Two gunshots boomed through the woods, followed by a plaintive screech that, once heard, could never be forgotten: the sound Ethan had found most horrible at the battle at Burnside’s Bridge – the sound of wounded horses.
“Christ Incarnate,” Jasper muttered and pushed on through the red and gold kaleidoscope of falling leaves. Ethan tried to keep up, but pain kept him to a slow walk. The wounds between his legs had healed over, but the internal damage was still mending. The left side of his skull had a narrow line of scab that ran from front to back. He still got severe headaches, but intermittently. Ethan fell behind as he picked his way carefully around rocks and decayed logs over which Jasper nimbly jumped. Soon he could no longer see his friend in the shifting late-afternoon palette of shadow and light. A steady breeze sailed tiny color-kites across Ethan’s path and rustled the treetops in the gentle shurring sound unique to autumn.
Ethan had the sudden urge to lay down in the leaves and look up at the sky the way he had as a child. He didn’t want to know what was screaming ahead. He didn’t want to see the person who had fired those shots. But he forced himself on in the general direction Jasper had taken.
Four more shots rang through the crisp October air. Ethan’s reverie gave way to urgency as he pushed his body to go faster, despite the pain. Ahead, the trees cleared where a dirt road, no more than a cart track, cut through the woods. On the road two saddled horses lay in heaps, one motionless, the other raising its head and screaming in panic and pain as it feebly tried to get to its feet. A third horse stood fifty feet into the trees, its hide twitching. On the muddy track near the horses, two men lay in broken clumps. Amidst the carnage scuttled a tiny rag-covered figure, now hunched over one of the dead men, methodically going through his pockets.
At Jasper’s approach, the rag-thing stood to its full height of less than five feet and lifted a revolver at Jasper, cocked the hammer. Though child-sized, the creature had a man’s face with patchy black whiskers and sideboards, shadowed under a wide-brimmed brown hat. The paw of a full-grown man held the revolver.
Ethan panicked as Jasper walked right up to the specter. “Ain’t had much schoolin’, have you, runt? Never learnt to count to six? Yer gun’s ’bout as empty as yer head. Cain’t say the same fer yer pockets, though, you thieving little shit-for-brains.” Jasper drew and cocked his in one motion. Ethan hurried to close the distance.
The runt pulled the trigger of his revolver, producing only a loud click. With amazing speed, he hurled his empty revolver straight at Jasper. Caught off-guard, Jasper got four pounds of metal square in the forehead. He went down instantly.
Ethan approached and the filthy dervish in rags glanced from the gun on the ground next to Jasper back to Ethan. Instead of trying for the weapon, he lunged, catching Ethan by surprise. It looked like a punch, but at the last instant, Ethan saw the glint of metal. He ducked and turned and the runt’s fist and the knife it contained swept past Ethan’s face with only an inch to spare. Ethan yanked his revolver out of his waistband just in time to use it like a sword to parry his attacker’s backhand swing. Then Ethan got a solid grip on his weapon. In a blur, he cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger, barely aiming. The runt’s knee exploded in red mist and he toppled to the leafy earth. His hat flew off and the young face turned up in astonishment, as if the last thing the robber could imagine was that one of his victims would fight back.
The bandit clutched his knee and began to cry. Ethan lowered his revolver and glanced toward Jasper who was wobbling to his feet. The veteran bent down for his , then hobbled over to the screaming horse. Jasper aimed and shot the suffering animal through the brain. The horse went still, a tendril of steam rising from its open mouth. Jasper shuffled toward Ethan, as the bandit’s crying rose in volume.
“Jeeesus Christmas, listen to that caterwauling’.”
“Jasper, you all right?”
With his left hand, Jasper rubbed at a spot on his forehead that was already swelling. “I’ll live, but afore long, ever’ damn squirrel in these woods will be chasin’ me to get the walnut on my head.”
Ethan pointed with his revolver. “What should we do with him?”
“Only one thing to do with a mad dog.” Jasper hobbled up to the bawling young man, cocked his revolver, and shot him between the eyes. The runt groaned and fell back. His last lungful of air spluttered wetly out of his mouth and he lay still.
Ethan’s face twisted. “That was pretty cavalier.”
Jasper squinted at Ethan. “If what ye been sayin’ is true, then ain’t no need for regrets. I jest helped this little bastard move onward. Mebbe a mite sooner than he planned, but he had to go sometime.”
Jasper surveyed the scene and shook his head. “Just look at this mess. All because of one greedy little bastard.” Jasper knelt beside the highwayman and searched him. “He got two pocket watches, a wedding ring, and a handful of silver coin. For this he killed two men and two horses. Damnation! It’s trash like this what cut the throats of wounded men after a battle jest to rob ’em.”
Jasper stood and fired a round into the robber’s chest.
“He’s dead, Jasper.”
“I know, but my hate ain’t dead. This one I’d gladly kill twice. I look forward to meetin’ him in hell.” Jasper scrutinized Ethan. “You okay? Did he cut you?”
“Thank the Lord for small favors.”
“What should we do?”
“We take their guns, grab that bastard’s horse, and skedaddle.”
A mile down the dirt track, they rounded a turn and saw a knot of people huddled at the side of the road. Upon hearing the horse, a small boy ran into the road, oblivious to the mud, and raised his hands. “Buckra, oh, Buckra, please help Gramoo.”
The child grabbed Jasper’s arm and pulled him to the site of the commotion. As Jasper approached the group, they stood. If the burlap fabric of their clothes and the way they looked mainly at the ground didn’t tell him they had been slaves, the use of the all-purpose “Buckra” in addressing whites certainly did. “What you darkies doin’ so far north?”
The taller of the two men, a muscular man in his twenties, with skin like obsidian and teeth as bright as marble, looked straight into Jasper’s eyes and said, “We free.”
“I know that. But how did you get so far north?”
The young man glanced suspiciously at the wizened old man who supported himself on a stout club of pine. A thousand tiny fissures cracked the old man’s skin. From under bushy white brows, his eyes seemed unfocused as they moved in Jasper’s general direction. Jasper stepped closer and saw a bluish cast across their surface. Cataracts. “There are people who help travelers such as ourselves. Help us get North.” The old man had a dignified voice, quiet, but firm.
A round moon of a face peeked from behind the younger man. She tugged at the man’s arm. “Ask him, go on, ask him.”
Jasper’s eyes wandered to the prone form behind the little group. “Ask me what?”
Pride wrestled with grief across the young man’s face, but finally his mouth moved. A rumble of voice said, “My wife’s grandmother. Done keeled over. Y’know how to hep her?”
Ethan gingerly descended from the back of the horse where he’d been riding sidesaddle. “Jasper, let’s have a look.” Ethan stepped forward and the young man stood aside. Ethan knelt next to a shriveled woman whose body seemed lost in the blankets draped over her. Her tiny face showed pain, eyes screwed shut and mouth clamped in a tight line. Thin wisps of white hair stuck out from under a brown woolen cap scrunched down over the old woman’s ears.
Looking up, Ethan said, “What happened?”
The old man replied, “My Janna felt poorly all mornin’. We had to slow down. Then she said her teeth and her arm hurt. We stopped for a while and she laid down. She let out a cry and then passed out.”
“How long ago?”
Ethan lowered his ear to the woman’s face and felt a faint puff of heat as she exhaled. “Shallow breathing,” Ethan muttered. He pressed an index and middle finger under the old woman’s jaw, back near the ear. “Faint pulse.” Ethan gently lifted an eyelid, saw a dilated brown pupil.
Ethan looked up over his shoulder at the expectant group that had closed in around him. “Anything like this ever happen before?”
The old man spoke. “Ever now and again she gets faint. Says she cain’t catch her breath.”
“You her husband?”
“Yes, sir. My name is Ezekiel.”
“I’m not a doctor, but I think your wife has had a heart attack. I’m sorry.”
“Will she live?”
“I don’t know.”
Ethan and the family knelt around the old woman. Ethan knew he could walk away, but something drew him toward this woman. He felt the need to help, perhaps to expiate some of the horror he’d contributed to at Burnside’s Bridge.
Ethan checked the old woman’s pulse. It grew progressively weaker.
Ethan placed his fingertips on the old woman’s forehead and closed his eyes, aware that the spirit inside this ancient body clung to its anchor in fear and confusion. As the body failed, its panic increased.
Ethan tried to cut through her scattered thoughts, to let her feel his presence. Her eyes opened and the old woman sucked in a gurgling breath.
The two black men rose and stumbled back a pace, their eyes fearful. The young woman fell back and scrambled to gain her footing as the little boy clung to her skirts, pleading, “Oh, Momma, Momma.”
Ethan leaned forward in amazement. The old woman’s eyes stopped dancing and stared directly at Ethan. The leather lips moved. No sound came out. They moved again and this time the outflowing breath formed a whisper that said, “Hep me.”
Ethan leaned closer, his face only inches from the woman’s. Jasper scrambled closer to hear.
Ethan said, “Janna, don’t be afraid. There will be no pain and you will be freer than you ever thought possible.”
“I hear de wind.”
“Let it take you. Think of your family and remember all the things you have done in your life. Concentrate. Try to hold your thoughts together. I promise, you will go on and on. You will not die. You have nothing to fear.”
Her wizened hand crawled from under the blankets and tried to grasp Ethan. He wrapped his larger hand around her cold fingers. With all his energy, Ethan projected his mind toward her and tried to show her that inner spirit that illuminated him as it did her. In his mind he said, “You see? I have done this too. I have lived other lives. You can too. Just don’t be afraid. Let it happen and you will be able to see your family again.”
He sensed her bewilderment, but her struggles diminished.
A faint smile dimpled the wrinkles around the mouth. Then the voice, like the rustle of leaves, said, “I see a faraway place.”
The granddaughter and her son cowered against a maple trunk ten feet away. In a hysterical voice the young woman hissed, “The debil ketched her.”
Ethan said, “Go there now while you can control your thoughts. If you wait, everything will start moving so fast you’ll get confused. You may not be able to remember who you are.”
Tears streamed down the old man’s face as he approached and knelt over his wife. One tear fell onto the dark cheek of the old woman. In a voice as quavering as if it came up from a well, her husband said, “Oh, Janna, I wanted you to see the North. I wanted you to see a different kind of life.”
The woman’s head rolled back and forth an inch. “Don’t be sorry, Ezekiel. You got me free.”
The old man’s hands cupped the withered face. “Don’t go, Janna. Please.”
“I see it. I see it.”
She closed her eyes and her weak grip on Ethan’s hand relaxed. Ethan leaned over the woman’s face again. He felt no breathing. The pain lines smoothed out. Ethan dug his fingers deep into the woman’s neck in a vain attempt to find the carotid pulse. In his head, Ethan felt the burst of energy that signaled Janna had made the leap. He pursed his lips and stared at the old man. “She’s gone. But she’s not dead. You’ll see her again.”
The hazy eyes closed and the man lowered his chin to his chest.
Ethan pulled a blanket over Janna’s face. What makes me such an expert? I haven’t even found my own wife yet.
The granddaughter ran up and flung herself on the body and cried. Sobs racked her so hard it looked like she would jerk herself apart. Jasper put his arms around her and gently pulled her off the old woman as the dumbstruck family looked on.
She turned and clung to him like a child. Jasper led her to her husband whom she grabbed mindlessly, her face buried in his chest.
Ethan caught Jasper’s eye and angled his head back toward the road. Jasper nodded and stepped toward their horse. He grabbed the reins and, to Ethan’s surprise, led the animal right up to the old man. “Ain’t got no shovel and this ground’s too rocky to dig a grave. You take this horse, old timer, so’s you can carry your wife ’til you can make a proper burial. He’ll hold you and the little boy too.”
The old man’s fingers closed around the reins. His mouth hung open but he could not speak. Jasper left the group in tableau. “Good luck to you, now,” he said as he walked away.
Jasper and Ethan hiked in silence for several minutes before Ethan said, “Why’d you give them the horse?”
“Think about it. How we gonna keep hidin’ out with a horse? Unless we want to use it to get away from this place. But I don’t think it’s safe to travel far by road with all the troop movements, so it’s no use to us.”
Ethan said, “Thought you were a southerner.”
“So why’d you help a slave family?”
Jasper squinted. “Ain’t never owned slaves. Wasn’t fightin’ fer slavery.”
“Then for what?”
Jasper cackled and shot a malicious grin at Ethan. “Fer target practice.”