Author: Cheryl W.
Disclaimer: I do not own or have any rights to Hell on Wheels, nor am I making any profit from this story.
Cullen wasn't sure what snapped him awake. Opening his eyes didn't set him straight on the matter either. Not when he wasn't sure what he was looking at. What he did sort out was he was moving and not by his own steam, was being carried.
'Over somebody's shoulder,' he realized, didn't remember a time when that had ever been a good thing.
He moved, intended to demand to be put down so he could stand on his own feet. But he nearly blacked out after doing little more than raising his head from the shoulder blades it rested on. He moaned as agony speared into his brain.
Suddenly the motion halted and a voice he knew invaded his personal campaign of pain.
"Whoa, hey, you awake?"
Elam. Elam was carrying him and for a moment, Cullen couldn't reckon how that had ever come to be.
As if sensing the other man's confusion, Elam supplied, "You took a pick to the head. 'member that?"
And he did recall a pick aiming for his skull….then not a thing. "I take it I ain't dead," he managed to get out around his thick tongue.
"You too stubborn to die," Elam shot back, didn't let his relief show.
"Not stubborn…too stupid…" Bohannon corrected, his voice rough with pain. Way he felt right then, death didn't seem such a bad fate.
Then it was there again, what had jarred him awake: the boom of thunder. "Storm," he mumbled, letting his eyes close and his head come to rest again between Elam's shoulder blades.
"Yeah, it's fixin' to let loose any time now," Elam confirmed, his own eyes going overhead to the darkening sky before sighting again on the ruts in the prairie that led back to camp. A camp he couldn't see, no matter how long or far he looked. No way they made it back before the storm and no way they made it 'fore nightfall. He heaped more curses on Psalms' head but, even so, he couldn't help feel a heap better 'cause Bohannon was awake, wasn't dead. Tightening his grip on Bohannon's leg, he started walking again. Wasn't doin' neither of them no good him stopping.
But Bohannon had other ideas. "Put me down," the man suddenly ordered.
Elam didn't slow his pace, had no intentions of following that command. "I'm bettin' you can't walk on your own. You too proud to be carried by a black man?" he challenged, didn't truthfully know if Bohannon felt that way, knew every man had his pride.
"No," Cullen groaned out, had to swallow hard before he got the other words out, "but I'm gonna be sick, this keeps up."
That was reason enough for Elam.
Crossing over to the nearest hill, Elam eased Bohannon off his shoulder and settled the wounded man as gentle as he could onto the ground, made it so Cullen's back and head came to rest against the small incline. He didn't miss Cullen's sharp inhale at the jostling.
Gritting his teeth to keep a howl of pain from escaping, Cullen pressed the back of his hand against his mouth, was determined to not lose his breakfast either.
Coming to a crouch by Bohannon, Elam got his first good look at the wounded man since he had pulled him over his shoulder. Immediately, some of Elam's conviction that Bohannon being awake meant the man wasn't gonna die, faded. Cullen's face was flushed with fever, the crude bandage wrapped around his head was heavy with blood and some of that liquid was streaking down the side of Bohannon's face. When Cullen gave a rough, dry cough, Elam silently cursed Psalms for not leaving even a canteen of water behind. 'Few minutes and you'll get all the water you want…and more,' he darkly predicted, his eyes again slipping to the sky.
His eyes scanning their surroundings before settled back on Elam, Cullen asked, his voice a hoarse hiss of breath, "You wanna tell me where my horse is and the cut crew?"
"I figure crew's 'bout back to camp already. And your horse, they were gonna let it loose on the way," Elam blandly stated, didn't think there was no good reason to not be straight with Bohannon.
Bohannon's head did a curious tilt and he began to ask, "Why'd they…." But suddenly he understood. He always was good at making out the hard truths. "They're hoping I do the right thing for them and die," he figured, not with so much wrath as acceptance as he watched Elam, waited to see if the man would lie for the other black men that made up the Freed Men cut crew.
Elam's jaw jumped, his own anger still smoldering at the other men's betrayal of Bohannon. Last thing he was gonna do was defend them.
Giving a self-depreciating snort of laughter, Cullen closed his eyes. "Guess I shoulda listened better when ya said I was as bad as Johnson."
"Ain't you they hate," Elam quickly stated, knew that much about the other men. When Cullen opened his one eye to give him a disbelieving look, he clarified, "It's the Swede. They figure, it gets out one of them hurt you, the Swede might string us all up."
That theory had Cullen focusing both blurry eyes on Elam. "You stay behind to make sure I don't make it back to town," he wryly asked.
"Yeah, that's why I slung your heavy white carcass over my shoulder and went for a mosey in the direction of camp," Elam sarcastically drawled with a bit of a sting. Sure, he didn't expect no hug from the man for saving his hide but he expected a tad more trust and a small slice of gratitude. He had stuck his neck out for Bohannon and like Psalms said, after this, he might be an outcast even with his own people.
Cullen studied the black man, didn't quite know what to make of the situation. They had had each other's back 'fore but this was a different animal altogether. This was Elam siding against his own kind. "Easier to just finish me off." Because he was having a hard time believing that the other members of the cut crew hadn't come up with that fix.
Elam wasn't fool enough to tell Bohannon that Psalms had that notion, but by the intense look in the southerner's eyes, Bohannon had already figured that out on his own. So instead of denying what was almost done by the others, Elam explained why he'd done what he did. "Like it woulda been easier to let 'em hang me." Because this situation, it wasn't much different in his eyes.
"Yup, woulda been," Cullen admitted in his unhurried southern drawl. And like that was all that needed to be said, he closed his eyes, felt like he could sink right into the ground his head felt so heavy. Not to mention it hurt like the dickens. Worse than the time he took a rifle butt to the head by one of the Yankees.
"We gotta get moving again. Storm's gonna be a bad one," Elam predicted, the boom of thunder proving his point.
Without opening his eyes, Cullen ordered, "Get on back to town. I'll be along after a spell." And he could feel Elam's gaze on him for a few moments before he sensed the man standing up and walking away. With Elam's departure, Cullen felt some of his reserves of energy bled away. Relieved to not need to worry 'bout nobody but himself.
He didn't even realize he had dozed off until a hand came to rest on his shoulder and he jerked awake. Eyes flying open he saw that Elam was hovering over him. "Thought you left," he groused as if he was disappointed to find the other man hadn't abandoned him.
Elam didn't bother refuting Cullen's belief. Man talked about trust when it came to Indians and arrows but the fool wasn't all that good with it when it came to him being unable to take care of himself. "Scouted around a bit. Ain't nothing out here for cover."
"Little rain wouldn't kill me," Cullen grumbled, though the idea of something even as infinitesimal as a drop of rain hitting his pounding head sounded like the worst torture right then.
"Good, 'cause I hate to waste my time carrying a corpse," Elam replied and then, without a word of warning, he hauled Cullen off the ground and over his shoulder again. Shifting the man's weight a moment, he balanced it out enough to straight up and then he started the walk back to camp.
The change of altitude made his head feel like it was stuck between a tightening vise and Cullen couldn't choke back the groan of agony. It took him a lot of hard swallows and careful breaths before he could speak. "Put me down. I can walk."
Elam laughed at the other man's boast. "How you gonna walk when you can't even crawl?" he challenged.
Whatever denial Cullen was about to make was drown out by a wave of intense pain. Clamping his mouth and his eyes shut, he clutched onto the back of Elam's shirt, hoped the black man thought his frantic grip on him was to steady himself because of the other man's gait. Last thing he wanted Elam to figure out was that he was anchoring himself to him to ride out the pain.
But pain was one thing Elam knew better than breathing. Didn't need no confession from Bohannon to know the man was hurting. Bad. Weren't nothing he could do for the man and he felt that old familiar helplessness soaking into his bones. He might be a free man but that didn't mean he was free from pain. Or had ways to make sure it didn't visit itself on others…like Willie. And now Bohannon.
And he thought about how he had been raised, to pretend the hurt wasn't there, to tell himself to think on something else and not let them see him break. Tightening his grip on Bohannon, he began to sing, not the raucous, baldy songs he done when working the cut crew, but the quiet melody he oftentimes heard the woman sing when he was on the plantation….when they were tending to the sick…or the dying.
The Gospel train's a'comin'
I hear it just at hand
I hear the car wheel rumblin'
And rollin' thro' the land
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
There's room for many more
I hear the train a'comin'
She's comin' round the curve **
As he continued to sing, Elam felt Bohannon's grip on him loosen, hoped that it was a sign that the man's pain was lessening. And it was strange to him, to wince at a white man's pain instead of celebrate over it.
Maybe change was coming after all…even if it was just between one former slave owner and hisself.
Thanks so much for my wonderful reviewers! You give me the gumption to keep penning and posting this story! And thanks to anyone else reading this tale.
** According to my findings on the Internet, this song "Gospel Train's A Coming" was song by slaves who wanted to signal others about the underground railroad movement. Wonder how Bohannon would feel if he knew the meaning of the song that was lulling him to unconsciousness?
Have a great day!