The Accursed Thing

Chapter Six

       

            Mingo roused and opened his eyes.  Beside him the fire had grown cold.  He shifted and his stiff muscles protested, but he made them work anyway and rose to his feet. 

            He could only pray James had heard him.

            The day had dawned while he was deep in meditation.  It was cold, with a bitter wind.  The sky was pewter and promised snow.  The seasons had shifted at last and winter was come.  After a meager meal of jerky and water, he turned his attention to the tedious task of concealing any evidence of his presence.  He cast dirt over the fire pit and then moved several rocks to mask its location.  He scoured the earth for signs and erased what he found, careful less he should leave some new clue – a stray feather, a bead, a moccasin-print cast in dew.  Then, as he left the camp, he pulled a branch behind him eliminating his tracks.  Near the stream’s edge he leapt on the stones and then splashed through the cold water for some time before returning to the shore.  It would not fool Daniel for long, but it would buy him a few minutes.

Would that they proved the few minutes he needed.

The place where James had been taken lay back through the woods about a mile.  He had located it easily enough, but found only disappointment there.  The ground spoke of panic, of men desperate to escape.  The mud dried with blood reminded him how many of them had not.  But what he needed – some sign of what went on before the terror – was practically non-existent.  He had crouched and moved like the turtle seeking it and, at last, had been rewarded with a single set of boot-prints, elegant and slender, three-quarters size.

James.

For the first half mile his son’s footprints walked at the side of another – quickly, as though James sought to make haste, but there was no fear in his movements.  Then, deep in the woods, Mingo discovered three more sets of prints.  There was a struggle.  And then James walked no more.

Mingo stood at that place again, looking northward.  The men had left here together; one of them carrying a heavy burden.  They were not soldiers.  None wore military issued boots.  Several wore moccasins, but the imprint of their feet was not native.  He had not been able to tell whether the man who walked beside James was one of them, or if he was a fellow captive.  If it pleased the one who dwelt above, it would be the latter.

Then James would not be alone.

Shouldering his rifle, Mingo took off at a steady jog, following the prints.  The men had done little to conceal the path they chose.

As if they had known he would come. 

 

###

 

            “Mingo camped here all right,” Daniel Boone said as he rose to his feet.  He turned in a circle surveying the area, noting the precise care his friend had used to cover his tracks.  It was near noon.  After parting with Sergeant Caragrew who was to return to Boonesborough to rejoin his men now that he had set them on the right path, he and Lord Dunsmore had walked most of the morning.  If it hadn’t been for the fact that he and Mingo thought alike – and happened to choose the same place to rest in – he would have missed it.  “The fire was here,” he said, pointing to a cluster of rocks.  One of them had been warm to the touch.  “But that’s about all I can say.”

            “You mean you have no idea which way he went?”

            Dan looked at Mingo’s father, slightly amused by the surprise in the older man’s tone.  “Next to me, Mingo’s the slickest man in the Ken-tuck territory.”

            “Next to you?  Then he shouldn’t have you fooled.”

            Pushing back the coonskin cap on his head, Dan grinned his lop-sided grin and winked.  “He won’t for long.”

            As Lord Dunsmore began to pace impatiently, Dan set to work.  He stood close to the fire-pit and, instead of looking, thought things through, trying to see the situation through Mingo’s eyes.  For some reason he was Hell-bent to go it alone.  Dan didn’t understand why.  If it was Israel who was missing, he would have welcomed Mingo’s help.  There was something his friend wasn’t telling him, and he was pretty sure it had to do with Cherokee mysticism.  Other than private feelings, that was about the only thing Mingo wouldn’t talk about.

            “Well?” John Murray demanded.

            Dan had moved to the stream by this time and was staring down its length.  He turned back at the sound of the older man’s voice and asked him, “John, do you know of anythin’ that would make Mingo not want you or me around?”

            Mingo’s father threw his arms in the air.  “Pride!  Arrogance!  A stubbornness that only goes to prove that a man cannot escape the class to which he was born.”

            The last was added with a hint of a wry smile. 

“You speakin’ of Mingo, or of yourself now?” Dan asked as he joined him.

“You said it before, Daniel.  Like father, like son.”  John Murray shivered and pulled his frock coat close.  “It is getting colder.”

“Yep.  When night time comes, it’s gonna be mighty unpleasant.”

The Englishman fell silent, lost in thought for a moment.  At last he sighed, “I wonder where James is.  And if he is alive.”

Dan leaned both hands on his rifle.  “You gonna tell me what this is all about?”

“Don’t be absurd!  It is about a group of villains willfully kidnapping an innocent young boy!”

“It’s that, all right.   But that note you have makes it clear they was kidnappin’ one particular boy.”  Dan paused, then he asked quietly, “Are the sins of the father bein’ visited on the grandson?”

            John Murray was a man not used to being questioned.  Dan watched him flinch and win the battle to control his temper.  “You were in the army, am I correct?” he asked, biting off the words as if he spoke to an insubordinate junior officer.

Dan nodded.  “Yep.”

“You’ve seen men shot for desertion.  Jailed for disobedience.  Even sacrificed for the good of the all.  Have you not?”

“I reckon I have.”

“In war one makes choices.”  John Murray’s voice faltered.  He cleared his throat and continued.  “Not everyone necessarily agrees with them.  In order to save some, others must suffer.”

“This man, English Justice.  Did he suffer?”

“How would I know?”  Mingo’s father made a dismissive gesture with his hand.  “He is a madman.  Does a madman need a reason to hate?  He has settled on me as the author of his woes and determined that my blood will pay!  I begin to think you are on his side, Daniel.  Why are we standing here wasting time debating this?”

            “There’s some reason your son doesn’t want us to follow.  I’m just tryin’ to figure out what that might be.”

John Murray stared at him hard.  “You know which way he went.”

Dan pursed his lips and nodded again.

“But you are not certain you should tell me.”

“That’d be about the size of it.”

“What possible reason could Mingo have for not wanting me to join the hunt for his son – my grandson!  Really, Daniel, this is quite absurd.  If you know where he is, we have to find him and render what aid we can!”

“John, you don’t know Mingo.”  Dan shook his head as the older man began to protest.  “Sure, you know the man he was – in England.  Mingo, the one livin’ here in Ken-tuck.  Well, he’s got ways I don’t pretend to understand.”

For a moment the Englishman looked puzzled, then he rolled his eyes in disbelief.  “Are we speaking of mystic Cherokee nonsense?”

“Seems to me there was a young man a long time ago, consultin’ a Highland witch, who wouldn’t have laughed so quickly at the notion.”

It appeared the war wasn’t over.  John Murray’s temper flared.  “That young man grew up.  Really, Daniel!  Would you bet my son – and my grandson’s life – on such foolishness?”

Dan hefted Ticklicker and tucked her under his arm.  “Time was, it wouldn’t have given me a moment’s pause.  After knowin’ Mingo somethin’ over two years, now it does.  But that’s about the size of it.”

“I see.  Then it is me you doubt.”

“John, I know you love your son and your grandson, and I believe you want to find them.  What I don’t know is how far you will go to cover up your tracks.  You know what this is about and you ain’t talkin’.”  Dan shifted past the older man and started walking, taking the shortest route that would lead him to his friend.  “I just hope that silence doesn’t cost both James and Mingo their lives.”

 

###

 

            As Mingo continued to jog forward, one eye to the path and the trail of prints he followed, he thought about his son and the curious circumstances that had brought James into his life.  His liaison with Catherine Saynsberry had been brief.  One of those momentary affairs of the heart callow young men are wont to have.  Catherine had been the eldest daughter of his father’s paramour; a brilliant young woman, gifted with a fine mind and musical talent.  They had become friends and – for one brief moment – something more.  Then they had both gone their ways.

            Or so he had thought.

            What Catherine told him had been surprising.  He had no idea her feelings ran so deep, or that they would have lasted more than a decade.  He had searched his memory and heart, but could remember no spoken words of enduring love on her part, or promise to return on his.  Perhaps he had assumed that, like her mother and his father, theirs was a relationship of convenience.  At the time he had flattered himself, thinking she must be madly in love with him, but as an older, wiser man, he had come to believe that he was merely a passing amusement.  Catherine was, after all, several years older than him.

            Now it seemed the callow youth had been the wiser of the two.

            Mingo halted as the afternoon sunlight struck something lying in the middle of the road.  He paused to give his body time to adjust to breaking the steady pace he had kept up for several hours, and then crossed to where the object lay. 

            It was the buckle from a young man’s shoe.

            Mingo crouched and picked it up.  The buckle was finely crafted of chaised silver, engraved with flowers and acanthus leaves.  It was not the possession of a common man, but one fit for the grandson of the former Governor-general of the Virginia Territory.  And for some reason, the reality of it in his hand struck him like a hammer blow. 

            James was here.  And he was in deadly peril.

            He had known it before, but this tangible bit of proof had a powerful effect on him, galvanizing his determination to offer his own life for that of his son.

            “James, I am coming,” he said quietly.  “Hold on.”

            Mingo rose to his feet.  He thought a moment, and then opened the medicine bag that hung about his neck and placed the buckle inside.  Then, clutching the precious object in his fingers, he began to run.

 

###

           

            “He’s movin’ fast,” Dan told John Murray as he dropped to his knee and checked the trail for fresh sign.  Mingo was setting a pace that Dan was hard pressed to match.  After several grueling hours, he was sweating and itching and just plum tuckered out.  He glanced at the older man to see how he was faring.  Lord Dunsmore had to be more than fifty, and years behind a desk in an elegant palace being waited on hand and foot had taken the edge off the young man who had come to the Colonies for his king.  The Englishman was panting hard.  Mingo’s father was on his feet –

            But just barely.

            Dan rose and faced him.  “I’m thinkin’ maybe we should take a rest.  This looks as good a place as any – ”

            “But you just said my son is ‘moving fast’.  We must be after him!”  The older man glanced at the sky.  The sun was sinking toward the west.  It was still early afternoon, but with winter coming, the days were short and the night wasn’t far away.  The older man started walking again.  “Come now, Daniel.  One does not win the war by quitting.”

            “One doesn’t win it by fallin’ down on the field, either,” Dan replied, not budging.  “You’ve got one, maybe two miles left in you without a rest.  What good will it do either Mingo or James, if – when we find them – you’re too exhausted to fight?”

            The Englishman halted.  His spine had been straight as the sword at his side; his body one determined forward thrust.  Now his shoulders sagged and, suddenly, he looked old.

            “Then you must go on without me.”

            “Now, I didn’t rightly mean that – ”

            John Murray turned to face him.  “At this point my military title is mostly lip service, I am afraid.  I am more ‘governor’ than ‘general’ these days.  Even when I was in power in Virginia, there was little there for me to do but sign papers and issue orders for younger men to enforce.”  He touched his waistcoat.  The last two buttons had been left undone.  “The reward of age, Daniel, is sedentary ease.  Even if my son was not Cherokee, I could not hope to keep up with him.”

            “I can’t just leave you out here alone, John.”

            “A little extra poundage does not mean I am defenseless,” the older man countered, drawing his flintlock pistol.  “Nor am I at a loss in the wilderness.  I was walking this land when you were but a cub.  I will follow behind you.  I simply cannot keep up the pace.”

            Dan wasn’t comfortable with it, but he couldn’t argue with the logic.  He glanced at the sky.  They had four, maybe five hours of daylight left.  “I’ll keep goin’ ‘til dark then I’ll double back.”

            “Unless you find something.”

            He nodded reluctantly.

            “Daniel, I am an old man.  I have lived to see more things than I care to.  Do not get me wrong, I have no desire to die, but if my death means life for Mingo or James, then I lay it down gladly.”

             Dan approached the older man and held his hand out.  As the Englishman took it, he said,  “Governor, that’s one thing you and me can agree on.”

 

###

  

            Mingo halted, suddenly surprised to find himself not alone.  A wagon listed in the middle of the forested path.  Its bed was empty except for a tarp and some hay that looked as if it had been used for bedding.  Several sacks and a crate sat beside the trail.  A man was bent under it, cursing as he struggled to lift the vehicle and shove the wheel back into place at the same time.  Mingo watched him for a moment and then began to move forward again, slowly, so as not to startle the stranger.  When he was, perhaps, three yards away the man looked up and saw him.  He was surprised.  So was Mingo.

            The man was African.

            Coming to a stop, Mingo simply said, “Hello.”

            The black man frowned as he eased the wagon back onto the ground.  He stood, and Mingo saw his eyes dart to his rifle which lay several feet away.  Holding up his hands in the universal sign of surrender, Mingo spoke again, “You have nothing to fear from me.  I thought, perhaps, I could render you some assistance.”

            The black man’s frown had turned from one of fear to puzzlement.  “You speak mighty good English for an Indian.”

            “I have had some schooling,” he replied nonchalantly.  Walking over to the wagon, he crouched and examined the wheel.  With a glance at the black man, Mingo asked, “You’ve thrown a pin?”

            “Got it here.”  He showed it to him.  “I’ve built mansions afore, and can turn a joint better than any man, but holding up a wagon with my back and pounding in a pin at the same time seems to be one thing I can’t do!” he declared.   Then he grinned.

            Mingo rose to his feet.  “I have often thought that three hands would have come in ‘handy’.”  He smiled as well.  “You are alone then?”

            The man nodded.  “You?”

            “Er…traveling to meet someone actually.  I’ll lend you assistance and then be on my way.”

            “That’s mighty kind of you, Mister….”

            “Mingo.  Just, Mingo.  And you would be?”

            The man looked at his hand, wiped the grease off of it onto his dark britches, and then took his and shook it hard.  “Serapis, they call me.  Don’t rightly remember the name I was born with.”

            “So…you are a slave?”

            “Was.  Ain’t no more.  And soon I’ll be free and have land and a place of my own.”

            Mingo indicated the goods beside the road.  “You are heading for Ohio?”

            “Soon as I finish some business.”

            “Well, then, it seems we both need to be on our way.”  Mingo indicated the wagon.  “Shall I lift and you, pound?”

            Serapis clutched the pin in his hand and caught a board up from the ground.  “Ain’t got no hammer, but this’ll do for my purposes.”

            “I imagine you are right there.”  Mingo crouched and then slid in under the wagon, using his back to lift.  A moment later the pin was in place and he released it.   “It’s a good thing I came along,” he said, massaging his shoulder.  “Otherwise that business of yours would have remained un – ”

            Pain exploded in his head as something came down hard on his neck.  Mingo crumpled to his knees.  He reached out, trying to catch himself, but a second blow on his shoulder drove him to the ground where he lay, clinging to consciousness by a slender thread.  It was only as Serapis spoke that he realized what had happened.

“No, sir, Mister Mingo.  My business is done.”
            As Mingo closed his eyes, he reached up and snapped the leather thong that held his medicine bag, and allowed it to fall to the ground.

That way, someone would know he had been here.

 

###

 

            Daniel Boone had gone.  John Murray permitted himself a half an hour to rest, and then rose to his feet and continued on.  Even so, he knew the distance between him and the frontiersman grew with each minute, as did the distance between him and his son.

Did Mingo really hate him enough that he had not wanted him to join the search for James?  He knew whatever trust he had managed to build between them had been broken several years before when his scheme to take over the Kentucky territory had been uncovered.  But Mingo could not really doubt his desire to save his grandson.

Could he?

            After all, it wasn’t as if he had done anything wrong.  In all military campaigns losses had to be cut and the greater good thought of.  If sometimes men like Janus King slipped through the cracks, why then, that was the cost of success.  It was a pity about his family, but the truth –  brutal as it was – was that the woman and her whelps were probably better off dead.  If this war went ill for the British, those who called themselves ‘patriots’ would wreck a terrible vengeance on the ones they branded as Tories – colored or white.  And for those blacks who had dared to join the Ethiopian Brigade, once returned to the masters they had risen up against, there would be no mercy.

            If James had not been threatened he would have returned to New York and raised an army to crush this man.  Such flagrant arrogance!  How dare he question those who had lifted him from the squalor of first, the West Indies, and then the plantations of the south to place a musket in his hand and give his life some meaning?  What was it about this wild country that bred such ungrateful rebels?

            As he continued to walk, John Murray pulled his hat down and leaned into the wind.  It was growing more bitter by the minute.  It came from the north and its bite was fierce, turning his cheeks and fingers crimson with cold.  He frowned, trying to remember where his gloves were and paused to seek them.

            It was then he heard it.  The soft sound of a man’s footfall.

            His hand on his pistol, he turned to look back the way he had come and found a beaded and feathered figure standing in the middle of the path.

            It was not his son.