Chapter 6, Scene from the Texas home front
Berni was nearly finished with her letter to Adrien. She had received two of her brother’s letters since last September, not including the note she found under her doorway begging her forgiveness for not personally saying goodbye. The affair with Lily had sent him off; she was sure. Only a kiss, he’d said all those months ago. But from Lily’s behavior at her wedding, it hadn’t ended there. She should have known, but she’d been too caught up with Will, with her own wedding. If only Maman were still alive.
Then, Papa, strangely reticent since he received Adrien’s first letter. The family shared their letters, but Papa no longer shared all letters from Adrien, not before reading them first. With that first letter Papa’s face had gone pale and he abruptly excused himself, taking the letter with him. Of course, she did not share everything Will wrote to her, but that was different, wasn’t it?
She had stopped writing and was staring out her bedroom window, seeing nothing. Drat. The ink in my quill has dried.
After two days of October rain the afternoon had turned sunny and all the windows were open to let in fresh air, which explained why she heard a galloping horse arriving at the front of the house. Who had ridden up so hurriedly? They had not come from town or she would have seen since her window opened east to the main road. I must finish these last few sentences . . . .
Voices downstairs. One male and the other was surely Joanna, in the parlor with her baby. Papa and Lucien were working in the fields and Isaac had taken the boys out back to help Betta in the garden. At a rambunctious five, Renee was best outside as much as possible, and Gabe wanted to be with his older brother. What a relief how her older brother, Lucien, had softened since marrying Joanna and becoming a father.
The male voice rose louder—and familiar. Bernie did not like the sharp, frustrated tone of Joanna’s response. Drat. She carefully put her pen in its holder and, with a swish of her skirts, hurried out of her room.
“You mustn’t,” she heard Joanna say.
“I have to.” Berni matched the voice to the wind-blown profile she saw facing Joanna, his hat grasped tightly in one fist—Joanna’s youngest brother, Joe.
“You’re only—” Joanna saw Bernie in the doorway. “Tell him, Berni. He plans to go to this horrid war and he’s only sixteen.”
Joe turned, his face dark with emotion. “I’ll be seventeen in three months and Adrien was barely two years older. My friends are waiting and I’m going with them. I only came because I had to tell someone.” He faced Joanna again. “I couldn’t tell Papa, or Mama. You know how they are. I thought you would understand. Of anyone, I thought you would.”
“Because I’m married to a slave owner?” This burst from her in one fierce exhalation. Berni had never heard such anger from Joanna. Though the comment had been made to Joe, she felt as though she had been slapped.
“That slave stuff is abolitionist propaganda.” Joe slapped his hat against his thigh.
“How dare you.” Joanna’s voice had risen an octave. Arms stiff at her side, fingers clutching her skirts, her entire body trembled.
Despite her fast-beating heart, Berni took a step further into the room. “Please,” she said, “we are all family here. Don’t say anything further that you both will regret.”
Both looked at her, mouths slightly open, eyes widening, as though they had forgotten she was there. The baby on the sofa let out a long wail. Joanna’s eyes filled with tears. She spun to pick up her child and sat, burying her face in the baby’s middle and patting her back.
“Sit down, Joe,” Berni said.
“I can’t stay, my friends are waiting.”
“You may be years away with your friends. You can sit with me and your sister for a moment or two.”
Berni sat next to Joanna. The baby quieted to hiccups. “I take it you are joining the Confederacy?” Berni said.
Joe sat forward, hands on his knees, dangling his hat. “Yeah. I don’t want the . . . North, coming down here and taking our land, telling us how to run our affairs.” He looked at the rug near Berni’s feet, then into her face. “Matt, my older brother, you remember him, he rode out last week to join up with them, the North I mean.” His glance took in Joanna, who, from her stiffened form and intake of breath, Berni realized had not known. “So now there’s just my oldest brother, Abe, and his family, Mama, and Papa at home. His hands became fists, squishing the brim of his hat. “They don’t know I left, yet. Me and Matt waited till after harvest,” he said to Joanna. The tone of his voice, the way he looked at her, he hoped this last would receive her approval. He looked down at his hands, absently turning his hat around. “Course, Matt didn’t know I’d be going, too.”
“Oh, Joe,” Joanna said, holding her baby tight. A tear coursed down her cheek.
He looked up, mashed his lips together, lowered his head again, grasped his hat ever tighter, whitening his knuckles. He popped up off the chair. “I better go.”
Joanna carefully lay the now-silent baby on the sofa pillows and rose. “I’ll see you to the door. She followed him out of the parlor. Berni heard the murmur of their voices on the porch, then the sound of his horse galloping off. She hoped he would take care of that horse after galloping all over creation like that or it would not carry him far.
Joanna returned with red eyes and sat next to her. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Will you forgive me?”
“Of course,” Berni said, “for there is nothing to forgive.” Holding one another for a few moments felt splendid. She had a feeling they would all need a good deal of holding in the year to come.
Chapter 8, Terry’s Texas Rangers First Major Battle
The morning sun was a blessing as we trotted up the Nashville Pike outside Woodsonville under a pale winter sky. Heads lifted, nostrils opened wide to the sharp December air, our horses swiveled their ears in anticipation, as if aware this was not a typical morning. Silence reigned in the ranks. Terry and perhaps 250 men were on the north side of the Green River along with a Yankee force of 100,000 men and artillery—the left flank of General Hindman’s brigade. Terry had ordered half our regiment—the part not ill—off in another direction.
“We’re the fat mouse boys.” Lieutenant Morris had told Company K earlier. “We lure Yankees across the river where our own artillery can get at them.” He winked at young Ash Lovell. I thought he did so because Lovell’s chum, Jim McGeHee, had not yet returned from the Nashville Hospital, and Lovell was no end of lonesome.
I did not care for being a mouse—not in the cat’s territory.
Ethan had given me a thin smile when we left our gear back at the bridge—gear we would not need for battle—and I had forced a pinched smile back. I had not felt like smiling at anyone or anything. Ethan thought I was someone I was not, and I already cared too much what Ethan thought.
A lingering cough shook me. I felt light and woozy in the saddle, as though I might float out of it. How long ago that September afternoon when I had wished a minie ball might end all problems. Might death be fast and painless, an abrupt end to guilty musings?
My gloved fist was clenched so tight around the reins it shook.
A bird sang from somewhere in the field on the right. A beautiful song, like a bird back home. Lucky if the thing made it until spring when it should be singing.
What am I doing here?
I had not killed or wounded anyone. During one skirmish a Yankee dropped his rifle and raised his hands. Would I have pulled the trigger if the bluecoat had hung onto his gun?
Crane Forbes said there was often no time to reload in battle. That night I imagined firing twelve shots from my Remington—which included changing cylinders, six more from the Navy Colt I had traded a Yankee rifle for, six more from the Colt Papa had given me, then both barrels from the shotgun—as fast and accurately as possible. On horseback. Under fire. What would such a battle be like?
I would find out today.
I had seen what a ball did to a man that first skirmish. Such a neat little hole where it entered his chest. But when we turned the man over, the mangled flesh, gangly pieces of sinew and shards of bone played havoc in my mind.
I palmed the shotgun in its scabbard beneath my thigh, touched my Bowie knife and the Remington, then the Colts on either side in my belt—I had lost count of how many times I had done so since morning.
Riders galloped down one of the hills to the front of the column . . . our scouts. Officers’ arms raised along the line ahead and everyone came to an abrupt halt, leather creaking, horses snorting and blowing, kicking up half-frozen clods of mud and last year’s dead grass. I tasted mud in the back of my throat.
My own horse, whom I had named Bandit, settled right down. Ethan’s black, ever contrary, arched his neck and sawed at the reins.
“If only this cussed animal is as ornery with the Yankees,” Ethan said.
I wanted to turn this fine horse out of line and gallop off, jump off and back on from one side then the other like we had at the Nashville Fairgrounds. Everyone would laugh and carry on, including the Yankees. All would see how ridiculous it was parading around out here in the cold, preparing to kill one another.
The line started moving again and Bandit moved along with it. We crossed a different bridge back to our own side of the river where maybe there would be no fighting.
We were on high ground in the trees when Captain Montrose called a halt and signaled our two companies to spread to his left and right. The officers kept their voices down; the horses shuffled softly in the wet sponge of leaf litter and mold. Surely the enemy knew we were lined up over here. Lt. Banks murmured that we’d wait in the woods until the infantry moved up.
“Dang, let’s get this over with.”
“What?” Ethan said, from his black.
“Nothing.” I hadn’t realized I had mumbled aloud. I leaned low over Bandit’s neck to peer through bare, overhanging branches. The ridge fell away onto a sun-guilded meadow where hundreds of blue coats poured out of the woods on the far side of a shimmering water course. Was that the same creek we had crossed earlier? The Yankee lines faded off to the right through lifting ground fog. Bayonets pointed up like hundreds of porcupine quills, and morning sun probing the woods beyond flashed warnings of many more. Officers on fine, healthy chargers trotted before the lines.
Bandit shifted from one foot to the other, some other horse snorted. Multiple clouds of horse and man-breath wove in and out of ragged lines of mounted men and trees—the cold air smelled of damp leather, horses and rotted leaves. Someone among the Yankee soldiers down there yelled an order—it sounded like a child from here.
There was a pop, another—a frenzy, like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. My blood rushed. Something whizzed by my ear. The air was full of hornets and someone yelled “Form ranks!” The bugle sounded accordingly and Bandit reacted almost before I signaled with my thighs. The popping became one loud continuous noise.
At Terry’s “Charge ‘em boys, charge!” My heart jumped into my throat. Everyone leaped forward, screaming, and I screamed with them—I had not thought to but I did. The screaming got my heart back where it belonged and let me breathe–my last clear thought.
The charge became a dream, a nightmare: drop reins, shotgun in one hand, revolver in the other. The air buzzed speeding hornets and Bandit’s ears signaled that fluttering smoke-popping blue gash in the black and holly-green thicket full of flashing bayonets and clouds of flashing smoke. A tremendous rumble and hot blood flared on me from the horse at my left before it disappeared with a thud.
Enemy right there and I blew him into bloody pieces and hung on with my thighs and knees and fired my shotgun and pistols. Reloaded with slipping sweaty fingers, heard sharp short whizzes, screams—bangs—thuds. Saw blurs of color, slashes of blue, gray, brown, pitiless red and open angry mouths. My body flared and sang with a rush I had never before known.
At last, Yankees fled from behind their fence and I rode from the field until my bay stood, legs wide, heaving. I sucked at rancid, smokey air, salt sweat burning my eyes, that same sweat soaking my hair, my clothes, congealing in my boots. I slid from Bandit’s back and spewed breakfast. Legs threatened to fold beneath me, ears rang with afterthrum. I ran hands over myself: my legs, my ribs, my arms. Miraculously free of holes. Every part intact.
Ethan found me. “You all right?” Ethan’s raspy voice seemed to come from far away down a long tunnel. I coughed, looked up at Ethan’s dirty face and whispered, “yes.” Then louder, astonished, “yes.” In spite of all I had seen and done, this thing bubbled up from inside—the urge to laugh. Ethan smiled, and I mounted, glorying in a surging feeling of invincibility.
Our squad gathered as we rode back to camp, every one having survived, every one stained with blood, sweat and horse lather, our faces and hands black with gunpowder.
That night as our squad prepared our fire and supper, Ethan brought me boots and a pipe taken from federal dead.
“They’ll no longer have need of such, and I saw your right boot’s worn through, the left nearly so. Got a pair that fit me, too. And look at this—a nice briar. I prefer corncob, but I figured a fine gentleman such as yourself would need a pipe more befitting his stature. Sit here and we’ll give er a try, take that battlefield taste out of your mouth, mine too, I expect. Being a tobacco grower, you ought to do your daddy proper. Let me light that. Draw in the air, short ones, that’ll do it.”
What a ramble, never gave me a chance to back off or get a word in edgewise before the stem was clamped in my teeth. I had to take the thing or it would have fallen onto the damp ground. I hacked once or twice, never having smoked before, but the taste was all right; I had to concentrate—not to draw too much—which kept my mind from other thoughts and stopped my hands from shaking.
Ethan gave me a sly grin through the smoke, lit his own pipe and blew a couple rings. “Not bad, huh?”
“No. Not at all.”
Other boys were laughing and congratulating one another, moving about from fire to fire, showing off their loot.
“I was scared as hell at first,” Ethan said. “But too busy to think about it. Hell of a thing.”
“Hell all right.”
“You did right fine, Adrien.”
“So did you.”
“Guess we saw the elephant today.”
“We surely did.”
Hell of a thing.”
We ate beans, cornbread and beef lifted from Yankee stores. I blinked away images that kept appearing in the flames.
Young Lovell dug into his beans. “I was ridin next to Doby, and I swear that horse of his let out a grand fart with every leap he took. Which probly wiped out more Yanks than any of us.” Chuckles and laughter rounded the group. JJ Petty, a half-Mexican fellow as dark as me, whooped and slapped his knee, nearly sending his meal into the mud.
“Wonder they didn’t pick you off with that flaming hair of your’n, Lovell,” Bill Grissett said. His cowboy drawl was long and twisted up with the tobacco he was always chewing. “When Terry yelled for the charge and them cannon went off, I nearly soiled my trousers.”
Lovell snorted into his coffee cup.
Thus began an unannounced game of how long we could keep laughter going.
Crane Forbes sat to my left, Ethan to my right. Near the end of the meal Forbes pulled out a flask from his pack and passed it to me.
“Whew,” I blew air through my mouth after I had swallowed. “That is some powerful.”
“Brewed it myself. Saved for a special occasion. Figured this was it.”
“I’ll say,” Ethan said, after taking a drink and passing the flask on.
The general consensus prevailed that we had won. Then why did we leave the field to the Yankees?