The Beast by Marla F. Fair

         Chapter One

 

 

“Ma.  Ma, come here….”

Becky Boone wiped her face free of flour with the back of her hand and then wiped her hand clean on the apron tied around her waist.  She blew a lock of copper hair out of her eyes and turned toward her son who had opened the door to their cabin.  So far it had been a mild winter, the sun was shining and it felt like a bright spring day.  Dan and Mingo were due back from a weeklong hunting trip about supper time, and Jemima had decided that – for the moment – she was not getting married…ever…which put an end to her flirtations with Jericho Jones.

What could possibly go wrong?

“Israel, what is it?” she asked, turning.

The small white-haired boy’s blue eyes were bright as the day and big as she had ever seen them.  “You gotta come look, Ma.  There’s soldiers comin’ down the path.”

Soldiers?  Instantly Becky’s assessment of the day changed.  The last time they had been visited by ‘soldiers’ the Governor General of Virginia had walked into the house and tried to make her betray her husband by talking Dan out of staying in Boonesborough, the settlement he had founded.  And the time before that someone in Boonesborough had been shot.  And the time before that….

Becky hurried to the door.  “Israel, come away.”

“But Ma….”

“Now, young man!”  As her son reluctantly moved away, she took his place and peered down the path that led to the house, expecting to see a contingent of Redcoats marching toward them with bayonets drawn.

Instead she saw two forlorn-looking figures, only one of which was in uniform – and it was not red, but blue and buff.  The colors of the Continental Army.

“Israel!  Why didn’t you tell me they were Americans?”

The little boy looked at her oddly.  “Gosh, Ma!  You didn’t ask.”

Chagrinned, Becky admitted, “No.  I didn’t.”  She frowned as she watched the men draw close to the house.  One was in uniform.  The other was dressed as a frontiersman.  They were both tall and appeared to be fairly young, though it was hard to tell with the sun blazing and blinding her eyes.  As they drew near, that mid-afternoon light struck the shoulders of the man in the lead, glinting off golden epaulets.  “What in the world?” she whispered.

“What, Ma?  What is it?”

She took Israel’s shoulders and pointed him in the direction of the loft.  “Get upstairs, young man.  Now.”

“Why?  They’re Americans.  You said so.”

“What did your father say about arguing with your elders?”  Becky scooted him toward the ladder. 

“Don’t,” the little boy answered with a roll of his eyes.

“If everything is all right, I’ll call you back down.  For now, just do as I say.”

Israel complained, but he also complied.  “Aw, Ma!  I don’t get to have no fun.”

“ ‘Any’ fun,” she corrected as she shooed him up the ladder.  At that moment, the expected knock came.

As Israel lingered at the top of the ladder, peering down, Becky straightened her hair and went to the door.  Though it was open, the soldier had not entered but waited on the porch.  “Yes?” she asked, shielding her eyes.  “May I help you?”

The man in uniform greeted her.  “Mrs. Boone, I presume?”

She didn’t know him.  By his uniform he was a general of some sort – a major-general, she thought, though her knowledge of uniforms and epaulets was minimal at best.  He was tall and blond and good-looking, and appeared to be no more than twenty at most.  “Yes, Rebecca Boone.  That’s me.”

The blond man looked at his companion who nodded and said softly, “Oui, c’est elle.  Demandez-lui si elle est seule.”

So, the other man was French.  That surprised her, though she knew there were Frenchmen serving in the Continental Army – but mostly as officers. 

“Are you alone, Madame?”

Becky hesitated.  For all she knew these two could have waylaid some soldier and stolen his clothes.  They could be brigands or thieves.  “Who wants to know?” she answered boldly.

The tall blond man grinned.  His smile was so engaging she almost gave in.  How could someone who appeared so genial possibly pose a threat?  But life on the frontier had taught her that appearances could be deceiving – often were in fact. 

“You must excuse my…rudeness, Madame.  We have come a long way, through more dangers than I care to explain.  My…companion and I have been separated from the rest of our party.”  He glanced over his shoulder.  “There are Redcoats abroad and we are in need of shelter.  I merely wished to make certain that you and your household had not been…compromised.”

She studied him for a moment.  He seemed to be telling the truth.  Looking at them more closely, she noticed both men were covered in mud.  And more than that, there were blood stains as well as powder burns on their clothes.  The young man in the hunter’s frock looked like he was close to collapsing.  He was leaning on the porch rail now, breathing heavily.

Still, she was wary of inviting two armed strangers into her home.  There was Israel to think about.  And Jemima, who was due to return any minute. 

                “Jeremy, dites-lui ce que je vous ai dit, au sujet de la Nouvelle-Orleans,” the Frenchman said quietly.

            “Is that wise, sir?” ‘Jeremy’ asked, and then he winced.

            Becky looked from one to the other.  So the frontiersman was a sir?  There was something going on here – something more than two weary men in need of a rest. 

“What about New Orleans?” she asked.

            The blond was still frowning, apparently afraid he had given something away.   He dropped his voice before he replied.  “My companion wishes me to remind you of an incident that happened there.  And of an invitation you extended to him.”

            Becky’s blue eyes narrowed.  She looked from the young man in the general’s uniform to the lean, dark-haired man standing behind him.  The sun still eclipsed the frontiersman’s face, but there was something vaguely familiar about the way he held himself – as if he was someone.

            “An invitation?”

            Jeremy hesitated, glancing about.  “It would be best if we concluded this conversation inside the cabin, Mrs. Boone.”

            Dites-lui qu'elle semble belle en soie verte,” the other man added, “et cela

 

j'attends toujours cette danse.”

            “My friend says to add that you look lovely in green silk, and he is still awaiting the dance you promised him.”

            Becky’s frown fled.  Her blue eyes went wide and she gasped. 

            “Mrs. Boone, please.  Remain calm,” the blond whispered under his breath.

            “You must both be weary,” she said, not shouting but speaking so she could be heard.  She didn’t know by who.  “Any soldier in General Washington’s army is most welcome here.  Please, come in.”

            The young man, Jeremy, drew a deep breath and then nodded.  “Michel,” he turned and spoke to his companion.  “Come with me.”

            Becky moved aside to allow them access.  As she closed the door, she kept her eyes trained on the trees that lined the path to their house, sensing that these two men were being followed.  She couldn’t be certain, but she thought she saw movement there – and perhaps a flash of red.

            Once inside Jeremy ordered, “Put the bar in place!”  Then he moved to the other man’s side and supported him.  “Please, Mrs. Boone.  General Lafayette needs your help!”

            “Then I was right,” Becky said.  She took the Marquis’ arm and helped the man wearing the uniform direct him toward the chair before the fire.  Jeremy helped him to sit and then removed the felt hat the Marquis wore and touched his forehead.  He looked up at her and shook his head.  “We were ill-advised to come here.  The fever has returned.  And our physician is lost in the wood.”  Jeremy stripped impatiently out of the officer’s coat he wore and tossed it across the back of the chair.  Then he took the Marquis’ wrist in his hand to check his pulse.  His diligent care was rewarded with a slight smile.

“Sir?  How are you?” he asked.

            “Je suis très bien.  Mrs. Boone,” the Marquis de Lafayette said, addressing her at last, “I regret that we meet again under such circumstances.”

            “Ma?” a small voice called from the loft.  “Can I come down now?”

            Both men turned and looked up.  Israel was hanging half way out of the opening in the ceiling, staring at them.

“Are there just the two of you within the cabin?” Jeremy asked, moving to the window and shifting the curtain to look out.

She nodded.  “Jemima is due back any time.  That’s my daughter.  Dan should be here tonight, about suppertime.  Did you come to see him?”

Ma!”

She waved to her son.  “Come down, Israel, but keep quiet.”

The Marquis’ smile was still in place, but his words were weary and carried a certain amount of guilt for the jeopardy it seemed he had placed his friends in.  “We came, Madame – a party of five –  on a foolish whim of a very foolish Frenchman who had a great desire to see his friend, Daniel Boone, before sailing back to France.”  Lafayette leaned his head back and closed his eyes.  “Now, I think, I shall see neither.”

“Has something happened to Dan?” Becky asked as her son came alongside her.

Jeremy answered, “We hope not, Mrs. Boone.  But somehow word of the Marquis traveling to these parts seems to have been leaked.  There are patrols everywhere.  I fear your husband will have a hard time reaching here unmolested – as you can see, we did not fair so well.”

“Ma?  Will Pa be all right?  What’re they talking about?”

She could hear the fear in her son’s voice.  He could probably sense the same thing in hers.  “Dan will find his way back,” she said with forced confidence, “he and Mingo have made it through worse before.”

“Mingo?” Jeremy asked, returning to the Marquis’ side.

“He’s Pa’s best friend.  Mingo’s a Cherokee warrior,” Israel informed them proudly.

“A sauvage?” Lafayette asked, rousing.

“Mingo ain’t no savage!” Israel declared.  “And I’ll pound you if’n you say he is!”

“Israel!” his mother declared

The Marquis smiled at her.  “It is all right, Madame Boone.  Your small son reminds me of…someone…I knew long ago.”  Then he turned to the boy.  “Israel, is it not?”

Israel nodded, still wary.

“I apologize if I have offended you.  Where I come from, I was called a ‘sauvage’.  I meant no disrespect to your friend.”

 Israel held the nobleman’s gaze for several seconds before lowering his eyes.  “Well, in that case….”

A sudden pounding on the door made them all jump.  As Becky headed for it, Jeremy pulled his pistol from his waist and cocking the hammer, took a place to its side.  Lafayette rose shakily to his feet to protest, “Jeremy, no!  I will not put a woman and a child in danger.  If they have come for me, I will go”

“But General!”

“It’s all right,” Becky said, peering out the window.  “It’s Jemima.”

“Is she alone?” Jeremy asked.

“Do you want me to ask her?”

“No,” Jeremy shook his head. “That would seem suspicious.”  He returned to the Marquis’ side.  “We will trust to Providence.  It has brought us this far.”

Becky nodded, lifted the bar, and held her breath as she opened the door.  Jemima was standing alone on the porch looking very puzzled.  “Ma?  Is there trouble?” she asked.  “I saw Redcoats at the fort and on the way here.  What’s going on?”

Becky ushered her in and then barred the door behind her.  About ten paces into the house her sixteen year old daughter noticed they were not alone.  She saw the uniform, and then the two young men near the fire.  If possible, Jemima’s eyes grew even bigger and rounder than her brother’s had. 

“Gosh, Ma,” she asked softly, “who are they?”

The blond inclined his head and executed a short bow.  “Jeremy Larkin of Chester, Pennsylvania, Miss Boone.  And this is – ”

The Marquis crossed to where the stunned Jemima stood.  He took her hand.  “Je suis appelé, the Marquis de Lafayette,” he said, and then he kissed her hand.

            Becky rested a fist on her hip and sighed.

            She bet the girl never washed that hand again.

            An hour later Jeremy Larkin joined them in the kitchen.  Jemima was busy peeling potatoes by the fire and Israel was playing in the loft.  She had told the young man to place the Marquis…the General in their spare room, and to draw the curtain so he could have some privacy.  It appeared Jeremy finally had him settled.

Becky still remembered the first time she had seen the young Frenchman – in New Orleans – in full dress uniform with a powdered white wig.  He had appeared very much the romantic ‘gallant’.  But appearances could be deceiving and she soon found out that he was made of stern ‘stuff’ – when he saved her husband’s life.  To her, he would always be ‘the Marquis’.  But Jeremy had explained that when Lafayette came to America he had left the French aristocrat behind, and now called himself an ‘American’.  Lafayette had no time for titles that were meant to put one man above another.

            No wonder she had liked him so much.

            “How is he?” she asked, offering Jeremy a mug of cider.

            “Resting.”  He took a seat at the table at her nod and placed the cider on the wooden surface and stared at it.  “He has been very ill.  They despaired for his life.  Even General Washington.”

            “What happened?” she asked, sitting as well.

            “Too much intrigue and distress, bickering and in-fighting as men are prone to.  Rochambeau.  Washington.  The French.  The Americans.”  Jeremy smiled grimly.  “Being a go-between would wear anyone out, but the general….  Well, he takes everything to heart.”  He sat back and took a sip of the cider.  “He was going home, but took ill in New York.  The fever was severe.  General Washington rode to the place where he lay every day.  Even sent his own physician to look after him.”

            “But he is better now?”

            Jeremy looked toward the curtain.  “He was.  It was decided that he would return to Boston and leave for France from there, but certain intelligence reached us indicating there was a plot to take him.  It was decided he must go somewhere for a time and lay low.  Somewhere far away from the war….”

            Becky rose.  She held her hand out for his mug.  “Well, Boonesborough is certainly that.”

            He nodded his thanks as she refilled it and handed it to him once again.  “The general was quite impressed with you and your husband,” Jeremy said with a smile.  “It took, well, General Lafayette’s usual powers of persuasion to wring permission out of General Washington, but he did.  And here we are.”

            “You don’t sound too happy about it.”

            “Traveling in winter time?  Leaving home and those I love far behind?  No, that does not make me happy.  And I must admit, this is the first time I have been this far away from…civilization.”  Jeremy finished the cider and shook his head ‘no’ when she asked if he wanted more.  “General Lafayette grew up in such a wilderness, with few companions other than his imagination and the wild animals of the forest.  I,” he laughed and grinned widely, “I must sadly, and with shame, admit that I am a ‘city’ boy.”

            “You said there were others with you?  Are they from the city as well?”

            Jeremy nodded and looked worried.  “Sergeant Boggs, the general’s aide, would be content to sleep in a fox hole and pull the grass in after him for a blanket.  But Henry and Isak?  Well, Isak might consider it a challenge and look for what good he could find.”  The frown turned to an affectionate smile.  “But Henry?  I imagine I will hear about it when we meet up with them again.  If we meet up again….”

            “What do you think the Redcoat presence means?  Do they truly know the Marquis – the general is here?  You said it ‘seemed’ word had been leaked.”

            “We don’t know and that is the problem.  I am of the opinion that they do, though the general thinks I am being overly cautious.  We were traveling on the road when a British patrol approached.  We greeted them and spoke a few words and they left.  Then, as we continued on, we heard horses approaching.  They had turned and followed us.”  Jeremy drew a breath, as if the vision of it still haunted him.  “We left the road and that is when we became separated.  I was near the general.  Henry, Isak and Boggs were on the other side of what turned out to be a quagmire.  The horse the general was riding was caught in the quicksand and threw him.  I helped him to his feet and it was then I knew.”

            “Knew?”

            “There was no pursuit of the others.  The patrol came directly after us.”  He rose and walked to the window and looked out again.  “We managed to get away because we were on our feet.  The British refused to abandon their animals until it was too late.  Some were caught in the bog.  We slipped into the trees and were gone.”

            “And came here?”

            “Yes.  Sergeant Boggs actually knows your husband.  I believe they served in the last war together.  He knew the way and had given each of us a map.”  Jeremy let loose the curtain and came back to her side.  “I pray that will lead them all to your door as well.”

            “When Dan comes back, he and Mingo will help to find the others,” she said.

            “You sound very sure.”

            Becky rose.  “That’s because I am.  And because I know Daniel Boone.”

            “Ma?”  Jemima had finished peeling the potatoes.  She came up to them, but kept her eyes averted from the young man.  Jemima was clearly attracted to Jeremy.  “You want me to start cooking these?”

            Becky nodded.  Then she added, “Is Israel still in the loft?”

“Yes.  Do you want me to call him?”

            “No,” Becky said, thinking better of it.  “I was going to send him for some water, but with all this trouble….”

            “Allow me to go, Mrs. Boone,” Jeremy offered.  “Jemima, could you show me where the bucket is?”

            She thought the girl was going to faint.  “Sure!” Jemima said, leading him to the door and handing him the bucket.  Then she turned back.  “Can I show Jeremy to the well, Ma?”

            Becky wanted to laugh, but didn’t.  Jericho Jones’ ego would be quite deflated to see just how quickly he was forgotten.  How fickle the heart of a young girl was!  “Since you have an escort.  Go ahead.”

            “Thanks, Ma!”

            Jeremy smiled at Becky and then opened the door and let Jemima lead him out.

            Becky went back to her supper preparations, but it wasn’t more than five minutes before a soft accented voice called to her from close by. 

“Mrs. Boone?”

            She turned to find General Lafayette standing, one hand drawing back the curtain that separated the rooms.

            “General, you need to be resting!”

            “Gilbert, please,” he begged as he came into the room.  “Sometimes I begin to think my name is ‘general’.”   And then he smiled at her – a wonderful, genuine, deeply dimpled smile.

            Becky wondered just what her daughter’s criteria was.  She shook her head.  It must have something to do with the blond hair.

            “What can I do for you, Gilbert?” she asked.

            “A drink, Madame Boone.  A seat, and some company.”

            “Becky,” she insisted.

            He smiled again.  “Becky.”

            “Please come and sit.”  She pulled one of the kitchen chairs out and then went to bring him some cider.  As he sat, she handed it to him and then returned to her seat across the table.  Becky studied him a moment and then she said softly, “Pardon me, Gilbert, for saying so, but you look like a boy a long way from home.”

            He laughed.  Boy.  Lord Cornwallis’ name for the French upstart.  But in some ways, Madame, you are right.  I feel very young at the moment.  I miss my home.  My family.  I have not seen my wife in nearly two years, and I have a child I have never seen.”  He fell quiet, turning the mug in his hands.  “And another who has been buried since I have been gone.”

            It might have been improper, but she reached out and took his hand.  “I am sure your wife understands.”

            He brightened a bit.  “She does.  And that makes me miss her the more.”  As Becky released his hand, he went on, “I should have been home by now, but this sickness….”

            “And now you are stranded in the wilderness of Kentucky!  Life does play strange tricks on us.  But I am sure there is something here for you.  Something that has brought you here.”

            “Providence?” he asked with a smile.

            She nodded.  Then, with a glance at the door she rose.

            “Is something wrong, Becky?”

            “Jemima and Jeremy.  I sent them for water. I would have thought they would have returned by now.  I had better check.”

            He rose as well.  “Did Jeremy take his pistol?”

            Becky felt a shiver snake down her spine.  “I don’t know.”

            “Let me go….”

            “No.  If there is anything wrong, it will seem normal that I am seeking my child.  I’m sure it’s nothing.”

            But she wasn’t sure. 

            Becky approached the door with trepidation.  She lifted the latch and stepped out onto the porch.  Jeremy and Jemima were standing by the well speaking with someone.  Becky’s hand went to her heart.  He was wearing a red coat!

            And then a pair of arms circled her waist, lifted her from the porch floor,  and spun her around.

            “Miss me, darlin’?” a familiar ornery voice queried.

            “You!”  Becky formed her fingers into fists and pounded the chest of the tall, brown-haired man who held her.  “Daniel Boone!  How dare you frighten me so!”

            Dan was laughing as he sat her down.  “Who’s the young’un at the well?”

            “You tell me first.  Who’s with him?  Who is the man in the red coat?”

            “That’s Mingo.”

            Becky looked again.  The man standing at the well had short black hair and was dressed in a British uniform.  “Mingo?  Dan, what?”

            “I hear we have an important guest inside,” Dan said, growing sober.  “Seems Lafayette couldn’t have come at a worse time.”