The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 4
Seth pushed back the empty bowl, and waved at Florence when she got up to fill it for the third time.
“I can’t hold any more. It was really good stew, but I haven’t had that much to eat in a long time.”
Florence smiled in spite of her mistrust of the man.
“Thank you. I haven’t cooked for a man since…for a good while now. It’s good to know I haven’t forgotten how.”
“Who’d you cook for…your husband?”
“No, I’ve never been married. I used to cook for Daddy sometimes, when Mama was busy.”
“Where are your mama and daddy now?”
Florence hesitated, and then answered.
“They’re out back, under the oak tree.”
“No, pneumonia, about a year ago.”
“You’ve been here by yourself for a year?”
Florence hesitated again. She didn’t know this man well enough to tell him about Kingsport and Samuel, and even if she had, what would he think of her then? He carried a Bible with him. That would mean he wouldn’t think kindly of a common whore who’d killed three men.
“Yes, but it’s not too bad. Sometimes I get a little bored, but I just find something to do, and I get over feeling that way.”
As he ate, Seth did what had helped keep him alive in the many battles he’d fought. In battle, he constantly scanned the area for signs of the enemy, for routes of escape if he needed them, and for anything else that might help him survive. Here, in Florence’s cabin, he unconsciously did the same.
There was no back door, and no other rooms. A single bed sat against the wall to the right of the door and a fireplace occupied the back wall. The small table where he ate was on the left side of the door. In one corner leaned the rifle Florence had carried. Beside the door were two saddles, one of which Seth recognized as a McClellan. That saddle had to have come from a Union Cavalry soldier.
“I see by the saddles you must have horses…two, I imagine. What does a girl like you do with two horses?”
Florence faked a smile.
“Oh, Daddy loved horses so he kept several. The two are all that’s left after the army came. They were down in the bottom, so the soldiers didn’t find them. I ride them sometimes.”
“You need two saddles? I see one is a McClellan. How did your Daddy manage to get one of those?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Before, you thought I was lying about being a Confederate soldier. Now, I don’t think you’re telling me the truth. McClellans are Union issue so it had to belong to a Union Cavalry soldier.”
Florence quickly pulled the Colt from her belt and pointed it at Seth.
“You ask a lot of questions for a man who’s on foot and looks to be starving.”
Seth smiled again.
“Don’t go gettin’ all fired up. I just think if I told you the truth, you should do the same for me. I don’t really care how you got them. I just want to know.”
To have a little time to think, Florence lowered the revolver slowly and put it back in her belt. She couldn’t tell Seth about Samuel and what happened in his house, and she couldn’t tell him about killing the Union Cavalry soldier or the man who’d come to her cabin. She could see Seth was not stupid, so her tale would have to be at least partly true if he was to believe her.
“There was a battle in Kingsport, and I was there, trying to find my aunt. When the fighting started, I hid, at first, but I knew I had to get out of there or I’d get killed. When the Union stopped shooting their cannons, I was going to run, but then I stopped. I’d heard stories about what soldiers do to women, so I waited until dark before I started out.
“It wasn’t likely I’d get out of Kingsport before daylight. I couldn’t see much in the dark and there were soldiers everywhere so I had to hide a lot. When I tripped over a dead Confederate soldier, I took off his clothes and put them on. I figured a man wouldn’t attract as much attention as a women.
“The next morning, I started running. There were several men running in the direction I was going until another soldier stopped them and ordered them to go back. I slipped away when he wasn’t looking and hid until they left.
“I was making pretty good time until the Union Cavalry came up behind the Confederates and started to attack. It was awful, shooting all over the place, and men screaming and… I wanted to get out so bad.
“I saw a Union Cavalry soldier get shot and fall off his horse. The horse started running away from the guns just like I was. I caught him, got on, and started riding as fast as he’d run. After a while, I had to stop because he was pretty winded. While I was walking him, a bunch more horses came by. I caught one of them and led her behind me. Like you said about your rifle and revolvers, those soldiers didn’t need their horses any more, and I thought I might.”
Seth looked at the face framed by the long, red-brown waves. One could tell a lot about a person by their face. Florence was smiling and her eyes were looking back at him, bright and shining. They weren’t looking down or looking at something else like she was lying, and the story about the Union Cavalry was the same he’d heard from a sergeant who had managed to escape after the battle. Out of three hundred men, only eighty or so survived and most were captured by the Union. There were probably several officer’s horses running away from the gunfire. Most of the Confederate officers supplied their own horses and saddles, so her story made sense there too. The second saddle looked like one of the Mexican style saddles he’d seen officers from Texas use.
“That makes more sense than you having two horses and a saddle for each one. You’ll probably be glad you have them. I imagine horses will be in demand now that the war is over. From what I’ve seen, between both armies they took most of the horses between here and Virginia. You’ll probably be able sell them at a good price. I’d offer to buy one if I had any money. I’m not gettin’ very far very fast on foot.”
Florence laughed, partly because of relief that he seemed to believe her, and partly because what he said struck her as funny.
“So, you don’t know where you’re goin’, but you want a horse to get you there faster?”
“I know I’m headed west, and the sooner I can get away from what this war left, the better I’ll like it.”
Florence stared at him for a minute, then took both their bowls and washed them in the kettle of water she’d hung over the fire to heat. As she wiped them dry, she thought about her future. She had nothing here except a roof over her head. She had no way to plow the garden for food. The small barn and pasture where her father had kept a bull and milk cow and a small herd of hogs was empty. The animals had either run off or been taken by foragers while she was in Kingsport. There was no way to replace them that she could see.
There was also the risk of more men looking for her. If the war was over, as Seth had said, the Union officers in charge of putting things back in order would be rounding up anyone suspected of crimes. She’d heard as much from one of the women at Samuel’s house who’d come from Nashville. The Union had done the same thing there. Eventually, she’d be caught.
She looked at Seth again.
“Would you take me with you?”
Seth turned, a little shocked at the request.
“What did you say?”
“I said, would you take me with you? If you will, I’ll let you have one of the horses.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. I won’t be going through any towns or anywhere else there are other people. I kind of like being alone.”
“I don’t care about other people. I just want to leave this place. There’s nothing left for me here.”
“What about food. I can barely find enough for myself.”
“I’ll bet that big rifle of yours wastes a lot of meat when you do find a rabbit or a squirrel. My rifle wouldn’t do that, and I shoot pretty good. It would be two of us finding food, not just you.”
“If it rains, you’d get soaked. I don’t have a tent or anything. It’ll be cold at night for a while too.”
“I been wet before and I didn’t melt. We can build a fire at night, and I’ll take along my blankets to sleep in.”
“What if somebody saw us? A man and a woman don’t travel together unless they’re married, and then they go in a buggy or a wagon, not on horseback. They’d think you’re a…that we’re…”
“I’ll keep wearing my homespun and they’ll think I’m just a young man, like the soldiers did in Kingsport. Nobody would question two men riding together. Besides, even if they thought we were doing something wrong, why would I care? I’d know we weren’t. You’d know we weren’t too.”
For every argument Seth posed, Florence had an answer. He finally relented. The next morning, he saddled the horses while Florence gathered the things she wanted to take with her. The bundle wasn’t large, just a cup, bowl and spoon for each of them, a skillet and a pot, and her blankets. Seth was already mounted on the bay gelding with the McClellan saddle, so Florence tied her bundle behind the western saddle on the black mare, hung a pouch she said was balls, a powder flask, and patches from the saddle horn, slid her rifle into the scabbard, and smiled.
“I’m all ready.”
They rode the horses across the river by Florence's cabin and then rode at a walk over the ridges and through the valleys between. Neither said much. They were too lost in their own thoughts.
Seth cursed himself both for letting Florence come along and for realizing he enjoyed having her with him even though she wasn’t talking. It was knowing she was there to listen if he had something to say. When he looked at her, she smiled, and that was pleasant also. Seth didn’t remember many smiles during the war. There had been frowns, faces twisted in agony, and faces slack in death, but few smiles. Florence smiled a lot, and the smile lit up her already pretty face. He wouldn’t let himself look deeper than her smile. It seemed to him like that would be disrespectful to Elizabeth.
Florence also had conflicting feelings. She felt safer to have him with her, but he was a still a man, and she knew all too well what some men did to women. She’d been careful to check the Colt to make sure the caps were all in place, and had strapped the knife from the man she’d shot on her hip. If Seth tried anything, she’d be ready for him. She wasn’t sure what to do when she slept, and that bothered her, but she was sure she needed to stay with him. He didn't want to go anywhere there were people, so he probably wasn't going to take her back to Kingsport. She hoped if something happened, he'd help her defend herself.
When the sun was overhead, they stopped beside a small stream. While Seth watered the horses, Florence pulled her powder pouch from the saddle horn and walked into the trees. She came back a few minutes later and waked down to the stream. When she came back to the horses Florence was carrying an arm load of cattails.
“We can eat the stems just like they are while we ride. We can eat some of the roots raw too, but I want to save some for tonight. They won’t be much without meat, but they’ll fill us up.”
That night, then camped in a grove of trees beside a small stream. While Seth made a fire, Florence cleaned the cattail roots and put them in her pot to boil. Seth left her to cook and walked down to the river. He surprised Florence a little later with a dozen crawdads skewered through their tails on a sharpened twig.
“Ever eat crawdads with your cattails?”
“Yes. Daddy used to catch them all the time. He liked them. They'd taste better with some salt, but they'll do.”
That night, Seth spread out his bedroll beside the fire, took the Remingtons out of his holsters and placed them beside his head. When Florence didn't do the same he looked surprised.
“Florence, are you going to stay up all night?”
“That depends on you. Do you promise not to do anything to me while I'm asleep?”
“Florence, you don't need to worry about me on that account. There was a girl, back home. I was going to ask her to marry me if the war hadn't come along. She's the only woman I ever wanted, and probably the only one I ever will want.”
“Why didn't you go back and marry her then?”
“I did go back. The Union army, they...she's with her mother and father now, under the maple tree at their cabin.”
“Oh...I'm sorry, Seth. I shouldn't have asked.”
“You couldn't have known.”
“Is that why you're running away from there?”
Seth just said it was time for them to go to sleep. Florence rolled out her blankets and slipped between them. As the fire crackled out the last heat from the logs, she felt sorry for Seth. She'd known what it was to lose her parents, and it had broken her heart. It must be have been worse to come home and find out your parents and the women you were going to marry were dead.
The next three days were about the same, except Florence shot a rabbit each day so they had meat to eat. Their other food was what ever Seth found. Florence was impressed by his knowledge. She'd lived on the ridge near Kingsport all her life and had not learned as much about the woods and valley plants. She did know how to cook what Seth brought her, and while not fancy, their meals were filling and gave them strength.
The third morning, they mounted and crossed the small creek beside which they had stopped for the night, then rode up a low ridge. At the top, Seth could see relatively flat land. He also saw a farmhouse with smoke coming from the chimney. Florence rode up beside him.
“You gonna stop there? It doesn’t look like the foragers took everything. I see a couple of hens. Maybe we could trade something for some eggs.”
“No. I told you, I don’t want to be around other people. We’ll go around through the trees over there. They’re closer to the house than I’d like, but they should keep us hidden.”
They rode down the ridge and then entered the trees. As they neared the house, they saw three men ride up, tie their horses, and go inside. Seconds later, a woman screamed. Seth held up his hand and listened. Another scream raced from the open door of the farmhouse to the trees. Florence rode closer and whispered.
“Seth, that woman didn’t scream because she was happy to see those men. We have to do something.”
“I know. You stay here. I’ll go see what’s going on.”
Florence pulled her rifle from the scabbard and checked the percussion cap. She couldn't let him go by himself. That might mean she'd be left alone again. Her voice was quiet and even.
“Three men went in that farmhouse, and there’s only one of you. I can’t stay here and watch you get yourself killed. Now, let’s go.”
Before Seth could stop her, Florence turned out of the tree line and urged the mare to a gallop. He wheeled the gelding and followed with his Remingtons drawn.
Later, Seth figured the men had heard their horses approaching. What he knew at the time was they were half way to the house when one of the men came out of the door with his revolver drawn. He aimed at Florence and fired. Seth heard the whiz of the ball at the same time he heard the crack of Florence’s rifle. The man crumpled up and fell over. He saw Florence drop the rifle to the ground and pull the Colt from her belt.
A second man emerged from the door with a shotgun. He was in the process of aiming it when Seth’s ball caught him in the shoulder. He hadn’t yet fallen down when Florence’s ball hit him in the throat. The man clutched at his neck, and then fell face down in the dirt.
The third man ran out and toward his horse. Florence’s Colt fired again, and the man went down clutching his thigh with one hand. He drew a revolver from his belt and pointed it at them. Seth shot him in the chest before he could fire.
Seth checked each man to see if any of them were still alive. He cursed under his breath when he saw the blue uniform pants each wore. They must have been Union soldiers discharged after the war. He figured like him, they had no where to go, and had turned to ravaging the already beaten people of Tennessee. After finding all three to be dead, Seth waited while Florence went back for her rifle, and then walked up to the farmhouse door with Florence close behind.
“You there, inside the house. We’re not gonna hurt you, so don’t shoot or anything.”
The only answer was a sob, and then a woman crying.
Seth cautiously peered inside, then walked through the door.
She was a little younger than his mother, he thought. Her dress was ripped down the front though the men hadn’t managed to rip her chemise. She sat in one corner of the room beside a table with her hands in her face. At the sounds of Seth’s boots on the wood floor, she stopped crying and stared at him.
She looked afraid, so Seth tried to put her at ease.
“Ma’am, I don’t know who those men were, or what they wanted, but they’re all dead now. You don’t have to be scared any more.”
The woman sniffed, then asked who they were.
“Ma’am, I’m Seth Moore and this is…this is Horace, Horace McCabe. We were just traveling through and heard you scream. When we rode up to see why, those men started shooting at us, so we had to shoot back. They won’t bother you any more.”
The woman got to her feet and tried to pull her dress back together. It kept falling back open so she left it and looked up at Seth and Florence. Her face was still filled with fear
“I ain’t got no money if that’s what you’re after.”
Seth tried again.
“Ma’am, we don’t want anything that belongs to you. We just came because we thought you needed some help.”
“Nobody comes way out here just passin’ through. We’re a day’s wagon trip from town. Why are you really here?”
“Ma’am, I’m…we’re just former soldiers looking to put some distance between us and the war. We’re not looking for anything or anybody. We just want to keep going west. If you hadn’t screamed, we’d be a mile away by now.”
The woman eyed them both for a while, then picked up a spoon from the table, said “here Horace”, and tossed it to Florence. Florence grabbed for the spoon and missed, then picked it up off the floor.
The woman smiled.
“I guess I can believe you were just helping, Seth. You seem to have had some good raisin’ up. As for Horace here, Sweetie, you need to learn how to catch like a man if you’re gonna dress like one.”
“How’d you know?”
“At first I thought you was a boy, but then you turned to look around. Them pants and shirt are plenty big, but when you turn jest right, they ain’t big enough to hide what a woman has that a man don’t. A man prob’ly wouldn’t notice, but another woman would.”
Seth interrupted before she could say anything else. He didn’t want the woman to know too much about either one of them.
“Are you all right, Ma’am?”
“Yes, I am now. Always told my husband I was tougher than he thought. If you two hadn’t showed up, I wouldn’t have been, though. They was Union, wasn’t they?”
“Former soldiers I think. They didn’t have on blouses so they weren’t still in the army, but their trousers were blue uniform trousers.”
The woman sighed.
“You’d think it was enough that people on both sides lost their sons and husbands, but I guess not. Jest like in the Bible, some got to keep on rapin’ and pillagin’. Preacher James says it’s God’s will, so there must be a reason for why them men came here today.”
She looked up at Seth.
“Maybe it was to bring you here, you and uh, Sweetie, what’s your real name?”
“I’m Mae, May Clayton. Maybe it was to bring you and Florence here. Don’t know what for, but maybe. You two hungry? I ain’t got nothin’ ‘cept some sweet taters I hid under a feed bin in he barn, and a side of bacon that was hanging up in the corn crib. I’ll cook you up some if you want. It’s the least I can do.”
Florence tried to say no.
“We don’t want to take the last of your food. We’ll just be on our way and –“
“Nonsense. The Good Lord will provide. He provided you to help me, didn’t he? He’ll provide for me just the same as he’s providin’ food for you now. Besides, I got a letter from Johnathan yesterday. He’s my husband. The Union has him in prison in Nashville. He’ll be home in a day or two, and we’ll start planting the garden. We’ll do fine.
“If you could, though, can you do something with those three out there? They don’t deserve no church buryin’, but I’d like to have them and everything they had gone somewhere else just in case somebody comes lookin’ for them. While you’re doin’ that, I’ll change clothes and get supper started.”
The sun was turning the clouds bright orange and purple when they finished eating. Seth was tired and so was Florence. Seth thought the trees would be a better place in case someone came looking for the three. Mae could then truthfully say she didn’t know where the men were. It had taken most of the afternoon to drag the three into the trees and dig the graves.
Mae had said she didn’t want the revolvers or shotgun, and Seth and Florence already had what they could easily carry, so they’d buried them with the men.
After riding back to Mae’s house, Seth and Florence unsaddled the men’s horses and turned them loose, then put their own into the pen beside the barn.
They searched the saddle bags, took the powder and balls and a few other items, and then built a fire and tossed the saddles and bridles on top. The flames licked at the leather, then turned it black, and finally began turning into red, glowing embers. Seth and Florence watched the blaze until the saddles were only ash and red, glowing D-rings, and then went back to the house. Mae had supper on the table, and they wasted no time in starting to eat.
Seth pushed back his bowl and yawned.
“Florence, it’s time we got going again.”
“There’s no moon tonight. You’ll just get lost in the dark. You two can sleep in front of the fire. I’ll stay in my bed so you won’t be bothered in case you…in case you want to do anything.”
“We’re uh… not married.”
“Well, I won’t have people living in sin in my house. Florence, you can sleep with me. Seth, you can sleep in the barn.”