“Mr. Cobb, your scope if you please.”
Cobb unfastened the brass scope from his Whitworth and passed it to John’s outstretched hand.
With both hands, John threaded the scope through the thick underbrush and lofted the contraption to his eye. Through the looking glass he could make a better assessment of the silhouette on the horizon. There were two slaves supporting a younger, injured white man.
"Ready a stretcher," John said.
Zeb was standing next to John. “What do you see?” he asked. John withdrew the scope and handed it to Zeb. “Looks to me like an uppity fool went and got himself shot by some Union bummers or thereabouts. No concern of ours.”
“I said ready a stretcher.”
“What, are we in the business of helping coons now?”
“Ready a stretcher goddamn it!” John hissed.
Zeb spun around, jamming the scope into Cobb’s chest. “Paul,” he called, “you heard him, fetch some branches.”
Paul scurried around with something to prove. He was the son of Levander, one of the older veterans. Levander had a stonewall exterior, but beneath that lied a gentle demeanor which John could see. He wouldn’t so much as prune a hedge, let alone eat meat. However, he would go to great lengths to safeguard his son. That’s why he had joined the war to begin with, and that's why he allowed his son to join when the war started to go south. Paul inherited none of that grit.
Paul returned with a couple of long, straight branches scraped clean of twigs. He clumsily returned his Bowie knife to its sheath. Zeb unrolled a length of cloth on the ground. There were loops sewn onto the long edges, into which he threaded the branches. “Are you ready?” Zeb asked. “You’re going to perform this fool’s errand with me.”
John had kept watch on the trio. Someone clapped him on the shoulder. “You keep my son safe, you understand,” Levander said.
John rose, looking Levander in the eyes, and gave an affirming nod, then followed Paul and Zeb into the clearing.
“Hello there,” he called in the most congenial voice he could muster.
The two black men didn’t even flinch. They seemed consigned to their fate. They just stopped to face these others.
“Don’t be alarmed,” John reassured them anyway, jogging toward them. Their eyes fixed on his sidearm.
“What do you want?” one of them asked.
John noticed their discomfort. Slowly and deliberately he removed the Colt Navy revolver by its barrel and held his hands over his head. “It’s not what we want, it’s what we have to offer.” Paul and Zeb appeared with the stretcher.
“Why should we trust you?”
“Where were you headed?” John retorted.
“I see, then, you don't have another option.”