The Beast

by Marla F. Fair

Chapter Two

 

            Dan sat by the hearth, a great big mug of apple cider in his hand, watching with amusement as his wife and children circled Mingo and took in his transformation from Cherokee warrior to Redcoat.  It had been safer for them to travel back with Mingo wearing the British uniform, as it had allowed them to pass a good many check-points with relative ease.  No one in Boonesborough recognized Mingo when they stopped there briefly before coming to the cabin.  In fact, Cincinnatus had called him ‘sir.’  Mingo was still laughing about that.

            There were patrols everywhere.  It had taken them some time and a lot of questions to find out why.  It seemed there was a Frenchman in the area – not the young’un sitting across from him near the hearth – but one maybe five years older.  A man who had an all-consuming hatred of the English.  One who was known for his brutality and uncanny ability to strike without being seen, and to disappear without a trace.  A man men called simply, ‘The Beast’.  So far no one they had spoken to seemed to know the man’s real name.  He was described as being slight, with dark hair and almost black eyes.  Women found him attractive in a feral sort of way.  Dan looked over the rim of his mug at the Marquis de Lafayette.  The description fit him not like a glove, but loose, like a hunting frock one size too big.  If you saw the Marquis from a distance – without being able to see his open expression and gentle, refined countenance – you might well think he was the man they were looking for. 

No wonder the Redcoat patrol he and Jeremy Larkin had run into had taken off after them.  Hearing Lafayette speak French, combined with his general look, must have made him a marked man.  Dan took another sip and settled back in his chair.  It was good to see Jeremy and the young general again.  He only wished it had been under better circumstances.  Both had been circumspect before, not admitting to Becky that they actually knew him.  They had met, and he had come to admire both young men and their friends when they had worked together back in March of ’78.  He and Mingo had been summoned to Pennsylvania to act as guides and interpreters for a group led by Lafayette that was to deliver guns, ammunition,  explosives, and gifts to the Oneida Indians of the north.  Or so they thought.  In the end, the main focus of the journey seemed to be keeping General Lafayette alive.  The young Frenchman’s life had been in danger then as well.

He certainly was a ‘popular’ man – with the British at least.

            “Gosh, Mingo,” Israel said, his excited voice breaking into his father’s reverie, “ain’t it scary knowin’ you look so much like a Redcoat?”

            “Did you really cut your hair, Mingo?” Jemima asked, reaching toward it.

            Dan grinned, enjoying his friend’s discomfort.  Getting Mingo to cut his hair had been like pulling hen’s teeth.  He was wearing it in a regulation British style now, clubbed, and tied in the back with a black ribbon.  The major from the Continental Army who had given them their orders had supplied the uniform Mingo wore.  Dan sipped some more cider and glanced at his wife.  Becky’s arms were crossed and she was glaring at him.  The high-tempered redhead was still fuming.  And she had a right to.  He had out and out lied to her.  He and Mingo had not been fishing.  They had been working for the army once again.  With the Redcoat’s presence growing in the area, the Continentals needed someone to infiltrate the British troops and find out what was going on.  The major instructing them had some question as to whether this hunt for ‘the Beast’ was real, or if it was just a smokescreen to cover other activity.

            Seeing Major-general Lafayette sitting in his cabin made him wonder now if what they had reported back to the major had been correct.  Mingo found, in his espionage, that the British troops were indeed terrified of this Frenchman.  It seemed the Beast held a grudge against all things English – no one really knew why – and that he had sworn to wipe them out to the man.  And true to the name that had been given him, most of the deaths were gruesome.  Soldiers had been found torn apart and mauled to death as if by a wolf or some other savage creature.  Dan frowned as he considered the callous nature of such a man.  Since the Beast had come to Kentucky, other people were dying too – men, women, and children.

            Still, all of this – no matter how heinous and unconscionable – could be a cover for something far more sinister.  If somehow the British had found out that Lafayette was coming to call on them, there was little Dan would put past the Redcoats – they would do just about anything to eliminate or capture the young Frenchman.  Lafayette had given up everything to serve the cause of liberty and had become a symbol of all that was right and good about the Rebellion – sacrifice, honor, and duty.

A symbol worth destroying.

            “Daniel,” Mingo said, clearing his throat.  “Daniel?”

Dan started out of his reverie.  “Sorry, Mingo.  What is it?”

“Your children seem to have some doubts as to whether or not I really cut my hair.  Would you tell them?”

            “Nope, he didn’t.”  At Mingo’s outraged reaction, Dan grinned broadly.  I did!  With my hunting knife.”  He rose to his feet, drew his knife from its sheath, and acted it out.  “One whack and ‘ffftttt’, it was gone!  Well, not quite gone.  I think Mingo kept it as a memento.”

            One of Mingo’s black brows arched.  “Mm-hm.  Mingo’s hair, heap big powerful magic,” he grunted, doing his best imitation of a cigar store Indian which – in his current garb – was enough to set the children rolling on the floor with laughter.  Mingo laughed as well and then continued, “I am afraid my hair was a few inches past ‘regulation’.  I can just be thankful that the current habit of clubbing and powdering one’s own hair kept me from having to cut it all off!”

            “I think you look quite dashing, Mingo,” Jemima said with a shy smile, stifling her laughter.  “I don’t think I ever thought of you as handsome before, but you certainly are.”

            Mingo bowed gallantly, “Why, thank you, Miss Boone.”

            Jeremy Larkin had been listening to the friendly banter, a smile on his face.  Now he sobered and asked, “Mr. Boone, did you or Mingo happen to come across the 3rd Regiment of foot stationed just north of here on your journey home?”

“That the ones that questioned you, and then turned tail and came back for the chase?” Dan asked.

             “Yes.  They followed us until we lost them in the woods just north of here.”  Jeremy glanced at Lafayette who had remained silent during most of their conversation.  The young general was sitting with his fist on his chin, staring into the fire.  “I fear our companions may have been captured.  And that, even now, they may be subject to interrogation and….”  The young man from Chester paused, seeming to remember there were children present.  “I fear for them, sir,” he finished.

            Dan glanced outside, noting the position of the sun, and then turned to his young’uns and said, “Enough excitement for one night.  I think it’s about time you two high-tailed it to bed.”

            “Ah, Pa!  Do we haf’ta?” Israel asked, down-hearted.

            Dan glanced at his wife.  Becky took his meaning.  “Yes, you ‘have to’,” she said, supporting him.  “Jemima, help your brother to get you washed up and get his nightclothes on.”

            “Do I have to go to bed now too, Ma?” Jemima asked, disappointed.

            It was Becky’s turn to glance at Dan.  Their daughter was bordering on womanhood.  Sometimes it was hard for him to see – and admit – that she was almost grown.  Jemima was old enough to hear what these men had to say, but the trouble was –  where Jemima was, her brother wanted to be.

            Dan took their daughter’s hand.  He leaned down and kissed her on the hair.  As he did, he said softly, “See Is’rul to bed and asleep, and if you still want to, you can come back and join us for awhile.”

            Jemima beamed.  “Sure thing, Pa!”  She turned to the others, putting on quite a show for her brother.  “Goodnight, Mingo.  Mr. Lafayette.”  She paused, lowering her eyes.  “Goodnight, Jeremy.”  Then she turned with a whirl and followed her Ma and Israel into the other part of the cabin.

            The four men spoke softly of unimportant things until the children ascended the ladder to the loft.  Then Dan turned to Jeremy, his face sober with concern.  “I take it you think your friends have been captured?”

            “Aye.  Otherwise I believe they would have been here by now.  Do you remember Daniel Boggs, sir?” Jeremy asked.

            Dan thought a moment and then his face lit with a smile.  “Ol’ Darin’ Daniel?  Sure do.”

            The Marquis stirred for the first time.  He turned his slightly feverish face toward them.  Daring Daniel?” he repeated.

            “Ensign Daniel Boggs was always willin’ to take a risk,” Dan answered with a fond smile.  “He was a soldier when I was a waggoner during Braddock’s campaign.  I heard him reprimanded for recklessness a couple of times, but it served him well – he always got the job done.”

            The general was silent for a moment and then he laughed, genuinely amused.

            Jeremy grinned at his commander.  “It seems now, sir, that you have something to hold over Sergeant Boggs’ head the next time he accuses you of the same ‘crime’.”

            Lafayette nodded.   He shifted in his seat so he faced them and looked at Mingo.  “Tell me, Mingo, how did you find these Redcoats?”

            “What exactly do you mean, general?” Mingo replied.

            “It seems the hunters have become the hunted,” Lafayette said quietly.  “What was the mood in the encampment?”

            “Jittery.  High strung.”  Mingo tossed his scarlet coat-tails behind him and took a seat.  “Some extremely so.”

            “Tell him why,” Dan prompted his friend.

Mingo nodded.  “There was a rumor among the soldiers, and even a few of the officers, that this French ‘Beast’ is not really a beast, but a man who has the ability to – ”

            Lafayette finished it.  “Transform himself into a wolf.  And that it is this ‘man’ who is mauling and killing the soldiers, as well as the townsfolk.  Est ce non vrai?”

            Dan and his friend exchanged a glance.

“How did you know?” Mingo asked.

            Lafayette grew quiet.  In the depths of his deep brown eyes it seemed there was another world, another time reflected.

“Long ago, when I was but a boy, there was such a thing as this.  In Auvergne, where I lived.  I was about eight years old when it began.  In July of 1764, a young girl was killed, seemingly by a wolf.  And then there was another death.  And, another.”  He shook his head.  “At first the attacks were sporadic, but they increased in frequency and soon terror gripped the land.  Le Bete would appear and kill, sometimes within one day, at locations up to forty miles apart.  Over a three year period, mes amis, over one hundred and twenty people died – mostly children – but men and women as well.”

            “Children?” Becky gasped.  “It killed children?”

            Lafayette nodded.  “The youngest and most vulnerable.”

Dan moved to his wife’s side and put his arm around her.  He knew she was thinking of her own children, of the danger this new information put them in.  “How were they killed, son?”

Lafayette shrugged.  “Swiftly and with cunning.  Mostly from ambush.  Sometimes le Bete would lead horsemen to their deaths by tricking them into entering a bog.  Its size was extraordinaire – some thought it six feet or more in length – and its claws and teeth very sharp.”  He closed his eyes and shuddered with the memory.  “La Bete tore off heads, destroyed faces….”

            “Your parents must have been terrified,” Becky said softly.  “If you were just about Israel’s age.”

            Lafayette opened his eyes and looked at her.  “Alas, Rebecca, I had no father to know, or to protect me.  He was long dead.  My mother was away at court most of the time, but my grandmother and aunts – oui, they were worried.”  His full lips quirked, forming a sly smile.  “Mostly because I was determined to hunt the beast down and slay it.”

            Jeremy Larkin shook his head.  Why does that not surprise me?”

            Lafayette grinned at him and then continued.

“Auvergne was a wild, isolated place, much like Kentucky.  Houses are few and far apart.  Many of the peasants, illiterate and impoverished.  I watched as these brave men armed themselves with staves and pikes to protect their families.  They walked in lines and beat the underbrush as you would for pheasants or grouse, seeking to chase le Bete from the heather.  The army was called in several times.  But all efforts to find and destroy it were to no avail.”  The young general sat up, warming to his tale.  “As master of Chavaniac and the people’s marquis, I believed these were my people and that I owed them an obligation.”

“But you were a little boy,” Becky insisted.

He laughed.  “I did not believe myself ‘a little boy’, I believed myself ‘Lord of the village’.  I took up my father’s musket from the wall and – much to my aunt and grandmother’s dismay – along with a few friends, charged into the forest to slay the beast.”  Lafayette fell silent, remembering.

            After a moment Mingo asked, “And did you slay it?”

The general shook his head.  “Alas, no.”  Then he added with chagrin, “My initial encounter with greatness was a great disappointment to me.  I returned home with no trophy – no pelt to hang on the wall.  Years later it was said la Bete had been nothing more than an unusually large wolf.”  He leaned back in the chair, his tale finished.  “Some men claimed to have killed it.”

            “You don’t sound convinced,” Dan said.

            He pursed his lips and shook his head.  “I am still not entirely convinced it could be killed.”

“What do you mean?” Becky asked.  “You don’t believe these tales of it changing from beast to man and back again, do you?”

“I am not known to be a superstitious man, Rebecca, but there was something…artificiel about this beast.”  Lafayette steepled his fingers beneath his chin and fell silent for a moment before continuing.  “While I did not ‘slay’ la Bete, I saw it.”

“Saw it?” Jeremy echoed.

Lafayette nodded, his look once again reflecting a world years and thousands of miles away.  “Moving through the trees, not ten feet from where I stood.  My companions and I had been hunting for some time.  They grew weary and hungry, and desired to go home.  I saw them there and then made my way back to Chavaniac alone.  As I walked, I felt something watching my every move.  When I hesitated, it did too.  When I ran, it kept apace.  Once I heard a low growl, a sound not such as an animal would make, but more like a human in pain.  I turned and looked and saw a pair of golden eyes, surrounded by a gray shadow – it was formed like a man, but running on four feet as a beast.”  He looked up with a sheepish smile.  “I ran all the way home and hid in my room.  And did not tell my grandmother, or my aunts, the whole truth.”

            Mingo was nodding, not dismissing his tale – or his supposition.  “Your story sounds much like those related  by the soldiers.  The ones who survived, that is.”

“The only thing is that, la Bete as it was called, was believed to be a female.  And this is a man the British seek,” Lafayette finished.

Dan was looking at his friend.  Mingo was not one to believe in tall tales, having been educated in England as an Earl’s son, but he looked as if he believed everything the young general had said.  “Mingo, what are you thinkin’?”

“Many native tribes have myths and legends about shape-shifters, Daniel, the Cherokee included,” Mingo answered, his voice hushed.  “I would not dismiss such a thing outright.  Some believe the curse of transformation is passed from victim to victim, and others that it is a choice that is made – a bargain with an evil spirit.”

            Becky shivered. “All of this is frightening.  Do you really think this is a man who can become a beast?”

            “There are more things in heaven and earth, Rebecca, than are dreamt of in our philosophy,” Mingo answered quietly, paraphrasing the Bard.

            “Mingo, like I, grew up in the wild among ‘les savauges’,” Lafayette said, nodding.  “There are older truths.  Uncomfortable truths, that cannot be denied.”

            “Pa?  Is it all right for me to join you now?”

            Dan spun to find Jemima waiting close behind them.  He didn’t know just how much she had heard, but her blue eyes were wide and she looked pale and frightened.

            “Dan, I don’t know…” his wife began.

            “She needs to know what’s goin’ on, Becky.  It concerns her and Is’rul.”

            Becky scowled at him, but then nodded.  Lafayette began to rise to give their daughter his seat, but Mingo beat him to it.  “Jemima, please, sit here.”

            She gave him a sweet smile and then took a place near the hearth.  Jeremy Larkin was to one side of Jemima, and one of the richest and most influential young men in France to the other.  Dan hid his smile.  Though unnerved by their discussion, the girl had to be in Heaven.

            With Jemima’s presence the talk soon turned to lighter things.  She asked Jeremy to tell her about Chester.  He did, and only once did his words bring about a frown.  That was when he mentioned a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Coates.  It was evident he was fond of her.  General Lafayette, always the gentlemen, changed the subject then to his journey from France, astounding and amazing Jemima with the intrigue and adventure that had brought him to their shores.  Elizabeth Coates was soon forgotten, and it was only when Dan noticed that the general seemed fatigued, that he kissed his girl on the head again and told her it was time for her to join her brother in the loft.

            Becky agreed and said her own goodnights and, as if that was a signal, Jeremy gently insisted it was time for them to retire as well.  Lafayette nodded his agreement and slowly rose from the chair.  He refused help and made his own way into the cordoned off area, which left Dan, Mingo, and Jeremy alone before the hearth.

            Dan waited until he was certain the general was out of earshot and then, after meeting Mingo’s troubled stare, turned to the young man from Chester.  “How is Lafayette doin’?” he asked, nodding toward the curtain that separated the rooms.

            “The fever has returned.  I fear for him,” Jeremy said simply.

            “And you fear as well that he will not listen to your advice,” Mingo said.

            Jeremy sighed.  “Aye, Mingo, that is the greater of my fears.  Sergeant Boggs is dear to him.  And the general does not take well to inaction.”

            Mingo was silent a moment.  “He should sleep deeply, exhausted as he is.”

            Dan saw where he was heading.  “And a man can’t disobey an order that ain’t been given….”

            Jeremy looked from one to the other and then it dawned on him what they were suggesting.  “Sneak out?  Without telling him, you mean?”

            “Can you think of any other way?” Mingo asked.

            The tall blond thought a moment and then surrendered with a sigh.  “He will most likely never forgive me.  And Captain Yankee Doodle may soon find himself demoted to a private.”

            Mingo placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “But Lafayette will be alive.”

            “Yes.”  Jeremy nodded.  “I will do it.  When?”

            “Two hours.  Go in and sleep if you can.  Mingo and I will gather what we need and then wake you.  I’ll let Becky know what we’re doin’.  She’ll secure the cabin once we’ve left.”  Dan held the young man’s gaze.  “Once we’re away, Lafayette will have no choice but to settle in and let Becky mother him.”

            Jeremy looked unconvinced.  “I beg your pardon, Daniel, but you don’t know the general as well as I do.”

            Dan laughed.  “Beggin’ yours, Jeremy, you don’t know Becky Boone like I do!”

 

                                                                 ###

 

            Becky stood in the doorway of their cabin.  It was early morning and the children were still asleep.  God had blessed them with another beautiful warm winter day.  She had seen the three men off in the wee hours of the morning and barred the door behind them.  Now it was open and the one left behind stood on the porch, staring off into the woods.  She had seen a bit of the power and presence this young man had when Lafayette learned he had been deserted and left behind.  But manner and form took over very quickly, transforming righteous indignation and disbelief into a sort of calm acceptance.  In his heart Lafayette knew he was not up to the task, but like most men would have pressed on and probably killed himself to prove that he was.  Others had taken the decision out of his hands, and that was the part he had yet to reconcile himself with. 

General Lafayette was used to giving orders, not to taking them.

            Becky had left him alone for nearly an hour while she made her preparations for breaking their night long fast, only casually passing the open door once or twice to check and make certain he was still there.  So far he hadn’t moved.

            Where would he go anyhow?  He had no idea what direction the men had taken.  And he was wise enough to know that starting out alone would be the same as accepting a sentence of death.

            At least, she hoped he was wise enough.

            “Gilbert,” she said softly, stepping out onto the porch.  “Is there anything I can get you?”

            He did not turn.  “No, Madame Boone.  Thank you for asking.”

            “Becky.  Please.”

            He nodded, but said nothing more.

            She watched him for a few minutes, thinking what it would be like to be so far from home, and to have chosen to make the journey under a cloud – with family and your country against you.  To choose to come to an unknown land, to fight for an unknown people.  It was their fight, not his, but Lafayette was willing to lay his life down so that her children could be free.

            With tears in her eyes she went to stand beside him.  “Gilbert….”

            He glanced at her.  The rising sun reflected off his dark brown hair, turning it to bronze.  “Oui?”

            “You said your father died when you were a boy?”

            “When I was about two.”

            “And your mother was never home?”

            He shifted and leaned against the porch post.  “My family was, I believe you say here, ‘land poor’.  While considered noble and of wealth, we were not wealthy.  My mother felt it necessary to live at court, which took much of what we had, in order to ‘promote my cause’, to make certain I would find a suitable place in the court of Louis.”

            She sensed that was not where he cared to be – then or now.  “I am sure she thought it for the best.”

            Lafayette nodded.  A slight smile quirked the corner of his lips.  “Oui.  And I was raised by my grandmother and aunts.  I did not lack for affection.”

            “May I…” she hesitated.  “No, I probably shouldn’t.”

            “What?  Please, feel free to speak.”  He turned toward her concerned.

            “Well,” she said, growing bold, “I feel like you need a little mothering.  May I act as your mother while you are here?  Will you let me take care of you?”  Becky smiled sweetly.  “You aren’t that much older than Jemima.”

            Candidly he admitted, “I feel a thousand years old today.  The last six months have been hard, très dur.”

            She held her hand out.  “Come inside.  I’ll make some tea, and you can tell me about it.”

            Lafayette nodded as he accepted her gesture.  “Thank you, Rebecca.  I think I would like that.”

 

                                                                ###

 

            As the pair entered the Boone cabin, a shadow stirred within the darker shadows of dry brown leaves and brittle branches just beyond the yard.  It paused, watching them with its great yellow eyes.  Pawing the ground it sniffed, noting their scent, storing the information for a later time when it might come of use.

            And then it turned and bounded off into the trees.