The Cherokee Cut       







Tom Bush





Copyright 2023 by Tom Bush

 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
December 1860
 
Chapter 1
 
     "Billy, go get Tom. Just tell him I need him," Billy's father said.
 
    Billy Ward was almost eighteen and lived with his parents, three brothers, and six sisters in Davidson County just outside Nashville, TN. His family had a comfortable but busy life in a small but growing community.
    
     After searching for Tom, the family's male Negro, Billy returned home and gave his father the bad news.
 
     Paw, I can't find him or his wife. They are both gone," Billy said expectantly.
 
     "Did anybody see them leave?" His Paw asked.
 
     "I didn't ask anyone. Everyone's asleep or just getting up. It's 6 a.m. Paw," Billy said.
 
     "Go get some more wood for the stove, or we won't have any breakfast," his father said. "And go out to the hen house and collect the eggs for your Maw."
 
     "Yes, sir," Billy answered.
 
     "After we eat, we'll see if we can find Tom. Go, ask your Maw if she needs some help with breakfast, and make sure your brothers and sisters are up."
 
     "Yes, sir," Billy said. "I talked to Tom yesterday, but he didn't say anything about going anywhere. I did see him talking with a family headed to Kansas up on the road about a week ago.
 
    The son said they were moving because of the free land, and they had friends that were moving there from down around Memphis. They were from Ohio. He also said the Government wanted to make Kansas a free state. Tom told me a while back that no one had a right to own another human.
 
     "Well, I wish you had told me that before now," his Paw said.
 
     "I thought he was happy with us. He was always laughing and playing with me. He only said that about slave ownership because we were messing around, and I told him we were gonna sell him and Nell to the Haskell's who lived down by the river. You know that poor family. I know he knew I was kidding. I guess he wasn't.
 
     "We'll go have a look-see after breakfast, and maybe we can find out something. Go, help your Maw, and make sure all the family is up. We're going to need some help tracking that boy," his Paw said.
 
     Billy's Maw came in dressed and ready to fix breakfast. "Where's Nell? She asked Billy."
 
     "We don't know. Both of ‘em are missing," Billy replied to his mother.
 
     "Did you go down to their house and check? They may be just still asleep," she said.
 
     "I don't think so, but Pa told me to gather the eggs and build a fire, so I'll run down there and check after I do that," Billy replied, walking out the door to the woodpile.
 
     He had already walked down to the cabin where Tom and Nell lived. He hadn't gone in before, but he would knock loudly and go inside this time, although he knew they weren't there.
 
     The cabin was close to the main house, so he didn't have far to go. There was no fire going. The chickens were in the coop, but a dominicker hen was missing. He walked up to the door and yelled out for Tom, but there was no answer. He stepped up on the stoop and looked in the window, and pushed on the door. It swung open, and Billy stepped inside, looking around. They were gone and had taken many of the articles needed for the road. Billy looked at the pasture where the horses usually grazed, but he didn't see any. He walked over to the barn, and his horse Flip was gone, and so was the mare.
 
     He walked back to the house and saw his Paw smoking on the porch, and looking down the road. Billy guessed he was trying to calculate the distance they could have traveled while assuming their destination. Billy thought it wouldn't be hard to find them. They both cost about $1300.00 plus the two horses and saddles, food, and grain.
 
     Billy's Paw bought the slaves to make it easier for the family. It was a job taking care of the farm and the family with so many mouths to feed. His father was sick with some undiagnosed illness.
 
     Billy knew that it would be a blow to the family economically if they could not find Tom and his wife. He also learned about the newspaper articles that talked about "Bleeding Kansas."
 
     There was a great debate over whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state. The Border Ruffians supported a slave state while the free-stators or abolitionists would fight to maintain a slave-free state.
 
     The family searched that morning after breakfast, fanning out looking for tracks. There were new hoof prints on the thinly traveled dirt road, but it was easy to see their direction.
 
     From their tracks, his father could tell they were moving quickly.

     "Billy, See how deeply their tracks are embedded? His father said. You can also tell they left in a gallop. Look at the distance between the front and back hoofs and the lip where the horse lifted their feet. Flip is a more massive horse. Notice how his imprints are deeper than the mare's prints. They're headed west. And, I would guess toward the Indian Nations or maybe, Kansas."
 
     "Yeah, I had an uneasy feeling when I talked to that family heading to Kansas last week. I bet that's where they've gone. Tom said they were Free Stators, but I didn't know or care what he meant, but I do now."
 
     "Son, I can't go and leave the family here by themselves with all the talk about succession. I don't know how Tennessee will go, but you're the oldest, and I want you to track them down. Then go to the largest town and contact the Sheriff.
 
     He'll go with you to take custody of the run-a-ways. You take the Colt pistol. You don't want to injure Tom, but we got to let him know we mean business. Nell will do what Tom says, but you can't trust 'em.
 
     They went through a lot of trouble planning, but we can't take a hit like this. I'm still paying for them. He'll come back peaceful when he sees we mean business. You'll have to tie their hands at night, or they'll try to slip away. Can you do that?"
 
     "Yes, sir," Billy said, proud his father had confidence in him.
 
     His father looked at Billy with concern," I think I read that Lawrence, Kansas is a new town in that new state. I think they will head there, and that's where you'll find the Sheriff. According to the Banner newspaper, the Sheriff's name is Jones, and he's pro-slavery, so it shouldn't be a problem. The only problem you might have is locating them when you get there.
 
     They'll try to hire out with some folks doing what they did for us. Just be careful asking around. Some folks are abolitionists and won't tell you, even though what Tom and Nell did is wrong. The Sheriff can give you directions. I'm sure he's had a lot of run-a-ways come through."
 
     "You can count on me. I'm not a kid any longer. I'm seventeen going on eighteen. You can trust me. I'll get the job done," Billy replied.
 
     "I know, son. You've got a good head on your shoulders. I told your Maw, and she agrees. I would like to go with you, but I can't leave the family here unprotected, and I've not felt well myself lately. So you will need to start in the morning. We'll pack you up tonight.  
 
Chapter 2
 
     Billy's dad and mom packed the mule while Billy saddled his father's horse in the barn and led him to the front of their house.
 
     Buddy was 12 years old and was the next oldest son. His brothers and sisters were standing like stair steps on the old rough wooden porch. Susie, Margaret, Mary, Patty, Philomena, and the baby Nellie was in her mother's arms. At the same time, Archie, Thomas, and Buddy rounded out the family, sitting on the steps wishing they could go with Billy. They were nine, ten, and twelve, respectively.
 
     John Ward came out of the house. He was a man of few words but took good care of his family and always did what needed to be done and expected the same from each family member. He handed Billy the Navy Colt .36 revolver and several boxes of caps, plus a handful of the lead balls Billy had helped his father make.
 
     "Son, remember what I taught you about handling firearms. Never point the gun at anyone unless you intend to use it, and remember to keep it out of the rain and snow. Here is the money for your trip. Your Maw has packed some food for you, and it should hold you a couple of days. You can stop at farms along the way and ask to buy a meal. Most folks will sell you a meal, so no need to go hungry.
 
     Always camp off the road and shelter in wooded areas for protection and firewood, be careful of strangers until you find out their intentions. Keep your gun handy, but don't wave it around.
 
     I expect your trip will take about two weeks or less if all goes well, but it may take longer.
 
     Billy stuck the pistol in his belt and mounted his horse. His Maw said, "Mind your father's words and be careful, son." With that, Billy headed west, and excitement bubbled up as he thought of the confidence his Paw and Maw had placed in him.
 
     There was a well-traveled road that went west toward Memphis. He had corn for the animals but would try to find grassy camping spots that had forage. He would hobble the horse and mule while cooking and sleeping off the road, always finding protection in wooded areas.
 
     It was uneventful until the second day, just the east side of Jackson. He saw smoke from a freighter's fire and several wagons pulled off the road in a well-used camping spot.
 
     "Hello," Billy shouted from the back of his horse. Because he wanted to make his presence known more than anything else.
 
     "Hello," the reply came back. "Where you headed, son?"
 
     "I'm headed over to Lawrence, Kansas," Billy replied.
 
     "You got a way to go, young man. You traveling alone?" Asked the older white-bearded man.
 
     "Yes, sir," Billy said.
 
     Get down and warm yourself by the fire. Whatcha going to Lawrence, Kansas for?" the old man asked.
    
     Paw sent me to bring back a couple of run-a-ways. You didn't perchance see 'em, did Ya?" Billy asked.
 
     "Well, yes, I did. It was two Negros. A man and a woman headed west at a pretty good pace," He replied, "I guessed someone was after 'em."
 
     "That'd be me," Billy replied. The two old drivers looked at each other.
 
     "You got something to eat?" The second old driver asked.
 
     "Yeah, Billy replied. Maw packed me some vittles for the road. I've got some put up green beans and cornbread if you're hungry,"
 
     "I got a feeling you're gonna need those vittles before too long young man. Thanks, but we just got through eating. You got a cup? Bring your food and get a cup of coffee. It's hot. It'll warm you up." The old man said.
 
     "You're traveling mighty light going to Lawrence," the other old driver said. He looked younger than the first old man.
 
     "I guess you heard about all the trouble in Lawrence," he said to Billy.
 
     "Tom and his wife just ran off last night. We live out of Nashville away and don't get too much news quickly. We are swamped on the farm because we have a big family; I have eight brothers and sisters.
 
     My dad works mighty hard to keep us all fed. He wanted to come with me, but he was afraid of the talk about war and all. He said he couldn't leave the family alone with all that hate going around.
 
     He's not been feeling well lately either. We're located on a beautiful little creek with pasture on both sides and a spring of clear water that comes out of the rock bluff behind the house," Billy said.
 
     "Well, I heard that Kansas is about to vote on free or slave. Talk is they're gonna be a free state. That's why your slaves headed that way. You need to be careful. John Brown is over there too. It might get a little rough."
 
     "I was hoping to catch up with Tom and his wife on the road and convince 'em to come back with me. After all, they stole two of my Paw's horses plus the money we paid for them. I thought they were happy with us," Billy replied.
 
     "These are strange times. The North doesn't understand the Southerners, and we don't understand them. War is just down the road, young man, and you're headed right into a hornets' nest if you keep going to Lawrence, Kansas," the driver said.
 
     The older driver turned to his friend and said, "Stop with all that talk. You're scaring the boy, and he's got a job to do for his family. I think he can do it.
 
     You'll catch up with those run-a-ways tomorrow or the next day, and you'll be back home in a week. So rest easy tonight and get up at first light. I'll wake you up," The old Driver said," We need to turn in too so we can get on down to Texas before all hell breaks loose!"
 
     "Thank you, sir, but I'm not scared. You are right, though. I do need to get an early start," Billy replied, looking at one and then the other.
 
     He got his blanket and saddle for a pillow, hobbled the horse and mule, and fell asleep almost immediately. He felt safe with the old Drivers, and the conversation reinforced his need to travel quickly and find Tom and Nell.
 
     Billy was up before the sun arrived and began to pack his gear. The animals were glad for the forge and rest.
     He hoped to find more good forage after tomorrow's quest to find Tom and Nell.
 
     He said goodbye to the drivers and thanked them for the information, coffee, and the warmth of their fire. They tried to get Billy to eat breakfast, but he pulled out some jerky waving goodbye, riding out searching for the two runaways. He knew the longer he waited, the more opportunity of escape they would have.
 
     "I hope that boy finds those two runaways, but it don't sound right to me. They're not gonna stand going back with that kid," the older driver said.
 
     "He's got a 51 Colt in his belt, and it was loaded. I saw the hammer setting down between the chambers. It was ready to fire."
 
     "Didn't you hear what the boy said? His Paw is sick, and he bought those blacks to help out around the farm. He said his Paw gave thirteen hundred dollars for both of 'em, a man and his wife. They ain't gonna go back easy. I'll tell you that," the second driver said.
 
     "Well, it was a bad bargain all around. There is so much trouble going on. It's gonna rip the country apart. I guess the boy's paw sick, and all is the reason he purchased those negros. But that's a lot of money to piss away, not knowing if Lincoln will free the slaves when he takes office.
 
     But it don't matter because there's a bunch of states gonna succeed already. They're forming the Confederate States of America. Texas is one of 'em," the older driver said.

     "Yeah, I think war's coming, and they ain't nothing anybody can do about it. I guess I'm too old, but our freight business might get a boom out of this, come to think about it.
 
     "Well, ain't much to do about that now. We better get on down to Texas before some of those vigilantes on either side decide to take our lively hood away," the second old driver said, slapping the rains down hard against the backs of the mules.
     He lurched out in front, and the 2nd old driver followed. They were a long way from Texas. 
   
Chapter 3 
 
Billy moved on down the dirt-covered well-traveled highway toward Memphis. He didn't see anyone, and the sound of his horses’ hoofs drummed out the certainty that he was getting closer to Jackson.
 
He rode on into the small settlement of Jackson and noticed a cluster of folks milling around talking to a Negro man. The Negro was looking anxiously in his direction.

Billy stopped his horse and dismounted. He was wondering if Nell was inside. They were in front of a grocery store, and the owner of the store stood questioning Tom.

"Mr. Billy tells these folks we ain't thieves. Nell was just looking at what they had to offer. That's all." Billy could see the alarm on Tom's face.
 
"What did they take?" Billy asked.

"Well, they didn't take nothing cause I was watching 'em to close," the owner said.

"Where is Nell?" Billy asked.

"They got her inside. Then, they separated us so we would make a mistake," Tom said.
 
"They belong to my family. I'll pay for what they took and take 'em back home," Billy said.
 
"Where you from? I don't recollect seeing you around here before," The owner said, still wondering about the status of the Negros.
 
"We're from just this side of Nashville," Billy said.
Whatcha, yall doing way over here?" The grocery owner asked.
 
"We just got separated, that's all. We need to get moving. Bring Nell out here. If they got something, I'd pay for it. No harm done? Billy said, looking at the store owner and glancing around at the crowd, beginning to gather, feeling a little uneasy.
 
"No, there's no harm done. I just thought they's run-a-ways. That's all," the owner said.
 
Billy hopped up on the porch and went inside to get Nell.

     "Nell, you wait outside with Tom. I'll be out in a minute," Billy could see Nell had been crying.
 
     Billy turned to the woman behind the counter and ordered some candy and a couple of cans of peaches, and three bottles of pop.
 
     The lady put them in a sack and handed it to Billy. "Thank you," the lady said.
 
     Billy paid and walked out on the porch. He told Tom and Nell to ride in front of him and head on back home.
 
    They all three turned east on the road, and in a little bit, they passed the teamsters headed for Texas. They didn't stop; they just raised a hand, and Billy could tell they were pleased.
 
     When they passed the camping spot where Billy had camped with the freighters, he turned in, and he brought out the candy and the pop, and they were all smiles.
 
     They rested the horses and turned them out to graze. Billy had them gather around while they drank the pop and ate the peaches and candy.
 
     "Guys, I was surprised when you left. I thought you were happy with us. I know Pa treated you fairly.
 
     I also understand why you ran, and I guess if I had been in your place, I would have done the same thing, maybe.
 
     But you stole two of Pa's horses, and there is the price he paid for you guys. You know he's not feeling well lately. That's the reason he bought you guys to help out on the place.
 
     "We're sorry we stole your pa's property, and now that we look back on it, I know we did the wrong thing. Is your Pa mad at us for running?
 
     "Naw, he ain't mad. I guess you could say hurt would be the best way to put it. But you’re gonna have to give him your word you won't run again?"
 
     "We ain't gonna run no more. No, sir! Your pa and Maw been good to us, and I guess you know Nell is with child, don't ya?" Tom paused and looked at Nell and back at Billy.
 
     "I guess we got all excited about the little one. I hopes it's a boy anyway. We wouldn't run but for the baby and all. We wanted him to grow up free. You can understand that, can't you? We just wanted the best for him in this old world."
 
     Paw’s sick and can't do what he used to do. He gets tired quickly and has to rest. That's the reason he bought you guys. He couldn't think of anything else to do," Billy said.
 
     Nell went about straightening up the Campsite and preparing for an early supper and didn't say anything at all. Finally, Billy looked over at Nell and said, "Nell, you're gonna have to swear to paw too. He knows how much influence a woman has on her man. Can you do that?"
 
     "I'll do's whatever Tom tells me to do. He's my husband, and he takes care of the baby and me," Nell replied, looking over at Tom and Billy. Then she turned back to what she was doing. Which was almost piddling around, and it seemed strange to Tom, but he remained calm. He knew she didn't like going back.

     The twilight of the winter evening came early in West Tennessee. The cold wind crowded around the weary travelers, and they gathered loose wood from the wooded area around the Campsite and stored up enough to keep the fire going. 
 
     "Guys, I'm going to have to tie your hands tonight so you can't get away. Paw told me to do that," Billy said.
    
"Aw, Billy, you don't have to do that. We done told you we ain't gonna run. What if we have to get up to pee or the other?" Tom asked.

     "I told my Paw I would, and I have to tie your hands," Billy said.
 
     "We said we wouldn't. I don't like being out here on the highway with my hands tied! What if someone comes and means us harm? This ain't right. I know we shouldn't of run off like that, but this just ain't right." Tom said, looking over at Nell and then back to Billy.
 
     "You turn around, Tom. I'll tie your hands first."

     "You ain't gonna tie 'em behind our backs, are you. We ain't animals," Tom said as he turned sideways, looking at Billy.
    When he first felt Billy touch his arm, he whirled around with his fist doubled up and caught Billy upside his head knocking him into the dirt and was on him instantly. Nell grabbed a fire log and hit Billy square in the face, and blood squirted out of his nose. Tom took the fire log and conked him on the head, and Billy was out like a light.
 
     "Hit him again. He ain't dead. He's still breathing," Nell said.
 
     "No, we don't want to kill him. We'll take his pistol, food, and money. He'll have no option but to go back home. His dad is in lousy shape, and He'll need Billy to help him. So he'll go back home.
 
     Nell, you pack the mule and help saddle the horses.

     They quickly tied Billy's hands behind his back and saddled the two horses. Tom drug Billy over to the fire and built it up, covering him with a blanket.

     "What you doing, Tom. He's probably gonna die from that knock on the head you gave him anyway," Nell said.
     "Now you listen to me, woman. He ain't gonna die. He'll have a headache, but that's all. He be alright. If we kill him, they'll have a lynch mob from Jackson follow us all the way to Kansas, and they will lynch us, no doubt about it. Now finish packing up Billy's supplies. This has turned out better than we thought," Tom said.
 
     "What are we gonna do about his horse?" Nell asked.
 
     Nothing, ain't you got a lick of sense, woman. He won't have any supplies. I got his money, so he'll have to turn back home. You take his horse, and he can't get back home. He'll have to go to Jackson, and you know what that means. No, his father is sick and needs him. So he'll go back home. If we can get to Kansas, we'll be in a free state, and we'll all be free! We can bring our son up as a free man! Can you feel it, Nell? It's freedom just down the road.
 
     "I can't feel nothing. Ask me again when we get to Lawrence, Kansas," Nell replied, not as optimistic as Tom.
 
     They moved out in the dark, wanting to get past Jackson before daylight. Tom knew that two Negros on the road with a pack mule and he with Billy's pistol tucked in his belt would be a dead giveaway. Tom now had the means to resist, and he would before selling his pregnant wife back into bondage. Tom could taste the freedom in the cold December air. Maybe I'll get to Lawrence before Christmas, he thought, and celebrate Christmas as a free family.
 
     They passed Jackson in the dead of night and trotted on down the road, always looking for a place to turn off if necessary.
 
Chapter 4

     Billy woke up, lying next to the fire, and immediately felt the pain in the back of his head. He tried to get up with his hands tied behind him and staggered, almost falling into the smoldering fire. 
    
     Well, you got yourself in a mess this time, he thought. He looked around and saw his horse grazing peacefully in the winter grass. I wonder why they left me my horse. At least I can get back home, he thoughtAnd then it dawned on him. They want me to go back home. He sat down on a log and tried to loosen the rope that bound his hands. There was a small branch that ran through the Campsite. He walked over to the water and sat down, leaning back, dipping his hands in the water, and pulling against the rope, trying to stretch his bonds.
 
     After working for a while and rubbing the grass fibers against his wrists, he still could not loosen the rope. Finally, it was getting toward the afternoon, and he heard the rattle of a wagon coming down the highway.
 
     Billy jumped up and rushed toward the road. He hollered out for help, and the Farmer who was driving turned back to look. His twelve-year-old son sat on the seat next to him.
 
     "Can you give me some help?" Billy cried out.
 
     "Whoa," the Farmer yelled out, pulling back on the reins stopping the wagon.

     "What you got behind your back young fellow?" The Farmer said cautiously.
 
     "Just my hands. You have a knife to cut these ropes away?" Billy said, turning around, showing his tied hands.
 
     "Yeah, I think I can help you," the Farmer said, climbing down off the wagon.
     "What you doing out here in the middle of nowhere with your hands tied behind your back?" The man asked.
 
     Paw sent me after some run-a-ways. A negro man and his wife. I got 'em alright, but he jumped me, and his wife hit me in the head with a stick of firewood," Billy replied.
 
     "Well, that's a fine how-do-you-do." The Farmer replied, "I guess they took your horse too?"
 
     "No, sir, they left my horse but took my food, my money, my pack mule, and my daddy's pistol," Billy said, rubbing his wrists and looking back toward his Campsite.
 
     "Well, there's not much to do about that today. So you come on and go with us. We'll feed you and see what we can do to help you find your folk's property," the Farmer said,

"We'll stop in Jackson, and you can tell the Sheriff your story."
 
     Billy tied his horse on the back of the wagon and climbed aboard. He was still a little unsteady on his feet with quite a lump on his head.
 
     "I don't know how to repay you. Tom and Nell took my money."
 
     "Don't worry about that right now," The Farmer said.
 
     They traveled on down the road, and the disgust Billy felt about himself letting Tom and Nell get the best of him was overpowering.
 
     "I can't believe I let them get me like that. I just never figured Tom and Nell would hurt me. They knocked me out cold. When I found them in Jackson at the store, I bought them a soda pop and some candy just to let them know I wasn't angry with them," Billy said.
 
     "Well, nothing to be done now. We all make mistakes," the Farmer said.

     "That knot on your head is about the size of a goose egg," the Farmer's son remarked with a grin.
 
     "Yeah, that's a big knot. It's a wonder they hadn't killed you. They must have planned a lot to make that big step and especially put a knot on your head that big," the Farmer said, "It's a good idea to talk with the Sheriff. He might be able to catch them before they get to Memphis, especially if they stole your gun."
 
     The road led directly through Jackson. The Sheriff's office was small in the middle of the tiny hamlet. The Farmer tied his wagon up in front. Billy stepped down, still feeling a little unsteady. The Farmer opened the door to the office, and they all went inside.

     "Sheriff Taylor, this is Billy Ward. I found him out on the road with his hands tied behind him, hollering for help. He was after some run-a-ways, and I convinced him to see you. They put a pretty good knot on his head after he caught 'em," the Farmer said.
 
     "Weren't you the kid who got the two Negros at the store yesterday?" The Sheriff asked.
 
     Billy looked down and back up before he answered, "Yes, sir, that would be me. I didn't think I needed any help yesterday. I never thought they would attack me. I mean, they were very friendly, and we had a good relationship before they knocked me in the head."

     "With all this talk about freeing the slaves, it's a wonder they hadn't killed you. I see that lump on your head. Did they do that?" The Sheriff asked.
 
     “Yes Sir, and they took my Paw’s pistol, money, food, pack mule, and two horses," Billy replied.
 
     "You're lucky you still have your life. At this stage, they are desperate to get to Kansas, I suspect. Can you ride?" the Sheriff asked.
 
     "Yes, I think," Billy replied.

     "Let's see if we can catch them before they get too far away?" Then, the Sheriff said, "maybe we can get your property and money back. How does that sound?" That's great, Billy replied, and they walked out the office door.
 
     "Well," the Farmer said, "me and the boy are going on home. I don't think you need us. But, if it don't work out and you need some food, stop by, and we'll feed you."
 
     "Thank you, sir. You've been very kind," Billy said, and he and the Sheriff rode off toward Memphis following the run-a-ways, hoping to catch up before they got too far away.
 
     Tom and Nell had an eight-hour head start. Billy rolled around in his mind what he would do if they didn't catch up soon. He knew the Sheriff had responsibilities there, and he would quickly head back.
    
     "They'll probably keep off the main road. It wouldn't take much for people to conclude they were runaways, especially around these parts.
 
     They visited several campsites along the road but found nothing.

     "I'm surprised your father would send you out alone after those two. How long had they been working with your family?" The Sheriff asked.
    
     "Not long. I guess about three months or thereabouts. My Paw's been sick and seems to be getting worse as time goes by. I've got eight brothers and sisters, so it's eleven of us counting Maw and Paw. He thought we might need some help, and maybe he could get better if he didn't have to work so hard. The Dr. didn't seem to know what was ailing him. If I could find these two, I could get back home to help out. I know they're worried about me on the road all alone. But, we didn't have any choice," Billy replied.
 
     "Son, there is always a choice. Some choices are better than others, is all," the Sheriff said.
 
     "We got family that lives close to us, but they got their kids to raise. If push comes to shove, they will all pitch in. But, Paw doesn't like to accept any charity if he can get by without it. He feels like there'll be time enough for that later when he gets old. Then hopefully, we kids can take care of him and Maw," Billy said.
 
     "There's a cut off down the road where it goes in a big semi-circle. Only the locals know about the shortcut. I'm betting your slaves don't know either. We may be able to get in front of 'em and catch 'em at the springs if we don't dally," the Sheriff said as they galloped up a lane off the main drag.
 
     "They stopped at a log farmhouse just off the main road. The Sheriff knew the Farmer and asked if they had seen two Negros come down the shortcut. Billy looked for tracks on the cut-off in the soft dirt as the Sheriff talked to the Farmer, but he did not see either horse's prints.
 
     "Let's hurry along. Fred said he didn't see them pass; we might be in luck," the Sheriff said.
 
     "None of the tracks on this road looked familiar. But, I know the tracks of our horses and the mule," Billy said as they galloped down the road heading for the springs.
 
     It was getting toward the evening when they intersected the main road again. The Sheriff slowed down to a walk, and they scanned the horizon for smoke from a campfire. Finally, they saw the tale-tale plume of smoke they were searching in the distance off the main road.

     It was not in the general camping area of the springs but hidden off to the side back into the woods. Billy dismounted and examined the tracks, and sure enough, he recognized the tracks as his father's horses.
 
     "Billy, you stay back. They'll recognize you. I'm going to ease up and see if I can't surprise them. You said he took your gun. What kind is it?" Sheriff Taylor asked.
 
     "It's my Paw's gun. It's an 1851 Colt Navy, six-shot, .36 caliber," Billy replied.
 
     "Well, you hang back. Let me see if I can't sneak up on 'em. You watch the horses and stay quiet," the Sheriff said and then walked gingerly to the run-a-ways campsite.
 
     Billy stood quietly, holding the horses, keeping them quiet while peering off into the early evening shade of the coming night. Then, after a brief time, he heard the Sheriff shout out, "drop the gun; I said, DROP THE GUN!" Two shots rang out almost as one.

     Billy pulled the horses toward the Campsite at a run. When he got there, he saw Sheriff Taylor kneeling over Nell.

     "Why didn't you drop the gun, girl?" Sheriff Taylor said as Billy ran up, throwing the reins over a limb quickly and kneeling next to Nell.
 
     She lay limp in the Sheriff's arms, eyes open but no movement or sign of life, and he turned to Billy and said, "She got the drop on me and wouldn't put the gun down. I didn't have a choice."
 
     Billy shook his head, "I never thought it would come to this," his voice breaking.
 
     The Sheriff laid her down on the cold, darkening December ground and went to look for Tom.
 
     They both heard the pounding of hoofs as Tom made his escape.
 
     "Take your gun, and let's see if we can catch him before he gets away in the dark," the Sheriff said, holstering his pistol. Billy stuck his gun in his belt, and they both mounted quickly and went after Tom.
 
     They listened for the sound of hoofs and went in that direction. Billy tried to swallow but had a dry feeling in his mouth. He knew this was not what he or his Paw expected. He thought, how am I going to explain this to Paw?
 
     The darkness closed in, and they went back, unable to follow Tom in the blackness of the night, and found the mule and his Paw's other horse, the one Nell was riding. The fire lighted up the camping area, and his supplies were scattered around on the ground.
 
     "Well, there's nothing we can do in the dark. So we'll have to wait until daylight, but I suspect he'll ride all night to get away from us. So we'll have to stay the night here, and we'll bury your girl in Jackson tomorrow," Sheriff Taylor said.
 
     "You don't reckon he'll come back tonight? He told me she was pregnant. I can't imagine him just riding off like that," Billy said.
 
     "I don't know. I guess we'll have to split shifts and watch. I'll take the first shift, but we need to eat something first," Sheriff Taylor said.

     "Are we just gonna leave her like that?" Billy asked.

     Get her blanket. We'll cover her up," the Sheriff said.

     "What you got to eat?" the Sheriff asked, looking at the supplies scattered around.

     "I had some put up green beans and some cornbread, but I don't know now," Billy replied, looking through the supplies. Next, Billy went over to the mule and looked through the remainder in the pack.
 
     "I found the money Paw allotted me, and it looks like they didn't eat much," Billy said.
     The Sheriff was busy building up the fire. Nell and Tom had already drug over plenty of wood to keep the fire going during the night.
 
     "I don't know what I'll say to Paw about Nell," Billy said, looking over at Nel's body under the blanket.
 
     "It's unfortunate, Billy, but although you didn't see what happened, you heard the shots fired a split second apart. I didn't have a choice. If she'd put down the gun, she would still be alive. I know your family had an investment in her and Tom too. I wouldn't have shot her, but I could tell by her eyes. They were hard and cold, filled with hate. She intended to kill me. If she'd been a good shot or had a little practice with the gun, I'd be dead." Sheriff Taylor said, looking directly into Billy's eyes.
     "I know, Sheriff. I know you didn't take any enjoyment in shooting her. It was almost like you both shot at the same time," Billy said looking, into the fire as it came alive and began to blaze high into the cold, black December air.
 
     We'll take her into Jackson tomorrow. Nothing more we can do tonight. We need some rest. I'll have to go back tomorrow, or they will come looking for me. I suspect you'll need to go back home, too. You can't follow that darkie to Kansas. He'll lay for you and kill you the first chance he gets. I can't imagine the grief he's going through. You'll need someone with you to hunt him. It ain't worth your life, son; your Paw and family need you, Billy," the Sheriff said.
 
     Billy poked at the fire with the stick he was holding, watching the flames lick at the night, feeling the heat from the fire and the gnawing pain of a job not finished. He had given his word to his Paw .

     "I was so close to bringing them back. I promised my Paw I could do the job. If I go back now, I'll never be able to look Paw in the eyes again. No, I've got to track him and bring him back or die trying. We Ward's don't give up when we're in the right," Billy said to the Sheriff, still poking the fire.
 
     The Sheriff looked at Billy for a long moment but didn't speak right away or try to dissuade him. "Well, we'd better go to sleep; we've got a long day tomorrow," the Sheriff said. Do you want me to take the other horse back with me? It'll be hard to manage all those animals if you do decide to go on? It'll be waiting for you when you come back.

     "Thanks, Sheriff. That'll make it a lot easier for me," Billy said.  

Contact Tom
 (Unless you type the author's name
in the
subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.
)

Tom's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher