The Beast by Marla F. Fair

           Chapter Eight

 

            “Who are you?” Becky Boone demanded of the stranger wearing the Marquis’ clothes. “What have you done with Gil – with Michel?”

            “Michel?”  The man glanced at Israel where he lay unconscious on the table top and then turned back to her.  “The man who was traveling with your son told me his Christian name was ‘Gilbert’  Does he have two then?”

            Becky bit her lip and thought about it.  Why had Gilbert given his real name when it could put him in danger?  She was uncertain how to reply, and then inspiration struck.  “Well, you do.  Don’t you?”

            The man looked startled and then he laughed.  “Touché, Madame Boone.”

            “Where is Gilbert?” she asked.

            “Probably dead by now,” he answered callously.  Then he sneered. “We can only hope.”

            Jemima clung to her arm.  “Ma?”

            Becky shook her head as she placed her hand on her daughter’s.  ‘Probably’, the man had said.  So Lafayette had been alive when he left him.  “I’d like to go to my son,” she said quietly, her eyes seeking Israel’s still form.  “Did you hurt him?”

            The stranger shook his head.  “No.  As I told your ‘Gilbert’, your son fell and struck his head.  I am a bit surprised he has not wakened.”

            “How long ago was it?” she asked, her voice hushed with fear.

            “Hours.”  He shrugged.  “Three.  Four, perhaps.”

            Becky swallowed hard.  That wasn’t good.  “Let me go to him.  Please.  Mister…?”

            The stranger drew close.  When he stopped, his dark eyes dropped from her face to her chest, assaulted the rest of her figure, and then returned to meet her stare.  The vile thoughts behind them shone as he answered with a lascivious smile.  “My name is Jean Paul.  And what will you do for me, Madame Boone, if I allow you to?”

            “Make your death a quick one,” she snapped and then thought better of it. 

            Jean Paul stared at her, dumbfounded for a moment, and then he laughed heartily.  “You have spirit, Madame!  Well spoken!  You live up to all I have been told about you.”  The evil man’s eyes went to Jemima next.  “And who is this?  Another Boone?”

            Becky stepped in front of her.  “My daughter.  “You will not touch her,” she warned.

            The Frenchman’s sneer returned.  “That will depend on you, Madame Boone.”  With that, he turned to the table, took hold of one of the chairs that flanked it, and dragged it to the door.  Then he sat on it.  “I am hungry,” he said.  “Fix some food.”

            “After I see to my son,” Becky answered.

            Jean Paul pulled a flintlock pistol from his waistband and set to polishing its barrel as an unspoken threat.  “Oui.  See to him.  But do not keep me waiting too long.”  His dark eyes flicked to Jemima again.  “I am a very impatient man.”

            Becky took her daughter by the hand and led her to the table where Israel lay.  She examined Israel’s wound and then lifted one lid and looked at his eyes.  There didn’t seem to be a concussion and he was breathing normally, but the length of time he had been unconscious concerned her.  She knew from experience that if someone with a head injury was out more than a day, their chances of recovery dwindled.  “I’ll need cold water,” Becky said, turning to their captor.  “To keep the swelling down.”

            Jean Paul cocked his head and pursed his lips.  “Isn’t that too bad.”

            “What?” Becky asked.

            He leaned back in the chair.  “I do not intend to let either of you out of this cabin.  I am not a stupid man, Madame Boone, do not make the mistake of judging me so.”

            “What kind of a monster are you?” she demanded as she moved across the room to face him.  “You would let a child die?”

            Jean Paul Devereux’s smile was pure evil.

            “I have done it before.”

 

                                                                ###

           

            Lafayette held his breath.  The wolf’s jaws snapped again in anticipation as its front legs pressed him into the snowy grass.  Sniffing, it nosed the fine gray coat he wore and growled.  Then cocked its head and whined as if confused.

            “Tuez-le!  Faites-le maintenant!” a voice declared from the darkness.  Whoever spoke, they were urging the animal to kill him. 

            And to be quick about it.

            He frowned.  The words were French, but it was not the voice of Jean Paul Devereux – it was a woman’s.  Lafayette opened his mouth to question her, but the wolf growled in warning and so he closed it and remained silent.  As the woman approached he heard the brittle grass break beneath her feet.  Seconds later a blond head appeared, haloed by the rainbow light of the crystallized moon.  The woman crouched and bent over him.

            He could not see her face, but heard her startled intact of air.

            “You are not Jean Paul!” she remarked, still speaking in French.  “Who are you?”  When he did not answer but indicated the wolf with his eyes, the strange woman wrapped her fingers in its thick silver-brown coat.  She whispered something in its ear and the pressure on his chest lessened.  Still, the animal did not move away.  “Now,” she asked again, “who are you?  Why are you wearing Jean Paul’s garments?”

            “Jean Paul Devereux?” he asked in his native tongue.

She nodded.  The Devil!”

            ‘The Devil’ was right, Lafayette thought.  “I was traveling, with a young boy,” he answered.  “Jean Paul tricked me.  He attempted to kill me and took off with Israel.”

            “Israel?”  The woman frowned.  “Israel Boone?”

            “Yes.  How would you know of him?”

            The woman rose to her feet.  “Yvonne,” she said, addressing the wolf, “let him up.”

            To Lafayette’s astonishment the wolf did as it was told.  It backed off of him and then settled at the woman’s feet, its head resting on its paws. 

“Yvonne?” he asked as he struggled to a seated position.

            “My sister,” she replied simply.

            Lafayette nodded, not really understanding.  “And who are you?”

            The woman regarded him warily, as one who was used to surviving by suspicion and wits.  “Merle,” she said as she dropped to the ground beside the wolf.  The animal looked at her lovingly and then pressed its muzzle under her hand, begging a caress.  Merle smiled and gave it what it wanted.

            “How do you know Israel?” he asked.

            “How do you?” she replied.  “And what is a Frenchman doing here, so far from home?”

            He might have asked her the same thing.  Lafayette hesitated as he inspected her, wondering who she was.  Merle was dressed in men’s clothing.  And it was obvious from their condition that she lived in the wild, most likely in the company of her furry friend.  And yet, she had intelligence.  The Frenchwoman was not ill-spoken, and seemed to have had some education.  “I have been staying with the Boones,” he answered.  “Israel, his mother and sister were in my care.  We were headed for an Indian village close by.  The boy ran off and I went to find him.  We became lost….”

            She nodded as if none of this was news to her.  “So you are Michel,” she said.

            “Yes.  How would you know?”

            “Madame Boone and her daughter, they were kind to me….”  Merle’s countenance was sad.  “They wanted me to go to their home.  I could not do that.  I had to trick them.”

            “So you could continue to hunt Jean Paul?”

            Merle’s jaw grew taut.  “People think Yvonne is the monster.  And my other kin.  No!  Jean Paul is the monster.  It is he who kills, not them.”  Her fingers curled into fists and she spit the words out with loathing, “I will not stop until he is dead!”

            It was becoming clear now.  Jean Paul Devereux must be the ‘Beast’ the English army sought – the man who was murdering Englishmen with savagery.  No wonder the British soldiers had followed him and Jeremy.  It seemed that he and Jean Paul were so alike even the keen senses of a wolf could not readily tell them apart. 

            Lafayette closed his eyes for a moment, navigating his way through an unexpected wave of nausea and pain.  When he opened them, he found Merle had drawn closer.  She was gazing at him with concern.  As the snowflakes continued to fall about them, landing on her honey blond hair and the shoulders of the soiled linen shirt she wore, she reached out and touched the gash on his temple.

             As he jerked away, she said, “You are hurt.”

            He nodded.  “Yes.”

            Her frown deepened into a scowl.  “Jean Paul shot you.”

            Again, he nodded.

Merle rocked back on her feet.  “You must lead a charmed life, Michel.  Jean Paul does not miss.  Or there is another reason he chose to let you live….”

            It was only then that Lafayette realized the bullet had not been meant to kill him.  Jean Paul Devereux had to know that Merle and her ‘family’ were on his trail.  He knew she wanted to tear him limb from limb.  That was why Jean Paul had wounded him and then switched their clothes, knowing Yvonne would find him by their scent –

            Find him and kill him in Jean Paul’s place.

            As Lafayette shuddered, Merle brushed the dark locks back from his feverish forehead with her fingers.  “Yvonne and I, we are not so ‘savage’ as Jean Paul thinks,” she said softly.  Then she rose to her feet and lifted her face toward the sky.  As the pale moonlight struck it she threw her head back and howled.  The sound of it was something like a song – a deep throaty song that rode the rising wind and faded to become one with the night. 

            Within minutes Lafayette found himself surrounded by at least a dozen milling, snarling wolves.

            Merle greeted each in turn with a nod and a name.  The fierce animals grew quiet as they bent their heads and did her homage to their queen.  When the ritual was completed she turned back to him and said, “You are not well enough to travel.  Nor are you well enough to leave alone.  You will stay here.  I must follow Jean Paul.  There is no time to lose.  He will not hesitate to kill any who get in his way.”

            “No!” Lafayette protested.  “He has Israel!  If he has gone to the cabin, then Rebecca and her daughter are in danger.  I must go!”

            “Yes.  They are in danger.  You cannot help them, but I can.”  Merle made a low noise in her throat.  The wolves stood to attention and gathered behind her.  One advanced farther than the rest, moving forward until it was within a yard of him.  It was a large animal, caramel in color; with a battle-scarred hide and eyes that shone crimson in the moonlight.  As Merle placed her hand on its head she said, “Renee will stay with you.  He is a seasoned warrior.  Renee will keep you safe.”

            “I do not need a nursemaid,” Lafayette countered, even as the animal growled.  “You cannot leave me here!”

            “I cannot take you.  Renee,” Merle said, addressing the wolf, ‘take care of Michel, but do not let him follow.  Sit on him if you must!  Now come, my brothers and sisters, to the hunt!”

            For a moment, as the pack took off running, led by the slender blond Frenchwoman in men’s’ clothes, Lafayette wondered if he had not gone mad – if this was not a nightmare vision or a hallucination brought on by a mortification of his wound that would lead eventually to coma and death.  Then Merle halted.  She turned back and smiled at him before disappearing into the trees.  It was then he decided it was no nightmare – but a vision of angels he had been privy to.

Avenging angels clothed as wolves, sent by the Almighty to set everything right.

            Lafayette shifted and looked at his keeper.  Renee snarled and then nuzzled his hand.  He reached out and petted the animal, awed by what had just occurred. 

            Then, losing the fight to remain conscious, he pitched over to one side and fell to the ground.

 

                                                                ###

           

            Becky’s chin slid off her hand and she jerked awake.  She blinked and for a moment didn’t know where she was.  Then she saw Jean Paul Devereux sitting by the cabin door, a plate balanced on his knee.  He was just finishing the supper she had provided him with.  Jemima had helped to cook it and then she had sent her daughter to sleep in the curtained-off room.  Jean Paul had checked the area first and made certain the back door could not be opened, and then had given his permission.  Israel was in the bed she shared with Dan, sleeping more normally now.  Her son had awakened once and called her, and calmed when she told him he was home.  Israel asked her about Lafayette, but thankfully fell asleep before she could answer.  She had no way of knowing if what the villain who held them captive said was true or not.

            For all she knew Jean Paul had killed General Lafayette.   He was certainly capable of murder.

            Becky rose to her feet and crossed the common room and held her hand out for his plate.  “Would you like anything else?” she asked and then – by the answer in his dark eyes – immediately regretted it.

            “Oui,” he said, rising to his feet and placing one hand on her waist.  Dessert.”

            She was at a disadvantage and he knew she knew it.  With both of her children at his mercy, there was little she could do to escape Jean Paul’s advances.  “Not in here,” she said softly.  “The children….”

            He took the plate from her hand and placed it on the seat he had occupied.  Then he ran his fingers through the copper hair that brushed her shoulders.  “You are a beautiful woman, Madame Boone.  Ripe as a summer flower.  Mature, like a fine wine.”

            If he thought she was going to be moved by flattery, he had another ‘think’ coming.  “I don’t care what you do to me, but please, take me outside.  Leave the children their innocence.”

            He snorted.  “Innocence?  The only ones who are innocent are the dead.”  Jean Paul shifted the chair out of the way, and then placed his hand on the wooden beam that barred the door.  “And the reward of innocence?  Only the grave.”

            She watched him as he laid the bar aside and then asked boldly, “Why do you kill the British?”

            He glanced at her as the door swung inward.  “So you have figured out that I am the ‘Beast’ they seek?”

            Becky bit her tongue.  She wanted to tell him that it had taken very little imagination to jump from his actions and words to that conclusion.  But antagonizing him would only get her – or her children killed.  She nodded.  “Yes.  But why?”

            Jean Paul shrugged.  “Why do any of us do what we do?  They hurt me.  I hurt them back.”  He indicated the yard outside and waited as she moved onto the porch.  Then he closed the door.

            “How did they hurt you?” Becky asked him as she stepped off the porch.

            “Why do you want to know?  To understand me better?  To find a reason for my actions – for what I will do to you?”  His lips curled in a hungry sneer.  “There is no reason other than that I am who I am.  Jean Paul Devereux, the Beast.”

                “Humor me then,” she said as she followed his directions and headed into the trees that masked the left hand side of the cabin.  “You owe me an answer at the very least.”

            The Frenchman drew a deep breath of air and let it out slowly as he took her arm and led her into the shadows.  “When I was a boy, my step-father became a hero.  He slayed the fabled ‘Bete’ of Auvergne.  At first his action brought prosperity to us, there were gifts, dignitaries called.  Then it brought attention – unwanted attention.”

            She stopped beneath the tree he indicated.  Jean Paul took hold of her and pressed her shoulders against the trunk.  With his hand he indicated she should stay put, and then stepped back to admire his ‘prize’.  “Attention?” Becky asked.

            “It soon became many men’s mission to slay the slayer of the Beast.  To claim that…honor.  My family was hounded.  We were forced to leave Auvergne.  We crossed into England, intending to make for these American colonies.” 

            Becky watched his eyes, waiting for him to make a move – not knowing what she would do when he did.   “And?” she prompted.

            Jean Paul shrugged.  “We were French.  What more is there to say?”  He drew close again and fingered a lock of her copper-red hair.  “My step-father was killed.  My mother raped and left for dead.  Only I survived.”  He leaned down and put his mouth on hers and kissed her with force.

            Becky waited until he was done and then she met his eyes.  “Tell me one thing….”

            Jean Paul frowned.  “Oui?”

            “How is what you intend to do with me any different from what those men did to your mother?”  She tensed, waiting for him to strike her, to silence her.  “You have become the very beast that you wish to slay.”

            For a moment he said nothing.  Then, Jean Paul moved in close and pressed his body against hers.  With his hands he pinned her arms to the tree.  “An Englishman named Shakespeare once said, ‘They could not find a heart within the beast’.  You will not shame me into changing my mind, Madame Boone.  This beast has needs and they will be met.  One way or the other.”  He paused and the wicked sneer returned.  “Perhaps you would like me to wake your young daughter instead?”

            Becky shook her head.  Then she closed her eyes and thought of her husband, and of what this man’s actions might do to them and their relationship.  Dan would never turn her away – no matter what happened –  but could she face him?  Would his touch be the same, or would it forever be marred – poisoned by the touch of this evil man?

            One hand was on her neck.  The other on her side, moving up.  Becky stiffened, terrified.  Then, she heard it.

            Jean Paul heard it too.

            The cry of the wolf.

 

                                                                ###

             

            Mingo halted and turned back.  Again.  He swallowed his frustration and glanced at Sergeant Boggs, who only shrugged.  They were not quite halfway to Chota, but were near the crossroads where they would have to make their final choice.  Daniel Boone’s cabin lay several hours in one direction, the Cherokee village in the other.  At this point they could still change their mind and go to Daniel’s home.  Watching Henry Abington labor up the slanted slope behind him, Mingo had half a mind to do just that and to leave the townie there. 

At this pace, by the time they reached Chota, the war would have ended!

            “I’m…sorry,” Henry gasped as he drew up alongside them.  “Sorry.  I am…afraid long distance…running was not one of the…required subjects at Harvard.  I never realized what a…sedentary life I lead!”

            Mingo’s anger faded, to be replaced with a smile.  He liked Henry.  It was just that everything else at the moment seemed to be compelling him to move forward faster than the apothecary’s feet could manage.

            Mingo nodded.  “We’ll rest then.”

            “No.  No.”  Henry drew a deep breath and let it out.  “You two must go on without me.”

            “I cannot leave you alone in this wilderness,” Mingo replied.

            “Henry, don’t be absurd!” Boggs protested.

            “I am not, Daniel.  I am being sensible.  I cannot keep up with you two frontiersmen.”  The young man was breathing easier now.  Henry wiped his forehead with a linen handkerchief and then used it to ‘shoo’ them on.  “Go!  Find the general and make certain he is all right.  I’ll return to the Boone cabin.”

            Mingo glanced at the sky.  It was still snowing, though the fall had lessened as the night wore on.  And it was growing bitterly cold. 

            “Henry, I do not know…” he began.

            “I’ll stay with you, Henry,” Sergeant Boggs proposed.

            “No, you won’t.  What if the general is ill?  What if Lafayette needs you?  What if something unexpected happens at Chota, like the British being there – or this beast?”

            Mingo looked from one to the other.  Then to Sergeant Boggs he said, “He’s right, you know.”

            Boggs frowned.  “It puts me ill at ease, Mingo….”

            “Daniel, I can take care of myself.”  Henry drew his pistol and brandished it.  “I am a founding member of the Yankee Doodle Society.  Remember?  Espionage, explosives, and execution of master plans at your service.”

            “You are but one third of the Society….” Boggs countered. 

Henry nodded.  “And it’s weakest link.  I know.”

            “Henry, I didn’t mean to imply – ”

            “It’s all right, Daniel.”  Henry squared his shoulders and looked from the one of them to the other.  “Perhaps this is my chance to show what I can do on my own.”

            Mingo sensed the young man would not be moved.  And as he was a great believer in the hand of fate, he gave in.  This night Henry Abington was meant to walk alone.

            Only the Creator knew why.

            “If that is your choice,” Mingo said at last.

            “It is,” Henry asserted.

            Sergeant Boggs scowled but said nothing more.

Mingo laid his hand on Henry’s shoulder.  He nodded once and then started to walk away.

            “Er, Mingo?” Henry called.

            The tall Cherokee turned back. “Yes?”

            “Just which way is the Boone cabin?”

           

                                                                ###

 

            An hour later Henry Abington found himself alone in the woods.  He had a small lantern and used its light to follow the map Mingo had drawn for him on the back of a piece of parchment he had found stuffed in his vest pocket.  With cautious steps Henry moved through the forbidding Kentucky wilderness – cursing himself each time he jumped at the hoot of an owl or the croak of a nearby frog – following a path beaten out by moccasined feet.  If he had ever felt inferior to Isak and Jeremy, it was now!  The two of them would have strolled through this dark, dense, and forbidding land as if it was broadly lit by the sun on a cheery day.  Deliberately straightening his shoulders and picking up his pace, Henry marched forward – for about twenty paces.  Then the howl of a wolf stopped him short.  He shivered as he listened to its mournful cry.  Then he pulled his flintlock pistol from his belt, primed it, and began to move forward again.

            As he did the wolf cried once more.  This time the sound was closer; its tone insistent.  Henry paused, wondering for a moment if the animal was wounded and in need of medical attention – and then wondering if he was crazy for considering whether or not he could help it if it was.  Still, even the wolf was one of God’s creatures and this one could be a female – perhaps with cubs.

            Anyhow, it wouldn’t hurt to take a look.

            Keeping his pistol in his hand, Henry followed the insistent whimper of the animal, moving through the green leaves of the underbrush toward the sound of a rushing stream.  As he entered a small clearing he paused, his eyes on a strange tableau displayed beneath a weeping willow tree.  A large brownish wolf stood beneath the tree, pawing the snowy ground, whining and pulling at the prone form of a man.

            As Henry moved into the clearing, the wolf’s head came up.  It’s great scarlet eyes burned like a demon’s in the moonlight.  It barked and growled in warning.

            “Easy.  Easy, boy,” Henry said quietly, keeping his tone even.  “I’m harmless, I promise.  Just ask anyone in Chester.”  The wolf’s lips curled back as its eyes went to the pistol in his hand.  Henry lowered the weapon and placed it in his belt.  “See?  I won’t hurt you.  Just let me take a look at your friend.  Is he still alive?”

            The wolf backed away a few feet as he drew near.  It watched him closely, but made no move against him.  Henry took that as permission to approach the wounded man and did just that, coming to within a few yards of him before stopping.

            “Who is it, boy?  Your master?”  Henry asked.  He squinted, trying to make the man’s face out, but it was only one shadow among many.  Still, he could see he was dark- haired and slender, and dressed in a gray coat.  “Can I take a look?”

            The wolf snarled defensively as he came within a few feet of the man.  Henry turned to meet its challenging stare.  The wolf’s jaw was open.  Its yellow teeth were dripping a thick viscous substance.  “I assure you, I would not prove half so tasty as I look,” Henry gulped, shivering.  “New England stock.  Plump but hardy, and tough as gristle.”

            As he spoke Henry knelt by the silent figure and placed his hand on the man’s back.  Even through the fine gray cloth the fever raging in him was palpable.  Henry gently took hold of the snow-covered form and rolled the man over.  As he shifted the brown hair back from his eyes, Henry gasped.

            “General Lafayette!  Sir, can you hear me?”

            Lafayette moaned and his dark lashes fluttered.  At first he said nothing, then there came a weak, “Qui?”

            Henry took his hand and squeezed it.  “Who?  It’s me, sir.  Henry.  Henry Abington.”

            “Henry?”

            “What’s happened, sir?”  Henry noted the ugly gash on the general’s temple, obviously left in the wake of a musket ball.  As Lafayette struggled to rise, he caught the Frenchman’s shoulders and helped him to sit.  “How did you come to be here, sir, in the wild and alone?  We thought we would find you in Chota.”

            Lafayette shook his head.  “Not alone…” he breathed.

            Henry opened his mouth to question him again, but before he could the wolf – which had been watching from the sidelines – rose suddenly to its feet and, with its jaws open wide, ran toward them.  Henry gripped his pistol and pointed it at the rushing animal, certain he must kill it before it killed one of them, but Lafayette caught his hand and forced the barrel down.

            “No, my friend.  Renee is not the enemy,” he said.

            “Renee?” Henry asked, staring at the creature as it rushed past them and entered the trees. 

            “Another beast walks these woods….”