The Long Ride To Destiny, Chapter11

They rode from the village, and then turned southwest to parallel the mountains. After four days, they left the mountains behind them as they turned south. Seth figured they were in Choctaw country, and began scanning the skyline for signs of more Indians. Red Bird had said the Choctaw also fought for the Confederacy so they would probably be friendly, but he didn’t want to be mistaken for two of the raiders Red Bird had said came to this part of Indian Territory.

He also watched for the raiders. He wasn’t too concerned as long as they didn’t get surprised and there weren’t more than a couple. He could handle two by himself. His battle mind took over and continuously scanned the area for cover and fighting positions.

For two days, they saw no one. Red Bird had said Texas was about seven days ride from the village, and they had already been riding for six. Seth thought maybe they’d make it without any more incidents. Just after noon, he was proven wrong. Far off in the distance, he saw a lone rider. After spotting them, the man quickly turned his horse and rode off at a gallop.

Seth didn’t say anything to Florence. The man might just be running from them because he thought they were raiders. He intensified his search for cover, though. It was just as likely the man was riding away to find the others of his band. Half an hour later, Seth knew that was the case.

The six men riding toward them were not Indians. They looked to Seth just like the three back by the Cherokee village. They were riding at a fast trot, and Seth knew they would have to fight. The only cover he could see was a low rise in the otherwise flat ground with a few trees behind it.

“Over there”, he yelled at Florence, and urged the gelding to a gallop. He was out of the saddle and running to the rise with the Springfield before the gelding came to a stop. In a few seconds, Florence lay on the ground beside him, her rifle and the double barrel shotgun by her side along with the sack with her powder flasks and balls.

The men didn’t slow down, and as soon as they were within range, Seth fired one shot in the air. That slowed their approach to a walk, but just as Seth dropped behind the rise again, he saw two of the men start to pull rifles from the scabbards on their saddles. Bullets sprayed through the trees and into the ground in front of them, too many for only six men, it seemed to Seth, but he figured some of them were probably using revolvers. Seth reloaded the Springfield and then spoke to Florence.

“Take the one on the outside on your left first. I’ll take the one on the far right. Don’t stay up very long. Just raise up enough to see, shoot, and then get back down…Now!”

Their two shots split the air at almost the same time, and the two men on each end of the line of raiders fell out of their saddles. The four knew it would take Seth and Florence time to reload, and whipped their horses to a gallop.

Because Seth was using paper cartridges for the Springfield, he was ready to fire while Florence was still ramming the ball down the barrel of her rifle. He rose from the crest of the low hill and shot the next man in line. He too fell, but the others still kept coming, and they all were firing with their revolvers now. There was a slight pause in the bullets hitting the trees, and during this, Florence rose and aimed at the next man on the left. He fired his revolver at her at the same time her rifle shot cracked the air. The ball caught him in the chest and he fell, moaning.

The remaining two were soon within feet of Seth and Florence. Seth rose to fire his Remingtons, but ducked down as a bullet kicked up the dirt beside him. He rolled to the side, raised up again, and fired. The man in his sights dropped to the ground and lay still. Seth was taking aim at the last man, when he heard the loud boom of the shotgun. At the range of only a few feet, the charge of buckshot nearly cut the man in half. He fell without a sound.

Seth quickly checked all the men for signs of life. Only the man Florence had shot in the chest still moved, and as Seth watched, he gurgled out his last breath.

Seth went back to Florence to tell her they needed to move in case there were more who might have heard the shooting. She lay on the ground holding her side, and Seth saw blood staining her shirt a dark red. Florence looked up at him with pain and fear in her eyes.

“I think I got shot.”

Seth swore to himself as he rushed to her side. It wasn’t enough that she had to endure all she had before. Now, she’d been shot. There were no doctors anywhere, and Seth knew from experience he couldn’t do much if she was hit bad.

He knelt beside her and helped her to sit up. Florence groaned at the pain, and there were tears in her eyes. Seth reached for the bottom of her shirt, and looked her in the eyes.

“I have to look Florence”.

She nodded, and Seth pulled the shirt over her head. Florence tried to cover her breasts, but cried out in pain at the movement of her arm.

Seth breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the wound. The bullet had nearly missed Florence’s side, and had only cut a shallow gouge along the skin of her waist from just under her ribs and around to just above her hip. It left an open wound, but at least he wouldn’t have to figure out some way to remove the ball.

“You got lucky, Florence. This will heal and you won’t know it ever happened. I’ll just clean it up and put a bandage on it and you’ll feel –“

Seth had stopped talking because he was stunned.. He had turned to follow the path of the bullet to make sure the wound didn’t get deeper towards her back. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw there. Florence’s back was criss-crossed with long, pale white scars. He’d only seen scars like that a few other times, and they were on the backs of black slaves he’d seen as they ran from the fighting during the war.

“Florence…your back…who did this?”

“Samuel. If he thought I’d done something wrong, he beat me. You weren’t supposed to see it.”

Florence cried out from the pain of turning her back away from Seth.

“Can you fix where I got shot? It hurts like fire.”

Seth swore to himself as he went to the nearest dead man and tore his shirt into strips. When he came back, Florence was holding her shirt over her breasts. She shook her head when she saw the strips of cloth in Seth’s hand.

“Seth, don’t use those. They’re filthy. In the bag on my saddle horn is something you can use.”

Seth found the thick sewn pads of cotton cloth and brought them back to Florence. He wet one with water from one of their canteens and used it to gently clean the wound. Florence winced when he touched the open flesh.

“Ouch. Don’t push so hard. It hurts.”

“I have to get it cleaned out. The bullet didn’t do much damage, but you’re still bleeding a little. I’ll put another one of these over it and tie it with what I tore off the man’s shirt. Hold still. This might hurt you again."

“I’ll hold still. Just don’t throw that way when you get done. I’ll need it when I…I’ll need it later, so I’ll wash it out.”

“Why would you…Oh…I - I’ll wash it for you when we find water.”

When Seth had tied the bandage in place, he helped Florence put her shirt on again, then brought her bedroll and spread it out.

“You rest here, while I go see if our friends out there have anything we need. You keep your Colt ready just in case any more of these raiders come along. Don’t worry, I won’t be long.”

Seth’s search of the men yielded little except the revolver each carried. When he caught the horses and checked the saddles and saddle bags, he found more than he’d hoped for.

The reason for so many bullets from so few men was two of the men carried Henry rifles. Seth had witnessed at the Battle of Franklin how fast they could fire because some of the Union troops had them. Each held sixteen of the special copper cartridges, and could fire as fast as a man could work the lever that loaded them. He took the rifles and scabbards from the saddles, then unsaddled the horses. In the saddle bags of two of the horses, he found two hundred cartridges for the Henry’s. In another, he found two bottles of whiskey. The rest were empty.

The revolvers were well used and the cylinders didn’t lock up tight, so he left them beside the men. He carried the Henrys, scabbards and cartridges back to Florence, and then went back for the whiskey.

Florence saw the two bottles and frowned.

“What are you going to do with that?”

“I need to look at where you got shot again.”

Florence pulled up her shirt enough Seth could untie the bandage at her waist.

“Late in the war, the surgeons were running out of supplies, and used whiskey to clean out bullet wounds. It seemed to help keep them from getting pus in them. Hold still. This is going to burn.”

Seth poured whiskey on another one of Florence’s stitched cotton pads and then wiped the gouge in her side. Florence cried out as the whiskey touched the raw flesh. Seth ignored that and kept wiping at the injury until he was satisfied he’d cleaned it as well as he could. Then, he put a little more whiskey on the cloth that served as a bandage, put it back over the wound, and bound it again.

Florence gasped when the bandage tightened against the wound.

“Did it hurt this bad when you got shot?”

“Yes, probably worse.”

“I don’t think I could take worse. How did you?”

“I don’t know. I just did because I had to. We need to be riding on if you think you can, at least until we find some place with better cover and water.”

Florence tried to stand but fell back down at the pain. She gritted her teeth and tried again, and managed to get to her knees.

“If you help me on my horse, I think I can ride.”

They rode south at a walk. Even though the pace was slow, Florence had to work at not crying out with each step the black mare took. She’d never hurt so badly in her life. It was like something was ripping her side apart, and every time she moved, the pain was worse.

After about an hour, Florence called to Seth.

“Can we stop? I need to stop rocking back and forth for a while.”

Seth scanned the horizon, looking for some place they could hide. At what he estimated to be about a mile further south were trees. Trees probably meant water.

“Can you hold on for another hour or so? We need to get to those trees up ahead.”

Florence grimaced when the black mare stepped sideways a little.

“Yes, I think I can. But I have to stop pretty soon or I’m going to fall off this horse.”

The trees were oaks and maples, and grew close enough together that a hundred feet inside them, Seth couldn’t see anything other than more trees. He heard the gurgle of running water nearby, and after helping Florence to the ground, went to fill their canteens. When he came back, she was looking under the bandage on her side.

“I don’t think it’s bleeding any more. It still hurts though, really bad.”

“It’s gonna hurt for a week or so. I better have a look again, just to make sure it’s all right.”

The wound had stopped bleeding, but there was quite a bit of blood on the pad. Seth changed the sewn cotton pad after pouring more whiskey on a fresh one. Florence flinched when it touched her skin, and Seth said he was sorry he’d hurt her.

“It didn’t hurt that much more. It was just kind of cold, that’s all.”

“This place looks pretty safe. We’ll spend the night here so you can rest, and then move on tomorrow. I’ll go unsaddle the horses and then light a fire and fix us something to eat.”

When he came back, Seth was carrying their bedrolls. He spread Florence’s out.

“Here, you come lay down.”

“You’ll have to help me get up, and I need to uh…go out in the trees first.”

Seth helped Florence to her feet.

“Can you do this by yourself?”

“I think I have to, don’t I?”

“I could help you out, and then go a ways away, and then come back and get you when you’re done.”

“No, it hurts, but I can walk. You light the fire.”

Seth was adding wrist size sticks to the fire when Florence came back. She walked slowly, and grimaced with nearly every step, but she was walking by herself. He had to give her credit. He knew how much she hurt, and yet, she had the grit to keep going.

Seth helped Florence to her bedroll, and after she laid down, he covered her with two blankets. She promptly pulled them away from her body.

“Seth, it’s hot enough I’m sweating. I don’t need covered up.”

“I just don’t want you to get chilled. If you get chilled, you’ll get sick.”

Florence frowned,

“Seth, you’re acting like an old mother hen. Stop it.”

“But I got you shot.”

“No, you didn’t. I did, because I raised up to shoot.”

“I should have made you stay down. Then you wouldn’t have gotten hit.”

“And I suppose you would have taken care of all six of those men by yourself?”

“Yes, I would have.”

Florence frowned.

“You just can’t say that you needed my help, can you? What was I supposed to do, just lay there and do nothing? If I hadn’t got three of them, they’d have killed us both, and you know it.”

“But you shouldn’t have had to. Protecting you is my job.”

As soon as he said it, Seth was in wonder that he had. The words had just popped out of his mouth without him thinking about saying it, and he needed some time to figure out why.

“It’s still early. I’m going to see if there are any fish in this creek.”

As Seth made the fish trap as he’d learned to do during the war, he thought about what he’d said, and realized he did feel that way. He also realized that since the bounty hunter had tracked them to their camp, he’d been more concerned for Florence’s safety than for his.

He hadn’t allowed himself to think it before, but it felt like the feelings he’d had for Elizabeth. He liked seeing Florence happy, and it hurt him to see her afraid. Having her with him made him happy. He loved her smile. Seeing her hurt like she was caused him pain as well, and though it was pain felt only in his mind it hurt just the same.

Now what should he do? He’d been ready to tell Elizabeth he wanted her for his wife. He’d been telling Florence for weeks she should find her own way. She probably didn’t feel the same way about him anyway, and even if she did, he had nothing to offer her except more riding until he finally figured out what he was going to do.

Before now, he’d often wished she’d just leave him so he could be alone. Now, the more he thought about it, he couldn’t imagine being without her.

Seth walked back to Florence and found her asleep on her bedroll. He was glad she was resting. She needed rest to heal, and if she was asleep, he wouldn’t have to talk to her. Talking to her would mean either telling her how he felt, or trying hard to keep her from sensing that. He wasn’t certain he could do either. Seth added two larger sticks to the small fire, and once they were burning, went back to check his fish trap.

The trap, a spiral of sticks pressed close together into the stream bottom had the opening pointed upstream. It worked by a fish swimming into the opening. Once inside, the fish would swim in a circle and not be able to find its way out. Since the trap was small it was easy to catch the fish by hand.

When Seth looked into the clear water, there were a few minnows swimming around, but no fish large enough to eat. Sometimes it took several hours for a fish to find its way into one of these traps, sometimes a day, and sometimes longer than that. Seth figured if he didn’t catch something today, he would tomorrow. Sometimes the trap worked better at night.

Florence was still asleep when he returned, so he pulled one of the Henry rifles from its scabbard and examined it.

The rifle weighed about the same as his Springfield, but was a foot shorter, so it would be faster to aim. The brass receiver would reflect light and possibly give away his position when the brown receiver of the Springfield would not, but the rate of fire would compensate for that. Seth pulled the lever down slowly and watched as the empty cartridge case was pulled from the barrel and flipped up and out. In the same motion, the hammer was cocked.

As he closed the lever, the mechanism lifted a fresh cartridge from the tube under the barrel, and pushed it into the chamber. Even as slowly as he did it, the rifle was ready to fire another round in less then ten seconds. The fastest he could load the Springfield using paper cartridges was twice that, and that was standing up. If he was lying down, like he had been when the raiders attacked, it took even longer.

Seth picked up and examined the spent casing. It had one dent on the rim. He knew that must be what detonated the powder inside the case, just like the hammer on the Springfield flattened the percussion cap. Looking at the rifle again confirmed this. When the hammer fell, instead of striking a percussion cap like his Springfield and his Remingtons, it struck a metal piece inside the block of steel that held the cartridge in the barrel. That metal piece had a flat nose that protruded from the face of the block in the right place to mash the rim of the cartridge.

There was no safety notch on the hammer, he found, and realized that if the hammer was down against a cartridge, the rifle would fire if the hammer was hit, and probably if the rifle was dropped. He opened the action enough to remove the fresh cartridge in the barrel, and then closed it again. He’d have to work the action before the first shot, but the rate of fire would compensate for that as well. After a little more investigation, he found the follower on the tube under the barrel, pulled it up, and filled the magazine from one of the boxes of cartridges in the saddle bag.

Seth went to check the fish trap again, and found one fish in it that he recognized as the same as the croakers they had caught in the rivers of Tennessee. It was big enough to feed both him and Florence. Seth cleaned the fish by the creek, and threw the innards into his trap to attract more. Then, he stood and began walking back to their campfire.