Man & Beast: Chapter One — A Sexy, Gay Twist on American History

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CHAPTER ONE

Fort Niagara, Lower Canada, August 1797

I couldn’t stop trembling, though whether from fear or the blood-numbing cold I didn’t know. For the thousandth time, I touched the worn flyer carefully folded and tucked into my shirt pocket. Soon I would know if I’d been right in coming here or if I had made the worst mistake of my life.

I had waited anxiously in the Major’s chamber for so long now that I swore my rigid body was dissolving into the freezing darkness. Such a sensation was familiar to me — I often lost my sense of self in the Major’s formidable presence.

Except for the soft sound of my breathing, the room was as still as a tomb. The cold from the fort’s earthen floor seeped through my thin leather shoes. I wiggled my toes, but my feet were already so numb I could barely feel them. The unrelenting chill only intensified the dark, the room’s sense of menace. No wonder the soldiers called this place Fort Friggin’ Frigid.

How much time had passed since I’d first entered? A quarter hour? A full hour? I couldn’t be sure, but at last the harsh sound of iron heels striking stone echoed from the corridor.

My mouth went dry. Even if it was the Major, I feared how he’d react upon finding me in his quarters, much less under these dire circumstances. But no matter what manner of misfortune might be about to befall me, I would never regret having shared my body with him these past few weeks. One of his shirts hung to my left, and I buried my face in it, inhaling the piquant but soothing smell of his body mingled with the scent of his comfrey soap.

The footsteps halted just outside. Two voices began conversing — one being the Major’s distinctive baritone, the other a gruff, angry growl that deepened my unease. If the Major came in with someone else, I was done for. He’d deny ever knowing me, turn me over to the townsfolk, and I’d spend twelve months fettered in bilbos and at hard labor with the wretched English convicts local wags called the King’s passengers. That was if I was fortuitous — and I wasn’t feeling lucky.

The voices ceased, followed by the sound of footsteps moving away, then a moment of silence. Even though I knew hiding to be futile, I pressed myself against the back wall just in case he wasn’t alone. Swinging open, the door squealed, spilling in light, and I couldn’t help myself — startled, I banged into a table.

A silhouette stood motionless in the doorway. The Major had heard me, and I barely dared breathe. A bar of tremulous torchlight from the corridor lay wavering on the floor.

Without warning, the door shut, plunging the room back into darkness. The sudden rasping of flint against iron cut through the silence. Light from the oil lamp leapt up, and even as weak as it was, I had to cover my eyes from the sudden brightness.

“What the bloody hell?” cursed the Major.

“It’s freezing in here, Colin. No wonder we always met at my place.”

“What the devil’s deuce are you doing here, Chapman? Are you insane?”

“Aren’t you—”

“Answer me. Now.”

I took a deep breath to steady myself. “Some of the townspeople know about us. They’re looking for me as we speak.”

“Fires and faggots!” He pressed his hand to his forehead. “What exactly do they know?”

“That we spent last night together. That we have spent others together.”

“So you came here? Are you trying to get me killed?”

“I came to warn you. I risked getting caught doing this.”

“How did they find out?”

“I don’t know. Someone saw something — or someone told.”

“Told? Unless you said something, nobody else could . . .” His voice trailed off as he glanced toward the door.

“Did you tell someone?” I dared to ask.

Instead of answering, he said, “Who exactly is looking for you?”

“The constable. Coming into the barn, I overheard him asking Mr. MacMurria if he’d ever seen me alone with a British soldier. If I’d gotten there five minutes earlier, he would have found me for sure.”

“Damnation. Did the constable know I was the soldier?”

“He mentioned you along with a couple of others, but I gather he wasn’t entirely certain.”
“But they recognized you? Knew you worked for MacMurria?”

“Apparently.”

“And that dolt of a Scotsman must have told the constable your name, that you’re not even British.”

I nodded.

“How did you get in here? Who did you talk to?”

“Two guards out front.”

“You used my name?”

I hesitated before answering. “Yes.”

“By all the devils! Do you realize how badly you’ve botched things?”

“I already told you I came here to warn you! Besides, I had nowhere to go.”

He pressed his hand to his temple, his fingers kneading his skull. “I know. I’m sorry. We’ve got to get you away from here.” He reached over and touched my face. “They know who you are — you’re done for if they catch you. I think I can talk my way out of this by telling them you used my name as a ruse to get inside. Once you’re gone, maybe I can even send them looking for you in the wrong direction.”

I took the flyer from my pocket. “Come with me,” I said softly, handing him the precious paper that promised free land and supplies. That promised a future.

“Do what?” he said incredulously. “Why?”

“So we could be together. Read the flyer.”

He quickly did so. “John, I’ve no more desire to settle western Pennsylvania than I do to bed King George’s wife. And I’ve never heard of this Warren.”

“Right now it’s nothing but a frontier outpost, but next spring they’re giving away land and supplies to those willing to stake a claim. We could be together. I know it’s where things will finally be right for me.”

He studied me. “You’re actually serious, aren’t you?”

I said nothing.

“I wish it were possible,” he said. “Truly I do. But I’m a major in His Majesty’s army. I go back to England in less than a year, where I’m to be married. I’ve got my station to think about.” He put the flyer back in my pocket.

“But, Colin, they know your name. What if—”

“I’m sorry, but I’m can’t go with you. The price is too high.” He went to a trunk, hurriedly pulling out pieces of old uniforms. “Get shucked and put these on. If anyone sees me with you dressed like that, they’ll remember and ask questions later. Hurry!”

I studied the uniform, then said, “I once considered joining the army.” That I had pondered taking such drastic action was yet more proof of how badly I had wanted away from home.

“I’m glad you didn’t. We might have faced each other in battle if you had. At least this way, we had a few weeks together.”

Shivering in the cold air, I yanked off my shirt and pants, and shoved them into my pack with my few other belongings. I wriggled into the tight-fitting clothes he gave me.

Wearing the uniform felt uncommonly strange. Father had fought the British twenty years earlier and raised us on stories of how cruel and cowardly they were. On the other hand, Father had been a drunkard accused of being a traitor, so I had no idea how true any of the tales that spilled from his inebriated mouth actually were. Still, it felt more queer to wear a British uniform than it had to lie in the arms of one of their officers.

“There’s an embrasure in the back wall that’s hardly used,” said the Major. “It’s only a few hundred yards from there to the woods. Now, if we run into anyone, by Saint Christopher’s whiskers, don’t say a word.”

He slipped outside, then motioned for me to follow. We came to a corner and he signaled me to stop. A soldier rambled down the corridor but exited to the right before he reached us.

Trailing behind the Major, I whispered, “What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?”

“What about that flyer you showed me? Go there.”

“I can’t, Colin. I don’t have supplies or money or even a good sense of direction. I get lost between the cabin and the outhouse.”

“Stop making jokes, for God sakes!” He faced me as he dug into his pocket, then thrust a handful of silver coins at me. “It isn’t much, but it will help you. And we’ll get you supplies on the way out. You’ll go to this Warren, stake a claim, start fresh. Nobody there will know you. And that’s better for the both of us, isn’t it?”

I reluctantly took the coins. “If you say so.”

“I say so. Listen to me. You can’t come back. Not ever. It’s too dangerous for you.”

“But it’s dangerous for you, too. I still think you—”

“Never mind that. Just follow me.”

For five minutes, we wordlessly made our way along various corridors until a ladder hove into view. We climbed ten feet up to an opening that led to the fort’s back entrance. One at a time we stepped out into the warmth of the late-August afternoon. The Major anxiously cast his eyes along the embankment.

Birches and elms dotted the hillside beyond the fort, the long shadows of their trunks stretching across the field like bars. Farther up the hillside, the forest grew thick and wild and dangerous. I doubted it would take me long to pass into Indian country or stumble across a she-bear and her cubs foraging in the blackberry bushes.

“What about a gun and supplies?” I said.

“Damnation! Why didn’t you say something before?”

“I did!” I snapped. “And you said you’d get them. How the blazes was I supposed to know where to stop?”

“You’re right. This is my bollocks. Stay here, and don’t move. I’ll be right back.” He ducked down again, vanishing from sight.

I waited, fidgeting and tugging at the ill-fitting uniform. Once someone passed overhead, walking along the fort’s upper perimeter. I practiced a British accent in case I was spotted. The accent was terrible, and I was hugely relieved when the sentinel passed out of sight.

The Major, clutching a burlap sack, appeared at the bottom of the ladder. At first I didn’t realize anything was wrong, but when he leapt up the ladder in three bounds, I knew we were in trouble.

Excited voices echoed up from the corridor.

“They’re coming!” he said, wild-eyed. “They know about me! They know everything! I’m coming with you!”

“But how—”

“Just run! Go! Go!” He shoved me hard, sending me stumbling forward as I jumped down to the ground. If captured now, I knew the punishment administered would be far worse than hard labor. Sodomy was bad enough; sodomy with a British officer would get me a flogging till I passed out, then clapped in leg irons in the shit-hole that passed for their gaol. I would never survive the twelve months I would spend there.

I didn’t want to guess what fate would befall the Major.

Regaining my balance, I sprinted as fast I as I could for the forest. We’d covered perhaps a hundred yards — a third of the way — when I glanced over my shoulder as two soldiers vaulted onto the top of the fort. Another fifty yards had vanished under our fleeing feet when the first shot rang out.

The musket ball whizzed passed and I stumbled.

“Are you hit?” the Major cried out.

Before I could answer, the second soldier fired. Not five feet away, the slight trunk of a pepperidge sapling, its leaves already a bloody scarlet, splintered into dozens of pieces. Without a word, I took off running again, but by now more soldiers had joined in the shooting. Twenty feet from reaching the first line of trees, another shot rang out. At the same moment, the Major, just behind me, leapt upward, as if suddenly taken by a fit.

Hot blood speckled my face as he crashed down, face-first, into the soft purple heather.

“Colin?” I called out, dropping to the ground. I scrambled on my belly to where he lay. Rolling him over, I moaned at the sight of the gory wound in his chest. I could’ve reached into the ragged hole with my hand. Blood issued forth in pulsating spurts, soaking his shirt before being drawn into the dark earth.

His green eyes — the very first thing I’d noticed about him — were wide open as he stared up at the azure sky. He labored to breathe, giving rise to terrible sucking sounds that arose from the bloody wound. A pink bubble formed between his lips, shimmered in the light, then softly popped. He inhaled once more, then his mouth went slack. His eyes glassed over, as dead and lifeless as a pond in January.

Voices clamored in the distance. Glaring back, I saw soldiers charging across the meadow. I scrambled to my feet and grabbed the bag, racing forward, reaching the sanctuary of the woods in a matter of moments. The sound of my ragged breathing coursed through my ears as I ran wildly, tripping and stumbling my way through wealds of dense timber that alternated with sun-drenched meadows.

Breathless and as panicked as a hunted deer, I at last paused in one of the meadows. Wiping stinging sweat from my eyes, I looked backward, forward, then left and right, trying desperately to decide where to go.

Overhead, the flat, hot disk of the sun tracked steadily west.

I followed it.

~~~

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