Sins of the Father
by Marla F. Fair
It took some time to pull himself up from the depths of pain and fatigue that clutched at him, but he did it. Mingo stirred from sleep, moaned, and looked up at his friend. Seeing his troubled face, he was instantly alert. “Daniel. Is something wrong? James….”
“Is fine. It’s our friend Alexander over there. He tried to escape. I think I had better take him and go ahead, get him to the settlement and the jail.”
Mingo nodded and allowed himself a slight smile. He had seen the inside of that jail. It was no more than Lieutenant William Alexander deserved. And he knew what awaited the lieutenant at the fort. Daniel had explained that Alexander’s commander had come looking for him, eager to mete out the judgment the soldier’s court had pronounced upon him for his part in the slaughter of James’ regiment. That was how Daniel had learned of Alexander’s escape and the threat he posed. Mingo shifted and turned, looking for his son.
The boy was gone.
As if reading his mind, Daniel said, “James went down to the river to wash up. He looked just about as bad as you do when he woke up.”
Mingo nodded. “Amazing, isn’t it, Daniel, what we do to the ones we love?” He shifted then and started to rise, but found his own strength lacking. Without a word his friend reached down and caught him by the arm and helped him up. As he nodded his thanks, Mingo asked, “Do you think I should go find him?”
Daniel thought about it a moment and then shrugged. “Becky’d say ‘yes’.”
Mingo smiled. “And what does her husband say?”
“If it was me, I’d let the boy choose to come my way. Israel’s about as stubborn as a mule. When I try to push him, he just digs in deeper.”
“Ah, yes. Well, Rebecca has never been a boy.”
Daniel laughed. “Thank the Good Lord for that!” Then he sobered. “You be all right on your own, with James, I mean?”
As he stifled a sigh, Mingo answered, “If I am *with* James after this morning. Daniel, if he wants to leave, I will not stop him.”
His friend nodded. “Good luck, Mingo. You’re both in our prayers, you know that.”
Mingo nodded. “Give my love to Rebecca and the children. Tell them…. Well, tell them I hope to see them soon. With James.”
“Will do.” Daniel caught Ticklicker up from the ground and approached the treacherous man bound to the tree. “Now let’s see about getting’ you some justice, Lieutenant,” he said.
A quarter of an hour later Mingo was alone.
James had still not returned. Mingo fought the urge to seek him out and busied himself with breaking camp. Whether or not his son wanted to be with him, he still had to go on with the routine things of life. He had just finished packing his bandoleer, tucking the portrait of himself in it that James had thrown away, when the wind carried to him a foreign sound. Something not of the forest.
But of man.
Mingo stood and listened. It was a familiar sound. Musical if not exactly melodic. He smiled briefly and then, placing the bandoleer over his shoulder, headed into the trees; his destination the river and one lonely, frightened boy.
James was sitting on a rock, his black hair blazing blue in the sunshine. The rain of the night before had paved the way, as if often did, for a glorious morn. Mingo wasn’t certain how his son had found the leather satchel with the fine wooden instrument his father had bought him all those years ago, but James sat – his teeth planted firmly in his lip – trying to puzzle out the fingering.
“The chords are the same as the harpsichord,” Mingo said softly as he stopped, perhaps three yards away. “But the thinking behind them has to be different.”
James started, guiltily. He stood and held the guitar out. “I found it when Mr. Boone sent me to look for kindling. Here. I know it’s yours.”
Mingo walked forward. He accepted the highly polished instrument and sat down on the rock James had occupied. He caressed the wood and smiled. “It was a gift from my father. He understood me better than I realized. When I couldn’t talk, when everything overwhelmed me and I felt like I would explode, music tamed the savage breast for me. Once I began to play, everything else melted away.” His fingers brushed the strings, forming a simple chord.
For a moment James said nothing. Then he nodded. “When I compose, it’s the same for me. The world – this world – fades to nothing. There is nothing but me, and the music.”
“I hear you played for the King’s brother.”
James shrugged. “Lord Dunsmore arranged that, I’m sure. It wasn’t my achievement.”
“Are you certain? Your mother was very gifted. Marcus seemed to think you are as well.” Mingo placed the guitar on his knee and looked at his son. “Don’t doubt yourself, James.”
“Mother said you were an actor.”
Mingo laughed. “For a time, and from necessity. I was not allowed to be what I wanted to be. I was the Earl’s heir. Music was a diversion, as was the theater.”
“And this?” James indicated his Indian garb. “This is what you wanted to be?”
Sobering, he shook his head. “No. Not really. I did not choose to be an Indian.” He rose and went to his son’s side. “I *chose* to be free.”
James was silent for a moment. Then he nodded. “I would like that. To be free.”
“You are now.” Mingo reached out and touched his son’s shoulder and was grateful when James did not flinch and pull away.
“What do you mean?” the boy asked. “Just because Uncle Marcus is dead?”
Mingo shook his head. “Because James Murray is dead. So far as anyone knows. He was killed in the raid of the regiment of foot. Or so it says on the official papers.”
He could see the thought had never occurred to the boy. “Dead?”
“Only the Boones know better. And they will not say anything unless you want them to.”
Mingo’s tone was dark. “Alexander will not survive long enough to tell anyone.”
James dark eyes had grown wide. “What about the letter? The one for William and Mary?”
“Do you want to go there? If you do, I have it here – in my bag.”
“It was mother’s idea.”
“Your mother is dead, James. You are a man now, and as a man must make your own choices.”
“You mean I don’t have to go?”
Mingo lifted his hand. “You do not have to do anything you do not want to do. James, America is a new land for new beginnings. Take it from me, I should know,” he added with a wry grin.
“Do I have to decide now?”
Suddenly his son sounded very much like a boy and not a man. James was exhausted, gripped by grief and overwhelmed by all the sudden change. “No. That is another gift. You do not have to choose until you are ready.”
“Where will I stay? With you?”
Mingo almost laughed. “Do you want to?”
The boy winced. “Not really.”
Mingo affected a mock look of horror. “I am deeply offended, James. You mean you do not relish sleeping on a rough wooden platform covered with straw and furs, in a lodge smelling of bear grease and smoke?”
For a second James thought he really *was* offended, then he caught the humor in his tone.
“It’s not exactly what I am accustomed to…. Father.”
If someone had struck him with an arrow to the heart, the pain could not have been greater.
The pain of joy.
Mingo grinned. “Perhaps Daniel and Rebecca could put us both up for a while.” He held the guitar out. “I could teach you and Israel how to play. He has been asking.”
James was suddenly shy. “I’d like that. I’d like to learn. But even more…I’d like to get to know you better.”
They were the words Mingo had been longing to hear since the day he had found his youthful portrait and realized he had a son.
Choking back tears, he nodded.
“I’d like that too.”
A half a day later Israel and Jemima Boone met them on the path. Their father had sent them out with two horses to look for them. Mingo and James gratefully accepted the ride, insisting the Boone children join them. And so with Jemima mounted behind Mingo and Israel in front of James, they rode in style back to the Boone cabin, eternally grateful for good friends and the fact that they were all still alive.
He and James spent the better part of a month together. Then a letter came that changed everything.
James was outside with the children when it arrived by courier. Mingo hesitated to give it to him. He knew that in the wilderness letters were often lost, dropped in the water from a storm-tossed pirogue, lost along the way, or stolen and burned when found to contain nothing of worth to the thief.
But this one had not been lost and he held it in his hand. James would never forgive him if he concealed it.
He would never forgive himself.
Mingo walked with slow but steady steps to where Israel and James sat in the rough lean-to he had constructed. It was where he had slept during the time they stayed with the Boones. James sometimes stayed in the cabin, but at other times he had come to join him.
He felt he had come to know his son well, and what was better, to like him.
He hoped the feeling was returned.
“James,” he said as he drew alongside the pair. “I need to talk to you.”
“Gosh, Mingo, does it hav’ ta be now?” Israel pouted. “James was showing me how to do that fancy chord you taught him.”
“I’ll send him back as soon as I can,” he promised.
“What is it, Father?” his son asked.
The words still struck him and filled him with wonder. “Give Israel the guitar and come with me. Please.”
James looked at his friend and shrugged. “Keep practicing, Israel,” he said as he rose and exited the lean-to. “I’ll keep an ear open.”
Israel nodded as he bent over the strings and produced a disharmonious sound. He switched his fingers as he sighed, “Gosh all Mighty, who’d a thought this could be harder than firin’ off a flintlock?”
Mingo placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and directed him toward a sheltered area in the Boone’s yard. Once there he asked James to sit and then produced the letter.
“What is this?” the boy asked.
“From England,” Mingo sighed. It was from Saynsberry Hall. Most likely it was news that James’ mother was dead.
James took the letter as if it was a poisonous snake. He let it dangle from his fingers, but made no move to open it.
“Whatever it says,” Mingo said, “delaying reading it will not change the content.”
“I know. It’s just so….”
James nodded. Then quickly – almost with anger – he broke the seal, opened the sheet and began to scan the words written on it. A moment later a grin spread across his face.
“James, what is it? Your mother….”
“She’s alive! The doctors think now it was a bloody flux and not a cancer. They expect her to recover.” James grin faded as he read on. He laid the letter on his knee and looked up, his expression pained.
“She wants you to come home,” Mingo said quietly. “Doesn’t she?”
He nodded as one of the tears escaped. James struck it away, his sudden joy turning to confused anger. “What do I do?”
“What do you want to do?”
James was silent a moment. The answer surprised him.
Mingo studied him a moment and then sat beside him. “I think you should go.”
“What?” His son stared at him, aghast. “Don’t you want me here?”
“Of course, I do. It is beyond my wildest dream that you exist, James, and to have you here…. But your mother loves you and, most likely, *needs* you now. I think, at least, that you should go to see her. Tell her your choice yourself. She may have as many questions as you did.”
“To go back there. Into that world…. I don’t know. Maybe she could come here.”
Mingo had not thought of that. “Maybe. Perhaps Catherine would take to a place like Philadelphia. Your mother always had an independent spirit. You may find she is as weary of the Old World as you are.”
“I guess. It would be good to see her. I miss her.” James looked at the letter again and then at him. “Could you come with me, if I go?”
Mingo was silent for some time. “I will see you to the port. But no, I can’t go back. Not now.”
“James, I am a wanted man. In England, my life would be at risk.”
“For your work here, for the Rebels?”
James had learned of it from Israel, of course. “Yes. Also, I am wanted by the English establishment. I deserted from the Academy. I stole a man’s property.”
“The two natives I helped escape. They belonged to Oliver Gerard.” Mingo drew a breath. “It is not that I worry so much for my own safety, but being seen with me would mark *you* in many ways. And then there is my father….”
“You two – Dunsmore and you – you’re not friends?”
Mingo laughed. “After what happened here in Boonesborough, no. I thwarted his plans. He was not pleased when we parted, though he made a good pretense at it.”
James fell silent again. He rose to his feet and placed the letter inside his vest. “Why are things always so complicated, Father?”
Mingo rose as well. He shook his head as he placed his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I don’t think they are. But it takes a lifetime for us to see clearly enough to understand the imprint of the Creator on all our days.”
“You all right, Mingo?”
He turned and looked at his friend. Daniel’s lanky form was blurred. The frontiersman had entered Cincinnatus’ establishment and found Mingo, to his chagrin, nursing a large flagon of bourbon. It had taken some convincing – and a dozen promises not to break anything – to get the old tavernkeeper to give it to him.
“Daniel,” he said with a nod.
“Thought you didn’t drink, Mingo,” Daniel added as he slipped into the chair opposite him.
“Only when dealing with family,” he said as he swallowed another numbing gulp.
“You see James off at the harbor?”
He had been gone over a month. He had seen James to the port and watched as his son boarded the ship for England, leaving him to make the journey back alone. It had been one of the loneliest he had ever made.
“Are you sorry now you told him to go?”
Mingo thought a moment, about his own relationship with his mother, about what *he* would have given to see her again after she had been pronounced dead. He ran his finger around the rim of the pewter cup. “No. Not really. It was something he had to do.”
‘He comin’ back?”
Mingo leaned back and met his friend’s hazel-green eyes. “So he says.”
“You don’t think he means it?”
“England can be intoxicating, Daniel. The culture, the opportunities. James is a very talented young man.”
“And your son. I don’t think he’ll be swayed.”
Mingo took another swallow and almost missed placing the cup on the tabletop. He grinned self-consciously.
“You think you’ve had about enough?” his friend asked.
“I’ve only drunk a third of what I paid for.”
Daniel leaned forward and stared into the cup. Then his eyes met his again. “Try four-fifths. Come on, Mingo. Let me take you home.”
Mingo nodded and pushed away from the table, rising shakily to his feet. His friend placed an arm around his waist and led him past the curious, the disapproving, and the understanding stares of the tavern’s other occupants. Cincinnatus met them at the door, his apron stained with liquor, a wet rag in his hand.
“You gonna be all right, Mingo?” the older man asked, concerned.
“Thanks for the bourbon, Cincinnatus,” Mingo muttered.
“And for the heads up,” Daniel added as he maneuvered him toward the door.
“What?” Mingo stopped him, turning back. “You sent someone to Daniel?”
Cincinnatus grinned. “What are friends for?”
He awoke the next morning with a splitting headache and a healthy dose of shame. Mingo slipped out of the Boone cabin to sit on the porch where he watched the sun rise on the new day in all its glory. In his hand he held a portrait – not the one of him as a callow youth, that he had returned to James, but one of his son. Within the gilded frame the face he loved stared back at him. Behind the glass on the opposite side the oval frame held as well a lock of James’ mother’s hair.
Mingo snapped it shut and placed it in his bandoleer and fell to musing.
About half an hour later he heard the door open behind him and steeled himself for one of Rebecca’s lectures. But it wasn’t Rebecca.
It was her son.
Israel sat beside him in silence for a few minutes. Then he asked, “You sad, Mingo?”
“So am I. I miss James.”
Choking back tears, he admitted, “So do I.”
Israel’s hand crept out and took his, the small fingers closing over his rough, larger ones. “He’ll come back, Mingo. I know it. We’ll see him again.”
Mingo hesitated and then turned to look at him. “Is that a promise, Israel?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” the boy said seriously. “Ma’s great, don’t get me wrong. But my Pa…. I just couldn’t live without him. Your James’ Pa. He’ll be back.”
A second silence fell between them as Mingo considered the boy’s words. James needed him as much as he did his mother. Maybe Israel was right.
Maybe James *would* be back.
“You still got that guitar, Mingo?”
James had refused to take it. Insisting he keep it for his return. “Yes, Israel. I do.”
“I never got that chord James was tryin’ to show me. You think you – ”
Mingo smiled, appreciative of what the boy was trying to do. He kept hold of his hand and pulled Daniel’s son to his feet.
“Thank you, Israel.”
The little boy’s cheeks blushed red.
“Shucks, Mingo. What are friends for?”
- The End -