The Accursed Thing
Mingo saw Catherine’s willowy frame tense as she recognized him, and heard her call his name out loud. Then she was on the run, stumbling across the open field to his side. Once there, she dropped to her knees and reached for his face.
“Dear God! What have they done to you?” she breathed.
He must look worse than he thought. “Your concern should be for yourself,” he answered quickly. “Catherine, why are you here?”
She glanced over her shoulder. The tall broadly built black man was watching them, but he had not moved. When Catherine turned back, fresh tears streaked her soiled cheeks. “That man, he came to the Boone’s cabin. He told me he had James. I couldn’t…. I had to come!” She was trembling so hard between fear and the cold, she could hardly finish. “I struck Rebecca over the head and gave myself up to them.”
“Where is he? Where is James?” she implored him. “Do you know?”
Mingo hesitated. What could he say? That her son was most likely dead and that, in a way, he had been interred before he died?
“No, I have not seen him,” he answered honestly. “But Catherine, you must prepare yourself for the worst.”
She had always been pale. His words erased what little color she had. “What do you know?” she gasped.
“Nothing for certain. Only that these are desperate men.”
She stared at him and then dropped her head and began to sob. It was hard for him to watch her. Catherine Saynsberry was strong woman, broken now by a sorrow no mother should ever know. He longed to take her and hold her in his arms, to comfort her, but he was impotent in the grip of English Justice.
“Why…do they…hate…us so?” she whimpered through her hands.
How could he explain? Could he tell her that the man had every right to hate his father? And, even though his methods were abhorrent, to claim justice? If what he guessed was correct these men had lost everything because of his father’s policy of expediency when it came to war. It was a well-known fact in both England and the New World that Lord Dunsmore’s motto was ‘all things are lawful in a war’.
How could one damn English Justice for taking his father’s teaching too much to heart?
She lifted her head and turned reddened eyes on him. “What?” she breathed.
Catherine looked and saw it was true. English Justice was walking toward them. Behind his massive frame three of his fellows followed, their weapons in hand. She scrambled to Mingo’s side and gripped his bound arm tightly. “Will they kill us?” Catherine asked.
Thinking of his son, committed to his grave prematurely, he answered her.
“We can only hope.”
A number of things flashed through John Murray’s consciousness as he continued to rush the black man named Serapis. Curiously enough, the end of his life was not among of them. He was an old man and had seen and done more than most men could in two lifetimes. No, he thought of James and what his grandson’s fate would be, should he fail. Of the young woman who was obviously guarding him – who was she? And would she survive to merit his mother and father’s thanks? And he thought of Cara-Mingo. His beautiful son, so long lost. So many things remained unsettled between them. Did Kerr know how much he loved him? How he regretted his pain? If he died, who would tell him?
Who had he ever told?
As if he were a casual observer, John Murray watched the black man raise his pistol and point it at his stomach. Not a killing shot, but one calculated to bring the most agonizing pain. He knew he deserved it. The choice had been his at Gwynn’s Island, to cut their losses and run. He was to blame. But James was not. Nor was his son. Why, he wanted to scream, defying the heavens – why must they be made to pay for his crimes?
Serapis’ finger was on the trigger. John steeled himself for the entry of the ball into his flesh. He’d been shot before. He knew what it was like. The sudden shock. A sense of burning, tearing skin. Pain.
And then the blessed night.
But it never came. In a blur of motion, four things happened. James slid from the horse’s back. The young woman shrieked with alarm. Serapis pivoted to see what the matter was and, at that moment, a child-size tomahawk embedded itself in the black man’s upper chest.
If he had not turned, it would have taken him in the heart.
By the time John Murray reached James’ side, Serapis was groaning and pitching on the cold hard ground as blood pooled beneath his lean frame.
Falling to his knees, the first thing John did was feel for his grandson’s heartbeat. It was thready but he found it, and sighed with relief. Then he looked for Walks Through. The boy was perched nearby on the truck of the fallen tree.
“Thank you,” he called out to him.
Walks Through nodded. He slipped from the tree and, without a word, came to Serapis’ side where he knelt and bound the man’s hands with supple vines he had taken from it. Then he took up a post at his feet to guard him.
The young woman – the girl, really, now that he could see her clearly – was staring wide-eyed at the pair of them. Her gown, once elegant, was covered in mud and smeared with blood. The shawl she wore, askew. Her hair was brown as he had first surmised and her skin the palest tan, but now he realized what she was – a bright mulatto, removed by white blood several generations from her African roots.
She watched him closely as he gathered James in his arms and rose to his feet. The boy groaned with pain. In the smallest whisper, she asked him something that he could not understand.
“What? What did you say?” he snapped, more harshly than he intended.
The girl cleared her throat. “It’s his belly,” she said. “It’s hurting him bad.”
He glanced down at James’ face. It was livid, but beneath the flush there was a deathly pallor. “What happened?”
“Serapis and the others, they beat him bad,” she said, indicating the fallen man with her head. “And then locked him up with no food or water.”
“The others?” he demanded.
For the first time she seemed frightened of him. “Janus. Caesar. Dabney and more.”
Janus again. The fallen black man had mentioned him. “Is he the one who ordered this? This Janus?”
She nodded. “He calls his self ‘English Justice’ now.”
“And who are you?”
In spite of her fear, the girl made a little curtsey. “Minerva, sir.”
“Well, Minerva, I saw you trying to protect my grandson. You have my eternal gratitude. Now, is there somewhere we can take James and tend him before – ” John Murray paused. The mulatto was staring at him open-mouthed. “Child, what is it?”
“You’re his grandpa?” she asked, though by her tone she might as well have asked if he was God.
“Yes. What of it?”
“You be…Lord Dunsmore? The governor of all Virginia?”
At one time he had thought that title something to be proud of. Now, looking at the consequence of his choices, he was not so sure. “I was,” he answered quietly.
“Then, you’re the one Janus hates so. The one responsible for all of this.” He watched her work it through her simple mind. By the time she came to the final conclusion, her pale hands were clenched in fists of rage. “You’re the one what murdered my mama!”
“Your mother?” he asked.
The girl nodded. “She died on Gwynn’s Island.”
That infernal place again! John Murray sighed. He mastered his temper and then began. “Now see here – what is your name?”
“Minerva,” she declared.
“Minerva, in war there is no such thing as ‘murder’. I am sorry your mother died. The sickness was rampant on the island. There was nothing to do but leave the incurable behind and salvage what we could.”
“No such thing as murder,” she echoed, her jaw growing tight. “You just keep tellin’ yourself that, your lordship, while you watch your family die.”
“Is that a threat?” he snarled.
“No. No, sir it ain’t. I don’t want no one to die. But Janus, he’s different. He won’t stop ‘til the debt’s paid in blood.”
As the girl spoke, James stirred and moaned. Looking down at him, beaten and bloodied, the foolishness of attempting to defend his actions was driven sharply home. “Is there somewhere warm and dry we can take him?” he asked her, choking on his words.
“I fixed a place in the sycamore. Don’t no one know about it but me – and you two. But we ain’t safe here for long. Janus, he’ll be comin’.”
“Can you tell me where to find him?”
Her eyes were wide. “What’a you want to do that for?”
John glanced at Walks Through. The boy sat stoically by the side of the fallen black man. Serapis had quieted now, though whether he had passed out or passed on, he had no idea. Walks Through would make quite a warrior in time. Turning back to her, he answered, “Janus has my son, James’ father. It is time this stopped. If he wants revenge, he should take it out on me.”
Minerva came forward. She laid her hand on James’ still form, and then her soft brown eyes sought his face.
“Governor, what do you think this is all about?”
He left the girl resting in the sycamore with his grandson. From battlefield experience, he thought James had an injury to his spleen. The boy was not in shock, there was no blood in his urine from what he could tell, and he was not in intense pain. All signs pointed to a mild abdominal injury, one that would heal in time and not lead to death.
The severe dehydration James suffered from was another thing. Minerva explained how she had fed him paw-paws in imitation of what the Indians did. She was a smart girl. The Indian bananas contained not only moisture but sodium, the two things the boy’s depleted system needed. He had built a fire in a pit within the great tree and taught her how to keep it low so the smoke wouldn’t show, and then gathered ice from a nearby spring and brought it back. When he left them, Minerva was seated with James’ head in her lap, employing a leaf as a shallow cup to feed him the necessary fluid. Given time, he should heal.
But time was the one gift no one could give. It was running out. For James. For Cara.
As he moved through the tangled undergrowth with Walks Through at his side, leading Serapis’ horse, John Murray considered the choices he had made. It was war, no matter what anyone tried to make it. And in war, harsh choices were expected. If he had not ordered the structures and diseased bodies on Gwynn’s Island burned – if he had failed to destroy all but a handful of his ships, and not escaped with the surviving remnant of both his white and black regiments – all would have died. The Americans would have taken them, and Virginia’s coast would have been lost. Such a thing could not be! Once he had pledged his heart and soul to his country, a man’s fate was not his own. King and crown came first. Before him, before his men – even before his own. There was no choice but the choice he had made, and he would stand by it. He would, in fact, die for it.
But he would not allow this man, English Justice, to spill innocent blood.
A hand to his thigh stopped him and he looked down. Walks Through had placed a finger to his lips. As the boy crouched down, he took hold of his hand and pulled him after.
“What? What is it?” John asked.
“Men,” the boy replied. “Many men.”
It was near noon, but the glory of the morning had failed to fulfill its promise. Pendulous clouds hung on the horizon, threatening a cold hard rain. Within the shadows of the leaves were other shadows, moving on nearly silent feet. Walks Through nodded and then moved to silence their mount. John Murray watched the motion of the men from his place of concealment and then – rashly it must have seemed to the boy – stood up and began to shout.
“Boone! Daniel Boone! Over here! Boone, it is John Murray!”
“Hold your fire!” he heard the tall man say a moment later. “That you, John?”
“Yes, it’s me,” he said as he dropped to the trail. “Thank God, we’ve found you!”
“We?” the frontiersman asked.
“The boy….” John plunged back into the leaves. But both Walks Through and the horse were gone. As Daniel came to his side, he said, “He was here just a moment ago.”
The tall man looked thoughtful. “That wouldn’t be the Cherokee boy these Shawnee are so all fired scared of, would it, John?”
Looking over the frontiersman’s shoulder, he noted the line of painted and feathered warriors headed their way. “Why, yes….”
Dan winked. “I think I’d be keepin’ that to yourself just about now.”
“Agreed,” he answered with a nod.
“Where you comin’ from, John?”
“Daniel, I found James. He’s with a young mulatto woman in a sycamore near the river.” His jaw clenched as he went on. “He’s been beaten savagely and very nearly killed. I told her to wait there for my return, but James should be taken to the settlement as soon as possible.”
“Why didn’t you take him?”
“James is alive,” he said. “ I don’t know yet if the same can be said of my son.”
Dan indicated the Shawnee with a backwards nod of his head. “My friends here are gonna help us rescue Mingo.”
If Daniel Boone had just said he had parted the Red Sea, he could not have been more surprised. “The Shawnee? Rescue a Cherokee?”
“Mingo’s just the bonus,” he answered quietly, and then louder, added, “The men who took Mingo have great magic. We go to get it for the Shawnee.”
“Oh, I see.” John Murray’s eyes took in the painted faces, savage in aspect and mean. Could he safely place James’ life in the hands of any one of them?
“You need someone to go to the boy, Daniel. I will,” a soft voice intruded. Pompey, the black man from the Indian’s camp, came to stand beside them. “I’m not doing this for you, governor. If it was up to me, I’d swing the hammer and put the last nail in the lid of your coffin. Supposing, of course, you were convicted legally,” he added with a grin.
Dan looked from one to the other. “I see you two know each other.”
“It matters little what you think of me,” John Murray said wearily. “I thank you for what you will do for my grandson.”
Pompey stared at him a moment. Then he nodded his head. “By the river, then?”
“As the crow flies – or the boy walks. Due north about a mile, then right until the water. You can’t miss the tree. There’s a fresh grave about one hundred feet from it in the woods.” At Daniel’s look, he added, “Casualty of war.”
Daniel nodded, understanding. “Seems like you and me, governor, we got us plenty of stories to tell around the fire once all of this is done.”
“God willing, Daniel,” he said. “God willing.”
It took them about an hour to cover the distance remaining to English Justice’s camp. By the time they arrived the afternoon shadows had grown long. They spent some time surveying the camp, but it was situated in such a way that they couldn’t see much. Finally, it was decided the best course was a tactical strike, catching the enemy unawares and overwhelming them with sheer numbers.
Tabuka and the Shawnee fanned out in a circle, their tomahawks raised; their bows fitted with arrows whose keen points glinted in the dying light. Dan glanced at John Murray where he crouched beside him. The older man was physically exhausted, but more than that, he seemed soul-weary. As if he neither cared whether he lived or died.
A man like that could prove mighty dangerous in a battle. To his enemies, and to his friends.
“Maybe you should sit this one out, John,” Dan suggested softly.
Mingo’s father gripped the barrel of his borrowed rifle. “You need not worry about me. My only concern is for my son.”
“That’s what I mean. You’re tired. And tired men make mistakes.”
John Murray looked at him. His laugh was laced with sorrow and hard won wisdom. “I have made more than enough mistakes for one lifetime. You have my word, Daniel, I won’t make any more.”
A bird’s call told him the Shawnee were ready. They had agreed. One call for warning. Two to get ready. On three, they would charge the camp.
He listened as the second call came.
“Funny we can’t see anyone movin’ about,” Dan said.
“My men told me they wore dark clothing. There is nothing to see.”
“I guess you’re right. Wait!” He heard the third whistle. “There it is. Come on!”
Together with the warriors, he and the former governor-general of the Virginia Territory rose up and, imitating the Indians’ battle cries, charged the camp, praying all the while to everything Almighty above that they had taken the black men by surprise.
When they reached the center of the camp, it was they who were surprised.
It was deserted.
Dan stood next to a dwindling fire, scratching his head. The black men couldn’t have heard them and fled. From the look of it, they’d been long gone before they got there.
“Boone,” Tabuka said as he stepped out from behind a tree. “Over here.”
He and John Murray looked at one another.
There was a woman tied to it.
Running fast as his feet could carry him, Dan rounded the tree, fearing in his heart that he would find Rebecca or Jemima. His relief was brief when he saw the state Catherine Saynsberry was in. Her rich blue gown had been ripped away, revealing the bodice of her chemise. Her ivory skin was red with welts. Her brown hair hung in sweat-soaked hanks before her eyes. She was bound hand and foot, her arms lashed to the tree. There was a gag in her mouth.
Catherine’s eyes were haunted.
Dan knelt before her and removed the gag as gently as he could. “Catherine,” he began. “Where….”
“They’ve killed him!” she screamed. “Oh God, they’ve killed him!” Catherine’s chest rose and fell as she sobbed and fell against him, leaning into his strength. “Mr. Boone, they’ve killed him….”
Dan drew a breath, steeling himself. “Mingo?”
“Yes!” she gasped. “Oh my God….”
“Catherine, where is he?” a shaken voice asked from close behind him.
Dan looked up to find Mingo’s father, looking like he might be the next one in the grave. “John, he’s gone….”
John Murray knelt and cut her loose. He placed a hand on Catherine’s shoulder. “Where is Kerr? Can you show me?”
Pale, shaking so she could hardly stand, Catherine Saynsberry crawled to her feet. With John’s help, she took ten steps forward and raised her hand. Then she collapsed into the older man’s arms.
Dan moved slowly forward. Where she pointed a curious box lay broken open, the lid split in two and tossed on the ground. Beside it the earth had been recently disturbed, and a large boulder dragged into place over it. He stared at the scene and then knelt and let the loose dirt sift through his fingers.
Turning back to Catherine he asked her, “They buried him?”
“Yes,” she said in a whisper. “Alive."