The Beast by Marla F. Fair

  Chapter Eleven

           

           

‘In-a-hurry Murray’ winced as the junior officer gripped his arm and drew him roughly to his feet.  Another man had moved in and did the same with Sergeant Boggs.  Mingo noted that the pairs’ eyes were on Daniel and they did not look happy.  As he studied them, he noted the soldiers slightly disheveled appearance.  At first he thought it might be the result of the early morning hour – perhaps the men had just awakened.  But then he noted that, not only was their hair un-clubbed and unkempt, but their scarlet coats and white breeches were torn and stained with mud. 

            They looked like they gone for a romp in a pig sty.

            Mingo’s gaze flicked first to Sergeant Boggs who seemed to be fairing well enough, and then settled on the British colonel who had recognized him.  The man was standing barely more than a King’s yard away from him.  Apparently the colonel had an aversion to pigs as his uniform was pristine and his dark brown hair immaculate.  Mingo frowned as he tried to place him and the title he had addressed him by. 

            “Memory a little faulty, Murray?” the colonel inquired.  His tone was all business now, but the slight quirk at the edge of his upper lip indicated he was amused with the situation.  “Permit me to jog it for you.  A certain young auburn-haired beauty.  An awkward peer’s son. A highly polished manor floor and a spectacular spill….”

            “Reggie?”  Mingo started.  “Reginald Maxwell?  I do not believe it.  You?  A British colonel?”

           

“And you, Murray?  A…savage?”  Colonel Maxwell reached out and fingered one of the beaded leather strips that decorated his leather vest.  “How exactly did the eldest son of Lord Dunsmore end up running half-naked through the wilds of Kentucky?  And what, pray tell, does your father think?”

            Mingo winced.  Hard as he tried to forget that he belonged to the English peerage, the fact always seemed to rear its ugly upper-class head – and at the worst times.  Reginald Featherstone Maxwell the Third had been a casual friend during his years in England.  They had met when he was an awkward youth of thirteen or fourteen summers and their friendship had continued through his Oxford days, though their studies had eventually taken them on different paths.  Reggie had an easy way about him that had made the young Kerr Murray feel accepted – even welcomed – in a world where everything was alien.  Reggie had proven a true friend early on by helping him learn how to navigate the treacherous waters of social etiquette associated with England’s Upper Classes.  The incident with the auburn haired beauty and the highly polished floor of Reggie’s home had earned him the nickname the colonel now employed.  She had been very pretty and very standoffish.  As ‘Kerr’ he had tried to talk to her during the dance and she had rebuffed him.  Then, as the evening ended and she made her way toward the main hall, she had sent him a note indicating he would be ‘permitted’ to bid her farewell at the door of her carriage.  Taking a short cut through the gaming room – which had just had its parquet floor brilliantly finished with a fresh coat of wax    he had lost his footing and skated through the room on his rump, falling down the steps and ending at a heap at her silk-encased feet.  Needless to say, the carriage door had slammed and he had never seen her again.

  As he sat on the pebbled path that ran before the Maxwell ancestral home, nursing his wounded pride and posterior, an extremely amused Reginald Featherstone Maxwell had bent over him.  Offering a hand up, Reggie had asked –  “In a hurry, Murray?”

            And it had stuck.

            Mingo sighed.  He glanced at his native garb and then his dark eyes returned to his one-time friend.  “What does my father think?  John Murray thinks his son has missed his calling.  My mother’s spirit, on the other hand, applauds my decision to exchange the ‘wilds’ of London for the less savage forests of her home.”

            Reggie’s lips twisted with surprise.  “Not really a Spanish girl then, was she?”

            He shook his head.  “Cherokee.  I hope you will forgive the deception.  I am afraid that it was not quite Hoyle for my father, as a Peer, to admit to a bastard Indian son.”

            The smile returned.  “Oh, I don’t know.  It might have made Lord Dunsmore’s stay here in the colonies a bit more interesting.”

            “If that was possible,” Sergeant Boggs muttered at his side.

            Mingo laughed, but then sobered quickly.  “So, Reggie…Colonel Maxwell, what happens now?”

            Reggie ran his long fingers over his chin.  “A delicate dilemma.  I stumble across an old friend, now an Indian and perhaps an enemy.  What to do….”

            “Enemy?”  Mingo asked. “Why an ‘enemy’?”

            Reggie nodded toward Boggs.  Then he turned and addressed him.  “You may not have seen me, behind my men, in the shadow of the trees, Sergeant.  But I saw you –  with the Frenchman.”

            Boggs didn’t deny it.  “You were with the men who chased us?  Where’s your mud?”

Reggie’s light eyes narrowed and grew hard.  “Yes.  And I would mind your tone.  I am here, now, on the same mission –  to find and kill this Beast.”

            “The man the sergeant traveled with was not the Beast you seek,” Mingo said softly. 

            “No?”  Reggie pivoted back toward him.  “I saw him with my own eyes, Kerr.  Slender.  Dark haired.  Moving like an aristocrat.  How many Frenchmen in Kentucky would fit that description?”

            “Two at least.”  Mingo held his old friend’s gaze.  “Reggie, you must believe me.  That man was not the one killing your soldiers.”

            Reggie studied him a moment.  Then he nodded, accepting him at his word.  “So, will you tell me who this other Frenchman is?”

            As he hesitated Sergeant Boggs replied, “A French trader.  A son of nobility who fled it, like your friend here.  Michel Chavaniac.”

            Mingo hid his surprise, and then felt foolish for feeling any.  Of course General Lafayette had a cover story in place.

            “Chavaniac?”  Reggie’s scowl deepened.  “It seems I have heard that name somewhere…”

            “Let it go,” Mingo said quietly.  “Who he is has nothing to do with your mission.”

Childhood friend or not, Reginald Featherstone Maxwell was a British officer.  He studied him a moment and then made a counter offer.  “I will ‘let it go’, if you will tell me everything you know about this Beast.  It seems you do know something.  And that perhaps you, as well as we, are seeking this man.”

            Mingo nodded.  “We have the same goal.  Your soldiers have died.  In Chota, there are empty cradles rocked by husbands without wives.  And in the white settlements, many tears.  I will gladly share any information I have – as will Sergeant Boggs.  This terror crosses all normal boundaries.”

            “So, as in London, we meet as friends, ” Reggie, now Colonel Maxwell of His Majesty’s Royal Army, held out his hand.  “If questioned, I will say I was assisted by Kerr Murray, son of John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore.  Whoever you are now, Kerr, whatever your loyalties may be, that will remain your secret.”

            As he took his hand, he said, “Please, call me Mingo.  It is the name my mother gave me.  And thank you, Reggie.”  Mingo turned toward Boggs.  “This is Sergeant Daniel Boggs.  And, as with me, that is all you need to know.”

Reggie inclined his head toward the sandy-haired frontiersman.  “Sergeant Boggs.  Of what army, I wonder?”  At Mingo’s look he smiled and waved his hand, dismissing his fear.  “I’ll ask no more questions – for now.  But after this is over – after we catch this ‘beast’ – I would very much like it, Sergeant, if you would introduce me to your French friend, Michel.  I think I should very much like to make that young man’s acquaintance.”

Mingo exchanged a quick surprised look with Boggs.  Reggie knew. 

Somehow, he knew about Lafayette.

            As Sergeant Boggs muttered a noncommittal reply, Mingo drew a deep breath.  He smiled at his old friend and then went to stand by his new friend’s side.  ‘Let the days troubles be sufficient for the day’, his father used to tell him.  It was a wise and ancient saying he had taken to heart.

            They were usually more than sufficient enough.

                       

   ###           

           

“I very much regret, Daniel, that our presence here has brought so much grief to your family,” Jeremy Larkin remarked as he leaned forward to catch the wooden handle of the pot sitting beside the fire cooling.  It held a strong black coffee.  Just the thing he needed to stay awake.  “If we had not come your son would not be injured, nor your wife missing and in the hands of a madman.”

            The tall frontiersman shifted and leaned back, his own tin cup of coffee in hand.  “Devereux was already here, Jeremy.  You may be more of the solution than the problem.  We already had women and children murdered.”  Dan took a sip.  “It’s not your fault.  Not by a long shot.”

            “That’s mighty kind of you to say, Mr. Boone,” Isak Poole remarked as he joined them.  “Mighty kind.” 

Isak had just returned from patrolling their camp’s perimeter.  Jeremy greeted his friend with a nod as he returned the pot to its stone perch.  “My watch, then.  I’ll get going.”

“Now, hold on there, young’un,” Daniel Boone said as he tossed the last of his coffee into the grass.  “If I remember rightly – and I’m sure I do – you ain’t slept in nearly twenty hours.  I can pull a double shift.”

“Daniel.  No.  I will not have it.”  Jeremy was adamant. 

But so was Boone.  The lanky Kentuckian gripped his rifle as he rose to his feet.  “Back at the cabin, after Merle left, I got some shut-eye.  You didn’t, if I’ve a mind to what happened.  ‘Mima remarked on talking with you and seein’ you wanderin’ outside.  This ain’t Pennsylvania.  And it ain’t called the ‘dark and bloody ground’ for nothing.  A man has to be on his toes.  You look exhausted, and an exhausted man is a danger not only to himself but to the men he walks with.”  Daniel leaned forward and clapped him on the shoulder.  “Get some rest, son.  I’ll wake you in an hour or two.”

“But your wife.  Merle.  Devereux…”

            The tall frontiersman leaned on his rifle and tilted his head back to look at the stars.  The sky was a deep lapis lazuli punctuated with sparkling white stars.  “It’s barely morning and Devereux’s been on the move.  Even a beast has to sleep.”  Daniel lowered his head and met Jeremy’s skeptical stare.  “And as for Becky, she’s in the good Lord’s hands.  Besides,” Dan winked as he turned toward the black tree-line, “God made that woman well.  She’s more than capable of lookin’ out for herself.  It might be Jean Paul’s the one you oughta be worryin’ about.” 

Jeremy watched the frontier legend walk away.  Snow had begun to fall once again and it descended between them, closing like a curtain behind Daniel Boone, cutting him off from sight. 

A firm hand on his shoulder made him jump.  “You heard the man, Jeremy.  Orders is orders,” Isak rumbled in his deep voice.  “You remember he was a Colonel.”

Jeremy smiled at him and placed his hand over his friend’s.  “Sometimes it is a comfort to be outranked.”

An hour later Jeremy lay on his thin pallet, buried beneath a woolen blanket, his eyes wide open and staring at the diamonds that lit the sky.  Beside him Isak snored gently, gone to the land of Nod, but for him sleep was an turncoat – an ally who would not come.  Jeremy sighed and sat up and then, careful not to rouse his friend, rose and left his makeshift bed.  Catching the blanket that had covered him in his fingers, he tossed it around his shoulders and began to walk, allowing his booted feet – and restless spirit – to take him wherever they would.

As he walked he thought about Elizabeth and how unfair all of this was to her.  When he looked at Jemima Boone, he could not help but think of the one he had left behind.  Elizabeth was capable of being with them, but her gender forbad it – so she was left behind to worry and wonder.  Just as the general’s wife was in France.  Jeremy kicked a lose pile of snow with his boot and sent a snow hare jumping.  He watched it for a moment, his mind straying to Daniel Boone’s kidnapped wife.  But if Elizabeth – or Adrienne – had been here, they might have ended in Mrs. Boone’s shoes – kidnapped by a madman, their virtue and life endangered.   No, it was better they wait and have no part of this madness.

Jeremy began to walk again, following the rabbit’s trail, but halted when he sensed movement within the snow-covered underbrush.  It could be Daniel Boone.  The frontiersman could easily have doubled back and be patrolling this area by this time.  Resisting the urge to call out, Jeremy held his breath and counted to twenty.  When no one appeared, he moved forward – with caution – his fingers searching for the handle of the pistol he kept tucked at his waist.  Above his head the rising light kissed the frosted branches of the trees, painting them a pale pink.  Jeremy squinted, searching the ground for tracks.  

Unexpectedly, a shadow crossed his path. 

            A shadow clutching a knife.

Shedding the blanket he wore, ducking and rolling at the same time, he barely avoided the downward swing of the blade.  Striking out as he hit the snowy ground, Jeremy caught the ankle of his attacker and pulled their feet out from under them.  There was a shout – curiously high pitched – and then a soft thud, followed by another exclamation of surprise.  Taking advantage of his attacker’s momentary confusion, he quickly scrambled on his hands and knees and, gripping their arms, pinned them to the ground.  Only then did he look at his captive and found a slender female figure with brilliant copper hair and pale ivory skin, wearing a tattered and torn gown. 

 “Mrs. Boone!  Pray forgive me!”

 Becky’s smile was brilliant if weary.  “Forgive you for what?  Finding me?”  She took his face in her hands and planted a kiss on his cheek.  “Jeremy Larkin!  I have never seen such a welcome sight in my life!”

A sigh and a sense of movement close by alerted Jeremy to the fact that they were not alone about ten seconds before a deep male voice laced with amusement spoke.  “You thinkin’ of tradin’ me in for a younger model, Rebecca?”

Jeremy and Becky turned in unison to find her husband standing not ten feet away.  Behind Daniel Boone was an exhausted and very relieved looking older man with whiskers, holding a monstrous flintlock rifle.

“Dan!” Becky Boone cried.

Jeremy helped her to her feet and watched as Rebecca Boone fell into her husband’s arms.  “Oh, Dan….”

As he caught her and held her tight, Dan looked over his shoulder and met Jeremy’s delighted smile with one of his own.

“Sorry, young’un.  You can’t have her.  This one’s all mine.”

           

                                                            ###

 

They returned to their camp to find Isak still snoring.  Once roused, he joined them, and together they listened to the pairs’ tale.  The older man –  whose name Jeremy now knew to be Cincinnatus – gave a chagrinned report of how he and Becky had been caught in a sudden squall and become separated when he took a misstep and rolled down a hill.  Rebecca Boone told the tale of her kidnap and treatment while the prisoner of  Jean Paul Devereux.  She sat, secure in the crook of her husband’s arm, and spoke slowly – haltingly at times – seemingly uncertain how to phrase certain things.  Several times her wide blue eyes flicked to her husband and then to the frozen ground, as if she felt ashamed.

            Her husband only held her tighter.

Jeremy knew what Daniel Boone must be feeling.  Becky was not his wife, but he burned at the thought of what had almost occurred at that fiend’s hands.  If Elizabeth had been treated so – if Devereux had taken such advantage – he would have been hard pressed to restrain himself when Providence brought him face to face with the one who had sought to defile her.

“I only got away because of his drinking.  He grew careless,” she finished.

His jaw tight, Daniel Boone asked her gently, “Where do you think he will go now, Becky?  Did Devereux say anything?”

She shook her head.  “No.  But he is terrified of Merle.  I think, whatever he chooses, putting as much space between himself and her pack is what he will do.”

Dan nodded.  “Sounds about right.  Now, darlin’,  Jeremy and I have some things to sort out.  It’s best you rest while you can.”  He glanced at the older man who was sitting with his head in his hands, dejected.  “You too, Cincinnatus.  It’s a long walk to the fort.”

As the tavern-keep’s head came up, Rebecca Boone exploded.  “The fort!  What do you mean ‘the fort’?   Dan, I want to stay with you!”

“Becky, you know that ain’t possible.  It’s too dangerous,” he answered her.

Her hands were planted firmly on her hips.  “Too dangerous?  For me?  Not for you?

“I ain’t a mother to two young’uns,” Dan said, his tone unbending.  “The children need their mother, Becky.”

Her tone softened, but she did not relent.  “They need their father too.”

“But I need you safe.  We have to find Devereux, Becky.  Fast.”  Dan paused and then added in a gentler tone, “It’s possible he’ll try to double back to the cabin.  Maybe try to take the children hostage like he did you.”

Rebecca paled.  “Dan, no!”

He touched her hair.  “Isak has agreed to go with you and Cincinnatus.  Get to the fort.  Send the men still there to the cabin.  How many you have with you, Cincinnatus?” he asked, addressing the older man. 

“About a dozen, Dan’l.  They’re mighty riled up.  Could be dangerous.”

Dan nodded.  “We’ll take our chances.  Maybe we’ll meet up with ‘em and we can tackle this together.”  Turning back to his wife, he added, “We’ll try to pick up Devereux’s trail.  I hope to God, I’m wrong, Becky, about the children.”

“But you don’t think you are,” she breathed.

“Nope.  The man’s plain evil.”  Locking his arm around her waist, he turned with deliberation to the older man.  “Cincinnatus, you think you can take us back to that place where you went over the side, and from there to where Devereux had Becky tied up?”

Jeremy knew Boone was giving the older man a chance to redeem himself.  Cincinnatus slapped his tricorn hat on his head and hefted his weapon.  “Sure thing, Dan’l!”

It took them several hours to retrace the pairs’ steps – hours that they very much regretted losing.  And yet both Jeremy and Daniel Boone knew there was nothing else they could do.  No better way to pick up the trail of the Merle, the trail of her kin.

The trail of the Beast.

In a light shower of snow they parted company.  Daniel Boone gave his wife one last long lingering kiss and a heart-felt hug, he shook Cincinnatus’ hand, and then placed them both in Isak’s care.  The black man smiled and saluted Jeremy smartly, and then the trio disappeared into the trees.

Jeremy crossed to where Daniel Boone was kneeling, already examining the ground beneath the tree where Becky had been bound.  His jaw tight, her husband knelt and pointed to the spot where Devereux had fallen after her courageous attack.  Dan rose then, and followed Jean Paul’s staggering trail until, suddenly, at the edge of a steep rise, the tracks told them that the villain had taken flight, scrambling up it as if the Devil himself were on his heels.

The devil – or Merle with her pack of hungry wolves.

 

                                                             ###

 

Mingo rose to his feet.  He dusted off the knees of his blue wool pants and turned to look at Sergeant Boggs.  They were standing close by the edge of a thicket of trees.  It was the first time they had been alone – well, relatively alone – since they had set out with the Reggie and the Redcoats in tow.  His old friend was sitting beside the fire a few dozen feet away, a map spread on a tree stump, instructing his men in their search.  Soon they would be off pursuing – not the man, Jean Paul Devereux – but some woman named Merle.  From what Mingo had overheard, the British soldiers considered her a vital link to the madman.  He frowned and glanced again at the tracks he had found.  If they were Merle’s, her capture might prove difficult. 

She ran barefoot with wolves.

“What do you make of them?” Boggs asked, indicating the tracks.

            “Definitely a woman.  Unshod.  Not even moccasins.  And her companions – wolves.”  His grin was grim.  “Perhaps your general was not too far from right, Daniel, when he said le Bete had walked upright on two feet.”

            “But what has this to do with this man the Redcoats are pursuing?  The one they mistook the General for?”

            Mingo shook his head.  “Perhaps they work together?  He picks the targets, works out the strategy.  She controls the pack and makes the kill?  Who can say?  If only England and America could be such allies, instead of enemies.  There is much to be said for cooperation.  If only I can get Reggie to see that.”

            Sergeant Boggs shifted uncomfortably.

“What?”

“You were really ‘friends’ – with a Redcoat?”

“He wasn’t a Redcoat then.”  Mingo’s smile was chagrinned.  “Or if he was, then so was I.”

“So you’re really a Lord’s son?”

Mingo repressed the sigh.  Sergeant Boggs hadn’t been around when his parentage had become the topic of discussion on their earlier expedition. “Yes.  Lord Dunsmore is my father.  He met my mother when he was here as a young man, surveying the Virginia Territory.  When she died, he came for me and I grew up in England, until I escaped and returned here some ten years ago.” 

            “And you left all that?  The money and prestige?”

            “And the power.  Gladly.  I never wanted to be like my father – ”

            “Oh, I don’t know,” Boggs said, grinning, “Lord Dunsmore had his moments.  If you were a Redcoat, you’d call him ‘clever’.  I’m afraid from my perspective, which is the General’s  – ”

            “You’d call him something quite different?”  Mingo laughed but sobered quickly.  “My father and I have never seen eye to eye, and this Rebellion has only driven the wedge between us deeper.  We had not spoken until earlier this year, when he came here to steal Daniel’s home.”

            Sergeant Boggs nodded and then fell silent.  Mingo sensed there was something else.  “Go ahead, Daniel, ask.”

“I guess working with Lafayette, knowing he is the scion of a noble family.  Well, I wondered – are you Lord Dunsmore’s heir?”

            “What I am heir to, Sergeant, is more centuries than I can count of priggish indifference and pompous arrogance.  But I chose to reject that inheritance and to create a legacy of my own.”

            Bogg’s hand landed on his shoulder.  He gave it a squeeze.  “Just like America.”

            Mingo nodded.

Just like America.

 

                                                            ###

 

On a hill close by, a lone figure stood watching the tiny human insects clothed in red cloth scramble on the field below.  Those who pursued her were, perhaps, half a day behind.  They were not skilled as she.  They were not a part of the forested world they walked.

            They would not catch her.

            Not before she caught him.

            Merle turned at the sound of a soft voice and four padded paws.  Yvonne came to rest beside her.  She whimpered for her touch.  Merle knelt and placed her arms about her neck and nuzzled her soft fur.  Then she released Yvonne and rose.

            “What is it, my sister?” Merle barked in the wolf’s tongue.

            The gray-brown creature howled and pawed the ground as if anxious to be on the move.  She whimpered and whined.

            “No,” Merle answered firmly, seeing in her mind’s eye the huddled figure they had left lying semi-conscious in a cave near the stream.  “There will be no quick end for Jean Paul Devereux.  No merciful death when he is so numb he cannot feel the justice I bring.  We will allow him to think he has outwitted us.  He is heading for the Boone cabin to work more evil.  We will let him get within sight of his goal and then take him –

            “And tear out his throat.”

            The wolf bent her head to the ground in homage, and then lifted it and howled.  As Yvonne’s voice echoed from the hills, a dozen more answered from below, calling out for the blood of the Beast who had used and abused them for far too long.

            Merle listened, a satisfied smile on her face, and then tilted her head, opened her mouth, and joined the song.