by P. G. Nagle
…at last we reached San Antonio, where we were given a good suit of clothes, each, furnished with a square meal, and all but the Val Verde battery furloughed for sixty days but subject to be called in at a moment’s notice, and we all went home to rest and recruit.
—William L. Davidson, 5th TX Mounted Rifles
Jamie Russell gazed at the low-slung ranch house, almost glad he was not permitted to go toward it. The whitewashed boards of the old porch shimmered under the sun and the big live oak to the west of the house was just beginning to cast a dappled, restless shadow along its side. It seemed not to be real—a mirage, or some kind of trick—not the home he had longed for these many months.
Behind him the men of the Valverde Battery, in advance of the straggling remains of Sibley’s Brigade, trudged eastward on the road to San Antonio. They had got some tired old mules to haul the six captured cannon—all the brigade had to show for its toilsome campaign in New Mexico—but except for Jamie and the other officers they were all on foot.
On the trail baked dry by the hot July sun the column raised a dust that smelled of memories and caused Jamie’s throat to tighten. Cocoa stamped with impatience; she had recognized her home, and clearly wanted to hurry up the lane to the barn. Jamie leaned down to rub the mare’s neck.
“Just a little longer, girl,” he said softly.
“Would you like to be dismissed, Russell?” he heard Captain Sayers say behind him. Turning in the saddle, Jamie found his new captain watching him with the steady gaze that always made him feel he should straighten his shoulders and sit or stand taller.
“No, sir. I’ll come into town with the battery.”
Sayers nodded approval and moved on with the column. He was Jamie’s age, but had been educated at the military institute in Bastrop, and always carried himself like a general.
Or at least, like a colonel anyway. The only general of Jamie’s acquaintance was General Sibley, who was more flash than steel. Colonel Green—a hero ever since San Jacinto—or Colonel Reily, or Colonel Scurry even, was more Jamie’s idea of what a general should be. Sibley was further back on the trail, traveling slowly with broken-down horses, and Jamie couldn’t help but be glad he was not present.
The column’s slow pace gave him plenty of time to muse on this, also to observe the condition of the country he had been away from for most of a year. Things seemed not to have changed much: a new barn on one neighbor’s ranch, a new field under cultivation. Children scrambled down to the trail to greet the weary artillerymen, and as they neared town the column collected a sizeable escort including friends and family members of the men who came from San Antonio.
Jamie’s family was not among them; Poppa and Gabe and Emma would all be out with the herds, and he’d known when they passed the ranch that Momma wouldn’t come out and make a fuss—she wasn’t that sort. It was just as well, for Jamie found his feelings were getting stirred up in a way that was not entirely pleasant. After all the Confederate Army of New Mexico had been through they were coming home at last, and the relief of it was almost painful itself.
The battery came into the Military Plaza from which the army had set out the previous autumn and halted, drawing the guns into line where they were much admired by the crowd of citizens who had turned out. A band was there playing spirited marching tunes, the mayor made a short speech, and with much waving of flags and handkerchiefs and many hurrahs, an eleven gun salute was fired. The men of the battery were clearly cheered by the warmth of the welcome, though it was all rather too much for Jamie who was wishing to get away and just sleep for a week or two, or stare at the sky for a while and try to believe that he was really home.
At last they were dismissed, and after bidding farewell to Captain Sayers, who admonished him to report at seven sharp the next morning, Jamie turned westward again on the trail toward home. Cocoa needed no urging, and before long they were back at Russell’s Ranch, turning in at the lane.
He had dreamed of this moment for so long and had always imagined himself galloping up to the house, but he found he couldn’t bear to go any faster than a walk. Cocoa was tired after the long, weary march, though her ears pricked forward and she snuffed at familiar smells. Jamie let her go at her own pace.
He sat back, the reins loose in his hand, just gazing at everything: the house, the barn, the well, the corral. That was Smokey in the corral, fatter than ever, and with him an unfamiliar sorrel mule. Smokey neighed a greeting and Cocoa picked up a trot. Jamie sat up straighter in the saddle, his weary bones complaining.
A figure in dusty chaps emerged from the barn and for a moment Jamie wondered if Poppa had hired on a hand. Then the tanned face turned toward him, black eyes piercing in the shade of the hat. It was Emma.
Jamie raised a hand, his throat too dry to call out. Emma stood watching, leaner than he remembered and hard-edged. As he reined Cocoa in by the rail and dismounted, she strode up the steps to the house and flung open the door.
“Jamie’s home,” she called into the house.
She had won out over Momma’s concerns about her work clothes, then. When he’d left she was still changing in the barn and staying out of Momma’s sight, with the family pretending she didn’t ever wear men’s clothes—oh, no. Not Miss Russell. Not Momma’s daughter.
She stayed on the porch, watching him approach. He put a hand to his pocket, where he had all her letters to Captain Stephen Martin and the last one Martin had written to her, and the captain’s watch, with the portrait of Emma hidden inside the fob. Jamie tried on a smile, hoping his sister would smile back. By the time he reached the steps Gabe came tumbling out the door, followed by Momma, and they both flung themselves on him, hugging and asking questions, Momma crying.
Laughing, Jamie hugged them back. He glanced up and saw Emma going back to the barn. He ignored the stab this gave him, turning instead to Momma.
“Yes, it’s me,” he said. “Here, where’s your handkerchief? Mine are all gone.”
“Oh, I have it somewhere,” Momma said, feeling about her pockets. “Your father will be so sorry he was not here to greet you, but we shall see him shortly. Oh, how thin you are!” Momma’s dark eyes roved his face, and her fingers squeezed his arms over and over. “Come inside, I will get you something to eat.”
“Let me tend to Cocoa first.”
“Gabriel can do that.”
“No, I will. But you can help, Gabe. Here, stand up straight a minute.”
Jamie stepped in front of his younger brother and put a hand flat on top of Gabe’s head, then swung his arm back till his hand came level with his own chin. “You’re going to be taller than me,” he said.
Gabe grinned. “I’m taller than Davey Swanson,” he boasted.
“What, that bully used to whip you after Sunday school?”
“If not before,” Momma said severely. “He has not troubled us lately.” She had found her handkerchief at last and stood dabbing it at her eyes.
“I bet not,” Jamie said, ruffling Gabe’s hair, and thinking Gabe wouldn’t let him do it much longer.
“Come inside when you are finished, both of you,” Momma said, stepping toward the door.
“Go ahead and unsaddle her, Gabe,” Jamie said as they stepped off the porch. “I’ll go get a brush.” He glanced over his shoulder at his brother, who reached Cocoa in five strides of his gangly legs, then he went into the barn.
It was dark, and he paused inside the door. He could have found his way around blindfolded, could have gone straight to the tack room without waiting for his eyes to adjust, but he wanted to soak it in first.
Smells of musty hay and dry wood, of horses and oats and home rose up to welcome him. Specks of dust caught fire as they floated through a sunbeam that had squeezed through a crack in the wall up in the loft. The barn was silent; Momma’s milk cow would be out grazing, and Poppa must still be out with the herds.
“Emma?” Jamie said softly.
He walked forward, glancing into the stalls, noting a new lantern hanging from one of the hooks. The tack room door was barely ajar. He pulled it open.
Emma was inside, reaching for a bridle. She slung it over her shoulder as he came in.
“Emma, I have some things—”
“Not now,” she said curtly. “I have to ride out and check on the beef herd.” She pulled her saddle off the tree.
It was late in the day for that, but Jamie didn’t question it. “I’ll come with you,” he said.
“When you just got home? Momma would have kittens.”
Her eyes blazed in the dimness. Jamie could see well enough now to recognize the look on her face, the look that meant she was through talking. Matt got the same look sometimes. He had worn it on the day he had left for the army.
Emma hefted the saddle and brushed past Jamie on the way out. He let her go. Maybe she would cool down, riding. It helped him sometimes.
Only there was the weight in his gut that he’d carried ever since Martin was killed in the fight at Valverde. Writing to Emma—the hardest letter he had ever written—had eased it some, but it was still there. Maybe it would never go away.
“I miss him, too, Emma,” Jamie whispered, though she was long gone.
He stood still for a minute, remembering how happy she had been on the night before the brigade’s departure, the night Martin had proposed. They had all been happy that night. Maybe that had been the last time.
He became aware that he was staring at the tack room floor. He raised his eyes to the saddle trees, all empty except for Gabe’s. As he stood gazing at them, Gabe hurried in and grabbed his saddle and a bridle, catching Jamie’s eye with a frowning glance before running out again.
Poppa must have ordered him to stay with Emma when she rode out. Jamie couldn’t imagine their father allowing her to ride herd by herself, and he could imagine all too well how she must resent it. Poor Gabe.
He looked back at the tack room wall. Six trees empty. Matt’s and Daniel’s were deep in dust. So was his own, Jamie realized, and brushed his hand along it, as if that mattered. He missed his elder brothers, away serving with their own regiments. It made coming home less delightful than he had hoped. Shaking off that thought, Jamie reached for a brush and headed back outside.
The U.S.S. Harriet Lane strained at the hawser, her sidewheels digging into the Mississippi as she tried in vain to drag the mortar schooner Sidney C. Jones free of the sandbar on which she had lodged. Acting Master Quincy Wheat watched from the Lane’s brass-railed quarterdeck with his brother, Nathaniel, who had crossed the peninsula opposite Vicksburg to pay him a visit.
Nat was serving as a carpenter aboard the ram Queen of the West, flagship of the U.S. Army’s river fleet, which lay above Vicksburg, hidden from its batteries by the Mississippi’s sharp bend. Quincy had visited Nat on the Queen the previous week, and found her inferior to the Lane. She had begun life as a towboat in Cincinnati, and had been converted into a ram by application of heavy oak reinforcements to her bow and a bulwark over her lower deck to protect her machinery. The Harriet Lane, by contrast, was a former revenue cutter so handsomely appointed she had won a prize for her designer, and had frequently been used to entertain visiting dignitaries before the war.
Nat’s joining the Queen’s crew had added army-and-navy differences to the rivalry he and Quincy had indulged since boyhood, though in fact Nat was more a riverboat man than anything else. The rivalry persisted, though, and while the Harriet Lane was unquestionably more beautiful than the Queen, Quincy could not help hoping that she would succeed at her task while his elder brother was present.
He kept an eye to the river, rubbing at a trickle of sweat that had run down into his collar. He disliked the sultry, sullen Mississippi with her writhing course and her treacherous snags. Though river-bred himself, navy service had taught him to prefer open water, set sails, starlight and the breath of the sea.
The air here was bad. The river’s level was dropping with the high heat of July, but the mosquitos and miasmatic swamps were no better. Already the crew were succumbing to fever, and the men could not be spared. The low water had also made snags and bars an increasing danger, hence the mortar schooner’s distress.
Quincy looked up at the Lane’s funnel, just aft of the foremast. Smoke chuffed out of it in writhing clouds as the engine drove against the current. The Harriet Lane’s engine appeared not to be strong enough to pull the Jones free.
He glanced nervously toward the center of the river, where a certain rippling of the water indicated shallow hazards. If the hawser parted, the Lane could shoot out across the channel and be in danger of grounding herself. A detail stood ready to cast loose the anchor if this should occur; still it would be an embarrassment at the very least.
“She won’t come off,” Nat said behind him.
Quincy threw him an irritated glance, then turned to acknowledge the arrival on the quarterdeck of Acting Master Frank Becker, his immediate superior. Becker was tall and burly with keen eyes and reddish-brown side whiskers, rather more like Nathaniel in appearance than Quincy was himself.
Nat’s years working in their father’s boatyard in Cincinnati had given him large shoulders to go with his curling golden hair, while Quincy remained lean, with hair of an undistinguished watery brown and inclined not so much to curl as to appear disordered. Quincy had long deplored this unfair allocation of attractions and sought to make up for it by cultivating a charming manner. The fact that, after his departure for the Naval Academy three years before, Miss Renata Keller had not succumbed to Nat’s advances, or for that matter to those of any other of her numerous admirers, gave Quincy cause to hope that he had succeeded.
Becker looked at Nat. “Seen you before, haven’t I? You’re Wheat’s brother?”
Nat nodded, and a wry smile crept onto his face. “Too bad about the schooner. Nasty job getting her off that bar.”
Acting Master Robert Gerard joined them on the quarterdeck, shaking his head and saying, “She’s stuck fast.”
He was half a year younger than Quincy, junior to him and a bit shorter, with dark hair that clung limply to his head in the heat. “We’ll have to leave her behind,” he added.
Nat raised an eyebrow at Quincy, who said, “Commander Porter wants the steamers to tow the mortars down to New Orleans as soon as possible.”
“What, no more nighttime bombardments?” said Nat, grinning. “We’ve been growing rather fond of them the last couple of weeks. You fellows put on a good show.”
“Waste of ordnance,” Becker said. “Without a land assault we’ll never take Vicksburg.”
Above them on the bridge Lieutenant Lea, the executive officer, called “All ahead a quarter” down the speaking tube to the engine room. A moment later the wheels’ swish slowed to a whisper. The tension on the hawser eased, and Quincy sighed, disappointed.
The mortar schooner remained solidly lodged atop the bar, canted a little to one side. Commander Wainwright, the Lane’s captain, called off the attempt to remove it and ordered the anchor loosed, and the Lanes who had gone out to the bar disengaged the hawser and began bringing it back aboard.
“I see you have also been filling up your crew with contrabands,” Nat said, watching the sailors at work.
“Some of them are free blacks,” Quincy said.
“Not that there is much difference,” Becker added.
“There is in their eyes.”
One of the midshipmen, a lad of fifteen with a face all over freckles, hurried up to Becker, who stepped aside to speak with him. Gerard turned to Nat.
“Do you have many contrabands aboard the Queen?”
“They’re about all we can get these days,” Nat said.
He gazed out at the sailors with a critical eye. Quincy knew he mistrusted blacks, as did their father. He was not overly fond of them himself, but necessity had caused the navy to enlist them in ever greater numbers over the past year. Some were slackers, but so too were some of the white men. For the most part, the blacks made good sailors.
“How is Colonel Ellet?” Quincy asked.
The commander of the ram fleet had suffered serious injury at the Battle of Memphis in June. Nat had described the battle to Quincy during Quincy’s visit to the Queen, and had also written him a letter about it, which was somewhere en route between Philadelphia and New Orleans and would reach him eventually.
Nat shook his head. “He refuses to have his leg amputated. Grows weaker every day. The surgeon is in despair, not to mention Ellet’s son.” He looked from Quincy to Gerard. “Pray for him, lads.”
“We do,” Quincy said.
Becker returned. “Commander Wainwright is going to inform Commander Porter that the Jones cannot be freed. We’ll be leaving shortly after his return.” He consulted his timepiece and looked at Nat. “I must prepare for my watch. Good day, Mr. Wheat. I will probably not see you again.” He shook Nat’s hand, gave a curt nod to Quincy and Gerard, and left the quarterdeck.
Nat looked at Quincy, the humor gone from his face. “Leaving that soon?”
Quincy nodded. “We have to coal yet, and we must get down to the barges before dark. We have no pilot, so we cannot run at night.”
“You could pilot her, couldn’t you, Quincy?” Nat said, a sly smile curving his lips. “Uncle Charlie taught us the river to Natchez.”
“Eight years ago. I believe the river may have altered a trifle since then.”
Nat’s smile softened. “Well, I’m glad I came to see you, anyway,” he said, offering his hand. “Sorry you have to go.”
Quincy shook it, smiling back. Despite the rivalry, he loved his brother very much.
“At least you’ve been able to visit each other,” Gerard said. “The rest of us poor devils have to wait for mail from home.”
“Speaking of which,” Nat said to Quincy, “I’ve a letter from our mother that you haven’t read.” He withdrew a handful of papers from his pocket, picked one out and offered it. “Father appended his usual request that I stop all this nonsense and come back home to help him build boats.”
“He always writes that.” Quincy took the letter, noting that among the others was one of a certain shade of pale blue. “You’ve had a letter from Miss Keller, too, I see.”
Nat grinned. “Yes I have, and that one I will not share with you.” He returned the papers to his pocket. “Will you be coming back up, do you think?”
“I hope not,” Quincy said. “Not that I don’t love your company, brother dear, but to be honest I’d rather be out on blockade. At least there we’d have a decent chance of some prize money.”
“That’s right,” said Gerard. “You don’t need our help taking pot-shots at Vicksburg, after all, do you? Send us word when the army’s ready to attack them in earnest, and we’ll come back up and lend a hand.”
With a cheerful wave Gerard left them, stepping closer to the bridge in response to a summons from Mr. Lea. Quincy turned to his brother.
“Anything you’d like me to send you from New Orleans?” he said, knowing there probably wasn’t but that Nat would envy him the chance of visiting the Crescent City.
Nat’s eyes narrowed and a smile curved up one side of his mouth. “No, thank you,” he said. “I’ve requested leave to visit Cincinnati for a couple of weeks. I’ll give Miss Keller your regards.”
“Touché,” Quincy said, laughing, a hand to the imaginary wound in his heart. “Come on, I’ll see you ashore.”
“Get up, Smokey!”
Emma refrained from kicking the horse, wishing for the thousandth time he was not such a slug. She kept him to a lope though he would clearly have preferred to walk. She had no sympathy for the horse, and no desire to make it easy for Gabe to catch up to her. She could hear Strawberry behind her, the mule’s hoofbeats muffled by the sweltering air.
She threw one glance southward to where another bedraggled column of returning soldiers was raising clouds of dust from the trail. Chiding herself, she faced forward and slapped the reins against the saddle to wake Smokey up again.
No use looking at them, she thought angrily. No single use whatever. There was no one there she wanted to see.
The wind stung at her eyes and she kept her head low, shielding her face with the wide brim of her slouch hat. Smokey’s hooves pounded the grassy hillsides. Here and there a live oak grew, casting spots of shade through which she could ride for a moment’s relief from the sun.
The herd was a few miles away; she would have to hurry in order to get back for supper. She did not particularly want to hurry back, but she knew Momma would be angry if she was absent from the table on Jamie’s first night home.
I should not have been so short with him.
She had not even welcomed him home. A fine sister she was! She blinked in the bright sun, wishing she had behaved better. All she had been able to think of, though, since the moment she had seen him riding up the lane, was the awful news he had sent her.
Dearest Emma. I am so sorry. Stephen is dead.
How had he dared to write her a letter like that? How could he wound her so, and crush her every hope?
He had told her Stephen died a hero, trying to make her feel better, she supposed, but she had not wanted him to be a hero. He was a quartermaster, heroics were not his business. They both were quartermasters. He and Jamie should never have been in that fight. He should have come home today.
Emma drew one sobbing gasp, then bit down hard on her sorrow. Smokey had dropped to a walk during her inattention, and she heard the mule slowing to a trot.
Gabe had the wit not to come up and talk to her; maybe he knew she’d bite his head off if he tried. She wiped the back of a gloved hand across her cheek and lifted the reins again.
No self-pity; she did not need or want pity of any kind. She had work to do.
“Get up, Smokey,” she said bitterly, and cracked the reins in the air.
“No, not another bite,” Jamie said, leaning back in his chair and patting his stomach, which was stretched to the limit and already beginning to ache. Momma had made his favorite meal, chicken and dumplings, followed by cherry pie, which seemed an enormous extravagance after the campaign fare he was used to.
“Supper was wonderful,” he added.
Momma’s smile expressed her pleasure. “Thank you, Jamie,” she said, setting down her silver pie server.
“I can eat another piece,” Gabe said, and held out his plate.
Momma gave him a stern look, but picked up the pie server and held out a hand for his plate. It was a celebration, which in the Russell household meant everyone could have as much as they wanted. This was not Momma’s usual way, for hers was a saving disposition, but on holidays, birthdays, and Sunday dinners when there was company, she relaxed her rules.
Jamie smiled at the thought he was being treated like company. It felt good, and it wouldn’t last, which was also good.
“When you are finished, you may clear up,” Momma told Gabe, serving him a generous slice of cherry pie.
“I’ll do it,” Emma said.
She stood up and picked up her dinner plate and Poppa’s, striding away to the kitchen. She had put on a dress but she still walked like a ranch hand, and her short hair tended to be unruly. She looked awkward, unlike herself. Jamie saw Momma’s eyes follow her, then turn to Poppa.
“Well,” Poppa said. He did not continue; he had said “Well” several times during the meal, and only once or twice had followed it with a comment about the weather or a bit of news from town.
He had settled into looking at Jamie with a slightly surprised expression, as if his son had grown six inches overnight or done something equally unexpected. Jamie was conscious of it, and ignored it, and tried not to let it annoy him.
“Will you be returning to work in town, now that you are home?” Momma asked.
Jamie glanced up at her, smiling in the hope of setting her at ease. “I’ll be going in to work with the battery, but Captain Sayers said I could sleep here.”
Momma blinked at him as if she did not understand. Really, she did, Jamie knew. It was only that she had not liked his answer. She had been picturing him back at work in Webber’s Mercantile, he supposed. She still disliked the idea that he was a soldier.
She and Poppa had convinced themselves that by allowing him to join the Quartermaster Corps they were preserving him from exposure to war’s hardships. He had thought so, too, he admitted to himself. How naive of them all.
Now he was home, not a quartermaster any more but a lieutenant of artillery, still learning his duties and not quite sure what he expected of himself, except that he knew he must honor Martin and the others who had fallen at Valverde by serving the guns they had given their lives to capture. The Valverde Battery was all Sibley’s Brigade had left of the dreams that had carried them to New Mexico. He could not turn away from that small success. To do so would be to accept utter defeat.
Emma came back from the kitchen and cleared away more dishes. No one said anything. Gabe was busy gobbling up his pie, and Momma and Poppa seemed to have run out of questions for Jamie. He had answered most of them over supper.
Most. The big question still hung over them all like a cloud that would not drop its rain. The big, “What happened?” question. The one Jamie least wanted to answer.
So he sat, silently looking from one to the other of his parents. They did not know quite what to make of him, it seemed. He was not the son they expected. Maybe he didn’t belong here any more, he thought, and his stomach clenched down on its unfamiliar burden.
The table was clear; Emma returned a last time and passed straight through to the family room. Jamie heard the front door bang shut. After a moment, he quietly excused himself, and followed.
She was sitting on the steps, but stood up again as Jamie came out. He looked up at the first stars peeping out, hazy in the warm evening. The air was so moist here—he had been in the desert so long he had become accustomed to the dry.
He felt sleepy, but he wanted to talk to Emma before going to bed. He just wasn’t quite sure how to start.
“I missed you,” he said.
“Well, we all missed you, too.”
“When did you cut your hair?”
Emma’s face hardened, and she looked away. “Right after I got your letter.”
That hurt, and it made him say, “It wasn’t my fault.” He had not meant to say that.
“I know,” Emma said in a low voice. “I know that.”
Jamie pressed his lips together, wanting to make sure he said nothing that would hurt her. “I have your letters,” he began. “I thought you might want them back.”
“M-my letters?” She looked up at him, seeming suddenly younger, and afraid.
“Your letters to Stephen,” he said. “He saved them all, and I brought them back for you.” He reached into his pocket, but she raised a hand as if to hold him off.
“No,” she said, barely above a whisper. “No, I don’t want them.”
“Well, there is also—”
“Don’t,” she said in a strangled voice. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Emma, please let me give you these things!”
He had not meant to speak so sharply. They stood still, both of them, shocked into silence.
Jamie felt his hands start to tremble and he gripped the watch tightly, not wanting to drop it. He swallowed, and drew a breath.
“You can burn the letters if you don’t want to read them,” he said, his voice low and rough.
He held out the packet tied with ribbon—a pink ribbon, one she had worn, he suspected. Emma accepted it, and the three unopened letters that Jamie had collected when the army got back to Mesilla.
There was one more, a letter Martin had written to her and never got to mail. Jamie had found it in his pocket after the battle. He held it out to her in one hand and offered the watch with the other.
Emma’s letters scattered at their feet; she cupped Martin’s letter in both hands as if it was made of glass, and allowed Jamie to place the watch on top of it. The chain spilled into her hands, and without a word she strode away, down the steps, treading on her own letters, out into the night. It was getting dark now, but he didn’t need to see her to know she had started to run.
Jamie gazed up at the sky. No moon yet.
A tear fought its way out of him and ran down his cheek. He brushed it away, and bent down to pick up the letters Emma had dropped. She wouldn’t want them to blow all over—her secret hopes scattered on the ground for anyone to trample—so he picked them up and bundled them all together in the pink ribbon, then turned to go back inside to the family.
Copyright © 2002 by P. G. Nagle. All rights reserved.
Far Western Civil War book 3
by P. G. Nagle
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-021-7