The Beast by Marla F. Fair
“Mr. Lafayette, Mr. Lafayette! General, wake up!”
A small voice, frightened and weary, intruded on his dream. He had been back in Chavaniac, in the forest of his childhood – but he was a man. Dressed in his blue and buff Continental uniform, he walked the wooded trail carrying his father’s musket, searching for le Bete. The path before him was strewn with the broken and bloodied bodies of women and children – and each and every death was his fault. He was the lord of the village, he was responsible for their safety – he alone was to blame. The weight of that guilt, coupled with the leaden fatigue he felt, threatened to pull him down to a place from which he could not rise.
Except for that persistent, blessed intruding voice.
“You’re scarin’ me, Mr. Lafayette. Please wake up!”
“Israel…” he moaned as his eyelids fluttered.
“Gosh! You’re alive! I said a whole bunch of prayers. Even though you’re one of them there Cat-licks, I figured He’d listen.”
Lafayette grinned and then regretted it. Even his face hurt. A moment later, summoning the same courage it took to face a line of well-trained British troops on the field, he opened his eyes and sat up.
“Mon Dieu,” he whispered. “What hit me?”
The small white-haired boy beside him scrunched up his nose and cocked his head. “You bein’ funny, Mr. Lafayette?”
He sighed. “Not really.”
“Well, if’n a hillside can be said to rise up and hit a fella, then I s’pose that’s what happened. We fell, don’t you remember?”
Ah. Yes. Now he remembered. Israel had been hanging off the side of the steep hill, clinging to a branch. He reached down to help him and then saw –
Lafayette lifted his head and, ignoring the resulting pain in his neck and shoulders, looked up. They were at least twenty-five feet below where they had been before – virtually cut off from the place where they were to have met Israel’s mother and sister. The ridge they had fallen from ran for miles in both directions with no access to the top.
“Damn,” he said softly.
“Mr. Lafayette, you ought not to cuss. Ma’d wash your mouth out with lye soap for sure if’n she heard you.” Israel’s lips puckered. “And I can tell you that ain’t no fun.”
“Pardonnez-moi, Israel. You are right.” Lafayette shifted as he spoke. He held one arm out and rotated it, and then the other. Both seemed intact.
“You got anythin’ broken?” the boy asked..
“Not so far.” The test was to come though. His leg, the one that had been wounded at Brandywine, ached tremendously and his knee felt as if it had been rammed into a rock. He ran his hand along the leg and found nothing broken or protruding from the skin. Most likely, though, the knee was strained or sprained – if not fractured.
“You need help?”
Lafayette looked at the boy. Israel was about seven or eight. Not quite a little boy, but far from being a man. Admitting to him that a grown man – and a general of the Continental Army – needed help would probably be a good thing. Too many men could not receive, and that made it very hard to do as the Bible instructed and give.
“I would consider it a privilege to accept your help, Private Boone,” he answered with a grin.
“Gosh! Really?” Israel stood and looked down at him. “You don’t look so good, Mr. Lafayette.”
Lafayette muttered under his breath. ‘Out of the mouths of babes….’
“Or should I call you ‘general’?”
He thought about it. “You may consider yourself ‘at ease’ at this moment, private. And so, you may call me ‘Gilbert’.”
“Zhee….Zheel-bear? That’s a funny name.”
Lafayette shrugged. “You would not find it so in France.”
The boy thought about it a minute. “Guess not. You want me to find you something you can use as a cane?”
The idea of limping through the forest like a broken old man brought a scowl to his face. “Not yet,” he replied, “let us try the ‘experiment grande’ first, shall we? Give me your hand, Israel.” As the boy complied he shifted and tried to put his weight on his leg.
Which was a mistake.
Sucking in air Lafayette fell back to the ground, his hands clenched tightly about his knee.
“Is it broke?” the boy asked, his voice almost a whisper.
“No.” Lafayette coughed, sucked in air, and then began to breathe more normally. “Just wrenched badly. I think.”
“Once when I was out with Mingo he got his foot caught in a bear trap. I helped him take care of it. There’s moss the Injuns know about you can put on it to take the swellin’ down. Pa taught me how to make a splint and tie it with cloth strips in case I ever broke anythin’.” Israel paused. “Don’t know why he thought I would, but the learnin’ll sure come in handy now!”
Lafayette hid his smile. Israel reminded him of himself at that age – precocious, bright, eager both to help and to prove himself. He thought about it a moment and then nodded. He certainly wasn’t going to get very far with his leg feeling as it did.
“Be right back!” the boy declared and then turned as if he would head that moment into the brush.
“Private Boone!” Lafayette said firmly, calling him back. “You must wait for your orders.”
The boy spun in place. “Criminetly, I forgot I was in the army now.” He drew his small body to attention. “Yes, sir!” he answered, saluting, no doubt imitating some soldier he had come into contact with in the past. “What are my orders? Sir!”
Lafayette’s smile turned into a concerned frown. “Can you fire that pistol you carry?” A flintlock hung from the boy’s belt. It was the one Israel had taken from their camp when he ran away. They had not addressed that issue yet, but would in time.
Israel looked a little sheepish. “Yes, sir. My Pa taught me how. And the pistol don’t weigh so much as a long rifle.”
That was an understatement! “Very well, Private Boone, you must remember as your forage for materials, that there is an enemy in the wood.” Several of them, in reality, but he did not want to overly frighten the boy. “Your first concern is for your own safety.”
“But what about you, Gil…General?” Israel corrected himself, remembering he was on ‘duty’ now. “You’re unarmed and hurt.”
It was true. But there was nothing to be done about it. “I have my own pistol,” he answered, only half-lying. He did have one, it was just in the boy’s mother’s hands. “Do not worry for me.”
Israel brightened. He saluted again. “Yes, sir! I’ll get those branches and that moss and be back in three shakes of a lamb’s tail!”
As the boy disappeared into the underbrush Lafayette reached down and probed his knee with his fingers. It was sensitive to the touch and was already swollen half again its normal size, which indicated he had been unconscious for some time. Looking at the sun he guessed it was nearly noon. The Boone women would be heading for the rendezvous. He did not know what they would do when they discovered the two of them were not there. Hopefully turn back to the Boone cabin to await Daniel, or continue on to Chota for help. If they began to search for them, with the Redcoats and this beast in the woods….
Remembering how he had continued to fight at Brandywine while blood was pouring from a musket ball wound, filling his boot, Lafayette determined to stand. Of course, he had had adrenal on his side then. Now he was simply weary to the bone. Two years of constant battles and bickering, endless sleepless nights, excessive heat and frigid cold, worry over his men and lack of funds – as well as his own deep desire to see his wife and children and to visit his homeland – had left him mentally and physically exhausted. Somehow at this moment lifting his body from the ground and putting his weight on a twisted knee seemed tantamount to taking on the entire British fleet on his own.
Gritting his teeth, with tears streaming down his face, he managed it, but the shock of the pain was enough to almost knock him out again. With his head reeling, Lafayette hopped to a nearby tree and leaned on it for support. As he did he heard a low guttural sound, something like the purr of an enormous cat. Instantly alert, he surveyed the nearby trees and underbrush, searching for its origin.
Then he realized the sound came from above.
Looking up he saw it. On the top of the ridge. A great wolf, grayish brown in color. Its eyes were an icy blue, like mountain water reflecting a summer sky without clouds, and they shone with an intelligence that was almost human. Its pale pinkish gums curled back as it snarled, revealing yellow fangs honed to razor-sharp points. It pawed the ground as if contemplating the twenty foot jump.
It wanted him that badly.
As dirt and pebbles from the edge of the rise tumbled down to land at his feet, a high whistle sounded. The fierce creature whimpered and lifted its head. With a howl of frustration, it turned and disappeared behind the ridge.
Lafayette had not realized he was holding his breath. He breathed and then coughed again, his lungs still a little weak from having had the air driven out of them in the fall. From his vantage point below, the beast had seemed inordinately large – the size of a man at the least.
More than that – it had seemed to know him.
When Israel returned a few minutes later, the boy found him sitting beneath the tree with the knife from his bag of provisions clenched tightly in his hand. Lafayette had no idea what good the slender blade would do against a creature of such supernatural proportions, but the feel of the bone handle and steel blade made him believe he had – at the least – a fighting chance.
Israel stood beside him and saluted. “Mission accomplished, sir!” He held out three sturdy branches, two for the splint and one for the dreaded cane, and then proceeded to open his knapsack to show him the moist gray moss. “You want me to start whittlin’ the wood for the splint?” he asked.
“First of all, be at ease, Private Boone.” As the boy relaxed, Lafayette held out his hand. “And secondly, give me the pistol.”
Israel surrendered it with only mild reluctance, seeming – in a way – to be glad to be rid of it and the responsibility. “Then what, sir?”
“Gilbert,” he reminded him softly as he checked the weapon and made certain it was primed and then placed it close beside him. There was no need to frighten the boy further with the ridge separating them and the fearsome beast, but there was need for caution. “Sit with me as you whittle. I can prepare the moss and place it on my knee.”
“I got bandages right here.” The boy pulled them from his pack after removing the moss.
“Are you always this well prepared?” Lafayette asked with a grin.
“I didn’t put them in there. Ma did. For some reason she thinks I’m always gonna get hurt.” Israel looked at him sideways. “Is your Ma like that?”
Lafayette had begun to slit his pants leg open. He stopped in mid-action. He searched his mind for one memory of his mother caring for him, of Julie du Motier in her fine saque gown and powdered hair patching a torn knee or kissing away the pain, but came up empty. The face he saw was not his mother’s, but that of his grandmama. “My ‘Ma’ was not home very much, Israel. I was raised by my grandmother and my mother’s sisters.”
He waited for the inevitable question – What happened to your mother? – but it did not come. Instead the boy’s bright blue eyes widened. “Gosh! You was raised with only girls?”
Lafayette nodded as he ripped the brown fabric of his breeches and frowned at the sight of the bruised and swollen knee. “I am afraid so.”
Israel shook his head. “No wonder you won all them battles.”
This time he laughed out loud. “Israel, you are good medicine for me.”
The boy looked at him. “You mean because of the moss I brung?”
As he took a chunk of the gray stuff and pounded it into a paste on a flat rock, Lafayette nodded again. “Certainement,” he answered. “There is no better medicine than the company of a friend.”
Not far away, in another part of the forest, a handsome dark-haired man knelt by the side the river. His sinewy form was perched on the edge of a boulder that jutted out over the water and he was staring at his face, touching the left cheek where it was scratched. From his temple to his upper lip three long jagged lines ran, as if he had been attacked by a predatory bird.
Jean-Paul Devereux watched his upper lip curl as he snarled. “Damn Hellcat!” he cursed as he leapt from the rock to the ground.
Jean-Paul straightened his dark gray frock coat and dusted off the knees of his near black velvet breeches. He adjusted the black tricorn hat on his deep brown head and then touched his cheek again and frowned. The scratches would mark him. From now on he would have to be more circumspect in his movements and take care to avoid being seen. Not that he had made a spectacle of himself before this by any means, but the mark would limit his access to the settlements. If he had needs, they would have to be met by the local farmers whose cabins were isolated enough that news of a strange Frenchman traveling through the area had not yet reached their ears.
And he did have needs.
Returning to his camp and the provisions he left there, Jean-Paul pulled a map from his leather satchel and spread it out on the blanket he used as a bed. Then he sat and studied it. A piece of pressed crimson wax in the shape of a wolf marked each of the places where he had struck, decimating the enemies’ ranks. He knew his foe had a description of him now, and that they were conducting a manhunt. But the British were fools! Their officers always went by the book. Keeping one step ahead of them was so simple an unweaned babe could have managed it.
At least, it had been that simple, before Merle deserted him.
Jean-Paul growled. The woman was impossible! Her needs were simple and he met them, but she was ‘unhappy’. She did not agree with the campaign he waged. He knew this. But this was the first time she had openly rebelled, refusing to follow his orders.
And that was something he simply could not have.
After all, he owned her. It was not like she had anywhere else to go – any family, or anyone who cared. Back home in France they had kept her caged. He had freed her from that cage and given her a life. All he asked in return was that she aided him in his crusade and that she kept her companions under control – and at his disposal.
Merle would have to be taught a lesson, and he would have to make certain she learned it well.
Dark brown eyes, keen as a hawk’s, surveyed the map Jean-Paul had paid a trader who traveled frequently through these parts handsomely to draw. He was a few hours walk from the settlement of Boonesborough, but thought it unwise to chance showing his face there. Someone might know him, and he was certain the British would have it patrolled. The Cherokee village of Chota was up the ridge and a few hours hike the other way. Even though these particular Cherokee were not friendly with the British, the trader had mentioned that they had no particular love of the French either. Daniel Boone’s cabin was closer than both and the odds were, with the British in the area, Boone himself would be away.
Folding the map, Jean Paul Devereux replaced it in his satchel and then rose to his feet. The prospect of sitting by a fire and eating a home-cooked meal worked wonders to dispel any doubts he had. And besides that, he had heard that Mrs. Boone was a lovely woman – redheaded and robust, an Irish beauty well worth resting one’s eyes on.
With a smirk on his lips, Jean-Paul gathered up his belongings and set out for the Boone cabin, a jaunty French tune on his lips.
“You sure you oughta try walkin’?”
Lafayette glanced at the sky. It was well past noon. The day was advancing. Though night was hours away, he had to find some place safe for the boy to rest in. At this point the best he could do for Israel was to start the slow painful walk back to the Boone cabin, to return him to his home and pray with all of his might that his father and mother would be there waiting for him.
And that the beast he had seen did not find some way down the ridge to greet them along the way.
“When the unexpected happens, Israel, it is best to regroup and regain strength before attempting to continue on.” Lafayette leaned his weight on his bad leg and winced as he took a step forward using the branch Israel had brought him as a prop. “Even though you are a brave and able soldier, it will take more than an army of one to slay the beast.”
“You wasn’t able to kill it, so I guess I was kinda stupid to think I could.” the boy said as he hung his head.
“Bravery is an end in itself, Israel. You were willing to face the beast to protect your own. That is what is important.”
Israel nodded. Then, after a moment he looked up. “What do you think it is, Gilbert? Really?”
Lafayette thought of the animal he had seen on the ridge. Was this the same beast that had plagued Auvergne so many years before? If so, it would be over a decade old and have to have traveled not only thousands of miles, but across an ocean to the Colonies. Could it be, perhaps, the offspring of le Bete? There were those in Auvergne who believed there was more than one beast, that it was a family in fact, and that was how the creature could kill in so many places, so far away from one another, in the same day.
Or was there something more sinister here? Was there a human mind behind the animal’s actions – a beast of another kind?
Unfortunately, there were more questions than answers.
Lafayette placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “What is it? To be honest, Israel, I do not know. But I am afraid, before this is all over, that we shall find out. Now come, lend me your shoulder, and we shall be on our way.”
“Yes, sir! We goin’ home?”
Lafayette nodded. “We are going home.”
Hours later, just as the sun began to set, he had to admit defeat. It was late afternoon and he and Israel had struggled up and over a number of Kentucky’s numerous rolling hills, passed through underbrush and thickets, crossed a shallow creek, and waded through waist-high grass only to find their way blocked by a fair size stream. His fever had returned and his knee was screaming for him to stop, and no amount of courage or determination was going to compel his body to continue to function when it had had enough. He released Israel’s shoulder and dropped to the ground and then lay back, panting, in the cool wet grass.
“Are you all right, Gilbert?” Israel asked. “You don’t look so good.”
He drew several deep breaths and forced himself to sit. “It is really nothing. In a day or two, I will be fine. It is just that the pain….” He stopped and swallowed hard. “The pain is a little hard to manage. If one cannot rest – ”
“Then you just rest. I’ll scout around and see if I can find us some grub….”
Lafayette caught the boy’s wrist. He took the pistol from his waistband and handed it to him. “Do not venture far.”
Israel beamed. “Yes, sir!”
As Daniel Boone’s son disappeared into the tall grasses, Lafayette gingerly removed the bandages on his knee and replaced the moss. It was cool and soothed the fiery heat in his skin. He bound his knee with fresh bandages and then laid back in the grass and closed his eyes.
Which was a mistake.
He didn’t know how much time had passed – a few minutes or a few hours – when he was awakened by a shout of alarm. Struggling against nausea and disorientation, Lafayette sat up and reached for the pistol – only to remember that he had sent it with Israel. His hand found instead the makeshift cane the boy had carved for him. He gripped it and, planting one end in the ground, worked his way to his feet. Limping badly, he crossed the open spot where they had made their camp and entered the tall swaying grasses, calling, “Israel! Israel, where are you? Answer me! Israel!”
“Is this what you are looking for?” a low voice, thick with a French accent, asked from close by.
Almost afraid to look Lafayette turned slowly, leaning heavily on the cane. A lean dark man in a gray frock coat stood behind him. Daniel Boone’s son lay unconscious in his arms.
“If you have harmed him – ” Lafayette growled.
“You’ll what? Beat me with your stick?” the man laughed. “Before you make the threat, mon ami, I would be certain you can carry it out.”
“What have you done to him?”
“Nothing. The boy took fright when he saw me and ran. He fell and hit his head at the stream’s edge. If I had not rescued him, he might have drowned.” The Frenchman paused and a slow grin spread across his face. “You are French as well?”
Lafayette nodded, unsure whether or not to believe the stranger’s tale. “Oui.”
“What are the odds, do you suppose, of meeting a fellow countryman in the wilds of Kentucky?”
“I don’t believe in odds,” he answered. “Is Israel all right?”
“He has a cut on his head.” The man indicated Lafayette’s bound knee with a nod. “It seems this has been a hard journey for you both.”
“Bring him back to our camp,” Lafayette answered. “I have medicines there, and bandages.”
The stranger did as he said. Once they reached the camp, Lafayette spread out one of the blankets they carried and placed Israel on it. He sat down and examined him and saw it was as the man had indicated. Daniel Boone’s son had an abrasion on his head, as if from striking a rock, and was unconscious. As he fixed a poultice to lay on the boy’s forehead, Lafayette said softly, “I apologize for my rudeness. I owe you thanks for saving Israel’s life. Thank you. Eh….”
“Jean-Paul. Jean-Paul Devereux. And you might be?”
He thought about using his father’s Christian name as he had back at the cabin, but Israel was bound to wake up and use the real one. So he said, “Gilbert. Gilbert Motier.”
Jean-Paul offered him his hand. As Lafayette took it, he said, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. You look as if you could use some help.”
“Oui. The boy and I took a fall,” Lafayette nodded toward the ridge that could be seen rising on the edge of the horizon, “from up there.”
Jean-Paul whistled. “You are fortunate the only thing you walked away with is a bad leg.”
Lafayette laughed. “I am fortunate I walked away at all.”
“Perhaps I can be of assistance. Where are you and the boy headed?”
Something nagged at the back of his mind, something that made him a little uncomfortable telling this stranger their business. Still, he would need help if he was to get Israel home. “Boonesborough,” he said, “actually, a homestead just outside of it.”
“Quelle bonne chance! That is the direction I am headed. I had a desire to make Messier Boone’s acquaintance.”
“He will want to thank you, for helping his son.”
Jean-Paul’s brows arched. “His son? This boy?”
Lafayette laid his hand on Israel’s forehead. As he shifted and moaned, he nodded. “This is Israel, Daniel Boone’s son.”
Jean-Paul rose to his feet. “I noticed that he was seeking food when I came upon him. Have you not eaten?”
Lafayette shrugged. “I gave Israel what was left in my pack. Some jerky and a handful of nuts and berries. I am used to going without.”
“Under normal circumstances. But since you are injured….”
“I have known worse injuries. This is an inconvenience, nothing more.” He rolled over and reached for the branch he used as a cane, intending to rise. As he did he heard a fateful sound.
That of the hammer of a flintlock being cocked.
Lafayette spun, but not quickly enough. The gun went off and the ball caught him on the forehead, the concussion of its passing knocking him into the tall grass. As consciousness faded he saw Israel lifted and returned to the Frenchman’s arms.
“Pardonnez-moi, mon ami,” Jean-Paul Devereux said softly as he stepped over his prone form. “It grieves me to have to do this to a countryman, but I am afraid I cannot afford to pass up this opportunity, and your presence when I arrive at the Boone cabin would prove an ‘inconvenience” as well.”