The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter 8

For the next week, they rode west, and then stopped when they came to another river. It was the Arkansas according to Seth’s map. He looked for a ferry, but found none in less than a week’s ride. He studied the map for a while longer before telling Florence what they had to do.

“This is the Arkansas. There doesn’t seem to be a ferry close by, or at least, I don’t see any roads going to the river on this map. It’s not as wide as the Tennessee, though. We’ll ride upstream a couple of days and find a place narrow enough to swim the horses across.”

Florence didn’t say anything, but inside, she was thinking of her mother releasing her into the river current. She didn’t think she could ever do what Seth was saying they had to do. She just didn’t know how to tell him.

They rode along the riverbank for a day and a half before Seth found the place for which he looked. There were two bends in the river relatively close to each other. They would ride into the shallow water of the river on the inside of one bend, and ride out of the shallow water on the inside of other. The river was narrow enough here, and enough distance separated the two bends Seth thought they could make it across before being swept downstream by the current. He explained to Florence what they were going to do.

“Have you ever crossed water with a horse before?”

Florence shook her head.

“Well, it’s not that hard. You just have to let the horse do the work. We’ll ride into the water here. It’s shallow and the current isn’t as fast. When the horses start to swim, I want you to slide back off the saddle and hold on to the cantle or the horse’s tail. That way, the horse can do the swimming and pull you across the river. We’ll head for the inside of the next bend. When your horse can walk on the bottom, just pull yourself back up in the saddle again. Once we’re across, we’ll stop and dry out.”

Florence was scared to death, and attempted to find a reason why they shouldn’t do this.

“Won’t everything get wet? We can’t eat wet cornmeal or jerky, and if the gunpowder gets wet, it won’t work.”

“We’ll make a small raft of logs, put anything that will be hurt by being wet on it, and tow it across the river with one of the ropes. It’ll stay dry that way.”

Seth saw Florence begin to tremble.

“Florence, what’s wrong? The river isn’t very wide or deep here, and the current isn’t all that fast.”

“What if I can’t hold on? I’ll drown, just like…”

“Just like what?”

With tears in her eyes, Florence recounted her only experience in water. She was still crying when she finished.

“I’m too afraid to do this. I don’t want to die in the river, and I know that’s what will happen.”

Seth squeezed her arm gently.

“After we make the raft and tie it to your horse, we’ll have one rope left. We’ll both ride the gelding and I’ll tie you behind me so you won’t be able to get away. You’ll just relax and hold on to my waist until we get to the other bank. If you don’t fight the water, we’ll float with our heads above the surface. Just don’t panic and pull me under. If you do that, we’ll both drown.”

Seth smiled at Florence and squeezed her arm again.

“I’ve done this before. It’ll be all right. Just trust me and hold on, and we’ll be on the other side before you know it.”

With the bushwhacker’s hatchet, Seth chopped down three black willow trees about six inches in diameter. He cut two of the trees into six logs four of his steps long and the last into four logs three steps long. He then lashed the four shorter logs on top of the six long ones with one rope. The result was a crude raft the top of which would sit a few inches above the water. He pulled this raft to the shallow water with the second rope tied to the gelding’s saddle, and then used the rope to tie it to a tree on the river bank.

It was noon before the raft floated in the river. Seth and Florence laid small branches over the four cross logs, and then put the canvas sheet from Seth’s bedroll over the branches. On top of this, they placed everything except their saddles. Seth stood back to look at the loaded raft.

“I’d rather have put the saddles on too, but it’s already only a couple inches out of the water now. The saddles will have to get wet, but they’ll dry. You ready, Florence?”

“I’m still afraid, if that’s what you mean, but I guess I’m as ready as I’ll ever be ready.”

Seth tied the rope from the raft to the horn on the black mare’s saddle, and then mounted the gelding. Florence handed him the reins for the black mare; Seth tied them to a D-ring on the gelding’s saddle, then held out his hand to her and then swung her up behind him. After tying a loose loop around Florence’s waist, he tied the other end to his own waist, leaving only a foot of slack between them. The other end of the rope he tied to his saddle horn.

“Now, we’re going to walk in easy. When the horses start to swim, you slide off and hold on to my waist. I’ll slide off with you and hold onto the saddle. Just hold on and don’t try to do anything. I’ll make sure we get across.”

As the gelding and mare walked into the river, Seth could feel Florence shaking. When the gelding’s foot dropped into a hole and he stumbled, Florence cried out and Seth felt her grip around his middle tighten. After another few feet, the gelding began to swim and Seth eased back in his saddle, pushing Florence off the gelding’s rump in the process. She gasped when she felt herself in the water up to her arms, and squeezed Seth even tighter. He smiled and slipped off the gelding’s rump and grabbed the cantle of his saddle.

The horses swam with strong strokes, and after ten minutes, the inside bend just down-river came into view. The horses instinctively swam for that bend, and a few minutes later, the gelding found his footing. Seth pulled himself back into the saddle and because of her grip around his chest, Florence was pulled back onto the gelding’s rump. When the gelding and mare were both on solid ground, Seth kept going until the raft bumped on the bottom of the river bend. He turned to look at Florence.

She was shaking all over, and still holding on for dear life.

“Florence, you can let go of me now. We made it. Let’s go unload the raft, and then build a fire so we can dry out some.”

She didn’t release her hold on Seth until he’d untied the rope from her waist. When she slid to the ground, she was shaking so hard she almost fell down. She seemed to calm down a little as they walked to the raft, and by the time all their belongings were safely inside the thicket of willows, had stopped shaking.

There hadn’t been time for much talk as they unloaded and then took apart the raft. Seth didn’t want to take the risk of being seen at a time when they were both wet and hadn’t yet retrieved their firearms from the raft and checked them. Once inside the thicket of willows, Seth cleared a spot on the ground, and got his fire making things from his saddle bag. A few strokes of his flint and steel imbedded a spark in the fluffy tinder and he soon had a flickering flame burning a few small sprigs of dry grass. He added twigs, then small branches, and when satisfied it was burning well, added two logs he’d chopped from a dead tree.

When the logs started to flame, Seth stood up and pulled off his shirt, then took off his boots and started to pull off his trousers. He stopped when Florence gasped.

“You aren’t going to take off your clothes are you?”

Seth laughed.

“I don’t particularly like being wet, so yes I am. You need to do the same or you’ll catch your death from getting chilled. We’ll dry them out by the fire while we stay warm.”

“Well, I’m not taking mine off. I’m not going to let you see me.”

Seth tossed her a blanket from his bedroll.

“Here. Go back in the trees, take off your clothes, and wrap this around you. I won’t see anything, and you can get your clothes dry. I’ll do the same so you won’t have to look at me.”

Seth had his trousers and shirt hung by the fire when Florence came back wrapped in her blanket. She handed Seth her shirt and trousers, and then sat down beside the fire. Seth hung them on more sticks he pushed into the soft ground, and then sat down beside her. She flinched a little when he touched her shoulder, and he smiled.

“Easy there, Florence. I’m not going to do anything. You feel better now, though, don’t you?”

“Well, I’m not wet and cold.”

“Still afraid?”

“No, not any more. I was though.”

Seth chuckled.

“I could tell. You like to squeezed the breath out of me. It wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?”

“I suppose not, but you can’t understand what it’s like being afraid like that.”

Seth looked at the ground.

“Yes, I can. I was afraid every day we fought.”

“I didn’t think men were afraid of anything.”

“If I can control what’s happening, I’m not afraid. In the war, I couldn’t control anything. It just happened to me, and all I could do was try to stay alive.”

“I saw a round scar on your arm. That’s from a ball, isn’t it?”

“Yes. I got shot at Missionary Ridge.”

“Were you afraid then, when you got shot, I mean?”

“No. I knew it wasn’t bad and it didn’t bleed all that much. The one in my hip was about the same.”

“You got shot in the hip too?”

“Yes, at Franklin.”

“I never knew anybody who got shot. Did it hurt bad?”

“Like somebody hit me with a sledge hammer. I’m going to go check on our clothes.”

Florence smiled as Seth stood and walked to the other side of the fire. He was a lot like her father in some ways. Her father would never complain of hurting even when Florence knew he was. Her mother said that was just the way men were. They thought it wasn’t manly to complain about something that was wrong with them. They’d complain about the weather, or about the fox that killed the chickens in the hen house, but never about themselves.

She remembered the day her father had smashed his thumb nailing on a new shake on the cabin roof. He’d sworn an oath, and since it was all black and blue, she knew it hurt him, but he just kept on working.

The woman her mother had raised to understand how her father was knew Seth was hurting. The hurt was just in his mind and the wound didn’t show. He didn’t want to admit it. That’s why he’d never talk about the war.

Seth was like her father in other ways too. Her father had chosen to live far from town, and seemed to like doing everything himself. Seth was that way. He would let her help sometimes, but usually, he just went ahead and did everything himself. She thought he would have probably done the cooking if she hadn’t more or less just taken over that task.

Her father also never shied away from anything that needed doing. He’d think about it for a while, then make a plan, and then do it. That was what Seth had been doing all along, she realized. When the bounty hunter had found them, Seth had already thought about it, and had a plan. When they crossed the Tennessee, the Mississippi, and just now, the Arkansas, Seth thought about what might happen, and made a plan for that. It was the same for everything they’d done.

Florence realized that was what made her feel safe, just like she’d always felt safe when her father was alive. Seth always thought things through and then planned how they would do what needed doing. His plans always seemed to work, too.

Seth checked their clothes, but they were still damp. Another hour or so, he thought, and by then it would be late in the afternoon. It didn’t look like the saddle seats had gotten much more than splashed a little, so they’d at least not be getting wet again as they rode. They wouldn’t be able to ride far before it got dark anyway. By morning, the saddles would have dried enough to be just a little damp.

He looked over at Florence, and saw her deep in thought. He wondered at those thoughts. She had tried to get him to talk about the war again, and he wondered at that too. Why was she interested in that part of his life? He’d buried it as deep as he could, and never wanted to think about it again, but this was the second time she’d tried to get him to talk about the war.

He also wondered at the way she looked so small wrapped up in her blanket. In her shirt and trousers, she was smaller than he was, but in the blanket, she looked small and fragile. He knew she wasn’t all that weak. He hadn’t been joking when he’d said she almost squeezed the breath out of him. She was strong for someone so small - strong of body, but also strong in spirit. As many men as Seth had killed, he’d been close enough to look only one in the eyes as he died, much less two. When he killed that one, in the barn at Franklin, he’d been enraged to the point he didn’t care what happened to him. Florence had to have been terrified both times, but was still strong enough to defend herself.

He’d also seen that strong will when she’d rode toward Mae’s house and almost left him behind. He thought it odd that she could be so afraid of water that she shook at the mention of swimming the river, but yet could ride into what she had to know could have gotten her hurt or worse. She’d done the same with the bushwackers. She knew they both had guns, but had still walked out to help him. He’d known men without even half that much courage.

Seth mused that if he had to have a woman along with him, he could have done a lot worse than Florence. None of the girls he’d known before the war could have coped with what Florence had, and none of them would have the courage to set out with a strange man who didn’t know where he was going. He hoped she’d find what she was looking for. She deserved that after all the things that had happened to her.

After checking their clothes once more and finding they’d not dried much more, Seth walked back to Florence and sat down.

“About a hour more, I think, and then we’ll ride on. I want to get away from the river a ways before we stop for the night.”

“You think somebody might come along?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out.”

It took a little over an hour, but their clothes were finally dry enough to wear. Florence went into the trees to dress. Seth dressed by the fire. When Florence came back out, he was dousing the fire with water from the river. They loaded everything back on the horses and then Seth led the way west again.

They rode over ridges at first, but mountains loomed on the horizon to the south. The country looked much like the country in Virginia to Seth. The mountains weren’t quite as high, he thought, but they were still mountains. Mountains would make for difficult travel. Seth looked at the Confederate artillery map. If he stayed north of the mountains, they’d end up in Indian Country, but the going would be easier on them and on the horses. He hoped the Indians nearest to Arkansas were those who fought for the Confederacy and were still friendly.

For the next week, Seth and Florence rode through the foothills of the mountain range to their south. The land seemed to be uninhabited, and teemed with wild game. In the early morning and late evening, it was common to see white tailed deer grazing in the valleys. Seth didn’t shoot any. They had no way to preserve any meat except by drying it, and that would keep them in one place for too long. Instead, they ate rabbits and squirrels brought down by Florence’s rifle.

To save their dwindling supply of corn meal, Seth showed Florence the trick he’d learned from an older soldier who had fought in the Mexican American War. He crumbled a hardtack biscuit, mixed it with a little water and salt, and fried it in her skillet. It was almost like flat bread, and they used it to mop up the juices left after cooking the rabbits and squirrels.

Seth wasn’t sure what month it was, but he knew the days were getting hotter. It was probably July, he thought, because that was when it got hot in Tennessee. Seth had spent two summers in the heat of Tennessee, and he knew heat could kill. He’d seen men just drop after a battle and die. They’d been too busy fighting to drink and couldn’t get anywhere to cool off.

The heat made traveling slower, because they had to stop occasionally to cool off the horses and themselves under a tree. Seth kept telling Florence to keep drinking water, just like he was doing. That meant the single canteen they’d taken from the bushwackers’ wouldn’t last them all day, so they had to stop any time they came to a stream to refill it.

After they’d ridden for the week, Seth figured they were in Indian Territory. As they rode, he cautioned Florence not to panic if they saw any Indians.

“The Cherokees are supposed to be on this side of the territory. They came from Tennessee, and some of them fought for the Confederacy. I met a couple when I was in the war. If we see any, don’t do anything unless they start something. They’re probably friendly to white people, and we don’t need any more enemies.”

“I know. It seems that no matter where we are, somebody is trying to hurt other people.”

“It was the war, mostly. When you spend three years killing people so they won’t kill you, and watching men die, it changes you. All the bad people we’ve seen were in the war, and came out not able to go back to what they were doing before. They’re doing what they did when they were fighting, only now, they’re doing it to innocent people. I suppose they don’t know what else to do. There are good people still. Mae was one of them. So was Mary.”

“Who was Mary? You never told me about any Mary that I remember.”

“She was a woman I found living on my father’s farm when I came back.”

“Where did she come from?”

“From the plantation over the ridge from the farm. She was a slave there. Why are you so interested?”

“Well, I don’t know hardly anything about you except you were in the war.”

“Now’s a funny time to be finding out about me after we’ve been together all these weeks. That didn’t seem to bother you when you asked me to take you with me.”

“I know, but that was different. I knew I had to get away from Kingsport or I’d get arrested. Now, well, I just want to know more about you.”

“What would you like to know?”

“Oh, how you grew up and what you did before the war.”

Seth shrugged.

“I guess I grew up a lot like you did. I was raised on a small farm in Virginia. I helped my father until the war came along.”

“Did you like farming? My father did.”

“It was all I knew at the time. Now…I don’t really know. It was good to be able to take care of ourselves. We didn’t have any money, so I guess we were what you’d call poor, but we always had something to eat, clothes to wear, and a house to live in.”

“Daddy felt the same way. He always said we didn’t have much, but what we had we got all by ourselves. He was pretty proud of that. I was too.”

“He sounds a lot like my father. He would help anyone who needed help, but he'd never ask for help himself. He wanted to do it all on his own.”

Florence chuckled.

“Kind of like his son, I think.”

“What’s that mean?”

Florence smiled.

“Well, all the time we’ve been riding, you always want me to stay somewhere while you do what has to be done, like when we crossed the rivers. You wanted me to stay behind when we helped Mae, and when I helped you kill those bushwackers, you like to shook the stuffing out of me because I did.”

“I…I just don’t want you to get hurt, Florence. I’ve had enough of people I like getting hurt to last the rest of my life.”

Florence grinned.

“That’s the first time you’ve ever said you like me. Do you really?”

Seth thought about that for a moment. He did like Florence, not in the same way he’d liked Elizabeth, but he did like her. She was smart and didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, well, except water, and he could understand that.

“Yes, I suppose I like you.”

Florence chuckled.

“You suppose you like me? That doesn’t sound very convincing.”

“All right, I do like you. Do you like me?”

“Yes. You’re pretty stubborn most of the time, but I like you anyway.”

Seth suddenly pulled the gelding to a stop.

“Look, there, by those trees to the left.”

Florence’s heart began to pound when she saw the four men on horseback slowly riding toward them.

“Who do you think they are?”

“They have dark skin, so they might be Indians. I don’t know if they’re Cherokees or something else.”

“What do we do?”

Seth quickly scanned the surrounding area and found nothing close that would offer cover.

“If we run, they’ll think we’re up to something, and there’s no cover we could make before they caught up with us. They’ve already seen us, and since we can see they have dark skin, it has to be obvious to them we’re not Indians. They’re carrying rifles, but they don’t seem to be getting ready to use them. If they were going to start anything, they’d be shooting at us by now. I think we should go meet them.”