The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 6

For two more weeks, Seth and Florence made their way through the countryside.  Seth gave even wider berth to any signs of civilization now.  If Florence’s wanted poster had traveled this far from Kingsport in such a short time, it was a sure bet it had been circulated in any area now occupied by Union troops.  Seth wasn’t certain where that might be, but he was taking no more chances.

He had located their position on the bounty hunter’s map by finding the ferry that had brought them across the Tennessee River, and turned to the north-west toward Dyersberg.  While he intended to stay away from people as much as possible, he knew the Mississippi River lay ahead. The main river crossing points were Memphis and Paducah, Kentucky.  Memphis was several days ride and would be full of Union Army soldiers.  Paducah was too far north and would also be occupied by the Union.  There would also be more Union sympathizers in Kentucky than in Tennessee and Arkansas.

According to a soldier from Arkansas Seth had once met, steamboats carrying cargo to and from St. Louis and New Orleans stopped at Osceola, Arkansas and Dyersberg, Tennessee every two days or so.  Seth didn’t know anything about either town except what the soldier had told him.  Both were small towns, had been firmly in favor of secession, and had sent their sons and husbands to wear the gray uniforms of the Confederacy.

That he and Florence would at least be in sympathetic territory was encouraging.  That both towns were small and their ports dealt primarily in freight was more so.  In Memphis, it was possible many eyes would be watching for a man and a boy traveling together.  The same was true of Paducah.  Though Dyersberg would be under Union military rule as was the rest of Tennessee, the Union Army would have placed most of its troops in the major cities.

They found the Mississipi in the afternoon as they topped an open ridge.  Seth normally avoided ridges without trees or other cover.  In the war, being silhouetted against a ridge was almost certain to draw enemy fire.  A ridge did have some benefits, though.  It was high ground, and if one had cover, it was always better to fight from above rather than below.  They’d seen no one for a week, and Seth knew by his map that they must be close to the river.  That day, he wanted a vantage point and thought the ridge would be safe.

Florence sat in her saddle in awe.  The river near her home was wide, or so she had thought.  She could almost throw a rock across it, but her father had nearly drowned one summer trying to swim to the other side.  The Mississippi was several miles away, but still made her river look like a spring-flooded creek.  She could see the opposite shore, but it was too far away to see any details except the gray line of the mud bank and the green of the trees behind that.

Tiny specks moved on the river, each trailing a white ribbon of churned water behind them and black streams of smoke from the stacks near their centers.  She knew these would be steamboats, because Seth had explained they would take a steamboat from one side to the other and how they worked.  Florence remembered the ferry they’d taken to cross the Tennessee River.  She’d been afraid the whole time.  What would this be like?  At least the small ferry had a rope secured to both banks.  A steamboat would have no tether to either.

Seth had laughed when she told him of her fears.

“It won’t be like the other ferry.  Steamboats push their way across the current instead of moving with it.  Unless the steam engine breaks, you’ll be safe enough.”

“And what if it does.”

“They usually blow up, so you won’t have to worry about what happens.  Now, lets eat and get some sleep.”

It took another day of travel to reach the landing, and Seth took care to leave Florence inside a tight stand of trees before venturing into the town. He left both his Remingtons and the Springfield with her. As the bounty hunter had said, the Remingtons made Seth look dangerous, and he didn’t want anyone to suspect he was anything other than a war veteran going home.  He stuck the LeMat in his belt, and covered it with his shirt.

 Seth returned to the grove of trees just before dark.  Florence said she had been worried, but Seth’s story put her at ease

“The landing is a small place, and there weren’t many people there.  A flatboat on the way to New Orleans is leaving tomorrow at daylight, and we should be in Osceola about noon.”

Florence’s look was confused.

“I thought you said we would go on a steamboat?”

The next steamboat going down river won’t be here for two more days.  We need to keep moving.”

Seth smiled at Florence.

“Besides, you won’t have to worry about the steam engine exploding.  A flatboat doesn’t have one.”

“It works with a rope, like the other one?”

“No.  It works by men using steering paddles and oars to steer it.  It just floats down on the river current.”

At daylight the next morning, Seth led the bay gelding up the ramp of the flatboat.  Florence followed with the black mare.  She kept her head down, and once in the boat, stood close to Seth.

The flat boat was large, almost sixty feet long and about twenty wide, and was mostly filled with kegs of nails, horseshoes, and other steel items picked up in St. Louis.  As the flatboat made its way to Memphis and then New Orleans, it stopped at the smaller landings along the way and picked up such freight and passengers for which it had space.  Once it unloaded in New Orleans, it would be towed back up river by a steamboat to St. Louis, and then begin the trip all over again.

Seth had learned that much the day before when he purchased their fares.  He relayed the information to Florence as the flatboat moved slowly down the river.  He hoped it would take some of the fear from her mind.  Florence looked outwardly calm, but Seth had seen her hand shake when she tied the mare’s reins to the railing that kept the animals from the rest of the cargo.

Seth couldn’t do anything to console Florence until they left the flatboat.  He couldn’t take the chance that one of the four boatmen would hear what he said to her.  Florence couldn’t speak to him either.  The story he’d given the boatmen was that “Clint” had been wounded in the neck, and could no longer speak.  They’d practiced a few hand signals that would tell him if Florence needed something, and for the time they were on the flatboat, those signals would be her only means of communication.  The trip down the river was long enough one of the boatmen might begin thinking her voice was just a little high in pitch for a boy old enough to have been in the war.

After he had explained to Florence how the flatboat worked, Seth kept talking about funny things he’d seen during the war in a manner he hoped would seem to the boatmen to be reminiscing.  He needed to keep Florence’s mind occupied so she wouldn’t become even shakier.  

The spring rains had washed trees and other debris into the river, and since it took a while to change the course of the boat, it bumped against several on the way down river.  With each bump, Florence jumped, and her eyes opened wide with fear.  Seth would just chuckle and slap her on the back as he would have a man, and then say something that appeared to be one man joking with another, but was really his way of telling Florence what had happened and why she shouldn't be afraid.

“You feel that, Clint?  I bet that was a big catfish.  I heard the catfish in the Mississippi are big enough to swallow a man.  If that was a fish, it’d have fed our whole platoon for a week, I bet.  Nope, I see what it was now.  It was just a log, and not a very big one at that.  I bet there’s fish in this river that big though, don’t you?  Well, we aren’t sinking, so I guess this here flatboat is put together pretty good.”

So their trip went for the next seven hours.  The boatmen strained at their sweeps to keep the flatboat in the channel and swore when the boat hit a log or brushed a sand bar that hadn’t been there on their last trip.  Seth watched the boatmen for any signs they thought he and Florence were other than what he’d claimed.  When Seth wasn’t talking to her, Florence watched the shoreline go by.

It was a lot like her river back home, she thought.  Willows grew close to the bank in order to pull the water they needed from the damp river bank.  On the outside of each river bend, bluffs carved from the land by the moving water rose high.  On the inside of a bend, the willows gave way to flat areas of open land.  Florence knew these open areas were where the river flooded each spring, and some of them still were dark and muddy from silt left by the river when it returned to its normal banks.

There were also places where the river had abandoned an old channel and cut a new one.  Then new channels made islands thick with maples and oaks that overhung the water.  In the shade of the overhanging branches, sometimes she would see squirrels leaping from branch to branch, or a turtle sitting on the bank.  Hawks sailed on the light wind above these islands of trees, making slow, lazy circles in the air as they searched for a squirrel staying on an open branch for too long, or for a mouse too busy scratching for seeds to look up.

It would have been relaxing, had it not been for the bumps against the boat and for her fear of water.  That fear was not only because of her father’s narrow escape from the river at home.  It was because her parents had tried to teach her to swim.

The river had been low almost to the point of being a creek, and Florence was very young.  She didn’t remember much about the incident, her recollection being assisted by the story her father related to her when she was older, but what she remembered still terrified her.

Her mother had lowered her into the water, supporting Florence’s weight by holding her under her stomach, and told her to paddle with her hands.  Florence had been paddling away when her mother released her.  She immediately went under the water and felt herself being swept down stream.  The feeling was one of being powerless to do anything.  Water filled her nose and mouth as she cried out, and she couldn’t breathe.

Florence knew now that she’d only gone a few feet before her father pulled her from the water and held her while she coughed to clear her nose and lungs.  He’d hugged her tight and promised to never do such a thing again, and he’d been good to his word.

The only thing she really remembered was being swallowed by the water and drifting helplessly.  She was old enough to understand death, and knew she was about to die that day.  

Since that day, Florence had been terrified of being on or in water in situations over which she had no control.  The ferry had been one of those situations, but at least the ferry was tied to both shores of the river.  The flatboat just floated where the current took it.  Her common sense told her there was nothing to fear, but in the back of her mind, the voice of a six year old girl screamed that she was about to die a horrible death.  That voice caused her hands to shake so she kept them in her pockets.

Seth didn’t know the cause of her fear, but he knew she was afraid.  The only thing he could do was keep talking to her.

The flatboat eased into the landing at Osceola a little after the sun was directly overhead.  The only things to be seen at the landing were a man fishing and one freight wagon.  The driver of the wagon walked up the ramp and was talking with the head oarsman when Florence walked the black mare down the ramp.  Seth followed with the bay gelding.  He didn’t look back.  To do so would have possibly raised suspicion.

They took the road toward the town, but as soon as they were out of sight of the landing, Seth turned south and they rode in that direction for a few minutes before he put his finger to his mouth and stopped.  After listening for a few more minutes, Seth turned to Florence.

“Looks like nobody suspected anything, but let’s ride south some more before we turn back west. “

About an hour later, Seth turned the gelding to the west again.  He didn’t seem to want to talk, so Florence rode quietly by his side.  When she felt the need to relive herself, she tugged on Seth’s sleeve, and then made the hand signal they’d practiced.  Seth grinned.

“You don’t have to do that since we’re not on the boat anymore.”

Florence smiled.

“You were being awful quiet.  I just figured this might be better.  Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong.  Go do what you need to do.  I’ll wait here.”

As Florence dismounted and walked back into the trees, Seth frowned.  Yes, something was wrong, and that something was what he’d felt on the flatboat.  He knew Florence was scared to death.  He thought he’d done the best he could, but it hadn’t seemed to help.  She was still shaking when they walked onto the solid ground of the landing.  There was also the way she’d felt when he slapped her on the back.

He’d done that a few times to men before, in camp, before he decided he could only depend upon himself and stopped making friends.  A man’s back usually felt either hard or fat, and he didn’t move much from the force of the blow.  He’d nearly knocked Florence over when he’d slapped her the first time.  After that, he’d been careful, and that had let him feel the smallness and softness of her body. That softness had pulled the memory from the safe place deep inside his mind where he’d forced it.  

The barn at Franklin appeared in his head, then the man, and then the horror of what that man had done.  When the barn at Franklin came to him in his dreams, he usually woke up before reliving the rest.  When he was awake, the rest played out like one of the shows the men in his company staged for entertainment during the long lulls between battles.  It was doing so when Florence walked back to him and mounted the black mare.  Her voice made the vision vanish, but not the feeling that always lingered for a while.

“I’m all ready.  Where are we going?”

As Seth swung back in the gelding’s saddle he forced a smile at Florence.

“Well, right now, we’re going through Arkansas.  Pretty quick, though, we need to decide where we’re going next.  Which sounds best to you, Missouri, Texas, Indian Territory, or Kansas?”

Seth urged the gelding to a walk and Florence rode up beside him and matched his pace.

“I…I don’t know.  I don’t know anything about any of those places.  Do you?”

“Just what I heard from men who came from there.   Some of what I heard about Texas was a little far-fetched.”

“Like what?”

“Well, they said Texas is a big place, and there are cattle and horses free for the taking in some places. Just seemed odd to me that cattle and horses run around with no owners and anybody can catch them and keep them.  In some places, people farm, but that’s on the east side.  The west side is desert.  Texas joined the Confederacy, so there are probably several Union troops there now, just like in Tennessee.

“Indian Territory is full of Indians and not very many white people.  It’s where the government moved them before the war.  I don’t know if it would be a good idea to go there.  Some of them fought for the Confederacy, but I don’t know how friendly they really are now.  

“Missouri is good for farming, but I don’t think that’s a good place either.  Half the people wanted to be Union and half wanted to join the Confederacy.  They went Union, but there was a lot of fighting by groups who called themselves Confederates but weren’t recognized by the Confederacy.  From what I was told, none of the people on either side liked those groups very much because they killed civilians as well as Union soldiers.  The Union tried pretty hard to stop them, but they didn’t fight except for raids.  The last I heard, some of them said they’d keep on fighting.  I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but if it is, I don’t think the people there would like me much if they knew I wore a gray uniform once.

“Kansas was Union from the start because the people voted to be a free state.  That’s all I know about Kansas except that it’s good farm land.

Florence had listened to Seth, but in her mind was still the fear of being taken back to Kingsport.  If there were Union troops, she thought they’d surely be looking for her.  

“Where will there be the fewest Union soldiers?”

Seth thought for a moment.

“I don’t rightly know.  Most all the war I know about happened in Tennessee and Georgia.  There’ll be Union troops all over there, but I don’t know about west of the Mississippi.  We’ll just have to pick someplace and see, I guess.  I doubt they’ll be looking for us out here anyway.  You…I mean, we, haven’t done anything bad enough to have the whole Union Army looking for us.  I don’t know how anybody would find us out here either.”

Florence smiled to herself at his change in words from “you” to “we”.  She was the one the Union wanted.  The only reason they wanted Seth was
because he was traveling with her.  She wondered if he felt something for her more than as just a woman who gave him a horse when he let her come along to where ever he was going.  She still didn’t know where that was.

“Have you decided where you’re going yet?  If you have, I’ll go there, at least until I find someplace I like.”

Seth had pondered that question since he left home, and did not yet have an answer.  He knew how to do two things – farm and kill men.  He couldn’t say if he enjoyed farming, since at home his father had done all the planning of what crops were raised, when they were planted, and when they were harvested.  He’d never had the chance to do things as he would have liked and then seen the outcome.  All he’d had the opportunity to do was work from daylight until dark.  

At least he didn’t hate farming.  He could definitely say he hated killing men.  In the war, killing had been the only way to survive.  After the war, he’d killed again, at the farmhouse, and once more to protect Florence from the bounty hunter.  Both times were nearly like the war because other men were trying to hurt him or Florence.  He didn’t like killing them, but there was no alternative.

What else was there?  He still wasn’t ready to be around a lot of people.  Other people wouldn’t understand why he was the way he was.  That meant a town was probably not a place he could stop riding and settle down. The only person he knew who seem to understand was Florence, and she had her own future to think about.  She would need to be in a town, at least until she found a husband to take care of her.

He was certain that’s what she wanted because of the way she acted.  She did all the cooking and cleaning up after they ate.  A couple times when she’d washed her own clothes, she’d asked for his extra set and washed them too.  He could easily envision her bustling around her kitchen, as had his mother, cooking for a family.  He could also see her raising that family, just as had his mother, caring for them when her children were small, then teaching them to work and be good adults as they got older.

“No, I haven’t decided.”

Florence chuckled.

“Think you will before we run out of country to ride?”

“I don’t know.  Why are you so interested in what I’m gonna do?”

“This saddle gets harder every day.  I figure when you get where you’re going, I could stop sitting in it for a while.”

“I thought you were only going to stay with me until you found a place you liked?  You can stop anytime you want.”

Yes, thought Florence, she could stop anytime and he wouldn’t try to dissuade her, but where would that be?  She had thought of only one thing when she’d asked Seth to take her with him – to leave the area around Kingsport and avoid being arrested for murder.   She hadn’t thought at all about what she would do when she stopped running from that threat.  

She didn’t know anything about anything except taking care of a house and family, because that is all her mother had taught her.  It was true that her father had taught her to hunt and fish, but she knew civilized women didn’t do such things.  They cooked meals, washed clothes, had children, and made their husbands happy.  They didn’t go around in men’s clothes and carrying a Navy Colt tucked inside their belt.  They wore dresses and tucked handkerchiefs in their sleeves.  

They also did not kill men.  How would she ever explain to a man that she’d only done that to save her own life?  No man would want a woman who had killed two men with a butcher knife, and then killed three others with a rifle and revolver.  Seth seemed to understand, but he was trying to figure out what to do with his life, and didn’t appear interested in anything else.  Seth also didn’t know her other secret, the one Samuel had caused.  If he ever found out about that…

“I know I can stop.  I just haven’t found the right place yet.”

Seth looked at Florence and smiled.

“Think you’ll find it before we run out of country to ride?”

“I might.”

“Well, if you find it, you let me know.  I’ll do what I can to help to get you settled before I move on.”

Seth turned back to scan the land in the direction they traveled as he usually did.  

Florence frowned at the thought of watching him ride away from her.  She felt safe with Seth, and didn’t know if she’d ever feel safe by herself again.  Even though Seth had said she probably had little about which to be concerned, the drawing on the wanted poster the bounty hunter had carried still caused her to worry.  Any man she met might be another bounty hunter looking to take her back to Kingsport.  The only man she could trust was riding beside her.   If he left her, she didn’t know what she’d do.

The sun was nearly overhead when Seth turned and led them into a stand of trees. Seth had chosen this path because they needed water for the horses and trees usually meant at least a stream.  The trees would also hide them from anyone passing by while they fixed something to eat. Seth was still being cautious.  They’d seen no one since leaving the landing, but they had crossed two dirt roads with wagon ruts.

The creek was small, but the water was clear.  After the horses finished drinking, Seth built a small fire while Florence filled her pot with water from the creek.  Flat bread, their usual noon meal, was soon frying in her skillet, and in only a few more minutes, Seth and Florence had finished eating.  Florence cleaned the skillet in the creek, put it back in the sack on her saddle, and picked up the small pouch looped over the saddle horn.  When Seth looked up, chewing his last piece of flat bread, she smiled.

“Go ahead and put the fire out.  I’ll be back in a few minutes.”