The Civil War (Seven)
Notes: Please read “Men of Honor” before attempting this story. Don’t read these stories with the expectations that the ‘seven’ will act as we ‘know’ them. Their characteristics and behaviors will change over time, and I start this series before their hardships, and before the characters that we’ve grown to love and adore through the television series. I hope you read and enjoy this series and I’ll think you’ll find in the last story, “From Heroes to Legends” that the boys are defiantly back!
Please send comments and suggestions to email@example.com
Special Thanks to: Yolande, for your time and energy!!
This is dedicated to J. Fred Mugs…for getting me addicted to this subject in the first place!! Love you, Dad!
December 4th 1861
Meadowdale, bordered between Kentucky and Indiana
Christmas was only a few weeks away and yet it didn’t seem like it. Nettie sat at the kitchen table darning John’s socks as he slept peacefully in their room across the way. She hummed to herself, smiling gently as she remembered images from her past. The day Samuel had been born, the way he’d trotted behind her in the fields while they planted, the way he’d grown so strong, so proud. He was his father’s son; there was no denying that. Jacob was a lot like herself, she thought: strong minded, unbending, and vocal about all things. Both her boys were ruggedly handsome, strong thinkers, and proud of what they had accomplished, despite fighting on opposite sides of the war.
She looked up toward the bed where young Vin slept. His blankets wrapped snuggly around his shoulders and waist. His brown curly hair swept his face with gentle strokes. He looked like his father, with his mother’s coloring. He was going to be lean when he got older, strong, smart, and wise to the needs of the land.
Nettie jumped when she heard the scream come from the room her sons had shared for so long. The room Sarah was now using until Chris’ return. Nettie tossed the sock and darning egg onto the floor and rushed for the room. Sarah was writhing in her bed, grasping her swollen belly.
“Nettie!” she screamed, trying to push herself up against the headboard. “Nettie!” she cried out again. “It’s splittin’ me apart!”
Nettie pushed Sarah onto her back and stuffed several pillows behind her head and neck. “All part of the process,” she sighed with a shake of her head. She knew Sarah had been having pains earlier in the day, but her independence prevented her from saying anything.
When the contraction was over, Sarah leaned back and sighed, wiping her brow. She saw Vin in the doorway, his face lined with worry…despite being so young. She smiled toward him, letting him know everything was going to be all right. It was difficult enough trying to convince herself, but she managed.
“Vin,” Nettie said, getting to her feet from the edge of the bed to help Sarah stand and walk around, “there’re some extra sheets in the hutch next to the stove—fetch ‘em for me.” She grabbed the lantern and quickly lit it.
He turned quickly in search of his task.
Sarah slowly stood up on shaky legs and grasped the chair and Nettie’s hand. “How long’s this goin’ to last?”
“Could be hours…could take longer ‘an a day,” came the knowing response.
“Nettie…?” Sarah said softly, looking teary eyed at her.
“It’s all right, child,” Nettie reassured, “women have been havin’ babies a long time…and they’ve been doin’ just fine.” She rubbed Sarah’s lower back and motioned for Vin to put the extra sheets on the bed. “Go out and make sure all the animals are fed, Vin, and then get Mr. Wells up and have him go into town—I’m gonna need a few things,” she paused, “and make sure you wear your warm clothes.”
Vin turned and sped out the door, the hinges squeaked before slamming shut on its frame.
“What do you need from town?” Sarah asked, grasping the back of the chair.
Nettie chuckled: “The boys can only boil water for so long—it’s best to send them off and let us do what we do best.”
Sarah groaned when another contraction hit. She spread her legs and squatted, trying to find a comfortable position. “I can’t believe you did this twice, Nettie.” She gasped, ignoring the sweat that dripped down her forehead.
“Did it three times,” she paused, thinking about the one they’d lost, “If’n I was young enough, I’d do it again… Once you see that child…you forget about all the pain.”
Sarah yelled again, and this time, the sound of John banging around in his bedroom filled the home. He rushed out with his nightshirt in disarray, his hair sticking up on end, and his socks half on and half off. Nettie couldn’t help but chuckle, and then sigh. Men were so predictable.
“What’s goin’ on?!” he yelled, tripping over a kitchen chair. He yelped and grabbed his toe and hopped to the doorframe of the bedroom Sarah and Nettie were in and sighed, his heart racing, pulse thumping, and breathing harsh.
“We’re havin’ a baby, Mr. Wells,” Nettie answered softly, while continuing to rub Sarah’s back.
“Another one?” John asked, furrowing his brow.
“I need you to get to town and gather a few things—”
“It’s two in the mornin’, Mrs. Wells, nothin’s goin’ to be open.”
“They will be by the time you get there.”
John ran his fingers through his hair and nodded slowly. “S’poze I should go change first.” He jumped when Sarah screamed out again. “I’ll hurry!” He turned quickly, and headed into his bedroom.
The front door opened and slammed shut and the faint sound of feet on the floorboards echoed. Vin suddenly appeared in the doorway with hay in his hair, and worry filled eyes. He turned and looked at John as he exited his bedroom fully dressed.
“What is it you need from town?” John asked, slipping on his boots, while sitting at the kitchen table.
“A bottle of whiskey, and ask Jonah for his good stuff—not that watered down hooch he sells to his regulars. I’ll need two sewing needles, a pound of sugar, and a bag of flour…you should probably get two yards of cotton material.”
John furrowed a brow and cocked an eyebrow. “Cotton material?” he asked, getting to his feet and grabbing his coat.
“Gloria will know,” Nettie replied, helping Sarah walk slowly around the room.
John nodded, more for his benefit that Nettie’s. “I’ll be back as soon as I can…” he looked at Vin, “Ready?”
Vin nodded and sped out the door.
John chuckled and followed, knowing Nettie had everything under control. He grabbed Vin’s hat and chased after the boy.
Sarah took another spin around the room while Nettie helped support her. The afternoon wind had picked up and hit the sides of the cabin, warning everyone to worry about those within its reach. A snowstorm was fast approaching. Sarah squatted suddenly, Nettie holding her arms, and she screamed out. “I can’t,” she cried, letting her tears stream down her face.
“Push!” Nettie ordered, moving her hands to aid in the delivery of the baby.
Sarah did as she was ordered, preferring to stand and squat rather than lie down. Every muscle in her body ached and throbbed, and her pelvis felt as though it would burst apart.
“Push, Sarah,” Nettie encouraged.
She bear down with all her might, and after fourteen hours of agony, she didn’t think she had anything left.
“Here it comes,” Nettie said enthusiastically. She reached out with towel-covered hands and caught the child as it was released from its mother’s womb: head, shoulders, body, legs.
Sarah sighed and fell forward, onto the edge of the bed. Nettie quickly helped her get cleaned and changed after taking care of the newborn. Sarah was quickly positioned on the mattress, her young child wrapped tightly in a blanket and towels.
“It’s a boy,” Nettie said softly, handing Sarah her child, before gathering up the bloodied laundry.
Nettie stepped out of the room just briefly to clean herself and dispose of the items.
Sarah held her son tightly, cherishing his cries, his round cheeks, and bald head. She cried to herself, allowing the tears to stream down her face. He looked just like his father…he even had Chris’ personality—she could tell that already. She chuckled to herself, wiping her tears. “He’s so beautiful,” she said softly when Nettie reentered the room.
Nettie nodded in agreement and cleaned up. She helped Sarah get situated on the bed, in a more comfortable position, wrapped in clean blankets. When Nettie finished she sat on the edge of the mattress and watched the new mother feed her child. “John and Vin are home,” she said softly, reaching out to touch the child’s cheek.
“Adam Christopher Larabee,” Sarah said softly.
Nettie smiled: “An honorable name.”
“I wish my momma were here,” Sarah whispered, feeling her loss from so many years before…she even wished her father would have accepted her marriage: wishing he could see his grandson.
Maybe one day he’d come around…maybe.
Nettie turned when she heard the door open and a gust of cold wind entered the home. She smiled when Vin appeared in the doorway, covered in clothing head to foot, only a small section of his face visible between his scarf and cap. The snow quickly melted and dripped onto the wood floor. John soon joined him, already having changed out of his coat and boots.
“Everything okay?” John asked.
Nettie smiled: “Everything’s perfect.” She looked at the two and shook her head. “Go change, don’t want either of you catchin’ your deaths.”
John smiled and looked hard at his wife. He pulled out of his pocket a small bundle of letters. “Two from Jacob—one from Chris.”
Nettie jumped up and took the letters, holding them to her breast. “Go,” she said, looking at the wrinkled edges, folded corners, and simple printing on the outside. “We’ll read them over supper.” She could hardly contain the excitement in her voice.
Sarah held her son and could hardly wait to read her letter. She smiled as Vin sat in a chair across from John, his plate of food resting on a small table. Nettie finally took a seat next to Sarah, smiling as she reached out to touch young Adam’s face…he was about to hear his father’s words come from his mother’s mouth. Hopefully, in the future, he could see his father—hold him, hug him, and learn from him.
Nettie carefully opened her letter from Jacob. Her heart raced and she was vigilant not tear anymore than necessary of the envelope. She cleared her throat and started, “September 19th 1861…Dearest family, we have not seen our first battle of yet—however, Steven informed us that we’ll be under the command of General Patterson, and his first in command is Abner Doubleday. He is a stern looking fellow, with a very unique hairstyle…not at all uncommon out here. I am looking forward to defending my country. I must admit, Mother, that this land is far different than any near Meadowdale, and I find myself understanding the Southerner’s desire to protect it. At times, the heat grows very intense, and the air is heavy like fog…I don’t mind though.
Dysentery has made its way through camp on two different occasions now, and frankly I don’t ever want to partake in its wrath again. Buck, however, has found a humorous solution to the problem. He has found that oak leaves aid in relief…he is seen now with oak leaves in everything he eats. I find the taste bitter, but like him, I have found relief in its purpose.” Nettie stopped and chuckled to herself, thinking of those boys out there with the runs. Dysentery was nothing to laugh about, but at least Buck was smart enough to find a cure, and oak was a wonderful way to cure it. “How is Vin? Has he been taking care of you all? Tell him hello from me and let him know I look forward to taking him fishing when I return. Chris is looking forward to it as well. We recently heard about Ezra leaving unexpectedly. Please let Mrs. Travis know we are all keeping our eyes out for him. Have you heard from Samuel? I receive very few of your letters—the Rebs are keeping the mail from getting to our units, but the few that do get across are greatly appreciated.” Nettie sighed, thinking about her boys—Samuel, Jacob—fighting on opposite sides of the war—fighting each other. “I must be going now, we are mustering out early tomorrow and I don’t want to be overly tired. I send you all my love and I pray you’re all safe… Your loving son, Jacob.”
“He sounds good,” John said, still looking at the food on his plate, now cold and untouched.
“Yes,” Nettie hesitantly agreed.
Sarah sighed and wiped her son’s cheek with her finger. Quickly, she opened the letter and started reading aloud—perhaps Chris would have something enjoyable to share. “October 6th, 1861… Dearest Sarah, I have been promoted to Sergeant and find myself responsible for more than a few horses. I tell you in confidence that I enjoy it.” She looked at those around her and smiled, knowing they wouldn’t repeat his words to anyone. “I had to put Benny down, he broke his leg after stepping in a mud hole. It was possibly one of hardest things for me to do—but I wouldn’t allow him to suffer. I have managed to replace him with a fine young chestnut gelding by the name of Grey…yes, a name Buck found ironic and unexpected. He came up with it. I will try and explain to him when things settle down what ironic means.” Sarah stopped and chuckled out loud—how she missed those two. “Camp life has been tiresome, but Jacob and Josiah keep us entertained with Bible verses and new phrases. Jacob has taken it upon himself to rename everything in his path. His favorite is scorpion bile, which is bad whiskey.” Sarah stopped and looked at Nettie, her face grinning with surprise. Sarah quickly continued, “I would like to ask you about everyone back home, but I can gather what has been happening through letters. There are 17 of us from Meadowdale serving in the same troop and as a result we are well informed. Steven is a new father, I’m sure you knew that, and he hasn’t gone a day without writing Mary. He has been kind enough to send my letters with his in hopes that they arrive safely. Have you received them all? The Southerners are keeping the lines well guarded and few letters from home actually make it to us…I can’t tell you how much each word you write brings me closer to home. I cannot wait for this damndable war to be over. How simple it all seems now—and yet, so costly. Send my love to Gloria and the Wells—and please inform young Vin that I expect a fresh can of worms come spring…we’ll fish to our hearts’ content.” Sarah sighed, and read the last of the letter to herself, tears forming in her eyes as Chris relayed his love to her.
“You okay, Sarah?” Vin asked, slipping out of his chair and walking toward the bed. He looked at the young baby in her arms and carefully reached out to touch him.
“Fine, Vin…I’m just fine,” she replied. She gently patted a spot on the bed and motioned for him to sit down.
John looked at his wife and saw her fear. “Mrs. Wells?” he asked softly.
Nettie smiled tightly and looked toward Vin and the new baby. “I should like to hear from Samuel,” she said softly, not believing she would.
“What’s in the last letter from Jacob?” John said loudly, unwilling to let this glorious day end with sadness.
Nettie smiled at her husband and quickly opened the letter and started reading aloud. This time, laughter filled the room as her son told in great detail some of the trouble he and Buck had found themselves in.
February 12th, 1862
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
Buck held his horse’s reins limply in his grasp while seated in his saddle. He looked out over the land, thinking about home, his family…his mother. He missed her now more than ever: her gentle smile, kind eyes, and the soft curl of her brown hair. He missed the way she spoke, so soft…almost a whisper.
She never judged anyone—maybe it was because she knew what it was like. She worked hard and never complained…a gift she’d handed down to her son. The one thing he missed most about her though…the one thing that always made him think of her: her fingers through his hair, a gentle touch to his cheek, her subtle—yet obvious, wink.
Buck smiled at the memory.
She’d wink at him now, he was sure, just letting him know that she was there; listening, watching, praying for him in his hour of darkness.
He was eighteen now, a man by most accounts, and still he thought of those times long past. Those times when things had been less complicated. He’d killed men, boys, fathers, brothers, husbands…maybe even friends. He’d done things that he would never speak of, and seen things that would forever haunt his dreams.
And it wasn’t even close to being finished.
“You all right?” Chris asked, riding up beside him.
“I’ve been better,” came the honest answer.
Chris nodded in understanding—they’d all been better. “Nettie sends her love.”
Buck looked over toward his friend and smiled with a question of ‘how’ in his eyes.
“Jacob received some letters from home.” His voice was missing what he didn’t have: his ranch…Sarah…
“Nettie say anythin’ else?” Buck asked, wanting to know.
“John broke his toe after trippin’ over a rock while out huntin’ with Vin.” Chris smiled. “Guess Vin’s got quiet an eye for shootin’—always knew he would.”
Chris sighed…wanting so much to be home. “Real good. I guess she’s stayin’ in Jacob and Samuel’s old room. She’s gettin’ involved with a quilting bee or somethin’.”
“She’s gotta keep busy,” he spoke softly. “Besides, she’ll make all those quilts to keep you warm at night.” He smiled, despite wanting to cry.
Chris heard the pain in Buck’s voice, and he understood it. “We’re goin’ home alive, Buck…I just know we are.”
Buck nodded, despite not believing him. “If we do…” he sighed, “…I want to head west after the war.”
“Always thought you’d stay in Meadowdale?”
“Ain’t nothin’ there for me anymore…Momma’s gone…”
Chris nodded in understanding. He’d thought about it as well…taking Sarah and moving, finding a new path. “Come on back to camp…Josiah’s doin’ a Bible reading.”
Buck didn’t say anything, just let the moment hang for a moment. It seemed so peaceful…as though time stood still. “It’s killin’ me,” he whispered.
Chris turned to look at his friend.
“I can’t stand knowin’ that a bullet I fire might kill Samuel…or Ezra—he can’t be what…twelve, thirteen maybe—too damn young bein’ out here.” Buck shook his head, feeling sick to his stomach. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
How was Chris supposed to respond…? Tell his friend, his brother, that it was okay to kill friends—family, for a cause? The Union wanted a strong federal government, the South wanted state’s rights. Was that a bad thing? Was it something worth fighting over? Even Chris had his doubts, and seeing fields full of bleeding boys made him wish he’d never signed on…it made him wish he could have marched to Washington and made those men see what they were doing.
But he couldn’t.
And he knew deep inside, it wouldn’t have made any difference.
“You’re not the only one, Buck.” Chris turned sympathetic eyes toward his friend. “And God willin’, we’ll get through this war together—and when we get home, Sarah’ll make her chicken and dumplin’s and we’ll eat ‘til our heart’s content, and sit around the fire and talk about the good ol’ days.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Buck smiled—truly smiled, for the first time in weeks.
“Come on, wouldn’t want Josiah to start without us.”
A group had gathered, almost twenty men, both young and old. Josiah sat on a downed log and read aloud from his Bible that was well used, worn, and marked. Chris doubted he was reading, more than likely he was saying the verses from memory. It was peaceful, and Josiah’s strong, yet soothing voice, echoed over the crowd. Chris took a seat on a tree stump next to Jacob and Steven; Buck sat off to the side, still thinking about his choices in life. Not everyone enlisted for the same reasons…some did it for the money, their beliefs, the opportunities to move past their farms, and some enlisted to make a difference. All their reasons were worthy, and all were now contemplating the choice they had made.
The words came from Josiah’s mouth with a strange familiarity. Having been separated from his faith for so long, he yearned to reconnect with its meaning. But the memories linked to his faith were at times bitterly painful. A past filled with abuse, a father who believed firmly in discipline with a firm hand—violent hand.
Would he ever get past it?
Josiah didn’t think so. He’d tried so many times and failed. Maybe it was time for him to take back what he’d lost…maybe it was time to rebuild from more than what he knew—but instead what he needed to learn and relearn in a brighter light.
“I will bring the blind by a way they did not know; I will lead them in paths they have not known. I will make darkness light before them and crooked places straight. These things I will do for them, and not forsake them.”’ He read from Isaiah, finding strength in the words, and promises he’d long forgotten.
He knew in his heart that his life had changed. He’d never look at it the same way. Life wasn’t to be taken for granted: it was short—too short for most, and it was meant to be lived to the fullest.
Josiah looked out over the small gathering. Some were just beginning to understand about life, how it should be cherished, others would learn later—some wouldn’t learn at all.
What a gift—to breathe the air that filled his lungs, to smell the gentle whispers of magnolias, and to gaze upon the land with an appreciative eye. And to think, he sighed, that air had been filled with gunpowder, and that land had been painted with the bodies of men—young and old alike.
“Give us a song to finish, Preacher!” someone yelled.
Josiah smiled: “How about I lead you all in one.” He wasn’t much of a singer.
The crowd agreed.
Josiah started, his voice cracked, but he continued with his attempt of Safely Through Another Week. He was slightly off key, but so were many of the others. He sang strong, and proud. Though his life wasn’t clear, it was getting there, and that’s all he could ask for at the moment.
Buck and Chris sang with him, remembering a time not so long ago when Ezra would have led them all in song: shown them how it was done. Chris had to wonder if Ezra still sang, was his voice changing, had he matured…was he alive?
“When Samuel and I were little,” Jacob said softly, after the song was finished, “we snuck outta church so we could go frog diggin’ out behind the saloon—we used to catch ‘em when they were real big. Mr. Spender used to eat frog legs.” He frowned, so did the others. Frog legs didn’t sound very appetizing. “Sam and I’d watch ‘im cook ‘em…he offered us some once—but we didn’t eat any.” He chuckled softly and poked at the ground with his stick.
He missed his brother, and nobody blamed him for it.
“My Pa’s fightin’ with the Rebs,” a soft voice said from the group. “He’s down in Tennessee—I think.” His cheeks were red, to match his hair, and his eyes were as blue as the ocean’s. He was young—and old, like the rest of them.
Josiah nodded in understanding, they all had someone on the other side, or at least they knew someone. Obviously, they were all thinking about the bullets that left their guns, the men they killed on the battlefield, and the changes that had occurred in their lives because of it.
Outside of Richmond Virginia
The home was monstrous, and the white pillars out front only accentuated its size. Trees with long flowing branches waved gently in the breeze. Untouched, unharmed…uncomplicated.
Ezra stood at the front gate, holding Pitch and the horses of his superiors. He watched them from his post, thankful that he hadn’t been elected to approach the home. He felt dirty, and out of place in such a splendor.
He saw her out of the corner of his eye, and he tried to look away, not wanting to draw her attention. It would be improper of him to say anything to her, or to ignore her all together…such a quandary.
She smiled and slowly approached the front gate. The young soldier had captured her curiosity, and she was young enough to feed it. Her long blonde braid swayed back and forth across her shoulder blades.
“What’s your name?” she asked softly, boldly.
Ezra quickly took off his hat and bowed his head, trying to be gentlemanly. “Ezra, ma’am.”
She smiled. “Ah’m Katie—well, Katherine, but my mothah and fathah call me Katie.”
“It’s a pleasure meetin’ you, Katie.”
“How old are you?” she asked out of curiosity.
“Fifteen,” he lied.
“You don’t look fifteen,” she responded.
“My folks were short.” Ezra mentally smacked himself.
Katie chuckled, she knew he was trying to make up for his youthfulness. “My fathah is fightin’ with General Jackson—he’s a major,” she said proudly. “My mothah, she’s supportin’ the army—that’s why your lieutenant’s in therah now—gonna help feed ya’ll.”
She glowed when she smiled, and for reasons Ezra didn’t understand it warmed his heart. She was pretty, with subtle dimples on her cheeks. Her large eyes shown blue, but upon closer examination he found them to be almost green.
“You been in a battle yet?” she asked, boldly stepping through the gate to rub her hand against one of the horse’s necks.
“Several, ma’am,” Ezra replied, not proudly—yet, not bashfully.
“Have you killed anyone?” Her eyes grew in size, not from having a morbid fascination with death, but wanting to understand what was happening with her father.
“You’re nearly in the middle of it, ma’am…the fightin’s right down the road.”
“We heah the cannons at night, but we haven’t seen any fightin’ yet—not that Ah want to.” She ran her fingers through Pitch’s mane.
“Miss Shilake,” came a deep voice from behind the young couple.
“Good aftahnoon, Ben,” Katie replied, quickly stepping back through the gate. “This is Private—”
“Corporal Standish,” Ezra corrected.
Ben closed the gate and looked at the young man with a critical eye. “Kinda young, ain’t ya?” he asked, his voice sounding like the crackle of fire. He was tall, over six feet, with arms that bulged with muscles.
“Old enough,” came the sharp reply.
Ben smiled, his teeth glowed white; “This is Mastah Skilake’s land…and you’ll respect everythin’ on it.”
His words were heeded.
Ezra swallowed hard.
“Ben’s my fathah’s most trusted—Papa gave Ben run of the plantation while he’s gone,” Katie said, placing her hand on the top rail of the fence.
Ezra knew he was being scolded—subtly, but enough to know that Ben was worthy of his respect…slave or not. He nodded slightly, just enough to submit, and watched as Ben’s face softened.
“Ezra’s one of Stuart’s men,” Katie smiled. “They’ah goin’ to stop the blue bellies.”
“Good,” Ben said firmly, “It’s about time someone did.” There was an unfamiliar anger in his voice that wasn’t understood. He looked down the road before nodding to himself. “I best get back to work,” he said softly. “Make sure ya stay on this side of the fence, Miss Skilake.”
“Yes, thank you, Ben.” She smiled and watched him walk away before turning her attention back to Ezra. “Ah apologize for bein’ so bold earliah.” Ben had been silent in her transgression, but she’d quickly recognized her mistake.
“Ah didn’t notice,” Ezra replied. He looked at her, and felt his heart give way to a crush.
“You’ah sweet,” she said with a smile. She turned suddenly when the officers that had been standing at the front door finished with their business and headed toward them.
The men tipped their hats, and didn’t speak until she spoke to them. Ezra handed the men their reins and quickly moved out of their way.
“Get back to camp and wait for your orders,” Lieutenant Mosby said, before slipping into his saddle. He waited until both sergeants were mounted, and then looked at Ezra. “Don’t delay.”
Ezra nodded and held onto Pitch’s reins as the three others sped away. Pitch looked up and perked his ears forward, wanting to go as well.
“You’d bettah go,” Katie smiled, “befoah you get in trouble.”
Ezra put his hat on and tipped the rim down just slightly before mounting. “Ah’ll see you again,” he said with confidence.
“Ah hope so,” she replied, and waved as he headed toward his destination.
The only way to describe it was a raping of the land: violent, brutal, and ultimately destructive. Trees were blown apart, grass that had once been green was now stained with the blood of men, and large pits now scared the fields. Smoke lingered in the air, dust still billowed outward, and death froze the air like frost on a dark night.
Yankees and Rebels walked the field, looking for those still alive, and caring for those that wouldn’t be for long. Once shot, men had pulled at their clothing, searching for their wounds. A bullet to the belly was a death sentence no man wanted to suffer from. Dead lay motionless with their clothing growing tight around them. Their clothing had been pulled apart—not stretched, but pulled…by their own hands.
Morbid…death was always morbid.
Ezra led Pitch through the disarray, growing callus to the scenery. On occasion he’d reach down and check a body, perhaps searching for someone he knew…checking for a new pair of boots—ones not quite as worn as his own. The bodies he looked at had been there for days…three at most, but the heat of the sun had done its damage, and the smell was sickening. He continued on, as though it didn’t bother him, as though he’d grown accustomed to it.
He looked up when he heard the faint sound of Taps coming from a young blue belly standing across the way, playing his shiny brass trumpet. They were so close, yet miles apart it seemed, and Ezra just watched him.
The sun was slowly making its descent, disappearing past the trees, turning the once blue sky, red. Ezra turned toward it and looked out. He took a deep breath, trying to ward off the sick feeling in his stomach, and slowly headed back toward camp. Things had to be done, more battles would be fought, and more lives would be lost.
He’d written his mother…but he never heard from her. Maybe she was too busy to reply, or perhaps she was on the move again. She’d do that a lot, moving from place to place, from man to man—depending on the money. He didn’t hate her…but she made it difficult in loving her. Ezra sighed, and ran his fingers through his hair. At times he compared himself to a nomad—unattached, rambling, and alone. He wasn’t though, he was a soldier in the Confederate Army, and that was something to be proud of. His father would be proud of him, he was sure… If Patrick were alive today, he’d be fighting along side his son, keeping him well, keeping him smart…keeping him alive. Ezra looked again at the field…seeing the destruction three days of fighting had done. He couldn’t help but think that his friends, his family, were out there…lying in the heat, dying. He didn’t think he could knowingly kill a friend…he couldn’t shoot at Buck, Chris, Josiah…any of them. He liked them…he used to go fishing with them. They used to laugh and sing at night…like a family.
Ezra kicked a stick out of the way and then reached back and stroked Pitch’s nose. The horse tossed his head in response, wanting to do more than mosey. Ezra just continued on, as though he didn’t have to be anywhere. It hurt, knowing what he was doing, and it hurt knowing he was fighting for what he believed in. There wasn’t any nice way to put it. He was a Southerner…born and bred, he loved the South…he loved Virginia. His father taught him to ride, taught him how to wield a horse, how to communicate without the use of harsh bits or whips. His father had taught him how to be a man…Ezra shrugged, his father had died when he was young, so how could he have taught him—but he did, Ezra was sure of it.
“You look lost,” came a soft, gruff voice from below.
Ezra stopped and looked at the young man who was trapped between a downed tree and the hard ground. Blood had soaked his hairline, and crept slowly between his lips. Yankee blue peaked up around his neck and arms…decorating his once able body.
“No, sir,” came the quick, unsure response. Ezra had seen the man’s insignia—he wasn’t stupid. He reached up and grabbed his canteen, before pausing to look at him. In every way imaginable, he looked like someone he knew: Buck, Chris, Vin, JD…Josiah, and yes, even Nathan.
“I’d appreciate some water,” he spoke well educated, if weak.
Ezra quickly knelt down and slipped his hand behind the man’s head…he was sickened by the softness of his skull. Still, Ezra continued without saying a word.
“I can’t feel my legs,” the man acknowledged in a sad tone, he knew he was dying…it was just a matter of time.
Ezra sat up and looked over the log. He turned back and looked the man in the eye. “You’ve still got them.”
The Yankee chuckled, and a sincere smile appeared on his face. “How old are you?”
“Fifteen,” he lied.
“Thirteen,” came the soft answer.
The man reached up and stroked Ezra’s young face. “For this injustice we’ll all go to hell.” He spoke of Ezra’s age, his youth, his innocence. The man winced when he felt a sharp pain move up his back, and he choked again, this time coughing up blood.
Ezra stood up to retrieve his blanket.
“Johnny Reb,” the man said softly, looking up blindly at the darkening sky.
“Billy Yank,” came the fearful acknowledgement.
A faint smile appeared on the man’s face. “There’s…there’s a black pouch in my pocket—get it for me…please,” he sighed, trying to catch his breath, “My wife…”
Ezra knelt down, forgetting about the blanket, and carefully reached into the man’s jacket. Thankfully the pouch hadn’t been embedded by the tree. Slowly, he pulled the small pouch out and turned to look at the man.
Eyes stared up at the evening sky, blank, emotionless…dead. How undeniably real, to watch Death up close, to watch it move with and without warning, to watch it take some and leave others. How strange, Ezra thought, to be so unkind and yet merciful in the same breath.
Ezra sat back on his haunches and looked at the small black leather pouch, all the while wondering why it meant so much. Slowly, he opened it. The first to hit the palm of his hand was a ring—a man’s ring—too large for Ezra’s fingers. The band was gold, but turquoise embedded the top: elegant, distinctive, and refined. A deck of cards fell out next, well worn and obviously marked—at least to someone who knew. Ezra was young, but he’d been trained by the best. Perhaps, Billy Yank had been a gambler too? The third and final object slipped out, an image, faint, but visible, of a young woman. She looked stern, but warm—if it was possible for someone to look warm. Ezra guessed she’d make a good mother—if she weren’t already one.
Reluctantly, he reached up and closed the man’s eyes—wishing he could do more, but knowing he couldn’t. He replaced the items into the bag and slowly stood up. He looked out again, trying to decide on what he should do. At the moment, nothing made sense, and he wasn’t sure if they ever would. Did it even matter?
Pitch tossed his head, feeling the need to move on, and Ezra replied by slipping the pouch into his breast pocket and then he mounted. He’d head back to camp—try and get on with this life, try and understand why all this was happening—try and understand why he was in the middle of it.
March 17th 1962
Shenandoah Valley, near Winchester Virginia
Horses screamed, reared, stumbled, and fell as the explosions of cannons roared like the mouths of lions. Bullets sped by, whizzing past heads, bodies, and trees. The sickening sound of shrapnel and slugs hitting their targets echoed in each man’s ears as friends and enemies fell beside and before them.
War was a hell all its own.
Chris fired his weapon from atop his mount, trying only to do his duty. His heart beat wildly in his chest, and his lungs burned for more air as adrenalin took over common sense. He didn’t think about anything except the moment he was in. The images he witnessed would be forever branded into his memory.
Sarah wouldn’t know him when he returned home to her.
Would she accept the man he’d become?
It was difficult enough moving from day to day, fighting battle after battle—winning some, losing others. Men were frail, like a woman’s tears, and a bullet didn’t care what it hit: a tree, soil, a body—anything in its path was a target…intended or not.
Cannons continued to roar, rifles and pistols popped and fired on command. Men yelled and cried out as targets were met…some died, others buried their innocence.
Chris could tell that the battle was slowly coming to an end. He could hear the faint calls of retreat by the confederates. The Union had taken the field—but at a cost.
The dead lay in scattered disarray. Many with portions of their bodies missing: limbs…heads. Blood soaked the field like water on the scorched earth. Wounded horses fought to regain their feet, only to fall and fight again—others succumbed to their wounds. Heroes and cowards, Northern and Southern men alike lay together beholding their last bit of peace. Funny how they all looked the same…blue and gray—it didn’t matter what they wore when they all bled red.
Chris looked out past the field, watching on as Southern boys retreated and Northern boys claimed their victory. He caught sight of Buck speaking with Josiah—thank God they were both alive.
Gray tossed his head. Chris released the reins and stood in his stirrups as they trotted toward their unit.
Nobody cheered their victory.
It wasn’t that kind of war.
Josiah pulled his saddle from his mount, turning the pad upside down in order for it to dry. Sweat marked the big chestnut in every available place. White foam had gathered on his neck, flanks, in the places where his bridle had lain. The beast had given his all and was in need of a rest.
Faces that had once been filled with excitement were now haunted with unforgivable deeds. Boys were forced to become men, and man became old by their actions, not their years.
“I have been young, and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his descendants begging bread.” Josiah spoke to himself rather than anyone around him, trying to understand his deeds, his sins, and the consequences thereof.
“Think it’ll end?” Buck asked, stepping up beside the big man.
“It will...eventually—though I believe it will linger on for generations.”
Buck nodded in disinterest, concerned with other things. Dirt smudged his face and his hair clung to his head beneath his kepi. His hands gripped the reins to his horse’s bridle and he secretly wondered how many battles he’d have to fight in order not to feel as though it were his first. Everyone else seemed so…set, content with themselves and their duties. Why did he feel so…lost?
“You all right?’ Chris asked, dismounting.
“Tired,” came the honest answer.
Chris nodded, they were all tired, and not just from the lack of sleep.
Everyone looked up and moved toward the commotion coming from the center of camp. Boys cheered, bets were made, and dirt flew. The argument between the two young men had escalated to a full-fledged fight. Punches were pulled, dirt was thrown, and bodies flung in all directions.
Tension was high—amongst everyone.
Chris and Josiah moved as one, both entering the human made arena. Each grabbed a shirt and yanked the men back.
“Stop this!” Chris yelled, tossing his charge to the ground, standing over him with the venom of a snake. He looked at both men, noticing their bloody noses, scraped knuckles, and torn clothing. “What in the hell is this about?!”
“He’s a Reb sympathizer!” came the brash reply. The younger of the two pointed his finger toward the older man with a dark beard and mustache.
“Fuck you, Turner!” the sergeant yelled back, not at all disturbed by the commotion around him.
Chris took a deep breath and then ran his fingers through hair, taking his hat off at the same time. “We ain’t got time to sit and bullshit about things none of us can control.”
“He was writin’ a letter to his Reb family!” the boy shouted, getting to his feet.
Anderson stood up as well and looked at the young men. “You don’t have any right goin’ through mah things!”
“I do when my country’s as stake!” came Turner’s response.
“Shut up!” Chris yelled, putting a stop to it all.
Chris looked at the young man and sent him a deadly glare. “Next time you go snoopin’ around someone else’s things, I’ll have you court-martialed—and that goes for everyone!” He looked around the camp. “We’ve all got family over there!” He saw the looks of understanding and compassion. “Get back to your tents!” It was an order that was quickly obeyed.
Todd Anderson slapped his kepi against his pant leg and slowly started toward his tent. He stopped when he felt a strong arm on his shoulder.
“Don’t write your family—at least until the war’s over,” Chris said softly. It was a warning they could all understand.
“Yes, sir.” Anderson nodded and returned to his tent.
“It’s gonna get worse,” Josiah said softly, stepping up beside Chris.
Buck kicked his feet up and leaned back against the tree he was resting against. His head hurt, and his gut turned. Slowly, he ran his fingers through his hair and closed his eyes.
The noises of camp life filled his ears: music, songs, horses, and the commotions of men. The stars were beginning to shimmer and night was blanketing.
Buck could feel Chris’ presence before he heard him. A smile came to his lips as he heard the familiar sigh and he looked up in time to see him take a seat next to him.
“Biscuit?” Chris asked, handing over the small object.
“You didn’t eat anythin’ earlier,” Chris noted, before taking a bite of the day old bread.
“You feelin’ all right?”
“You’re startin’ to sound like my mother—God rest her soul…so, stop it.”
“Suit yourself,” Chris replied, knowing not to argue. “I’d like to start workin’ some cattle with the horses when I get back home—maybe drive them west when they’re fat enough.”
“Figured with any extra money, Sarah and I could build a bigger home—maybe one with an extra room.” There was a smile in his tone—something he always had when he spoke of Sarah and their future together.
Buck looked at him and grinned. “I was thinkin’ back when you two met—an’ old Mr. Connolly sure had it in for you.” He chuckled.
Chris nodded in agreement, unable to hide his smile. “Hell, that was half the fun.” He finished off his biscuit. He licked off his thumb and forefinger before stopping and shaking his head. “Looks like Bill Wilson’s tryin’ to con Timmy out of his tobacco.” He watched the two men and their antics.
Buck chuckled: “Serves him right if he falls for it.”
“Still mad about that wet blanket?”
“Wouldn’t you be?” Buck replied.
Chris shrugged: “Beats not havin’ one at all.”
“Anyone ever told you you’re an ass?”
“Not lately.” Chris leaned back with a sighed.
Outside Richmond Virginia
Funny how things could change so quickly, how one-day things seemed surreal, and the next…reality hit hard—too hard. Ezra rode beside his commanding officer with a smile on his face. He was looking forward to seeing Katherine again, it had been four days…not a lot by most standards, but to a soldier it had been a long time. Enough time to have fought and won a battle, to have buried their dead and taken count of the names they’d lost—enough time to have penned letters to families—enough time to share the tragic news.
Eleven men rode together, all silent in their endeavor. Mrs. Shilake had willingly offered to feed those men who would be hungry after the battle, care for the wounded, and offer her house as a place of sanctuary.
General Stuart’s men were in need of that now.
Just because they’d won didn’t mean they hadn’t suffered.
Hearts sank and horses quickly started to dance as the smell of burning flesh hit their senses. Lieutenant Mosby spurred his mount’s sides and sped forward. His men quickly followed. It wasn’t easy to watch, and it was sickening to see. Smoke billowed from the roof and several of the barns—even the slave quarters were burning. Those that were still living tried valiantly to quench the hungry flames, but they quickly found themselves without hope and gathered themselves together in small groups: crying, praying, and mourning the loss of family and friends. Animals of all kinds lay dead across the land, most having been shot.
The cavalrymen sat hopeless atop their horses watching as a once lively place succumbed the anger and defeat of rogue Yankees.
Ezra dismounted and led Pitch through the all too familiar sight. Bodies, some slaves, some not, lay in grotesque positions. Some having tried to protect the animals, and others their homes, had been slaughtered all the same. Men and women, boys and girls…nobody was left unharmed by the madness.
Lieutenant Mosby dismounted and looked carefully around the area. He knew the villains were gone, he’d seen this before. He left his horse in care of his sergeant and walked amongst the dead and dying. “Corporal Mayers,” he called, “fetch one of the physicians from camp—there are wounded here that need attention.” His ordered was heeded and quickly obeyed. “The rest of you,” he looked out toward the remaining nine men, “you’ll help burry the dead and slaughter the animals—we still have a regiment to feed.” He watched them nod their heads hesitantly and slowly dismount.
“Sir?” Ezra said softly, approaching from behind his commanding officer.
The lieutenant quickly turned and nodded after the salute.
“There’s somethin’ you should see,” Ezra spoke softly and turned toward the large oak tree.
Mrs. Shilake sat at the base of the massive oak, between the spreading roots, holding her bloodied Katherine protectively in her arms. Her once fine dress had been torn and stained. Her hair frayed about her face and neck, and her face marred with violent bruises and marks of dirt. Tear lines ran from her eyes to her chin in perfect unison—untouched. “Sam tried to save her,” she said softly, looking blankly out past the two soldiers. “They cut him from his privates to his neck.” She met the lieutenant’s eyes. “What’s the justice in that?” She gripped her daughter’s blouse tighter. “What’s the purpose in this?” She reached up and wiped her daughter’s face gently, seeing only those unseeing eyes. “She was all Ah had that mattered.”
Lieutenant Mosby removed his hat and wiped his brow with his arm, unable to say anything to comfort a grieving mother. He looked toward Ezra and pointed his finger out toward the fields. “Take Private O’Neal with you and look for more refugees…they’ll travel with us.”
Ezra nodded, unable to speak and watched as his commanding officer squat down and reach out and touch the young mother’s arm. “I can only promise you that we’ll search long and hard for the undesirables that did this—they’ll receive their justice. You have mine and my men’s fullest sympathies, Mrs. Shilake, and we’ll do all we can to comfort you in your time of grief.” His words were honest and unwavering. He’d do what he promised.
The dead were buried and General Stuart’s council said a powerful, eventful, and uplifting prayer; a prayer that promised comfort. Widows and orphans eased the pain of the grieving mother and together they prepared for another refugee to join their camp. Like soldiers without a leader, they followed the cavalry, hunted for food, aided the wounded, and cared for the sick. They weren’t a hindrance; at many times they were the strength of the unit.
The animals worth slaughtering were quickly put to use, many made into jerky, the rest was made into stews or roasted over fires. The men didn’t complain, they needed the nourishment and the refugees needed to feed themselves and their families. Nothing went without being used: horses, mules, pigs, cattle, goats, chickens…and even a few dogs along the way.
Ezra rubbed Pitch’s legs down, making sure he wasn’t lame. The horse seemed content under his master’s care, nearly falling asleep while being brushed.
“Did ya heah?” young Private Dickenson said, tethering his horse to the overhead rope. He continued before Ezra could reply, “Stuart’s sendin’ out a group to hunt those grimy bastards down that done this to that family.”
“The Shilake family,” Ezra corrected, “and it should be done.”
“Lieutenant Mosby’s pickin’ the men hisself—they think they’ah Yankee sympathizers, Southern boys…jest like us.”
“They’ah not like us,” Ezra replied bitterly.
“Can’t fix mah mind ‘round that…Ah think they’ah Yankees—down here causin’ a ruckus to pull us away from the action. Hell, most know that Stuart’s the one that keeps Lee informed where the enemy is anyway—wouldn’t be any surprise that they’d do anythin’ to keep him occupied.”
“You talk too much, Petah,” Ezra said softly, shaking his head.
The young private shrugged his shoulders and started rubbing his horse down. “Know that…mah, Ma always said so.”
Ezra turned suddenly when Lieutenant Mosby quickly rode up. He looked at both the young men, but pointed toward Corporal Standish. “Saddle up, you’re riding with me—pick out three other fast horses and make sure they’re saddled and ready to ride.” He spun quickly and galloped off, gathering the rest of his band.
“You’ah goin’ with ‘im,” Dickenson said with a grin.
Ezra sighed…yes, he was.
Men without purpose could rarely justify their deeds, and the ones that could were liars. Ezra was learning the hard way that men were more than their actions; many times they were what they said they’d become.
War didn’t just take the innocent…it took them all.
He rode there, with nine others, all with a plan—an idea—justified in their endeavor. It wasn’t difficult finding the enemy, it was difficult knowing what had to be done once they were discovered. Murders, rapists, and thieves—all would be hung…and to a boy of thirteen it all seemed unreal.
Ezra rubbed his forehead and hung gently onto Pitch’s reins. He wanted to go home…he wanted to eat Evie’s overcooked roast again, maybe even give her a hug. He wanted to listen to Orin tell one of his stories. He wanted to hear from his mother. He missed waking up every morning in a comfortable, warm bed. He missed having a glass of milk with super, and he missed his friends. Maybe he and Vin could sneak into Mrs. Nettie’s cookie jar, that idea brought a smile to his face.
“What’re you smilin’ at, kid?” one of the men asked.
“Nothin’ you need to be concerned with,” came the quick reply.
The older man laughed and slapped his thigh. He slowed his mount so he could ride side by side with the much younger soldier. “Name’s Pappy Sewall.” He stuck his hand out and Ezra shook it firmly. “Got yourself a good shake there.” He smiled while he spoke, like a man with nothing left to lose.
“Well, it’s good to meet ya, Ezra Standish.” He reached up and scratched at his beard. “Can I ask ya something’?” He waited for the young man to nod, when he did he continued, “Why’re you leadin’ three saddled horses behind ya?”
“Ah’m the curriah, sir.”
“Quite a job for someone so young.”
“Ah can handle it.”
Pappy smiled and nodded: “I bet you can.” He sighed and looked up the road. “You know that girl that was killed?”
Ezra hesitated and then slowly nodded.
“Yeah.” Pappy shook his head. “It’s a damn shame what folks ‘ill do when given the chance.”
Ezra nodded and looked up in time to see Mosby send out two of his men. They galloped off in hopes of discovering the culprits. “Do you think we’ll captuah them?” came the whispered question.
“Mosby’s a pretty determined man…I think we’ll catch ‘em…just a matter of knowin’ where to look.” He glanced toward the distant fields, knowing the enemy was out there, confronting men like himself. “Lost my two boys an’ my wife near eight months ago…I was out plowin’ an’ I knew the blue bellies was close, didn’t realize how close ‘til I saw the plume of smoke come from the direction of my home. I dropped everythin’, left the horses attached to the plow an’ I ran home.” He paused while thinking about the memory. “By the time I got there, they was all dead. Fire took ‘em…kinda glad it did, be a shame havin’ to live knowin’ my wife was taken an’ killed by hoard of wild Yankees.”
Ezra nodded in understanding. “How’d you come to join this group?” This man intrigued him.
“I’s always real good with a rifle an’ horses—so I saddled ol’ Blackie an’ joined the first outfit I come to—been with ‘em ever since.”
“Do you think you’ll find the men that took them from you?”
“Nope,” came the sad reply, “but I reckon the more Yankees I kill now ‘ill leave fewer for me to kill later on.”
Ezra looked at the man and saw his pain, anger, and disappointment. He knew now why it was so easy to turn—to believe so strongly in something or someone one minute, and the next believe otherwise. Pappy was just like the rest of them…he wanted to live his life in peace…but now he couldn’t.
He never would again.
1st Lt John Singleton Mosby was JEB Stuart’s best scout for good reasons. He could locate anyone, anytime, and at anyplace. His diligence and command of character were proof enough to his men that he could handle any situation he came upon, and he did. This day, his attentions were focused on the Shilake family, and the men that took their lives.
It was Mosby himself that discovered the fire burning in the distance, the screaming of women, braying of mules, and shots coming from weapons; this wasn’t a battle, it was another merciless raid. Mosby ordered his men to circle the farmhouse and wait for his command. He wanted those men alive and held responsible for their deeds. He turned toward Ezra with a firm look on his blemished face.
“Ride hard an’ fast to the general’s headquartahs an’ infohm him of our current position—tell him we will advance back as soon as justice is done.” He wrote out a note quickly and handed it to Ezra.
“Will I need proof, sah?” Ezra asked, dismounting his own horse and mounting one of the geldings he’d been leading.
Mosby chuckled and handed Ezra the feathery plume from his hat. “That should be proof enough,” he said with a smile.
Ezra nodded and slipped the plume into a safe place behind the cantle of the saddle. He nodded once and with the other two horses still ponied behind him he headed back toward General Stuart’s headquarters.
Mosby watched him leave before ordering his men to take their positions. He wanted this done quickly and effectively.
With one hand on his horse’s reins and the other on the lead ropes of the horses he led, including Pitch, he rushed through the brush and fields toward his destination. He jumped creek beds and downed trees, all with one goal to accomplish. When the mount he rode started to tire he slowed down a bit and pulled the small gray mare up beside him and quickly mounted her all the while never losing pace. He let the big chestnut go and the animal moved off to the left, slowing to a trot before coming to a complete stop.
It was easier for him, knowing he wouldn’t be there, witnessing the punishment due those men who’d so violently taken the lives of Katherine and her family. They deserved whatever penalty given to them. Ezra was just thankful he wouldn’t be there to see it. He’d seen enough just hours before…he’d never forget it.
Ezra knew his job was important, and he was proud of it. He loved the feeling of doing something right and doing it well; knowing that in the end he’d made a difference. He wanted to make his family proud, to know that his love of his home in Virginia had meant something, and that it wasn’t just an idea of something more.
His mount stumbled and he fell slightly forward, catching himself on the pommel and on the horse’s mane. He quickly corrected himself and continued on his way, never slowing. He knew he had to hurry; General Stuart depended on Lieutenant Mosby and his men.
They were the eyes of the South.
March 22, 1862
The mountains moved gently with the breeze, taking the sounds of battle with it. Trees swayed, leaved quivered, and the long grass rolled like the ocean’s surface. No man could deny its beauty—and no one would let it go.
The fields were now covered with those unable to move; some dead, some dying, and others frozen with uncertainty. A truce had been called, allowing both sides to aid their wounded and retrieve their dead. Boys of all ages were put on makeshift stretchers. Those that could walk used their rifles as a means of support while others crawled.
It was a sight to behold as men of war looked on—sickened by the sight—but justified in their cause. A riderless horse trotted through the commotion, its reins flying about its head and slapping against its legs. The gray’s ears swiveled forward and backward and his neck arched as he continued unaware down his path. Symbolic of everyone.
Buck wiped his brow with his hand and looked over the field. Soaked to the bone and unable to think clearly, he just stared. He’d seen so much already. It was now becoming routine…and with that came uncertainty. His life had never been so complicated, so gruesome—branding cattle, fixing fences, and securing the occasional wheel to a wagon—it all seemed so trivial, but now…
He missed his old life more than anything…the simplicity of it. The long days in the saddle, callused hands and splinters, and even the long hours of tracking down stray cattle. Life had always been complicated, it wasn’t meant to be easy, but now it was more—much more, and at times like now, it seemed impossible to bear.
“My pa told me once that a man’s got to hear more than his own voice,” the young soldier said quickly, as though still in thought. “Weren’t never sure what he meant by it.” He shrugged and looked at his hands, and those men around him. “S’pose I know now.”
Buck nodded in understanding, unwilling and unable to say anything. He looked around, searching for the faces of his friends—his family: Chris, Josiah, Jacob, and Steven.
“…Buck,” Chris said for the third time. He reached out and clasped Buck’s shoulder.
Buck jumped and turned his attention to his friend. “Sorry…lost in thought.”
“You all right?”
He nodded and roughly wiped at his face. “Just tired,” came the mundane reply.
Chris accepted the response. “We’ve been ordered to ride out toward the eastern most ridge, Steven’s unit still ain’t back yet.”
Buck nodded again, he needed a chance to do something else. “Anyone else goin’?”
“Just a few—captain don’t want us gone too long—just wants to know where the boys are.” Chris turned his horse to the right and slowly started off, he turned in his saddle to make sure Buck was following. “Are you sure you’re feelin’ all right?”
“Tired, Chris, that’s all,” Buck replied, almost bitterly. He turned his horse to follow Chris and pulled the collar of his jacket up and around his neck, trying to ward off the sudden chill in his bones.
Chris’ stomach turned when he came up over the low ridge, seeing the destruction below on the field. Steven’s regiment lay dead and dying on the bitter ground. The field had been stripped of weapons and horses by the Confederates, the only thing remaining were those that couldn’t move on their own.
“God have mercy,” Buck whispered, riding up beside Chris.
It never ended, or so it seemed. Fields full of young men, the blood, and the waste…it was a never-ending cycle that only led to death. And they were a part of it. Buck rubbed at his eyes, needing to avert his attention elsewhere. Chris looked on, as though in some distant way he could understand the brutality. Slowly, horses were urged forward and together the six men rode into the field, searching for the living—searching for those they knew.
It wasn’t just weapons, and horses that were missing…it was ammunition, artillery, and uniforms that were gone as well. The confederates took what they could, leaving the rest in the hands of nature and the Union army.
Chris dismounted when he spotted a familiar white shirt that peaked up past some brush. His heart was telling him what his mind refused to acknowledge. Slowly, he knelt next to the body and rolled him over, allowing a bloodied face exposure to the sun. Chris’ shoulders slumped, his heart twisted, and his mind reeled. What would he tell Mary? Orin and Evie? How would he explain this? He reached out and closed opened lids, looked up toward the rest of his small band. He could tell by looking at Buck that he already knew.
Steven was dead.
“Murphy!” Chris yelled. “Ride back to camp and tell the colonel what’s happened—let him know we need some help.” His words were strong, but his faith became frail. He watched as Buck dismounted and walked slowly toward him.
“How?” he asked, needing the just of it.
“How else,” came the oversimplified response.
Buck nodded in understanding and suddenly went down. He fell back onto his seat, catching his elbows on the base of a downed tree. He looked up and smiled as Chris rushed to his side. “Not feelin’ real well,” were his only words.
Panic stuck Chris like a train. He rushed to Buck’s side and made sure to keep him sitting in an upright position. “Shit, Buck…don’t do this now,” he whispered, pressing the palm of his hand against Buck’s forehead.
“Seems as good a time as any.” Buck took a deep breath and sighed: “I don’t want to die out here,” he whispered, afraid someone else might hear.
“You ain’t dyin’,” Chris ordered. “I’ll take you back to camp and have the doc look at you—he’ll fix you right up.” He wanted to sound strong, but he knew the odds.
Buck nodded and tried to stand as Chris pulled him up. “It’d be funny, ya know,” he chuckled, “dyin’ just days ‘fore the war ends.”
“Keep talkin’ like that, Buck, I’ll put a bullet in you now.” Chris wrapped his arm around Wilmington’s waist and slowly guided him toward his horse. “Ain’t got many friends left—aim on keepin’ the ones I’ve got.”
“Looks like you boys could use some help?” Josiah said, his voice sending hope into those around him. He stepped up behind Buck and helped him into his saddle. “He gonna be all right?” He looked toward Chris who had quickly mounted his own horse.
“Yeah,” came the confident reply. He turned his face toward the ground and looked toward Steven’s body. “Can you…?”
“Of course,” Josiah replied, looking solemnly at his friend. His heart clenched in pain from the loss of a comrade. He watched Chris ride off with Buck before looking toward Steven’s body. His uniform jacket was gone, as well as his hat. Someone had taken his boots, weapons, and of course, his personal belongings. Josiah grabbed his bedroll and carefully wrapped it around Steven before lifting him onto his own big chestnut.
Josiah wasn’t sure what to feel at the moment, anger toward the Confederacy…anger toward the Union for not doing more to avoid the war. Hopefully it would all end soon, before more men and boys lost their lives, but his gut instincts told him differently. He knew it would last longer.
Slowly, he headed back toward camp. He watched the young men gathering the remains of the men lost to the battle, some friends others comrades. Josiah was thankful he wouldn’t be writing Mary home with the news of her husband’s death, or Evie and Orin. What awful news it would be for them. A mother and father were losing their only child, and a wife and mother was losing her husband. Young Billy would never grow to know his father, only the stories he would hear from family.
Josiah took a deep breath and continued on foot toward camp.
Buck lay sleeping on his bedroll in the tent he and Chris were sharing. A fever raged through his body. After spending almost a week being sick and not telling anyone, he was now suffering the consequences of his actions. Chris sat next to him, nursing him the best he could. The doctors were busy with wounded and more sick, it would be days before they’d have time for Buck. Chris didn’t want him dying in a tent that smelled of death. If Buck were going to die, he’d die with the people he cared the most for.
Chris looked at the blank sheet of paper and the pen thinking about the words he needed to write. Steven Travis had been a friend for a long time. And Mary…
“You…goin’ to…tell ‘er?” Buck asked, turning his head to look at Chris.
Chris nodded and moved toward Buck’s side. “How’re you feelin’?”
Buck took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he waited for the pain to pass. “My insides…are all twisted up.”
“Why didn’t you say somethin’ sooner?”
“Look…around, Chris,” Buck said softly, pulling the blankets up further over his shoulders. “I don’t want to die…not there.”
“You ain’t goin’ to die,” he ordered.
Buck nodded; he’d do his best.
Chris dipped a cloth in the small bucket of water and quickly rang it out before wiping Buck’s face. “You should try an’ drink somethin’.”
“Can’t,” came the one word answer. He closed his eyes and began to doze off.
Chris slumped back and ran his fingers through his hair. “Can’t lose another friend,” he said quietly.
Ezra’s size aided him greatly with his duties. His shorter stature, youthful appearance, and light weight insured his position as a currier. Pitch planted his hind legs and dirt rode up his cannon bones and spraying outward. Ezra dismounted before the horse could come to a complete stop and he rushed for the general’s tent. An officer stopped him before he could enter, wanting to know the boy’s business.
“Ah have word from Lieutenant Mosby—Ah’m his curriah.” Ezra spoke softly, as though he didn’t have enough strength to speak with. He held out Mosby’s plume.
“He’s been expectin’ you,” the lieutenant replied, standing aside.
Ezra moved forward, feeling his heart pound and his pulse race. He’d only spoken to General Stuart one time before, and he found the man very intimidating, while at the same time, no different than himself. “General Stuart, sir,” Ezra said, speaking loud enough through the tent flaps so the general could hear. “Ah have information regardin’ Lieutenant Mosby’s raid.”
“Entah,” came the deep, throatful voice.
The general stood before his mirror, carefully trimming his long beard. “It’s diligently important to keep ones self in a befittin’ mannah.” He said with a smile, standing back from the mirror and running his hand over his hair before looking toward Ezra. “It has indeed been a time since Ah last laid eyes on you—and how is Pitch doin’?”
“Fine, sir,” Ezra replied.
“Take a seat,” the general ordered, slipping his long jacket on. “What news have you?” His voice showed the concern that his appearance didn’t.
“Upon leavin’ the lieutenant, he had encircled the reprobates. They were Yankees, sir…however, their leader wore a confederate uniform.” Ezra wasn’t sure what to think of the situation. “Mosby believed he knew the man.” He handed the general the folded letter.
Stuart nodded in understanding and stood up. “Don’t judge a man by his uniform, but rather the deeds he performs while wearing it.” He opened the letter and nodded to himself, before folding it back up. He moved to his small desk that was tucked away in the corner of his tent and wrote out another note. He sealed it along with the brief message from Mosby. General Stuart handed it to Ezra. “General Jackson’s regiment is 15 miles southwest of here. It’s imperative that he get this.”
Ezra took the note and carefully placed it in his breast pocket. With all the courage he could muster he asked, “Are the Yankees movin’ in, sir?”
Stuart smiled, his youthful appearance hidden by a sturdy beard and wise eyes. He grabbed his hat, insuring the plume was secured in place. “They shall continue to try.” He carefully placed his hat on his head. “Don’t berate the enemy’s intentions, Corporal, instead, learn from their successes and our failures.” He looked at Ezra and smiled, “Ah expect you to get that to General Jackson as soon as humanly possible.”
Ezra nodded, but remained standing.
“You’re excused, corporal.”
Ezra turned and quickly exited the tent. He rushed for Pitch and then mounted before saluting to Stuart who was now standing outside his tent.
“There’s a battle comin’, Captain Peterson,” General Stuart said, a hint of thrill in his tone, “Prepare the men.” He watched Mosby’s courier race away, the hopes of the upcoming battle within his grasp.
March 24, 1862
Chris was pulled from his duty to his men, to his duty to Buck. With the makeshift hospitals full and more men becoming sick everyday, Chris didn’t bother taking his best friend to the camp. Instead, Buck continued a restless sleep in his sergeant’s tent. Chris continued his nursing skills, though poor by most accounts, it was better than leaving Buck at the doors of uncertainty. His sickness had come about after days of ignoring the symptoms, and now he suffered the consequences. A raging fever, bouts of delirium, and a stomach so weak it could hold nothing, he continued despite his chances.
Jacob and Josiah both spent nightly vigils by his side while Chris tended to his duties around camp. Though the days had warmed up considerably, the nights still grew cold and most were damp. It was a cruel torture. It never truly rained, but a heavy mist hung in the air like a shroud.
Josiah placed a cool rag against Buck’s forehead, trying to keep that burning fever from pulling his friend into a permanent state of madness. He ranted incoherently about his mother, home, his friends, and at times, the horrors he’d seen in battle. Josiah didn’t need a translator to know what tore at his friend’s heart.
The night fires were burning and the sounds of camp rang true in Josiah’s ears. He thought about his home, his friends, and his family…those still living and those now dead. He’d lost a lot of friends this past year…too many to count.
“You’d do us all a favor, brother, if you woke up and told me about some young gal that’s captured your attention,” Josiah spoke softly, looking from Buck to the opening of the tent.
“Molly,” came the whispered reply from the bunk.
Josiah looked at Buck and smiled. “Molly?”
Buck nodded and weakly wiped at his face. He knocked the wash towel off his forehead. “Red hair, an’ the prettiest smile north of here.” He couldn’t help but smile. “What happened?”
“You’ve been sick for the past three days,” Josiah answered, tossing the cloth back into the pail of water.
“Only three?” Buck returned.
Josiah nodded: “Only three.”
April 13, 1862
“He looks like his father,” Evie said, holding her grandson while he slept peacefully in her arms.
“He definitely has Steven’s appetite,” Mary replied, kneading dough for biscuits. She wiped a stray blonde hair away from her face, leaving white powder across her chin. “He could eat a whole loaf of bread in one sitting.” She couldn’t help but chuckle.
“By the time he was sixteen he was six three.” Evie shook her head, gently brushing her hand across Billy’s forehead. “I don’t know where he got it from.” When small blue eyes looked up, Evie smiled and stood, carefully shifting Billy onto her hip. “He’s going to be tall and strong like his father.” She knew in her heart her words rang true.
Mary nodded in agreement, carefully cutting round circles from the dough. She laid them each out onto the cast iron pan. “I want Billy to have two more brothers,” she straightened by pressing her hands at the base of her back, “and one sister.”
Evie chuckled, handing Billy a toy rattle. “Does Steven know this?”
“Not as yet,” Mary replied, hearing the door open and close.
“Orin must be home,” Evie said happily.
Mary removed her apron and laid it on the kitchen counter before following Evie into the foyer.
Orin stood, still dressed in his heavy coat. He held his hat and scarf in his right hand; his left was filled with letters.
Evie turned suddenly and handed Billy to Mary, knowing something was wrong. The stillness in Orin’s demeanor alerted her to his worry. “Orin?” she asked quietly, almost fearing what it was he needed to say.
He looked up, his eyes filled with compassion. “On March 21st, Steven was ordered with his men to check the eastern most ridge of the….” He paused, why did it matter? He could tell he really didn’t need to say anything further, Evie and Mary already knew. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “he never made it back.”
“He’s dead?” Mary half questioned. She held her son tighter, feeling her heart flutter.
Evie stood like a stone, afraid to move. Her head felt light, and her feet like lead. Without any warning someone had reached into her chest and brutally tossed her heart onto the floor.
Her son was dead.
Orin stepped forward and wrapped his arms around his wife, sharing her grief, feeling every ounce of her pain.
Mary sank to the floor, her legs having turned to rubber. Her dress bloomed out around her and she ignored the slobber coming from Billy’s mouth as he tried to shove the rattle between his gums. Mary stared at a small pebble that had somehow been lodged into the floorboards. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but she made no sound. In one single moment her life had changed. Her son would never know his father, and she would never again hear the laughter in Steven’s voice, the softness of his touch, or the joy in his heart.
Billy dropped his rattle and Mary’s eyes caught the movement. At the top of his lungs, Billy cried out, and Mary adjusted her grip and gently planted a loving kiss on his forehead. A wave of emotion hit her and she cried as well, no longer able to hide her grief. She held her son and they cried together, one from death, the other from confusion.
It would have been easier, having a body to bury, rather than a telegram from the military. Evie had chosen a pair of Steven’s baby shoes to include in the small wooden box that would have to substitute for a coffin. Mary had chosen Steven’s letters—substitutes for the man.
It had been Orin’s idea, to bury a few items—it was after all, a sentimental way to say goodbye. He knew and understood how difficult it was to bring a body home—particularly that long a distance. It was better for everyone that Steven had been buried not far from where he’d fallen, and with his men. Chris and the others would have made sure the burial had been done right, and unlike so many others; Steven had family who would miss him greatly.
Sarah held her friend with one arm, and her son in the other. Many people from Meadowdale had shown up out of friendship and respect for the Travis family. Many came believing firmly in the Confederacy, others for the Union, but they put their convictions aside to bury one of their own.
Steven wasn’t the first son of Meadowdale to be lost, and most understood that he wouldn’t be the last. Mother’s who’d lost their children understood and empathized with Evie, while wives—now widows, supported Mary on her difficult journey. Those that were fortunate to still have their loved ones, hoped and prayed they all came home.
Nettie looked out past the cemetery, wishing both her boys would come riding back home together. She feared more than death, the madness it caused, and those it claimed. He grasped hold of her husband’s arm, needing his strength, his patience, and his love. She looked toward Evie, seeing her friend mourning the loss of her only child, and fearing more death in the future for everyone.
July 17th, 1862
Chris understood his responsibility as a first sergeant, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed it. He knew every man in the company by name and much of their history before the war. He carried out orders given to him by the captain and he made sure everything was done in an orderly, and timely fashion. He abided the responsibility, and he took it upon himself to do the best job he could.
He reread the letter he’d received from Sarah that had been dated November 23rd. The mail was slow, but at least it arrived—at least some of it. The folds in the paper were nearly worn through and the corners were bent and torn. He didn’t need to read it, he had every line memorized, but he needed to see the smooth stroke of Sarah’s hand as she wrote fluidly over the sheet. Every line brought her closer to him, step by step.
Chris knew he wouldn’t be home any time soon, and he wished more than ever that he’d taken Sarah and moved west…someplace where they could be together. He wanted a family, a home, and eventually a child. He couldn’t see himself without it.
He stood up from the small wooden stool and looked out toward the camp, with a battle ahead he could see the resolve in the men under his command. His friends, some old and some new, talked and worked as though they’d been their forever…
To many, it seemed as though they had been.
“You look like a banker watchin’ ‘is money,” Buck said, before finishing off his cup of coffee. He scratched at his face, wishing he’d taken the time to shave that morning.
Chris smiled and hesitantly nodded. “How’re you feelin’?”
“Better,” he admitted, “but if there were a few ladies around here I’d be doin’ just fine,” his voice grew hungry like a bear.
Chris nodded, Buck was back. “Have you seen the others?”
“Jacob’s down with Josiah playin’ baseball…they’ve got a pretty good game goin’. Pot roast vs Jerky…we’re all hoping team Pot roast wins.”
Chris chuckled in agreement.
Buck grew sullen and took a deep breath before asking his next question. “Jacob got a letter from Nettie…seems she ain’t heard from Samuel…and nobody’s heard from Ezra neither…” he sighed and watched the crowd in the distance cheer when someone got on base, “…I’m thinkin’ they’re dead.”
Chris remained silent. There was a strong possibility they were gone. “What do you want me to tell you?”
“Tell me I’m full of shit,” Buck replied lightheartedly.
“That goes without sayin’.”
There was a roar of laughter and cheers in the distance. Men jumped up and down in celebration of their win. Water was thrown and the losers were unmercifully shoved into the nearby stream.
A young man appeared out of what seemed like nowhere, wearing a worn blue uniform, and a large satchel thrown over his shoulder. He stepped up to the small fire where Chris and Buck were both seated, enjoying a cup of coffee…but wishing for a cheroot.
“I’m lookin’ for Sergeant Larabee,” he said gruffly, tossing the bag next to his feet.
“That’d be me,” Chris replied, quietly wondering when he’d get saluted.
The young man stood up straight and brought his hand to his forehead. “Private Linn, sir…I’ve got mail for you and your men.” He dropped his hand when Chris nodded and returned to a resting position, allowing his shoulders to come slightly forward.
“Where’s Private Hopkins?” Chris asked.
“Dead, sir,” came the brash reply. “I’m needed back at the mess, may I leave, sir?”
Chris nodded and grabbed the satchel. “Help me sort this.” He tossed it between Buck and himself.
“When this damn war is over, I’m goin’ to tell you no the next time you want me to do somethin’.” Buck smiled, reaching into the bag and retrieving a handful of letters.
It was Christmas in July. Everyone, it seemed, had received at least one letter, and some even more. Men sat in circles around fires, reading their news from home, while others removed themselves from company to read in solitude.
Chris looked at the letters in his hands…it had been four long months since he’d last heard from Sarah, and now he held four letters. His heart raced in his chest and his pulse thumped in his ears. He looked around at the others, not hearing the words coming from Buck’s mouth as he read his letter from Gloria Potter. While everyone erupted in laughter, he stood up and quietly left them to read on his own.
He carefully slipped into his tent and lit the lantern sitting on the small table next to his bed. He couldn’t wait to open the first letter, but at the same time, he couldn’t bear the thought of it. He knew once he began he wouldn’t be able to finish until he was through…and that would happen so fast. He looked at the dates written on the back of each letter, smiling as he did so, knowing Sarah had wanted to make sure he got them in the right order. He shrugged, realizing he was missing at least five letters, but alas he wouldn’t fret. He had four.
Carefully, Chris opened the first letter and began reading…
He didn’t understand at first, and read the letter three times before covering his mouth with his hand and taking a deep breath. His chest burned, and his eyes watered. A new fire seemed to ignite within him, and he understood for the first time how he could love someone after never having met them. He was a father…a father to a young, healthy, beautiful, baby boy. Never in his life did he want to saddle his horse and ride away so fast. The idea of being away from his family tore him inside and out. He should have been there…he shouldn’t have come.
He looked up from the letter, as always, Sarah’s handwriting was perfect, and if he didn’t already know, she’d been happy while writing it. She’d probably been radiant, and more than perfect. He never got to feel his son kick, or been there to rub Sarah’s back…he never even got the chance to tell her how much he loved her…all because of this damned war.
He stood up abruptly and stormed out of his tent, leaving the remaining letters on the small table. He never turned to look who was following him, his only goal was getting to his horse, saddling and riding out as soon as he could. He had a family to take care of…he had a son that he hadn’t met yet, and a wife that needed him home.
Chris grabbed Gray’s bridle and untied the big horse from the rope line. He didn’t expect Josiah’s big hand to stop him. Chris turned in anger, and took a threatening step back.
“I know you’re a smart man, Chris…but you don’t have a chance fightin’ me.” He took the lead from Chris’ hand. He didn’t have to know the details. It was Chris’ long strides and determined appearance that had him worried.
“I have to go home, Josiah…don’t try and stop me.” He didn’t have the physical strength Josiah did, but he had the determination.
“You leave now you’ll be on the run for the rest of your life—if caught, you’ll be tried and convicted of desertion—”
“I have a family to take care of!”
“—You can’t do that if you’re spending your time in prison, or worse, executed!” Josiah’s voice boomed.
“I have a son, Josiah,” Chris whispered, a plea of sorts. He bowed his head and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Then make him proud,” came the honest reply. “If you leave here, you’ll be on the run for the rest of your life. Is that what you want for your family? Moving from place to place, always looking over their shoulders?” He looked hard at Chris, knowing he understood.
Chris took a defeated step back. “What if I don’t make it?” He looked up into compassionate eyes.
“You will,” Josiah said with conviction. “We all will.”
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