The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 3
The war had started and ended in the east, so Seth started walking south and west to put it behind him, or so he thought. A day’s walk from the farm found him still seeing a ravaged countryside. He saw no places where actual battles had taken place, but the land and people had suffered just the same. In the pastures he walked through should have been horses and cattle grazing on lush grass. Instead, Seth found the pastures overgrown and empty. Fields that should have been dotted with tobacco plants, corn and oats were grown up in weeds. A few of the farmhouses showed signs of life, but Seth didn’t go up to them. He knew the people there would be struggling to survive, and wouldn’t have anything for him.
After three days, Seth figured he was in Tennessee, though the land didn’t look much different. Foraging by both armies had left its mark in the form of deserted houses and empty barns. Occasionally he’d find a chicken that had somehow escaped the sweep for food, and Seth would eat well for that day. Other days, he subsisted on whatever the forest and fields had to offer.
Rabbits were still plentiful and several fell to his rifle. The large caliber ball did a lot of damage to the meat, but it was something to eat and Seth didn’t complain. Thanks to his searches through the pockets of the dead on the battlefield, he had money to buy food, but he didn’t figure there was any to be had no matter what the price. Besides, he wanted to stay away from people. He still didn’t trust anyone except himself.
He’d learned to make do over the past year. The Confederacy had been unable to get supplies to the army because of the destruction of the railroads by the Union. He and the other men traded knowledge in order to survive. Cattail roots were a substitute for potatoes. Dandelion roots, roasted and ground, made a bitter drink resembling coffee. Boiled dandelion leaves didn’t taste all that good, but did fill him up if he ate enough. Streams were places to find crawdads and if he was lucky a fish or two would swim into the traps he’d learned to make with sticks pushed into the bottom. Other wild foods were in abundance, if one knew where to find them. Thanks to the men with whom he’d served, Seth did.
After a week, Seth came upon a river swollen by the spring rains, and too wide and deep to wade. He turned south and followed it, hoping for a narrower spot or a shallow place. For the rest of the day he followed the meandering bank. That night, he camped on a rise overlooking the water and ate the rabbit he’d shot that afternoon. About dark, he banked his fire and unrolled his bedroll. He went to sleep listening to the croak of the bullfrogs seeking mates on the riverbank.
The next morning, Seth began walking again, still following the river. The day before, he’d fought his way through the willows and other brush along the bank. This day he climbed to the top of a ridge that ran beside the water. There were more trees there, but less undergrowth and the walking was easier. The ridge also tended not to follow every bend in the river but to run in a line roughly parallel to the general direction of the flow.
Seth could see the bends the river snaked through the trees and the bottomlands inside those bends. The farmer in him told him those bottomlands would be the most fertile land around. All it needed was someone to clear it, plow it and plant it. A cabin to start, then a house, but where? Not down in the bottoms. That flooded every spring. Here on the ridge was the place. It wasn’t that high. A trail angling down the slope would be passable even over winter snow. He saw locust trees for the sills, and tall poplars for the walls of a cabin.
As he mused, Seth missed the movement to his right. He didn’t miss the sound of a rifle lock being pulled to full cock. He dropped the Springfield and spun to the right, drawing the Remingtons at the same time. By the time he’d turned, the hammers on the Remingtons were at full cock, and Seth was looking for the source of the unmistakable double click. In less than a second, he found it. The rifle barrel stuck out from between two big oak trees that had grown close together. Behind the barrel he saw part of a face pressed tight against the rifle stock. The rest of the rifleman’s head was covered by the same type of floppy brimmed hat he himself wore.
Seth eased down the hammers on the Remingtons, and holstered them, then held up his hands. He figured if the person had wanted him dead, he’d have already shot him, and Seth wasn’t anxious to convince him he should have. The two oaks were almost perfect cover for the rifleman anyway. Seth couldn’t see anything but the rifle and the face. He smiled.
The voice took him by surprise. It was a woman’s voice.
“You aren’t my neighbor. I got no neighbors. Who are you?”
“Name’s Seth Morre. Who might you be?”
“I’d be the one who’s holdin’ this rifle on you, that’s who. What are you doin’ here?”
“Just passin’ through, Ma’am. Just passin’ through.”
“Passin’ through to where?”
“I don’t know yet. I won’t know ‘til I get there.”
“That rifle. It’s a Springfield, isn’t it?”
“That means you’re in the Union Army.”
Seth shook his head.
“No, not Union. I was Confederate – The Virginia Sixty Third Infantry. I sorta borrowed the rifle from a Union private. I figured I might need a spare sometime, and he didn’t need it anymore. Turns out I was right. They took my Fayettville when the army was disbanded after the surrender.”
“There was a surrender?”
“Yes, didn’t you know?”
“How was I supposed to hear that way up here on this ridge? Who won?”
“That means they’ll be looking for me.”
“Why would the Union look for a woman way out here? They have better things to do, I think.”
“Never mind what I said. Those revolvers belong to that private too?”
“No, they were a Union Captain’s. He didn’t need them anymore either and I figured it’d be pretty good to have them. They shoot more times and faster than my Fayettville or this Springfield. Say, isn’t that rifle gettin’ heavy?”
“I can hold it up a while longer. Why should I believe you? You wouldn’t be the first Union soldier to say he was Confederate. Folks in Tennessee don’t take kindly to Union soldiers. Sometimes, they just up and disappear.”
“I have my papers in my haversack.”
“Get ‘em, but you better not try anything. I can put this ball right in your eye if I want to.”
Seth pulled his Bible from the haversack, and took his enlistment contract from under the front cover.
“Here it is.”
“Put it on the ground and put those revolvers on top of it. Then you go that way about twenty steps.”
The rifle barrel moved to Seth’s left and then returned to point directly at his chest. Seth sat the paper on his haversack, then put both Remingtons on top and walked twenty paces to his left.
She was about his age, Seth guessed, and she was dressed like a man. Her shirt and trousers were the same homespun cloth as his, and looked almost as large. The trousers were rolled up several turns above her boots, and the shirt was so large he figured two of her would have fit inside it. The only thing that seemed the right size was the hat and the Navy Colt revolver tucked into her belt.
The woman crossed the space between the oaks and his haversack quickly, but she kept the rifle leveled at him the whole time. She stooped down, still watching him, and felt for the paper. After finding it, she gave it one quick glance, then cradled the rifle in one arm and looked at it again. When she’d finished, she put the paper back on the haversack and leveled the rifle again as she looked at Seth.
“Well, it says what you told me, so I’ll believe you for now. You’re a long way from Virginia, Seth Moore, and you don’t know where you’re going. That sounds a little crazy to me, but I suppose the war made us all a little bit that way. You hungry?”
“I might be if you’d put that rifle down. It’d also be nice to know who’s asking.”
The woman raised the rifle barrel up, and eased the hammer back down to half-cock. She picked up the revolvers, put them and the paper into his haversack and slung it over her shoulder, then cocked the Springfield and flicked the percussion cap off the nipple with her finger and stuck it in the pouch at her waist.
“I’m Florence McCabe and my cabin’s this way. You carry your rifle and walk in front of me.”
Florence kept her eye on the man walking in front of her, and kept her thumb on the hammer of her rifle. The paper said what he’d told her, but she was still wary. Florence hadn’t trusted men since Samuel.
When she was eighteen, her parents had both contracted pneumonia and died. Florence thought her father had mentioned an aunt who lived in Kingsport, and she had walked the twenty miles from the little cabin on the ridge to the city. Once there, she asked at the Post Office about a Margaret McCabe. They had no such person on their list. Florence thought she was lost until another girl at the Post Office told her of a place she could get food and a place to stay in exchange for helping out with the cooking and cleaning. Fanny led Florence to a house on the edge of the town and introduced her to a man she just called Samuel.
It was the next day she learned why Samuel offered free room and board to the women who lived in his large house. Several Confederate soldiers called in the afternoon, and Fanny said they had to go down to the parlor. Once she was there, Florence realized cooking and cleaning weren’t the only thing she had to exchange for her room and board. The house was a bordello, and Samuel expected his women to take care of the customers. One by one, the young girls and women in the parlor each left with a soldier. Fortunately for her, there were more women than men, and she was spared on that day. She was not so fortunate on subsequent days.
Florence lost her maidenhead to a fat Confederate corporal, and had cried for hours afterward. Fanny had tried to console her, and Florence had confided that she would run away as soon as she could. Fanny promptly told Samuel, who beat Florence with a short leather whip and told her if she ever ran away, he’d send men to find her and bring her back.
Since that first of several beatings, Florence had made her plans in silence except for Polly. Polly was about her age, and wanted to leave too, but had been too afraid of Samuel to try it on her own. Florence told Polly they could live in her cabin until the war was over, and then go to a city to live. Polly thought that was a wonderful idea. Both women set about preparing, and waited for an opportunity.
That opportunity came when the Union attacked Kingsport. On the evening of the first day of the battle, Florence had carried out her plan. She’d dressed in some of Samuel’s clothes she’d taken when she did the laundry, tied her auburn hair up into a bun, and covered it with one of his floppy hats. She went to get Polly, but the girl said she was too afraid to go. After trying unsuccessfully for a few minutes to convince Polly leaving was better than staying, Florence had hugged Polly and then started for the kitchen and the back door to the house.
Florence tiptoed down the hallway and then eased through the kitchen door. She was reaching for the doorknob of the back door when she heard Samuel’s voice.
“I been sittin’ here since supper, waitin’ for you to try to leave again.”
Florence heard the sound she’d grown to fear, the slap of Samuel’s whip into his palm. The slap came again, and Samuel chuckled softly.
“I wondered where my trousers and shirt went, ‘til I remembered you want to leave so bad. Wasn’t hard to get Polly to tell me you were gonna. Just a couple smacks on her fat ass. Now, take off them clothes you stole and bend over the counter. I’m gonna teach you once and for all.”
Yellow, flickering light filled the room as Samuel lit a lamp. Florence turned to look at him. He had on only his trousers, and he was smiling.
“Take off them clothes, you little bitch, like I told you.”
Florence turned around, embarrassed to take off the shirt in front of Samuel. When she let the shirt fall to the floor, Samuel swung the whip at her back. It hit with a sharp, stinging slap and Florence cried out. Samuel laughed.
“You scream all you want. Ain’t nobody gonna come help you. Them girls all know to stay in their rooms if they know what’s good for ‘em. Now drop them drawers.”
Florence had fallen over the counter at the pain of the blow. As the pain of another slashing blow racked her body, she saw the butcher knife she had used that morning to cut slices from the ham that Samuel had handed her. Samuel was leery of Confederate money, so the last soldiers had brought the two hams as payment to Samuel for his women. She closed her fingers around the handle, and turned around slowly, holding the knife behind her.
“Samuel, I was afraid the cannons were going to hit the house and I was going to hide in the root cellar. That’s all. I was going to come back as soon as the battle was over.”
Samuel quickly closed the distance between them. Florence could smell the whiskey on his breath.
“Like hell you were. Polly told me you tried to get her to go with you. Now drop them drawers before I beat those teats black and blue.”
Samuel had raised the crop to strike her again when Florence plunged the butcher knife into his belly. Samuel gasped, dropped the crop, and staggered back. As he fell, Florence jumped on top of him, and stabbed the butcher kniife into his belly again, just under his ribs. Samuel made one cry and then began gasping for breath. Florence pulled out the knife, looked at Samuel’s face, and all the hatred she felt for the man boiled to the surface. She kept stabbing at his bare belly until she realized he wasn’t moving any longer.
Florence was covered in his blood, and smelled of his insides. After going to the room where Samuel slept and using the water in his washbasin to clean off most of the gore, Florence took more of his clothes and dressed again. She washed the knife off, wrapped it in a hand towel, and stuck it inside the shirt she wore. After peering out into a night lit by a thousand fires, Florence walked out the back door. She hid until daylight in a carriage house that had been blown half away.
When the Union cannons began firing again, Florence ran away from the sound of the round shot singing through the smoke filled air and then bouncing over the ground.
Picking her way through the rain of cannon fire had been terrifying. Seeing the men in gray lying dead on the ground had been more terrifying. After seeing one with no body below his waist, she considered going back, but then realized that no matter which side won the battle, she’d be arrested and tried for murder.
The Confederate line was in chaos from the cannon fire, and she had little trouble slipping through. The men were worried more about keeping their heads down than by a single man running away from the falling cannon shot. Some of them were running in the same direction as she to get away from the battle and she joined their flight. When the soldiers were stopped by a sergeant and made to re-group, Florence slipped behind a building and hid until they left.
Florence thought she was safe after the Confederate troops marched off, and started walking again. A few minutes later, she saw a line of Union cavalry riding toward her. They’d evidently skirted Kingsport and were preparing to attack the Confederate forces from the rear. She tried to run, but two of the men in blue uniforms stopped her at gunpoint and took her to their sergeant. Since by that time, many of the Confederate soldiers had worn out their gray uniforms and wore homespun, he thought she was a Confederate soldier. He ordered one of the men to take her to a nearby stable and hold her there until the battle ended.
Once inside the stable, the Union soldier told her to go into one of the box stalls. He closed the door and latched it, then holstered his revolver and put his horse in another stall. After drawing the revolver again, he opened Florence’s stall and said he had to search her for weapons. Knowing that meant he’d discover her true sex, Florence had tried to talk him out of it.
“I don’t have any guns. I’m just a farm boy who got caught in the fighting and I’m trying to get back home.”
The private sneered.
“So’s you can join up with the Rebs, I’ll bet. You just put your hands on that wall and lean agin’ it or I’ll say you tried to escape and I had to shoot you.”
Florence turned around and put her hands on the wall. She heard the sound of the soldier’s revolver quietly sliding into its holster, and then his hands on her back. He ran them down to her hips, and then stepped back.
“You’re no boy. You’re a damned woman dressed up like one. Take off that shirt and turn around.”
Florence unbuttoned the shirt, pulling the knife from inside it as she did so. As she turned, she put her right hand and the knife behind her. With the other, she pulled the shirt open, revealing her breasts. The soldier grinned as he unbuttoned the fly of his blue trousers.
“We might as well have us some fun whilst we’re waiting on Cap’n Davis to kill all them Rebs.”
He walked slowly to her, then put his hands on her shoulders and started to push her down on the floor of the stall. Florence used all her strength to thrust her knife into his belly. As the soldier cried out and grabbed his stomach, she pulled the knife out and slashed at his throat. Blood gushed from the wound and the soldier fell down. In seconds, he lay still on the straw.
Florence pulled the Colt revolver from the soldier’s holster, stuck it inside her belt, and searched through his pockets. The two quarter-eagles in his blouse pocket went into the pocket of her trousers. She then led his horse from the stall. A minute later, she was galloping away from Kingsport.
Back in her cabin, Florence lived in constant fear. She never went out without the Colt tucked into her belt, and that spring was glad she’d taken it. She was behind the cabin, dressing the rabbit she’d snared that morning, when she heard the snort of a horse.
Florence peered around the corner of the cabin. A lone man had ridden into the small clearing, and he yelled at the front door.
“Florence McCabe. You killed a man in Kingsport, and I aim to take you in and collect the reward. Come on out and you won’t get hurt. You make me come in to get you and you’ll regret it.”
Florence knew Polly had probably told about the cabin’s location. Polly was so afraid of everything she wouldn’t have tried to keep that a secret if someone in authority questioned her. That was the only way the man could have found her.
Florence didn’t hesitate, a fact that surprised her a little afterwards. She cocked the hammer on the Colt, aimed for the man’s chest and pulled the trigger. He fell from the horse and moaned for a few minutes before she heard a ragged breath. Then, he lay still. She buried him in the bottom after taking his clothes and boots, powder flask and bullet pouch, and his knife.
On his saddle, Florence found a rifle like her father had owned, a thirty-six caliber Pennsylvania rifle that had been converted with a percussion lock. No woman would carry a rifle, so when she’d gone to Kingsport, she’d left it behind. When she’d come back to the cabin, the rifle was gone as were few animals she’d left to fend for themselves. She figured soldiers from one side or the other had taken the rifle and animals.
In his saddlebags were powder, balls, caps and patches, and much to her satisfaction, two twenty dollar gold coins. Florence knew she didn’t dare go to Kingsport to buy anything now, but maybe some day she could. She put the double-eagles with the other two coins in the pouch she wore around her neck and between her breasts.
There was also a wanted poster in the saddle bags with a drawing that roughly resembled her. It said the Union colonel in charge of the occupation of Kingsport wanted her for the murder of Samuel Ellis. The reward was a hundred dollars if she was brought in alive or fifty dollars if she was brought in dead. In smaller print, the poster gave a description of her along with the statement she was thought to be living in a cabin somewhere in the hills around Kingsport.
After that, she began carrying the rifle as well as the revolver. The rifle would let her keep some distance between her and anyone who ventured to her cabin. She also felt safer with the rifle than with the Colt. Florence had grown up hunting with her father’s rifle as a way of getting meat. Men were just bigger targets than rabbits and squirrels.
Up until the time Seth had stumbled into her sights, no other men had paid her a visit. Florence was thankful, but knew her peace couldn’t last. When the war ended, there would be other men willing to look for her if they could earn a hundred dollars, and maybe wouldn’t consider an extra fifty dollars worth the trouble of getting her back to Kingsport alive.
Florence wasn’t certain why she hadn’t just killed Seth, except that he was walking instead of riding. She didn’t think any man in his right mind would walk to her cabin to find her. It would take too long to get there, and too long to take her back.
No, Florence thought as she followed him up the trail to her cabin, he was probably who he said he was. She thought maybe he was a little touched in the head too. Seth didn’t appear to be afraid of her. He seemed friendly, and he’d even laughed when she said the Union would come looking for her. That and the fact he looked as thin as a fence post was the reason she’d asked if he was hungry.
Florence directed Seth to turn toward the river, and a short walk later, she followed Seth through the cabin door. Florence pulled off the hat and shook out the pile of auburn hair on top of her head. It reached nearly to her hips.
“I don’t have much, but the garden has some greens from last year and I shot some squirrels yesterday. I don’t have any potatoes, but I put in some cattail roots and wild onions. They’ve been cooking since last night. You like squirrel stew?