“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” President Jefferson Davis rapped the table with a china cup.
Arguments trailed away. All heads turned toward Davis. Weak autumn afternoon sun, filtered by scudding clouds, barely illuminated the room through the large windows of the President’s home. The curtains moved gently, pushed by chill drafts. An aide had to keep relighting substandard candles as some of them guttered and went out.
“I trust,” the President said, “After that outburst about Mr. Booth’s plans, that we can all control our tempers for the next few minutes. This is normally our dining room and I regret the lack of tea service, but I don’t want any curious ears to intrude on our sensitive discussions.” He nodded toward the tall, scar-faced man standing at the foot of the table. The dark-haired officer held his left arm awkwardly, his jaw clenched at the interruptions.
“We’re going to consider another distasteful course of action. Not a tactic I’d have entertained before this moment.” Three and a half years of war sat heavily on Davis, his dark brows knit in a frown, his gray beard now almost entirely white.
Major John Saulnier knew Davis didn’t want to consider his plan to cut off the head of the serpent that threatened to swallow the Confederacy. Damn it, the Yankees had brought this on themselves.
Last winter, over a hundred Union officers broke out of Libby Prison. Stories of mistreatment and deprivation fed radical elements of the Northern press, which demanded Lincoln mount raids to free more prisoners. Those raids, though ineffective, showed the cowardly and dishonorable nature of the tyrant. Press accounts of papers “recovered” on a Yankee colonel’s body revealed plans to use freed prisoners to sack Richmond, set fire to the city, and kidnap or kill Confederate leaders.
That led this war council to take its first desperate measure, paying that damned actor Booth to kidnap Lincoln before the election, so a more reasonable leader might emerge, one with whom they could negotiate a favorable peace. Not everyone in this room approved that plan.
Saulnier cleared his throat. “The failure of Booth’s plot and the re-election of Lincoln last week lead me to recommend a step which could still save this country at the eleventh hour. In less than six months—”
“Yes,” Davis said. “The coming fury once the roads dry out this spring. Grant has done what none of his predecessors could do and settled in for the winter on Richmond’s outskirts. That’s been foremost on our minds. Tell us your plan, Major.”
Saulnier turned to his dark-haired sergeant, who placed a drawing of a supply wagon on an easel.
“More than a thousand wagons like this roll into Washington every day,” Saulnier continued. “They aren’t inspected, since bottlenecks are common on the three bridges that cross the Potomac. While the city gets most of its manufactured goods by rail from the north, a virtual flood of food, fodder, and people still cross the Potomac from Virginia.”
“I see,” interrupted a noted logistics expert. “You propose to disrupt traffic into the Yankee capital. But it’s the unstoppable tide of supplies flowing to Grant that’s undermining our efforts to defeat his army.”
“Not disrupt supplies, sir. Recall the effect of Maxwell and Dillard’s smuggled explosive on the ammunition yard at City Point this summer. The blast dismayed Grant and his generals and likely delayed their plans. But for that, Grant might have moved on Richmond during the campaigning season.
“Sergeant Harney here,” Saulnier continued, “has helped design and plant all sorts of explosive devices. He mined the James River to stop Union vessels. In July, I sent him to Charleston with forty men to use hand grenades against Federal forces there. Wherever Sergeant Harney goes, the Yankees suffer casualties. Mines, subterra shells, hand grenades, and all manner of innocent-looking devices kill their soldiers and destroy their equipment.” The room was silent now. Saulnier tapped the drawing again.
“This wagon would have a greater effect on the outcome of the war than the bold stroke at City Point. Packed with a ton of powder and set off between Lincoln’s residence and the War Department during a meeting with his generals and senior Cabinet members, the entire Federal leadership would vanish. The Union could be decapitated at a critical moment. There might be no spring offensive.”
Silence. Then everyone began to speak at once. Davis raised the cup again, but didn’t have to rap. Voices died away. Only the whistling gusts at the windows vied for attention.
Saulnier had Harney replace the wagon drawing with a diagram of the White House and War Department buildings. “Before you debate my proposal, let me assure you this plan will work.” The major began to tick off points on the stiff fingers of his left hand.
“One. A very well-placed agent near the White House knows when Lincoln is to meet with his generals. Sometimes in the western end of the White House, sometimes in a War Department room that faces the executive mansion. We have a reliable agent in the War Department as well.
“Two. We can easily introduce a wagon into the space between the buildings.” He tapped the diagram. “There’s no fence. Lincoln’s honor guards bivouac over here on the south lawn, well away from where the wagon would be placed. Sentries with unloaded rifles guard War Department entrances that face Seventeenth Street.
“Three. We’d rig the explosives in the wagon to detonate simultaneously. We’ll protect the casks of special finely-milled powder with tar. The wagon and its tarp will be carefully waterproofed to prevent degradation of the charges.
“Four. Two well-hidden, waterproofed fuses will follow separate paths from the wagon seat to the charges. One will be cut to two-minute length, the other for five minutes, in case either should be discovered and extinguished. No one should be able to find both fuses once they’ve been lit and diverge. The driver lights the fuses, releases the mule team, and escapes. The heavy wagon will be on a soft spring lawn, almost impossible to move by hand.”
Saulnier took a deep breath. “Questions, gentlemen?”
Davis pre-empted the others. He asked two questions, then deferred to his secretaries and officers. Secretary of War Seddon spoke up. “Would that amount of powder be sufficient, Major, to, ah, achieve your objective?”
“The coal bomb that blew up in the Yankee depot at City Point contained only two pounds of powder. We are proposing a much larger blast, sir.”
Saulnier tapped the layout again. “We estimate a charge of one ton would completely demolish the west side of the White House and collapse eight or ten of the twelve War Department buildings.”
“Can we afford that much powder? Take a ton from our cannons and rifles?”
Saulnier saw the briefest smile on Harney’s face and couldn’t keep his own scarred face from splitting into a grin. “We still produce more than 8,000 pounds of powder a day here in Richmond, Mister Secretary.
That equates to more than a million rifle rounds or 6,000 rounds for 12-pounder cannons. Since our daily expenditures have been much less than this for some time, we’ve accumulated reserves that allow us to divert that much powder.”
Seddon exchanged looks with Davis and Secretary Benjamin.
A black-bearded colonel spoke up. “Major, I think most of us will accept the necessity of planning such an operation, even if we find the possibility of using your device distasteful. As you point out, dirty schemes hatched by the Yankees to devastate Richmond force us to consider adopting our enemy’s tactics. But why is it necessary to send a wagon north at all? This rolling bomb may be intercepted or could break a wheel. Wouldn’t it be less risky to send a technical operative from the Torpedo Bureau with fuses and procure a wagon, a team, and the powder closer to Washington?”
Saulnier turned slightly. “Sergeant?”
Harney stepped forward, brushing one side of his mustache. “With respect, Colonel. As you suggest, we could get a technical expert like me into Washington with little difficulty. We could also procure a wagon and a reliable team there. But we could never hope to siphon off unnoticed from Federal supplies the amount or type of powder we’d need. Neither the quantity nor the quality of the powder we could steal would be sufficient to ensure success.”
Saulnier picked up the thread. “And such a theft could alert our foes to this plan. Gentlemen, the wagon ought to be sent from here, for reasons of security.”
Colonel Walter Taylor raised a hand. “Thank you for raising the issue of security, Major. I suppose you intend to convey this wagon north via Colonel Mosby and his men who maintain our ‘Secret Line’ to communicate with our agents in Washington. Those same men have been positioned in Yankee-occupied Virginia since late summer to help Booth bring Lincoln south if his kidnap plot succeeds. I cannot believe an officer of Mosby’s conscience would accept an order to assist in a mass assassination. I must confess it gives me pause.”
Saulnier’s dark eyes narrowed. “We would have to maintain the strictest security, sir, allowing only those in this room knowledge of the plan. I don’t think Colonel Mosby would object to helping convey a wagon said to be carrying a ton of the little coal bombs, devices he’s already familiar with.”
No one objected to keeping Mosby in the dark. Nearly all the men fixed their eyes on the table in front of them. He and Harney did well to mask their enthusiasm.
“But to be able to use this device,” Saulnier went on. “You need to authorize the assembly of the wagon and powder as soon as possible. It could be delivered to a friendly stable in Washington in less than a week. Thereafter, this rolling bomb would await your order. Once in the city, your coded command to attack could be sent to the driver by courier in just a few days. You can see how that responsiveness compares with the uncertainty and timing of Booth’s kidnap plan. To be effective, this device should be exploded just before the campaign season starts in April.”
“We estimate,” Saulnier concluded, “the chances of this wagon getting through to its target to be about seven in ten.”
“And the odds of getting just an explosives expert with the necessary fuses into Washington?” asked Judah Benjamin. Probabilities appealed to the Secretary of State.
“I’d say eight in ten, Mister Secretary. However, if the risk of stealing sufficient powder is addressed, less than three in ten.”
“I see. Would the odds increase if you were to send two experts via separate routes?”
“I hadn’t thought of that, sir. Sending a second man might raise the odds of safe passage to nine in ten. We’d still do better to use our own wagon and powder.”
That seemed to satisfy Benjamin. He leaned over to Davis and Seddon. After a couple of nods and some exchange of words, Seddon whispered to the military officers. They shook their heads and the senior general said, “We have no objection at this stage.”
Davis looked at Saulnier. “Very well, Major. You’ve convinced us of the efficacy of your plan and the advantage of being able to implement it on short notice.
“Go ahead and build your newfangled torpedo, this ‘Lincoln device.’ Keep it secure. We will tell you when to send the wagon north. We must have reliable reporting on when Lincoln will meet with his generals at the opportune moment. Can we rely on the Torpedo Bureau to send an expert to drive this bomb?”
“Yes, sir. Sergeant Harney here or someone like him.”
Saulnier and Harney removed their sheets from the easel and saluted as they took their leave.
They stood under the double columned porch of the Southern White House and waited for their horses to be brought around. Harney spoke in a low voice.
“Congratulations, sir. We didn’t hold out much hope for our proposal this morning. You must be pleased.”
He returned Harney’s grin. “More than pleased. Something Secretary Benjamin said means I could raise the probability of success to almost certain. When they decide to send the wagon, of course. Let’s discuss this more privately at the office.”
It was a fine day after all, despite the rising cold wind and the thickening clouds that threatened snow by morning. Saulnier mounted quickly, defying his damned left arm.
The Federals hoped to crush the Confederacy, burn Richmond to the ground, the way they had his wife’s parents’ plantation. He thought of his losses—the house, Matilda, his baby daughter. He thought of his scars, the wounded left arm that still pained him.
Saulnier slapped his gloves against his leg. The Yankees would never win. With today’s decision, he’d kindle a fire from the ashes of Southern hopes that would bring Washington to its knees.
The Making of a Spy
December 10, 1861
Eliza Walker took a brief bow from the stage of the Orpheum Theater. Only one curtain call. She noticed the audience was smaller than that of the last two days. Fewer young men, more widows garbed in black. Even this far south, seven months of war affected everything people did, said, or thought. She went backstage, brushing cobwebs out of her way.
Spiderwebs everywhere back here. She tugged a wrinkled frock from the musty wardrobe, shaking it out to be sure she’d have no companions when she put it on. It was the only dress Mrs. Dunbar would let her wear tonight. Eliza sighed. Another weary evening of trying to get a wealthy man to dip into his pockets for their little traveling troupe, the Dunbar Players.
She usually wore this plum-colored dress when she played Bianca in “The Taming of the Shrew.” At least it fit her slim figure and would show her honey-colored hair to advantage.
“Can I pick a necklace from the costume jewelry box?” The frock had a low neckline; she wanted something to distract the gentleman’s eyes upward tonight.
"Not that faux diamond you wore last week. You can have these tonight.” Graying Ada Dunbar handed her a double string of phony pearls with a tiny pendant. The pendant would have the opposite effect that Eliza hoped for.
“Not this old thing. It would better call attention to Camille’s bosom than mine.”
“Camille doesn’t need any such artifice, dear. You must use any advantage you can.”
I’m twenty-one, not a child, the young actress thought as carried the items to the ironing board and moved a precious candle closer. Camille BelPre and the other actors came through. Dark-haired Camille had a fuller figure and was a more popular "escort" and "fund-raiser". As usual, she was full of advice.
“Don’t forget to wear a corset tonight, Eliza. Getting you out of it and then lacing you back into it often dissuades most men. And don’t forget to wear gloves this time, hun. Gentlemen prefer ladies to be properly dressed.” Camille, only four years older than Eliza, was so much more worldly.
“You can forget the gloves,” Ada said, butting in as she passed. “They’re getting increasingly scarce and I can’t have you leaving them behind in a restaurant again.”
Everything that came into the city by water these days was carried by black- or misty gray-painted fast boats running the Federal blockade. Fishing boats were afraid to pull out of port. Only food came unobstructed down the Mississippi. Cotton bales piled up in warehouses, waiting for the bravest blockade runners to take small fractions of that cargo from the warehouses to the eager market in Europe. Any imports that arrived were diverted to the war effort.
When Ada moved on, Camille leaned over and confided in her.
“Phineas tried to corner me again this morning. Wanted my favors in the hour when Ada was out shopping.” Ada's hard-drinking thespian husband led their troupe.
“We can’t let on to Ada, no matter how pushy he gets,” Eliza urged. “If Mrs. Dunbar kills him, that would be the end of the company.”
“I know, I know. And as he incessantly reminds us, only he has trod the boards of a New York theater.” Camille used her “la-di-da” voice. “As if we couldn’t get by without his experience.” Camille went off to change.
Eliza touched the iron and found it ready. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and began. Eliza hadn’t thought of home for a while. She daydreamed while she ironed.
The two actresses had made a pact to run off to New York when the war ended. Eliza wasn’t sure she really would; her father might hear of her theater ties and come drag her home to New Jersey. Eliza Walker was her stage name. Although they were best friends, she and Camille had never confided their real names. Eliza used to go by Lizzie as a child, then Liza when she got older. After she ran away from home five years ago, she’d settled on new first and last names in Pittsburgh, where she joined the Meridian troupe. If her father had hired detectives to trace her, the trail of 16-year-old Liza Wendland went cold somewhere west of Philadelphia.
Would she have to let this Geminien Reynard kiss her? Her companion tonight was an important businessman of the city. The players hoped for a large contribution. Mrs. Dunbar said Eliza should be more accommodating with Reynard than she’d been with others in Memphis last month.
Camille knew how to be “more accommodating.” Most big spenders wanted to go out with the troupe’s fuller figured leading lady. Camille got all the lead roles, while skinny Eliza scurried around behind sets, changing wigs and costumes to fill many smaller parts, sometimes playing men and boys. It was disheartening. Never the lead, always a bit player.
# # #
Eliza considered the short, dark-jowled man next to her in the carriage. She felt like she was playing Cinderella, wearing castoffs to the royal ball. No, that wasn’t right. Mr. Reynard—everyone called him Gemmy—was certainly no Prince Charming.
Supper had been pleasant enough. Not the best restaurant in New Orleans, but well appointed and the food was good. These days, Eliza was grateful for a full meal. She hoped her hunger hadn’t showed. It didn’t look like Reynard ever missed a meal.
When Reynard leaned forward to talk to the coachman, Eliza adjusted her skirt. At five-foot-eight, she thought of herself as tall and gawky, and, on shorter rations these days, unlikely to fill out.
Whenever one of her escorts took liberties with Camille, she couldn’t wait to tell Eliza. The two of them stayed up late and whispered secrets like sisters. No corset tonight, but Reynard wouldn’t learn that.
Eliza wasn’t inexperienced. Her honey tresses sometimes graced the pillow of Tony, one of the two young men in the troupe, when it was a safe time of the month. Camille spent those nights with George, the other male actor.
Her thoughts evaporated when Reynard sat back, brushing against her.
“I’ve asked the driver to take us to my home, my dear. I want my nieces to meet the talented and lovelyEliza Walker.”
She relaxed a little. With women in his household, he wouldn’t expect to take advantage of her this evening.
Church bells chimed nine as the coach pulled up at an elaborate-looking Basin Street mansion. Most windows in the big three-story brick rowhouse were aglow.
Reynard helped her down. Streetlamps revealed many pedestrians strolling, a few couples, but mostly men. Two laughing young men knocked on Mr. Reynard’s door. Eliza looked around.
A nice neighborhood. Maybe a place she’d like to live if the damned war would end. She couldn’t go home. Not now, maybe not ever.
Geminien Reynard had certainly done well if he lived here. Only the richest men in New Orleans could avoid military service. They were deemed vital to the financial health of the city. She’d heard such men, north and south, could pay a substitute to meet the frequent call-ups for the Army. He had a French name. An old family here? Perhaps old money, too. Taxes were an enormous drain, she’d heard, and no one wanted to accept Confederate scrip if hard currency or gold could be had.
“Gemmy,” a voice called. “Good evening.” A handsome sandy-haired young man in uniform trotted down Reynard’s marble steps. “I had a wonderful time with Miss Michelle, sir.”
“Ah, Captain Bellew. I trust she encouraged you to pay your respects again.” He made some motion with his far hand that Eliza couldn’t discern. Without further conversation, Mr. Reynard’s visitor tipped his hat to her and strode briskly away.
“He’s sweet on my niece Michelle. Comes to call as often as his duties allow.”
“Even while you’re out? I trust Mrs. Reynard looks in on them from time to time.”
“Ah, let’s go in, shall we?” Ascending the steps, Reynard confided, “The only Mrs. Reynard here is my brother’s wife. She and a large domestic staff make perfect chaperones.”
A Negro butler opened the door, welcomed them, and took Reynard’s hat and Eliza’s wrap. Her host escorted her down the hall under lavish chandeliers to a small parlor. Piano music, male and female laughter, and singing rang from the closed doors of what must be a larger parlor.
“Four of my nieces and some of their cousins live here. They have friends over this evening. I try to let the young people alone at times like this.”
Eliza looked at paintings and statuary as her host pulled a bell rope. A severe-looking woman responded.
“The Blue Room, Gertrude, if it can be made available in a few minutes. This is Miss Walker. I’d like her to meet Michelle, Cynthia, and Rebecca. Ask them to be there.” The woman nodded and went out.
Reynard took off his coat and loosened the tie around his thick neck. “We’ll have refreshments shortly. I’ve arranged for you to meet three of my loveliest nieces.”
He mopped his brow with a handkerchief. Why was he perspiring so? It had been cool outside, for New Orleans on the edge of winter, and the stove in here gave off little heat. Eliza shivered, perhaps in sympathy with the many nude statues and paintings of scantily-clad nymphs and Dianas that adorned the walls. This must be Reynard’s private study.
Gertrude returned with two glasses of champagne on a silver tray. It was cold and very good. Eliza shivered again. What had it cost or how many lives had been risked to get this through the blockade or overland from Mexico via Texas?
Reynard finished his glass, and set it on the tray. “Do finish that last bit, Eliza. There will be more upstairs. Let’s go meet my girls.”
She drained the glass and took his arm. They climbed a sweeping staircase.
“You must have a large family.”
“Yes, and growing all the time. Ah, here we are.” Double doors opened into a fair-sized room decorated in pale blue wallpaper and silk furnishings. Three pretty women sat on a settee and a chair. One of them hastily pulled a robe around her camisole and drawers. Eliza turned her back, bumping into Reynard.
“Sir, I fear we are come too early. One of your nieces is en deshabille. This must be an awkward time.”
“Nonsense. Michelle has no false modesty—”
“Michelle? But that’s who that young captain just came from seeing. How could she be out of her clothes already? Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes.” Reynard gripped her shoulders and spun her so quickly she had no time to react. The three women now stood only two feet away. A richly gilded bed and a large mirror occupied the far side of the room. Suddenly, it all made sense—strolling men on the street, the captain leaving the house, the music and noisy laughter, the nude statues in Reynard’s study, Michelle’s state of undress.
She jerked free. “This is a, a house of ill repute. You never told me, never told Mrs. Dunbar, what sort of business you’re in.”
Reynard’s smile was cold as a Trenton winter. “On the contrary, this is a house of particularly excellent repute. Ada and I have been friends for years. In fact, she thought up this little deception. See how much Michelle here resembles you?”
Eliza reluctantly glanced at her. They had the same long off-blond hair, but the other girl had green eyes instead of Eliza’s blue. Michelle was perhaps two inches shorter and ten pounds heavier. The extra weight seemed to be in her breasts.
“Just because she looks somewhat like me—”
“Is why Ada and I made this little arrangement. She wanted a different blonde in your troupe, one who’ll cooperate with wealthy donors. Won’t you, Michelle?”
“And Eliza, your range of accents and dramatic ability will make you an attractive asset to my establishment. The Dunbars set you up for this. I take official possession tonight.” He pulled off his tie.
Eliza turned on him, fear and pent-up fury coming to the fore. “What? I’m not staying here. I can’t just be sold into this sort of slavery.”
“No, of course not. It’s against the law to sell a white woman into prostitution. But we arranged a trade, Michelle for you. Since no money changed hands—”
“You’ll never get away with this. You can’t keep me here. I’ll have the law on you.”
Reynard undid his vest buttons.
“Ah, yes. The law. Some of my best customers. I think you will have the law on top of you,” he said, laughing.
“Right here in this room. This will be yours.” He gestured. “We’ll change your name. I have an Elizabeth and a Liza here already. Perhaps Beth would suit you.” He removed his vest and tossed it and his tie onto a chair.
Eliza trembled, but kept her hands clasped in front of her. The worn dress, the cheap jewelry. Camille hadn’t come to see her off tonight. She knew. They must all know. Would the law just ignore this? Could a white woman be kidnapped like this? Too much time thinking. She had to act, had to get out of here. Now.
Eliza made for the door. Reynard moved to intercept her. She feinted left, then dashed right when he fell for it. She flung open the door and smashed face first into a mountain standing in the doorway.
At least the huge black man looked like a mountain. He would have to duck to enter the room. She knew it was futile, but she struck the man’s chest anyway. Her fists stung.
Hands took Eliza’s arms and hauled her backwards. Reynard closed the door.
“That is Samson,” he said, closing the door, then facing Eliza as the girls held her. “Aptly named, don’t you think?” Reynard reached out and took her chin in a viselike grip. “I’ve told him that if he ever finds you outside this room, he can take his pleasure with you. Stop struggling. This is your new home.”
She could barely speak. “I won’t do it,” she spat out. “Your clients won’t like me. I’m choosy about men.” Eliza struggled, but the three pairs of hands were too much for her.
Reynard let go of her chin. He stepped back, unbuttoned his shirt, dropped his suspenders, and pulled the shirt free of his trousers.
“Oh, really? Choosy, eh? Your beau Tony came here and picked Michelle as your replacement. Michelle was good to him." The girl giggled.
Reynard didn’t need to unbutton his trousers. Without the suspenders, his pants could no longer continue the battle with his ample waist. They slid to his ankles in surrender and he stepped out of them.
“You’ll regret this, you fat, oily, disgusting, little . . . toad.”
“Some day, Beth, that mouth of yours will get you in big trouble, maybe even get you killed. But not tonight. Mademoiselles, s’il vous plait.” Hands pulled her toward the big bed.
“Tonight, we begin your education.”
New Orleans and North
The last afternoon of Mardi Gras arrived. The other girls, dressed in their finery, went off to the parades. But not Beth. Still a prisoner in the big house, she’d known these festivities would clear the building and planned accordingly. Everyone went to see the final parade and attend the grand balls, except Samson and two other men. Reynard’s big house was quiet.
Beth assembled her escape kit. She’d left the name Eliza two months ago. Could she ever be Eliza again?
Traveling clothes. A warm cloak. Her reticule, the drawstring purse she’d carried the night she arrived here. Changes of underwear and the faded plum gown she’d arrived in went into a small carpetbag. No missing gowns to give away the fact that she’d gone.
Two men were working on building repairs this afternoon. She’d bribed them and Samson with the promise of her favors, telling them to come to the Blue Room at nine o’clock. Beth expected to be long gone by then.
But then her plans had gone awry. Reynard surprised Beth by his sudden return, saying he wanted some time with the pair of women he called “Coffee and Cream.” At least she hadn’t given herself away by changing into her travel clothes too early. Just camisole and drawers. She spent most days in her underwear, never allowed to socialize, for fear she'd bolt.
“Ahhh, Miss Cream,” Reynard said, his slurred words indicating he’d gotten an early start on the festivities. Parade watchers would take some girls to balls, others directly to hotels to be wined, dined, and paid well.
She could still get away. No one would dare disturb them, and Gemmy was always drowsy after he used her. Reynard had developed a taste for red silk scarves and he’d let her tie him to the bedposts once or twice.
“Why don’t I get those scarves, Gemmy? We can pass the time while we wait for the ‘Coffee’ to get hot.” That must have appealed to him. He shucked his gaudy Indian chief costume—how appropriate, she thought—and climbed into bed. Once she had all four limbs tied, she tiptoed to his office next door.
Samson and two others looked up at the balcony when a board creaked, but went back to laying carpet.
She returned with an item concealed in her hand. Beth wrapped a lace camisole around Reynard’s neck and between his lips. Then she prepared to play her final card. Beth had thought of ways to punish Reynard that sweet Eliza would never dream of.
“I’m sorry about the gag, Gemmy, but I really couldn’t make you scream and have the household interrupt us. You understand?” He nodded and relaxed.
“Good. Because we’re going to have a different kind of party this afternoon.” She took a feather from his headband and put it into her own hair. “The girls and I were reading an account in the Picayune. Do you know what Indian women do to captured white men?” He shook his head and smirked, probably expecting some treat.
Beth opened her hand and showed him his folding razor, the ivory handle carved in the shape of a kneeling nude. His face froze as she opened it.
“That’s right, Gemmy. They cut off their victim’s privates and stuff them into his mouth.” Reynard shook his head and struggled, rattling the bedposts. He bleated and arched his back as she advanced on the bed. Then he went limp. Beth approached cautiously. Had his heart given out?
She felt his chest. Her tormentor had merely fainted. This was a complication. How could she do what she’d intended with her victim unconscious? She brought the razor up to eye level. Her hand shook like she had palsy. Was she losing her nerve? It had seemed like such poetic justice. She glanced down at Reynard’s rapidly shrinking manhood, no longer such a tempting target.
Beth almost tossed the razor onto the bed, then decided to put it to better use. She stepped back into Reynard’s office and used the razor to pry open his cash box. Confederate scrip and a bag of gold coins. She took the gold and crept back to her room.
Reynard was still unconscious but breathing regularly. Time to get dressed. Finding Reynard tied up like this when Samson walked in or the girls returned would be humiliation enough. Too bad she wouldn’t be here to see it.
# # #
She used the back stairs while the men focused on the carpet work. Stepping out into a cold rain, she bumped her way through crowds to the station at Magnolia and Calliope, bought a ticket, and boarded the express train headed north to Memphis. Beth thought she’d be one of the few going that way the night of Mardi Gras, but she was mistaken.
Few families were making the trip. Most of her fellow passengers fell into two groups—widows and soldiers, the hale and the walking wounded. The current and soon-to-be victims of this war. Where had the hundreds of widows of this bitter autumn found all the yards of black cloth? The cotton that wasn’t going to Europe must be providing the somber garb of mourning. Beth thought of the Mardi Gras parade. Who could stomach celebrations in the midst of all this suffering?
Beth couldn’t look away from the awful spectacle of the wounded. Missing legs and crutches, arms in slings. Head bandages that as often as not were bloody and looked like they needed to be changed. Why would such men be willing to go north when they should have remained in hospitals? These must be ones who could be patched up enough to return to duty in some form. They were going back into battle so men like Reynard wouldn’t have to.
Folding her traveling cloak damp side inward, Beth took a seat and looked out the window sheeted by cold rain. The train lurched into motion. Her tattered reflection looked back at her in disapproval. Beth wanted to get away before her flight was discovered. The sooner she put New Orleans behind her, the better.
This morning, she’d helped the other girls prepare their hair for tonight. Beth and her friend “Coffee” did each other’s hair. But no trace of Beth’s curls remained. Her honey blond hair was now a damp, stringy, medium brown.
She’d envisioned a dozen painful deaths for Reynard. Beth looked down at the cuff of her peach-colored dress and imagined bloodstains on it. Some Lady Macbeth she would have made, losing her nerve at the end. At least she’d made Reynard look the fool; they’d find him trussed like a turkey soon.
# # #
But twenty minutes later, things began to unravel. The train had stopped at some little station on the outskirts of New Orleans. Wasn't this supposed to be an express? As if in answer to her thoughts, the train lurched into motion again. She gathered her skirts about her and picked up her cloak and carpet bag. As the train rumbled, gathering speed, she made her way to the rear of the car, trying not to make eye contact with anyone, the forlorn widows, the bright young boys, the weary wounded.
A conductor stopped her. “You ought to return to your seat, Miss. Constables come aboard at the last stop. Say they’re looking for someone dangerous. If that's right, a young lady like yourself shouldn’t go wandering around the train.”
The police! Dread filled her veins like ice water. Were they on her trail already? She’d counted on getting out of the city before the alarm was raised. She forced herself to stay calm. What could she do? If the police were looking for her, they’d concentrate on women traveling alone. And bedraggled as she was, wearing this peach dress with a little lace, she didn’t look like anyone’s idea of a widow--or a courtesan.
“They’re serving supper in the dining car now, Miss. Why don’t you go there? There’s a warm stove. Dry you out some.”
Beth thanked him and waited until he moved away.
Why hadn’t she thought to steal men’s clothes? Cut off her long hair or stuff it into a cap? She’d played boys’ roles so often that she could walk like a man. Talk like one in short sentences. Too late now.
There’d be plenty of time for recriminations while she sat in a cell. Were they looking for her?
Beth paused on the little platform just outside the door to the dining car and looked at the wet night rushing by. Had she escaped virtual slavery only to be recaptured so soon? She’d never let them catch her. How easy it would be to hurl herself into the windy gulf of darkness. She ought to get rid of her bag first. She began to swing it in an arc.
The door from her car opened.
Beth stepped back, holding her breath. A laughing couple crossed the platform and entered the dining car. Wonderful smells assaulted her nose, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Could she find a temporary reprieve in the dining car? Could a woman traveling alone find a trustworthy man sitting by himself? A preacher might shield her temporarily, but if the police said they were looking for a runaway prostitute, he’d turn her in. Certainly not with a soldier. What if a customer recognized her from Reynard’s?
Who would they be looking for? A hated Yankee. She considered her well-developed Southern accent, patterned after Camille’s Carolina drawl. Not foolproof. Her French accent? Too many travelers on this train would come from New Orleans. She couldn’t really speak the language if challenged. When she decided what to do, she summoned her courage and went in. At least if the police arrested her, she’d have a full stomach when they carted her away.
“Good evening, Miss,” a Negro waiter said. “Can I show you to a table?”
Half the tables in the glittering dining car were filled. No women by themselves. She could see only four men not in uniform who were dining alone. One way down on the right side had white hair. A safer prospect?
“That way, if you please,” Beth said in her best upper crust British, gesturing with her hand. “That white-haired gentleman.”
“Yes, Miss,” he said, leading the way. “If you don’t mind my askin’, you don’t talk like anybody ’round here. You a foreigner?” He stopped at the old man’s table.
“From England. Kent, actually. I’m soon to be a governess. Gwendolyn Clark. I’m on my way to meet my employer in Memphis, if your war doesn’t intervene.”
“Gwendolyn, my dear, you certainly took your time,” said the man, rising. He’d evidently heard what she said. His British accent was better than hers. Her heart sank, but she bravely took his outstretched hand. To the waiter, he said, “Please bring this lady the same supper I’m having. And a second glass.”
Her host seated her, then sat down again. He was a little taller than Beth. She put his age at early sixties. Her thoughts raced.
“One doesn’t often meet an Englishwoman traveling alone in America.” He poured something into the quickly produced glass, then looked across at her. Blue eyes twinkled between white eyebrows and mustache. “Especially governesses from Kent who speak with a decidedly London accent. Your good health, Miss Clark.” He raised his glass.
Beth seized her own glass like a lifeline. She gulped. It was sherry. Good sherry. It calmed her a little. “I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, sir.”
“Your accent is splendid, if a trifle misplaced. You must tell me how you came by it.” He extended his hand across the table. She looked at it, then offered hers. “Lord John Roderick. Everyone here calls me Johnny. You can, too.”
That explained his expensive-looking clothes and nice manners. Perhaps she’d chosen well. But “Milord” died on Beth’s lips as she saw him distracted by something behind her.
“It seems, Miss Clark, that the authorities have arrived. A porter told me they’re searching for a runaway prostitute who murdered her employer today.” He leaned forward slightly. “Where did you say you acquired your accent?”
Murdered? So Reynard had died after all. Even though she hadn’t followed through on her plan. How could that be? She’d checked his heart after he passed out. She sagged in her chair. A murderess, though an unintentional one. And judgment had come for her already. Oh, God. What could she do now?
Wait. Maybe they didn’t have a good description. They’d be looking for a well-dressed and made-up blonde. Her lank hair was still a light brown. Her lips and cheeks held not a trace of color. Her travel clothes and cloak were shabby and damp.
“I’m an actress, suh,” she said to Roderick, in her best imitation of Camille’s Carolina drawl. “Between roles. Traveling alone. You understand my need for caution.” She picked up her glass with both hands, hoping to hide her trembling. The sherry sloshed.
“I don’t wish to alarm you, my dear,” Roderick said, looking past her. He took both her hands when she set her glass down. “These policemen have a woman with them. She’s not wearing chains, so she’s not the one they’re looking for. Perhaps she’s helping them.”
Beth couldn’t speak. If they’d found Reynard’s body so quickly, they’d take girls who could identify her to the docks, to roads and rails, to steamboat landings. The telegraph and a fast carriage let them catch this train at that last station.
“I, uh, it would be better for you, suh—Lord John—if they don’t see you sitting with me. If you’ll just let my hands go . . . .” At that moment, the waiter set their supper in front of them. Too late now; she’d compromised her host as well. “What does this woman look like?”
“Pretty. Striking even. Elaborately curled dark hair, kept drier by her cloak than your locks. She’s well dressed for train travel. Fancy frock. Perhaps too well dressed, I’d say.”
“Heavily made up?”
Roderick squinted, looking past her. ”Yes, now that she’s in better light. I believe so.”
At that moment, a swish of silk and clump of boots stopped just behind Beth’s shoulder. They were checking the couple at the table behind her. Roderick kept her hands in an iron grip. She couldn’t stand, couldn’t even put her hands over her face.
“Thank you for offering me supper. I really must be going.” She gave him a weak smile and blinked back tears. They’d told her Louisiana still used the guillotine. If Reynard had died, they’d surely . . . .
Beth looked up when a familiar burgundy and gold dress came into view, then mastered her surprise as she gazed into the face of Roselle, the mulatto girl “Coffee,” who’d befriended her in Reynard’s house. She silently entreated Roselle with her eyes.
The girl studied Beth’s face for so long that she felt herself breaking into a sweat.
“No, this isn’t her either,” Roselle said at last, looking around. “Maybe she didn’t get on this train.” The girl gave her a little smile and touched her glossy black curls, as if to remind Beth they’d fixed each other’s hair only hours ago.
“Are there more cars?”
“Just sleeping compartments, gentlemen,” a porter assured them. “I have keys, but everyone’s prob’ly here at supper.” The group disappeared out the door.
Lord John released her hands. Beth put one hand to her chest and the back of the other to her forehead, sure she would be sick.
“Here,” he said, taking the hand from her bosom and placing her glass in it. “You were pale when you came in. I swear you’ve just turned ghostly.”
She drank gratefully and set the glass down empty. Her mind raced. Had she just imagined he dropped his accent for a moment? Had she been about to faint? She’d never fainted, not even when they brought her the news of Angela’s death.
She coughed, and some sherry dribbled down her chin. Roderick was ready with his napkin. She wiped her lips as she composed herself.
They began to eat. Beth was grateful for Lord John’s lack of conversation while memories swept over her.
Roselle. Thank God for Roselle. This wasn’t the first time the girl had saved her life. That night last December, the first night. When Reynard and some other men had finished with her, she’d curled up naked in a ball in the big blue and gold bed. The lamps had been put out and she was crying herself to sleep when a door at the other end of the room opened and closed. Certain she would be taken once more, she mumbled through bruised lips, “No, please. Not again.”
But there came the sound of water poured into a basin. Then a cool cloth passed over her forehead, her cheeks, her chin. Soft hands cleaned away all traces of men. A soothing voice reassured her that it would be all right, that she could sleep. No one would bother her any more tonight.
And no real person had. But Beth’s dreams had been haunted. Reynard. Her cousin Angela. Angela’s father. Her own father. When she woke up thrashing, crying out, the soft hands and the soothing voice were there. The other woman was in bed with her and comforted her. She made her way back to sleep.
In the morning, Beth’s benefactor was gone, but the other girls said Roselle had taken care of her.
Roselle had eased the initiations of some of the others, too. They spoke of her gratefully.
Beth gave the other girls hair styling and make-up tips from the theater. In return, they showed her how to strike provocative poses and how to do things like what Reynard had done with her. In the nights that followed Beth’s increasingly busy evenings, Roselle returned and taught her some steps to take to minimize pain, prevent infection, and reduce the chances of having a baby. She always stayed the night.
In the middle of one night, the solace she sought from Roselle turned to something else. They became more than nurse and patient. Roselle was kind and patient and the other girls began to accept Beth into their sisterhood.
After a week, Beth discovered the big mirror on her wall was two-way, a large window into her bedchamber. Reynard liked to bring customers to that window to watch what went on in her room and began to let pairs of men into Beth’s room to interact with the two women. Eventually, he billed them as “Coffee and Cream” and charged more than double for their services.
Beth regretted that secrets she and Roselle had shared became cheap entertainment. It didn’t hurt like Tony’s betrayal, but Roselle must have known about the mirror.
At that moment, the policemen and Roselle returned through the dining car. The train slowed, probably for the party to get off. Beth didn’t look up as they passed.
Now Roselle had done her one last favor, vouchsafed Beth to the night on a train headed north. Left her to the uncertain ministrations of Lord John Roderick. She looked up again as the waiter cleared their plates and brought them coffee. Coffee. She smiled ruefully and declined cream. Sipping the bitter brew brought her back to the moment. She was free, but what to do about Roderick?
“You've been miles away for a while, Miss Clark. What are your plans, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“No, of course not, Lord John.” She kept her Southern accent. Lies were more believable if you spoke like your mouth was full of honey. “I was, I am, an actress. I’m on my way to join a troupe in Memphis, if this train gets through. The Yankees are beginning to threaten so many places along the river.”
“I meant what are your plans for tonight, my dear? Have you a compartment?”
“A compartment? I hadn’t thought to reserve one.” Exhausted, she remembered the two hundred dollars in her bag that she’d taken from Reynard. “Do you think any might be available?”
Roderick stopped a porter and whispered to him, pressing a coin into his hand. The man moved away.
They finished the bottle of sherry. Beth was too unnerved and declined any more coffee. Coffee. If only she could have the comfort and safety of Coffee’s arms tonight. Roselle’s party had left the train. It began to pick up speed again.
The porter returned and whispered to Roderick.
“It seems all the compartments have been secured. At the risk of having you think I’m making an improper advance, would you consider sharing the cabin of a man old enough to be your grandfather?”
Beth didn’t blush, but looked him straight in the eyes. She’d expected this outcome. She wasn’t sure whether he’d arranged things with the porter, but she’d find out. She couldn’t say later that her honor had been compromised. A murderess and a thief who’d also been a prostitute couldn’t have any honor left. But maybe she could keep her freedom.
“Any port in a storm, Lord John,” she said, rising. He took her arm.
# # #
“I’m on my way to Memphis to see about a steamboat to take cotton I purchased downriver to New Orleans where a ship might take it to England. If it could run the blockade.
“Why don’t you travel with me, my dear? You’d be much safer. We could pass you off as my granddaughter. I’ve been to Memphis and I can tell you that the shiny young soldiers and the wounded on this train wouldn’t be much hindrance to a woman traveling alone. But you may encounter gamblers, swindlers, deserters, and much worse. Even the widows on this train might be unkind to someone like you.”
“Thank you. I’ll consider that.” Beth rummaged through her bag for her nightgown. The fold-down beds in here were bunks, too narrow for any unwanted visitors tonight, especially since she’d insisted on taking the upper one. She could pull up the little ladder after she was in bed. She might be manhandled, but any sort of relations would require an acrobat. At his age, Lord John was decidedly not a contender.
“You don’t seem experienced enough for the sort of things that have been attributed to you,” Lord John went on. "I say, did you really kill a man this afternoon?” So he hadn’t believed her actress story.
Beth looked up from her carpetbag. “I don’t know. I mean, I left him alive, but I suppose it’s possible. There were newspaper accounts last week of Indian atrocities in Nebraska. Some of the girls elaborated on the wild tales and rumors of what the Sioux and Cheyenne women do to captured white men.”
“Good Lord, I think I’ve heard those stories myself. Don’t the Red Indian women cut off the white men’s, um, and put them into the victims’ . . . ?”
“Yes, that’s what the paper said.” That devil Reynard had deserved what she’d intended for him, so he couldn’t ruin the lives of more young women.
When she looked up, Roderick was standing in his drawers with his nightshirt in his hand. She blinked at him.
“No need for tears. It’s all behind you now. Why don’t we do the proper thing under the circumstances and both turn our backs?”
She pulled her nightgown from her bag. “Agreed. Thank you, Lord John.” She turned around and unbuttoned her dress. In a few moments, she laid her outer garments on the seat across from the bunks. She turned to make sure he wasn’t looking at her in camisole and drawers, but he was in his bunk, facing the wall. His white head glowed in the lamplight.
“I’ll put out the lamp after you ascend, my dear.”
“Good night, Lord John. And thank you. For saving my life tonight.” She stripped off her underwear. His bunk creaked, and she hoped he wasn’t admiring her from the rear. Oh, what was the harm if he did? More than a hundred men had seen her like this. She slipped the nightgown over her head and left the lamp to him.
Beth found herself slightly unsteady as she climbed the ladder. Just the sherry, she decided. That must be why she thought Roderick let his accent slip. Nonsense. “The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Herself. Shakespeare, but which play? The sherry and the gentle rocking of the train made her head swim. She crawled under her blanket and spiraled down into an untroubled sleep.
# # #
But her waking was not so gentle. Bang, bang! Someone knocked hard on the compartment door. Beth tried to find her voice.
“Lor’ John. Johnny. Can you get that?” She was entangled in her nightgown. When there was no answer, she leaned over to check his bunk. Empty. He was probably in the dining car or the lavatory.
“Who is it?”
“My lord left an envelope for you, Miss.”
“Just a moment.” Damn. She hadn’t even remembered to pull up her ladder last night. Beth threw her bare legs over the edge of the bunk and thumped to the floor. She straightened her gown and unlocked the door, opening it just enough to take the envelope.
“Wait a moment, please,” she told the porter and got a coin from her reticule.
Beth locked the door and opened the envelope.
My Dear: I must apologize for leaving you in the lurch. And for lying to you. As you will no doubt discover for yourself, I am not really an elderly peer of the realm, but just a gambler known as Jolly Roger along the river. A pity I didn’t visit Reynard’s establishment and enjoy your favors when I was in New Orleans last, but your friend Roselle is certainly familiar to this old man. She helped me as much as you last night.
That made me think of using the ladder you so conveniently left dangling, but in the end, I had to restrain myself. If there’s any honor among thieves, I had to leave you something untouched. As for my appropriating your grubstake, I apologize. It was far larger than what I hoped to win in Memphis. I can no longer fall back on my youth and looks, as you can.
Think of me fondly some day. I’ll dream tonight of that birthmark on your right hip. Love, Jolly.
What did he mean by her grubstake?
“Oh, no. Please no. He couldn’t—”
But he could. And he had. Beth dug through her carpetbag. The two hundred dollars in gold was gone. She had two gold coins in her reticule with her small change. She’d accidentally killed Reynard and now Fate had taken away all she’d stolen.
Her throat tightened. She was on her way to Memphis with no resources. Beth didn’t know what to do, but she knew she’d never sell herself. She couldn’t return to the life she'd just escaped. She’d die first.
April 6 and 7, 1862
Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee
Lieutenant Walter Bates threw aside his tent flap and dashed into the cold April dawn, pulling on his jacket.
“Sergeant Patterson,” he called. “What’s going on?” Rifle fire became more intense.
Half-dressed men rushed to pick up stacked rifles and cartridge boxes. Not all of them were wearing jackets or trousers.
Sergeant Patterson ran up from the tent line of the unit ahead of theirs.
“A Rebel attack, sir. Thought it might just be overanxious pickets, but, no, it’s a regular battle back there. Getting closer, too.”
Walter topped the sergeant by half a head. His light brown hair hung unfashionably over his collar. The company barber died at Fort Donelson last month.
“Breakfast will have to wait,” Walter said, buckling his belt. He took out his pistol and flicked his gray eyes over the percussion caps. The men were falling in. “No orders from anyone. Guess the rest of Fourth Division is as surprised as we are.” Men from other units began to run through his company area, some only in long underwear. “All right, Sergeant, let’s form line and see what all the commotion is about.”
Just as they got their men set, Rebel soldiers appeared between the tents ahead of them.
Walter called out, “Independent fire. Find your own targets. Commence fire!” Plumes of white powder smoke joined the tendrils of fog and hid the advancing Rebels.
This makeshift line became the rallying point for the rest of the regiment, the First Brigade’s 41st Illinois. They began as skirmishers, trying to hold onto their tents, but soon had to fall back. Walter salvaged only his poncho. They kept firing and falling back, firing and falling back, until they reached hastily formed division lines.
Colonel Williams, the brigade commander, rallied them to stand fast, but a reb cannonball passed through his horse and critically wounded the officer. They gathered up Williams and gave more ground.
That proved a short respite. Major Bolling moved them off the line to protect some of the Fourth Division’s artillery. By late afternoon, the company took heavy casualties struggling to secure those guns.
The Rebels outflanked that position. Not all the guns could be saved.
As evening fell, Walter walked among his exhausted men and counted heads. He’d lost twelve of his 61 men killed or wounded. Sergeant Patterson had fought all day with a leg wound. Walter sent him to have it seen to. Corporal Kelly helped Walter keep his men together and get them fed and bedded down.
Thankfully, they weren’t ordered to pull picket duty. But the heavens that had threatened rain all day finally opened. Having lost their shelter to the Rebs, they huddled miserably in small groups with blankets scavenged from dead comrades.
No one could sleep or keep the rain off. Walter found one of his men, Private Sawyer, shivering uncontrollably on the ground. Kelly said the boy had been throwing up all morning and refused to be sent to the rear for medical care. Walter took off the oilcloth poncho his mother gave him and covered Sawyer. Walter knew if he were to lie down, he’d become soaked, so he stood all night under the scant shelter of a nearly bare tree with three of his men.
In the morning, he found his top half was wet to the skin, but his legs were dry. He would have traded half dry for real sleep. When he went to retrieve his poncho, he found Sawyer dry but dead. He’d lost thirteen men between yesterday’s dawn and today's.
After a cold breakfast, the new brigade commander, Colonel Pugh, rode down the line and called out, “Fill your canteens, boys! Some of you will be in Hell before night, and you’ll need the water.” Not very comforting, Walter thought, but the admonition proved horribly true.
Walter’s company and other units formed up and moved forward quietly. Thick fog hugged the ground this morning as they advanced over ground they’d given up yesterday. At length, a mounted officer held up a hand and everyone stopped. No one wanted to enter the wall of fog ahead, even though they could hear nothing. Had the Rebs left in the night?
There came the faint sound of wheels turning. Ambulances to take the wounded away? Why would they be out in front of skirmishers? In fact, where were the Rebel pickets? The creaking of heavily-burdened wheels ceased as soon as it began. Soldiers all along the Union line began to talk and laugh, loosening up a little.
Walter was afraid he knew what the noisy wheels and lack of pickets meant, but he only had a second. He called to his men and pointed at the ground. Wordlessly, he dropped to his belly. They silently followed his example.
“Here,” a mounted officer called out. “What are you men doing? Who gave you permission—?”
Long tongues of fire stabbed through the fog. The thunder of half a dozen cannon. Canister cut through the ranks of units on either side of his. Officers and men, mounted and not, were blown away as the closely packed balls tore through their troops. But the guns were fired from such short range that the canister couldn’t spread out like shotgun rounds. Half the soldiers were left standing between bloody swathes that had moments before been their friends.
Walter knelt in front of his men.
“Fire where the cannons fired from. We can’t let them reload. Independent fire.”
His men fired blindly into the swirling mist. Volleys of shots returned. Infantry was coming.
“On your feet! Fall back as you reload. Corporal Kelly, keep them in good order.” Walter fired his pistol into advancing Rebel ranks, not to hit targets, but to buy time for his men to reload.
On both sides of his company, survivors of other units turned withdrawal into a rout. Officers and men all around him fell like wheat in a windstorm, bloodied and crying out in pain or rendered instantly silent.
Twenty-pounder siege guns and the cannon of ironclad river gunboats should have softened up the Rebels’ hasty overnight positions. But someone forgot to tell the Rebs to cower. They fought hard for every inch of ground this morning and kept coming. In one minute alone, Walter saw three more of his men go down and saw an equal number of able-bodied soldiers depart for the rear helping the wounded.
“Corporal Kelly. I want no more men helping the wounded to the rear. We’re holding now and may even advance. Medical orderlies will tend to them. Ground their rifles bayonet down so the orderlies can find them.” This sounded harsh even to his own ears, but damn it, his unit was close to half strength now. He might regret his words later, but he’d spoken as his training had taught him.
When his company re-entered the Peach Orchard, the strongpoint of yesterday’s defense, withering fire greeted them. Tree trunks exploded. Branches showered down on them. Artillery shells screamed louder than the cries of the wounded and blasted up dirt clods. More men went down. Everyone hugged the bloodied ground. It seemed to Walter, crouching in powder smoke, that nothing standing could live.
“Back,” he shouted, shocked to see retreating blue jackets to the left and right of his unit. “Move back to that fence line and little ditch we just left. Better cover there.” Walter’s men were only too glad to hear that order. They moved in low crouches, reloading and backing away. He turned away from the enemy momentarily and watched his men fall back in good order.
The shell that exploded behind Walter deafened him. No one saw him fall into tall grass.
Blood seeped from his left ankle and knee. Pain radiated in waves. He lay still, listening to the whine of bullets overhead, and hoped his men would rally and return for him. The smoke and tide of battle washed over him twice when skirmishers from both sides ran forward, then back, some Rebs close enough to touch. He played dead when gray uniforms passed. Each side left men behind. Some who tried to limp back to their lines were cut down in a murderous fire.
Walter inched along on his belly, but had no way to return fire if the Rebs came again. Some bodies he touched were still warm. Others, cold and stiff, had not been recovered yesterday. He’d expended all his pistol rounds and his sword was useless. He planted it in the ground to mark the position of three badly wounded men--two gray and one in blue--and promised to send help. He cursed and crawled on, over bloody corpses and around soldiers writhing in agony. His vision was limited by tall grass and the occasional tree trunk. Still no sign of advancing Union forces and he couldn’t remember who controlled this ground last. Maybe no one. Walter took a rifle and cartridge box from a dead man. He rolled over onto his back to load it and felt better having a weapon, in case this day went any worse.
# # #
Walter told himself he was damn lucky to have made it this far by afternoon. Lying on a sand bank outside the hospital perched beside the river, he could tell the toll must have been high by the number of stretchers that continued to pass him. He hadn’t been seen yet; the surgeons had more serious wounds to attend to. He asked a man he recognized from his regiment to tell Major Bolling that he’d survived and would rejoin his company.
Walter sipped gratefully from a dipper offered by a hospital orderly carrying a bucket. The water was warm and tasted metallic, but his throat was raw with thirst and he drank his fill. He dared not look too closely to see if the water was tinted pink. It would be if it came from the nearby bloodied creek. He wanted to ask for a second dipper, but he could hear other men more badly wounded than he, calling for water, for a surgeon, for their mothers. From the moans and screams, the stenches of vomit and excrement, he thought of this sandbank as the anteroom to Hell.
The battle had gone badly yesterday for the Federal forces, but from the number of prisoners he saw trooping by under guard, things must’ve gone worse for the Rebs today. They’d retreated from their gains of yesterday. Rumor had it that their commander, General Johnston, had been killed.
# # #
The afternoon wore on into evening. The sun set against blood-red clouds. No reply from brigade. Maybe the man never found their unit. Someone brought Walter more water and a little bread. Talk from the front was that the rebs had given up the fight, driven off by Union gunboats and the final Federal attack of the day, bolstered by General Buell’s arriving reinforcements.
Walter shifted position and was forced to put a little weight on his ankle. He barely stifled a moan. The men around him must be sleeping or dead. He wouldn’t bleed to death if he hadn’t already. But what if they cut off his foot? Would gangrene or some other infection kill him? Would it be quick? After Fort Donelson, he’d seen two lightly wounded men linger more than a week in delirious fever before passing.
It was one kind of courage to advance into withering fire. Quite another to lie here with time to contemplate a slow death. Not exactly an original thought this evening, Walter supposed.
A snatch of conversation alerted him. Two men with a lantern picked their way along the embankment among the wounded. Walter hailed them. Perhaps they were orderlies.
One called out, “Lieutenant Bates? Walter Bates, is that you?” A gruff voice, more a croak than a bark, but Walter recognized it. Lantern light glinted on a single star on a shoulder strap. General Grant was said to be reluctant to put on his second star.
“Here, sir. Over here.” He waved and the two men came over.
“Well, young man, were you just going to loaf around here all night or did you mean to make some noise and get yourself seen to?” Grant spoke around his usual unlit cigar.
Walter saw the pained expression on the overworked surgeon’s face. His apron and shirt sleeves were shiny with fresh blood.
“If I’m not dead by morning, sir, I guess they might get to me when they’ve seen to the other wounded.” He grinned and tried to stand. His half-smile became a grimace.
“I doubt they’ll be able to see everyone by morning. The bill may go as high as fifteen hundred to two thousand killed yesterday and today. Twice that many wounded. You might be overlooked in all that. How’s it look, Doctor?”
“Can’t tell. Have to get his boot off.”
“I couldn’t pull it off myself. Took me an hour to get here and my foot swelled up pretty bad along the way.” He gasped as the doctor squeezed his ankle through the boot. Then shuddered when the man took out a dirty clasp knife and cut the boot and trouser leg away.
“Looks like a couple good-sized fragments, General. One in the knee, too. Would you hold this lantern?”
“Ahhh! Damn it, Doctor, why don’t you just slice my foot off? Then it wouldn’t hurt so much. Jesus!”
Grant leaned in. “What would your mother say if she heard you use language like that? Harrumph. Your mother. And what would she say to me about today’s bloody business?”
The worst pain ebbed when the surgeon set his foot down. “My mother? What about her?” She’d been a customer at Grant’s store in Galena before the war. That was how Walter joined Sam Grant’s newly forming unit. Much to everyone’s dismay, Grant hadn’t been named to command it. Though a West Pointer and Mexican War veteran, Grant had only been commissioned a lieutenant colonel. As war would have it, he’d soon been offered a chance to whip a mutinous regiment into shape and became a brigadier two weeks later.
The doctor beckoned to two orderlies.
“When you left to catch the train last spring," Grant continued, "she made me promise to keep you safe. Told her I’d do my best, consistent with the needs of the Army. It was a piecrust promise, since I wasn’t near you for long and had no inkling of sudden promotion.”
Walter’s eyes flicked to the star on his shoulder strap. Grant caught the look.
“Luck’s a funny thing, son,” the general said. “A lot of men lying out there tonight in blue and gray wouldn’t say Sam Grant’s luck did them any good at all. But I’ll see that it does you some good.”
The two orderlies helped Walter keep a standing position on his good right foot. He stood eye to eye with the general.
“Sherman’s been after me to start wearing that second star since General Smith came down with tetanus. Since I’ve got a dozen brigadiers answering to me now, I guess this leopard will have to change his spots, so to speak.” He caught Walter’s grin. “And so will you, by God. I’ve got an overdue set of captain’s bars for you if you’re still alive next week—and a new job.”
“Can I keep my company, sir?”
“Not my decision. That’d be up to Colonel Pugh.”
The doctor took the lantern and let the general walk beside the orderlies and his patient. The lights and sounds of the hospital tents became brighter and nearer. Even Grant’s headquarters cabin had been commandeered by the surgeons.
“No, this promotion goes with a completely new job. Have to send you to Washington. The doctor will probably say that even if he saves your foot, you’ll have a limp all your life.”
“But I can still fight, sir. Don’t send me away. I know you’ll be advancing again soon.”
“You’re an infantry officer. You won’t be able to keep up with your troops.”
“I can still ride.”
“You know I don’t let my officers ride into battle, except for cavalry. Makes ’em too good a target. No, the War Department wants each of the armies to send a 'military information officer'—whatever that is—to Washington. Lieutenants may get eaten alive there, so in my new capacity as major general, I can give you a leg up. Oh, sorry.” Grant chuckled at the gaffe.
“But sir, I could carry dispatches for you, do some other valuable work for the Army of the Tennessee. There are far more deserving wounded officers you could send.”
“There are some far more deserving officers lying out there right now who aren’t breathing. They’d jump at the chance to go to Washington in your place if they could.”
They arrived at the surgeon’s tent and stopped outside. Walter knew Grant wouldn’t want his presence to interrupt the sawing, stitching, and bandaging, but he’d likely take time to speak to the recovering wounded.
“Cheer up, son. You can watch my back and keep me informed of what’s going on among those politicians. If I’m lucky, someone in Washington will give Halleck credit for this shabby victory or bloody draw—take your pick. Somebody from my staff will find you and bring you those new bars. If that wound hasn’t done you in by next week, you get the job.”
Grant clapped him on the shoulder. “Some men would rather die than go to Washington. Don’t let me down, Captain. Don’t become one of them.”
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