The Beast by Marla F. Fair

Chapter Six

 

            “It doesn’t look like they’ve been here, Ma,” Jemima said.  They had reached the rendezvous point and waited for almost an hour for her brother and the French marquis to appear.  “Or like they’re coming.”

            Her mother was thinking.  She had a finger to her lips and was tapping her foot nervously.  At the sound of her daughter’s voice, Becky Boone looked up.  “I agree,” she said with a nod. 

            Jemima glanced at Merle, the strange woman in man’s clothes whom they had found in the cave.  Merle had followed them voluntarily to the hillside meeting place, but prowled restlessly, her head turning left and right, as if she was uneasy remaining in one spot for very long.  “What are we going to do with her?” she asked.

            Her mother frowned.  “Take her with us, I guess.  We can’t leave her here, poor thing.  She’s practically skin and bones.”

            “She seems kind of skittish, Ma.  What do you think she’s afraid of?”

            Becky’s frown deepened.  “I’d rather not stay around long enough to find out.  We can only assume Michel has found Israel by now.  If that’s the case, most likely they will head for the cabin.”

            “So you think we ought to go home?” Jemima asked, hopefully.

            “Yes.”  Becky turned toward the stranger and addressed her.  “Merle, we have to go now.  We want you to come with us.  To our home.”

            Merle stopped pacing and approached them.  “Home?” she echoed hollowly, as if she had no notion of the meaning of the word.

“Home – à la maison,” Jemima repeated, translating.  

            Merle shook her head.  “Je n'ai aucune maison.”

            What did she say?” her mother asked.

            Tears entered Jemima’s.  “She says she hasn’t got a home, Ma.  You suppose that’s true?”

            Becky approached the woman, her hand outstretched.  “Well, she does now.  The Bible commands us to offer shelter to the shelterless.  You can stay with us for as long as you need, Merle.  Our home is your home.”

            The woman’s ice blue eyes widened.  She reached for the silver chain encircling her throat and asked, “La Bible?”

Becky nodded.  “Yes.”

            Jemima could see it now, shining in Merle’s dark hand.  About her slender throat, the Frenchwoman wore a crucifix.

            “Did you bring a Bible with you, Jemima?” Becky asked.

            “Of course, Ma.  I thought we might be at the Cherokee village for a while.  You want me to get it?”

            “Yes.  And bring it here.  Maybe if Merle sees it, she will understand that we mean her no harm.”

            Jemima did as she was told, crossing to her pack and returning with the black leather book.  “Here, Ma,” she said, handing it to her.

            “Merle,” Becky said, holding out the precious leather tome.  “See.  The Bible.  God’s Word.  We are sisters in the cross.”

            “La croix,” Jemima translated.  “Soeurs.”

            Merle took the book.  Her filthy fingertips with their ragged nails lovingly caressed the worn black leather.  She pointed to herself, and then pointed at them.  “You believe?”

            “Yes,” Becky replied.  “Now, please, come with us.  We will give you shelter.”  Her mother paused and then added, almost to herself, “And some suitable clothes.”

            “Come with us, Merle.  Venez.  Come,” Jemima pleaded.

            Merle drew near, sniffing the air like a wary dog would, as if trying to nose out whether or not they were telling the truth.  Jemima offered her hand and, after a moment’s hesitation, Merle took it.  Then the stranger’s lips curled in imitation of Jemima’s broad smile.

            “Merci,” Merle whispered.

            Jemima nodded and then stiffened suddenly as the thick tangle of forest undergrowth behind Merle’s back shivered and parted to reveal a pair of wide-set eyes that gleamed bright as gold coins in firelight.  Terrified, she stammered something unintelligible and pointed.  Her mother turned to look just as the brush gave way and a powerful muscled form sheathed in brownish-gray fur emerged.

            “Merle.  Come here.  Now!”  Becky’s whisper was fierce.  “Jemima, tell her!  Tell her now!”

            “Merle.  Ne…ne soyez pas….”  Jemima hesitated.  What was the French word for ‘afraid’?   Unable to remember, she cried out, “Venez ici!  Maintenant!  Merle, come here!  Now!

              Merle’s ice blue eyes grew wide as the wolf growled.  Behind her it crouched, ready to spring.  The Frenchwoman pivoted and then froze as the fierce creature pushed off the earth and leapt for her throat –

Jemima screamed.  Her mother whispered a prayer.  And Merle….  Merle did a strange thing.  She shouted –

With joy.

            Jemima took hold of her mother’s arm.  “Ma?  What’s happening?”

            Becky was trembling.  “I’m not sure….”

            Even as her mother spoke the wolf struck Merle and knocked her to the ground, and then the two of them tumbled several times, one over the other.  For a moment Jemima was horrified, sure that Merle would be torn apart, but then she realized the Frenchwoman was laughing.  Merle was in no danger – it was just play.   Though she could hardly believe it, Jemima watched the stranger rise to her feet and then lean over to embrace the fearsome animal.  When Merle released it, the wolf rolled over onto its back and whimpered like a happy puppy as she scratched its belly. 

She looked at them, a broad smile splitting her dirt-stained face as she noted their startled and disbelieving expressions.

            “Mon ami.  C’est la Yvonne.  My sister.”

 

                                                                ###

             

            Mingo glanced at the slightly winded young man with brown hair and glasses sitting on the ground next to him.  Henry Abington looked out of his element.  Mingo had some experience with men raised in the city and it struck him that Henry was one of them.  Oh, he was valiant though.  Not once had he complained on the long walk back to the outskirts of Boonesborough even though he was still chained to Sergeant Boggs and the going had been at times – to say the least – tough.  But Henry Abington was not happy.  In fact, he looked as if he would not be happy again until he was sitting at a tavern in Chester nursing an ale, and any thought of traipsing across the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky was nothing more than a bad dream.

Sergeant Daniel Boggs, who sat quietly next to Henry, caught Mingo’s eye and smiled.  Boggs was Abington’s opposite.  Obviously a self-taught man, a little rough around the edges – like Daniel Boone – but with a heart of gold and a fierce loyalty to those he called ‘friend’.

            Mingo returned Bogg’s smile, but addressed Henry.  “I promise you, I do know what I am doing.”

            Henry looked up at him.  There was sweat on the young man’s brow.  Due, no doubt, to the fact that Mingo held in his hands a shiny chisel and heavy mallet borrowed from the barn of a local farmer.  He intended to use them to break the chain that bound the two men together.

            “It isn’t that I doubt you,” Henry replied after clearing his throat.  “It is just…well… there is something unnerving about having a Redcoat officer loom over me with a sharpened chisel in his hand.  I find the sight slightly…disarming.”

            Mingo laughed.  He had forgotten he was still dressed as a British soldier.  That was something he needed to remedy once they returned to the Boone cabin.  Daniel, though slightly longer legged, would undoubtedly have something that would fit him. 

            “I promise you, Henry, someday we will turn the table on the Redcoats,” Sergeant Boggs said softly.  “At least, if the general has anything to do with it.”

            “You’re very fond of him, aren’t you?” Mingo asked.

            “General Lafayette?”  Boggs sighed.  “Fond of him?  Yes, I am.  Frustrated with him?  I am that too.  And furious!”

            “I understand you were against this trip.”

            “Not that I didn’t want to see my old friend Daniel Boone again.  But the General’s health, as well as the danger of traveling with so small a compliment to render him protection….”  Boggs shrugged.  “But then, you would have to know Lafayette.”

            “I take it he is someone you can’t say ‘no’ too.”

            “Rarely.”  The sergeant laughed.  “Rarely.”

            “Not to press matters,” Henry interrupted them.  “But I would he very gratified to be free of this chain.  Eh…no offense, Sergeant Boggs.”

            Boggs nodded.  “None taken, Henry.  I am more than ready myself.  Mingo, will you do the honors?”

            “Place the chain on the rock, Henry,” Mingo said as he raised the chisel again.  “Just pretend I am not wearing this coat, but am dressed in my usual attire.”

            Henry Abington looked at him over the rim of his glasses, one eyebrow cocked.  “A chisel wielded by an Indian then?  And I am supposed to find that image more encouraging?”

Even as he spoke the young man did as he was instructed, pulling the chain that

held the two of them together tightly over the surface of the rock.  Mingo laughed and then sobered quickly as he fit the chisel into one of the heavy links and then eyed its head.  A second later he brought the mallet down hard, deftly splitting the link. 

Several more strikes set the two men free.

Sergeant Boggs climbed to his feet first.  He stretched out the leg that had been shackled, and then walked in a circle.  “Ah, freedom.  There is nothing like it in the world!”

“I agree.  And if we would like to remain free, I strongly suggest we move on,” Henry said as he rose.

Mingo nodded.  “But first, I must return the farmer’s tools.  Then I suggest we head straight for Daniel’s home.  Rebecca will be concerned.”

“Yes,” Boggs agreed.  “I look forward to seeing General Lafayette again.  I only hope his health has held.  Thank Providence, he has someone like Mrs. Boone to care for him.”

“Though I imagine he was none to happy when Jeremy and Isak left him behind,” Henry said quietly.

“None too happy?”  Boggs laughed.  “I think that is a bit of an understatement, Henry.  I wouldn’t want to be in Jeremy’s shoes when they meet again.”

“Private Yankee Doodle, do you think?” Henry asked with a wry smile.  “Somehow it doesn’t have quite the same ring….”

 

                                                     ###

 

 By the time they reached the Boone home the sun had set and the stars taken command of the sky.  Immediately Mingo knew something was wrong.  The cabin was dark.  There was no sign of candle or lamp.  And it was far too early for Rebecca to have turned in.

“What do you think it means?” Henry asked as they knelt in the bushes at the edge of the property.

Mingo pursed his lips and considered.  If there was a suspicion of threat, Rebecca might have darkened the lights on purpose. 

But what threat? 

“I am not certain.  Wait here.  I will go and check.”

Sergeant Boggs caught the sleeve of his crimson coat and held him back.  “Mingo, this concerns the general as well.  I think we should all go.  Besides, if Lafayette is within and he sees that uniform approaching….”

“Point taken,” Mingo said.  “Henry, are you with us as well?”

“Well, I certainly don’t want to remain out here in the dark waiting for the real thing to capture me.  Lead on, sir!”

They decided in the end that the best thing for them to do was to take up positions by the door and have Sergeant Boggs alone approach the cabin.   If Rebecca was hiding in the dark, Mingo would speak up from the cabin’s shadows, identifying himself and his companions.  But when Boggs rapped on the door, to their horror, it moved slowly inward on its own.

“Dear God!” Mingo declared. “What has happened?”  Hopping up from where he knelt, he pushed past Boggs and entered the cabin, desperate to see – and yet frightened to think of what he might find.

To his relief and consternation the cabin was empty.

“Here’s a lamp,” Henry called from somewhere near the table.  “Where does Mrs. Boone keep her flint and steel?”

“Above the mantel,” Mingo answered, heading for it – moving like a blind man through familiar territory.  “I’ll get it.”

A second later he had a spark and then a small fire in the tinder nest.  He used it to light a candle which he handed to Henry.  As the circle of pale light expanded, Mingo turned around, looking for clues at to what had occurred.

“There’s no one here, that’s for certain,” Boggs said as he joined them.

“Check the loft,” Mingo answered, pointing at the ladder which was descended.  “Though if they were up there, we would have seen them by now I am sure.”

A second later Boggs confirmed the loft was empty as well.

“Mingo.” 

It was Henry.  “Yes,” Mingo answered, turning toward him.

The young man held a sealed letter in his hand.  “This is addressed to Mr. Boone.”

Mingo took it.  “It’s in Rebecca’s hand.”

“Should we open it?”

The idea troubled him as well, but there was nothing else to do.  As he nodded, Mingo took a knife from the table and broke the wax seal.  Then he held the note to the light and read aloud:  Gone to see K. Murray and family.  All together and well.’

“K. Murray?” Boggs asked.

“Kerr Murray,” Mingo admitted with chagrin.  “That’s me.  It is the name I used in England.”

“Murray?  From England?  That’s familiar for some reason,” Boggs said, scratching his chin.  Then he snapped his fingers.  “I have it!  Isn’t that the name of the former Governor-general of Virginia?  The one who took the powder stores at Williamsburg and hoarded them on a ship to keep them from the people?  He had another name….”

“Yes.”  Mingo sighed as he refolded the note and placed it securely beneath the iron.  “Lord Dunsmore.”

Sergeant Boggs fell silent, while Henry cleared his throat and tugged at his collar as if it had suddenly grown too tight.  The two men, of course, knew of his connection with Lord Dunsmore from their first meeting – though they had never spoken of it openly.

Sensing a change of subject was needed, Henry asked, “So, what exactly did Mrs. Boone mean to imply by ‘visiting K. Murray and his family’?”

“They have gone to Chota,” Mingo answered.  “A wise move.  My people will protect them.”

“The Cherokee?” Boggs asked, surprised.  “I thought they were in thick with the British?”

“Not Menewa.  He is too wise to be bought with trinkets and promises of King’s gold.  Your general is safe, Sergeant Boggs, as are Rebecca and the children.  But now we must decide what we will do.  Do we proceed to Chota?  Or do we instead seek out our friends and see how they have fared against the British?”

“Or….”  Henry laid a finger alongside his nose.  “Do we catch the scent of this ‘beast’ the British fear and by finding him, solve not only the mystery of who and what he is, but gain a hand over our enemies while making certain it safe for the General to visit his friend, Mr. Boone?”

“Why, Henry, you sound like a man in search of adventure,” Mingo laughed.

Henry shrugged.  “I have never been able to resist a puzzle.  And since it seems our friends are safe….”

“Sergeant Boggs?”

Boggs’ face was sober.  “I need to make certain the general is safe.  Then I am more than willing.”

Mingo nodded.  “To Chota then.  It is only a half day’s march, less if we move without rest.  And then, we will see if we can do what your general was not able to – ”

“And that would be?” Boggs asked.

            “Capture the Beast.”

 

                                                                ###

 

            Becky pulled her shawl close about her shoulders and reached out for her daughter.  They were walking on a narrow path which was bordered with trees on one side, and fell away down a steep slope on the other.  The pitch of the hillside and the decayed nature of the well-worn path made her nervous.  Still, she pulled her hand back before it touched Jemima’s shoulder.  She had to remember that Jemima was no longer a little girl who needed to be watched and protected.  Her daughter was old enough to be married.  To have little ones of her own.

            Where did the time go?

            Jemima looked at her when she sighed.  “Ma?” she asked.  “Is something wrong?”

            “Nothing.”  Becky frowned.  The girl seemed troubled.  “What is it?”

            “How do you think she does it, Ma?  Control the wolf, I mean,” Jemima asked as she nodded toward Merle.

            Becky glanced at the Frenchwoman who walked some twenty paces before them, the large silver wolf at her side.  She shook her head.  “I have no idea.”

            “She called it ‘family’.  Her sister.  Do you really think?  I mean, was she….”

            Becky had heard of it.  Young children, lost or abandoned, adopted by animals and raised as one of their own.  It was obvious Merle had no fear of the creature and, since the time it had joined them, the curious woman had actually grown more relaxed.

            “I don’t know.  It’s possible.  Children imitate what they see, and when we found her….well….  Merle certainly has an animal’s instincts.  I know Mingo’s people have stories that speak of animals caring for human young.”

            “Gosh, Ma!  Just imagine.”

            Becky put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and squeezed it.  “I don’t have to imagine.  A mother is a mother.  If I found a wolf cub lost or injured, I’d care for it until it could make it on its own.  Even though I might fear what it would become when it grew, I wouldn’t be able to turn it away.  And maybe…just maybe, I would hope what I did – helping it – could one day make a difference.  Maybe this wolf cub would help other wolves to understand that all humans don’t mean to harm them.”

            “So maybe the wolf thought the same?  That it could teach us something by saving Merle?”

            Becky released her.  “Who knows?  We’ll just have to hope that we can convince them both that we only want to help.  Though I don’t know what we’re going to do when we get back to the fort.  The other settlers may not be so open-minded.  Most of them would shoot a wolf on sight – ”

            “Ma!”

            Becky met her daughter’s eyes and then followed her startled stare to the path before them.

            It was empty.

Merle was gone.

 

                                                                ###

           

            From the bottom of the slope Merle watched the two human women moving through the moonlit night.  They were calling her.  Concerned for her.  She didn’t really understand why when she was not one of them.  But then, though they had at first been afraid, they had accepted her sister as well.  Merle’s fingers moved through the she-wolf’s thick pelt.  The animal nuzzled her in return, then it growled low in its throat, anxious to move on. 

            Yvonne told her.  Her sister-wolf had seen him – Jean Michel.  He was in the wood hunting them and, if they were not careful, he would overtake them and make them his again.  Make them work his will.

            Make them kill.

            It had started in France many years before.  In Auvergne.  Yvonne, her sister-wolf, had not been born yet.  Nor had Yvonne’s mother, Riva.  Riva was the wolf who had taken Merle in and allowed her to live with her pack and raised her as one of her own cubs.  Riva’s mother, Tallis, hated humans.  She had considered the rugged mountains, the sharp rocks and boggy soil of Auvergne her kingdom.  Humans were parasites only to be eliminated.  Tallis had raised her older children to believe this and, together, the fierce band had terrorized the region of Auvergne for three years before being stopped.

            By the father of Jean-Paul Devereux.

            Shortly after Riva’s birth, when she and the litter she had been born to had been old enough to leave alone, Tallis went out with her other children to kill again.  Jean Chastel, Jean-Paul’s step-father, was sitting reading a litany to the Blessed Virgin when Tallis appeared and he shot her dead.  By this time the aging she-wolf had weakened.  Three years of being hounded and chased had taken their toll.  Chastel then led a hunt to ferret out any other threat.

            In the end only Riva survived the villagers’ frenzy.  But not unscathed.  She was wounded.

            Dying.

            Bleeding, desperate, Riva crawled into a barn, seeking a warm place to die.  She slept, her feverish dreams troubled by pursuit and tormented by a dark avenging spirit, only to awaken and find a young female human staring at her.  Instead of screaming and running for help as Riva expected, the young human fetched water for her and then, refusing to be driven away by Riva’s weak snarls, began to tend her wounds.

            Two weeks later, recovered, she was set free.

            Merle had no memory of her own beginning, but when she closed her eyes she could see flames and still smell burning flesh.  She remembered crying and crawling through the dry grasses, and then hunger and pain.

            And then Riva.

            Yvonne growled again and nudged her leg and then set off into the trees.  Merle nodded.  It was time to go.  Yvonne knew where Jean-Paul was and it was imperative that they find him, before he found them.

            And made them kill again