Chapter Four: The Sign of the Snake
As they left Shreveport in the predawn darkness, small specks of light from fireplaces, candles, and lanterns, sparked, sprouted, and glittered in houses and stores behind them. Micah, Elbert and Ezekiel rode behind the Federal soldiers who shuffled and stumbled forward on the rutted Shreveport Road they would follow to Jefferson, then to Marshal, and then to Tyler. The waning moon hung low in the horizon. Mockingbirds fussed and sang, and a woodpecker hammered out secret bird-heart desires on a clapboard house.
“My head’s about to split open,” Elbert said. “I came back to the saloon, but you were gone. Did that little songbird find you?”
“Ain’t nothin’ to talk about there.”
“She sure was a pretty thing. I’m trying to conjure up the face of the woman I was with, but I can’t seem to do it.”
“I saw her. She was as ugly as a fencepost.”
“You did no such thing. God almighty, what a night. I do love to visit the sporting women.”
One of the prisoners said, “It’s too dark to even see good yet. It’s bad enough to be prisoners of war without having to get up so early.”
“There’s enough moonlight to see the road. Just stay on it,” Micah said.
“I think this here mule’s moon blind. She keeps trying to stray off the road.” Ezekiel jerked the rope leading the mule. “Come on, jenny. Don’t you be ornery.” He pulled again at the mule.
Micah slowed his horse so he could ride beside Ezekiel.
“You gentlemen had a late night,” Ezekiel said. “You’re sporting a new rifle, I see.”
“Yeah, a man gave it to me last night.” Micah saw Ezekiel’s white teeth in a smile. “You don’t ever seem to have a bad disposition, Ezekiel.”
“It don’t help nothin’ to be worrying all the time. Besides, I’ve got a lot to smile about. I’m in good health, the captain’s well, and I’m going home to Texas. I’ll see my wife and young’uns, and life will be fine.”
An hour out of Shreveport, the sun rose and the heavy dew glistened in the morning light. Horses and men exuded clouds of frosty breath, and wordless they trudged on. They passed fallow fields and meadows starting to fill with bluebonnets and prairie fire paintbrush.
“Nothing’s as beautiful as a Texas morning,” Ezekiel said. “Wish the captain could see this morning with us. I surely hope he manages to come home soon.”
The day turned hot, and the travelers stopped midday. One of the Federals left the road and ducked behind some bushes to empty his bowels. When he violently began cursing, Micah walked to his horse and pulled his shotgun from its scabbard. The prisoner staggered from the bushes with his pants still halfway up his legs. “Jesus Christ, I’ve been snakebit!”
“Sit yourself down and let me have a look,” Micah said.
The snake had struck his thigh, just above the top of his boot.
“Durn if it didn’t catch a vein. That means the poison will spread fast.” Micah cut a leather thong from his Bowie sheath and pitched the knife and thong to one of the prisoners. “See if you can’t get the poison out.”
“How do I do that?” the prisoner said.
“Lord have mercy, you are an ignorant one. Bind his legs above the bite. Then slice the marks and suck the poison out.”
The man’s knee had already swelled. “Durn, his knee’s already swolled up like a melon,” one of the prisoners said. “And it’s turning black.”
“Don’t this beat all,” Elbert said. “Getting snakebit this time of year. I thought they’d still be denned up. What are we going to do with him? You don’t reckon he’ll die on us do you?”
“I don’t know,” Micah said. “I don’t know what else we can do to help him besides try to get some of the poison out.”
The snakebit soldier’s eyes were dilated. Beads of cold sweat dripped from his face. “I don’t feel so good,” he said. He turned to the side and puked. “I need to stand up.” He rose, but staggered as he tried to walk. One of the Yankees caught him before he could fall and helped lower him back to the ground.
“Keep him sitting down till we get him tended to,” Micah said.
“He needs a poultice,” Ezekiel said. “That always works better than trying to suck the poison out. I’ll fix him one. With the bite that high on his leg, I think he’s done for anyway, but you can’t never tell.”
“I suppose so, Ezekiel,” Micah said. Micah heard the rattle of the snake in the bushes. He rode over to it and killed it with the shotgun.
One of the Federal soldiers picked it up by the tail and raised it till its head came off the ground. “Lord, what a snake. Must be six feet long.”
Ezekiel found some prickly pear and pulled up two stalks of a peculiar plant. He brushed the dirt from the roots, snapped off the stalks and handed the roots to the Federal soldier. “You best chew on this,” he said. “It’s snakeroot. I call it, Black Sampson flower. Comanches use it for snakebite. Works better as a tea, but I ain’t got time to make no tea. The poultice will keep it from swelling so.” Ezekiel opened a pocketknife and began to skin the pears. “Now move aside so I can apply this dressing.” Ezekiel pressed the poultice to the bite. “One of you Yankee gentlemen give me some cloth.”
One handed him a scarf, and Ezekiel bound the poultice to the bite. “He won’t be able to walk, Mr. Evans,” Ezekiel said.
Micah pointed to one of the Federal soldiers and pitched him his knife. “You take my Bowie and go to that thicket yonder and cut a couple of poles. We’ll have to make a skid for your friend to ride on.”
“We don’t have a horse to hook the litter to, Micah,” Elbert said.
“His friends can drag him along. He shouldn’t have let himself get bit.” Micah said.
“He’ll slow us down,” Elbert said.
“That can’t be helped, I guess.” Micah watched the Yankee turn to his side and puke again. “He sure is sick.”
The two Federals returned with two pine trees. Micah directed two Yankees to remove their canvas suspenders and used them to lash the poles in a V shape to a supporting mesquite branch bar that extended out enough for each of them to put an end on their shoulders. Micah stretched the soldier’s blanket across the poles and tied it down. The travois would have worked better with a horse, but Micah had no intention of walking, and he didn’t think the moon-blind mule could have handled the extra load. “Keep him propped up. You don’t want the poison to get to his heart easy,” Micah said. “Get him on the skid and let’s be on our way.”
None of the soldiers moved. Micah spat. “It don’t matter to me. I’d just as soon leave him here. If there’s a leader in this sorry bunch, why don’t he tell two men to do it. It’s not a hard decision. I think even you Yankees can figure out some sort of rotation system for dragging him along. Hell, don’t the man have a friend here?”
“Come on, Bartholomew,” one said. “Let’s you and me take the first shift.”
The pair laid him on the stretcher, and then each grabbed an end of the sidebar and hoisted him up.
“Would you really have left him here?” the one called Bartholomew asked.
“One less Yankee to fool with don’t bother me none. You two go in front.”
That night they camped by a creek. Ezekiel took Micah’s shotgun and returned with four jackrabbits that he boiled. When they were done, he added some flour and dried wild onions. As Ezekiel filled their tin cups, Micah said to the prisoners, “You boys best enjoy this stew. I’m not sure you’ll be getting much fresh meat where you’re going.”
After the Federals had lain down for the night, Micah, Elbert, and Ezekiel sat together by the fire. The snakebit soldier moaned.
“He has fever,” Ezekiel said. “I think his leg is infected.”
“Might be,” Elbert said. “I’m sure there’s a doctor at Camp Ford. He can be tended to there. Be a shame if he lost his leg thought, just from being careless about where he shat.”
Ezekiel drew slowly from his clay pipe and blew out a cloud of smoke. “The Captain always said that when a man is on death’s doorstep, he best watch where he puts his feet.”
They rose at sunrise and gave the Yankees hardtack and water for breakfast. Micah, Elbert, and Ezekiel had the same, but with coffee. After walking for two hours, they came upon a wagon had broken down in the road. It was loaded to overflowing with chests, boxes, and burlap sacks. A woman and two young girls sat in the shade of a nearby oak. A large black woman hovered behind them. A black man squatted on the road with a wrench and a wagon wheel. He looked up at Micah, took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a sleeve.
“You folks alright?” Micah asked.
“Broke another spoke on this wheel is all. I’ll have it fixed directly.”
Micah rode over to the women. “Ladies,” he said. “Can we be of assistance?”
The two girls smiled and tittered behind their fans. One woman said, “No, thank you. It’s just a spoke on the wagon. Daniel has already repaired this wheel three times. I suppose I should buy another wheel when we reach Jefferson.”
“Where you folks from?” Micah said.
“I am Kate Stone from the Brokenburn Plantation and traveling to Tyler.” She sighed. “I have family there. I regret leaving our home, but between the Yankee bummers and jayhawkers, it was no longer safe in Madison Parish. I’ve never seen the like of thieves and lawless men. Negroes are running wild too. I have my daughters to think of. We live in desperate times, sir.” The woman eyed the Federal soldiers. “They are your prisoners?”
“The only Yankees you’ll see in this part of Texas will be prisoners. We’re going to Tyler ourselves. You’re welcome to travel with us.”
“Thank you, but no. I don’t think I could stand the sight of those blue uniforms. Our journey has been difficult enough. Daniel will repair this wheel and we’ll be on our way soon enough. We’ll likely meet up with others coming this way.”
Micah’s caravan moved on. They made camp just outside of Jefferson. Ezekiel boiled white beans for their supper. The prisoners laid down in a row along the road and went to sleep quickly. Ezekiel set another pot of beans on the fire to soak and simmer for their breakfast. “I’ll get us some fresh meat soon. I don’t care much for these white beans, so we might as well let these Yankees eat them up.”
Micah cut a sliver of tobacco and chewed it slowly, then spat a stream into the fire. “How about some coffee, Ezekiel?”
“We’re running low on coffee, Mr. Evans. We need to save it for the morning.”
Micah nodded. “I suppose you’re right.”
“I can ride into Jefferson and get some,” Elbert said.
“You just want to go and get drunk,” Micah said.
“It entered my mind that I might find us some whiskey while I was there.”
“You got any money left?” Micah said.
“Get a dollar or two out of my saddlebag. Get us as much coffee as you can and get yourself a drink too if you have any left.”
Elbert returned close to midnight. He was singing “Rose of Alabamy.” Micah watched him wobble unsteadily as he unsaddled his horse and hobbled her for the night.
“I take it you found you some whiskey. You find some coffee too?”
“It’s in my saddlebag. Found a pound, but the price was dear. Didn’t leave me much to drink on. You want me to take over guard duty?”
“Naw. You ain’t in no condition to guard anyone. I’ll take your watch tonight. You can take mine tomorrow.”
“You’re a true friend, Micah.”
“Go on to sleep, you drunken fool.” Micah thought about tying up the prisoners so he could sleep too, but he decided to just forego sleep tonight. He looked up at the stars and listened to the coyotes cutting up nearby. He said a prayer to whatever god was listening that Erin and the twins would be safe. He fed the fire a mesquite stick, stared at the flames, then the embers, then dropped in another stick. He did this throughout the night. At first light, Ezekiel rose and set the coffeepot on the coals. Micah opened his watch and saw that it was just shy of four.
Ezekiel sat down next to him. “As soon as you and I have some coffee, Mister Evans, I’ll wake them all up and we’ll eat those beans that been simmering all night.”
The coffeepot lid began to bounce from the boiling water. With a rag on his hand, Ezekiel picked it up by the handle, set it on the ground, threw in a handful of coffee, then returned it to the fire.
Micah went to the mule’s pack and dug around until he found three tin cups. “You make good coffee, Ezekiel.”
“I do, for a fact. The Captain likes his coffee, but he don’t want no camp coffee like most soldiers drink—so strong it will float a horseshoe or even dissolve it. He wants some flavor with it, and a little milk and sugar when we could find it. Back in Louisiana, I was talking with a Negro cook who had been out east, with the armies fightin’ with Robert E. Lee. He said they didn’t have no coffee at all, other than some sweet potato coffee.” Ezekiel shook his head. “That sure would be hard on the Captain. He enjoys his books and he enjoys his coffee.”
“It’s probably hard on him to not have you with him now,” Micah said.
“No, sir. The Captain’s a tough man. He can get by without a manservant, but he couldn’t keep on living and worrying about our families so. He’ll sleep better knowing I’m back where I can help them and protect them.”
After Elbert drank a cup of coffee, he walked over to the row of sleeping Federals and called for them to get up. They rose and filed by the fire with their tin cups for the bean breakfast. One Federal remained on the ground. Cursing, Elbert walked over and jerked off the sleeping man’s blanket. The snakebit soldier had died during the night. His mouth had frozen into a jester’s smile. His skin was splotched in places where the blood had pooled, and his arms and torso had twisted in a bizarre pose of rigor mortis. His sunken eyes were open, so Elbert thought he must have passed on while still awake. Elbert shook out the blanket. Just as he was about to drape it over the dead soldier’s face, a pair of rattlesnakes crawled out from between the soldier’s legs and slithered into the dark.
“Don’t that beat all I ever saw,” Elbert said.
“What’s wrong, Elbert?” Micah called out.
“The snakebit boy died on us, Micah. And then I saw the durndest thing. Two more rattlesnakes bedded up with him last night. Snakes sure seem to take a liking to this fellow.”
“Two more what?” Micah said. “I didn’t quite hear you.”
Elbert made the hand sign of the Comanche. “Snakes. Two of them.”