I wrote this one-shot a year ago at Christmas. I was going through it yesterday and realized that I should probably move it over here as well. I know it's been a busy week for me, posting-wise, but I'm hoping you'll enjoy this anyway. Hopefully you're not sick of me yet! s;)
We're all very familiar with Jasper's history as told in Eclipse, but that short recounting only fanned the flames of my curiosity... what was Jasper like as a child? What was his family like? And what did he leave behind? This is how I imagine it might have been. (And, be aware, I wrote this long before the movie came out, so some of my details won't match what they added there.)
I'm just going to take a second to warn you all, I'm not a history buff. I did research the times and customs surrounding this period, but I wasn't able to find answers to all my nit-picky questions, so I'm very sure there will be mistakes. I did the best with what I knew and tried not to speak to definitively about what I didn't. I just ask that you forgive any historical inaccuracies that you may see.
All recognizable characters and themes are, as always, property of Stephanie Meyer and no copyright infringement is intended. I've simply fallen in love with the characters she's created – a certain tall, blonde Confederate officer in particular./\/\/\ Part One
Susannah Whitlock Christmas Eve 1843
Christmas Eve 1843
The even tones of my William's voice filled the room as he read the Nativity story from the family Bible propped on his knee. Little Juliana sat curled on her papa's lap, listening with rapt attention. Josiah sat at my feet with his head leaned against my knee, his eyes faraway as he listened to this Christmas story, his lips moving silently at times, mouthing the familiar words.
My heart warmed as I took in the scene before me – my William, the other half of my heart, and the two little ones at our knees… children not of my body, but of my heart.
I leant my head against the back of the chaise where I sat, my fingers tangled in my young son's hair and let my heart be filled with the love of my family, and the joy of the Christmas message being proclaimed.
This year, I felt a special kinship with the mother of the Christ Child. For, like her, this Christmas eve under my heart was nestled an unborn child. My arm wrapped protectively around my swollen belly, feeling the movements of my child as he stretched within me. Tears gathered behind my closed eyelids, the relief I felt with each strong, reassuring movement of the child within almost overwhelming.
Even through the joy of new life, fear threatened at the edges of my mind at all times. For behind the house in the family cemetery were three small headstones each bearing the simple inscription "Baby Whitlock." It had been three years since the last child had been born – a little girl. She had lived only two days before her tiny lungs had breathed their last – her body too fragile to exist in this world.
In the months and years that had followed, I had begun to fear that my husband's children would be the only ones to grace our home with their smiles and laughter. And with that growing sense of resignation I had poured all the repressed love and affection that had built in my heart on the two precious children that I did have. Josiah and Juliana had flourished under the attention.
I had been torn between overwhelming joy and paralyzing fear when I had discovered that once again my womb sheltered a child. I had scarcely dared to believe it until the first fluttering movements gave proof to my suspicions.
Now, growing daily closer to my time of confinement, I rejoiced in the strong movements of a healthy child. The frequent movements caused me to hope that perhaps this time the child would be strong enough to survive.
The Christmas story came to an end, and I looked up to see Juliana's tiny head bobbing in sleep, her brown curls falling over her face. I chuckled quietly as William closed the big Bible quietly, moving slowly to keep from jostling the child in his arms.
"I guess this means it's time for bed." Gentle amusement twinkled in his eyes.
"It would appear that way, wouldn't it?" I smoothed the deep brown hair of the boy resting on my knee. Josiah raised his head reluctantly.
"Well, you do want Santa Claus to come tonight, don't you?" Josiah nodded fervently making me to smile at his enthusiasm. "Then don't you think you should try to sleep? He can't come if you're awake."
Josiah stood quickly, nodding. "Goodnight, Mama." He wrapped his arms around my neck kissing my cheek.
"Goodnight, my darling." I responded, returning his affection before he bounded up the stairs.
William stood slowly, but despite his cautious movements Juliana stirred, her eyes blinking sleepily. She nuzzled her face into his neck as her body trembled with a yawn. I shifted to stand but William's low voice stopped me.
"Don't get up. I'll bring her to you." He knelt on the chaise beside me, lowering the sleepy girl enough for me to brush the tousled curls from her face and kiss her sleep-flushed cheek.
As he left to carry her up to her room for Mammy to put her to bed, my thoughts returned to the child that seemed to be turning slow somersaults in my womb. The tears that had threatened earlier slipped in a silent stream down my cheeks now. I was desperate to hold this child safely in my arms, yet deeply fearful that once again, that dream would be denied to me.
I can't do this again. I prayed silently as the tears streamed steadily now. I'm not strong enough to bear the loss of a child again. Don't take this one from me. Please. My heart cried.
In direct correlation to the anxiety overtaking me, the movements of the child grew more agitated and restless in my womb. I had noticed this many times recently. It was almost as if the child could sense my unease. My heart cringed at the thought of my distress touching my baby.
"It's all right, little one." I crooned caressing the place where I had last felt a tiny fist pressed. "Everything's all right." I murmured, willing myself to believe the words I spoke. "Your mama loves you, little one. You just don't know how much."
I settled against the cushions, still rubbing my belly. I pushed the fear as far from my mind as I could and forced myself instead to focus on what was and not what might be. A soft lullaby fell from my lips as the movements in my womb calmed.
Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber steeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.
Christmas Day 1846
The swish of my skirt was the only sound in the stillness of the night. The lamp I carried cast its golden shadows against the wall as I made my nightly trek to check on the children. I opened Josiah's door slowly, peering in at my slumbering son. It was difficult for me to reconcile myself to the fact that he was now twelve years old, and quickly growing into the image of his father.
He was sprawled onto his stomach, one foot peeking outside the covers. I smiled at his haphazard position, and gently nudged his foot back onto the bed, covering it against the December chill. With a gentle kiss to his forehead, I picked my lamp back up and continued down the hall.
Juliana was curled on her side, her arm wrapped securely around the new doll that had been waiting for her under the Christmas tree this morning. At ten years old, her maternal instincts were already evidenced in the careful attention she gave to her little dollies. She refused to sleep at night unless they were all gathered around her, where she knew they were safe.
She didn't stir when I reached down to straighten the covers around her, tucking them under her chin. A gentle sigh was her only response when I leaned down to smooth the hair that was fanned across her pillow and press a soft kiss to the silky locks.
Across the hall, I paused at the nursery door, listening for any noise within. Hearing nothing, I cautiously stepped inside, closing the door behind me with a quiet click. I stood in the doorway for a long moment, simply staring at the sleeping little boy illuminated by the soft glow of the moon.
From his very arrival, I had always loved watching him sleep. He was a beautiful child to begin with, but it never failed to amaze me how simply angelic he looked in sleep.
His deep, even breathing was audible to me even from where I stood, the sound a most treasured melody to me. I was careful to keep my steps quiet as I padded towards the bed, placing the lamp on a table in the corner of the room.
Kneeling beside him, I lay my head gently on the pillow beside him, tracing the shape of his features lovingly with my gaze.
That was my silent prayer every time I saw my son. A prayer borne of gratitude and a love so deep I thought at times my heart would break from it.
After the three tragic births preceding his, I had not been able to contain my fear when the pains of labor had come upon me once again. As the hours passed, my anxiety increased along with the pain. Every breath was a wordless prayer for the safe delivery of my child. Outside the room, I could hear William's pacing footsteps, and I knew that with every step he raised a prayer of his own as well.
Finally my travail had ended, and I had held my breath until I heard the loud, lusty wail of a healthy man-child. My eyes had filled with joyous tears, unable to imagine a more beautiful sound in all the world.
When the midwife had placed him in my arms for the first time, the words of the Israelite Hannah had resounded in my head…
For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted unto me the petition I made of Him.
The words were just as heartfelt now as they had been when Hannah had rejoiced over her son Samuel, with my newborn son safely cradled in my arms, his heart steadily thrumming against mine.
The thumping of his heart now was still the sweetest kind of music to my ears.
Unable to resist, I reached out to stroke the baby soft skin of his cheek. I was transfixed by the sight of his eyes moving so rapidly beneath his almost translucent lids. His lips twitched in a smile and a quiet chortle rumbled in his chest, muffled slightly by his thumb which was slipping from his lips.
I took his thumb gently from his mouth, smoothing his fingers out in mine and kissing his little dimpled knuckles. I chuckled quietly to see his lips still pursed, his mouth making instinctive sucking movements despite the absence of his thumb.
It was saddening to me to notice that his little hands were losing their baby pudginess, slimming down to the hands of a little boy. And truly he was more little boy than baby now. While I was infinitely grateful for his healthy growth, I couldn't help but wish that I could slow down time… that I could keep him this small for just a while longer. I wasn't quite ready to give up my baby yet.
He was such a happy little boy, lighting up our home with his easy smile and his contagious laughter. I loved his laugh. There was just something about seeing him happy that made me happy too; it was infectious. No matter what petty trials my day contained, his natural joy lifted my spirits.
I was grateful too that he had inherited his father's steady, easy-going personality. Rarely was petulance an issue with him, which was fortunate considering no one could bear to punish him. He would turn his big, sorrowful eyes on us, and we would feel guilty for even considering it. He should have been rotten, but somehow he wasn't.
I wondered at times just what was going on inside that little head of his. There was just something about the way he observed us all… his eyes appeared too wise for his tender years. He seemed to see more than a child his age should.
His lips twitched again in sleep. I wished I knew what he was dreaming to put such a smile on his face. My hand seemed to move itself to stroke his blonde curls which were in dire need of a trim. I just couldn't bear to cut them… though William threatened to do it himself. He said Jasper would soon look like a little girl if his hair grew any longer.
The door creaked open behind me, and I turned slightly to see William poking his head around the corner. "I thought I'd find you in here." He whispered with a smile, padding quietly to kneel at my side, wrapping his arms around me. His gentle kiss pressed against my temple. "You had that look in your eyes tonight."
"What look?" I questioned, confused at what my intuitive husband had seen that I hadn't even been aware of.
"All day, even when you were smiling and watching the children with their presents, there was something in your eyes… I don't even know how to describe it to you… it's a certain melancholy, I suppose. Usually when I see that look in your eyes, I find you right here, watching our son like he's going to disappear."
I chuckled a little at his perceptiveness. "I suppose you're right. He's just growing up so fast. I'm afraid to even blink sometimes, afraid that I'm going to miss something."
"I know." He chuckled after a moment. "Did you see how big his eyes got when he saw the tree this morning? They almost swallowed his face."
"I don't think he remembered anything from last Christmas. I was beginning to wonder if he was ever going to notice that there was something under the tree, he was so fascinated by the lights on it."
We fell into a companionable silence watching our sleeping son and pondering the memories we'd made this Christmas. I leaned my head against the solid warmth of his chest listening to the comforting sound of his heart beating beneath my ear.
"It's late." He breathed against my cheek after several moments. "We should try to get some sleep ourselves."
I nodded and let him take my hand to help me to my feet. I leaned down one last time to kiss Jasper's little button nose. I smiled when I saw that as soon as I released his hand that thumb went honing straight to his mouth once again.
William stood by my side, reaching out to lay one tender hand against our little son's curly head. Bowing his head, I saw his lips moving in a silent benediction.
The Lord bless thee and keep thee, my son. The Lord make his face shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace./\/\/\
I was in trouble. Big trouble.
I was supposed to play and keep out of trouble. And I had all afternoon, until just five minutes ago. I didn't mean to trip and fall in the mud. It just happened.
I sneaked around the back of the house to the kitchen, hoping that maybe I could get up to my room before Mammy saw me. I could get cleaned up, and she'd never have to know. I wiped a big clump of mud off my cheek, and tip-toed to the door. I glared at my wet shoes when they made squeaking noises that were much too loud.
I pushed the door open a little bit and peeked around the corner. I could smell the dinner that Delilah was cooking, and my tummy rumbled. It smelled like fried chicken. I liked fried chicken. It was my favorite.
I could hear Delilah talking to Joe but their backs were turned to me. If I could be really quiet maybe I could get to the stairs without them seeing me. I took little baby steps watching the floor so I didn't trip on anything. But I didn't get very far at all when Mammy's voice screeched across the room.
"Jasper Samuel Whitlock, what did you do!"
It felt like my belly dropped all the way to my muddy feet. I looked up very slowly to see Mammy's hands propped on her hips, the way she stood when I was in trouble. Her face was cross.
"I fell." I hung my head again.
Mammy made a noise that almost sounded like a laugh. "I can see that. What exactly were you doing when you fell?"
"I was just playing…" I shrugged.
"Jasper…" I sighed. Mammy had used her serious voice.
"There was a little frog by the creek, and he was all by himself. His family was all on the other side, and he was lonely, so I caught him and put him in my pocket to take him to his family. But I tripped." I looked up to see if Mammy still looked mad, but I ducked my head again real quick.
"Jasper, is that frog still in your pocket?" Mammy demanded. Her eyes got really big.
I'd forgotten about him when I fell. I was too afraid of getting in trouble. My hand grabbed the pocket the where the little froggy was, and, as soon as I did, he croaked. Really, really loud.
Mammy's face turned about five different shades of red. Joe laughed out loud on the other side of the room.
"Boy, you take that thing back outside right this minute before I tan your behind!"
I spun around and ran back outside to let the froggy go. He didn't like it when I tried to pull him out of my pocket. He was all wiggly.
I felt bad now. The little frog still had to get across the creek by himself, and now Mammy was upset with me.
I heard Joe talking when I went back inside. "Least it wasn't a snake this time." He was still laughing.
"Don't you go encouraging him." Mammy had her arms crossed.
"Now, Chloe, he's a little boy. Let him be. There's no harm done."
"One of these days, he's gonna grab the wrong end of a rattler if he doesn't learn to leave the critters alone." I heard pots banging and the sound of water being poured. That only meant one thing.
I had to get a bath now. My nose scrunched up in disgust.
I should have left that dumb old frog where he was!
"Take your shoes off at the door." Mammy told me without turning around from filling up the tub. "I don't want that mud tracked all over this clean kitchen."
"Yes, Mammy." I said in a quiet voice. Joe winked at me as he left the room. That made me feel a little bit better. At least he wasn't mad at me, too.
I didn't say anything when Mammy helped me get my muddy clothes off and into the tub. She didn't say anything either, but she did scrub me until I thought my skin was gonna come clean off. My arms and my belly were pink when she finished.
I scrunched my eyes closed tight when Mammy poured the water over my head to wash my hair, but she was good at not getting it in my eyes. She knew the soap stung.
I was still quiet when she got me out, toweled me off, and put my clean clothes on. I tried not to squirm when Mammy combed through my hair, but the tangles hurt! Mama said she loved my curls, but I just wished she'd let me cut them all off. Then I wouldn't have tangles anymore. I might not have to brush my hair at all anymore. I'd like that. Almost as much as I'd like not having to take baths anymore.
"There. All done." Mammy said, spinning me around and making sure that I was all clean again. She stood up and started gathering up my dirty clothes.
"Mammy," I called softly.
"Yes, sugar?" She turned to look at me. I crooked my finger for her to bend down closer to me. "What is it?" she asked. I crooked my finger again, and she knelt down until she was at eye level, her mouth twitching in a smile.
I threw my arms around her neck and planted a big kiss on her cheek. "Are you mad at me?" I whispered into her neck.
She chuckled and wrapped her arms around me. "Sugar, has your mammy ever been able to stay mad at you?" I shook my head. That was one of the good things about mammy, she never stayed mad no matter what I did. "No, child, I'm not mad. But do you think you can stay out of trouble until dinner?" She raised one eyebrow.
I nodded. "I think I'll go play upstairs now."
"That sounds like a good idea." Mammy winked at me and shooed me out the door.
I heard the sound of the piano in the drawing room, and I went to see if it was Juliana or Mama playing. It was Mama. She had her eyes closed, and she was smiling. Mama said she got lost in a world all her own when she played music.
I crawled up on the chair behind her and just listened. I liked hearing Mama play. I liked watching her hands moving across the keys like they had a mind of their own. It made her happy, and that made me happy too.
Mama played for a long time before she stopped with a happy sigh. I clapped my hands, and she turned around, surprised.
"Why, darling, I didn't even realize you were back there. You were so quiet." She opened her arms with a smile, and I went to sit on the bench beside her. She kissed the top of my head. "Mmm, you smell good. Did you have a bath?"
I nodded, sheepish.
"Uh-oh. What happened?"
"I fell outside and got all muddy." I looked up, waiting to see if she was going to scold me too. But she didn't.
She just laughed and shook her head. "Such a boy." She murmured, kissing the top of my head again. "Here, do you want to play?" Mama gestured to the piano.
I nodded, and she took my hands, guiding them over the keys. I couldn't believe it when my fingers made music on Mama's piano. It didn't sound like her songs, but still, I was playing music like Mama!
We played until I got tired, and then Mama went with me into the library and read to me. Josiah and Juliana came in later to listen too. Mama passed the book around and let them take turns reading out loud. Then she took the book again and helped me read too. I could only pick out the little words, not like Josiah and Juliana, but they were bigger than me. When I was that big, I would be able to read the hard words too.
We did have fried chicken for dinner that night. And potatoes and corn. It would have been perfect if we hadn't had those nasty greens too. I tried to eat them without making faces, but they tasted just as yucky as they looked.
Papa asked me what I had done today. I told him about playing piano with Mama and how we had read together. I didn't tell him about the frog.
After dinner, it was time to go to bed. Mama and Papa kissed me good night and wished me happy dreams. Mammy took me upstairs and helped me put my nightclothes on. She listened to me say my prayers and then tucked the blankets around me.
I tried hard to go to sleep, but the loud wind blowing outside kept me awake. The wind made the tree branches scrape against the glass with strange scratching sounds. I didn't like the noises. They were too loud.
After a long time, I heard the door open in the nursery beside my room. The door joining that room with mine was open, and I could see Mama set the lantern on a table and pick up my breeches from the floor. She sat down in the rocking chair with her sewing kit and pulled out a needle and thread.
I heard her quiet humming from the other room. I could see her stop every now and then to rub her belly. Mama's belly was round now. I'd never seen Mama's belly look like that before. But nobody would tell me what made it that way. When I asked, Mama just smiled and told me that it was nothing for me to worry about, that she was fine.
I was glad she was all right, but that still didn't answer my question. And I couldn't understand why no one would tell me. Grown people were confusing.
When Mammy came in, she looked surprised to see Mama in there. "Now, honey, there's no reason for you to be bent over doing that." Her low voice said in the other room. "You're gonna get a crick in your neck. I'll get that sewing done for you."
Mama looked up with a soft smile and patted Mammy's hand. "You'd spoil me rotten if I let you."
"And what's wrong with that?" Mammy smoothed Mama's hair from her face. "You may be grown with children of your own, but I've tended you since the day you were born, and you'll always be my baby."
Mama smiled, but it looked almost sad. "I noticed at dinner that it was time to lengthen his britches again. I can't believe it's that time again; it seems like we did this just yesterday." She sighed, and the sound made me sad. "He's growing so quickly." I had to listen hard to hear her. Her voice was so quiet.
Mammy nodded. "He's gonna be as tall as Master William if he keeps growing like this. He's such a little man already."
Mama chuckled quietly. "That he is."
"Here," Mammy reached out her hands. "I'll finish those, why don't you go and get some rest. It's not good for the babe if you to wear yourself out now."
"I'm fine." Mama said, "I want to do this. I promise, if I get tired I'll put them away and let you finish tomorrow, all right?"
Mammy was still looking like she wanted to send Mama to bed the same as she did with me every night. I had to cover my mouth so they couldn't hear me laugh. The thought of her sending Mama to bed like a little girl was funny.
But Mama just smiled. "Go. Spend the evening with your Joe."
"If that's what you want." Mammy sighed.
"Good night, Mammy." Mama whispered.
"Sleep well, honey." Mammy smoothed her hair one more time and closed the door with a quiet click.
Mama's humming started again. I listened, but the sound made my eyes feel heavy. I tried to keep them open, but they just wouldn't stay. I yawned and stretched, finally giving in to sleep.
A loud boom woke me up later, and I jumped. The room was so dark I could barely see my hand in front of my face, until a flash of lightning lit up the room with a strange white glow. I think I liked the dark better! A clap of thunder followed the lightning. It was so loud it made the windows shake.
I pulled the covers over my face, covering my ears with my hands. It didn't help. I could still hear the thunder, and the bed was shaking just like the window now.
I was scared.
I pushed the covers off after the next thunder. I wanted Mama, I didn't want to be all alone with the thunder and lightning.
But I was five years old. I wasn't a baby. And big boys didn't go running to Mama when they got scared.
But it was just so loud.
I looked back and forth from the window to the door, trying to make myself lay back down.
I'm not a baby. I'm not!
Lightning lit up the room again, and the thunder boomed at the same time. It was so loud, and the window shook like it was going to break. I couldn't stay in my bed any longer.
My legs tangled up in the covers when I tried to get down, and I almost fell off the bed. Everything was blurry now. My eyes stung from the scared-tears.
I had finally gotten my feet free from the blankets, but, before I could get down, the door opened and Mama walked in with a lamp in her hand.
"Oh, angel." Mama looked like she might cry with me. "I was afraid that storm would wake you." She walked to the bed and pulled me into her lap. I wrapped my arms around her neck and held on tight. I was so happy she was here, the tears wouldn't stop now. "Shhh…" Mama pushed the hair back from my forehead and kissed both my cheeks. She rocked me back and forth. "It's all right, darling. I'm here."
Mama lifted up my face and wiped the tears from my cheeks. She kissed both my eyelids. "Come here," she whispered. She pulled back the covers and helped me lie back down. She tucked the covers up to my chin and laid down beside me, pulling me into her arms.
I snuggled as close as I could, still sniffling with my tears.
Thunder clapped again, and I buried my head into her shoulder, trying to drown it out.
"It's loud, isn't it?" Mama said, rubbing my back. I nodded. "Shall I tell you a secret?" She whispered.
I looked up, curious. "What secret?"
"Do you know what makes the thunder?" Mama laid her forehead against mine.
I shook my head. "No. What?" I hadn't thought about where it came from. I just knew it was loud.
"It's the angels in heaven rearranging their furniture."
"What else would it be?" Mama smoothed my hair with a smile.
I thought about what she said. If it really was the angels, then it wasn't quite so scary. Angels watched over us while we slept… angels were good. They were supposed to help us.
One thing I didn't understand though.
"But, Mama, why can't they do that during the daytime when we're not trying to sleep?"
Mama laughed quietly. "That's a very good question. You and I shall have to ask them someday, won't we?"
I nodded. We would. But that question could wait. Because angels lived in heaven, and you had to die to go to heaven. I didn't want to die, and Mama couldn't die. I needed her here with me, not in heaven where she couldn't hold me when I was scared.
Her arms pulled me closer. "Why don't you try to go back to sleep. I think the worst of the storm is over now."
"Will you stay with me? Until I fall asleep?"
"Of course." Her voice starting humming a lullaby. I stifled a yawn. The thunder didn't seem quite so loud now. Mama was here. I could hear her heartbeat against my ear and the soft sound of the lullaby she was singing.
Angels watching ever round thee
All through the night
In thy slumbers close surround thee
All through the night
I felt safe. The storm didn't scare me anymore.
My eyes slid closed.
They will of all fears disarm thee,
No forebodings should alarm thee,
They will let no peril harm thee
All through the night.
The last thing I felt was Mama's soft kiss on my forehead and her quiet whisper,
"I love you."
Now, over fifteen years later, I deeply wished that my fears and troubles could be soothed so easily in my mother's embrace. I could still feel that little boy surfacing at times, wanting to let her shield me, to lean on her for strength. But that was impossible.
I wasn't a child any longer, and my fears were no longer those of a child.
It wasn't a thunderstorm that I feared now, it was a storm far more fearsome than that. It was the storm of war.
Bloodshed, death, and destruction were the foundations of my fears now.
Yes, I feared the future. I had seen too much not to. But I couldn't allow myself to show it.
I was a commissioned officer for the Confederate States of America. The youngest Major in the history of the great state of Texas. I had a reputation to uphold. I had superiors that expected me to be ready to follow orders quickly and without question. I had men under my command that needed me to be alert, level-headed. A leader worth respecting – which was especially crucial considering that many of the men were older and more experienced than I.
I had lives depending on me. And now not just the men of my command, but the women and children of the city of Galveston. I had been placed in charge of their evacuation to Houston.
I rode now en route to Galveston with the men chosen to assist me in this endeavor.
As the Texas scenery passed with every clomping hoof beat, thoughts of home filled my mind. It had been two years since I had seen my family. Letters and the one daguerreotype I had brought with me, taken at Juliana's wedding mere months before I had left, were a poor substitute for the loved ones I missed so deeply.
Letters were scarce and all the more precious because of it. I had read each one so many times that I found myself a little surprised that they hadn't fallen apart yet.
I wondered about what had transpired since the last letter I had received. The last letter had informed me that Juliana had been safely delivered of her second child – another son. That made five grandsons for my parents. Three from Josiah and two now from Juliana. Mother had teased that since apparently neither my brother or my sister seemed capable of producing a female child, it was my duty to come home and give her the granddaughters she was being denied. I smiled a little at the thought.
Though that brought me to yet another fear. Would I be able to go home and return to a normal life after everything that I had seen – everything I had done? At times I tried to imagine myself riding home, settling back into an everyday routine, marrying, raising a family.
I tried to imagine that for myself, but I never could quite manage to see it. I had trained myself to be a soldier. The discipline of war was second nature to me now. Would I be able to step back into civilian life when this was over?
I didn't know.
I wondered about Mother and Father and how the two years I had been gone had changed them. I could almost hear their voices in their letters, and I ached to see their faces again.
I thought of Joscelyn… little Josie. At five years old, I'd had no idea that the strange roundness of Mama's belly was due to the fact that she was with child.
When she had placed the squirming pink bundle in my lap, I'd fallen unconditionally in love. Josie had looked at me like she already knew me, and with all the certainty of my five years, I had known that this little person was special. This was my baby sister, and it was my job to look out for her.
Despite the five years between us, we had been close. She looked at me as if I could do no wrong, and because of that I had tried hard to be a role model worth looking up to.
Josie had been eleven years old when I had enlisted. She'd turn fourteen this summer. My heart ached with the thought of all that I had missed, all the things I would miss before I could go home.
Please, God, let me go home.
There was nothing I wanted more, no advancement, no victory that was my heart's desire more than home. I needed to see my family again – to feel some semblance of normalcy again. I needed to know that despite everything that had transpired, some things didn't have to change.
That peace still existed.
I thought of the letters I wanted to write – the ones that left my heart open and my soul bare.
Dear Mama, You can't imagine how desperately I miss you now. You don't know how I wish I could run to you and hide in your arms from every fear, just as I did as a child. But, Mama, I'm afraid. Deeply, desperately afraid. I'm afraid that after everything I've done you'll look at me differently. I'm afraid that deep down inside you'll be disappointed in me. I've killed men, Mama. I've taken lives that weren't mine to take. I've stood in a field littered with bodies after a battle. I've heard the cries of men that have fallen. And I was the one to pull the trigger. It was me. I've stood looking at the ground drenched in blood and wondered why I'm still standing. How I escaped death. If you knew everything I've done, would you still love me just the same? My head knows the answer to that… most of the time. But my heart is another matter entirely. My heart aches from missing you… from missing home. Pray for me, Mama. Have faith enough for both of us, because my faith is almost gone. I love you, Jasper
You can't imagine how desperately I miss you now. You don't know how I wish I could run to you and hide in your arms from every fear, just as I did as a child.
But, Mama, I'm afraid. Deeply, desperately afraid. I'm afraid that after everything I've done you'll look at me differently. I'm afraid that deep down inside you'll be disappointed in me.
I've killed men, Mama. I've taken lives that weren't mine to take. I've stood in a field littered with bodies after a battle. I've heard the cries of men that have fallen. And I was the one to pull the trigger. It was me.
I've stood looking at the ground drenched in blood and wondered why I'm still standing. How I escaped death.
If you knew everything I've done, would you still love me just the same? My head knows the answer to that… most of the time. But my heart is another matter entirely.
My heart aches from missing you… from missing home. Pray for me, Mama. Have faith enough for both of us, because my faith is almost gone.
I love you,
That's the letter I wanted to write but didn't. I couldn't put that kind of burden on my family, especially not my mother. She worried enough as it was.
Instead I kept my letters light, untainted by the darkness that was creeping slowly over my soul. I assured them of my well-being. I included anecdotes from camp life, benign stories of every-day activities.
I closed every letter with an expression of love. I hoped to be able to tell them all again in person, but I had come face-to-face with death too many times not to know that at any point there could come one battle that I might not walk away from. There were no guarantees.
I was not invincible.
My men and I made camp several miles from Galveston that night and arrived in the city midmorning. We spent the day informing the civilians of what they could expect from the evacuation, dividing them into separate columns to make the journey easier and less chaotic, and assisting them with preparations for the trek to Houston.
The city, not surprisingly was comprised mainly of women, children, and the elderly. What was slightly surprising to me was the easy cooperation my men and I were afforded. These people were being evacuated from their homes for an unknown period of time, and yet they seemed grateful for our presence and our assistance.
As I patrolled along the perimeter of the city, there was one house that consistently caught my eye. It wasn't because of the landscape or the architecture. Instead it was because of a single little boy appearing to be around five years old. He watched me with wide eyes and rapt attention. Every time I passed by, he was there, watching for me.
Towards sunset, I saw he had finally moved from his place on the door stoop to the lawn where his mother was attempting to reason with him.
"No, Micah. The Major is a busy man; he doesn't have time for that."
"But, Mama, please just ask. You don't know – he might."
Drawn inexplicably to this mysterious little boy, I pulled my horse to a stop in front of their house. The boy's mother looked up at my approach. "Major," she said in greeting, seeming quite surprised at my approach. The little boy stared silently, standing partially behind his mother's skirt.
"Ma'am," I said taking off my hat, smiling warmly to put her at ease. It seemed to work as her shoulders relaxed visibly. "I was wondering if there was anything I could do to be of assistance?"
"I don't believe so. We have everything packed and loaded into our wagon. But I do thank you for the offer; it was very kind."
There was something about the young mother's mannerisms that reminded of Juliana. And the young boy standing with wide eyes at her skirt made me think about my nephews – three of whom I'd never met… none of whom would remember me. This fresh realization caused my heart to spasm painfully.
What was I thinking to stop like this? I was being ridiculous and only opening myself to memories that were entirely too painful. I was just unnecessarily reminding myself of things I couldn't change.
"Please don't hesitate to let me or one of my men know if we can be of help." I tipped my hat to her and turned to leave. A little hand tugging on my jacket stopped me.
"Excuse me, Major," the small voice said.
I turned back around and knelt down to his eye level, smiling a little at his hesitance. "What can I do for you, son?" I asked quietly, ruffling his wind tousled brown hair.
Wide brown eyes looked back at me. "My papa wears a gray uniform too. He's a Confederate just like you."
"Is he now?"
Little Micah nodded solemnly. "I was wondering, sir, if you knew him."
"What's his name?"
"John Burke, sir. He's a sergeant."
I shook my head regretfully, "I'm afraid I don't, son. Our army is much too spread out for me to have met everyone in it."
"Oh." I could read his disappointment in his eyes and in the way his little shoulders stooped.
His sadness tugged at my heartstrings. I couldn't leave it at that. "But if I should happen to meet him someday, is there anything you'd like me to tell him? A message you'd want me to give him?"
Micah's gaze shot up to mine, sorrow replaced by hope shining in his eyes. "Yes, please." He thought for a moment. "Could you tell him that I miss him. And that I love him." His voice choked, and he stopped to wipe a sudden tear from the corner of his eye. "And could you ask him to come home soon." His small voice cracked, and behind him I saw his mother wipe away her own tear.
"I'll surely do that, Micah," I said, my voice husky with my own tremulous emotions. "I surely will. And I know he'll be proud to know that you're taking such good care of your Mama while he's gone. You're a good little soldier yourself, son. Your papa's got reason to be proud."
A pair of arms wrapped themselves impetuously around my neck. I was stunned by the sudden hug; it had been so long since I'd felt the warmth of an embrace. Far too long.
I wrapped my own arms around the boy and squeezed right back. He released me, and I stood with a smile and a salute to the young boy. He saluted back, and I noticed that his back was a little straighter, his head held a little bit higher.
"Thank you." His mother mouthed to me, her tears falling one by one in silent succession. I tipped my hat and mounted my horse, riding off, back to my responsibilities.
My men and I set up camp inside the city limits that night. The encounter from that evening stayed with me while I pitched my tent, the movements so practiced that I performed them without a thought. My heart broke for all the sons who were growing up without their fathers. All the wives who were left to raise their young ones not knowing if their husbands were to return home.
For the first time, I found myself grateful that I had no wife left behind waiting for me, no children hurting from my absence. Leaving my parents and siblings was difficult enough, but at least they had each other. At least none of them were solely dependent on me.
With my camp set up and a fire blazing its welcome warmth before me, I sat on my bedroll fingering the daguerreotype of my family, my eyes tracing their precious faces. After seeing all the mothers with their children today, the memories of home were at the very forefront of my mind.
I dreaded falling asleep tonight. I knew the dreams would be painfully vivid.
Soft footfalls approaching me caught my attention. On instinct, I reached to be sure that my rifle was within my grasp if needed. I squinted in the direction the footsteps originated from until a face came into view.
"Mrs. Burke," I greeted, preparing to stand. I was surprised to see young Micah's mother approaching me with a basket in hand.
"No, please don't get up. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"It's no bother. What can I do for you?"
"I brought this." She held out the basket for me to take. "It's not much, I know. But I wanted to thank you somehow for what you did today." The basket contained a bowl of stew which was still steaming, a wedge of cornbread and a pot of coffee. I had to fight to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head at the aroma.
"Thank you," I said sincerely. "This is certainly not a small thing, I assure you. A man gets tired of his own cooking after a while. And mine's certainly nothing to brag about." I chuckled a little in self-deprecation. "And I can't tell you how nice it'll be not to have to soak the bread before I can chew it."
She chuckled. "Yes, I've heard if the army ever runs out of bullets you could probably use the hardtack, and no one on the receiving end would ever know the difference."
I laughed, truly laughed, and wondered how long it had been since the last time I had done so. "That's about the truth of it, unfortunately."
Her face turned serious, "Major, before I go, I just wanted you to know that what you did today for my son… that's not something he'll ever forget. That you took the time to speak to him like that is something he'll remember all his life."
I ducked my head, a little embarrassed. "It wasn't anything – "
"Oh, but it was," she interrupted me. "He talked about you all evening. He even prayed for you when he went to bed tonight. It might not seem like much to you, but you impacted a little boy's life today whether you realized it or not. You have my thanks for that – and my prayers along with my son's."
"We need all the prayers we can get," I said in a quiet voice. I didn't know what else to say.
"I'll leave you now so you can eat while it's hot." She smiled softly and turned to leave.
When she had gone, I unpacked the contents of the basket. I breathed in the scent of the first meal that hadn't been prepared by my hands in longer than I cared to remember… if what I prepared could even be classified as truly a meal. My stomach grumbled loudly as I relished the smell.
I savored each bite, stretching it out and making it last as long as possible. When every last crumb had been consumed and my stomach was pleasantly full, I stretched out on my bedroll, kicking off my boots. I had forgotten how good it felt to have my appetite completely satisfied.
And satisfied, I slept, dreaming of home. But the dreams were sweet this time.
The next morning I rose and made the final preparations to lead the first column of civilians to Houston. The trip itself was uneventful, thankfully so. We arrived after dark, and I stayed only long enough to see my charges safely established before transferring my saddlebags to a fresh horse and setting out for the return trip to Galveston.
I dreaded the ride back, though. I was weary from being on horseback for what was now the start of the fourth day in a row, with several more to go before I was finished. My whole body ached, and I longed for a hot bath to soothe the kinks from my muscles. That was a luxury of the past though, unfortunately.
About a mile outside of Houston, I noticed the approach of three figures reflected by the dim light of the moon. Three women it appeared to be as I got closer. I wondered how they had gotten so far behind the others in our party.
I reigned in my horse and dismounted, preparing to escort them back to Houston. I certainly couldn't allow three unprotected women to travel alone after dark. It wasn't safe.
As they came close enough for me to really see, I noticed that they all appeared to be quite young and startlingly, breathtakingly beautiful. Never in my life had I seen three more beautiful creatures. Though, even in the moonlight, it was obvious that they were all exceedingly pale, like they had never been exposed to the sun. Even the one girl with decidedly Mexican features was as pale as the moonlight.
Now that I saw them clearly, I knew they had not been part of my entourage. I had never seen any of them before, and I was quite certain I would remember it if I had. Once couldn't forget such unspeakable beauty.
"He's speechless," the tallest of the three chimed in a voice that perfectly matched her ethereal appearance. And she was right, I couldn't find my voice to save my life. It had deserted me altogether, along with all coherent thought apparently.
The second girl leaned towards me slightly, her eyes half-closed. Breathing deeply, she sighed, "Mmm, lovely."
The smallest of the three, the young Mexican girl, placed her hand on the other girl's arm. She spoke quickly – too quickly for me to understand – in a voice that was as clear and musical as a church bell, though her expression was clearly disapproving. "Concentrate, Nettie," was the only thing I could decipher, though the words made no sense.
The one called Nettie nodded in deference to the small brunette who apparently was somehow in charge.
I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the way she eyed me now. "He looks right – young, strong, an officer." I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. "And there's more," she continued, "do you sense it?" she glanced at the other two. "He's… compelling."
"Oh, yes," Nettie agreed, leaning toward once again.
"Patience. I want to keep this one." The brunette spoke again. The look in her dark, fathomless eyes unnerved me. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck standing at the roots and my heart beating a rapid, fearful tattoo.
"You'd better do it, Maria," the first blonde spoke again. "If he's important to you. I kill them twice as often as I keep them." Her voice was appallingly careless as she spoke about death.
I felt a fine sheen of sweat break over my body, and my heart rate doubled, which should have been impossible considering how fast it was before. I was undoubtedly in danger, and, though I didn't understand the context of the threat, my body was desperate for flight just the same.
"Yes, I'll do it." The one called Maria said. "I really do like this one."
Run, Jasper. Run.
My mind screamed the order for my feet to move, but with my eyes pinned helplessly by Maria's I couldn't make them obey.
"Take, Nettie away, will you?" Maria spoke in a voice just barely loud enough for me to hear, though her eyes never released mine from their gaze. "I don't want to have to protect my back while I'm trying to focus."
I didn't understand the meaning of anything that had been said in this exchange, but my instincts were screaming as never before. I was in danger, perhaps more danger than I had ever been in my life.
But my judgment overruled my instincts.
Women were not to be feared, but to be protected as the weaker vessel. Even if I had been able to move, I couldn't leave them alone in the outskirts of the city – especially not at night.
"Yes, let's hunt." Nettie trilled as she reached for the other girl's hand. I watched them disappear quicker than should be possible. Their movements were unbelievably graceful as their white dresses billowed behind them like the wings of angels… or perhaps the specter of ghosts.
I blinked once, and they were gone.
I turned back to Maria who was still watching me with the same intensity as before.
"What's your name, soldier?" Her low voice fairly purred.
My lips moved in vain as I struggled to find my absent voice. "Ma- Major Jasper Whitlock, ma'am." I finally stuttered.
A soft murmur passed her lips, "I truly hope you survive, Jasper." She took one step closer. Bile rose in my throat. I swallowed convulsively against the fear as every cell of my body screamed and strained for flight. "I have a good feeling about you."
I wasn't listening any longer – I couldn't. Terror like I had never felt before clouded my every thought, my mind as paralyzed as my body.
Maria inclined her head as if to place a kiss against my neck. I felt the touch of her lips on my skin just over where my pulse pounded in terror. Her skin was as cold as ice, and I would have shivered violently if I'd been capable of any movement. Barely had I registered the cold before I felt razor-sharp teeth piercing my flesh.
I wanted nothing more than to push her away, or better yet, to awaken and find out that this was all a dream.
But the fires kindling in my veins gave proof to the reality. This was no dream. Impossibly, this was real.
It took only moments before the pain became utterly unbearable. I fell to the ground, thrashing and writhing against the burning, searing agony ripping my body into thousands of individual pieces – each piece individually feeling the pain of a thousand deaths… collectively they created the fires of hell in its eternal intensity.
I begged for death, pleading with the Almighty to let me die… to bring an end to this unutterable agony. But relief never came. The burning continued.
Time lost all meaning.
Nothing existed outside this inferno consuming my body to ashes.
One thought, one single thought, resounded in my mind through the unfathomable agony.
So… this is hell.
Susannah Whitlock January 1863
The sweet sound of Josie's voice in song filtered across the hall. I had no doubt that were I to walk into her room I would find her propped on her window seat, paper and pen in her hand, either writing a letter to her brother or sketching pictures of home for him. Every packet of letters we sent to him had to be graced with at least one of her drawings.
Josie missed her brother deeply. It had affected her greatly when he left, and it had taken months before she returned to a semblance of her normal happy self. It pained me to see the shadows that still lingered in her eyes now, though. Worry for her brother's life had stripped away a part of her childhood. Fear for the death of one she loved had caused her to grow up all too quickly.
Josie and Jasper had been inseparable since she was only a tiny babe. I had worried that Jasper, having been the baby and the apple of our eyes for more than five years, would be jealous of the attention we gave to his newborn sister. But jealousy had never seemed to factor into his emotions.
He had become her champion. In the years that followed, it was rare to see one without the other. And I cherished each memory I had of the two of them. He had been able to make her laugh like no one else when she was a baby. On the rare occasions when she fussed, he had always been able to calm her, even when no one else could. As they had grown, I had loved seeing the two of them propped against a pile of pillows as he read to her, their blonde hair blending together.
Hearing her voice now, I missed the sound of his joining with hers. It had been a favorite game to them for one to begin a song and the other to complete the verse.
My embroidery sat neglected on my lap, as I rocked back and forth in the chair I had placed in Jasper's room. This was where I came when I needed to feel some kind of connection to him despite his absence. Everything sat untouched, just the way he had left it. The faint scent of him still lingered in the chest that held his clothes and the pillows on his bed.
I wondered for the thousandth time where he was at this very moment – what he was doing. If he was well. His letters always sounded positive and encouraging. He gave no indication of the sufferings he must encounter every day, both physical and emotional. He never alluded to the inconveniences of camp life.
The last letter we had received told us of his recent promotion to Major. I was proud of him. I was proud of what he had managed to accomplish in such a relatively short amount of time, but in a single heartbeat I would trade anything and everything I owned to have him home again.
Looking back now, I knew I should have seen his departure coming. I should have known he was plotting something. But I hadn't.
When news of Texas's secession from the Union had reached us, there was a flurry amid the young men of San Antonio to enlist. I had been relieved that William was past the age to be drafted, and Josiah, being a slave holder, was exempt.
I hadn't considered that my sixteen year old son, just a month away from his birthday, would enlist. With the age of the draft beginning at eighteen, I had thought that I still had at the very least a year before that became an issue. And I had prayed fervently that the war would be over by that time.
I should have seen the signs that appeared right before me. Jasper had seemed to turn into a man overnight, his purposeful, determined eyes were not that of a boy anymore. He carried himself tall and straight… proud. He had displayed a new kind of confidence and self-assurance.
That night he had hugged me and bent down to kiss my cheek goodnight, holding on a heartbeat longer than usual.
"I love you, Mama." He had whispered in my hair.
He hadn't called me Mama in years, not since he was a little boy. That alone should have alerted me, but I had been blind.
I awoke the next morning to find a note lying on his bed, assuring us all of his love, but that he had a duty to his country to fulfill. He had pled with us to forgive him and promised to write when he had his assignment.
My heart had bled with each word. At sixteen, he was still little more than a child. He'd been sheltered inside the heart of our family for his entire life. He had no concept of the brutality of war. No way to truly know what he was walking so recklessly towards.
Every time I thought of him, which was every day, many times a day, I breathed a prayer for his safety and his return.
Lord God, be merciful to my son.
The sound of hoof beats approaching caught my attention. I rose from my chair, laying my needlework down and peering out the window. A single rider was cantering up the walk way leading to the house.
The rider wore the gray uniform of the Confederacy.
My heart skipped a beat before starting back up again with a stutter. I clasped my hand to my chest, unable to move with the anticipation flooding my chest. A part of my mind noted that the build of the rider was too slight to be my son, the hair peeking from his cap too dark to be that of my Jasper. But rational thought was driven from my mind by the wild hope that this might indeed be my son at last riding home.
My arms ached with a heavy kind of emptiness now at the thought that perhaps I was only moments away from embracing my son again.
I gathered my skirts in my hand and fled down the stairs as fast as my feet would carry me.
He would be standing at the front door. His blue eyes would light up with the warmth of his smile when he saw me running towards him. He would pick me up and swing me around. I'd kiss his face again and again, telling him how I'd missed him, how proud I was of him. And then despite the fact that he was a head taller than me, I'd turn him over my knee for making me worry all this time.
I stopped abruptly at the bottom of the stairs not seeing anyone in the front foyer. From outside, I heard the fading sound of hoof beats again.
Dread filled my stomach, making it sink like lead. Something wasn't right.
As if to give confirmation to my growing anxiety, a heartbroken moan like I had never heard before issued from the drawing room.
My feet felt almost too heavy to lift, but somehow I managed to walk to the doorway before my heart froze inside my chest.
William sat unmoving in his chair, his face buried in his hands. His unnatural stillness frightened me.
A single piece of paper lay at his feet.
I stared at that paper like it was a rattlesnake poised to strike.
No. Dear God, please. No.
Dear God, please. No.
I wouldn't remember later my feet carrying me across the room, or my hands taking hold of the letter. But what I would remember were the words it contained. Words that were burned into my mind for eternity.
Words that would change my life forever.
Mr. & Mrs. William Whitlock: It is with great regret that I inform you that your son, Jasper Whitlock, Major in the army of these Confederate States of America has been reported missing in action. Major Whitlock was last seen acting in the line of duty on the 25th day of January in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty three. A search of the surrounding area was performed, but despite every effort, no trace was found. The men of Texas Brigade Company C join you in fervent prayers for the safe return of this heroic soldier and patriot. With deepest sympathy,
Brigadier General Paul Meyer
It is with great regret that I inform you that your son, Jasper Whitlock, Major in the army of these Confederate States of America has been reported missing in action. Major Whitlock was last seen acting in the line of duty on the 25th day of January in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty three. A search of the surrounding area was performed, but despite every effort, no trace was found.
The men of Texas Brigade Company C join you in fervent prayers for the safe return of this heroic soldier and patriot.
With deepest sympathy,
The words blurred together in front of my eyes.
My hands trembled, and I dropped the paper as if it had burned me.
All coherent thought was banished from my mind by the grief that flooded over my head in waves.
My son… Dear God… my son.
Dear God… my son.
I heard the sound of a deathly moan. I wondered vaguely where it had come from before realizing that the unearthly sound had been my own.
That was my last thought before the world, mercifully, faded to black around me.
Days passed. The sun rose every morning and set every night. Seasons changed just as they had from the beginning of time.
Though it would never again be quite the same.
That dreadful day, after consciousness had returned, I had once again read the letter, frantically searching for any sign of hope amid the words that a mother can only pray she never hears.
The letter said Jasper was missing… not dead, but missing.
I had clung desperately to the hope that he would yet be found. That a second letter would follow to advise us of his safe return. Or better, that he would come riding home one day and tell us himself that it had all been a horrendous mistake.
But as the months turned into years, that hope dimmed a little more with the dawning of each new day.
The war came to an end. The Confederacy lost.
The brave boys that had fought had come home.
Mine did not.
I knew without a doubt that if he was still alive he would have found some way to make contact with his superiors. He would not stay away if he had any choice. If it had been humanly possible to return, he would have. He wouldn't just disappear.
Not long after news of the surrender had reached us, Jasper's commanding officer, Brigadier General Meyer, had paid us a visit. An old childhood friend of William's, he had come to personally offer his condolences, bringing us the contents of Jasper's saddlebags and his saber.
He told us of Jasper's last assignment, and what they knew of his disappearance. He told us how Jasper's horse had returned to its stable in Houston… without Jasper. A search party had been formed, but just as he had told us in the letter, for all appearances, he had simply vanished without a trace. There had been nothing anyone could do.
There had been two other unexplained deaths in Houston the same night that he had gone missing. It could only be assumed that he had fallen victim as well, though his body had never been found.
General Meyer had praised Jasper's dedication and his exceptional leadership abilities despite his youth. He told us how the men of his command had loved Jasper, how they had grieved for his death. He extolled Jasper's exemplary character and deportment. In the drawing room of our home, his words had become a eulogy for my fallen son.
That had been the moment I had realized that my son wasn't coming home.
I had thought that somehow I would feel it in my heart when he was dead – that surely deep inside I would know if he had passed from this world. But I felt no different. There was no supernatural knowing, just a painful acceptance.
After General Meyer had departed, we had emptied Jasper's saddlebag one item at a time, like we were handling priceless treasure. All the letters we had sent were there – the edges ragged and torn, the ink smeared from where his fingers had traced the words. Drops where the ink had been washed away from his tears. The photograph of our family was worn in much the same way.
And buried at the bottom of the stack of letters was one in his familiar script, the words elegantly formed though the print was small to make the most of the paper.
William had read the letter aloud as the family gathered around. I listened for any indication that Jasper had known his time was short when he penned these last words. But there was nothing to lead me to believe that. He sounded just the same as always.
The letter had ended abruptly, in mid-sentence. I wondered what had pulled him away, what had distracted him. Had he had any inkling that he'd never have the chance to finish that letter? I had no way of knowing.
But in a way, the ending was fitting.
It was cut short.
Just as his life had been.
In the days that followed, we had grieved individually and as a whole. We had leaned on each other for support and comfort. And gradually life had fallen into a normal pattern again. Not the same as before, for there was a void that could never be filled again. We simply learned to live around that void.
A fourth headstone had been added to the graveyard now. And it was there that I trekked now.
Today was March 2… what would have been my son's 35th birthday.
Every other day of the year, I focused my attention on thankfulness for the family I still had – loving them with all my heart for the days that I had with them. But this was my day to remember, to truly allow myself to feel the grief that never completely healed.
The satchel I carried contained every letter he had written. I read them every year, tracing the paper where his hands had touched, the words his pen had formed… these letters a precious link to him.
This was the one day I allowed myself to think about what might have been had the war not taken his life so early.
He had advanced through the ranks so rapidly in the two years he had spent in the army; he had been promoted from a private to the rank of Major in a stunningly short amount of time. It wasn't difficult to imagine that he would have been promoted even further had he lived, that he might have soon had his own command post.
And then after the war, how instrumental he might have been in the reintegration of Texas into the Union, and the reconstruction of our state that had followed. With his undeniable charisma, the way people were drawn to him, listening to what he had to say and the instinctive trust he inspired, there was no knowing how far he could have gone. His potential had only barely begun to be realized.
But that was what might have been.
Closer to my heart were the things that, God forgive me, should have been.
When my family gathered together around the table, I gave thanks for each chair that was filled with my loved ones, but I ached to think about the chairs that should have been occupied.
I even grieved for the ones I'd never have a chance to know now. The one who would have held my son's heart, the woman who would have been his helpmeet – the daughter that I would never have. I grieved that my son wouldn't know the kind of love that I shared with his father, the kind of love that my three other children had been blessed to find.
I grieved for the little golden-haired grandchildren I'd not have. The laughter and sweet voices that we'd never hear ringing in our halls.
I knelt by his headstone and didn't try to stem my tears. I rested my head against the cold, unyielding marble, feeling the chill seep into my flesh even through my dress and wrap. My fingers traced the words that were engraved on my very heart… words that still broke my heart.
In loving memory of A life cut short.
Major Jasper S. Whitlock
Beloved Son and Brother
Born March 2, 1844
Died January 1863
A life cut short.
"Mama." I heard a soft voice behind me. With surprise, I noticed that the sun was already beginning to set. I hadn't noticed how far gone the day was.
I turned to see Josie standing a few yards behind me with her son Samuel at her side. Samuel had been born five years to the day after we had received the news that Jasper was missing. And the resemblance was unmistakable.
Samuel had the same blonde curls, the same wise, blue eyes. At ten years old, already as tall as his mother, he carried himself with the same assurance that his uncle had.
"It's getting late, Grandma. We brought a lantern for you, so you wouldn't have to walk back in the dark." Samuel spoke with concern in his voice.
"That's very sweet of you, darling. Thank you." I smiled through the tears.
He seemed to hesitate for a moment, thinking… troubled by my tears. Then without warning, he sprinted across the distance, kneeling down beside me. He wrapped his arms around my neck and held tight.
For just a single moment, I let my mind be carried back twenty years and imagined that the curly-headed boy I held in my arms was the one I had prayed for daily. The one that I had carried in my womb, nourished with my body, and comforted from all his fears.
But that was only for a moment.
Lovingly, I kissed the top of my precious grandson's hair, thankful for the continuation of life. For the family that I had left. For William and his sustained health, for our three grown children and their spouses and young ones.
Life went on.
Releasing me, Samuel stood and held out his hand to help me stand. I pressed a kiss to the tips of my fingers and traced it lovingly across the name engraved on the stone before taking his hand, letting him pull me to my feet.
With Samuel on one side and Josie on the other, I gazed down at the gravestone in front of me. Josie knelt and placed the flowers she held on the ground, her hand caressing the stone once.
Taking one last look, I clasped the hands of two of the people I loved most in the world and turned my face to the light of home.
One day my body would be laid to rest in the plot of land beside my son's memorial, but until that time I would cherish every moment I had with the people I loved.
Life was far too short to do anything else.