Read Brimstone and Lily (Legacy Stone Adventures) Online

Authors: Terry Kroenung

Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy

Brimstone and Lily (Legacy Stone Adventures) (35 page)

BOOK: Brimstone and Lily (Legacy Stone Adventures)
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“I prefer goin’ straight ahead,” I told Romulus. “Quicker, and we’ll have more accurate information about what’s ahead of us.”

Roberta flapped her wide colorful wings. “”That’s the way, matey! Crowd on all sail and full speed ahead!”

Ernie wasn’t so sure. Gobbling a half-ripe mulberry, he shook his furry little head. “Have yer seen what’s comin’? Have yer seen every man with a musket movin’ up that way? There’s a terrible fight about to happen.”

“Verity’s right,” Romulus rumbled, pointing at Boatswain Swamp on the map. “Bad as today might be, we cain’t sit and wait out this battle. Way things been goin’, there could be another one tomorrow, and the next day. We could be here a week. Lose as much time as we would turnin’ round. I say go now.”

So that’s what we did. Just as we’d been doing all along, we dashed from tree to tree, from ditch to ditch. As the afternoon wore on and Roberta made countless trips back and forth to tell us about conditions at the front, I started to think that we’d guessed wrong. Lee probably felt the same way. The Federals had built themselves a mighty fortress on a hill behind Boatswain Swamp. Tens of thousands of Union infantry, backed by their fearsome guns and protected by trenches and logs, all but dared the Rebs to attack. Reckless Southerners had taken up the gauntlet. Waves of graybacks charged into the trees and into the swamp, bound and determined to take the hill. All of the attacks came back, missing hundreds of the troops they’d taken in. Now Lee had finally found Jackson, given him every available regiment, and planned one mighty push to throw the enemy off that hill, come hell or high water.

And we’re strollin’ right into that hornet’s nest. Lucky us.

Late in the day, as the sun was setting, we almost blundered straight into a clump of Rebel officers watching the proceedings from a low rise. They peered through binoculars, surrounded by their staffs. A couple of sergeants held their horses nearby.
Must rank pretty high if they’re not leadin’ the charge.
One of them, kepi pulled down so low you couldn’t see his eyes, looked more like an orderly than a high-ranking soldier. Covered in dirt, with mismatched coat and trousers, bushy beard a tangled mess, he held one arm over his head and sucked on a lemon.
A lemon?
I motioned my friends back. Nobody could hear us crashing around in the undergrowth, the noise of the guns grew so great. We hunkered down behind a log.

“Do you know who that is?” I asked Romulus, pointing at the grimy fellow.

“Just ‘nother Reb sergeant.”

“Oh, ‘tain’t neither. That there’s Stonewall Jackson, terror o’ the Valley. What we got here is a chance to watch a battle with the great man himself.”

And before he could object I was climbing a tall oak tree, my spyglass in hand.

 

 

27/ Boatswain’s Swamp

Great. Evil demon birds from the bowels of hell are tryin’ to rip me to shreds and I’m stuck alone in a tree.

“Oh, this is real smart,” Jasper sneered in my head as minie balls whizzed past my head. “Why don’t we just paint a big bull’s-eye on your head while we’re here?”

Taking deep breaths to control my panic, I snapped, “Are you gonna help or just be a wiseacre?”

“Hey, I live to serve. Command me, O Great One.”

“I take it this counts as imminent peril and not a special favor?”

“Trust me, girlie, this is as imminent as it gets. Even worse, those are Northern bullets. Nothin’ says ‘civil war’ like gettin’ shot by your own side.”

I didn’t wait to make a snappy comeback, but sent him a mental picture of what I wanted. The tin cup spread out into a broad curved shield with a hole in the middle. Now I had some protection from bullets to the front and shell fragments above and to the sides. It’d keep me safe for a few minutes. Slipping the spyglass through the front opening, I squinted into the eyepiece to watch the charge.

The Federal army had set itself up on a hill, protected by some trees. They’d dug themselves in and sat pretty. Tens of thousands of blue-uniformed infantry ringed the crest in three curved lines about a mile across, bayonets glinting orange in the light of the dying sun. Their proud colors, national and state, waved in the air over their heads. In between the brigades sat dozens of artillery pieces, 12-pound Napoleons for the most part, spitting white smoke like angry bronze dragons. Officers on excited horses danced just behind the lines, shouting orders and encouragement I couldn’t hear over the mind-boggling noise. At the bottom of the barren slope lay a mess of scrubby bushes and mud, like a ready-made moat.
Must be Boatswain Swamp.
To my right ran Chickahominy Creek, wide and woody enough to prevent the Rebs from flanking that way. Beyond the swamp stretched a wide grassy field with no cover at all. Any troops advancing on the hill would be sitting ducks for all of the lead that McClellan’s men cared to throw.

They’ve been chargin’ this position all afternoon? Are they crazy?

I could see the pitiful evidence of those earlier attacks. The ground seemed as if it were coming to life. It crawled.
Creepy.
A closer look through the telescope showed that nearly every square yard of the turf from the Union lines to the base of the hill Jackson stood on was covered in dead or wounded men, thousands of them. Patches of gray and butternut wiggled, rolled, and crept as the injured writhed in misery. Now the noise of battle became my friend. Remembering my stay in the hospital, I felt glad I couldn’t hear the sounds of agony they must’ve been making. Shrieks of pain, moans for water or stretcher-bearers, cries for their mamas.

Lee had managed to get all his men around the hill at one time. I couldn’t believe there were any troops left in Virginia. A great semicircle of Confederate soldiers, maybe three miles wide, had started creeping toward the swamp from three directions. Regimental flags in every color of the rainbow bobbed up and down as they were carried forward. Behind the lines marched clumps of drummer boys, keeping time for the fighters ahead of them. Just like their counterparts above, the officers rode with their men. But since it was an advance, they stayed in front, leading by example as all marched up that awful hill.

It’s a terrible thing to say, but it was a beautiful sight. Close to a hundred thousand souls were near to blowing one another to perdition in every gruesome way that modern man could devise. Solid shot would tear off arms and legs, heads would burst from jagged chunks of shrapnel, musket balls would shred flesh and bone. Boys in their teens would spit up blood as they tried to hold their bowels in their slashed bellies. Old men who should’ve been playing with their grandkids would gasp out their lives, vainly clutching severed arteries that stained the Virginia grass. All that would happen any second. But in that one last heartbeat before the Federals opened up with all they had, it seemed to me the grandest, most glorious parade that ever was.

This must be why they all do it. Why men go to war. They don’t remember the butchery, just this heavenly spectacle right before.

Just as the gray line got to the swamp, which slowed them or even stopped them in places, the top of the velvety green hill exploded like a volcano. A giant white thundercloud of gun smoke boiled out and up. I’d thought the sound had been bad before, but this smacked me in the head like a brickbat. Stray bullets—all soldiers tended to fire high-- rattled off of my shield.
Boy
,
I’m glad I thought of this thing.
Though I knew I was as safe as I could be in such a situation, I flinched and shut my eyes anyway. When I opened them again I saw that the front ranks of the Rebel line were gone, as if they’d been a pencil drawing rubbed out by a great gum eraser. But they sucked closed again, like a wound magickally healing itself. Those mad soldiers kept on up the hill, despite knowing that every step narrowed the distance between them and their enemy, making them an easier target. As if in a cold driving rain, they hunched their shoulders and bent their heads.
Surely they know that won’t help any?
I shook my head at myself, applying logic to this insanity.

Strange to say, but as the flanks melted away and broke from the fire, the center ranks kept up their advance. They didn’t stop to fire, which would’ve meant pausing in the midst of that rain of death to aim up the hill. Those troops just put one foot in front of the other and maintained their steady relentless push. Bayonets fixed, they ignored all that hot lead. Near dark now. The Union line must’ve been shooting blind, aiming at where the enemy ought to be. I had no trouble seeing everything, thanks to the Stone. My eyes could even make out the blue star on one of the center flags. Texas. Boys from Texas led the way in the center.
Valiant, loony, or both. Maybe that’s what it takes to do this every day.

With each passing second the Rebs lost more troops, melting like snow in August. But enough weight remained for the rest to push their way to the crest. Amidst all the noise I swear I heard that high-pitched battle yell the Southern boys loved so much. As if that alone made the difference, they hit the first of the three lines. Gray and blue mixed in the twilight. The smoke blocked my view of a lot of the action then, but I did see the top line of Federals back away and move down the far side of the hill. This was no skedaddle. They didn’t throw away their rifles and flee, but stayed in neat order as they retired, taking most of their artillery with them. So did the second rank, the middle of the Federal lines. While the remnants of the first line followed their comrades, the Rebs who’d sent them packing stopped to cheer their victory, then resumed their advance. But they looked played out from the climb, the fight, the embrace with death. Their climb to the top of the hill became a crawl. When they arrived at summit and occupied the shallow entrenchment from which their friends had been killed, they all stopped. In a few moments the remnants of the wings arrived, but they, too, had no stomach for pursuit. Red and blue flags sprung up all across the hill. Full dark now. The main fight was over.

But my fight looked to just be starting. Since no more bullets came my way, I made Morphageus into a tin cup again and stuffed it into the bottom of my haversack. As I moved my gaze down to see what Stonewall Jackson thought of his men’s performance, I saw that the famous commander had already ridden out toward the action. My head pounded from the sickening thrill of the thing. I panted like an overheated mutt. Every muscle shook from the strain of being under fire and clinging to my tree branch. That explained why, even with most of the battle noise gone, I didn’t notice the ravens swooping in to scratch my eyes out.

The spyglass saved me. I still had it out at its full length and swung with both hands. Two feet of brass caught my first screeching attacker dead in his beak. He made an
urk
sound and fell away. His friend following close behind took advantage of my follow-through to try to slash open the top of my scalp. Lucky for me I’d found that old hat on the road. It jumped off my head, still in the raven’s claws. Wrapping my legs around a branch, I whipped my still-intact face around to try to spot the rest of the flock.

I counted at least eight of them, and these were no ordinary ravens. They were the size of eagles, with sickly green glowing eyes. Their taloned feet were as large as an adult man’s hand. Sharp as bayonets, their black beaks seemed to my frightened eyes to be longer than railroad spikes.
Great. Evil demon birds from the bowels of hell are tryin’ to rip me to shreds and I’m stuck alone in a tree.
And they laughed! They all hooted and cackled as they tried to do me in. I wasn’t seeing the humor in the situation, but then the mouse seldom enjoys the hunt as much as the cat does. My Stone-enhanced reflexes kept me safe for a while, since I could see them clear, even though it was full dark. Time after time I clubbed a heavy feathered body, sending it away with a yelp. But two more would be on me in a flash, pouncing from another direction. They never gave me time to reach for Morphageus, which must’ve been their object. Word had gotten around the Merchantry that Verity the Valiant was no slouch in a fair fight, even if only twelve. I started to take damage. My overalls, tough as they were, opened up shredded gashes. An ear bled buckets from a beak nip. The back of my left hand had a nasty talon slice. A pair of the birds teamed up to wrench the spyglass out of my grip. Then the rest took turns smashing into my body. I was about to be overwhelmed and knocked fifty feet down out of the tree.

Covering my face to protect it, I waited for my legs to give out and let go of the branch that held me up. One more good body blow would do it. But it didn’t happen. Instead, the ravens stopped laughing and started snarling. Their sounds changed to pained grunts. I took the chance to see what went on. Right then I learned what good friends I had.

Pirate queen Roberta, as furious as Blackbeard, had shot up from the ground to light into the raven flock. Her white beak, made for crushing iron-hard nuts, snapped the leg from one of the enemy birds before he even knew she attacked. Trailing blood, he shrieked and dove away. The crimson parrot roared her rage and dug her terrible claws into the body of the next raven. With a whiplike change of direction she smashed him

head-first into the trunk of the tree. His limp carcass fell to the ground like a rock.

Two more ravens resumed their attack on me, ignoring Roberta’s wrath. A mistake they didn’t live to regret. The angry parrot beheaded another with one chomp of her terrible beak while a shrieking gray-brown ball of fury dove from her back onto the other. In mid-air Ernie threw Romulus’ dreadful Bowie knife. It thunked into the tree next to my ear. “There you go, missy! Give ‘em what for!” he cried, landing on the neck of his enemy. Before the growling raven knew what had hit it the stout mouse plunged his sharpened knitting needle lance into its vitals several times. “From hell’s heart I stab at thee!” he snarled.

BOOK: Brimstone and Lily (Legacy Stone Adventures)
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