Sins of the Father

by Marla F. Fair

Chapter Eight

 

            Toward dawn of the following day Mingo bid farewell to his son, knowing he might never see him alive again.  It was with a heart weighted with grief and regret that he bent his feet toward the north and the high-crowned hill where Daniel awaited him.   He had followed his people’s custom and spent the night in prayer.  Fasting was also an important part of this preparation.  That had not been a problem.  He had barely eaten since the night be had realized he *had* a son.  His head felt light and clear even though his body was weary beyond words.

            With rifle in hand he covered the land between Chota and the hill at a casual lope, careful to conserve his strength.  There was no real hurry.  James would survive or he would not.  His son’s life was in the Creator’s hands.  What was important now was to find and capture the man who had plotted to kidnap him, and to prevent Billings from doing any more damage to James or anyone else. 

            Mingo halted about half a mile from the hill and began to search for signs that would confirm his friend’s presence.  He did not have to look far.  Squatting on the grass, he noted where it was trampled and the presence of two sets of prints, one overlaying the other.  There had been a struggle.  Mingo ran his hand along the tops of the razor-thin blades and the looked at it.

            Blood.

            He remained where he was for a moment and then rose and surveyed the land, trying to think as Francis Billings would.  With trepidation, Mingo crossed to where the grassy slope ended in a sharp incline.  It would be a perfect place to dump a body.  He drew a deep breath as he looked over.  A moment later he released it.

            There was no one there.

            Mingo took a seat on a boulder near the drop.  Resting his rifle on his knees, he watched the sun climb above the green tree tops.  If Daniel had been the victor, it was likely he would have headed back to Chota immediately with his prize.  He should have met them on the way.  The fact that he had not did not bode well for his friend.  And there were no tracks suggesting a mad pursuit.  It seemed that Billings had somehow managed to overcome the tall frontiersman.  And for some reason, instead of killing Daniel, had taken him captive.

But why?

As insurance perhaps?  Or payment for his safe passage back to England?  Daniel Boone walked on the edge when it came to his involvement with the country’s fledgling Rebellion.  If one of the British officers working with Billings knew something or – even if they did not and were willing to trump up a charge – Daniel might well be worth the effort of holding and delivering to the nearest British outpost.

A grim smile formed on Mingo’s face as he rose and began to run, keeping one sharp eye trained on the ground.  If Francis Billings had indeed managed to capture Daniel, *keeping* him might well prove another matter entirely.  Still, one thing troubled him.  Even though he had found no evidence of it, Billings had to have an accomplice.  He had taken a musket ball in the leg.  There was no way Billings could have fought and captured Daniel alone.

And that made the situation *doubly* dangerous.

            Mingo ran at a steady pace, keenly aware of not only the signs that marked the two men’s passage, but his own surroundings.  There had been no attempt to conceal their tracks.  Francis Billings was not trying to hide.  It was almost as if he expected him – or even more, as if Billings wanted him to follow. 

            Who was this man and why had he targeted his son?  Mingo was beginning to feel uneasy about the whole affair.  At first the attack on the British regiment had seemed almost random.  Now the pieces were coming together to form a frightening pattern – though it was a pattern he did not yet have the key to.   It had all started in England, and most likely with his father.  There was someone Lord Dunsmore had angered or – at least from the other party’s perspective – betrayed.

            Seeking to find a center in the chaos, Mingo returned in his mind to the place where he had been the night before – to the sanctuary of the smoky lodge where he had found peace and purpose.  While praying he had had a vision.  At the time he had not understood it but now, as he pounded the earth, putting one foot in front of the other, he thought he began to understand. 

In his vision he had seen Catherine Saynsberry.  She had been sitting in front of the French windows in the home his father had bought for her mother, her elegant profile cast in silhouette against the wash of sunlight streaming in from outside.  She was playing the piano.  When she sensed his presence, Catherine stood and walked toward him, her hands outstretched.  As he took one of them he noted that his skin was berry-brown in comparison to hers, deeply tanned and marked with paint; the wrist encircled by a braided leather band decorated with beads. 

So it was Cara-Mingo, the man, she greeted and not Kerr Murray, the young libertine.

Catherine squeezed his fingers and then led him out of the English house and into the brilliant Kentucky sunshine, taking the path that would lead them through the woods to the tree-crowned hill where Daniel waited.  Then, unexpectedly, at the last moment Catherine veered away from the hill and led him instead to the foot of his mother’s grave.  Once there she released his hand.

And, suddenly, Catherine *was* Talota. 

His Cherokee mother looked at him with sad but understanding eyes.  Then she turned to the darkness that masked the bier where her bones lay, and held out her hand.  His son, James appeared – whole and hearty.  James stepped out of the shadows.  He was wearing the scarlet drummer’s coat in which he had been found.  James took Talota’s hand and then the two of them turned to him.  Talota lifted her other hand and beckoned him to join them.

Then, Mingo was alone.

            He halted, panting lightly.  He had pondered the meaning of the vision the night before when sleep failed to come.  He did so again now.  Did it mean that James would die?  Was that why his son had taken Talota’s hand?  Or did it mean that if he was to save James, he must be willing to give up his own life? 

Or was it something completely different?  While running, a thought had come to him.  Talota might have appeared to him in order to save her grandson’s life.  The vision might have been one, not one of doom, but of hope.  Daniel had said he would meet him at the hill.

That did not mean that was where Billings had taken him.

            But why the graveyard?

            “I hear you, my mother,” Mingo said softly as he came to a decision and altered  his course away from the hill.  Chanting as he ran, he headed for the sacred place where his mother’s bones rested. 

“I hear you, and I come.”

                       

                                                                ###

             

            Mingo arrived at the graveyard just as the sun reached its zenith.  He paused just without the tall feathered spears that marked the entrance to the sacred place and tucked his rifle behind a boulder, covering it with branches.  It would do him no good to take the weapon with him.  If Billings was here, he was expecting him.  The rifle would only prove cumbersome or end up in his enemy’s hands. 

He was concerned about Daniel.  His friend had no part in whatever quarrel Francis Billings had with his father or him.   The tall frontiersman was simply being used as bait.   The problem was, if Billings was out for revenge and did manage to kill him, then Daniel would be a witness to his murder.  So he would have to make sure Daniel was free before doing anything –   Well, rash.

A grim smile lit his face.  It was not that he wanted to die.  He wanted to live and to get to know his son.  But the vision had left him with the distinct impression that someone would die this night – and someone intimately connected to James.  Mingo felt there was little time, and that every action he took brought him closer to the end.  Still, there was nothing to do but go on.

With a whispered prayer on his lips Mingo set out for his mother’s bier, not by the graveyard’s front entrance but surreptitiously, moving through the underbrush beneath the soughing trees.  As he drew close to the place where his ancestor’s bones lay, he spotted two figures –  one seated on a rock and the other standing guard nearby.  Francis Billings was leaning against a tree, his flintlock in his hand.  The rifle’s barrel was pointed at Daniel Boone.  His friend’s feet were bound, his hands tied behind his back, and he was gagged.  Daniel had a black eye and blood on his chin.  Both injuries payment, no doubt, for the embarrassment the frontiersman had caused Billings back at the cave. 

Mingo shifted deeper into the leaves’ embrace and then moved closer.  By the light that trickled through the trees, he could see that he had been right – Francis Billings was not well.  A sheen of sweat covered the man’s exposed skin and darkened the blue cloth of the hunting frock he wore.  Billings was edgy, his gun hand was shaking and he was breathing heavily. 

So he had been right.  Francis Billings could *not* have acted alone.

After a moment Mingo shifted again, intent on backtracking and coming up behind Daniel so he could free him.  As he did he heard a hammer cock.  Even before the order was given, he stood and raised his hands above his head.  The cold barrel of a pistol was pressed against the back of his neck and a well-educated voice ordered him forward.  Mingo recognized the voice and, even as he did, knew who was behind James’ kidnapping and why.

  As he stepped into the clearing where his mother’s bones lay, Mingo briefly met Daniel Boone’s eyes acknowledging the desperation of their situation.  Then he said quite clearly, “Marcus, I know it is you.  And that Francis Billings is working for you.”

“Bravo, Murray.   First class.”  Marcus Saynsberry said as he stepped in front of him, keeping the pistol level.  “And just *when* did you come to this brilliant conclusion?”

“Just now,” Mingo admitted.  “Marcus, why?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” Catherine’s brother replied, his jaw tight.  “Your weapons, please.”

As Mingo handed him his knife and axe, he said, “But all those men.  The other boy….”

 “Francis was a bit overly *zealous* in his work.  He and Alexander were to kidnap James and return the boy to me at the port where a ship was waiting to take us to the West Indies.   Their orders were to make it look as if James had been taken by the savages and perhaps stir up a little trouble in the area to cover their tracks.   They were to render the others incapable of following.”  Marcus scowled and glanced in Billings’ direction.  “To do that, they killed them all.  Alexander will pay for his crime, and the others who aided him, in England.”

“Will you tell me one thing?” Mingo asked.

Catherine’s brother was wary.  “What?”

“Why was the other boy, Thomas, in James’ clothes?  Was that part of your plan?”

Marcus shook his head.  “That ruse might have been in your father’s mind when he ordered Thomas transferred to the regiment, but if so, he did not inform me.  The boys engineered that charade themselves.  Apparently they got wind of something and Thomas insisted they switch places to protect James.  After it was all over, Francis found the boy dead and James missing.  I assume Mr. Boone had found James and carried him away by then.”

“Marcus, Thomas was executed,” Mingo insisted, his voice grim.  “Shot in the head a single time.”

Marcus’ reaction told him this was news.  “What?  How would you know that?” the British officer asked.

“Daniel and I went back.  We buried Thomas and the other men.”  Mingo indicated the man in the blue frock coat with a nod of his head.  “I think Mr. Billings has not told you the entire truth.”

 “What is this, Francis?” Marcus asked, turning toward the other man.

Billings pushed off the tree and, placing his weight on his  good leg, limped forward.  “You gonna believe *him* over me?” the surly man growled.

Marcus went to confront him.  “Did you execute Thomas?” he demanded.

Billings hesitated, weighing the consequences against his own anger and the need to purge it.  Mingo could see in his eyes that he hated Marcus – hated *both* of them.

“Those two ran off when the shooting started,” the surly man snapped.  “We caught the one wearing the fancy clothes at the top of the hill and questioned him.  And found out quick enough he wasn’t the one you wanted.”

“So you *murdered* him?” Marcus was appalled.   “He was a child!”

“He wouldn’t tell us where the other one had gone!” Billings spat back.  “What good was he?  We didn’t need some useless *boy* slowing us down.”

“You see the kind of men you have aligned yourself with, Marcus,” Mingo said quietly.

“Shut up!”  Marcus twisted and returned to face him.  “I will *not* have James turned into some sort of half-breed outcast!  The boy has a future.  A proper place in society.  I told Catherine, I *pleaded* with her not to do this.  She wouldn’t listen, and then she got the Earl involved.  And with Dunsmore’s influence and money….”  Marcus drew a deep breath and added, almost to himself, “Dear God, what else could I do?”

Mingo held his gaze.  “You could have let James choose for himself.  Now, you may have killed him.”

“That was not my doing!”

“Wasn’t it?  James’ death – Thomas’s – all those other men, even the ones who conducted the raid – they are *all* on your head, Marcus.  And all because you couldn’t bear to let James become a man.”  Mingo’s jaw grew tight.  “Something you obviously know very little about.”

Catherine’s brother drew a calming breath.  He shook his head slowly.  “I will not be bated, Murray.  What I am doing is right.  What sort of life would James have with you?  Look at you!  You’re a savage – running around with paint on your face and feathers in your hair.  You are a disgrace to the men and women who came before you, who sacrificed to assure you a place among the privileged classes!”

Marcus would never understand.  Mingo could only hope that James would – if he ever had the chance to talk to him.

“Let Daniel go,” Mingo said quietly.  “Marcus, this is between you and me.  You have me now.  There is no need to have further innocent blood on your hands.”

Catherine’s brother grew very still.  Mingo could see him thinking, trying to process all that had been said.  Finally, Marcus nodded and addressed the man who stood behind him.  “Very well.  Francis, take Mr. Boone to the cave and leave him there, bound and gagged.”  He turned back to Mingo.  “When this is over, I promise I will send someone to free him.”

Mingo felt some of the tension flee from him.  He knew he would.  Marcus Saynsberry was not really a bad man – just one frightened of losing something very dear to him.  And that was something *he* could understand.

When Billings failed to obey, Saynsberry pivoted to face him.  “Francis, you will do as I say.  Now go!”

Billings shook his head.  His eyes flicked to Daniel who was sitting on the boulder, calmly listening to their exchange – as if nothing they said mattered to him.  As if his own life was not the subject of their discussion.

“No.  Boone can identify me – and you.”

Marcus dismissed his fear.  “We will be long away before Mr. Boone can set someone on our heels.  Now, obey me.  Get going!”

“Mr. Lord ‘high and mighty’, just who do you think you are, ordering me around?” Francis Billings snarled.  “You ain’t worried about anyone being on *my* heels, just your own.  I know your kind, you’re just like that one,” he pointed at him, “and his father!  Giving orders.  Getting what you want, and then letting everyone else pay the dues.”  Billings moved a step closer.  “Why do you think I joined you in this venture?  Not for what you’re paying, Saynsberry.” 

Billings had moved away from his captive.  Mingo glanced at Daniel as he did.  The tall frontiersman grinned and then showed him his hands. 

He had worked them free.

Mingo knew what he was thinking.  He shook his head, signaling his friend to wait and let the scene between Saynsberry and his hired killer unfold. 

“What are you talking about?” Marcus asked.

“Your kind hasn’t ever done anything for me or mine.  Just used us up and spit us out.  My father worked day and night for Lord Dunsmore, and when he had need of him, he was turned away with nothing!  All his service earned him was the right to an early grave.  And what it cost….”  Billings voice trailed off before it ended with a shout, “Alexander and I agreed.  You deserve to be wiped out, all of you, and every last bit of blue blood drained from your veins!”

Marcus paled.  He grew very quiet and then said, “You thought Thomas *was* James.  You killed him on purpose.”

“Aye, I did it on purpose.  I only regret I killed the wrong one.”  Billings limped forward, coming closer.  “Now you, Saynsberry, *and* his lordship here are going to die.  And then I’ll go to that Indian village and finish the boy.”  

Mingo’s gaze went to Daniel even as Billings raised the rifle and pointed it at Marcus.  While Billings back had been turned, the tall frontiersman had freed his feet.  Mingo nodded, and Daniel rose from his seat on the boulder and launched himself at the other man.

Francis Billings stiffened, sensing something.  His finger pulled on the trigger.  “You’re out of time,” he growled, pointing the rifle at Mingo.

“No!”  Catherine’s brother shoved Mingo out of the way.  He drew his pistol and then turned to Billings.  “Here!  Billings, look here!”

The two men fired at the same time.  The pistol’s discharge caught Billings in the throat.

The blast of the flintlock took Marcus in the chest.

 

                                                   ###

 

Daniel Boone returned to the Cherokee graveyard and walked to the place where

the bones of his friend’s mother lay on a high platform covered with thick animal hides.  Mingo stood at its foot, his hands raised.  They had worked to save both men, but both had died.  Dan had buried them outside the cemetery’s boundary to the north.  Now he’d come back to collect his friend.  Mingo had asked to be left alone for a little while. 

It had been about four hours.  More than enough time from his point of view.

“Mingo, you ready?” Dan asked as he came to a stop close by the bier.

 Mingo remained still for several heartbeats.  Then he opened his eyes and looked at him.  “I knew someone close to James would die tonight, Daniel  I thought it would be me.”

“Well, it’s a good thing, then, that you’re usually wrong, Mingo, ain’t it?” Dan answered with a hint of his usual lop-sided grin.  “You ready to go?”

The Cherokee warrior nodded as he left the graveside.  “Yes.  I have thanked my mother for guiding my steps.  It is time now to return to Chota.”

“What are you going to tell James, about Marcus, I mean?” he asked him as his friend came to his side.

Mingo pursed his lips and let out a sigh.  “That Marcus died to save my life.  It’s true.  There is nothing to be gained by darkening James’ memory of his uncle.  I am sure Marcus thought he did what was best, and that he truly loved James in the only fashion he knew how.”  Mingo’s deep brown eyes sought his gaze.  “All who were involved in the massacre of the soldiers are dead or will be punished, Daniel.  It is time to move on.”

Dan nodded. “I’ll see you to Chota, then I’d best get home.  Mingo?”

The tall Cherokee was staring once again at the platform that held his mother’s bones.  Seldom had Dan seen Mingo afraid.

 He was now.

            Dan placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “You’re a good man, Mingo.  The boy will see that.”

            “So much sorrow, Daniel.  For one so young.  The death of Thomas, the men who guarded him, and now Marcus….”  Mingo shook his head and then met his stare with chagrin.  “If James *is* his father’s son, it may take him some time to accept it and  to move on.  He’ll probably blame himself….”

            “Come on, Mingo,” Dan lifted his hand and hefted Ticklicker.  “No use speculatin’.  Let’s get you home.”

           

                                                                 ###

 

Once back in Chota Mingo sought out the healer’s tent and entered.  He found it empty.  For a moment he feared the worst but then Galunadi appeared, nodding his ancient head.  The priest took him from the tent and directed him toward the corn fields beyond the village.

The sun was just breaking on the horizon, its nascent rays turning the trees and the young cornstalks to gold.  A lone figure sat on the high wooden platform usually occupied by the women who guarded the tribe’s harvest from birds and thieves.  James’ face was turned toward the east, toward the ocean and England and the only home he had ever known.  Mingo climbed the ladder slowly, giving him time to realize someone was coming.  He hesitated at the top and then went to sit beside his son.

James was very pale.  His black hair was dull and lifeless, and his brown eyes ringed with dark circles – the remnants of many days spent in pain.  He had a colorful woolen blanket wrapped about his bare shoulders and he wore buckskin leggings and moccasins.  Mingo smiled as he recognized the moccasins.  They had been a gift from Menewa.

To him, when he was very young. 

As Mingo settled in, James turned and looked at him.  The boy frowned and then smiled shyly.

“Father?  Is it you?”