.
Ten minutes. Fifteen. Twenty.
So far, no one had found them.
Minerva paused, gasping for breath. James teetered at her side for a moment and then slid to the ground. She knelt before him and took his filthy face in her hands. “James, you gotta get up. We gotta keep running.”
“Can’t…. Can’t go on.”
“Sure you can. Just get up on your feet.” She tugged at him in an attempt to make him rise. “You don’t want them to catch you.”
He frowned, partly in pain, but also in puzzlement. “Why are you…doing this…for me?”
Her jaws clenched in anger. She shook her head. “Ain’t right what Janus done.”
“Don’t you never mind. They’ll be time to worry about him a plenty. Now,” she rose to her feet and held out her hand, “you gotta get up.”
“I’m ill,” he said. “I don’t…know if I can.”
She knew it. She’d felt it in him. Fever rising like a river headed for a flood. Weren’t only the time in the box that was killing him. He’d been beat. Bad.
“You gotta fight it,” she said.
He shook his head. “Can’t.”
Minerva knelt again and laid her hand on his. His flesh was hot. His eyes, when they met hers, were wild with sickness. “I know,” she said softly. Then she reached up and pulled her dress away from her shoulder. James started when he saw the scar. “Took me near a month to recover. I was out of my head. But I lived. You can too.”
James was silent for a moment. Then he nodded and, leaning into her strength, struggled to his feet. “Where…are we going to go?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Don’t know where we are. I just knows I need to go north to Ohio.”
He looked up. The night had descended and the stars were twinkling in the sky above. “There’s the…dipper,” he said. “And the North Star. But…it’s a long way…to Ohio.”
Minerva smiled. “You go with me. I stay with you.” She held her hand out. “Is that a deal?”
For the first time since she had met him, James laughed as he took her hand.