This story (for the TV series HELL ON WHEELS) gives me the chance to indulge myself with my favorite period in American history, the Civil War. I have high hopes the TV series will figure out the multitude of hanging plot lines and live up to its promise.
She kept him alive.
"Don't be a hero, Cullen. Come home to me."
Those were almost the last words she said to him on that beautiful May morning so long ago. Sweltering in the Mississippi heat, sweat dampening his hair and rolling down his back beneath the heavy wool uniform, he pulled her into his arms one last time. He'd closed his eyes, he remembered, in an attempt to imprint that moment in his memory, the softness of her body beneath the stiff stays of her corset, the smell of her rosewater cologne, the tickle of the curls at her temple that had escaped the twist of hair at her nape. "I love you, Cullen. Come home to me." One last whisper, her lips brushing against his ear as she spoke. "Come home to me."
He knew she was worried about him, knew she had reason to be. A man going to war could make no promises. But he hadn't worried about her. Not much, and in the beginning, not at all. At first, most of the fighting was miles away from Mississippi. Men were bleeding and dying in Georgia and Virginia and Pennsylvania. Besides, every man wearing Rebel grey knew they were going to whip those Yankee boys before they even thought about coming that deep into the South. And then he'd go home and sit on his porch and watch her grow old beside him.
But the Yankees weren't whipped and months turned into years. The proud Rebel army grew thin and haggard and hollow-eyed. The men who'd marched off to war with him died or went home early, leaving pieces of themselves behind on bloody battlefields forever marked by history.
He kept on fighting. Marching. Sleeping where he fell. Eating whatever they gave him or whatever he could find.
"Come home to me."
And then her letters stopped. At first he ignored the fear, burying his worry beneath the knowledge that if food couldn't get through the lines, mail surely couldn't. But the news trickled in, coming in waves of whispers from man to man. Greenville. The siege of Vicksburg. And he knew.
In his heart, he knew she was gone.
When the news of Appomattox reached his regiment, he turned toward home with the rest of them, joining the line of thin, ragged, hungry men who kept walking, one foot in front of the other, because that was the only thing left to do.
The remains of the one last shred of hope he'd clung to disappeared when he finally stood before the burned out shell of his home, dissolving in the clouds of black smoke he imagined he could still see billowing from the pile of charred lumber and brick.
A rustle of movement to his right caught his attention; he turned his head to watch the emaciated black woman hobble into view. He stared at her silently for a long moment.
"What happened here, Skeeter?" he asked finally, his voice graveled and harsh from disuse.
He saw the muscles in her throat work before she dropped, sobbing, to her knees.
"Oh, Mars' Cullen," she wailed, "she gone. Missus gone. Dem sol'jurs . . ."
He listened without speaking as she poured out the tale, his rage and anger building slowly until the last bit of gentleness, the soft part of his heart that had survived the fires of war because of her, withered away into nothing. There instead, a hard knot of hatred festered, fueled by vengeance and betrayal and pain. One last time, he closed his eyes and relived that final, precious memory before he put it away for good.
"Come home to me."
He would go home to her . . . but first he would avenge her.