Author's note: I'm reposting these stories so they can be together and read in the right order. If you have already read "A Conversation While Roasting Rabbits" and "Boone's Reckoning" you can skip to chapter 8 to read the last part "King and Pawn". The last part, previously named "End Game," was only on the Internet for a brief time last summer before Geocities and my website went away. I apologize for this deluge of emails to anyone that is receiving alerts on my posts. As always, comments are welcome.
A Conversation While Roasting Rabbits
Daniel lay on his side as he watched Mingo place the skewered rabbits on the makeshift rack of twigs over the fire. He was too tired to eat, but knew he must. They had miles to go before reaching home. Mingo knelt and blew on the glowing embers until the fat from the meat caused the fire to smoke and crackle with sparks of blue. The Cherokee poked at the fire, turned a cautious weary eye back to Daniel, then returned to his task.
"Somethin' on your mind, Mingo?"
"No. Nothing in particular."
Daniel thought back over the three day trip trying to remember what might be bothering his friend. Did I say something that offended the Cherokee? Did I take a wrong turn? "Well, dad burn it, Mingo, if I have to guess... Could it be what that angry varmint said back at Salem has you treatin' me like Becky on wash day?"
"Who? I don't recall hearing anyone speak of you."
Daniel chuckled. "Unless you were suddenly struck deaf, there's no way you didn't hear the man. He bellowed like a buffalo cow calving."
"It is none of my business what the man said, but now that you mention it, I suppose I am a little concerned that it is bothering you. You have been unusually quiet for two days straight."
"I reckon I have been a mite on the mute side...so does that mean you miss my tall tales?" Daniel grinned with raised eyebrows.
"No! I consider it a blessing of the Creator that your mind has been too occupied in silent contemplation to conjure up your usual form of entertainment."
"Well, ain't that just the slap in the face? I guess it takes a mite less educated feller to 'preciate my story-tellin' talents. I've always been able to keep Yadkin from yawnin' and Israel from rollin' his eyes. At least I know you'll never believe the far-fetched dribble people write 'bout my exploits on the frontier."
Mingo turned a concerned face to Daniel, which made the normally buoyant frontiersman avert his eyes from the Cherokee's firm dark gaze.
Daniel sighed. "I s'pose you've every right to be asking what's a-bothering me. I don't much like my own company this evening."
"I have no expectations of being entertained, my friend."
Daniel looked steadily at Mingo who had his back turned tending the rabbits. "I'll tell you what's bothering me. The very thing that's been occupying my mind since we left Salem…"
The Cherokee looked over his shoulder at Daniel in anticipation.
"Did the man's words cause you to think twice 'bout our friendship? Did he put doubts in your head 'bout me?" Daniel asked cautiously.
Mingo's dark eyebrows dipped, which always gave him a fierce look. "Your past is no concern of mine. It certainly would never change my opinion of you as I hope my past would not alter your opinion of me. Does it bother you that Lord Dunsmore is my father?"
"No, of course not. Is that why you never told me until he rudely barged into our lives? You thought it would bother me?"
"Well, I apologize for leavin' you to believe I would judge you by such a trivial fact. If'n I'd been concerned 'bout who sired you I'd a' asked."
Mingo wiped his hands on his blue pants and scooted back to sit on his blanket next to Daniel. "Do you want to tell me what happened? I am a good listener."
"You're too modest. I'd say the finest listener this side of the Allegany."
"You find it difficult to speak of your earlier journey through the Cumberlands?"
Daniel took a deep breath and expelled it slowly. "It's a mighty painful memory. Once it starts, it's like a flood. I don't rightly know that I can without a tankard of Cincinnatus' Blue Thunder to cry in." Daniel picked up a twig and dug into the soft dirt at his side.
"Sorrow must be released or it will eat at you from the inside like a disease." Mingo pulled his knees up and rested his sinewy bronzed arms across them. Staring into the fire, he waited quietly while his friend tried to find the words he had not ventured to utter in nearly three years.
Daniel stared at Mingo and marveled at how perfectly still and silent the man could be. Mingo must think me a fidgeting raccoon. He reached to his head, pulled his coonskin cap off, threw it to the ground, and then rubbed a hand nervously through his brown hair. Unconsciously, he signed in frustration, which drew Mingo's attention away from the fire for a moment, but didn't hold it.
"Why in tarnation are you so wise for your age?"
"I do not know what you mean," Mingo asked with a smile. "An Oxford education does not make a man wise. I consider you wise."
"Don't think so highly of me," Daniel mumbled. "Then you won't be disappointed some day."
Mingo turned and frowned. "Daniel, you are not yourself, today. You just sounded like me. Something is troubling you. You can tell me, or not. It is your choice." The Indian returned his attention to the fire.
Daniel rolled on his back and rested his head on his interlaced fingers. He closed his eyes and breathed in the cool night air that smelled of campfire, coffee, roasting rabbits and pines. That was all he needed to feel content most days though the memory of that fateful day on the Cumberland Trace was like a jagged black scar branded on the very core of his being. He opened his eyes and looked through the clearing in the canopy of trees above, at the multitude of twinkling stars that never failed to remind him of his insignificance on the earth. He believed it must be the purpose of those stars to remind men of their insignificance and it was a good thing he saw that view most every night before he fell asleep. He liked to believe Jim was out there somewhere watching, listening. Jim would have fallen in with Mingo like a tick to a dog. Mingo would be a friend. A friend he could tell secrets to without fear of a tattling. A friend to ask advice when a father wouldn't do. Daniel frowned at the thought of Jim asking Yadkin for that advice. Somehow, in the crazy scheme of things, that meant Mingo should know what happened to Jim.
Daniel smiled, and then began to speak, slowly. He heard his own natural drawl weighing heavy on his words as if a stranger were speaking through him. "The start of the journey was overflowin' with hope... Everyone was excited and joyful. You'd a' thought they were all headed for a county fair. Jim was beside himself with joy helpin' me guide those settlers to a new world full of promise. Many of them we counted as close friends and family. Jim collected friends as a pond collects 'squiters. That boy hopped and bobbed down the trail like a trout freed of fisherman's hook. He was a natural."
"Jim was your son?"
"Yep." Daniel coughed and cleared his throat. "James Boone. He was sixteen. A tall handsome fine boy that took to booklearnin' as easy as huntin'. Had his mother's good looks and smarts. He was already a good tracker and hunter and had covered not a few miles with me doing some market huntin'. Becky doted on him as a mother will her first-born... I chastised her for being over protective... I've never done it since. I leave the raising of the children to her now...because of Jim."
Daniel raised himself up to a sitting position then leaned back on a mossy log, stretching his long buckskin clad legs toward the fire.
"He and a friend were doing the huntin' to provide food for the trek. They would haul in huge bucks--proudly displayin' their kill like boys will. The green settlers were amazed at the size and quantity of the game. I told 'em we didn't need to haul salted meat. Fresh meat would be at every turn in the trail." Daniel smiled at the memory.
"Like father, like son," Mingo said.
"I reckon. He was most like me of all my children, much to the distress of his mother. She was angry with me..." Daniel felt a lump in his throat "...for allowin' the boys to leave the mule train to do a little scoutin' and retrieve supplies. We hadn't left Virginia—" Daniel stopped. His voice had cracked. He felt his breath leave him—and the all too familiar momentary kick of panic that it wouldn't come back.
Mingo seemed to since his distress and quietly moved forward and rotated the rabbits to allow them to cook evenly. He returned to his blanket and continued to watch the fire, poking it with a long stick to keep the flames from burning the game.
Daniel inhaled and forcibly exhaled with a sigh. "Before we got through the trace, a couple of the boys showed up in a frightful frenzy, screaming 'Indian attack.' I figured they had just seen some Indians and panicked. I took a few men on horseback to return to the scene..." Daniel stopped, breathless. He swallowed hard, rubbed his face with his hands, then stretched them out before him and saw them shaking. He let his arms fall limp to his sides.
After a long wait, Daniel continued, "I couldn't believe that I didn't hear—that it happened not three miles from camp—we heard nothin'—felt nothin'—but it was like an earthquake shook my life."
"The loss of a child is the worst affliction known to all men."
"It wasn't just death. Had a b'ar got him, I could have handled that. It was a pointless massacre of helpless young lives. We found Jim and his best friend tortured, mutilated as Indians are want to do... to their worst enemies."
Daniel saw Mingo flinch and drop his head. His friend truly didn't know the story. No one in Boonesborough had told him. Daniel felt cowardly for expecting others to tell this story for him. He swallowed and felt his voice failing him, as the words felt like barbed ice in his throat. "The marks on their bodies...the method of their death...told us it was probably Shawnee. That beautiful child...Becky's child, ripped up like... I tracked those murderers for miles in my own private angry haze, but they escaped. I couldn't help imagining Jim's last hours over and over for weeks afterwards. I would wake up in the middle of the night hearing his voice screaming for me—" Daniel clenched his eyes shut and bit his lower lip trying to fight the tears back. He lowered his head in his hands to hide them when he lost the fight. He felt Mingo's arm across his back, his steady hand squeezing his shoulder and realized his own body was shaking uncontrollably.
"I feel your pain, my brother," Mingo whispered at his ear. "Yours and Rebecca's. You and your family are as my own. I thought Rebecca an exceptional woman, but I now know she is a woman of great strength. You both are very stout of heart and mind."
"I'm amazed and befuddled every time I return home and find Becky still there," Daniel said. "Any other woman would've packed up the children and moved back to the safety of the east long ago. I kinda always wondered why she didn't just dump me and marry my brother Ned who stayed put in North Carolina."
"She loves you."
Daniel wiped his eyes with his buckskin sleeve then lifted and cocked his head. He stared at a blurry Mingo through narrowed eyes for a moment. "Now hold on there. What does an avowed Cherokee bachelor know of love?"
"I assure you I know enough to recognize it." Mingo relaxed his grip and drew his arm back.
Daniel found himself breathing easier. He was stunned that he had shared that story. The dark memory was a load he bore alone like a secret crime. The penance was silence. "Of course you do, Mingo. What was I thinking? Why being a comely single fella and all, you probably know more 'bout the adventures of love than I do. Ole' Yadkin and I was just lamentin' the other day the problems we have traveling with you. It seems, everywhere we go, people of the female persuasion can't keep their eyes off ya. Sometimes it makes Yad want to put a bag over your head. They hang on every word spoken in that deep baritone voice of yours. And if you happen to be singin', well," Daniel rolled his eyes, "they think the heavens have opened and Gabriel's come down for a visit. Don't even get me started on your obvious ability to charm Becky. Do ya think I haven't noticed?" Daniel asked with a perfectly straight face.
Mingo sat up straight and glanced sideways with big eyes at Daniel, clearly not a little concerned about where he was going with the conversation.
Daniel continued, "But, unlike you, I like to be entertained on these long journeys, so if'n it pleases you, sir, feel free to share with me the trials and tribulations of your love life, and exactly where and how you learnt 'bout love. I may be just an old married geezer to you, but I'm not too old to learn a thing or two."
"Daniel Boone, you are trying to change the subject at my expense."
"Why, yes, I am. Will you not allow me to divert our conversation from my unhappy tale? The way I see it we either gotta talk about me or we gotta talk about you and you're a curiosity that shames the cat. I've known you just shy of a year and you're still a riddle."
Mingo chuckled. "Perhaps another time, with a little help from Cincinnatus' Blue Thunder."
"Yep. I reckon we both could use a little o' that right now. I'd settle for a noggin' o' rum from anywhere."
The Cherokee reached off to the side and came back with a silver flask in his hand.
"For medicinal purposes, I presume?" Daniel asked.
Mingo nodded and removed the top. Daniel grabbed the flask and swallowed a long gulp of the liquid then returned the cap and put it down between them. "A noggin' o' rum, how convenient. That there pert near made the evenin'." Daniel licked his lips dry.
"What you described would not be the Shawnee or the Cherokee way," Mingo said. "Typically, captives are taken and held for payment when the offence is trespassing. It must have been a renegade hunting party, or a young chief in waiting, trying to prove his value to the tribe."
"It was a renegade band all right. Delaware, Shawnee and Cherokee. Led by a man I considered a friend that had shared a meal at my table with my family."
Mingo jerked his head to face Daniel in surprise.
"He went by the name of Big Jim. A Cherokee-Shawnee mix. I didn't learn that for weeks later. That's why it was two specific boys that were singled out for that special treatment of torture and mutilation. Big Jim was sendin' me, personally, a message. All I knew that day was that a silent unseen monster stalked and killed my boy. They achieved what they were after. The settlers turned back. Becky and I went through a ragin' river of emotions. Sorrow then anger, then sorrow ag'in, then cold dead silence. The people had sold their land, their homes. They had nothin' to return to. Most hated me and those that didn't, pitied me. I had failed them. I had failed as a father. What kind of a father would allow that to happen to his son?" Daniel looked into Mingo's startled eyes, their deep brown color reflecting the firelight, and realized he had uttered a tirade of rage. He dropped and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mingo. It's my cross to bear."
"And a risk you take when you have children, is it not?" Mingo asked. "From the day they are born you must worry about what might befall them."
Daniel grinned at his friend. "Now, I didn't tell you that story to give you an excuse for not havin' children. Becky will have my hide. She tells me almost every day I'm home that there ought to be more of you in this world. You don't want to disappoint Becky do you?"
"Becky may have a long wait." Mingo laughed. "Israel will give her children before I."
"Don't wait 'til I'm too old to enjoy them. I want to spoil them rotten."
"As payback for my spoiling of Jemima and Israel?"
"Yes, siree. That's what uncles are for." Daniel laughed with Mingo at what each knew was Mingo's role in the Boone family.
"Daniel, you could not have foreseen such a barbarous cowardly attack. Only a coward would kill a sixteen-year-old boy in such a manner. You took the same risk you asked those settlers to take. They have no right to judge you as harshly as that man in Salem."
"It was the worst day of my life, and the worst day of his life. The other boy singled out to be tortured was that man's only son."
"Did you bury James there where he fell?"
"Yep. I have visited the grave once. Animals had disturbed it, so I dug 'em up and buried 'em deeper. Both boys are buried together in that grave, wrapped in a blanket."
A loud screech penetrated the infinite dark night that enveloped the two men. Daniel jumped, and then chuckled. "Those ornery critters never fail to make me jump."
"The screech owl is interested in our rabbits. So, what made you return, to try again here in Kentucky?" Mingo asked.
"You told me once that if'n a warrior is injured in battle, he must quickly arise to fight ag'in, or he'll never do so. Isn't that how you live your life?"
"Yes. I believe that is true."
"I had to try ag'in and succeed for the memory of Jim, and to live on for my other children, for Becky. I believe if I hadn't returned to cross those mountains, I couldn't have lived with myself. Jim would've died in vain. Now, at least, I can say his loss has brought freedom to many. People like me, with no inheritance of land or fortune. Even the lowest of outcasts, the dog kicked a thousand times, can find a new start here. It's a place for them to raise a family and hold their head high with no one to tell them they cain't or they ain't of the right class."
"Kentucky means freedom to you?"
"Yep. Isn't it the same with you?"
"I agree that English custom and class is very deterministic. I would not trade my Cherokee life for it, but there are responsibilities that come with freedom."
"Yes, of course. Jim's death taught me a very hard lesson—"
A wolf howled on the ridge above them. Daniel looked back over his shoulder to catch the view of the animal's silhouette against the moon. It was an awesome sight and sound in the forest that he had come to welcome as a comforting gesture. A salute from one tribe to another.
"Brother wolf knows we are roasting rabbits. He has the wind of us." Mingo said.
"And an Indian huntin' party will know why brother wolf howls," Daniel said. "To live as free men on this land we must respect and honor our neighbors and learn to live together. All life is interdependent out here. Mingo, I often think on how it might have been—had I done this or that differently. Perhaps I could've spared Jim had I met Blackfish beforehand, not as a trespasser but as a neighbor. I have learnt a lifetime of knowledge from my Indian friends as well as my Indian foes." Daniel slapped Mingo on the back, startling him. "Isn't that true?"
"Of course, it is true. I still consider you a wise man, Daniel. Wiser than your years. I am proud to call you brother."
Daniel's jaw dropped as he looked at Mingo incredulously. He slung out his arms and faced his friend directly. "Even after I've just described for you the failure of all failures?"
"I do not see it as you do. That experience has made you stronger and wiser. Most men would have run like scared rabbits from the dream you follow."
"Then I'm as foolish as the rabbit that runs and runs only to come full circle back to his killer."
Mingo sighed. "You are being too hard on yourself. Menewa, the Cherokee, sold you the land. Did he not warn you of the Shawnee's feelings towards it?"
"He told me it was a fine piece of land, but I might find itdifficult to live on." Daniel chuckled. "My joy at havin' the signed treaty in my hand prevented me from probin' the meanin' of his words. I have since come to the realization that he sold me the land so that he might have the white settlers as a buffer 'twixt Chota and the Shawnee."
"No one with the responsibility of thousands of lives acts without some degree of self interest."
"Very true, my friend. I don't blame the Cherokee for Jim's death. Don't trouble yourself on that account." Daniel turned from Mingo to the fire. "But I will blame a certain Cherokee if those rabbits burn. I'm starved."
Mingo jumped up and deftly saved the rabbits from the fire.