The Accursed Thing
“Dan, what do you think?” Becky asked him.
Dan was sitting at a table in the corner of Cincinnatus’ saloon watching their unexpected guests. The British soldiers had done more stomping and dashing of their fists on tables than he had seen in quite a while. Apparently they had been forced to run, and that was not something soldiers cared to do – or to admit. Becky had overheard the oldest of them, a grizzled haired veteran sergeant of about forty named Caragrew, explain to the tavern keeper that they had been set upon in darkness, when everyone but the watch was sleeping. The men who had stormed the camp had been hooded and cloaked. They had attacked and then fled, blending into the night like shadows. The lieutenant, who was dead now, had ordered him and his mates, Bell and Shaw, to take the women and run the moment they became aware that they were under attack. When questioned further about what they were doing in these parts, Caragrew would only say that their commander was on his way and he had better leave it up to him to tell them.
“Did you get a look at the women?” Dan asked between long sips of cider.
“Hardly,” his wife huffed. The door had blown open several hours before and two pale women had blown in – and right up the stairs. The soldiers protected them like they were something special. “I thought about trying to take up some tea, but I decided it wasn’t worth it.” She nodded toward the wooden staircase that led to the second floor. An armed soldier kept vigil there.
Dan slipped his arm about Becky’s waist. “Well, I sure wouldn’t like to see any holes in that pretty bodice of yours.”
“Dan!” She swatted him. “Now’s
not really the time.”
He grinned and then, his hand hidden by her skirts, gave her rump a little pinch. As she yelped, he slipped out of his seat. “With all the trouble we get around here, Becky, there’s no time but the present most of the time.” Straightening up, he headed for the soldiers. He had allowed Cincinnatus some time to soften them up with gracious talk, food, and some fine liquor. They looked just about ripe to pick. As Dan arrived at the bar Cincinnatus caught his eye and shook his graying head.
Wonder what was up his craw?
“Sergeant Caragrew?” Dan asked, holding out this hand.
The man turned his grizzled head. His eyes were crisp and clear. “Sir. And you would be?”
“Daniel Boone. Mighty pleased to make your acquaintance.”
One eyebrow peaked. “I’m sure you are.”
Dan pursed his lips. Hmm. Maybe he should have waited for the sergeant to consume one or two more tankards. “You mind telling me what you – and the women – are doing in these parts?”
Caragrew stifled a sigh. “Mr. Boone, I know you are the owner of this most delightful…hamlet. I am afraid that does not give you the right to know the King’s business. In fact, from what I hear, you would be one of the last men I would tell it to.”
“That right?” he asked, swinging toward the counter and an ale Cincinnatus was pushing his way with an ‘I told you so’ look.
“It most certainly is, sir. I would advise you to mind your manners and actions so long as the general is in town.”
“General?” Dan asked as he leaned against the wooden surface.
The man winced. “Yes. He should be here any minute. He had…business to attend to.”
Must have been pitching manure, Dan thought, from the look on the man’s face.
“Well,” he said, tipping his drink, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. Ain’t that right?”
Sergeant Caragrew held his gaze. His face was flint. “It certainly is.”
Lucky for those men that attacked the British camp – whoever they were – Dan thought, that Sergeant Caragrew was in charge of the women.
“Do the ladies need anything?” Dan heard Becky ask.
Caragrew pivoted. When he saw Becky, his demeanor softened. “Thank you, dear lady. Nothing but rest. And good news.”
“Good news?” she asked, her eyes flicking to Dan. Becky knew the drill. What he couldn’t learn, her feminine wiles would most often wheedle out of a man.
Dan sipped and then grinned. They made a good team.
“One of the ladies has suffered a terrible blow. An inestimable loss. She will not be herself until…it is returned.”
“It? Was she robbed?”
“Most heartily, dear lady, most heartily. And of that which cannot be replaced,” a loud voice proclaimed as the door to the tavern opened and a stiff wind stirred the cloaks hanging on the pegs nearby. As Becky pivoted, Dan rose from his seat. The tall gray-haired figure in the crimson uniform of a British General was unexpected, but not unknown. Just like the one who followed him.
“Mingo!” Becky exclaimed. “We thought you were away on a hunt.”
Dan watched his Indian friend enter the tavern, ducking through the low doorway as his father had done. Right away he knew something was terribly wrong. Walking toward him, he asked, “Mingo, what is it? What’s happened?”
Mingo was not focused on him. His dark eyes roamed the tavern, seeking something – or someone. When he realized he had asked him a question, he met his puzzled stare. Mingo’s eyes were haunted. “I believe I will let my father explain.”
Dan’s gaze went to the martial figure of Mingo’s English father. The older man was pale. Shaken. And there was something else. He didn’t seem capable of looking anyone in the eye. As he spoke, Lord Dunsmore began to pace, prowling the small space of the tavern like a caged cat.
“Our party arrived in the colonies some month ago. One month hence those in my charge began to make their way here.” His eyes flicked to his son. “I was detained…on business.”
Mingo scowled and turned toward the fire.
“Among others, there were two ladies in the party. Being of a tender nature and delicate constitution, I made it clear to my men that – should anything molest them – the women were to be removed immediately from danger. As I understand it, they had made camp for the night when they were accosted. Following my order Sergeant Caragrew rescued the ladies and brought them here.”
“And the others?” Becky asked, breathless.
“Murdered, Madame. By unseen foes. Not one is left alive who saw them.”
Dan turned toward the fire. He had heard a sound – something like a moan. He thought it came from Mingo.
Lord Dunsmore cleared his throat. “At least none that we know for certain.
At that moment there was a commotion. Dan pivoted just in time to see the soldier at the bottom of the stair raise his weapon and then lower it, chagrinned. The man barely had time to step out of the way before a lovely if somewhat disheveled woman came flying down the stairs, headed straight for Lord Dunsmore.
She was tall for a woman, with light brown hair that had been upswept in a fine fashionable style before the events of the night before had battered both it and her. Now the curls tumbled about her face and shoulders, lending her a distracted air. She was dressed in a fine gown of a heavy blue brocade. English style, he thought, since it was simple and not fussy like the French liked their fashions. The detail work on it, butterflies and flowers in a spring mix of colors, made it expensive. She was a woman of some means. She was also a woman in pain.
And that knew no social barriers.
“Where is he? Where is James? Tell me! Tell me that you have found him!” she sobbed.
Lord Dunsmore waited until she quieted. Then he took her shoulders in his hands. “Catherine, I told you there is nothing we can do until my men return. They are even now searching the camp for clues as to what happened. Tomorrow – ”
“Tomorrow may be too late! Who knows what evil designs those men have? He’s just a child. If they want money, I will pay it. Any price! I would give my life for him. You must tell them that!”
Becky had crossed to his side. She placed a hand on his arm. “Dan…”
He recognized it too. The voice of a mother’s loss.
As Dunsmore continued to comfort the woman, speaking soft but stern words to her, Dan remembered Mingo had come in with the older man. He glanced toward the fire and saw that his friend had shifted back into the shadows. He knew his father’s presence worked on Mingo as nothing else. While his friend was usually calm and self-assured, when Lord Dunsmore was around, he grew morose. The only time Dan had really seen his friend drunk was the last time the British general had shown his face in Boonesborough about two and a half years back.
He patted Becky’s hand and then moved past her toward him.
The firelight caught in his friend’s obsidian eyes. “He has not told her,” he said.
“Told her what?”
Mingo drew a long breath and held it. It’s release came with the appearance of a worn note. The dark eyes lingered on it’s surface and then he handed it to him.
Dan read it through – twice. He thought about it a second and then said, “James? That’s not – ”
“My James.” Mingo’s jaw was tight. “Something my father has done has brought this retribution down upon us all.”
Dan looked at the note again, rereading the words. “Mingo, it says ‘the redskin’s next’,” he said quietly.
Mingo dismissed his own danger with a wave of his hand. “That is not important. What is important is finding James.”
Dan’s voice fell even quieter. “It says here he’s in a place with no light…”
His friend nodded. “He suffers there. Daniel, James was alive, at least when this note was written.”
Dan thought of his own boy. Of how he had felt those times when some madman had taken him, sometimes only to hurt his Pa. But Israel had come through all of them with nothing more than a bruise or scratch. Nothing a kiss from his ma couldn’t cure. If James was being tortured….
His hand gripped his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll find him.”
“I will find him, Daniel. He is my son.”
Mingo’s voice had risen in volume and, with the voice he had, it carried through the tavern like a call to arms.
Lord Dunsmore turned. So did the woman with him. She frowned as if puzzled and then made a little gasping noise. Her hand went to her chest and she went pale as if she had seen a ghost.
Which she had.
Mingo froze. He was more than halfway to the door. A few more feet and he could make good his escape, could go out into the night and run until he could no longer stand, then sleep and rise and search for his boy.
Or he could turn and face her.
He was uncomfortably aware of which took more courage.
Drawing in another breath Mingo turned back. “Catherine.”
For a moment, she said nothing. Then she crossed the floor and to his utter chagrin laid her hand alongside his face. Her brown eyes searched what she found there and then she smiled.
“Kerr, it is you.”
He took her hand and gently pulled it away. “No. Kerr is dead. I am Cara-Mingo.”
She nodded. Pain flicked through her eyes. “James told me. The Cherokee warrior.”
“Do you still sing?” When he looked surprised, she ducked her head. “I know it seems unimportant. Especially now. How silly of me.”
Their music had been what had drawn them together. She had been the eldest daughter of his father’s favorite mistress. At first they had been merely friends – then for a moment, lovers – and then friends again.
He caught her fingers in his. Her hand was small and fragile. “No. You are not silly. I remember.” He smiled at her. “And yes, I still sing.”
In the hush that followed Mingo became acutely aware that there was a hush in the tavern. He looked up and found all eyes were on him and Catherine.
Catherine sensed it too and blushed a pleasing shade of pink. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He looked at her and shook his head. “I’m not.” Then turning toward Daniel and Rebecca where they stood trying not to look interested, he called, “Rebecca?”
The redhead started and took a step toward him. “Yes, Mingo?”
“I think Catherine and her maid would be more comfortable at your cabin. Would you mind?”
“Mingo, why of course not – ”
Lord Dunsmore huffed. “My men can take better care – ”
“Your men lost my….” Mingo paused to meet Catherine’s eyes. “Our son. I think I know better who can keep care of what is important to me.”
The older man was nonplussed. “Well, then,” he said, adjusting, “that will give us more men for the hunt.”
“You can leave that to me as well,” Mingo declared, his tone adamant. “I require one man to show me where the attack took place. I will return him to you, unharmed, and then you can go.”
“Who are you to give orders?” Lord Dunsmore snapped. “I am the King’s representative – ”
“And I am James’ father. This is for me to do.”
The older man paused. He actually looked frightened. “Not alone.” His eyes flicked to Catherine. She was speaking with Becky. “You know what the note said. You too are in danger.”
“He won’t be alone,” Dan said, coming to his side.
“Nope, Mingo. Don’t even try. Think about it. With Becky looking after your….after Miss Saynsberry there and her maid, I’ll have four females in the house. Won’t be a safe place for man or beast. Nope. I’m comin’ with you.”
With Becky looking after his…. After his what? Mingo’s eyes went to Catherine. She turned just at that moment and looked at him. They shared a child.
What else did they share?
At last Mingo nodded. “All right, Daniel. And thank you. I welcome the company.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way, Mingo. We’ll see Becky and the ladies to the cabin first, and then you and I can set out.” Dan turned toward Lord Dunsmore who had remained silent. “Who you gonna give us as a guide?”
“You’ll have two,” the older man answered as he took off his coat and continued to strip down until he wore only a simple linen shirt and breeches. “One is a good man, a sergeant named Caragrew. He knows the way.” His father walked up to him and waited until he had met his eyes. “The other is John Murray. A man who is worried for his grandson.”
“Yes. And if you do not take me with you, I will follow behind.”
Mingo hesitated. “Is this for James? Or are you merely wanting to cover your back?”
The older man looked pained. He drew a breath and let it out to calm his anger. Then he said, “Perhaps it is your back that I hope to cover.”
It was nearly midnight before they were ready to leave. They had hoped to bring the ladies in without waking Israel or his sister, Jemima, who had come back for a visit and slept with her brother in the loft. But the night had been a strange one and both children seemed to sense it and came down the ladder asking what had happened. Their mother told them as little as she could to satisfy them. The ladies had been in a party which had been attacked. They thought it best for them to be in a home. They would spend the night, but they did not know how long they would stay. And they were tired, and didn’t need any questions tonight.
Mingo had seen Rebecca give the signal to Jemima which had hastened them back to the loft. He knew the older girl, now a woman really, married with a babe of her own on the way, would be back down as soon as her brother fell asleep, and then her mother would tell her everything.
Daniel was saying goodbye to Rebecca. To give them privacy Mingo had removed to the porch where he sat, sharpening his knife. He heard the door open and rose to greet his friend, but was surprised to find it was not Daniel. Catherine Saynsberry stood, framed by the closed door. She was still dressed in blue, and had thrown one of Rebecca’s woolen shawls about her shoulders. She smiled when he saw her and inclined her head. Then she walked to the edge of the porch and stood, staring up at the moon which was three quarters full.
For the longest time she said nothing. Mingo studied her. She was much as he remembered. Beautiful. Exquisite, really, like a piece of porcelain. Her face was slightly round, her chin coming to a slight point, both of which served to give her the air of a mythical creature. Her hair was loose now and flowed over her shoulders in a wave. Catherine was tall and willowy, with long arms and long fingers which gave testimony to her talent at the harpsichord. As he looked at her, he felt the pang of longing of the boy he had been when he first met her. Age had only matured and enhanced her appeal.
Catherine closed her eyes and then turned to look at him. “Do you think,” she began, “do you think James is dead?”
“No,” he answered instantly. “No, I do not.”
For a moment she held still, then her whole body shuddered. “Dear God, if I lose him….”
He feared she would break, or fall. He took a step toward her, but stopped when she shifted and began to pace.
“He is my all. Everything. When I thought….” Catherine turned and looked at him. “When I thought I was dying, I sent him to you. That was the hardest thing I have ever done.”
“It is a mother’s gift,” he said quietly.
“I remember,” Catherine answered, crossing to stand before him. “Your mother. She sent you to a foreign land, hoping to save you. What I did almost killed him before. And now, I may have killed him again!”
“There is no fault in you – ”
“But there is! Don’t you see?” Tears overflowed, spilling down her cheeks. “James wanted to come back some day, but he is not the one who pressed to come now. There was school. His friends. His studies. Even a young slip of a thing he is quite fond of named Emily.” Catherine’s smile was wistful. She reached out and touched his cheek. “Once I knew you lived, that you were here, I had to see you.”
“Catherine, no. You are distressed,”
“Yes, I am. But I know what I am saying. There has never been anyone but you. Thinking I was dying made me realize how empty my life has been.” When he started to protest she silenced him with a hand to his lips. “Don’t say anything. I know this is unexpected and with James missing, it is not important at all. But know that I love you. I have always loved you. And I always will.”
At that moment the door opened and Dan stepped outside. Mingo saw him freeze. A moment later he turned back into the house with the excuse, “Think I forgot my cap. Mingo, I’ll just be a second.”
Catherine laughed. “Mr. Boone, it is on your head.”
Dan reached up and felt the coon’s features. “Darned if you ain’t right. Guess the little fellow was lying low.” Mingo felt his friend’s eyes on him. “If you need a few more minutes….”
“No, Mr. Boone, we were finished.” Catherine turned back to take his hand. “God go with you. May you find him.”
“Alive and well,” he added.
“Yes.” She hesitated a moment during which her eyes flicked back to his friend. Then Catherine rose up on tiptoe and kissed him. “Keep yourself the same.” Then, with a squeeze of his hand, she returned to the cabin.
For a moment the two men stood in silence. Dan shifted his cap back on his head and then straightened his pack. Two times. Finally he said, “Is there something you want to tell me – ”
Another silence. Then, “She sure is a pretty filly.”
Mingo shot him a look that could have killed.
A moment later the door opened and John Murray and Sergeant Caragrew exited the house. Mingo held his father’s gaze and saw in it the determined look that had condemned men and won wars.
“Are we ready?” he asked.
Mingo nodded. More than ready.
Now, to find James.