The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 7
Florence walked off into the trees. Seth stood, and walked to the fire. As he had done since he and Florence had left her cabin, he stirred the small mound of coals to spread them, and then poured what remained of the water in Florence’s pot onto the glowing embers. Steam rose as those embers died. Once he was certain the fire was out, Seth stripped the leaves from a few low hanging branches and covered the burnt circle, then placed a few small branches over the leaves.
The ruse wouldn’t fool anyone with much experience, but in a few weeks, the burned circle would be just rotting leaves. A rain would wash away most of the black and gray ash. The place would still look as if someone had built a fire there, but it would look old, not relatively recent. So intent upon this task was Seth, he didn’t hear the soft foot falls coming through the trees. The man’s voice startled him. He pulled both Remingtons from their holsters at the same time he turned toward the voice. The hammers were both cocked and he was leveling them when he saw the Colt pointed at his chest.
“You go to a lot of trouble to hide a fire there, fella. Now, just ease those revolvers down on the ground, and back away a few steps. Then you can tell me what you’re doing here.”
There were two men, not just the one voice Seth had heard. The second carried a double barrel shotgun, and that shotgun had both hammers back and was pointed at his belly. Seth bent down slowly and laid the Remingtons in front of him, and then backed away three small steps. He was still close enough to reach them if he fell flat. He hoped the men wouldn’t realize that.
Both men wore homespun trousers and shirts, and their hats were of the same material. They looked like most other men he’d seen since the Confederate uniforms began to fall apart and they couldn’t get new ones. There was a difference in these two, though he couldn’t really put his finger on what that difference was. He slowly raised back up.
“I just don’t like leaving my fires for anybody to see.”
The man with the revolver laughed.
“Ain’t nobody hides a fire that careful lessen he’s worried he’s bein’ followed. The only reason anybody’d be following two men is if they’s on the run from somethin’. What’d you do?”
“I haven’t done anything, and there’s just me.”
The man with the shotgun spat a brown glob onto the ground, and then grinned.
“Why’s just one man need two horses?”
“There were two of us, but William…well, he got shot on the last day of the war, and he died just before we crossed the Mississippi. This black mare was his. I just kept her.”
“Got shot, did he? You Union or a Reb?”
“I was Confederate.”
“Then why are you totin’ Remingtons, and why is that Springfield on your saddle? Remingtons and Springfields were only issued to Union troops.”
Seth had hoped he could talk these men into leaving before Florence came back, but they were asking a lot of questions. He hoped she’d hear them and stay away until they did leave.
“If you were Confederate, you’d know rifles and revolvers were pretty hard to come by late in the war. If you were Union, you’d know that too, and you’d know you were the reason. My Fayetteville got hit by a ball and it broke the lock. That Springfield was laying there beside a dead Union private. He didn’t need it any more and I did. The revolvers I took from a Union Captain. He had three holes in his chest and I didn’t think he’d mind if I borrowed them. Wouldn’t you have done the same?
The man with the revolver trained on Seth’s chest chuckled.
“Well, that sure is a good story. I suppose you borrowed that bay with the US brand too.”
“No. I sorta stole him and the black mare. We passed a Union camp when we went around Nashville. Since the war was over, their sentries were playing cards instead of guarding the horses that night. We picked them both out of a picket line and just walked off with ‘em.
“We found the saddles and bridles on two dead horses out in the trees a few miles from there. I had a devil of a time getting the saddles off. The horses had been dead for a few days, and were bloated pretty bad. William was hurtin’ too bad to help much.”
The man with the revolver grinned.
“You lie purty good for a Missouri farmer. That’s where you’re headed, ain’t it? Back to your farm in Missouri now that the war’s over? We run all you Free State bastards off once, and now you’re coming back. Well, we’s still here, and here’s where you stop.”
He turned to the man with the shotgun.
“Bill, you think we oughta hang him, or should we just shoot him?”
Bill spat another glob of brown spit.
“Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t waste any powder on him. Cap’n Clement wouldn’t either.”
“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Well, go git the rope. We’ll use this here big oak.”
Seth held up his hands.
“I’m not a farmer from Missouri and I can prove it. I have my enlistment contract in my saddle bag.”
He started walking toward the gelding, but was stopped by the double click of the Colt the man carried.
“You just stay put. Bill, go look in them saddle bags. He don’t seem like a Reb, but maybe he was.”
The man with the shotgun lowered it and eased the hammers back to half-cock, then turned toward Seth’s bay gelding. He’d taken only a step when Seth heard Florence’s voice.
“Seth, you ready to go yet?”
He turned and saw her walking toward him with hat in her right hand. Her auburn hair shone bright as copper in the sunlight. The man with the revolver grinned.
“Well I’ll be damned, you was telling the truth about you bein’ the only man. Bill, you watch this feller here. I’m gonna go introduce myself to this little girl. You can introduce yourself once I’m done with her.”
Bill frowned, but turned back toward Seth and raised the shotgun again. Seth noticed that he didn’t cock the hammers. There might be enough time if Florence could keep the other one distracted.
Florence was walking back to Seth when she heard the voices. Cautiously, she crept toward the sound, keeping herself hidden by the trees and underbrush as much as possible. When she was close enough to see what was happening, her first thought was the men were bounty hunters. As she listened to the conversation, the fear for her own safety was replaced with the fear that the men would kill Seth.
If they did kill him, it would be only a matter of time before they found her, but that wasn’t as chilling a thought as losing Seth. She knew she could probably save herself with the Navy Colt if she took them one at a time. Seth couldn’t do anything to save himself.
Florence took the Navy Colt from her belt and took off her hat. By putting the hat over the Colt and holding the brim against the cylinder with her thumb, no one would probably see it. If the men knew she was a woman, they wouldn’t be looking for a gun anyway. They’d be looking for the same thing as the men who had come to Samuel’s house. Florence had shaken her head to let her hair straighten out of the bun she’d tied it in, took a deep breath, and walked out of the trees.
When the man with the revolver began walking toward her, Florence began backing up, leading him farther away from Seth. She knew she looked afraid, because she was. The look on the man’s face told her he knew that too, and also told her what she could probably expect to happen. He was smiling a cruel smile, and he was licking his lips. She stopped when she backed into a tree, and yelled at the man with the revolver.
“Go away and leave us alone. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
The man with the revolver grinned.
“You’re wrong just for being here, little lady. We got no use for Free-Staters,
‘cept for some o’ their women – the young, good lookin’ ones like you.”
Florence screamed at him.
“Don’t you touch me.”
“Oh, I’m gonna do a lot more than touch you.”
He was almost within an arms reach of Florence now, and started forward to grab her. Florence thumbed back the hammer on the Colt, raised it, and pulled the trigger.
The man’s face changed from a cruel smile to a grimace of pain just before he fell. Florence cocked the Colt again as she looked for the man with the shotgun.
Florence’s shot gave him enough time. Seth dived for the Remingtons and rolled to the side as he lifted them. The man with the shotgun had looked away at the blast of Florence’s Colt, and was turning back toward him when Seth’s ball caught him in the forehead. Florence ran to his side a second later.
“I heard voices and stayed behind trees until I could see. When he started talking about you being from Missouri, I figured he wasn’t just going to let us ride off. I took of my hat and put it over my Colt so he couldn’t see it. When he cocked his revolver, that’s when I walked out and asked if you were ready to go. I knew he’d come after me. That way you’d only have to worry about the one with the shotgun.“
Seth grabbed Florence by the shoulders and shook her hard.
“Florence, you could have gotten yourself killed. Why didn’t you just stay back in the trees? I told them I was alone. I was going to show him my enlistment contract to prove I was Confederate. He’d have let me go then, and I’d have come back to get you.”
As soon as he’d done it, Seth was sorry. Florence had tears in her eyes.
“I thought he was going to shoot you or hang you. I couldn’t let that happen, because I… I need to be with you. I didn’t think you’d be mad at me.”
Seth took his hands off Florence’s shoulders.
“I’m not mad at you, Florence. I just don’t like the idea of you getting yourself hurt trying to help me. I don’t need help and I don’t want any help. Haven’t for a long time.”
Florence pushed Seth away gently and wiped the tears from her eyes.
“Don’t you see? You did need help, and I wanted to help you. I wasn’t worried about me. I was worried about you.”
Seth didn’t say anything else, because he couldn’t think of anything to say. After watching him for a while with no response, Florence frowned.
“I guess you don’t care, do you?”
With that, Florence turned and walked back to the man with the revolver. She pulled the revolver belt from his waist, and pried the revolver from his hand, then put them in her saddle bag. She then turned to Seth.
“These men didn’t walk here. They had to have had horses. I’ll go find the horses. You figure out what we’re going to do with the men.”
With that, she walked off toward the edge of the trees.
Seth just stood there for a few minutes, wondering at what Florence had said and done. He had understood when she told him about Samuel and the Union soldier. He had understood when she told him about the bounty hunter who had come to her cabin. All three had been going to hurt or kill her and she had no choice. This time, she’d had a choice, and had chosen to defend him instead of look out for herself.
He was also baffled about how angry he’d been with Florence over what she’d done. If she’d been a man, he’d have thanked him. When he thought about it, he probably would have thanked any other woman as well. He just couldn’t thank Florence. Instead, he’d thought of all the things that could have gone wrong and ended up with Florence injured, or worse. He couldn’t live with himself if something like that happened.
That’s why he hadn’t been able to say anything. He didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t lead her to believe he felt something for her. She needed to be someplace where she could be a woman and go to parties. He knew that wouldn’t happen if she stayed with him.
Seth shook his head. Why had there been a war, and why had he wanted so badly to go? Why did he let himself blunder into Florence’s sights, and why hadn’t she shot him like she did the bounty hunter? Why had he agreed to let her come with him? Why did he feel like protecting her from everyone and everything, including himself?
Florence returned leading two horses just as Seth finished searching through the pockets of both men. They didn’t have much – just a few coins that added up to a couple dollars. The man with the shotgun had a plug of tobacco in his pocket, but as Seth had never taken up the habit, he threw it away. Each man carried a small knife on his belt, and Seth took those and put them in his saddle bag.
One saddle had a scabbard that Seth figured was for the shotgun the one man had carried. He tied it to his saddle, and pushed the shotgun in, then took the saddle bags off both saddles.
Their saddle bags didn’t yield much more than powder and caps, and balls for the Colt and buck shot for the shotgun, but in one there was a hatchet and a sharpening stone. Seth gave the balls and caps for the Colt to Florence and tied the saddle bags over his own. One of the horses had a canvas bag hung over the saddle horn. Inside it, Florence found a bag of hard tack, and another of deer jerky. She tied the bag and the canteen that was under it to her saddle horn. Seth took the ropes coiled at the saddle horns of both horses, and tied them to his beside the rope the bounty hunter had carried.
Without a shovel, he couldn’t bury the two men. Instead, he and Florence dragged them together beside the hidden fire. The coyotes and buzzards would take care of them. After pulling the saddles and bridles from the men’s horses and sending them out to graze, Seth and Florence mounted their own horses and rode out of the trees. In a week, it would look like the two men had been camped and died for some reason. There wouldn’t be enough left of them to tell anyone how they had died.
Seth turned south, and for a while they rode in silence. The sun was half way to the horizon when Florence asked why they’d changed direction. Seth’s reply sent a little chill down her spine.
“Remember I told you about men who said they were Confederates but the Confederacy wouldn’t recognize them? That’s what they were. Some people called them bushwackers. I thought they’d all be disbanded by now, but if I had to bet, I’d say that’s what those two were. They wouldn’t have accused me of being a Missouri farmer if they weren’t.
“That hard tack and jerky they carried was so they didn’t have to stop anywhere to eat. They were out raiding for whatever they could find, just like some of them did during the war. They didn’t have bedrolls on their saddles. That means they weren’t far from wherever they call home, and there are probably more there. We need to get as far south of Missouri as we can, as fast as we can.”
They rode south until the sun set over the trees. The moon was nearly full, so they rode on, sating their hunger with the strips of the leather-like jerky and stone-hard hardtack. At times, they had to trust the horses to find a safe path, but the first rays of the sun found them almost thirty miles by Seth’s calculation from where the two men lay dead. They stopped at a stream to water the horses and get a drink themselves, and then rode on.
By the time the sun was overhead, Florence was having trouble staying awake. Seth rode on until he found a tight grove of oak trees with a small creek running through it.
“We’ll stop here for a while so you can rest. I’ll keep watch, just in case anybody found those men and are trailing us.”
Florence rolled out her blankets and fell on them in fatigue. She was exhausted both from the all night ride as well as from the stress of the day before. This morning hadn’t helped either. Seth seemed more distant than in a long time. She’d thought he liked her and liked having her along. Maybe he’d changed his mind for some reason. She fell asleep wondering if she’d done something to cause it.
It seemed as if she’d only closed her eyes before Seth touched her shoulder.
“Florence, it’s been a couple of hours. We need to be moving again.”
They rode for another hour before Seth spoke to her.
“I expect we’d better turn back west now. If we keep going south, we’re going to come to Little Rock and I don’t want to chance that our wanted posters made it that far. Kansas is probably not someplace we can go without running into more of those men. How do you feel about Texas?”
“What would I do there?”
“I might try my hand a catching some of those wild cattle and horses. I don’t know what you’d do. Find a man and get married I expect.”
“It sounds like you want to be rid of me. Do you?”
“I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that you need somebody who’ll stay home and take care of you. I still don’t know where I’m going or what I’ll end up doing. You don’t want to live this way for much longer, do you?”
“I’m still alive. I probably wouldn’t be if I’d stayed in my cabin back in Kingsport.”
“Yes, but you need to be a woman again, and dress up and go to parties, like you said.”
“I’m still a woman.”
Seth was becoming frustrated. He was trying to tell her why she shouldn’t stay with him, and for every reason he had, she had an answer.
“You know what I mean. I’m dragging you all over the country dressed like a man.”
“I don’t remember you dragging me anywhere. I talked you into letting me come with you, remember? I dressed this way before you ever met me. It’s easier going through the woods like this.”
“It’s just not right. Women are supposed to be pretty and have children and keep house and cook for their husbands. That’s what my mother did. You can’t do those things if you’re riding with me.”
“My mother did the same things, and maybe some day, I’ll want to do those things too. Right now, I just want to feel safe, and that means staying with you if you’ll let me. Even if you don’t care that I think that way, you’re the only man I trust. Will you let me stay with you?”
The only sound for a few minutes was the slow plop-plop of the horses’ hooves on the soft earth. Seth didn’t really want Florence to go anywhere, but she needed to. He’d tried to explain that to her the only way he knew how, but she had an answer for everything, just like she had back at her cabin. He turned to look at her.
“You can stay with me, but don’t go doing anything like back there again, you hear?”
“I hear you.”
She’d said what he wanted to hear, but Seth was a little dismayed that she was grinning when she said it. He had no doubt that in a similar situation, Florence would do the same thing. He’d have to make sure not to get her into a situation where she could.