The old man heard a twig snap and turned, drawing his hunting knife as he moved, but he was too late. The shotgun pellets peppered his deerskin shirt and scattered the brush around him. He jumped back, tripped, and fell against a large oak.
The fall knocked the wind out of him and he slumped against the tree. Above him, a slight wind rustled the drying oak leaves, stirred the dust along the rocks, and ruffled the old man’s gray hair, before ducking over the ridge to his south.
A boy – no more than fourteen – stepped out from behind the bushes along the ridge where he’d been hiding. He was tall and thin, with hair the color of wet sand and the taut, stringy muscles of a farm boy raised to the plow. “Oh, God A’ mighty.” He rushed to the man’s side and knelt.
The man’s eyes flew open. “Lord God, cod, bod …” His head jerked to the left and his face screwed up like a sneeze. “… Damn! Lord God, boy. Why’d you go and do that for?”
“Honest, mister. I thought you was one of them Secesh bushwhackers I been following.” The boy stared into deep-set eyes, black and worn as pebbles, in a face marked by ridges and valleys. “Are you hurt?”
“Don’t rightly know. Took a little buckshot.” The man moved his arms and legs, still gripping the knife. “Everything seems to be workin’.”
The boy stepped back a little, as if wondering whether he could take the small, wiry man in a fight if he had to.
The old man grunted and relaxed against the tree. “If’n you’re talkin’ about them three rattlesnakes that rode by a while back, pack, lack …” The words built up steam until, with a shrug of his shoulder, they discharged and the man went on. “… back, it’s best you ain’t found ’em.”
The boy frowned. “I aim to track ’em down and kill ’em.”
“Wantin’ to die, are ye?”
“They killed my pap. Took everything we owned – even his gold watch. Only thing he had worth anything. Then they burned our cabin. Left him in there. I don’t know if he was dead or not.” The boy’s face crumpled with grief. “He give three sons to the War. Why’d they do him that away?”
The man sighed and shook his head. “Don’t make no sense, does it. Them this cussed war don’t take, the bushwhackers do.” In spite of the deerskin shirt, the old man shivered in the late October wind sweeping along the bluff that dropped toward the White River along the Missouri Arkansas border.
The boy noticed the shiver. He sniffed the air. “Going to rain. Best find you some shelter.” He looked toward the rocks.
“They’s a cave over yonder. Got my bed roll and grub in there, if’n you could give me a hand …” He started forward and groaned with pain.
“You’re bleeding. Oh, Lord, I hurt you, mister. Can you walk?” The boy reached down to help him up.
“Think so.” He leaned against the boy, pointing the way toward the cave.
Once inside, the boy helped him sit before taking off his own jacket and stuffing it between the man’s back and the rock. “Are you bleeding much?”
“Naw, just seep, deep, peep … Damn! Seeping a little.” His face sagged with pain as he leaned back against the jacket. He took a deep breath and pointed. “Open that blanket, will ya, boy? They’s a pipe and some t’baccy in there.”
The boy handed him the clay pipe and reached for the tobacco pouch.
“Not that one. The little one there.” He took the pouch and filled the pipe, spilling the tobacco as he tamped it into the bowl.
“What kind of tobacco is that?” The boy reached for a small red tin of matches.
“Hemp weed. It’ll help to dull the pain. Them’s Lucifer matches; best hold ’em away from you afore you strike ’em.” The match erupted in a shower of sparks. The old man took a couple of long draws from the pipe and the pain slowly drained from his face. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Davie, Sir. David Carson. Are you still cold? I could build a fire.”
I’m feelin’ some better out of the wind. Best make the fire a small one so’s if them fellers come back they don’t spot it.”
David nodded and went to find some wood. Once he had the fire going, he squatted down across from the man and studied his face. “What’s your name?”
“Folks call me Rhymie Jeeters. Ain’t my name, but …”
David smiled. “What’s your real name?”
The man let out a long puff of fragrant smoke. “Don’t rightly know, I been called that for so long.” He looked off into the distance. “My mam died birthing me. Pap left me off with some neighbors when I was a little tad and n-n-never come back.” He took another long draw from the pipe. “Seems like they might have called me Willie at first. It was their boys what started calling me Rhymie Jeeters. Reckon it was ’cause of me sputterin’ and jerkin’ so when I talked.”
David nodded. “My ma died of the fever a couple of years back. She was a good lady.” He looked away for a second, then changed the subject. “Did you always talk that way?” He blushed. “Didn’t mean to be nosy.”
Rhymie waved his hand as if brushing the boy’s discomfort away. “Right sorry ’bout your folks.” Taking another long draw from the pipe, he went on. “Talked like this long as I can remember. Reckon that’s why I finally run off. Just couldn’t abide the joshin’ no more. That and the beatings. Reckon that old man figured he could just pound, pound, p-p-p …” The shoulder jerked. “Pound it out of me.”
“How old were you when you run off?”
“Little younger than you. Stole a musket and some grub, walked all the way from Kentucky, I did. Took me near three years.”
“How long you been here?”
Rhymie tilted his head. “Don’t rightly know that either. Mr. Madison was president when I left Kentucky. Long time ago, I know that. Been huntin’ and trappin’ in these hills ever since.” He chuckled. “Reckon that old man taught me something useful anyways.”
“Ever run into any Injuns?”
“Oh, yeah. Got kidnapped by a Osage huntin’ party once.”
“What happened?” The boy leaned in for the story.
“Well, they hauled me t-t-to the camp and throwed me down on the ground. Lord, them fellers was tall as trees. Fearsome bunch. Scared me so bad, I commenced to sputterin’ and jerkin’ like I do. That spooked ’em. They jabbered and pointed at me for a while. Finally turned me loose, and we sort of stayed away from each other after that.” He laughed through tobacco stained teeth. “Guess that was the onliest time I can recall, that it come in handy.”
The boy clapped his hands and laughed. “Don’t it interfere with your huntin’ some, though? Your jerking, I mean.”
“Funny thing ’bout that. Something about put, put, put … puttin’ my mind to things real hard takes it away for a spell. Always wondered why.”
David shivered and laid a couple more small sticks on the fire.
“You cold, boy? Seems a mite warm t’ me. Take the blanket there.”
“Naw, I’m okay. You look a little tired. Might need it if you fall off to sleep.” He saw the beads of sweat on Rhymie’s face, the scarlet flush that had spread across his cheeks, and felt a small prick of panic.
“Don’t much feel like sleeping.” Rhymie grunted with pain and licked his lips. For the first time, David saw fear in the older man’s face. Outside, a wolf howled in the distance and another -farther off – answered it. “They’s some water in the deerskin bag over yonder,” Rhymie said. “Maybe you could give me a drink.”
David handed him the bag, but the old man’s hands trembled so much, he had to help him. Most of the water dribbled down the gray stubble on his chin. The two sat in silence in the small glow from the fire. Finally, Rhymie’s head sagged and he began a low sputtering snore.
Too uneasy to sleep, the boy rocked back and forth on his heels, watching Rhymie. The red stain on the deerskin shirt was growing. The iron scent of warm blood lay on the stale air. He rose and covered him with the blanket, then stretched out near by.
Near morning, a clap of thunder woke them. A light rain had begun to fall. Rhymie struggled to throw off the blanket, but couldn’t find the strength. “Best go if you’re going to follow them bushwhackers. Rain’ll wash any tracks away.” His sweat had left dark patches on the shirt. The red stain now covered the bottom half. He tried to lift his arms, but could only watch his fingers twitch.
“No sir. I shot you, I’ll stay with you ’til …” David lowered his head and swallowed.
Rhymie watched him for a minute, then turned away. “Much obliged. They’s some Indian meal and a little jerky in that pack. Help yourself.”
“You want some more water?”
“Don’t reckon I do.” He grimaced with pain. “I’d ask a favor afterwards, if’n you would.”
David stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll bury you –”
“No. No dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt …” He struggled to sit up. “Cain’t stand to be closed in. Just take me up in the rocks a little ways and lay me out when I die.”
“But the critters …”
Rhymie winced with pain again. His eyes were bright with fever now, and his voice sounded lower, further away. “I took enough of them in my time. Reckon it’s their turn now.”
Sorrow played across David’s face in the flickering firelight. “Are you scared?”
“Naw. Expect I’m too durn tired. One more favor?”
The boy nodded.
“Make sure my eyes is open.”
“Don’t rightly know if we go no place after we die. But if’n we do, I think I’d like to get there with my eyes open.” He moved his hand toward the surrounding cave, “You take all this afterwards. Reckon they’s enough here to get you to Forsyth.”
“Yes sir. Thank you.”
The boy sat with him through the long gray day. He watched him grow pale, then white, beneath the fever flush as he drifted in and out of consciousness, listened to his breath grow ragged and his words rambling and faint. The rain drummed, slowed, and drummed again.
By morning, the rain had quit. The quiet woke the boy and he realized Rhymie’s harsh, uneven breathing had stopped. He rubbed the grit from his eyes and crawled over to lay his head against the old man’s chest. When he heard nothing, he lay down beside him for a moment, eyes closed, until the warmth began to drain from the old man’s body.
Then, fearing it would get too stiff for him to carry, he got up. Looking into the still face, he smiled. “You remembered to keep your eyes opened, didn’t you, Rhymie.”
David picked up the old man’s knife and went outside to find a resting place for him. He found a shallow place among the rocks, sheltered from the wind, and filled it with fresh pine boughs. A small spring bubbled through the nearby rocks on its way to the creek below.
He returned to the cave, packed the blanket and food and put them beside the entrance. Finally, he picked up the old man and staggered up the hillside.
“Hope you’ll like it here, Rhymie.” The boy said a short prayer, then, as an afterthought, ran back to the cave for the pipe and tobacco. He tucked them inside the old man’s shirt, and said, “Thought you might want them when you get where you’re going.” He sat beside the old man in silence for a few moments.
At last, he returned to the cave and hoisted the pack and bedroll. Taking his shotgun, he walked out into the light rain that had begun to fall again. He paused for a moment, looking in the direction the bushwhackers had gone. He shook his head, then turned and headed toward Forsyth.