The Accursed Thing            

                                                                                                                                             Chapter Ten

 

            There weren’t no way they was going to make it to Ohio. 

James promised her they would, and he put one foot in front of the other for a good hour or so, meaning to keep that promise.  But with each step he took Minerva knew it wouldn’t happen.  He was failing.  Moving with the wind, like the old Nick was on their tails, they hadn’t dared to stop to eat or to take much drink.  Most all the water was froze hard as iron anyhow, and even fear of dying weren’t enough to make them light a fire.  Along the way she’d found a few old papaws past their season, hanging on a blackened stem.  Back home the Indians said they was good for a man if he’d been left lying thirsty.  She sliced them and tied them in a corner of her shawl and, as they trudged on, handed him a piece now and then, telling him to chew long and hard.  She was tired too, but she didn’t let him know it.  He were leaning on her now, needing her, and that was a wondrous thing.  Others had done that for her before, and now she found she didn’t need them. 

She was strong.

James halted.  He looked at her and shook his head.  Then he placed one hand on a nearby tree and leaned against it, breathing hard.  His skin weren’t pale no longer, but flushed red like an apple.  His body twitched like he was being beat again.  James licked his lips, but his tongue did little good.  It was dry too.  She offered him another slice of the papaw but he shook his head.

Then he fell to his knees.

“I can’t…go on,” he said, his voice a bare whisper.  “You must go…without me.”

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere without you,” she declared.  “I stay with you.  You stay with me, remember?”

“They’ll…catch us.”

“Who knows?” she asked, making her voice bright.  “Maybe that old Janus, he ain’t even gonna come after us.  Maybe he just forget us.”

“Minerva….” James said.

“I know.”  She leaned her head on his shoulder.  “He’s mean enough to walk the bottom of the Ohio without drownin’.  He ain’t ever gonna let us go.  Less he’s dead.”

“You have to…go on without me.”

“No!”

James turned his head.  His dark eyes, rimmed with pain and dry for lack of tears, fastened on her.  “Minerva, I…haven’t been completely…honest with you.”

She frowned.  “What do you mean by that?”

“Something is wrong…inside me.”  He swallowed hard and shivered.  “It hurts.  I think I’m…going to die.”

She shook her head.  “You ain’t gonna die.  I won’t let you.”

That won a pained smiled from him.  “If anyone could stop it…it…would be you.”   He grimaced then and gripped his stomach.  “God, it hurts.”

She gently pulled his hand away and lifted his filthy shirt.  Beneath it his skin had grown as dark as the night.  “You been kicked,” she said.  The imprint of a boot was clear.

“One of the men…who took me.”   James eyes were fevered; wild.  “I used to…help…the surgeon in my…uncle’s regiment.  I’ve seen men…drown in their own…blood.  Minerva!”  He gripped her hand tightly.  “I don’t want to die!”

She took his other hand and wrapped them both in hers.  When she spoke, she kept her voice calm and even.  She’d seen men die too – in the fields from work and too much heat.  And from beating.  Swallowing her fear, she said, “I told you, you ain’t allowed to die.  Now you just stop talkin’ about it.  All you need is a safe place to lay your head.  Somewhere you can mend.  I survived,” she reminded him.  “So will you.”

He hung his head ashamed.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t…know what’s wrong…with me.”

“I do.  You be sick and scared.”  She smiled sadly.  “Just like me.”

For a moment he remained still.  Then he nodded.  “So…what do we…do now?” he asked, looking at her.

“Can you stand?”

“I don’t know,” James answered honestly.

“Well, we can’t just sit here in the open.  Someone’s like to see us.”  Minerva rose to her feet.  Planting her hands on her hips, she looked around.  “If we can’t go on, then we gotta find us some shelter.  A cave, maybe.  Or some big old tree.  Look at you, you’re shiverin’ something fierce.”   She had already wrapped one of her shawls around him.  Now she took another and did the same.  When James started to protest, she shushed him.  “Hush!  Let me be strong for you.  The Lord knows the day may come when you need to be strong for me.”

He said nothing, but nodded as she helped him to his feet.  Minerva smiled up at him.  My, he was tall!  Then she offered him her shoulder and they began to walk, leaving the trodden path and heading into the trees as the dawn’s light broke in the sky above their heads.

 

###

 

            John Murray’s scowl deepened as Walks Through signaled him to make haste and follow.  The boy pursued a frantic and dangerous path as he led them ever southward, clambering over boulders like a monkey and all but swinging through the trees.  He was definitely too old for this!  The enigmatic child of the Cherokee had hardly spoken since he had appeared in the Shawnee camp.  He still couldn’t believe Walks Through had used the very coins he had given him the day before to ransom him from the savages!  The boy had a haunted look about him.  He seemed to have lost weight, and his deep brown eyes were pinched and circled with hollow rings as if he had not slept in days.  When questioned, he offered little more than shrugged shoulders for answers, as if he would not – or could not explain what it was compelled him forward with such inordinate haste.

            As they traveled, the Englishman had returned in his mind to the conversation with the former slave Pompey.  He knew from his own experience that native peoples tended to be a bit, well, overtly superstitious, often preferring supernatural explanations to the hard reality of cold facts.  They infused everything in nature, not only with a life force, but with a mind and personality.  The thunder and lightning were the sound of mighty bird spirits contesting in the air, mother earth felt your feet trod on her and waited for your questions, and in the water there were spirits – a good many of them evil – all too willing to wait for someone to drown.  Apparently the boy’s parents had died in a river accident.  Something to do with the Shawnee.  The boy had lived, and so they had given him magical powers – turned him into one of the legendary lost children whom they feared.  Which was utter nonsense –

            If somewhat fortuitous for him in present circumstances.

            “Walks Through!” he called, halting out of breath at the bottom of yet another hill the boy had begun to climb.  “Wait a moment.  I need to catch my breath.”

            The boy turned to look at him.  His eyes were masked by the fringe of black hair that fell across his forehead.  “You must come,” he said.

            “I must not.”  John Murray sat on the hard ground.  “This old man must rest!”

            The boy scrambled down the hill.  He took hold of the cuff of his frock coat and pulled.  “Come!  You must come!”

            “Much as I might wish to, young man, I simply cannot keep up this kind of pace.”  They had no food, no water, and he had had precious little sleep since this whole thing began.  Gazing at the rising sun, John Murray tried to get his bearings.  It seemed Walks Through was leading him away from everything that made sense – Chota, Boonesborough, even the path where he had been taken.  “I cannot follow you any farther.  I must get back.  I must locate Mr. Boone, and then I must find Cara-Mingo.” 

            “Then you must come with me,” the boy insisted.

            “What?  You mean, you know where he is?  Why didn’t you say so?”  For a moment hope leapt within him, but then he sobered.  “Have you really seen him, or is this some sort of mystical Cherokee nonsense?”

            Walks Through struggled for a moment, as if afraid to admit or deny either explanation.  “I saw the dark-skinned men take him,” he said at last.

            John Murray gripped his arm.  “Where?  Where did they take him?”

            The boy rose and pointed over the hill.

            “Oh.  I see.”  The Englishman rose slowly to his feet.  “That’s where you were taking me.  Why didn’t you say?  I would have made more haste.”  As he spoke, he began to work his way up the hill.

            Walks Through met his eyes briefly and then ducked his head and scrambled up before him.  At the top he pivoted and looked back.  “He will wait for you,” he answered in a voice too deep and knowing for a child.

            A shudder ran through the older man, as if someone had walked on his grave.

            Or his son’s.

 

###

 

            Minerva found them shelter.  It weren’t the best, but she’d known worse in her life.  A big old sycamore tree sitting on the edge of the water, its belly split open wide enough to hold four or five men.  She chased an old snake outside and a squirrel or two, and then placed James on a bed of dry leaves and rabbit fur and covered him over with the blanket she brought.  He needed food, but even more, he needed sweet, sweet water.  The time for taking care was gone.  Soon as she’d gathered what was necessary, she’d light a fire and melt some ice and make him drink and rest ‘til he was strong again.

            “Lord, if you be listenin’, you keep that old Janus away,” she whispered.  “I ain’t strong enough to carry him, and he ain’t going nowhere on his own.”  Minerva rose to her feet and crossed to the tree’s opening and looked out.  The new day had dawned and its golden light struck the frost laden land, setting it ablaze.  “Don’t it look like jewels,” she sighed.  Then, on impulse, she reached up and pulled the bodice of her chemise away from her skin and removed the cameo her mother had given her.  As she stepped away from the tree and into the morning light, it sparked with an equal fire.  Minerva traced the fine filigree frame with her fingers before pinning it on the outside this time, imagining the handsome white boy who had given it to her mother.

            She thought he might have looked like James.

            With a smile on her lips, she pivoted, meaning to retrace her steps to their sycamore sanctuary, only to find her way barred by a man with a rifle.

            “Morning, Minnie,” Serapis said.

 

###

         

             “Did you hear that?”  John Murray reached out and caught Walks Through by his left ankle and hauled him back. 

            The boy’s eyes were wide.  He nodded, once.

            Then he had been right.  Someone had screamed.

            It had sounded like a young woman, taken by surprise.  The cry had come from nearby, down the bank they crawled, closer to the river.  There were several fallen trees blocking his view so he couldn’t see much.  But then again those fallen trees provided shelter as he and Walks Through dropped the four or five feet to the river bottom and began to crawl again.

            He wished he had his pistol.  It galled him that the Shawnee, Tabuka, possessed it still.  When he came to the camp to trade his well-earned sovereigns for a somewhat chagrinned lord, Walks Through had been wearing a knife and carrying a child-size tomahawk.  These were the only weapons they had.  As they crouched behind one of the fallen trees the boy handed him the knife.  He took it with a nod, understanding even as the boy slipped beneath the tree and began to circle around the other way.  He remembered Cara at that age.  Walks Through was not a warrior yet, but he had skills.

            By peeking through the branches, John was able to see the young woman.  Her dark gown and petticoat were tattered and mud-stained.  She had no cap, and her rich brown hair spiraled nearly to her waist.  She stood not far from a great sycamore with her hands extended toward it, as though she sought to ward off some great evil.

            John Murray shifted forward to see what it was, and found his past had once again  returned to haunt him.

 

###

 

            “Where’s the boy, Minnie?” Serapis demanded.  “Where you hiding him?”

            “I left him in the woods,” she answered, defiantly.   “He died.  He’s dead.”

            “Dead?”

            “What’d you expect when you and the others near beat him to death the other day?  And put him in a box like he was already dead?”  Minerva’s heart was racing.  She had to get Serapis away from the tree.  She didn’t know if James could make it without her, but she sure knew he wouldn’t if Janus got hold of him.  Tears stung her cheeks as she pleaded with the older man.  “This ain’t the way to be free.”   

             “Janus says – ”

            “Janus says!  What do you say?  My mama told me you was a good man.  Look at your hands, Serapis.  There’s blood on them already.”

            “It’s the way of war, Minnie.  Sometimes one gotta die so hundreds can live.”

            “But we ain’t at war – ”

            “Yes, we are!  You know that, Minnie.  Your mama was one of the casualties….”

            “It were a sickness, Serapis.  Ain’t no man responsible for that.  No boy neither.”  Minerva’s voice broke as she thought of James lying, maybe dying in the tree close behind her.  Her gaze darted toward it, but she caught herself before she looked.. 

            Serapis didn’t miss it.  “Is he in the tree, Minnie?  You hiding that boy in there?”

            “I told you he’s dead,” she insisted.

            “I think I’ll just be seeing for myself,” he answered as he pushed past her.

 Minerva caught his arm.  “Serapis, no!”

            Like a snake he struck her and sent her reeling to the ground.  For a moment he stood, fighting to control his rage, then he bent and met her defiant stare.  “You forget, girl, who you are talking to!  Janus ain’t the only one who lost everything and everyone he loved on that damned island!  My son, my father…my brothers, all dead.  Dead, you hear?”

            Minerva’s voice was bare above a whisper.  “One more death ain’t gonna bring them back.”

            Serapis stared hard at her.  “No.  But it just might let them rest.”

 

###

 

            What was the man’s name?  Marcus?  Septimus?  John Murray leaned on the rough surface of the fallen tree that concealed him.  Serapis!   He had been one of the non-commissioned officers in the Ethiopian regiment, instrumental in the win at Kemp’s Landing.  An intelligent man, talented, with a keen eye for strategy.  Rising up to peer over the natural barricade, John was surprised to find him manhandling the young woman.  A sudden thought struck him.  Could this be English Justice?  Had Serapis, angered by the wrongs he perceived done to him, changed his name and become the self-appointed avenger of his people?  It was possible.

            He moved in closer so he could hear what they were saying.

            “Serapis, no!” the young woman screamed.  She jumped to her feet and threw herself in front of the sycamore as if she were a door barring his entry to the King’s treasury.  “You leave him alone!”

            “You’re going back, Minnie. Both of you,” the man said as he gripped his rifle.  No white boy’s worth my hide. You know what Janus will do if he ain’t there when he gets back.”

            He froze as the man’s words registered.  White boy?  And though it appeared this man was not English Justice, he was in thick with the scoundrel.  Elation and apprehension gripped John Murray at one and the same time.

            The boy the girl was guarding – it had to be James!

 

### 

 

            “What’s this all about, Minnie?  Don’t tell me you sweet on him?  A white boy?”  The older man shook his head.  “Janus’ll kill him just for that.  Now you get out of my way.”

            Serapis’ gun was pointed straight at her middle.  He was warning her, he meant it – if she didn’t do as he said, he’d shoot.  Minerva swallowed over her fear.  She knew it was an empty threat.  Serapis be too scared of Janus to hurt her.

            Leastways, she thought he was. 

            As she opened her mouth to plead with him again, something caught her eye.  There was something – or someone – moving in the shadows cast by the branches of an old tree that had rotted out and pitched over onto the bank.  Minerva blinked and looked again.  It was a man.  He was waving at her, and seemed to be telling her to let Serapis go in.  She shook her head.  Then, she thought she had gone and  done it for sure.  Serapis frowned and pivoted sharply.  But by the time he turned, the man was gone.

            If he had ever been there.

            “You trying to distract me, girl?  It ain’t gonna work.  Move out of my way, Minnie.”

            Minerva drew a deep breath.  Maybe it had been an angel come to call.  That was all she could think.  An angel of the Lord come to save her, or to take her home.  She stared down the barrel of Serapis’ gun for several more heartbeats.  Then she stepped away.

            “That’s a good girl.  Now you go wait by the horse while I fetch the boy.”

 

###

  

            John Murray breathed a sigh of relief as the young woman gave way and walked meekly toward the man’s horse where it was tethered near another tree.  Good, she had listened!  If Serapis intended to carry James to the animal, he would have to put down his weapon.  There was no way he could carry both.  Hugging the shadows of the fallen tree, the Englishman waited impatiently for the black man to emerge.  Several minutes later he did, ducking and leaving the sycamore.  The sight of what the black man held in his arms took the older man’s breath.  A filthy rag of a boy, bloodied, spare of meat and bone. 

            Dear God!  It was James.

            A blind rage such as he had never known overcame him.  It took every ounce of military training and self-discipline he could muster not to rush forward instantly.  Shaking so he could barely control it, he waited, biding his time until the man placed James upon the horse’s back.  Then he charged him.

            Time slowed.

            The young woman gasped and backed away, looking like the devil himself had come to call.

            James shifted on the horse’s back.  He opened his eyes like a dreamer waking only to find there is yet another dream. 

            Serapis’ hand fell to his belt.  The black man had a concealed pistol.  A moment later the barrel was pointed at his chest.

            John Murray, seeing his death, paid it no mind.