THE BEAST by Marla F. Fair
Providence had already granted them one boon. Along the way Jeremy and the others had at first been startled – and then delighted – to have a very tired, weary, and dirt-covered Isak Poole stumble out of the trees and into their path. After pouring a cup of water for him and giving Isak a chance to catch his breath, they questioned him. The freed Black man had been with Boggs and Henry when the British overtook them, but had managed to escape. Hiding in the trees, Isak had waited until nightfall to set out and then lost his way, stumbling blindly through the blue grass of the Kentucky fields.
Tonight he heard Jeremy’s voice and knew God had heard his prayers and rescued him. Now, after resting in safety for a few hours, Isak joined Jeremy on a hillside, spyglass in hand.
“Do you see anything?” Jeremy asked, looking at his friend.
“An awful lot of Redcoats, but no sign of Henry or the others,” Isak Poole answered with a shake of his head. He offered the glass to him. “You want to take a look?”
“In a moment, perhaps.” Jeremy turned to Daniel Boone and Mingo. The Cherokee was still dressed as a British officer. They had considered sending him in to the British camp which was located in a hollow just down the hill to seek information, but under the circumstances decided it was too dangerous. The soldiers were too jumpy. “Daniel. Mingo. This is your territory. What do you suggest?”
Daniel Boone pursed his lips and rolled his hazel eyes toward his friend. “The old ‘one, two’, Mingo?”
One of the Cherokee’s black brows arched. “That depends on whether I am ‘one’ or ‘two’ this time,” he replied, his tone wary.
“Well, seein’ as you have the uniform, I guess you’d have to be ‘one.”
Jeremy and Isak looked at each other as if the two Kentuckians had gone mad even as Mingo nodded.
“Well, then” he said, “in that case, let’s get to it.”
“Would either of you gentlemen care to explain what you are talking about?” Jeremy asked, slightly exasperated.
Daniel Boone briefly touched his shoulder. “Watch and learn, young’un. Watch and learn.”
Daniel and Mingo parted as they left the leafy underbrush that hid the small party. Mingo straightened up and, following the road, walked straight toward the pair of Redcoat sentries who stood stamping their feet and chafing their hands over a small fire not thirty yards away from them. Daniel disappeared into the surrounding trees. Jeremy glanced at Isak who shrugged, and then turned back to see what the tall frontiersman’s Indian friend was up to.
“I say! You two! At attention!” Mingo declared in a peremptory voice, employing a convincing upper crust British accent. The tall dark-haired man swept down on the sentries like a tempest, blowing and blustering as the pair scrambled for the weapons they had set aside. “I said, ‘At attention! Now!” As he arrived Mingo struck the rifle from the frozen fingers of one man. “I expect to find the well-oiled machine of His Majesty’s Royal Army at work here, and what do I find? A pair of chaw-bacons, who must have been born and bread on a Yankee farm, toasting their fingers and toes! A British soldier is always on duty. Why, even that miscreant Washington could have overtaken you, and we all know how pathetic he is!”
Isak snickered. Jeremy frowned at him and then laughed quietly as well.
“But, sir! It’s cold. We just took a moment to warm our – ”
“I’ll warm your backsides!” Mingo went polished black boot toe-to-toe with the first man, pinning him with his keen stare. “Give me your name and rank, soldier.”
“Smythe! Private Josiah Smythe, sir!”
“Well, Private Smythe, if the prisoners have escaped due to your neglect of duty….”
“They haven’t!” The soldier stiffened. He cleared his throat. “Eh…I meant to say – No, sir! They haven’t. Ward here saw them not half an hour ago. The young one and the older man.”
“The ones who were with the Frenchman?” he asked.
So both Henry and Sergeant Boggs were prisoners in this camp. Good, now they knew for certain.
“You may count yourself among the fortunate, Private Smythe, that they have not. And you, what is your problem?” Mingo demanded as he turned to the other soldier. The young man was watching carefully, his face a mixture of well-trained respect and suspicion.
“Eh, sir….” The soldier’s voice was wary. “Exactly who are you? Sir!”
“Are you questioning my authority,” Mingo glanced at the man’s sleeve, “lance corporal?”
“Well…. Yes, sir. I’ve never seen you before. Have you, Smythe?”
The other young man just trembled.
Mingo’s cheeks turned nearly as scarlet as his coat. He advanced on Ward, his voice ringing with righteous indignation and authority. Jeremy noticed that, as he did, a shadow appeared just behind the lance corporal. It looked like a crouching man.
“Who is your commanding, officer, Lance Corporal Ward? Answer me now! Give me his name. I will see that you are written up for insubordination and improper conduct toward a superior officer!” As Mingo spoke he raised a hand and jabbed a finger into Ward’s vest. Then, as he finished, he unexpectedly applied his palm to the lance corporal’s chest and shoved him hard.
“One!” Mingo shouted as Lance corporal Ward tumbled over Daniel Boone’s crouched form. And then, before Private Smythe could register what was happening and alert the camp, the Cherokee finished him with a right hook that sent the young soldier reeling to the ground.
“Two!” Daniel announced with a grin as he rose and did the same to Lance corporal Ward before the young man could regain his feet. Catching the young Redcoat by the lapels, he lowered his unconscious form to the ground.
Mingo looked at his friend sideways as Jeremy and Isak broke from the cover of the leaves. “How’s the back, Daniel?” he asked with a grin.
Daniel Boone was rubbing it. “A might sore. He was heavier than I thought.”
As Jeremy and Isak arrived at their side, Mingo knelt and began to search through the soldiers’ belongings for some rope to bind them with. “Take their weapons, Jeremy, and then you and Isak see if you can locate the prisoners. Daniel and I will haul these two into the trees and then join you.”
Jeremy nodded. Then he asked with a smile, “May I ask, gentleman, what – pray tell – comes after ‘one’ and ‘two’?”
Daniel shook his head slowly, his face sober. “Let’s hope you young’uns never have to find out.” He helped Mingo bind the pair and then with a salute, grabbed Lance corporal Ward’s feet and followed Mingo into the trees.
“Come on, Isak,” Jeremy said. “Let’s see what we can find.”
The pair crept with stealth toward the British camp in the hollow, some two hundred yards or more from the point where the sentries had been overcome. The British Army, as Henry often reminded them, went ‘by the book’. Prisoners were usually kept well away from the officers – who had no desire to hear the screams of their torment. They circumvented the main camp and found a lone tent set close to the trees. A single guard kept duty outside. Obviously the British didn’t consider either Henry or Sergeant Boggs much of a threat.
Jeremy grinned. Tell that to the British at Brandywine!
“It shouldn’t be too hard to free them. Only one guard, and there are four of us,” he said to his friend.
Isak nodded but caught him by the arm as he began to move. “Jeremy, I feel it necessary to speak for Henry in this case.”
Jeremy frowned. “What is it, Isak?”
The black man grinned. “ ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. Do not grow overconfident, my friend.”
He laughed. “Thank you, Dr. Franklin. I will –” Jeremy paused as the leaves rustled close by as if in fulfillment of Isak’s warning, but it was only Daniel Boone and Mingo.
“I see you found them,” Daniel said.
“Yes. They must be in that tent. So what do you think, gentlemen? Should we approach the guard or storm the camp or – ”
Jeremy halted as Mingo moved into the light. As his white teeth flashed in his deeply tanned face, Daniel Boone’s companion brandished a foot long Indian hunting knife decorated with beads and feathers. “I suggest a more ‘subtle’ entry. I will cut through the skin of the tent, free them, and bring them here. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me…” he said as he shifted into the leaves.
“Mingo, wait up!” Jeremy called. “I am coming with you.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I have no need of help.”
Jeremy laughed. “I am certain under ordinary circumstances that is true. And yet, while a Redcoat wielding a native weapon might be a familiar site in Kentucky, I can assure that where we come from, it is not. It might take some convincing to get Henry and Sergeant Boggs to go with you – and we do not have the time to delay.”
Mingo thought about it a moment and then nodded. Jeremy did the same, and then the two of them slipped into the trees.
“Ma?” Jemima turned in a circle, searching for her. “Ma? Where are you?”
Her mother had left her at the entrance to the river cave in order to inspect it before they considered it as a sanctuary. Jemima had protested but her ma had insisted, saying she would be too busy worrying about protecting her to protect herself.
It made a twisted kind of sense.
Tired of waiting, Jemima inched into the cave. “Ma? Are you all right?” She was growing worried. These caves were usually not that deep, but it seemed this one had somehow swallowed Rebecca Boone up whole. “Ma!”
The voice came from close beside her and nearly made her jump out of her skin. Her heart raced like a milk cow on the run from a panther as her mother emerged from the shadows. “Ma,” she protested, “you scared me out of my wits!”
“I’m sorry. I wanted to answer you, but I was too close.”
Jemima stiffened. “Too close to what?”
Her ma frowned. “I wish I knew. Come on. This cave goes back quite a ways. There’s even a small waterfall at the back. That’s where she is.”
“She?” Jemima was shocked. “You mean there’s a woman in here?”
Her mother nodded. Then the frown deepened. “At least, I think it’s a woman.”
She took her hand. “Jemima, don’t say a word. Let’s just go and see.”
Her mother led her deep into the hillside. At first Jemima could see nothing, but as they continued on her eyes adjusted. Then, just as the slow descent they had been making leveled off onto a rocky bottom, they had to adjust again. A narrow fissure in the ceiling above opened to admit a single stark ray of light. It struck the shallow pool at the base of the waterfall illuminating the slender, ragged form that lay at its edge. Jemima glanced at her ma who only shook her head and continued to lead her forward.
The form was covered in furs, gray and brown, but from the distance Jemima couldn’t tell if they were made into robes like the Indians wore or were just blankets. Long blond hair ran like honey over the furs’ edge, and one pale hand was visible. The fingers were long and elegantly formed, but blackened with dirt and dark with stains.
“Who do you think it is?” Jemima asked in a whisper.
“I have no idea. I’d think it was an Indian, but the hair….”
“Not too many blond Indians, that’s for sure.” Jemima felt a sympathy toward the pathetic creature. “She looks like she needs help, Ma. Ma?”
Her mother was staring at the prone form, a vacant expression on her face. She shook herself and said softly, “Becky Boone, come back to reality.”
“What is it, Ma?”
“I was just thinking of what the Marquis – what Gilbert said about ‘le Bete’. That they thought it was –”
“Female.” Jemima shivered. “But a person can’t turn into a wolf? Can they, Ma? Even if the Indians think so?”
“Of course not.” Jemima heard it, that tone her Ma used sometimes – the one that said she was sure when she really wasn’t. “It’s utter nonsense. Now come on, she looks as though she needs our help.”
Arm in arm they approached the strange woman who lay at the pool’s edge. Her mother glanced at Jemima and then, disengaging her arm, knelt at the woman’s side and reached out to touch her.
Fast as a dust devil rising in a drought-ridden field, the seemingly lifeless woman came to life. She sprang to her feet, snarling, her hands going for her mother’s throat. Jemima gasped, terrified. But she had forgotten about the Marquis’ pistol. Faster than that dust devil her mother palmed it and pointed it at the woman’s chest.
Whoever she was, the woman was familiar with a flintlock. Whimpering, she backed away and crouched in the shadows at the edge of the water.
Her mother glanced at her and then turned back to the woman. “We mean you no harm. We just want to help. My name is Becky and this is Jemima.” Still holding the gun, but not pointing it at the stranger anymore she added softly, “Who are you?”
The woman shook her head and said nothing.
Jemima studied the stranger as best she could from her vantage point behind her mother. The skins had fallen away when the woman stood. Jemima could see now that she was definitely not an Indian – even a light-haired one. The stranger had a narrow, high-boned face which was pale as an invalid’s. Her eyes were an icy blue. She was dressed like a man, in breeches and a linen shirt, but both were badly tattered and stained with mud and what looked like blood. Around the woman’s throat there was a silver necklace of some kind. Jemima thought it might be a cross.
Her mother repeated her question. “Who are you? What is your name?”
“Maybe she doesn’t speak English, Ma,” Jemima offered.
“Maybe…. But then I don’t speak much but English.”
“Let me try.” Jemima laughed at her mother’s surprised expression. “You don’t think I spend all my time at the tavern listening to Jericho Jone’s empty crowing, do you? There’s loads of traders there, and sometimes their wives. I love to listen to the way they talk.” She drew a deep breath and stepped closer to the crouching woman. “Hallo. Meine nahme ist Jemima. Wie bist du?” she asked, trying German first.
The woman scowled, but remained silent.
Jemima thought a minute. Her Spanish was patchy at best. Maybe French. The Marquis had been kind enough to help her learn a few new words. “Bon jour. Mon nom is Jemima. Qui êtes vous?”
At first the woman only stared at her. Then she seemed to sigh and relax. “Merle,” she answered softly.
“Merle, that’s beautiful.” The woman’s voice was husky and thick, but from the sound of it she couldn’t be a lot older than Jemima was herself. Maybe nineteen or twenty at most. “Do you speak English, Merle?” Jemima frowned. The Marquis had taught her that one, but she wasn’t sure she remembered the French words right. “Faites-quevous les Anglais parlent, Merle?” she asked haltingly.
“Seulement,” the Merle replied.
‘Just a little’. Great. That was about all the French Jemima knew.
“What did she say?” her mother asked.
“She only knows a little English, Ma. I wonder what she’s doing here? You think she’s some traders’ wife? Or maybe she’s escaped from the Indians or something?”
Her mother scowled. “Or something. Jemima, fetch my sack of provisions. I dropped it about twenty feet back.”
“How come, Ma?”
The scowl turned to a crafty smile. “Words talk, Jemima, but food talks louder. Merle looks half-starved, poor thing.”
Jemima did as she was told. When she returned, she handed the sack to her mother who said, “Now find some firewood, if you can. Let’s fix some breakfast and invite Merle to join us.” Her ma looked up and frowned. “With that fissure in the ceiling we’ll have to be careful to keep the fire from smoking. Somehow I don’t think we want whatever – or whoever – it is Merle is frightened of to find us here before the Mar – before Michel returns.”
Jemima nodded, taking the hint. They didn’t know who this woman was, or who she was with. She might be a threat to the Marquis, or even traveling with the men who were hunting the Beast. They would just have to wait until Lafayette returned to find out whether she was a friend – or foe.
In about fifteen minutes her mother had a nice stew going using herbs and dried meat and a few vegetables. The water for the broth the waterfall supplied. Jemima took a bowl of it from her mother’s hand, and a spoon, and walked with it to where Merle sat watching them. The woman was wrapped in one of the skins again, as if chilled. It was only when Jemima drew close to Merle that she noted an odd thing –
The woman’s feet were bare.
“Here,” Jemima said as she held the bowl and spoon out. “Petit déjeuner. Breakfast.”
Merle looked up at her and then grabbed both, sloshing the stew over the brim. She stared at the spoon as if it was a foreign thing, and then tossed it away and set to eating her meal with her fingers.
As Jemima’s light brown eyebrows winged toward her bangs her mother came to her side. She heard the familiar intake of breath and a ‘tsk tsk’ sound.
“What is it, Ma?”
“Well, you certainly can tell Merle didn’t learn her manners the same place Michel did!”
Daniel and Isak Poole waited for the return of their colleagues. The tall frontiersman stretched and shifted. God had meant well in giving him legs like tall timbers, but he often thought the Almighty must have had some other occupation in mind for him than sneaking about in the woods of Kentucky and trying to conceal his lanky form behind scrub and knee-high brush. It was a mite painful for him to crouch too long. He glanced at the black man at his side. Isak Poole was a freedman – a blacksmith from what Jeremy had told him – well-liked and respected in the small Pennsylvania community of Chester. Isak was also a man on edge. Dan could see it in his dark eyes and in the way he held his well-muscled body – alert and at the ready.
“You worried about your friends, son?” Dan asked quietly.
“It seems too long,” Isak answered with a nod of his head. “I expected them back some time ago.”
Dan showed him his lop-sided grin. The one that could melt Becky Boone’s icy anger into a smile. “Maybe old darin’ Daniel Boggs took offense at Mingo’s choice of ‘attire’.”
“Could be,” Isak replied, distracted.
Dan could tell Isak was really worried. “Think we should go check on them?” he asked.
“I think we ought to – Wait! Someone is coming.”
Dan tensed with his finger on Ticklicker’s trigger, and then relaxed as Mingo emerged from the underbrush. Jeremy and two other men followed close behind.
“What took you so long?” he asked as they drew alongside.
Jeremy reached down and took hold of something hanging between the freed prisoner’s legs. It was a chain. “This!” he declared. “They clapped them in irons!”
Dan nodded. “That explains the lack of a second guard….”
“We had to pilfer a saw and cut through the tent pole to free them,” Mingo said as he crouched beside him. “Jeremy held the top of the pole while I slipped the chain free, and then we rested the top on the bottom. The hold is quite precarious. If someone leans on it….”
A sudden cry from the British camp made them all pivot toward it.
“Too bad they’re such a lazy bunch,” Dan noted. “I’d suggest we – run!”
The six of them took off, but their progress was hampered by the chain binding Sergeant Boggs and Henry. The pair stumbled and fell several times, and had to be assisted by both Mingo and Isak over a fallen log.
All the while the shouts of the Redcoats in pursuit kept growing closer.
Dan halted when he saw Jeremy catch hold of Isak’s arm and draw him to a halt. The two exchanged a few words and then Jeremy turned to Mingo. “Keep goin’, Mingo,” he ordered. “Get Sergeant Boggs and Henry out of here!”
Mingo met his eyes and Dan nodded. It made sense.
“Head for my place,” Dan called out. “Just make sure you take the ‘long’ route, Mingo, and lose ‘em first. Becky’d be a mite unhappy about havin’ a regiment of Lobsterbacks drop in for supper unannounced.”
Mingo laughed. “I am sure one counterfeit Redcoat is more than enough. Take care, Daniel!”
As his Cherokee friend and the two men disappeared into the underbrush, Dan turned to the pair from Chester who were deep in conversation again. He leaned on Ticklicker and watched them for a moment, remembering what it was like to be young and reckless, and then asked them, “Well, what are you two young’uns up to?”
That got their attention – and raised the hair on their backs.
Jeremy approached him. “Isak and I were discussing your knowledge of the woods hereabout, Daniel. We hear it is legendary.”
“It’s hard on a man to be a legend in his own time,” Dan answered with a wink. “but I manage to live with it.”
“We were thinking our British ‘friends’ might not take too kindly to a return visit to the quagmire where we first made their acquaintance. However, if you were to lead them there – ”
Dan nodded. “They wouldn’t necessarily know it was where they were goin’.”
Jeremy grinned. “Precisely.”
He sized the two of them up. Jeremy was a natural born leader. Isak, his silent support. Along with Henry, they formed a trio the British would long have to reckon with. Dan smiled at last and said, “You boys sure think sneaky like. You gonna let me in on the rest of the scheme?”
Jeremy grinned. “Whenever you reveal the secret of ‘three’.”
A shout from the Redcoats turned their heads. Flashes of scarlet-red showed through the trees. A horn was blown and someone shouted, ‘Forward! There they are!’
“‘Three’, boys? I can tell you that one right now.” Dan caught Ticklicker under his arm, pulled his coonskin cap down on his head and dashed into the trees, throwing the three words back over his shoulder like a pinch of salt.
“Run like hell!”