At fifteen, I was an experienced woodsman running the woods and the rolling hills around Elk Creek. The day I showed Ma and Gatlin, my older brother, I was strong enough to aim my rifle and hit where I pointed. I went out on my own.
I counted myself a good shot, but Gatlin was better. Living most of my life in the woods had taught me to be careful, especially today. I was young in years but I wasn't dumb. So I waited in a grove of persimmon before crossing an open patch of ground leading down to the creek.
My senses told me something was not quite right, but I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Hunkering down and resting my rifle across my knees, my eyes searched every shadow. Scanning the woods from left to right, I saw nothing out of place. The creek was about a hundred yards away, with plenty of cover. What was wrong? Gatlin had taught me to use all my senses. No new smell! I couldn't see anything out of place. No strange sounds! Where were the birds and cricket sounds? The crows normally would be squawking their heads off, but nothing. That was the problem! No sounds!
Mr. Blaylock, who owns the trading post, said that a big battle was shaping up here at Honey Springs. The Confederates had a large supply depot just up Texas road a ways and the Union soldiers were moving down from the north. The Johnny Reb's weren't going to retreat without a fight. Today might be the day of battle.
As I lay on the ground waiting for something to show or happen my mind considered how the day begun.
Finishing my chores for the day, I took up my fishing pole and headed for the barn. It had been raining early on and I knew those night crawlers were on top of the ground and would almost fight to stay out of the bait can. I had made up my mind, I was going to catch the big one this morning.
Ma's words still rang in my ears. "Shad Rawlins No-Fire, now you hear me good! Take your gun and be real careful! You know what Mr. Blaylock said, Union soldiers are rumored to have crossed the Arkansas River and moving this way." Looking at me and taking the edge from her voice she said, "You catch something and I'll fry it up for supper and fix you a molasses cake for your birthday, you're fifteen today. You forgot! This is July 16!" She always called me by my full name, when she wanted me to hear really well. How about that! I forgot my birthday.
After her folks died of the fever Ma had married Pa, who was three quarter Creek Indian blood. I was just thirteen when the war started two years ago, too young to join up, so I was to care for Ma while Pa and Gatlin went off to fight with the Confederates. Pa was killed at a place called Pea Ridge and we didn't know where Gatlin was. Now Gatlin was the woodsman. I reckon he stood eight feet tall in my book and I sure missed him going fishing with me.
As for Pa, he never seemed to have time to provide for his family but plenty of time to drink. Pa would come home drunk and take his spite out on Gatlin and me. Farming just wasn't something he liked doing, so most of the time you could find him at Blaylock's store, setting out back with Jess Wheeler, drinking home brew. Pa never hurt Ma because he knew what Gatlin would do. Course I would've helped too. I guess he must have loved Ma some. I thought about Pa getting killed, but I reckon I wasn't sorry.
Elk Creek, lay about two miles from the cabin, it didn't have a lot of water, but it had deep holes where some of the biggest channel catfish I've ever seen hung out in the shadows. The holes were fed by three springs and the water stayed clear and cool just about year round. The water tasted as sweet as honey, some people said. Guess that was where the name came from.
The sun was straight up when I finally picked up gun and fishing pole, headed for the creek. It was a nice walk to the creek. The rolling hills were covered with persimmon groves, Osage-orange and ash trees lined the trail with plenty of sage-grass covering the ground. It being July, summer had set in pretty good. The grass had greened up some since the rain early this morning. I hoped the fish was hungry.
Some of the Creeks would noodle and even trap those big fish. I enjoyed just sitting and waiting for those night crawlers to do their job. Sometimes I wondered if maybe those big crawlers were scaring the fish away. Not this day, I was going to catch the big one.
The bushes moved off to my left, snapping my mind back to a possible dangerous situation I was in. Blue uniforms came into sight. I pushed further back into the bushes fearing that I would be discovered. There were several men leading their horses, moving carefully. Must be forward scouts for the Yankees, guess the rumor was true. Snaking backward on my belly, even further, until the soldiers were out of sight, in one motion I pushed myself up from the ground and sprinted about fifty yards to a grove of persimmon trees. Stretching out in a shallow wallow, I hunkered down and listened.
A blue uniformed man with three stripes said, "Sir, I been here for twenty minutes, don't think we've been spotted. This is a good place to wait on the column. We got water and grass."
I was sure glad I had listened to my senses or I might be dead or maybe taken prisoner by now.
"Sergeant, have the men care for their horses and break out the coffee pots, and bring that prisoner up here!"
The sergeant barked an order and two privates showed up, on either side of a man who was dressed in a dirty, wore out gray uniform. His black hair was matted with mud, leaves and blood. The privates stood him up before the officer. The man tugged his uniform, what was left of it, into place. But he could do little to improve his appearance. A full beard covered his face. Something looked vaguely familiar about him.
The officer offered him a hard biscuit and water. "What unit are you with soldier?"
"Now you know I cain't tell you that sir!"
I almost jumped up outta my hiding place, when I heard Gatlin's voice. Calming down, I listened to what was being said. "Son, you are my prisoner and you will be taken care of. Your fighting days are over. Where's your unit located?"
Defiantly Gatlin said, "I don't have a unit. I've been laid up from a wound I got. I was hoping to get attached to one in this area." I could tell that he wasn't fully healed from his wound. He stumbled and almost fell, had it not been for the two privates stepping up to brace him.
The Officer told the soldiers to take Gatlin and secure him to one of the small trees just inside the camp circle. I had to let him know that I was here. Maybe I could get closer to him once the camp settled down.
It wasn't more than fifteen minutes when a soldier rode in and reported to the officer in charge. Afterward the officer told the sergeant, "The column is about two miles northeast of us and will make camp there. Apparently the Colonel got word that the Rebels are going to make a stand somewhere in that area. We are to continue our patrol, see if we can make contact with the Rebels."
Don't know why, but I thought about Ma, waiting on me. Being out in the woods so much, Ma knew that I sometime forgot the time of day, so maybe she wouldn't get worried about me not being home before dark. I had to think of how to get Gatlin free and get him home. My stomach told me it was getting near suppertime. I had stuffed a biscuit and sausage in my sack before I left home, that made a right nice lunch. Smelling bacon cooking over an open fire sure makes the hunger pains get stronger. I occupied my mind and time while I waited for the sun to go down, working out a plan to help Gatlin escape.
It wasn't much of a plan, just get closer, like I'm doing now, and let Gatlin know that I was close by giving out with a No-fire imitation of a quail. We had it worked out as a warning between us, if we ever were in a dangerous situation. I figured now would be a good time.
Working myself around through the trees to where Gatlin was about twenty yards away, I gave out with three quail calls. Gatlin's head came up off his chest and looked around before settling on the bushes in front of me and then moved on. He was letting me know he was ready. One of the soldiers said, "I'm going out and wait for that quail to call again. I sure would like some quail for supper. I used to throw a stick and get two or three at the same time. Maybe I'll get lucky."
I had to move for he was coming directly for the bushes. Gatlin raised his head and said, "Hey, blue boy, my mama gave me a recipe for fried quail that is so good, you'll be fighting for a taste. You get a quail and I'll cook it for you." Gatlin bought me some time, so I could move away from the bushes. Ol' Gatlin sure could think fast.
Some minutes went by before the soldier finally decided the quails had moved away and so did he. Supper was on and those soldier boys were getting all relaxed like they didn't expect any trouble. I sure didn't want to make them any but me and Gatlin was heading for home in a little while.
The shadows were long to the east when I started moving toward that tree where Gatlin was tied. I was Indian crawling directly behind the tree, figured I could cut the ropes and being in the shadows, we could be long gone for a few minutes before they discovered ol' Gatlin wasn't there.
"That you Shad, you going to get yourself killed? Ma will never forgive me, if you do."
How did he know I was even there? I was being real careful. "Yeah, it's me. I'm cutting the ropes. Just give me couple of minutes so I can setup to cover you while you slip out of here."
Setting up behind a pretty good size maple, I made sure my rifle was primed and ready. I could barely see Gatlin moving slowly like a snake, sliding to the side and around the tree. It had taken maybe two minutes and we were crawling away, when we heard the alarm.
Gatlin wasn't in shape to run so we had to find a hiding place real quick. "Shad you know that big cottonwood tree next to your favorite fishing hole? Make for it! I know where we can hide."
My mind was racing, trying to figure where we could hide there, but if Gatlin said it, it's true. Giving Gatlin as much help as I could we were by that old cottonwood in just a few minutes. He said, "Get right down that creek bank to the water's edge and push through those cane bushes. There's an opening between the roots." Sure enough the dirt had been washed or dug away from those old roots. There was an opening big enough for both of us.
I pulled the bushes back in place behind us just as the soldiers came barreling over the creek bank. Not able to see much in the darkness, they just naturally tumbled right down into the water. I never heard so much cursing before, guess they weren't much used to water. One Yankee had his face in the water not four feet from us.
I poked the muzzle of my rifle out through those bushes, pointed where his eye brows come together and said, "Yankee boy, if you want to hunt quail again I better not hear anything except, 'he ain't here!' Okay?"
He blinked his eyes, wiped the mud and water from his face and said, "he ain't here else we would be dead by now. I say more power to him. He's hurt anyway. Sure would have liked some of his Mama's quail recipe though. I wish him good hunting."
"Soldier, I just hope we don't face him down a rifle barrel one of these days. I bet he can shoot the whisker off your chin." All of a sudden the war started just on the other side of the ridge to the north. The Sergeant said, "Get back to camp and ready to ride. We got a fight on our hands."
It was plumb dark when I opened the front door and Ma was sitting in her rocking chair. "Shad Rawlins No-fire, where have you been, I've been worried sick."
"Ma I didn't catch the big one, but look what I fetched you." Shock and then tears of thanksgiving came into her eyes as Gatlin came into the room. After we had supper and a slice of molasses cake, ol' Gatlin told Ma, how I had faced that Yankee boy down and got us clean away before killing started. I felt real proud the way Ma looked at me.
Ol' Gatlin and me are back doing what we enjoy most, trying to catch that big channel catfish in Elk Creek. Ma says, she's going to wash my mouth out with soap, if I don't stop lying, but, I swear those night crawlers are vicious enough to bite your hand off, when you pick them up. I carry a club when I get bait for fishing.
Gatlin is on the mend and Ma is fussing over him like he's the grandest man alive. Maybe he is! He stands tall in my book.