Chapter Thirty

The Wreck of the Lula Belle

Hickman, Kentucky, 4:38 a.m.

Emma carried the raccoon out before her as she stumbled behind the men. The minimal starlight could not penetrate the dense canopy of trees and it seemed every vine, stump and rock in the dark woods were reaching up to throw themselves in her path.

She dropped the raccoon, picked it back up and wiped it lightly, looking ahead to see if Herc had seen it. Neither man saw anything because they were already far ahead of her and getting farther. She followed more by sound than sight.

Soon she made out their silhouettes by the light of Lula Belle’s flaming wreckage. Silas and Herc moved with such agility and purpose, she imagined they must have Ezra Bean’s vision. She was struck hard in the face by a hidden branch and was sure it must have drawn blood. She nearly dropped the meat again.

The men stopped inside the tree line before it opened out to the banks. As she came up behind, they motioned for her to get low and keep silent. She only heard their whispers. Silas surveyed the scene as Herc turned to Emma and ripped a piece of meat from the skewer.

He chewed noisily but spoke quietly. “Kind of gritty, Silas. Maybe you administered a might too much seasoning.”

Through the leaves and across the wreckage-strewn shore, Emma and the boys saw a chilling sight. A small group of men with pitch torches and a lantern had surrounded Sharp on the beach. He was still sitting by the bow where Silas had left him, but his hands were bound behind him.

The torches were held close to inspect Sharp, but it also illuminated the intruders. Three white people in dark clothing hovered in a circle around the young black man. To Emma, they looked to be hard men, though this may have been due to the fact they had weapons raised, a pistol, a shotgun, and a long rifle.

These weapons were trained on Sharp, whose head shook slowly as he one of the men spoke to him. The rapid barking of questions was heard only faintly from the great distance, and the confusion was heightened by the baying of the hounds, three to the count. The dogs lunged forward at Sharp and he shrunk back as best he could.

The intruders’ ropes held the beasts back, but just barely. They asked Sharp a question and then the dogs were stirred up, perhaps to frighten answers from him.

The hounds howled and snapped until one fellow with a bright white beard bade them to silence with a wave of his hand.

The hounds quieted in unison, though they still leaned ominously toward Sharp.

“White beard there is the leader,” Herc whispered. He bit off another piece of raccoon meat from the skewer Emma held.

“Yep,” Silas said, without taking his gaze from the group ahead.

The white-bearded man searched Sharp’s trouser pockets as he gave some directions to the others. They broke ranks; one of them handed off his hound to the other fellow, who holstered his pistol and held the three dogs.

The one who left his hound walked toward the boat looking for a way to climb aboard.

“What should we do?” Emma asked earnestly. Her throat tightened and she felt vomit rising, but held it down so as to not give them away.

“You are going to stay right here,” Silas said, cocking Herc’s rifle quietly and handing it to her. “You know your way around a Colt, but have you met his friend Winchester?”

She handed the skewer to Herc, who took another bite.

Emma was amazed and a bit irked Hercules was concerned with eating while this was happening. She wiped her greasy hand on her trousers and took the rifle. “I have fired a rifle before—not this type—but yes.”

“They’re all about the same, just be careful of the recoil,” Silas said. “I am going to swing around the other side—over past that wagon.”

Emma followed the line to where he pointed. She had not seen it before, but there was the bed of a wagon poking out from a stand of high grass directly inland from where the group stood. The men had backed it down some trail to the scene of the wreck. She held up her left hand to block out the glare from the burning ship, and made out the long, hairy necks of a pair of mules hitched to the wagon.

“You all wait here until I signal, then Herc, you go on in and give them some dog and pony show. It looks like these boys are scavengers, but none too bright—except for perhaps the bearded fellow. Emma, you keep him covered. You’ll know if you need to shoot.”

Emma was entirely sure she would not know when to shoot, but kept that fear tucked away until later.

“Emma, take only a shot or two and then move to the left or right a ways. They will try to pin you down when they see your barrel fire.” He took out his revolver and started off, but paused to whisper back, “Herc, don’t you do nothing till you get the signal,” and he was gone.

“What signal is he talking about?”

“Oh, I suppose we’ll know when we hear it,” he said as he held the meat with one hand and struggled against the buckle of his gun belt with the other. “You’d never think a raccoon was so greasy. I can barely get this belt off.”

Herc finally laid the gun belt down, slid the revolver from the holster and tucked it into his belt at the small of his back. He made sure his coat tail was tucked in too, so the handle was clear to grasp.

He offered her a bite of meat, which she declined as she knelt down, leaned against a tree and raised the rifle to sight. They watched and waited as the men sifted through the debris and tried to gain passage aboard the burning skeleton ship. Herc chomped noisily in her ear. “Ezra Bean sure got himself a meaty fellow. Gritty and greasy, but meaty.”

“Apparently so,” Emma said, trying to focus beyond Herc’s sloppy chomping, “So, what is this ‘act’ you are supposed to put on for these fellows? It sounds as if you two have done this before.”

“Oh, well, it’s not certainly any pre-arranged thing.” He smacked his lips. “It is more like I go in and ramble and rumble and get them all distracted whilst Silas and I get a sense of how the die will be cast, and then we roll them die. It is not scripted as I generally go from the heart. Not beating my own drum, but I can put on quite a show when needed.”

Emma peered back from her perch and saw him shrug and smile, grease shimmering upon his mustache. She had no doubt as to his ability to make a spectacle of himself.

She heard slips of conversation between the men as they searched about the shore and the ship. What little she divined was distressing as they discussed what to do with the “blackie.”

Sharp did not stir nor did he speak in the whole time she watched. He held his head low and was vacant of the spirit he had shown earlier on the Lula Belle. Her heart went out to him, what with his recent loss and the humiliating and frightening captivity.

She flushed with hatred toward these backwoodsmen and their rough treatment of her friend. Sweat came to her forehead and in the nape of her neck. She thought about discarding a layer of clothing, for her anger seemed to set her aflame, but she kept her position.

She held the rifle on White Beard, who was still searching Sharp’s person. White Beard and the other man were a blur for a moment and suddenly divided into four men in her eyes. The identical images circled each other, floating in linked orbits. Emma pinched the bridge of her nose, blinked her eyes hard and when she reopened them, the men were as normal.

“You alright, Emma?” Herc asked with concern. “It’s a hard thing to think about shooting another person, but you got to think about the safety of Sharp and Silas . . .”

“And you, Hercules” she said, not taking her gaze from the men ahead. “No, it’s not that. I’ll be fine, thank you.”

Way off from the thick woods behind the men there came a slow, eerie call of a single mourning dove. It was so low, neither Emma nor the crowd strewn about the shore took notice. Many night animals were finding their usual slumber to be interrupted and made their complaints known ever since the three survivors had swam ashore.

Herc silently slipped beside her and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “If them dice roll out right, this shall be over faster than a game of cards with Sharp and you will hopefully not have to kill nobody. Just try not to shoot me . . . or Silas . . . or Sharp.”

As he ducked past her, she grabbed his free arm, stopping him mid-stride. “But I didn’t hear the signal,” she whispered emphatically.

“You didn’t hear that lousy impersonation of a turtle dove?”

“I heard a call, yes, but how do you know it was him and not a—”

They both cocked an eager ear as the familiar, mournful, “Woo-eee-ooo, woo, woo, woo” drifted to their hiding place.

“Yup, that’s him. He never could get a good dove call down no matter how hard I learned him.”

“Sounds just like a dove to me,” she said.

“Yeah, well let’s us hope them hillbillies there think the same,” Herc said, pointing with the raccoon on a stick.

He gently tugged his arm free and strode out onto the beach.

As a child, Emma had once seen a marching band perform through the streets of St. Louis. Herc promenaded toward the strangers much the same as that band leader, his arms bent at the elbows swinging back and forth with great pomp, his chest pushed out and head held high. Why, the raccoon on a stick even looked like the baton the man had used. Herc waved it about, conducting their attention with it.

“Hey now, fellows!” Herc said quite loudly.

The men jumped and swung their weapons Herc’s way. The hounds, mad as hornets at having been snuck up on, tore at their leashes to get at the man. They slavered and bayed their protests.

“I hate to interrupt you boy’s payday, but I’m gonna have to insist you men drop whatever you done picked up and head back to wherever you all struck out from.”

Emma reckoned Herc spoke loudly so she and Silas could clearly know he was in position, but it proved dramatic for the strangers.

None of the men moved as they looked unto Herc with great bewilderment. Herc kept his walking and stopped a short distance from Sharp. He took in each man and his movements clearly from where he stood.

Herc took another bite of the raccoon as he awaited some response.

The young man who was trying to climb aboard the boat slogged out of the water and stood next to Sharp and White Beard. The other held his position on shore to Herc’s right, though he was shifting from leg to leg, confused as to if he should unleash the dogs and free up his arm for his pistol.

Herc assumed White Beard was old, but was surprised when the man quickly stood straight up from beside Sharp like a young sapling springing back from a traveler’s passing. He leveled his shotgun from his waist right at Herc.

White beard looked to his men and shook his head to stay them a moment. “Mister, I don’t know who you are or what you reckon’s a goin’ on, but you—”

“I ain’t got to be a scholar nor genius to know what’s ‘a goin’ on’ here, and I don’t need you lying to me otherwise. You all got my man Sharp tied up like some runaway slave. I don’t know what state we done washed ashore in but I will tell you, the war is over a decade and a half now and you all need to get it through y’all’s thick heads the blacks are free. You can’t just go runnin’ around trussin’ ‘him up cause you think it may be a jolly thing. Now, that man is my friend, so loose him and then get on your way.”

“I warn you but once,” Herc said as he took yet another bite from his dinner.

Emma smiled weakly at Herc’s nonchalance. Her hands started to sweat, causing the rifle grip to become slick. Her vision again doubled. She hoped the situation soon resolved, yet she held her aim as best she could.

Before Herc or White Beard could parley further, the young man accidentally let go of one rope. In panic and an effort to grab the first lost rope, he dropped a second. By only sheer luck, he managed to at least keep grip on the last dog.

The first hound erupted like lighting across the shore and in three bounds was lunging through the air for Herc.

Herc dropped back on one knee, waiting for the animal. As he waited, he tossed aside the remnants of the raccoon dinner.

The second dog also made straight for Herc, close at the heels of the first, but it bounded only a few rods when Ezra Bean swept down, screeching loudly. The owl leaned forward in his dive. As he neared his target, he leaned back and thrust out his open claws, savagely slashing at the eyes of the second hound. Blood sprayed in the firelight of the ship as the talons raked across the dog’s muzzle.

Unable to see, the hound kept bounding, but had altered course right toward a large plank jutting up from the riverbanks. The animal, wild and blind, slammed into the wood and was knocked unconscious, falling where it stood, into the shallow water.

Ezra Bean lifted away and vanished as quickly as he had arrived.

Herc managed to reach up under the dog’s chin and throw his fingers around the throat as teeth flashed and snapped near his face. He felt the taut, writhing muscles in the animal’s neck as he found the pistol at the small of his back. The jaws snapped at Herc, reaching for his face, or neck, or whatever meat it could sink teeth into.

Herc put his weight into it as he swung the butt of his pistol down onto the dog’s skull. A pathetic howl pierced the night, but was cut short as the hound fell unconscious. Before the animal struck the ground, Herc had raised his pistol to bear on White Beard, the hammer already cocked as his arm straightened.

His weapon was an extension of his grim resolve, not wavering, not distracted by the wailing of the last dog standing.

He spoke clearly and evenly, “I wished you hadn’t gone and done that. I love dogs. I clearly declared you all get warned but the once. I ain’t eager to shoot you, but I will not hesitate if the need arises. Then I will see to it the others in your party get some lead too. You are the judge as to whether you all see another sunrise.”

No one so much as twitched. If his words had not sold them, Herc’s manner told them they had no odd traveler here and must measure the next moment with great care.

“Who the hell are you, Mister?” White Beard asked.

“Like I said: I’m this here fellow’s friend and you all best untie him.” Herc inched his gun closer to White Beard, but his eyes took in every single movement.

The ship raider raised his long rifle higher. White Beard quickly and quietly whispered, “Jackson, don’t.”

Herc realize fellow with the rifle was very young, a pup of thirteen years or so, and the other, though he held the hounds admirably, could not have been older than sixteen.

“Yeah, that’s right, Jackson, don’t,” Herc hissed, ” ’cause after I magically make Grampa here a One-eyed-Jack, you’re gonna follow suit.”

Herc casually sucked air between his teeth, picked a bit of gristle from his mouth with his free hand and flicked it away.

The randy youths looked back and forth from Herc to White Beard. Emma sighted down the barrel at the old man’s head, tightened her finger around the trigger, feeling as if she might vomit.

“Pa, this here is just some dandy,” the boy with the hound beseeched. “One man, no less. I bet they’s plenty valuables lying around or on that boat. Enough for Francis’ medicine.”

“Shut your face, Doodle,” White Beard said with a scornful glance. “One more dang word and I’ll tan your behind. Being a salvager and being a danged thief are two different things.”

“That’s assuming you all survive this conversation,” Herc mocked, then he remembered the recent offense, “and who are you callin’ ‘dandy,’ you little diaper-soiler? I don’t take nobody callin’ me fancy! You look like you just fell right out the cradle into the pig pen, so I wouldn’t be castin’ no aspersions.”

The young man looked down questioningly at his own appearance.

The remaining hound howled even louder. White Beard shushed it with a snap of his fingers. He was weighing the situation, and the angry pups—animal and human, alike—were not helping his concentration much.

“I am sure you have ’round about a dozen burning questions in your mind right now,” Herc said to White Beard. “I’ll answer some for you. Yes, that is my owl. Yes, I am not alone—You don’t think I just come along here, with no more than a raccoon on a stick, a pistol and an owl for protection, do you? I may be a stranger around these parts, but I ain’t no stranger to the protocols of travel. Another thing you may be wondering is how you’re gonna explain how you let these here boys die. I wager you kissed their momma right on the forehead and promised no harm would befall them this night. How is she gonna react when you bring your boys home stretched out in the back of that wagon? Or worse yet, some stranger draws up the long road to your house with all three of you—and them hounds, too—piled in a heap like so much cord wood.”

“Kentucky,” White Beard said as he lowered his pistol.

“What say?” Herc asked.

“You all’s in Kentucky. You was wonderin’ where you landed. Hickman is just over yonder.”

White Beard motioned for his boys to lower their firearms. The young boy did, but Doodle fidgeted with his a second longer.

Emma relaxed and lowered her aim a bit when she saw the old man lay his shotgun down, but cursed herself when it looked as if the young man holding the dogs was raising his weapon toward Herc.

The problem Doodle had was, the last rope had tangled around his barrel, so when the dog wandered forward, the barrel came up as if he was drawing on her friend.

Herc saw it too, for he turned his shoulders and aimed at him.

Emma quickly retrained the sight at the young man and was near to pulling the trigger when she hear the report of a weapon and sparks shot from the side of the boy’s pistol .

The young fellow was clearly shocked as hell, and he flung it to the ground like it was going to spark again any second.

Emma flinched at the shot, thinking she had accidentally fired. Emma saw the puzzle answer as Silas stepped from the shadowy woods, the barrel of his pistol smoking.

“I would like you all to meet my parter here,” Herc said, un-tensing his frame. He nodded to Silas. “He’s a Kentucky boy, too.”

Silas watched silently as White Beard untied Sharp, solemnly saying to him, “Nothing personal, boy. It’s just hard times and we didn’t want to have to hurt you.”

Sharp said nothing as he rubbed his wrists. He did not rise, either. Truth be told, the events barely rattled his awareness as he sat through it all staring at his brother’s watery grave.

White Beard stood, coiling the rope as he turned to Silas. “You had to be Kentucky if you could sneak up on me and my boys like that.”

The burning boat behind him, the man’s face was in shadow, but Silas heard the resignation and admiration mixed in his voice.

“Some things we are just born with here, I guess,” Silas nodded, lowering, but not holstering his weapon.

“Like I told your friend here,” the older fellow said, pointing to Sharp, “hard times is upon us and we meant him no harm. We fired the one shot right off to scare him, but he just sat there. I tied him up so’s nobody would get hurt while we took a look around. He seems to be . . . a little off.”

Silas pointed to Preacher’s body, face down, bobbing in the water near the hull. “That is his brother. His twin brother.”

White Beard’s shoulders slumped at the news. He shook his head and continued to Silas. “I wished we had known before we . . . We done heard the explosion and come to see if anybody needed helpin’, but I hate to admit, seein’ nobody but this fellow sittin’ here . . . greed and evil came a callin’ and my soul was an open door.” He sat down heavily on the shore and sighed. “I feel awful for tryin’ to scavenge from another man’s misfortune, but my little girl, she been real sick and I just thought since these fellows is departed, they ain’t gonna need—no, I ain’t gonna keep foolin’ myself. I done a wrong and they ain’t no shining that turd.”

Silas holstered his pistol, and sat down next to the man. “My friend here is long to cool off, so I think it best if you all move along. He mayn’t be talked to as easily as me. You all go along. Sorry about your dogs; I’ll help you load ’em on your wagon.”

White Beard looked sideways at Silas and stroked his rangy beard. He squinted, making his dark brown eyes all but disappear. “You all was on her when she blew?”

“Yessir.”

“It’s a miracle of the saviour you all survived—this here boy, too.”

“Yessir.”

“So it’s just you two and the negro?”

Silas made the effort to not look away toward Emma’s hiding place. “Yessir.”

“Why you helpin’ me instead of turnin’ me in? The folks ’round Hickman and across in New Madrid sure done heard about this and they’s gonna be comin’ up soon, like we did.”

“Let’s just say we been deep in hard times before too and we’ve done made some rash moves as well.” Silas looked him in the eyes then let his gaze stray across the fallen dogs. “I saw them hounds getting’ loose was a sad mistake. You all didn’t shoot first, so that says a good amount right there. How old is your girl?”

“Six. We don’t got no money and the doc in town here says the treatment is a high penny—that’s why the devil come and whispered right then. It is but God’s sweet grace nobody got kilt or shot up.”

“Yessir.”

White Beard broke his clay-faced facade and tendered a smile to the fellow Kentuckian, “You ain’t much like your friend there.” He pointed off to Herc who was circling around the young men but had finally taken on the spirit of a tenuous truce as he lowered his weapon and spoke with Sharp while still eyeing the strangers.

“How so?” Silas asked.

“You don’t gab nearly as much. Why, I thought there for a minute he may talk us to death before he got a chance to shoot us.”

“Yessir, he can make a fellow wish himself plain deaf. Saves on bullets, though.”

Herc looked on in irritated astonishment as the two Kentuckians shared a laugh so soon after arms were laid down.

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