Near Manassas Junction, Virginia
July 21, 1861
When the cannon roared to life, spectators sent up a round of cheers. They had spread checkered cloths and baskets filled with fried chicken and fine pastries across the grass. Children romped. Champagne corks popped. Women shielded delicate skin with gaily colored parasols. Eager to witness the deciding battle, congressmen had brought their families for a picnic. The first men in blue started falling, and mouths gaped at an unexpected sight—blood.
Lieutenant Samuel Prescott wiped a sweaty brow in the stifling heat. Nerves—no, it was the heat. After hours of waiting in the relative safety of the woods, the regiment marched across a blackened field. Charging men before them had trampled the summer grass. As they advanced, the spectators applauded and shoved fists to the sky for triumph.
What Sam wouldn’t give for a cool Maine breeze. Through the smoke all he could clearly see were the feet of the man in front of him.
Guns pounded and ghostly figures rushed here and there. The boys hustled over a snake-rail fence. One private fell from the top rail, landed on his canteen, and dented it. The other boys gathered around and roared with laughter.
Less than amused, Sam failed to share their enthusiasm. Certain they would see the elephant soon, he shouted for them to keep marching.
At the top of a gentle rise, bullets whirred over their heads. A mass of dead and dying bodies sprawled across the field below. Rebels fired from the woods. Without the benefit of cover, many of the boys were caught in the open as easy targets.
Sam motioned for them to lie low. Minutes of more waiting passed.
When the Rebels formed a line, the spectators finally comprehended the danger and jammed the road with their carriages in a chaotic retreat.
The order arrived, and Sam shouted for the boys to fall in line. Face to face—a few hundred yards apart. So this was the enemy. The colonel signaled with his sword.
“Ready!” Sam commanded as if it was nothing more than a drill.
The men in blue readied their muskets.
Muskets snapped to attention and sighted the targets in gray.
Through the deafening volley, canister whistled overhead and sprayed the ground with balls of deadly lead. It tore through the ranks, and a number of men went down.
The Rebels moved toward Sam’s line, and an unearthly yell rose above the frenzy. In spite of the heat, a chill of cold terror ran down Sam’s back. He ordered the boys forward.
A sobbing private rammed his musket barrel with bullet after bullet without firing. A Rebel shot tore through the boy’s chest, and he fell dead at Sam’s feet.
The otherworldly yell sounded again, and blue and gray merged in hand-to-hand combat. Sam briefly thought of Kate. She had died over a year ago after giving birth, and he was ready to join her. The ground rippled beneath him, throwing him off his feet. He tasted blood in his mouth and checked himself. His arms and legs were firmly attached. He appeared to be unharmed.
A cold, sharp blade ripped through his left sleeve and grazed his arm. A wild-eyed Rebel loomed over him with a raised bayonet ready for another try. Sam rolled to the side and fired his Colt pistol into the scraggly bearded face. Blood spattered him, and the faceless Rebel fell.
The blue line gave way. Some boys clutched muskets as if they were part of them. Others threw down weapons, turning tail.
He needed to get behind them—keep the remaining boys from running. Regroup the others, and keep the line from breaking. But through the smoke, the Rebels swarmed their flank like bloodsucking flies.
Sam got to his feet, and a bearded Rebel officer with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other charged toward him. He aimed the gun at Sam’s head.
At first Sam failed to recognize him, but the gunpowder-blackened face belonged to Colonel Graham, one of his commanders before the war. The Colonel’s uniform was covered in blood, and his eyes remained fixed in the other world of battle.
Sam sucked in his breath. He accepted death, but friends didn’t meet as enemies on the same bloodstained battlefield. Unable to pull the trigger, he threw his pistol to the ground in surrender. Ready to die by the hand of a friend, he straightened to attention. His first battle would be his last.
Sam’s eyes burned from the smoke, and he blocked out the fear of death with thoughts of home. A cool ocean breeze blew gently in his face as he inhaled salt air. He held a glass filled with ice water. Ice was scarce in Virginia. But Virginia was where he had left his daughter in the caring hands of the Colonel’s wife, Amanda Graham. After Kate’s death, she had taken his daughter and cared for Rebecca. She would see to the child’s needs once he was gone.
The fatal bullet didn’t come. Sam looked over at the Colonel as he lowered his pistol. Friendship registered in his former commander’s eyes. Between them there was no blue or gray. But sympathy for the enemy could get a man killed, and the Colonel vanished in a cloud of smoke.
Cannon pounded, and muskets exploded. The field reeked of gunpowder and death. Sam retrieved his pistol and took his position at the end of the line. An exploding shell muffled a scream. Dirt and gunpowder showered the ground.
Sam shielded his eyes. When the veil lifted enough for him to see, a soldier in blue writhed from a belly wound.
Something struck him square in the ribs, and he was eating dirt once more. A Rebel swung his musket and struck him in the forehead. Blinding pain. Not ready to let go, Sam fought to remain conscious. Willful pride kept him from calling for Kate.
Someone was aiding him. Hands went underneath him and helped him up. The face was blurred, but he wore gray. When the face came into focus, Sam was comforted to see a friendly face—Colonel Graham.
The Colonol drew Sam’s arm over a broad shoulder. Dizzy. The light grew dim.
The Colonel staggered. His free hand went to his chest. Blood spurted between his fingers.
The company corporal stood across from them with his mouth agape. They must be quite a sight. Gray helping blue on the battlefield. Light narrowed to a dot, and Sam felt the Colonel slump. Small but strong hands caught Sam before he hit the ground a third time. What would he tell Amanda? Friends didn’t meet as enemies. Too tired to think. Then blackness.
Near Fredericksburg, Virginia
More than a month had passed since the Colonel made the final wagon ride home. Amanda had buried him on the grassy knoll behind the farmhouse. There, underneath the expansive limbs of an old oak, he joined her papa. One day it would be her resting place as well.
Lieutenant Colonel William Jackson had stopped by late in the afternoon to pay his respects. In the cool evening breeze, he covered his heart with his hat and lowered his head. She was grateful for his company. With John gone, the nights had been lonely. After a brief moment of silence, he said in his thick Charleston accent, “He died bravely, Amanda.”
Instead of bringing her comfort, his words had the opposite effect. “Bravely? This whole war is foolish—a foolish waste.” Raising the skirt of her black mourning dress, she stepped past Wil and started down the hill.
He caught her arm. “I beg forgiveness. I only meant...” His eyes showed sympathy.
“I know. The morning the two of you set out was overcast. John even said goodbye. He had never said goodbye before. I suppose I knew then that he wasn’t coming back.”
Wil dropped his hand and fidgeted with the brim of his hat. “I shall see to your needs. John would have wanted it that way.”
Under a different set of circumstances, she would have considered Wil’s offer suggestive. His reputation with the ladies was a well-known fact, not to mention his gambling and drinking activities. Below prominent cheekbones, a neatly trimmed moustache lined his upper lip, and the waves in his hair matched the black depths of his eyes. Even Amanda couldn’t deny a certain attraction. “I thank you for your kind offer. My land is fertile for growing and grazing. We shall manage.”
She strolled down the hill, and Wil joined her with the sword at his side clanking.
“Amanda, this war won’t be short. Virginia will be a wasteland before it’s over.”
They neared the farmhouse, and Wil opened the gate of the whitewashed picket fence. The breeze hinted at autumn. With a shiver, Amanda realized she should have brought her shawl, but the cool air wasn’t the reason why she had suddenly grown cold. “The Colonel said one battle—”
“Manassas was only a beginning.” Wil’s jaw tensed, and his gaze grew distant. “I haven’t seen anything like it since fighting the Mexicans.”
John and Wil had fought side by side in the war against the Mexicans. Wil had even taken a bullet meant for the Colonel and barely survived. Now he stood beside her, ever so proud and handsome in his gray uniform with shiny brass buttons and fine gold embroidery on the sleeves of his jacket. But John was gone, and she was no longer misled by war’s glory. Many more brave men would die.
“How long can it last?” she asked.
“At least three years.”
“Three...” Amanda suddenly felt faint, took a deep breath, and calmed herself. “Wil, where are my manners? We have a big pot of stew simmering for supper, and Frieda will make tea.”
Wil held out his arm, and she hooked hers through it. Next to him, she detected the sweet aroma of cigars. When they went up the steps, the wood creaked under their weight. With a slight bow, he opened the door.
Amanda smiled in appreciation. “Thank you.” Once inside the parlor, she gestured for him to make himself at home in the green velvet wing chair. She fluffed a cushion and placed it behind his back. “I shall tell Frieda that you’re here.”
“I appreciate your hospitality.”
In the the kitchen, a whiff of hearty beef mixed with fresh garden vegetables drifted her way. For the first time since the Colonel’s passing, she felt hungry. Maybe Wil’s appearance had been a blessing.
The blind, slightly stooped form of her servant hovered over the cookstove, stirring the stew in a Dutch oven. The meal smelled so heavenly that Amanda’s mouth watered. “Frieda, we have a guest.”
“I make da tea.” The old Negro woman waved a wooden spoon. “Miss Amanda, you watch yourself with dat one.”
“Wil? But he’s been a family friend for years.”
“But da Colonel gone now.” The wrinkles etched in Frieda’s face became pronounced with worry. “He be thinkin’ of you as a woman, and he da type to take what he can and run. Ain’t never bin married. Must be nearin’ forty.”
“Wil is thirty six.”
“Don’t make no difference. A man his age should be married.”
“I shall be careful,” Amanda promised.
When Amanda returned to the parlor, Wil stood. She seated herself on the tapestry sofa across from him. One rumor had him courting a Carolina girl from a respectable family, but another tale was less flattering. Some folks even spread the story that he had taken up with a married woman. On previous occasions, she had ignored idle gossip, but with Frieda’s warning she would pay more heed.
He reseated himself in the wing chair.
“Wil...” She cleared her throat. “I was wondering if you have heard anything from Sam Prescott? With the mail being erratic lately, it’s not surprising I haven’t received a letter, but I hope he remained in New Mexico.”
“Prescott was at Manassas.”
Not Sam too. Amanda closed her eyes. The war had already touched all those close to her. In the year that had passed since Sam’s transfer to the New Mexico territory, she had come to think of his daughter as her own flesh and blood, but the feeling went deeper. He never said as much, but she knew she was the reason for his transfer. She would have never betrayed John’s trust. And Sam wouldn’t have respected her if she had, but after Kate’s death, she had encouraged his friendship. As time went on, and his grief faded, she had noticed a gentle kindness return to his blue eyes—one of longing.
At the sound of Wil’s voice, she blinked. “Is he...?”
“I wouldn’t know. The Yankees don’t tend to send me casualty reports. He should be fine. After all, we sent the bluebellies scurrying...” Wil snorted a laugh. “...all the way back to Washington.”
“Wil!” Amanda waved at his inappropriate gaiety. “Good men died there—on both sides.”
He bowed his head slightly. “Forgive me.”
His dark eyes sobered. Familiar with the look, she knew there was something he wasn’t telling. “Wil, what do you know?”
“I don’t know anything, but I have heard things—about Prescott.”
“What sort of things?”
“Amanda, there was a lot of confusion that day. That’s normal with unseasoned troops. To make matters worse, some Confederates wore blue.”
“My source says that John spent his last few minutes among Yankees, specifically Prescott.”
Skeptical of the report, Amanda sent him a stare. Friends didn’t go meeting one another on a battlefield. “Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”
Wil leaned back in the wing chair. “I didn’t know whether you would believe my source. She has been prone to exaggeration in the past.”
She. That likely explained his hesitation in bringing the matter up. At least one rumor was apparently true, and Amanda doubted his source was a proper Carolina girl. “Who is this source?”
The stooped form of Frieda entered the parlor, guided by a cherry walking stick. “Tea is ready, Miss Amanda,” she said.
Wil watched Frieda, and an unexpected urgency entered his voice. “Amanda, I have another matter to discuss. The Yankees are making moves to cut off our supplies. You have a good, strong horse...”
Confused by his sudden topic shift, Amanda said, “The army has taken several of my mares and plow horses. Don’t even suggest it. I’m not selling Red, and the mares that are left have foals at their sides.”
He tugged on his moustache. “I wasn’t suggesting that I take your horses. But I think we should continue this discussion outside.” He pointed at Frieda.
“Why, Colonel, I detect some embarrassment in discussing your source. I hope I haven’t contributed to your discomfort. I gathered you were well acquainted.”
An amused grin formed on his face but quickly vanished. “My source is a traitor and a spy—in more ways than one.”
“Would you rather I lied?” Wil grasped her elbow and escorted her to the front porch.
A cool breeze blew, hinting at summer’s fading, while crickets chirped a chorus. She remembered other summer evenings, sitting on the porch swing beside John. Now she dressed in black, and those days seemed so long ago.
“Think of me what you will,” he continued, breaking the stillness. “But she is married to a Yankee captain.”
Her hand flew to her collar. Ill at ease with his confession, Amanda twisted the fabric between her fingers. “Quite frankly, Colonel, I’m appalled that you would share the details of an illicit affair.”
“Amanda, I have never pretended to be a gentleman.”
Suddenly uncomfortable by his presence, Amanda looked out at the fields in the darkening sky. In the lengthening shadows her Negro servant, Ezra, led a mare and foal to the barn.
“On the night before Manassas,” Wil said softly, “John told me that he wasn’t coming back from this one. Many times, men get a feeling, and they think of home. He would have given anything to see you again. Whether Prescott was with John, I don’t know. I wasn’t with him when he died, but I trained Prescott in New Mexico. He’s a professional soldier. I have no doubt he carried out his duty under the stress of battle. On the day of Manassas, he fought for the opposite side.”
His insinuation was abhorrent. “Are you suggesting Sam was responsible for John’s death?”
He studied her a moment. “No.”
A ring of hesitation carried in his voice. Was Wil trying to spare her from further grief? After all, anything was possible under battle conditions. But Sam and John had been friends. A lump caught at the back of her throat. What if Sam had fired the fatal shot? “Wil—”
“Amanda, I need someone to run medical supplies.”
Flustered that he kept evading her questions, Amanda narrowed her eyes. “I don’t believe you! One minute you insinuate that Sam may have been involved in John’s death, the next you ask me to smuggle medical supplies. Why, you’re more like a timber rattler.”
“Forgive me. I wouldn’t have brought up Prescott’s name if you hadn’t asked, but I would feel more comfortable discussing the event if I knew the facts.”
He was still neatly sidestepping her concerns. Amanda clenched her teeth before saying something she regretted. Once calm again, she asked, “Why would you want me to carry medical supplies?”
“Because a woman can slip through the lines more easily, and if captured, the punishment is less severe.” His eyes grew piercing as he took her hand and lightly kissed it. “But Amanda, I will do my utmost to see that you are not captured.”
On that account, she believed him, but doubt remained to what his true intent might be. “You’ll guarantee that I shall carry only medical supplies?”
“Possibly other supplies, but no arms, if that’s your concern. I won’t risk having you branded as a spy, and you have the right to refuse anything you don’t approve of. I will pay in gold, which should help you through this troubled time.”
With the Colonel in his grave and no pension to be claimed, she certainly could use the money. “If you can give me a day or two to think it over—”
“I would prefer your answer sooner rather than later, but send a servant with your message when you have decided.”
Running medical supplies might give her a sense of purpose. She needed that right now. What’s more, by assisting Wil, she might relieve some needless suffering. “Wil, I can give you an answer now. I will run supplies. It shall help me heal if I can give comfort to others.”
“I understand. I’ll make the arrangements as soon as I return to camp.”
A most confusing man, Wil Jackson had nearly laid down his life for John, and she trusted that he would do the same for her if the situation ever arose. But what could be gained by smuggling medical supplies? Weapons or spying would be of more value to the Confederacy. “Why medical supplies?”
His face darkened. Was it pain? But the expression was fleeting. “I shall try to tell you what you want to know—in good time. Please accept that for now.”
He lifted her hand to his lips once more and gently kissed it. Bowing slightly, he turned. As he went down the porch steps, his sword clanked and spurs jingled. When he reached the bottom step, he glanced over his shoulder.
Their gazes met. Amanda knew the look and recalled Frieda’s warning. His attention began to make sense. He hadn’t visited to pay his respects to John but as an excuse to see her.
* * *
Within a fortnight, Amanda wondered what she had let herself in for. She brought the stallion, Red, to a halt in a forest glade next to a hundred-year-old oak with a distinctive branch in the shape of a dipper. The tree marked the spot where she was supposed to meet a man by the name of James. Wil had described the man as heavy-set and riding a black horse, but he failed to mention whether James was a surname or his given.
Although she had arrived early, she checked the map to make certain she waited in the right spot. No two trees could have identical branches. Satisfied she had found the proper location, she folded the map and stuffed it in her saddlebag.
So far, so good. But what was she to do while waiting? Sitting idle in the saddle played on her nerves. On her next supply run, she would time the pickup a little better. Next run? She must get through this one before thinking of the next.
A chickadee scolded from the ancient oak, and her hands tensed on the leather. She’d much rather be home tending farm chores than waiting alone in some distant Maryland forest. With the tight rein, Red pawed the ground.
Amanda loosened her grip, and the stallion relaxed.
The chickadee stopped scolding, and a cool breeze rustled through the leaves changing from summer green to shades of autumn red and yellow. Wishing she had brought her cloak, Amanda checked her pocket watch. How long should she wait if James didn’t show? Wil had given her few guidelines beyond being careful. Then again, smuggling supplies was probably new to him as well.
A lone rider on a black horse with a white blaze on its nose trotted from an outcrop of trees. The horse was weighted down with several canvas bags over its withers. The burly man tipped his hat and halted a few feet away. “Mrs. Graham....”
Without answering, he reached a pudgy hand into his frock coat pocket and withdrew a handkerchief. He wiped his sweaty brow with the fresh white linen.
“First rule—no more names.”
Though he was out of breath and wheezing, Amanda detected a distinct Northern accent.
“While the Yanks won’t hang you, they wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn about me. Clear?” He reined the black across from Red and transferred a canvas bag. “I get the supplies out of Washington. Your concern is across the river.”
Another bag was slung across Red’s withers. The stallion bobbed his head.
Amanda opened the first bag and checked the contents—laudanum, quinine, bandages. Exactly what Wil had said she would carry. She reached inside the bag to make certain nothing else had been slipped in. Bags of medicine, but no weapons or cartridge boxes. The second bag held more of the same. Satisfied no arms or ammunition had been slipped in, she handed James an envelope.
He looked inside, and a smile crossed his face. “Pleasure doing business with you, ma’am.” He reined the black horse around, but halted. “Tell the colonel that our Washington contact is weary of pretending to nursemaid sick soldiers. Next shipment will cost more.”
The husky man spurred the black in the side. The horse groaned in protest, and they cantered off.
Doubtful that Wil would take kindly to the message, she focused on the job ahead. Her primary concern was crossing the Potomac. Only a couple of miles from the river, she cued Red to a trot. Wil had wanted her first run to be short—undoubtedly to make certain she wouldn’t bow under pressure. Avoiding the roads, she trotted Red along an animal path through the forest.
She ducked to miss an overhanging branch and slowed Red to a walk. Up ahead, she heard the rushing water of the Potomac. On the other side, Wil would be waiting for her. She halted Red at the edge of the forest.
A gentle slope of waving grass dipped down to the ford in the river. The Confederate picket line would be watching for her. So why was she suddenly uneasy?
Red tugged on the bit to be moving.
Still, she waited.
She squeezed Red to a brisk trot. Once on open ground, Amanda focused on the swift running water a few hundred yards away. Nearly home free, she heard hooves pounding behind her. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed her fear. Yankee soldiers—two scouts in hot pursuit.
The leather reins slid through her fingers, and she urged Red to a gallop. She neared the river. A soldier from the picket line fired a warning. Weighted down with supplies, Red was unable to outdistance the Yankees.
A corporal on a moth-eaten buckskin pulled even and seized the reins. Nearly twisting Red’s head around, he brought the stallion to a halt.
Amanda reached into her saddlebag and leveled a pistol at his chest.
He let go of the leather and raised his hands. “I wouldn’t hurt a woman.”
Trembling, she lowered the gun slightly. “Then why have you stopped me?”
A bullet whirred overhead from the picket line. Horses crossed the river—at least a dozen with a blue roan in the lead. The stubble-faced corporal whirled the buckskin around, and shot off at a gallop, traveling in the dust of the other scout.
The roan halted beside Red, but the remaining Confederates continued their pursuit of the Yankees.
“Amanda, are you all right?”
Still shaking, she glanced over at Wil. “I botched up.”
“As a matter of fact, you handled yourself quite well, but...” He reached for the pistol. “...you can let go now.”
Amanda loosened her stranglehold grip and surrendered the revolver. “It’s not loaded.”
Wil settled back in the saddle and checked the empty chamber. “A foolish bluff, Amanda. If you take a gun out, you had best be ready to use it.”
Gunfire sounded behind her. Amanda looked around in search of the Yankee scouts. “They mustn’t be harmed.”
“They won’t be unless they resist.”
“I refuse to be the cause of anyone being hurt. Please Wil—call off your men.”
“Very well. Return to camp.” With the order, he spurred the roan on.
Shifting around in the saddle, Amanda guided Red into the dark waters of the Potomac. With her attention focused on reaching the Confederate side of the river, the swift current caught her unaware. Red hit a deep spot and began swimming. Cold waves lapped near the top of the saddle, sending a chill through her bones.
The current grew stronger. Red compensated with powerful strokes of his legs. His feet finally touched bottom. She clucked her tongue, urging him forward. He climbed the bank, and she brought him to a halt at the picket line.
“Much obliged for your help,” she said to the guard.
Dressed in tattered gray, he coughed—a deep hacking cough. So many were sick. No wonder Wil needed medical supplies.
“Glad we could be of service, ma’am,” he said.
Amanda glanced back. The Confederate group was near the tree line with the Yankee corporal as prisoner.
Excerpt is Copyright Kim Murphy 2002.
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