Chapter Thirty Six

Hickman, Kentucky, 10:40 a.m.

 

Emma slept with her head tilted back, resting against Silas’ chest. He still felt the heat from her against his face and through their clothes. They shared the saddle of his horse, Emma in front of him, as he held her upright with his arm around her chest. The reins were laced lightly between his fingers, but his horse obediently followed Herc and Shot, who led the march to the Forrest farm.

They had risked notice by following the more popular trail from the wreck, but so far, the general excitement and hubbub made the three of them a banal trio. During the passage of a regular day Silas imagined the populace would have found them a scorching topic of discussion, but three strangers on horseback was of little interest when a whole boatload of dead strangers lined their shore.

Silas was amazed at the general cheerful demeanor of the pilgrims as they filed past in both directions. When they were leaving the wreck, many coming from the scene of the tragedy carried macabre mementos such as the young lad who dragged a heavy link of chain which trailing several rods behind him. Another man, who did not notice Silas looking on, revealed to his female companion from under his coat, one of the pins from the steering wheel. Silas wondered if naught would be left but a rivet or two by the time the day was done.

The bold route was insisted upon by the doctor, whom they had left at the temporary campsite in the woods. Herc had returned from inquiring about lodgings in town where he found none. He had considered seeing how far the Forrest farm was on his own, but came to the campsite first to check in with Silas.

Doctor Holloway, as it turned out, was a kind enough man, but if someone was ill, they found they were treated much more kindly. He took in Herc’s worried state and insisted they get on the road to the Forrest home.

“She cannot stay here or she will get much worse.” He had diagnosed.

Herc agreed, Silas assented and Emma slept.

They arrived at the crossroads. They took the wide route to the right and left behind every single traveler, who were all going toward Hickman Proper. The section of road going to town was well-cared for, of even height and free of pit and rise. The road the three survivors were on was under private care, and while it was generally more easily passed over than the any backwoods route, it did occasionally tilt dramatically to one side or the other and was rutted by wagon tracks.

Here along the way, and there along the bend, thick old-growth cottonwoods and mossy elms reached out above them, creating a vast archway shading most of the spring sun. Swampy ponds dotted the route one either side, with cattails thick as a real feline’s tail and bullfrogs croaking so deeply, they sounded as large as a hog.

“It just makes me wonder on her general honesty to us.” Silas could not keep a lid on his simmering temper. “You was the first to cry foul when she refused to pay us up front. I feel I should have listened to you then and called this whole adventure off. I begin to wonder what else she is not telling us; I wonder as to the veracity of her statements about her uncle. Maybe I made a rash move by reacting the way I did to him.”

“Nobody has ever accused you of having a cool head, yet I am sure you dealt with him justly. Matter of point, I think he got off lucky considering what Estelle herself has witnessed of his behavior.”

Silas looked down upon the sweat-dampened face of Emma. “I just get this bad feelin’ when I discover someone has led me on under false pretense. You know me; I get lied to, I am generally done with the one who lied. Here I got no way to divest myself.”

Herc turned back to quickly take in Silas and Emma. He noticed a look of hurt upon his long time companion’s face. He had seen it once or twice in their travels and most times it had been a mistake on Herc’s part that had caused it. It pained him to see it once again, but it was a clear sign Silas had become connected to their charge. He rarely expressed any kind of emotion about anyone besides Herc, and lately, Estelle. His faith in people had long ago been beat down. He never trusted anyone and was never disappointed, yet there he had opened up an old door to this little woman and she had unknowingly walked in and insulted him from the start.

Herc noticed Silas pull away a strand of hair from Emma’s face sticking to her damp brow. He hoped the small gesture signaled his friend had not yet shut the door on Emma. “I feel it best to stay our course here and let her explain herself in good time. This here girl has been through a lot we cannot imagine or understand, Silas. It is similar to when you and I try to discuss Andersonville with anyone that wasn’t there . . .”

That statement calmed his friend’s anxiety, but the look of hurt still remained. “What if she’s got a fellow back home and she became in the way by him? Perhaps that is why her Uncle is so upset. Then I get to thinkin’ about the poor man who is the father and wonder about his right to know about Emma and their child. It would be awful not to know such things.”

“It would be better to not know a lot of things, period, Silas.” He came near to telling his friend the truth about the girl and her child, but she had trusted him and it was Emma’s secret to tell.

A small ember sparked in the pit of Herc’s stomach at the thought of Emma giving him a secret he could not share with Silas. This was immediately quenched by the guilt at begrudging a lost, lonely girl an understanding person to tell it to. He knew that by telling him, she shared her burden and therefore made it lighter. It sent a sense of pride sweeping through him that brushed it all away—for a time.

“Silas, I keep hearing this ‘me’ and ‘I’ nonsense, when the person who is in the direst turmoil is Emma. Let us get her back on her feet and then we can commence to getting our feelings bruised.”

Ezra Bean silently swept in from a gap in the tree cover and alit on the empty saddle of Emma’s horse, Shot. He clambered and slid, finally gaining purchase by digging his claws lightly into the polished leather. Enthralled with the thin strands of the saddle tie-downs, he poked and squawked at them and took them in his beak chewing each one from base to tip. When he bored with that, his little barrel body bounced and swung to and fro, while his huge yellow eyes were fixed and stable as he stared at them.

Though he normally loved to have the owl near to look upon, Silas, in his current turmoil, found it irksome. “What the devil are you looking at, you old bag of molt?”

“Ain’t no call to lash out at your friends, boy,” Herc advised. “Just ’cause you got your feelin’s banged up. He wasn’t even there when you found out.”

Silas knew Herc was right, but was nowhere near the frame of mind to admit it out loud.

They were near the Forrest Farm, however, for in the middle of the road lay a great cluster of fallen trees and a crude sign affixed to them:

No Trespassing. Period. You WILL be shot.

“That Edgar sure don’t like company,” Herc declared.

“I can’t say as I blame him, for in most cases, company brings misery.”

For some moments they sat in puzzlement as they stared at the huge, tangled obstacle. Silas passed his friend slowly and Herc followed, leading Shot. Trees were piled in a high mass and stretched from one side of the country road to the other.

“Well, if they thought we was comin’,” Silas grumbled, “you would have thought they could have cleared the way.”

“Indeed,” Herc replied as he removed his hat and scratched his sweaty pate. “The Doc told us to come this route. He didn’t say nothing about such impediments.” He searched the thick woods between the road and the river. Finding no ingress, he blew out a heavy sigh in frustration. “I suppose we must double back and search for one of them backwoods paths.”

“No need, Mr. Herc!” an eager young voice said from behind the blockade. Through the branches of the lumber pile blocking the road, young Jackson Forrest’s face beamed at the visitors. “Hold on a moment while I open the gate.”

The sudden appearance of the boy did not sit well with Ezra Bean, as he flew off the empty saddle and melted silently into the woods.

Herc and Silas looked doubtfully at each other, with Herc finally calling off to the lad, “You sure you can handle that mess alone? Perhaps we should go on back and around?”

“No, Sir!” He said, stepping once again behind the dry logjam.

It was an odd sight for the men to see what looked like a half acre of piled up timber swung aside by one young boy. It was pulled backward from the right side about a rod or so when Jackson came through the opening, long rifle tucked in the crook of his left arm. He laid his right hand on a log and leaned into his chore, swinging the whole mess aside with ease. Soon, Jackson stood in the middle of the cleared roadway and gave them a hearty wave ahead.

The riders advanced and once through the portal, Jackson came inside himself and swung the gate closed. The men took a moment to admire the finely crafted subterfuge. The back side was a nicely carpentered frame, notched and bolted. The logs were affixed to this gate by way of what looked to be a hundred miles of bailing wire. The whole contraption pivoted on a thick post with large iron hinges and pins. Looking under the gate from a rear angle, a shadow of space was seen between the dirt road and the timber blockade. This accounted for the ease with which Jackson opened and closed it.

“That is one fine bit of trickery,” Herc said.

“Poppa don’t like visitors much,” Jackson replied.

“Looks that way,” Silas mumbled.

“Momma said when he got back from the war, he done set out to make sure the Government didn’t come take away no more than what they deserved. If you don’t come down one of the trails or this way, you may be in for a surprise, for Poppa has got our whole primter set up with wires and traps.”

Silas corrected him, “Perimeter. The word is perimeter.”

The boy lost some of his proud shine, as he looked down to the ground. “Yessir, I meant perimeter.”

Herc launched an icy glare to his ungrateful friend and turned back to the boy. “Don’t you pay him no mind. He’s sore about some news he done got and chooses to take it out on young men and their vocabulary. Get up here on the spare horse, Jackson.”

The boy’s fire was re-kindled as he scurried into Shot’s saddle like a monkey climbing a tree. Herc held the reins, but the boy sat proud and high in the saddle as if returning victorious from some daring escapade.

Silas pulled off the road and stood his horse beneath a patch of shade. “Perhaps you best go on ahead and make sure Edgar is still extending his invite.”

“I suppose he already knows since he sent the boy to be lookout for us,” Herc replied looking to Jackson for affirmation.

The boy was so intent on inspecting the horse he was upon, it took a moment for him to  realize he was the subject of the discussion. “Oh, um, poppa wasn’t sure you all was comin’ exactly. I was set at the gate to make sure none of them townsfolk wandered up this way. They get all stirred up by something awful like that wreck and scurry all over like rats with the news.”

Herc pondered this and finally turned back to Silas. “Fine, I will go on ahead and come collect you all if we are welcome.”

He nodded to his partner, moved along and tugged at Shot’s reins behind him. He did not ask Silas what they would do if they were not brought in by Edgar and his family.

He paused his little train and turned back to Silas once more. “You want help getting her down so’s you all can set in the shade there?”

Silas looked to the roadside all about and into the woods. “Nope. It might be rough on her getting her up and down, you just hurry. I got her now.”

Herc knew Emma had Silas as much as Silas had her. It was just a matter of getting them both to realize it.

About a quarter mile along, Herc cocked his head and eyed the boy. “What’s that rifle you got there? Looks fine indeed.”

Jackson eagerly handed it to Herc for inspection. “It’s my ‘Junior Long Rifle’ as poppa calls it. He set us boys each up with one as soon as we was old enough. Mine’s a little small, but he said I get a bigger one in a few years.”

“Looks like one of them ones we used in the war,” Herc said turning it over in his hands. “Your poppa make this?”

“Yessir,” Jackson said with pride. “He say’s they’s the same as the ones they used when he was in company, only a little smaller.”

Herc grew ill at ease going further down the path of the late war with a young boy who was probably raised with rebel in his blood, so he handed back the rifle and trod the easier path before him.

“We best hurry from here,” Herc said, kicking the sides of his horse lightly. “I suppose we are pretty close now.”

The hounds announced them a good quarter mile before they cleared the tree line. They rode the center lane of the hilltop farm through the as yet unplanted fields and straight ahead to the Forrest farmhouse. The acreage of fresh tilled black earth stretched far on either side of his vision. It was an immense plot of land and Herc thought it was a world unto itself  as he looked upon it from his vantage.

Still a ways away, Herc took in the buildings on the property. The farmhouse was a whitewashed, two-story wood frame. There were two sizeable barns nearby. The one with the  familiar tall venting shutters all about was for curing the tobacco, and the other for livestock and equipment. This latter one’s doors were wide open on either end and Herc saw the silhouette of a man inside pitching hay. The figure paused and struck the fork into the huge bail before him.

Youngsters working some other crop in a field beyond the house appeared as two light specks against the dark soil.  Herc had no idea what they were tending for he was never a farmhand—the only thing he knew about tobacco was how to smoke it.

The rear farmhouse door opened and a woman came out wiping her hands down her apron. Herc could tell from a distance she was the woman of the house, for she stood her ground, arms across her bosom, signaling she was the boss here and all who came must check in with her.

The hounds, only heard to that point, ran from the open barn door. They bolted across the fields, front and hind legs a-blur with motion, trailing three thin wakes of dust which whipped up and away in the hilltop breezes. Herc noticed a fourth hound, who bayed and howled from a leash staked in the ground at the front of the home. He recognized this pup from the blood-soaked bandage about his head.

The hounds were upon the riders and acted the bloodthirsty pack until the moment they saw young Jackson waving wildly from the behind Hercules. They broke from their frenzied assault, circled around the riders, trotting playfully behind, tails whipping about.

Hercules drew close to the husband and wife, who stood together at the house. Herc felt more eyes upon him, whether in plain sight or hidden around some shy corner.

He dismounted and helped Jackson to his feet. He found the reins and held them out to the surprised lad. “He may need some water, if you all can spare it.”

The boy proudly marched to the nearest trough, leading Herc’s mount while looking about to see if his siblings had noticed the important task he had been assigned.

Edgar greeted him warmly. “Hey now, my old Michigander friend! Have you come to take us up on our offer?”

Herc was relieved to hear the words and smiled as he shook Edgar’s hand firmly, like two lost pals. He removed his hat and nodded to the maid of the manor.

Edgar’s wife, a woman who, despite the hard life of farming and the even harder life of turning out a few children, had a lightness to her bearing and rose in her cheeks. Her pink complexion grew red quickly as she craned her neck to subtly garner her husband’s attention.

Her eyelids fluttered, indicating to Herc she clearly had no warning or idea of Edgar’s generosity. She smiled politely to him and quickly chilled to Edgar. “Dear? What offer may that be?” She spoke to Herc directly, “No offense, Sir, but I do not understand . . .”

“My manners are as rough as a washboard,” Edgar said. “Hercules Bennet, this is my wife, Lenora. Lenora, this here is one of the fellows I told you about—the ones from the boat?”

Her demeanor slid a mile down the hill from middling civility to barely veiled incredulity. “Oh, my. You were the gentleman who saw fit to put down one of our hounds last night. Then there’s the suspect story of,” she turned with lips pursed and eyebrow raised to Edgar, “the trained owl that blinded the other.”

Jackson came trotting up. “It’s true, Momma, we all done saw it! Besides, it was a misunderstanding, and Herc done said he was real sorry.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and scowled at Jackson. “Don’t you go takin’ that tone with me, boy! Since when do you go callin’ a strange man by his first name? He said he was ‘sorry,’ but that don’t churn no butter with me. You go on and get to your chores. You may not have got no sleep last night after your father done galloped you all over the county, but they’s still work to be done.”

The boy was all too familiar with Lenora Forrest’s anger, for he did not utter a word and hung his head whilst trudging off to the house. The rifle he was carrying even drooped in dejection.

Herc knew himself to blame for the boy being dressed-down, so much so he felt he an urge to go off and do some chores as penance as well.

“Lenora!” Egdar said scornfully. “That ain’t no way to treat a guest of ours! I offered him and his friend a place to rest. I don’t have to check with you when I want to extend a Christian hand to an unfortunate pair of travelers. These here men are veterans, woman! They just survived a horrible accident on top of it all . . .”

Her arms flew down to her sides, fists clenched. “Veterans they may be, but you yourself said they was fighting for the Union. And since when do you make all the decisions as to the safety and security of our children without even a by-your-leave to me?”

“Hush,” he whispered hotly. “You know I am a man of my word and whether you like it or not, I offered up sanctuary here. Should I turn away these men simply because I didn’t sign in with you firstly?”

“Humph,” she sighed.

A frost formed around her edges despite the hot sun pulsing down from above.

“Very well, Edgar.” She turned to Herc and stared him directly in the eyes. “You can stay here till you rest up, but be advised: we ain’t got much and this has been a hard few years, so don’t go expectin’ hotel-styled lodgings.”

She was still cross when, as she turned to skulk away, Herc said, “I know this ain’t the most welcomed news and it is information my parter, Silas, may have not told you about.” Herc hesitated, unsure of how to word it. “Aw, there ain’t no way to doll it up so I best just say it: there are actually three of us to our group.”

The Forrests both registered surprise at this. Lenora turned back to the stranger to hear his confession.

“I feel I must now speak the plain truth and all of it. If it changes your offer, I understand without injury.”

With a puzzled and leery face, Edgar looked from his wife back to Herc. “What do you mean ‘three’ of you? Silas only said it was you and he.”

“We are traveling with a young woman,” Herc decided on the naked truth. “She is a friend whom we are escorting from St. Louis.”

He explained their journey over the last days and gave the barest of descriptions of Emma’s home life. He told the tale of the encounter with Theo on the street and the possibility of the law pursuing them. Lenora listened intently and allowed her icy mien to slowly thaw. Herc included the reasoning behind their subterfuge in Emma’s wardrobe and appearance.

While Lenora was swayed, Edgar shifted the opposite way as his bright white mustache sagged into a frown and his eyes searched to his wife in concern. He was obvious in his second thoughts.

Herc topped off the declarations with, “Emma has fallen ill, as well. We enlisted the help of the Doctor Holloway and he has instructed us to find her someplace to recoup. Seeing as how there were no lodgings in town, me and Silas bring our case before you.”

The husband and wife took in each other in silence. Herc was sure he had just ended their welcome in glorious fashion.

“You say she is ill?” Lenora asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. When she near drowned, she may have swallowed a bit too much of that briny river. As I mentioned before, if you all would like to withdraw your generosity, I—we—will understand. I have no children, but I can surely fathom your need to see to their safety. I myself would find exposure to our troubles as unwelcome. I would be sorry to cause you all any discord. You all seem like a fine family.”

Edgar slipped his hand under his beard and absently scratched his chin. “Well, this sure does change the pony’s spots.”

“Yes, it does,” Lenora added.

The couple stared into each other’s eyes, sharing some unspoken conversation. Herc imagined Christmas may arrive before those two formed a reply.

“I am afraid in light of this news,” Edgar said. “We have to withdraw our offer—”

Lenora reached over to her husband and yanked down hard on his beard. “What in the world, Edgar?”

“Now hold on a minute, Len!” The baffled Edgar howled as he clutched his beard away from her.

“No, Edgar, you hold on yourself,” she turned to Herc. “You go on and round your people up and hurry them back here. I am going in to fix up the boy’s room for her. You two men can sleep in the tobacco barn.”

With that, Lenora swept off into the house and slammed the door behind her, causing Edgar to jump.

He took off his hat and scratched his mane as he puzzled to Herc. “I swear, I been married to her for twenty-three years and I still find I barely know her.”

Herc made move to collect his mount from near the trough where it graze., “Yessir, but I expect why you love her so. She’s got fire, that one.”

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