by P.G. Nagle
HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NEW MEXICO
Albuquerque, N. Mex., March 31, 1862
I have the honor and pleasure to report another victory. . . . The Battle of Glorieta was fought March 8 by detached troops, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Scurry, and Federal forces, principally Pike’s Peakers, under the command of Colonel Slough. . . .
Pending the battle the enemy detached a portion of his forces to attack and destroy our supply train, which he succeeded in doing, thus crippling Colonel Scurry to such a degree that he was two days without provisions or blankets. The patient, uncomplaining endurance of our men is most remarkable and praiseworthy.
In consequence of the loss of his train Colonel Scurry has fallen back upon Santa Fé.
I must have reenforcements. The future operations of this army will be duly reported. Send me re-enforcements.
General S. Cooper,
Adjutant and Inspector General, Richmond, Va.
“Any cause that men sustain to death becomes sacred, at least, to them. Surely we can afford to pay tribute to the courage and nobleness that prefers death to even fancied enthrallment.”
—Sergeant Ovando J. Hollister, 1st Colorado Volunteers
Kip Whistler strolled across a flat, sandy riverbank toward the copper-penny gelding called Firecracker, wondering if the horse was going to try to kill him. A flashy beast with flaxen mane and tail, Firecracker was aptly named and Kip knew his reputation. Some days he was the pleasantest fellow in the string, but he could explode without reason. He was consequently the least popular mount in the 1st California Cavalry, and kept getting traded around. Kip was counting on this fact.
“You’re not really going to do this, are you?” asked Private Stavers at Kip’s elbow.
“Course I am. Hell, Adam, it’s just a race.”
Stavers flinched at the profanity. Kip had known he would, which was why he’d said it. Stavers needed to loosen up some.
They’d both of them been in the California Volunteers for nearly half a year and Stavers still prayed over every meal, read from his Bible every night, and dutifully wrote four pages to his mother in Chicago each Sunday afternoon after chapel, even though they were lucky at present to see a mail coach twice a month. Kip suspected his annoyance with this habit had something to do with his own lack of parents to write to, and he tried not to be too hard on Stavers, but his evil genius occasionally got the better of him.
All the family he had was a stick-in-the-mud older brother who’d refused to loan him the money to buy a horse and join the cavalry. Elijah had offered him a banking job instead. A banking job! Might as well bury himself now and not wait for the funeral. Kip had walked out of his brother’s office and straight to the recruiting tent for the 1st California Volunteer Infantry, trusting to fate to assist him in bettering his position.
Kip glanced up at Fort Yuma, looming over the Colorado River on its impressive, treeless bluff. He would have to get back there straight away after the race, or he’d miss another band practice. From one cause or another he had missed altogether too many practices lately. His spirit just wasn’t in the music, he guessed, and that was a sorry state of affairs.
He had always loved music, and been good at it, from the day his legs were long enough to reach the pedals on Mama’s parlor piano. It was hard, though, to get excited about polkas and waltzes when more stirring events were in the air.
Not only was Colonel Carleton raising an army to assist the Commander of New Mexico in defeating the Texan invaders, but just two weeks ago Rebels in Tucson had captured Captain McCleave, a personal friend of Carleton’s, and a military expedition was fixing to go to his rescue. The thought of watching the advance march away while he sat in the fort playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me” just about drove Kip to distraction.
The ferry was landing, Sergeant Aikins aboard it with Merlin, his big bay gelding. He’d refused to bring his horse across on the same boat with Firecracker. Old Jaeger, the ferry master, had merely shrugged and encouraged more spectators to cross with the animals. The second trip carried a lot more racegoers than had the first, Firecracker’s reputation having commanded respectful distance.
Aikins, dressed like a city gent in his black wool coat and pomaded hair, led Merlin onto the landing, followed by Semmilrogge, the private who would be riding the bay against Kip. Aikins was a big fellow and he wanted a lighter rider for his pampered bay, especially since he’d bet a hundred dollars on the race.
Semmilrogge was closer to Kip’s size, a little heavier maybe and not quite as tall. He was a good rider, Kip knew. He and the rest of the cavalry rode every day, scouting or drilling. Kip hadn’t been on a horse since he’d left San Francisco.
“Come on, Kip, call it off,” Stavers urged him. “Bob’s just trying to see how far you’ll go.”
“I know it,” Kip said, looking over to where his backer, Bobby Zinn, stood holding Firecracker’s reins.
Zinn was a cavalryman also, several years older than Kip. He had first proposed the race over several pints of beer in a tavern in Colorado City, just across the river from the fort. Kip had agreed to it at once, partly for the money, partly because he thought it might be a chance to get transferred to the cavalry and active duty. And it was something to do. That in itself was enough.
Stavers stopped in his tracks a good ten paces away from Firecracker. Kip ambled on, past a flock of coots that scurried for the river’s edge, their white bills betraying their hiding places in the tall marsh grass. He ignored them, keeping his eyes on the horse as it watched him approach.
In all the stories of Firecracker’s disastrous behavior, he had not so far heard that the animal was vicious. He dug a hand in his pocket and produced a lump of sugar which he offered on a flat palm. Firecracker’s nostrils widened, then he lipped at it. Kip felt the massive teeth click shut just above his flesh. He lowered his hand while the horse chewed.
“You’re not such a bad fellow, are you, boy?” Kip said softly.
Slowly he reached up to Firecracker’s neck and stroked his sleek coat. The sun made the short, smooth hairs gleam, little rainbow glints off their copper-brightness as powerful muscles rippled beneath. Firecracker was strong, there was no dispute about that. Kip ran his hands up along the withers, then down to the belly to check the girth. Firecracker grunted and swung his head toward Kip, ears flat.
“Don’t like that? All right,” Kip said, keeping his voice calm.
Behind him he heard Stavers emit a feeble sound of dismay. Zinn had jumped, too, when the horse swung his head. Kip glanced up at his backer.
“Keep his head down,” Zinn said quietly. “Don’t let him get it up in the air.”
Kip nodded. The crowd of onlookers had started moving along the shore, some clustering around a starting line that had been scratched in the dirt a few yards from the river, some straggling toward the finish line a mile downstream to the west, where five men on horseback, the judges, waited.
Kip and Zinn moved toward the start, with Firecracker following gentle as a lamb and Stavers nervously bringing up the rear. A crowd of men—soldiers from the fort and a few Colorado City men—stood around furiously making wagers in the warm sun. Already warmer than San Francisco ever got, and it wasn’t even April yet. Kip knew the place would become a living hell in summer. Another reason for wanting to get out.
“You can bring him up right here, Sergeant,” said George Johnson to Aikins, who led Merlin up to the line.
Johnson was carrying a flag and looking important. He’d been given the job of starting the race, and now he looked over Kip’s way.
“You stand over there.”
He pointed with the flag to the far side of the line by the river. Firecracker, taking exception to the sudden flapping of cloth, whinnied a protest and reared, pawing at the air with his forelegs.
“No you don’t, you bastard,” Zinn muttered fiercely, hauling down hard on the reins while the spectators voiced disapproval and made more bets. Kip shot Johnson a dark look and followed Zinn up to the start.
“Don’t you mind him, Firecracker,” he said. “He probably did that on purpose.”
Giving the horse’s neck a reassuring pat, he took the reins and mounted. Firecracker sidled under his weight but didn’t buck, and Kip nudged him up to the line. Zinn went over to shake hands with Aikins while Semmilrogge mounted Merlin and grinned slyly at Kip.
“Where’s your horn, boy?” he called. “Ain’t you going to blow the charge?”
“Didn’t know you needed it,” Kip retorted.
“On your mark,” Johnson yelled, holding the flag above his head. It hung limp in the still, dry air.
“Good luck,” Zinn said, passing on his way to join Stavers, who had his hands clenched together in prayer. Kip nodded to Zinn, winked at Stavers, then turned his attention to his mount.
“Get set,” Johnson cried.
Kip leaned forward over Firecracker’s neck, shortened the reins, and tested his balance in the stirrups. His heart was going rather fast, he noticed.
The flag swooped down. Firecracker tried to toss his head but Kip had him in hand, and only the slightest nudge with his heel made the horse surge forward.
The spectators’ roar of approval was quickly left behind in the thudding of hooves on hard earth. Merlin had gotten off a half length ahead, but Firecracker moved up easily until they were neck and neck.
Kip spared a glance at Semmilrogge and saw him almost lying on Merlin’s neck. He followed suit. Firecracker sped along the ground like a demon, and Kip felt a wild joy welling up in him.
This was what he wanted—the freedom of a strong horse under him and no fences ahead! He let out a yip without thinking, but Firecracker didn’t seem to mind. He just ran faster, pulling ahead of Merlin, eating up the ground between them and the finish.
Horse and rider together flowed forward, steady rhythm almost more like wingbeats than hoofbeats, breathing in time to the gallop. Ahead Kip could see the judges clearly, and the flagman’s head beyond a tall stand of river grass.
Suddenly the grass exploded as a cloud of coots fled the oncoming horses, slate-colored wings flapping heavily. Firecracker stopped short, sat back on his haunches and reared, spinning away from the birds.
“Whoa,” Kip cried, clinging on with his knees and trying to turn the horse around the right way again.
Firecracker dropped his forelegs to the ground and immediately leapt sideways. Kip found himself sitting on nothing, then falling to the dirt in the middle of a cloud of dust. Coughing, he sat up and rubbed his right elbow where it’d hit.
“Shit,” he said, watching Firecracker speed away after Merlin, toward the finish line. Damned horse might still win the race, but Kip wouldn’t.
As he got to his feet and dusted himself off, he saw a solitary figure walking toward him from the starting line: Sergeant Casey Sutter, a member of Captain Calloway’s infantry company, in which Kip had been a private for about fifteen minutes before being detached to the band. Sutter strolled up, arms folded across his chest. He was a bit shorter than Kip, a good ten years older, and weather-beaten into the bargain. He had been in the Regulars for years and had been stationed at Fort Yuma before, a fact which in itself had commanded the respect of all the recruits in the California Volunteers.
“That was impressive,” Sutter drawled. “Anything broken?”
“No.” Kip wished Sutter hadn’t come, and resigned himself to getting dressed down. Instead Sutter surprised him by looking concerned.
“You’re smarter than this, Whistler. What the hell are you trying to prove?”
Kip sighed. “That I can ride a horse nobody wants. Can’t afford to buy one.”
“Why do you want to ride at all?” Sutter asked. “You’re sitting pretty. No drill, and you make more money than a line soldier—”
“I don’t want to be left behind when the column marches for New Mexico,” Kip said, starting back toward the ferry. Sutter fell in beside him.
Hoofbeats made Kip look back to see Semmilrogge and the judges riding triumphantly for home, with a few jubilant spectators for company. They tossed jeers and catcalls in Kip’s direction as they passed, Firecracker placidly trotting along behind the party. No one had taken his reins; he was just following the other horses. Kip didn’t bother trying to catch him.
“You won’t be left behind, son,” Sutter said. “Colonel Jimmy likes pomp better’n anybody, I reckon. He’ll take the band along.”
“I want to go with the advance,” Kip said. “I want to help bring back McCleave.”
“Why, for God’s sake?”
“I can’t stand just sitting here,” Kip said. He was starting to sound petulant, he knew. Trying for a calmer tone, he added, “This war’s important. I want to be part of it, not watching from the sidelines. I want to make a difference.”
Sutter snorted. “You just want your ass in the saddle, instead of marching with that big old brass horn under your arm.”
Kip laughed, which turned to a fit of coughing. Sutter beat on his back till it subsided.
“Well,” the sergeant said indulgently, “I’ll talk to the captain and see what we can arrange.”
“You will?” Kip looked up at him sharply, suddenly aching with hope.
“You won’t get the cavalry. They don’t have any horses to spare, not even bad-tempered nags—”
“He’s not bad-tempered.”
“—but maybe you can come back to the company as a field musician. Can you pay the fife?”
“Yes,” Kip said firmly.
“All right then. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you, Sarge,” Kip said, catching Sutter’s hand and pumping it. “I’ll make you proud.”
“Don’t thank me,” said Sutter, trying not very successfully to frown him down. “You might not be so thrilled about it next week.”
“Oh, I will,” Kip said.
Feeling suddenly light-hearted, he skipped a couple of steps along the shore. A coot peered out at him from the reeds. Kip grinned at it.
He’d have to get his hands on a fife and learn how to play it.
Icy water stung Laura Howland’s hands as she reached for the coat she’d left to soak. It was Pecos River water, frigid March snow-melt from the Sangre de Cristo mountains, drawn at a riverbank overhung with icicles. She had left the borrowed washbasin in the sun for an hour, hoping it would warm a bit as the coat soaked, but the day was too cold; a brisk March wind pouring relentlessly in from the plains to the east had kept the water near freezing.
Laura caught the dark wool in numb fingers and began working it to ease out the blood. Her fingers trembled a little, possibly from the cold, more likely from the distressing emotions that arose as she remembered how the coat had come to be bloodstained. It was Captain O’Brien’s coat, but the blood was Lieutenant Franklin’s.
She closed her eyes briefly, resisting tears. The woman who had called herself Charles Franklin had been wounded in battle and carried to Pigeon’s Ranch by Captain O’Brien, had revealed herself to Laura and pledged her to secrecy, and had died in Laura’s care while the battle raged around them. All these events had affected Laura most profoundly.
That a young woman of breeding and intelligence could forsake all and join the Colorado Volunteers in the guise of a man she had found incomprehensible at first, but on learning of it she had experienced a kind of revelation. Franklin had whispered of freedom, a freedom of unimaginable delight, and the idea had lodged itself in Laura’s heart.
She glanced westward toward Glorieta Pass, where the battle had taken place, now hidden amongst the blue mountains toward which the sun had begun to descend. Only yesterday, her long, sorrowful watch while Franklin lay dying. Yesterday’s events seemed strangely distant, almost as if she had dreamed them.
She swallowed and forced her hands to move, kneading the wool underwater to set free the blood which was all too real. It was the captain’s only uniform, and she must hang it out to dry while there was still sunlight.
She glanced across the fire at Captain O’Brien, sitting before his tent, a blanket draped over his shoulders against the chill, shirtsleeves beneath. He wore a frown of concentration as he bent over the pocket notebook on his knee. Laura had given him his first lesson today, and while he had quickly grasped the letters she had taught him, his hand was not yet accustomed to shaping them.
Laura shook her head as she worked the wool clean. What, she wondered, would be the consequence of her placing herself under Captain O’Brien’s protection? That step, taken in anger at her uncle’s sordid attempt to sell her into marriage (or perhaps something worse), would surely ruin her in the view of the polite Boston society she had once known, should they come to hear of it.
She was, ostensibly, serving as a laundress while the Captain escorted her to her friends in Santa Fé. It was an excuse that was only just respectable. Scrubbing the dust from the uniforms of Company I was well enough for Mrs. Sergeant Somebody, but it was not what one would expect of Miss Howland, formerly of Church Street.
Boston, however, was a world away from the New Mexico Territory. All the usual rules seemed not necessarily to apply on the frontier, and certainly not in war times. She had no home, no family that she cared to acknowledge, no protectors save her army friends, yet she felt safe here, even happy. A hundred small freedoms she would never have enjoyed in Boston had become most dear to her in this country. Freedoms of which she’d scarcely been aware, until Franklin had spoken to her of similar feelings.
A gust of wind puffed fragrant smoke up from the fire. “Ach,” the captain said, squeezing green eyes shut against the sting.
Laura smiled, then busied herself with wringing out his coat. It would not do to let her gaze linger on the captain’s face, pleasant as it was to look at. She liked him, but she had not yet decided whether it was in her best interest to encourage his very evident affection for her.
Laura felt a tinge of color coming into her cheeks as she stepped around the fire to hang the coat on the little line strung between two tents; Captain O’Brien’s, where she’d been sleeping, and that which had been Franklin’s, currently occupied by the captain. She sensed his eyes upon her, and made a show of straightening the sleeves.
We are so very different, she thought. Not that she had any prejudice against the Irish; she had known any number of Irish gentlemen in Boston, and found them true-hearted, if rather exuberant, but the captain was—well—wilder. A soldier, a miner in Colorado. Heaven knew what before that. He was kind, and could be gentle, but was also quick of temper. He wanted to be a gentleman, she thought, but he was not one now, and she was not sure she had the power to make him one.
A thudding of bootheels; Laura turned to see Lieutenant Denning approaching in some haste. Denning was a good man, well-bred, who would most likely become the company’s first lieutenant now that Franklin was gone. He reached a hand to his hat as his eyes met Laura’s, but his attention was on the captain.
“Have you heard?” he called out before reaching the fire, “We’re ordered back to Fort Union!”
The captain looked up sharply. “What?”
“A courier’s here from Colonel Canby,” said Denning, slightly out of breath. “The Commander orders us to turn back at once.”
“On a cold day in hell we will!” said the captain. He glanced up at Laura, coloring deeply, and muttered, “Sorry.”
“Never mind,” said Laura, and turned her attention to the lieutenant. “You must be mistaken, Mr. Denning. The Rebels have no ammunition—”
“Orders are orders,” said Denning, disgust creeping into his voice.
Laura frowned. “Did Colonel Canby know about your victory when he wrote the order?” she asked.
Mr. Denning shook his head. “Couldn’t have. His courier just arrived, and he was three days riding from Fort Craig. Half killed himself getting here.”
“Well, then, surely—”
“It’s orders,” said Captain O’Brien, standing up. The blanket fell from his shoulders. He ignored it.
“Colonel Slough read them in front of a dozen officers,” said Mr. Denning. “There’s no way to pretend they weren’t received. He’s miffed, though. He says it’s an insult.”
“Colonel Canby would never insult one of his officers,” Laura said firmly.
“Colonel Canby don’t know we’ve burned the Rebels’ train,” said the captain, folding his arms across his chest. “Here we are ready to kick the bas— the Rebels back to Texas, and there they are with no food and no bullets, but we’re ordered back to Fort Union, and so we’ve no choice. We’ve got to turn back.”
“Couldn’t a message be taken to the Colonel?” asked Laura.
“Not in time,” said Mr. Denning. “Captain Nicodemus offered to ride straight back—”
“Nicodemus?” said Laura, surprised. “Would that be William Nicodemus?”
“I think so.”
Laura felt green eyes burning into her. She pretended not to notice.
“I should like to speak to him,” she said carefully. “Is he at Headquarters?”
“He was, last I knew.” Mr. Denning shot a wary glance toward the captain. “I’d better tell the boys we’re marching in the morning.” He bowed toward Laura and strode off.
Her hands were cold, Laura realized. She put them into her cloak pockets, and turned to face Captain O’Brien.
“Will you escort me to headquarters, Captain?”
She had observed that the captain’s gaze occasionally took on an intensity quite intimidating to those who did not know him. Her late father would no doubt have disapproved of the way she now met and held this gaze, but she knew that the captain would interpret modesty as weakness, and if there were to be any hope of an understanding between them, she must not allow him to bully her.
“Captain Nicodemus?” he said, his voice tight.
Laura nodded. “A member of Colonel Canby’s staff. I knew him a little last summer, when they were all in Santa Fé. He was a lieutenant, then.”
“Got the Colonel’s whole staff wrapped about your wee finger, eh?” he said, his tone dangerously soft.
Laura raised her chin. “I wish to send a message to Colonel Canby. Would you be so kind as to escort me to see Captain Nicodemus?”
“And if I don’t, you’ll have Chaves, or Chapin, to take you?”
His eyes blazed jealousy, but behind it Laura saw the hurt it had taken her some time to discern; the hurt of a man who believes his heart’s wish is beyond his reach. Though her own heart was beating rather fast, she held his gaze calmly, willing him to understand what she could not say aloud.
You have no rivals. You need fear no competition. You have only to show you can behave like a gentleman. Win me!
For a long moment, neither moved, then finally the captain glanced away. “I’ll take you,” he said roughly.
Laura breathed relief. “Thank you,” she said, and picked up the blanket that had lain forgotten on the ground between them, brushing a bit of dust from it. “Of course, if you would feel uncomfortable out of uniform—”
“I said I’d take you!”
Captain O’Brien fairly snatched the blanket from her and flung it over his shoulders. Laura shifted her gaze to the toes of his boots. The Captain had a temper, and while she had learned not to be frightened, it was not pleasant to witness. The boots were badly scuffed, she noticed. How far had he walked in them on the march from Denver City?
Laura brought her gloves out of her cloak pocket and put them on; black and worn, like her gown. She really must do something about that. In these weary clothes, her appearance was barely civilized.
She glanced up at Captain O’Brien, who had wrapped himself mummy-like in the blanket, and stood blinking at her as if deciding whether to continue being angry. She rewarded him with a smile. He ducked his head, turned, and strode off toward Kozlowski’s ranch house, which was presently serving as headquarters for the Colorado Volunteers. Laura watched him for a moment, then allowed herself a small nod of satisfaction, and hurried to catch up with him.
“Who’s the sick one?” the guard demanded from the doorway.
Jamie clenched his teeth to stop their chattering and squinted up at the man’s silhouette. He and the other Confederate prisoners had been locked in Kozlowski’s shed for a day and a half, and the sunlight blazing in the open door nearly blinded him.
“He is,” Lacey McIntyre said beside him. Jamie shot him a glare.
“I’m not s-sick,” he said.
“You’ve been shivering all night.” McIntyre’s dark eyes showed concern. “Go on, Russell. You belong in the hospital.”
“Come on, then,” the man in the doorway said. “Get up.”
Jamie reluctantly got to his feet, shaking off the assistance McIntyre offered. That was cruel, he knew, because Lacey didn’t have many friends. He’d switched sides, so neither army trusted him much. Jamie tried to soften the snub with a smile, but the truth was, he was angry at Lacey for making him go. He wanted to stay with the prisoners—with Lacey, his friend—not be stuck in a damned hospital. He hated hospitals.
Something made him turn in the doorway and look back. Lacey nodded at him, and said something, only Jamie couldn’t quite hear it because of the ringing in his ears. “Luck,” it might have been.
He nodded back, then quickly turned away. He hated goodbyes as well.
Outside the sun was so bright he had to stare at the ground. He sneezed. Tears stung his eyes and he brushed them away. Scraps of muddy snow crunched under his feet. He hugged himself, partly because his arm was aching again and partly from the cold. He wished he’d picked up one of those fine Union overcoats from the battlefield at Valverde.
The thought of that day, more than a month ago now, made him shudder. The guard glanced at him.
“In there,” the soldier said, indicating the Kozlowski’s tavern.
Jamie walked through the open door and saw a dozen pairs of eyes looking up at him. The floor was lined with men stretched out under blankets or sitting up against the walls, every one a Union soldier. Jamie felt their eyes taking in his grey jacket—the nice one Momma’d made for him, with the lieutenant’s bars from Captain Martin—and wished even more for the overcoat.
“Come on in, son.” The surgeon got up from his knees beside a sleeping patient. “You been sneezin?”
Jamie shook his head. “I’m not sick.”
The surgeon sat him down in the light from the doorway. “What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the grubby handkerchief tied around Jamie’s right arm.
“A minie ball grazed me,” Jamie told him.
“Let’s have a look.”
Jamie sat still while the surgeon untied the handkerchief; hissed as the scab came away with the cloth.
“Better let me clean that up. Take your jacket off, son. Shirt, too.”
Jamie did so, folding the uniform jacket carefully in his lap, fingering the rip where the ball had ruined Momma’s handiwork. His other jacket was gone, now; burned with the rest of the supply train. Jamie closed his eyes. He didn’t want to think about that.
The air was cold on his bare skin. He tried not to shiver and not to feel bad about how much thinner his chest was than those of the hardy Pike’s Peakers still watching him, making him self-conscious. Damn them all, he thought bitterly.
“He looks cold,” a voice said, not the surgeon’s.
Jamie looked up. One of the wounded men was looking at him, a sandy-haired giant with a big mustache, propped up on an elbow with his bandaged leg stretched before him.
“Wants a blanket, I figure.” he added.
“Yep,” another said, a bushy-bearded fellow sitting with his back against the wall and his arm in a sling. “All his blankets got burned up, poor little feller.”
Jamie clenched his jaw to control his fury. Damn these Pike’s Peak demons, them and their barrel-chested major and the Irish captain who’d murdered the horses and mules. It was they who’d destroyed General Sibley’s supply train. His supply train.
“Yeah, he wants a blanket all right,” the first man mocked. “He’s shaking.”
The surgeon finished tying a fresh bandage on Jamie’s arm. “Go sit by the fire, son,” he said. “Don’t want you getting sicker.”
“I’m not sick,” Jamie muttered as he shrugged into his clothes and moved to where he could stare into the flames.
The Yankee men’s eyes followed him and their voices whispered just out of hearing. He picked up a stick and poked at the coals, glad for an excuse to ignore his captors.
I’m not sick. I’m just sick at heart.
Fool. Bloody fool.
The words drummed in O’Brien’s head, a march, unescapable, pounding along with his boots in the mud of the camp. He had walked straight away from his lady, turned his back on her, and yet she followed. He should say something to her, some kind thing to show he was not angry with her, but only at himself for being so clumsy. No words came. Bloody fool.
They got to the ranch house, a long, low construction, made of logs and busy with soldiers, a sea of staff officers and orderlies. He looked at Miss Laura to see if she meant to find this Nicodemus on her own, but she showed no sign of it. She stayed by him, saints knew why.
Colonel Slough’s coach stood by the porch, the horses sidling in their traces with all the bustle about them. O’Brien reached a hand out to one of the leaders—matched greys, they were—and let it nuzzle his palm. A lad he recognized, one of Slough’s aides, came out of the house with a burden of baggage.
“Bailey,” O’Brien called, “where’s that courier came from Canby?”
“In with the Colonel, I think,” said the soldier, jerking his head toward the house.
O’Brien looked at the house, not wanting to go in. Likely Chivington was in there, and the major was the last person he wanted to see. O’Brien had not forgiven him—would never forgive him—for making him slaughter horses. But here was his lady waiting, he hadn’t a choice.
He dared a long look at her, pretty wisps of gold blowing about her fair face, and felt the madness rising up in him again. Sure, he’d walk straight into hell for her, he would. Bloody fool.
Up the wooden steps, across the porch and into the house, with Miss Laura following. An orderly came at them with more baggage; he made the man step aside for her. Pleased with himself, he caught her eye, and the smile she gave him started a glow in his chest that spread right though him.
The door of the headquarters room stood open: Slough and Tappan inside shuffling papers and talking idly to Wyncoop, and Logan, and another captain O’Brien didn’t recognize. A lanky lad, dark, with a mustache as wispy as himself. He looked up at O’Brien in the doorway, then beyond, and his eyes grew wide.
“Miss Howland?” he said, standing up.
She came forward with smiles, and all the men rose while O’Brien bit down on his temper.
“Captain Nicodemus,” she said. “I wasn’t sure you’d remember me. Congratulations on your promotion.”
Nicodemus grinned like a silly fool. “Not remember you? ‘Course I remember! And thank you.”
“May I have a few words with you, when it’s convenient?” said Miss Laura, and no sooner said than he stooped for his hat and came toward her, offering his arm.
She laid her hand lightly upon it, and as they passed him going out O’Brien smelled a whiff of her: clean, fresh soap and a hint of wood smoke.
He’d never thought to offer his arm. Damn bloody fool.
Wyncoop chuckled. “Your laundress has an old flame, eh, Red?”
“He’s only a friend,” said O’Brien, staring a challenge.
Wyncoop cocked an eyebrow, then shrugged. Slough went back to his papers, as did Tappan after a long look. Logan and Wyncoop picked up their conversation, and O’Brien turned away.
Miss Laura and her friend had got all the way to the porch before he caught up with them. He stopped by the door to let Slough’s orderly pass with another bag, and hung back, listening shamefully to his lady talking to the courier. They were gazing out toward the old Indian ruin west of the ranch.
“Do you remember our picnic?” she was saying. “It seems so long ago.”
The tall lad nodded. “That was the day I gave you up for lost,” he said. “Thought Lacey’d won you. We all did.”
O’Brien’s gut began to burn. Still he stayed in the doorway, wanting and not wanting to hear more. Miss Laura only sighed, though, and pulled a folded paper from out of her cloak.
“Mr. McIntyre asked me to appeal to Colonel Canby on his behalf. Would you please see that the colonel gets this?” she said.
“I will. He won’t like it,” said Nicodemus.
“I know, but I promised to try,” said Miss Laura, “for friendship’s sake. I don’t blame you for being angry—” She glanced up, and saw O’Brien. “Captain, I don’t believe you have met my kind protector, Captain O’Brien. He has rescued me from a number of troubles.”
O’Brien came forward. Nicodemus faced him and looked him up and down, then reached out his hand.
“How d’ye do? Friend of Miss Howland’s is a friend of mine.”
O’Brien poked a hand out from under his blanket and shook hands, watching the fellow’s face, trying to read it. The young scrap had courted her, then. Well, if he thought to do so again, he’d soon change his friendly tune.
“Hear you Pike’s Peak fellows scared the Texans right good,” said Nicodemus. “They’re calling you a lot of demons.”
“More like angels, Captain,” said a voice behind O’Brien, a voice there could be no mistaking. Nicodemus looked up, and O’Brien turned to see Major Chivington coming up the porch steps.
He had on his Sunday face, eyes fair brimming with hellfire and his beard freshly trimmed. A big man, the major—impressive when preaching, and a great hero with the lads.
“If we hadn’t been here,” he said grandly, “the Texans might have had Fort Union for the taking.” He turned his attention to Miss Laura, and his fierce eyebrows drew together. “I thought you had escorted that woman to Glorieta, Captain.”
“Aye, but it’s full of wounded Rebels now,” said O’Brien. “No place for her.”
“Neither is this a place for her,” said Chivington. “I believe our orders were explicit. There are to be no women traveling with this column.”
O’Brien narrowed his eyes. “Aye, sir,” he said slowly, “we’ll leave her with the other laundresses at Fort Union, then.”
“No,” said Chivington, turning his glare on O’Brien. “I have tolerated her presence long enough. If she cannot go to Glorieta then she must remain here.”
Miss Laura spoke up. “Major Chivington—”
“I don’t believe I addressed you, madam,” said the major.
“Now look here,” said Nicodemus. “Miss Howland is a personal friend of Colonel Canby’s—”
Chivington’s eyebrows went up. “So I have been told. Perhaps Colonel Canby allows all manner of women to travel with his army, but the Colorado Volunteers do not.”
“With all due respect, Major,” said Nicodemus, straightening his lanky frame ’til he was nearly as tall as Chivington, “I think you’ve misunderstood this lady’s position. She’s a respectable lady—”
“Is she? Then I’m sure she will be very much more comfortable away from the army and the unwanted attentions of its less civilized members.” He frowned at O’Brien. “Speaking of civilization, Captain, you are out of uniform.”
“It’s wet, sir. Just washed.”
“You would not want your civilized officers to appear in bloodstained clothes,” said Miss Laura, a note of challenge in her voice.
Chivington glowered at her, but said nothing. Instead he spun on his heel and went into the ranch house.
Nicodemus turned angry eyes toward O’Brien. “That major of yours is a sight too headstrong! Don’t mind telling you, that’s why the Colonel sent me racing up here with those orders. He was worried you Colorado fellows would go off half-cocked, and so you did!”
“I’ve no love for the man,” said O’Brien. He looked at Miss Laura. “I’m sorry,” he told her.
“So am I,” she said with a sad smile. She glanced at her courier friend. “Thank you for defending me, Captain Nicodemus. I think, under the circumstances, that I had better try to get to Santa Fé.”
“The Confederates have Santa Fé!” Nicodemus said.
“If I can get to Mrs. Canby, I shall be quite safe.”
“I’ll take you there,” O’Brien said. His voice came out husky, from the tightness in his throat. He swallowed.
“Thank you, Captain,” she said, bestowing a smile upon him. “Perhaps if you take me to Glorieta, Monsieur Vallé can escort me to Mrs. Canby’s house.”
“You cannot seriously mean to go to Santa Fé!” Nicodemus said.
“I have no choice,” Miss Laura answered. “I cannot remain here when all my friends are leaving. Poor Mr. Kozlowski has enough trouble on his hands.”
“I won’t allow it!”
Miss Laura turned a look on Nicodemus that O’Brien well knew could make ice water run in a man’s veins. He himself looked down at the mud-caked boards of the porch, concealing his sudden glee.
“Th-the Colonel wouldn’t wish me to,” he heard Nicodemus say.
“I cannot believe Colonel Canby would not want me to seek out his wife,” Miss Laura said. “Please do not worry about me, Captain Nicodemus. I have good friends to help me.”
O’Brien glanced up and saw her looking at him, smiling, and his heart gave a mighty squeeze. Ah, he hated to lose her, but he’d take her to safety. It was the best he could do for her.
She looked out toward the mountains, squinting into the westering sun. “It is too late today, I think,” she said. “Perhaps in the morning? Early, before you’re to march?”
O’Brien nodded. One more night. One more evening of talk by the fire; one more dawn listening to her softly breathing in the tent next by. Precious hours to treasure.
She turned to her friend. “It was a pleasure to see you, Captain Nicodemus. Please give my regards to all my friends at Fort Craig.” She put out her hand, and the courier shook it.
“Do be careful,” he said.
“Thank you, I shall,” she said, moving away. O’Brien made to follow.
She paused, and glanced back. O’Brien saw a hungry look in the lad’s eyes, a look that roused a jealous fire in himself.
“Was I wrong?” Nicodemus asked. “About Lacey?”
Miss Laura was silent for a long moment. Who is Lacey? O’Brien wondered. He couldn’t read her face.
Then, “Goodbye, Captain,” she said, and turned to O’Brien.
He led the way down the porch steps, past Slough’s coach, back toward the camp. All the way he could feel Nicodemus’s eyes following them, and could guess only too well what the fellow was feeling.
Miss Laura was silent until they reached their camp near the end of Officers’ Row. She stepped to O’Brien’s jacket, hanging by the tents, and felt it.
“I had better hang it by the fire. It is quite damp still.”
O’Brien stood staring, unable to think of a reply, while she moved the coat closer to the fire. His lady—though he had no right to think of her as his—must leave him tomorrow, and the thought fair paralyzed him.
Wild ideas flew through his mind. If he flung himself at her feet and offered marriage, what would she say? He had no worldly goods to offer her, only himself. She might say no. Might laugh at him, even. A fairy princess like her, married to an old troll of a soldier? No.
He went into his tent and rummaged through what was left of his rations, producing a bit of cooked beef and some hard crackers. Miss Laura sizzled them together in a pan over the fire—saints knew where that pan came from; it seemed she could find anything she wanted—and the two of them ate in silence while night closed in over the camp.
“Well, Captain,” she said when the last bit was gone, “where is your pocket notebook? We should have one more lesson.”
O’Brien stared into the flames and shook his head. “No point in it,” he said.
“That is not true.”
Miss Laura picked up a twig, and scratched some letters in the dirt. “What word is that?” she demanded.
“I don’t know.”
“Spell it out. You know all the letters.”
“F,” he said. “A, I, T, H.”
“What word is it?”
“Fate,” said O’Brien.
“Faith,” she said, and her voice had gone soft. “You must have faith in yourself. You can learn this.”
O’Brien shook his head. “You won’t be here to teach me.”
“Well, I’m sure Mr. Denning would—”
Miss Laura sat up and laid the twig across her knees. “It doesn’t matter. You know enough now to start teaching yourself. And—we shall meet again, I’m sure. You must not give up!”
The earnestness in her voice made him look up.
“You can master this,” she said, eyes bright, “and when you do, no one will be able look down on you, ever again.”
That was true, he supposed. And oh, how he’d wanted that, but it seemed not to matter now. All that mattered was her company which he must lose tomorrow, likely forever.
He looked down at the letters she’d writ in the dirt. She had more faith than he, he decided. She’d go to Mrs. Canby, to her friends in the regular army, and would marry one of the Colonel’s staff, and be very happy, and never think of him again.
He heard her stand, glanced up to see her checking his jacket. She hadn’t had to wash it. He wouldn’t have asked. Ah, she was a good lady; he didn’t deserve her. He must try to forget it all. It had been only a dream anyway—a very pleasant dream, and seemed very real—but already it was fading away, and the kindest thing he could do for himself was to let it go.
“Laura,” he whispered, savoring one last time the taste of the name she had not given him leave to use.
“Pardon?” she said.
“Ah—siubhal a’rùin,” he said aloud, his heart racing. “It’s words from a song.”
“Do you sing, Captain?” she said, smiling. She carried his coat back to her seat.
“Aye,” said O’Brien, watching her spread the coat across her skirt before the fire. “Not as fair as you, though.”
“Have I sung for you? I don’t remember.”
“Not for me,” he said.
“Oh.” She glanced down at the wool in her lap. “Well, will you sing for me? Please,” she said as he started to shake his head, and the fire glistening in her eyes took away all his will to deny her. He looked away into the flames, swallowed, and began to sing softly, barely above a whisper.
“Siubhal, siubhal, siubhal a’rùin,
Siubhal go socair, arragh siubhal go ciùin,
Siubhal go do dorus, arragh èalaidh leam,
Is go dhuit, mo mùirnin slàn.”
He stopped, for the rest of the song had little to do with his feelings.
“That is lovely,” said his lady. “What does it mean?”
“I cannot tell you,” he said, feeling the heat rise into his face.
“No,” he whispered. The fire popped, twice.
“Will you sing it again, then?”
He was trembling, he noticed. He moved a bit closer to the fire, and didn’t look at his lady for fear that his heart would crack. Then he sang—Come, come, come my love—and she hummed the tune with him, making a tingle run up his neck.
“How beautiful,” she said into the silence that followed. “And how sad.”
He nodded, not wanting to speak for fear of breaking the spell. This moment would be a treasure to him, when she was gone. He dared a glance at her, all golden in the firelight. Steam had begun to rise from the damp wool that she held on her lap. She smoothed the sleeve with a fair hand, and he shivered as if she’d touched his own flesh. He closed his eyes.
The fire gave a faint, banshee whine. “Do you miss Ireland?” he heard her ask softly.
Surprised, he looked up at her. “Sometimes,” he said. “But I wouldn’t go back.”
She nodded. “That is how I feel about Boston.” She lifted his coat and felt it. “This is better. If you hang it inside your tent it should be fit to wear in the morning.” She rose, and offered the warm garment to him.
“Thank you,” he said, taking it.
“You’re very welcome. Thank you for the song.” She stood there a moment, looking softly down at him, then moved to her tent. “I’d better collect my things if I am to leave tomorrow.”
She cast a glance at him over her shoulder, and smiled, and slipped into the tent. With a soft “Good night,” she was gone.
O’Brien looked at the shirt that she’d held, that she’d washed for him. Another memory to treasure up. He added a log to the fire and sat fingering the wool as he stared into the flickering flames.
Copyright © 2000 by Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
Far Western Civil War book 2
by P. G. Nagle
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-022-4