Helena, Arkansas. A Tale Begins.
It is shocking, to some, to learn that the natural state of humanity is to be at war. Some family histories are much the same.
It was very nearly pitch-black outside of the small pools of light from the lanterns hung irregularly along the jetty that jutted out into the river.
The young man waiting there, was wringing wet and could do nothing about it. There was no point in waiting for the skiff to come and pick him up to get him across the river now. They would have pulled it out of the water once those clouds had begun to empty themselves and the light had finally gone. He decided to return to Helena, a mile and a half below where he was, to the cabin on the landing there, and spend the night by the stove to get his clothes dry and take the ferry over in the morning.
It was one of those torrential downpours that swept up the river from the gulf and deadened all other sounds around it as it dripped with a million gentle drumbeats out of the trees and onto the river surface, beating it as flat as glass, had anything been visible. The fire that usually blazed on the bank at the river’s edge was now almost entirely extinguished with that sudden thunderstorm and the squalls that had followed it.
The noise of the storm was how they had been able to sneak up on him without being seen or heard as he turned back from the small jetty. His attackers seemed to come out of nowhere in the dark, taking him by surprise. He was felled first, by a cudgel blow, and then was wounded by a cowardly blow from a saber, swung at his head as he lay almost senseless. It opened up a grievous wound on his forehead, but not a fatal one as had been intended. An overhanging branch, bent low by the weight of rainwater, had deflected the blade enough, held it up and turned it, to limit its damage by that first blow.
His main attacker, the foremost of three men, stood over him and decided to torment him in the few seconds left to their victim, with who was doing this to him before he would kill him with a final blow.
Before he could be finished off in the dark and rolled into the river, the wounded man unexpectedly produced a pistol and shot the assailant closest to him several times in the middle of his body as he stood above him. He heard the man scream at the unimaginable pain before he fell away in horror at what had happened to him, clutching at his belly, dropping his saber into the river. The other two were cursing at the first man for not completing what he had set out to do, and laying them open to the tables being turned, as they seemed likely to do in that narrow place. Fortunately, it was dark, and nothing could be clearly seen outside of the pool of light from the blazing torch that the second man foolishly still held instead of dropping it after that first shot, and before the man on the ground might see clearly enough to do worse damage. They dared not shoot for fear of hitting one of their own on that narrow place, but the other man on the ground had no such concern after what had happened to him. Only his enemies were in front of him, and they were partially illuminated.
He fired again and another of his attackers fell away with a cry, holding his arm, cursing at the pain of it, and wondering how best to escape. That man did drop the torch onto the wooden deck, but too late. They had not expected him to be armed. Everything they had hoped to do was suddenly not going as they had intended.
The oldest of the trio, William—the one farthest from the fallen youth, father to the other two—tried to bring his own pistol into play; but before he could use it, it was shot from his hand in a random shot, leaving him cursing and in immense pain as he clutched his arm to his chest. He found to his great shock that most of two of his middle fingers on his right hand had gone with his pistol into the river, leaving the rest of his arm numb from the shock of it, except for that pain which made him feel suddenly sick, but he could not give in to that.
All four men discovered themselves in dire straits with one of them at least unlikely to survive, and possibly not the man attacked either, considering the head wound inflicted on him by that cowardly attack.
As the two still on their feet dropped back, the young man they had thought to kill, weighed his options. His gun was now empty, and two of his attackers—he recognized them well enough: Henstridges—would be only temporarily discouraged in their pain, with the other, either dead or dying. He slid off the landing and into the warm river and, floating on his back, he kicked out into the channel. He would take his chances with the river. He tried to ignore the pain from his head, intent only on getting out of the weak light. The current would carry him downriver and allow him to escape, if he survived. He just had to get far enough away that they could no longer see him to shoot at when they recovered from their injuries. The water revived him as he kicked out toward the middle of the river. When he was far enough away from roots and other entanglements, he would let the current take him downriver and he would get himself ashore and find some refuge and someone who could treat his wounds, rather than want to see him dead.
It took them some moments to realize what he had done as he drifted into the darkness out of their sight. Shots followed him, aimed wildly in the hope of hitting him.
“I saw his face for a while, but I don’t see it no more.”
“Look after your brother. Make sure he don’t slip into the river. And stop that bleeding and that noise he’s making, though those shots will have been heard far enough.” The younger son, Robert, tried to bite back his own sharp retort to his father and could see that there was nothing he could do for his brother except stop him from rolling into the river and drowning, though that might be the best thing that could happen to him, seeing where he was shot.
“I’m wounded myself and losing a lot of blood, thanks to him. Why didn’t he finish him off when he had the chance?” As he spoke, he was busy trying to stop the bleeding and was attempting to bind up his own arm with a small length of rope that had been lying on the walkway. “He broke the bone in my arm.”
“I’m hurt too, damn him!” He could not decide if he was more angry with his fallen son or the man who had shot him. “I lost some fingers here.” He cursed at the pain of that as he held his hand tightly to prevent more loss of blood. He quickly took off his belt and wrapped it around his hand, pulling it tight. “Lucky I didn’t lose my life. No point in wasting time here. Bind yourself up and let’s get out of here before others come to see what those shots were about, once their first fears have died down. Let the river finish him, as it has for many another before him. We’ve got to get your brother out of here to a doctor or he’ll not survive, and we both of us need to be fixed up. We can drag him out of the way.
“Say nothing of this. If anyone asks what happened we were set upon by some drunken Union soldiers with a grudge to settle. They took off downriver in a skiff.”
That explanation would have to do if anyone came to investigate the shots, unless they could think of something better.
“I never knew him to carry a gun before.”
“War changes a lot of things. Your brother got careless thinking to gloat in his face, and look what it cost us. Damned fool deserves to die for that and what happened to us because of it! I could kill him myself for letting this happen. Remember, we were set upon, and they took off.” His son didn’t think that would sound plausible.
“Who’d believe us? That war ended three years ago.”
“Not for everyone. It didn’t for me or for a lot of others like me who saw their livelihood disappear along with the slaves. You don’t strip a man of everything that he valued and expect him to be happy and to do nothing about it. They may have won that war but I never surrendered.” He paused and considered. “Come to think of it, his father [he spoke of the man who had preferred being drowned to being shot] was a surgeon before that war, and he don’t live far from here when he’s in town. He might be the only one able to help us. He can’t know who shot us or that we killed his son, and we won’t tell him either. Ironic, us killing his son like that and then seeking his help.”
“If we did kill him.”
“We did. We’d better have or there’ll be hell to pay. He’ll help us, so keep your mouth shut and hang close to your brother. We may need to shut him up if he starts to rave about what happened and to throw names about. Cut those leathers off him and toss the scabbard into the river. It was too dark to see anything clearly and we didn’t expect this kind of trouble. They took us by surprise as we waited. We were unarmed, remember!”
“What about him? He’s still out there. He must have recognized us, with Jeff trying to play games like that, and he might try to make it to his father, if he lives, if he gets out of the river, and bring the law down on us.”
“Who? He wasn’t even here and neither were we. We’ll take that risk. He recognized us right enough, thanks to your stupid brother taunting him like that, but he won’t survive that wound from what I saw, and not if this is his blood and not ours—and it is—and neither will Jefferson if we don’t get him seen to. If he lives, one of us has to be with him at all times to keep him quiet.”
They could hear a steamboat in the distance making its way downriver to meet the wharf boat from Helena, putting out a mile below them once they heard its characteristic whistles. It would be abreast of them in another ten minutes. The rain had slackened and they could just see the flaming torch at the prow of the wharf boat but not its stern lantern.
“Go and get some horses. We need to be out of sight and well away from here. We’ll borrow a cart and get your brother into town. We’ll deal with whatever happens as it comes at us.”
“There’ll be a lot of questions.”
“There always is. It’s answers you should worry about. I told you what to say. Better still, say nothing. Let me do the talking and make sure your brother can say nothing. If anything should have gone cleanly and easily, this was it, and Jefferson had to try to play games and got us all shot.”
“Maybe we should leave him here, Pa. He’s gonna die anyway, gut-shot like that and losing blood the way he is.”
“No! He leads everyone to us having been here. We can’t risk that. He comes with us.”
“Then the river?” Jeff might be his brother, but there was no love lost between them.
“No. Not with that other body out there!” He turned on him in anger. “He may be a useless fool, but he’s your brother, dammit! What are you thinking of? He comes with us. I wish to god we’d never been here this evening and had never met up with him. I thought that providence had played into our hands when I first saw him here, but now I know otherwise. I never felt so much pain in all my life as I feel now in this hand.” He rethought his original decision. “Maybe it ain’t such a good idea to head to town. You can use an oar, and so can I. Better if we say nothing, and cross the river. A doctor can’t do much for him. We’ll strike out for home when that steamer’s gone by. We were never here tonight.
“Say nothing to your sister or anyone else about this. She must learn none of this from us. She might guess what happened, eventually, but I’ll think up some explanation to fob her off as much as I can.”
They both took a hold of Jefferson's coat at the neck and clumsily dragged him off the narrow walkway and onto the bank as he writhed and screamed at the pain. They ignored him. He had been conscious the entire time and had heard what his younger brother had said about leaving him, or rolling him into the river, and there was nothing he could do about it, helpless as he was.
The trail of blood would soon be washed away to hide everything that had happened.