The Accursed Thing
James awoke in stifling darkness.
He shifted and attempted to move, but his hands and feet were lead and they weighed him down. The odor of his soiled clothes – dirt and blood mingled with urine – blanketed him, sickening his stomach, making him want to retch. He fought the urge, reluctant to add one more element to the noxious mix. For a moment he had no idea of where he was or what had happened. Then, slowly, like the trickle of clean air streaming across his face, the horror of it crept back into his consciousness.
They had made camp in a glade beside a meandering stream. Lieutenant Bedford had been showing him how to clean a pistol. It was late. His mother and Patsy had retired to the tent his grandfather’s men provided them. A guard was stationed outside their door. Another patrolled the perimeter. Other than that, everyone was asleep. Simon Caragrew, the master sergeant, lay close by them, curled up in his bedding; his hand on his musket. Bedford had been kind to him. During the long march from New York to Kentucky, the young officer – he was, perhaps, 25 – had taken time to instruct him in wilderness skills. James was ashamed to admit that most of what his father had taught him several years before during his short stay in Kentucky, he had forgotten. Once back in London, and returned to school, the episode of his life among the Cherokee had taken on mythic proportions. At times, he felt it had never happened.
At times, he wished it hadn’t.
He had always felt out of place; a boy without a father. But once he found his father – and his heritage – it had made him feel even more out of place. His grandfather had offered to send him to one of the universities in the Colonies, but he had declined. And when his mother suggested coming back….well, he had fought it.
He loved his father. Cara-Mingo, the Cherokee, was a good, a great man. But sometimes, most times – if he was honest – he wished his father was Kerr Murray, the 5th Earl of Dunmore.
It would have been easier.
Shifting again, James tried to roll onto his back, but whatever bound his hands was anchored to the wooden floor and it stopped him. He closed his eyes, as if that blacker darkness would help him concentrate, and tried to discern what it was. Some kind of metal cuffs. They were hard and bit into his wrists. He formed his trembling fingers into fists and pulled harder. Falling back, exhausted, he allowed his mind to return to the scene the night before. He could see Lt. Bedford, smiling at him, handing the pistol. Then there was a ‘pop’.
The next instant the lieutenant’s blood was spattered over the front of his cream colored waistcoat.
He had watched him die.
A moment later Sergeant Caragrew was on his feet. Instantly assessing the situation, he started barking orders. James watched as the British officer dashed past him, heading for the women’s tent. He knew it was Caragrew’s responsibility to keep his mother safe. He heard her a moment later, shrieking in alarm, and remembered thinking she had realized Caragrew’s orders did not include him.
At that moment someone tossed something on the fire, smothering it. As smoke rose into the air, choking him. The lantern Bedford had placed on a tree trunk was knocked over and everything went black.
That was when the shadows appeared.
He could barely see them, but he heard them. Whispering in the dark as they circled the ruins of their camp. Someone cursed, and he knew the women had gotten away. Even as relief flooded through him for his mother’s safety, someone grabbed him from behind and pulled him close. He panicked and started to resist. But then the man spoke. He took James by the arm and led him away – after his mother, he presumed.
They had walked no more than a half mile when his savior halted. They were still deep within the wood, so even though the moon shone above little light penetrated. He turned toward the shadow of a man who walked beside him, meaning to thank him, but suddenly, he wasn’t there.
Grasping the darkness he sought him, turning in a circle, once, then twice. Then, even though the dark night remained impenetrable, he suddenly knew he was surrounded. The shadows had returned to circle him like rapacious birds.
It was at that moment James had realized a terrible thing – if he had been rescued, it was only so he could endure a living hell.
Someone struck him in the face. He raised his hands to defend himself in an attempt to ward off the next blow, but he was struck again, this time by a boot in the stomach. Someone laughed. Another said something in a sing-song language he did not understand. A third blow to his back sent him, reeling, to his knees. He cowered, awaiting more. When none came, James dared to raise his head. A lantern was unshuttered, revealing his persecutors. Through sweat and fear he could just make out several tall shapes. They were men, dressed in black. For one irrational moment, he thought they had no hands or feet. Then he realized they were black too.
“Who…who are you?” he stammered as blood trailed down his chin.
The man holding the lantern stepped forward. His face was dark as midnight. His features hard. A thin white scar writhed from the corner of one eye down his cheek until it reached his neck, where it coiled like a rattler’s tail.
“You be James Saynsberry, child of Lord Dunsmore,” he proclaimed, his voice resonant and touched with a hint of foreign places.
James drew a breath. Would the truth hurt or help him? He licked blood and salty sweat from his lips and answered, “He…is my grandfather.”
“This be the right one,” the man declared as he looked from one man to the next. In turn each man nodded, as if the words he had spoken contained a solemn truth.
“Who are you? What do you want with me?” James asked.
The man stared at him hard. Then he came to stand before him. Gripping James’ blood-stained collar, he hauled him to his feet – and then past them, so he dangled in the air.
“The answer be the same for both questions, boy.
Abruptly his feet were returned to the ground and he was shoved hard, so he nearly fell. English Justice forced him to walk several hundred yards and then hauled him back hard and forced him to his knees.
“You see this, boy?”
James blinked. The lantern’s glow showed something. A long narrow shape nestled in the tall brown grasses.
It looked like a coffin.
James drew a deep breath to steady his nerves. He had been confined in that box for nearly a day now, his hands and feet shackled. Outside its four wooden walls he had heard the same voice over and over again, shouting, barking orders like his grandfather’s sergeant. He had no idea who the man was or what he wanted.
He only knew it was not his good.
James started and tears flooded his eyes as the lid to the box was suddenly opened and the brilliant light of mid-morning flooded its interior. When he had blinked enough to see, he realized it was English Justice who towered over him. The black man bent and took hold of his shackles and employed an iron key to free them from the loop of metal that bound them to the floor of the box. Then he used them to haul James to his feet.
Agony shot through his wrists. Biting his lip, James denied any tears before his captor. He looked the man in the eye. And then very nearly fell as his knees gave way.
English Justice caught him and held him up. “It be time, boy,” he said.
“T-time?” James asked.
At the corner of his lip, the white scar rose in a savage smile.
Becky Boone was startled by a knock at the door. She looked down at her work table which was covered with the remnants of flour and cherry juice, and sighed. Once, long ago, she had dreams of being a proper lady, in a proper house, with proper maids to make her proper cherry pies in a proper kitchen, but those dreams had given way to the bigger one that was Daniel Boone. She made her own pies, and was proud of them.
But once, just once, she would like to greet someone at the door without lard or flour or fruit juice staining her apron.
“Oh, well,” Becky sighed as she shoved a lock of copper hair out of her eyes and succeeded in dusting her nose as well, “at least they’ll know I don’t sit around all day embroidering!”
Wiping her hands on her apron, Becky headed for the door. On her way there she glanced at the curtained off area which protected their guests from prying eyes. Privacy in a small cabin was a hard thing to come by, but she had done her best for them. She had heard the elegant woman, Catherine, stirring an hour or so before, but so far neither she or her Irish servant had made an appearance.
Before lifting the bar, Becky called out. “Who’s there?” She didn’t add, ‘friend or foe’ but with what had been happening, she certainly felt like it.
‘Pardon me, Ma’am. I been travelin’ a long way. I was wonderin’ if’n you might have somethin’ to spare for a poor tired soul with an empty belly.”
It was a woman. Young, by her voice. Becky frowned, her desire for Christian charity fighting against her desire to keep her family safe.
“Are you alone?” she asked.
The woman spoke with an accent. Something like the one she had known in North Carolina. Becky hesitated still, wondering whether to open the door. Releasing the bar, she stepped over to the window and peered through the coarse cotton curtains. She couldn’t see anyone. It would be hard for more than one person to be on the porch and not be seen.
Still, it was possible.
“I just go away, Ma’am. Sorry to have troubled you.”
“No! Wait.” Becky rushed to the mantel and grabbed Dan’s extra gun. It wasn’t primed, but nobody had to know that. Returning to the door, she placed it within easy reach and then lifted the bar. As she placed her hand on the latch, she whispered a quick prayer. Then she opened it.
The woman was halfway down the walk.
“Please. I’m sorry,” Becky called after her. “Out here we have to be careful. Please come back.”
The woman – barely more than a girl, really – took a few more steps and then stopped. She pivoted on her heel and walked slowly back toward the cabin. Becky did her best to hide her surprise as she smiled a greeting.
She was a mulatto.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” the girl said as she stepped onto the porch.
“No, Ma’am. That wouldn’t be right.”
Becky frowned. Since she was traveling alone, she had to be free. Or maybe not. Maybe she was a runaway. They had dealt with that before, with slaves and the kind of men who hunted them. Growing suddenly uneasy, Becky motioned her into the house and then closed the door and barred it behind her.
The young mulatto was fairly tall, but slender to the point of starvation. Her long hair was ringletted, and fell to her shoulders in a deep brown tide. She was really quite pretty; her skin more the color of tea than coffee. She was dressed fairly well, in what looked to be a cast-off gown, mended many times. It was a deep crimson in color. A white petticoat showed beneath it, badly soiled from travel.
Becky saw her eyes flick to the table where the ruins of crust and dried cherries lay.
“I was just about to cook a fresh pie. Do you have time to wait?”
The girl started as if guilty. “No, Ma’am. I shoulds be on my way.”
It was obvious she had some education by her speech, and obvious as well that it had not been much. Becky knew teaching slaves was forbidden in the southern colonies. The fact that someone had broken that rule added to her suspicion that the girl was a runaway.
“Sit down, please, by the fire and warm yourself. I’ll get you a plate with some bread and cheese for a start.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. Er, Ma’am?”
Becky turned back. “Yes?”
Her unexpected guest nodded toward the curtained off area. “You got yourself some company.”
Turning, she saw Catherine standing just beyond the draped sheet, staring at the newcomer. Her maid, Patsy, stood behind her.
“Catherine,” Becky said, “this is…. Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t ask your name.”
The girl hesitated only a moment. “Minerva, Ma’am.”
“Minerva. Well, Minerva, this is Catherine Saynsberry and Patsy, her maid.”
Minerva gave a little curtsy. “Pleased to meet you, Ma’am.”
“Likewise,” Catherine said, her tone revealing her puzzlement. “Are you traveling alone?”
“Is that allowed?” The minute the words were out of her mouth, Catherine winced. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. Forgive me. Back home I have followed Mr. Sharpe’s work with keen interest. I think it is abhorrent for one man to pretend to own another.” At Becky’s puzzled look, she added, “Granville Sharpe of His Majesty’s Ordnance office. Mr. Sharpe is a barrister. He has fought diligently for the abolition of the slave trade in the mother country.”
“I ain’t no slave, Ma’am.”
Catherine smiled. “Good for you.”
“Are you free, then, Minerva?” Becky asked.
The girl’s head fell again. “Well, I ain’t exactly that yet either, Ma’am.”
“Are you headed for Ohio?”
The girl looked at her. In her dark eyes she read something – a hint of despair, even hopelessness.
“I surely hope so, Ma’am.”
Becky shook her head as her hands lodged in their customary place on her hips. “Will you at least call me, Mrs. Boone?”
Minerva hesitated. Then she smiled. “I’d be all right with that.”
“Good. Now take a seat and I will get you something to eat. Catherine, would you like something?”
“That would be lovely. And thank you again, Rebecca, for your generous offer to allow us to remain here with you. I know it has put you out.”
Early that morning, before Catherine and Patsy had awakened, Jericho had come and taken Jemima and Israel to the fort. Jemima had protested, but Becky had insisted she go with her brother. ‘You are responsible for two now’, she reminded her. She hadn’t needed to remind her daughter who came first.
“Not at all,” Becky said, hoping the good Lord could tell courtesy from a lie.
“May I ask what brings you to Boonesborough?” Catherine inquired of Minerva as they both took seats at the Boone’s table.
“I be lookin’ for someone,” she answered.
“Oh, who? I might be able to help,” Becky said as she placed a plate laden with cheese and slices of thick wheat bread on the table before them. “Though we don’t have too many negroes here.”
Minerva tore off a piece of bread and began to chew it. “You wouldn’t know them, Mrs. Boone. They’s just passin’ through. I been tryin’ to catch up with them for days.”
For the first time since she had opened the door, Becky felt uneasy. “Passing through?” she asked as she began to fill mugs with the fresh milk she and Israel had gathered before he left.
“I supposed to be meetin’ them by the waterfall. Then we is headin’ north.”
“Family?” Becky asked.
Minerva nodded as she took a sip of milk.
“My Pa. Him and the others, they got some business to attend to, and then we’re goin’ to be free.”
“James Saynsberry, grandson of the Governor General of the Virginia Territory, you be accused by reason of the blood in your veins with murder. How do you plead?”
James shook from head to foot. This was a nightmare. It had to be. Nothing about the scene from the steely-eyed man perched like a king on the crate before him to the dozen or so others who stood in silence, their eyes full of hatred and locked on him, made any sense. He had never seen any of them before, and he didn’t understand what this had to do with his grandfather. He didn’t even know John Murray that well. Most of his young life his Grandpapa John had been away, in the colonies or the West Indies. It was only on the trip over that they had really begun to know one another….
The West Indies. Suddenly English Justice’s accent fell into place.
The black man was from the West Indies. Though he spoke English so well he must have come over when he was a child. English Justice looked to be about his father’s age. 30. Or maybe a little more.
“Well, boy, I be waiting.”
“I…I don’t understand the charge.”
“What be there to understand? You not know the word ‘murder’, boy?”
“My name is James.”
The dark skinned man waited a moment. Then he rose from his seat. Coming close, he towered over him. “Be that so? Well, you will never hear it comin’ from these lips.” English Justice jabbed a finger into James’ chest. “You no longer have a name, boy. You are no one!” His persecutor caught his soiled shirt in his fingers and hauled James close to his face. “You be my property now. I call you what I want. And I choose to call you ‘boy’!” English Justice stared into his face and then, as if he meant nothing, cast James to the ground. Then he returned to his seat upon the crate.
As James struggled to stand, two men came to his side and hauled him to his feet. Gripping his arms, they forced him to face the man who had declared himself both judge and jury.
“Now, boy, how be it you plead?”
James spit dirt from his lips. He raised his head and met his persecutor’s condemning stare. “I am innocent.”
“Yes.” He drew a breath and then added with pride. “I give you my word as a gentleman.”
“A gentleman?” English Justice sneered. “I have had my fill of gentlemen and their word!” He spit on the ground. “It means nothing!”
James frowned. Did he not understand? “My word is my bond.”
English Justice rose again. He strode over and took hold of the shackles binding James’ hands. “These are your bond!” he shouted, his voice shaking with rage. “You be wearin’ them because of a gentleman who gave his word – and then betrayed us all!”
Pain shot through his wrists and panic overcame his adult veneer. James fought to keep tears from his eyes. “I have no idea what you are talking about. Sir.”
The black man sneered. “That be right. You call me ‘sir’, boy. I know you probably do not know what the man has done. But then, my children did not know what I done. And yet, they are dead because of it.”
James swallowed. “Are you going to kill me?”
English Justice did not answer. Instead he left the circle and walked to the curious oblong box James had found himself confined in. Standing by it, he asked him, “Do you know what this be?”
“It looks like a…coffin,” he answered.
For a moment his persecutor said nothing. Then he nodded. “That it be, boy. That it be. Not for one, though, but for thousands.”
“How could you? White child of privilege?” English Justice strode over to him and took hold of the chains binding his hands. He pulled on them, dragging James back toward the box. “Your kind forges the iron. They make the chains that bind. They build the ships that sail to our homes. Ships that carry away our wives, our children. Thousands at a time, boy, shackled like you be now, in the bottom of a ship, in the dark, in a place no bigger than this! You know how many weeks it take to get to America, boy?”
“Six…six or eight – ”
“Eight weeks! Trapped in a space no bigger than this! Shackled by iron to the floor. Sleepin’ in your own filth and breathin’ air that make you sick. Air thick with the stench of the ones who have died. Do you know, boy? The slavers leave you shackled to them until the voyage ends. It is easier to wait until they take you to the deck. Then, if you be lucky, they toss you over too to feed the sharks.”
“I’m sorry,” James said, understanding now the meaning of the coffin-like box. “But I still don’t understand what this has to do with me, or my grandfather. He is not a slaver.”
“Oh no, boy,” English Justice breathed in his face, “Lord Dunmore be somethin’ far worse.”
With that the black man released him. He took a step back and nodded his head. Two men moved forward and took hold of James, thrusting him back into the box and locking his shackles to its bottom. When he cried out and struggled to escape, one of them struck him, setting his head to spinning. The lid was lowered into place and then he heard a harrowing sound.
Nails being pounded.
“That be right,” English Justice said, pronouncing his doom. “Nail it tight.”