For two days in mid-June Yankees had camped on Amanda's lawn. She woke to wagons creaking on the main road. The Army of the Potomac was on the move. She was thankful the squatters had left, for she had shooed foragers from the chicken coop the previous morning. A poplar switch was ammunition enough to send the culprits skedaddling. Sam had tried to persuade her to seek refuge in Washington, but cut off from her family, she couldn't leave without word of their safety. No news from Alice was an excuse. She had no intention of abandoning the farm.
As Amanda crossed the kitchen's red brick floor, she got a whiff of biscuits laced with honey. Sam kept them stocked in basic provisions, but with the army moving, everyday necessities would likely grow scarce. The warm spring morning suddenly seemed cold.
"Breakfast nearly ready, Miss Amanda." The hunched blind servant pulled a tin of piping-hot biscuits from the oven. "You sit down and rest afore da baby come."
Amanda pressed a hand to her rounded belly. "The baby won't be here for another two months, Frieda."
Frieda pointed a bony finger. "You work too hard. Won' be no time to rest once da baby here."
Amanda sat in a pole-backed chair at the table and laughed. "You coddle me."
"If I don' look after you, den who does?" The sightless eyes widened as if they could see. "Miss Amanda, our comp'ny back."
"Yankees?" Trusting Frieda's instinct, she had best check. Too heavy with child to hustle, Amanda waddled to the parlor. She parted the lace curtain to at least a dozen men in blue outside the picket fence. One man, big as a bull, began ripping the fence apart. As others joined him, she grabbed the rifle over the mantel and went outside.
Fence rails splintered, and Amanda fired over their heads. A chestnut horse reared, nearly unseating its rider. "You will leave the premises," Amanda shouted.
"Ma'am..." A bucktooth lieutenant regained control of his mount. "Don't mean to alarm you, but we're requisitioning supplies."
Reloaded, Amanda replaced the ramrod and aimed the rifle. "You have no right to destroy my property. My husband is Major Samuel Prescott..."
"Of the Reb army?" With a sneer, he shook his head. "Sorry, ma'am..."
"Sorry indeed. Major Prescott is Federal infantry."
The lieutenant straightened in the saddle. "Then Major Prescott should have posted a guard. I have orders."
Sam had posted a guard, but when the army started moving, the guard went with it. Another board cracked from the picket fence. "I have a small child in the house. Please..."
His face held firm. The lieutenant dismounted and confiscated her rifle. She hurried as fast as she was capable to the house and up the stairs. On the trundle bed sprawled Rebecca, her legs and arms tossing in a bad dream. Though she was Sam's daughter from his first marriage, these Yankees didn't care a whit about their own kind.
"Rebecca..." Before she stirred awake, Amanda climbed in next to her and hugged her. With a whimper, Rebecca started to cry. Amanda brushed dark hair from her face. "It's all right, Rebecca."
Sniffling, the child tightened her grip. "Mama." Amanda heard the front door open and nasal voices downstairs. Rebecca shrieked as if in pain, "Mama!"
Amanda held Rebecca until she was still. She should have listened to Sam and sought refuge. Only one woman against the entire Yankee army, she wasn't strong enough. Not alone. When Sam found out, he'd have their blue-bottomed hides. But where was Sam? He was most likely moving with the army. She heard the nasal voices laugh.
What right did they have terrifying innocent women and children? Amanda pressed two fingers to her lips. "You must keep quiet, Rebecca. Mama's going to see that those men leave."
Big blue eyes filled with tears, and Rebecca choked back a sob. Amanda tiptoed from the room and down the stairs. In the parlor two men in blue stretched on the tapestry sofa. Laughing between them, one smoked Sam's pipe. Eyes narrowing with contempt, Amanda made a beeline for the study and withdrew a pistol from the desk drawer.
Trembling, she raised the pistol and returned to the parlor. "Is taking over my house as if you owned it part of your thievery?"
The private with the pipe stood. With his wispy moustache turning up slightly at the ends, he smiled. The smile was familiar---from the hospital. She had written letters of reassurance to his family in Pennsylvania and washed his feverish forehead. A boyish face in the hospital---it seemed harsher here.
She felt like screaming. Steady---she must keep her wits and hold the pistol steady. "How can you repay my letter writing with treachery? Does your mama know how you treat Southern citizens? She would be ashamed."
With an arrogant grin the private set the pipe down and edged closer. "I'll not have you speaking ill of my mother."
The other Yankee got to his feet and circled the opposite direction. "Stop, or I will shoot."
Daring her, the private kept moving toward her. Aim to the side of him. She gritted her teeth and squeezed the trigger. In a puff of smoke, a blast rocked the house. He faltered. Shock appeared on his face, then he clutched his arm. "She shot me! The bitch shot me!"
His partner had her arm, twisting it so hard that the pistol fell from her hand.
"Apparently you boys misunderstood orders," the bucktooth lieutenant said, entering the parlor. "Collect rations."
The private waved a bloody arm. "She shot me!"
"It's a graze, Private. Now see to your duty." The lieutenant scooped the pistol from the floor and tucked it in his belt.
She clenched a hand. "I tended him in the hospital, and this is how he repays me."
"My apology, ma'am."
"How can an apology suffice?"
"Ma'am, quite frankly, I don't give a lick if you accept the apology or not. I have orders."
"And how many more innocent families will you defile?"
The lieutenant glared. "If you cause any more trouble, I'll have you bound and gagged." With an about turn, he followed his men to the kitchen.
The Yankees had won. Except to watch, she was powerless. They would always win. A crash of glass shattering came from the kitchen. More feet stomping around other parts of the house. She closed her eyes. The Yankees wouldn't be satisfied until all Southerners starved. The kitchen door slammed, and Amanda heard men laughing outside. A pistol went off. She dashed for the kitchen. Careful to step over pitcher shards, she went out to the back steps. Running fingers through his curly, gray hair, the Yankees pestered Ezra. She waved a fist. "Leave him be!"
"It's all right, Miss Amanda. Dey just funnin'."
"That's right." The private with the wispy moustache sneered and raised his pistol to the sky. "We're just funnin'. Now dance."
Pasting on a compliant grin, Ezra jigged. Not a simpleminded Negro, Ezra obeyed to protect them. Follow his example and don't let the Yankees see humiliation. They would eventually grow weary of no sport. Above all else, they mustn't see her cry. Determined to keep her poise, Amanda raised her head.
A well-fed soldier, unlike so many Southern boys, climbed in the seat of a wagon. Loaded with boards from the picket fence for Yankee campfires, the wagon creaked down the tree-lined lane. Hooting and waving hats, several men galloped after the wagon.
A freckle-faced private in blue led her gray mare from the barn. A hand went to her mouth to keep from crying out. Not her mare---she was the only horse left in the barn. In foal, the gray would be of limited use. Nothing good would come of protesting.
Amanda said a silent prayer, when a warning shot fired from across the farmyard. More Yankees---dear Lord, what would she do now? But a familiar blue-roan gelding trotted into the open with Wil in a simple gray uniform and no insignia. Left-handed, he leveled his pistol to the lieutenant's chest. Wil wasn't left-handed. What was he up to?
"You boys have overstayed your welcome," Wil said to the Yankees.
Eyes narrowing, the lieutenant spat in the dirt. "I only see you Reb."
"I have a boy in the loft and several more in the woods ready to take yours down if the mare isn't returned to the lady. Test me, Billy. You'll be the first to die."
The lieutenant eyed Wil, then glanced to the hayloft. Amanda saw a figure crouch. She swallowed hard. Wil wasn't bluffing. The lieutenant nodded, and the freckle-faced private draped the mare's lead rope in her hands. The Yankees were getting on their horses---riding away. As hooves clattered down the lane, the pistol dropped from Wil's hand. With a groan, he toppled from the saddle.
"Wil!" By his side, Amanda kneeled.
"You should...," he gasped, short of breath, "learn poker, Amanda."
"Poker? Wil, you're hurt."
Alice was beside them, bending down and unfastening Wil's jacket. He forced a laugh. "Meet... my boy. Mighty fine looking one. Don't you think?"
Perplexed, she glanced from Wil to Alice. "Alice, what's going on?"
"He insisted on helping you. I'll explain the rest later. Let's get him to the house." Amanda stepped out of the way as Ezra moved in to help.
After making Wil comfortable in the back bedroom, Alice relayed the events that had transpired over the past couple of months. Though exhausted, her sister beamed when speaking about Wil's heroics. Amanda had already spotted the signs, but she felt uneasy about Alice's affection toward him. Only after agreeing that she'd check on Wil did her sister relent to getting some rest.
Amanda cracked open the door to the back bedroom. "Wil?" She went inside. Extremely pale, he was lying on his side. If the bullet had gone through him, it probably helped ease the pain. She reached for his hand, but thought better of it. "I have some laudanum."
With his right hand splinted, he had difficulty gripping the cup, but he drank the mixture down. Not the sort of man to complain about pain, he was definitely hurting something fierce if he gave no protest.
"I want to thank you for what you did."
He merely nodded.
"Forgive me if I appear insensitive," she continued, "but I'm worried about Alice. It's not proper for her to be caring for you the way she has been."
"Forgive me, Amanda." He handed her the empty cup. "But I'm in no mood to give a damn about proprieties."
"She loves you."
He laid his head against the feather pillow and closed his eyes. "That is her misfortune."
"Then I'd appreciate it if you don't lead her on."
He laughed but quickly sucked in his breath. "Tell me what I should refrain from doing, and I'll gladly stop. But right now, I can barely make it to the chamber pot by myself."
"Wil... I have always been able to talk to you in a straightforward manner."
He opened his eyes and met her gaze. "That was then."
She gritted her teeth.
"Amanda, you can stop fretting. I haven't compromised your sister, and I'll leave for Richmond just as soon as I'm capable. Besides, jealousy doesn't become you."
Jealousy? How dare he... She crossed her arms above her rounding abdomen. "What makes you think I'm jealous?"
"Because if you weren't, you'd be having this talk with Alice, not me."
"A near-death experience hasn't changed you in the least. You're still arrogant and stubborn."
"And you, Mrs. Prescott, still have difficulty facing the truth."
"Need I remind you that you are the one who burned the letter telling me how you felt?"
His dark eyes grew harsh. "If I had mailed it, would things have been any different? You certainly didn't waste any time getting knocked up by my former lieutenant when you thought I was dead."
Choking back a sob, Amanda clapped a hand over her mouth. Tempted to bolt, she held her ground, but she mustn't let him see her cry.
"Amanda, I'm sorry," he said in a softer voice.
"For what you just said or for not mailing the letter?" She could no longer fight the tears. He reached out to brush them away, but she stepped back. "There's no sense in discussing this any further. What's done is done." Without looking back, she left the room.
Excerpt is Copyright Kim Murphy 2003.
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