It’s 3:07 a.m. and I am thinking of you, my love. I am also thinking, How did I ever get myself into a mess like this? I am hiding in a culvert—a cement pipe—under a farm road I found myself on; I am a hunted man. Still, my thoughts are of you. The water flows around my ankles, and it is cold. For the moment, I’ve thrown the hounds off the scent. I hear their barking and baying retreating in the distance.
Perhaps, my love, I should start at the beginning.
Do you remember the last time we saw each other? It was a week past, at the church social. You wore your pink gingham dress. You know, the one I like so much, the one with the purple and yellow flowers on it. And you had on the sunbonnet I bought you for your birthday. You sure were a pretty picture. Well, that’s where all the trouble started.
I reckon you wondered what happened to me that night. I mean, why I never came back when I went to get you some punch. You remember that fella that came up to us and asked you to dance and I sent him on his way, telling him you were spoken for? That was Jess Baker; he lives up by Big Gap. Him and his family been croppin’ up there since Ol’ Dan’l Boone was in Congress, before that even. The Baker boys are a mean lot; they don’t take kindly to a slight, real or otherwise. And Jess’ uncle is deputy sheriff up in that neck of the woods.
Well, my love, this is what transpired. I was standing in line at the punch bowl when Jess comes up to me and says, “Thar’s a fella outside running down your woman. If she was my woman, I’d let no man talk the way he’s a talkin’. I’d have to do somethin’.”
I should have let it go, but what Jess was sayin’ just got my dander up. So I asked him to point the fella out to me. He agreed to do so, and together we walked out into the night. As soon as we got outside, Jess says, “He’s over this a way,” and led me ’round the corner of the church. And, my love, that is the last thing I remember until I woke up tied to a hitchin’ post.
Standing over me was Jess, his brother John, and their uncle, the one I told you about—the deputy sheriff. His name is Samuel. They must have thrown a bucket of water in my face to bring me ’round, because the drops were still falling from my hair onto my face.
When they saw I was awake, Jess grabbed me by the hair and pulled my head back so I had to look right into his mean brown eyes. He said, “Us Bakers is a queer bunch, when insulted we just gotta do somethin’ ’bout it.”
When he had had his say, the other two laughed. I knew those words, and I knew the laughter did not bode well for me. The three of them then went into the house and that is the last I saw of them until the next morning. I was left tied to the post all night.
Natural to say I didn’t get much sleep that night. When I heard the Baker boys emerging from the house in the morning, I feigned being out. But through the slits of my eyes, I saw Jess pick up the bucket, walk over to the pump and fill it with water. He walked back to the post and threw the water straight into my face. I pretended to come ’round, and he said, “We got chores to do, you stay right thar. We’ll be back presently, then we aim to have us some fun.”
As they walked away, I tried for the hundredth time to free my hands. My arms were behind me, one on either side of the post, and my hands tied at the wrist. During the night, I had rubbed the skin from my wrist. It hurt awfully to continue trying to get free, but I knew other things would hurt even worse if I was still tied and waiting for the Bakers when they returned at the end of the day.
The morning drew on; the sun beat down on me, causing a powerful thirst in me. As the noon hour approached, I heard the Bakers returning, so I once again pretended to be out in the hopes I might get another bucketful of water in the face. I was hoping that this time I might catch some in my mouth. My head was hung down, and looking through the slits of my eyes, I saw Jess’ boots stop and stand before me. Then I heard his brother John say, “Not now, Jess. We gotta eat and git back to work. ’Sides, we promised Uncle Sam not to start nothin’ till he got back.” With those words, Jess kicked at the ground, hitting my chest and chin with earth.
After they had returned to their work, I redoubled my efforts to get free. The pain in my wrists was unbearable, and my arms had gone numb. But I persevered, and along about sundown, I slipped one of the ropes. I was frantic; I knew they’d be along anytime. I managed to slip the remaining rope, and I was free. My arms were still too numb to do anything but hang limply at my sides. But I needed water bad, so I got to my knees and flung my arms around the crossbar of the hitchin’ post. And using the crook of my elbows, I hoisted myself up.
Once up, I staggered, more than walked, over to the pump and knelt before it. I grabbed the handle with both hands, put my head under the spout, and pumped that cool water onto my face and into my mouth.
When I had quenched my thirst, I stood and listened—nothing. The sun was below the horizon, but there was still a little light and I still had a few minutes before they returned, I hoped. I went into the house looking for a weapon; about then my arms were beginning to get their feeling back.
It was dark in the house and hard to see, but after a moment, my eyes adjusted to the gloom and I saw an old-fashioned single-shot rifle leaning against the bricks of the fireplace. I went straight for it, lifted it, and checked to see if there was a cartridge in the breech. There wasn’t. I looked about for a box of cartridges but saw none. I had to move, they’d be back anytime now. I took the gun. I could use it as a bluff or at least it would make a dandy club.
As I was leaving, I saw the two brothers walking up the road. I darted back into the house and made my way to the back, slipped out of an open window, and ran into the woods. I knew that the moment they saw I was gone, they’d be after me. And I knew from talk that the Baker boys could track anything … some said they had Injun blood in ’em.
As I ran into the woods, I made my first mistake—well, my second mistake, if you count leaving the church with Jess in the first place. I had never been to the Baker place, and I didn’t know if I was north or south of Big Gap. Their cabin stands at the foot of the mountain, so I knew it wasn’t east or west. Then I thought that even if I knew my way into town, Sam Baker was the law, and if he saw me, he could haul me away before I could say a word. So I decided to go up the mountain.
My only advantage was that they wouldn’t know how long of a start I had on them. For all they knew, I could have been gone for hours. Or so I thought. As I was walking deeper into the woods, I heard, “Hey you, we know you ain’t far, the earth is still wet under the pump. As soon as we et somethin’, we’ll be a comin’ for ya.”
If they were going to give me a few minutes start on them, I thought it prudent to use the time to think, and not run. What was my plan to be? You know me, my love, I’m a city boy; stalking, and tracking is foreign to me. I’ve never hunted in my life, and now I am the hunted. I needed a plan to first of all get rid of Jess and his brother, and then to get to a place of safety, anywhere but Big Gap and Sam Baker.
So, my love, this is the plan I came up with. I would go halfway up the mountain and circle around to the east and descend, and just hope I reached a place of safety before the Bakers caught up with me. It’s just too bad things didn’t work out that way.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. By the time I decided on my plan of action it was full dark, so going up the mountain side was slow work. I ran into trees, hit my head on low lying branches, and tripped and fell over logs and large stones a number of times.
Just when I’m thinking that there was no way in hell that the Bakers could track me in the dark, I saw the light of a lantern below me, maybe three or four hundred yards down the mountain. At this rate, they’d be upon me in no time. So I did the unexpected, what only a man filled with fear would have done. I climbed the nearest tree and went right for the top.
You know, my love, sometimes the unexpected works. They passed right under me and continued up the mountain. I sat on my perch and watched the lantern grow dimmer and dimmer until it was out of sight. At that point, I decided it best to stay where I was until first light. Blundering around the mountain in the dark would only have brought the Baker boys and me together.
The next morning, I climbed down from the tree and set about trying to get back to you, my love. That is the thought that has sustained me throughout this week. Just so you don’t have to relive the entire week with me, I’ll just say that I got lost up on that mountain. The Bakers, with Uncle Sam’s help, brought in dogs to hunt me down.
Just know that I got lost on the damn mountain. I’ve gone a week without real food. Oh, I’ve had some grubs and some worms. Even found some berries yesterday. I’ve been licking the dew off leaves in the morning to quench my thirst. And for the whole week, the Baker boys have been one step behind me.
This morning I finally made it down the mountain. I don’t know where I am; as I’ve said, it seems to be a farm road … wait … the hounds … they’re comin’ back this way. You know, my love, there is a time when a man has to be a man. I think my time has come. Know that I love you, and I would have asked you to be my woman if this had not happened.
The baying is coming closer. I will not be hunted any longer. I will not hide any longer, my love. I will stand up and be a man, or at least die as one. Please, my love, come walk with me, give me strength. I am leaving the culvert now. I see the men in the distance. It is my intention to walk up to Jess, or one of the others, and take a stand.
They are firing their guns at me now. Bullets are passing me. The ones that are close to my ears sound just like bees flying by. Stay with me, my love. I fear not when you are with me.
A bullet has just hit me in the shoulder, but has not knocked me down. Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt. I will continue my march of freedom. I will not stop until I am dead, or they turn and walk away.
I’ve just been hit. I know not where, but I am lying on the ground. I’ve tried to get up, but I seem to have no strength. Is it because of the wound, or the lack of food?
Things are nice now, I am at peace. I’m looking up at the bluest sky I have ever seen. And the clouds are so beautiful. Look, my love, you see that one? Doesn’t it look just like a dog?
It’s getting dark on the sides. I mean my vision is like I’m looking through a tunnel of some sort. And the tunnel is getting smaller. I can’t see all of the sky. I can see only that one cloud … you know, the one that looks like a dog. Now, I can see nothing. I think I am dying, but dying with you by my side is so sweet.
’Nough said … good-bye, my love …
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