The Beast by Marla F. Fair

            Chapter Nine

           

            Becky’s watched Jean Paul closely.  He was a frightening man – a beast as he had been named by the British soldiers he killed cruelly and remorselessly – but at this moment it was the Beast who was frightened.  A sheen of sweat had broken out on his lightly tanned face.  His upper lip twitched nervously, and his dark eyes flicked from tree to tree, wary, searching….

            Seeking the wolf.

            “A friend of yours?” she asked him quietly.

            The fingers touching her neck closed into a grip on her throat.  “What do you know of this?” he demanded.

            “Nothing,” she gasped in reply. 

            “Nothing?  Nothing?  Jean Paul caught her arm and twisted it, bringing it up behind her back and turning her so she faced away from him.  Then he pressed his body against hers and whispered close by her ear.  “We will go to the cabin and wake your children, and I will ask you again, Madame Boone.”  He shoved her forward.  “Let us see if you still know nothing then.”

            “No.  Wait.”  Becky’s heart was pounding so hard it was difficult to breathe.  “Please, leave them alone!”

            “The truth, then, Madame Boone.  The truth!

            “Really, I know nothing.”  Becky paused and then added, praying her words would terrify him as much as he had terrified her.  “But I have met the woman who runs with the wolves.”

            “Merle?” Jean Paul asked.  When she nodded, he almost shouted, “And she has filled your head with lies!”

            Becky fought to control her trembling.  “What I have seen tonight suggests otherwise.”

            “And did Merle tell you that I saved her?  That she owes her life to me?”  Jean Paul shoved her again, propelling her forward toward the cabin and her sleeping children within.  “If I had not rescued her she would still be in a cage on display as a curiosity, or worse, dead!”

            Some things were worse than death, she thought, but said nothing.

            “Onto the porch, Madame Boone!  Your home shall provide a haven for me against Merle’s ingratitude.”

            Becky struggled in a futile attempt to break free.  “Please, no!  Do what you want with me, but don’t put my children in danger!”

            His fingers tightened on her arm.  “Do you think I care one whit for your children’s lives.  I have watched a dozen die – ”

            Jean Paul hesitated with his foot on the step that led to the porch, his keen eyes locked on the underbrush nearby.  Something had shifted in the leafy shadows – something large and four-footed, that was even now moving into the clearing. 

Becky gasped as a massive wolf snarled and stepped into a patch of moonlight.

            “No!” Jean Paul shouted as he pulled her close to his chest.  “Merle, wherever you are, call your beast off!”  Becky felt his hand move near her waist and then heard the sound of a flintlock’s hammer being cocked.  Seconds later its barrel was pressed into her neck.  “I will kill this woman, Merle.  You know I will.  Call Yvonne off!  Now!

            For a moment there was silence, and then Becky heard a low whistle.  And an answering growl.  Seconds later a woman’s slender shape appeared silhouetted against the risen moon.  All about her a silent snow fell, coating not only her blond hair but the silver and sable coats of the wolfs that milled at her feet.

            “Jean Paul, let her go,” the woman said, the English words sounding thick on her French tongue.

            The villain shook his head and gripped her tighter.  “I am leaving here.  With Madame Boone.  If you follow me, she will die.  That is a promise, Merle, and you know I always keep my promises.”

            Merle ordered the wolves to remain behind and then moved into the moonlit clearing.  Her blue eyes had grown feral since Becky had seen her last.  “Oui,” she answered.  “As do I.”

            Jean Paul shifted his grip.  Becky felt him tremble.  It was no wonder, she thought, as she watched the wolves flanking Merle mill impatiently about her feet and heard their snaps and snarls.  If the Frenchwoman loosed them, they would tear him limb from limb.

            And probably her as well.

            “Let Mrs. Boone go,” Merle ordered.

            “Do you think I am a fool?”  Jean Paul sneered.  “She stays with me.  You will let us go, or I will blow her head off.”

            Merle came two steps closer.  She waited until Becky met her eyes before speaking.  “Mrs. Boone?  What should I do?”

            “Guard my home,” she answered without hesitation.  “Keep the children safe.  Tell Dan….  Tell Dan I love him.”

            Merle held her gaze for a moment and then nodded her head.  “This battle is yours, Jean Paul.  But the war will be mine!

            Jean Paul saluted with the pistol even as he pulled Becky back and directed her into the trees. 

            “C’est guerre!  We shall see.”

 

                                                    ###    

           

            Henry Abington glanced at his companion as the sick man leaned into his strength and they made their way through the woods toward the Boone cabin.  He had ordered General Lafayette to remain still and Lafayette – being a general – had promptly countermanded his order.  Henry had then tried to invoke his power as attending physician, but with no one to back him up that had gotten him about as far as one could make it upriver without an oar.

            In other words, nowhere.

            In a last desperate attempt Henry had invoked His Excellency’s name, insisting that General Washington would not want Lafayette to risk his life.  All that had earned him was the chilly silence in which they had traveled ever since.

            From the map Mingo had drawn for him, Henry guessed they were about two hours from the Boone’s cabin – though traveling as slow as they were might turn it into three.  Not only was the general suffering from the pain that had occurred when he wrenched his knee in the fall – and the close shot to his head – Lafayette was still not entirely recovered from the fever he had suffered before the Kentucky journey had begun – a fever which had almost taken his life.

            To put it bluntly General Lafayette was not well – but what he was, was determined.  

            “Sir?” Henry tried again.  “Sir, you really should rest.”

            “Jean Paul Devereux will not rest,” Lafayette answered through gritted teeth.

            “No, sir.  He will not.”  Henry drew a deep breath.  “But then neither will he die from stubbornly refusing to take care of himself.  General Lafayette, you must rest!”

            Lafayette met his stare.  The continuous pain of the forced march they were making had rendered his brown eyes several shades less defiant than before.  “There is no time, Henry,” he said, his voice a ragged whisper.  “The man is a demon.  We must get to the Boone cabin and – ”

            “Begging your pardon – and what, sir?  Determination will only get you so far.  You can barely keep your feet!”

            Lafayette halted.  He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “I know.  I know.”  A shadow of his usual dimpled grin lit his weary face.  “It is not in me to admit defeat, Henry – even when it is staring me in the face.”

             “Defeat?  No, sir.  This is not ‘defeat’, but an…orderly retreat to a place of safety where one can regroup and gather strength for the greater battle ahead.”  Henry took the general’s arm and gently lowered him to the ground.  The fire in Lafayette’s flesh was startling.  He had no idea how the Frenchman had remained on his feet this long.  Well, yes, he did –

            Lafayette was stubborn as the proverbial mule!

            “I will brew you some tea or perhaps an herbal broth for strength.  Then you can sleep.  I’ll wake you in and hour or two, sir, and then we can move on.”  Henry glanced at the sky.  The sun was just past noon.  “As you know, it is not wise to mount an attack in the daylight in any case.  We should wait until dark.”

            Lafayette shook his head.  “If that man is at the Boone’s, that may be too late.”  He shivered and pulled the gray coat he wore close about his throat.  “But I could sleep for an hour or two, I suppose….”

            Henry regretted that he had so few provisions.  Mingo had given him a knapsack with a small assortment of items, but he had no blanket or extra clothes, nothing to cover the general with to shield his weakened frame from the chill wind.  He started to remove his own coat, but Lafayette would have none of it and ordered him to put it back on.  Then the general lay on the snow-covered ground and immediately fell asleep.

            Henry watched him for a moment and then took his coat off anyhow and used it to blanket the general’s prone form.  He knelt beside him and placed a hand on his chest.  Through the tips of his fingers he could feel the sick man’s rapidly beating heart.  Rising, Henry glanced from side to side seeking something he could use to build some kind of temporary shelter.  To his left the trees that skirted the small glen suddenly shivered, sending a fall of snow from their lowest branches to the forest floor.  A large, lean caramel-colored animal appeared and, stepping over it, bounded to their side.

            “Renee!” Henry declared happily, remembering the name Lafayette had given the wolf.  “Tell me, where have you been?”

            Renee growled low in his throat as he approached.  Halting he dropped a fat chicken at Henry’s feet.

            Henry reached down and picked up the fowl.  It’s throat was torn out.

            "Then again,” he said with a slight frown, “don’t tell me.  We’ll just consider this chicken’s life…donated to the Cause.”  As Henry shifted and dropped his knapsack on the ground, the wolf came to his side and pressed against his free hand, as though seeking a caress.  “Good…boy,” Henry said as he patted its head.  “That’s a good boy.”

            A few minutes later he had a fire going, built low and close to the ground.  Then he skinned the chicken and cut it up as best he could with the small knife he had found in the sack.  As he worked, his eyes flicked occasionally to Lafayette.  The sick man had not stirred, but slept as one of the dead.  Henry tossed the chicken in the pot Mingo had also provided, and then gathered up some of the snow and added it, stirring it until it melted and turned to broth.  He turned to the knapsack for some medicinal herbs to add, only to remember – this wasn’t his sack.  It was unlikely Mingo had provided him with any remedies.

            He checked first, but finding he lacked what he needed, Henry rose to his feet.  As Renee whined, he patted the tame animal on the head.  The wolf acknowledged the caress, and then returned its chin to Lafayette’s hip where it had rested ever since the its return.  Henry watched the two of them for a moment and then nodded.

He felt free to go, knowing the general was in such capable…paws.

            Moving through the snow-covered forest, Henry paused every few yards to brush aside the freshly-fallen snow and check what lay beneath.  Some of the plants he needed he would find under it – naturally freeze dried.  If he could just increase the general’s strength enough to get him to the Boone’s home – then he could look after him properly there.

            Provided, of course, that this Jean Paul Devereux had not beaten them there and held the Boones as prisoners.

            “Aha!”  Henry said as he spotted some stinging nettle.  Its leaves added to the broth would provide the general with an energizing infusion.  He knelt and took his pen-knife from his pocket and carefully began to prune it, but stopped abruptly when he heard a wolf’s warning howl.  Leaping to his feet, Henry turned with the plant in hand, and listened.  Then he ran back toward their makeshift camp as fast as his legs could carry him.

            It was Renee!  The general was in danger!

            “Renee!  Renee?  What is it?” Henry puffed as he broke through the trees. 

            The wolf stood guard over the general’s prone form, his forelegs locked in a defensive stance.  From Renee’s open mouth saliva dripped as he snarled and snapped at a trio of men who had surrounded Lafayette as he slept. 

            Henry’s heart hammered in his chest.  Three men!  Whatever was he going to do?

            The tallest of the men shifted and turned toward him, pushing his coonskin cap back on his head.  “Well, now,” he drawled in a Kentucky accent, “if that don’t beat all.  If I hadn’t just met Ben Franklin back in Philadelphia I might’ a thought he’d come to call….”

            Another of the men – a tall blond in a simple linen shirt and brown pants with boots – pivoted sharply.  “Henry!” Jeremy Larkin proclaimed with a grin as he recognized his friend.

            “J-Jeremy!” Henry stuttered, suddenly recognizing the black man who flanked him as well.  “Isak.  And Mr. Boone, I presume.  Thank Providence you found us!”  Henry turned to the wolf.  “Renee, these are our friends,” he assured him.  “It is all right.”  As the wolf calmed and backed away from Lafayette, Henry – abruptly freed from his unwanted position of chief protector – grew light-headed.  He stumbled and almost fell.

            As Jeremy caught him he noticed the plant still clutched in his hand.  “Stinging nettle?” he asked.

            Henry nodded weakly.

            “Isak,” Jeremy said, calling their friend.

            “Yes, Jeremy?” Isak asked as he came alongside them.

            “If you would be so kind as to escort Henry to General Lafayette’s side,” Jeremy said with a worried smile, “I will finish the soup.  It looks like both our friends can use a cup of strength.”

              

                                                                ###

 

            “So Mingo and my old friend Boggs went to Chota?” Daniel Boone asked Henry as he took a seat beside the fire. 

            The young man with brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses nodded his head.  Henry and his friend, Isak, were sitting by the fire, sharing what was left of the chicken soup.  General Lafayette was still sleeping, though more naturally than before.  At the moment Jeremy was seeing to him.

            “That was where they were headed when I left them,” Henry answered.  “We found a note in your cabin that led us to believe the general and your wife and children had gone there.  Apparently, we were right.  They were headed that way.  General Lafayette told me so.”

            “But Is’rul’s runnin’ off put an end to that.”

            Henry nodded.  “Yes.  The general tracked your son down, but was injured in rescuing him.  And then this man – ”

            “Jean Paul Devereux?” Jeremy asked, taking a seat beside him.

            “How’s the young’un?” Daniel Boone asked, meaning the general.

            Henry watched his friend swallow his smile.  To them Lafayette was older – wiser.  But to Daniel Boone he, like the rest of them, he was barely more than a boy. 

            “Resting,” Jeremy replied with a backward glance over his shoulder at the sleeping man.  “But we need to get him to shelter – and safety.”

            As the tall frontiersman nodded, Henry answered his earlier question.  “Jean Paul Devereux.  Yes.  A demon from what the general says.  He took your son, left the general for dead, and headed for your home.  I am sorry, Mr. Boone.”

            “Just ‘Daniel’, Henry,” Dan answered as he tossed the last of his soup on the ground.  “If this man – if Devereux bothered to take Is’rul with him, then the boy’s most likely safe for the time bein’ – so long as the Frenchman has a use for him.  It’s Becky and ‘Mima I’m worried about.”

            “You are afraid he will accost them?” Henry asked.

            Daniel’s smile was chagrinned.  “I’m afraid that wildcat wife of mine may accost him.  Becky can be mighty feisty, and fierce as a cougar if she thinks her young’uns are in danger.  I love her for it.”  Daniel Boone’s aspect darkened.  “But there’s others wouldn’t cotton to it like I do.”

            Henry glanced at Jeremy.  In other words, Daniel feared Jean Paul would silence Rebecca Boone.

            Forever.

            “What can we do?” he asked.  “With the general impaired….”

            “I think you should remain here, with him, Henry,” Jeremy said.  “Daniel and I can go to the cabin and confront this man, Devereux.”

            “But General Lafayette needs warmth, and shelter!  Jeremy, he should never have been moved, but there was nothing I could say would make him stay put!  I tell you, if the Cause has need of Lafayette, then Lafayette has need of us now.  We cannot allow him to remain in the open like this.”

            “Henry’s right,” Daniel said, rising to his feet.  “We’ll have to take him with us.”

            “But how?” Jeremy asked.

            Daniel Boone walked to a nearby tree.  He shook one of the lower branches free of snow and tested it for strength.  “You boys have any experience buildin’ a litter strong enough to carry a man?”

            An hour later with Renee, Merle’s wolfen brother at their side, the quartet began their journey, dragging the litter that held the feverish Lafayette slowly over the snow-covered ground, heading for the Boone’s cabin and whatever awaited them there.

 

                                                    ###

   

            It wasn’t what they expected.

            Daniel Boone put his hand out to stop Jeremy Larkin from stepping into the clearing where the cabin lay.  It was late afternoon.  A steady north wind was blowing, and pendulous clouds filled the horizon, promising a heavy snowfall before the end of the day.  The sun’s face was masked and the porch that fronted his home was a nest of shadows in which anything could hide.  There was no way of knowing whether that nest was empty – or if something awaited them there.

            Like their deaths.

            “What is it, Daniel?” Jeremy asked as he moved back into the cover of the leaves.

            “Somethin’s not right.”

            “Something?” Henry Abington asked, shivering with the cold.  “Could you be more specific?”

             Dan pursed his lips and shook his head.  “Nope.”

            “Oh.  Well then….” 

            Jeremy laughed, but sobered quickly.  “Perhaps we should mount an assault from two sides at once?”

            The frontiersman shook his head again.  “I don’t think so.  I think there’s a better way.”

            “And that would be?” he asked.

            Dan shifted and inclined his head toward Lafayette’s litter.  By the end of the journey the young general had lapsed into a comatose state.  The ailing Frenchman lay now, off to one side, with his hand draped over the wolf, Renee’s, light brown head.  Dan watched Jeremy Larkin’s eyes narrow at the sight, and then widen with understanding. 

           “Renee!” Jeremy said.

            Dan nodded.  “Might take a beast to catch the Beast, don’t you think?”

            Several minutes later the trio waited, hugging the shadows, as the lone wolf approached the shadowed porch.  Renee seemed to have no problem comprehending their instructions.  Dan imagined that came from its close association with the woman, Merle, that Henry had mentioned.  It seemed the Frenchwoman ran with the pack like she was one of them.  That hadn’t really surprised him.  It wasn’t anything he hadn’t heard of before.  There had always been stories among the Indians – even the settlers – of children taken and raised by wolves as one of their own.

            Dan shifted and leaned his weight on his rifle as the animal reached the cabin.  Renee hesitated at the bottom of the steps and then lifted his head and howled.  As they tensed, waiting to see what would happen, shadows within the shadows of the porch stirred and at least a half dozen smoke-gray and jet-black animals appeared.  Abandoning the wooden boards they came to Renee’s side.  As they moved the door to the cabin opened a crack and the end of a long rifle appeared, clutched tightly in a pale white hand.

            “Who is it?” a very young voice demanded, doing its best to sound full grown.

            Dan recognized it.  He stood up and moved into the open where the meager daylight could strike him.  “’Mima?  Is that you?”

            The white hand disappeared and the door was flung open.  “Pa?  Pa!

            Jemima ran down the steps, through the pack of milling wolves, and into his arms.  As Dan caught his sobbing daughter another woman emerged from the cabin’s interior.  She was slender, with blond hair.  She had a kind of wild look, like a thing untamed, and was dressed in men’s clothes.

            This must be Merle.

            Dan hugged his daughter and kissed her hair and soothed her, stroking it.  “Hush, darlin’.  Hush.  I’m here.”

            “He’s got Ma!  Pa, that man!  That awful man!  He took her so Merle wouldn’t set the wolves on him!”  Jemima drew a breath.  Tears streaked down her face.  “I’m afraid he’ll kill her!”

            “Not yet, ‘Mima.  Not ‘til he has what he wants.”  Dan hugged his girl and then held her out at arm’s length.  “You all right?”  As she sniffed and nodded, he finished, “And how’s your brother?”

            “He’s still sleeping, Pa, but he woke up before and took some food.  And talked to me.”  As she spoke, Jeremy and Henry emerged from the trees, pulling the litter that held Lafayette behind them.  When Jemima saw them she exclaimed, “Gosh, Pa!  What happened?”

            “Jean Paul Devereux,” Dan answered, his jaw taut.  “ ‘Mima, I need you to take Lafayette inside.  Henry’s gonna stay with you.  He knows somethin’ about doctorin’.  He can take care of the general.  Jeremy, Isak and I have to go.”

            Her voice was small.  “Where you gonna go, Pa?”

            Dan brushed her light brown bangs back with his thumb and then kissed the space he’d cleared.  “To find your Ma and bring her home.”

            Jemima nodded.  “Be careful, Pa.  He’s real mean.”  His daughter’s eyes flicked to the young man from Chester who stood beside him.  “And you be careful too, Jeremy Larkin.  That Elizabeth of yours will be wanting you to come back.”

            Jeremy smiled.  “I will.  Take care of the general, Jemima.  We need him.”

            She accepted one handle of the litter from him.  “You bet!”

            As Jemima and Henry approached the house, dragging the general after them, Merle left the porch and came to stand by them.  Up until that moment she had watched and listened, but said nothing.

“Messier Boone,” she said with a nod of her head.    

            Dan held out his hand.  “Thanks for watchin’ out for my family – you and your friends.”

            She glanced at the wolves that flanked her and then took it.  After returning his shake, she quickly pulled away.  Without preamble she said, “Jean Paul is mine.”

            Dan tipped his cap back and leaned on his rifle.  “Well, Ma’am, I hate to disagree with you, but I think I got a stake in this since he took off with my wife.”

            “I will not let him hurt Mrs. Boone.”

            “Now, *there* we agree.  I don’t aim to let him hurt her either.”  Dan shifted and continued with a frown, “But I also don’t aim to let you tear the man apart without first havin’ him face what he’s done in a court.  I imagine His Majesty and the British army would like a good size piece of Jean Paul Devereux as well.”

            “I do not care.  He is a dead man.”

            As Dan hefted his rifle, Ticklicker, and cradled her in the crook of his arm, he said, “Seems to me like we got us what’s called an ‘impasse’ then.  I ain’t about to let you go without me, and it seems you’re bound and determined that’s just what you’re goin’ to do.”

            In answer Merle took a step back and was suddenly afloat in a sea of black and gray fur; surrounded by the wolf pack.  A smug smile lit her soiled face.  “And do you really think you can stop me – and mine – Messier Boone?”

            Dan glanced at Jeremy and Isak who came to his side.  “And just how many men are you willin’ to rip apart, Merle?  Me?  Isak?  Jeremy here?”  He met her defiant stare.  “I thought you said this ‘Jean Paul’ was the beast.  Sounds to me like you’re ‘bout the same – bein’ willin’ to kill innocent men.”

            Merle remained silent for some time.  Then she asked softly, “What is it you want me to do?”

            “Go with us.  Help us find him and bring him to justice.  There’s more people hurtin’ than just you, Merle.  Dozens of men and women whose lives have been changed, whose wives and husbands, whose children have died.  And besides, you and yours might need some protection too.”  Dan nodded toward the wolves.  “There’s folks around here who think these animals are those doin’ the killin’.  There’s no tellin’ who’ll be out huntin’ them, and who might take a pot shot at you.”

            “I can take care of myself.”

            “But can you take care of all of them.”  He pointed at the wolves.  “Well?” 

            Her chin dropped to her chest.  “No.”

            Dan turned to Jeremy and Isak.  “Let’s go inside,” he said as he started up the steps.  All of us.  We need to freshen our packs, and before I leave I want to make sure Is’rul’s all right.  Merle?”  The woman had not moved.  “You comin’?”

            “I will stay here with my brothers and sisters,” she said as she knelt and circled one of the wolf’s necks with her arms.

            Dan frowned.  “It ain’t like I don’t trust you.  But, I got your word you won’t take off without us?”

            “My word as a woman,” Merle answered as she buried her face in the wolf’s fur.

            He watched her a moment and then nodded.  “Good enough.  We’ll be back in a half hour or so.”

            Her word as a woman.

            But not as a wolf.

            Half an hour later when he, Jeremy and Isak emerged from the cabin, Merle was gone.