“A Seven-Mile Stare in Her Eyes”
By Stephen James: see at Xlntreads.com
Back in 1865, the natural world knew little of mankind’s unexplainable quest for greed, domination, exploitation and cruelty. Here, the mountains — withered by the weather of time, stood still and watched in a tiny remote corner of the Americas. The mighty Rio Grande drifted past yonder delicate crescent, bent like an archer’s bow above a distant summit. Dawn was breaking. The cool of night had long since passed, but the smell of death and gunpowder hung heavy, fetched by a gentle breeze. The rolling river shouted, as ever, its cry of joyous conquest over the vitality of life, like a solitary spirited soldier before the face of inscrutable nature. Determined to defend their rights to suppress the African-American slaves, leaders of the southern states dug in their heels. For a gruelling four years, this country had battered itself to pieces with widespread bloodthirsty conflict, in an attempt to liberate the enslaved. As yet another day fled, the weary soldiers grew homesick and felt sorrow for their slain brother’s un-beating hearts…
A brief synopsis recalls; The eventual surrender of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, once regarded as the most celebrated Confederate army, followed a defeat in the final official battle of the war in Virginia. Over 2,000 military events took place here during the four years — more than any other state. In early April 1865, the battle of The High Bridge raged. Confederates were able to burn much of the railroad bridge, attempting to prevent Union forces from crossing this vital bridge over the Appomattox River. The rebels were unable to destroy another lower bridge, however, enabling Federal forces to pursue General Lee’s army. Within the same month, Richmond fell to the Union Army. The Battle of Appomattox Court House was the climax of a campaign that began eleven days earlier at the Battle of Lewis’ Farm. Lee surrendered soon after.
The Battle of Palmito Ranch is considered by some criteria to be the final battle of the American Civil War. It was fought on May 12th and 13th 1865, on the banks of the Rio Grande east of Brownsville, Texas, just a few miles from the seaport of Los Brazos de Santiago. It was recorded as a Confederate victory. However, since the Confederacy had ceased to exist, it is also argued that this battle should be classified as a post-war action. Yet to be assassinated, President Abraham Lincoln, was all but celebrating the peace. Union and Confederate forces sharing territory in southern Texas had been observing an unofficial truce since the beginning of 1865. A brigade of 1,900 Union troops commanded by Col. Robert B. Jones of the 34th Indiana Veteran Volunteer Infantry, was on blockade duty at the Port of Brazos Santiago, near the mouth of the shipping channel of the Port of Brownsville. Brownsville rests beside the Rio Grande on the Gulf of Mexico. Strangely, a newly assigned Union Colonel, Theodore H. Barrett who had never experienced combat, ordered an attack on a Confederate camp near Fort Brown for unknown reasons. This Colonel, in his early thirties, was anxious to achieve status and higher rank. Several years prior he had volunteered for the newly formed “coloured” regiments and was appointed in 1863 as Colonel of the 1st Missouri Coloured Infantry. These enlisted men were keen to support Lincoln’s unprejudiced policies. In March 1864, the regiment became the 62nd U.S.C.T. (United States Coloured Troops). Barrett contracted malaria in Louisiana that summer, and while he was convalescing, his enthusiastic 62nd was posted to Brazos Santiago. He’d re-joined it there in February 1865. Barrett attacked the garrison a month after the official ceasefire. The Union attackers captured a few prisoners, but the following day the attack was repulsed near Palmito Ranch by Confederate Colonel, John Salmon Ford, and the battle resulted in a Union defeat. Union forces were surprised by artillery, said to have been supplied by the French Army occupying the nearby Mexican town of Matamoros. The Confederates were determined to protect their remaining ports, essential for cotton sales to Europe and the importation of supplies. The cunning Mexicans, residing across the border, tended to side with the Confederate forces because of the lucrative smuggling trade.
Based on the truth, but dramatized for entertainment purposes, the fictional story you are about to enjoy revolves around this particular incident.
Just prior to the heat of this skirmish, on a warmish May 11th morning, Confederate Captain, Curtis Jennings, sat down to pen a letter to his beloved wife, Henrietta. He was alone in this patch of wilderness for some moments of solitude. The previous day, he had carved both their names side-by-side along with the date in an old leafless tree, dead from relentless waterless summers. He’d said a prayer and forgiven the enemy — reminiscing internally about the antebellum period of 1860, then retired to a cave to sleep. Jennings had returned to the tree on his horse to commence the script beside her name. He wrote about the sorrow in his heart for his sick, maimed, mentally scarred and, of course, slain members of his company. Of the original 100-strong, it had dwindled to fewer than thirty-five at one stage, with replacements currently bolstering it back to seventy-three. He finished the letter informing her that the bloodbath was finally over. He told her to take care of their three children because soon he hoped he would be returning to their ranch in Mississippi. Curtis signed the letter in his usual military manner which included his rank. He knew Henrietta found this old trait amusing, but deep-rooted habits were hard to break, weren’t they? He tucked it into an envelope and prepared to return to the garrison. The weary captain patted the cumbersome LeMat 9-shot revolver which was always by his side, he looked forward to the day it could be unbuckled permanently. Curtis stroked his moustache and replaced his battle-worn hat, then pricked his ears to the haunt of movement. He stared across the dust and saw a river of men, much like the Rio Grande — their blue uniforms marching like an unstoppable tide. These were coloured Union soldiers on a mission of purpose. Knowing he had to alert Colonel Ford, the courageous officer leapt off the barrel-like rock serving as his writing platform, to head for his horse. From the silence of nowhere, a spread hand found the centre of his back and a sword blade appeared across his throat…
“One breath out of place means certain death,” commanded a stern voice. He froze. It went on, “Hands raised and don’t turn around, Captain.” It was the voice of a woman. “There has been much idle discussion as to which side has actually won the war.”
“Who are you?” demanded Jennings.
“A friend,” replied the woman.
“If so, then kindly retract your blade madam!”
“Not so hasty, Captain. First, you need to be trusted!”
Jennings’ eyes swivelled the length of the sword. He noticed it to be a Model 1860 Light Cavalry Sabre. “Steal it from a fallen soldier, did you ma’am?”
“Keep still and listen.” The woman removed his LeMat revolver from its holster.
“The war is at an armistice. Word tells me that General Lee has surrendered at a place called Appomattox, some months back. This has triggered a series of formal surrenders throughout Northern America. What the devil could you possibly want with me?” He began to turn around.
“Perfectly still, Captain! No, I didn’t steal this blade… but I certainly know how to use it! And will do exactly that if you disobey me. Are we clear on that?” She carried an accent.
He felt a mixture of fearlessness and trepidation lilted in her voice. “I’ve never bowed to a woman before… what makes you think I am about to start now? Kindly announce your intentions or run me through, woman!”
“My name is Susannah Sabotagé, and I am associated with a unit of the first Louisiana Zouave Battalion, raised by Georges Augustus Gaston De Coppens.” She eased the edge fractionally from his neck. “I have a special request for your commanding officer.”
“The French? Do you support Napoleon the Third and his puppet, Emperor Maximillian, and their Mexican occupation?”
“Not for one single moment.”
“Are you a spy?”
“Regrettably, yes I am. And that is why I must be able to trust you first. I am aware that you will see me hanged before I have the chance to—”
Jennings interrupted, “I have no sympathy for Yankee spies. Take my horse and go and re-join your regiment, at once. That is they in the distance, I take it?”
“What causes you to be so eager as to label me a Union fighter?”
“Confounded stubborn woman! Because you have a sabre cast to the throat of a Confederate Captain. Why else?”
“Not to kill you, more so to prevent you absconding. And they’re not my regiment.”
“I shall refrain from absconding — you have my word as an officer!”
And with that pledge, Captain Jennings’ glove reached for her hand, wrapped tightly around the sabre’s hilt. At first, a little resistance, then she permitted him to lower it and turn to face her. His eyes met with hers, calm like a mountain brooding over the sea. Susannah was breathtakingly beautiful. She looked back with faithful eyes, like a great mastiff to its master’s face. She now saw his features, seemingly rewritten over the years by a blunted chisel, and searched its every square inch. To her, it was obvious that not so long ago, he would have been a strikingly handsome man. Curtis was returning the facial inspection. He had not set eyes on such profound beauty in many months. Her thick auburn hair matched the fire in her eyes, which scorched his heart from close range. This woman looked nothing like the ones who had secretly enlisted for both sides by binding their bosom and hacking their hair short. She was wearing a dress and her shape was obvious. With a pirate smile, Susannah handed back his pistol.
Neither spoke for a moment, then…
“It would appear that you have caught me off guard twice today, ma’am. Your beauty has left me slightly short of breath!” said Curtis. “Pray tell me the urgency of your business. But make it quick, I have to warn my colonel of these advancing troops.” Jennings offered her his writing rock.
She rammed the sabre into the dirt and sat down. “If appropriate, your name, sir?”
“Captain Curtis Jennings, under Colonel John Salmon Ford. Do you travel by horse?”
“I thought so, then I do have the right officer,” Susannah replied to his astonishment, “I watched you come out here yesterday, also. No horse, I travel by rail during the daylight and by foot at night. I know of Colonel John “RIP” Ford. As a matter of fact, I knew him back in the days when he was a Texas Ranger. A great man.”
This sharpened Jennings’ attention. “Do go on, please.”
“It concerns my brother, Jacob. He is being held captive at the garrison. At first, I had come to warn you about the impending attack on your regiment blockading at Brownsville. However, yesterday you were so fleet of foot that I failed. I had to rest after a hurried three-day trek ahead of that brigade from whence I came. My own is upriver.”
“Why is he still being held captive, we are at an official ceasefire? Thousands of prisoners from both sides have been released. That is the news which finds our ears, at least.”
“Because, he too is a spy. To be more accurate of the truth… he spied for the North and the South. Jacob had good reason for what he was doing, but I don’t really have time to explain. I fear his days are numbered. There will be little chance of a pardon from either, where he is concerned. It, of course, is regarded as high treason. We all know the potential punishment is hanging. That is unless you decide to help me.”
“Miss Sabotagé, I am sorry, but I have very little influence in regard to the positioning of the laws of the Confederacy, disbanded or otherwise. What he has done, whether it be with good or unjustifiable intentions, is in the hands of my superiors. I simply cannot and will not interfere!”
He’d forced her to into a loquacious explanation. “I am fully aware that your highest duty is obedience to your superiors. I am not asking you to reason with them. I am asking you to assist me in freeing him under the cover of darkness, tonight. You see, that brigade of men we can both clearly see will be attacking your camp tomorrow. Led by Lt. Col. David Branson whose senior officer, Colonel Theodore Barrett, wishes to steal your three hundred horses for their unmounted cavalrymen. Barret also has his eyes on the two thousand bales of cotton for their monetary value. I don’t have to draw it to your attention how hopelessly outnumbered your troops are, do I? Their intention is to seize Fort Brown which is where Jacob is imprisoned. I have overheard an instruction that he is to be released by a special insurgence group during the attack and executed as though it were part of the battle. Preceding the war, Jacob was a minister at our local church. He is a good man, Captain Jennings!”
“I appreciate the warning and your situation is a sad one. But you have brought it upon yourselves by your own acts of espionage. At present you are free. However, any effort made by you to attempt to release him shall cause me to arrest you, miss. Is that quite clear?”
“I can pay handsomely. If that is what you desire!” She produced a small bankroll of notes.
“Keep your money woman! This is a matter of principle.”
“As part of the enemy, I could have run you through on sight, Jennings, but I refrained from doing so. Just how long are you going to sustain your arrogance?”
He squared her in the eye. “But you needed me. So, you didn’t.”
Susannah turned away to stare at the distant rocky escarpments. Appearing as though some underworld giant had punched great chunks of rock through the earth’s crust, these towering pillars stretched way off into the horizon. Natural monoliths touched by little but the wind and the rain. Susannah held her silence with a seven-mile stare embedded in her eyes. She spoke at the prehistoric picture she had just travelled through. “Yes, of course I needed you.” She turned to face him. “Must I drop to my knees to beg of you to help?”
His jaw raised away in the hot breeze. “I’m prepared to escort you back to the garrison. I shall speak well of you, Miss Sabotagé. Once there, you can appeal your story to Colonel Ford.”
She pulled his jaw back with both hands to face her distress. “This I cannot do, sir! I did not wish to disclose this… but Ford and I were lovers once, long after he divorced Mary. It ended in bitterness when the war started.”
“Perhaps you should have considered where your true loyalties lie?”
“Oh, the certainty of a closed mind! For some reason, when we actually met, I foolishly believed you may prove to be more than merely a yes man to political views. What if it was your children who were being held captive, and it was you who was appealing to me? Would that mark to soften your rigid manner?”
“What makes you think I have any offspring?”
She shot back a most venturous tone, “I can see them in your eyes!”
Curtis stared back at this woman’s beauty, not just in her flesh but in her resolve of passion. She was magnificent and only inches away. Her eyes were honest ones and her lips were full. The woman had planted a seed in his vulnerable garden — his family. He had been many seasons in the filth of battle, covered with the red dust and sweat, far away from the affections of Henrietta. After the proposed attack, Curtis knew he may very well be dead by tomorrow. He wanted to kiss Susannah right there and then, but knew it wasn’t right. Before he could give her an answer, the sounds of repeated rifle fire startled them. A succession of bullets ripped past their heads, some embedding into the craggy dead tree bearing an engraving of his family name, others ricocheting off nearby boulders. She threw herself into a desperate embrace. Captain Jennings whistled loudly, but his battle-savvy stallion had already deserted its place of pasture; the one solitary patch of greenery for miles. In seconds, he’d arrived…
Jennings hoisted her into the saddle and thrust his boot into the stirrup, hauling himself up behind her, bareback. “My sabre!” she shouted over the gunfire.
“Not worth your life!” he yelled back, nudging the large black horse into full stride with his heels. “Hi-yaaar Midnight!”
On retreat, Captain Jennings took a bullet in his left shoulder but did not fall. Midnight had two skim his hindquarters and a third passed through the saddle’s pommel, lodging in his withers. It missed Susannah’s thigh by inches. Curtis knew his steed had taken the minor hit. He also knew that the Federal soldiers would probably not break ranks to chase. So, once they were well out of range, he eased his gait back to a canter — then to a walk. The spot, at which they’d met, was over thirty miles from Fort Brown, proving to be a good six to eight hours ride for a solo rider with a fully fit horse. They had put an hour between the marching troops and themselves, but in order to forewarn Ford of the planned attack, arriving before nightfall was both urgent and near impossible. He could smell Midnight’s blood mixed with sweat and wanted to rest the stallion to evaluate the grade of his wound. The bullet needed to be removed from his own shoulder also. After five hours tedious ride over rugged terrain, during which the unpredictable Miss Sabotagé shared her brother’s full story, they reached a grassy forested area beside a small lake. The reflection of escarped rocky outcrops with mountainous backdrops on a millpond of extreme calm created a commanding picturesque view. They admired its allure. The sun was scorching, low, and golden. He removed the western saddle, filled up his water canteen and waded into the water fully dressed — minus his gun and boots. The horse followed him in, as did Susannah — minus her dress…
Jennings produced a bayonet from his saddle and handed it, with a handkerchief, to Susannah. “Cut the lead out fast and tie this around it,” he quietly said, while removing his uniform. He bit on the sleeve preparing for the pain. When the crumpled bullet fell into the grass, he asked, “Can you do the same for him? They will be following our trail. Without Midnight, we will die for certain.”
The captain had noticed that the horse also had one lodged just below the surface of his withers, only the thick leather pommel had stood between his loyalty and most likely becoming lame, which meant death via Jennings’ pistol. Curtis urged the animal down on his side. Susannah went to work. They bathed both wounds and rested. He checked his fob watch, knowing they had to leave before the hour had passed. The captain was fully aware that the enemy soldiers would also require resting before their proposed assault, but he had no idea where or when. Without hearing of any previous written warning from Union Colonel, Theodore H. Barrett, which was the accepted protocol before regulation battles, he had determined this man to be a rogue commander in search of glory after the fact. In his heart, Jennings felt like he owed her in several ways and spoke to her of a plan.
Cleaner and fresher now, after bathing, they remounted the steed and advanced slowly to nurse his injury, arriving at Cameron County just after dusk. Jennings was aware of the fact that she had to be alienated from Colonel Ford, who would know that she was with the Union forces. He could not be reliant upon any sympathy from his senior officer, despite the fact that she was the one bearing the forewarning message. They met a shortish saluting corporal at the entrance to the camp outside the fort. He was a Texan-Mexican with a big moustache and full beard. He had shaggy curly hair, which appeared to have been cut with a knife and fork, and peculiar exophthalmic eyes, so bulbous that it made the lids appear as though they would struggle to close shut.
“Good evening, Captain Jennings sir,” greeted the corporal, “you are somewhat late to return. Is everything in order?”
“Yes, good evening to you also, Corporal Chauhan. There was some delay, but I must speak with the colonel on a matter most urgent. Will you take care of my cousin here, and see to it that she is fed? Then await my return. Her name is Susan Smith. She is a historic journalist for The News Scimitar out of Memphis Tennessee. Do not let her out of your sight, Corporal. Is that understood?”
“Yes sir! Immediately, consider it done sir!” Chauhan snapped a second salute accompanied by his boot heels crunching together. He helped her down.
“Wait here in the camp, Sue,” Jennings said to her with a wink, “and no flirting with any of my company!” He squeezed her hand. “I shan’t be able to return for you tonight, the news I have will take considerable preparation. I shall return for you tomorrow morning. Corporal Chauhan here is a good man. He will see to your needs.”
“But Curtis, I cannot possibly—”
“No objections, cousin. I must ride fleet of foot. Now go!”
Grateful of the lighter weight now, Midnight cantered towards the fort. Susannah merely observing the back of his waving glove…
At dawn, the once-was spy paced up and down impatiently because there was no sign of him. Still, by noon of May 12th, Jennings had failed to appear before Susannah Sabotagé and there was no sign of her brother, Jacob, either. Her concern intensified. Many of the troops in the camp had been summoned to make haste for White’s Ranch — she’d overheard the issued orders. She was mindful that word had gotten to Col. John Ford, and it appeared that Union Lt. Col. David Branson must have changed tactics. Susannah saw the fully armed soldiers riding out. In tow, were six 12-pounder Napoleon Model 1857 French field-guns. The fighting had commenced, but not at Fort Brown. Had Jennings betrayed her? Had he been shot in the interim period? Does she stay put and wait, or attempt to free her brother by herself?
An attempt to leave was thwarted by the corporal. “You must not leave, Miss Sue. I have my orders. The ceasefire has been disrupted,” he stressed, grasping her arm. “It is dangerous out there for a woman.”
“How can I possibly document this battle from this, this, this… prison?”
Corporal Chauhan knew nothing of her courage, but she could not reveal her reasons for wanting to visit the garrison and therefore was forced to sit and wait. In the distance could be heard the cannon fire. In her head could be heard the cries of frustration. She spent a second night at the camp which offered the opportunity to wash her clothes. Wrapped helplessly in a blanket, she waited all the next day. The siege had essentially fully engaged at Palmito Ranch near the Boca Chica crossing zone at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The screams of dying men carried to her ears on the wind. The French cannons bombarded her Union cohorts into oblivion. She sat holding her face in her hands. Tears were rare for this spicy female, but for these long hours they flowed. Deprived of the daily emergencies of conflict, she now had time to think. She wept for the mindless slaughter brought on by the pride and petty grievances of a select few and the guilt of having been a part of it all. She wept in the belief that her brother was probably dangling from a rope. There were no other women around for her to confide in — just several groups of fed up ex-soldiers, both wounded and mentally broken. For the first time in her life, Susannah Sabotagé wished she was dead. Another long hot night passed.
The morning sunlight began to burn her closed eyelids. She lay outside one of the tents; head on an arrested carpetbagger’s confiscated belongings. It was a Sunday.
“Someone to see you Madam Sue,” said Chauhan, tapping her upper arm with his rifle.
She looked up, red-faced and silent.
“Sister? It is you!” said Jacob with an element of surprise and wearing humble prison garb. His voice’s tone also carried a French seasoning.
“No closer, prisoner Sabotagé!” warned the corporal, holding the rusty-barrelled Springfield rifle in Jacobs’ back. “Not too sure what exactly is going on here.”
Susannah scrambled to her feet in total disbelief.
“Special pardon from the nation’s new leader, President Andrew Johnson himself,” said Captain Jennings who’d kept momentarily out of sight; his arm in a sling. He was on a different black horse and had allowed Jacob to approach Chauhan, still shackled. Curtis waved an important-looking wad of papers in front of his corporal’s face. “I’m to escort them to the railroad soon. And I’ll need your help.”
Alberto Chauhan, who could neither read nor write, which Curtis was aware of, removed his hat and eyeballed the documents with precision. The only things he recognized were the enlarged words; United States of America which appeared at the top of Jennings’ requisition for convalescent leave, approved by Col. Ford the day prior. Curtis had marked; 17th President of America Andrew Johnson with a signature-like script in heavy pen over the top of his commanding officer’s signature. “All seems in order sir. Naturally I will assist you.”
“Naturally,” said Jennings, folding and tucking the misleading paperwork into his coat. “You realise we’ve beaten the bluecoats at Palmito Ranch, don’t you corporal? Splendid effort. Completely outnumbered we were. Fetch him some clothes, at once. Be ready by tomorrow noon, all of you. I shall arrange the horses.” He extracted a bottle of whisky from his coat. “Here Alberto… celebrate the victory, but save it until tomorrow. Sunday today, remember!”
Susannah wanted to hug him but said nothing at all.
“Thank you, sir… that is very kind of you. I shall fetch an axe at once.” He did so, and with an almighty swing — it severed the chain between the shackles. “Almost free now, Mister Sabotagé, or is it Smith?”
“I’m grateful for that corporal, and any name is fine,” replied Jacob. “Congratulations on the victory, albeit too late. This battle was fought in vain. My cousin has informed me of much in the last twenty-four hours. I am now privy to the news of the armistice.”
Chauhan, fidgeting with his beard asked, “How is it to be that you were arrested for being a spy, and yet you are related to my captain?”
Jacob felt a twist of irritation. “A good question fine sir. It was—”
“An unfortunate case of mistaken identity, hence the pardon. I had no knowledge of his incarceration,” interrupted Jennings, “he shall be compensated.”
“I see,” said Chauhan, rotating his treasured bottle of gold.
Susannah approached. “Where is Midnight, Curtis? This steed bares a white blaze on his face.” She patted the horse’s bobbing nose. “Did he make it?”
“You shall see him again tomorrow, cousin. This one is called Satan and will be yours in the morning. Now I must prepare to leave. Be sure to be ready early!” He juddered his heels into the magnificent horse’s belly. Again, Susannah observed the back of the waving glove of the man she was growing to admire at an alarming rate…
At 6:00 am, Jennings arrived beside their tent with Corporal Chauhan who was driving a prairie wagon with a large timber chest and some supplies in the rear. The curved top steamer trunk had rope handles, was secured shut by two engraved leather straps and all the corners were reinforced with metal shrouds. The wagon was being pulled by the two black horses. Jennings produced a key, which he slotted into the locks of the metal cuffs still attached to Jacob’s wrists.
“My humble apologies for not having these removed yesterday. Lt. Frankston, the jail keeper, had been sent to fight at Palmito Hill; as was I. With such strained resources, my company required his leadership.” This was only the partial truth, offered in front of his enlisted man. It was true that he did fight at the front line despite carrying the wounded shoulder. Near the battle’s demise, when Col. Barrett’s men were retreating, he managed to return to the fort to release Jacob, but he could not locate the other key.
“You are a sight for sore eyes, cousin Curtis,” grinned Susannah.
“Climb aboard, we have a long journey ahead. We are headed for the railroad. Satan and Midnight are coming with us aboard the trains to Mississippi. The corporal will return to camp with this wagon after we purchase two replacement horses.” Jennings then pulled from his pocket the envelope addressed to Henrietta, written alongside the dead tree. “I’ve decided to hand-deliver this.”
The plan Curtis had made at the lake, when he promised to help her, included escorting them back to his ranch just outside Jackson. She would then travel on to her family home in Missouri. They would share the costs. Susannah and Jacob Sabotagé eagerly climbed into the prairie wagon for the first leg of the eight-hundred-mile excursion northeast — through the states of Texas and Louisiana. A connecting route of alternating stagecoaches and railroads awaited over the next four days. She threw one last look behind her at the war-torn camp as they departed…
The two powerful horses eased the old wooden wagon away from the throws of the last battlefield of the American Civil War, and onward towards the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad Station, built roughly ten years prior. Scarcely nothing but the sound of their clunking hooves, and the occasional whinnying snort, could be heard during the initial stages of the uncomfortable first leg. These noises, and the relentless rattle of their harness chains, blended with the clattering spoked wheels of hickory wood and crude flat metal tyres against the dirt trail. Outlying skirmishes were still being fought between the uninformed rebel resistance and the remaining stragglers of their Union rivals. Distant gunfire rang through the valleys. Half a day later, they boarded the proud old steam train with her locomotive’s broad funnel and front-mounted cowcatcher, and farewelled the reliable Texan corporal, who had long-since drained his whisky bottle. An entire day further on, the stagecoach whisked them along the frontier towards the next station. As the trio passed each dusty mile and through many storms, they shared stories of the war which Susannah documented. Although Jennings had not known it previously when he bluffed his corporal about her journalism position, the attractive young woman had previously aspired to become an author. All that was required was a catalyst to pursue her passion.
The familiar landscape of Jackson looming through the carriage windows brought a smile to Captain Jennings’ face. On approach to the tiny platform, the locomotive let out a multi-blasting array of whistling sounds, like a forlorn call rewarded only by the ears it fell upon. He felt excited about seeing Henrietta once again and longed to see how much his children had grown. It had been many years since he had obtained a sabbatical of any description. He still wore the sling but intended to remove it, so as not to alarm his beloved, when they set eyes upon each other. The train rumbled in with diminishing chuffs, accompanied by brake-hiss and screech, as it began slowing down to a standstill. A whistle pierced loudly from the guard leaning from the caboose at the rear. They alighted, gathered the remainder of their supplies, along with the trunk, plus the two horses and purchased a new wagon from a nearby stock dealer.
“You must spend several nights with Henrietta and me at our ranch, Shenandoah Gardens,” said Jennings, as they passed his neighbouring homesteads. “We can get further acquainted and you can both freshen up before you set off for Missouri. She’ll feed you both well… I’ll hear nothing of a refusal from either of you.”
“So much kindness,” said Susannah, bashfully looking at his striking now cleanshaven profile. “I did not ask this much of you, Captain Jennings, when our paths crossed out there for the very first time. My request was merely the freedom of my brother.” She turned to wave at Jacob who was lying on the boards beside the wooden trunk; his smiling face rocking with the bumps. “I shall repay you handsomely one day in the future.” She rested her head against his shoulder.
“We all get repaid in some way or other, ma’am. You have already repaid me with your faith and trust. I require no money. Mention my name in your book. That will suffice!” His smile flattened to one of satisfaction. They spent some moments of quiet as the wagon rounded a sweeping bend, passing a tributary of the Mississippi River lined with great oaks. Then he said, “I’ve decided to let you keep both of my favourite horses too, ma’am. You see, Midnight and Satan are brothers. It wouldn’t seem fair to separate them now, would it?”
As the two stallions sensed home to be not too far away now, they elevated to a canter. The oaks began to move swiftly by. They scurried past his next-door neighbour, Geoffrey William Calhoun, who was waving frantically and shouting on the side of the road, but nothing was going to slow them down. Jennings nodded. If Susannah had only mildly felt like she was falling in love with him before, it suddenly had become confirmed in unprecedented fashion after she fully realized his caring nature. This compassionate disposition had been hidden so deeply beneath that tough rugged and extremely disciplined exterior. Sadly though, this dynamic feminine character with the Aphrodite looks would fall agonisingly short of her second military man, in her thirty-two years spent breathing. Both for differing reasons. Susannah knew she would be handing him back to the deserving woman who, at this point, had no knowledge of his return. Her mind mulled over the prospects of her spinster life, with honour and glory but wasted beauty, as an author. She saw a large roadside sign, which, in spectacular, bold, italic, Caslon lettering spelt out the words; Welcome to Shenandoah Gardens Cattle Ranch. The sign was flanked by bushy Magnolias with a grand archway of stone beside them to pass under. They turned left beneath the archway. Once in, the long gravel driveway weaved smoothly down a gentle slope. A backdrop of green hills spattered with cattle spanned endlessly off to the horizon. Birds filled the rich oxygenated skies and a cooling breeze caressed their faces. Ahead, the drive took an uphill sweep over a hill familiar to Curtis because, beyond it, lay his glorious sprawling house with its surrounding verandahs.
The horses now in a near gallop…
Approaching the grade, he eased them back to a trot, then to a walk — Jennings knew his livestock well. However, he not only wanted to save the pair’s strength but also wanted to savour these moments. It had been a long time coming. Susannah stared up at his glow in admiration, then, as the vehicle broke its temporary horizon, to reveal the splendour, her face broke into tears. The wagon stopped still on the crest. In front of them lay a once-smouldering ruin. What used to be the captain’s loving household was now just a pile of disintegrated logs and stonework. Two elaborate blackened chimney stacks remained standing, but there was no sign of life. Word had not gotten to him about the Federal raid on his property barely six weeks prior. They had run amuck, stolen or desecrated his belongings and razed it to the ground. A deathly breezeless silence hung over the holocaustic property. Curtis sank to the lowest depths of his entire life. The exhausted pair of horses hauled the wagon slowly down the last few-hundred-metres of road, somehow themselves also sensing the loss. The three onboard climbed down to survey, but there was nothing left. Everything he’d possessed, including his family, was lost forever. The broken man’s entire worldly belongings now lay in that small wooden trunk. At the eastern side, where his small apple orchard once stood, were four mounds of soil; three small and one larger, each with a crude cross made from lashed sticks pressed into the soil. Beside the mounds sat a small timber board bearing the statement…
You barbarians… Now who are the slaves?
Jennings fell to his knees with his hands covering his face, crying with all his heart. After several minutes, he stared heavenward uttering, “Explain fairness Lord? One moment you are running along, and the next moment you are not.”
She dropped beside him — arm comforting his grief. Jacob’s tears wetted the grave soil also, but either’s words somehow seemed fruitless. The brother and sister just needed to be there right now. Jennings removed the enveloped letter from his Confederate uniform and placed it on the larger grave. Next, he removed his coat and spread it over the top. The three said a prayer before returning to the wagon. The captain retrieved a hessian water bag from the rear; filling a metal bowl to allow his horses a well-earned drink. He suspected the dam’s water supply would be poisoned, as was a typical procedure. They mourned for a period but there seemed little point in lingering in sorrow. “I no longer wish to be a part of this bitterness. I guess this is what Geoffrey William Calhoun was trying to warn me about way back before the entrance. Best go and pay him a visit, folks.”
Calhoun explained in full what had happened, giving them his maximum hospitality for several days. He told them to stay for as long as was necessary. Susannah and Jacob passed on their address then bid them all farewell after five days, paying Calhoun for two of his horses, which Jacob harnessed to the wagon. He gave the money to Jennings after they departed.
Eighteen months later, retired captain, Curtis Jennings rode into Cassville, Missouri, on Satan’s back with his baggage-laden brother in tow. He asked the local post office operator for directions; which he got. The old lady then added, “Are you a-fixin’ to stay? If so, you just pushed our population up to 263 townsfolk. You know, I’ve been here since ’45. One of the first to arrive, I was!”
When he arrived at the tiny log cabin, there was a bespectacled woman with a blaze of auburn hair flowing in the breeze. She was sitting on the porch and looked up from a manuscript she was writing, then rose to her feet. Calmly, Jennings stepped off the saddle and tipped his hat. “Just looking to uphold my promise, Susannah. After all, I did give them to you,” he said, handing her the reigns. “Do you know where a man could start a new life?”
“I’ve nearly finished the book,” she replied, “and… of course, you are in it!”
Once again, Curtis Jennings took note of the seven-mile stare in her eyes. When she tried to search his mind, he simply kissed her and said, “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
She replied, “I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”