I turned from the river where I last looked at Laurel and had my last sight of her for a while. I felt the deep sadness of the loss, as if my heart would break. At the same time I felt and intense and glowing anger toward the men who had taken her. I would catch up with them, and it would not go well for those who had kidnapped her and Caleb.
As I meditated on these emotions, Andrew cried, “Look! Over there! “There’s a building, further down river.”
I looked and, being intent on trying to get my shot earlier, had not noticed what looked like a trading post of some sort, and, I surmised, a depot for steam ships. “Let’s go see if they might have any formation on where the Guard might be taking Laurel. It’s worth a try. Come on!”
We made our way up to the building, which was made of weather beaten boards that looked like they had never had a coat of paint. Some of them had pulled loose completely, and others hung by a single nail so that a strong wind would pull them off entirely. The dock was likewise in bad repair with what looked like rotten and missing boards. It also looked as if it had never had any maintenance. “Careful how you step,” I told Andrew. “Some of these board might be rotten.”
“Don’t worry,” he replied. “I have no desire to take a swim. Besides, I don’t know how to.”
“You really ought to,” I told him. “It might save your life someday.”
“Next chance I have, I will. I don’t know when that will be, though.
Andrew and I picked our way to the door and went in, stumbling on some of the planks that had worked their way loose. I don’t know what else I would have expected, I thought. There’s nothing that has been done for a long time both inside and out. I couldn’t see anything for a moment because of the beams of sunlight coming through a grimy window right into my eyes. When I recovered myself and could see, I noticed a short man with bright red hair wearing an apron standing there. “Hello there,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
I wanted to tell him he needed to fix his building before someone was drowned or killed by a fall, but then I saw cans of food and some other things we might need. “I need to pick up some supplies,” I said, “but I want to find out about that boat that just left. Do you know where it’s going?”
He thought a minute. “Well, let’s see, it’s Tuesday, so that boat is going to Kingston, and then on to Knoxville.”
“Did you see a group of men with a woman and child get on the boat?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Do you know who the men were?”
“Yessir, they were the Home Guard, and judging from your questions, you have a decided interest in that situation, but I’ll tell you right now you want absolutely nothing to do with them. They’d as soon shoot you as look at you. Or maybe shoot you before they had a good look at you. It’s all the same to them.”
“I figured as much, but the interest I have is that the woman is my wife and the boy my son. They were taken from me and I want to get them back!”
He blinked and looked down. “In that case, God bless you sir. He is the only One who can help you now. No one around here is going to stand up to the Guard.”
“Is there a sheriff in these parts? Somewhere close?”
“The law? You just saw the law around here take off with your wife and boy a few minutes ago. If you have plans to follow them, and I hope you don’t and if you wanted to do something about that situation, you would need a dozen or so well-trained soldiers, but again, all the soldiers anywhere near here are on that boat. I wish I could give you better news, but I’m just telling you how things are. I can’t change them.”
“Well, thank you for that information. I will tell you what I want from you.”
He indicated what he had on the shelves and in the bins, and I had him put some cans and other supplies into a sack, and Andrew paid him with some of the same money he had discovered at the worst possible time. “I’m sorry I distracted you when you were taking your shot,” he said. “That let them escape with Laurel, but I got so excited, knowing we were short on cash and awfully tired of eating dried venison.”
“What’s done is done and we can’t change it,” I told him. “We’ll catch up to them. I just know we will.”
The storekeeper put his hands on the counter. “I wish someone would do something about the Guard. They don’t care who they hurt, and folks around here are tired of the war and everything connected to it. More good people have been killed than I care to think of, and that’s just awful. Awful, I tell you! Since you seem determined to get your wife and son back, I want you to be careful. I don’t want to hear about another shooting.” He shook his head. “We’ve had too many deaths already.”
“We’ll be careful,” I said. “Thanks for the supplies and the information.”
“Can ask you a question?” he asked.
“Certainly. Go ahead.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s a healthy young fellow like you doing down here away from all the armies and battles?”
“Trying to get my wife back.”
“I know that much.” He looked at the counter. “Let me rephrase my question. Why aren’t you in the army?”
That was blunt enough, I thought, and I hesitated for a bit.I then decided that, given the way he felt about the Guard, I could probably trust him. “My wife and son and I were trying to get away from the war.”
“And the army.”
“Yes. And the army.”
“Which side were you on?”
“Both? How’d you manage that?”
I sighed. “It’s complicated. Let’s just say that I was in the Virginia militia, but then I was captured and forced to take on the identity of a Union lieutenant.”
“You’re right. It is complicated. But you’re a deserter right now.”
“That’s one name for it. A man trying to keep his family safe is another. I knew my family was going to be killed if I didn’t cooperate with a certain woman.”
Cooperate how? Cause you to break your wedding vows?”
I shook my head. “No, no, no! I was to spy for the South.”
“So? There are a lot of spies.”
“I was to assume the identity of a Union soldier, the woman’s brother, who looked like me.”
“I see. So you have been a traitor to both sides.”
“I never thought of it that way, but yes, and that is why I took off, taking my family with me.”
The storekeeper lifted his chin toward Andrew. “What about him?”
“We ran across him when he had been separated from his family. We never found them.”
“So you were traveling with a woman, a child, and an orphan.”
“Forgive me for saying so, but you were just asking for any of them to be kidnapped. That was risk to begin with.”
“I can’t help what happened now. What’s done is done, and I just want to find my family and have them back.”
“Well, I wish you well, although you’re going to need more than my good wishes to do anything about your situation.”
“I have prayed to God to help me.”
“That’s fine if you believe in God.”
He shook his head. “I’ve seen too many cruelties in this world to believe. If there were a good and loving God, he wouldn’t have let your wife and son be taken.”
“God didn’t take them. Men did, and men can be evil and sinful.” Had I not been so pressed to find Laurel, I would have debated the matter with him further. Adolphus would have loved such an argument, but I didn’t have the time right then.
“I’m sorry you don’t believe, but we have to be on our way.”
“In spite of what I said, I wish you well. I also hope I helped you somehow. Good-bye, now.”
We bade him good-bye, picked up our supplies and started out the door. Suddenly I turned back and asked, “When is the next boat?”
“Not until tomorrow about this time.”
I thought for a moment, and then said, “Do you know of a boat we might borrow?”
He looked at me for a while and then said, “I have a little rowboat you can use. I hope you’ll be able to bring it back, but if you don’t, I don’t care. It’s old and leaky and you’ll have to bail as much as you row. You’re fortunate there are two of you. A man alone would either go nowhere or drown. Those would be his choices, but you won’t have to decide on that. It’s yours id you want it.”
“Yes, we’ll use it. Thank you kindly for the offer.”
We went outside with him following us and showed us to the boat in question, tied to one of the pilings and hidden under the dock. He was right about its condition. The wood looked like that of the building, and I couldn’t see how it managed to stay afloat.
The store owner helped us get into the boat and then handed us our bag. He stooped over and picked up a can and handed it to Andrew. “You might as well start with this,” he said. “You’re already taking on water.”
Andrew took the can from him and started bailing, while I unshipped the oars and started pulling for the middle of the river.
“Good-bye! I hope you get your wife and son back,” the man called.
“We hope we’ll see you again,” I returned. Then something occurred to me. I shouted louder, “Say, I don’t know your name.”
We were nearing the middle of the river again and it was becoming difficult to hear him, but I think I heard him shout, “Murphy! My name is Murphy!” It was hard to tell, but I think that’s what he said.
Figures that he’d be an Irishman, I thought, and called back. “Mine is Dillard,” and then I knew he wouldn’t hear anything further that I said, so I couldn’t say anything more to him. I turned to Andrew.
“We’ll switch off every fifteen minutes or so. I have the easier job since we’re going with the current.”
“All right.” Andrew grunted with his exertions, dipping the can into the water in the bottom of the boat and throwing it in the river.
I looked down the broad expanse of river as if I might see my family. I’m coming to get you, Laurel, I thought. You have to know that. I’ll catch up with the boat and free you and Caleb from those dastards. With that, I pulled even harder on the oars accelerating our pace.