“Diamond Courage,” Part 29

 

Chapter 30

A Long Trail

January,1863

We followed the trail until about noon when it began to rain. I knew this would ruin our chances for finding Laurel and Caleb by tracking them, but there were other ways. We continued on until we came to a small settlement and stopped at a blacksmith on the edge of town. The smith stood behind his shop, where he had gone to get some more material for the forge.

“Hello,” I said. “I was traveling with my family, and someone took my wife and young child overnight. Have you seen anyone like that? I’m not sure, but I think the ones who took them were Indians.”

The old fellow scratched his head. “No, I can’t say that I’ve seen anyone I don’t know. Tell you what, thought. Try asking at the hotel. They have a pretty good idea who comes and goes.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I hope you find them.”

“So do we,” I said, and we went over to the hotel. The clerk there said, “I haven’t seen anyone, but there is an Indian settlement not too far north of here. They’d be your best bet.

I thanked the clerk and we set out again. “Do you think we can find them?” Andrew asked. I could tell this was bringing up memories of his lost family.

“We have to, “I answered. “I can’t do without them.”

The rain was coming down harder, and so we slogged along without saying anything.  We came to the settlement, and it was as miserable a collection of hovels as I have ever seen. It was hard to believe that anyone lived under such conditions. They had to be wretchedly poor.

A small child stood in the rain without any clothes on. As we walked up, a woman that I assumed was her mother, darted out of the one shacks and grabbed the child, backing away from us, chattering in her language. I held up my empty hand to try to show her that we were not a threat, but she turned and fled back into the house, if you could call it that.

A few minutes later, an old man came staggering out of the same shack. He was obviously drunk, and I wondered how much information we would get out of him. He reeled up to us, and I wondered how I was going to communicate with him. I figured it was worth a try to speak to him, so I said, “We’re looking for a woman and boy. They’d be traveling with at least three men. Can you help me?”

To my surprise, the old fellow spoke English. “A woman and a boy, you say?”

“Yes. They might have come through here several hours ago.”

He stood there, swaying back and forth. Finally he said, “Did the woman have yellowish hair?”

My heart leaped. “Yes! And the boy with her was about two years old.”

He nodded. “Someone like that came through here about the time you said. I had come outside because I couldn’t sleep. They were on horses.”

“Which way did they go?”

“They were headed east, toward the river.”

“Thank you.”

“Glad to help.”

Now at least we knew what direction they had gone in, although they could have turned off at any point. Going toward the river was our best bet, though, and so we continued that way.

“What are we going to do for food?” Andrew asked. “We left everything behind, and it’s too far to go back before it’s time to eat.”

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I put the two coins Huck gave us. We can buy something the first settlement we come to.”

“Oh, I see.”

We continued walking until we reached the river, and I thought how hopeful we were that last time we were there. I looked up and down the shoreline for any sight of Laurel and Caleb although I knew there wasn’t much chance of seeing them from where we were.

Andrew looked at me. “Which way?”

“I’m thinking they’ll go downstream. What do you think?”

“I don’t know. Downstream is as good as any direction.”

So we set off, walking until darkness started to set in without running across a settlement. It looked like we were going to have a hungry and wet night. “We might as well stop here,” I said. “It’s getting dark and I don’t want to risk falling in the river.”

“All right.”

We found a large oak that had drifted to the bank and sheltered as best we could in its lee. Even at that, it was uncomfortable, what with the rain. We huddled there, miserable trying unsuccessfully to sleep. Then Andrew said, “What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“I see someone out on the river! They have a lantern!”

We stood up and began calling to whoever it was out there. Evidently, the person heard us and began rowing our way. We of course didn’t know who it was or what their intentions would be, but I was willing to take the risk if it might mean food. We were that hungry.

As the figure came nearer, he seemed familiar to me. I say ‘he’ because at the distance I could tell it was a man. I couldn’t figure out who it was until he drew closer. “Halloo on shore! Who are you and what do you need?” he called.

Hearing the way he talked, I knew it was Finn and we would be all right. All right, that is, except for Laurel and Caleb’s loss, but Finn could help with that.”

I began waving my arms although I knew he couldn’t see me that well. “It’s Caleb and Andrew, Finn! We’re looking for Laurel and Caleb!”

By that time, he was close enough to us that he called out, “Good to see you! Help me get my boat up on shore!”

We went over and helped Huck pull his boat ashore. “What are you doing here? I thought you were headed further west.”

“We were, but three men took Laurel and Caleb.”

“I see. Do you know what they looked like?”

I shook my head. “No, it was dark and I didn’t hear them at all until I head Laurel screaming. By that time it was too late—they were both gone.”

“I guess you’re out here looking for them, then.”

“That’s right. Can you help us?”

“Of course. Where do you figure they’re headed?”

“I think downriver. I know you said that was a dangerous way to go, but I have to have Laurel and Caleb back. I can’t live without them.”

“I can see that. Let’s get the boat back in the water.”

“Before we do that, do you have anything to eat? We haven’t had anything all day.”

“You’re in luck because I just stocked up. You’re welcome to some dried pork, if you like that.”

I had to smile to myself. I had grown sick of pork while I was in the army, but now it sounded good to me, and it beat eating the bark off the trees.

“You can eat in the boat,” Finn said. “Let’s get ‘er in and get going!”

We put the boat in, and I noticed that the rain had stopped. And so we set off down the river, not knowing what we would find, but hoping we would find Laurel and Caleb.

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