Virginia: May 25th, 1843
My mother groan’d, my father wept; Into the dangerous world I lept. - William Blake
The screaming stopped.
At first he wasn't even sure what the difference was. Throughout the day, the sound had been a constant companion and when it was gone, it was several minutes before it dawned on him just what was missing. The screaming had been terrible enough, but he was quite sure that the silence was worse. He chewed at his lip, waiting in the warmly lit room where they'd left him, pacing back and forth. The soft woven rug his mother had laid over the hardwood floor muffling the sound of his feet.
"Stay here, out of the way," they'd said. "Don't worry, shouldn't take too long," and with a smile and a kiss he’d been left alone, with naught but his own thoughts for company. That had been hours ago, and to seven year old Matthew James, it seemed an eternity.
His belly rumbled loud in the empty silence of the room. A not so subtle reminder that he’d eaten the lunch and the extra treats they'd left him much too long ago. If only he’d known what soon really meant he might have saved something, any small morsel that would have kept the worst of the pangs away. Shaking his head, he sighed loudly, then continued his path back and forth across the room.
The door opened, barely squeaking on its well-oiled hinges. Turning, Matthew watched his father enter the room, and set a tiny blanket wrapped bundle carefully into the ornate cradle standing at the far end of the room. Motioning for Matthew to join him, they looked down at the squalling baby. She was just a little thing, not much to look at - all red faced and wrinkly, but man could she holler.
His father reached over, and laying a hand on the polished cherry wood frame, gently rocked the cradle. His face was haggard looking. The lines that had been faint only hours earlier that morning - little more than accents to his character, were now deeply etched. His hazel eyes, normally twinkling with joy, echoed the sadness in his heart, as he gazed down at his newborn daughter.
Taking a deep breath, he turned those sorrow-filled eyes to Matthew, "Son, it’s up to you and me now to take care of her. She’s all we have left, and she’ll need her big brother more than ever to protect her and keep her safe.”
He'd been right. The silence was worse, much worse, and as his father's words hit him, Matthew's eyes filled. Boys don’t cry. He repeated it to himself over and over, biting his lip to keep the tears from spilling over. Even so, it was in vain, and he felt trail of wetness streak down his face. Ignoring it, he squared his shoulders and looked gravely into his father’s eyes. Finally, with only a small quiver in his voice, he replied, “Yes, Papa, I understand. I… I won’t let you down.”
Lee James hugged his son tight.
“You’d be so proud… of both of them.” He whispered it to the air, his gaze dropping again to his precious little girl. But any joy he might have felt at finally having a daughter was tempered by the knowledge that it had cost his beloved wife her life.
Virginia: November 7th, 1863
Rylee James was sitting in her room, mending a tear in her favorite calico skirt. An odious chore to be sure, but one that needed to be done - no matter that she’d much rather have been out riding, enjoying the beautiful weather. Though it was late fall and the chill of winter hovered in the air most mornings, they'd had a bit of a warm spell. Grateful for the break in the weather, she’d flung her windows wide open to take advantage of the fresh air, and even now gazed longingly at the clear blue skies. Sighing heavily, she turned back to the skirt and focused on pulling the needle in and out of the fabric. The stitches were less than neat, but given her distracted nature, it was probably as best could be expected. Besides, they’d hold well enough in the end, and that was all that really mattered.
Her mind drifted again, and she sat, daydreaming in the warm glow of the sun, until the sound of hoofbeats pounding on the hard packed dirt road brought her swiftly back to her room. "Damn!" she cried, as the needle bit into the soft flesh of her hand. Still stinging, she wiped at the crimson drop that was forming, as she heard the booted feet run up the front porch steps.
“Ry… You in there?!!” her brother yelled as he swung open the front door.
Taking care not to get blood on the skirt, she set her sewing aside, then hurried out of her room and down the stairs towards the porch, almost running him down as he came through the doorway. “Matthew James, what in the world is wrong with you?”
She hadn’t seen her brother in months, and it was a shock to see how thin and hard he’d become. His normally sparkling green eyes looked tired, and she wrapped her arms around him in welcome, wishing that she would never have to let go again.
“There’s not much time Ry,” he said, stepping back from her embrace. “The Union troops aren’t very far behind us. We couldn’t hold the river, and we have to fall back. Can’t stay, but I’ll be back in a few days to check on you.”
“Do you really think they will come through this way?” she asked, trying to conceal the slight note of fear in her voice. “It’s not like we have anything left to give them, and now that Pa is gone…” Her voice trailed off, as fresh grief threatened to overwhelm her. Even though it had been over a year, she still missed her pa something fierce. Just thinking of him was enough to make her heart hurt.
Matt grabbed her arm, “Don’t let them know that Pa is gone. Make up whatever excuse you need to, but if they find out you are here alone, there will be nothing but trouble.”
Ry rolled her eyes at him, “I can take care of myself you know, besides I’m not completely alone. Katie and Samuel are still here with me.”
“I do know,” he said, “I taught you myself.” The prideful grin sneaked across his face, but then he quickly sobered, “It wouldn’t be enough for some of these guys, and I don’t want to see my baby sister getting hurt.”
“Don‘t you worry about us. We’ll be fine. Besides, you’re the one I should be worried about. Every day, I’m terrified that someone is going to bring word to me that you’re dead.” Her eyes were bright with unshed tears and she turned away quickly before he could see them fall. The last few years had taken a toll on them all, especially since the death of their father. “I really don’t know how I’d go on if you were gone too,” she whispered, her voice thick with emotion.
They had been so proud when Matt had been accepted to West Point, and he’d graduated with honors as well. Little had they known then, that war was right around the corner. Taking a deep breath, she brushed away the tears, then turned back to face her brother.
Matt moved to her side and put his arms around her shoulders, resting his head against hers for a moment. There were no words he could say, but the contact was enough for now. Giving her arm a final squeeze, he sighed and let her go, turning reluctantly towards the door, “I’ve got to head back now. Keep close to the house and lock everything up tight at night.”
Ry ran after him and threw her arms around him. Desperately she held on, no longer caring if he saw that tears that were streaming down her face. “Be safe,” she said, planting a kiss on his brow.
“You too,” he replied, gently wiping at her tears. Then he mounted up and rode off, his horse kicking up the dirt as he raced back down the lane.
She stood watching until he was out of sight, then closed the door and walked slowly to the kitchen. Though the sun was still shining, there was a chill in her heart that had nothing to do with the weather. “Katie… we need to get ready. It’s going to be a long night.”
The late afternoon sun was blazing low in the sky, its orange and red hued beams almost even with the horizon, when the first of the Union troops began passing through. At first they kept to the fields farther out, and Ry sincerely hoped they stayed there, as far away from the house as possible. Wishful thinking on her part, but it was all she had to go on, and so she clung to it. She was helping Katie with dinner, when reality finally came crashing in, the loud banging on the front door startling them both. Immediately Ry’s temper flared, as her head jerked towards the sound and she fought the urge to grab her rifle, wanting nothing more than to give them a huge piece of her mind. Only Katie’s calming hand on her arm, brought her up short.
“Miss Rylee, you need to go hide now,” Katie murmured as she started walking towards the door, another round of loud knocks beckoning. “Samuel and I will take care of this. Go on now... and don’t let them see you.”
“Yes Katie, I’m going. Please be careful!”
Reluctantly Ry moved towards the back staircase and up to her father’s room. When she was just a little girl, she’d discovered a small storage area hidden in one of the walls. While the entrance itself was fairly low to the ground, it was much larger on the inside and had been the perfect place for her to play her silly adventure games. This would be completely different of course, but with little in the way of options, it was the best thing to do.
Upon entering the room, Ry took a quick peek out the window. Inhaling sharply, her breath caught tight in her chest, and she grasped onto the frame, willing the darkness that hovered at the edges of her vision to go away. She’d never been prone to fainting spells - she’d have rather died first, before showing any such weakness around her brother, but there was always a first time for everything. Matt had warned her they were coming, but knowing and seeing were two completely different things.
Already there were several dozen tents set up in the field closest to the house, interspersed with figures in blue. Now that the sun was setting in earnest, there were campfires here and there, a stark contrast to the twilight that was quickly fading into the true darkness of night. Faced with reality, the brave words she’d used to comfort her brother earlier seemed hollow and empty. Not wanting to tempt fate any longer she moved to conceal herself, taking care to ensure the entrance was hidden from anyone who might dare to look.
Her father’s room was at the front of the house, and there were several large floor-to-ceiling windows which opened onto a narrow balcony, where in happier times she and her father had often sat at night to talk or look at the stars. So now, even from within her hiding place, Ry could hear most of what was going on in the front hall. Listening intently, she heard Katie open the door, and quickly covered her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing out loud when she heard Katie’s voice. The polite and respectful, “How may I help you gentlemen?” - like it was nothing more than a lost traveler or two standing on the porch, or a neighbor riding over to ask for some much-needed assistance, rather than a whole legion of Union soldiers hell-bent on making their lives as miserable as possible.
The reply, when it came however, was enough to wipe the smile off of her face. Though it too was polite, there was an underlying tone of arrogance. Here was a man who was used to giving orders, and having them obeyed instantly. No doubt he would do whatever he wanted to, whether they liked it or not. “Captain Webb ma’am, at your service. Please inform the Master of the house that we would like to speak with him immediately. We will be camping here tonight, and we have orders to gather any supplies as needed.”
Katie, unflappable as ever, simply looked the officer over once and said, “Mister Lee is not in residence at the moment, just my husband and myself. We will do our best to comply with your orders, though truthfully we’ve not much else left to give.”
There was a brief pause and Ry strained to hear the words when he continued, “Well… you are free now you know, since the President’s decree I mean.” He said it awkwardly, as if not quite sure how to approach the subject, and Ry smiled at his discomfort. “If you’d like, we can help you get safe passage up to the north when we go.”
Katie shook her head, “Thank you for your concern, but you misunderstand me. This is our home, and we have no intention of going anywhere. Mister Lee hasn’t owned slaves here in years, he didn’t need any sort of proclamation to do what was right for his people. Samuel and I stay on because we want too, this is where our family is.”
Relieved, the officer only nodded, then turned back to his men, “Cam, make sure they are finished setting up, and that everyone is fed. I don’t want any nonsense tonight. We’ll want to get started early in the morning, the Major wants us back at the main encampment as soon as possible. If you need me, I’ll be here in the house tonight, taking inventory of the supplies that we will take with us.” Without waiting for a reply, he motioned for Katie to lead the way, and then followed her into the house.
The unexpected warmth they’d enjoyed during the day had long since faded, and true to the season, the coming of night brought with it much colder temperatures. Still, the skies were clear and the smallest sounds carried far on the chilling breeze. Ry could hear the men outside settling down for the night, and though she chafed at having to hide like a scared child, she knew she didn’t have much of a choice. She and Katie stocked the room earlier with a bit of food and water, so with nothing much left to do, Ry ate a small meal, then despite it all, started to doze off.
She awoke a short while later at the sound of footsteps in her father’s room, each step like a hammer to a nail and just as loud. Standing carefully, she peeked through a small crack in the wall and was startled to see the Union officer. It made sense of course - given a choice of sleeping on the cold, hard ground or a nice warm bed, the bed was the obvious choice. For some reason it just hadn’t occurred to her that he would violate the sanctity of her father’s room.
Ry fought to control her anger and continued to watch as he walked around the room. The room had changed little since her father’s death, a shrine of sorts to the man whose passing had left such a gaping void in their lives, it was still sometimes hard to believe that he was gone. Though it was no longer used, she and Katie still took turns cleaning and dusting, occasionally putting fresh flowers on the tables. Even now if she pressed her face into his pillow, she could sometimes catch his scent. Her father may have no longer been present in the flesh, but it was no reason not to honor his spirit. She was thankful now they’d not changed too much, and prayed there was nothing that would give away the fact that no one had been using the room for quite some time.
If they’d met under different circumstances, Ry was sure she might have actually been impressed with Captain Elijah Webb. Really, what woman doesn’t find a tall, well-built man attractive. At 27 years old, he was the same age as her brother, but where Matt was fair like their mother, Captain Webb was dark as the night sky. She assumed that his eyes would match, but when he turned they were a piercing blue - a color so deep, any woman would be more than happy to lose herself in them.
She shook her head at the thought, then grimaced. Too bad he was currently commandeering her house, intent on stealing anything not nailed down, a fact that made her less inclined to swoon at his feet. “I’d much rather have him grovelling, or better yet my knife in his ribs,” she whispered viciously.
Angry, she started to pace, then stopped herself as the old floorboards were like to creak with every step. Shaking off her nervous energy, she sighed. To be fair, he had thus far, treated Katie and Samuel well, and thankfully didn’t seem to be intent on trashing the place out of spite. But she knew too, that when he left, he would be taking most of what little she had left, and worse, going off to kill men like her brother - good men, who were just unlucky enough to get stuck on the wrong side of this stupid war.
Fed up with it all, she turned away. Eyeing the bed, she sighed again, silently lamenting that she hadn’t brought in an extra blanket for padding. The bed would do in a pinch, but it was seriously lacking in comfort. Definitely not something that anyone would want to sleep on for the long term, that’s for sure. Climbing in, she settled as best she could, but sleep eluded her, and she found herself wide awake staring uselessly at the wall.
The sound of more footsteps in the hallway had her back out of bed in an instant, and she watched as another officer stepped into the room.
“Captain Webb, everything is set,” he said. “We will be ready to load up the supplies at first light and move out. Also, a messenger arrived, seems we managed to catch some of those bastards trying to hold the river. Should be some fun times when we get back to camp.” The words were punctuated with a vicious grin, and the thinly disguised glee sent shivers down Ry’s back. Her gut twisted sharply and she fought the urge to vomit up her meager dinner.
“Thank you for delivering the message. Dismissed.” Eli barely acknowledged the man as he left, his eyes scanning the rest of the message in his hands. “Damn Matthew, looks like your luck finally ran out,” he said after a few moments, shaking his head.
Still struggling with her disgust, at first Ry thought Eli was speaking to her. He was standing looking up at the wall and they were very nearly eye to eye. Too afraid to move for fear he might notice the shifting light, she stood there stock still. In her mind, she visualized her father’s room, and it took but a moment to realize that he was looking at the family portrait hanging on the wall. How he knew her brother she never stopped to wonder, for just then his words came back to her in a rush…
Oh God… NO!!
Despair filling her heart, it took all she had not to cry out, but even so, Ry couldn’t keep the tears from streaking down her cheeks. He’d used up precious time to come home to give her warning, leaving him none left with which to escape. “You fool!” she cried silently, absolutely no doubt in her mind he’d been taken because of her. She wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all, and when Eli finally turned away from the wall, she stumbled back to her bed and sobbed silently into her pillow.
Never one to wallow in self-pity for long though, her despair quickly turned to anger. Drying her tears, her mind raced ahead, fueled by the rage that was slowly building inside the spaces so recently hollowed out by her grief. A teasing at the edge of reason, there hovered the glimmer of an idea, and as she pulled at each shimmering thread, a plan began to take shape. Not only could she help her brother, but she’d make these Union pigs wish they’d never stepped foot on her property.
For a brief moment, she considered coming right out and stabbing the bastard sleeping in her father’s bed. She caught herself, just barely - knife in hand, as common sense finally kicked in. Realizing as she was preparing to open the hidden door that being surrounded by a hundred or so of his fellow soldiers probably wasn’t the best time to do such a thing - at least not if one wanted to live to tell the tale. So like any good bit of revenge, she would bide her time and wait for the right moment, then serve up the coldest damn dish they’d ever tasted.
Shifting carefully to the bed, she laid back down and pulled her blankets up tight around her shoulders. Willing herself to be calm, she drifted off to sleep as exhaustion finally took hold. Dreaming of what was to come, she waited out the rest of the night safely hidden. Not daring to come out until Katie knocked to let her know that all the troops were long gone from the area.
Virginia: November 8th, 1863
Ry sat in front of the mirror for a long time. Sunken into her overly pale face, her emerald eyes were dull and shadowed, as the sparkling cheval glass reflected back, in minute detail, all the pain and sorrow she was carrying deep within her heart. Sighing, she examined the lock of hair twisted loosely between her fingers. It too seemed limp and lifeless in the morning sunlight. Truth be told, she wasn’t much for vanity - hard to be vain when you grow up in a house with mostly men, but God she loved her hair. Loved the way it curled to profusion in soft auburn waves that glinted like fire in the sunlight. Loved the way it trailed out behind her in the warm summer breezes when she galloped across the fields. Without it, she’d not be herself, which of course was the point, but even so the moment weighed heavy.
“It will grow back, you ninny!!” she whispered to her reflection, even as she continued to mourn its loss. Finally, recognizing she was only stalling the inevitable - it absolutely had to be done if she was ever going to make this work, she gathered her resolve.
Katie stood just behind her, razor sharp shears in hand and for a moment her brown eyes met Ry’s in the mirror, asking without words, “Are you sure?”
“Let’s do this!” Ry nodded, her own eyes filling with fierce determination, as Katie raised the shears to her hair. But determined or not, the glint of unshed tears remained as the long auburn tresses hit the floor.
Despite it all, the close cropped style actually suited her, and she ran her fingers through it a few times before settling on a slightly messy look, rather than one that was more clean cut. Once her hair was gone, the rest was easier in a way. She’d been wearing Matt’s old cast-offs for years when they’d gone out riding, so there was plenty to choose from as she dressed and packed up the few things she would need to get her through the next few weeks. Making sure her breasts were well bound, she finished buttoning up her shirt, then took a last look around to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything.
Not even out the door, yet already she wanted to lay down and rest for a bit. The grief and worry threatening to take over, if only she would let it. Instead, she kept moving - if she stopped to think, or feel, she would lose her mind. Nearly ready, she grabbed her father’s medical bag from the closet, and double checked the supplies. They normally kept it fully stocked for emergencies, but it never hurt to make sure, especially since her skills and that bag were at the heart of her plan. Without it, she’d not get far.
Katie and Samuel tried to talk her out of it of course, protesting and threatening, until their voices were hoarse with it all. In truth, their advice was sound as always, and in some small way Ry desperately wanted to give in to them. In the end though, she had no choice, Matt was really the only family she had left. As much as she had loved her father, he’d been rather distant after her mother’s death. Many a time in their childhood, Matt had wistfully described a father with twinkling eyes and a sunny smile for all, the echos of his booming laughter frequently ringing from the rafters.
It was a direct contrast to the somber, sad-eyed man she’d known for all her life. Not that anyone could really blame him. He’d loved their mother more than anything and when she died giving birth to Ry, it was like a light had gone out. Unfortunately for them all, Lee James never really recovered. Oh he still provided for them, as a doctor his services were always needed, and he had been well respected in the community. To be sure as well, they’d never wanted for anything, but her care and general upbringing had largely fallen to Katie and then later, once she could walk, to Matt. Though he never complained about it, well… not too much anyways, she had been a trial to him, following him everywhere for years. She might have gotten her medical skills from her father, but almost everything else she knew about how to survive in life, she’d learned from her brother. It was time to use those skills to get him back.
“You absolutely sure you want to do this?” Katie asked her again, for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“I have to and you know it,” she said, her voice resolute, taking care to hide any trace of the lingering doubts that swirled inside. If Katie knew she was wavering, she’d keep needling until Ry broke, and she couldn’t afford for that to happen. “Besides, if I don’t do it, who will?”
For all her determination, she was near to tears again as Katie hugged her tight, “You just be careful girl. Don’t need to lose both of you… you hear! Matt wouldn’t want you to get yourself killed for him.”
“Maybe not, but he would do the same for me. So I can’t do any less for him.” She gave Katie’s hand a last squeeze, “Don’t you worry, I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Mmmmmh, you’d better be,” said Katie, shaking her head.
Samuel stood at Katie’s side as always and they watched with concern as Ry grabbed her gear. Waving to them both, she headed off. Afraid if she waited much longer she would lose her nerve.
Virginia: November 9th, 1863
Eli’s quarter horse raced through the field as if demons straight from the bowels hell were chasing him down. Though, considering all he had seen in the last twenty-four hours, it was more likely the demons were in front of him, rather than behind him. What a difference a day makes. On the heels of the brief warm spell they’d all enjoyed, had come the relentless rain - unending sheets of it. Forever thankful that it hadn’t turned to ice, none-the-less, coupled with the cold, it made for miserable travel. He’d had just enough time to backtrack to the battlefield before it started pouring down.
It had finally let up, but now he was mud-spattered and tired, fervently wishing he was home in his own bed, hell any bed, rather than out in this mess. At this point, even the house he had stayed in two nights ago would have been preferable, though he wasn’t sure the owners would feel the same way once they learned he’d had his troops there. Couldn’t be helped really, the soldiers needed food and a place to stay, and the landowners had to do their part, no matter what side of the fence they might be on.
As if any of them had much of a choice these days. He was so sick of this war, and both sides be damned - if he thought he could walk away and not be shot for it, he’d have done it a long time ago. Clearly some of my men are feeling the same way. His eyes narrowed at the thought, but where Eli only wanted to find a nice quiet hidey-hole to ride out the rest of the war in, apparently some of them were taking out their frustrations in other more destructive ways. He ran his hands over his face, trying to scrub away the horror.
“Monsters... that’s what they are!”
His little side trip back to the battlefield had shown him the evidence of that quite plainly. Even now the memory of the mutilated bodies were almost more than he could handle, and he fought the bile that rose hotly in his throat. He’d really hoped Cam had been mistaken, but the coded message had been straight to the point, and now he was going to have to figure out exactly who was involved and how to make it stop before it happened again. Not only that, but given the number of prisoners they’d captured in this latest battle, he needed to get back to camp as quickly as possible to make sure someone didn’t decide to have a bit more fun with their captives.
“Damn them all!” he growled.
The shots came out of nowhere, cracking loud in the silence that otherwise surrounded him. If he’d not been lost in thought they’d have never caught him off guard, but the lack of sleep on top of everything else had him spread a bit thin.
“Son of a bitch!” he yelped as the searing pain across his left bicep brought him quickly to attention. He was damn lucky whoever was shooting at him had really bad aim. “Good way to get yourself killed,” he muttered to himself as he tried to get his bearings and determine exactly who was shooting at him.
The good news, if there was such a thing, was that there were only three of them, or at least only three that he could see. The bad news, and there was always bad news, was that they looked like deserters and likely hell-bent on making sure that anyone who saw them deserting wouldn’t live to tell about it. Unfortunately for Eli, the open field he was crossing offered little in the way of shelter. His only option was to keep riding and hope like hell that he could make it to the wooded area that marked the edge of the farmstead he was riding through.
For a brief moment, he seriously considered calling out to them. After all, why would a Union soldier care if a bunch of Confederates wanted to head for the hills - just that many less to fight tomorrow. Hell, he’d be perfectly happy if every one of them would do it, then they could all just go home and do what they could to put this godforsaken war far behind them.
Sadly, these guys didn’t look to be in the mood to listen to reason. Of course if they’d been anywhere near the receiving end of what he’d seen evidence of last night, it’s not like he could blame them for feeling that way either. Shooting would be too kind for the men who’d committed those atrocities and with any luck, Eli would still be alive to make sure that they paid horribly for it. As the hoofbeats drew ever closer to him though, he was starting to wonder if maybe his own luck was running out.
While they had stopped shooting at him, it was still clear they were intent on riding him down. Likely they were just saving up their ammunition for when they were a bit more up-close and personal. He really did not want to kill them, but if it came down to keeping himself alive, he wasn’t going to have much of a choice. Kneeing his horse, he leaned low in the saddle and rode like the wind. Praying to any God that would listen for some kind of miracle.