The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 5

The next morning, Seth led the horses up to the house.  Florence came out with a bundle under her arm that she tied on top of her bedroll.  As she waved goodbye to Mae, Seth asked her what Mae had given her.

“Just a dress that didn’t fit her anymore and a few other things.  She said I’d need a dress someday, and wanted me to have this one.”

“Gonna be hard to ride a horse in a dress.”

“It’s not for riding, silly.  It’s for going to town or to a party.”

“Think you’ll ever do those things again?”

“Yes, as soon as I find the right place.  How about you?”

“When I get where I’m going, I’ll go to town sometimes I expect.  To a party, probably not.”

“Don’t you like parties?”

“Never been to one that I recall.”

“Never?”

“No.”

“Well then, I’ll have to have a party for you, when we get to where we’re goin’.”

Seth didn’t miss her use of the word “we”.

“I thought you were going to look for a place you liked and stay there instead of coming along with me?”

“I might not find one before you do.  If I don’t, I’ll have a party for you when you find yours.”

Later on that morning, Florence pulled her mare to a stop.

“Seth, I need to stop for a few minutes.  You go on ahead and I’ll catch up.”

“I don’t know.  It’s pretty open country out here.  When you needed to…to stop before, I always stopped with you.  I think I should now, too.  Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong with me.  Didn’t your mama teach you anything about women?”

Seth felt his face turn warm.

“Oh…that.  I didn’t realize…I mean, you never said anything.”

“I didn’t need to before.  I can still use my Colt if anything happens, so ride on and I’ll catch up.”

A few minutes later, Florence came trotting up beside him.

“Are you all right”, Seth asked.

“Of course I’m all right.  Why wouldn’t I be?”

“I don’t know. I just never knew…I mean I knew, but not when.”

Florence chuckled.

“It’s not something women usually talk to men about, even if they’re married.  It’s something women usually talk about with other women.”

“Well, when you need to stop again, just tell me. I promise I won’t look, but you need somebody to protect you while you’re…whatever it is you do.”

Florence laughed.  

“You weren’t this concerned about me when those men were shooting at us.  I’m fine, really.  Now, let’s not talk about it anymore.  Let’s talk about Horace.  Is that the best you could do?”

“Well, I had to think quick, and Horace rhymes with Florence.”

“No it doesn’t.”

“It kind of does. What’s wrong with Horace?  I knew a lot of men named Horace.”

“When I think of a Horace, I see a short, chubby little man with glasses.  I want to be a big, strong man.”

Seth scratched his head.

“Hmmm, big and strong.  I knew such a man once.  His name was Clint.  Is that better?”

“Sounds better to me.  Who was he?  One of your officers?”

“No, he was my father.”

“Was?”

“Yes.  He and Mama are both gone.”

“Is that why your running away, them and that girl?”

“Some of it, I guess.  Mostly it’s the war.  I just wanted to get as far away from all that as I can get.”

“If it was like Kingsport, it must have been horrible.”

“Worse than you could ever imagine.  Can we talk about something else?”

Florence stopped talking and watched Seth as they rode on in silence.  He was wrong about her ability to imagine what war was like.  The one day she’d experienced in Kingsport was more than enough to convince her she never wanted to see what a bigger battle was like.  She also knew the feeling of killing two men at close range.  She hid those feelings deep inside her because if she let them out, Florence knew she’d start to cry.

The Confederate soldiers who came to Samuel’s house for the women were mostly storekeepers and wagon drivers who’d never seen a battle.  They were full of stories of men being killed and maimed, and bragged of what they’d do if they ever were in a battle.  Seth didn’t want to talk about anything having to do with the war.  Florence figured it was because he’d seen more than one man could get back into his mind if he ever let even a little of it out.  Sometimes at night, he tossed and turned while he slept, and more than once, she’d heard him say things.  His voice was only a murmur then, but he was talking to someone in his dreams.

Maybe one day, she thought, he’d open up to her and let the demons in his mind out.  She found herself hoping he would, and hoping she’d be able to help him through it.  It wasn’t as much as she owed him for helping her, but it was all she had.

Florence smiled at her thoughts.  She was being as protective of Seth as he was of her.  She wasn’t sure why.  She really hadn’t needed him so far.  Two of the men at the house had fallen from her rifle and revolver balls.  The third would have too if Seth hadn’t shot him first.  They’d seen nobody except the three men and Mae since they started, so she wasn’t really very afraid anymore.  She guessed it was just the company she liked and didn’t want to lose.

Over the days, they moved steadily through Tennessee, bypassing Nashville because Mae had said it was full of Union troops who were harassing the people.  They went around all the other towns and cities along the way as well.  Florence was stunned at the lengths to which Seth would go to avoid people.  He’d lead them through miles of country just to avoid a little town that couldn’t have had more than a hundred people.  That lasted until they rode up to the bank of a large river.

Seth looked out over the expanse of water.

“Must be the Tennessee.  I heard it was pretty big, but I didn’t think it would be like this.  If it was smaller, I’d try to swim the horses across, but it’s too wide.  We’d be several miles down river by the time we got across, and we’d probably get separated.  The banks look pretty steep too.  Even if we made it across, we might not find a place to get out.”

“So, we stop here?”

“Nope.  We have to find a ferry.”

“Won’t there be people at a ferry?”

“Probably some, but there don’t seem to be many people living here.  I haven’t seen a farmhouse in two days.  Let’s ride up stream for a while and see what we can find.”

They followed the river north for a day and a half before coming to a dirt road that seemed to lead back to the river.  As was his normal practice, Seth rode back about a hundred feet from the road and paralleled it as they followed it in the direction of the river.  An hour later, they saw the river through the trees, and three small buildings sitting beside the road.  The center one had a sign over the porch that said “Howard General Store and Ferry”.

Seth turned to Florence.  

“I don’t know what I’m going to find there.  They were probably Confederate, but if they weren’t, I might have to leave pretty fast.  You stay here while I go find out about getting across the river. “

“They’ll want money, won’t they?”

“I have a little of my army pay left.  We’ll be all right.”

Half an hour later, Seth rode back to where he’d left Florence.

“I got us a ferry ride.  When we get there, you walk between the horses and keep your head down and don’t say anything.  I’ll do what talkin’ has to be done.”

The ferry ride scared Florence.  The ferry was little more than a log raft that two men pulled across the river by using a thick rope strung between the banks and threaded through a big wood pulley at each end of the ferry.  As they moved closer to the center of the river, the current pushed the ferry further and further downstream until the rope made a taut arc from bank to bank.  As they passed the center of the river and approached the opposite bank, the ferry straightened out.  She was happy when she and Seth walked the horses onto the dry soil of the riverbank.

Seth didn’t say anything until they were out of sight of the ferry landing.  Then, he turned to Florence.

“Let’s get out of here, fast.”

Florence was taken by surprise when he dug his heels into the gelding’s sides and had to do the same to the mare to keep up.  They rode down the road at a gallop for about a mile before Seth pulled the gelding to a trot and turned off the road into the trees.  They rode a short distance, and then turned back in the direction they’d come.  After walking the horses until they stopped snorting and blowing, Seth stopped and put his finger to his lips.

“Shhh.  He should have had time to get across the river by now.”

Florence was going to ask Seth what he meant when she heard the plop-plop of a trotting horse.  

The man was looking at the ground as he rode, and occasionally slowed to a walk.  Florence realized he was looking for their hoof prints in the dust of the road.  Her blood ran cold when she realized what that probably meant.

Seth waited until the man was out of sight, and then whispered to Florence.

“He’ll find where we turned off pretty quick, so we have to move.  Don’t talk.  Just follow behind me.  We’ll be leaving a trail, but it’ll be only one horse wide.  Maybe that’ll make him think it’s not us.”

Seth cautiously rode to the tree line beside the road and spent a few minutes looking in both directions.  Then, he walked the gelding across the road and into the trees on the other side.  Once Florence was inside the trees too, Seth dismounted, cut a low branch off a small tree with his bowie knife, and walked back to the road.  He used the branch like a broom to smear the hoof prints crossing the road while leaving the ones going down the road.  When he’d finished, he got back on the gelding, turned north and moved off at a walk.  Florence followed him in silence.

Seth kept riding until the sun dropped below the trees and it became difficult to see where he was going.  By his reckoning, they were about ten miles off the road now, and though he’d stopped to listen several times, he’d heard no other riders approaching.  Satisfied that they’d given the man the slip, he stopped by a small stream.

“We’ll stay here tonight, and turn back west tomorrow.”

Florence got off the mare and they walked the horses to the stream so they could drink.  She had a hundred questions she wanted to ask Seth.

“Who was that man, and why did we have to hide from him?”

“I don’t know who he was, but I know what he’d been and what he is now.  He wore the gray trousers of a Confederate soldier, so he’s like me, discharged with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  He’s a bounty hunter now, and he was looking for a woman wanted for murder in Kingsport.  He asked if I’d seen a woman with red-brown hair.  Said she called herself Florence McCabe.  I said I hadn’t.  Then he said he’d heard she might be dressed in men’s clothes and traveling with a man, and asked if I’d seen anything like that.  I said I’d been riding through the country and not on the roads, and hadn’t seen anybody.

“I noticed him watching the ferry when we got on, and after we left, he went into the general store.  I figure he was paying for a fare across the river.  That’s why I doubled back.  I wanted to see if he was following us or not.”

Florence was shaking.

“How – how did he find us…and how did he know I was wearing a man’s clothes?”

“That’s not too hard to figure out.  We’ve only talked to one person since we left your cabin.  Mae had to have told someone about us.”

Florence shook her head.

“Mae wouldn’t do that, not after we helped her.”

“She wouldn’t if she had a choice.  She might not have.  At the store, I heard the Union has most of the South under what amounts to military law, and they’re being pretty rough on anybody who had anything to do with the Confederacy.  Mae’s husband was a Confederate, remember?  If they somehow figured we were heading west, they might have found her farm and asked her.  They probably wouldn’t have asked in a nice way.”

Florence sobbed.

“I told you they’d be looking for me.”

“Yes, but you didn’t say why.  Did you really kill a man in Kingsport?”

“No… it was two.  Samuel and a Union Army soldier…and then another one at my cabin.”

“Want to tell me about them?”

Florence told Seth about Samuel and his house, about the Union Army soldier, and about the man at her cabin.  He listened intently, nodding here and there, until she finished.  

“It that all of it.”

Florence nodded.

“Except that I wouldn’t have done any of it if I hadn’t had to.”

“Sounds to me like you didn’t have a choice.  I don’t think you did wrong any more than I did when I killed all the men I killed in battle.  If I hadn’t killed them first, they would’ve killed me.”

“That doesn’t help me much if they’re still looking for me.”

“Well, I think we lost him, so don’t worry.  How about fixing us something to eat?  Maybe that’ll take your mind off him for a while.”

“We don’t have anything, and it’s too dark to go looking now.”

Seth grinned.

“While I was getting our ferry ride, I bought a few things at the general store.”

He walked to the gelding and took down the canvas bag hanging from the saddle.

“I got a whole side of bacon, twenty pounds of cornmeal, three pounds of sugar and a pound of salt.  Think you can do something with that?’

It was only fried bacon and flat bread made from cornmeal and water, but it tasted good to Seth.  He watched Florence carefully pour the bacon grease into one of the cups she’d brought, and realized his mother had done exactly the same thing.  She saved the bacon grease for making gravy and to add a little taste to dry beans.  He smiled.  It was nice having Florence along.

The fire had died down to red coals when Florence heard the snap of a stick breaking.  She froze beneath her blankets.  There was a slight sound of shuffling leaves, then a metallic click-click.  The sound of the gunshot caused her to scream and jump to her feet.

As she was rising, two more gunshots shattered the night.  She saw the flashes on the other side of the fire, not ten feet away.  In the light of the second flash, she saw Seth’s body jerk under his bedroll.  Florence cried out and started to go to him.  A man’s voice stopped her.

“Just leave him be.  You can’t help him anyways.  And don’t go reachin’ for that Colt I seen you with this morning.  I’ll put a ball in your leg if you do.  We’re gonna just sit here ‘til mornin’ Florence, and then I’m takin’ you back to Nashville.  Seems a waste to pay me to bring a whore back, but if they’re gonna pay, I’m gonna do it.  Put some more wood on that fire so’s I can see you better.”

Florence sobbed as she added some small branches that quickly blazed into flame.

“I’m not a whore.  He was going to whip me again.”

“Lady, I don’t care if he was gonna beat you black and blue and then stick the whip up your ass.  You still killed him and the Union wants you to stand trial.  More wood, bigger stuff.”

Florence added a few branches as large as her wrist, then turned back to the man.

“You killed Seth, and he didn’t do anything.  You’re the one who should be on trial.”

“I seen him up close back at the store.  He come through the war without getting’ hurt bad and wore them Remingtons like a man who knows how to use ‘em.  Any man like that, I ain’t messin’ with.  He’d like to have shot me if I hadn’t got him first.  I’ll only git fifty for him now, but that’s better’n being dead.”

In the light of the fire, Florence could now see his face.  He was grinning.

“What’s the matter, little lady?  Afraid that now he’s dead you ain’t gonna get no fun no more?  You bein’ a whore and all, I wouldn’t think you’d care lessen you’s getting’ paid for it.  I suppose you might like it once in a while though, and I can fix that.  Since we got ‘til mornin’, why don’t you get out of them clothes an’ I’ll show you.”

Florence was enraged.

“If you touch me, I’ll kill you just like I did Samuel.  I’d have killed you already if I’d have heard you sooner.”

The man laughed.  

“You was snoring your pretty little head off.  You wouldn’t have heard a wagon load of cow bells on a bumpy road.  Anyway, I got you now, so it don’t matter.  Now git out of them clothes.”

“You’ll have to make me.”

The man had taken two steps toward Florence when three gunshots shattered the silence so close together they sounded more like one.  The man crumpled up and fell backward.  In seconds, Seth was beside her.

“Thought he wouldn’t give up that easy.”

Florence wrapped her arms around Seth’s neck and hugged him tight.

“I thought you were dead.”

“So did he, but all he shot was the side of bacon and a couple tree branches.”

“But I saw you go to sleep.”

“I just waited until you were, and then got up and put the bacon and branches in my place.  I was back in the trees for about an hour before he showed up.  I’d have shot him sooner, but I couldn’t see well enough until you got the fire going again.”

“You could have told me.”

“If I had, you’d just have laid there awake, and he’d have known something wasn’t right.  I didn’t figure he’d shoot you.  According to the reward poster in the general store, that would have cost him fifty dollars.  He wouldn’t have thought twice about shooting me, though.  That’s why I did what I did.”

Florence hugged Seth again.

“I’m so glad you’re alive.  If you hadn’t shot him, he was going to…”

“I know what he was going to do.  Shooting him was too good for a man like that.  What he deserved was what the other one got.”

“What other one?  Was there another man out there?”

Seth gently pulled Florence’s arms from his neck.

“No.  You need to get some sleep.  I’ll stay up until it gets daylight, and then we’ll be on our way.”

Before they left the next morning, Seth searched the dead bounty hunter without finding anything except his LeMat revolver and three dollars.  He then found the man’s horse grazing in a clearing a few hundred yards away, pulled off the saddle bags, bedroll, rope, saddle and bridle, and slapped the gelding on the rump to chase him away.  He then sorted through the saddle bags.   

In one, Seth found three twenty dollar gold pieces and Confederate Artillery maps of West Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas.  In the other was a powder flask, and caps and balls for the LeMat revolver.  Seth tossed his McClellan saddle and bridle on the fire, and put the money, powder, caps and bullets in his own saddle bags.

The gelding had the “US” brand on his left shoulder, but his mane partly covered it.  Seth could probably explain he’d found the gelding while walking through the fields.  The saddle would have been harder to explain if for some reason they were stopped by Union troops.

After putting the bounty hunter’s saddle and bridle on the gelding, he studied the map of West Tennessee for a few minutes, and then called to Florence that it was time to ride on. When Florence asked if they should bury the bounty hunter, Seth frowned and shook his head.

“He was a man hunting people already hurt by the war, like some scavenger.  Let the scavengers have him.”

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