I left Joe standing there with his mouth open on another question. At any other time he would have followed me but he had the security of the two families in his hands even with his brother in law backing him up … dentists may be scary but this guy reminded me of a toothpick suffering from anorexia. Not to be disrespectful – he was smart after all – but as “security” in the event of anything heavy coming down he was pretty much useless.
My size doesn’t let me “sneak” very well but with only a bit of firelight here and there I was able to hide most of me in shadows. At three in the morning I could see that there were a lot of sleepy guards stationed at the different wagon groups. I scared one young boy nearly to death by taping him on the shoulder to show him one of the horses was starting to wander off. Guess I must have looked like a boogeyman to him.
Most of the noise was coming from over near the old cavalry barracks. I winded my way through several passed out drunks … or I assume they were drunk as my dad had never set that kind of example for me … until I got close enough I could see the remaining revelers. Suddenly my mad turned to concern.
Evans looked like he’d been through a meat grinder. How he was still on his feet I couldn’t fathom; until I saw it was because he had been tied upright to a wooden porch rail. He was done in but every time he stopped singing one of the drunks would point a gun at him and then laugh. I don’t know what had happened and I was beginning to worry that I didn’t see the rest of the men anywhere around.
As I watched two more drunks passed out leaving four still amongst the land of the conscious … but three of those four didn’t look like they had much left in them. The fourth though looked awake and mean, though he was still definitely drunk.
I crept as close as I could which meant coming up around and behind the meanest one. I couldn’t just shoot him. Aside from the little bit of moral quandary I had over killing in cold blood I didn’t want to risk waking everyone camped in the area and having a long drawn out discussion … especially since I didn’t know what Evans story was yet. I picked up a good size branch out of their woodpile – they had a whole wagon load for some reason – whose circumference and my bicep would have measured pretty close to the same. It made a great bat.
The guy never saw it coming and the other three drunks just smiled and slowly slid into oblivion leaving Evans and I face to face.
“Kid? Am I seeing things now on top of everything else?”
I whispered, “No … and be quiet. I did more than tap sleeping beauty there but since I’m not sure how hard his head is I’m not sure how long he’ll be out.”
They’d tied his hands so tight they’d nearly cut the circulation off and I know it was painful when it started coming back from the look on his face. But I had been right, the post was the only thing holding him up and I wound up having to take him in a fireman’s carry because he just didn’t have much left in him.
We were nearly clear when he banged me on the back and said quietly, “My gear.” I saw he was pointing to one of the wagons so I looked over the side and sure enough his packs were there, though looking a little worse for wear. “Grab that smaller one too.”
What did he think I was? A pack mule? But I did it and was surprised by the weight. I sighed knowing what was likely inside. “Does this stuff belong to you?”
“It does now. Consider it recompense for my pain and suffering that I’ll never get to sue for in civil court.”
I snorted and took it anyway. I got him over to our wagons and Joe and I started to clean him up. “No time for that,” he mumbled through parched and bleeding lips. “You gotta get outta here. Them there are some serious baddies Kid. I shoulda told you to just stay out of it. I didn’t know you had folks with ya.”
It was Joe who grinned and turned from wolf to shark. “Let’s go see what we can see.”
This was the old Joe, the one that could never resist a good fight or prank. I shook my head but knew he was going to go with or without me. Sheila showing up and giving it her blessing made me even more determined to keep him out of trouble. While Sheila continued to take care of Evans – warned by my silent admonition to not let the cat out of the bag – Joe and I slid back over to the camp of drunks.
Joe just shook his head and we started quietly going through the other two wagons and the saddle bags lying all over the place. Then Joe pulled a great big wad of something out of one of the saddlebags and his shark’s grin turned decidedly wicked. It was a bunch of them plastic ties like they put on rioters, the same ones that had been used to attach Evans to the post.
We started tying the hand of one drunk to the ankle of another and then overlapping them sometimes as well with a third drunk. I went from concern to fear of laughing after I realized just how drunk these guys were. Some of them had even … er … relieved themselves in their own drawers. When it came time for the guy that I had clunked, we took particular care and added a blindfold as well just to confuse him even more so that if he did wake up before we got away we’d have the most time we could get. We took all the guns we saw and the knives as well; there was no sense into going to all of that trouble if we were going to make it easy on them. We also emptied the wagons and saddle bags of ammo.
As a last insult we turned all of their horses loose and pulled the pins out of the wagon tongues. We both had a hard time not laughing but we put a move on our go as well. We quietly woke everyone in our group, loaded up and got out of there just as the sun was making the sky pink. Evans had managed to stay awake and I climbed into the wagon they had done their best to get him secured in.
“So, what’s the story. Last I saw you …”
He groaned, “Kid, it … it was a mistake. I thought Thor knew you had fallen back, a couple of us did. When he found out, it was like you had fallen off the face of the planet. When Barkley mentioned the guy that had stopped you had an eye patch Thor acted like an old clucking mother hen. He’s been a pain in the @#$ since you took off.”
“I didn’t take off. I stopped to talk to an old friend. We played football together.”
“Yeah? Whadda ya know?”
I thought he had finally passed out but then he said, “Aren’t you going ta ask about the others?”
“I thought you were resting.” I was still trying to decide if he was making up a story to get on my good side.
“Sure Kid. Yeah sure,” he said like he didn’t quite believe me. “We were trying to bargain for horses or supplies only people think a whole lotta what they got and want more than they’re worth. Price gouging, every stinking one of 'em. A couple of us went to this outdoor bar to do a little gambling and make some contacts. Something went wrong. I guess someone figured out those ol’ boys were cheatin’ and it all broke loose. I got hit from behind and woke up tied over the back end of a mule. Don’t ask me why except it was out of meanness. I’d clued to their game early on and played around their cheats and managed to win more than a few hands from that guy you knocked out.”
“How long they have you?” I asked him as he trailed off again.
“I … I can’t … I don’t know Kid. Days and nights started running together. Never would let me sleep or when they’d let me I couldn’t,” he said in a confused and pain filled voice.
“You were going to tell me about the others,” I reminded him.
“Oh … yeah. They’re coming. Know they’re coming. We don’t leave anyone behind. That’s why Thor was so bent about the rest of us just letting you walk off like that.”
“I wasn’t the one that walked off,” I told him again.
“You didn’t stop us.”
“I thought that is what you guys wanted. I got the impression towards the end that … well, maybe not from you but from the others … that you couldn’t wait to see the backside of me.”
“Naw, wasn’t like that.”
“I’m not going to argue with you, not when you’re flattened, but I know how it was. Now why don’t you get some rest. We’re aiming for the Nebraska line. Don’t know if we’ll make it but we’re going to try. The road is some better from what I can tell now that the sun has come up, not near so many road blockages. I …” Then I looked over and saw that he really was out this time so I hopped out of the wagon to lighten the load and started walking.
And thinking. I wasn’t near as sure as he was that the rest of the men were on their way. He couldn’t say for sure how long he’d been a captive. He didn’t tell me how he was sure Thor and company were on their way beyond the “he knew they were.” I decided not to hassle him about it. He looked like he’d been worked over pretty bad so I wasn’t even sure he knew what he was saying.
We didn’t make the Nebraska line that night but we did before the next one. And the day after that found us camped at Scott’s Bluff. The geology of the area was completely freaky looking to me. I was used to rolling hills and mountains in the much older Smokies. The things I saw just jumped up out of the flat, dessert looking land in brightly colored layers, all jagged edges and sheer faces. I had to keep looking at them to make myself believe what I was seeing. They were like giant monuments just plunked down in the middle of nowhere.
Joe and Sheila laughed at me but it wasn’t that they were making fun, more like they knew what I was feeling because they’d felt it once themselves. Evans, he was quiet; that worried me more than anything. He slept a lot too. The longer it was that the other men didn’t show up the quieter he got.
“Fine, maybe … maybe they ain’t coming. Life’s like that.”
I’d never seen him so down in the dumps. I asked him, “You ever seen the Smokies?”
“You crazy Kid? Where’d you think I learned to talk this good? It’s been a while though.”
I smiled and asked, “So where are you from?”
“All over. My pap had an itchy foot and we moved around a lot. Started in the Ozarks and we just went all over from there. By the time I got kicked out of the house to make my own way the habit had rubbed off on me. Is that where you’re headin’? You still sure that’s what you want to do?”
I thought about it. “Yeah. I need to if nothing else. I’m thinking there might be something to finding closure.”
He snorted then said, “Don’t bet on it. Things happen. You either live with them or don’t. I’ve never found that thing they call closure to be real.”
“Maybe you just never found closure.” That got me another snort before he lay back down and unintentionally fell back to sleep.
The next night found us camped out in the shadow of Chimney Rock. I was reading some of the historical markers, walking off one too many bowls of chili when I heard feet coming up on me fast from behind. I spun and met the guy’s run with a hard defensive block which sent him flying backwards and laying him out flat.
“I told him it was a bad idea,” came a dry voice. I looked up and there was Chuckri with a half-idiot grin on his face as Alfonso slowly got to his feet trying to quiet the bells that were still ringing in his ears.
Trying to be as calm about it I said, “Well, he said you would be coming.”
“Who?” Chuckri asked, suddenly tense. “Evans?”
At my nod Alfonso started to run off but I slowed him down long enough to tell him, “You better bring Richards. He's been beat on.”
I led Chuckri over to our camp and introduced him to Joe who bristled a little but then decided to let it go since Chuckri wasn’t giving off the right kind of vibes for a fight. Evans tried to make it out like he wasn’t bad off but even a child could see he was hurting.
Richards … all the men, Thor included … came out of the dark putting Joe’s back up again. “Joe, don’t sweat it. They’re OK. Evans here is actually the worst of the lot and you’ve handled him fine.”
That caused Evans to get an insulted look on his face and the men, except for Thor, laughed and suddenly even Joe joined in. “I see you’ve met Rocky. Watch out for the mouth; it’s licensed as a deadly weapon.”
“Hey, whose side you on?” I asked Joe, funning him right back.
Richards was in the processes of examining Evans and complimenting Sheila’s work – which of course didn’t hurt Joe’s feelings any either – when Thor walked over. “Who’s he?” he asked like Joe wasn’t standing right there.
I looked at him like he had dragged something in on the bottom of his shoe. “A friend. From school.”
Joe got a surprised look on his face but then grinned that grin that always warned me to watch out. He stuck his hand out. “Joe Crabtree. Rocky and I played against each other in highschool.”
“You’re no highschool kid.”
Joe continued to grin, “Nope. Hey, have you met my wife yet?”
Thor’s noses flared and his eyebrows twitched. I told Joe, “Knock it off.” Then turned to Thor and said, “Evans said you guys would be coming. How’d you find him.”
After a last suspicious look at Joe who was still grinning he said, “Followed the description of a one-eyed man after finding the group that had taken Evans … tied up.”
Joe and I looked at one another and then we both burst out laughing. We hadn’t told anyone up to that point what we’d done … although Sheila suspected we’d been up to something … so the story had to be told.
At the end of the tale Evans groaned, “And I missed it? @#$% Rocky, I’d given a lot to see their faces.”
Joe said, “Well I didn’t want to be there when they woke up, that’s for sure. I wonder who saw us?”
He was looking at me but it was Montgomery who answered, “Nobody mentioned seeing the Kid. They only said something about a guy with an eye patch.”
I must have looked insulted because Joe started laughing again until I aimed a kick at him. Sheila said, “OK, enough shenanigans you two. I swear, you’re worse than my brothers.”
It was getting late and I was getting ready for first watch. When Joe came back from talking to Thor I asked him, “What are you up to?”
“Nothin’,” he said all too innocently.
“Don’t give me that.”
“Oh relax. Evans is too hurt to walk or even ride a horse though they’ve got their own from what I see … some that look awful familiar.” We both nearly started laughing again. “I just said your friend here was welcome to continue riding in the wagon and that they were welcome to tag along if they were so inclined.”
I looked at him trying to figure his game.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s not like a few more warm bodies to protect the women and wagons wouldn’t be welcome.”