Author: Fortitudine PM
Pre-series. In the Mississippi Delta, a young cavalry NCO is tested when his first patrol goes horribly wrong.Rated: Fiction T - English - Western/Drama - Words: 5,365 - Reviews: 10 - Favs: 1 - Published: 08-01-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8383430
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The United States acknowledge and protect, in hostile countries occupied by them, religion and morality; strictly private property; the persons of the inhabitants, especially those of women; and the sacredness of domestic relations. Offenses to the contrary shall be rigorously punished. ~ (General Order #100, "Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field," Article 37. April, 1863).
The house was long and low, stone-built with a wide porch across the front and a half-story above. The yard had too much shrubbery, but there was a clear field of fire down the front walk, the corporal observed, and from force of habit he checked to see if the avenues of approach could be easily covered from the house. He wondered if he would ever again be able to look at a house or a road or a meadow without weighing its military possibilities.
He turned and regarded Trooper Geary. "Did you speak to me, Trooper?" he asked, and his voice was very polite.
"Are we done looking at real estate, Corporal Sherman?" Geary's tone was a fraction more respectful but his eyes were insolent.
Some day soon, the corporal reflected, he was going to have to take Geary out behind the horse lines and beat the shit out of him. He had more important things on his mind, just now. This sector was nominally under Union control, but there were always Secesh guerillas to watch out for.
"Doesn't look like anyone's home. Fulton, Geary, check the barn and the outbuildings. Dolph, you're with me."
Trooper Adolphus mopped the sweat from his downy chin and started to follow.
"Bring your carbine, Dolph," the corporal reminded him gently. The boy turned bright red and went back to drag his weapon from the scabbard.
They circled the silent house and came up around the back, where a door stood ajar. He gestured to Dolph to stay on the porch and stepped cautiously into an empty kitchen.
A door on the opposite wall led into a dim, cool dining room and he moved forward, eyes and ears straining to catch any hint of an occupant. All the windows were shuttered against the sun and the thick walls kept out the worst of the Delta heat.
"Why you come here? You git out, now!"
He spun around, carbine at the ready.
She was one of the prettiest girls he'd ever seen. He hadn't heard her come in, for she had no shoes on, and her small feet moved noiselessly across the scoured board floor. Wisps of dark curls escaped from under the white scarf bound around her head, and long-lashed brown eyes looked up at him from a face the color of cream and roses. She wore a grey dress, unfashionably plain even to his inexperienced gaze, with an apron over it. He knew he was staring and he blushed to the roots of his fair hair.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," he apologized, lowering the carbine and touching two fingers to the brim of his kepi. "I guess I'm forgetting my manners."
"Who you callin' ma'am, soldier-boy? Missus, she gone." Her voice was tart.
He looked again at the scarf, the apron, the bare feet, and realization dawned.
"I'm not making fun of you, ma'am…I mean miss. I mean…" his words died in his throat. He had no idea what to call her.
"You got no right t'be here. " The girl was like a spitting kitten and he raised his hand placatingly, sensing the fear behind her prickly manner.
"I'm afraid the Army wants the place. Where's the owner?"
"Missus be visitin.' She come back Sunday."
He said as politely as he could, "Not to this house. It's going to be used by the soldiers."
He saw the shadow of panic in her eyes and tried to reassure her. "My name's Corporal Sherman. I'm the man in charge here right now and you don't need to worry. You'll be treated right."
She crossed her arms, scared and disbelieving.
"Nobody's going to bother you. When the advance guard gets here, I'll see that you get taken to your mistress, if you want." He paused, unsure of his authority. "Or if there's somewhere else you can go..."
He hoped that was a promise he could keep - he could just imagine the quartermaster's face when he tried to requisition an ambulance for such a purpose. But she couldn't stay there, not with the Brigade moving in.
Fulton shouted from the yard and she backed away from him until her shoulders were pressed against the wall. "You just stay in the kitchen," he told her. "It'll be all right."
He went out the front door and the heat, after the house, hit him like a fist.
"All clear," Fulton said laconically. The horses were waiting patiently on the road, heads drooping in the windless air.
"There's a girl in there," he informed Fulton, and saw Geary look up and a calculating smile slide across his face.
"Alone?" Fulton was married and had children.
"Slave girl. Just a kid, really. Sixteen or seventeen."
"That ain't right."
"No. Nothing we can do about it now, though."
The corporal gave the property a last appraising glance. In front of the house, the ground sloped gradually down to the Mississippi slowly flowing by, oily and sluggish. Headquarters would have river access, the road could bear wagon traffic, and there was water and fodder in plenty. He closed his mind against the certain knowledge that not much would be left of the place once the Brigade moved on.
He made his decision quickly.
"Fulton. Report to First Sergeant Hofbauer. He can bring up the advance guard."
Geary was a shirker and Adolphus was green. Fulton, he knew, would head like a homing pigeon for Hofbauer, and could be counted on to deliver the message without prompting and without frills. The man swung into the saddle with a nod, saber and stirrups clanking musically as he cantered away down the road.
"Take the horses around to the kitchen door," he told Geary. "There's water and shade. Tell Dolph we're staying."
"Yes sir, Corporal Sherman, sir." Geary slouched away. The corporal itched to kick him.
He slung his carbine over his shoulder and returned to the house. Inside the door a stairway led up to the half-story above, and there were two more rooms beyond it including a pretty little parlor, full of delicate trifles. He was eyeing them dubiously when he heard the girl's voice, raised, from the kitchen.
He swore under his breath. Geary.
The trooper was sitting canted back in one of the kitchen chairs and his feet were on the table. "C'mon, Sukey," he wheedled. "Come over here and sit down."
"Excuse us," the corporal said to the agitated girl. He hauled Geary to his feet and frog-marched him out, releasing him on the back porch.
"What's the idea - " Geary protested.
The corporal cut him off. "You'll behave yourself in that house or I'll throw you in the river," he said coldly.
"Well, now, I'm real sorry," Geary whined. "Didn't mean Sukey no harm. But we been in the saddle almost three hours. Man gets a little tired, makes him contrary."
"You don't say. Keep an eye on the road. I'll see about getting us some java."
Trooper Adolphus was watching from beside the horses.
The boy straightened.
"There's coffee in my saddlebags. Bring it."
The girl was standing in the door to a covered passageway. Over her shoulder he could see a summer kitchen. People in this part of the South knew how to live with the heat.
"I'd like to ask a favor." He pulled off his kepi.
She was defensive, wary of this big Yankee stranger. "I reckon."
"We have coffee. May we use your kitchen make some?"
Dolph came in with a little sack of coffee beans in his hand.
"I c'n do that."
Dolph looked at him and he nodded. The girl snatched the bag away from Dolph and carried it off to the summer kitchen.
The corporal leaned his carbine against the wall and sat down at the table. He brushed at the marks Geary's spurs had left on the tablecloth and frowned.
"Sit down, Dolph. There's an old Army saying - never stand when you can sit."
"And don't call me sir, I work for a living." The corporal ran his hand through his hair. Dolph perched himself on a chair across the table.
When the girl came back in she placed a pot of coffee between them, along with a plate of biscuits and a small bowl of sorghum. They thanked her and she disappeared back into the summer kitchen. The corporal pushed the plate toward Dolph.
The boy grabbed a biscuit and dunked it in the sorghum. For a while they concentrated on the coffee and biscuits, which were better than anything either of them had enjoyed in a long time. Dolph finally spoke.
"What's wrong with Geary?"
The corporal laughed but there was no humor in the sound. "I'd need all day to tell you."
"He thinks I'm a nancy." Dolph's voice was strained. "Do you?"
The corporal's expressed opinion of Geary was brief, pointed, and profane. "And If I were you, I'd ignore him," he added with great firmness. "Some men ask and some men take, Dolph. And some men steal. Geary's a sneaking, thieving weasel because he's not brave enough to be a bully."
"Why does he call her Sukey? I don't think that's her name."
"Oh, there's lots of fellows call all colored girls Sukey, or Dinah."
"I don't like the way he looks at her," the boy ventured.
"That's because you were raised right," the corporal remarked. He took another swallow of coffee. "The world's full of Gearys, and they all act like they're the ace high cockalorum. You need to remember something when he starts in on you - it's up to you to decide what kind of man you want to be. Don't let anybody push you into being something you're not."
He put his cup down. "Speaking of Geary - go relieve him. He may be a weasel but he rates his share of this coffee."
Geary came in, silent and sullen, and began to pack away the food. The girl returned to fill the coffee pot and he took the last biscuit and shoved the empty plate at her.
"How about some more, Sukey? I'll help you make 'em." His voice was thick with meaning. "Unless the corporal here decides rank has its priv'leges."
The girl flushed and shot him a scornful look. The corporal spoke up.
"I sometimes wonder if you know how to be anything but a dog, Geary."
Geary stopped chewing.
"Since you're not fit to be in the same room with a decent human being, I suggest you take yourself outside and eat with the horses. Don't annoy them," the corporal said with casual contempt.
Geary opened his mouth, caught the corporal's eye, and thought better of it. He left his coffee and the half-eaten biscuit on the table.
"I'm sorry," the corporal said.
"Ain't nothin'." She began to tidy away the dishes.
"Yes, it is," he insisted. "I said you'd be treated right, and I meant it. If he bothers you again, you tell me - I'll take care of him."
She didn't answer and he wondered if it was because she thought he was lying. When she finished the dishes she returned and sat down in a rush-bottomed rocker and folded her hands in her lap.
Fair enough, he told himself. She didn't feel like talking. He picked absentmindedly at the shiny gold chevrons on his left sleeve. He'd sewn them on not a week before, and made a pretty bad job of it.
She watched him silently for a few minutes and then gave a little disgusted sound. "Who done that for you?"
"I did," he admitted sheepishly.
"Hmph. Give it t'me." He hesitated and she snapped at him.
"You hear me? I don' need you droppin' threads all over my nice clean kitchen!"
He shrugged out of the coat and handed it over. She plucked a pair of scissors from a sweetgrass basket on the shelf beside her and began ripping out his crooked stitches.
Her hands worked with quiet deftness on the dark serge. It was nice to see a woman sewing, he thought wistfully, feeling an ache for his home. He remembered his mother and his aunts, orderly and skillful, moving through the even succession of days with every task in its season. It seemed a thousand years ago.
Something glinted in the dim light and he leaned forward to get a closer look. A silver medallion of some kind lay against the soft curve of her bodice, suspended on a fine chain. She suddenly lifted her eyes and caught his.
Her head came up sharply and she deliberately tucked the little trinket back inside the collar of her dress, regarding him with the same scorn she'd earlier shown Geary. He felt shamed, like a small boy caught peeking through a girl's window at night.
She finished sewing on his chevrons and handed it to him. "Thanks," he told her.
She said nothing. Maybe, he thought, because she was still afraid of him, and the idea disturbed him. He did not want her to see him as that kind. He pulled the coat back on and walked out to check on his men.
Geary was asleep on the porch and he nudged him with his boot, not gently. "Get out on the road," he ordered. "And keep your eyes open. The advance guard should have been here by now."
He had Dolph move the horses to the barn. When he returned to the cool of the house she was still sitting in the rocking chair.
"Your mistress has some nice things," he said finally. "They'll get broken. Do you want to pack some of them away?"
It was probably a useless gesture but it would keep her busy and make him feel as though he was doing something helpful. She started to get up when Dolph came in.
"Corporal Sherman? There's a lot of soldiers coming up the road. Federals, it looks like. But they're not in marching order - they're kind of straggling."
Stragglers. Just what he needed.
"Find Geary." He picked up his carbine and went through to the front door. The girl followed him, and he motioned to her to step back, behind the door, before he opened it.
There were a dozen or so troops in Union uniform within view, and for all he knew, more of them out in the woods across the road. Geary must have seen them coming and maliciously stayed silent. He promised himself the man was going to get that beating before he was very much older.
"Say, Corporal! Glad to see you ain't a Johnny Reb!" A burly man with a torn and dirty havelock came up on the porch, followed by three of his friends.
"What outfit are you boys from?" He kept his voice calm.
He could have groaned. If only it had been anyone but the 19th Illinois. Other regiments had nicknamed them "The Forty Thieves," and the sergeants and officers were said to be worse than the rank and file.
"Hear there's a yaller gal in there," the man said insinuatingly. "And a looker, too."
Geary, you son of a bitch, he thought.
"This place has been requisitioned for Brigade headquarters," he said curtly. "We're holding it until the advance guard gets here. It's off limits."
The other smirked.
"Well, now, that don't seem friendly at all. But you can keep the house, if you're so all-fired set on it. We'll settle for the gal. No call to be greedy." A dark patch on his jacket showed where a set of stripes had been cut away, and it occurred to the corporal that a man would have to do something pretty bad to get busted in the 19th Illinois.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of them shift to the left, trying to flank him. Time to stop talking - he leaned back slightly and drove his heel into the burly man's crotch, knocking him back into the others. He leaped backwards through the doorway and the girl slammed it shut.
He drew his hand across his mouth, started to curse without thinking, and stopped.
"Maybe they goin' away," she said in the sudden silence. "Maybe you scared 'em off."
Someone outside shouted and fired a shot into the front door, and she jumped.
"Do these shutters have bars on the inside?" he asked her.
She nodded, quickly understanding. "They was pirates on the river, long time ago," she told him. "Missus, she say her granddaddy kilt a couple of 'em on the front porch, once."
She ran for the windows at the rear of the house as he went across the front rooms, finding the bars and dropping them into their cradles.
"Corporal Sherman?" It was Trooper Adolphus, hesitating in the kitchen doorway, looking bewildered. "Geary's gone."
"Doesn't surprise me. He's got a yellow stripe on each leg and a big one running down his back. Always has."
"What do you want me to do?" Dolph's voice cracked.
The corporal thought furiously. If only he had a few more men with him. Hell, if only he had Sergeant Hofbauer with him. He caught himself up short.
"Report back to the Regiment and request reinforcements. Find Sergeant Hofbauer if you can, Sergeant MacMahon or Sergeant Pryor if you can't. Tell them I intend to hold until relieved." He emphasized the last words. "Understand?"
"I…I don't want to run out on you - "
"Adolphus! That's an order." He made his voice snap like a whip, and then relented.
"Listen – you stay here and we're both dead, and she will be too, after they're done with her. But if you bring Sergeant Hofbauer and the rest of the troop back, she might have a chance. Now get going!"
Dolph turned and bolted out the door.
"Take my horse!" The corporal shouted after him. It wasn't so much that his horse was faster, although it was. He just didn't want the animal falling into the hands of the 19th Illinois.
"What you tell him?" The girl was back beside him, peering out through a loophole at the men trampling down the front garden.
He said nothing for a minute, for his thoughts were not pretty.
"'Hold until relieved.' What you mean?" she repeated.
"It means I'm not going to run away and I'm not going to surrender," he said quietly. "It means I'm going to stay until the rest of my outfit gets here."
Or until these bastards break down the door. He was suddenly reminded of a poem children studied in school, the one about the Roman soldier at the bridge. He put his shoulders back, striking a pose and declaiming like a scholar on Class Day.
"Then out spoke brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate; to every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late -"
The girl stared at him in amazement and he grinned at her.
"And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers and the temple of his Gods?"
She smiled shakily back. "You some crazy, soldier-boy."
He put his eye to the loophole. A tall, thin officer stood on the walk and he had his pistol in his hand.
"This is Lieutenant Portiss of the 19th Illinois! I'm ordering you to stand down."
"With all due respect, lieutenant! My orders are to take charge of this property - "
"Your orders are changed, corporal. Stand down. Stand down!"
He wondered which would get him court-martialed quicker, abandoning his post or disobeying an officer. Probably the latter, but the thought of handing the girl over to the lieutenant and the men outside sickened him. He looked down at the gleaming little strips of fabric on his coat sleeve and suddenly he hated them and what they stood for.
He moved over to the door, drawing the girl with him. Behind them the stairs led to the attic story, steep and with a wall on each side. He pushed her gently towards them.
"I want you to go upstairs and lock the door behind you. Drag some furniture in front of it, everything you can."
"You don' have to do this, soldier-boy," she whispered. Her eyes were big and dark, like a cat's when the color is all crowded out.
"Maybe." He fumbled under his coat for the holster at his belt. He'd bought the Remington from a man in a Michigan regiment, paid forty dollars for it, wanting to carry something better than the clumsy Colt Dragoon. Never had the chance to use it.
"You take this. There's six rounds in it. Anybody comes through that door up there but me, you think you can shoot him?"
They were pounding on the door now, and it sounded like they were using their rifle butts. He could see the planks of the door shake with each blow. He checked his carbine and pulled the hammer back to half-cock.
She touched his arm and he turned his head to look at her. For the briefest moment he felt her hands on his shoulders and her lips, soft and warm against his. She smelled of baking, and lye soap, and the clove pinks his mother used to grow in the dooryard back home.
He buried his face in the coarse wool of her sleeve and closed his eyes, trying in the second or two he had left to set the clean young sweetness of her fast in his mind. Then she was gone, and he heard her lock and bolt the door at the top of the stairs.
The massive cypress door had withstood the assaults of man and nature for over a century, but the battering from half a dozen Springfields finally defeated it. The thick boards splintered and gave way, and the lieutenant from the 19th Illinois shoved the shattered remnants aside and came in with his pistol at the ready.
The corporal shot him in the chest and watched with grim satisfaction as the two men following him fell over the lieutenant's body, bottling the rest of them up. He broke his carbine open, reloaded, and fired again into the crowd on the porch. Another man collapsed into the tangle in the doorway and he fed a third cartridge into the breech.
He got off one more shot before the sheer weight of numbers forced him to retreat up the stairs. There was no time to reload and he reversed the carbine, raining blows on the struggling, yelling mass below him.
One of the mob managed to worm his way up close enough to slash at him with an Arkansas toothpick and the part of the corporal's brain that registered such things noted that pain was shooting through his left thigh. He jammed his hip against the wall and struck the man in the forehead with the butt end of the carbine, feeling the skull cave in like a rotten melon.
Someone risked a shot and the ball whanged viciously past his head. He gave an angry roar and threw himself onto the men trying to force their way upwards, driving them back with his size and his shoulders. An attacker got hold of his jacket and another began beating on his ribs. He lashed out with the carbine until it was torn from his hands and then used his fists, punching and gouging in a desperate frenzy.
From outside he heard a scatter of gunfire and new voices added to the din, and smelled the familiar tang of black powder. The door filled with cavalrymen and through the smoke and the shouting he saw Trooper Fulton drag one of the 19th Illinois off the pile and begin slamming his head against the wall. The press of bodies in front of him ebbed and he fell forward, landing with his cheek against the bottom step and his legs stretched up the stairs.
He closed his eyes and let himself lie there.
It was over, at least for him. Someone else was in command now and he could quit, he thought gratefully. His leg felt on fire and he knew some ribs were broken, and there was blood running down over his face from a place on his scalp where a knife or a bayonet had taken a slice out of him.
Sergeant Hofbauer's stentorian tones rang out above the rest. Hard hands, momentarily gentle, lifted him onto a blanket, using it to carry him out onto the porch.
The first sergeant bent over him. "Dolph told us about the girl. Where is she?"
"In…in the attic. At the top of the stairs." It hurt to talk. "She's got my pistol," he gritted out. "I told her to shoot anybody who wasn't me."
Sergeant Hofbauer snorted. "Glad you remembered to warn me, Sherman. Well, don't worry. We'll get her out all right. I s'pose you want that cannon of yours back?"
The corporal bared his teeth in what might have passed for a smile. "If it's not too much to ask."
Hofbauer disappeared and he became conscious of another blurry blue-clad form hovering on the perimeter. He blinked to clear the blood from his eyes. It was Trooper Adolphus.
"I brought 'em as fast as I could, Corporal Sherman," the boy said tentatively. "I'm sorry it took so long."
"You did fine," he assured him, and Dolph looked as though someone had lit a candle inside him.
"I was afraid - " he began, but the corporal stopped him.
"I wasn't. I knew I could count on you, Trooper." He shut his eyes on Dolph's stammered thanks and let the darkness take over.
He didn't pay attention to much of anything for several days, other than to be vaguely aware that the surgeons decided not to cut his leg off. The army had accustomed him to taking life in twenty-four hour doses. That he might be killed was something he'd accepted after his first skirmish, but the thought of going home a cripple had never crossed his mind. The morphine kept him from thinking about it too often.
He was discharged from the hospital straight into the guardhouse, carried there on a stretcher after his ward nurse threatened the provost guard with immediate and painful death if they started him bleeding again. Another two days passed before he managed to get his pants on over the bandages and sit up to greet a visitor.
It was Sergeant Hofbauer, and at the sight of that cheerfully pugnacious Bavarian face his spirits lifted. Whatever was going to happen to him for the fight at the river house, he knew the first sergeant would stand with him.
"Somebody came by with a present for you," Hofbauer told him, slapping him on the back and earning a grunt as the other man's ribcage objected.
"Figured I'd best fetch it to you myself, or it wouldn't get past the provost marshal." He set a round object wrapped in a blue-checked napkin on the cot.
"Hope she cooks as good as she looks, son. She's a pippin, all right - I don't blame you for shootin' that shavetail. By the way, you didn't kill him - but he ain't goin' to be roamin' around disgracin' the uniform for quite a spell."
Hofbauer unfolded the cloth to reveal a peach pie, the deeply dimpled crust glazed with sugar and escaping juices.
"Damn." The corporal murmured reverently. He was very tired of guardhouse rations. "You bring a fork?"
"Brought two. Scooch over, boy, I'm hungry."
There was a brief, appreciative silence as they ate.
"Reckon I better tell you now - the old man's goin' to take your stripes."
The corporal put his fork down and stared at him. "Is that all?"
Hofbauer said around a mouthful of pie, "You figured on bein' shot at dawn, maybe? O' course, that damned Rooshian colonel from the 19th has been hollerin' for your head on a plate. Nah, the old man and the chaplain and the sergeant major had a confabulation and somebody must've spoke up for you."
"Wonder who that might be."
They grinned at each other.
"It ain't just the stripes. You'll likely get thirty days' hard," Hofbauer warned.
"They can have the stripes," the corporal said. "And keep them."
"You want to go back to bein' one of the sheep instead of the shepherd, is that it?"
"Something like that." He remembered the 19th Illinois' lieutenant and shook his head. To think he himself had once been fool enough to want shoulder straps.
"I wouldn't count on it," Hofbauer said. "Say, Geary's gone over the hill."
"I expected that. No loss."
"Can't argue with you there. Oh - almost forgot." The sergeant fished in his tunic pocket. "She asked me to give this to you. Asked me to tell you good-bye."
Something flashed in the air as Hofbauer tossed it across the cot. It was a little silver medallion on a fine chain.
"The lady that owns her thinks this theater of operations is gettin' to be a tad unpleasant. She's movin' to Nashville."
"Pretty quick, I guess." The sergeant put one hand on his shoulder. "Listen, son, you forget her. Plenty of white girls around for you to pine over."
"I'm not pining for anybody," he said, nettled. "Hell, I don't even know her name."
"Sure." Hofbauer gathered up the forks and the empty dish. "Well, you just sit tight and rest that leg for a day or two. The old man'll have you out of here soon."
That night the corporal lay awake for a long time, watching the big Southern moon through the open tent flaps, his thoughts chasing themselves in circles and getting nowhere. Maybe you could get a pass to go to Nashville. Maybe you could look for her there.
On the heels of that came the question Suppose you find her? Then what?
His fingers traced around the shape of the medallion, lying heavy against the skin over his heart. Finally, since he had no answers, and because he was a young man and tired, he slept.
The 19th Illinois Volunteer Infantry was known in the Army of the Ohio as "The Forty Thieves," a nickname for which, their regimental historian admitted, there was considerable justification. The commanding officer was Col John Turchin, born Ivan Turchaninov. On one occasion he is said to have pointed his troops at Athens, Alabama – a town suspected of harboring guerillas – after telling them "Boys, I close my eyes for one hour." There was not much left of Athens once they were done.
Most of the 19th's companies were mustered into service from Chicago. The regiment had a good combat reputation but was regarded with a certain lack of…favor…by the rest of the Army.