Following is my version of what may have happened at the time of the
escape. I started this story over a year ago, let it ‘set’ for a while, and
then decided it needed to be completed. Most of the story is told through
the POV of someone other than a Lancer character. A damn or hell appears
now and then but nothing more. A couple of the individuals, however, are
very direct and the childbirth process is dealt with in the Prologue. Other
than that, it’s a pretty tame story. (g)
I want to thank Cobalt Jan for her wonderful beta. Appreciation is a word that doesn’t cover all she has done. Thanks to all who read it and comments are welcome. I am always open to constructive opinions as well.
In doing resesarch for this story, there was a Camp Sorghum in Columbia, SC for prisoners of war. Many of the prisoners were officers transferred down from Libby in Richmond, Va. after LIbby closed. It was an open-air camp with very little shelter for the men. Little food, combined with exposure resulted in a high mortality rate. There is also a Congaree River that goes through Columbia. The Camp was liberated when General Sherman reached Columbia in February of 1865. Much of Columbia was burned, but from what material I read, there is still debate on whether Sherman gave orders to burn it, whether the Confederates set fire to the city's arms warehouse and it grew from there, or if actual fighting between the two armies set the fire. I've also researched the temperature of the area in February and found that there is quite a bit of swing. For the purpose of this story, it was a relatively mild February.
She came into
the world screaming so loud that her mother didn’t have the heart to kill
her. Bloody and wet, the baby’s long arms and legs thrust and twisted in
the air. A girl child: a big boned girl child shrieking as if possessed by
every demon that lurked in the shadows of the plantation. The howling storm
couldn’t muffle the child’s cries. Tree limbs banged the wooden shanty;
rain slammed against the window, but the baby seemed unmindful of the
The mother, exhausted hours ago by the birthing of the too large baby, knew she was bleeding to death --- the thin mattress was wet through with more than the fluids of the bloody afterbirth. The baby had torn its way out of her belly and most of her insides had flowed away like a gushing river between her legs.
“Abigail.” She heard a frail voice and wondered that it was hers.
Long fingers soothed and brushed through sweat soaked hair. “Hush, Carrie, you gots her born. Now you rest.”
“You raise her for me, Abigail. I ain’t got the pow’r.” She swallowed hard, gagging on the lump in the back of her throat. Sweat pooled in the hollow of her neck and the air choked with the smell of storm and blood. “I was gonna ask’t you to kill the chil’, but I can’t.”
The plea was hardly there --- muffled by the thunder and the woman’s own weakness.
“Hush, now girl.” Abigail touched the sweaty forehead. “Ain’t no one gonna raise that babe but you.”
“I’m long past that. I knows I’m dying.” Tears welled in her eyes. “Lets me see her.”
Abigail turned to a woman huddled over a small table in a corner of the room. The stingy yellow light from a rusted oil lamp stretched just far enough to touch the figure hovering over the baby.
“Shella, give me the chil’.” Abigail reached for the squalling newborn, dried and swaddled in rough cotton.
“We can tell Shoal that the babe was born dead.” Shella’s voice was low as she handed the baby to Abigail.
“No. Carrie don’t want that.” Abigail took the child and nestled it against her mother’s breast. Her hungry mouth latched on to the dark nipple and suckled with the instinct of a strong newborn.
Carrie watched the greedy baby suck at her breast, the nipple already tender and sore. She wouldn’t live long enough for the tit to harden to the child’s working mouth, but she didn’t begrudge the young one the comfort of her first meal. She was not a pretty baby, but solid and rough of feature.
she’d go straight to heaven if we kilt her now. She wouldn’t know pain.
Not worked to death or fiddled with by a man who can’t keep his snake in his
pants.” Carrie looked at her baby and wept. She felt the snot roll down
into her mouth and tasted salt. It seemed like she’d been blubbering most
of her life – how could she leave her baby the same birthright?
““Carrie, thinks on what you is sayin’. I’ll takes her. You knows that.”
“I know. I knows your heart is yearning for a babe.”
Abigail bowed her head. “Ain’t nothing I wouldn’t do for you, Carrie, but I can’t kill this child.”
“Abie, ya think Jesus loves me?” It was a question she had buried deep, and felt unfaithful voicing it, fearing she’d burn forever. But could hell be any crueler than the life of a bound woman?
“He surely does, Carrie. He loves ya.”
The sob gurgled in Carrie’ throat. “Then why he let me live like this? I’se tired and dying and ain’t knowd nothin’ else.”
“He ain’t the cause, honey. Those that are wrongin’, they’ll meet him some day.” Abigail lifted her head and bit her lip. “He loves ya sure. And ya’ll be in Paradise, with sunshine and sweet molasses cookies - more than ya can eat.”
She wanted to believe. Carrie wanted to feel the love of Jesus, but couldn’t. She was cold as a wet March morning and her baby was born to slave – born to the same level as a horse or cow grazing in the massa’s field. Her strong, screaming infant – but she couldn’t kill her. She looked at the baby. The child’s belly was full and she was quiet and easy.
Her fingers roamed like a gentle kiss over her daughter’s face and touched the small, perfect hand. The little fist wrapped around Carrie’s finger, her lips spouted bubbles, and she slept in the sweet peace of a child not knowing what the world was.
“Name her Emaline, after my mama.”
“I’ll do so, Carrie. I’ll take care a her likes my own.”
“I knows, Abigail. I knows you will.” A warm comfort settled over Carrie and after a lifetime of being chained to the dirt of Carolina, free. She closed her eyes and listened to the storm that could no longer frighten her. No more storms, no more tomorrows, no more wondering if Jesus loved her. She thought it would be hard to die, but it wasn’t. She gripped the strong hand of her old friend, and closed her eyes.
woman held the baby in her arms. She counted each of
his fingers and toes, smoothed her hand along the length of his body,
and kissed his perfect face. His blond
hair rolled in silken curls around her finger and his grey eyes sparked when
he looked at her. He had her eyes.
“Your father is going to love you so much.” His tiny fist gripped her finger, holding on tight. She was afraid her icy hand would chill the baby, but he would not let go. She opened her blouse and he latched onto her nipple, making joyful little squeaky noises.
A fire crackled outside the wagon. A slight breeze carried the smell of wood and warmth to her, as well as voices. Poor Paul, dealing with her father. He was probably insisting on his way, again. Her father wasn’t a bad man, just one who didn’t take no for an answer and thought that money could buy yes’s. She was used to his ways. Still, she was stunned at how the man managed to travel all of the way from Boston and find her on a lonely road in the middle of California. He must have left Boston immediately after receiving her letter that she was going to have a baby.
She had tried to be welcoming and pleased to see him, and she was, even though she was put off by one of the two men that were with him. His eyes were black and harsh, his hand always hovering over his gun. He reminded her of the awful men who were trying to steal her husband’s ranch. If not for those men, she would be home right now preparing for the arrival of her first child.
The other man wasn’t wearing a gun, and tipped his expensive hat her way. Leave it to her father to travel with his own banker. Or perhaps lawyer? What was her father up to? Why did he have that gunman with him? Perhaps just for protection.
It was unfortunate that after the few initial pleasantries, her father insisted they go to Carterville instead of the planned visit to the ranch of one of Murdoch’s friends. Paul argued, she argued and even the baby argued as it pressed lower into her pelvis. The embarrassing and unexpected gush of water signaled the baby was arguing no more, whatever they decided to do.
Paul took charge. He ordered Trace, the Lancer cowboy traveling with them, to ride to Carterville and bring back help. Catherine almost laughed at the panicked look on the boy’s face and his flying arms and legs as he urged the horse down the road. She wanted to reassure him that everything would be all right, but her body buckled with a strong spasm, and Paul helped her into the back of the wagon.
The pain was endurable at first, and she kept silent as long as she could. But as the hours passed and the baby did not come, she couldn’t help the screams that tore out of her throat. She was so scared. How could she do this alone? Were all babies this slow? She wanted to push it out, but with each push she felt as if she was being torn apart.
Where was Trace with help? She wanted to call to her father, but he had barely been able to look at her arm when she broke it falling out of a tree years ago. He would not be able to cope with the bloody birth of a child. When the wagon jiggled and a hand wrapped over hers, she clutched it and hung on. She didn’t care who it was, as long as there was another human being to help her get her baby born.
“Catherine, I’ve helped birth calves and foals into the world. That’s got to count for something, doesn’t it?”
She had smiled at the words and relieved at the sound of Paul’s voice, no matter that it was shaking. His hand was sweaty, but it was warm and she wasn’t alone.
“I’ve got to take a look now, okay?”
Was he as embarrassed as she was? She kept her eyes closed when he swept back the blankets.
“How is papa?” she asked, wanting to think of something else.
“He’s a might beside himself.”
“I’m surprised he allowed you to help.”
Paul blotted a towel on the inside of her legs and settled it closed to her bottom. “Humph, we had a discussion, if you know what I mean. I…I couldn’t stand it anymore, Catherine. Your … screams. I think I shoved him.”
She laughed, picturing Paul pushing her outraged father out of the way.
“Here, take a bit of water.”
She opened her eyes to Paul’s and he grinned. He tipped the canteen to her lips. The water was sweet as it dribbled into her mouth.
“I can see the head, Catherine. Just push nice and easy the next time you feel a need. I think he’s setting right. I’ll catch him, okay?”
She nodded. “Okay.”
Paul moved and disappeared between the tent of her knees. A spasm hit her, and the need to push was overwhelming. She screamed.
“Not so fast, Catherine.”
There was urgency in his voice, but after hours of labor, she hoped this one final push would get it over with. She screamed again and the baby slipped out. She felt her flesh rip, and Paul whispered, “Jesus.”
It was over. The baby was out. She felt washed away, until she heard the baby cry. Her baby cried.
“What is it?” Tears streaked down the sides of her face, cooling her skin.
“It’s a boy, Catherine. You have a son.”
“Let me see him.” She tried to lift her head, but couldn’t. “Paul?”
“I’ve got to cut the cord. But the ….”
She could hear Paul rummaging. She thought he might be getting something to clean her up with. The bedding was spongy with fluids, and she shivered.
“Catherine, you need to push out the afterbirth.”
“What?” She was so tired, she couldn’t push anymore. Why wouldn’t he give her the baby?
“The afterbirth. You’re bleeding Catherine. You need to push it out.”
“Oh God, Paul. I can’t. Give me my baby.”
“Yes, you can. I need to tie off the cord. Here…”
Her bowels felt like they would explode, but she was so tired.
“Catherine. Look at your child.” Paul held him up. His arms and legs flailed in the air, all slimy and splotched with blood. “If you want to live, you need to push, for him.”
He put the baby on her chest, covered him with a blanket, and ordered, “Push.”
She couldn’t die. Not with a new baby. She knew what it meant when a horse or cow didn’t push out the afterbirth. Murdoch’s long arms had many times gone inside the animal and pulled out the bloody tissue. That couldn’t happen to her. She gritted her teeth and pushed. Sweat ran down her face and caught in the hollow of her neck. A large, slithery mass slipped between her legs.
“Raise up, Catherine. I need to …”
Before she realized it, Paul had lifted her bottom, slid the wet bedding out from under her and stuffed pillows beneath to elevate her hips. He wiped his blood covered hands on a cloth, sprinkled water onto a piece of cotton, and wiped her baby off. Wrapped in bright calico, he looked the perfect gift as Paul laid him next to her.
“Catherine, I’ve got to talk to your father. Maybe try to track down Trace. Don’t move around. You’re still bleeding.”
“It will be all right, Catherine. I promise. Just lie still. I’ll be back soon.”
She believed him. She didn’t want not to. “There’s a bible, in the trunk. The small one. Can you get it?”
“Catherine, you don’t need a …”
“The baby’s name. I just want his name written in the bible. Please, Paul.”
The bible was soft white leather with her initials engraved in gold on the cover, purchased by her father when she was born. She opened to the page where her birth date was recorded as well as the date of her wedding. Paul dug out a pen and inkwell from the same trunk and gave them to her. She carefully wrote the name, Scott Garret Lancer, the date of his birth, and tucked the bible into the blankets.
“Thank you, Paul.”
“I’ll be back soon.” Paul put his hand on her shoulder. It was stained with her blood.
“I know, Paul. Thank you.”
He nodded, touched the baby’s head, and climbed down from the wagon.
Catherine smiled at the baby boy, amazed that she could love something as much as she loved this child. She couldn’t wait to see Murdoch’s face when he finally saw the baby. He would grow strong and straight in the wild beauty of California. No strict and cold Boston upbringing for this boy, only warmth and love. She grinned at how happy Murdoch would be when he first held his little son.
“Scott Garrett Lancer, I love you,” she murmured and kissed his forehead once more. It seemed she couldn’t touch him enough. She loved his scent, the pink flower of his mouth, his long perfect fingers. She had never been this happy, but was tired. So very tired.
She knew she had lost a great deal of blood, plus birthing a baby was exhausting. That’s why she was so tired. It would take a while to build her strength back up, but caring for the child would be all that mattered to her. And for all his faults, she knew her father loved her and would make sure she was safe. Her eyes drifted shut. She felt very warm and comfortable. The baby moved beside her. She nuzzled the side of his cheek, kissed it, and closed her eyes.
her feet. They were broad and thick just like she was. She glanced back at
the muddy path. Lordy, her tracks were near deep enough to drown a swamp
rat. Well, nothing to be done. She was born that way - big, strong and
There was a time when she yearned to be pretty, like Rueben and Tally Cotton’s three daughters, but she learned quick that pretty wasn’t always a good thing. One by one Old Masta’ Dickens slipped the girls into his fishing shack down near the swamp. When the youngest, Cora, came to be with child, he sold her off. Fetched a good price for her too, carrying a baby. When the new owner came to take her away, the poor girl sat huddled in the cart, her belly huge, shaking and crying. Cora’s mammy flopped down on her knees screaming and her pappy looked dead as a winter cotton field. Miz Dickens watched from the second floor of the big house and with all the hate coming out of that window, she was fearful to look at. Emaline figured that sooner or later all the Cotton girls would be gone. That was when she stopped wishing to be pretty.
The thin cape stretched across her shoulders didn’t keep Emaline from shivering; reminding her she should have grabbed a warmer wrap. Her breath puffed white as she made her way to Lizbeth’s cabin. Mornings were cold this time of year, but spring wouldn’t be long coming to Carolina.
carried a long pole on her shoulders. The buckets that hung from each end
swung back and forth when she walked and she sashayed a bit, liking
the rhythm of the empty pails. Easy to swish now, but after filling them
with river water, the pole would be pushing clear to her shoulder bone.
It took three raps to get Lizbeth to open the door. She stood there, hair wild and on end, eyes half open.
“Girl, whatcha doin’? It’s Sunday!” Lizbeth whined.
“Goin’ for water, as usual. Whacha think I’m doin’? Thought you’d give me a hand.” Emaline didn’t have time for the idle, and she knew that Lizbeth had more reason than a Sunday not to be stirring. Lizbeth was man crazy and probably had one stuck in her bed keeping her warm. The heat leaching through the door carried the smell of sex.
Lizbeth hitched her face back into the warm cabin and shook her head. “Didn’t you hear? There was a ex-cape from the camp in Sorghum. Soldiers be in them woods!”
“You think some skinny, northern soldier is gonna get far? You knows them boys are scrawnier than Shuller’s pigs.” Emaline spat on the ground thinking of the mean spirited, white trash Josey Shuller. Tale was that the man fed his pigs nothing but rotting fish the swamp burped up.
“I ain’t goin’. Skinny don’t mean nothin’ when you’re looking down a gun, girl. And it don’t matter whether them soldiers are wearin’ blue or grey, for all they cares about a darkie.” Lizbeth tilted her head and shot a scornful eye at Emaline. “They come searchin’, and happen’ to find you ... they won’t care you looks more man then woman, as long as there ain’t a pecker hangin’ between your legs.”
“Ain’t no reason for your sass. I knows whats I looks like.”
“I ain’t sassin. I’se just sayin’ is all.”
“I know what’s you is sayin’, and its sass. I changed enough of your crappy diapers when you was a babe, I don’t needs to hear talk like that from you.”
“There ain’t no call …”
“You is always talking back to the overseer, and me begging him not to wallop you. Next time I’m gonna lets it go. You gots a mouth on you, Lizbeth.”
With a sour look Lizbeth backed into the cabin but Emaline’s hand hit the door hard before it shut.
“Seth Woolin has a child by Mattie. You do her wrong by takin’ her man. They’s jumped the broom at the Anderson place. Don’t matter she ain’t living here.” Emaline figured it had to be Seth in the cabin keeping Lizbeth’s bed warm. A few days ago when Emaline was sweating over the Quarter’s big, boiling laundry tubs, she saw Seth almost piss himself when Lizbeth wiggled her butt in front of him.
“I ain’t doin’ nothing harm.” Lizbeth kept her voice low, and glared at Emaline.
“Quarter ain’t liken it, Lizbeth. Mattie has kin here. You knows they takes an ugly eye to your lusting. Seth’s too.”
“Let ‘em. They’s gots to have something to snip about.”
“Why you gots to have Seth scratch your itch? There’s plenty others around. Seth is gonna end up cut and you worse. The Dickens’ll be down here sure, making trouble for everyone.”
“Hell, they ain’t been down here since Master Troy done joined the grey. Master Brody’s gone and Miss Ruth … well, she’s busy carin’ for her mama plus running the place.”
“Then they’ll send the overseer. I swear, Lizbeth, you ain’t got no sense. You’re mama spoiled you! You were her only girl child and born in her old age to boot. I don’ts hold it against her but now you thinks you don’t needs to abide by the rules.”
Lizbeth picked at the wooden splinters in the door, leaned against the jamb, and looked at the sky.
Emaline felt like she was pounding the air. “I know you don’t care for nothing about Seth ‘cept his poker, but your mama ain’t been dead two months and you is staining her bed with the drippings of a man’s weakness.”
At least Lizbeth had shame enough to lower her eyes before she shut the door.
Damn that girl. Lizbeth could certain set her off without half trying. Emaline loved her, but Lizbeth wasn’t doing right by her dead mama.
The river it was then, alone. Emaline settled the pole on her shoulder, and walked back towards the river.
The path forked with the right trail branching off to the big house. Emaline glanced up the hill, thinking on Master Troy. When his papa died, Troy Dickens took over the plantation. In ’62 he joined the Confederacy and hadn’t been heard from since. Gossip in the Quarter was he’d been taken prisoner somewhere up north and was in a place called Illinois. Probably froze to death by now, God willing. Ruth Dickens, the eldest child, stepped right up to take charge. Emaline thought for sure the plantation would go under with a woman head, but then Miss Ruth put on her daddy’s old leather boots and sweat dried hat and learned how to pick cotton.
It was strange seeing Miss Ruth out in the fields swaying just as easy as the darkies. But she said the only way she could learn how to manage was to know everything about raising cotton and that included planting and picking. Course, she didn’t work hours like the hands and when the season was done, she didn’t come back to the fields. But she’d still ride out on her fine, gold horse to look at the land, the cotton, and the picking. Emaline figured if anyone could hold the plantation together, it was Miss Ruth. And with the talk going round the county, it wouldn’t be the grey marching down the road with jubilation; it would be the blue of the North stamping down the red dust of the South. Word was the Rebellion was falling.
Whatever the outcome of the war, Emaline knew the white folk couldn’t plant and pick without the blacks, so she figured she’d still have her tiny shanty. Besides, who else would want the rickety shack? She was born in that room, and Abigail raised her in it. Her granny didn’t have children of her own, so all the love she had she gave to Emaline.
Emaline passed the crumbling Hodge shack and heard a rustling sound from inside. Food had been missing from the Quarter lately, and it wasn’t a four legged animal doing the stealing. Probably one of the scrawny Shuller youngins. Emaline near jumped out of her dress when she stepped to the door and a big grey rat scampered between her feet and ran towards the river.
After her heart stopped fluttering, Emaline peaked in the long deserted cabin. A cracked hearth and a broke down bed that Frannie Hodge used to cry on was all that was in there. A piece of faded color blinked from a pile of dust in the corner. Emaline picked it up and an arm came away from a rotting doll. Must have belonged to one of Frannie’s children. None of the Hodge children lived much past walking. Whispers floated around that Frannie killed all her babies. When Emaline asked her Granny about it, she got a real mean pinch on her face and told Emaline ‘never you mind’. Still, must have been something to it. Frannie disappeared on a December day and wasn’t found until the next spring when a frozen part of the river melted and let her body go.
Emaline shivered and spat on the floor to ease the spirits of the dead. She dropped the doll where she found it and backed out of the cabin.
dropped to the river. Frost didn’t settle deep in Carolina, and the ground
was mud slick on the worn footpath. The water was running strong and dirty
and meant snow was melting in the foot hills of the Appalachia’s.
Lizbeth’s words came back to her of soldiers in the woods and she looked
towards the direction of the prison camp. She stared hard through the naked
trees and brush, but there was nothing.
“Ah, no skinny Yank from the Castle gonna make it this far. Ain’t nothin’ in them woods but raccoons and flea bit squirrels.” She slid down the edge of the low breaks, still scanning the shore line and trees for any sign of soldiers. Sorghum was east and even if a half dead northern boy managed to escape, he wouldn’t come this way. Emaline didn’t know much beyond the county line, but she knew which direction a Yank would head.
Her foot hit the river and the chilly water flooded into her thin shoes. She wasn’t a woman for swearing, but damn, that water was cold. She slipped the pole off her shoulder and reached for a bucket. If she slanted it just so, she could avoid a lot of the driftwood flowing downstream. As the bucket filled, she searched the shoreline, humming an old hymn that came to mind. It really was pretty here, peaceful, and she spied the first green of spring on a wild honeysuckle. She smiled, looked towards Sorghum, and saw an arm bobbing in the water. Falling back against a clump of dogwoods, a scream bunched in her throat, strangling her.
Her breathing hurt and she tried to gulp air without choking. When a body didn’t rise from the river, she peeked closer. The arm didn’t move more than the shift caused by the slow ripple in the shallows. Long, blue fingers curled in the water. She stepped forward and leaned into the curve of the bend as far as she could without falling. A body clothed in a blue tattered jacket lay in the soggy loam partially hidden by dried up long weeds.
Emaline held for a few moments, her heart thumping louder than the rumbling current. Her eyes swept to the bank, searched up and down both sides, and looked hard across the countryside. She heard nothing but the normal sweep of the water and the sweet bird notes of an early morning. She glanced at the hand.
The forgotten bucket tumbled out of her fingers, carried away with the weight of the moving river. Damn, she couldn’t lose that bucket, and she swept into the water and grabbed it. When she pitched the bucket to the bank, she found herself looking into the face of a Union soldier.
Cold, for sure he was cold, with his blue lips and white as she’d ever seen white. He was lying on the muddy shore with his shoulder and left arm dipping in the backwater. His features were sharp, thin, and dead. His light hair was sopping, and there was dried blood crusted along the ugly bruise of his temple.
She edged closer, shaking. Blood stained his trousers from his left thigh down to the ankle. His boots were worn thin and cracked. Through the dirt of his tattered shirt blood oozed from a hole in his ribs.
“God a-mighty, if you’s bleeding you’s still alive, boy!”
frost had left the bank soft, but she managed to scramble to the other side
of the soldier without losing her shoes in the brown muck. Taking hold of
his right arm she pulled him out of the water. She grabbed his chin with
trembling fingers and moved his head. His skin was cold, icier than
January’s hoarfrost and just as frail.
“Why ain’t you dead, boy?” She chewed on her lips, and flipped aside the rag of his shirt to make sure she saw right – that there was blood coming from the wound. It was dripping, slow, but just as red and warm as hers.
A crow screamed and she ducked. Good Lord, here she was, caught in the open with no place to hide. Huddled against the wild dogwoods and dried cat tails of the Carolina mire, she recalled another time when she was as scared as she was now. That time the man had found her.
The soldier groaned, faint, like a cottonwood flicked by a tree-top breeze. He looked so young, helpless. She knew what it was to feel helpless, and alone. But if she tried to help this boy, and was found out, it would be her life. Many times she had wished someone dead, but had never lifted her hand against anyone. And now here was this Union boy, this Yank who didn’t mean a thing to her. He had the freedom to walk off to war and she didn’t even have the freedom to walk down the road. It was his business if he wanted to get himself killed fighting his own kind. She wasn’t going to risk her life for some white boy. No sir. This was none of her.
She sat cross legged in the cold dark sludge, watching the soldier, until the clamoring of something plowing through the brush made her move.
listened for what seemed half the day, her shoulders twisted from crouching
down in the tall weeds. Slowly she lifted her head to see if anything was
moving. The only thing that shifted in the muddy bottomland was the
current. Twigs swished down the river, colored flashes from red-winged
blackbirds flew through the tree tops, but nothing else disturbed the
She glanced over at the fallen boy, and then stretched out the tight muscles of her back. Feeling jumpier than the critter that probably caused the noise, she didn’t take more time wondering what it could have been. She had made up her mind.
The overturned bucket lay just above the soldier’s head. Not looking at his face, she grabbed it, dunked it into the water, and placed it on the pole. When the second bucket was full, she balanced the pole on her shoulder and clambered up the bank. Even with the weight of the water-filled containers, she was back at her cabin in a short time.
The fire in the grate smoldered thin. Tight lipped, she gathered dried logs propped against the wall and tossed them into the broken hearth. The wood sparked, flamed, and warmth seeped through the room.
Cornmeal in the bin was less than half a finger deep. She’d be trading some of her sweet canned peaches for flour at the general store soon. The cotton softness of the white bread tasted better than cornbread, but the gritty, yellow meal was plentiful on the plantation through most of the year.
Her mind kept wandering back to the man lying by the side of the river. Someone would find that white boy, she told herself. Likely Reb soldiers were looking for him now. Besides, he wasn’t suffering. Not feeling the cold, or the pain of his bleeding hole. Men fought wars, it was just their nature, and if that young Yank followed his urging and died for it, well, it wasn’t her affair.
The cornmeal was beat to a golden mush before she realized it. Dam, only fittin’ for pancakes now, and her without any sweetnin’ except boiled down sugar beets. She plopped a chunk of lard into an iron skillet and waited till it sizzled. The cornmeal spat when it hit the hot pan.
A noise scratched at the window and she jumped. She glanced at the pane afraid that she’d see the pale soldier staring back at her, but it was just the wind switching a limb against the glass. She thought of the boy – was he dead yet? Dear Jesus, she’d left him dying on the shoreline. It snagged her, the leaving. It beat and it shrouded and it choked her with the wrong of it. Why couldn’t she leave it alone? Someone else could have found him by now, but she knew in her heart that he was where she left him. Chilled, bleeding, his life dripping into the mud.
Jackson came to mind. What if her boy was lying somewhere, hurt, like that white boy? Would someone drag him off a battlefield and care for him? She closed her eyes. Every day she prayed for Jackson– that God would keep him safe. She prayed till her knees were gouged and cracked from the rough surface of the cabin floor. Did a mother pray for that white soldier? Did she pray to the same God that Emaline did? Lord in heaven, whose prayers was He answering?
She smelled smoke and grabbed the pan from the fire, burning her fingers. It dropped to the floor scattering blackened pancakes across the wooden surface. The fried meal crumbled in her hands, ruined. Tears stung her eyes and she knew it wasn’t because her breakfast was blacker than she was.
A cracked plate perched on the flimsy table and she reached for it. She knelt on the floor, gathered the bits of corn cake into the container, and cried. What a fool she was. She had seen many a man, woman, and child beat till they could barely walk, but the lashings always staggered her no matter how many times she saw them. Even though she hadn’t hurt that boy who was dying in the shallows and his coming weren’t any part of her, by walking away she reckoned she was no better than the men who lifted their whips against the helpless.
She scuffed her rough fingers over her cheeks to dry her tears. Leaning against the bed, she rose from her knees. Wrapping a shawl around her shoulders, she tied the ends tight. An old scarf and a woolen blanket lay on her cot and she picked them up on her way to the door. She stepped outside and walked around her shanty. The Quarter wasn’t stirring yet. They’d be getting up soon, though, so Emaline had to hurry.
Emaline’s cabin was on the edge of the Quarter and set close to the river. Her front door faced away from the other cabins, so no one would see her coming or going unless they happened to be fetching water. She took a quick glance towards the settlement and stepped into the thick brush that grew up to her shack. Some nights the rasping of the thicket just outside her door near scared her to death, but most of the time it kept her hidden within the cover of its prickly branches. Now she was glad that the black limbs hid her passing.
Even though most folks drew water from the well on the other end of the Quarter, there were still many footprints on the trail. She easily picked out her own big feet, glad now for her size. No small person would be able to lift and carry the boy, even skinny as he was. She’d been burdened with cotton bales that weighed almost as much as he did. She’d manage, although she wasn’t sure what she’d do with him once she got him home - if he was still alive.
The hope that he was dead warred with the hope that he wasn’t. A Union soldier who died on the run would be talked about, and then forgot. But if she was caught caring for him, they’d both be killed, regardless how much the Dickens depended on her. She had thought of going up to the big house and letting them know what she found, but it would be his death sentence. They’d turn him over to the Confederate soldiers for sure.
It was for Jackson. She made a deal with God that she would help this boy if God would help Jackson. She feared losing her deliverance by talking a trade with the Almighty, but the only thing of value in her life was Jackson, and he was worth the risk of displeasing her maker. Jackson would never return to Carolina, but she fought off despair with the chance that he was still alive somewhere.
The bend where she left the boy came into view and she stopped. She closed her eyes, said a “Please Lord Jesus,” and bent forward. The arm was gone. Even though she’d pulled him out of the water, she should still be able to see the edge of his jacket, but there were only marks on the bank where he had been. Taking one small step at a time, she crept around the curve of the river.
He hadn’t moved far. He was curled on his side, legs drawn up as if trying to keep warm, hold off pain or both. His limp left hand rested on the hole in his side, like he had been trying to stop his leaking blood. The tall cat tails were thick and hid him well, but didn’t keep off the cold – he was shivering.
His struggles were plain to see in the soft ground. Gouges in the loam and dirt on the side of his boots showed the effort it took to roll over. His right hand was caked with mud and gashes in the ground were left by his fingers where he labored to move. His face was turned up as if he had been panting for air and even now, his breath came in short, shallow gasps. His mouth was slightly open and the fingers of his left hand twitched. She was bowed with shame and regret at his sufferings. An animal deserved better.
She knelt down beside him. “Don’t you worry, boy. I’m gonna takes care of you now.” Her fingers brushed across the light fuzz on his cheeks, barely enough there to shave. His eyes opened at her touch, confused and drifting. They were a cool blue, like a December sky. He looked at her, sparked with knowing she was there, and held her gaze before closing his eyes. So much pain had been in that look – and surrender.
Unfurling the blanket, she spread it on some dry ground a few feet away. Clumps of mud fell from his shirt when she rolled the soldier onto his back. The bleeding had stopped and dried clots surrounded the small hole in his side. The skin was swollen, hot, and bruised. She had seen enough bullet holes to know what it was, but she didn’t know if the bullet was still in him. Something to deal with later. She slid the scarf under his back, brought it around to cover the puncture, and tied it off.
Holding him under the arms, she dragged him to the blanket. The blanket was worn, but clean, and she wrapped it around his body. From the hem of her skirt, she took pins and fastened the blanket together. She worried about the signs left in the shoreline from where he had been, but few people came that far down river.
Lifting him was harder than she expected. She might be a strong woman, but she wasn’t young anymore, and he was still a man, no matter half what he should be. She held her breath, wrapped her arm around his thighs, and pulled him over her shoulder.
One step at a time. “Please Jesus.” One step at a time. Her legs threatened to buckle, neck and shoulder muscles twisted from the weight. She wanted to rest but knew she wouldn’t be able to lift him again. The ground was slick, and she almost slid down the embankment and into the river. Branches scratched her face and she wheezed as hard as an overworked mule. It was a shaky hand that reached for the door when she at last made it to her shanty.
The door banged open and slammed against the table, swung back to the jamb and bounced open again. Staggering to the cot, she dumped the boy on it. Her knees hit the floor, and she winced at the new found splinter. But breathing was the focus now, and she inhaled, surprised at the sounds of her ragged gasping. Cold air from the open door hit her, and she bumped it shut, folding against it. She had made it. No one had seen her. The Quarter was still sleeping.
Water bubbled in the hearth, the hazy warmth filling the small room. She sat for a few minutes, drawing in air until she was calm. The soldier lay like a cast off doll across the bed, his upper body on the cot but his legs dangling to the floor.
Emaline tied the door shut, looped a stiff length of rope over the door knob and twisted it around a wooden latch pounded into the jamb. It wouldn’t hold against a strong push, but it gave her a safe feeling since renegades had raided the plantation a few months ago. They claimed to be Reb soldiers looking for Union boys, but they terrorized the Quarter. Most of the folks had been out planting, leaving the old and sickly alone. The Dickens were gone, having left for Columbia a few days earlier. After a terrifying hour, the overseer had finally come with men from the fields and told them to get the hell off the property. Talk was that they were Confederate deserters, scavengers looting on their way south. Emaline figured they were stupid as well, weren’t nothing in the Quarter worth taking.
Most of Emaline’s duties were now in the Quarter instead of the fields. She was well taught in caring for the sick, passed down from Shella, and there were always sick in the cabins. Winter was brutal with its cold, spring leached dampness deep into lungs, summer heat felled many a man and woman in the fields, and fall stole sleep and lives until the harvest was done. Babies were born and women needed tending. The soldier couldn’t have found a better nurse.
She splashed some hot water into a bowl, retrieved a rag and lye soap from a wall cupboard, and hitched a chair beside the bed. The scarf tied around his belly had fresh blood on it. She unbuttoned what was left of his shirt and lifted his shoulders, easing the fabric off. There was a small hole in his back where the bullet had entered. She was glad it had gone through. Positioning him on his side, she washed the wounds, patted an herb poultice into the holes, and bandaged them with clean muslin.
As gentle as she could, Emaline tried to wipe away the crusted blood from the ugly head wound. The gash started to run red, and she dusted cornstarch over it. It took and she left it alone for now. The slash was deep, but she knew head wounds bled a lot. If a scab didn’t dry to it, she’d stitch it and cover the cut with muslin. It was sure to scar, whatever she did.
The wound in his leg was next and getting to it would be more of a challenge. She tried to pull off his boots without jarring him, but a low groan escaped as she tugged. Finally, the boots came and revealed filthy socks barely hanging together. She threw them on top of the shirt, knowing that she’d be washing and mending his clothes after she washed and mended him. His belt was of good quality even though the buckle was badly tarnished. She unbuttoned his pants and slid them off.
What she saw was a man so thin that she figured the blacks ate better than he did. His ribs and hip bones stuck out, all angles and sharp edges over dirty skin. There was a puncture wound on his left thigh. The wound wasn’t bleeding, so she washed and bandaged it.
The next order of business was washing away the grime. As she did so, she noticed scratches, bruises and sores. Some were fresh and some seemed to have been around for a while, especially the irritated scrapes on his wrists. It looked like the boy had been manacled. She’d seen enough chains used that she knew the marks they left behind. This soldier had been trouble for someone.
She scrunched up her mouth at the lice. If someone in the Quarter had the tiny critters, their hair was cut short and doused with turpentine. On top of laziness, Emaline hated dirt and washed daily, even if it meant bathing in a cold river. Some laughed at her ways, but she was the one laughing when they walked by stinking of the strong remedy.
The uniform and underclothes were tossed into a large pail. Lye soap and boiling water was the best way to clean. It wasn’t long before the pail was bubbling away both the dirt and lice. However, she couldn’t boil the boy’s head and she refused to use the awful smelling turpentine.
A corner cupboard revealed neat rows of glass jars and tins. From one of the jars she took a handful of dried basil, threw them into a small bowl and added boiled well water she kept stored in a ceramic pot. It didn’t take long to make a paste, and she slathered it into his hair. When she was done washing him, she covered him with the woolen blanket. Other than the fact that his back met his front, he didn’t seem hurt too bad, just full of tired and broken. Remembering the look in his eyes at the river, there was a ghost or two following him along with the Confederates. She knew, however, that fever would catch him before the haunts would.
Someone tried to open the door and she stiffened. The door knob jiggled again, followed by pounding.
“Emaline, why you gots this door tied?”
It was Lizbeth, coming to make up for the insult she had tossed at Emaline earlier.
“I’m tired,” Emaline shouted back. “Leave me ‘lone.”
There were a few seconds of quiet. “Ya’all mad at me?” Lizbeth’s tone was cautious, like she was afraid of Emaline’s answer.
“No, Lizbeth. I know’s you say stuff you don’t mean. I’m just not feeling well.”
Again there was silence. Emaline could imagine Lizbeth outside the door, looking worried, picking at her lip, wondering if she was forgiven.
“You needs anythin’? Cuz I can sure help you.”
“I knows, honey. It’s fine.”
It was quiet for so long Emaline thought Lizbeth had left.
“I’se sorry for what I said.”
Emaline sighed, just wanting her to go away. “Seth gone?”
“Yeah,” came back the sullen response. “You knows he don’t mean nothin’ to me. I’se just lonely.” There was a whine in the last sentence.
“Child, you gonna get yourself in trouble over him. Why don’t you set eyes on another man – not tied?”
It usually took Lizbeth time to think about an answer, but not this time. “Cuz he’s fine, honey. Just so fine.” There was a smile in her voice - she wasn’t sorry.
“You go on home. I’ll be down later.”
“I can’ts help myself sometimes, Emy,” Lizbeth whined. “I just get this awful need and he fills it.”
“I knows what he’s fillin’, girl. You just be hopen his jelly don’t stick.”
“You mad at me then?”
Damn, if that girl would have been born white, she could have charmed herself to riches with that hitch and sweet syrup in her voice.
“No. I’m not mad. You go on. I’m just tired for now. I’ll be down come supper.”
“I’ve got a good rabbit stew cookin’. It would be fine with my bakin’ powder biscuits.”
“Who you get that rabbit from? Seth?”
Again the quiet. Lizbeth got the rabbit from Seth sure.
“It don’t matter none where I gots it. Ya’ll be hungry come supper and I’d like to feed you. Will you come?”
What Lizbeth said was true. Emaline hadn’t had fresh meat for weeks. Maybe the soldier would be up to taking a bit of stew– Lizbeth would give her some to bring back.
“Yeah, I’ll come. You all git now. Let me to my rest.”
“Bye then honey. I loves you.”
“I know child. I knows you do.”
Emaline didn’t hear Lizbeth leave, but knew she had. The girl was soft on her feet, and by the way she attracted men, soft between her legs. She had a sweet eye, round hips and a full bosom. What man wouldn’t want what she had to offer? But she was going to cause trouble some day. Some man would slash another fighting over her or a woman angry that Lizbeth had played with her man would hurt her bad. Well, she couldn’t worry about Lizbeth now. She had this boy to care for and keep hidden until he was well enough to leave.
her head and glanced at the window. Sweet God above, someone could look in
sure and see the boy. She’d have to put a covering over it. She held her
breath, thankful that Lizbeth hadn’t peaked in. Bushes grew up to the
window making it hard to get to, but that didn’t matter now that she had
something to hide. She rummaged through a wooden crate beneath her bed and
pulled out an old flour bag. From the cupboard she picked out a few bent,
rusty nails and a hammer with half a handle.
When done, she stepped back from the window and nodded, satisfied at the results. It wasn’t pretty like the curtains in the big house, but it worked. If anyone asked about why she all of a sudden needed a cover over a window blocked by brush, she’d tell them she thought someone was peeping in at her. She knew they’d smile and poke fun. No one would want to look at her. But she didn’t care about their laughing and it would hide the boy.
The area under her bed was a storehouse of supplies: bandages, muslin for new babies, blankets, as well as a rolled up, fresh straw-filled mattress. It wasn’t thick, but it was better than sleeping on the hard floor, which is where she would be as long as the soldier was so sick. She pulled out the bedding, threw another log on the fire, and removed the simmering pots. She really was tired, and a few minutes of rest would help throw off the jitters that had plagued her since she found the Yankee.
After supper, she’d try to get some food down the boy. But then other problems popped into her mind. What if he woke up when she was gone? Would he start wandering around making noise? There were no locks in the Quarter, except for the shed where they threw those misbehaving. She glanced over at the sleeping soldier. He surely wasn’t able to go anywhere for a while. Well, with a little rest, she’d think of something. She always did. She lay down and closed her eyes.
A noise, choking, low and male, poked through Emaline’s dream. Half asleep, she wondered where it was coming from, and then remembered the soldier. She opened her eyes and glanced at him. His long, skinny arm slung to the floor and his hand fisted and released with the torn gagging in his throat.
It took Emaline a few seconds to get up and roll out the stiffness from her body. She filled a cup with water and lifted the boy against her. When she dribbled the fluid into his mouth, he sputtered, and then swallowed. Within a few moments the drink had soothed his cough and he was breathing easier.
His head dropped and rested on her breast. The heat from his skin leached through her cotton dress; the fever had come. He opened his eyes, distant and confused. Fingers wiggled in the air, then latched onto a button on her dress and twisted. She covered his hand with hers and tucked his fingers into the cup of her palm.
“Hey, boy. Ya awake?” she whispered, passing on comfort that was as instinctive as breathing.
He frowned, and shifted his head up towards her voice. The lines on his forehead deepened as if he struggled to understand where the voice was coming from. He stared at her, but she wasn’t sure if he saw her.
She jiggled him. “Boy? Here, take more water.” She lifted the cup to his mouth and after a few drops he clutched at the tin.
“Take it easy,” she said. “Slow down, soldier. Slow down.”
There was no warning. She was on the floor and he was clawing at the door. Amazed at the amount of strength needed to shove her to the ground, it took her a few seconds to realize what happened. She had a scared-as-hell, naked man trying to get out of her cabin. It was lucky that he was too foggy to realize how easy the door could be unlatched. But she needed to get him under control before folks from the Quarter heard the commotion.
Emaline stood up and reached for the blanket. “Boy, ya gots to cover up.” She tried to sound calm, but was just as afraid as he was. The force that had thrown her off the bed was more than she expected from this walking man of bones.
He whirled around, fever-bright eyes wild, and looked down at his belly. Sick or not, he could see he was bare before the Lord. His hand reached for the blanket, yanked it out of her fingers and pulled it in front of his body.
“I’m not gonna hurt you, boy,” she murmured, trying to sooth. “I’m not gonna hurt you. I found you. By the river. You gots to calm down or you’ll have folks coming to see what’s wrong.”
He licked his lips, swallowed, and leaned against the door. Sweat dripped down his forehead. The sharp ridge of his breastbone swelled in and out with the clatter of his breathing. He held his hand over the wound in his side, but his eyes were watchful and on her.
She’d never seen eyes like his before. They kept changing colors. The grey had turned a deep blue, like Jackson’s. And they were seeing her now, scorching hot as the pan that burned her breakfast.
“Who are you?” he rasped.
“Emaline. I found you.”
His eyes scanned the small room and settled back on her. “Where am I?”
“My cabin. On the Dickens House plantation.”
He was shaking, and she wondered where he got the strength to stand.
“Best lay back down, mister. I carried you from the river, and would just as soon not carry you anymore.”
His eyes flickered at her words. “You carried me? A woman?”
“Once you get all your senses, you sees I can do it.” She stood up full, as tall as he was. “I’m a strong woman and hauling bones ain’t nothing for me.”
He started to slide down the wall and she rushed to him. Pulling his arm around her shoulder she dragged him to the bed. He folded into it, a tired groan escaping when she lifted his legs and swung them onto the cot.
She dipped an old rag into a bowl of water, and wiped it across his forehead. “You gots to be quiet. Anyone finds you here, and I’m dead as you’ll be.”
He tossed his head back and forth, until she gripped his chin and held it tight. “Listen to me. You hush, now, hear me? They’ll kill us both.”
He stilled, looking so hard she thought he’d blaze right through to her brain. He nodded with understanding and she let go of his chin.
As she wiped his face, he stared at her.
“Where are my clothes?”
She dipped the rag, and wrung it out. “They’re soaking in a pot. As soon as they dry, I’ll mend ‘em.” When she went to put the rag on his head, he wrapped his fingers tight around her wrist.
“How far from Columbia?”
“Don’t reckon I know in miles. I’ve never been.” She winced with pain and tugged her arm away from him. “You’re hurtin’ me.”
He let her go. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean …”
She blotted the cloth across his shoulders. “You’re stronger than you look, boy.” She freshened the rag in the water and laid it on his forehead.
“How long have I been here?” His tongue moved across his cracked lips.
“Just a few hours. I found you this morning, in the shallows.”
“Who … who
“You sees anyone else in this cabin, chil’? Clothes almost as filthy as you. And iffn’ you is shy, no need. I’ve seen many a man in my days.”
His hand dipped beneath the blanket and moved to the wound in his side.
“You’d best leave that be. It’s not bleeding, but that don’t mean if you go messing with it that you won’t break it open.”
His hand roamed to the gash in his temple and she caught it. “That too. I may need to stitch it yet. It’s gonna scar no matter what.” She slipped his hand beneath the blanket and wrapped the blanket tight around his shoulders.
She got up from the chair and sprinkled tea into a small kettle, feeling his eyes following her. When she sat down, the short leg of the chair tipped a bit towards the bed. “You gots a hole in your leg, too. Once you get some fat on you, and if you don’t get the ague from layin’ in the river, I think you’ll heal.”
“I don’t fat.” Lips turning up at the corners, he closed his eyes.
“Huh?” She didn’t expect the small grin.
“Fat. I don’t get fat. I’ve always been lean.” His face drooped to the side, tired like, and weary.
“Well, boy, I ‘spect you ain’t ever been this skinny.”
He smiled, drowsed, just on the edge of sleep. “No ma’am. I expect not.”
The ma’am was
a surprise. No white man had ever called her ma’am. Usually all she got was
a gruff ‘girl’. ‘Girl do this…girl do that…hurry up girl.’ It wasn’t the
same when Lizbeth called her girl, or anyone else in the Quarter for that
matter. But when white folk said it, there was no caring in it. They might
as well be calling a dog or horse. Now, Miss Ruth weren’t like that. When
she called her Emaline, it was smooth, kind of sing-songy. She knew Miss
Ruth was soft on her, but that would mean nothing if she were caught with
this boy. Well, too late to think of that now. Fact was it had been too
late when she saw him suffering in the cat tails.
“You gots a name?” she asked as she got up to check the tea. It was ready. She knew he needed more than tea, but didn’t have time to fix anything now. Lizbeth would be waiting.
She didn’t know if she heard right, his voice was so low. The chair rolled again as she sat down, swishing tea to the edge of the cup. She blew on it to cool, and then lifted his head. He opened his eyes, a question in them as to what was happening. “Just some tea, boy. You needs it.”
The tea dripped over his chin, and he coughed, but soon was on his elbow taking in the warm liquid. After a few moments, he sighed and lay back down. “It’s good.”
“I’ll get you something stronger later. But you’ll need to go slow.” She reached to the table and set the cup on it. Gathering the rag, she dipped it in the water, wrung it out. He drew in a breath and winced when she dabbed at his temple.
“Sorry, boy. Can’t be helped.” She continued to pat at the dried blood, and was pleased that it didn’t start bleeding again. His fingers were stretched white as he gripped the sides of the cot.
“Did you say your name was Scott?” She hoped he’d think of something other than the pain she was causing him.
“Yes, ma’am.” He released a breath full of hurt.
“Scott. Hmmm. Short name for a long man.”
He nodded, and chewed at his lip. “My mother’s choice.”
“A mother’s choice would be no killin’, boy,” she scolded. “Or making people feel that you or yourn’ are less.”
“Yes ma’am.” He stared at her, a puzzled look on his face.
She settled the rag across his forehead, careful to keep it away from his temple. Her hand shook some, thinking on her words. She’d scolded young white children before, but this here was a full growed man. A life time of holding her tongue and keeping sass to herself had kept her alive. But she was in charge now. He was helpless, needed her, and for the first time in her life, she had power over a white. She didn’t know if she should like the feeling or trust in the Almighty for retribution.
A slave preacher had told her the Lord’s retribution would settle things some day. Oh, he weren’t a real preacher, but he could read, and toted the bible. He passed hands quick, though. Too much learning and whites didn’t like a learned darkie. Before he was sold off he planted the seeds of knowing in her and taught her the letters and numbers of the whites. She figured Miss Ruth knew, but overlooked it. Miss Ruth, well, she might love the playmate of her childhood, but she was still a white. And learning for blacks was against the laws of Carolina.
“Please, ma’am, I meant no offense.”
His eyes were pain filled and she twisted at his sorry. Why would he have regret, this white boy? Didn’t he know that she was just a big, ugly black woman? Boney fingers reached for hers, points so sharp it snagged at her with the cruel works of what someone had done to him.
her eyes, but she blinked them away, patted the icy hand and tried to ease
his worry. “No offense, boy. I’se tired is all.”
“Boy. I’ve got to go for a while. But you’ll be fine. Don’t worry, none. No one but Lizbeth comes into my cabin without welcome. I’ll put this mattress under my cot. You lay on it and I’ll cover the cot with blankets. If anyone’d look in, they wouldn’t see you.” She had thought some about hiding him when she was gone and under her bed was the only place she had.
He nodded, but there was worry on his face. Well, nothing else to do. She could show him how to tie the door, but when she came back, she didn’t know if the fever would have him so bad he wouldn’t know she was there.
“It’ll be okay. Hear?” She brushed through his bangs, wondering at their color. After washing out the basil mash his hair was lighter and yellower than anything she had ever touched, like honeyed tassels of corn.
Emaline stacked the supplies from under her bed against the wall, and shoved the thin mattress beneath the frame. She pulled the bed as close to the fire as she dared, knowing the boy needed the warmth.
He was scared, sure as she knew that the river was flowing cold. She poured some corn whiskey she kept for doctoring into a cup and gave it to him. He choked down a good measure. After he settled under the cot, she draped blankets over the bed. Stepping back, she looked at where he hid and was satisfied that no one could see him. After throwing a log on the fire she headed for Lizbeth’s.
her on the way to her supper. Seth Woolin nodded as she walked by his
father’s cabin, but didn’t hold her eyes when she stared back. She passed by
the Cotton’s long shanty. No grandchildren – their daughters had been sold
years ago. But there were nieces and nephews from Rueben’s brothers, and
their children played in the dirt. Rueben had died not long after the girls
were sold. There weren’t no green or growing left in Rueben Cotton, just
the sun setting and rising until he passed on working the tobacco field.
Tally Cotton died a few months before Shella. They were both strong women –
strong enough to survive slavery and all its leavings for close to 70
years. Emaline felt a black hole every time she thought of them.
The scent of Lizbeth’s rabbit hit her nose. It smelled good and Emaline’s mouth watered at the thought of biting into the meat. Lizbeth’s biscuits were as tender as a young woman’s love, and just as sweet. Her stomach growled at the smell of simmering meat, cooked carrots, and brown gravy. But her thoughts kept trailing back to the yellow haired soldier lying under her bed.
“Set yourself down, Emi. The biscuits are almost done.”
Lizbeth didn’t glance up when Emaline came through the door. She sat with a heavy thud on the one chair in Lizbeth’s cabin. She refused to sit on the more comfortable bed, knowing that Seth had warmed it earlier in the day.
“Smells good, hon. I’m hungry.”
Lizbeth lifted the iron skillet and the scent of browning bread filled the room. There were a couple of mismatched plates near the stew pot, and bent tin forks. Lizbeth picked out two fluffy biscuits and set one on each plate. She covered each biscuit with meat, carrots and brown broth and handed a plate to Emaline. Lizbeth sat on the bed with her own plate and forked a piece of meat. Emaline stared at her. Lizbeth rolled her eyes and sighed.
“Sorry. You go on, say thanks to the Lord.”
Emaline bowed her head. “Thank you, Jesus, for this food. Forgive us sinners and take us to the sweet land of liberty when our time comes. Amen.”
Lizbeth pushed the piece of rabbit into her mouth and rolled it around, seeming to take delight in the taste. That was Lizbeth. She wrapped her arms, lips, and legs around every piece of life she could – taste, smell, touch, sex. Emaline wondered that she didn’t have children, but Lizbeth knew how to stop the womb from growing. Most women in the Quarter did. But it was dangerous and women had died trying it. Lizbeth took what she pleasured out of life and Emaline couldn’t condemn her for it. Lord knows there was little joy to be had in their life at Dickens House.
“You seems to be eatin’ okay, girl,” Lizbeth said. “What was wrong? Not like you to hol’ up all day in your cabin.”
Emaline shrugged. Though she fretted doing it, she could lie real good when she needed to. “I’m just tired, I told you.”
Lizbeth looked at her, like she had hold of something but didn’t quite know what it was. “It was mighty early when you come callin’ this morning. Did you have any trouble at the river?”
Emaline shook her head. “No. Just cold is all. Could I gets another biscuit?”
“Help yourself. I made plenty.”
Emaline reached for the biscuit and dipped it into the broth. “These last year’s carrots?”
“You gots to show me how you keep ‘em from drying out. My granny tried to teach me, but I never got a handle on it.”
“It’s no trick, Emi. You just boil ‘em too long.”
“You don’t boil ‘em, they spoil!” Carrots were dear and Emaline, for some reason, could never make them last till the next season. They wrinkled and withered, like an old man’s worm that couldn’t make children no more.
“Those carrots taste spoiled, girl?”
“No, they’s good child. I just don’t have the knack, I guess.”
“You got the knack for everythin’ Emaline. If carrots be your only weakness, you is ahead of me.”
Lizbeth leaned back in the bed, crossed one leg over the other, and stared at Emaline. “Hows come you went back to the river without buckets?”
Emaline tried to hide her panic by stuffing her face with a biscuit. Lizbeth must have seen her go back for the boy but had she seen her sneak him into the cabin? “I thought I’d get some dried greens. Maybe boil them up for a poultice. I’m running short and with this damp, people will be needing some relief in their lungs.”
“I don’t recall you ever using dead winter weeds, Emi.”
“You is not around me day and night, Lizbeth. Besides, what you care what I do with my day?”
“I’m just curious. No need to yell.”
“Humph, it’s a wonder you took leave of Seth long enough to be nosy about my comings and goings.”
“I knows you frowns on me and Seth. But he’s not a bad man, Emi.”
Emaline let out a frustrated sigh. “He’s got a wife and child, Lizbeth!”
Lizbeth chased the carrots around on her plate with her fork then smashed them into the gravy. “Mattie’s baby is mulatto,” she whispered, not looking up.
It was quiet for a long time. Emaline knew what that meant for the baby and mother. “That wouldn’t be Mattie’s fault.”
“Seth don’t blame Mattie. He feels bad cuz he couldn’t keep it from happening.”
“Oh, Lizbeth. What can he do? What can any black man do when a white man decides to take his woman?” Emaline felt bad that she had judged Seth so harsh.
“Nothing.” Lizbeth got up and put the dishes in a small pot filled with hot water. “It don’t make it any easier on a man who can’t protect his woman from something like that. He loves Mattie. I’m just making him feel like a man again.” Lizbeth swiped a cloth over the dishes and then set them on a shelf nailed into the wall.
“There’s more to a man than bedding, honey.”
“Well, right now to Seth, that’s the only thing he has left.”
“And what of the child, and Mattie? You knows the life that baby will have?”
Lizbeth threw the rag into the pot and it splashed water into the fire. The flame hissed. “I knows that, Emi. But nothing no one can do about that either.” She calmed when she looked at Emaline. “Nothing that Seth can do.”
Emaline nodded her head and lowered her gaze. “Is the child a girl or boy?”
“Girl. Seth got word that she has blue eyes. Her skin is ... like Miss Ruth’s yeller horse.”
Lizbeth spooned some of the stew into a chipped bowl and put a too large tin lid over it. A couple of warm biscuits were placed on top, and a clean piece of tattered cotton put over all. She set the stew near Emaline. “In case you get hungry later.”
“Thank you. You’re a better cook than your mama.”
Smiling, Lizbeth threw Emaline a mild gaze. “My mama couldn’t cook. You know that Emi.”
“No, but she thought she could.” Emaline wrapped her hands around the warm bowl and thought of her hungry soldier. She’d water the stew down some, but it was life giving. She wondered what Seth would think if he knew his rabbit was helping a white.
“What’s Mattie gonna do?” Dry mouthed, Emaline had choked out the question.
Lizbeth just shrugged. “I reckon she’ll raise it. The babe is near on two months old. The overseer seen the baby, knows it’s growing. Thriving.”
She passed a cup of boiled chicory to Emaline and poured one for herself.
“I’m sorry, Emi. I knows how this is for you…”
“It’s long done. I understand more about Seth, that’s all.” She looked hard at Lizbeth and said, “But that don’t make Seth and Mattie any less tied. Watch yourself, Lizbeth. Mattie’s got folks here regardless what color child she births. You understand?”
Lizbeth’s eyes flamed, then she lowered her gaze and pouted. “Seth’s Uncle Jem hauled some victuals to Charleston,” she said. “He said that Miz Ruth’s brother was sure jumpy.”
Lizbeth nodded and sipped on the coffee. “Jem heard Master Brody talking to his neighbor when Jem was unloading the wagon. Master Brody is feeling poorly and scared he can’t make it out of Columbia.”
“That man has been sick since he was a child,” Emaline said, blowing on the hot, black drink. “Why he wants to leave Columbia anyways?”
“Yanks! Is they that close?” Maybe she just needed a few days instead of a few weeks to hide that boy.
“Jem said everyone seemed scared. Folks were leaving the city that could.” Lizbeth took a long drink of her coffee and set the cup down. “What you reckon will happen to us? If the Yanks get here, I mean.”
Emaline thought on that. She wondered what Miss Ruth would do. From talk around the Quarter, the Yankees were burning everything they come across. “Honey, don’t fret. We gots nothing them soldier’s want. And no one on this plantation is gonna lift a hand against them, you know that.”
“I know that, but the Rebs … if they decide to fight here, we’re in the middle, sure.”
Emaline could tell Lizbeth was scared. Thing was, Lizbeth just standing still had men buzzing around her, wanting to sting. But Lizbeth was choosey. The Old Master’s sons left her alone. Master Brody had never been one for women except the pasty wife his father had made him marry. Master Troy, well, he never bothered Lizbeth, he liked bigger women. The overseer didn’t dare touch a woman in the Quarter – Miss Ruth saw to that. But hungry soldiers, scared, angry, and far from home wouldn’t care whether Lizbeth was willing or not. Blue or grey didn’t matter.
“Child, you comes to my cabin and I’ll see that no one hurts you.”
“Emi, them walls ain’t gonna hide us from soldiers.”
“I didn’t say they was, hon. I just said to come to my cabin.”
Lizbeth gave her a puzzled stare but didn’t ask anything more. If it came down to it, Lizbeth could help her move the soldier to the hiding place. Right now, though, she wouldn’t put Lizbeth in harm’s way if she didn’t have to.
Emaline got up from the bed and rinsed the coffee cup.
“You going to the hymn singing?” Lizbeth asked.
“No, I’m still feeling tired.” Emaline set the cup next to the plates.
“You ain’t never missed the singing on Sundays, Emi.” Lizbeth took her in, slyness on her face. “You must be powerful tired. Unless there’s another reason.”
“There ain’t no other reason. I’m thankful for the stew and biscuits, honey.” Emaline stepped out into the yard and looked at the sky. No stars were shining. She could smell rain, likely coming off the coast. The smoke from the chimneys drifted west on the salty breeze. Maybe by morning all trace of the soldier on the riverbank would be washed away.
Singing drifted from the hill above the Quarter. The Dickens said they liked to hear it, so they made the slaves have their hymn meetings close to the big house. The black folks knew that whites feared uprisings, though praising the Lord didn’t include songs for killing. A young Miss Ruth had clapped at the hymns until her daddy walked over and swatted her on the face. Tears had come, but the slap didn’t keep Miss Ruth’s eyes from shining when the singing danced across the porch of the big house. After the Old Master died, Miss Ruth kept the meetings close to listen to the songs.
“It sounds pretty.” Lizbeth’s eyes were closed and her body was swaying back and forth in smooth rhythm to the music.
Emaline watched the rolling of Lizbeth’s hips. She was far away, in a world of her own making, maybe dancing with a handsome man. Emaline knew that to Lizbeth, real was lying in the arms of a strong man who made her feel like she was worth something. Emaline had never felt that type of worth and when the need prodded her, she cast it off quick. No use wishing for something that wasn’t going to happen.
The music stopped and Lizbeth stood quiet, eyes closed, humming the last notes of the song. Emaline stepped towards her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Lizbeth opened her eyes wide, surprise plain on her face.
“You takes care, Lizbeth. You needs me, I’ll be there.”
A sweet smile bloomed across Lizbeth’s mouth. “I know, hon. Me too.”
Emaline watched Lizbeth sashay towards the meeting. Another song was floating up from the big house and Lizbeth was snapping her fingers and dancing on the pathway. It was a lilting tune, promising a time of freedom, joy and angels. Emaline didn’t know if there was such a place, but hoped there was.
Lightening flickered and popped in the east and a low drum of thunder followed. She ambled back to her cabin, wondering if Jackson was in the rain. She thought back on Lizbeth’s fear of rape and hoped Jackson would be better than the doings of the soldiers. She pondered on the silky haired man who lay under her bed. His ma’aming to a slave, she couldn’t get a hold of that. Emaline guessed ugly times would bring out the worst and best in a person, man or woman. She hoped she could bring the best – feared the side of bad in her. She had it. Sure as a body had done bad, she’d done it.
She stood in front of her cabin door and stared at it. What would she see when she opened it? Had the boy moved? What was his name again? Scott. His mother’s choice. What was his mother choosing now? Emaline twisted the knob, weary with tired, and hoped this boy’s kin would know peace tonight, as much as she wanted it for herself.
Just before dawn Emaline heard the rumble of the storm. She glanced with half opened eye at the boy, saw he was sleeping, and curled back into her blanket. Last night she had removed the lid from a large barrel outside her cabin to catch rainwater. Now she wouldn’t have to stumble around in the storm getting soaked.
She thought of what a miserable day it would be for the folks working outside. Manure needed to be spread on the fields before planting and it didn’t matter to the overseer if it was done in the rain or not. Spring rains came often, and making the fields ready for seeding couldn’t be put off. Unless the manure wagons bogged down on the roadways, the work would be done. Hoping that no one would get chilled from the damp, she drifted back to sleep.
A crack of thunder boomed over the Quarter and shook the little cabin, waking her. Frightened, Emaline stared at the window. The thin curtain over the glass ghosted the branches and they looked like dark fingers of hungry children scratching to get in. Rain splattered hard against the pane, lightning sparked and then the window went black. Collecting herself from the hazy edge of sleep, she rubbed her eyes.
The fire in the hearth was low and a washed away yellow hung over the room. Emaline sat up on her mattress and yawned. Wrapping the blanket around her shoulders, she listened to the hard breathing of the boy. A poultice would be the first thing to make to draw out the sickness, right after getting the room warmed up.
The smoldering ashes flashed when she threw a piece of wood into the hearth. She rummaged in her cupboard for tea and sprinkled it into a pot of water. It wouldn’t be long till it bubbled, ready for drinking. Left over rabbit stew warmed for breakfast. She’d managed to get some down the boy last night, but didn’t know if he’d take any this morning.
The rain smelled fresh when she peaked out the door and she breathed deep. Ever since Miss Ruth told her she didn’t have to work the fields no more, Emaline had learned to love spring - mostly anyway, until people came in dragging and sick from the fields. Miss Ruth was a kind master weighed against her father or brother, so not as many folks needed Emaline. But Miss Ruth had been gone of late, leaving the overseer in charge.
Emaline suspected that Miss Ruth went to Columbia to see her sick brother. Fact was, Miss Ruth looked thinner than ever, and lines were settling deep on her face. The main road to Columbia wasn’t far from Dickens’ House, and regardless what Emaline had told Lizbeth to comfort, if the Rebs lost the city, chances were they’d come this way. Emaline didn’t want anything bad to happen to Miss Ruth, but if the Yankees were coming, it would help if they’d put a hurry on their getting here. That sick boy was a worry hanging heavy around Emaline’s neck and she’d rather deal with the Yanks than face beaten Rebels.
A dry cough
from the Yankee drew her back into the cabin. His face was flushed and she
touched his forehead. Warm, but not hot. The gash on his temple was
crusted over with dried pus and blood so she left it alone. There was
nothing better than the body’s own binding for healing. She cut away the
bandages from his side and fingered the wounds. He pushed her hand away,
but the attempt was weak.
“It’s okay, boy. Just needs to get more salve into these holes.”
The color around the injury was a storm of purple and black. As it stretched across his belly and back, it faded to a tired blue and then to a weak yellow. But the skin wasn’t red or hot, so she salved the wound and bound it back up.
She could see he was trying to lie still, but he flinched at her touch and sucked in a breath. It was when she threw off the blanket to look at the wound in his thigh that he started fighting. His arms reached for the blanket and brought it back over his hips.
“Boy, I’ve got to tend that wound and can’t do it unless I sees it.” She almost laughed at the look on his face. He was purely mortified, no doubt about that.
“Please ma’am. I’ll take care of it,” he pleaded, holding onto the blanket as if he’d quit breathing without it.
He was bright red right down to the ends of his corn gold hair. She felt bad for him, but couldn’t understand what the problem was.
“Listen, boy. I needs to get mashes together to draw out poisons from ailing people, one being you. Two women are going to have babies soon and one has never birthed before and is scared to death. I gots to get going.”
He clutched the blanket, sharp-boned fingers holding it tight to his chest. She thought of pulling it off and just getting to the leg, but he looked so darn pitiful she decided to try to talk sense into him.
“I seen many a man, child,” she soothed. “You ain’t got nothing new under this sky. So just lets me take care of you.”
Still, he held on to that damned wool blanket looking miserable.
“Most men I
know ain’t shy what they show around a black woman. You’re a certain
puzzle, boy, you know that?” She was frustrated, wanted to get to her work,
but this boy just wasn’t giving in.
“Okay, you cover yours that you feels needs covering. But let me gets to the hole!”
Those eyes, as blue as the stream running through the meadow, stared, full of doubt, but he nodded. He pulled the blanket above his thigh, just enough so she could see the hole in his leg. She unwrapped the bandage and fretted that the wound was weepy and smelled. She needed to give it a good wash, needless of what he wanted. But, she’d give him his covering and try not to bump his privates. These northerners were sure a silly bunch, she reckoned, and wondered if all Yankees had this boy’s shy ways.
“I’ve seen many a man’s works,” she grumbled, trying to allow his feelings but still letting him know hers. “Why, the old massa had a boil on his member and didn’t think nothin’ of me poppin’ it. The old rooster. He were sure a man of little worth, in more ways than one.” She chuckled at her own words, hoping to lighten the boy’s embarrassment, but looked at him and shut up. His eyes were closed, face turned as far into the pillow as he could get trying to hide himself from her prodding. She lowered her eyes and finished her work. There was no desire in her to shame anyone, especially a boy that was barely past knowing a woman.
“I’m almost done,” she soothed. “But you can’t tend this yourself. I’m sorry. I gots to see how it’s healing. If it don’t go right, you could die, you hear?” She hoped he would see reason. A body that had been in war and prison most likely had a whole lot worse happen to him than a few minutes of a female tending a wound.
He hitched a breath and looked up at her. “Yes ma’am. I understand.”
And she believed he did, this northerner brought up in a world where he was sent off to school instead of a field at nine or ten years of age; dragging books instead of a bag of cotton that weighed more than he did. But Emaline couldn’t hate what he had been born to. Fact was she wanted that world for Jackson.
When she was done doctoring, she covered him up and filled a cup with tea. She was surprised that he was strong enough to hold the cup himself. But after a few sips, he started coughing and lay back down.
“You think you can eats some of this rabbit stew?”
“It smells good, ma’am. I’ll try.”
This ma’aming would have to stop. She was getting used to it, but it didn’t fit right. “You can calls me Emaline.”
“No offense, ma’, I mean, well, I was brought up to call my elders either sir or ma’am.”
“That include black folks, boy?”
He turned pink at the question and looked down. “No. My grandfather never went that far.”
“So, whys you calling me ma’am?”
“It just seems appropriate.”
This boy was sure confounding. “Appropriate? That mean fittin’?”
“Boy,” she laughed, “you don’ts know how unfitting that is. Don’t you know what I is?”
“You’re a human being and I owe you my life.”
That took the gab out of her talk. She always believed God gave her worth, but hearing it from a white man was another affair all together. She could see that he felt true in his heart at what he said. He didn’t act like those that figured it was their due to take whatever a black was obliged to give. After a lifetime of being thought of as little more than a horse in a stable, she felt tears.
“Here, have some of this stew broth,” Emaline ordered, trying to hide her feelings. “Maybe by tonight you’ll be ups to something more filling.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Boy. The name is Emaline,” she snapped, still scared of tears falling and hoped being mean would stop them.
He didn’t say anything. She could almost see his mind working, pondering on how to answer.
“I will call you Miss Emaline, if you will call me Scott?”
“I meant no slight calling you boy. Just got used to it, I guess.”
“No need to apologize, Miss Emaline. I understand. And I appreciate you’re taking the trouble to get used to calling me Scott.”
He was stubborn as any danged mule she had ever worked behind. She shook her head at this sick, skinny soldier not giving in. Scott it’ll be then and she’d abide Miss Emaline. Besides, he had a real nice way of talking, and she liked the way Miss Emaline sounded when he said it. Reminded her of warm honey poured over baked apples and cream. Like she were special – worth something.
“How’s the broth, Scott?” she asked with a grin.
He smiled back at her. “Fine, Miss Emaline. Just fine.”
She gathered the fixings to make a poultice from the cupboard, smiling like someone had just given her a present. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t stop the grin. What was worse, every time she glanced over at him, he was looking at her, smiling back.
When the poultice was ready, she put a good share in a muslin cloth and placed it on his chest. He scrunched up his nose.
“Phew, that stinks.”
“It works. That’s all that matters and it’ll chase the sickness out of your lungs.”
“And everything else within ten miles.” He looked up at her, eyes teasing. “But then, I’m sure I smelled worse than this when you found me. And probably not as effective.”
She chuckled. It seemed the soldier could poke fun at himself.
The mustard plaster would be on for a good while, so she took up her mending kit and his uniform and started sewing the tattered clothing back together. It was faded, but clean, and she knew he’d feel better knowing it was there for him.
“Your grandpappy taught you manners?” she asked, remembering that Scott had mentioned him earlier.
“Yes. He was very insistent that I be polite.”
“An important man, is he?”
Scott shrugged. “He’s important to me. But, yes, he is influential in the community.”
“He a rich man?”
He looked about the room just big enough for the narrow bed, rough table, and short-legged chair.
“I reckon this little shack of mine looks a might shabby to you,” she said, following his gaze from one corner of the room to the other.
He smiled at her, crooked like, and shook his head. “No, Miss Emaline. My grandfather is a rich man and his house is very comfortable, but I can assure you, it is not as warm as your cabin. And after the past year this small room is wonderful.”
“Word is that some Yank prisoners broke out of the Castle. You one of ‘em?”
He choked a bit, shifted his gaze and ran his tongue across his lips. He gripped the side of the bed like if he let go, he’d fall forever.
“You don’t wanna talks about it, that’s fine. Figured that’s where you came from.”
“It is,” he whispered and let go of the bed frame, covering his eyes with his arm.
Was he covering tears? Maybe there were some things worse than being a slave. She thought it best to talk about something else. “Where does your grandpappy live?”
He rubbed his arm over his eyes and when he looked at her, they were red. Tears after all.
“We live in Boston,” he said, running his hand across his face.
“I heard of it, but don’t rightly know how far away it is.”
“It’s a long ways away,” he replied, with sadness in his voice.
He picked up the bowl of broth, played some with his spoon, but didn’t eat any of it. She supposed he was real home sick and then some with all he’d been through. Lots of scars, new and old, he’d carry around for the rest of his life, and not all were on his body.
She wondered what Boston was like. Heard it was a big city, with lots of people living in grand houses. She also knew of slaves that had made it clear up to Canada through Boston.
“How come your grandpappy taught you politeness and not your pappy?”
“My grandfather raised me, not my father.” His voice turned cold and his jaw stone hard.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to bring up bad memories. Your pappy pass away?”
He grunted. “No, and actually, there aren’t any memories to bring up. I’ve never met the man.”
“You’re gonna break that jaw, you hold it any tighter,” she told him. There was a bitterness settled in his heart against his pappy. Well, maybe this boy’s life weren’t so perfect after all. Seemed everyone living had some type of pain – he had his share.
“I didn’t know my pappy either,” she said, not sure why she was telling him, maybe to make him feel like he wasn’t alone. “My Granny Abigail told me about him though. He was a big man, strong. The Old Massa figured he could make some strong workin’ children so he paired him with young women in the Quarter. Only a couple took, so Massa Dickens sold him off after my mama died birthing me. Old Massa said he was too much trouble to keep and his babies were too big to pass.” She stuck herself with the needle and sucked on the bleeding prick.
“Your father and mother were paired?” Scott asked.
The look on his face was just like old man Tabor’s when he found out his son who had moved to Philadelphia joined the northern cavalry. Emaline couldn’t figure out why the old man cared so much. The only things the Tabor’s owned were two oxen and a scrubby farm, never even contracted a slave when they needed one. But he’d disowned his son and said he never wanted to see him again.
“We’se slaves, boy! What you expect?” She shook her head and returned to her mending. “After my mama died, my Granny Abigail raised me. She weren’t my real Granny, but she loved me and I loved her. She was at my birthing. – Mama’s name was Carrie.” She whispered the name. She hadn’t said the name out loud in years. It felt strange hearing it, but made her mama seem like a real person.
“I’m sorry, Miss Emaline, about your mother.”
She believed he was. But she gathered herself like she always did when things got low and pushed ahead. The past was done and nothing could be changed. Life and death was an everyday truth of being, regardless what your color was.
“What is your mama’s name?” she asked, trying to sound normal.
“My mother’s name was Catherine. She died when I was born, just like you.”
Long moments passed in silence. Losing someone you loved was a black hole you never found the bottom to. Maybe this boy’s pappy was buried in a hole like that. If that were so, was a shame he hadn’t claimed his son. Scott may have helped him out of whatever pit that might have swallowed him.
“Death takes quick. And it don’t care if a child is orphaned,” she said.
“I’m not an orphan. It was kind of my grandfather to take me in. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
“You ever ask your grandpa about your pa?”
A short answer, but it didn’t tell her why he didn’t know his pa. “Why …”
He replied before she finished the question. “I don’t know why my father did not want me. My grandfather didn’t say anything other than Murdoch Lancer loved his ranch more than his wife and child.”
She cut a length of thread and pulled it through the eye of the needle. How much of this boy did she want to know and how much would he tell her? He surely hated his father, a man who refused to claim his own child. But she’d done worse. Much worse.
“Your pa has a ranch. Is that like a farm?” she asked.
“Yes, but more in the way of raising cattle then farming. I understand he has a large ranch in California.”
“As far west as you can go until you hit another ocean.”
“I ain’t seen this one, and sure don’t know about another one,” Emaline snorted. It wouldn’t make the world any less just because she hadn’t seen it.
“You’re not that many miles from the Atlantic. You’ve never been to it?”
“I’ve never been farther than the general store in town.”
“How sad not to have seen the ocean when you’re so close.”
“Don’t worry none about that boy,” she scoffed. “Most folks in these parts ain’t been but a few miles from home, black or white. Only difference is, white folks can go if they a mind to and have the means.”
Emaline drew the thread in and out through the pieces of cloth as his eyes watched her hand go up and down. The smell of the mustard pack wasn’t so bad now she’d gotten used to it.
“You know, Scott, iffn’ you don’t mind my offering, your pa not claiming you, well, I know it festers. But maybe there’s reasons you don’t know about.”
“What reasons? My mother died, and my father left me with my grandfather.”
know, just thinking out loud. … Your grandpappy is your mama’s pa?”
“Yes. He is.”
“Were you born in Boston?”
“No. I was born in California. After my mother died, my grandfather brought me to Boston.”
“You were born in California, but your grandpappy took you back to Boston. How come your daddy let him do that?”
“My father wasn’t with my mother when I was born. My grandfather was and took care of me when she died. My father has never seen me.”
“Your pa was away when your mama’s time came?”
“No, my father wasn’t away. I mean, I was born in a wagon on the side of a road, away from home.”
What a story this boy had. It weren’t any of her business, but it was wrapped around her now and she couldn’t throw it off. “Don’t mean to be nosy, but why wasn’t your mama at home?”
He started to pick at the crusty edges of the gash in his temple.
“Leave that alone, boy,” she said, and slapped at his hand. “Don’t need to be busting that open.”
“It itches.” He frowned at her but put his hand down.
“Itching’s good. Leave it be.”
He sighed like a vexed child, crossed one hand over the other, and picked at his thumb.
The short leg on the chair bumped to the floor and she let it rest. Seth Woolins told her he could make her a rocking chair. She’d like a rocker. It would sooth her, make her sitting chores easier. She knew Seth was trying to get on her good side cause of Lizbeth. She had told him no. Hmm, she might think on it some now. Tilting back and forth on a chair with one short leg just made her stomach jumpy.
Scott started fussing at the bandage on his side.
“Boy, am I gonna have to tie your hands? Leave those bindings alone.”
“Sorry,” he replied and put his hands together. “I didn’t realize I was doing it.”
“Well, realize it,” she scolded.
“I thought you were going to call me Scott and not boy.”
“I didn’t realize I was doing it,” she repeated back at him.
“Well, realize it,” he said and laughed.
His grandpappy may have taught him manners, but he sure didn’t let things go. It was hard to be contrary with him though. He had a powerful nice look about him when he laughed. Made her think what he might look like when his face was filled out some.
She wasn’t sure if she should bring up his pa again, but didn’t have to decide.
“My father sent my mother away when she was carrying me,” he started, his voice calm and sounding not so angry. “I don’t know the whole story. Grandfather blamed my father for a poor decision that caused my mother’s death.” He was quiet for a while. “I think maybe my father didn’t want to see me after my mother died.”
Oh child. What could she say to make him feel better? Emaline knew enough about women dying having babies. Probably that’s all what happened in his mama’s death, like her mama’s. And his grandpa turned the blame on this boy’s father. It was easy to blame. Blame everyone but the thief, whether that thief be stealing a man’s child or stealing a life.
“Miss Emaline?” His voice sounded like that warm honey over sugary apples.
“Son, I’m gonna tell you something. Don’t matter what your granddaddy says. You needs to hear it from your pa. He owes it to you. And you owes it to yourself. Women die birthing. Just the way things are. Nothing to be done but stop having babies. And I can tell you, with the ways of men and women, that ain’t never gonna happen.”
She stood, reached over and folded up the cloth with the poultice. He was picking at his forehead again. “Stop it,” she reminded.
“He could have tried. He never even tried. He’s my father, and I don’t know who he is.”
He sounded lost and tired. She knew he wanted a reason why his father never tried to see him. Why he gave his baby away.
“Things aren’t always what they seem. Sometimes a person … does things they think at the time are best. It’s not till later they learn they were wrong, but then it’s too late. Too late to take back what’s been done.” She put the poultice rag in a basket, straightened her back and stretched.
“I’m gonna get me a rocking chair,” she said out loud. “Rock back and forth, just like wheat in the wind. Hmm, maybe it would help me think on things.” She looked over at him, laying there so helpless, needing answers.
“When you gets home, you needs to find your pappy and ask him why. If’n he don’t wants to talk to you, then you can walk away knowing it’s him, not you. Ain’t a child’s fault if his mama dies. A baby is part of his pa’s doing too. You understand, boy?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, putting stress on ma’am.
She grinned at his reminding her of their agreement. “You understand, Scott?”
This time his smile reached to his eyes. “Yes, Miss Emaline. I do.”
“Good.” She threw a shawl around her shoulders and picked up the basket. “I’ve got to tend to some folks. You gets in under the cot like last night. I’ll tack a white cloth on the outside of the door. That tells people I’m gone and no one will come in. You’ll be safe here.”
He fidgeted, looked scared, but nodded agreement.
“You needs to pass water, there’s a pot in the corner.”
When he scowled, she reminded him that he couldn’t march around outside walking to the outhouse. “You’ve come this far. Don’t throw it away cuz you’re too shy to piss in a bowl. You hear!”
“I’ll be back in a couple hours. The storm’s gone over so no one will be in the Quarter but the sick and thems too old to work. You sleep.”
She turned to look at him before she shut the door, but he was already moving to the mattress in under the bed. The blanket slipped off his shoulders and bared a backbone as sharp as any she’d ever seen. He had a ways to go before he could start north. More than that, he was growing on her, no doubt about that, and she’d only had him a day.
have captured Columbia.”
Dark circles smudged Miss Ruth’s eyes – lines of worry scratched across her forehead. Emaline tried to hide the gladness she felt at the news, but the Yankees meant freedom, a hope she had only dreamed of. What those soldiers would do if they came to Dickens House was an afterthought.
“I need you to help with preparations,” Miss Ruth continued. “Brody isn’t in good health. He’ll be no help and I fear it’s only a matter of time before the northern troops come our way.”
Miss Ruth paced back and forth as she rattled off her concerns. A lace handkerchief clutched in her hand would be in pieces soon. She twisted and untwisted it, bits of it already floating to the floor.
“And mama, my God, what am I to do with mama?” Miss Ruth pressed a fist against her forehead and closed her eyes.
She lifted her eyes to Emaline. They held the look of many a slave waiting for the strike of a whip or stick. Emaline’s belly tightened at the sight of Miss Ruth’s fear. It was a wondrous thing how quick lives could turn.
“I’ll not leave Dickens House,” Miss Ruth declared, her fists tight. “This is my home until I’m driven off. Brody feels the same as I do.”
Just a few days back Miss Ruth had come in from Columbia with her brother in tow. Emaline was digging up the garden for spring planting when they drove in, and went to see if they needed help. The wagon was so full with Master Brody’s fine things they couldn’t get anything more into it. Two house slaves perched on top of the haul and a white man that Emaline had never seen before drove the wagon. He was sharp featured; his skin dry, leather brown, like he’d spent a lifetime under the hot sun. Miss Ruth tried to pay the man with Confederate notes.
“Ma’am, you got Federal paper?” His accent didn’t sound Carolina, but it was southern.
“No, why would I have Federal?”
“Well, I’m sorry, ma’am. But, fact is, Rebel paper don’t do me no good.” He looked sorry, but not enough to take the Confederate money. “Now, you got some nice candlesticks there.” He pointed to gold pieces that were sitting on top of a box in the wagon.
“We agreed on the price before we left Columbia,” Miss Ruth stated, her tone short. “I assumed we were talking Confederate notes. This is South Carolina, Mr. Wilkes.”
He fiddled with the brim of his hat and stared at his worn boots. “Well, Miz Dickens, I surely know what state it is.” His eyes traveled from the old house to the gardens and on into the cotton fields. Could almost see him thinking the Dickens were land rich but not much else if the rebs lost the war. Even Emaline knew that.
“Ma’am, I weren’t aiming to come this way when I left Columbia. Tennessee ain’t this direction, but I felt sorry for you, a woman alone with a sick brother. Now, I have a family of my own waiting and worrying. And when I don’t get home when I should, my woman will near worry herself to death.”
“I appreciate all you’ve done, Mr. Wilkes. And I know you’ve gone out of your way, but…”
“Miz Dickens,” he interrupted and stared at her like an eagle eyeing a fox. “You saw the red sky as well as I did the night after we left. That was Columbia burning. It could have been you and your brother.”
He looked at Brody, then back at Ruth. “Now, I don’t mean to scare you, but Sherman ain’t known to be a merciful man. If I was you, I’d get you and yours into those hills yonder for a piece till the Yanks rides on by.”
“My mother would never survive.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am. Real sorry. But … I have no use for Confederate paper.”
“Sister, give him the candelabras,” Brody stated. He was leaning against the wagon looking as close to a ghost as a living man could. Emaline held no dislike for Brody. He was probably what the old Master had said he was - milk toast. Still, he was mild tempered and had never been cruel to Emaline or any other slave that she could recollect.
“Brody, they’re worth more than what we agreed on!”
“That could be, but who’s to say how long we’ll have them. If our boys come through, they could just as easy take them as the Union. You know that. The southern army has its own renegades and they’re running scared. Might as well give them to a man who has gone out of his way to help us.”
“But they’re Mama’s, Brody. Grandmamma gave them to her on her wedding day.” Ruth’s hand clutched her brother’s arm.
“I know that, Ruthie,” Brody said, his voice gentle. “But mama doesn’t know the difference anymore.” He reached around into the wagon bed, picked out the gleaming candlesticks and handed them to the man. “We’re much obliged for your help, Mr. Wilkes.”
“I thank you, Mister Dickens. I’m not a rich man and this war has taken much of what I have. These will help to feed my family.” Wilkes tucked the candelabra underneath the seat and started to unload the wagon.
Master Brody did what he could to help, but it wasn’t long before Miss Ruth had him sitting on the steps with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. The side yard was soon full of crates and boxes of glittery silver and fine clothes.
On top of a box filled with clothing lay a dark blue jacket. It would surely keep the soldier warm. Emaline traced fingers over it, thinking of the sleeping Scott. It had been a long night of fighting a fever that didn’t break until a few hours before sunrise. The small amount of sleep had left her exhausted and careless, and when she saw Brody watching her caress the cloth, she snatched her hand away. The war wasn’t over yet, and she was still the Dickens’ property. She had no right to stroke that coat.
“Mr. Wilkes, I do apologize for my bad manners earlier,” Miss Ruth said, scattering the worry of the coat from Emaline’s mind. “I hope you understand my attachment to those candelabras, but as my brother stated, who is to say where they may be tomorrow.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He climbed onto the wagon seat, released the brake and looked down on them. “I wish you folks the best.” He tipped his hat, clicked to the horses and was down the road on his way to Tennessee.
“God speed to
you, Sir. I hope you stay ahead of both armies,” Master Brody called.
“Thank you, sir. That’s my intent.” And he waived an arm.
They watched him for a ways. Emaline was so tired she thought if she didn’t move, she’d fall to the ground staring at the departing wagon. She picked up a box of linen. “Where you wants these, Miss Ruth?”
Miss Ruth seemed spell bound staring at the man going down the road, and jerked at Emaline’s question. “Oh, yes, well.” She fluttered her fingers in the air. “I suppose we need to get them into the house at least. Put them in the parlor.”
surely a lot of riches in the boxes and it took a good while to haul them to
the parlor. The blue coat was gone from the top of the clothing box when
Emaline went to carry it in. Master Brody was sitting on the steps with the
jacket across his lap looking at her like she’d growed another head or
something. He looked at his wife like that sometimes. And where was his
“If’n you don’t mind my asking, Master Brody, is Miz Dickens coming later?”
“No, I sent my wife to relatives in New York weeks ago.” He picked at the coat, and then looked at Emaline. A thin smile appeared and the icy blue of his eyes softened. “How ironic sending her north for protection. I’m afraid I miss her more than I thought.”
“Parting with kin is hard to do. I’se done seen many of mine go down the road,” Emaline said, remembering that no amount of begging could stop her half brother from being sold years ago.
“I’m sorry, Master Brody,” she whispered, startled at what she said, realizing he could have her whipped for her sass. “Don’t know what come over me.” She lowered her gaze, feeling like a dog rolling over on his belly and pissing himself.
His voice was mild when he spoke to her. “How old are you Emaline?”
She glanced at him, surprised at the question, but grateful he was overlooking her words. “I don’t rightly know, sir. I think I was born the same year Miss Ruth was.”
“That would make you 47. You’ve been on this plantation for 47 years.”
“Yes, sir. All my life.”
“You ever want to be anywhere else?”
Why was he asking her these questions? Master Brody wasn’t one to talk much to the slaves. She wanted to give him the answers he wanted to hear, but wasn’t sure what they were. After a few seconds, she answered. “I never thought much of it, sir.”
“Humph. I daresay I don’t believe that.”
He looked over the lawns of Dickens House, a sad quiet to his face, and then leaned back against the step and closed his eyes. He was thinner than ever, feeble. But there was something about his manner; was almost like whatever the day would bring, he’d either live through it or he wouldn’t.
A cat slunk across the lawn, stopped at the bottom of a huge hickory. A mockingbird sang in the treetops, jumped from one branch to the other. The cat was tight with want, a quivering meow shaking its whiskers. As Master Brody watched the crouching animal, the end of his tail flicked like a Georgia rattler.
“We haven’t heard from Troy, you know. Since he was assumed to be captured.” He sounded drowsy as he watched the cat.
Did he change the subject to bait her? Master Brody knew what Master Troy had done to her.
“I suppose Jackson is in Canada.” For all the good it did, the cat sprung when the bird flew off. It relaxed after a few yards and started licking its shoulder like the bird had never been there. Master Brody sat forward, stretched his back and stared at her.
She bit her lip trying to hide the pain she felt. “I don’t knows where he is, Master Brody,” she said truthfully. Her heart near broke wondering about Jackson, fretted every day about if he was safe.
“He’d fit in anywhere, wouldn’t he, with his light coloring? Took after Troy with those blue eyes and light hair. Just looks like he’s been in the sun with his tan skin.”
Master Brody talked easy, like it was nothing of matter to be gabbing to a woman about the man who had raped her – and the child birthed from it.
“That’s probably why he got away so quickly. He doesn’t look like his mama, that’s for sure.” He didn’t sound like he was trying to be mean, like white folks did when they talked down to you. It was more like he passing time on a boring day. Almost worse though, him not thinking she had feelings.
Emaline could feel tears bite, and looked down at her dusty shoes. Miss Ruth had bought them for her, special ordered for Emaline’s big feet so she wouldn’t have to scrunch her toes into too small shoes. Emaline had heard Brody teasing Miss Ruth for doing it. Accused her of spoiling Emaline.
“My sister loves you very much, you know that?” Master Brody stated, seeming to read her mind.
“And I loves, Miss Ruth, sir.”
He smiled at her like he was puzzling over something. He stood up on spindly legs that Emaline thought would topple if she blew on him. “You remember that, Emaline, when the Yankees come. You remember how much you love Miss Ruth.”
It had been strange, him looking at her like it mattered that she loved Miss Ruth. “Yes, sir,” was all she said.
“Master Brody, I’ffn you don’t needs me for anything else, I’d best get to work.”
He looked across the yard before nodding his head. Emaline started to walk down towards the Quarter.
She stopped and turned.
“Here.” He held out the coat. “You can have this.”
She had hesitated, but then walked back to him. “Thank you, Master Brody,” she said, surprised at the gift, and wary of why he would give it to her.
“I have plenty of coats. You’re a big woman and this may be snug, but I think you can get into it. Besides, it’s too big for me. Analea bought it for me and my wife has no concept of my size. I daresay she also found the worst tailor in the city of Columbia.” He chuckled and handed off the coat.
The soft wool was warm and the coat well made. It would keep the chill off the boy. Even if the Yankees took him, he’d still need a good coat.
“Well, best get along, Emaline. There’ll be much to prepare for in the next couple of days.”
He waived his hand, dismissing her like always, and walked with slow steps into the house. She stared at the door for a while, wondering about his gift – and him. It was surely something the way people acted. Folks were hard to figure, even when you felt sure you knew all there was to ‘em.
“I swear, Emaline. You’ve not been listening to me.” Miss Ruth’s sharp tone brought Emaline back.
“Yes, ma’am. I hears you. But your mama ain’t gonna have me near her. You knows that.”
hadn’t sweetened with age. Kindness ran weak in her blood, and the years
with her husband had killed most of it. Her eyes were clouded with
blindness, but that didn’t stop the glaring hate from showing. She would
sit on the porch for hours in her wheelchair, harping at anything she could
hear moving. Most times it was a house slave, but sometimes Miss Ruth, or
just the wind in the trees.
“It doesn’t matter what my mama wants. That’s your job to look after her. You understand?”
“Yes, Miss Ruth. I understands.”
“Oh Emi, just do your best,” Miss Ruth pleaded, changing her tone. “I know my mama is hard to deal with, but you’re the only one I trust to have the courage not to run away.”
She paced over the carpet, her despair eating at Emaline. Miss Ruth was a strong woman, had pulled the plantation together when Master Troy left, but was now begging her slave for help.
“Miss Ruth, you knows I’ll do what you ask. I always have.”
Miss Ruth’s eyes filled with tears and she grasped Emaline by the arms. “We may lose it all, Emi,” she whispered, tears falling down her cheeks. “My great grandfather settled here. This land … everything … we may lose it all.”
The lush carpet and drapes spoke of the Dickens’ wealth. Emaline had no idea how much the rich furnishings cost, but figured more important things could be lost than what they walked on.
“Miss Ruth, there’s caves in them hills,” she said, remembering what the wagon man had urged. “We can go there till the soldiers leave. At least you’ll be alive. We’se can carry Master Brody and your mama.”
The clock bonged, counting off the time. Emaline thought it was the longest sound of the hour she’d ever heard. Miss Ruth let go of her arms and stepped away, a new knowing crossing her face.
“If the Yankees win, you’ll be free,” Miss Ruth clipped, her chin hard and raised. “You can go wherever you want to go.”
“I expect so, ma’am. But this is my home. And I loves you, Miss Ruth. You knows that in your heart.” Master Brody’s words came back to her. ‘You remember how much you love Miss Ruth.’
“Yes, Emi,” Miss Ruth said. “I know you love me. And I’ve tried to protect you as much as I could. As much as I was allowed.”
“I knows that. I knows you done what you could.”
“Is it enough, Emaline? For you to sit by my mama’s side when she screams at you? I’m not a soldier, Emi, or a politician. But I know the Yankees will be here. If they can burn Columbia, they won’t think anything about leaving Dickens House in ashes.”
“I said I’d stand by your mama, and I will,” Emaline said, as firm and proud as she could make herself. “Everyone else might run off, but I won’t. You can be sure of that. I gives you my word.”
“Ruth! Ruth! Where are you child? Good God, where are my children?” Hope Dickens screeched from the music room across the hall, hollering and cursing the day, swearing that she’d die before anyone would come to her aid.
“I’ve got to go to her.” Miss Ruth twisted away and, with hurried steps, walked to the door. She put her hand on the knob, but then turned towards Emaline. “Thank you, Emi.”
Emaline nodded and Miss Ruth was gone. As soon as the door closed, Emaline rushed from the room, down through the Quarter and to her cabin. She would take care of the boy first, and then wait for Lizbeth to finish her milking chores. Emaline would need her help moving him. If the Yankees were coming like Miss Ruth said, the Confederates would be here first.
Three promises made: A promise to Miss Ruth about her mama, a promise to Lizbeth about protecting her, and a promise to the soldier to hide him. She hadn’t figured they’d all be coming due at once, but it looked like the Yankees were seeing they did.
She threw open the door to her cabin, out of breath from running and worry, and knew right away that he was gone.
the door, Emaline stumbled into the bushes. He couldn’t have gone far - he
was too weak. If someone had found him, they would have brought him to the
big house. If he left on his own, what was he thinking? Just a few days
out of the river, half dead and near starved, wandering around in his
tattered Yankee uniform in the middle of a Confederate county. He’d stick
out like a cornstalk in a cotton field.
She quickly ruled out his going through the Quarter or the field to the west where slaves were working. That left only the river or the milking barn to the east that sat on the far edge of a meadow.
Emaline set off for the river, wondering if he’d go up or down river. To his thinking, it probably didn’t matter. He had no way of knowing that the Yankees had taken the capital and that the prisoners in the Castle were free.
Before she’d gone a few steps, Emaline heard screeching that sounded like the yipping of a scared fox. Lizbeth was running through the cow meadow, tearing up soggy brown clumps of winter grass. Eyes wild and arms pumping, she squealed Emaline’s name. Lordy, Lizbeth found the soldier. Emaline hitched her skirt and ran towards her, desperate to shut Lizbeth up.
“Emi! Emi!” Lizbeth almost fell into her arms, panting like the overseer’s hounds were chasing her.
“What’s the matter with you?” Emaline asked.
“We’se gots to get the overseer, Emi,” Lizbeth choked, gripping Emaline’s arm.
“What for? What happened?” Emaline shook her, trying to get her attention. If Lizbeth had found Scott, they needed to get him back to the cabin before anyone else saw him. But Lizbeth just took great gulps of air.
“Honey, just breathes deep and collects yourself. I’m here and ain’t nothing gonna hurt you.”
“Cuz…there’s a…man, Emi. A man.”
Lizbeth shook her head and put a hand to her throat.
“Lizbeth, I swear, if you don’t tells me, I’m gonna wear you out. You hear?” Emaline gave her another rough shake. “Now tells me what the problem is.”
“There’s a damn Yankee soldier boy,” Lizbeth gasped, pointing across the meadow.
“Where, Lizbeth. Show me where.” Emaline started to pull her across the soggy pasture. Suddenly Lizbeth locked her legs and wrenched away.
“What you thinking of, girl,” Lizbeth shouted. “We’se gots to get some help.”
“You shush now,” Emaline hissed, looked around to make sure no one was near. “We don’t needs no help. You just show me where he is.”
“Are you crazy! He’s a Yankee. Probably one of them ex-capees from the Castle. He looks near dead.”
“If he’s that bad off, he won’t hurt us.”
“Don’t mean he don’t have a gun.”
“If he was a prisoner, how could he have a gun?”
know. Maybe he stole one along the way. What difference does it make?
He’s the enemy?”
“Whose enemy, Lizbeth?”
Lizbeth looked at Emaline like she had lost her mind.
“Whose enemy? He ain’t mine. He might be Miss Ruth’s or whoever else has me chained, but he ain’t my enemy.” Emaline was surprised by the sound of her own bitterness. She surely loved Miss Ruth, but the power she had over Emaline was choking.
“Girl, you’ve gone crazy for sure,” Lizbeth said lowering her voice. “You’d get beat for words like them, or worse.”
“Well no one’s heard them but you. You gonna tell?” Emaline took hold of Lizbeth’s shoulder and shoved her towards the barn. “Now you show me where he is.”
Lizbeth stared wide-eyed at Emaline.
“Don’t looks at me like I’ve been smoking wild weed.” Emaline tried to sound calm, but damn, she sure didn’t feel it. “I wants to see that boy you’re talking about. Now! I needs to get him to my cabin.”
“Lord above, Emi,” Lizbeth whispered. “You have lost your senses. What you want that boy in your cabin for?”
“Cuz he’s mine,” Emaline blurted. “I’se taken him in and if he’s found, I’se a dead woman.”
Lizbeth didn’t say anything, just gawked at her open mouthed.
“You trust me, Lizbeth?”
Lizbeth closed her mouth and swallowed. “Of course I trusts you, Emi. But…”
“Then just do what I asks. Help me get the soldier to my cabin. I’ll explain everything later.”
A crow cackled overhead and Lizbeth jumped. The low moan of a cow heavy with milk carried from the barn. The seconds were dragging too long waiting for an answer.
“Lizbeth,” Emaline declared. “As I loves you, I needs you now.”
Nodding her head, Lizbeth turned and hurried towards the barn. Emaline let out a long breath, lifted her skirt and followed across the squishy brown grass.
The milk cows stood in their stanchions like soldiers waiting for orders. Heavy bags dripped, and the sweet odor of milk and dry alfalfa filled the air. Emaline could hear tails swish and bodies turn as she followed Lizbeth down the aisle. Scott lay tucked behind a stack of hay bales. Emaline bent down, felt his forehead and his eyes fluttered open. When he smiled at her, Emaline’s heart slowed with relief.
“Boy, you near gave me a heart attack, you know that,” she scolded, angry and thankful at the same time.
“I’m sorry, Miss Emaline. I saw someone sneaking through the cabins. I had no choice,” he explained, his voice hoarse.
“I don’t know
… a white man.”
“Well, no matter now. We’ll figure that out later.” Scared with the news, she didn’t know who would be creeping through the Quarter. Master Brody never came down, and the overseer was in the fields.
“Lizbeth, give me a hand getting him up.” Back to the problem at hand – getting Scott to the cabin without being seen.
When Scott saw Lizbeth, Emaline felt him tense. “Don’t worry none about Lizbeth,” Emaline said. “She won’t say nothing. Now, come on. Lean on me.”
Emaline helped him up and pulled his arm over her shoulder. “Girl,” she said to a doubtful looking Lizbeth. “He don’t bite. Help me gets him to the door.”
Eyeing Scott with distrust, Lizbeth walked to him, slipped his arm over her shoulder and grabbed his waist. “He’s mighty skinny. I could probably carry him myself.”
“Not when we start running. We’se gots to get him across the meadow quick, and it’s gonna take both of us to do it,” Emaline countered.
“Oh Lord, Emaline. I gots a lot of liven in me to do and you is gonna get us killed,” Lizbeth whined. “And why he be callin’ you miss, like you’se a white woman?” she spouted.
“I said I’d tell you later; we needs to get this done.”
“I do appreciate your help, ma’am,” Scott said, his voice whisky warm and smiling.
Emaline almost laughed at Lizbeth’s look and knew what she was thinking. “He gots manners.”
“Manners don’t count nothing if we gets caught with him,” Lizbeth snorted. “Besides, only time a white man is good mannered to a black woman is when he wants some jelly roll.”
Scott blushed like a blood red sunset. Emaline couldn’t recall ever seeing such a color on a human being before. Not even when Miss Ruth had stuttered an explanation to the overseer why she wanted a man let go for messing after the black women. Miss Ruth was a lady and talking about such things weren’t proper.
“Don’t mind Lizbeth. She don’t hold back from speaking her mind, but her heart’s right,” Emaline explained.
“Well, it’s just … well, I’m not used to that type of talk in mixed company,” Scott stammered.
“You ain’t talking it. I is,” Lizbeth snipped. “And it’s the Lord’s truth, besides.”
In spite of herself and the danger they faced getting Scott across an open pasture, Emaline chuckled. God love her, Lizbeth didn’t sift her words, which was one reason she wasn’t allowed near the big house. Lizbeth said t’weren’t nothin’ to her. She’d rather milk cows than the old Master’s sons.
They peeked around the corner of the barn door. The pasture was empty except for a few old cows due for butchering and a calf or two with its mama. Singing from the cotton field drifted across the meadow. The slaves were spreading manure and the rhythm of the song was steady and strong. Emaline could almost see the men and women working to the time of the sweet melody.
“We’ve got to hurry now, boy. You runs as quick as you can. You got that?” Emaline ordered.
“Yes, ma’am. I ran miles from Sorghum. I think I can cross a meadow between two beautiful women.”
“Don’t get too sassy, boy. We gets caught you’ll need that smooth talk to gets us out from in front of a rifle shoot.” Emaline tried her best not to smile but her lip twitched.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, sounding respectful but grinning.
“Lizbeth, keep your eyes open. If you sees someone, go to the ground and we’ll follow. I’ll do the same if I sees someone. Are we ready?”
Scott and Lizbeth both nodded. He was pale but ready. Lizbeth looked scared, but she’d hold together. She was young and strong and for all her fear, wouldn’t let Emaline down.
“Let’s go,” Emaline said, and they took off across the field. It was bumpy and uneven. Scott tried to keep up, but his legs gave out half way across. They stopped so he could get his feet under him, and hurried on. Emaline looked around as they ran, watching for anyone coming into view.
At times, Lizbeth pulled them both along. Emaline felt her age, and as strong as she was, it was hard keeping up with the younger woman. Not only that, the ground was soaked and skirts weren’t meant for running in.
Scott’s breathing came quick and hard. Emaline glanced at him and despite the cool day, his face dripped sweat. His features were strained and it was plain to Emaline that he was giving everything he had. When he stumbled again they all went down.
“Get up, white boy!” Lizbeth hissed. “I ain’t dying for no white man.” And she heaved him up before Emaline had a chance to rise. “Emi, gets him,” Lizbeth demanded and dragged him behind her.
Emaline scrambled after them, caught his wrist and pulled his arm over her shoulder. They were almost across the meadow. Something moved on the right - a calf scurried behind its mama and peaked at them from under her belly.
A stone fence bordered the pasture. Thick bushes rimmed the barrier and spilled into the edge of the Quarter. Once they reached the brush they could follow it to Emaline’s cabin. They’d just need to keep low.
Lizbeth went over the wall first and pulled Scott after her. Even though he tried to follow, his knees buckled and he slumped against the smooth rock. Emaline tightened her arm around his waist and lifted, ignoring his rasping as he struggled to breath. As hard as she shoved, she couldn’t get him over. He hung belly down across the bleached stone.
“Emi, push him over,” Lizbeth ordered, pulling on his arms.
“I’m trying,” Emaline wheezed, catching her breath. She didn’t know why he wouldn’t budge.
“Dang it, try harder.”
“He gots a hole in his side, Lizbeth. Your gonna bust it open!”
“Well, we can’t leave him hanging here. Now push!”
“Sweet Jesus helps me.” Emaline felt like she was helping a woman pull a baby out. Wrapping her arms around his legs, she scrunched her cheek against his boney butt and hoisted. “Catch him,” she urged, trying not to shout. A calf popping out of its mother came to mind when he slipped over the stones. As Emaline clambered after him, Scott fell onto Lizbeth and brought her down.
“Get this damn boney man off a me.” Lizbeth struggled beneath long arms and legs, her cotton dress hiked up to her thighs.
“You’ve had many a man on tops of you,” Emaline said. She caught one of Scott’s arms and flipped him off Lizbeth. “You getting fussy?”
“I ain’t had
that many men and no damn Yankee, for
sure. I just gives a good show.” Lizbeth sat up and glared.
“I don’t know what you thinks is too many, girl. You’ve had a line of ‘em.” Emaline checked for any new blood around Scott’s belly. She reached inside his shirt and touched the bandage on his back. It was dry. When her hand moved up his thigh, he batted it away.
“It’s okay,” he whispered. “It’s okay.” He closed his eyes as his chest heaved up and down.
“Your notion of a line of men ain’t the same as mine, Emi,” Lizbeth said, irritation in her voice. “Sides, you’re just wishing you was me is all.”
“I is not you. I ain’t pretty and nothing is gonna change that,” Emaline said, wondering why she even cared if she caught a man’s eye. Their cruel ways scared her. She’d never seen anything so ugly as when a pitiless man slung back a whip and ripped it across the bare back of another. And she knew it didn’t matter the color of a man. She’d seen blacks be just as ugly toward their own kind. Not understanding, she withdrew as much as she could and lived alone. Not many black women had that choice, but Miss Ruth had always seen to it that Emaline did. As far as she could anyway - Miss Ruth had no say over Master Troy.
“Pretty ain’t all that important,” Lizbeth said. “Look at Molly. She be uglier than a swamp toad, but she gots a man and children.”
“That union weren’t exactly by choice.” Emaline was angry at herself for being sucked into a fight with Lizbeth. Now wasn’t the time.
“If you were nicer to ‘em, they wouldn’t be so scared of you.” Lizbeth stood up and brushed her skirt down. “You gots Seth fraid to even look at you.”
“He gots reason to be afraid,” Emaline scolded, shaking her finger. “He gots another woman.”
please. Can you debate Miss Lizbeth’s exploits after we get to safety?”
They stopped talking. Lizbeth chewed on her lip and stared hard at Scott. “He makin’ fun callin’ us ladies?”
“No. That’s just his way. I told you he gots manners.”
“What’s he mean about ploits, Emi? He sayin’ I’m easy?”
“He not saying nothing I haven’t told you, girl. Now come on.” Emaline took hold of Scott’s wrist. “You think you can make it?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m ready. But, please, no more walls or rocks.”
“Just some thorny bushes ahead, but we’ll try not to scrape you over ‘em,” Emaline said and snickered.
“I appreciate that, I truly do.” Scott reached an arm up to Lizbeth and she grabbed it roughly.
“I ain’t easy,” Lizbeth mumbled as they moved low along the shrubs. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’se just healthy.” She brightened. “Yeah, that’s it. I’se just healthy.”
“Yeah, healthy like a bull in a meadow full of heifers,” Emaline whispered to Scott.
“You say something, Emi?” Lizbeth demanded.
Scott snorted, but kept his mouth shut.
“No, just that we’re almost there is all.”
Lizbeth gave her a disbelieving look. “Humph.”
The cabin was in sight. As shabby as it was, right now it seemed like the most welcome house in the state of South Carolina. When they were within a few yards, Emaline stopped.
“You wait here. I wants to make sure no one is in there.”
Lizbeth nodded and dropped to the ground. Scott looked as withered as the grass, and folded next to Lizbeth. Emaline touched him on the arm. He gave her a lopsided grin, waived his index finger, and plopped his head on Lizbeth’s thigh.
“Don’t get too comfortable, boy,” Lizbeth warned. “I can whip your skinny Yankee butt.” But it was a tired threat.
“Yes, ma’am,” Scott murmured, and nestled deeper into her leg.
“Emi, get going. I ain’t no pillow and I gots cows to milk.”
Emaline stepped out from the brush and walked up to her cabin. The door was shut just as she’d left it when she went to look for Scott. But that didn’t mean someone wasn’t inside. Pushing the door open, she stepped into the small room.
At first glance, everything looked in place. Nothing was tipped over, no ruffled blankets or moved furniture. The coat she had given Scott lay folded on the bed. She walked to her wall cupboard. The jars hadn’t been touched. Glancing at the hearth, she noticed the lid on a cooking pot was tilted. She stepped over to the pot, lifted the lid, and counted four simmering ham hocks - there had been five. Her canned peaches were in a box by the window. Last time she counted there were sixteen, now only fourteen peaked up at her. Whoever had been in her cabin had taken food. And they must have been desperate hungry to go through the Quarter.
When Emaline walked back to Scott and Lizbeth, Scott still had his head on Lizbeth’s leg. Lizbeth didn’t seem to mind but rolled her eyes at Emaline.
“He ain’t much for talking, is he?”
“He’s tired. He talks when he’s up to it,” Emaline replied.
“I’ve been yapping here, trying to be friendly. You’d think he’d at least grunt, seeing as how his head is personal with my leg.”
“He’s … backward a bit.” Backward wasn’t the right word, but it was the only one that Emaline could think of.
“Pft, backward nothin’.” Lizbeth looked at him like she was trying to make up her mind about something. “Hmm, he might not be too bad to look at if he weren’t so boney. For a white man that is.”
“He’s here you know,” Scott said, his eyes still shut.
Emaline smiled. “You’re a might big not to notice.” She squatted down beside them. “No one’s in the cabin. Can you walk on your own?”
Scott sighed. “I suppose. Miss Lizbeth is a mighty comfortable pillow though. I could fall asleep right here.”
Lizbeth yanked her leg out from under Scott and his head hit the ground.
“Ouch.” Scott struggled to get up, and rubbed at his head.
Emaline grabbed his arm and helped him sit up.
“Damn Yankee,” Lizbeth muttered, and stood. “Emi, I’ve got to finish milking. Them cows start bawling too loud someone’s gonna notice. You needs me for anything else? I mean, you got anymore soldiers you’re hiding – maybe in the water barrel or under your bed?”
“Only this one, honey.”
Don’t you ever go preaching to me again, hear? I ain’t the one with a
yellow haired northerner in my cabin. No sir. Who’d a thought you’d do
such a thing! Land sakes …..gonna gets us killed.” Lizbeth continued to
mutter as she walked away.
“Lizbeth,” Emaline called softly.
Disbelief and irritation were plain on her face when she looked back at Emaline.
“Thank you for your help. You come on by after the milking. We needs to talk.”
right we needs to talk.” Lizbeth paused and added in a milder tone, “And
you’re welcome.” She stalked off towards the cow meadow.
Emaline warmed with the bond of Lizbeth’s love. Lizbeth was upset, but a good friend anyway. Emaline looked at Scott, and felt a quiver of the same tie. “Come on, let’s get you in before anything else happens,” she said, afraid of the feeling of her own heart.
Scott started out walking on his own, but was leaning on Emaline before they made it to the cabin. With a tired sigh he sank into the bed. Emaline tied the door shut, wishing she had some way to lock it when she was gone. But by tonight she hoped to have Scott in another place. Now that he was on the mend, slow as it might be, he could be left alone longer. She could still check him during the day, and get food to him.
“Could you tell if someone had been in the cabin?”
She looked at Scott and nodded. “Yes. Someone was here. They took food. Nots a lot. Maybe figured no one would notice if they didn’t take much. ‘Spect they didn’t know anyone was around to sees ‘em.”
The rich smell of pork swept the room when she stirred the pot, making her hungry. Lizbeth had given her some flour so Emaline would make biscuits to go with the hocks. She hadn’t asked Lizbeth where she got the flour, but knew it came from Seth. He was a good trader; made you feel like you got the best of the deal. Fact was Seth never came out the short end.
“You get a good look at this fella?”
“No,” Scott said. “Just the back of his head. I heard movement outside and peeked out the window. There was a man, long hair, with a big brimmed hat. He was looking in the window of a cabin up the way and then just walked in. He wasn’t in there long. When he came out, he looked around, then went to the next cabin.”
“Was he a big
“Average height. Not heavy. In fact, he looked very lean, even through the coat he was wearing. It hung on him.”
Anyway, I didn’t want him to find me so I took off.”
“You did right. What time was it when he came?” she asked, trying to sort things out in her mind.
“Just after noon, I think. I heard the bell from the fields calling the workers for lunch.”
“Only folks still in the Quarter would be in the long shed taking care of the little ones too small for field work. There’s a couple others too sick to work. I’ll ask Lizbeth to talk to them, see if they saw any strangers.”
“Who do you think it could be?”
“I don’t know,” Emaline shrugged. “Lots of hungry people these days. Maybe a Reb soldier lost and looking for food. Hard to say.” She measured flour from Lizbeth’s tin and started making biscuits, adding other ingredients one at a time.
“I tried to get as far away as I could, but … well, I just made it to the barn. No one was there. I thought I’d rest some, maybe by nightfall either come back here or…”
“Why didn’t you takes the coat? It would have kept you warm?”
“It could lead back to you.”
As simple as that. His answer made her feel good. She wanted to believe in goodness, even if it was just a glimmer. A small light made the dark not so scary. Hoping to make him feel better, she thought now was as good a time as any to tell him about Columbia.
“Yank soldiers have taken Columbia.”
That seemed to perk him up. He sat up and stared at her, his fingers gripping the edge of the cot. “When?”
“Miss Ruth and her brother been back … oh, a few days now. Must have got out of Columbia just before the Union. Man who drove ‘em home talked about the city burning.” She stopped mixing the dough, a feeling of dread chilled her as she watched him. He paled like ghosts were near to catching him. Why didn’t the news make him happy?
“I must have gotten out just days before the Union broke through the Rebel lines,” Scott muttered. “But why didn’t we hear any canon?” he asked, raising his eyes to her. They looked hollow, stunned, like he was searching for a why that had no answer.
Understanding swept over his face. He dragged his hand through his hair. “That’s why they didn’t come after me. Why they just shot instead of trying to catch us. My God. Was it for nothing?” He looked down, shook his head, and moaned softly, whispering “my God, my God” over and over again.
“What?” Emaline was scared for him. He called for God like a broke down man beyond comfort. She reached for him, but held back, afraid her touch would shatter him. “Was what for nothing?”
Scott didn’t answer. His fingers twisted through his hair and gripped his head.
Emaline took a bottle filled with light gold liquid from the cupboard. Pulling out the cork, she splashed a large dose into a tin cup. “Here, drink this,” she ordered.
Scott’s hand shook when he reached for it. He gripped the cup, but just stared at the whiskey. She wrapped her hand around his noticing they were almost the same size. Lifting the cup to his mouth, she repeated the order. “Drink it.”
The strong fumes of the corn whiskey drifted to her nose and she held her breath. Emaline didn’t abide with whiskey; thought it made men meaner than they already were. Lizbeth said it gave them bottle balls and Emaline thought the word fittin’. Corn squeezins had its place when used proper though, so when Josey Shuller brought his ailin’ daughter to her, Emaline took the juice for payment. Both Josey and his child were lazy with dirty ways and Emaline didn’t have much use for them, but she did right by the girl. Now Shuller’s lightnin’ might burn out whatever was cutting into Scott’s heart.
The cup reached Scott’s lips and he started to sip, but Emaline tipped the cup higher. He needed a good draught, not a lady’s lick. He had no choice but to swallow it all. Scott sucked in a breath, choked, and would have dropped the cup if Emaline hadn’t held onto it. When his face changed colors from bright red to blue, Emaline feared she’d given him too much.
“Why did you do that?” he rasped after a couple of minutes. He scraped a hand across the patches of soft stubble on his chin and held his belly.
He’s not even got a full grown beard, she thought, wondering why she’d never noticed before. But right now the mad in his eyes made him a whole lot older.
“How old is you, boy?” she asked.
He hacked some before he answered. “What does that have to do with you trying to drown me with that horrible liquor?”
“Nothin’. I just noticed you can’t be much out of short pants.” She brought her hand up to wipe the sweat from his forehead, but he swatted it away.
“I traded short pants a long time ago, long before I stepped into this uniform,” he stated, pointing to his chest. He slapped his hand at the patch sewn on the shoulder of his shirt. “I’m an officer in the Union cavalry,” he snapped, eyes proud and fuming with angry tears.
“Your chest is a might skinny to be pounding on,” she said, knowing his mad wasn’t aimed at her. “No need to fret over a slight that weren’t purposed.” At least she got him riled. Jerked him away from whatever misery strangled him.
Cold eyes glared back at her and she shivered at the blue ice. That’s what had carried him from the Castle, an unbending, hard-as-rock will. It was the same stubborn that pushed her out of bed every morning. A force in her backbone told her not to give up, just like the strength that had taken Scott from Columbia to the Congaree that rolled by her door. He might be a boy without a grown man’s beard, but he had a man’s heart.
“You wants to talk about it, Scott?”
The sorrow slipped back in his face, and he lowered his head. “It wouldn’t change anything.”
“No, maybe not. But saying it out loud, well, sometimes you hears it different.”
His shoulders slumped. It was the first time Emaline had seen that. Sick as he had been, he always carried his shoulders straight.
“Listen, child,” she continued when he didn’t respond. “Most folks likes to think they is above doing bad. But, fact is, we all do wrong. I don’t know what happened, but if you did something, waiting for it to change ain’t gonna happen. Just don’ts do it again.”
He glanced at her, then looked away and sighed. “It wasn’t that I did anything wrong. It’s just ….” He waived his arm like he was trying to grab at an answer floating in the air.
Pity wrenched in her belly at his misery. He wasn’t bad. She knew that as much as she knew that Master Troy was.
“I seen a lot in my life. And you have too, I reckon. Killing in a war, taking a gun and aiming it at another soul, pulling the trigger. I ‘spect you growed up fast when your blue duds got some blood splattered on ‘em.”
He nodded his head and looked at her. “Yes, ma’am. After my first battle, all the blood and screaming.” He balled his hand into a fist and wedged it into the palm of his hand. His lips twisted into a smile and he said bitterly, “Let’s just say my spit and polish uniform got dirty mighty quick. And so did I.”
“How old were you?”
“I was 17. I lied about my age, said I was 18.” He smiled like he was remembering something. “My grandfather did everything but lock me in my room and I expect if he thought that could hold me, he would have done that.”
“Your grandpappy used to getting’ his way, is he?”
Scott chuckled and raised an eyebrow. “Oh yes indeed. In fact, he never loses. Except for this time. … And maybe my mother.” He got up from the bed and walked to the window. “Looks like the sun is coming out.”
from one day to the next if you’re gonna freeze or gets struck down by the
heat this time of year,” Emaline said, going along with the change to small
“Hmm. Not like Boston, I would imagine. In the winter it’s cold and snowy. The wind coming off the ocean chills you to the bone. But it can be very beautiful.” He turned from the window and sat back down beside her. “The Castle was cold though.” His eyes took on a faraway look. “Cold and hungry.”
Emaline knew what prison was. No bars on the shed window you could see, but they were there all the same. She could remember a few times she was hungry, but mostly she’d had enough to eat. “How long were you there?”
“I was at Libby prison in Richmond, then was transferred to Sorghum a few months ago. I tried keeping track of the time, but sometimes it’s difficult. One day runs into the next.” He shrugged his shoulders. “After a while waking up each morning is the only focus.”
“I heard of the Castle. Mostly from the han’s who droves Master Brody back and forth from Columbia.”
“It’s not much. Just a large open field. The Rebs handed out a few pieces of wood for shanties, but there weren’t near enough buildings to shelter all the men inside. --- The Castle,” he spat. “It was about as far from a castle as you can get.” He rubbed at the scars on his wrist.
“That where you got them scars?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I got them in Libby. Just after I arrived, let’s see, that would be a year ago. Hmm, yes. That would be about right. … There was an escape attempt. Over 100 prisoners. Half were caught, but half got away.” He scratched harder at the scars. “I was caught.”
“What’s they do?” she questioned softly, bringing her hand over his to stop the rubbing.
He peeked at her out of the corner of his eye and smiled. “Well, let’s just say they discouraged me from trying again.”
His fingers were warm when they wrapped around hers. “You have beautiful hands.”
Her first reaction was to tug her hands away and tuck them into the folds of her dress. What was he thinking, saying her hands were beautiful? They were large and rough. The nails were split and chipped and years of hard work had left them wrinkled and drier than sun soaked tobacco.
“No need to be embarrassed, Miss Emaline,” he said, glanced at her with surprise.
“Boy, these hands might be lots of things, but pretty ain’t one of ‘em,” she huffed, shamed that he’d look so close at her bear mitts. That’s what Master Troy had called them. Hands as big as a bear’s paw – he would laugh and call them bear mitts.
“You’re wrong. They’re honest hands. Strong. And gentle.” He held onto her hand when she tried to pull it away. “My grandmother had hands like yours.”
“You tellin’ me your grandmammy scrubbed like I do? These are washerwoman hands, hands for picking cotton. Not the hands of a lady.”
“But you are a lady Miss Emaline,” he said tenderly, looking at her like he meant it. “It doesn’t matter what you were born to. You are a lady, just like my grandmother.”
Sweet honey. That’s what his voice brought to mind. Like warm gold that flowed down the bark of the green willow in high summer. The hive dripped over with the thick syrup and she’d sop it up with her fingers and swallow the pure sweet.
She longed now for the return of that sweltering heat and the lazy whispers of the silk as the ladies fanned in the August sun. The white women would gather on the front porch during picnics before the war smelling like sweet jasmine and mint. The men would drink brandy in the huge library and laugh proud about the price of cotton or tomorrow’s hunt. She wasn’t a part of that world, just a shadow lingering on the edge of the oak trees, listening to the music of their drawls.
Scott brought those times back with his sayings of a lady. His granny would have fit in that group of dainty women. Not Emaline, black, big boned and ugly. But Scott thought different and it made her dream that maybe she could have been. Ah, but she’d learned long ago that such dreams were silly and never to be.
“My grandmother used to make apple pancakes. Have you ever heard of them?” Scott’s tone was excited.
Emaline shook her head, unsure if she could talk. Tears were banking behind her eyes from his easy talk and kind ways.
“They were delicious,” he said, a smile sweeping across his face. “The batter was almost like a crepe, a very thin pancake…”
She could feel his excitement as he talked. He was back in his Boston kitchen with his grandmother making apple pancakes, happy, eyes sparkling. He looked at her with his big smile, and blushed.
“I’m sorry for going on. You just reminded me of her.” He lowered his eyes and picked at the frayed cuff of his uniform, acting like he’d been talking silly.
“It’s good to have nice memories,” Emaline said. “Ain’t nothing to be sorry about. Is your granny still living?”
“No. She died when I was seven. It was the one and only time I have seen my grandfather cry. He tried so hard not to.” He paused for a few seconds. “I do miss her very much.”
He picked up the cup with the moonshine and smelled it. “Whew! That’s strong stuff. Where did you get it?”
“I doctored a
white girl who was ailin’. Her father gived it to me in trade. Humph, only
thing that man has that’s worth anything, and that be that yellow poison,”
she muttered with disapproval. “You wants more?”
“No. Thank you.” Scott gave her the cup and held out his hands like he was pushing the whiskey away.
Emaline poured what was left of the liquor back into the bottle, corked it and set it in the cupboard. “I needs to dust this shelf off better.” she remarked. “This ain’t been touched since Josey Shuller gived it to me.”
She sat down on the rickety chair and tipped forward.
“I can see if I could fix that chair,” Scott offered.
“Ise used to its now.” She grinned at him. “I mights get Seth Woolins to makes me a rocker. He’s trying to get on my good side cuz of Lizbeth.”
“I take it you don’t approve.”
“Pfft. Only approving I’d do of Seth Woolins is to leave Lizbeth be. But he’s not abouts to do that with her being so willing.” Just the thought of Seth chafed at her.
“What’s wrong if they want to be together?”
Emaline frowned. “Cuz he gots another woman, that’s why. And a child.”
yes, that is not good if Seth is a married man.”
“They’s jumped the broom! Married enough as far as everyone in the Quarter sees it.”
“Jumped the broom? What is that?”
“Just like it sounds, boy. The couple jumps the broom. Mostly three times. Sometimes the master does some bible reading. Course, both masters has to agree to the marrying if the man and woman ain’t owned by the same man.”
“Isn’t there any paperwork or minister?”
Emaline almost laughed. “Heaven’s sake, no. As far as white folks figure, blacks are married as long as the union suits the whites. Iffn they wants to sell the man, woman or children, they breaks ‘em up.” She looked at him. “You sayin’ you didn’t know that?”
“No,” he whispered and cleared his throat. “I knew that. That’s why I decided to fight. No man should be a slave to another.”
Emaline tipped back and forth on the rickety chair for a bit, thinking on what he said. No man should own another, but she’d learned it wasn’t as simple as just changing a law.
“You be right, boy,” she answered. “But you thinks if the Yankees come in that everything is gonna be okay?”
start, Miss Emi. I’m sure it will take some getting used to….”
She did laugh at that. Lord love him, she couldn’t help it. Getting used to it was going to take more than winning the war. “I’se sorry, Scott,” she said when she saw his puzzlement and hurt. “I don’t mean to laughs at you. It’s the words you say, that’s all. I’ve lived a long life and some things are hard to change. Like a man’s heart.”
She looked at him, wanting so much to make him understand. When she had stumbled onto the answer to the cruel ways of the world, she wondered it was as simple as it seemed. “It don’t matter what color you is,” she said, hoping to pick the right words. “It’s who gots the power. Whites gots the power over blacks, but white folks lord it over other white folks too. ‘Spect it’s the same wherever you is. Blacks fight just as much as whites when they wants something. I’ve seen black men fighting one another for the best food or the prettiest woman. And now the country is burning around us cuz people want things their own way. But power don’t make nothin’ right. You gotta say no to them ways of thinking. Then you be free. You understand?”
He watched her close. Like maybe he knew what she was talking about, but hadn’t heard it said out loud before.
“When I figured that out, I sat down and cried. All the waste and grievin’ just cuz someone thinks they got the right to have more. But crying don’t help or change the way of folks. Some are just born ugly, and most others are too blind to see the wrong of it. Only thing I can do is be no part of it.”
“You’re as wise as any person I’ve ever met, Miss Emaline,” Scott said. He combed a hand through his hair and brushed back bangs. “But how can you be no part of it when you’re right in the middle of it?”
“It ain’t always easy, that’s sure enough. But mostly, you just makes a choice.” Her body bumped back and forth in the chair and she tried to pretend that it was rocking. The chair tilted forward and she settled her weight. Did he understand? He seemed to be thinking deep on what she said. So, she decided to let it settle and see what grew from it. Emaline changed the subject.
“You comes out of the Castle. How’s come you head this way?”
“That wasn’t the plan. The plan was that we would follow the Congaree River for a couple miles to throw the guards off, then start north. But … the best laid plans of mice and men …,” he said tiredly and shrugged. The muscles along his jaw tightened and he clasped his hands together, resting his elbows on his knees.
“What happened?” she asked, nudging him along.
“It didn’t go as we planned.” He pushed up from the bed, paced the small room, then moved to the door and started to fiddle with the tie on the knob.
“You can’t go out there,” she reminded him as gentle as she could. She he was restless … needed to move away from the bad that had happened.
He stepped to the window and drew aside the curtain. “I need some air.”
“You can’t go out there,” she repeated.
“I know,” he snapped, turning to her. And then a softer, “I know.” He threw up his hands and plopped back down on the bed. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take it out on you. I’d be dead if it weren’t for you.”
“Spect so.” She remembered how close she had come to letting him die that morning. It seemed longer than just a few days ago.
“Why did you help me?” It was a soft spoken question.
“Cuz I needs to get up in the morning without seeing you dyin’ by the river for the rest of my days.” She glanced over at him. “It took me some thinking on it, though. I lefts you for a bit.”
For how long?” He sounded surprised.
“Oh, a couple hours maybe.
“Well, I’m glad you came back. … But, you’re still in danger, you know. Someone could find me here.”
“I knows that. There’s another place though, safer. Not too far from here. Now that you’re a might better, the fever has passed, I plans to takes you there tonight.”
He leaned back on his elbows. “What is it? Another cabin?”
“It’s an old
dug out I founds long time ago. Looks to be an old hut dug into the
hillside, but it’s passable. Might have been used by slaves a ways back.
There’s a beat up old stove with a tin pipe poking through the side of the
hill, so it’s easy to heat. Only problem is the smoke from burning wood is
hard to cover. Trees are pretty thick, though and no one goes there. I
thinks you’ll be safe till the Yanks comes through. Just has to keep the
Rebs from finding you. But I figure they’ll be more worried about the blue
bellies catching ‘em then looking for a runned away soldier.”
“I don’t think the Confederate troops will be looking for me, Miss Emi. Not the regular infantry anyway. And if Columbia is in Union hands, the Rebel guards are either long gone or sitting in their own prison. Not that they had it much better than we did.”
“Hard telling what running soldiers might do. Best to take no chances. We’ll moves you tonight.” Emaline checked the biscuit dough and started spooning the mixture into a cast iron pan.
“Them guards you was talking ‘bout. What you mean they didn’t get better’n you?” Now that Scott seemed easier knowing the Union was coming, maybe he would tell her what happened when he escaped. She figured out that he hadn’t been alone when he ran from Sorghum.
“Just that.” He picked at the gash at his temple and looked up at her. He must have noticed her frown because he lowered his hands and clasped them together. “You ever wonder why they call it Sorghum?”
“Nope. Never had cause to wonder.” The biscuits lay like fluffy balls of cotton in the pan. The hocks bubbling in the hearth were ready. The biscuits would be done in time for Lizbeth.
“It’s mostly what we were fed. Sorghum and cornbread. What the guards ate too. Only difference between us and them was they were better dressed.” Scott laughed. “Oh, and they had one other thing we didn’t have. Guns.”
call it the Castle?”
“Maybe it was a joke. I don’t know. It held only officers, like Libby.” He crossed his legs and folded his hands around his knee. “There were no walls. Nothing to hold prisoners in. There was a border of wooden slats that the Rebs laid within the perimeter of the camp. If anyone crossed that barrier, they were shot.”
“Sounds a flimsy way of holding a body in.”
“It was. The wooden boards were called the dead line. Still, lots of prisoners managed to get away. Sometimes they were recaptured. A few were so torn up by the dogs the Rebs set on them, that they died. But, your chances of living by escaping were better than staying inside the camp and starving to death or dying from disease.”
Scott stretched out on the bed and laid his arm across his eyes. Emaline thought maybe it was best not to push him anymore. He was tired and it had been a frightful day for the boy. And though the dugout wasn’t that far away, it was still a piece for a weak man to walk.
“Suppers most done. Just needs to wait for Lizbeth,” Emaline said, thinking on what he had told her.
“Every day some of the prisoners were allowed to go out and bring back fire wood,” Scott said his arm still across his eyes. “Each day we’d try to go farther and farther from the camp so we knew the countryside pretty well. The plan was that some men would create a diversion in the camp, start a fight so the guards would be distracted.” His voice had a smile in it when he spoke again. “One of the first things you learn as an officer – diversions.”
“Like one child hollering so’s everyone is watching him, while another child steals a fresh baked pie?” Emaline asked. “Guess you don’t needs to go to no officer’s school to learns that.”
Scott chuckled. “I guess you don’t, Miss Emi.” He looked at her and folded his hands over his chest. “I expect you know a great deal about maneuvering and defense tactics.”
“Boy, you’re gonna need to talk so plain folks can understand ya.” She grinned at him and was pleased to see he smiled back.
“To maneuver means to plan in advance to insure that you’ll win a battle. And you protect yourself with defense tactics. But you need to know your enemy as well as you can in either case.”
“I ain’t fighting no war. But I knows how to act proper in front of thems who’s my better. “
“No one’s better than you, Miss Emi,” Scott scolded, his forehead puckered with a frown.
“I knows that, boy,” she soothed, smiled at his simple thinking. With all his smart ways and ugly things he’d seen, there was still a sweet way about him that bad couldn’t take away. Sometimes in the spring she felt that sweetness. Like the world was young and pretty and she could walk in a fresh April morning and forget she was an old bound woman. No one could take April mornings from her when the good Lord made them for everyone.
He sat up on the on the bed, staring at her, biting his lip. “I wasn’t alone in the escape,” he whispered.
She bent to the biscuits, away from the hurt in his eyes. “I ‘spected such,” she said softly.
“It was as if the guards knew that we were going to try an escape,” he said, puzzlement in his voice.
“There were 18 of us in the group. Captain Cassidy, who was the officer in charge, became sick. He insisted the rest of us go without him though.” Scott’s voice was low, his head was bowed and his hands were clasped loosely together. One thumb idly rubbed over the top of the other one. “So we went.”
For several moments he was quiet, and Emaline wondered if he would continue.
“The fight started as planned,” he continued. “Most of the guards went to break it up, just like we thought would happen. The guards were always afraid that fights would lead to uprisings.” He ran his tongue across his lips. “We slipped pretty quickly out of the camp. It was dark, no moon, we timed it that way. It seemed so easy. So easy.”
It was quiet. She could hear the ham hocks bubbling. Speckles of sun-tossed light filtered through the bushes and burlap at the window and flecked on the wall. A child called for her mama a few cabins away. A man’s laughter spouted from somewhere.
“I wasn’t sure at first what the pops were. Well, I guess I knew, but was more surprised. It didn’t register right away, you know?”
Emaline nodded. Gun shots sounded like short, sharp pops. Bangs before a man fell – booms followed by silence. She’d heard them before – exploding while she picked cotton or caught a baby slipping from a woman’s belly.
“They just started falling,” Scott said, and held his hands out as if pleading that it wasn’t true. “I ran … felt a couple stings, my back, my leg, but kept running. Marty went down ahead of me and I fell over him. The last thing he said was my name. It was soft – Scott, he whispered. Like a … long sigh. And then his eyes stared at me, but he wasn’t seeing.”
“I got up and kept running.” Scott’s voice was hurried and desperate, his hands gripped the mattress. “Something slashed along the side of my head and I remember falling and falling… I must have blanked out for a bit. When I came to I was in thick undergrowth. The smell of gunpowder was overpowering. I could hear men moaning, then gun shots and the moans stopped. They killed them, Miss Emi!” Scott looked up at her in shock, like he was still not accepting what had happened. “I was a ways away, but a figure stood over something and I saw the flash of a gun. Just like that. Like he was drinking a cup of coffee or saying good morning. Then he walked a few steps and the gun fired again.”
Emaline caught his hand as it dug at the gash on his forehead.
“It itches,” Scott choked as tears filled his eyes.
“Hon, they’s gone,” Emaline said, sitting down beside him and pulling him close. “How could you know?”
know,” Scott cried, and folded into her arms. He sobbed, great breaths of
grief. His fingers wrapped around her arm and dug into her muscles. She
held him tight, rocking him like she had rocked Jackson the night before he
ran away. Sweet Jesus, she hoped he hadn’t stopped a bullet somewhere on
his road north.
“I could hear water flowing. It was the river. The dogs wouldn’t be able to track me in the water. I didn’t want to be torn to pieces by those animals.” Scott shuddered. “I dropped into it. It was so cold. The next thing I remember was waking up in your bed.”
He didn’t talk about his struggles on the river bank or looking up at Emaline when she brushed a hand across his forehead. The emptiness and pain in that glance had been for the men who died when he didn’t. Those were the ghosts chasing him, dark shadows that had fallen behind as he slipped into the cold Congaree.
“You’re safe now, boy,” she said, rocking and holding tight. “We’ll get you moved and wait for the Yanks to come. They’ll take ya home.”
In the distance she could hear the deep, full laughter of Lizbeth as she baited the young Adams boy with sweet promises of growing up a man. Emaline knew the boy would be blushing, heard him snort and giggle. The boy hooted and Lizbeth hiccupped with delight. How Emi loved her.
Scott stilled in her arms and palmed a hand across his face to sop up tears.
“Lizbeth’s coming,” he explained and pulled away from her. “I can’t have her see me crying like a little boy.” He brought up his arm and rubbed it across his face, his sleeve drying the rest of his tears.
“She wouldn’t care,” Emaline whispered, and ran a finger across his chin.
didn’t think the Quarter would ever settle. Knock after knock at her door
made her rush to untie the rope and step outside to see what was wanted.
Folks gave her a funny look. Custom was to ask them in, but Emaline blocked
the door with arms crossed.
“Lizbeth’s feeling poorly,” was all she said. Some nodded understanding, fearful of catching sick. Others asked a question or two. Frenchy just walked away with a ‘yessum’, never saying what he’d come for.
Emaline felt bad about that. Everyone else who come callin’ left with advice or herbs or a poultice. Frenchy hated to be a bother so he didn’t push, but he hurt easy. She’d try to pay him attention in the morning.
It was late when they left the cabin. Emaline wanted to make sure no one saw them wandering about so she covered an oil lamp with a piece of heavy canvas until they were well away from the Quarter. The dim light did little to lift the gloom, but it was enough to keep from tripping over fallen limbs and twisted vines that ran along the ground. In a few weeks she’d be pleasuring in the new green that would shoot up around her feet, but now the undergrowth seemed to reach out and twist in her feet.
At least it wasn’t raining. Nothing else good could be said for the night. The moonless sky and low hanging clouds smothered Emaline with dreariness and the chill left her shivering. Lizbeth grumbled about the cold under her breath. There wasn’t a quiet drop of blood in Lizbeth and it proved hard for Emaline to keep her patience. But Emaline had promised Lizbeth that she’d protect her from the Yankees. The little ground shed was that protection.
The night was so dark, they almost walked by the dugout. But Emaline was glad there was enough fog to cover the smoke from a fire. Even though Scott was wearing the heavy coat that Master Brody had given her, he trembled when she touched his arm.
“Here it is,” Emaline said, and held the lamp up to the wooden door partially hidden by thorny brambles. A brushing sound and snapping undergrowth came from across the forest and all three of them dropped to the ground.
“What was that?” Lizbeth whispered.
“Hush!” Emaline hissed, trying to keep her voice low. She listened to the night, trying to hear over Lizbeth’s complaining.
“Don’t you hush me, girl.” Lizbeth’s fingers dug into Emaline. “Who’d be out here this time a night? What was that?”
“Only thing I hears is you, Lizbeth.” Emaline thought the noise was likely just a forest animal running away, but she wasn’t sure. “Let go my arm. You’re cutting off my blood.”
Emaline shook out of Lizbeth’s grasp and stood up. She lifted the lantern high and stretched it out as far into the darkness as she could. The weak flame sputtered when dampness inside the glass dripped into the fire. Black tree trunks, scrawny branches and white haze were the only things Emaline could see in the feeble light. The earth smelled of damp and winter rot. She could hear moisture dripping from the trees and brush. Nothing else. The woods were quiet.
“Maybe we’s hearin’ things,” Lizbeth said.
“Nope. We ain’t hearing things,” Emaline replied. Something had moved.
Lizbeth stood up but tucked herself behind Emaline and clung to her.
“You gets any closer, girl, you’ll be wearing my shoes.” Emaline stepped away and cast the light on Lizbeth.
“If something’s out there, they can sees me.” Lizbeth grabbed Scott’s arm, hauled him up and pushed him in front of her.
“Humph, he’s too skinny to hide you. ‘Sides, it’s too late.”
“What’s you mean it’s too late? Too late for what?”
calm yourself. Likely nothin’ there but a scared critter.” At least Emaline
hoped that’s all it was.
“Could be a blue belly.” Lizbeth had clamped good and well on to Scott’s arm.
“I don’t think so, Lizbeth,” Scott said. “If it was human, more than likely it would be a Confederate. Maybe a patrol …. Or deserter.” He looked at Emaline. “Do you think it’s still safe to stay here?”
“Safer here than in the Quarter. You’ll be found there sure when the Reb soldiers come,” Emaline said.
whatever it was, if it meant us harm, I think it would have made a move by
now. Besides, it sounded like it was running away.” He looked down at
Lizbeth. “Miss Lizbeth, you’ve got quite a grip for a woman. Would you
please ease up a bit on my arm?”
Lizbeth let go. “Sorry. I thought you needed help standin’.”
Emaline snorted. “Child, I swear. You can turn most anything around and comes out looking good.” She shook her head and turned towards the hut.
“I was just thinkin’ a him, being so weak and all,” Lizbeth declared.
“I appreciate that, Miss Lizbeth,” Scott said. “I would find it an honor to lay down my life for a lady.”
Emaline hooted. “Boy, you is just as deep in bullcrap as Lizbeth, you knows that?”
“Yes, ma’am. It can be useful when the time calls for it.”
Emaline could hear his smile. She chuckled. “You both has gifts, that’s for sure.” She grabbed the knob and pulled the door open.
Air heavy with mold drifted to Emaline and floating bits of dust stung her eyes. She could see nothing inside the shack. Holding the lantern low, she moved in and felt along the slick walls. Logs had been packed against the sides of the shed for support, and pieces of dirt fell from the low wooden ceiling. Her hand bumped against a lamp she had left on an earlier visit.
“Hold this,” she said as she handed the lamp to Scott. She reached into her pocket for a match and gave it to Scott to light the lantern.
“We needs a fire going in here to dries it up.” Emaline turned to Lizbeth. “Takes this light and go fetch some dry wood. There’s some back down the path I stuck into the root of a dead stump. I showds it to you, remember?”
“I ain’t goin’ out there. No ma’am.” Lizbeth crossed her arms over her breasts and stood solid.
“All right,” Emaline said. “Then you stays here and gets some kindlin’ lit. There’s some I collected last fall. It’s sitting under the stove.”
“I can get the wood …” Scott started.
“No!” Emaline spat, pulled as thin as she could with Lizbeth and her whining. “You is chilled through. I gots to feel good ‘bout leaving you alone. Don’t needs to lie awake wondering how you is.”
Emaline turned to the door and was just about through it when she glanced over her back. “Oh, Lizbeth,” she crooned. “Watch out for the rat.”
Lizbeth jumped back from the stove like she’d been thrown, moving faster than Emaline had ever seen. Emaline smiled to herself, satisfied.
“You funnin’ with me, Emaline?” Lizbeth demanded.
“No, hon. I saw a big old male rat one time I was here. Course, it was while back. Just thought you’d likes to know.” Emaline set the lantern down and picked at her shawl before tying it across her chest.
Lizbeth didn’t move. She glared at the pile of dried twigs that lay beneath the stove. She glanced over at Emaline, a sour look on her face. “How you know it was a man rat?” she asked, obviously not convinced that Emaline had really seen a rat.
“Cuz, he was a big devil and had hangy things that no girl rat would be dragging.”
Scott choked and covered his mouth with his hand. Emaline expected he’d be pure red if she could see him clear. Keeping his head down he fiddled with the glass on the lamp.
“Ise be back soon,” Emaline said and smiled at Lizbeth. She was through the door and thought she might have lost this round, when Lizbeth pushed by her and grabbed the lantern.
“All rights. But iffn I don’t’s come back, you tell Seth the why of it,” Lizbeth declared, her stare fierce upon Emaline.
“He ain’t yourn, child,” Emaline replied. She was smiling inside and knew her voice sounded it.
“He is. ‘Sides, he’ll miss me strong and cry powerful loud,” Lizbeth stated. “Nothin is gonna heal his broken heart something happens to me.”
“And my heart would break too. Child, you think I’d askt you to do something that would bring you harm?”
“Ise not sure. You ain’t been the same since momma took sick and died.”
“I is the same, Lizbeth,” Emaline said, her voice soft as she could make it. “It’s you whats changed. Now git before I leaves you with the rat.” She watched Lizbeth lumber away until the dark swallowed up the yellow spark of her lamp.
“I could have gone, Emi. Why didn’t you want me to?”
“She don’ts always needs her way.” Emaline bent to pick up the kindling. She threw the dry twigs into the stove and took out another match to light them. “You trusts me?”
“You saved my life.”
The kindling sparked and she threw more on top of the fire. A large piece of wood lay on the floor and she tossed it into the belly of the stove. The flames licked into the log and warmth spread into the small dug out.
“You thinks I had no selfishness for takin’ you in?” She dusted off her hands and turned to him.
He looked down, like he was thinking on it, and then stared into her eyes. “Whatever your reasons, I’m grateful. You’ve risked your life, and Lizbeth’s bringing me here.”
She waited a few moments before answering. “That child, Lizbeth, is like my own. Oh, she’s no little girl no more. That’s plain. But she’ll always be a child to me.” She watched the fire snap and spark. It was comforting. “I had a little girl. She’d be older than Lizbeth.”
“You had a daughter? Was she sold?”
Emaline could tell the question didn’t come easy to Scott. He didn’t ask it right off, and his tone was half scared, like a man afraid he’d pull too hard on a tight cotton ball and tear the whole plant to pieces.
“No, she weren’t sold.” Emaline sat down on the only cot in the room. “I kilt her.”
Emaline’s back pained like ice had crawled into her spine and froze her bone. She still could feel the tearing of the baby between her legs and had hated the child before she saw it. It was Master Troy’s. She would never forget when he found her by the river and poked into her like an animal in rut. He was a big man. It was good he was big or she would have killed him and been beat to death for doing it. Some days, when thinking on that baby, she wished she had.
Scott sat down beside her. He put his hand close to hers, but didn’t touch her. She stared at his long fingers. The crackling fire was the only sound.
“I suppose you hates me now, a woman who kilt her own child.” She wouldn’t blame him if he did. Sometimes when the grief of what she’d done hit her full, she’d fall into a heap on the floor and scratch gouges in her arms.
“Miss Emi, why?”
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. Disbelief and wonder was on his face.
“She were a child of force.” Her throat tightened. “Master Troy just wouldn’t leaves me alone. Right up till he marched off in his fancy uniform to war. And me an old woman by then.” When he first raped her as a young girl, Emaline didn’t know what was going on and had been frightful scared. The blood and pain was awful, and the sound of his grunting made her feel dirty. When older, she couldn’t hold back her hatred. The last time Master Troy had took her, she spit in his face. She could still feel her teeth tearing the side of her mouth when he hit her.
“No one helped you? No one thought it was wrong?”
A bitter laugh exploded from Emaline. “Boy, I is a slave. Who is gonna help me? It was his right to do to me what he wanted. Oh, Miss Ruth tried hard to keeps me out a his way, but she didn’t have the power to stop her brother.”
“But the baby …”
“I couldn’t look at her when she was borned. I just couldn’t.” Emaline squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out the image of the tiny baby. “She were Master Troy’s, not mine. So, I just puts a pillow over her face and pushed.”
He moved his hand over hers. “I’m sorry.”
Emaline wove her fingers into his. “I is too,” she whispered, choking back tears. “You thinks my saving you makes up for my wrong?”
“I think … I think there is forgiveness. Otherwise all of us would be lost,” he murmured, his kind voice warm.
There wasn’t a day went by she didn’t pray that was true.
“I has a son. Boy ‘bout your age, I ‘spect. After what I’d done to my first child, well, I couldn’t do to him.” She wiped her hand across her face.
“Where is he?”
She shrugged. “I don’ts know where he be. Canada, I’m hoping. He runned away years ago. Just barely out of childhood, he was. But he were blue eyed, light skinned - not black. Took after Master Troy in looks. He hads a hard time fitting in. A yeller haired, white skinned slave.”
“What’s your boy’s name? Maybe I could help find him. If I get out of this war, that is.”
“Jackson. I named him after my pappy. My little girl, well, I just think of her as little girl. Could never bring myself to name her.”
“What … what about the father Emaline? Didn’t he care?”
“Pfft, only thing that man cared for was driving his snake down some woman’s hole.” She glanced at Scott, knowing her words would shame him. His head was down and she felt his fingers stiffen in her hand. “Ise sorry for speaking so plain. Fact is I don’t know many men to be different.”
“Not all men are like that, Emaline.”
“You be a woman on the low end of the road, child, mostly that’s what you sees. You knows nothing, Scott, of a girl child who feels the load of a man before she knows whats it means.”
“No, ma’am. I don’t.” He looked up at her, a sorrowful lot of pain on his face. “If I could, I’d change things for you.”
She smiled at him. “I knows you would, Scott. I knows. And maybe you already have, just by being here.”
Emaline felt Scott move beside her, and before she knew what was happening, he had leaned over and kissed her cheek.
“I needed you to know,” Emaline explained, flustered by the kiss. “That’s why I sent Lizbeth for the wood.”
“Why now, Miss Emaline?”
“Guess I just
needed to get it said. Shela knew, Lizbeth’s mama. She was at the
birthing. Knew there weren’t nothing wrong with the child. In case I die
with the armies coming … well, I wanted someone to know about my kilt baby.
Maybe you kin name my little girl … and remember her.”
Scott bowed his head and smoothed his fingers up and down Emaline’s hand. She knew his pappy was surely shortening the pleasure of his days by not knowing this son.
“You think on whats I’m telling you, Scott. You recollect what I said about your pappy and people doing things they not be proud of? Awful things, just like me. I’d likes to think there is a reason for your pa’s ways. If they not be good ones, it’s on his head, not yours. You understand?”
“Miss Emaline, it’s not …”
She stopped his protest. “I thinks you loves me, Scott. And if you can care ‘bout a woman who done away with her own helpless child, then maybe your pappy deserves the same chance. You just thinks on it. If you ever meet him, you remember what I’m saying. Promise?”
I’ll try. I promise.”
Satisfied with his answer, Emaline got up from the stale smelling cot and pulled out a burlap sack from underneath it. She opened it up and started setting the contents on the cot.
“This should last you for a few days,” she said. “There’s smoked ham hocks, dried beef, fresh cornbread and biscuits, raspberry jam, canned peaches and buttermilk. Its cools enough that none of it has spoilt, but now the fire’s a going, you needs to keep it outside. There be a covered hole in the side of the hill that should keep critters off it.”
She counted the jars and biscuits and checked the meat to make sure nothing had been taken. Unease lingered from the scampering noise she had heard earlier, and she wasn’t convinced that whatever had made it was harmless. Emaline wished she had a gun to give Scott, but Seth’s father had the only rifle in the Quarter and he used it for killing snakes.
“I filled a couple of canteens when I was here a couple days ago.” She pointed at two large skins of water that hung from a peg.
“You’ve been busy,” Scott said and smiled. “You would have made an excellent officer in the army. You are very organized.”
“Don’t know about officer, but I thinks ahead. Been too many times in the past when I was surprised.”
The door banged open and Lizbeth threw the wood at Emaline’s feet. “Emaline,” she panted, falling against the wall and dropping the lantern. “I hears noises out there. Sounds like devils are riding through the trees. Hundreds, Emi, hundreds.”
calm down,” Emaline said, taking her by the arms and shaking her. “What you
“Come hear, Emi. Come hear. They’re right outside.” Lizbeth grabbed Emaline’s hand and dragged her into the dark cover of the forest.
The hour was as black as when they first arrived, but the fog was thinning. Scott stood by Emaline’s side. Lizbeth held onto Emaline like a child afraid to leave its mama. Emaline could hear a low, distant rumble that crept closer and closer. At first it was soft, but steady. As it grew louder, the tinny clang of metal on metal could be heard. The echo of a thousand footfalls drifted through the thick trees and haze. Horses snorted and squealed and wagon wheels screeched. It sounded like the doors of hell had opened up and the clatter of an army of dark angels had come into the world.
“It’s on the road yonder, coming from Columbia,” Emaline said, her stomach feeling hollow as the noise grew louder. “It passes a piece just the other side of these hills.”
“Lordy,” Lizbeth whispered. “What is it?”
“I would surmise that is the thunder of the retreating Confederate army,” Scott whispered into the cold night.
The Confederate soldiers were spread out in small groups across the cow meadow. Smoke from their campfires mixed with the haze of the cool morning. An odd collection of pots, pans and crocks teetered over the fires. The men dipped clothes, dishes and rags into the warm water to clean up as best they could. Emaline smiled to herself when she saw them. Five years of war had dirtied the fancy gold braids and torn the starched jackets of the army that had boasted a quick victory. Now, they sat huddled around the fires, hungry, cold and filthy.
Miss Ruth told Emaline to get water for the soldiers and then help to barbecue the old cows the Dickens had donated to the cause. Emaline nodded, hoisted a bucket of water from the well and started going from man to man.
They stank. They were ragged and dirty. Josey Schuller’s rotting pig sty came to mind. Emaline was thankful to the Lord it wasn’t high summer. She didn’t know how she would have been able to walk through their camp passing out food and water if it would have been August.
Most of the South’s army had camped miles away. Miss Ruth said the men sitting in the pasture were rear guards for the retreating infantry. Emaline chuckled to herself as she watched them try to avoid sitting in the cow pies. These beat men couldn’t protect themselves from an old woman, much less keep off the Yankee army. It pleased her to see them broken with their high thoughts of being better than her. That is, until a dirty hand touched hers.
“Thank you,” he said softly. “I’se obliged.” His filthy fingers held the ladle and raised the water to his lips. Some of it trickled into his beard, ran down his tangled whiskers, and dripped brown onto the dirt between his feet. He had no shoes. Rags were wrapped around his feet, stiff and dirty as his beard. His left big toe stuck out from the bundle, swollen and red. His foot twitched like it pained him.
He handed the ladle back to her. “Could I has more, if’s you gots it?”
A poor white, asking her for water. She didn’t know how old he was, couldn’t tell from the crusted mud and ratty hair that covered his face. His eyes were brown, bloodshot with hours, maybe days of tired. His left leg jumped and she wondered how many miles he had marched on that bloated foot. Emaline closed her eyes, angry with herself that his suffering mattered to her. She turned away and dipped the ladle into the cool water.
“I’se from Georgia, Savannah way. It’s certain cold this far north.” His smooth voice brought to mind the low hum of a fat honey bee. He took the water from her and drank it.
“I ‘spect it is for a Georgia man,” Emaline said. He no doubt had fever, wanting so much water. “You gots family there?”
He shrugged. “Ain’t sure what’s left. Sherman’s army done burned everything, from what’s I hear.”
Emaline shivered. The man who helped move Master Brody from Columbia, didn’t he say Sherman weren’t a merciful man?
“Is that who is following you?” she asked. “Sherman?”
General William Tecumseh Sherman. Meanest man the north ever grew.” The
soldier handed the ladle back to her. “I’m hoping my woman and little ones
He lowered his head and picked at the edges of the crusty rag. He swiped his hand across his cheek and Emaline could see the grime was smudged wet from tears. She shook her head, full of sad how the world wasted its own children.
A big man
yelled at her to bring him water, and she nodded.
“I’se got some salve might help that foot,” she said. “I’ll brings it by later. But you gots to keep it clean.”
He looked at his foot. “I’ll surely try.” He glanced at her. “Fact is, missus, I’m not sure I won’t lose the toe anyway. It’s turnin’ black on the bottom. Stepped on a piece of old wire when my shoes gived out.”
He needed to wash that wound good. The salve wouldn’t do any good with the filthy strips of muslin that covered his foot. “I’ll bring some clean wrappings.”
He stared up at her, wonderment in his eyes. “I thank you.”
The big man swore at her again, yelling for water. “Ain’t she a might old fer ya, O’Mally?” he taunted. “That old whore looks ‘bout worn down.”
“You’all shut up, Maddox. You ain’t got no call to talk to her like that.”
darkie, you pig farmin’ trash, and I’ll talk to the old bitch anyway I
wants. You gonna do something about it?” Maddox stood up and swung a mean
looking knife in the air.
O’Mally hobbled up and leaned heavy on his right leg. “Yeah. You been nothin’ but whining and complaining since we left Columbia. You mean-mouthing me and this darkie what’s trying to helps is wrong.”
Emaline could sense the tension from the surrounding soldiers. They stopped cooking and cleaning and eyed the two men. Maddox took a step towards her.
“Maddox!” A man with a patch sewn on his jacket stalked over. “O’Mally, what’s going on here?”
“This woman were helpin’ me is all, Captain,” O’Mally replied. “She gived me water and was gonna git me some salve for my foot. Maddox there started swearing and making dirty remarks. I don’t think he had call to.”
The captain turned to Maddox. “What about you, Maddox? You using that knife for cutting meat or man?”
“No Captain,” Maddox replied, backing down. He pointed the knife at Emaline. “She were being pokey bringing the water is all.”
“Go give him some water,” the captain barked at Emaline. “And you two, set your sights on fighting Yankees, not one another.”
“It okay I get this man some salve and clean rags, sir, for his hurt foot?” Emaline asked, keeping her head down and eyes to the ground. She should have just given the soldier some water and gone on. Paid no mind to his thank you and sad story … now look what her offer of help had done. But she said she’d help. Now it was up to the Captain.
“Later,” the captain snapped. He turned to walk away but stopped. “Men! We are the guests of the Dickens. They have given us meat for our bellies and water for our thirst. You leave their belongings alone, you hear? Or I’ll have you hanging from a tree on the road.”
There were a few yeses, and yes, sirs and yes, captain. “Carry on,” the officer ordered, and stomped away.
“You go on up to the back door of the big house later,” Emaline whispered to O’Mally. “I’ll leaves the salve and clean rags for your feet with Luella, the kitchen girl. She’ll gives you some warm water and soap to clean up your foot. I’ll sees to it.”
“I’m obliged.” He nodded and smiled at her.
Always feeling sorry for some poor fool, she scolded herself as she walked away. Can’t never leave nothing alone. Gonna get yourself kilt one of these days, Emaline. Near nuff to freedom, and you gots to get in trouble. Just keep your eyes shut, girl. Tighter than your mouth.
Emaline carried the bucket over to Maddox. She handed him the ladle and he snatched it from her, splashing some onto the ground. “You are one ugly bitch,” he spat and threw the ladle back at her. It landed in the mud and Emaline picked it up, her mouth tight from the cruel insult. She went to the next man, fighting back the tears that came to her eyes.
“Damn it, Maddox. Now the ladle has cow shit on it,” the next soldier complained.
“Ah, you’re so god dam full of shit, Brewster, you wouldn’t know the difference.” Maddox squatted down by the fire and cut up meat with the long, ugly knife.
Brewster walked over to Maddox and wiped the ladle off on his back.
“Don’t know what good it done,” Brewster said when Maddox whipped around. “You’re dirtier than the cow shit.”
Maddox swore under his breath but went back to his meat. Brewster plunged the ladle into the bucket and drank. He tossed it back without a thank you and Emaline went to the next man. Most of the morning she trudged back and forth to the well, filling the bucket and hauling it from man to man. Emaline kept her mouth shut, only nodding or saying as few words as possible when someone spoke to her.
The soldiers came and went from the forest with game they shot. A couple of men brought back a deer; another soldier had some squirrels slung over his back. She hoped Scott had sense enough not to light the stove. The smoke from the chimney would be seen by the soldiers. He’d be cold, but nothing to be done about that. Lizbeth and Emaline had piled dried brush against the door of the hut so it was well hidden. Scott had promised to stay inside until Emaline came back, even if it took days.
finished getting water for the soldiers, and then collected some rags and
salve for O’Mally from her cabin. When she took them to the big house, the
captain stood on the front porch talking to Miss Ruth and Master Brody. He
looked her way, glanced at what she carried and gave her a slight nod before
turning back to the Dickens. Miss Ruth twisted another hanky into bits, and
Master Brody leaned against a pillar looking like watered down milk.
“I’d suggest you folks head towards those hills, ma’am,” the captain said to Ruth. “Lay low for a week or so until the bulk of the Yank army moves on. We’ll be leaving here in a few hours, and there will be nothing between the Union and you.”
“Yes, Captain. Someone has suggested that alternative to us.” Brody smiled at the Captain like he hadn’t a care in the world. “Then he ambled on down the road to Tennessee.”
“Well, sir. We are heading to North Carolina. I do believe General Sherman will follow us.” The captain slapped his gloves against his pants hard enough to raise dust.
“Our mother is unable to suffer days in a forest, Captain,” Miss Ruth replied. “We cannot leave her behind.”
“I understand, ma’am.” He turned to Emaline. “Looks like your girl here wants something.”
“I’se sorry, Miss Ruth. I can wait,” Emaline said, afraid once again to have the Captain’s attention drawn to her.
“What is it, Emaline?” Miss Ruth asked, pulling a big, woolen shawl tight around her shoulders.
“I’se gots some bandages and salves for one ‘a’ the soldiers, down there. All right for him to fetch it later? I’ll leaves it with Luella.”
“Of course, Emaline.” Miss Ruth turned back to the Captain. “I am sorry that we cannot assist your men more than what we have, Captain. I am sure it is a difficult task to…” Miss Ruth tripped over finishing the sentence.
“To run, Miss Dickens?” the captain stated, his black eyes stabbed at her. “Yes, ma’am, it is indeed.”
Emaline didn’t stay to hear what more was said. It wasn’t her place and they would expect her to be about her work. She gave the salve and wrappings to Luella, and asked her to give the soldier a bucket of warm water and soap so he could bath his feet.
In the mud room Emaline dug through a chest and found a beat up pair of boots that had belonged to old Master Dickens. They weren’t much, but more than what O’Mally had. She thought on asking Miss Ruth if the soldier could have them, but didn’t want to bother her while the captain was still there.
“What’s you diggin’ for?”
Emaline jumped. “Luella, you is quieter than a owl watching for his supper, you knows that?” she scolded. “You ‘bout made me loose my bladder.”
Luella chuckled. “Sorry, Emi.” She leaned against the doorway and crossed her arms. “Who them boots for? Don’t know why Miss Ruth don’t throw ‘em in the burn pile.”
“That soldier comin’ for the salve and rags. He ain’t got no shoes. Old Master got no use for ‘em.”
“What you care about some white boy for? Whether he live or die shouldn’t be nothing to you, the ways they treats us.”
“Cuz I ain’t like them, is why,” Emaline growled. “Sides, what’s it matter to you?”
“No matter to me. You is a strange thinking woman, that’s for sure.” Luella pushed off from the jamb and walked to the sink. “I’ll get the water warm, and the soap and I’ll gives him what Miss Ruth says to gives him. But I won’t wash his feet or do nothing else.”
Emaline couldn’t cast blame on Luella. If Emaline were smart, she’d be more like her. “That’s all I’se expectin’,” Emaline said, and heaved up from the chest. “You ask Miss Ruth about these boots? Tell her I’m asking.”
“Ain’t no one gonna miss those boots, Emi.”
“I never give’d nothin’ that ain’t mine. Don’t plan on starting now.”
A heavy sigh came from Luella and she quirked an eye at Emaline. Emaline thought she’d say no.
“All right. I’ll ask,” Luella agreed, looking put out.
“I thanks you,” Emaline said, and walked away. She was about ready to remind Luella that she owed her a couple of favors, but it was good to have something in the pocket for the future. Never know when it would be needed.
The smoke from the cows roasting on huge spits in the front yard smelled good, and Emaline realized she was hungry. The animals turned over the fire, three of them, brown and crusty, brushed with sweet pepper relish and rum molasses. Last fall’s potatoes, yams and carrots were carted from the Dickens huge ground cellar and settled in iron pots by the fire. Baked cornbread browned in huge sheets, and jars of cool pickles and sweet jams canned from the orchards sat side by side on heavy oak planks. It was like the picnics in better times, but the guests were different. The frilly ladies and dandy gents were now tattered beggars the Lord might have had called in for supper.
The soldiers formed a line that snaked behind each cow pert near to the meadow. All manner of pot, pan, crock and dish was held in their red-scrubbed hands to gather all they could from the tables and barbecue pits. Emaline carved the old cows and kept at it until nothing remained but bones. Even those were loaded onto the army’s cook wagon to be roasted later for the marrow. Nothing went to waste. Soon the plank tables were littered with licked out jars and clean cornbread pans.
“Emaline, there’s food in the kitchen if you’re hungry. We set aside enough for the family and the slaves. Get help to carry some down for the Quarter. Make sure all get plenty. It may have to hold them for a while.” Miss Ruth looked at the departing soldiers. “The Captain says the Yankees will leave us nothing.” Her hand rested against her throat. “We’ll be lucky if we have a house standing before they depart.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Emaline said. She was already figuring how much food she could carry to the hut until the Yankees passed by. Scott would go with the blue army once they arrived. She knew he wouldn’t be marching anywhere; he was too sick and weak. But there would be hospital tents and doctors that would care for him. Maybe they would send him north in a few days. Her heart fluttered. She didn’t want to think of his leaving, not yet. But it would happen, just like Jackson, leaving her alone again.
A tug on her shoulder brought her out of her sad pondering. “You hear me, Emaline?” Miss Ruth’s icy fingers wrapped around her arm.
“Yessum. I’ll gets help. You hiding any food in the house, for the family?”
“No. I’ve got a couple of men digging a hole in the woods back of the well. We’ll bury food there and hope it won’t be found.” Ruth walked to the planks and started gathering the empty jars. “Anything in the root cellar will be buried in another area, farther back in the woods.”
“Emaline?” Miss Ruth watched her real close, a puzzled look on her face. “Why did you care if that soldier had shoes to wear?”
Luella had asked Miss Ruth about the boots like she promised. Emaline was glad, knowing that Miss Ruth would give the man her daddy’s old boots. “He needed ‘em, Miss Ruth.”
“But, he’s a white man. Just like Troy.”
“I begs your pardon, Miss Ruth. But he ain’t like Master Troy.”
Miss Ruth smiled at her. “You are truly a mystery, Emaline. You know that?”
“No, Miss Ruth. You’re the one who gived him the boots.”
Miss Ruth laughed and shook her head. “All right. I should be used to your ways by now.”
Emaline watched as Miss Ruth picked up a jar, set it down, and look around as if searching for something. She capped the jars, lined them up side by side on the board and reached for a basket at the end of the row. Miss Ruth was doing what she always did when she fretted … she went to work.
“We’ve only a few hours before the Yankees come,” Miss Ruth said as she gathered the jars together. “I think you’d best get the food distributed, then come back and watch over mama.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Emaline replied and walked up to the big house. She stopped on the front porch and looked out over the plantation. The cow meadow was littered with burned logs from smoking campfires, scraps of cloth, and bits of tin. The last of the soldiers were packing up their gear and getting ready to follow the rest of the infantry down the road. They were a pitiful bunch, seeming to take a last look around for anything that might be useful in the thrown away trash.
A man barked an order and the soldiers hurried into a scrawny line of ragged men. Another order was shouted and the line moved out. The army of the Confederacy was leaving South Carolina, moving north. Emaline thought of the wagon man with Hope Dickens’ candle sticks on his way to Tennessee, slipping through the dark trails of the Appalachia’s. At least he had taken the right road – away from the armies. The blue and grey were sure to meet. It would be bloody.
The troops seemed livelier then they had been in the morning. They were well fed, cleaned up a bit, and the Yankees hadn’t caught them yet. She watched them march away, side by side, some helping those that wore bandages. A man limped at the back of the line, hobbling on a homemade crutch, wearing old Master Dickens shabby boots. She knew he’d be one of the first to fall when the Yankees found them, but she wished the man from Georgia well.
She needed to check on Scott to make sure the soldiers hadn’t stumbled onto the hut and left him dead in the forest. Too many men like Maddox in the world not to think on that.
“Pauly,” she yelled as a big man passed with a plate of food from the kitchen. “You gets a couple men and hauls as much food down to the Quarter that its can eat. Miss Ruth wants it taken today, ‘fore the Yankees gets here.”
“Yessum,” he mumbled around a mouth full of food.
“Hide what you can’t eat, hear?”
“Yessum.” He shouted to a couple of men. “Hey, come helps me carry some of these victuals down to the Quarter.”
Emaline grabbed a piece of muslin, wrapped up enough food for several days, and hurried to her cabin. When she arrived, she looked back at the Quarter to make sure no one was watching, and moved quickly into the forest.
There were signs of the soldiers everywhere. They had cleared every fallen stem and stick they could use for kindling. Small trees had been chopped down for firewood. She stepped over stinking piles of human droppings and innards of animals that the soldiers had killed. A picture of a young woman lay upon the soggy leaves and a bloody bandage hooked on a prickly bush blew in the wind. The soldiers had gone deep into the trees and the closer she got to the hut, the higher her worry climbed. Could they have found the door? She thought it was covered well enough with the brush. Scott was a smart boy. He wouldn’t light the stove. Would he?
Picking her way over the scattered garbage slowed her down. She wanted to run, but the thought of slipping in one of the mounds was sickening. She held the parcel of food close to her chest with one hand and kept her skirt as high as she could with the other. As she walked deeper into the woods, signs of the soldiers grew less and less until they ended well away from the shed. Her heart slowed with relief and she brushed her hand across her forehead. She was surprised to find it wet with sweat.
Good. There was no smoke coming from the tin pipe that edged out the side of the hill. He must be cold but surely not hungry. He had Master Brody’s coat and a couple of old blankets Emaline had left in the shed. It was quiet, like he promised. Quiet and hidden. Emaline smiled to herself, relieved. She came around the hill and stopped.
The brush in front of the entrance had been moved away. She stared at the wooden door. Sour bile bubbled up in her throat, and she clutched the food to her chest with both hands. He had promised he wouldn’t move out of the hut, and she knew he would keep that promise. Emaline turned around, looking for his body... or anything. The trees and brush were so thick that he could be close and she wouldn’t see him. Oh God, where is he? Oh God.
Emaline swallowed and turned back to the door. She had to check the shed. Whatever she found, whatever it held, she needed to start there. Stepping to the door, she gripped the knob and held it for a few moments. Working up her courage, she pulled it open and peered in.
There was a weak flicker from a lamp in a corner of the shed, but not enough to see anything. It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust. She took a step into the room and the feeble light glinted on the steel of a pistol barrel. It was aimed at her.
Close the door behind you.”
The voice was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. It was southern, though. Emaline squinted trying to see the shadowed figure.
“You’all best do like I tell you or this fine young Yankee here won’t be alive to greet his army.” The pistol shifted away from her and towards a dark shape across from the stranger.
Scott was still alive then. But had he been hurt? “Ya can’ts see nothin’ with the door closed,” she stalled, trying to find Scott in the darkness.
“I’ll turn up the lamp. Close the door … now.” The words were sharp.
“Emaline, do as he says.” The order came from the corner of the hut. “I’m fine.”
Scott sounded okay, calm. Still, with a gun pointed at you … Emaline pulled the door closed.
“I can’ts see. Where you wants me to sit?” Emaline swallowed, afraid for herself, and Scott.
“On the floor.”
“She can have my seat,” Scott protested. “The floor is cold.”
“Boy, it’s not as cold as a grave.” The pistol flipped back into the light, and at her. “Now sit, girl.”
Emaline’s shaking legs folded to the dirt floor, the damp ground making her shiver. She thought hard on who this could be. She’d talked to the man before, but the name or face wouldn’t come.
The lamp flickered and the flame brightened as the wick was turned up. There was just enough light to make out Scott and the man sitting on the other end of the cot. The gun was aimed at the middle of Scott’s chest.
In spite of the beard, the dirt and the large, rumbled coat, she recognized him. “Mr. Tate. I couldn’t place you at first. How long you been home?” She tried to keep the quiver out of her voice.
“I’m not home, Emaline. I’m sitting in a squalid, dirt hut in the middle of a forest that’s about to be overrun by blue bellies.” He smiled, but his eyes were cheerless.
Emaline glanced at Scott, needing to make sure he was all right. His lips curved up in a small grin and he nodded. Her gaze settled back on Tate. “Why’s you pointing that gun at us? What’s you want, Mr. Tate?”
He laughed bitterly. “I want …” Empty eyes stared at her. “I want to sleep, Emaline. I don’t remember the last time I slept well.”
“Why can’ts you sleep, Mr. Tate?” The gun dipped a bit, but he jerked it back up.
“Why do you care?” He pulled his knees up and rested the gun between them.
“Cuz you gots a gun pointing at that boy. I don’ts want you to shoot him by accident.”
“Oh, if I shoot him, it won’t be an accident.” He wiggled the gun at Scott. “You hiding this Yankee?”
“Hmm, he’s scrawnier than I am. How long you had him?”
“Just a few days, Mr. Tate.”
come by him?”
“Pulled him from the river.” Emaline relaxed some. At least the man was talking, not sounding crazy. “Your ma and pa knows you come back, Mr. Tate?”
“Ma doesn’t know much these days.” He scratched at his beard. “Pa. He’s so eaten up with hate … and liquor.” Tate glared at Scott. “He’d sure kill a Yankee if he got hold of one. He surely would. --- So, you pulled him from the river. What was he doing in the river?”
Emaline hung back, but then figured it didn’t matter if Tate knew about Scott. “He escaped from Camp Sorghum.”
“Sorghum, huh? No wonder he’s so dang skinny.” Tate rubbed the barrel of the gun against his jaw. “He hasn’t been much for conversation.”
“I ain’t seen your folks for a piece,” Emaline said, wanting to get the talk off of Scott. “Your mama poorly, is she?” Scott fidgeted and Emaline hoped he wouldn’t try to grab the gun. He’d get a bullet in his chest if he did. Tate’s finger was stiff on the trigger.
“Mama is poorly. She’s been poorly since Pa disowned Jacob.”
“I’se sorry to hear that. Your mama is a kind woman.”
Tate sat quiet, but his eyes shifted around the room. “I didn’t know this hut was here till I saw you folks come to it last night. Well hid. I’m obliged.”
“What you doing out here, Mr. Tate? Why ain’t you at home ‘stead of wandering in the woods?”
“He’s the man I saw in the Quarter,” Scott interrupted. “Going from cabin to cabin, stealing food.”
Tate rolled his head around and smiled at her. “Mighty good ham hocks, girl. I’m obliged for them, as well as the peaches.”
“He’s a deserter, Emaline,” Scott said. “That’s why he can’t go home. That’s why he’s prowling the woods and stealing food from slaves. He’d be shot … or hung if the Confederates got him.
She was afraid Tate would shoot Scott sure with the words he said and the way he said them. “That ain’t so,” she argued, hoping she could soften the hateful truth. “Mr. Edward Tate, well, I knowd him since he was child. He wouldn’t ...”
“Oh, but he would, Emaline.” Tate cut her short. “No need to gloss over that fact. He’s right. I am a deserter. I needed a place to hide from my own army, so here I am, keeping company with the enemy.” He hitched back against the wall. “Not that he’s equal in a fight, leastways, not the way he is now.”
“I’m more than equal to you, Tate. I’ve seen too many good men die in battle, on both sides, to give much due to a coward.”
“Hush, Scott.” What was he thinking, poking at the man like that? Did he want to get shot?
“Don’t worry, Emaline. If I had wanted to kill him, I would have done so by now.”
“Hardly,” Scott spat back at Tate. “Not with the woods crawling with Rebs. They’d have heard the gunshot and had you hanging from a tree.”
along with me, boy. That would have been a confusing sight. Two bodies
swinging, one blue, one grey.” Tate laughed and Emaline flinched.
“Mr. Edward, ain’t likes you to run. You comes from a poor family, but none of you ever backed down from something you took store in. Nope, something done happen’ to you.”
Edward Tate cradled the gun in his lap and rested his head against the rough wall. “War happened. Just war, tearing everything and everyone apart. My family, my brother, my father.”
His eyes were wet when he looked at Emaline. “Mama putters now. Roams the garden, fretting that nothing is growing. I told her, hell, mama, it’s too early.” He snorted and choked on a gurgle in his throat. “It’s still winter, mama. But she don’t hear. She wanders around without a coat, sometimes barefoot, and pa sits in the kitchen drinking corn.”
“Ise sorry, Mr. Edward. I truly is. I know your pappy can be hard.”
“I do believe
you are sorry, Emaline, though, I’m not sure why. I would think you darkies
would be happy to see the South fall.”
“Ain’t got nothing to do with the South falling, Mr. Edward. Not for me. I gets a hurt in me when I see suffering. Seen too much of it, and don’t wants to see no more.”
“That right? Well, you’ll see plenty of it soon. Heard tell General Sherman’s army is coming this way.” He nudged Scott’s leg with his foot. “Hey, Yankee boy. That should make you happy. If you live that long, anyway.”
Anger hunched in Scott’s shoulders, and burned in his eyes. Emaline thought he would spit in Tate’s face, regardless that Tate could shoot him now that the Rebs were gone. What was it that made men hate so? She would never understand it, and couldn’t bear seeing it in Scott. He was crunching his jaw so hard Emaline thought it would break. She was afraid of that rage in men, that fury that caused so much hurt. It seemed there was no way to stop it once it boiled over.
“I wouldn’t put it past a coward to shoot an unarmed man, especially one whose hands are tied,” Scott snapped.
Emaline was surprised she hadn’t noticed that Scott’s hands were tied behind his back. The room was gloomy, and he was sitting far into the corner. Tate must have been desperate to come to the shed, not knowing if Scott was armed. And Scott, he was sure to have heard the bushes being moved. Hearing that sound, not knowing what would come through the door, nothing to fight with … it must have been fearsome. Scott, weak as he was, would have fought hard. What happened when Tate opened the door? But that question would have to wait. The worry now was what would Tate do?
“Mr. Edward, why don’t you go on home? Help your folks? They’s gonna needs you now with the Yanks coming.”
“I can’t go home, Emaline.”
“Why not? Better than wandering around in these woods. Now that the Reb army is gone, ain’t no one gonna shoots you.”
“My father will.”
Emaline didn’t think she heard him right. “What, Mr. Edward?”
After a few seconds, he repeated, “My father will.”
“He knows I deserted.” Tate glanced over at Emaline and shrugged. “Wanted to know why I’d come home and I told him. He got a gun, chased me off. Said he’d shoot me if he ever saw me again. Just like Jacob.”
Mr. Tate was a man who was going to die childless. No wonder Mrs. Tate wandered the winter garden barefoot.
“I saw Jacob,” Mr. Edward murmured. “I tried to tell papa, but he didn’t want to hear.”
“Where’d you see him, Mr. Edward?” Emaline had a bad feeling, a real bad feeling.
“A small town in Pennsylvania. Called Gettysburg.”
“You were at Gettysburg?” Scott asked.
“Yes. Me and several thousand other men.”
“What’s Gettysburg?” From the expression on Scott’s face at the mention of the name, Emaline figured it was important.
“A battlefield. General Lee’s invasion of the north was repulsed and the southern army retreated.” Scott pushed against the wall and stretched his legs out. “There were thousands of casualties suffered on both sides.”
“You don’t look old enough to have attended that carnage.” Tate eyed him. “Although I will say there wasn’t a shortage of young boys to take up arms.”
Scott looked down, almost like he was ashamed. “I wasn’t there. I was in school.”
Tate laughed. “Northern boy. Probably sitting in papa’s fine, warm parlor and decided to fight for the poor blacks. Sniffling at the injustice. That the way it was, boy?”
Yes, Emaline knew. That’s the way it was. Didn’t make it wrong though. Just that slaving shouldn’t have been in the first place.
It took a few moments for Scott to answer. When he did, his shame was gone. “Yes … Tate. That’s the way it was. I was a boy marching off to war with high ideals of freeing those beneath me. But I found out that no one is beneath me. What did you learn? How to run?”
Stupid, stupid boy. Emaline could have slapped him for those words.
the hammer of the gun. “For an educated northern boy, you sure don’t seem
“Mr. Tate,” Emaline breathed. “Please, he’s just a boy. He gots a boy’s fire, that’s all. You had it once.”
“I don’t need you to beg for me, Emaline,” Scott snapped.
Emaline ignored him, frantic to stop the pull of the trigger. “You sided with your papa when Jacob joined the Union. You was wanting to forget you ever had a brother.”
It hit. The hammer eased back to peace. Tate licked his lips and shook. The cold room was long with quiet. Emaline dropped her head and prayed.
“Jacob. Ah, it seemed so important then,” Tate whispered. “Papa didn’t mind him moving north. He sent back money. He was doing good, til the war come.” He sat up, dragged his foot against the floor and stared at it. “I can just see Jacob hunched over a desk, worrying about what to write pa. There was ink smudged on his letter ... the letter telling pa he was joining the union. After Pa read it, he tossed it in the fireplace. Told mama he didn’t want to hear the name Jacob ever again.”
“Jacob done what he thought was right, Mr. Edward. He weren’t a contrary man.”
“None of us were, Emaline. Just proud. Jacob never did take to owning folks.” He sighed and scratched at his tangled hair. “Hell, we never had the means. Know what was funny? Papa didn’t care about slaving one way or the other. He just thought that if South Carolina didn’t want to belong to the Union, it shouldn’t have to belong to the Union.”
“You said you seen him … Jacob.”
Tate glanced at Emaline, then at Scott. “Yeah.” He lowered his eyes. “He saw me too.”
Emaline’s stomach felt like it was full of swirling bugs. Mister Edward didn’t have a home and his father would shoot him if he saw him again. With nothing to live for, would he kill them both? But Emaline wasn’t ready to accept that yet, especially for Scott. He had a grandfather to go home to, a daddy to meet and his whole life ahead of him.
“What happened?” she asked, her tongue feeling too big for her mouth.
The gun drooped in Tate’s hand, and Emaline thought of rushing for it. She could maybe snatch it away, but he propped it back on his knee.
“It was the bloodiest battle I’d ever been in. God, so many men. The earth rattled with cannon. Men were screaming. And the horses, my God, nothing screams like a dying horse.” He covered his eyes with his hand, like he was trying to block out the memory. It was several moments before he continued.
“The fighting was hand to hand. There was so much smoke, it was sometimes hard to see who you were fighting with. We were stumbling over the wounded, taking cover behind the dead. Then I saw him.” Tate stared at the ceiling. “He was just a few feet away, fighting with another soldier. He hit the man with the butt of his rifle, and was going to hit him again, when I called his name. I don’t know why I called it. It just … came out. He looked at me like when we were kids hollering to one another across Taylor’s road. Playing tag or shooting at crows with a sling shot. He almost smiled. Shit, I thought he was gonna smile.”
Tate wiped a hand across his eyes. His Adam’s apple bobbed when he swallowed and he shook his head. “Maybe he did,” he whispered.
He jabbed his finger at the ceiling. “I saw the bayonet coming but I didn’t have time to yell. The soldier Jacob hit with his rifle stabbed him in the chest. Jacob looked so surprised. And then I saw he was dead. His eyes weren’t seeing anymore. It was so quick … so quick. He was dead still standing.”
Emaline counted the pounding beats of her heart. Her nails cut into the calluses of her hand and she opened her fists.
“Everytime I close my eyes I see his face.” Tate clenched his hand and hit his knee over and over again. “If I wouldn’t have called to him, he would have killed that soldier and still been alive. I killed him, Emaline. I killed my brother.”
When he bowed his head stringy hair fell over his face. “I don’t know how long I just stood there staring after he dropped. I wanted to go to him, but my legs wouldn’t move. Someone grabbed my arm and shoved me. I was in the middle of a group of men, running. I remember running and running. And I kept on running, after the others stopped. I don’t even know how. No one stopped me, no sentries, no one. I’ve been running ever since.”
“Good Lord, man. That was more than a year and a half ago,” Scott said. Shock and maybe even sorrow was now on Scott’s face.
“You been runnin’ that long, Mr. Edward?” Suffering again, there was always suffering. Emaline hated it. Just didn’t seem the Almighty had that in mind when he created the world. Too much pretty in it to have so much misery.
“Mostly. Sometimes I just sit a spell when I find a quiet spot. Nothing bothers but the dreams. Jacob calls to me. Wanting to go fishing in Harper’s pond, or go tease Salle Mae Tucker in the school yard, or funning pa about his straight laced ways. Dang,” Tate laughed, “he sure wouldn’t know papa now. Surely not.”
Funny how noisy the quiet can be. Emaline could hear breathing, Scott’s was soft, Tate’s was jagged. A crow hawked to the air outside. A cricket chirped and she wondered it was so early in the year; crickets didn’t sing in the last days of winter. In her mind two little boys were laughing in the general store when she went to town to trade her canned goods. Mrs. Tate, a mild woman who couldn’t keep those children in line, threatened that Emaline would take a switch to them. They looked at Emaline, scared, and settled down. Emaline wouldn’t dare touch them, but they didn’t know that, and she was big.
“Mr. Edward?” He didn’t respond so she tried again. “Mr. Edward, sir? You ain’t gonna kill me, or this boy. And I think you knows that. You stay here as long as you wants. The Yankees won’t find you. I’ll brings you food till you decides whats you wanna do.”
“Humph. You think the Yanks are gonna leave you with any food? They’ll take everything they can carry, and burn what they can’t.”
“We’ll gets by. But I needs to get to the big house. I promised Miss Ruth I’d look after her mama, but I can’t leave till you free this boy and promise me you ain’t gonna hurt him.”
He looked at her like she’d lost her mind. “And why would I do that?”
“Cuz … cuz I’se begging, please, there’s been enough killin’. Cuz I don’t think you have murder in your heart.”
studied her, real hard, and pointed to Scott. “How do I know he won’t kill
me? Then again, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.”
“You sure of that, are you?”
“As sure that you ain’t at fault for your brother dying. He knowed he could get killed when he joined up. And … maybe the last thing he thought of was you and him laughing in Harper’s pond, catching crawdads …. Maybe when he saw you, the war weren’t there no more; just the two of you playing in the dusty summer.” She knew she would cry, she knew it, and the tears started dripping. Damn, some days she wished she weren’t a woman.
Whatever she said, he seemed taken with it. “Maybe you be right, Emaline.” He reached into the casing on his belt and took out a knife. “Turn around, soldier boy. You wants to kill me, well, more power to you.”
Scott stared at Emaline and she nodded. He twisted so his back was to Tate, and Tate cut the rope that bound his hands. Rubbing his wrists, Scott said, “Thanks.”
Tate pocketed the gun into the folds of his large overcoat. “Looks like you and me are together for a while. At least until Sherman comes through.” Chewing on his lip, he tilted his head up. “You gonna tell about me?”
“No. I think … No.” Scott shook his head.
The pressure in her head eased away. At least she couldn’t hear the blood pounding through it anymore. “I’ll be sending Lizbeth down here. She is powerful scared of the Yankees. Don’t be shooting her if she comes through the door. Or anything else.”
“I’ll leave her be. Don’t worry.”
Emaline was sure that Lizbeth could beat him up anyway, if he tried anything, but she didn’t think he had heart to mess with a woman right now. Maybe hadn’t for a long time.
“Scott, the captain in the Reb army said the Union was just a few hours behind ‘em. I don’t know when they’ll be coming, but don’t show yourself too soon. You understand?”
“You two gonna be all right?”
“As soon as I relieve myself, I’ll be fine.” Scott smiled at her. “It’s been a long night.”
Emaline chuckled, almost hugged him, but didn’t. “You promise me, Mr. Edward. You two ain’t gonna fight.”
“I swear by the honor of the South, I’ll not touch him.”
Emaline thought the words a might uppity, seeing as how the South was dying hard, but his lips were twisted like there weren’t no honor left. Still, if he had wanted to kill Scott, he could have done it without shooting him. A knife doesn’t make a sound.
“Ise gots to go.” Emaline opened the door to a blast of fresh air and hurried without looking back. She picked her way through the forest, trying to avoid the waste of the Reb army. When she saw black smoke in the sky, she forgot about the filth. Something was burning. She ran, stumbled a few times, but moved as fast as she could, noticing too late when her foot stomped the lost picture of the pretty girl into the mud.
smoke rolled straight up into the cloudless sky over the McCrossin’s
farmstead, just two miles down the road. Emaline whispered “God help ‘em”
as she bounded into the Quarter.
A jagged line of legs and colored skirts loped across the field towards the hills. Old Sara Crispen was slung over her grandson’s broad shoulders, and she held on tight as her head bobbed up and down. Little ones were dragged behind anyone with a free hand and men pulled their women along as they glanced fearfully back at the Quarter.
“We’se headed for the caves yonder,” Frenchy said as he ran past clutching the hand of a child. “Yankees are closin’ in. Just takes some food and comes with us.”
“I don’ts, know. I saw her at the Woolin’s place a while back.”
“Thanks, Frenchy.” Emaline turned to find Lizbeth.
“Ain’t you comin’, girl? Time’s going each second!”
“I’ll be fine. You just takes care of yourself and that youngun. Now git and don’ts worry none about me.” Without saying another word, she ran towards the Woolin cabin.
She passed a few folks who were dumping food into bags and grabbing up blankets, but other than a short nod or desperate ‘hurry’, nothing was said. Emaline could hear Lizbeth crying before she reached the cabin. Irritated, she wondered why Lizbeth hadn’t left for the dugout. The minute she heard Seth trying to sooth her, Emaline knew why.
Without knocking on the door, Emaline threw it open. “Lizbeth, why you still here,” she demanded. “The Yankees are down at McCrossin’s. They’ll be here next.”
“I can’ts leave Seth.”
Emaline grabbed Lizbeth’s arm and jerked.
“You’se hurting me.” Tears sprung to Lizbeth’s eyes and she wrapped her fingers around Emaline’s.
“You can’t stay here. Ain’t you afraid of what them Yanks might do to ya?” Emaline dug her fingers deeper into the soft muscle.
“Emaline, you let’s her go. No need you treatin’ her that way.”
“I ain’t gots time for the likes of you, Seth Woolins,” Emaline spat at him. “If it weren’t for you, she’d be safe by now. You gots another woman, why can’ts you leave her alone?”
none of your affair.” Seth glared back at Emaline.
“It is if it gets this girl kilt.”
“Emaline, please, let’s go. Seth wanted me to leave for the caves, but I told him I had to waits for you. That’s the only reason I’m here. Now let’s go of me before you breaks my arm.”
With a disgusted jerk, Emaline pulled her hand off Lizbeth. When Lizbeth cradled her arm close, Emaline felt a tug of regret. “Child,” she said, trying to smooth over the hurt, “You knows the Yankees might search those caves for Reb soldiers.”
“There ain’t none there.”
“How do you know, Lizbeth? Who knows what’s hidin’ in them hills.”
“I’ve gots a gun,” Seth said. “I’ll kill anyone what tries to hurts her.”
“And how many bullets you gots?” Emaline snapped, turning on Seth. “How many men you fixen to fight off? You’ll get hung sure for killing a white man.”
“No one’s gonna hang black men no more? We’se free, Emaline. We can defend ourselves now, we can fight back when we’re wronged. We’se men of rights.”
“Pfft, you is
a fool Seth Woolins. You’re still livin’ in South Caroline no matter if the
Union wins. You think those Yankee soldiers are gonna stay around to
protects you and your rights? Boy, they’se gonna head home to their
families as soon as they can and leave you dealing with men who thinks you
no better than a ox in the barn.”
Emaline stared down at a tearful Lizbeth and wanted to cry herself. She thought of Miss Ruth going wild with worry for her mama and all she might lose. Damn, she needed to get to the big house like she promised.
“Lizbeth, I loves you like my own but you has to make the choice. What’s you gonna do?”
“What you gonna do, Emi?” Lizbeth asked, eyes big and brown and scared.
“I’se gonna do what I said I would, child. Stay by Miz Dickens.”
Lizbeth stood up and glared at Emaline. “And you calls Seth a fool, Emi. You said they was chaining you down, but you is ready to come like a dog when they calls you.”
“I is doing it for the same reason you is not wanting to leave Seth. I loves Miss Ruth.”
“But what has she done for you but ordered you to do this or go there or haul those cotton bales? Huh, Emi? You owes her nothin’.”
Emaline couldn’t explain all of the things that Miss Ruth had done for her; things through the years that had made life easier. Like the times she hid Emaline from her drunken brother and suffered a black eye or twisted arm for doing it? Or when she rocked Emaline when her Grannie died or held her when Jackson ran away, saying over and over how sorry she was for being helpless. In some ways, Miss Ruth was just as much a slave as Emaline. But the why didn’t matter as far as Emaline was concerned. She would do what Miss Ruth asked because Miss Ruth loved her.
“Well, if you is set on the caves, you’d best get going. I ‘spect Seth will do right by you, but don’t you go killin’. You hear me, Seth?” Emaline jabbed a finger at him. “You’ll gets her killed sure.”
“I is a man, Emaline. I’ve been hid too long from that. I ain’t gonna hide no more.” Seth looked Emaline in the eyes, something he’d never done before. There was pride and grit – and Emaline figured there weren’t no one gonna beat it out of him, even if they killed him.
Lizbeth wrapped her arm around Seth’s. “I loves him, Emi. No matter to me if it’s wrong – I can’ts help it.”
Emaline sighed and shook her head. “Get then. I guessen’ worst has happened than a man not true to his woman. But I’se sorry you parts of it, Lizbeth. Just knows I loves you whatever you does.”
With a couple of steps, Lizbeth was in Emaline’s arms. “And I loves you, always, Emi.”
“Lizbeth.” Seth stood at the door, a rifle hitched over his arm and a bag of supplies in his hand. His broad shoulders were straight back, stiff with determination.
Lizbeth tore out of Emaline’s arms and ran out of the cabin. “I’ll takes care a her,” a grim faced Seth promised, and was gone.
Emaline stood quiet in the cabin, looked around at Seth’s home. It wasn’t much bigger than her little place but held Seth’s pa and two nephews. Maybe Seth was right. His manhood had been pushed aside too long, not respected like a good man deserved to be. Oh, he weren’t perfect but neither was she. But she knew the pain of regret and hoped her Lizbeth never suffered for wrong choices. Well, they were gone – no use to ponder. She wrapped her shawl tight around her shoulders and set her path to the big house.
She didn’t remember the Quarter ever feeling so empty. A pup squalled in its loneliness outside a cabin, and Emaline scooped it up. Puppy breath and a wet tongue licked at her cheek, and sharp white teeth quivered against her chin. She hoped the Yankees didn’t eat dog.
There was a break in the trees as she ran up the path, and she saw a flash of blue on the main road a few hundred yards away. They’d be here soon. She came around to the front of the house and stared down the barrel of a gun.
“Lord sakes, Master Brody.” Emaline jumped back. “It’s me.” The pup whimpered and nuzzled into her bosom.
“Oh, Emaline. I am a bit agitated, as you can understand.” He lowered the weapon and looked towards the road. “Sister, I do believe we’ll have guests shortly.”
He made it sound like folks were coming for dinner! What was wrong with the man? He’d never been one to stand up to his brother, but here he was, on the front porch acting like it was nothing to fight off the whole Union army with one old shotgun.
“Brody, you’re going to get yourself killed if you keep waiving that rifle around.”
Emaline thought Miss Ruth was sure right on that point.
“Ruthie, I may not be much of a man, but at least I can die defending my home.” He wobbled to a chair and sat down. “But I might as well be comfortable, don’t you think?” He smiled over at his sister and set the gun across his lap.
“Good Lord, Emaline, where have you been? Mama, stop your cursing. At least let the Yankees see that southern women are ladies.”
Miss Ruth was tidied up and wearing a beautiful light green linen dress with a white shawl around her shoulders. Master Brody was dressed in a gentleman’s suit, only lacking a diamond tie pin. That was probably hid somewhere. Miz Hope wore black lace, as suited a widow, but her language didn’t fit. She was cussin’ as good as any overseer Emaline had heard, jabbing the air with each ‘god damn’ that she spouted.
“Emaline, see if you can do something with mama.” Miss Ruth looked towards the road. Emaline was sure she was shredding the last of her hankies.
“I would expect, Sister, that they’ll not be waltzing in for an afternoon’s visit before they pass on their way to chase and kill our noble army. See?” he pointed towards the cow meadow. “I should say there is quite a number crossing the meadow. Well, I guess we’ll soon find out if there is a gentleman among them.”
They weren’t only coming across the meadow; Emaline could see blue moving in the trees – the forest the Rebs had just cleaned of twigs and branches for firewood. Was it only the day before? Good Lord, was that death coming through those trees? She wondered if it would hurt.
“Mama, mama, stop.” Miss Ruth was bent over her mother, shaking the wheel chair. The old lady swung the cane at her daughter narrowly missing her head.
“Here, Miz Hope, you holds this puppy, will ya? He’s awful scared.” Emaline thought the old woman would throw it back at her, but the puppy wiggled deep into her lap and huddled. Miz Hope stared at it for a bit, then covered all but its head with her black shawl. The puppy licked at the crooked fingers that touched it. Miz Hope and the puppy quieted.
“Thank you, Emaline.” Miss Ruth’s eyes filled with tears as she touched Emaline’s arm. “Thank you for being with me.”
“I said I’d
be, and I is. Always do likes I promise.”
“Yes, I know you do. Always.”
They waited on the porch for the Union army, three women and one sickly man… and a scared puppy. Emaline thought they must look a site, with Miz Dickens wheelchair bound and Master Brody cradling an old shotgun on his lap like that would keep them back.
The soldiers were slow in coming, watchful, maybe afraid there was more to the fight than these four. When they aimed their rifles at them, Emaline held her breath, hoping that no one would pull the trigger. Miss Ruth mumbled one of her Catholic prayers and stepped in front of her mother. Emaline was grateful that Master Brody didn’t touch the gun; they’d be full of holes sure if he did.
It wasn’t long before the yard was full of them; all with guns pointed their direction. Some broke off and moved around to either side of the house.
“You alone here?” A gruff man with a stripe on his sleeve stepped forward from the crowd of soldiers. He was a big man, fully bearded, with the greenest eyes Emaline had ever seen.
“We are,” Master Brody stated.
“No other men folk but you?”
“I am afraid I am all you have, sergeant. I’m sure the darkies have run by now, and the overseer, well,” Brody chuckled, “he probably was the first to go.”
“You protecting any Rebs?”
“We have not
had the pleasure of the company of the fine Confederate army since
“You fed the Rebs?” the sergeant rumbled.
“Why, yes. You are, after all, in South Carolina, sir.”
The sergeant walked onto the porch and stared at the shotgun settled across Brody’s legs. “You better give me that gun or one of my men will shoot you.”
“Well, it does appear that I am outnumbered, sir.” He held the gun with both hands and presented it to the sergeant. “I don’t suppose you will give it back to me upon your departure.”
The sergeant spate tobacco juice on the porch and turned towards his men.
“I didn’t think so,” Master Brody smiled. “But thought I’d ask.”
“Search the house,” the sergeant ordered. “And the grounds. You find anyone, bring ‘em to me. Oh,” he called as the men quickly started moving into the house, “and no rapes, unreasonable killing or looting, except for food or whatever else the enemy can use.” The order was off hand, like he didn’t really care what his men did.
“I can assure you, sir, the enemy left yesterday.”
The sergeant eyed Master Brody, looking over his fine clothing. “As you said we are in South Carolina, the first state that led this Rebellion. The enemy is everywhere.”
The sound of boots stomping through the rooms was loud – the soldiers hooted, glass shattered, and the draperies disappeared from the parlor windows with a rip. Miss Ruth stood still with her fingers clutched tight on the handles of the wheelchair. Every once in a while she flinched at a noise coming from inside the house, but held herself together.
Hope Dickens seemed to sense there was danger about; she drew her shawl close and hovered over the puppy, not looking anywhere else. Master Brody stared straight ahead, motionless. Emaline wondered what he was thinking. It wasn’t until after the cows were rounded up and headed in the direction of the road, that he spoke up.
“Is it necessary to burn the barn, sir?”
“Rebs can use it for shelter,” was the gruff reply.
The smoke blew towards the forest. The wind wasn’t strong, just a stir now and then, enough to send the black cloud over the tree tops. It would reach the hut, Emaline was sure of that.
Chickens were caught and crated; a couple old pigs squealed as soldiers prodded them with sticks across the front yard. Anything worth eating was taken along with things you couldn’t eat. Men came out of the front door with gunny sacks overflowing with crystal, china, candlesticks, clothing. One man carried Miss Ruth’s sewing machine on his back and another had a fine spindle-legged chair. Emaline wondered what flowed out the two side doors - the house would bleed until it was empty.
A tall lanky man came up to the steps. “We ain’t found no one hiding
anywhere, black or white. Nothing down in the cabins either. I’d say the
darkies are hiding in them hills yonder, across that old churned up cotton
field. You want us to go and check it out?”
The sergeant spat another brown glob on the white porch. Its splatter angered Emaline, then she shook it off. No need to worry about cleaning a porch that might be gone in a few hours.
“No. Let the darkies be and any Rebs in them hills are deserters. The captain wants us focused on catching the main army.” He spat again. “Burn the cabins, then the house.”
Miss Ruth caught a sob in her throat and Emaline reached for her arm. Tears pooled in Miss Ruth’s eyes but she blinked them away. “Sir, why do you find it necessary to leave us without shelter in the cold? We are helpless and of no threat to you.”
“Orders. We burn everything the Rebs can use.”
“But they are gone, sir,” Miss Ruth pleaded.
“Hush, Sister,” Master Brody said, grabbing hold of a porch pillar and pulling himself up. “These men do not care.” He faced the sergeant. “I assume you’ll allow us to get away from the house before you burn it, or is it your intent to burn us with it?”
Stepping aside, the sergeant motioned with his arm for them to pass.
They wheeled Miz Hope down the ramp that was built special for her chair and huddled together in the front yard. Emaline could hear the crackle of fire and smell smoke coming from the Quarter. She thought of her little shanty. It weren’t much, but it had been home all her life; her mama died birthing her there, it was where Granny Abigal died. And her baby girl kilt – well, maybe it was just as well it was burning.
She was used to hardship and the caves would do fine. Not so with the Dickens. Miz Hope would die in the cold and the way Master Brody was, he wouldn’t last long. If only the Yankees would leave something for Miss Ruth.
A torch flamed close as a soldier carried it to the front steps. Emaline clamped her arm across Miss Ruth and felt her trembling shoulders. The puppy whimpered and burrowed further into Miz Dickens’ lap. Hope Dickens started humming an old black spiritual to the dog; she’d been listening to their Sunday singing after all.
“Sergeant! Stand down!”
The voice boomed and Emaline jumped. The soldier with the torch stopped just shy of throwing the flame through the front door. The sergeant stared open-mouthed towards the path that ran down to the Quarter. Emaline followed his gaze.
Two men stood in the path. One held up the other; an arm slung around a shoulder, another wrapped around a waist. The cabins burned red behind them and smoke drifted in sparse fingers around their legs, then floated up, hiding their faces in the grey haze.
The soldiers had stopped what they were doing and stared at the two men. The sergeant took a few steps, squinted at the figures, then motioned for the soldier with the torch to enter the house.
“Sergeant, I said stand down. That is an order.” Scott and Edward Tate stepped out of the smoke.
Emaline sucked in a breath and watched Scott stumble up to the sergeant. It looked like he was trying to move on his own but if Mr. Tate let go, Scott would certain fall to the ground. Weren’t nothing fearsome about Scott when you eyed him, but his voice carried a powerful lot of force. Enough to make the sergeant stop from setting fire to the house.
“What the hell, he is wearing my coat,” Mr. Brody mumbled and looked at Emaline. Emaline ignored him and concentrated on Scott.
“I expect a more formal acknowledgement to a superior officer, Sergeant,” Scott stated.
The sergeant aimed his rifle at Scott’s chest. Scott removed his coat and pointed to the dirty patches on his shoulder. It took a bit before the sergeant lowered the rifle. He lifted a hand to his forehead and dropped it in a slow, lazy circle.
“Is that how you’ve been trained to salute, man?” Sweat glistened on Scott’s face even given the cool day, and he leaned into Tate more.
“Uh. And who might you be?” the sergeant asked, a twisted smile on his face.
“A lieutenant in the United States Cavalry. And you sir?”
The sergeant scratched at his beard. “Sergeant Lassiter.” He didn’t know what to make of Scott, Emaline could see that. She didn’t know what to make of Scott either… or Edward Tate for hauling him up here.
“Sergeant Lassiter. Don’t be fooled by my appearance. Your failure to stand at attention and salute is enough to go on report.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, Sir.” The sir was pulled out like a niggling worm. “But you are not my commanding officer.”
“I wasn’t aware that only officers within your regiment were due appropriate respect.”
Dang that man could sure be uppity. Where was his honey-warm talkin’ now? Emaline could see this boy had a way for trouble – and remembered the scars on his wrist.
The sergeant grinned, and put his hands on his hips. “Who the hell…”
“Sergeant! What is the hold up? We’ve got an army to pursue.” Emaline jumped at the sharp voice. She had been so intent on Scott and the sergeant she hadn’t heard horses come into the yard. A middle aged man with more doodads on his uniform than the Confederate captain glared down from one of the biggest animals Emaline had ever seen. The sergeant immediately gave the man a stiff salute.
“Major, this here … lieutenant … told me to stand down.” The sergeant’s mouth curled in a sneer.
Dismounting, the major handed his reins to a soldier. He batted a wisp of smoke away with his hat and settled it back on his head. Weary eyes took Emaline in before moving to Miss Ruth and Master Brody. His gaze settled on Miz Hope and the puppy huddled in her lap.
“Any other people, Sergeant?” he asked as he scanned the yard. “Any Confederate resistance?”
resistance, Sir. Just those four over there … well, until these two
presented themselves.” He pointed to Scott and Tate.
As the Major turned towards them, Scott pulled a shaky arm away from Tate and stood on his own. His knees wobbled, but he locked them in place and saluted. The Major saluted back, followed with a quick, “At ease, Lieutenant.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Scott’s legs started to buckle and Tate grabbed hold.
“I am Major Norcross. You are?”
“Lieutenant Scott Lancer, Sir.”
are you with, Lieutenant? My men may be in bad shape, but I can assure you
I would not have marched with someone in your condition.”
“General Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps, Sir. Army of the Potomac.”
Sheridan is pursuing Lee in Virginia. I’d say you’re several hundred miles
south of your lines.”
“Yes, Sir. I’ve been in a Confederate prison for almost a year. First Libby in Richmond, then Camp Sorghum in Columbia.”
“You were in
the Castle, Son?”
“We just took
Columbia a few days ago, freed Sorghum.”
“Sorry to have missed you, Sir.”
The major grinned and stared at Scott for a few moments. “Sergeant.”
“Find this man a chair.”
“But Major, how do you know he’s telling the truth?”
“That’s not your worry, Sergeant.”
“Yes, Sir.” The sergeant spat a brown glob on the ground and motioned to the soldier with the spindly-legged chair.
“Oh, and Sergeant Lassiter, your conduct to a superior officer is far from respectful. Consider yourself on report.” The major turned back to Scott, ignoring the black scowl from the sergeant.
“You’ve got a Confederate soldier under your arm, Lieutenant.”
“Yes, Major. He’s my prisoner.”
The major hooked his hand into his belt and studied the two men. “Son, your prisoner is armed.”
“Well, Sir, we have an arrangement.”
… Sir.” The spindly-legged chair was put behind Scott and Tate lowered him
“Well, Lieutenant, if you don’t mind I think we’d all feel better if I just relieved your … prisoner … of his weapon.”
Emaline watched as the major held out his hand for Mister Tate’s pistol. Mr. Edward didn’t fuss, just handed it over and then reached for the knife he carried. “This knife, Major. My brother gave it to me. He ah, died at Gettysburg, Sir, fighting for the Union cause.”
“I am sorry for your brother, Soldier. The war has split this country wide open, but I cannot allow a Confederate prisoner to carry a weapon.”
“Major, perhaps you’ll trust me with it? I can get it back to Mr. Tate after things … sort themselves out.”
The Major seemed to be weighing the ask. He looked from Scott to Mr. Tate and then back to Scott. “Not too soon, Lieutenant,” and handed Scott the knife.
“No Sir.” Scott cleared his throat and seemed uncomfortable. Emaline knew he was nearing the end of his strength. She wondered how the two men got through the smoking Quarter without getting burned. It would have been hard running and harder breathing.
“I’ve seen the men from Camp Sorghum, Lieutenant, but none worse than you. There is a hospital established in Columbia. I’ll see you’re transported as comfortable as possible.”
“Major.” Scott reached his hand up and Mr. Tate lifted him from the chair. “I have a request, Sir, if I may.”
“You may, Lieutenant.”
“I would respectfully ask that you spare the house.”
The major looked at him like he’d been asked to put his horse to a plow. “Lieutenant, I cannot do that.”
“Please, Sir. Allow me to explain.”
Miss Ruth stiffened and whispered, “Why would a Yankee care about our house? And how did he get Brody’s coat?”
For the first time in her life Emaline gave Miss Ruth an order. “Hush.” Miss Ruth glanced at her with surprise, but shut up and looked back at the Major.
“It won’t do you any good,” the major said.
“But as the officer in charge, you do have discretionary duties, Sir. There are circumstances that may be considered … reasonable for altering orders. At least in this instance.”
The major didn’t want to listen, Emaline could see that. He shut his lips tight and looked over at the soldiers waiting in the yard.
“I’ll listen, but don’t be too hopeful.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Scott bowed his head before he continued. “A few days ago I woke up in the shallows of the Congaree, not too far up river from here. I don’t remember much about how I got there. I was cold … colder than I’ve ever been in my life. I was wet, bleeding, wounded. As far as I know, I am the only survivor of an escape attempt from Sorghum. There were seventeen of us.”
Scott scrubbed shaky fingers through his hair and glanced at Emaline. She held straight as she could, knowing she’d start blubbering if he so much as gave her a nod.
“I do remember someone standing over me by the river, then I must have passed out. When I came to, I was in that woman’s cabin and she was taking care of me.” Scott pointed to Emaline.
Miss Ruth gasped and whipped her head to Emaline.
chuckled and muttered, “Don’t surprise me. Girl was always different.”
“She risked her life taking care of me, Major. She nursed me, fed me, hid me when the Rebel army came through. I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for her.”
“Lieutenant,” the major was slow, picking his words. “I can appreciate what she did for you, but as an officer, must understand that war devastates more than soldiers. We must stop the supply lines of the Confederates, or we’ll be fighting this war for years and the losses, on both sides, will continue to multiply.”
“I understand that. But her house is gone! She has no place to go.”
“I am sure there is adequate protection in those hills.”
“She’s not young anymore, Sir.”
The major glanced Emaline’s way and she lowered her eyes. “She looks pretty sturdy to me, Lieutenant.”
“Begging your pardon, Sir, but the only home she’s ever had is burning. Why are we punishing her, one of the very people that this war is being fought for?” There was that tone again, the one that was sure to be trouble.
“Lieutenant, I am trying to sympathize with your condition, but you are over-stepping.” The major certain weren’t pleased, Emaline could tell. His talking was stiff and his eyes as bright as the fire sparking in the Quarter.
Scott’s legs started to shake and his hands grabbed for Mr. Edward as he buckled into the chair. Mr. Edward held on like Scott would break if he let go. Emaline wondered once more what happened between those two men in the hours after she left them.
The major put his hand out to steady him. Emaline moved to go to them, but Miss Ruth caught her arm. “A man doesn’t want a woman fussing over him like a child in front of other men, Emaline.” Miss Ruth had tears in her eyes as she patted Emaline’s arm. She was right. Scott was a growed up man, an officer in the army, regardless that Emaline thought him a boy.
“Please sir,” Scott said, staring up at the major. There were no uppity in that plea, just tired. “For all of those men who fell behind and died as I slipped into the Congaree. One of us made it, and it was because of her. Doesn’t that count for something? Shouldn’t it count for something? ”
Emaline held her breath. The swelling ball in the back of her throat felt like it was gonna bust wide open, and her nose was stopped up. She was gonna weep sure, if he didn’t stop. He was begging for her … for her who was nothing. She didn’t dare look at him.
The major scrubbed a hand across his face and sighed. “Lieutenant, how do you know those people,” he pointed towards Master Brody and Miss Ruth, “are going to allow her to stay inside? We won’t be here to make sure it happens.”
“Because I promise, sir.” Miss Ruth dropped Emaline’s arm and stepped forward.
Brody.” Miss Ruth turned to the major.
The major stared at Miss Ruth, then looked to Master Brody. “Your man, there, doesn’t agree with you Ma’am.”
“With all due respect to my brother, Major, I have earned the right to say who is allowed under the roof of my father’s house. I give you my word that she will be welcome as long as she wishes to remain.” Emaline had never seen Miss Ruth looking so much like her proud papa.
Funny sounding, that ‘wishes to remain.’ Emaline’s heart grew light just hearing those words. Didn’t matter she had no place else to go. But she could, iffn she wanted to. And live in the Old Master’s house! Maybe even … take up in Master Troy’s room! No, thinking on it, the less she held of Mr. Troy, the better.
The major certain took enough time to study on the matter. He looked down at Scott, over at Emaline, at Miz Dickens with the whimpering puppy.
hospital wagon. We’ll need it to get this man back to Columbia.”
your men. We’ve still got an army to catch.”
“Yes, Sir. And the house, Sir?”
The sergeant’s mouth fell open and he didn’t move. Emaline was glad he was cheated … he took too much joy in destroying.
The major turned to the unmoving sergeant. “Sergeant,” he barked. “Do you have questions?
“Ah, no, Sir.”
“Then get to it.” The major turned his back on him.
“Harper,” the sergeant said through hard lips. “You heard the major, get a hospital wagon down here. The rest of you, collect your gear. Let’s get moving.”
“Thank you, Sir,” Scott whispered, tottering to the left.
“Son,” the major said, “it is an honor,” and he saluted.
Scott smiled, saluted back, and fell off the chair. Weren’t nothing going to hold Emaline back after that; she ran to her fallen soldier.
“Boy, you just couldn’t wait tills I come to gets you, could you? You had to come waltzing through the fire like you is some … some …” She couldn’t think of the word she was after, she was so worried he would die right there, and after he saved the house. Oh, she was crying good and well now, tears falling all over his face, her nose running faster than the Congaree. An ugly old woman made uglier by a dripping nose, snorting like she had no control at all.
“Miss Emaline, don’t cry. It’s okay. Miss Emaline.”
Oh, there was that warm honey again. He was smiling too, a big tired smile. Somehow one of Miss Ruth’s fancy little bits of lace was in her hand. Just one good blow was all they were worth, not much good for the powerful weeping Emaline was doing.
The hospital wagon rumbled up the road and she knew he would be leaving. She hadn’t thought they would part this way. It should have been prettier, easier. Not sure how, but maybe … when the jasmine bloomed. It wasn’t far off. Blue spring skies instead of choking smoke from the burning Quarter. A promise for something better – his leaving should be a promise for something better.
They were asking her to step aside, but she couldn’t let go of his hand. For all his weakness, he was holding hers just as hard. A set of strong hands gripped her shoulders; the major trying to lift her up. Hell, she were a big woman, no amount of hefting on his part was going to make her let go.
“You need to let him go. He’ll be okay. I promise.”
The major could promise all he wanted, but that wouldn’t make it so. She could take care of him right here. What she knew about doctoring no man could learn from books.
“Where’s Mr. Tate?” she asked, looking around, missing him for the first time.
“He’s on his way to join other Confederate prisoners.”
“You gonna starves him?”
“No.” That weary again, a sagging shoulder. Why did men go to war when it made them so full of sorrow? She’d never understand their ways. “The war is almost over. A few more months and he’ll be back. Besides, I imagine he’ll eat better than he would here.” The major was trying to sooth, but he wouldn’t be seeing Mr. Tate no more.
“Major, is Mr. Tate being taken to Columbia?” Scott’s voice was nothing more than a whiff of a breeze but Emaline heard that old strength in it.
“Yes, for now. From there, I’m not sure. May not be far. Most of the area is under Union control.”
“See there, Emaline. He’ll be okay. Besides, I have to get his knife back to him.” Scott patted her hand, but the touch made the empty deeper and she bowed her head and cried. She had to stop, worse had happened to her than losing Scott. Much worse. It must be a woman thing; damn sometimes she hated being a woman.
They pushed her, not like the overseer, but gentle, and Scott was lifted into the wagon, settled beside two other men.
“Wait.” She picked up Master Brody’s coat and smoothed it over Scott’s chest. “You’ll need this to keeps you warm.” He was looking at her, with those eyes that always changed colors. They were a cool blue, like the first time she’d seen them open on the river bank. It seemed so long ago.
She stroked bangs away from his forehead, not caring if she made him look a baby in front of the other men. But he didn’t seem to mind. She kept fussing until most all the blue coated soldiers were lined up like a shabby parade and ready to march down the dusty road.
“Sergeant, assign a patrol to escort the wagon back to Columbia. Then move out.” The major sent a light kick to his big horse and they were off, a couple of men trailing behind him.
“Corporal, you, Adams and Parker, accompany the wagon to Columbia. Get some horses from supply. Oh, and be aware, the major will know if you take your time.” The sergeant spat more tobacco and led the rest of his troop after the major.
“Emaline, I’ll try to get back before I leave. Don’t cry.”
She nodded, knowing he’d never come back. He’d probably get sent north as soon as he was strong enough. Besides, he had a grandpappy who’d be watching for him.
“Maybe, maybe you can come to Columbia,” he whispered, hopeful. “It isn’t that far away.”
Looking in his eyes, she knew she wouldn’t go. Too much to do here with Miss Ruth, Lizbeth, and the others. And besides that, not a horse to get her there.
“I will,” she said anyway, as she touched her hand to his forehead and wiped away the sweat.
“I … thank you, Emaline. For my life.”
what I said about your pa?” she said, holding her tears. “He be hollow in a
good part of his soul not knowing you.”
“I remember, Emaline.”
Looking down at him, she nodded, catching his smile ... needing it in her heart.
“I love you, Miss Emi.”
“I knows you do, Scott. I knows you do.”
“Will you come … to Columbia?” He was drifting away. She could see sleep tugging at his eyes. Frail he was, and she would never see him any other way.
“I will … try. You comes back to me, boy, when you is strong and fine looking,” she pleaded, brushing her fingers across his cheek.
He murmured something about promises and closed his eyes.
The sun was
warm on his face. It felt good. Good after being so cold. A ripple of
spring floated in through the open window; fresh, green, earthy. He moved
his legs, relishing the feel of clean linen. Something he’d never again
take for granted.
He rolled over on his back and stretched his arms above his head … hissed at the pain. The sharp pull of stitches reminded him why he was in bed when the sun was shining. Remembering, the sting was more than physical discomfort. But it was over.
The jostling wagon – was it only a few days ago? He had felt every bump and sway, drifting between fever and chills, but always aware of the hurt. And something left behind, lost, precious. He wanted to find it, bring it back. But it was too far away, the river too wide, the bridge to the other side crumbling.
Cradling his arm against his chest, he thought of a large hand that had touched him. The rough caresses had been comforting, soothing. Muddled, he rubbed his palm against his eye. Whose hand was it?
Someone shouted outside the window. There was laughter and Scott envisioned his brother’s sweeping smile. His mind cleared and he realized he was at home, Lancer. They’d hauled him home in a wagon after he collapsed chasing Dan, trying to protect him from his own partners in revenge. What day was that? He’d been stupid, going against his father’s wishes. “You’re not strong enough,” his father had protested. Murdoch didn’t understand; they’d been like brothers, Dan and he. Like brothers … once.
It had been Murdoch’s hand; he remembered now. The fever had returned, the wound pounding worse than when the bullet first sizzled through his shoulder. So strange to wake and find his father whispering, “Take it easy, son. Everything is all right.” How did it come to mean so much, that big, rough, calloused hand?
Footsteps stomping down the hallway meant Johnny. Teresa squealed, “Johnny, put me down.” She giggled. Johnny must be tickling her … again. Teresa hated that, would laugh uncontrollably, almost cry. She maintained that Johnny had a mean streak in him. Thing was, Johnny always agreed. Did he? Have a mean streak? There was something there, dangerous, complete … without pity.
Johnny stumbled through the door, his face flushed with tease. “Hey, Boston! ‘Bout time you woke up.” Scott tightened, prepared for his brother’s leap onto the bed, but it didn’t happen. Johnny, hands on his hips, bent and peered into Scott’s face like he was looking for treasure. He straightened up, flicked his finger along Scott’s cheek. “You sure had the Old Man worried,” he said.
“But not you?”
Pfft, you’re too dang stubborn.” Johnny bowed his head, clasped his hands
together. “Don’t do nothing stupid like that again. I don’t want to bury
your sorry ass.”
Scott smiled. The tenderness of his brother always surprised him, maybe because he tried so hard to hide it. “Too much work?”
“Hell, you’re so damn long we’d have to dig a hole twice normal.” Johnny fisted him lightly on his leg, lingered there and withdrew. “Hungry?”
“So, so. Who’s cooking?”
Scott took a deep breath. “Anything other than broth or that horrid tea concoction that Teresa brews to kill us all?”
“I think I
might be able to tickle a biscuit or two out of her.”
“Johnny, why do you torment her? You’re going to have her … embarrass herself one of these days.” Scott didn’t know why he couldn’t say ‘wet’ to his brother, other than the fact that he felt like it was somehow not proper to talk about Teresa that way.
“Same reason I do you, Brother.” He sat on the bed and grinned. “Though now that you’ve given me a one of them lofty goals you say I should have, a good reason to keep at it.”
“For Teresa or me?”
“Both of ya.”
He laughed again, the corners of his eyes crinkled with fun.
Definitely high spirits this morning. No, must be afternoon the way the sun angled in. “That wasn’t the type of goal I had in mind. More along the constructive avenue, not the destructive.” Scott sighed and slumped into the pillow, feeling washed away. “Where’s Murdoch?”
His stomach flipped – sleeping in the daytime? “Is he sick?”
“You were. He spent most of the night in here. Until the fever broke.”
The apprehension fled, but not the feeling in his stomach. Better though. ‘Most of the night in here.’ Definitely better.
“I, uh, kind of lost track of the days, Johnny. How long …”
night before last. You were really out of it. Kept calling for an Emaline.”
He looked at Scott, grinned a little. “She, ah, must have been something,
Emaline. His body pulled at the sound of her name. He had waited, day after day, hoping she would come. Every time the door to the hospital ward opened, he would look for her, always disappointed. It took weeks before he was well enough to travel, and by that time his grandfather had come to take him home. He had expected too much, hopeful, even after all that had happened. He didn’t realize … her limitations.
“Hey. Scott.” Johnny looked worried. “Didn’t mean any disrespect. You, you must have thought a lot of her the way you kept calling for her.”
“I did.” Emaline. He wondered … thought of her so often. She wasn’t like Dan. Dan - Had he left? “Is Dan and his wife still here?”
Johnny’s face tightened, flexed with mad. “Yup.” He twisted a small bow that tied the quilt together. “Said he wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I need to say goodbye, I suppose.”
“You don’t owe him nothing, Scott. Not him or his self-righteous wife, trying to protect him. Those two deserve one another.” The words spat out like hot fire.
Scott didn’t have the energy to fight or try to sooth Johnny right now. He expected Johnny would like to have taken a swing or two at Dan, maybe already had. But still, he felt he needed to defend Dan. “He wasn’t always like that. He showed a lot of courage during the war. Didn’t expect any of his men to do something that he wouldn’t do.”
“Yeah well, maybe he changed or maybe you didn’t know him as well as you thought you did. He sure the hell didn’t know you.” Johnny was good and angry. Scott couldn’t blame him. He’d taken quite a knock on the head because of the man. Plus other things …
“War does things to people.” Scott shrugged, trying to reason on Dan’s lack of trust, loyalty. As much for himself as Johnny. Maybe Johnny was right though. Maybe he didn’t know Dan Cassidy that well; maybe he had never known Dan.
“You know what?” Johnny said, the muscle in his jaw twitching. “Murdoch made me promise not to touch him and I haven’t. But, I’ve killed men for a whole lot less.”
“Johnny, he tried to make it right …”
“No!” Johnny snapped. “He isn’t worth the bullet that would blow him away.” The side without pity. It bothered Scott, that corner of his brother without mercy. Like Dan, so focused in his hate.
searching for reasons that ultimately were only excuses, Scott waived his
hand as if shooing the problem away. He needed to move, to walk in the
paddock, bury himself in the warm scent of a horse. Forget about Dan and
“Hand me my pants, will you Johnny?”
“What?” Johnny pulled his head up and stared at Scott like he hadn’t heard right.
“My pants. I want to get up.”
“No! Murdoch will not only have your head, he’ll have mine.”
“No. You’re not.”
“I’m not going to argue about it. I’ve been in bed long enough.” Scott hated, hated being told what he could and could not do, especially by his kid brother. Besides, he was hungry and did not want milk toast and awful tea.
“Hell, Scott. It’s only been a couple days. Less than that since the fever broke.”
“Fine. If you won’t give me my pants, I’ll get them myself.” He flung off the cover, ignoring the kick in his shoulder, and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Mistake. Too fast. His head spun as he anchored his fingers to the mattress.
“Hungry?” a chipper Teresa asked as she bumped open the door with her hip, a tray in hand. “Oh.” She spotted Scott. Johnny jumped between them as Scott grabbed the blanket.
“Doesn’t anybody knock in this house?” Scott wrapped the cover around his hips, hoping Teresa hadn’t seen anything.
After the first flush, Teresa peeked around Johnny and smiled. “Teresa,” Johnny scolded,” you should be ashamed.”
“About as ashamed as you were Johnny Lancer, when you and Jake Finch spied on the O’Neil twins at Tasker’s swimming hole.” Teresa flitted into the room, set the tray on a small table by the window and turned to Johnny.
“We weren’t spying,” Johnny fumbled. “We just happened to be at the same swimming hole, that’s all.”
“Oh,” hands on hips. “Katie said you were sitting under a shade tree when they came out. With great big smiles on your faces.”
want to scare ‘em. Thought we’d be polite and wait til they were gone.”
Johnny’s mouth quirked. “You know, done swimming.”
“Humph, likely. You should be grateful they haven’t told their pa. He’d tell Murdoch and you know what would happen then.”
“How many people have they told?” Johnny looked a little green.
“Me.” Teresa smiled, big and sweet.
“Now honey, you know we meant no harm.” Johnny reached his arms out to Teresa, and she slapped them away.
“You just be nice to me. I’ll keep my mouth shut.” She turned to Scott. “And Scott, just think of me as a sister.”
Engrossed in the exchange between Johnny and Teresa, and wondering why Johnny hadn’t shared the secret encounter, he forgot about the embarrassing position he was in. Just a threadbare pair of cut-off long johns that didn’t hide any lump, pump or swell was between him and the world. He felt himself blush wondering how much Teresa had glimpsed. “Teresa,” he said with as much poise as he could muster. “Sisters do not intrude in certain areas of a man’s privacy, regardless of their relationship. Now, do you mind?”
“Oh, I don’t mind at all.” She smiled, pure innocence, but there was a spark in her eye. “I brought you up some food.”
“What is it?” he asked, attempting to gather the blanket around his legs and hike it up above his behind.
“Toast, tea and a boiled egg.”
“I told you,
Johnny. Didn’t I tell you?” He wasn’t going to have any of it. “I need
something more than milk toast and stinky tea.”
“No need to yell at me. Yell at your father. He’s the one who told me what to fix for you.” She crossed her arms. “Besides, it’s what sick people get.”
“And how are sick people supposed to get better on that muck?” Scott jabbed at the tray and immediately regretted it. Wrong shoulder to be jabbing with. He winced and bowed his head to hide the grimace.
“What is all the noise about? … What’s wrong? Have you done something to your shoulder? Why aren’t you lying down?”
Scott looked up and forgot about the pain. He was barely able to hold back a snort of laughter. His father stood in the doorway, big, bare feet sticking out well below the too-short nightshirt, hair awry, hard stubble on his face. Scott had never seen his father so … homely.
“He won’t eat. Said it was milky toast and stinky tea.” Just like Teresa to shift the blame, Scott thought, starting to feel really, really grouchy.
“It’s good for you,” Murdoch bellowed.
Johnny stared at Murdoch, open mouthed. A speechless Johnny - one for Murdoch. Obviously Teresa had seen her guardian before in such a state as she didn’t seem to notice. Oh, yes, a wounded bear came to mind; Teresa had taken care of Murdoch when he was shot. Scott shivered at the vision and tried to lie down without exposing anything.
“I’m tired. Leave me alone.” His legs twisted in the blanket and the blanket fell well below his hips, pulling at the thin long johns, exposing his belly. Scott made a grab for the comforter and the loose underwear slipped in the back. He could feel it dip and sensed the open air on his bottom.
“Teresa. You need to leave.”
“Yes, Murdoch.” She turned back at the door, well behind Murdoch, and smirked at Scott. “That’s what you get for complaining about my food.”
Good grief, no decorum in this household. Wrestling with the entangled cover, Scott just wanted to burrow his head underneath it. His shoulder protested, his stomach growled, and he wanted everyone to go away.
“Here, Scott. You’ve got it all bunched up.” Murdoch knelt down and pulled at the blanket wrapped around Scott’s legs.
“I can do it.” Scott wasn’t so totally helpless that he couldn’t manage a blanket. Besides, his father’s knobby, hairy knee was the last thing Scott wanted to see.
“Stop fighting. You’re making it worse.” Followed by a gentle, “Son, let me help you.” Murdoch’s big hand was settled and warm around Scott’s calf. Sighing, Scott held his legs still as his father untangled the blanket. When he was done, Scott lay back on the bed and pulled the blanket up to his shoulders, not looking at Murdoch. Why did the touch of his father leave him so … befuddled?
“Ah, Murdoch?” Johnny … finally he found his tongue.
Scott have something more than toast and tea?”
“You think your stomach can handle it?” Murdoch asked, looking down on Scott.
“Yes, sir. I hate that tea and I’m hungry.”
“Well, the tea is healing, but.” Murdoch bent to check the bandages. “That shoulder feel all right?”
Murdoch,” he huffed, self-conscious at the fuss. Then, looking at his
father’s worried face, a softer, “It’s just a bit stiff. I’ll be all
Murdoch absently placed his hand on Scott’s forehead and Scott quelled the urge to draw away. This father thing was hard to get used to. His grandfather, though caring, had never touched him like Murdoch did.
“I suppose it will be okay.” Murdoch withdrew his hand, leaving warmth where it had lingered. “Maria has made some stew. I’ll get some.”
“Murdoch, I’ll get it. Why don’t you go on back to bed.”
“Well, maybe for a couple more hours.” He scrubbed fingers across his bristles. “It will be the Cassidy’s last night and I need to join them for dinner. They plan to leave at first light.”
“Not too soon for my way of thinking.” Johnny looped his thumbs in his gun belt and stared up at his father. “Hope you don’t expect me to be there.”
“No. I want it as pleasant as possible.” Murdoch slid his hand onto the back of Johnny’s neck. “And Dan Cassidy out of here in one piece. I don’t want any excuse for the man to linger.” He slapped Johnny on the shoulder and grinned. “And you stay in bed,” he ordered, pointing a long finger at Scott as he shut the door.
It appeared everyone wanted Dan gone. Scott admitted to himself that he’d be glad when there was no Dan Cassidy around to deal with. But he’d be gracious when saying goodbye. Social training seemed to be paying off even in the wilds of California.
“Kind of bossy, isn’t he?” Johnny’s mouth was quirked in a crooked grin.
“I suppose that’s what tune callers do,” Scott replied. “And he does it so well.”
“Well, I’ll go get you that bowl of stew. I think I can even scare up a couple of biscuits,” Johnny said as he headed for the door.
Johnny gave him the strangest look. “No need to call me honey, Scott, just cuz I’m getting you some food.”
Scott chuckled. It felt good. “Honey, idiot. For the biscuits.”
looked relieved, smiled with him. “You had me worried there, Boston.” He
moved his hand to the doorknob.
“You’re never gonna get fed if you keep talking, Scott.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about the O’Neil twins and the swimming hole?”
Johnny’s face burned red and he lowered his eyes. Two firsts in one day – speechless and now blushing.
“Well, ya see, Boston,” Johnny started, flicking his fingers on his thighs.
“Don’t tell me you’ve gone bashful on me.”
“Pftt. No.” Johnny flipped his hand like he was tossing such a ridiculous idea away.
“Well, then. Weren’t they pretty?”
“Oh gosh,” he said dreamily, with a hint of a smile. “Just about the prettiest things I ever saw. They were wearing these white lacey things.”
“So, they had clothes on.”
“Hell yes, Scott! They had these little … clingy, silky things.” Johnny motioned with his hands from his chest to his hips.
“Johnny, you’re embarrassed.” Scott folded his hands together and grinned at his brother. “Caught you watching, did they?”
Clearing his throat, Johnny bowed his head, sighed. “Yeah.”
like you were sneaking a peak.”
Johnny’s eyes flashed at Scott. “You don’t have to say it like I’m some sort of …”
“That better not be as bad as it sounds,” Johnny growled.
Scott threw back his head and laughed. He looked at Johnny’s face shifting from embarrassment to anger to concern and laughed harder. He couldn’t stop. He felt release … from Dan’s revenge, from the relationship they had once shared that could never be again, from the hellacious memories that he so needed to leave behind. The spark of Emaline was the only thing worth holding onto; her bravery and love.
“Scott, what the hell is wrong with you?” The touch on his arm was light.
“I’m okay,” Scott whispered, hiccupped, tried to find his breath, held onto his aching sides. Wiping away tears, he sighed and settled back with a smile.
“Glad you think I’m so funny,” Johnny said, obviously offended, but still careful how he said it.
“Don’t worry, Johnny. I’m in control.” Scott chuckled, happy to let go of the nightmare called Cassidy.
“That’s really sweet, by the way,” he said, relaxing back into his pillow, feeling sleep pull ... and relief.
“What? What’s sweet?” Johnny eyed him with suspicion.
“You.” Scott grinned. “Embarrassed for peeping, like a boy caught doing something naughty. Too ashamed to tell big brother what you did.” His gallant brother – a light in that corner without mercy.
“I ain’t sweet. And you’d better be careful who you’re saying that around.”
“Or … or.” Johnny suddenly smiled. “Or after you go to sleep, I’ll tell Teresa to come in here and sit with you.” He folded his arms across his chest and smirked.
“That’s the best you can do?” Scott snorted. “And it’s supposed to scare me because?”
“Because you always kick your covers off. And with those skimpy long-johns, ain’t nothing that girl is gonna miss.” Johnny poked him in the chest like he’d won this round.
“I’ll be sleeping, Johnny. I won’t care. But Murdoch will if he should find out what you did. And if he catches Teresa in here, she’ll give you up.”
“Quicker than a chicken swallowing a grasshopper.”
Johnny frowned, frowned deeper, then shrugged and sat down on the bed. “You’re a sneaky bastard, you now that?”
“You haven’t met my grandfather. I’ve been trained by the best.”
“I’ll pass.” Johnny cuffed Scott on the arm. “You still hungry?”
“More tired than hungry.”
“I’ll get some stew. Can’t have you skinnying up anymore or Murdoch will never let you help with chores.”
“I’ve been worse.” Much worse, Scott recalled. He glanced up at Johnny. His eyes were questioning, but Johnny didn’t ask. “Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime, brother. When the war is over.”
“It’s over, Scott.”
“It will never be over, Johnny.” Scott scrunched down into the bed, pulled the bedding up to his shoulders and closed his eyes. “But, if you’re going to get that stew, better do it soon.”
“Hell, if you don’t eat it, I will.”
He could hear Johnny cross the room and close the door. Footfalls hurried down the hall. Scott wondered if his hurry would be enough. But, like Johnny said, the food wouldn’t go to waste.
nothing better than Maria’s stew. Chunks of meat, sweet carrots and firm
potatoes floated in the rich brown gravy. Just smelling it made Johnny
hungry. There was even some honey and fresh biscuits Maria had baked for
supper. He liked to think that Maria had given him the biscuits because of
his charm and sweet talk, but figured she did it for Scott.
Juggling the tray with one hand, he managed to open the door without dropping the meal. “Here you go Boston.” He set the tray down and snapped off the gingham napkin. “You’re lucky there aren’t just scraps left.” He turned to Scott with a big smile. Dang.
Scott was lying on his side, his face crammed into the pillow, with his good shoulder bearing the weight of his body. His legs were already working on the blankets, had pushed them halfway down his chest. Johnny couldn’t figure out why Scott did that with the blankets. Even on the trail he’d throw them off, then complain of the cold next morning. Strange man, his brother.
Should he wake him? Johnny looked down at the stew, back at Scott. Not a flicker of an eyelid or finger twitch; Scott was good and out. Couldn’t let Maria’s stew go to waste. This would probably be his supper anyway and he could always get Scott more. Johnny pulled a chair close to the table and sat down.
He felt a little guilty eating Scott’s stew, although not nearly as guilty as when he had come across the O’Neil girls. Sure didn’t take Boston long to figure out he was embarrassed by the whole thing. Oh, at first when they were watching the girls … well, Johnny hadn’t given it much thought. But as they splashed and played in the pool, free like, sweet, without knowing they were being spied on, Johnny felt like he was stealing part of their joy. He had no right to do that. He figured the twins hadn’t told anyone other than Teresa because they were too embarrassed. He wasn’t proud of what he’d done, that’s why he hadn’t told Scott. But, it had caused Scott to laugh. Funny how things worked out.
Leaning back, his stomach wishing for another bowl of stew, Johnny wolfed down the last biscuit. A sigh came from the bed and Johnny pushed out of the chair. Scott had flipped onto his back and his legs were kicking the blankets down his hips. Johnny walked over to the bed and pulled the blankets over Scott’s shoulders. Brushing his fingers across Scott’s forehead, he whispered, “Easy brother. No war tonight. Not as long as I’m here.”
Hooking a wingback chair with his foot Johnny pulled it close to the bed. He rested his head against the back and watched the sky turn sunset colors of purple and pink. The air was wet, like a spring storm was working up somewhere. The chords of a guitar drifted up from the bunkhouse. Jelly’s goose was bawling out something – probably one of the dogs. A woman laughed … sweet and light, likely teasing one of the hands. And the steady hum of his brother’s breathing was restful. Johnny closed his eyes. Nope, no war tonight. Johnny would see to it.
What a wonderful invention. No mending fences, clearing creeks, shoring up
dikes. Hmm, something wrong with that picture, clearing one, shoring
another. Must be a way to coordinate the two so the creeks that need to be
cleared could be the ones they would shore. He’d have to reflect carefully
on that ... and Murdoch’s reaction. Tomorrow. Too much effort to be wasted
thinking on a Sunday afternoon. His shoulder twitched as he settled back
into the chair. Weeks had passed since Dan left; he wondered when the wound
would let him forget.
Blowing out a stiff sigh, he stretched his legs to the veranda railing. He sited in on Johnny over the points of his boots and frowned. Why his brother was messing with an ornery critter when he could be lollygagging in a comfortable chair with his feet up Scott couldn’t understand. Stupid horse wasn’t going anywhere. Strange man, his brother.
Loud yahoos and twirling hats came from the hands who watched Johnny; he must have accomplished some amazing feat with the damn horse. Scott lost count of how many yahoos they had shouted. Normally their gruff pleasure would be welcome, enjoyable, but today it prickled like a sweaty itch that just got worse when you scratched it. Besides, Johnny should be relaxing with him, laughing, joking about the hands, Murdoch’s ways – take his mind off … things. He stuffed the thought aside, remembered Sunday. Don’t think. Close your eyes; let it go.
Cinnamon. Sweet, baked apples. He lifted an eyelid and spotted the pie on the table. Teresa smiled at him.
“Thought this may wake you up.”
“Nothing else could, my little pie maker,” surprised that he had snoozed in spite of the hollering from the paddock. He shifted his legs, considered how much effort would be required to eat a piece. At the very least he would have to hold the plate and bring the pie up to his mouth. He grinned, envisioned Teresa feeding it to him.
“I’ll cut you a piece but you’ll need to feed yourself, Scott.”
Had she read his mind? He looked up at her with new respect. She held a plate with the warm pastry, eyed him with way too much knowing. Woman’s intuition – a scary thing. “I wouldn’t think of being fed, Teresa.”
“Sure you would.” She smirked and placed the slice on the table.
He stretched for it; so close, but he’d have to get up. “Uh, could you move it a little closer? I can’t reach it.”
Instead she moved it farther away. Sighing, he pulled his legs from the cement railing and sat up. “You are a cruel woman.”
Her smile was sweet, content as she cut the pie into big wedges. A twinge of remorse poked at him for his recent hard-to-please attitude – ever since Cassidy’s ‘visit’. He was on the verge of an apology, when she licked sticky syrup off her fingers, then touched the pie and settled a piece onto a plate. He scowled, recalling a sharp slap to his hand when he had licked a serving spoon and put it back into the gravy bowl. “Do you want to eat someone else’s spit?” his grandfather had scolded. The idea had been little-boy disgusting and Scott could barely finish the meal, remembering how the cook sampled food as she prepared it, never thinking of her spit. He stabbed an apple and stuffed it into his mouth, hoping Teresa hadn’t licked that as well. Then he thought of the filth that had passed through his mouth while in prison, and swallowed the food before he choked.
“Teresa your pie smells wonderful.” Murdoch stood at the French doors, a large grin plastered on his face and looked almost chipper. Too chipper for a sleepy, Sunday afternoon. What was the matter with this family? Teresa baking, Johnny horsing, Murdoch chippering.
“It must to get you away from your desk.” Teresa set a slice in front of him as he lowered his large frame into the chair. “It is Sunday you know.”
“Ah, I know, darling. But I had some work to do …”
“There’s always work to do, Murdoch. Spend a little time with your son, here. It appears he’s taken on lazy very well.”
“It’s a trait I’ve acquired recently,” Scott said, sensing a tad of sarcasm in Teresa’s tone. “Could be because I’m worked to death during the week.” A martyred approach may work; help broach the idea of shoring up and tearing down water resources. Murdoch snorted into his pie. Guess not. Oh well, probably not feasible anyway.
Scott watched the ‘ceremony’, the name he and Johnny had given Murdoch’s ritual prior to eating something that he loved. True to form, Scott thought Murdoch would suck an apple up his nose the way he was inhaling the smell of the steamy pie. Normally his father’s blissful smile would be amusing, but today Scott was annoyed as he watched his father take a bite of the spit tainted crust.
Murdoch,” a breathless Johnny said, apple aroma obviously trumping the
animal. “That horse is gonna be just fine, once she gets over being leery.
Whoever trained her sure didn’t know what they were doing. She’s scared as
hell.” Johnny smacked his hat against his leg, throwing off horse smells
“Brother,” Scott swept one hand in the air, covered his pie with the other. “Would you mind slapping dust … elsewhere? I don’t like manure all over my pastry.”
“You don’t, huh?”
“No, I don’t.” Scott sat back and scowled at his brother. It seemed chipper was inherited. Johnny’s eyes sparked and in spite of his peevish mood, Scott couldn’t help but give up a small grin.
“It might add a little fat to them bones,” Johnny said, suddenly poking a finger into Scott’s ribs.
Crap. Before Scott could move, Johnny was full bore into tickle mode. Torture. That’s what it was. Scott folded into himself, trying to pull away from Johnny’s merciless hands. That mean streak again. Kicking out, laughing uncontrollably, tears streaming, Scott could not get out of Johnny’s grip. His chair tipped and he fell to the cement, but Johnny held on. His legs banged the chair against the portico as he struggled. If he pissed himself, Johnny would pay.
mess up my pie both of you will be in trouble. Settle down,” Murdoch said
with perfect aplomb.
Scott was being tormented to death and all his father was worried about was his pie! And damn it, this was Johnny’s doing, not his.
With one more infuriating jab, Johnny let go and jumped away. “Awe, Murdoch,” he laughed, “I just needed to make sure he could still move. He’s been sitting on his butt the whole afternoon looking crankier than a pissed off polecat.” With a wide grin, Johnny grabbed up some pie and sat on the far side of his father.
“Johnny, language please,” Murdoch managed to mumble between bites.
Rubbing tears from his face, Scott hoisted himself up, righted the tipped chair and sat back down, indignant. “It’s Sunday. Doesn’t anyone appreciate a Sunday? No work.”
“I certainly do, but then, you’d have no pie, would you?”
Scott grabbed his plate and shoveled in a sweet baked piece of apple. “You make a good point, Teresa.” A thought popped into his mind. Dare he say it? What the hell, Teresa was getting too big for her britches, and he remembered a certain smirk when he was trapped in his bedroom wearing only a thin-as-skin pair of skivvies. “However, women don’t work that hard during the week so why should they have Sunday off?”
Teresa erupted like a volcano; an expected reaction. His father looked at him like he’d just discovered a third son. Johnny choked on his pie. For being a peaceful man, Scott had certainly stirred the mix. Feeling satisfied until …
“Wait until I tell Maria what you think of women.”
Oh, that wouldn’t do at all. He could handle Teresa, but Maria? She could wilt roses if she was in a foul mood and Scott had no desire to be her next flower. “Now, Teresa, you know I was only teasing.”
“Scott Lancer, I’ve ignored your owliness the last few weeks because of what happened with the Cassidy’s. But that does not give you the right to tell me I don’t work hard. You try cooking for a houseful of men and please them all, or mend clothes, that, by the way, are constantly being torn, or stand over a tub full of hot water on a sweltering day, washing clothes full of cow manure, sweat and who knows what other disgusting things you men exude or get into.” Her voice rose with each word. She thrust a finger at him. “You owe me an apology!” With that, she flounced away. Scott could have sworn the air moved in her wake when the French doors banged shut.
“Wow, Boston.” Johnny whistled, and sat back, surprised. “Didn’t think you had it in you. You sure riled that kitten.”
“And the reason for the outburst, Scott?” Murdoch asked, throwing Johnny a scowl before turning it on Scott. “Which, by the way, was uncalled for.”
“She told me to think of her as a sister.” Scott shrugged. “I did.” Truth to tell, Scott wondered himself why he had voiced the words. He rarely was disparaging to anyone … oh, maybe Johnny … some of the men. But never Teresa. Recognizing that his mood had been downright surly in recent weeks, he was not ready to admit any wrongdoing.
“I do expect you to apologize.”
Scott glared at his father, irritated by a tone that indicated ‘it would be done’. “Sir, with all due respect, I am 24 years old, an adult, and capable of making my own decisions. Besides, Teresa doesn’t seem to care if she upsets me when she comes bounding into my room, unannounced.” Scott thrust out his arms for emphasis. “She has caught me in some extremely embarrassing situations. I’ve asked her time and again to respect my privacy but she refuses to do so. And she never apologizes to me!” He thought his argument well presented, but why did he feel so … childish. Of course he would apologize. Maybe it was Murdoch’s attitude – the given that he would dance to his father’s tune – that goaded.
from his chair, Murdoch towered over Scott. Oh sure, he was using that old
trick again, looming, taking advantage of his size, intimidating with his
strength. However, when he spoke, Scott was surprised at the mildness in
his tone. “Professing to be an adult and acting like one are two different
things. As you say, you are 24. But right now you’re behaving like a 12
Why was the man always right? Scott pulled his arms across his chest, realizing it was a defensive posture, and stared out at the paddock. “I plan to, apologize,” he finally said, grudging up the admission.
Murdoch spread his arms out, palms up, as if supplicating. “Then why…”
“Because I don’t need you to order me to.” That was a snarl waiting to bite, disturbing Scott at his own outburst. He waited for Murdoch’s.
“Johnny, would you give me and Scott a moment, please?”
Great. A lecture. Only thing, Murdoch’s voice wasn’t in lecture mode. What was he up to? A father-son talk? Good grief, that would be an embarrassing first.
“Uhm, sure, Murdoch. I’ll, ah, go see if I can calm Teresa down some.” Johnny fisted Scott lightly on the arm as he passed him.
“I owe you, Johnny,” Scott growled under his breath, still feeling the dig of Johnny’s rough fingers in his ribs.
A gentle, “I’ll be in the house,” came back at him. There was a quiet look on Johnny’s face, like it was okay if Scott wanted to take a punch or two at him, if it would help. Almost deflated Scott’s need for revenge … almost.
He watched his father out of the corner of his eye. Murdoch walked to the edge of the patio, put his hands on his hips and seemed to be taking in every corner of Lancer spread out before him. After several moments, he turned, pulled a chair close to Scott, and sat down. The silence was unnerving. “Murdoch, I said I’d apologize.”
“I know, Scott. But I think there’s something that goes deeper than an apology to Teresa.” Murdoch sat back and crossed one leg over the other. Scott noticed his father’s old, cracked boots. He kept them polished, worked saddle soap and oil into the creases. Johnny teased that he was too cheap to buy new ones. Murdoch had new ones, just didn’t want to get rid of the old. He said they were like old friends, shaped to every corn and bunion, easy for walking. Scott told him new ones would get that way, just give them some time. Time to become supple, to be trained. … like sons.
“You and Dan Cassidy, you were pretty close?”
What did this have to do with Teresa? But Scott answered the question. “We were.”
“I would imagine that his accusations of betrayal … hurt.”
That old pain burned; the one that was never far away. His shoulder bunched, twitched again. “Murdoch, if you don’t mind, I’d just as soon not talk about Dan.”
“It won’t change what happened. There’s no point in talking about it.”
Murdoch let out a long sigh and raked his fingers through his hair. “I don’t agree with you, Son. Since he was here, you’ve been moody. Quick to take offense.”
No one knew that better than Scott. His father had no idea how often he bristled for no reason, held his tongue when he wanted to yell, quelled the urge to hit something. But he shoved it back, holding out for time. Time would make things better … it always did. “He tried to kill me. I imagine you’d have a few … unpleasant spells if someone you thought of as a brother did that to you.”
“Yes. I’m sure I would.” He fidgeted. Murdoch didn’t fidget often. Obviously he was as uncomfortable as Scott about this ‘talk’. If Scott hadn’t wanted this whole thing to just go away, he would have felt sorry for his father.
“When you were sick, you mentioned someone quite often. You were delirious, you called for her. She must have been someone important.”
His heart smiled. It always did when he thought of her. “Emaline.” Saying her name out loud brought her close. “She saved my life.”
Murdoch quirked an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Pulled me from the river. Said I was the biggest fish she ever caught.” He chuckled, remembering her words.
“Were you drowning? I thought you were a good swimmer.”
“I am.” Scott lowered his head, going back to the Congaree, and sixteen dead men. “It was after the escape from Sorghum, the Confederate prison. I was … hurt. But I got away, headed down river, ended up in the shallows near her cabin. She found me, took care of me.”
“The escape - that brought Cassidy here.”
Pursing his lips together, Scott nodded, looked at his hands. “Hmm, she said I had the longest, boniest fingers she’d ever seen.” He glanced at Murdoch and grinned, not attempting to contain sarcasm. “Of course, I wasn’t at my best. Food was a rare commodity in prison; the result was not good.” He folded his fingers into his palms, recalling the warmth of her large hand over his.
Murdoch fidgeted again; his face looked rather pinched. Probably not something he wanted to hear, his son’s war time experiences. Yet, he was the one who brought up Cassidy.
“I’m sorry, Scott.”
His father’s tone was sympathetic, even pain filled, but carried no pity; something Scott was grateful for. One reason why he didn’t share what happened to him – the inevitable pity. He hadn’t even talked to his grandfather about the war, prison, but with his appearance, he didn’t have to. His torture had been obvious.
“Well, as you like to say, sir, it’s in the past. Good or bad, right or wrong.”
“Uhm,” Murdoch shifted his body forward and put his arms on his knees, clasped his hands together. “That wasn’t one of my wisest moments and it has certainly come back to haunt me many times. Sometimes, talking about the past helps to … heal.”
Was this his father talking? The man who said, ‘You were born, your mother died, and I left you.” How Scott had wanted to deck the man for the easy dismissal of abandoning his own child. And now he felt he had the right to pry into an ugly part of Scott’s past – a son he didn’t acknowledge for 24 years.
“How much of the past do you want to dredge up, sir?” Be abrupt, to the point. That should shut him up. Do you want to hear how much I hated you?
But he held Scott’s eyes, didn’t back down. “As much as you want to, Son.”
How long can silence be? It seemed forever. Finally, “I should find Teresa.” He needed to move, to get away from his father and the memories.
Murdoch nodded. “It’s the right thing to do.” He seemed disappointed, and relieved at the same time. “This Emaline, may I contact her? I’d like to thank her … for what she did.”
And after everything that she had done for him, Scott couldn’t answer his father. He was ashamed he had not gone back. All of his feeble intentions to do so paled next to the hoarsely whispered “Scott” of his dying companion. A frantic hand had reached for Scott on that bloody night of the escape. Tight fisted, the soldier gripped Scott’s arm, fear filled eyes wide as he painfully struggled with every breath he took. Scott pushed against the gaping wound as it pulsed, desperate to stem the flow of the hot-red blood gushing into the heavy clay. With twisted irony, the young man’s future pulled away with each beat of his heart. Scott choked, tears scratching dirty channels on his face as Marty slipped through his fingers. “Oh, God,” over and over again, “please, please, please.” Then the hand relaxed, fingers curled in, life gone like a blown away spark as his body hissed goodbye – already dead. The thousands who had died, the thousands upon thousands of war converged in the passing of this man, Scott the solitary witness. For a few ghastly moments the night carried their lamenting howls across the dark winter forest. Tattered, dirty banners swirled around him as the hazy shadows of blue and grey armies marched in surreal formation, together. Pallid, open-mouthed with vaulting screams, their frail, bone-sharp fingers enfolded one more into the company of inevitable death – uncaring of dreams, impartial of cause, final. Then, with a rush of ice-hard wind, they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Scott thought he had gone insane. He ran, from the guards, from the murdered, but most of all, from the reaching, weeping phantoms. Stumbling into the Congaree, he embraced her cold and rolling waters.
Mystified that he survived and crushed with the guilt of his own tomorrows, Scott could not go back to the South and its raging ghosts. He would not return. Head bowed, trying to blot out the horrifying vision, he said in a subdued voice, “I don’t know if she’s alive. She lived on a plantation in South Carolina. She was a slave.”
“Oh.” The word drew low, blew long with realization. Murdoch moved his hand above Scott’s knee but didn’t settle. It lingered, awkward, uncertain, then withdrew, brushing the fabric of Scott’s trousers. He is afraid, Scott realized, he is afraid, and wondered that he yet coveted the touch of his father’s hand. The little boy had not changed.
Scott watched an ant carry an insect twice its size across the floor. The ant pulled, stumbled across a pebble, went around, up an incline, but never let go of its treasure. Why did his father let go of his? That’s what Emaline had called him, a treasure. He thought of how she cried when she confessed to killing her baby girl. Her sorrow was agonized, beyond solace. Was Murdoch … ever?
pain from his throat, Scott looked up at his father’s face. He tried to
fathom what he was thinking. He was troubled, Scott could see that. But
exhausted, war-weary, Scott focused on Emaline and her sweet, lingering
memory. “She wasn’t a pretty woman by most standards. But I thought her
beautiful. Big and beautiful.” He rolled his shoulders, reluctant. “She
told me to ask ….” No, he wasn’t ready yet. Not for that question or maybe
he wasn’t ready for the answer.
“She told you to ask what, Son?”
Shaking his head. “Nothing.”
“Well, maybe another time.” Murdoch hesitated. “Whenever you’re ready, Scott. I’ll be here.”
“Yes, sir.” Scott collected himself, shoved the past aside, tried to concentrate on the present. “If you’ll excuse me, I owe our sweet Teresa an apology. Then,” he smiled, “I need to find Johnny.”
“What are you going to do to Johnny?”
“I haven’t decided yet. I may just let him stew for a while, keep him wondering. That’s almost as much fun as the actual doing.”
“You know, Scott. In your own way, you can be just as … menacing as your brother.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he said, noting his father’s tired grin. He still felt edgy, his stomach jumpy with flittering bugs … and the hideous apparition. That’s what it had been, Scott reasoned. He had been sick, starved, wounded – a hallucination.
They both turned as Jelly approached from the side yard. “There’s a man out front, asking for Scott.”
“Who is it?”
“Don’t know, Murdoch.” Jelly hung back, scratched at his beard, looked from one to the other.
“What is it?” Scott asked, taking a step forward, uneasy at the concern on Jelly’s face. “Is there something wrong?” The bugs fluttered harder, banged against his belly.
“I don’t rightly know, Scott. The man asked for Lieutenant Lancer. And the way he talks...”
“What about the way he talks?” Murdoch frowned, a worried crease carved across his forehead.
“Well, boss.” Jelly, as usual, took his sweet time getting to the point. “He’s a southerner, Murdoch. And he weren’t looking too hospitable.”
Edgy from the clash with his father and the horror of the awakening
nightmare, the news of another threat fired his anger. First Cassidy and
all the wreckage he brought with him - the memories, the kidnapping, forced
to run when he could barely walk, the maddening injustice. Now a hostile
southerner was waiting for him, perhaps settled comfortably in one of
Murdoch’s easy chairs. Tired, he was tired of it all … and it would stop
“Quit acting like an old woman, Jelly. You have more drama than a Shakespearian tragedy.” Scott pushed by the old man, ignoring the look of surprised hurt that appeared on his face.
whirled, stabbing a finger at his father. The disapproval in Murdoch’s
voice incensed him. “No. I don’t want to talk. I’m tired of talking. If
this person wants a piece of me, then he’ll have to fight to get it.”
“Scott, calm down. There is no reason to use that tone.”
“I’ll use any tone I wish.” Scott faced his father, furious at the censure. He could feel his self-control scrambling away, and he didn’t care. “I will apologize to Teresa. She’s a young girl, easy to pick on, and I am ashamed. But what right do you have to tell me what to do? You gave up that right when you let someone else raise your son.”
Murdoch stared at him open mouthed. Good. After this … southerner, Murdoch was next.
“Son, don’t say something you’ll regret.”
“You know what I regret, Murdoch?” Scott stepped closer, fists clenched, nails digging into his palms to keep from taking a swing at the old man. All of the buried years, his feelings of loss, the ragged days of Cassidy rammed against his crumbling defenses. “Not having the guts to say anything before this. Sitting here for months, wondering, watching you, trying to figure it all out, but never saying a word. Do you know what Emaline told me to ask?” Blood whirled in his head, his heart thumped like drums before a battle. “Why? Simple, isn’t it? Such a simple question, but I didn’t want to rock the boat. Peaceful Scott, maybe you’ll tell me on your own. But you haven’t Murdoch. Not one word. A man I should call father is an aloof mystery.”
Murdoch grabbed his arm as Scott turned away. The touch set him off like an exploding bullet. He pulled back and gave his father a hard right to the jaw. Murdoch toppled like a big old tree.
Spinning away, Scott stomped through the door. His jaw hurt from grinding his teeth together. That’s okay. Stay mad, Scott. Be angry. Act first, then talk.
Johnny and the stranger were talking as Scott entered the great room. Only the back of his head was visible, but there was the soft twang of the Old South, no question. He’d heard enough drawls during his time in prison. ‘Hey, Yank, your papa buy you that gold bar?’ or ‘Your men salute you, pretty boy, play-dressing like a man?’ Scott didn’t even mind the week he spent in the hole for breaking that guard’s teeth.
Johnny glanced at Scott, and then shifted a surprised gaze to something behind him. “Murdoch, what the hell happened to you?”
Rubbing his hand over his throbbing knuckles, Scott didn’t turn to see the damage he’d done to his father’s face. He didn’t want to know, not now; nothing would diminish his anger.
“I, ah.” Murdoch faltered. “Ran into a brick wall.”
“That was some wall.” Johnny gave Scott a puzzled look, but didn’t say anything more. “This fellow has come to see you, Scott.” He pointed to the man who had stood up and was staring at Murdoch.
“Lieutenant,” he said, turning to Scott. “I don’t suppose you remember me.”
“No, I don’t.” There was something about his voice. Scott had heard it before, he was sure of it. But where? The man was neat, clean shaven with shoulder length hair.
“Well,” he grinned and scratched his chin. “I don’t expect you do. Fact is, I don’t think I’d recognize you either. You’ve fattened up some since I last saw you.”
“What do you want?” Scott’s sharp reply earned him another puzzled look from Johnny.
“Could we get you some refreshment? Maria,” Murdoch called, sounding like he had acquired a slight lisp. Maria appeared from the kitchen.
“Patron, your face,” she said, alarm in her voice.
“It’s nothing, Maria. Could you get us some of your wonderful lemonade?”
“Si, Patron,” she said softly.
The gruff greeting of ‘drink’ pushed into Scott’s mind; his first encounter with his father didn’t even include a ‘good to meet you.’ Now a complete stranger was offered a courtesy Murdoch hadn’t extended towards his own sons. The memory made the pain in his hand worth it.
“I don’t want to put you out, sir.” The man looked at Scott, then back to Murdoch. “I won’t be taking up much of your time. I just had a message to deliver to the Lieutenant here. And he has something of mine. At least, I hope he still does.”
“The war is over and the name is not lieutenant. What message?” Scott snapped. And what the hell did he mean that he had something of his? But the man didn’t seem threatening; on the contrary, almost pleasant, considering how he was being treated.
“I am Murdoch Lancer, Scott’s father. May I ask your name?” All politeness, Murdoch held out his hand and Scott caught a glimpse of a blood-spotted handkerchief tucked into his front pocket.
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer. Pleased to meet you. Ah, that’s a beaut of a lip, sir.” He wiped his palm on his trousers and grasped Murdoch’s hand.
“It’s nothing. How do you know Scott?”
“We go back a
few years. We were in the war together. Well … he was on one side, and I
was on the other. But towards the end there, together.” He smiled,
fidgeted with his shirt cuff and glanced at Scott like he wasn’t sure what
“And your name, sir?”
“Oh, yes, sorry. I’m Edward Tate.”
Scott’s stomach dropped. There was no way he would have recognized this man as the straggly, dirty Edward Tate who had shared a dug out with him through a long, cold night. They had come to a grudging understanding, forged by need and desperate for survival. Scott had given reluctant respect to the lost Rebel who wandered the battered country with the silent shadow of his brother’s ghost. After all, sixteen had softly followed Scott, their rustling spirits fading when he turned to look for them.
His anger vanished, replaced by remorse and shame; not only for his assumption that someone wanted to hurt him, but his violent reaction to his father. “Mr. Tate,” Scott said, extending his hand. “Please, forgive me for my rudeness. I was …” He stumbled, felt foolish.
“My son …” Murdoch stepped in and settled his arm across Scott’s shoulders, the weight warm and heavy. “… the ranch has had a trying few weeks, Mr. Tate. Please, won’t you sit down.”
“No need to apologize, Mr. Lancer. I didn’t explain myself to your man there very well.” He motioned to Jelly. “I wasn’t sure of my welcome, so was reluctant to give my name. I didn’t know if your son would see me if he knew who I was.”
“Of course, I would see you, Mr. Tate.” How had he lost such complete control and … his father? It had felt so good to hit him.
“Ah, here’s the lemonade.” Murdoch’s arm slid across Scott’s shoulders and cupped his neck before he moved away. If Murdoch was upset, he sure wasn’t showing it.
All of them sat around the coffee table like it was tea time. His father exchanged pleasantries with Tate, but Scott could only think of his sore knuckles and his father’s face. When he finally glanced at him, he saw the split and swollen lip. Murdoch brought the glass up to drink some lemonade, but grimaced when he tipped it to his mouth. Dabbing at the fresh blood with his handkerchief, he caught Scott staring at him. Feeling his face turn red, Scott looked away.
“What brings you to California, Mr. Tate?” Johnny asked. “You’re quite a ways from South Carolina.”
“I’m heading north, close to San Francisco. I have family up there, on my mother’s side.” He took a sip of the lemonade. “Oh, that’s very good. I haven’t had lemonade like that since I was a boy. Thank you.”
does everything well. And you’re welcome. I’ll let her know.” Murdoch sat
back, his lemonade abandoned to the side table.
“You mentioned you had a message for me, Mr. Tate,” Scott said, pulling his thoughts away from his father’s broken lip.
“Oh, yes, Mr. Lancer. I’d be obliged if you’d call me Edward. I’ve never been much on the mister end.” He rummaged in his pocket and brought out an envelope. “Miss Ruth Dickens asked me to give this to you on my way through.”
Miss Ruth, Emaline’s mistress. The only thing Scott remembered of her was how she had huddled next to Emaline while soldiers waited to set fire to her house. Why would she have something for Scott?
“How did Miss Ruth know where I was?” Scott reached for the envelope, noting his name printed neatly on the outside.
“Near as I can tell it was her girl, Emaline.” Tate grew quiet. “Miss Ruth was real kind to me when I come home. Gave me work, in exchange for food. That’s what most of us worked for … right after the war. And we were grateful for it. So, when she asked me this favor, well I figured I owed her that and more.”
“Did the house survive the war?” He should have gone back, made sure Emaline was cared for. But after making it home to Boston, he huddled in bed for weeks fighting off the ague and his body’s refusal to put on weight. Then he had lost himself in the arms of silky women, staving off the nightmares as he thrust himself into the embrace of the bottle and their bodies.
“Well, surely, Mr. Lancer. It was because of you the house stood. Don’t you remember?”
“Please, call me Scott. I didn’t know if other troops coming through later may have burned it.”
“No, sir.” Tate had a wide grin on his face. “Mr. Lancer, you should have seen it. Lord, we come through the smoke and fire, your boy and me, a dirty Reb and half-dead Yank, like we was apparitions. Scott yelled out an order … what was it? Stand down! And that old sergeant obeyed. Near close to burning the house, but he didn’t.”
“Mr. Tate … Edward. I don’t think my family is interested …”
“Hell, Scott. Sure we are. Let him talk.” Johnny nodded at Tate. “Go ahead. Scott doesn’t say much about the war.”
Tate quieted and looked down, seemed to be embarrassed by his outburst. “I apologize, Scott. I do get carried away when I tell that story.” He lifted his eyes to Scott. “But you saved that house, you know you did.”
“The major did, on his order.” Relieved that Emaline was not put out in the cold, Scott needed to get the conversation away from his supposed ‘heroics’. “How is your family, Edward?”
“After I was released from prison I came home. Papa had died. Mama was touched,” he explained, putting a finger to the side of his head. “Never did come out of it, but maybe that was okay. No pain of remembering. She died a year ago. It was then I decided to come west. Get away from the corruption and meanness. The South … well, she isn’t the same. I expect it will be long years before she’ll be the place I used to know.”
“No need, Scott. That’s how life is sometimes. I’m just grateful I can still enjoy it. I got a second chance that day at the Dickens. I was captured as a soldier, not a deserter.”
“And Emaline. Have you seen her? How is she?” Please, let her be alive and happy.
“Why, Emaline was fine the last time I saw her. She’s the one who wrote the letter I gave you.”
“But, I thought you said it was from Miss Ruth?”
“No. Miss Ruth just asked me to carry the letter to you. But it was Emaline who wrote it.”
It was precious now, the little envelope. It held words from Emaline. He could hardly wait to tear it open, and smoothed his fingers along the print that said Scott Lancer.
“Ah, Scott, I was wondering. You still have that knife I gave you? The one from my brother?”
That’s what he had of Edward Tate’s! Scott had hauled it to Boston from the hospital, tucked it away in a drawer and forgot about it until he was packing for California. Promising himself that he would attempt to track down Tate, he stuffed it into a corner of a suitcase and brought it to California with him.
“Yes. I do. I’ve been meaning to try and someday find you … well, let me get it.” Putting Emaline’s letter into his shirt pocket, he hurried to his room. Rooting in the back of his wardrobe, he brought out a leather satchel. The knife rested on top of a blue wool coat beside uniform buttons, a lieutenant’s insignia, and a medal. His grandfather had told him to trash the worn coat, but Scott would never part with it.
As he descended the stairs, he could hear his father talking to Tate, thanking him for coming. Tate told Murdoch it was his pleasure, seeing Scott again. That he should be real proud of his boy, real proud.
“Edward, here it is. I’m sorry, it needs a bit of polishing, but it’s not been exposed to the elements, so it hasn’t rusted.”
A soft smile spread across Tate’s face as he took the knife. “My brother gave it to me as a birthday gift.” He looked up at Scott. “You remember me telling you about my brother … at Gettysburg?”
Still so much pain from that war. As Scott had told Johnny, it would never be over. “Yes, Edward. I do remember.”
“I, ah, like to think Emaline was right. That all Jacob saw just before he died was two little boys playing in the dust of a summer afternoon. I swear, there’s nothing hotter than a Carolina August, but we didn’t seem to notice.” Smoothing his fingers over the knife, he looked like he had taken a step back to those days. At least, Scott wanted to think so – the time before the war – and innocence. After several moments, Tate seemed to collect himself. “Well, good to see you again, Lieutenant.” He put his hand out to Scott. “You’ve got a fine home here. I hope that it helps.”
Scott understood what he meant by ‘it’. And a home, family, work, did help to forget. He took Tate’s hand. “It does, Edward.”
“Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure.” Tate’s charm was southern, the velvet drawl, the easy smile. They were a hospitable people, but hellish enemies – a quandary.
“If you’re ever this way again, Tate, be sure to stop and see us.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer. I’ll surely do that. Johnny, good to meet you.”
Scott picked up his hat from the table. “I’ll walk you out.”
The day was brighter than what Scott remembered. But then, after he hit his father, there was no pleasure in the blue sky. He watched Tate ride away, hoping that he would find his way to some type of peace. He told Scott he had a wife and little girl waiting in Cross Creek. They planned to take the train north, and were eager to start a new life.
The sturdy oak door looked intimidating, and Scott hesitated about going inside the big house. He needed to be by himself for a while, to read Emaline’s letter. Sort things out – his father, his own loss of restraint. Throughout his life Scott had always reined in his feelings. Mostly, except when he punched that boy in school for calling him a bastard orphan, or broke that guard’s front teeth, or popped Johnny … well, come to think of it, he did have a problem with control … sometimes.
Prudence whinnied at him from the paddock. The mare was older than he was, according to Murdoch. Needing something gentle, kind, he grabbed a bridle and swung up on her bareback. She was a fat old girl, despite her age when some horses tend to sharp bone. She swayed, back and forth, like a pregnant woman. Scott loved the look of a woman with child, but would never dare vocalize. They looked content, like Prudence.
There was a spot just back of the hacienda, up the road and over the hill, which Scott had discovered on one of his lone excursions. It overlooked a small valley, and to the east mountains climbed. Beyond that, Scott envisioned the heat-seared deserts, the stony foothills of the Rockies, rough-toothed peaks softening into great wind-bent prairies and finally the blue smoke of the Appalachians. And sometimes, when the breeze was right, there was a faint, flowery hint of the Old South and his mind traveled back to Carolina and … Emaline.
He didn’t tie Prudence. She wouldn’t go anywhere, content to munch on the sweet grasses of the green hill. Scott patted the envelope in his pocket and was going to take it out, when Prudence whinnied to an approaching horse. His father’s big gelding trotted over the rise. Scott sighed. He had hoped to put off the encounter for a few hours, but it appeared Murdoch had taken that out of his hands.
His lip didn’t look any better. In fact, his jaw was turning black and blue. Murdoch dismounted and grabbed his saddle bags. He ground tied Toby, and decided to share the old oak that Scott rested against. Unfolding a cotton cloth he retrieved from the bags, he offered Scott dried apples; Scott accepted the truce. He looked out of the corner of his eye at his father.
“A brick wall?”
definitely.” Murdoch gingerly chewed the apple. “You’ve got one heck of a
Well, now what? He supposed the best thing to do was to get it said. “I’m sorry, Murdoch.”
With a crooked grin, Murdoch asked, “Are you? You seemed to be enjoying yourself too much to be apologizing, Scott.”
“I can assure you, sir, I was not enjoying myself.”
“Humph. My jaw says otherwise.”
Scott took another apple. “Well, your jaw is wrong.”
This time Murdoch’s fingers nestled on his leg and squeezed it. “I know, Son,” he said gently. “I know.”
It was a few moments before Murdoch removed his hand and picked out another piece of fruit. “By the way, your brother is worried about you. Thinks you’ve gone a little crazy for taking on a man my size.”
“Well, whether wise or not, size has never been a factor for me.” Scott looked into the sun and shaded his eyes. “Or numbers for that matter.”
“Ah, yes, the Baldermeros’ episode. Three against one?”
had me backed into a corner. I really had no choice.”
Prudence must have picked up apple smell. She sashayed over to Murdoch and mouthed the cotton. Like a lady, she delicately wrapped her lips around the offered apple.
“I’ll bet she was a beauty when she was young.”
“Oh, she was.” Murdoch’s calloused fingers drifted over the velvet muzzle. “She was your mother’s favorite horse.” His voice grew husky. “Never saw anything prettier than the two of them taking off across the meadow. They flowed together, your mother low over the saddle, gold hair whipping in the wind, the horse running for all she was worth.” He pointed. “I can still see her, coming across that field.”
Scott gazed at where his father pointed and envisioned a young woman flying with a chestnut horse over the wildflowers, splashing through the cool water of the stream that dipped in the meadow. She had laughed here, loved, known happiness. She seemed almost real; she had been, once.
“What happened, Murdoch?” Scott asked softly, hoping his father would not put him off again.
“When, ah …” Murdoch cleared his throat. “When I got the telegram that your mother was sick, well, by the time I got to Carterville she had died. I met Paul there … after I saw her grave. Trace Gillan had accompanied Paul and Catherine. He’s the one who sent the telegram.”
“Trace. Really?” A man a few years younger than his father whose duties consisted mostly of stocking and repairing the line shacks throughout the year. A good man to back you up in a fight, as he proved with Pardee. A quiet man, respectful. Odd, discovering this unknown connection to his past. But the ranch probably had many.
“Yes. He saw you, as did Paul. I always envied them for that.” Murdoch slipped the horse another apple. “Paul caught you when you were born. At least Catherine wasn’t alone.” He said it like it brought him comfort. And Paul. Teresa’s father. Did Teresa know?
“Your grandfather had other plans for you,” Murdoch continued. He glanced at Scott, then gazed across the hills. “I was too late. You were gone. It took me five years to get to Boston and bring you home. By then, your grandfather had no intentions of giving you up.” Murdoch looked down as if ashamed.
“Grandfather can be … a hard man.” Scott leaned his head against the tree and closed his eyes. “He told me years later that you had come. He said it was only a visit. I didn’t realize your intent…” Scott glanced over at his father. “But, no letters? Why?”
The answer was long in coming. Prudence snorted into the empty cotton, nuzzled Scott’s hand, searching, then moved off, tail swishing a few feet away.
“I have no explanation for that, other than I was a coward. I can offer excuses; Harlan wouldn’t have given them to you anyway, you’d throw them out unopened, I always intended to write. Pfft, good intentions left undone. Excuses,” Murdoch said with disgust. “But the fact comes down to I was afraid you hated me and you would send them back unopened. I could take just about anything, but not that.”
Scott winced, grateful that he never told Murdoch how much he had hated him. It was a hate born of rejection, not the man his father was. Emaline had been right all along. Things aren’t always the way they seem.
“Here, I have something for you.” Murdoch reached into his saddlebag and brought out a small white leather book. “It’s your mother’s. Harlan left it behind with some other items. He must have been in a hurry…” Murdoch’s voice trailed off.
On the front of the book was his mother’s name engraved in gold lettering.
“It was her bible. See, inside she wrote your name and the day you were born.” Murdoch fingered the name and date.
‘Scott Garret Lancer’. Her hand had written that over twenty four years ago. Scott smoothed the page, studied the feminine writing. There was no weakness in the printing. Did she know she was dying? He hoped not. Too emotional to say thank you for the bible, Scott stared at the date of his birth.
“I, ah, was always going to give it to you, son,” Murdoch said softly, shifting his shoulder into Scott’s. “A good time just never … well, I thought now was a good time to do it.”
Nodding, Scott said nothing. The lump in his throat wouldn’t allow it.
“How’d you get that scar?” Murdoch asked after several moments.
“The one you’re scratching? On your temple?”
didn’t realize … sometimes it itches for no reason.” Scott put his hand
down and glanced at his father. “In the escape. A bullet clipped me.”
“Were you hurt anywhere else?”
Scott grinned at the worry on his father’s face. “Murdoch, it’s been five years. The wounds have healed. Stop fretting.” At the same time, Scott felt a strange … appreciation.
Murdoch tried to smile and Scott couldn’t help but laugh. The swollen lip gave his father a very lopsided look, like one side of his face was held in a macabre grin.
“Uhm, I am sorry about the lip.”
“Then give me the luxury of worry, as recompense, however late it may be.” Murdoch slapped him on the leg and lumbered up. “I’m your father, Scott. I would do anything for you and your brother. Whatever you think of me.”
Looking up at his father, this big, big man, Scott felt swelling gratitude. “Yes, sir.”
better make sure there is soup on the menu. Don’t know if I could eat a
“Maybe, sir, once you get it past the swelling,” Scott offered, aware that his father was trying to make light of the whole thing. Still, it was one heck of a bruise.
“Maybe.” Murdoch smiled down at him. “Are you coming?”
“Soon. I want to read the letter.”
“Would you like me to take the bible back? I’ll put it in your room.”
“Yes, thank you.” He reluctantly let go of the book and handed it to Murdoch.
It seemed age was catching up to his father; he was stiff the first few steps, but it could be Pardee’s bullet that bothered. Scott hoped it was the bullet. Cheated out of twenty-four years, he wanted as much as his father had left to give.
“Son, I would like to offer one piece of advice,” Murdoch said as he gazed down from the saddle.
“Yes, sir.” Murdoch seemed so serious. These few minutes had been good; Scott hoped they wouldn’t be spoiled with any type of reproof, no matter how much he deserved it.
“As your father, keep in mind that I gave you a great deal of leeway.” He grinned. “Think twice before punching a man much larger than yourself. He may not be as kind.”
“Yes, sir,” Scott smiled, relieved and happy. Happier than he’d been in weeks; actually, since Lewis and Hardy had kidnapped him. Maybe with the confession from his father, there had been a release of pain that he had harbored since childhood. Cassidy just happened to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. He chuckled at the cliché as he watched his father disappear over the hill.
The letter lay heavy in his pocket and he took it out. Carefully he tucked his finger under the seal and brought out the folded piece of paper. It was a good quality paper, and the printing was neat and straight.
Dear Mister Scott,
Miss Ruth gived me some of her fine writing paper. I hopes I do all right with my letters. I never wrote a page before.
I hopes you are fine and all healed. I certain do. And filled out. You was sharp enough to dig a trench. Master Brody drove to Columbia that summer, allowed me along, but you was gone by then. Figured you would be. Hopes you didn’t hold that I was coming. I would’ve come early on, but Master Brody was feeling poorly.
Miss Ruth done wrote a letter for me to your grandpappy. She worded it finer, so he didn’t know it was from a unlearned woman. That’s how I found you had gone to your papa’s in California. I am glad to hears that. You must be settled if you is still there; made peace with your pa.
Times were hard for a while, but times can be. We got word that Master Troy died in a prison up north. Miss Ruth cried. I didn’t. He were hard on her, but he were her brother and you love kin. It be a natural thing. Master Brody passed on in ‘69. No comforting Miss Ruth. Always sickly, he was, from a child. Twern’t nothing mean about him; just he was what he was raised to be.
Old Miz Dickens is still liven. Her mind is most gone though. Only thing that seems to bring her peace is a mixed dog I took up from the Quarter before it burned. That critter just lays at her feet and whimpers when Miz Dickens does. Then they quiets.
A few cabins in the Quarter were built over the burnt ones, for thems that wanted to stay. Some folks left to find kin, some left cuz of too much hurtful memories, some left just cuz they could. Most folks took up sharecropping. Life ain’t much easier for ‘em, but they is not owned by anyone. I can tell you, makes a difference, it surely does.
I gets paid now. And I can go where I wants. Only thing, I got no place I wants to go. Given there is deep bad feelings around, it is better to stay home.
Lizbeth and Seth come back for a while after the Yank soldiers left, but then took off for Chicago. I heard it means stinky onion. Why they head for a town called that, is a wonder. Seth’s woman come looking for him. Lizbeth would feel low if she knew the hurt they caused, but I still loves her, and miss her.
Mr. Tate done worked for Miss Ruth. He be a good man, just mixed up for a while. He be taking this letter to you. I pray he gets that far. Hear tell white folk aren’t wanted in some parts of the west. That is a certain twist.
My Jackson come home. Wanted to take me to a place called Detroit. He said he lived over in Canada, just across a Lake Erie. The north sure does have places with strange names. He gots a job there, but I couldn’t go. I loves him, I do, but my bones would freeze sure that far north. Must be close to what Miss Ruth calls the northern pole. But my worryin’ is done about him. He be a good boy, man now. He’ll come back to see me.
Miss Ruth is a working fool. Nothing is gonna keep that woman down. But she took me along with her on a holiday. Don’t that word sound pretty? I is sitting here on a porch, in a rocking chair, looking at the ocean and writing you a letter. You is right, I am pleased to see such a ocean. It smells salty, and rolls and rolls. If I think about it too much I get to feeling like I’m setting back in my cabin in that old short- legged chair.
I got to pondering on my poor mama. She would sure be surprised to see me settling. And livin in the big house. Never would expect days such as this when she were alive. Me neither, truth to tell. But I is happy. Miss Ruth, she good to me and me to her. Always has been, always will.
I certain do think of you. Wish you could smell the jasmine a blooming here now. Spring sure is a promise of things better. The day they took you away I wished your leaving was prettier – with jasmine and magnolia blooming, honeysuckle. Silly, I know, but it was a ugly day for your leaving. I can sees you going down the road in that rickety wagon, smoke wiping away the blue sky. I wished it could have been April. April is a right pretty month. Always makes me feel young.
For my first writing, I am surely talking. It would please me to receive your writing, if you a mind to. I think of you.
Tucking the letter into his pocket, he leaned his head against the rough tree and closed his eyes. Images from a thousand yesterdays glided across his mind. A fire burned low in his grandfather’s study on a Christmas afternoon as a little boy ached for a father who never came; a legion of smart young men marched off to war with soft-kissed goodbyes from pretty girls; colorful hollyhocks stood bright against a garden wall somewhere in Pennsylvania – the road south; hard-breathing horses stumbled as they charged up a hill slippery with blood and rain; moans of the dying; madness in the hopeless suffering of prison; the icy chill of a swollen river; the snagged stroke of a calloused hand. Emaline – big and beautiful. They had clung to one another in a tiny slave cabin as the world fell to pieces around them. He opened his eyes, grateful to be alive.
The sun was
getting low. His family would be sitting down for supper soon. Reluctant
to leave the peace of the hillside, he stood up and walked to Prudence. He
buried his face in her neck, imagined his mother doing the same, and inhaled
the earth-warm aroma of horse. Prudence nickered, looked back at him, then
dipped her head into the grass. Gathering the reins, he swung across her
He looked down on the meadow where his mother had ridden – the beautiful stranger who gave him birth. He pictured Emaline as she had patched his shabby uniform, tilting back and forth in the rickety chair – she had saved his life. Ah, how is it she could be so brave? She was a warrior; valiant in the face of an enemy more dangerous than a saber or cannonball as it denied her very humanity. He hoped it was in him to have such quiet courage.
A wind kicked up, swirled through the rippling grasses, and he caught a sweet scent of wildflowers. He swept his eyes to the mountains, crossed the endless prairies to the smokey Appalachians and the rolling Congaree. He smiled, whispered Emaline into the breezy dusk, and turned home.