I cannot say that I awoke early the next morning, for I had stayed awake and arose with the first light, which we would need to see our way. The Widow was up already, fixing a wonderful breakfast for us which I appreciated, for we did not know what kind of food we would have when our limited store ran out, of if we would have anything at all to eat. I put these thoughts aside, thinking that I had always managed to find something, but then again, I was alone in those circumstances and not with a child and a woman. I would have to trust in God in all things, and reminded myself of the fall of manna in the desert. God would provide.
We ate breakfast quickly, and prepared to leave. The Widow embraced Laurel and they both cried, both being good women of tender hearts. “I will be praying for all of you,” said the Widow. “You take care of your family.”
“I appreciate the prayers, m’am, and I will do the best I can to keep them safe.”
I shouldered my pack and Laurel put the handle of her basket over one arm and picked up Caleb. The Widow came over and kissed him. “Such an angel of a child,” she said, and wiped away a tear.
We set out, and looking back, I saw the Widow waving to us until we topped a hill and could no longer see us.
It was a pleasant autumn day, and if I tried hard enough, I could imagine we were going for a stroll in the woods, so did the beauty of the trees and flowers sway my mind. “Where are we going?” Laurel asked.
“I cannot say specifically,” I told her, “but I think it best if we go farther south, away from Eleanor. I have thought on it, and we are too close for our own safety. I did not tell Laurel at the time, but I was forming a plan in my mind to travel into the mountains of Tennessee where we might find a safe haven. I even wondered if there might be some relatives there who would take us in. I didn’t remember my parents talking about such folk, but they might be there.
We walked until the sun told us it was noon, and so we stopped beside a stream and ate some of the chicken we did not finish the night before, along with some cold potatoes and beans. That might not sound like a good meal to anyone else, but we ate it with relish, I realizing that there was much worse food in the Laurel because of her sweet disposition. I rarely heard her complain, and counted her nature a blessing from heaven.
Our meal eaten, we set out again and came upon a river that I took to be the North Fork of the Shenandoah. We must have been bearing slightly east of south to discover it, and I amended our course accordingly. It was then that I thought if we could find a river flowing south, we could fashion a raft or some sort of conveyance to take us to where we wanted to go with less effort and greater safety. I did not know of any such rivers in this part of the country, and so I put such thoughts aside.
We stopped as evening was coming on, still beside the river, and I judged it safe to build a fire, which I did. Laurel fixed some pork with a marvelous gravy and we had that with some ears of corn which she wrapped and buried in the coals. She also discovered biscuits which the Widow had put in her basket, and altogether, we had a fine meal.
After we ate, Caleb went to sleep on a quilt that Laurel had laid out for him, and she and I sat close to each other and watched the embers of the fire. I have found that such an activity is conducive to thought and so we began talking.
“Laurel,” I began, “do you believe that my troubles here of late are the result of some sin I have done, even unawares?”
She sat quietly for a while. I knew her to have a thoughtful, serious turn of mind at some moments, although she could be playful and jovial at other times.
“I do not think that the bad that happens to us is all our fault,” she began. “Much of it is caused by others and by the presence of evil in the world. We are sometimes the victims of that.” She looked at me. “You are the finest, kindest, best man I know. I do not see any kind of sin in you that would cause you troubles.”
I leaned over and kissed her. “Thank you. You are the best wife I could wish for.”
We lay down on our own quilt, and, tired from our day’s exertions, soon fell asleep.
We were awakened about sunrise the next morning by heavy rain, although we could not see the sun for it. I had some cloth that resisted water in my pack, and we gathered up Caleb and sat under the cloth with him, watching the deluge.
“We cannot easily move with this much rain,” I said. “We will have to find some place to shelter until it lessens. I will go search for such a place.”
“Go, and return soon,” Laurel told me. “We will wait for you here.”
I gave her my revolver. “This is for anyone or anything that might give you trouble, although I pray you will not have to use it.” She took it, and I knew from what happened before that she knew how to employ it.
I started away from the river, thinking there might be a cave or an abandoned mine we could use. I had searched for about half an hour and had not gone too far when I heard the revolver. Knowing that that meant that Laurel was in some sort of trouble, I ran back through the pouring rain to where I had left her, only to find there was no sign of Laurel or Caleb. Someone must have taken them. I knew it was a person because there was no blood where they had been such as an attack by an animal might leave.
I looked all around. Which way had they gone? I could not tell. Then I quieted myself and realized that Laurel and her captor would have left a trail of broken twigs and branches. All I had to do was find that and follow it. I carefully looked in the area and found such a trail leading to the river. I prayed that whoever took them did not have a boat and even now was putting Laurel and Caleb in it and setting out on the river. I would have a hard time keeping up with them if that were so, although it was possible that I would be able to match them.
I ran along the trail I had left, not caring that branches lashed my face. I hardly noticed, only thinking of finding my family and overcoming whoever it was who had taken them. I came to the river and saw that it was just as I feared. Laurel, Caleb and some man were in a small boat moving quickly with the current. I ran along the bank after them, hoping that her captor would not hear me for the noise of the current. I also hoped that if I did catch up with them, Laurel would give no sign I was there since to do so would betray my presence to her captor.
Try as I might, I could not keep up with them. I knew if I didn’t, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to find Laurel. In desperation, I jumped in the river. I am not a good swimmer, but I thought I could stay afloat long enough to find a log or something I might hold on to, and so keep up with them.
I swam for a while, but felt myself tiring. I started to go under, heaving myself above the water only with the greatest of efforts. Just as I felt myself exhausted and unable to keep my head up any longer, a large dead tree chose that moment to topple over and fall in the water. With a super human effort, I made my way over and hung onto it like it was the true salvation that it was. After a few moments, I managed to kick to propel myself more rapidly. As I came around a bend, I saw Laurel, Caleb and her captor in the boat, and I appeared to be gaining on them. Laurel sat facing me, while the man faced her, so he could not witness my approach if Laurel did not betray my presence by any sign that her captor could interpret. I prayed that she might do this.
As I came nearer the boat, I saw the man was steering with his left hand, and holding his left shoulder with his right hand. I thought I saw blood welling from his hand, and surmised that Laurel had shot him in the shoulder. If the wound were severe enough, he could not go long without being incapacitated from loss of blood. I prayed that this might be so.
Just then, Laurel spied me, and, as I had hoped, gave no sign of this save a motion to put her hand over her heart, press it there, and then remove it. Such an action would be taken by her captor as a result of her distress at being captured, and therefore did not betray my presence. So, I was able to draw closer.
I was about twenty feet away when something caused the man to turn around. He reached for something in the bottom of the boat and brought up as rifle. As he was sighting in on me, I let go of the log and dove beneath the surface of the river. While I was there, I heard a shot, but the bullet entered the water well to my left. Then there was another shot, and unable to hold my breath any longer, I heaved myself out of the water, fortunately near my log, which I figured I could use as a shield.
I looked at the boat, so close to me, to find the man lying in the bottom of it and Laurel sitting facing him with my revolver in her two hands. Hers had been the second shot, and from the looks of it, she had either seriously wounded her captor or killed him. God forgive me for wishing for his death, but he had taken my family with him to do who knows what to them.
After I got the boat to shore, I had Laurel help me drag her attacker ashore. On my instructions, we gathered some stones about as big as a man’s head. Laurel had a tablecloth that she tore into strips. We used these to tie the rocks to the body, and then I dragged the man to the shore and pushed him into the river. With the stones weighing him down, I knew he wouldn’t bob to the surface and go downstream where someone might discover him and go looking for who had killed him. I didn’t know how long the strips would hold, but I figured it would be long enough for us to get away.
I had thought of a plan: we would take the boat and float as far north as we could, and then make our way westward to the next river flowing south. I did not know what that was, but I knew Laurel would, and she would tell me after I had told her what I intended to do. I knew we would be retracing our route, but we had had enough bad luck going south down the valley. What would happen after we got on the river going south I did not know, but perhaps we could make our way to the mountains of Tennessee or North Carolina. Laurel had told me that those peaks were bigger than any in Virginia, and I was hopeful they would provide a good hiding place until the war was over. Then we would return to the site of our burned cabin and build another, bigger and finer than the first one.
I had Laurel and Caleb go with me to fetch my pack, which I had left when I heard the first shot. I vowed not to leave them alone again unless I absolutely could not help it or when I knew they were totally safe. We found the pack where I had left it, and we took it back to the boat, climbed in, and started our journey down the river. I prayed that this would be a new episode for us, one of peace, tranquility, and freedom.