Herc and Emma sat side by side, the old man wanting to share not just the heat of the fire, but his comfort to the young woman. He cut off a bit of jerky and handed it to her, “I know it ain’t the best as far as comestibles, but jerked deer is better than naught.”
They had already divided a can of tomatoes and some raw turnips.
“I am quite surprised I could eat what I have thus far.” She turned the dried meat in her fingers, but did not finish it. “I must say, I have not much of an appetite, and I still taste the foulness of the Mississippi.”
“That is the taste of death and it will likely return at the worst times in your future. Hard to clear out the flavor once it has crossed your palate.”
He did not force the food, and she did not accept, so he plucked it from her hand and ate it himself.
She wiped her fingers on her clothes, wrinkled her brow and asked, “Herc, was it you who saved me? I can not recall details between my sinking and the waking.”
“No, Miss Emma, it was Silas what fished you out. He done got ashore himself and then swam back out after you when you went under. That boy swims like a musk rat. I just sloshed the water out of your lungs so’s you could breathe.”
“I thank you, Herc. You have saved me. I have put you both in this danger and I apologize deeply. I have been selfish and it nearly cost you your lives.” She drew her knees in and wrapped her arms around them.
She stared out through the treeline to the Mississippi. “I am nothing but a river of trouble for you two.”
Through a mouthful of jerked deer meat, he chided, “Now don’t you go gettin’ all morose on me girl. You ain’t the one who blew up that boat. Ain’t nobody to blame on that count but that ornery Smitty. He was the one who pushed her to her limits and beyond—God rest his bones, wherever they went. We was just along for the ride.”
“Yes, but if I had not decided to run off, you would not—”
He turned his head sharply. “What did I just say to you? Are you as unhearing as my boy Silas? You had to run off. In my reckoning, you was in greater danger if you stayed there with your Uncle . . .”
“How do you know for sure?” She asked as she tried to hide wiping a tear away.
“Look here. You can gather by now I ain’t one to go dancing around a subject. Estelle done told me what he did. He is a thing lower than . . . well, there ain’t nothing I can think of that low except maybe worm turds. No man should be left alive who does them things to an innocent. Makes me worry for the world.” He picked up a twig nearby and threw it hard into the woods. “I can’t help the world, but I can help you. We was itchin’ to go out on an adventure anyways, so tromping around out to Arizona is as good as any tromping far as I can estimate.”
She was at once shocked and pleased at his high emotions. Emma wiped away a tear, smiled and turned back to Herc. “Thank you for your kind words, but I—”
“Now, dang it! I don’t want you fillin’ up my earholes with no more of that mess. Man can’t think with all that sorrowful buzzin’ about. I have a devil of a time just thinking on my own and I don’t need the extra noise.” His softened tone made his mind clear to her.
They sat in silence as the morning birds began their hectic tunings.
Emma stared into the fire, steeling herself. “My Uncle Theo despoiled me. I do not know if Estelle mentioned it and I do not know why I feel I must mention it to you now, but I do. He had only done it . . . I will not count the number, but I swore I would not let him have me once more. Nor the beatings, the pawings, or any other things. I am sorry to burden you, but I feel I must explain myself and my drive to—”
“You don’t have to say no more on it. She did tell me. Let’s just leave it there. I promise you will be safe. Silas and I will be here for you every darned step out to your grandfather.”
She reached over and patted him lightly on his back. He cut another piece of jerky and smiled as he chomped it heartily. Emma thought briefly how she wished Herc could have been her Uncle. She felt the love and care in his voice though she had only known him one adventure-filled day.
She withdrew her hand and her spirits followed suit. She knew she must tell Herc about her child or she might drown in the guilt flooding her heart.
Herc peeked over at her and sensed her shift. “What is on your mind besides you brain, girl?”
“Does Silas know? I mean, about—”
“No, Miss Emma. He only knows about your Uncle beating on you. Estelle felt—and I agree—that it ain’t nobody’s business but yours. She only let me in on it so’s I would know where your head is at.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Now as for Silas, the anger in that boy is often easy to surface. You done seen how he rode down on your Uncle at the hotel. Imagine how he would have revenged you had he gotten wind of that which you and I are discussing. He has a big heart and a short fuse—especially where his loved ones are concerned.”
“But he barely knows me. We only met yesterday. He surely can’t—”
“Oh, he knew enough about you from Estelle and that was sufficient for him to agree to come along with me in getting you to Arizona. That boy don’t need much to go on for him to crusade. You are a good woman and he is a good man. It’s in his nature to help where he can.”
A green log spat and sparked in the fire as the wind gently shifted, blowing ashes in their faces. Herc took off his hat and idly fanned at the smoke.
“Herc, who is Maria? I heard Silas mention her when I was coming awake.” She picked up a twig and scratched at the ground while she awaited an answer.
Herc chewed on his reply. “I would suggest you go and ask him, but I know he will just be Silas and therefore dodge any question about it.” Herc looked off toward the burning wreck and, not seeing Silas anywhere, he spoke low, “I’m only telling you this in confidence. If you mention me telling you anything, it will surely strain my friendship with him and that would strain my friendship with you. You have to swear not to break my confidence. Do you swear?”
She threw down the twig, turned to Herc and placed her hand over her heart. Herc saw her perk up when it came to secret-sharing.
“I swear on a stack of—”
“Alright! Alright! Let’s not get all formal and dark.”
She smiled and said, “I swear I shall not break your confidence.”
Herc nodded in satisfaction. “Maria was Silas’s little sister. She was but a child when she drown one summer. Silas and her had gone down to swim without telling their father. She had wanted to learn how to swim, but her father forbade her, as he said she was too young. Silas took her down to the local bathing beach there and, himself being a grand swimmer, he was confident he could keep her safe. She had been in the water no more than a few minutes when she went out into a drop off and slipped beneath the water. Silas knew the river there like the back of his hand, and swears that drop off was never there before. Nobody knows anything below the waves. He swam out to her and brought her back ashore, but it was too late. Some of the neighbor folk had sent word on to the father at the distillery where he worked as a cooper. When he got there, he just wept over his dead daughter for a while, scooped her up on home and never spoke to Silas again. Silas lived there in his father’s house for a few more years, but the man never paid the boy no mind. It was like he had buried both children. Silas loved her very much—she was the only thing he loved–and he bore the guilt from then on. He ran off and joined the war and never went back to Kentucky or his father. While we was in Andersonville, Silas received word from some family friends that his father had passed. He bears that guilt, too.”
“So when he had thought me drowned—”
“Yes, Ma’am, some ghosts don’t stop rattling their bones.”
“What ghosts?” Silas said as burst through the brush into the camp site and heaved down the reclaimed gear. He removed Emma’s Stetson and flung it to her over Herc’s head.
Herc jumped at his voice and had his pistol half-drawn. “Dang it, boy! You almost got shot! How do you sneak up on somebody while traipsing through the woods carrying all that baggage, anyway?” He turned to Emma. “He thinks it a real amusement, but I find it consternating. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like to let him out of my sight. He always comes sneakity-sneakin’ up on me when we reunite.”
“You old crust of bread, it ain’t my fault you are usually grinding your jawbones together too loudly to hear anything. You know, Emma,” Silas said as he knelt down beside the load of gear he had brought, “one time, coming through Colorado, I come up on him sitting there in our camp, just like this, talking to a Blue Jay. You cannot get a Blue Jay to shut his beak most times, but that little fellow could not get a word in edge-wise.”
Emma held her hat away from herself and, finding it drenched, she took a long stick from the nearby wood pile, lodged it firmly in the dirt near the fire and hung the hat to dry.
Silas located a can of beans from a soggy saddlebag and tossed the can to Herc, who without prompt, took out a knife and opened them. “Can I be blamed for turning to nature due to your lack of conversational prowess? Sometimes a rock is better company.”
“Yes, Sir—unless it’s dropping on your head.”
Emma sat, listened and looked back and forth as they spoke, until finally, “I find this entertaining, but I simply must ask: are you two always at odds?”
Herc gave the beans back to Silas. “Oh, we ain’t at odds, Miss Emma. This is just our form of communication. We enjoy littering our conversation with barbs so as to keep ourselves sharp.”
“Speak for yourself.” Silas held the can and looked up to Herc. “Ain’t you gonna at least heat them up for me? I’m off collecting provisions and, when I return, the least you could do is have me a hot meal waiting.”
“Why, you’re the cook! I wouldn’t want to offend your high culinary sensibilities.” Herc’s face went somber and he paused a beat before he asked, “I gather they aren’t any survivors?”
Silas extracted a long hunting knife from a scabbard on his hip and dug it in the can, eating the syrupy clumps of beans straight off the blade. Between gulps, he said, “Sharp. He’s the only one to have survived. He jumped off the boat before the blast, as he was trying to pull his brother from under the hull. Preacher got trapped in the mud and the boat drifted on top of him. He died with Sharp trying to pull him out. It was a sad scene altogether.”
“Why did you not bring Sharp along? He should join our camp,” Emma suggested. She raised her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes.
Silas found some crackers that were not water-logged and crumbled them into the half-empty can. “I stressed the fact it was not necessary for him to stay there and told him we had food, but he would not leave his brother’s side. I believe he is wanting to wait until some authority-types come by. He wants to see to the removal of his brother and I suppose the others.”
“Well, he is in charge of the boat now—what’s left of her,” Herc said. “They were his mates and he has some duty to them and the captain until it gets sorted out. Speaking of Smitty, any idea as to his fate?”
Silas shook his head, “The way the pilot house done went up . . . it’s best not to think about it.”
The three sat for a moment and stared into the snapping fire.
“I don’t suppose there would even be much left of Smitty . . .” Herc mumbled.
A small, charred log broke, shifting the coals and sending up a flurry of glowing embers into the warm updraft and into the night.
“Yessir,” Silas said, “that box went up like . . . hell, I don’t know what it went up like, it was just . . . gone.”
Herc tugged his tobacco pouch from inside his shirt where it hung on a leather strap. He removed and filled the long-stemmed pipe and lit it with a branch from the fire.
Emma looked from one man to the other and finally said, “He was a big fellow. It seems something would be left of him.” She tilted her head and closed her eyes. Her cheeks flushed and beads of sweat appeared on her brow.
Both men stopped and looked at her oddly.
“I apologize. That wasn’t the most sensitive statement,” Emma said.
“It’s not that so much as I was thinking the same thing,” Herc told her as smoke drifted from his mouth.
“I was contemplating that as well,” Silas confessed. “I mean to say, he was pretty girthy and one would think that . . . pieces, I guess, would be somewhere, if that makes some kind of sense . . .”
“I believe this here girl has been in our company too long,” Herc told Silas. “She is beginning to join in our dark musings.”
“You are rubbing off on me, true, but that may not be an unfortunate development.”
Herc rocked back and forth, gaining momentum in order to stand. After many odd sounds and groans, he stood and announced, “I have to go make water. Can I get you all anything while I am up? Coffee perhaps or maybe a pastry?”
Herc thrashed off toward the river while Silas took to inspecting his rifle.
Emma sat watching for a moment. Silas, unloading the rifle and wiping down the weapon, looked up from his task to see her staring. “What is on your mind, Miss?”
She stared at him.
“Well, it ain’t usually ‘nothing’ when someone is giving you the stinkeye like that.”
“Sorry. It’s just . . . I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for dragging me out of the river. I know you could have drowned too.”
“You ain’t got to thank me—besides, it was Herc who done saved you, gettin’ you to breathe again and get all the mud out of your lungs and stomach. I just did some fishing is all.”
“You are too modest.”
“Never been accused of that before.”
“It must have been very hard, thinking I may drown, just like your—”
She snapped her mouth shut, but the cat had not only gotten out of the bag, it was howling and hissing all the way down the alley.
Silas’ face grew to a deep crimson blush—and not from sitting so near the campfire. He took his handkerchief and polished the barrel so vigorously, Emma imagined he would soon rub a hole in the metal.
They both spoke at once.
She burst forth with, “I am sorry! I know Herc should not have told me—”
While Silas said in a defensive tone, “It weren’t his place to—”
They both froze and gazed at each other. She took him in. He was sitting cross-legged in the grassy patch, rifle across his lap and clothes still soaked in places. He watched her as she drew her knees to her chest and reached over to fumble with the brim of her Stetson, idly testing the dryness.
He sighed and tilted his head forward, speaking into his chest. “I am happy things did not turn out the way they did before. That was what scared me the most, to think I would lose someone again—and in the same fashion. Let’s just say it turned out better than good. I reckon you would have found out about that bit of ancient history sooner or later. It is a long way to Arizona, as Hercules said.”
“Yes. Yes, it is. I venture there are things you will learn about me as well. It is the nature of traveling together . . .”
He flicked out his handkerchief. “Regardless, I have to ride him a bit about this, you know.”
“Can you simply not tell him that he told me? I fear it will break his trust.”
He stopped dead and gave her a surprised look. “Emma, he darn near idolizes you. Just short of spitting in his face and calling him fat, I doubt you could lose his favor.”
“He idolizes me? I could not tell.”
“I been along many a twisty trail with that curmudgeon and I know when someone is under his star. You know, he always laments not settling down and having a wife and a whole litter of children running about him?”
“I had no idea. He appears so . . .”
“Gristled? Hard tack? Crusty? Pick one and you’d be near the money, but inside he is a good man and has always felt as if he missed out on not having a family. I reckon you may be the type of daughter he would have wanted—if he had gotten off the trail and into a cozy house. Instead, he sort of settled for roaming about with me and keeping me out of trouble. I spent many a wasted evening trying to persuade his highness to ask Estelle for her hand. Estelle has pretty well sewn him up tight on her end, too, but she can’t do the ‘I do’s’ until he spits out the ‘will you’. He waits too long, she may say no, out of spite for him dawdling about it.”
Emma pictured the two married and living in a small house near hers on Altair, but then realized they would not be neighbors since she was never going back to St. Louis as long as Theo was alive.
Silas placed the rifle aside, rose and stacked a bit more of the larger kindling across the fire. The flames licked about the newer timber.
Silas stood upright and stock still. He turned his head back into the woods, peering, deciphering some hidden secret.
“What is it?” Emma asked, sitting to attention.
Silence from Silas as he listened. Finally he turned to her. “I hear hounds. Probably from a nearby farm . . .”
A grand, feathery mass swooped down over Emma’s head, hovering long enough for all to recognize Ezra Bean. He held a large animal in his talons. As the owl hovered and bobbed above the ground, the telltale grey and black striping on the prey’s tail gave notice the raptor had brought a raccoon for dinner. The dead animal’s face was bloody and heavily clawed and dripping blood.
Ezra Bean dropped the raccoon beside Emma where it thumped and sent up a small cloud of dirt. She jumped at the impact and edged away.
“Good boy!” Silas crooned. As he rushed over and picked it up by the tail, he asked Emma, “You ever have roasted ‘coon?”
“No. I can say I have never had the pleasure,” she said with distaste.
“Oh boy howdy!” Herc exclaimed as he returned. His tenor lightened by either his empty bladder or his sighting the raccoon. “Fresh meat! That old ball of feathers sure does pull his weight when he gets a mind to.”
Silas pulled a long, wide knife with an upward-curved tip from his cook bag on his saddle. He strode past the fire, the raccoon swaying with the motions. He tucked the carving knife in his belt and took out the camp knife from the sheath on his leg. He struck this blade through the center of the raccoon’s tail, driving into the bark of a balm elm at the edge of their camp. He removed the butcher knife from his belt and began skinning the raccoon. Emma turned away.
Herc noticed this as he sat down again. “Emma, maybe you should move the horses some. They have grazed out the patch they’re on.”
She did not reply, but took up the task immediately. She untied them one by one and moved them further into the woods. She let them lead her to grass.
By the time she returned from the simple chore, Silas was holding a freshly skinned and gutted raccoon, skewered through with a stiff sapling stripped of branch and leaf. The animal was not bloody as she expected, but it did shine brightly in the glow of the fire.
Herc lodged two tall sticks into the ground on either side of the campfire as Silas cut the animal’s tail free and flung it far into the trees. The skewered raccoon was set over the fire with the ends resting neatly in each notch of the uprights.
Soon the flesh drew tight and beads of moisture seeped out and ran down the sides, dropping into the fire with a sizzle. Silas cleaned his knives, put them away and rolled up and stowed the cook roll. He returned to the raccoon with a small, tightly cinched leather pouch. He opened it and sprinkled some kind of seasonings over the meat. Herc turned the raccoon over the fire and Silas dusted that side too.
The savory aroma of roasted coon drifted about the camp and into Emma’s nostrils. She had to admit it did make her mouth start to watering.
Silas sat once again by the fire and looked on overseeing Herc’s rotisserie skills. “So no person has the right to any secrets where you are concerned, Hercules.”
Herc did not respond except to smile and hang his slowly shaking head.
“You’re turning it too fast,” Silas chided.
Emma grimaced, her nose wrinkling, as she looked between the two men.
Silas drew his knees up to his chest, waved away some errant cinders and wrapped his arms around his legs. “That’s all-right, my old friend. I done told her one of your secrets too, so we’re even.”
“Hmph,” was the old man’s reply as he purposefully turned the stick more rapidly.
“I did not mean to generate any animosity—” Emma offered to quell the fire she carelessly kindled.
“It’s all-right, Miss,” Herc smiled to her. His smile faded when he looked to Silas and said, “I just would have hoped that all our secrets ain’t getting shoveled out in a flurry ‘cause someone was feeling petty.”
Having let Herc get his pound of flesh, Silas smiled wide and poked at the browned flesh of the raccoon. “He’s done.”
Herc removed their small repast and offered the first pull to Emma. “We ain’t got no utensils or china out, so you just gotta grab and chew.”
“You old fool. Let it cool some first,” Silas complained.
The horses stirred nearby and Ezra Bean flew to the edge of the camp, resting on a thick limb. He was calling excitedly, bobbing his head as he stared with his flickering yellow orbs off toward the wreck of the Lula Belle.
The hounds Silas had heard some moments ago came to Emma’s ears. Mournful baying ricocheted through the timber and swirled around the trio near the fire. Herc thrust the raccoon into Emma’s hands as the two men sprung to their feet with great purpose and energy.
“They ain’t moving no more, Herc,” Silas said.
“They’s fixed at the boat,” Herc replied.
A single gun shot echoed from everywhere at once.
“Sharp,” Silas growled to Herc.
They moved in tandem, orchestrated by the unheard strains of their shared life on the trail. Silas kicked rocks and dirt onto the fire and soon the camp grew dark. In the dying light, Emma saw Herc drawing his Winchester from his gear and checking it.
Silas flew down onto his rifle and swept it up into his arms. They both bolted toward the wreck as Ezra Bean launched himself high up into the starry night and flew above the men.
“What am I to do?” Emma called after them, standing against a tree. Despite her question, she felt off the task as a moment of great dizziness washed over her.
“Come on, but stay behind us,” Silas called back.
Emma shambled slowly after them, clutching their dinner on the stick.