Kindle Edition $3.99
by John T Wayne
Publisher Mockingbird Lane Press
Published in Literature & Fiction
Kindle Edition $3.99
During the middle of the Civil War a slave trader learns of the orphans showing up on the streets of St. Louis and wonders, "Who's going to miss them?" As he begins to gather children for sale aboard ship as cabin boys for the captains, things begin to unravel and soon he along with one of the boys are off on an adventure of a lifetime, trying to save the south from losing the war.
Being an older brother was not my choice. When you’re born, you don’t get to choose your circumstances in life and you certainly don’t get to choose your family. On that note I can tell you one thing I had learned since coming into this world. A youngster starts making decisions long before he or she has any idea how the teeny-tiniest of choices can screw up their life or for how long.
St. Louis had not been the best decision on my father’s part, for Uncle Sebastian was nowhere to be found and the streets were already filled with homeless children when my little sister and I arrived. The war had been under way for more than a year, and 1863 as it now stood, was shaping up to be a time of desperation for the Southern States and the Childs’ family. I had no skills to speak of which would allow me to get a job. I was too young to hold one anyway. At twelve-years-old, I had my work cut out for me.
Jenny was my little sister and what made matters worse, when I made a wrong decision it didn’t just impact me; my lack of experience affected her life too. Dillon Childs was all she had to look after her and she was only six. I hated what had happened and how we’d ended up here, but there was nothing I could do to change what had led to our circumstance. Jenny was my charge and I wasn’t doing very well at that moment in time. She was always hungry, but didn’t complain too much, for she saw I was hungry too. She understood to a degree, but there were times when she just wouldn’t stop whining.
To our credit, we were able to catch fish and eat frog legs when our luck was really down and out, but only because Pa had taught me how to run a line and gig a frog from the age of five. We had been born under the rim of a deep blue-ridge overlooking the prettiest waterfalls a body ever saw, under the trees where the dusk turns the hills blue and purple of an evening. Ours had been a land of unsurpassed wild game and cool rushing waters down which the Current River flowed. Of a morning there was usually some type of critter watering itself in the river, and an easier table setting was never had. Those were the good old days for which I now longed. Good old days for a twelve-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister; her life only just begun.
Current River had been our home until two weeks ago. Ma had passed on just after giving birth to Jenny, but not from giving birth; she died from being bitten by a copperhead. Pa had done a sight of work to raise us from then on, but now the Civil War was gathering a full head of steam and our little home was no longer safe according to Mr. Childs. Pa finally relented and signed up to fight for the Confederacy, instructing me to head for St. Louis, where I would find my Uncle Sebastian. Having never met the man, I wasn’t sure just how I was supposed to get in touch with him, but Pa had said his last name was the same as ours, and he looked a good deal like Pa himself. I had the address Pa had given me, but the house was empty when we arrived.
Now after three lonely days living on the streets of the Gateway City, I’d discovered Uncle Sebastian had gone and done just like Pa; he had joined the Confederacy to fight the Yankees. What struck me odd about St. Louis was the fact I hadn’t seen a Confederate soldier in those three days. Every soldier I had seen wore the Yankee dark blue, and there were a’plenty of them about. I soon learned this was because of a place called Jefferson Barracks, where the North was signing up soldiers to fight, training them before shipping them off to war. With no prospects for an easy meal, I told Jenny we were going back home to our cabin in the woods and we headed south out of town on the river road that fourth morning, just walking.
“Where’s our wagon,” Jenny asked.
“It’s already gone, we’ve got to walk,” I said.
“I don’t want to walk,” she whined.
Death had been riding me hard for the last few years, and I don’t mean my own, but the fact I would sooner or later have to kill someone for something they would do to my family. I couldn’t say who, where or when, I couldn’t even explain my feelings, but the Grim Reaper sure seemed to be riding my coat-tail awful hard these days. A young man of twelve could do without such desperate thoughts, but I surely was having them.
Our ride north to St. Louis had been easy, for Pa had fixed us up with a friend of his who was committed to seeing us all the way to town. Once we arrived however, he cut us loose like the unwanted baggage we had been to him. He had fixed for us, and taken care to see we got through all right, but that was as far as the man’s promise to Pa went, and when we landed on the wharf that was the last we saw of Mr. Jeremiah Culpepper, and him supposed to be a Christian minister and all.
He had gotten his supplies and left town the same day, so he had a three day head start on us. With him in a buckboard and us on foot there was no hope of catching up with the man. Not that I wanted to; my being so young and inexperienced I just naturally thought there was something terrible wrong with the preacher man, but that was just to my way of thinking. I had not one ounce of proof in the matter, yet the man hadn’t said two words the entire trip to St. Louis. His evil stare had been an unsettling thing, but an evil stare is not exactly indisputable evidence of the devil in a man. That’s what I believed at the time. I couldn’t have been more wrong, but that’s one of those things a kid has to learn the hard way.
As we walked the river road, Jenny began to complain about her tired little legs, but I had naught for an answer. I pressed her to walk as far as she could. I carried her piggyback for a ways, then I set her down and she walked again. By the time dusk arrived I was whipped—not just whipped—but beaten, tumbledown and crippled from carrying Jenny so much. I never knew a young man’s body could hurt as bad as mine, and what occurred to me was the fact I could not make the trip home in such a manner. We would never survive, at least I wouldn’t, and under these conditions if I failed, so did Jenny.
I found some tall grass along the roadway which deer had slept the previous night and we made a soft bed underneath the stars and went to sleep. I was out like a light and when I came to, there was someone sitting on horseback talking with another person out on the road about twenty yards away. I checked Jenny and she was well-nigh dead with fatigue, so she was not going to wake up at the sound of two strangers talking. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but wish forevermore that I had been as dead to the world as she was that night, for what I heard was pure evil, and from the moment I overheard the conversation I knew I could not ignore the matter.
“Listen, Jake, dem kids got no home, no folks’ and no way to fend for dem-selves. I’s don’t care how you get ’em, but I’s want thirty-sev’n ta fo’ty all tied up n’ ready ta setsail by dis time next month. I need ’em shipboard no later dan full moon down at de rendezvous point on de Miss-nippy. Den we sail under de full moon fo’ New Orleans where dey’s a freighter a’waitin’ ta take every man Jack of ’em an’ make sailors out of ’em, or dey’s die tryin’. I’s get two hundred a head fo’ anything big enough ta pull anchor, so de bigger dey is da better. You got dat?”
“Yes Sir, boss.”
“You’s bring me one extry ta hep wit de cookin’, hear me? I’s don’ care if it’s a girl or boy, but dey’s better be able ta whirl a fry pan, understand?”
“All right, Lucifer,” Jake resounded.
“Now get along,” the one called Lucifer instructed.
The underling, whoever Jake was, turned his mount back in the direction of St. Louis and galloped away, leaving a cloud of dust hanging thick and heavy in the cool night air along the darkened roadway. From the center-pocket of his overalls, the Boss, the man called Lucifer, pulled a tobacco pouch and stuffed his pipe full. Just as the boss-man began to turn his horse about, he lit a match and I caught a glimpse of his features and cringed inwardly. His face was slanted in a God-awful fashion and his eyes appeared to be slanted at near the same angle, with one sunken and one protruding as if his face had been split open and patched back together unsuccessfully, revealing the meanest looking black man I ever did see. His match died out and Jenny moved in her sleep. I cupped my hand over her mouth to shush her because far as I could tell, Lucifer was the Devil himself.
“Shhhhhhh,” I whispered to Jenny.
“Who dat,” his demon-like voice bellowed into the night. He dropped his match and snaked a pistol out of the holster he wore around his overalls. I held my breath and lay perfectly still. I did put the available finger of my right hand to my lips indicating to Jenny she needed to be silent as we stared one another directly in the eyes, for he had awakened her. If she squealed at all, we were done for.
“Who dat out dere,” the boss-man demanded in no uncertain terms. “You’s come ow’d here dis minute or I’s...” his words trailed off. Jenny and I stared into one another’s eyes helplessly, afraid to make any move which might beget a sound. We stared and held our breath. Just then a jackrabbit jumped from near our position and spirited away across the meadow, bounding this way and that for all it was worth. I was certain the fellow had been just about ready to strike another match and nudge his horse in our direction, but the rabbit spared us.
A chuckle and then, “I’s gettin’ jumpy,” Lucifer observed out loud. With no warning the terrifying black man turned his horse back to the south, holstered his weapon and rode away, leaving us trembling in the tall grass. Behind him he left the sweet aroma of pipe tobacco drifting through the air. My nostrils took a deep whiff of the pleasant aroma and I exhaled. The man seemed to smoke a very good tobacco. I wondered what kind, how much it cost and so on. How could a black man afford such a luxury as tobacco? Blacks were slaves, weren’t they?
I knew we had to move because if the man became suspicious and began to second guess himself, he might come back and search for us yet again. We waited until he was well out of hearing and then got up from our comfortable bed and headed towards the woods on the other side of the meadow; the same direction the rabbit had run.
At the edge of the tree line the grass was again tall and soft when laid over or pressed down, so we made a new bed near an evergreen next to a tall old pecan tree. Doing so reminded me that Ma used to bake a pecan pie before she passed on, and suddenly I knew I was going to try and bake one just as soon as I could lay my hands on the necessary spices and sugar. I was suddenly devoted to the notion as soon as we could get back to our cabin on Current River. Of course, I had no idea how long that was going to take. I figured a few days, but life had charted a different coursefor the likes of Dillon Childs.
Thinking back to the conversation I’d overheard, I realized I was going to have to make up my mind any old day now. Those men out there on the road were bad men with evil intentions. If I had any doubts, they were erased as soon as Ol’ Slantface started yelling. His voice was deep and raspy, just like I would have figured the devil’s voice might sound, almost that of a toad frog. Had the rabbit not jumped and ran when it did, I would have. That meant we would surely have been caught and would now be in the clutches of the kidnapper. Who was the man called boss that looked as if he’d met up with the wrong end of an axe? One thing was certain; he was not a white man. Could black men trade slaves too?
Slave trading was, after all, what the war seemed to be about now that Lincoln had delivered his Emancipation Proclamation. If the man could no longer deliver slaves to and from buyers, might he not look for another market? Dealing in human flesh seemed to fit the personality of Ol’ Slantface, but then what I knew of men was little enough. How could I, a young boy, judge such a man’s character? Maybe it was only me he scared half to death. I had little to go on, yet he had said he could get two hundred dollars a head for those big enough to weigh anchor. What did two hundred dollars times forty add up to? I could figure some with the smaller numbers, but these were more than I had ever attempted to cipher. One thing was for sure and certain; it was more money than I was likely to see in my lifetime.
At sunup the following morning we began to walk. Once again we headed south, only this time I stayed clear of the road. If those fellows were going to be looking for children who might fit the bill, I had no intention of delivering myself up to them unexpectedly. I had Jenny to watch out for, which was all the more reason for me to be cautious, keeping out of clearings and off the roads.
We traveled light that day, only I was able to find some wild blackberries, and ripe they were. I’m afraid the two of us made quite a mess of ourselves while gorging on the hapless fruit, some of which wasn’t ripe yet. After having our fill, we laid down again for a mid-day nap and dozed under a big whispering willow. We were well off of the road and in the edge of the tree line.
I heard a low drone for several minutes before I recognized what was causing it. Then I saw the horses as they ascended the river road. There were hundreds of them coming up from down by the river, heading north toward St. Louis. Blue-bellies they were, mounted on horseback, drawing wagons with mules and oxen pulling cannons. For more than an hour we sat transfixed at the edge of the forest watching the Federals while they sojourned by as one long column far as the eye could see in either direction.
Presently the end of the column drew near, quicker than I had expected because the dust created by the horse soldiers had masked the end of the procession. The last soldiers looked more gray than blue because of all the dust which had settled upon their horses and uniforms. As the remainder of the troop disappeared from sight, I got Jenny up and we skedaddled, zigzagging through the trees in a southerly direction headed toward our home.
Along about dusk I smelled wood-smoke from a fire and we halted. I told Jenny to stay put while I checked on the source of the smell. Slowly I crept up to the ridgeline before me and peeked over. It was Ol’ Slantface, with two other men who didn’t present any better an honest figure. The three were roasting squirrel and rabbit over a small open flame. I licked my lips and wondered just how I could get me some of their meal without getting caught.
Have you ever had such a foolish idea that you believed in it all the more? That’s exactly the kind of thoughts I was having as I witnessed their charbroiled meat roasting over an open flame, with me and Jenny nursing a four day hunger.
Looking about, I could see where their horses were tethered, and a plan began formulating in the back of my mind. If I could sneak down there and spook their horses enough to run them off, I’d likely have a free hand with their evenings fixing’s. The sun had gone behind theridge, leaving me more in the dark than not. Slowly I began to ease my way down toward their horses. Though they were unsaddled, the bits remained in their mouths, and I marveled when I got to them, for they were out of sight from half the camp. I jumped on the back of one, taking the reins, slapped the other two on the rump and lit a shuck for the river, southeast away from the meanest bunch of men I’d seen in my short lifetime. I heard yelling and shouting behind me and a pistol shot rang through the evening air. The other two horses seemed to want to stay with the horse I was aback of, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about food anymore. The idea occurred to me that we now had transportation.
With effort, I leaned over andgrabbed the reins of one of the other horses and headed in a wide sweeping circle back to where Jenny was waiting for me. When I got to the spot I had left her, she was nowhere to be found. Cursing my luck, I began to wonder what had happened to her. If those men had found her, she was in trouble and so was I, because I’d not abandon her.
Dismounting in a grove of trees where I would be concealed by their bulk, I once again eased up the ridge and peeked over. My eyes widened at the sight, but I should have known what would happen before I ever conceived my foolish notion. Jenny was sitting there pretty as you please, eating a fine meal all by herself, her reflection unmistakable in the firelight. Looking hastily about the camp I saw no one else. The men were obviously out searching for their horses.
Suddenly I saw a slight movement off to my left, and with a start, identified Ol’ Slantface staring directly at my little sister, the firelight glowed in his eyes revealing the insanity within. He wasn’t moving any more than need be, and spotting him had been pure luck, because he was black as the ace of spades, allowing the darkness to cloak him in a kindred veil. He stood there watching as Jenny put away their meager supper. I knew right then I was in more trouble than a boy had a right to be. He had her pegged and he was going to catch her red handed. If I stayed or tried to save her, they’d get their hands on me too.
Cautiously, I backed away from the ridge and mounted up a good hundred yards away. Taking the reins of the two extra horses, I began to slowly ride in a circle around the camp taking care to be as quiet as possible. Suddenly it occurred to me I needed to be making all kinds of noise, which might draw the men away from Jenny. I started yelling, “Giddy up, come on horse, let’s go,” and such like. I finally reached the road and began to gallop toward the south, for my intended distraction had not moved Ol’ Slantface one bit. Lucifer and his minions were going to have my little sister in short order. I just prayed they didn’t eat her.
Without a horse among them, I knew they would be headed for Pevely or some close settlement thereabouts, and I knew they wouldn’t hurt an innocent little girl such as Jenny. In fact, I thought she might eat better with them for the time being. I knew she would be scared, but she would be all right. I, on the other hand, was now a horse thief!
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I started writing my novels in 1985 after spending seven years in the U.S. Marines. Not that I was a writer, but I really wanted to be one, not just any writer either, I wanted to replace Louis L'Amour. That is a tall order, but then, "A man's dreams must exceed his fears."