The Accursed Thing
He always beat the odds. No matter how tight a situation got, somehow he always managed to work a miracle in the last few seconds – snatching life from death. How many times had Rebecca been taken, her life threatened? The children? Mingo. And how many times had he breezed in and born them all away from danger? Maybe he’d gotten a little cocky. Maybe God thought he needed to be knocked down a peg or two. Or maybe – just maybe – the truth was that he had been damn lucky.
And his luck had just run out.
Dan stood, staring, disbelieving at the plot of loose earth. Mingo couldn’t be down there. It just wasn’t possible. It took more than a monster to bury a man while he was still breathing – it took a monstrous hate he couldn’t even begin to understand.
Behind him, raised voices penetrated his grief and broke the spell Catherine’s declaration had put him under. Pivoting sharply, Dan was shocked to see John Murray had taken hold of the grieving woman’s shoulders and was shaking her.
“How long, Catherine?” he shouted. “How long has it been?”
The Englishwoman was in shock. Dan doubted if she had even heard him. Fighting the leaden sorrow that bound him to the spot, he forced his feet to move. The twenty feet or so from grave to tree seemed an eternity. With each step there came a new thought – had Mingo been aware of what they were doing to him? Did he hear the dirt striking his coffin lid? When they found him, would his nails be broken and his hands streaked with blood?
Dear Lord, what a way to die!
When he reached the older man’s side, Dan placed a hand on his shoulder – as much to steady himself as to stop what he was doing. “John, let it go, he’s gone,” he said.
“No! You don’t understand,” Mingo’s father snarled as he released her and leapt to his feet. “Kerr may still be alive!”
Dan faltered. Anguish leeched his strength. “I know it’s hard to accept,” he managed in a ragged whisper, “but there ain’t no way a man could survive – ”
In John Murray’s light blue eyes was a fierce determined fire. “Have you ever been in the West Indies, Daniel?”
“Well, I have. And I have seen a man buried and resurrected the next day. There is some nonsense about spirits and the dead coming back to life, but the truth is, there is enough air within a coffin to sustain a man at least for several hours.” His voice broke. “And while we stand here debating action, my son may be dying.”
It was almost painful. The flicker of hope. “Hours?”
The Englishman nodded.
Now that he thought about it, men were buried in mines and lived to tell the tale. Others survived in pockets of air beneath the snow – sometimes for days. If it hadn’t been too long….
“We’ll need tools….”
“I’ll round up the Shawnee and organize a digging party,” John said as he clapped him on the shoulder. “These villains needed both axes and shovels. With the ground so hard, we can hope the grave is a shallow one.”
As Mingo’s father turned his grief into action, Dan knelt at Catherine’s side. When he gently touched her arm, she jumped as if she had been struck. “Catherine,” he said softly, “Mingo may still be alive.”
For a moment she didn’t respond. Then she began to tremble violently and shook her head from side to side. “No. No! He’s dead. I saw it. He’s dead….”
He caught her chin gently in his fingers and forced her to meet his eyes. “Catherine, listen to me, you said Mingo was alive when they put him in the box. You’re sure of that?”
Catherine’s eyes were hollow windows, reflecting the horror she had seen. “There was a mock trial. They found him guilty of his father’s crimes. They made him watch….” She shuddered. “…as they accosted me. Kerr was so angry. He broke free. They took him and they beat him. And they placed him in that horrible box.” For a moment she was speechless with the memory. Then, a single ray of hope entered her eyes. “Mr. Boone! In the other box! James wasn’t there. He wasn’t there.”
“James is safe. A girl named Minerva helped him escape. Pompey, a friend of mine, is on his way to them now.” Dan didn’t tell her that the boy was hurt. That worry would keep for later.
“Oh, thank the Lord!” Catherine’s fingers gripped his arms as her eyes returned to the boulder and the freshly turned earth. “Mr. Boone, do you really think Kerr might be alive?”
“How long’s it been?” he asked, afraid of knowing.
“An hour. Maybe more. Those men used the horses to pull the boulder into place and then they ran like the cowards they are!” She was shaking again, this time not with fear, but with fury. “How could anyone do such a thing?”
Dan rose when he saw Mingo’s father approaching, two shovels and a pick-axe in hands. “Some men are hurting, so they want to hurt others back,” he told her. “Some men’s souls turn black at loss, and it’s hard to blame them when they can’t see clear. But other men, Catherine, are pure evil.
“English Justice is one of them.”
The look on John Murray’s face told him something was wrong. He left her and went to ask him what.
“The Shawnee,” the Englishman answered. “They’ve deserted. I fear the idea of a man being resurrected from his grave has proven too much for their heathen souls.”
Dan’s eyes flicked to the grave and the great stone atop it. “So there’s only you and me?”
“Just we two,” he sighed. Then John Murray turned around and began to dig.
The earth gave way easily as Dan put his foot to the shovel. The trouble was, they had no idea how far down the box would be. Like John said, the weather gave him some hope it might be near the surface. But then there was the rock. He and Mingo, using everything they had might have budged it, but John Murray’s strength was hardly equal to his son’s. So even if they managed to dig down to the box, there was no guaranteeing they could get the lid off.
Catherine said they’d beat Mingo. He sure hoped he was unconscious.
As Dan put his foot to the shovel again, a white hand appeared beside it. Looking down he saw Catherine Saynsberry on her knees, clawing at the earth.
“Make that three,” she said.
Pompey halted on the top of the rise and gazed down at the river. The late afternoon sun reflected dully on the water’s surface, like fire on gun metal. Above his head black clouds were gathering. It wouldn’t be long before the rain came and washed away most everything. He’d already walked the tracks leading to and away from the big sycamore that sat barely keeping its hold on the river bank, making certain he knew the identity of every one. He saw the girl’s prints, and John Murray’s British boots. He followed a pair of moccasins and found a pool of dried blood. The horses’ hooves were there too, struck into the barren earth.
Shouldering his rifle, Pompey slid down the rise to the river bottom and headed for the tree. According to the former governor, he had left the girl with only a knife and tomahawk to defend herself.
At least he didn’t have to worry that she’d shoot him.
Halting a few feet away from the sanctuary, he called her name, “Minerva? Minerva, are you in there?” When there was no reply, he added, “Daniel Boone sent me. I’ve come to take you and James to the settlement.”
Several heartbeats later a slender form wrapped in dark cloth appeared in the opening of the tree. The girl jumped and cowered when she saw him. English Justice, it seemed, had made her fear her own kind.
“I won’t hurt you,” he promised. “I’m here to help.”
“You’re not one of them?” she asked breathless. “One of Janus’ men?”
“No, I’m not. And I never would be,” he answered, lowering his rifle. “Making war on children is not something I believe in.”
“I ain’t no child!” she said defiantly.
Pompey laughed. “Well, I don’t believe in making war on women either. And you sure are one of them. How is James?”
He’d seen the look before, but on her it surprised him – like a mother bear looking out for her cub. Minerva stared at him so long he grew uncomfortable, as if she could divine the stuff he was made of just by looking. Then, finally, she said, “James is some better. Why don’t you come in and see.”
Pompey ducked as he entered the sycamore. The sight that greeted him put a question to the word ‘better’. James was seated, leaning against the inner hide of the tree. He looked like he hadn’t seen a morsel of food since Methuselah was a boy. His skin was gray. Bruises showed everywhere he had flesh. He looked like he’d fought a long pitched battle and won – but only by the skin of his teeth. When the boy saw him he flinched. His eyes darted to Minerva.
“It’s all right,” she assured him. “He ain’t one of them.”
“I’m a friend of Daniel Boone’s. I’ve come to take you to the fort.”
James licked cracked lips and coughed as the words came out. “Is…is my father with you?”
“Your father? Oh, Mingo right?” Considering the boy’s condition, he wondered how much he should say. “No, he didn’t travel with us. He took a different path.”
That seemed to satisfy him. “Grandfather?”
Pompey nodded. “He’s with Daniel.”
James winced as he straightened up. Minerva moved to help him, but he shook his head and stopped her. “And the men…who did this?”
Anger. He could hear it in the boy’s voice. Good. It’d help keep him alive.
“Should be the guests of the Shawnee by now.” Pompey smiled at the boy’s startled expression. He shrugged. “You know Daniel Boone. He could charm a snake into rattling for a baby.”
“Then it’s over,” Minerva said.
“I can’t promise, but let’s hope so. Now, young man, can you walk?”
“He’s in pain – ”
“Minerva, it’s all right,” James panted as he pushed off the living wall and rose to his feet. “I can manage.”
Minerva anchored her hands on her hips. “James Murray, you been near starved, near frozen, near smothered, and just about beat to death, ain’t no way you’re gonna walk all the way to Boonesborough!”
James scowled. His gaze flashed to Pompey and then back to her. “I’m all right, I tell you. Stop treating me like a baby.”
Minerva looked from one to the other of them. “Men!” she huffed, and then ducked out the opening.
Pompey shook his head. “You’ve got yourself a wildcat there.”
James looked chagrinned. “I should probably apologize.”
“Since she’s probably right, it wouldn’t hurt.”
“I can walk….”
“Not far, James. Not in your condition.” He thought a moment. “Has it really been two days since you’ve eaten?”
The boy nodded. “Except for some berries and paw-paw fruit.”
“The first thing we need to do is feed you then, so you get some strength. Hopefully we won’t have to walk long,” he added. “We should run into Daniel somewhere along the way.”
“And my father.”
“Yes. Your father too.” He waited as James made his way slowly out of the sycamore. Once outside Pompey scanned the horizon, but saw nothing of the girl. “You know where she is?”
James shook his head. “But I’ll find her.”
“Don’t you go straying too far – either of you. There’s no guarantee one of Janus’ men might not escape and be on the loose, looking to make trouble.”
“I’ll be careful. We’ll…be careful. I promise.”
Pompey clapped him on the shoulder. “Good man. I won’t be long.”
At the edge of the trees, the black man stopped and looked back. James was on the move and headed for a fallen tree pressed up against the river bank. It was only a dozen yards or so from the sycamore and shelter. That was good. Once he found the girl, they could return to the safety of the nest she had created.
He’d catch all of them some dinner and then, as soon as it was light, they’d head for the fort.
James found Minerva, seated on a branch of the fallen tree, softly sobbing. He watched her a moment before making his presence known. She was an enigma to him. So different from the women he had acquaintance with. She had little education – there had been no formal schools for her such as his mother and noble aunts attended, no education in French, Latin and Greek; she had not been taught how to flirt with a fan, or how to move about on a dance floor in a coquettish manner, and yet – for the lack of all of that – there was something about her. She was charming without being false. Wise, without knowing it.
And damned attractive.
He knew what she was. His grandfather had mulatto servants at Stirlingshire, and in Virginia. Minerva had the same light coffee and cream skin, the same deep brown eyes and burnished hair – black at midnight, bronze at the dawning of the day. By her speech, she was most likely a slave, though her fine clothing implied she must have been a favored one. It was unthinkable to him that any man could justify owning another. Within the last few years England had decried the slave trade. Any black that set foot on English soil was, in so many words, free. The Somerset Case had seen to that, with Lord Mansfield declaring that slavery contracted in other jurisdictions could not be enforced in England. But here, in this land where Americans proclaimed that all men had ‘certain unalienable rights’ including the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, the accursed thing remained.
It was hard to understand.
Weary, James leaned against the fallen tree, gathering strength. Then he called out softly, “Minerva?”
She started and glanced at him. Then she turned her face away.
“I’m sorry,” he said
“Sorry for what you said, or sorry you ever met me?” she sniffed.
She looked at him then. The sky was steel and a light rain had begun to fall, but the setting sun cut a swath below the clouds, turning – for a moment – the frozen land a rusty gold. The fading light struck her face, fresh with tears, and the sight of her pain nearly broke his heart.
“I don’t know why I rightly expect anythin’ from you,” she said, rising to her feet. “I couldn’t let Janus leave you in that box, and so I set you free. I would of done the same for any man. Weren’t nothin’ special. You don’t owe me nothin’.”
“I owe you my life,” he countered as he limped toward her.
“No. No, you don’t,” she said.
James caught her hand. “You put yourself in danger. Sacrificed your own safety for mine. You’ve given up everything. You can’t go back.”
She stood erect. Her body well controlled. But at his words she shattered. Minerva covered her face with her hands and began to sob.
James wrapped his arms around her and held her while she cried. He had done the same for his mother, years before, when the doctors told her she was dying. In a way, Minerva faced the same fate. By helping him, she had become dead to all she knew.
“I’ll take care of you,” he promised. “You can come live with my mother and me.”
She looked up at him. Raindrops like tiny diamonds sparkled on her cheeks and in her hair. “What about the man who owns me?”
James bristled with anger. “No man can own another.”
“They can here. And there’s men’ll kill you for sure if you try to take me away.”
“Let them try,” he whispered.
Minerva said nothing, but pressed her slender form into his, as if seeking reassurance that he could, indeed, keep her safe. He took her hand and brushed it with his lips. Then he touched her face.
Then he kissed her.
Into the silence that followed a single sound bled. Someone coughed.
Minerva sensed it. “James, what’s wrong?” she asked, pulling back.
He cursed himself for a fool. The only weapon they had lay back in the tree.
“Take my hand,” he said. “Walk as if nothing is wrong. We need to get back to the sycamore.”
When her fingers locked with his, he felt her fear tremble up through his arm. “Is it Janus?” she whispered, terrified.
“It isn’t Pompey. He’d have let us know it was him.” They were less than twenty feet from the tree. “Keep walking, we’re nearly there.”
As they neared the tree, James realized something was terribly wrong. In front of it, on the rain-soaked ground, were the imprints of several pair of boots.
Pompey wore moccasins.
“Run, Minerva!” he shouted, pulling her after him, away from it and toward the distant trees where Daniel Boone’s friend had disappeared. “Run!”
As she obeyed him, four men rose like a black tide from the area surrounding the sycamore and began to follow.
All too soon James realized he was not healed enough to outpace them. After having run no more than one hundred yards, he was panting and pain stabbed his side. Taking hold of Minerva, he shoved her forward.
“Go! Go on without me!”
She was horrified. “James, no!”
“Find Pompey. It’s our only hope.”
Her eyes were on the men behind them, quickly closing the gap. “Janus’ll kill you!”
“If you don’t go, he’ll kill us both. This way, there’s a chance. Now go!”
He watched reason battle sentiment within her. She clung to his hand for a second, and then let go. A heartbeat later, she faded into the rising fog.
Breathing hard, James turned to face his fate.
A powerfully built black man, with arms like a smithy, stopped just in front of him. The man stared at him hard and then, without warning, backhanded him and knocked him flat.
“You touched her, boy. And for that, you goin’ to die.”
James pressed the back of his hand against his lip. Blood was running down his chin from where the blow had split it. He realized he had about two seconds to make a choice – either to die right here, right now at this man’s hands, or to run like hell and hope that, before someone could get off a shot, he too could disappear into the mist.
It wasn’t, after all, much of a choice.
As the man Minerva called Janus turned to speak to one of his men, James forced himself to his feet. He pretended to stagger for a moment, as if he might fall down, and then – before the black man had a chance to turn and take hold of him – sprinted into the rolling fog.
There was one rifle shot. But it went high, striking a tree branch above his head. James ran for several minutes and then crouched behind a rock to catch his breath. As he did, English Justice’s resonant voice boomed along the water’s edge and echoed off the rising slope behind him.
“You just keep running, boy. There’s nothin’ a gentleman like better than a bit of sport.”