Chapter 6

Mingo met Daniel as he rushed east through the Gap. The ground was covered in four inches of fresh snow. The two horses nuzzled each other in friendly greeting. Daniel gripped Mingo's arm in relief. "I came as quick as I could," he explained.

"I know. It is good to see you, I admit," Mingo replied.

The grey sky above them threatened more snow. Daniel glanced up, then back to Mingo's face. "What do you think? Another few hours maybe?"

Mingo nodded his agreement. "I'd say it will start before evening. But we can get another few miles west before we have to stop."

Urging the horses, they did make six more miles before the first flakes began to fall. Daniel remembered a thick stand of brush not much farther west and the two men rode toward it. They found it just before it was fully dark. While Daniel hobbled the horses Mingo tied the branches of the shrubs to heavy rocks. Then both men scrambled to gather firewood before it was too dark to see.

Hunched beneath the brush shelter the two experienced frontiersmen built their fire. Daniel scooped a pot full of snow and dropped in several pieces of dried meat to soften.

Mingo did the same with the coffeepot. Pulling their coats close around them, fastening them tightly, they leaned back and waited.

"Are you going to tell me, or do I have to ask?" Daniel murmured to the silent man at his left elbow.

Mingo smiled mischievously. "I was waiting for an invitation. The story is nearly unbelievable. I wanted to wait until it was time to tell tall tales."

Daniel chuckled. "Why don't you start now so we can get to the end before it gets too late?"

With another chuckle, Mingo complied. Daniel poured the coffee and dished up the meat as Mingo talked. A half-hour later, the tale was complete. "So what became of the major?" Daniel asked when Mingo stopped speaking.

"He was being kept locked in his room under constant guard. Captain Wainwright sent a message to the high command in Yorktown."

"Why did he let you go? You're a known patriot." Daniel's puzzlement was obvious.

"According to the captain, no one knew I was there except the small force commanded by Curtis. After what the major had put me through, the captain thought I deserved to be released." Mingo sighed. "I couldn't disagree with him."

"Did you see the major before you left?" Daniel asked curiously.

Mingo's eyes flickered, then blinked. "I did. He didn't recognize me at all. He thought the command was under attack and I was there to take his scalp. He collapsed onto the floor, screaming. It was most disconcerting. But the most puzzling thing was that he kept calling me Hallam."

"Who's Hallam? Do you know?" Daniel queried as he sipped his coffee.

"I do. Master Hallam was the last history instructor we had before we graduated. He and I had several, ah, disagreements concerning the colonization of the Americas. Finally, in frustration I think, he challenged me to prove my points. I boldly proclaimed that I would if he proved his first. Of course, it is impossible to 'prove' historical viewpoints."

Mingo's eyes grew distant as the memories took hold. "On the last day of the class, two days before graduation, Curtis stood up and pulled several pieces of paper from his jacket. They were covered with mathematical calculations. He faced the class, held them up and proceeded to prove Hallam's points mathematically."

"What?" Daniel burst out. "That's not possible!"

Mingo looked into his surprised face. "I know. We all knew. Master Hallam tried to make Curtis sit down. He took his arm and pulled gently. Curtis collapsed right there. He sat on the floor screaming my name. Hallam dismissed the class. The last thing I saw before I left the classroom was Curtis crawling on the floor, trying to make Hallam look at his calculations. It was very sad. The next day he pulled his razor across his throat."

"He did what?" Daniel choked on his meat. Mingo waited until he stopped coughing before continuing.

"There was a rumor the day of graduation, but I paid no heed. However, apparently it was true. It's quite an unexpected burden, Daniel, to know that someone considered himself so worthless compared to me that he would seek death."

"It's not your fault, is it Mingo? I mean, I can't see you purposely flaunting your own abilities at the expense of someone else."

"I didn't. But Curtis thought that I did. Just as he thought 'General Wooley' ordered him to send men to their deaths in the wilderness. He's mad, Daniel. I think he's been mad for a very long time, perhaps his entire life. But somehow that doesn't take the feeling of culpability out of my heart."

"No, Mingo. If it hadn't been you, it would have been someone else. He could have invented someone, like he did General Wooley. In a way that is what he did anyway. He made you responsible for all his failures, all his problems, even though you were completely blameless."

Daniel's words were the last spoken. Mingo sat staring into the fire, his mind busy with the position Daniel had presented. The snow began to fall more heavily. Its pure white blanket covered the little brush shelter. Beneath it, the two firm friends thought about responsibility, innocence, and the image Curtis Billows held frozen inside the dark glass of his mind.