Herc went and stoked the fire and put a pot of coffee on. “This place is quite cozy, though I miss a soft pillow . . .”
Silas unwrapped a package or two. He took the wrapping paper and folded it neatly, setting it aside for later. The lantern was lit so they might see the supplies and each other.
“I wish you all would have awakened me,” Emma said, sitting back down on her blanket, “I would have liked to help.”
“If you’d a gone with, we’d be horseless right now,” Herc reminded. “Besides, women go shopping and all the money’s gone with nothin’ but lace and frills to show for it.”
She let it roll past her, “What did you intrepid fellows buy?” She looked among the parcels wistfully.
“Nothing too unnecessary,” Silas said as he bent to pick up a large hat box. “But we did pick this out for you.”
She saw the the box and pictured a new bonnet or perhaps some other chic hat. He handed it to her and she struggled with the string. A smile faded as she opened it and removed a wide-brimmed, felt cowboy hat.
Noting her displeasure, Silas pointed out, “It’s a Stetson! Says so inside.”
She indeed looked inside, but her expression was as if she had eaten a bug. A small bug, but a bug nonetheless.
“We need to discuss something with you, Miss Emma,” Herc confided.
By the way he switched from using “Miss” when he had been using “Emma,” she knew things were about to turn.
“I’ll put it plain,” Silas interceded. “They are searching for two men and a young woman. We need to put you in disguise.”
“This hat will surely not fool anyone, Mister McDonough,” she bristled.
“Please call me Silas, Miss, and that ain’t the full extent of your illusion.”
Herc crossed with two cups of coffee, handed her one and then picked up another longer, flatter package. “I guessed at your size. I hope they fit.”
She opened the parcel and instead of just the one bug, she looked as if she’d downed a whole swarm. Inside this wrapping was a pair of green denim trousers, a black belt, a white shirt and a thin jacket of doeskin.
Silas handed her a pair of brown boots with wide toes. “A woman’s shoe size is a mystery, but I hope I unraveled it.”
She was set to fluster plenty, but the look they had on their faces reminded her of her father’s on Christmas mornings. He had always picked the presents himself, and though they were never in any proximity of what the girls wanted, he was always excited and expectant as to their approval. Once, Emma’s spoiled sister had said some snotty remark about his gift and her father sank into a funk till New Year’s.
She took a deep breath and fabricated a smile. “Why, these are just lovely. I’m sure you gentlemen have judged my size perfectly.”
Their spirits were buoyed so, that if not for the rafters and the patchy excuse of a roof overhead, they may have floated away into the night.
Other comestibles and canned goods were flaunted, as well as traveling gear and clothing. It was not a tremendous amount of provisions, for Silas was cited as being frugal as ever.
The light banter fell away, and Silas grew pensive again. “There’s just one more matter that needs tending to.”
Herc and Silas exchanged worrisome glances.
“What in the world else could you two want?” She sighed. “You already have me masked beyond recognition.” She swept her arm across the new duds.
“We need to probably cut your hair,” Silas blurted out, his face turned a deep red. “In case you should lose your hat or some such.”
Once again, she paused to take in the men’s sorrowful countenances. Oddly, she pictured her uncle’s reaction if she ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on him again. He had always stroked her hair when he began to. . .
She shook the image from her mind. “Fine,” she said cheerfully.
They both looked at each other silently for a minute, surprised.
“Silas here is a fine barber,” Herc testified. “He tames my tresses when things get too shaggy.” With that, he doffed his ludicrous cap and displayed his wretched mane.
“I will strike a bargain with you two,” Emma said. “I will let Silas here cut my hair if and only if you two barber up, too—and that includes those beards. I have always hated beards.”
The two men were aghast. Herc’s mouth opened and shut with not one intelligible word escaping. Silas was silent a moment, but having come to a decision, said, “A deal it is, but we get to keep our mustaches.”
“Trimmed, at least?” she asked.
Herc still worked his mouth silently. He looked at Silas, unable to recognize this traitor before him.
“Deal,” Silas said, coming over to shake her hand.
She spit in her palm and held her hand out. Silas dittoed her and they shook. Herc watched as they lingered for a moment.
Silas turned back to Herc, who was struck dumb as a plank. “Herc, it’s only fair play. Plus, they’re looking for two bearded gents and if we shed our crumb-catchers, we might shift from under the eyes of the law.”
Herc squirmed, but at last relented.
Herc fetched a fresh supply of water from the shop as Silas sharpened a pair of scissors on a stone, both from his chef roll.
Emma watched as Silas oiled the stone and ran each blade carefully across. If there was a time for Emma to back out, the moment had come. He brought over an onion crate, set it on its length and tested the durability. Satisfied, he swept his hand in a welcome gesture., “Next!”
She took a deep breath and rose while Silas turned up the lamplight. “You can’t tell none by Herc’s shaggy head, but I am real good at cutting hair. I been doing it since—” He snipped himself off and switched to a different strand. “I have to admit, I ain’t never cut a woman’s hair before, though I can’t imagine it bein’ worlds different. Once I get it most cut away, I guess it’ll be ’bout the same.”
“You are not inspiring much confidence, Silas,” she chuckled.
“Sorry. I just don’t want to disappoint.”
She smiled at that.
Herc arrived with the water. Emma dipped a cup, went to the balcony and rinsed her hair out.
She sat down on the crate. “You may begin.”
Silas was poised with scissors held midair in one hand and a comb in the other. His face screwed up in consternation.
“What is it?” She asked, looking up at him.
“I, I ain’t never cut hair when it were wet,” he confessed. “We never had a surplus of water to wash up much, so I was always of the practice . . .”
“Surely it ain’t a heap different, boy,” Herc said absently as he stowed sacks of flour and cans of beans into their luggage.
“Just begin slowly,” Emma coaxed. “You will do fine.”
There was a clacking sound beyond the door out on the landing. It reminded her of someone striking two hollow sticks together rapidly. They all turned and looked through the open doorway to see Ezra Bean perched on the rail, puffing his face feathers out and in rapidly.
“Is there something wrong with him?” Emma asked.
“No, girl,” Herc answered. “He just gets squirrely if he can’t see us for long stretches.”
She looked on the raptor as he stared wide-eyed into the room. He bobbed his head up and down repeatedly and looked closely at the floor and threshold. It looked as he wanted to enter, but instead he stood on one leg, outstretched the opposite wing full and worked his beak along the feathers. It reminded Emma of a grooming cat.
Even in this awkward position, he was a majestic and beautiful animal. The talons and beak shone brightly in the lamplight and the pattern of brown, then gray, then white rows of feathers was hypnotic. The most striking thing to her were the bird’s huge yellow eyes which glowed from some hidden fire inside him. They took in all passively and gave nothing but glorious incandescence in return.
Silas began barbering. He separated, collected and lifted small sections of her wet locks. She felt the back of his hand as it brushed her cheek here and the back of her neck there. A small surge of anxiety welled. She smoothed down her emotions as she remembered this man touching her was only cutting her hair and he was a million miles away from being the person her Uncle Theo was. She tried to distract herself by watching the long hunks of hair fall around her feet, but this only heightened her unease.
She hoped conversation would be helpful. “May I ask where you learned such a useful trade, Silas?”
He stopped snipping for a beat and continued.
“You want I should tell her our little saga, or do you want the pleasure?” Herc asked, settled from his packing and sitting back against the wall with his pipe.
She heard Silas sigh, and for his assent, he said, “Barbershop chatter always did tend to get personal.”
Herc began telling their tale, smoke rolling from his mouth as he spoke. “I met this young pup here in Belle Island back in ’64.” He puffed and donned the requisite faraway look.
“We was both prisoners of war there on that slip of land cross the river from Richmond, Virginia. Would we had our ‘druthers, we would rather have been left there. Silas was captured outside Knoxville. He was . . .what was it? Third, fourth?”
“Second Volunteer Infantry, Kentucky,” he corrected.
“Hold a moment,” Emma interrupted. “You couldn’t have been in the army. You couldn’t have been more than—”
“Fourteen,” Silas said. “I was tall for my age and they needed tall boys to get shot at. They may have knowed I lied, but they did not care.”
“But what about your family? How could they let you enlist?” She asked, true concern flowing.
“I didn’t have no family then. My sister and poppa was dead and I never knew my momma,” Silas replied.
“Oh, Silas,” she said, pivoting her head to gaze up at him sorrowfully.
“It ain’t as awful as it sounds, Miss,” he assured her, splaying the tips of his fingers on her scalp and turning her head forward again. “Keep your head still.” His tone was soft despite his chastising. “Most often, I can only remember one or two things so far back, and on the whole, they’s good memories.”
“Can I get back to my tale, here?” Herc sighed, puffing hotly on his pipe.
He took their silence as his cue. “Old Silas was the camp pet. He ran around doing errands and brokerin’ deals between the prisoners and the guards. He once traded a fine blanket of mine—I had three I had negotiated—and he turned it into the whole bottom half of a hog. He was a magician at that. We hit it off real fine and not just ’cause I like me some hog bottom. I drafted him into a group of men I was camping with. It was always best to coagulate into a protective circle of men. You survived by standing together with men you trusted and respected.
“We was together there for a month or two, and it was fine living as far as confinement went, but we were unjustly uprooted and shoved off to hell on earth. This Gehenna in Georgia, Andersonville—it’s old history, so you mayn’t heard of it—”
“Oh, my,” she gasped. “Daddy told me about it—”
“I don’t know what he told you, but whatever it was, it was not black enough to describe its true nature. I will not attempt to tell you now, either, for it was a hard place to survive and even harder place to discuss. Suffice it to say, if you came in a man at Andersonville, you left either a dead man or a shell of one. Most everyone from our group succumbed to scurvy or one of the host of other diseases being passed around. We was down to three of us when we took old Romeo in our ranks.
“Most often black and white prisoners kept themselves separate—much the same as outside, in the glorious sunshine of freedom, but Silas here convinced me, Romeo, and our other members of the intelligence of such an alliance. Unheard of, but fortuitous, nonetheless.
“Right there in the lowest pit of hell, a man was forced to show his truest nature. A fellow as big and blustery as a snot-flyin’ bull was reduced to fawning and weeping. A mouse of a man could roar so loud the Gods became deaf. That is the truth. One bad man could—and did—lead his peers into the rampant pillaging of his more defenseless and downtrodden neighbor. It was humanity at its worst.
“With much back-watching, we transcended starvation with Silas’ cunning, political imbroglios with my tactful guile, and the many physical assaults with the help of Romeo’s strength, but we had us no negotiator against the sickness sweeping around those confines. Too many men too close together.”
Silas was finishing up, but slowed his snipping so as to not break Herc’s stride. Emma did not notice Silas staring at her, for she was enthralled with the story.
“Despite the pitiful conditions, the Confederacy could barely feed and clothe their own troops, so rations were slim. The Union Army, in its great wisdom, had broken off talks of prisoner exchanges, so morale was abysmal. We got sicker and weaker every day no matter how we foraged and traded. That’s when Silas here started the barbering trade. It helped mightily for a while there, as many men saw a trimming as a ray of hope. We did good, but I was losing teeth and muscle and I was older than them three. I was sure I would wake up dead one day. That’s about when we stumbled upon Ezra Bean. I should say he stumbled on us.”
When his name was mentioned, the large avian opened his eyes, clacked his beak and gave a soft succession of “Whoo, whoo’s.”
“Yeah, that’s right, Ezra,” Herc went on, “you’re ‘who, who’ I’m talkin’ ’bout. He was but a tiny fluff ball unable to fly when he was thrown from his nest one morning by a murder of crows. He landed in the dead line. That’s a patch of land that ran around the inner side of the stockade with but a bunch of picket fence poles sticking up to warn you not to go past them and near the wall. If you was spotted in the dead line, you got shot. I seen men mad with heat and such go runnin’ past them sticks, just to see ’em an instant later shot down where they stood. Some fellas did it just to end the misery.
“Anyways, here this snowball is waddling around in the dead line and all these fellers is hollerin’ to the guards that they ought to shoot him for he was in the space between them pickets and it weren’t fair to discriminate just cause he was a fowl and not a man. Soon they was bets flying as to his fate. It got fervent.
“Here is me and Romeo and everybody else watching that little bird when some poor fool comes shooting out through the spikes. He sweeps down on the thing and all of a sudden shots are fired and the ground is explodin’ all around this idiot, but he keeps on movin’. The prisoners was wild with excitement and I’ll be darned if that fellow made it back through the dead line pickets and to safety. Them guards didn’t care if he made it back, they just didn’t want him goin’ the other way.
“Well, imagine my surprise when I find that the derned idiot who risked life and limb for a poof of feather was my none other than my ward, Silas McDonough.”
Emma, wide-eyed and mouth agape, leaned back to look at her sheepish barber. He put a finger on her brow, tilted her head back down and snipped.
“You know, every fellow was sure impressed by Silas, but the runout of the excitement was they all wanted that bird to eat. Why, we silenced many a hungry suitor over the next few days. I ain’t seen so many busted lips and split noggins in my life. Silas here took on two men at once—real big men, but he outlasted ’em and soon they all found some piece of boiled bark or char-grilled onion root to gnaw on instead.
“That bird done ate better than us some days, but soon he was big and healthy enough to fly and fly he did. He went away one morning and did not return for a good two days. We thought for sure he had abandoned us. Then one night we was all sittin’ around the biggest fire you could get out of a pile of twigs when this dead squirrel drops right down in the middle of our camp circle. We jumped and scattered until Silas here reasoned out it was supposed to be our dinner. Up there on our tent pole was our proud provider, that dern owl. Silas cut the scrawny squirrel up and tossed them pieces into the air and Ezra Bean caught them like some high-flyin’ acrobat. We char-grilled the rest—you will eat a fresh squirrel when ain’t nothin’ else but moldy pig feet to cross your tongue.
“That night Silas named him as a member of our own. ‘Ezra’ in honor of one of our fallen troops who had passed a month or two before, and ‘Bean’ because he loved them beans Silas always fed him. I ain’t never seen a bird gobble up beans like that. That bird done saved our lives, for he brought in an amazing array of vermin for us to dine upon. The only thing we turned our noses up to was a skunk, but when we tossed it over the dead line, Ezra Bean ripped into it heartily. I will say, though, he never once brought us another skunk. That there is one smart fellow.”
Silas ruffled Emma’s hair, signifying his being finished. She motioned for Herc to hand her the mirror. She held it up while Silas waited for reactions.
For a moment she merely turned her head for different views. She was shocked at having lost her long locks, but ultimately realized the necessity for such drastic measures. She smiled and nodded to the barber.
“Whew,” he said.
“Okay, Herc, now it’s your turn,” Silas said.
“Can’t you go first?” he asked Silas.
Emma stood and ran her fingers rapidly through her new coif. “You sit down and I’ll cut you,” she told Herc.
Herc rinsed and sat, Emma started on his mop.
“So you all survived, I surmise,” she said, cutting away large clumps.
Herc paled as he as he witnessed them falling away, “You sure you know how to barber?”
“I used to cut my daddy’s hair,” she said, but did not add more.
Herc’s color returning, he continued the tale. “We didn’t so much survive as we ran away.”
She stopped cutting for a slash of a second, but picked back up.
“We was called out on a work detail, me, Silas, and some fellow camp member we had an acquaintance with. He was real sick, but they needed three and they wouldn’t let no blacks work with no whites, so Romeo got left inside. The blacks were usually held out for much more grueling and hazardous details. We was marched out to cut into a line of saplings along the woods. They was gonna clear them then burn out the stumps so’s they could dig a new trench for to throw the dead in.”
There was more silence for the long-since passed.
“It was not too hot outside the fence, for we had a constant breeze we were not accustomed to inside. Then there was the lovely aroma of pine trees and tall grass instead of the horrible . . .” He looked to Emma and decided to leave the description be. “So anywho, we was out there hackin’ and axe-ing with only this one young reb guard watchin’ over us. I was whisperin’ to Silas non-stop about why shouldn’t we just overtake him and grab his gun, but Silas wouldn’t hear none of it. Our companion was so bad off, he had to stop and rest every other minute or so, which left the brunt of the chore to us. We was about thirty trees down when this commotion was unleashed up by the stockade door. Seems some poor soul out on detail as well had given up and decided to leave off his mortal shell, so he goes off runnin’ out the gate, screamin’ like his butt was on fire. He was out of his mind by two counties. Our guard, being green as the saplings we was hewing down, goes off and leaves us just standing there. I am a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but you didn’t have to spell out the word freedom to me right then. Silas and I was gone before they was even done fillin’ that lunatic with lead. We was yellin’ and yellin’ to the other fellow to follow us, and he did, but he couldn’t keep a pace as he had scurvy all through his bloated legs. He was a hollerin’ for us to wait up and we was a hollerin’ for him to come along. In the end, we unfortunately had to go on without him. You wouldn’t want to hear some of the names he was callin’ us, but . . .”
Emma had finished his haircut and started cutting his beard down so he could be shaved. “Silas is gonna have to finish, cause I need your jaw to stop waggin’.”
“You’re probably gonna have to knick him once, so he gets the idea,” Silas said. “He ain’t kept his mouth shut for more than a minute since ’65.”
A harmless glower kindled in Herc’s face, but he kept his mouth shut.
“We started running and didn’t stop till we dropped,” Silas picked up the story. “If it weren’t but for luck and the kindness of many sympathetic souls along the way—mostly black folk—we wouldn’t have got far. But we did, all the way to Texas in the end. We thought about going back and telling the Army we was okay and all, but after debate, decided they didn’t care enough to trade us out of that swamp, so our bargain with them was ended. We think they was looking for us for a while, but finally quit at it. They weren’t looking to punish no deserters—the government said as much when the war was ended, but we thought it best not to chance it, so we kept low down. With the help of a lawyer friend, we finally took our case to the President and he gave us a pardon. It was done and done, but you know how the government is about them things, and we was pretty good at the road by then, so . . .”
“Yeah,” Herc said between snips, “with our luck, they’d change their minds about them pardons and we’d be the ones they’d want to make an example of fifteen years after the fact.”
Emma pushed his chin up, shutting his mouth. “I know Romeo made it out fine, but what about the other fellow, the one on your work detail? Have you any idea as to his fate?”
Silas had rinsed his hair and beard in preparation for his transformation. He shook the loose water off, much like a dog. “No idea, though we have speculated on it often. I will say however, if anger could be a tool for a man’s survival, he had a warehouse full of hate toward us.”
“Yes, sir. He sure did,” Herc said. “Why, I swear we could hear that fellow hollerin’ curses all the way to Arkansas. What was his name, Silas? I cannot remember just now.”
“Kemper. Kemper Bidwell.”