“Diamond Courage,” Part 26

 

Chapter 27

A Sticking Point

December, 1862

We came to the point where the river we were on ran into the Ohio. There was a small settlement on the banks, but we bypassed it, not wanting to meet anyone who might question us about who we were and where we were going.

We managed to supplement our food supply by catching some fish as we drifted along. We had to keep an eye on Caleb, because he was fascinated with the water. Laurel finally resorted to tying him around the waist with a rope and securing the other end around her waist. That way, if he should fall into the water, she could pull him out.

Later that day, we came across a small boat steaming upstream. They hailed us. “Hallooo! People on the raft! Where are ye bound?”

“We’re headed for the Mississippi, as far south as we can go.”

“Ah! Be careful! The armies there are preparing for a big battle!”

“Thank ye for that information!”

“‘Tis my duty, and I pray God will be with you!”

They drifted out of earshot at that point, leaving us to talk about our plans.

“We don’t want to tangle with any armies,” I said.

“Agreed,” Laurel answered. “I think the best plan is to go as far south as we can until we see first evidence of military activity. Then we make for shore and continue on foot, staying away from the river.”

“I hope we’ll be able to get a far distance down.” Andrew looked thoughtful.

“As do I,” I answered.

We floated calmly the rest of that day, and made preparations for having to leave our raft. It would be a shame to do that, for it was still holding together well and go many more miles, but that would not be something we could do. We had no choice.

When darkness fell, we put in to shore, as was our custom. We made a fire and Laurel fixed our meal. We were tired, and would have gone to sleep shortly after we ate, but we say a lantern held by someone in a boat who called out to us. “People on the shore! Who are you?”

Not knowing who was out there, I did not want to give away too much about us. “We are wayfarers like you.” I did not invite the person to come ashore.

“Are you the law or military?”

“No. We are a family on our way south.”

“May I come ashore?”

I looked at Laurel. She knew we were armed and there were three of us and one of the other traveler, so she nodded.

“Come on, then.”

The man came closer, and when he ran his canoe up next to the bank and tied it to a tree, we could see by the light of the lantern that he had a wild countenance, with long hair and filthy clothing. He came toward us.

“He looks like the wild man of Borneo,” Laurel whispered. “I have seen a picture of him, and he has the same wild aspect.”

The man raised his hand. “I have no weapons. In fact, I despise them, as I do all forms of civilization.”

That much is evident, I thought.

“What is your name, sir?”

In spite of his extreme appearance, he seemed peaceful enough, so I said, “I am Caleb Dillard, this is my wife Laurel, and that, our friend Andrew.” I did not tell him about Caleb, who was asleep out of the light from the lantern campfire. I wanted to be careful where our son was concerned. “And what is your name, sir?”

He smiled, revealing a mouthful of rotted and missing teeth. I felt Laurel flinch at this sight.

“The name is Finn. That’s all, Finn. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”

I was surprised that, despite his wild appearance and general disdain for civilization, he was polite. I wondered how he acquired such manners.

“If I may ask, where do you intend to go? There aren’t too many families floating on the river.”

I felt I could trust him with this information. “We intend to float down the Mississippi until we can cut over to the Indian territory.”

Finn shook his head. “No, you don’t want to do that?”

“What is your reason, sir?”

“My reason is that Grant is sitting on the Mississippi at Vicksburg. You wouldn’t be able to get past. A better plan would be to cut over about Memphis. That’s the way I’m going, if you’d like to go that way. We could be a help to each other.”

I hesitated, not knowing anything about this man other than what he had told us. I looked over at Laurel, and she indicated with her eyes that she wanted to speak to me, alone. I turned back to Finn. “My wife wishes to talk to me, if you wouldn’t mind.”

He gestured with his hand. “Go ahead. I was never married myself, but I suppose that this is what wives do.”

Laurel and I drew apart from the others, she holding Caleb in her arms. “What do you think?” I asked her.

She hesitated. “I think it will be all right. He reminds me of some of my students who were beaten. There’s no telling what he has suffered. And we have guns. From what he said, I don’t know that he has any.”

“All right. I trust your judgment. I’ll tell him we’ll go with him.”

I went over to Finn. “Sir, we gladly accept your offer and look forward to assisting you however we can.”

He put out his hand, and I saw then that he was missing a finger on his left hand and had scars all over both hands. Apparently he had had some rough times.

I shook his hand and felt the roughness of the scars. “I’m pleased that we’ll be traveling together,” he said. “Now, may I camp here with you?”

“Of course,” I told him. “We’re fellow travelers, aren’t we?”

He laughed at that, a wet hacking laugh that made me wonder if something was seriously wrong with his health. When he pulled his canoe up on shore, he seemed to have no trouble, so his strength was not affected. He set up his camp a little ways from us, and it occurred to me that because he had a lantern, we could travel at night, and so reach our takeoff place sooner. A few minutes later, we saw he had extinguished the lantern, and presumably turned in for the night.

Andrew and Caleb had already retired for the night, so Laurel and I talked a while, and tired from an eventful day, went to bed ourselves. We would have to see how Mr. Finn worked out, but both of us had a good feeling about what he could do for us.

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