Authors: Paisley Smith
Tags: #(v4.0), #Civil War, #Fiction, #Romance, #Lesbian, #Fiction - Historical
Copyright © November 2010 by Paisley Smith
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Editor: Jana J. Hanson
Cover Artist: Anne Cain
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This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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This book is dedicated to the servicewomen of the US military, both past and present.
I’d like to thank my fellow authors, Titania Ladley/Roxana Blaze and Naima Simone, for their help and suggestions in bringing Alice and Belle to life.
I’d also like to extend my gratitude to plantation-life historian Amy Batton and military historian Heath Mathews for sharing their invaluable historical knowledge and research with me.
Pitchfork in hand, I stood on the steps of my ancestral plantation home, glaring at the throng of Yankees bearing torches. I knew good and well they’d looted every other farm along McDonough Road and that nothing would stop the brigands from stealing everything we had. Still, I wasn’t going to let them rifle Rattle and Snap without a fight.
Burning a stare at each pair of eyes trained on me, I gazed over the sea of blue coats interspersed with the less common, colorful Yankee Zouave uniforms. There were too many of them, and though I knew I might tear into one or two of them with my pitchfork, resistance otherwise would be futile.
The screen door croaked, and I glanced back just long enough to see my feeble-minded mother ambling out onto the porch dressed in nothing but her nightgown. She’d suffered from dementia since the birth of my fifteen-year-old little brother, Grayson. “Go back inside, Ma,” I told her, tightening my grip on the pitchfork handle.
A sudden shot rang out from the upstairs window, and one of the Yankees dropped. In that instant, I knew my life had taken an irrevocable turn.
Shots split the air. Glass in one of the upstairs windows shattered. My mother let out a mad screech and, pitchfork or no, two of the New York Yankees seized me, dashing my weapon to the porch, while countless others stormed past my addled mother and into the house. My heart hammered. All I could think was that Grayson had shot one of the soldiers. Our house would be burned for certain now, but worse—what would they do to Grayson?
I struggled, but to no avail. The Yankees who held me reeked of muddy, wet wool and unwashed bodies. I gagged as the stench assailed me. “Take your hands off me, you filth!” I exclaimed, but my protests were met with even tighter, more familiar hands.
Boots resounded on the wide planked floors inside. There was a scuffle, and all of a sudden, instead of Grayson’s dark head emerging from the front door, I saw my father’s weathered face as he was pushed onto the porch by the Yankees.
I gaped, knowing my father hadn’t shot that soldier. He was protecting my little brother. “Pa!” I cried. “No!”
“Hush up, Belle,” he warned, giving me a stern look as they manhandled him into the yard.
But I would not be quiet. “What are you doing with him? Can’t you see he’s an old man? Release him this instant!”
My pleas fell on deaf ears as the soldiers determined the Yankee who’d been shot was dead. I struggled as they talked in hushed voices. And when one of the Yankees threw a rope over the thick branch of my favorite elm tree, my stomach twisted into knots. They intended to hang my pa! This couldn’t be happening.
But it was. I couldn’t tear my gaze from it any more than I could have ripped my gaze from the face of a corpse at a wake. I felt as if I were somehow standing outside my body, watching instead of experiencing, observing as if it were happening to somebody else. Anybody else. Not me. Not here. Not this day.
As they slipped the noose over my father’s head, pitiful screams tore from my throat. Time seemed to move at half speed while I struggled to free myself. With my husband fighting in Virginia, my father was all I had left in the world to guide me. Without him, I would be utterly lost. He was the person I’d always gone to when I needed advice, when I needed a soft place to fall. He’d been the one who made the decisions, who kept this plantation running. And now…
Panic roiled as three of the Yankees pulled the rope. Pa’s heels left the ground. From my vantage point on the porch, I witnessed his last moments. Hands tied, he struggled and kicked. The toes of his boots grappled for solid ground they did not find.
Don’t look. Don’t watch this
! But I couldn’t tear my gaze from the horrific sight.
I’d never seen a man die before. The reality of it was far different from imagining it or reading about it—or even hearing an account of it.
A dark stain appeared on my father’s breeches. His struggles slowed, then ceased while my heart wrenched with the ignominy of it all. Pa was dead.
I wanted to faint, to retch, something, anything. Instead, all I could do was stare numbly.
“Get your hands off Miss Belle!” my father’s grizzled old butler, Uncle Hewlett, barked in his booming voice at the Yankees.
No one, not even the Yankees, dared cross Uncle Hewlett. I’d never had any idea how old he was, but he’d looked the very same all my life with his freckled cocoa skin, woolly gray hair, and deeply lined face. In spite of his years, he carried his six-feet-three-inch frame like a gladiator marching into the arena. At once, the Yankees released me into his lanky arms.
I fell against him, sobbing. “What’ll I do now?”
“Hush, Miss Belle,” he said, cradling my head close where I heard his own quiet sobs.
But I couldn’t afford to hush or to be weak, as much as I yearned to do just that. I had to be strong. I had to pull up my bootstraps. I couldn’t let them take everything we’d stored for the winter.
I tore myself from Uncle Hewlett’s comforting arms and scrambled to snatch up my pitchfork again. “The least you can do is leave us a place to live,” I called to the Yankee in charge.
He spun on his heel and eyed me. Lifting my chin, I burned a stare into him, daring him to torch my house after killing my father right before my eyes. “My mother is touched in the head. There’s only my servant and me left to run this place. You’ve murdered my father. Leave us the house,” I bargained. I intentionally omitted the fact that my brother doubtless hid upstairs.
“Are you willing to take in our wounded?” the Yankee asked, catching me totally off guard.
I swallowed. I had expected him to deny me. The last thing I wanted was a passel of Yankees I’d have to feed under my roof. I lowered the pitchfork. “How many are there?”
“Only two who can’t be moved farther.” His mouth twisted downward in a grim line. His eyes reflected that he regretted hanging my father, but his remorse did little to lessen my grief. Pa was gone, and no amount of Yankee sympathy was going to bring him back.
I didn’t want to do anything to help this man or his wounded soldiers. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow the lot of them. Realistically, I knew that wouldn’t happen. If it meant keeping the roof over our heads, taking in two injured men couldn’t be so bad. And if they were too frail to be moved, hopefully, they’d both die soon. “Very well,” I told him. “But leave us with something to feed them. We’ve no field hands left, and you Yankees have taken all our livestock.”
“I’m sure you’ll be able to manage,” the Yankee said in his clipped northern accent. “I’ll have the orderlies bring them inside.”
With that, he ordered the torchbearers to back down before he spun on his heel and left.
“I’ll go cut down Mr. James,” Uncle Hewlett said softly.
At least temporarily satisfied the Yankees were going to leave us be, I glanced at Uncle Hewlett. A big tear rolled down his dark freckled cheek. I’d never seen him cry before. Despite the difference in their stations, he’d loved my father as if he were his own brother.
I had to be strong for Uncle Hewlett too. “I can’t let you do that by yourself. Come on. There’s no sense in putting off the inevitable.”
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It had taken longer to bury Pa than I’d thought. Uncle Hewlett had blubbered like a baby while Ma, mercifully in her own world, had picked wildflowers at the edge of the family cemetery. I had taken one shovel and Grayson the other. We dug the shallow grave ourselves.
The knowledge that Grayson had fired the shot and that Pa had given up his life to save his son hung like a storm cloud in the air, but I didn’t utter a word about it. I suppose I would have done the same as Pa. And poor Grayson had to bear his own guilt. He didn’t need me adding to it.
But rather than crying, Grayson remained fixed on the task at hand. His sunburned face grew more and more mottled with red splotches. Whether it was anger or embarrassment or both, I didn’t know. He shook from head to toe, and as soon as we’d raked the last spade full of dirt over Pa’s grave, Grayson stabbed the point of his shovel in the ground. “I’m going to Jonesborough to join up with the Arkansas troops under Pat Cleburne,” he announced, resolved.
Everything in my world suddenly lurched another notch off-kilter. I ached to slap him. I clenched my fist to keep from doing just that. “Don’t you dare leave!” I flung the shovel to the ground. “If you go, I’ll be left here with nobody but Ma and Uncle Hewlett. I’ll never be able to tend to the goats by myself.” That is, if the Yankees hadn’t found the dozen goats I’d hidden in a dilapidated house in the woods on the back of the property. If they had, we’d be without milk and butter and cheese or any way to trade with the neighbors for what they had to spare. After Pa’s death and Grayson traipsing off to join the army, I couldn’t survive one more tragedy.