The Beast by Marla F. Fair

Chapter Seven

 

            Lafayette opened his eyes.  Overhead the sky was streaked with a palette of pastel paint – cornflower blue, rose pink and lavender.  For a moment he couldn’t remember whether it was the dawn he was seeing or the dusky end of day.  He could smell the lingering scent of gunpowder and vaguely remembered the sound of a weapon being discharged.  Was he on a battlefield?  Had he been struck?  There was a sharp pain in his head and his left leg felt as if it was on fire.  He shifted and moaned, and then fell back to the grass.

            Where was he?

            Trying again, he succeeded in sitting up.  The world about him whirled madly for several minutes before finally settling down to a nauseating normalcy.  Lafayette glanced at the sky again and, seeing a pale moon rising, realized it was the time of candlelighting.  Night was about to fall.  With a scowl he surveyed the area around him.  All about were thick virgin woods – the trees tall and straight, each of their brown trunks broad as a ship’s mast.  It took him a moment more and then he remembered.

            He was in Kentucky.  He had been traveling with Rebecca Boone and her children, on the way to Chota, the Cherokee village.  Israel had taken off on his own to hunt the beast.  He had found him.  There had been a cliff and a fall and….

            Jean Paul Devereux! 

Devereux had shot him and abducted Israel.  The villain!

             Gritting his teeth, Lafayette shifted and rolled onto his good side and worked his way to his feet.  Favoring his wrenched knee, he stumbled over to where he could lean against the trunk of one of the soldier straight trees and then lifted a hand and touched his forehead.

            His fingers came away with crusted blood.

            Devereux had tried to kill him.  A wounded man.  That, if nothing else, confirmed that this countryman of his was without scruple – and that put not only Israel but the entire Boone family in grave danger!

            Without moving Lafayette searched the ground where he had lain with his eyes, seeking the makeshift cane Israel made for him.  As he did, he noted something curious.  Jean Paul had been wearing a black tricorn hat flapped up and secured with a cord on one side.  The hat lay on the grass as if it had been flung aside.  Perhaps it had fallen off when Devereux picked Israel up and moved on.  Still, a hat was not a thing a man surrendered easily.  Especially in the middle of the winter.

            Sucking in a breath against the pain that exploded through him when he put his weight on his wounded knee, Lafayette limped across the grassy plain and returned to the spot where he had awakened.  Without bending his leg, he dipped and caught the edge of the hat in his fingers.  And then froze in disbelief.

            His arm was encased, not in a brown frontiersman’s frock, but in an elegant coat of smoke gray cut from an expensive fabric. 

            With a frown Lafayette limped across the grass to where his kit lay open.  After gingerly lowering his body to the ground, he rummaged through it and pulled out a shiny object.  A round tin used to hold his flint and steel.  Turning the tin so it caught the retreating rays  of the sun, he examined the image reflected there.  His face was haggard, his brown eyes cradled in shadows and hollow with pain.  On his temple there was an ugly gash where Devereux’s ball had broken his skin, missing killing him by no more than a half inch.  Below the gash blood had trickled down to stain a ruffled white linen shirt.  He looked down and noted that, not only was he wearing a gentleman’s gray frock coat, but a pair of dark velvet breeches as well – and fine black leather shoes with silver buckles to boot.

            Jean Paul Devereux had switched clothes with him.

            But why?

            As Lafayette sat there, contemplating this sudden turn of events, snow began to fall.  A sharp wind arose, straight out of the north, chilling him to the bone.  Locating his makeshift cane close by his kit he gripped it, and then jammed its blunt nose into the earth.  With strength fueled mostly by a very real fear for his friends, Lafayette struggled to his feet and turned his face toward the Boone cabin.

            He couldn’t overcome Jean Paul Devereux – not physically - he knew that.  He barely had the strength to continue on and most likely would die in the attempt.

            But that was all right.

            It was a good day to die.

 

                                                                   ###

           

            “Where do you suppose Merle went, Ma?” Jemima asked as she tossed her shawl onto the bench near the table in their cabin and went to light the fire.  “Ma?”

            Her mother was standing by the table frowning.

            With flint in hand, Jemima crossed to her.  “What is it?”

            “The note I left for your father,” Becky responded.  “It’s in the same place.”

            “So Pa hasn’t been here?”

            “But I am sure I left it face up – with Dan’s name showing – and now it’s face down.  And the seal has been broken,” she said as she picked it up.

            “So where’s Pa?” Jemima asked.

            Her mother shook her head.  “Unless it wasn’t your Pa who opened it.”

            “Well, it won’t matter.  Will it?  I mean, we didn’t go to Chota.  Laf – Michel isn’t there.”

            Becky went to the door and pushed it too and then leaned on it.  “Unless he found Israel and went there to meet us.  We should send word somehow.”

            “But how?”

            Her mother sat heavily in one of the wooden chairs that butted up against the table.  “The good Lord alone knows!  I suppose we could go to the fort – send Cincinnatus or Jericho.  But then what if your Pa returned while we were gone.”

            “I could go alone Ma – ”

            “No!  This family is split enough already.  I won’t have you wandering off.  I am sure General Lafayette can look out for himself.  After all, you and I weren’t there on the battlefield to save him.”

            “He’s a good man.  I hope nothing happens to him.”

            Her mother nodded.  “The Cause needs him.  And those other brave men.”  With a wry smile, Becky finished, “You seem to have forgotten about Mr. Jeremy Larkin.”

            Jemima blushed.  “Well, I’m trying mighty hard….”

            Her mother laughed.  “Get the fire going.  I had better secure the door.”

            Just as she spoke there was a knock.  Jemima stiffened with fear as her mother placed a finger to her lips and nodded toward the shadows masking the curtained off area at the back of the room

            “Hide!” Her mother ordered as she gripped her hand and pulled her toward it.

            The light of the waning night spilled in through the open door as it slowly creaked inward revealing a tall thin man holding something.  He stood there, silhouetted in the moonlight, as if waiting for an invitation to enter.

            “Madame Boone?” he called, his voice soft, his accent French.

            Jemima started to move but her mother held her back.  Becky shook her head and her blue eyes told her to wait. 

            “Madame Boone.  Your son, he has been injured.  Madame Boone, are you here?”

            “Ma, what’s wrong?” Jemima whispered softly.  “If Israel is hurt….”

            Her mother was frowning.  “I told Gilbert to call me ‘Becky’.  Why would he say ‘Madame’?”

            As Jemima listened she heard the door close, and then the bar drop into place.  Then the man moved into the cabin.  A piece of furniture protested as it was drug across the unfinished wood floor and then, abruptly, a soft golden glow streaked the floor of the cabin’s common room.  Her mother peeked out from behind the curtain and visibly relaxed.  Jemima’s eyes followed hers.  The man was tall and had brown hair.  He wore a familiar brown suit.  As she watched he placed Israel on the table. 

            Her mother squeezed her hand.  “Come on, Jemima!”  As they abandoned their hiding place, she called out, ”Gilbert, what happened?”

            The man turned and for about ten heartbeats Jemima thought he was the Marquis.  But then the growing light of the fire he had kindled struck his face revealing a thin cruel mouth and eyes sharp and predatory as a hawk’s.

            “Ah! Madame Boone.  And Miss Boone?” the man exclaimed, moving closer.  “Allow me to introduce myself.  I am Jean Paul Devereux.  I will be your guest for the next few hours.”  The Frenchman crossed to where they stood.  He stared at her long and hard and then turned to her mother, catching her jaw between his fingers. 

            As the Frenchman turned Rebecca Boone’s head so the moonlight streaming in the cabin window struck her face, he added in a soft sinister tone, “And from the ‘look’ of things,” he said, “I think I shall enjoy my visit very much.”

 

                                                    ###

             

            Jeremy hesitated in the tall grasses, breathing hard.  He and Isak were on one side of the swampy area where their party had been overtaken earlier, Daniel Boone was on the other.  They had spilt up a few minutes before.  Boone told them to wait for his signal and so they waited.  Though when that signal came, Jeremy had no idea what they tall frontiersman expected them to do.

            Jeremy had just about become convinced that he had been wrong in his initial judgment of their situation.  The Redcoats, it seemed, had no idea General Lafayette was in the area.  But now, with the size and intensity of the pursuit, he thought he might have to reconsider reconsidering.  Sergeant Boggs and Henry Abington were hardly important enough to set a dozen and a half Lobsterbacks on their trail.

            “What do you think he has in mind?  Boone, I mean,” Isak asked, looking at him.

            Jeremy shook his head.  “Daniel knows the lay of the land better than we.  Perhaps he intends to show himself, to draw them away.”

            “That’d be a mighty dangerous thing for a man to do.”

            “Mr. Boone is a ‘mighty’ dangerous man, Isak,” Jeremy grinned.  “As we learned earlier this year, those who speak of his talents do not exaggerate.”

            “I wonder where Henry and Sergeant Boggs are now,” Isak said.

            “Safe, we can hope.  With Mingo in any case.  And I cannot think of a better man to have by your side.”

            “Jeremy!”

            Isak’s hand gripped his arm.  Jeremy looked.  Daniel Boone had appeared, sauntering out of the trees with his rifle Ticklicker resting on his shoulder, whistling a jaunty tune as if he had not a care in the world.

            “What is he doing?” Isak asked.

            Jeremy answered with a hint of a smile. 

            “Being Daniel Boone.”

 

                                                                ###

 

            Dan stopped and waited until the British soldiers noticed him.  Then when the dozen and a half Redcoats spotted him and, lifting their muskets, pointed them in chorus in his direction, he took hold of his coonskin cap and tipped it. 

            “Evenin’, gentlemen,” Dan said with a smile

            “You will put your weapon down!”  Lieutenant Justin Bigelow ordered, his tone sharp and superior. 

            Dan held his free hand up.  “Whoa there, young’un!  You mean to say you consider one lone frontiersman and one Kentucky long rifle a threat to more than a dozen Redcoats?”  His smile broadened.  That ain’t the kind of confidence that’s gonna win you the war, son.”

            Bigelow bristled.  “Nevertheless, you will drop your weapon!”

            Dan glanced at the swampy ground. He frowned as he shook his head.  “‘Fraid I can’t do that, son.  If’n I drop her, she’s gonna get wet.”

            “If you don’t drop ‘her’, sir, you are going to die!”

            “How old are you, son?”

            Lieutenant Bigelow spluttered.  “What does that have to do with anything?  And stop calling me ‘son’!”

            “I was just thinkin’ about young’uns like you – on both sides of this conflict.  How you’re all so far from home, in unfamiliar territory.  Kind of makes a man jumpy.    Skittish even, you might say.”

            “If that is right, then it would be advisable for you to obey my orders, Mr. Boone.  Would it not?  I might get ‘skittish’ and order my men to fire.”

            “Now, I’d think that through , son…  Er, lieutenant.”

            Bigelow’s face had turned scarlet as his coat.  “And why not!?”

            Dan pursed his lips.  He looked up and then down, and then around.  Finally settling on the unsettled officer again, he asked him, “Have you ever heard tell of the spirits that haunt these marshes?”

            Isak and Jeremy had been listening.  The black man looked at him with a question in his eyes.  Jeremy shrugged and shook his head.  He thought he knew where Daniel Boone was going with this and that they could trust him.  Daniel was a wise man, possessing not only more than fair fighting skills, but a liberal amount of homespun psychology.  Lieutenant Bigelow’s men were already on edge.  Frightened of the ‘Beast’. 

            And frightened men made mistakes.

            “Spirits?” Bigelow asked. 

            “Yep.  The Indians round here tell tales of the old ones – ancient Indians whose spirits inhabit the marshes.  Sometimes at night you’ll see them, floating above the water, appearin’ as balls of light, markin’ the graves of those who drowned long ago.  Sometimes you’ll even hear their voices, callin’ to you – askin’ you to join them,” Dan said, deliberately raising his voice a notch.

            Jeremy nodded to Isak who grinned with understanding.  They split up and moved in opposite directions.  Once in place they began to whistle and call, using sound but no words to mimic Daniel Boone’s ghostly spirits.

            “You hear ‘em?” Dan asked softly.  “They’re callin’ for you, Lieutenant.”

            “All I hear are your missing companions, Mr. Boone, attempting to bamboozle us.  We are his Majesty’s finest.  Do you really think you can frighten us into flight using children’s fantasies?  Hardly.”

            Dan and inclined his head in the lieutenant’s general direction.  “I think I’d ask your men about that….”

            Lieutenant Bigelow pivoted sharply.  The soldiers who flanked him were quaking, their eyes wide and their muskets shaking.  One or two had edged closer to the trees.

            “It is a charade!” the lieutenant shouted.  “Ignore him!  Advance and secure that man!”

            Jeremy and Isak continued to move from place to place, doing so rapidly enough that the sounds they made – and the echoes of the ones just past – overlapped, so that it seemed the spirit voices came from everywhere.

            Fools!  I will have you court-martialed for disobedience!  Take him!”  Lieutenant Bigelow swung in a circle, brandishing the pistol that had hung at his waist, threatening his own men.  “I order you to take Boone now!”

            At that moment, as if on cue, three balls of pale yellow light winked into existence over the surface of the swampy water and hung suspended in mid-air.  As they did, several of the soldiers with Lieutenant Bigelow broke ranks and fled into the trees.

            “Stand where you are!” the officer ordered.  The remaining men froze at his shout, but continued to shift uneasily, their eyes moving from the hanging lights to the dark haunted trees.  “If these things are the spirits of dead savages – and dangerous –

Mr. Boone, how is it you remain among them unharmed?”

            “They’re my friends.  Come to keep me safe.”

            “Balderdash!”  Lieutenant Bigelow raised his weapon and took aim at the tall frontiersman. 

            Daniel shook his head slowly from side to side.  “I wouldn’t do that if I were you, lieutenant,” he warned softly.

            Jeremy was certain now he knew where Daniel Boone was going with this.  Henry had explained it to him once –  the swamp lights were nothing supernatural, but were in fact a kind of gas.

            A highly combustible gas.

            He only hoped Isak had enough sense to duck and take cover.

            Jeremy glanced up to see that Daniel Boone had raised his hands above his head and was backing away. 

            “Boone, I order you to stand still!  Lower your weapon and remain where you are, or I will shoot!”  Lieutenant Bigelow followed Daniel as he continued to back away, and was drawn deeper and deeper into the swamp.  The officer’s black boots were all but eclipsed by the tall grasses and rising marsh gasses as he halted and raised his weapon again.  “Boone!  I mean it!” 

            Jeremy ducked and placed his fingers in his ears as Bigelow’s finger pulled the trigger.  As he did, Daniel Boone dove to the side and rolled.  The moment the frontiersman’s lanky frame disappeared into the mist the officer’s weapon discharged.  There was a flash of gunpowder – and then the marsh gas around Lieutenant Bigelow ignited, setting him aflame.

            Those men who had remained at his side, deserted him now.

            Jeremy rose to his feet and stared at the British Lieutenant who was now a writhing column of fire.  He winced as the man’s screams filled the night.  Then he saw Daniel Boone rise from the swamp floor like a pale wraith.  Boone raised his long rifle and pointed it and pulled the trigger, ending the Redcoat’s life –

            And his pain.

            Moments later he and Isak caught up with the Kentuckian.  Daniel Boone’s face was grave.  “A shame,” he said.  “He probably had a wife and a family, back in England.”

            “Aye,” Jeremy acknowledged as he watched the lieutenant’s corpse slip beneath the brackish water.  “If Henry were here, I am sure he would quote Dr. Franklin – ”

            “ ‘There never was a good war’,” Daniel said.

            Jeremy clapped his hand on the other man’s shoulder, “Or a bad peace.”

             

                                                                ###

           

            At this moment Lafayette would have traded an early end to the conflict that tore this young nation apart for the use of his leg. 

            He sat, panting, masked by the trailing branches of a massive willow tree that bordered the edge of a stream which wound through the land he walked.  It was the dead of night and by his reckoning he was probably still three to four hours from Boonesborough.  That was, he would have been if he could have traveled – and at a pace. 

            As it was he might as well have been lame.

            His knee was an angry red, swollen, and all but useless.  The fever that licked at the edge of his senses was growing, seeking to tear him down.  He closed his eyes and leaned back against the willow’s trunk and remembered the moment when he had awakened in his room at Fishkill, New York after day’s of debilitating illness, to find His Excellency, George Washington, sitting at the side of his sickbed, staring at him with fatherly concern, tears in his eyes.  

            What would Washington think now?  What would His Excellency’s reaction be to his taking the gift of God that was his life returned, and tossing it away?  Still, it was not in him to sit idly by while others made history.  He had left France to escape being pampered, but since he had become the ‘darling’ of the Revolution, it seemed as if that was all anyone and everyone wanted to do!  Everyone – Sergeant Boggs, Jeremy and the others, even Washington – all they ever did was warn him to be careful and tell him how important he was –  how he must not risk himself, how he should not put himself in danger or his life at risk.

            Life was a risk.

            Several minutes later Lafayette started and jerked awake.  He had fallen asleep without realizing it.  He opened his eyes, but then closed them quickly as a wave of nausea overtook him.  As he waited for it to pass, he focused on the sounds of the nighttime world about him.  Far off in the distance cows were mooing contentedly.  Closer by, frog song echoed from the rocks near the stream.  Above his head birds chattered, moving from branch to branch, a few calling out defiantly, staking claim to their territory and challenging any who would come to try and take it from them.  As Lafayette considered the nature of the creatures who inhabited the Creator’s vast and beautiful world, his eyes popped open.  There was one more sound….

            That of the wolf claiming its prey.

            Even as he noted the animal’s cry of longing, Lafayette felt a rush of wind and something heavy struck him, driving him to the ground.  Twin paws pressed were into his chest, and the wolf’s fetid breath assaulted his senses even as its razor sharp teeth snapped a hair’s breadth away from his face, announcing the arrival of his death.