We set up camp by the creek. As I was stoking a fire, the sheriff told us the name. “Not sure why it’s called that,” he said. “The name just stuck once, the way they do sometimes.”
There were five of us, an uncomfortably large number. Normally it was just Wilcox and myself, which could be uncomfortable all its own, depending on his mood. He normally kept to himself, hidden behind his beard and grizzly frame, a hulking man who kept his Winchester carbine closer than most mothers did their children. The others in our party were Sheriff John Walken, a man of indeterminate age but whose way of carrying himself suggested he’d seen plenty of action, perhaps on both sides of the law; Nadine Effins, a thin waif of a young woman whom Wilcox and I had been hired by the sheriff to rescue; and Miles Myerscough, the man who’d kidnapped her. That Myerscough still breathed surprised me; Wilcox had a tendency to kill men like that without hesitation, either through some flawed moral principle or, just as likely, enjoyment.
We’d ridden into Franklin like any other nowhere town, buried in the woods of whatever state we’d crossed into. Saw the “Help Wanted” poster on the bounty board and inquired at the Sheriff’s Office, where Walken was the only man with a badge.
“Last deputy run off with his brother’s wife,” he’d said. “Need some help with a thing. Girl taken just two nights ago. At least one perpetrator involved, perhaps two.”
“How you know it wasn’t us?” I asked.
“Because the girl’s father saw who did it before he took an ax handle to the head. You boys ain’t from around here, and not a damn person who wasn’t from around here would pal around with trash like Miles Myerscough.”
“Dirty. But he’s got plenty of guns and I’d like to have his place surrounded before I try to bring Nadine back.” Walken glanced us both over, eyes appraising us quickly and accurately. “I’d like to give this man a fair trial, fellas, if you can arrange it.”
“You mean a fair hanging.”
“What I said, isn’t it?”
Turned out Myerscough was alone, and had surrendered in his little country shack when he realized he was outnumbered. Almost as thin as his victim, except I could see the muscles in his arms that had come from hard work. And Walken was right: Myerscough was a dirty son of a bitch. Stank to high heaven. I wondered if he even remembered how to take a bath.
We wouldn’t make it back to town before late at night, and Nadine was clearly in no condition to ride for long stretches; even with a spare coat draped over the nightgown she’d been wearing when taken, she was poorly dressed and weak; I had to ride beside her to make sure she didn’t fall off her horse. Walken suggested camping near the creek, said you could occasionally pull a decent fish from there, and anyways everyone except Myerscough needed to get some food in them.
No fish were caught, but we had brought some biscuits in case. Nadine nibbled at hers. Myerscough watched us silently. Wilcox and Walken both kept eyes on him; we’d cuffed him and tied him to a tree, and he seemed disinclined depart. He appeared to be as malnourished as he was dirty, though again I thought he would be capable of delivering a solid blow if he caught someone by surprise.
I thought of the money we’d been promised. It wasn’t much, but it beat having to steal it from somewhere else. I always jumped at the chance for honest work; I couldn’t afford to be above petty theft, and I’d done far worse in my years, but I preferred it as a measure of last resort. Or revenge; at times, the best way to get vengeance on a man is to go after his wallet.
Fortunate we’d come across Franklin when we did. We hadn’t planned on spending the night. Towns that small were only good for a night, and I wanted to kick up my feet for a few days at least. We’d been riding hard; the last town we’d stopped in, Wilcox had gotten into a brawl, and while the drunk who somehow insulted him would probably live, he wouldn’t be pretty, and it turned out his father was also mayor. A wealthy mayor, at that. The kind of money that puts up a bounty a long way out. We’d put a week between us and there, but I wanted a few more days to be sure. Then find a hotel and sleep in an honest to god bed.
Nadine cleared her throat. I glanced up her; she was staring at the fire. Her eyes darted occasionally to Myerscough, who appeared to have dozed off, and Wilcox, who was mostly watching Myerscough, though his eyes shifted to the sheriff every now and then. The sheriff mostly watched Nadine.
“I’m grateful for you and Mr. Simmons helping me, Mr. Henderson,” she said, eyes on the ground.
I took a bite of my biscuit, wondering which one I was supposed to be again. When Walken and Wilcox turned to me, I remembered. “Well, it’s no problem, Ms. Effins. But please, call me Horace.”
She nodded and gave me a small glance. She wasn’t capable of smiling just then, but at least she didn’t look at me the way she did Myerscough or my partner.
I caught the sheriff’s eye. He looked amused.
“Horace Henderson does sort of roll off the tongue,” he said. “Fancy.”
“Alliterative. Must have had well-read parents.”
I turned back to my dinner. “No better than some.”
“Well-read enough to keep you out of the war?”
Wilcox grunted. I looked back up. Saw the way the sheriff was staring at me. I’d seen that stare before. Mostly, it didn’t lead to anything. Sometimes it did.
“No,” I said.
“North or South? Fella like you could go either way, I reckon.”
He reckoned wrong. “Army of the Tennessee.”
The amusement left his eyes. “Shiloh?”
“And Vicksburg. Atlanta.”
He bit his lip, looking at me hard. He said, “I spent some time in Georgia. I enjoyed it very much. How much of that fair state did you burn down, Mr. Henderson?”
“Enough so’s I can still smell the smoke.”
Walken held my gaze for a moment, then gave a small nod. “I missed Shiloh myself. Out of the war by Atlanta. Was at Vicksburg, though. Maybe you were one of those blue blurs I spent so much time shooting at, huh?”
Another grunt from Wilcox. “You don’t sound Southern.”
The sheriff glanced at him. “I’m not. But I respect a man who stands up for his personal liberty.”
“Could say some on our side were doing the same,” I told him.
He shrugged and resumed eating in silence. My trigger finger itched. I’d met many a man from both sides in the years since; many of us had ended up in this lifestyle, either by choice or lack of other options. There’s a bond there, but in a war of brother versus brother, that bond does not always breed comradeship regardless of who you fought with or against. And when your companion learns you were involved in an unspeakable swath of destruction, it often leads to violence.
We finished eating. Nadine had already lain down, curled into a ball. Walken said, “Ms. Effins has the right idea. I’ll take first watch. I’ll wake Mr. Simmons here for the second.”
Wilcox watched him carefully but just nodded.
I laid down with my head against my saddlebags, listening to the crackle of the fire and the horses shifting contentedly in the shadows. An owl hooted from somewhere far off, its cry echoing through the trees. I closed my eyes with no real intent of sleeping. The sheriff had put thoughts into my head I usually managed to keep at bay. I’d seen hard, bloody battles, the number of bodies still mostly a guess. What came after, as we marched to the sea, was even worse. In combat, you know the guy on the other side signed up for it. But on the path to Savannah, we stole from non-combatants and stole their livestock. How many people did we kill, directly or indirectly? Many of them not in uniform. Some of them women and children. That’s not war. It’s destruction. General Sherman demanded we refer to it as intimidation. Anything can be justified with a clever turn of phrase. After something like that, a man’s mind is scarred just as deeply as the Georgia landscape. It’d taken years before I stopped having the dreams every night. I felt certain Walken had guaranteed me a night of waking in a cold sweat, screams and gunpowder in my head.
I managed to doze off anyways. There were no screams of pain in my dreams, but one woke me from them. I sprang to my feet, awake immediately, drawing my Colt revolver from its holster at my side. Wilcox stood as well, somewhat more slowly, gauging the situation as though disinterested. From the corner of my eye, I could see Myerscough also stirring.
I glanced at Nadine. The sheriff knelt over her, clutching his hand. He had his pants pulled down to his ankles.
“You bit me, you fucking bitch,” he said. He drew back his fist and punched Nadine hard in the face.
That’s when I saw her condition—nightgown hiked up around her waist, angry red marks across her face where the sheriff had been holding her mouth shut. She thrashed and groaned beneath him, too weak from her prior ordeal to put up much of a fight.
Walken realized he’d awakened the rest of us. He glanced at Wilcox, then at me.
“She’s already damaged goods,” he said to me. “Don’t tell me you didn’t think of it.”
My first bullet missed its mark, slicing through the side of his neck. Blood flew. The sheriff’s mouth opened in shock more than pain, as my next two bullets hit him center-mass in quick succession. He fell lifeless onto the dirt.
The gunshots rang hard in my ears. Wildlife that had been lurking in the fringes of our camp took off running; the horses panicked and began stomping the ground. I kept my finger on the trigger out of instinct, and glanced towards Myerscough, who was staring at Walken’s body.
Then, another scream. This one Nadine. Loud, shrill, as though it had been building for a long time. Much of the sheriff’s blood had found her; it coated her face, her eyes blistering white beneath it. She pawed at her face, screaming, fingers leaving streaks on her cheeks. Then she pushed herself to her feet and ran off into the forest, a blur of white receding into the distance.
“Don’t that beat all,” Myerscough said, and Wilcox raised his Winchester and blew half the man’s face off.
I watched the body fall. After the echo of the shot faded, Wilcox said, “Nobody left to pay us for him.”
I quickly reloaded the Colt and holstered it, then started after the girl.
I stopped and glanced at Wilcox. He just shook his head. I thought of telling him off, then thought of what it would look like, two strangers riding back into town with the girl, scared out of her mind, and the sheriff dead by my own hand. I’d seen men hanged for less.
Wilcox set his Winchester down gently, glancing between Myerscough and Walken. He said, “I’m usually the one to fuck things up,” and made a dry, shallow sound. After a few seconds, I realized he was laughing.
I closed my eyes as the adrenaline faded. It was done. Couldn’t be undone. Like so many things one became accustomed to over time.
“Let’s go,” I said. I shook my head and said again, “Shit.”
We saddled up our horses and took two of the others, leaving one for Nadine if she chose to come back. If she was even capable of choosing to come back. I didn’t like the thought of her out there, barely clothed and defenseless, so I pushed the thought aside. Did no good to dwell on things one had no control over. Wilcox and I wandered off, away from the town of Franklin, and I pondered how quickly it had come back to just the two of us. As though this were the only way things could have ended. I didn’t like that thought, either, but this one haunted me as we rode through the night, chasing me like a ghost that turned out to be my own shadow. Inseparable from myself. Inevitable.