Of course there was a war, or would be as soon as the two sides decided just where to kick the thing off. The papers and the gossips were full of it and, in all his life, Travis Markham had never known a time when war did not loom grim and black on the horizon. Still, now that it had actually come, it all seemed like so much flag waving and saber rattling. The secession of Virginia along with the rest of the South, the taking of Fort Sumpter, President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 men to join his army, all this had accomplished little and, for all Travis could tell, had changed nothing.
From what he saw, the streets of Petersburg still bustled with activity. The cotton mills produced at capacity. The fields of the outlying plantations were still thick with tobacco and the rich, mournful songs of the slaves. Young men, eager to be “in the thick of it,” still played at drilling, though they hadn’t yet fought a real battle. Society still danced and made merry, merchants still bought and sold, old men, north and south, still hurled their threats and ultimatums, and Sarah Franklin was still his sun, moon and stars.
He pulled her out of the rain, smiling into her dark eyes as he wrapped his arms around her, all wet and shivering against him. The rain drummed on the roof of the gazebo that sheltered them and fell in gray sheets that obscured the Palisades’ surrounding gardens.
“Mercy, what a storm!” She put one hand to the mahogany tresses piled on top of her head. “Oh, and Leena spent all morning on my hair, too. She won’t half scold when she sees me now.”
He pressed his lips to a damp curl that had fallen down on her forehead. “Let her scold, honey. You can’t help the weather.”
“Travis! What if someone sees? Especially Leena?”
He laughed and kissed her hair again.
She wriggled away from him, but he still held her hands.
“Who cares if she sees, honey? Besides, I thought Cousin Amy was making sure she was occupied for a little bit.”
“Amy.” Sarah laughed. “She’s such a child. I don’t know how she could possibly keep Leena from finding out anything she wanted to know. Aunt Emmaline wouldn’t have Leena looking after us if she didn’t think Leena has eyes in the back of her head.”
“‘Such a child,’” Travis teased. “Amy’s not even a year younger than you, Miss Franklin, and you seem to think you’re pretty grown up.”
“Well, Mister Markham, you seem to think so, too.”
He snatched another kiss and again she tried to wriggle away.
“Now, Travis, you know if Leena catches us, she’ll tell me I ought take more care than to walk out so late in the afternoon unchaperoned with a storm coming on. And she’d say she thought she did better by Miss Sophie than to let her girl run off with any wild young man and have him bring her home after the scandal was made and him not even her fiancé.”
He smiled and pulled her close again. “Well, we might can fix that last part…if you’re agreeable.”
With a sweep of long black lashes, she looked up at him. “Oh, Travis, this is so sudden.”
Laughing, he shook his head. “I’ve only been telling you I want to marry you since I was ten. Don’t see as how you can really call that sudden.”
“Well, I know that, Travis honey, but there are certain proprieties to be observed. You still have to ask Wade for me, you know, since Papa isn’t with us anymore to give his consent.”
“Yes, honey, I know. I have to tell you, though, it’s a whole heap easier for a man to ask his best friend for his sister than it is for him to ask a scowling father for his daughter.”
“Papa never scowled,” she said, giggling.
“Well, you must not have seen him that time a couple of years ago when we sat in the garden past twilight all by ourselves and he came out to get us.”
Again she laughed. “No father trusts his daughter with a boy of sixteen.”
“And all the time I was too bashful to even hold your hand.” He grinned. “But I’m not bashful now.”
She giggled and wriggled away again, but he only pulled her closer.
“Travis! What if somebody sees?”
“How can they, honey? The way that rain’s coming down, you can’t see ten feet in it. Besides, aren’t we engaged now? That should give me a few privileges.”
Her lashes swept modestly to her cheeks. “Privileges?”
“A kiss?” he murmured, bringing his lips close to hers.
“You’ve kissed me before,” she breathed.
“A real kiss.”
He pressed his mouth to hers in a slow, passionate kiss and, for a moment, she stood motionless. Then her arms went around his neck and she was kissing him just as passionately.
“Kiss me,” she murmured. “Kiss me.”
He pulled her tighter against him, kissing her as he had always wanted to, and she was kissing him. It seemed it would never end. He couldn’t let it end.
He turned, jarred out of his memory and back into the hot, dry August night.
“Marse Travis!” the old black man called again, holding his lantern high above his head as he hurried from the columned front porch of the Palisades towards Travis’s wagon. “Lord of Glory, we was ‘fraid maybe you’s dead! And you, Marse Brent! Your missus wore herself half sick over you! And, Marse Travis, your pa–”
“Miss Sarah didn’t get my letter?”
Travis climbed down from the wagon and swatted wearily at the back of his neck. Mosquitoes had tormented the horses all the way down to Petersburg. He and Brent had tried their best to keep them away from horse and human flesh, but it had been a long, jolting ride, and the swarming devils had drunk their fill.
“No, sir, Marse Travis. We ain’t had nothin’ from you since you was here back the end of June. When the 14th came to town last month, we thought you all’d be with them, but some of the gentlemen told your pa that you all’d been ‘signed to stay up in Martinsburg after the big battle.” Brown Jacob stroked his grizzled beard and then looked down the road, his mane of white hair haloed in flickering light as he held up his lantern again. “Uh, sir . . . Marse Wade . . .?”
“He’s in the wagon. I’m sorry my letter didn’t come. I didn’t want you all to hear about it just from the casualty lists.”
“He warn’t on no casualty list.”
“Figures. They had him on the hospital roll as ‘Cpl. Wm. Franklin, Frederick County, Virginia.’ Wrong name. Wrong rank. Couldn’t even get the blasted county right.” Travis mopped the sweat from his face with his sleeve, pushed his dark hair out of his eyes, and settled his battered kepi back on his head. “Go get Leena or somebody to make up his bed for him. Brent, help me.”
“How bad, Marse Travis? You di’n let them army doctors cut on him, did you?” The old man held the lantern over the side of the wagon as the two young soldiers lifted their fallen comrade’s limp body out. “I see he got his arms and legs yet, praise God, but he looks some bad.”
He hustled back up onto the porch and into the house, lighting the way for the others. “Leena! Miss Sarah! Miss Emmaline! Miss Amy! Marse Travis and Marse Brent has Marse Wade home with ‘em!” He tapped on the library door as he scurried past, seeing there was still light coming from under it. “Marse Bondurant, sir, Marse Wade come home!”
The silent house sprang to life. Several servants and the three ladies of the house, in their nightgowns and wrappers, peered over the polished railing of the grand stairway, all talking at once.
“Wade!” Emmaline Bondurant wailed, clinging to the sturdy black woman beside her. Tendrils of iron gray hair had escaped from her mob cap; her face was pale and puffy with sleep and the lines of discontent habitually in her expression were deepened with grief. “He’s dead! He’s dead! Oh, Leena, he’s dead!”
Sarah’s face was ashen. “Aunt Emmaline–”
“No’m, he ain’t dead,” Leena interrupted, “but you got to let me get his bed fixed so he can be tended to.” Leena’s two girls served as maids for Mrs. Bondurant’s daughter and niece and she quickly set them to work. “Tilda, you and Rinda get them clean sheets on Marse Wade’s bed and tell Lottie to set some water to boiling. Miss Amy, see to your mama here.”
She shifted the still-wailing woman into Amy’s arms, took the lantern from Brown Jacob as he reached the top of the stairs, and led the way down the hall.
Amy looked young and slight beside her imposing mother. Her blue eyes were wide with bewilderment and her lips were white, but her voice was steady. “Travis, how bad is it? Hush, Mama. Travis, what happened?”
“Oh Wade,” Sarah breathed as her brother was carried past her. “Travis–”
“Sarah honey, I’m–”
“Let us get him into bed,” Brent told her, “then we’ll tell you all about it.”
Sarah touched her fingers to Wade’s gaunt cheek and then to Travis’s. Travis leaned his face briefly against her hand, all he could do while carrying Wade, and then moved past her.
It was only a moment’s work to settle Wade into bed and leave him in Leena’s capable hands. Mr. Bondurant was waiting when Travis and Brent came back downstairs.
“The ladies are in the library,” he said, the slight slurring of his words betraying his New Orleans French background and his moderate inebriation. “We would like to hear about it.”
As simply as he could, Travis told them of the battle in a Pennsylvania town none of them had ever heard of until a month ago but, even then, he couldn’t tell them. Sitting in the library surrounded by the quiet, unchanged luxury that was the Palisades, he couldn’t really tell them. It was only later, after he had uncoiled his tired muscles in a tub of hot water, granting himself a rare hour of oblivion, only afterwards did he let himself remember it as it had been. Standing in the darkness of the garden, sweating out the only clean clothes he’d had in a month, knowing sleep would bring it all back again anyway, he let himself remember Gettysburg.
The scream was terrible. Even over the howl of battle, over the boom and whistle of mortar fire, over rifle and pistol shot and multiplied thousands of other screams, this sound ripped through him– the terrible death scream of a horse. He turned and Brent tried to drag him back.
“No, Brent! Look!”
There at the edge of the field, just before the welcome cover of the trees, Wade lay writhing in the mud, pinned under his big white thoroughbred, slathered in its blood. Travis took a running step towards him, and Brent pulled him back again.
“You can’t, Travis! You’d never make it!”
“It’s Wade!” Travis insisted. “I have to–”
“You can’t help him now! What good would it do him if you were killed, too?”
That afternoon they had marched unopposed up towards Cemetery Ridge, grim name for a grim place that would that day see thousands more dead than had till now rested in peace in Evergreen Cemetery, up on the hill just north of them. That hill had already seen its share of battle. Though signs threatened criminal prosecution for those who used firearms within its hallowed grounds, the headstones and monuments past its imposing arched entryway had been torn to pieces by irreverent rifle and mortar shot. After the past two days of battle, the field was already pooled with blood and littered with bodies swelling and bursting in the heat.
“Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!” General Pickett had urged them, and they had marched out of the woods, silent and determined, up towards the enemy troops that were dug in behind a stone wall, thinking the Union guns up on the ridge and on a low hill called Little Round Top had been destroyed. Without warning, those guns had burst into action, raining death on the Confederates, tossing their bodies in unceremonious heaps, detached from arms and legs and heads. Still Pickett’s men had moved forward, through the smoke that multiplied thousands of charges from cannon and musket fire had draped over the field, still determined to realize their objective.
Those who had reached the wall had been killed or captured. Thousands more, seeing there was no hope, had given themselves up. The rest had run. Travis and Brent had just barely made it back to the woods. They hadn’t known that Wade was right behind them until they had heard Pollux scream.
Pollux screamed again, and Travis moved to the shelter of a clump of splintered trees at the edge of the field. He could hear Wade now, just faintly, his voice pleading.
“Get up, Pol. Come on, boy. You got to get up. Please.” He cried out, something between a moan and a sob, struggling uselessly with the half ton of horseflesh that kicked and quivered on top of him. “Please. Please. Oh, God, please!”
Travis looked past him, back towards the battle. The shooting was tapering off. The Confederates would be no more threat to the Federals that day. Travis urged Brent and several more of their shaken comrades to venture back into the field.
“We’re going to get you out, Wade,” he panted, dropping down at his friend’s side. “Don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.”
“Travis?” Wade grabbed the front of Travis’s shirt. “You got to help. One of their shells landed right on us. Pol–”
“All right, all right. Tell me where you’re hurt.”
“Never mind about me. How’s Pol? He’s bleeding a lot, Trav. You got to get somebody to help him.”
Brent's taut face gleamed with sweat. "Our men are heading back to camp. We'll get you over there, too, Wade."
“See if you can’t get one of the docs to look at Pol, Brent,” Wade begged.
Brent shook his head as he looked the quivering animal over. “It’s too bad for that. He’s tore all to pieces. The only thing we can do now–”
“No, you can’t,” Wade moaned. He turned to Travis, his eyes black pools of pain-filled desperation. “Please, Travis, you can’t. You just can’t.”
He had both hands twisted into Travis’s shirt now, almost tearing it off him. Travis held him by the wrists, held him hard.
“We have to. He’s dying anyway. You know he’s suffering. We have to–”
“Travis, it’s Pollux. It’s Pol! You can’t–”
There was the close crack of a pistol shot. Wade jerked, then they were enveloped by the acrid smell of gunpowder and a stillness that seemed to muffle even the dying sounds of the battle.
“I’m sorry, Wade,” Brent said emotionlessly, looking out towards the ridge as he shoved his gun back into his holster.
Wade’s eyes were fixed on Travis’s, wide with disbelieving shock, then he closed them and his head dropped to one side. The strong grip he had on Travis’s shirt abruptly loosened and he reached one hand to stroke Pollux’s once-silken white mane, now matted with mud and blood.
“Pol,” he murmured in little mourning sobs. “Pol.”
Travis drew a hard breath, tears stinging his eyes as he stared up at the dusky sky, and he put his hand next to Wade’s on Pollux’s warm neck, making his own silent farewell. Then he swallowed down the tightness in his throat.
“Come on, Wade,” he said softly. “We’ll get you out of here.”
Brent signaled the silent knot of soldiers that had gathered around them, and they positioned themselves to shift Pollux’s dead weight away from the injured man. Travis got behind Wade, putting both hands under his arms, ready to pull him out.
“On three,” Brent told the men. “One.”
Travis tightened his hold. “You ready, Wade?”
“Two,” Brent counted.
Wade lay limp against Travis, not answering him.
The soldiers shoved and Travis yanked hard. Wade made one sharp, startled cry of pain and passed out cold.
Travis sprang to his feet, startled by a soft, cool touch at the back the back of his neck. Then his taut face relaxed.
She brushed away the moisture on his cheek with a tender touch of her fingertips.
“I saw you huddled there on the steps and thought maybe you should come inside and get some rest.”
“Leena know you’re out here like this?” he asked, managing a shaky smile as he remembered how scandalized Leena had been when she caught the two of them alone here in the gazebo that rainy afternoon before he went to war.
Sarah blushed and drew her wrapper closer around herself. “She and Aunt Emmaline are tending Wade.”
Travis’s smile faded. “Don’t guess there’s much they can do for him.”
“He’ll get well, won’t he, Travis? He has to get well. He’s not even shot.”
She nestled against him and he held her close, tears again burning his eyes.
“Honey, his back’s broken. I told you that. He’s all broke up inside. They were good enough to let me and Brent stay up in Martinsburg close by him, but after a month the doctors didn’t even see any reason to keep him in the hospital anymore. There was nothing else they–”
“But we can have Dr. Alençon look at him. He’ll know what to do.”
“He’s at the hospital, isn’t he?”
“But we can send for him. He can come for at least a little while, can’t he?”
“Oh, Sarah.” He hugged her tighter, burying his face against her neck. “Sarah, Sarah, there are so many wounded now.” He lifted his eyes to hers. “The line of wagons carrying them back from Gettysburg was seventeen miles long. Seventeen miles! Can you even imagine how many wounded it takes to make seventeen miles? And it was bad enough for us who were whole, going from being broiled by the sun on the battlefield to being near drowned with rain coming home. I’m surprised as many wounded made it back as did. The 14th, shoot, all of Pickett’s Division, we were demolished that third day. We couldn’t possibly take a doctor away from any of our hospitals, honey. Not when we know already that Wade is–”
“But Wade needs him! He can’t help all those thousands of men. You know he can’t! But he can help Wade!”
“Sarah.” He stood back from her, making his face stern. “There’s nothing Dr. Alençon can do to help Wade. But the others–” He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to forget the sights and sounds and smells of the battlefield hospitals, where men were cut up wholesale with nothing but merciful unconsciousness to ease the pain, where scalpels and bone saws often got no more than a cursory wipe across a blood-soaked apron before being used on the next patient. He knew the surgeons did the best they could with what little they had. “The others, they need our doctors.”
“Wade’s bad off, honey, but nothing they could have done would have made any difference. There are plenty more that can be saved if they have doctors to tend to them. I know they only let the married ladies tend to the wounded, but you girls must have helped with the hospital laundry and suchlike. You know how it is.”
She looked down. “Amy and Aunt Emmaline told me about it. I just– I can’t bear to go there in the middle of all that, Travis. I tried once, but it was so terrible I had to turn right around and come back home and lie down the rest of the afternoon. All those men, the doctors cutting on them, and the filth and the smell, I just can’t.”
She looked up at him, her eyes pleading, and he couldn’t help but take her in his arms and hold her close. “I know, honey. I know. You shouldn’t have to see such things. None of our ladies should. And I know you do your part here at home.”
“I’ve knitted eighteen pair of socks and sent them to the army,” she told him with a hopeful smile and he had to swallow down an incredulous laugh.
Eighteen pair of socks. The Confederacy had thousands upon thousands of men fighting with little to protect them from the harsh conditions and comforts were rare. The North could manufacture or import whatever it needed, but the Federal blockades kept the South on ever-shrinking rations. Eighteen pair of socks–
“I bet they were the finest socks of any the ladies sent,” he told her, hugging her close, remembering again how he had kissed her here in the rainy spring twilight two years ago.
For the long moment of that kiss, his entire world was filled with only her. Afterwards, breathless, he could do nothing but stare at her. She was the delicate ideal of everything womanly, her skin as soft and pale as magnolia blossoms, her manner demure, her voice low and lilting, all he had ever wanted, all he could ever want.
He thought her particularly beautiful at that moment, with her face all flushed and a lock of wet hair fallen down on her neck. The rain had left a fine scattering of water droplets on her smooth cheeks and across her straight, slender nose and there was nothing he wanted more than to kiss them all away.
She looked up at him, her eyes still wide. “I suppose you’ve kissed a lot of girls that way.”
He smiled and laid her head on his shoulder. “Now, honey, you know I’ve been planning to marry you since forever, and the whole county knows it, too. Who else would I kiss?”
“Well, Aunt Emmaline says how men act with the girls they’ll marry and with the ones they won’t is two entirely different matters.”
“Your family and mine both would have my hide if I ever tried anything like that. They’ve been expecting us to get married ’bout as long as I have.”
She reached up one hand to stroke his thick hair. “When will we be married, Travis?”
He grinned. “Today?”
“Stop that,” she said with a giggle. “Why, you know we can’t for at least six months. People would think I was–” Again she blushed. “Well, that something was wrong. And when the war comes for real–”
“What do we care what they say, honey? We’ll know the truth.”
She slipped her other hand up to his shoulder and gave him a coquettish smile. “Besides that, we wouldn’t want to miss all the parties we’re going to have thrown for us. That’s half the fun of being married.”
“Of being married or of getting married?”
“Same thing, silly,” she said, putting her arms around his neck.
“’Cept being married lasts a lot longer.”
“It won’t be any different than now, Travis honey. We’ll have parties and dances and ever so lovely a time.”
Even in the darkness now, he could just make out the sundial that sat in the midst of the rose bed surrounding the gazebo, and he remembered how its white marble glistened with rain that day. Measure only sunny hours, advised the letters chiseled in the center of the roman numerals on its face. Surely that had been a sunny hour, despite the foreboding clouds and the lashing rain, an hour to be measured and kept, even if the parties and dances had never come.
That was only two years ago. Seemed like twenty. No, it couldn’t be twenty. He was himself not yet twenty. Neither was Wade.
What would Livie think when she heard Wade was hurt? Or, worse, if they had to send her word that he was dead?
Wade and Olivia Martin were to have married before he went to war, but a timid maiden aunt from Delaware had convinced Livie to accompany her on her trip abroad “to get away from all this hateful war talk.” Wade had urged her to go, too, thinking she should not miss such a wonderful opportunity. Once the war started, the aunt had refused to even consider returning home and Livie had no choice but to stay as well, especially since her parents insisted that she do so.
Wade had thought it best at the time and was glad she would be well away from any dangers that might be faced by the ladies on the Southern home front. It was then that Travis had told Sarah that they should postpone their own marriage.
“Oh, no, Travis. Why? Don’t you love me anymore?”
“I couldn’t love you any more than I already do, darlin’.”
He tried to coax a smile out of her, but she only gave him a sulky pout.
“Now, don’t do me that way, honey. You know there’s nothing I want more than to have you for my sweet little wife. I just don’t think it’s best right now. The war won’t last long and we’ll be married right after. I promise.”
“Why isn’t it best right now? Wade and Livie would already be married if she hadn’t gone to horrid old Europe. Addie Hunter and Lucy Crawford are marrying their beaux next week. And Brent Talbot and Carrie Effingham are getting married right away, too. They don’t seem to think it isn’t best.”
“I can’t speak for them, Sarah. I just think it’s best for us if we wait. Too many things can happen in war–”
Now Wade might die and, even if he didn’t, he would likely never be the same. Was it truly best that he and Livie had not been married? If this had to happen, would not a brief time together have been better than nothing at all? How would Livie feel about that once she knew what had happened to Wade?
He looked into Sarah’s questioning eyes, knowing he had stood there silently for a long while, knowing his hold on her had grown tighter and tighter. He cupped her face in his hands, turning it up to him, kissing her with sudden urgency.
“Marry me, Sarah. Please. Now.”
“Now. I have to go back day after tomorrow. Please, darlin’, if ever you loved me, marry me now.”
“Wade was a fool!” He clutched her close to him again. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry. You know Wade is my best friend, as close to a brother as I ever had, but he was wrong. He should’ve married Livie before she went away. Then they would have at least had that much. Now– Please, honey, don’t let’s wait any longer.”
Once more she looked up at him. “I can’t,” she whispered, pleading tears in her eyes. “Not now. Not after– I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. Your aunt and uncle will understand. And if they don’t, we’ll drive over into–”
“It’s not that. You know it’s not that. Travis, I’m afraid Wade will never get better now. He may not even live long. What if he and Livie were married? What if she even had a baby to raise? Remember all those reasons you gave me before you left for why we couldn’t get married? They’re still there, all of them, and all of them just as good as before. You’re not seeing clear anymore, Travis, because of the war, because of what happened to Wade. But it’s made me see what you were saying before was all true.”
“Sarah, darlin’– ”
“It would be hard enough to lose you now, but if ever I was truly your wife, if ever I knew how it was to love you the way I want to love you and then I lost you– Oh, Travis, it would be more than I could bear. It’s just best if we forget what we promised each other. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
“Please,” he whispered, pulling her to him. “Sarah, I promise– ”
He stopped, hearing a tentative cough behind him, and he and Sarah both turned to see Amy standing there on the pathway.
“Sarah, Mama wants you.”
“Oh, it’s Wade!”
Sarah broke away from Travis’s embrace and hurried into the house without even a backward glance. Amy merely stood there, staring at him, and he wondered how much she had overheard.
“Wade all right?” he asked, wishing there wasn’t a catch in his voice.
“He’s sleeping.” To Travis’s surprise, she took both of his hands and held them tight. “How are you doing, Travis?”
He didn’t answer for a second and then he laughed abruptly. “It’s been so long since anybody asked me that, I don’t hardly know what to say.”
She smiled sympathetically and, with a final squeeze, released his hands. “It’ll be dawn soon. Would you like some breakfast? I can make you some flapjacks, if you’d like.”
His eyes lit. “You think you can fix some before Brent wakes up and hogs them all?”
Her blue eyes twinkled. “He’s been up half an hour and has already had three plates full.”
“Why that– He’d’ve been shot for that if we were still in camp!”
“Well, I think there just might be batter enough left to make one or two for you.” She put her arm through his and led him back into the house.
Copyright 2005 ~ DeAnna Julie Dodson