The whole of the group were chest high in the river, backs pressed hard against the hull of the Lula Belle, knees locked as they pushed in vain to move the boat even an inch. Mud and moss flowed into their boots as Sharp’s loss had seeped into their hearts.
Sharp gave instructions and encouragement to the volunteers as the residual heat of the inferno coursed through the iron plating and into their muscles. The young black man knew his brother was dead and would not be resurrected, yet the effort gave him a renewed purpose he had not carried moments before.
For Sharp, the attempts at securing Preacher’s corpse was a journey back. He emerged through the veils of despair and anguish as he was given succor by these strangers—white men at that. They had, moments before had gun and rope and violent intent in their hearts and yet, upon seeing the need of a fellow human being to have some relief to his heartbreak, they soon found common sloppy footing in the banks of the Mississippi and tried their damnedest to wrest the body from the murky grave.
It was Sharp himself who finally gave the notice. “We ain’t gonna budge her. This here beast has my dear brother in her jaws and they have a lock on him, but I thank you all humbly for tryin’.”
He slogged away as the youngest boy, Jackson, offered up, “Why cain’t we try her once more, only this time, I sort of dig in around his legs and then you all yank him out. I bet it’s nothin’ but sandy bottom ’round them legs . . .”
One more attempt was wordlessly agreed upon. The boy took a deep swallow of the pre-dawn air and courageously plunged below the surface to begin his gruesome task.
Herc remarked the young fellow might have a bright future as an engineer, for despite a number of dives and rests, his scheme did work.
One last dive and the young man splashed out and gasped, “Try . . . it . . . now.”
The others tugged and Preacher’s limp body came free and was dragged ashore. It was obvious the legs had been crushed, for they dragged behind the body in an unsettling fashion.
“That is a fine thing you all have done for my heart,” Sharp said, breathless.
He was left alone to grieve more up close and personal, as the others walked away exchanging knowing glances.
Sharp knelt over his brother. He straightened his mangled legs as best he could and smoothed out his muddy shirt. He leaned across Preacher, stroked his hair and whispered something in his ear.
Herc ambled over to the limp form of the hound he had brained. Young Jackson followed close behind. Herc knelt beside her and inspected the lump on her head. The hound was still out and could not feel it, yet Herc stroked the dog’s neck and long, soft ears. Without turning, he said to the young fellow, “I am sorry about that, she seems like a good dog.”
“Her name’s Fiona. She’s gettin’ old,” the young man shrugged. “I s’pose, if she’d had her druthers, she’d a not wanted to be whacked on the noggin though. A couple years ago, she’d have had you good.”
“Still, I hated to konk her.”
“She ain’t much good at huntin’ neither cause she always eats ’bout half each squirrel afore we can snatch it from her mouth.”
Herc turned to the young boy with a wry grin. “Young man, I am attempting an apology. Could you at least set me free from my regrets and say, ‘thank you,’ or ‘you’re forgiven’ or something’?”
A smile flicked across his face and a twinkle settled in the corner of his eye. “Why, sure, Mister. How’s this: I thank you for whackin’ my poor, wrinkle-pussed pup on the noggin and knocking her clean out. That got you feelin’ better?”
This got a snort and a smile from Herc. He looked Jackson over good once. “You sure have a below par sense of respect for your elders around here . . .”
The two placed hands beneath the Fiona and transported her to the bed of the wagon.
Silas and White Beard inspected the other injured dog and found, though he had lost an eye in the battle with Ezra Bean and was still unconscious, he should recover.
As White Beard put it, “Once all his cuts mended and holes got plugged up.”
White Beard crouched over the body and inspected the long gashes. As he wrapped a handkerchief around the dog’s head, he said, “He’s sure gonna have a saga to tell the rest of the dogs. Ain’t too many pups done got into it with a Great Horned. That is some pet you got there.”
“He’s more of a comrade-in-arms.”
“Still in all, he comes in handy. How did you train him? I mean to say, most owls do not want much to do with a man. We got us few here abouts, but we hear ’em more than we see ’em.”
“As I said, he’s more of a companion than a pet. Ever since he joined our ranks, he does what he wants, but always finds a way to keep an eye on us.”
Silas was reluctant to give more details. He knew talking to some men in these parts about their experiences and the War was often akin to scraping a half-healed scab clean off. The time had not yet come for the scab to drop and the scars to begin their healing.
Silas helped carry the hound, taking the rear end, while White Beard handled the front. Any tension remaining between the men was pushed away as the hound snored loudly in the cradle of their ambulation. The loose skin around its mouth fluttered and flapped with each breath. They shared another laugh.
As they lowered the sleeping dog next to the deceased one, White Beard continued to sniff around Silas and the owl. “It must truly be an interesting tale how you all got together . . .”
Being gently nudged into a corner, Silas knew further evasion of the topic may end up being an insulting offense. He looked to make sure Herc was out of earshot, for his old partner would not be pleased with Silas chittering away about their past to this stranger.
Still, being his own man to a good degree, he decided to confide in this long-whiskered patriarch by asking him a question first. “You served?”
He straightened up and jutted out his chin, though with his prodigious beard, it was hard to see anything jiggling whiskers. “Yessir, I fought for Southern Independence; Company E, First Regiment. I ended up serving under Burton near the end.”
“You were ‘Orphan Brigade’?” Silas asked, his eyebrows raised.
“Yes, but we didn’t hang that handle on ourselves,” White Beard replied, shrugging in modesty.
“Burton . . . you were a sharpshooter?”
“Yessir. Still am a pretty good shot.”
Knowing the divulging of his own place in the War may cool the old man’s temperament to him, he forged ahead into the skirmish, “I was E Company, Kentucky, the other side . . .”
White Beard hung his head and paused to digest the information. He finally looked up at Silas sideways. “They sure was a lot of things pulling from all sides back then, so every man did what he felt in his heart to be right. We Kentuckians got yanked about harder than most, it seems.”
“Your friend was a federal too?”
“Hmph,” he said as he paused, reached in under his beard and scratched his chin. “How about the bird?” he said with a laugh.
Silas knew this joke was a release from accounts and a bridge of sorts. “Ezra Bean—that’s his name—he did not enlist with either side, but joined up with us when we were in a war prison down south a ways.”
This set White Beard to pause for a second. “You all was captured? Where at?”
“Myself, Knoxville. Herc was at Cold Harbor, I believe.”
“What I meant to ask—if I may be so bold—is to where you all were detained?”
“Right.” Silas replied as he lifted gate of the wagon bed, securing it with a wooden peg. “Andersonville.”
There was a tightening around White Beard’s mouth and eyes, the fine wrinkles gathering. “I hear tell it was real bad down there. You all had to have a spell on you for misfortune and another cast for survival in those hard times.”
“We did survive. We escaped, actually.”
This set White Beard’s eyes to just about spinning in his head in disbelief.
Silas laughed. “But, it’s best to leave things in the past. Sometimes, the past is like a big old buzz saw bearin’ down on us. If we stop to dwell on our sadness or injury, it will surely catch up and cleave us in two.”
White Beard nodded in agreement. His gaze traveled the length of Silas as he calculated, “You must have been a pup when you signed on? What, fifteen?”
“Fourteen, but it was a better choice than others present at the time.”
“We done been swappin’ war stories and here we ain’t been naturally introduced. My name is Edgar. Edgar Forrest and these here’s my boys Doodle—his real name’s Edgar, like mine—and Jackson, the youngest there.”
Silas shook Edgar Senior’s hand. “My name is Silas McDonough and that there is Hercules Bennet.”
Herc, who had taken to the youngest, Jackson, turned and shook the boy’s hand in earnest. “Pleased to meet you, you young smart aleck.”
“I hope you fellows don’t mind none,” Edgar said, “but this here scene is about to be overtook by local townsfolk, I’d wager, and I would rather not have to explain my presence to the sheriff; we have some bad blood still from a recent development with one of my boys and the father of a certain young lady.”
Silas looked over at Doodle, the trouble-maker, and smiled.
Doodle puffed out his chest a bit and said, “If her daddy would have just let me explain why I was in their garden with her that night—”
“Let’s us just leave it alone,” Edgar interrupted. “These fellows surely have better things to do than listen to tales of your dalliances. ”
Deflated, he skulked off and climbed in the front bench of the wagon and took the reins. The other boy followed him and climbed in the back. Herc looked on as Jackson sat next to Fiona and draped his young hand across her chest. Though they had joked and Herc had been forgiven, he felt a twinge of regret for hurting the boy’s hound.
A steamboat whistle was heard coming from the south.
“That would be them folks from New Madrid,” Edgar informed Silas. “They most like got news of your wreck.” He stared out toward the river for a moment, gauging the echoes carefully. “From the sound, they should be comin’ round the Kentucky Bend right about now. I am clearing out and I suggest you all do the same. These here were your friends and suspect you may not want to witness the carrion-picking that will ensue. Where you all headed?”
“We got a camp over yonder,” Silas pointed south along the bank. “We will be getting scarce, too. Our friend Sharp seems himself again and can see to the dead getting back upriver. Sharp, you alright to foreman that grim chore?”
Sharp, who was still visibly shaken, had regained some of his resolve. “Yessir. I ain’t leavin’ my brother till he is in the arms of our momma. I will tend to the others too—what left they find of ’em, that is.”
“I am sorry to leave you alone on this, but we need to keep ourselves lower than low in profile . . .” Silas told Sharp.
“I will tell Romeo you all is safe.” He waved absently and turned his attention back to his brother.
Silas and Herc bid farewell to their new friend Edgar.
As they walked away, Edgar offered, “If you fellows need a hole to hide in, you all are quite welcome to come by. We got a little tobacco farm close by . . .”
Doodle’s head spun about, a look of shock splashed upon his face, but Jackson’s grin lit up the back of the wagon.
“We wouldn’t want to impose,” Silas interjected quickly before Herc could say anything. “We are going to grab a rest and break camp in a few hours. We need to be moving along.”
Herc pursed his lips and glared at Silas.
Edgar paused and stepped close so he was not overheard by his boys. “You all in some kind of trouble?” He broke himself away from his own curiosity, shaking his head. “No, nevermind! Ain’t none of my affair, but I will tell you now, if you all need that ‘lay low’ atmosphere, you can’t do better than the Forrest Farm. We ain’t got much but a barn to lodge you in, but ain’t nobody come up our hill lest they been invited. You catch my meaning? Besides, it is nearly dawn and this is going to be a metropolis of gawkers and rivermen here in a short time.”
The generous invitation was noted, but politely declined by Silas. With a nod, he said, “We don’t want to share trouble.”
Herc, unhappy with his lack of a vote in the situation whispered to Silas, “You think he’s got any liquor? I ain’t got much left.”
Silas ignored him.
“If you all change your mind, head up this path we came down and instead of heading right into town, take it left and keep goin’ till, well, you will know when you all done found us. You’d have to be blind to miss it.”
“We shall keep it in mind, Edgar and we thank you.” Silas said. “Once again, sorry about your hounds.”
“They’ll be alright. My boys bein’ safe is enough,” Edgar replied. “And sorry about your friend and his brother . . .”
No more was shared in the parting. Edgar joined his boys. The Forrest family wagon climbed the low trail and slipped through the trees, sighing in the morning breeze.
The dawn was soon to be approaching as the sky to the east brightened to a pale blue and grey. Two white cranes ignored the pillar of thick smoke from the Lula Belle as they paddled against the current occasionally dipping their heads below the water for their breakfast treat.
Silas and Herc bid farewell to Sharp for what they knew could be the last time. They left him and climbed into the brush where they had positioned Emma. Even then, a small tug was coasting to the banks and a long trail of townsfolk, with torchlight and horses, came filing through the trail to the wreck.
They found the path and the tree Emma had been left at, but she was not there. The rifle and holster lay in amongst some ivy growing at the base of the willow. Herc picked up the weapon and inspected it closely, brushing away the leaves and moss stuck in the metalwork.
The men exchanged brief worried looks and dashed through the woods toward the camp. Breathless, they burst into the campground to find Emma there, lying on the other side of the smoking coals, curled and wrapped up tightly in the large scarf Dee Dee had given her.
Silas circled the firepit and crouched next to Emma. He gave her a shake. She did not wake.
Silas pulled back the scarf to reveal her pale, clammy face. He put the back of his hand against her forehead.
“Herc,” Silas quickly whispered, “She is burning hot. We need to get her a doctor.”