Just in case you need to catch up:
I cast a disparaging glance over my shoulder as I got my bedroll. “You’re not worried you might upset me, Paul? I can’t figure if you’re that brave or just stupid.”
“Bit of both, I reckon.” He cackled louder. “But then I ain’t the one that’s fixin’ to lay me down in the dirt for a nap, while a body I don’t know keeps guard over me and mine.”
He put a fine point on my own thoughts, but my choices were few and dwindling fast. Dawn was about to break. I unrolled my blanket into the trench he’d fashioned in the sandy loam then, stretched out on it. I raised a brow as he flapped another blanket to unfurl it.
“This here will keep the topdressin’ from getting you over dirty.” He spread the blanket, smelling strongly of mule, over me. “Rest easy, Massa Tom.”
“I am no one’s master,” I said aloud—I thought. The sound of hands moving soil and mulch grew faint and then– nothing.
I awoke to the bitter sweet smell of chicory. What Paul used for coffee. I had survived the day with body intact and my companion still with me. I rose slowly, letting the soil and debris shift from the blanket before I removed it. Popping it into the air removed the remainder.
“Be whit’cha in a bit. Jist finishin’ up dinner.” Paul held his plate high, shoveling the beans in his mouth.
The sight of him left me lighthearted. He was a man of his word. I stretched my arms and cracked my back. “Take your time. Have the animals been watered?”
“Only a wee bit Sa, just a sip from the canteen. I daren’t leave ya to go to the crick.”
“That’s right good of you, Mr. Monroe–.”
“Paul, Sa—jist Paul be fine.”
“Paul, you finish your meal and I’ll water the stock.” I untied Silas and Merry and led them the twenty or so yards to where a brook babbled merrily over tree roots and stones. As they drank, I washed the parts I could, rinsed my mouth and wet my hair, running my fingers through in place of a comb. When finished, we returned to the campsite.
Paul sat studying his wrist. He looked up as we entered the fire’s glow. “Don’t that beat all?” He held his wrist up for inspection. “If’n I din’na know no better, I’d said I done dreamed this whole biznez.”
I took his wrist in my hand, no sign of my bite remained. Only a scar of an old rope burn marred his brown flesh. So, not just animal hide.
“You seem surprised Sa. Ain’t this how it always is?”
“Truth-be-told Paul, I don’t honestly know. I don’t normally stay around after feeding.” I raised my eyes and a brow to look into his face. “I knew our spit could stop the bleeding, but not that it healed so completely.”
My power– or curse– has at least a bit of good.
“Best get crackin’. We wastin’ moonlight.” He left his arm in my grasp and turned his head.
I smiled, but smothered my laugh, raised his arm and lowered my head. A few moments later, I sent him to the creek to wash and fill the canteens while I saddled Merry and Silas.
We rode along in companionable silence listening to the sounds of the night with only the occasional owl’s hoot and, “here now,” scolding from Paul when Silas nudged his way over to Merry. The mule seemed smitten with the mare.
“Paul, are you acquainted with these parts?” I leaned against a tree watching the horses graze on the salt grasses as he topped off the canteens in a fresh water stream making its way to the sea.
“Passably.” He spit a chaw of tobacco into the water, stood and rubbed his back.
“The ship doesn’t leave harbor until high tide tomorrow night and I will need a resting place for the day. Can you think of any cover?” The thought of sand crabs scavenging my body if I was forced to bury in the sand wasn’t comforting.
He seemed to ponder the question a moment then, slapped his thigh. “Yep, I believes I does—if’n the tide and storms ain’t got her. There be a wrecked vessel ‘bout a mile or two o’side of the harbor. Well, she were when Sherman marched up the coast…” His hand continued to rub circles on his lower back.
I nodded. “Your back ailing you?”
“Ain’t nothin’, damp night air I expect.” He lowered his hand, pulling himself up straight.
“An old injury then?” Something about the way he wouldn’t meet my eyes kept me questioning. “What happened Paul, horse throw you.”
He jerked his head up. “No Sa! I ain’t never been throwed. Me and horses, we gots us an understandin’, I do right by them, they do right by me.”
“So how were you hurt?”
He turned his back to me and raised his shirt revealing a mosaic of scars, the marks of a bullwhip.
I steadied my voice and raised it. “His name Paul, the man who whipped you.”
“Massa John Simon Castlewait of the Louisville Castlewaits. I was his head groom afore the war.”
“Why were you whipped?” I ground my teeth, waiting for his answer.
“I gots ten lashes each time a horse dinna place, Sa. He couldn’t rightly beat the trainer, he bein’ white and all.”
“I see. Did he survive the war?”
“Far as I know, Sa. He still be there when the army tooks me.”
“Mmm. We best head out Paul, to find this ship you speak of. Why don’t you give Merry a try? She’d probably appreciate a decent rider after me.” I took Silas’s reins from his frozen fingers and settled myself as best I could in the McClellan while he continued to stare at me. “Mount up, Paul.”
Stirred to motion at last, he whispered something in the mare’s ear, took the reins and swung into the saddle, foot never touching stirrup, his broad, gap toothed smile giving him the look of a Jack-O-Lantern. Merry pranced out proudly, leaving Silas and me to bring up the rear.
Under a full moon we maneuvered around the scattered rocks and dunes of the shore line, the tall masts of frigates and Schooners visible in the distance. The animals stepped slowly, each hoof fall sinking in the wet sand, sending crabs scurrying out of each print. We ventured into the surf, with much coaxing on my part. Silas, it appeared, was not a fan of water. Finally entering a secluded cove.
There she sat, a hole big enough to walk a bull through gaped in her side. Paul grinned and pointed as if I might miss the wreck otherwise. “There she be!”
Roughly two and a half years since her beaching, it was a wonder she hadn’t been stripped or burned. I found myself slowing Silas, pulling on the reins as he tried to keep pace with Merry. “Paul!”
A rifle’s discharge cracked in the night, Merry reared, Paul’s hand clutched frantically for her mane, as they went over backward. Another shot rang out.
I flung myself from the saddle, Silas lurched toward Merry and I to Paul. The mare seemed unhurt and was already rising to her feet, Paul lay unmoving, red blossoming on his shirt below his left shoulder. I listened to the sure if erratic thump, thump of his heart. The bullet had missed the organ but he was losing a lot of blood.
Unsure whether it would work or not, I bit into my index finger then probed the wound for the bullet, my blood mingling with his. He groaned at my invasion. I dug deeper, faster. The bone had stopped the shot. I pried it out, ripping my finger tip further on jagged bone, my dark blood mixing with his bright. Pressing my kerchief to the wound, I swallowed my bloodlust, and waited.
It took a moment for the fog to clear my mind enough to realize the cloth was not getting wetter. Gingerly removing it, I peered at the wound. The bleeding had ceased. The canteen lay in the sand a few feet away. Snagging the strap, I pulled it to me. I rinsed the blood away, to find the wound closed and healing, as my fingertip already had.
Our assailants were talking their own sweet time, apparently thinking they had hit us both, but would eventually come to check. I decided not to wait. In a blur of speed I hoped the human eye couldn’t follow, I launched myself toward the ship.
The first fell quickly when his own rifle butt struck the back of his head with enough force to shatter his skull. The second had time to scream before I found his throat. Gorged to bursting and feeling slightly ill, I tossed their bodies into the surf. The tide had turned and would soon carry them out to sea.
Paul roused enough to ask after Merry when I moved him to the shelter of the hulk and once again when I pressed my torn wrist to his lips.
“Drink friend, you’ve lost a lot of blood and soon I must rest.” He opened his mouth to argue and I filled it with my blood then, held his nose until he swallowed. I saw the question in his eyes before they closed. I prayed I knew the answer and, had not broken my vow.
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