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“Hail the camp!” The smell of beans and bacon had mixed with salt spray and wet sand for the last five miles, someone’s late dinner or very early breakfast. A few hours yet before dawn, I reckoned I had time to stop for a bite and still reach the shore in time to hunker down for the day.
I watched the lone Negro man spring to his feet and reach for his rifle, scanning the wood line in my direction.
“Hold!” He called out, slinging his rifle to his shoulder with practiced ease as the mare stepped into the glow of the campfire. “What’cha be doin’ out and about this time of the morning–Sa?”
The “sir” came belated, as an afterthought. Free he might well be, but cautious. The rifle was Government Issue. I raised my hands, palms outward. “On my way to meet a ship and running a little late, hence my need to travel when I should be sleeping. Mind if I share your fire for a bit?”
“N’sa, I reckon that’d be gist fine. Step on down and into the light. That be a fine lookin’ mare you got yosef there. Mighty fine.” He stepped to the mare’s side, lowering his rifle to stroke her sleek neck. “Here Sa, I takes her fer ya. She can visit with Silas. He’ll be plumb beside hisself keepin’ such fine company.”
I stepped down from the saddle and handed him the reins. Watching as he led her to the picket line where his mule, also Government Issue, was tethered. The man was a medium hue, small, wiry and about as bowlegged as they come. “You seem to know horseflesh.”
“Few things I know better. I worked on a horse farm afor the war, was a wrangler for the Third in it.” He wiped his palm on his pants and then offered it as he leaned his rifle against the tree. “I is Paul. Paul Monroe.”
I took the hand he offered. “Tom Thornton.”
He snatched back his hand and reached for the rifle, his eyes wide but showing no panic. “What be ya, mista?”
Well, this was a twist I hadn’t expected. Granted, my hand was cool, but there was a chill to the autumn air I had thought would mask it. I started to say I meant him no harm, but for some reason couldn’t force the lie past my lips. Curiosity got the better of me. “What do you think I am Paul Monroe?”
He pondered that for a bit. “Ain’t no haint gonna be travelin’ on hossback.” He held my gaze, then squatted and ran a blind hand through his gear. He produced a torn and tattered book. Steadying the rifle against his shoulder with one hand he thrust the book out to me with the other. “Hold on to that, if’n ya please.”
I took the book from his outstretched hand and rolled it over to expose the worn cross on its cover. “Your Bible has seen better days, friend. You read it often?”
“No’sa. I can’t rightly read, but I knows some of them lines by memry. And now I knows you ain’t no devil, but you ain’t no livin’ man either. What’ch be?”
“Well, Mr. Monroe, I’ll try to tell you if you’d care to put that rifle down and listen. I don’t think it would do more than ruin my clothes at any rate.” I kept my hand on his Bible. “I promise no harm will come to you through me—without your permission.”
“Which ain’t likely.” He gave a snort and lowered his firearm. “I guess if’n the Lord trusts ya, I ain’t got no cause to do other. Sit yosef down. You want some this here pretend coffee?”
“Thank you, but no, I don’t drink coffee. You go on ahead with your meal. I’ll feed the mare. Would Silas like a bit of grain do you suppose?”
“I expect he’d like that gist fine.” He hunkered down next to the fire with his plate and cup. “What be her name?”
“Ya see any other women folk here ‘bouts?”
A name. Her body was the color of chamois, mane, tail and lower legs, black as jet. Her thick flowing mane brought Mariska’s hair to mind. I shook the thought from my mind. She had a jaunty, light, dainty step, almost like she was dancing. Merry then? “Merry,” I said aloud. “Merry Go Lightly.”
“Well now, that is a fine name fo sho! Merry Go Lightly. Ain’t that sumpin’?”
“Merry, meet Silas.” I removed her bridle, put the feedbag over her muzzle and arranged her ears, then held a palm full of grain out to Silas. “Silas, this is Merry.”
The simple act reminded me how far removed I had become from my human life. I took a deep unneeded breath and turned to face the fire. “Mr. Monroe, I have a proposition for you.”
He sat his plate aside. “I don’t have no truck with the devil, but since we done proved you ain’t him, what’cha got in mind?”
“A trade…Merry, for you services.” I caught his gaze. He stared back, unaffected. Odd.
“What…services…you got in mind?”
“I need her to reach the ship, but after that she is yours if you will accompany me—.”
“Where’s the catch? That’s a powerful lot of hossflesh to be tradin’ for my company.”
“I expect payment. Your blood will do nicely.” I smiled, fangs extended. He didn’t seem impressed.
“Figured as much. My Mammy done spoke of such as you. Nost—nosti—nostfer –?”
“Nosferatu. Your mother mentioned us in passing?” I couldn’t help chuckle at the bizarre turn the evening had taken.
“My Mammy done spoke of lots of things what might turn your blood cold…if’n it weren’t already. Mam was a witchy woman, and her Mam, and her’n for as far back as memry serves. Don’t think they be much left can scare me, septin’ the devil his own self. So how much blood we talkin ‘bout?”
I nodded to his tin cup. “Less than that cup would hold, now and again tomorrow night. I’ll sign a bill showing she’s yours, gear included. Have we a bargain?”
Paul screwed up his face. “This gonna hurt a bit?”
I laughed loud and long. “I can’t hold your eyes, so yes, I expect it will, but it won’t hurt long. How is it you evade my gaze so easily?”
He reached under his shirt and produced a pouch tied about his neck with a leather thong. “This here’s a gris-gris. Might be this, or might be Mam’s blood in my veins, don’t know which, don’t care neither. They’s both stayin’– septin’ for the sip you take.”
“We have a deal then?” My hunger was beginning to gnaw at me. If I planned to be gentle this needed to be done soon.
He wiped the bacon grease from his fingers to his pants then, extended his hand. I took the three strides necessary to round the campfire and clasped it. The surge of fear shot through him, richening the scent of his blood and, with its dissipation, the moment he quieted. Before he had a chance to react, I sank my fangs into his wrist, lapping the blood as it spilled. He never twitched.
When the wound had sealed, I raised my head to find him staring, not at me, but the mare. She nickered softly and Paul Monroe smiled. I smiled as well. Perhaps I could make my way in this world without doing terrible harm after all.
I didn’t expect everyone to be so understanding as this man, but, it was a start. Of course, we had not yet reached my destination. I was raised to believe a man is only as good as his word. I had placed my trust in a person I had just met. In his hands rested the safety of not only my possessions but, come sunrise, my life as well.
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