Reckon I’d better start at the beginning. Reckon I’ll tell it all. I first met her up at Grayson’s Creek. I had just bought a pair of new boots and my feet were hurting me something awful. With my feet cooling in the water, I was thinking of things past. I’d been back from the war a year by then. Four years of marching and fighting them bluebellies, my feet never did hurt so much as they did that day. Ol’ Robert E. and them other generals rode horses everywhere they went. Us privates walked the whole damn war.
Softly, she came up behind me. The first I knew she was there was when she giggled. I turned to see a young girl no more than sixteen years. She was smiling.
“Whatcha doin’ with your feet in that water?” she wanted to know.
“What are you doin’ sneaking up on a peaceful man just mindin’ his own business?” I asked in return.
Her hands clasped behind her back, she took a tentative step closer. Still she smiled.
“This is my husband’s land and I have a right to know who’s trespassin’ through.”
“Sure ’nuff. Husband’s name is James Foster. He’s a big man in these here parts.”
“You look kinda young to be married.”
She pointed her chin skyward. Eyes veiled, she said, “Us mountain folk marry young. But James is a lot older, he’s thirty-one. I’m his second wife. His first wife, Anne, took sick and died two years back when the cholera passed through. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“The name’s Tom Dula. What might be yours?”
“I’m Laura Foster and I’m mighty pleased to meet you, Mister Dula.”
Without asking if she could, she came and sat down by me—her feet splashing in the water next to mine; she had no shoes to kick off. “Well, Mister Dula, what brings you to this neck of the woods of Tennessee?”
She was pretty. Keen grey eyes. A pert strong chin. Dimpled cheeks that blushed as she wiggled her toes in the cool, clear water. Her hair was dark and loose and fell to her waist. Her fresh young white skin, translucent in the bright sunlight. I took all this in as I was formulating in my mind how much I would tell her. For some reason, I wanted to tell her all of it. I was twenty years old and on the run from the law. I had killed a man. But in the end, all I said was, “Had me a little trouble over in North Carolina. Thought it might be best if I hightailed it outta there until the dust settled.”
She tilted her head and nodded as though she understood. As though she was wise beyond her years. As though she wasn’t a little wisp of a thing. As though my heart wasn’t hers for the taking if only she wasn’t married.
I pulled my feet out of the water and put on my boots. “I gotta be movin’ on, little missy. No time to tarry further, gonna be dark soon.”
Her smile faded, her eyelashes fluttered. “Thought I might invite you to have supper with me and my husband.”
With one foot in the stirrup, my hand on the horn, I hesitated. Perhaps for a moment too long to her way of thinking.
“You wanna eat with us or not?”
She looked hurt. “I’d be right proud to sit at your table. But how is your husband gonna feel about you bringing a strange man to his home?”
Her eyes grew big and round. Her smile returned. “You just leave James to me, Mister Dula.”
I should have gotten on my horse right then and there and rode out. But I did not, to my everlasting regret.
Their cabin wasn’t but a mile from the creek. As we came into the yard, a man who had been chopping wood stood straight and tall. The axe held loosely at his side. His eyes followed us up the path. His manner was neither friendly nor hostile.
“Where ya been, Laura? Ya know there’s chores to be done.”
Laura brushed her hair behind her ears and straightened her back. “I was just down to the creek and came upon this nice gentleman. His name’s Tom. He’s from North Carolina. I’ve invited him to have supper with us.”
He gave his wife a look I couldn’t interpret. He nodded at me, but no smile was forthcoming. “Does Tom have a last name?”
I started to say something, but Laura beat me to it. “Of course he does, silly. It’s Dula.”
“Well, if Tom Dula is going to eat our food, he can help with the wood chopping. You git on inside and lay the table.”
Without a word, Laura turned on her heels and went into the cabin, leaving us two men staring at one another. I rolled up my sleeves and walked over to the man. Holding out my hand, I said, “I appreciate you having me, Mister Foster. I’d be happy to chop all the wood you might need.”
He shook my hand and at last favored me with a slight smile. “No offense, mister. But Laura’s been gone half the day, leaving her chores undone. It kinda threw me for a loop when she walked up with you.”
I started in on a log at the ready while James Foster picked up what he had chopped and brought it into the cabin. I got me three logs cut and was just starting in on splitting them when Laura called from the door. “Supper’s ready. There’s a basin and pitcher up here on the porch. Get washed up and come on in.”
The cabin looked fair sized from the outside, but had only one room. In the far corner stood an old wood stove. I was surprised to see they had a short-handled pump attached to a thick wooden plank that also served as a work counter. The bed was on the opposite side. Right smack dab in the middle of the room was the table with four chairs arranged around it. James Foster sat facing the door with a napkin shoved in his collar. He looked ready to eat. Laura, standing at the counter and still barefoot, had put her hair up. I liked it better loose.
“Come in, Mister Dula, and have a seat,” she beamed. Her husband had lost some of his reserve. “Yes, boy, come on in. You’re welcome at our table.”
The food was good. I hadn’t known how hungry I was. I told them a little about myself and a few war stories. When Laura pressed me for what kind of trouble I was leaving behind in North Carolina, her husband said, “Ain’t none of your concern, girl. Let the man eat in peace.”
After supper, as Laura cleared the table, James and I took out our pipes. I offered him my pouch. “Here, try this. North Carolina is known for its tobacco.”
Him and me chewed the fat for a bit. Then I figured I had stayed my welcome. “I thank ya’all for the vittles, but I reckon it’s time I was movin’ on.”
Laura, who was at the pump cleaning the last of the dishes, turned around and said to James, “It’s late. You think it would be alright if Mister Dula slept in the barn tonight?”
James had warmed to me as he smoked my tobacco and did not hesitate. “Good idea. Fetch him a blanket.”
After lighting their spare lantern, James walked me out to the barn. “While you unsaddle your horse, I’ll pile up some hay for ya. You’re lucky it’s springtime and not winter. You should be comfortable enough. If you have need, the convenience is behind the cabin.” It was a lot better setup than I had anticipated when I had hit the trail that morning. James bade me a good night and left me to myself.
Before turning in, I watered my horse and gave him some hay to hold him over until I could replenish the oat bag hanging from my saddle.
Lying there alone in the darkness, breathing in the smells of a Tennessee barn, I confronted my demons and wondered how I’d gotten into the fix in which I found myself. Sure, I had killed a man. Ol’ Jake Parsons. It was in self-defense, but no one had seen the act. He was drunk and I was drunk. No one had seen him lunge at me with a knife clutched in his hand. No one saw us tussle and fall. No one saw the knife pierce his heart but me. He was well-respected. I was a nobody. By the time I realized what had happened, people were starting to gather. Murmurs were going around that perhaps justice would be best served with a quick hanging. No need to trouble the sheriff. I pushed through the crowd and made for my horse before more people showed up. I was one step ahead of them and made it out of town before they could coalesce and pursue.
I would have to make miles in the morning. Word had certainly gotten about by now. I would head north and hide among the Yankees. Those damn hated Yankees. But it was better than the alternative: a hemp noose and a short dance in the air. I drifted off to a troubled sleep thinking those thoughts.
I don’t know how long I was asleep before I was shaken awake by a gentle hand. It was dark and I was disoriented. “Hush. Don’t say nothin’.” It was Laura.
“What is it, Laura? What’s the matter?”
“Nothin’. I just wanna talk.”
“Well, let me light the lantern so I can see you.”
“No! Just talk to me.”
I brought myself up on one elbow and waited. What did she want me to say? What was this all about? I soon found out.
“Do you think I’m pretty?”
So that’s what it’s all about. “I think you should go back into the cabin before James finds you gone.”
“Don’t you talk to me like I was a child. I’m all grown up. Now answer me. Do you think I’m pretty?”
With a heavy sigh, I answered her. “Yes, Laura. You are pretty. Now leave me be. You’re gonna cause nothin’ but trouble being out here.”
She came closer. I could feel her warm breath on my cheek. I could smell her hair. She must have washed it recently. It still smelled of soap. Her hand touched mine. It was soft like I knew it would be. She was trying me. Lord, was she trying me. “If you don’t leave, I’m gonna saddle my horse and be outta this barn before you ever knew I was here.”
She grabbed my hand and held it tight. I could not see her, but I heard her sniffles. All her words came out in a rush. “I’m in the prime of my life. I don’t want to grow old and worn on this forty acre farm. I’m no farm woman. I was meant for better. I’m only married to James because my pa made me do it. He has eyes on this land. Let’s leave tonight. Let’s head to a big city. I’ll be your woman. You’ll never be sorry. I know how to please a man. You don’t even have to marry me.”
I gently extricated my hand from hers. I hadn’t been around woman folk much. I mean in that manner. But I knew they were filled to the brim with emotions. You had to be careful with them. You never knew, they could go off like a firework on the Fourth of July. And the last thing I needed right then, with her husband not twenty yards away, was an hysterical woman on my hands.
In a soft voice, one I hoped sounded caring and honest, I said, “Laura, you are probably the best lookin’ woman I ever did see. And if things were different, I’d take you to the ends of the earth. But a man does not ride onto another man’s land, eat his food, enjoy his hospitality, and then ride out with his wife on the back of his horse. It just ain’t right. You understand that, don’t ya?”
Things were quiet for a spell. For a long spell. At long length, she whispered, “Are you saying if I weren’t married you’d take me with you?”
I nodded my head. But then realized she couldn’t see the motion in the dark. So I said, “That about covers it.”
She patted my hand. How she knew where it was, was beyond me. It was pitch black in that barn. She must have been part cat. “That’s okay, Tom. I understand. You go back to sleep now. I’ll see you in the morning.”
She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek, and then she was gone. My only thought at that point was, like hell she’ll see me in the morning. I was gonna be gone before first grey light. I lay back down and smiled to myself. Life sure can be crazy at times.
I must have been more worn out then I knew. I was awakened by a crow’s caws. He sure was insistent. It was full light out. Damn, I should have been long gone by now.
I got up and grabbed my saddle, but before I could fling it on my horse, Laura walked in. “Don’t be in such a rush. We have time to have breakfast before we leave.”
I shook my head in dismay. “I told you last night, you’re not leaving with me.”
“I know what you said. But I’m not married no more.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean James is gone and now I’m free to go with you.”
“What do you mean James is gone?”
She flung her arms up in the air in exasperation and explained it to me. “I killed him last night right after I talked with you. Pulled the big carving knife right across his old throat as he slept, I did.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was she funning with me? The look on her face said otherwise. I dropped my saddle and raced for the cabin. The door stood open and I went right in. There he was. Lying on his back. The front of his nightshirt stained a crimson red. His eyes half lidded, his mouth open.
I heard a noise behind me. It was Laura as she came in through the door. “What are you dallying for? If you don’t want breakfast, I have my kit packed, ready to go. And I won’t have to ride the back of your horse. I’ll ride James’ mare. She’s a fine horse. Her name is Maggie.”
I looked into her grey eyes. She was stark raving mad. Funny I hadn’t noticed before. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to set her off. I just wanted to get out of there. Then any decision I might have made was taken out of my hands. The clip clop of horses’ hooves came to me from outside. Someone was riding into the yard.
She looked at me. I looked at her. I knew what she was gonna do before she knew what she was gonna do. Through her eyes, I saw the thought process going around in her mind. When she had decided her course of action, a determination played across her face. She grinned at me and said, “It would have been so much fun, Tom.”
I was resigned to my fate. I should have died in the war. I should have died when Jake Parsons came at me with that knife. I didn’t know it, but I’ve been on borrowed time since I left North Carolina. I smiled at her and said, “Yup. It would have been one hell of a hay ride, Little Missy.”
Without another word, she turned and ran screaming from the cabin. She ran right into the arms of her father and three of her brothers who had come for a visit. The upshot is that the trial was over before I knew it. Laura testified that she and James had befriended me and I paid back their kindness by slitting his throat while she was out of the cabin, pulling water up from the well. She said it had been my intention to kill her after having had my sinful way with her. Only the fortuitous arrival of her family saved her. It made no sense. But she was believed. I said not a word. What was the use?
The horses move sluggishly. They are in no rush. Neither am I. I hear that old crow cawing to his mate. I notice every leaf on every tree, the green and brown of the different grasses. The clouds have never been fluffier, never whiter. The sky never bluer. The sun rides high, the crisp morning air flows around me, embraces me, caresses me. It is a beautiful day. There’ll never, ever be such an astonishing, lovely day again. Never. It’s a great day to be alive. I’m riding in the back of a wagon, my arms tied behind me. My coffin follows in a wagon of its own. We’re headed for an old white oak just outside of town. The hanging tree. This time tomorrow, I’ll be planted six feet down, wishing I was anywhere else.