[Note from Nann: Please be aware there is some mention of battle violence in this section.]
For the first time since being wounded, Bren woke with a good feeling-hunger. Her leg merely ached, her body felt cool, and her head was clear. She lay still for a minute, savoring her near-miraculous recovery, before she turned to reach for the cheese on the table next to the bed. Her hand was stayed, however, when she moved too freely and realized her belt, pistol, and holster were gone. She moved her good leg and realized she also no longer wore trousers. Glancing at the door to make sure it was closed, she flipped the cover partway off her body. Her long shirt reached down to the middle of her thighs, but sure enough, no trousers encased her legs. She put the cover back in place, raised herself on one elbow and searched the room with her eyes. She didn't see the pistol, but she did notice that a folded pair of trousers lay on the bureau.
Damn it. I'll bet the woman took my trousers and washed them. I wonder just how far she undressed me? So much for being cool and clearheaded. The idea that she might be found out shook Bren, and a knock on the door made her insides jump. She tensed in anticipation of confrontation. "Come in," she said, then nearly sighed with relief when Benjamin entered.
His words tumbled out in a rush. "Hi, Mr. Cordell. Mama sent me to see if you were awake, and how do you feel, and would you like some vegetable soup?" Then a smile lit his face, and his eyebrows lifted. "Mama killed a chicken and put it in the soup." He leaned a little closer to Bren as though imparting a secret. "And she's saving me the wishbone."
"Is that so?" Bren relaxed even more. Maybe the situation was all right. It didn't sound threatening. The youngster's whole attitude drew a friendly smile from her. "And what are you going to wish for?"
Benjamin straightened up and sobered. "I'm going to wish for you to get all better."
Bren's voice stuck in her throat for a moment until she cleared it. "Thank you, Benjamin. I really appreciate that." She blinked and took a deep breath. "Tell your mama I'm feeling much better, and I would dearly love to have a bowl of vegetable soup." The youngster turned to leave, then looked back when Bren called to him. "Benjamin, when I finish eating, maybe you would come visit with me for a while. All right?"
The boy's grin spread across his face. "Yes, sir. I would like that. I'll ask Mama."
Bren watched him leave. What a sweet youngster. He seems quite grown up for his age. Maybe a ten-year-old?
Hunger pushed any further thoughts away. She reached again for the cheese and tore a chunk out with her teeth. She ate it and the bread before Faith entered, carrying a wooden tray that had sides and legs. The bowl of soup, a spoon, and a chunk of bread rested on the tray, and a folded linen napkin lay next to a vase containing a single yellow rosebud. The rosebud completed Bren's relief. It seemed she was being treated like a guest.
"I'm happy to see that you're feeling better, Mr. Cordell," Faith said and placed the tray on the bedside table. "Do you think you can sit up and manage this yourself?" Her eyes sparkled as she looked at Bren. "Or would you rather I feed it to you?"
"Not a good question, ma'am, if you're looking to save yourself some work," Bren said with a smile. "But I'm feeling a lot stronger. I think I can take care of it." She sat up and pushed against the mattress to maneuver herself toward the bed's headboard, while Faith picked up the pillow and situated it properly behind her patient. When Bren finally got comfortable, Faith set the tray across the soldier's thighs. "Thank you for the food . . . and the flower," Bren said.
Faith turned toward the door. "I'll leave you in peace while you eat."
Bren stopped with a spoonful of soup on its way toward her mouth. "No, please, stay and talk with me if you have time. Have you heard any news about the fighting nearby?" She returned to eating, and Faith settled in the rocking chair and began pushing her feet against the wood floor.
Red curls bounced as Faith shook her head. "I haven't seen anyone to get any news. When I'm outside, the noise of battle does sound stronger, like it's getting closer. The fighting seems to go on in fits and starts, though. For several days there were no sounds at all."
Bren nodded. "That could be because of reinforcements each side is getting." She tore off a piece of bread, dipped it into the soup, and stuffed it into her mouth. Then she saw Faith was watching her eat. She swallowed the bread as she wiped her dripping chin with the napkin, and said, "Excuse my rough manner of eating, please. I don't get much opportunity to share a meal with a lady."
Faith brushed away the excuse with a wave of her hand. "I would guess that good manners are one of the first casualties of army life. One can't politely try to exterminate one's enemy." Faith stopped rocking and leaned forward, lacing her fingers together and supporting her forearms on her thighs. "In fact, army life must be rough for everyone concerned."
Bren silently finished eating and replaced the spoon on the tray. Faith rose and moved the tray to the side table, then sat back in the rocker. "I'm sure you would agree, wouldn't you, that army life is hard on a man . . . and perhaps even harder on a woman?"
A premonition of trouble guttered through Bren. She tilted her head back overtop the pillow until she felt the headboard, then she brought it forward again, straightening her neck. "You bathed me while I was unconscious."
Faith nodded. "Yes, I did."
"And changed my clothes."
"All of them."
"Yes, including the bandage around your chest."
Bren looked down at her hands, which were twisting the covers. Then she raised her head and met Faith's eyes again. Her shoulders tensed and her drawl thickened. "Are you going to tell anyone?"
Faith's expression showed concern and uncertainty. "That was my first inclination. I've been pondering it for the last several days . . . while you very nearly died from your wound. If I turn you in, you can go home and be safe. You won't be in danger anymore."
Bren leaned forward from the pillow and sat up straighter. Her voice took on an edge. "I accepted that danger when I decided to hire out to the army. It's part of my job."
"But it doesn't have to be. You've already done your share." Faith pulled a sheet of paper from her apron pocket to reinforce her point. "Here's an article I read in a journal called The Sibyl. It tells of a woman masquerading as a soldier. Her true identity was discovered when she was wounded, and the authorities didn't do her any harm. They just mustered her out and sent her home, away from the fighting."
Bren sneered at what she considered Faith's overprotective attitude. "I want to keep doing what I contracted to do, not get flung away like useless baggage."
"You won't be flung away; you'll just be relieved of any further duties, and you'll be safe. I believe I shall report you." Faith's irritation sharpened her tone.
Muscles rippled across Bren's jaw as she spoke between clenched teeth. "I'm a grown woman. What makes you think you have the right to choose my life for me?"
"I saved that life, remember?" Faith said, her cheeks flushing. "I hate to think that effort was in vain; that you'll just go right back to putting yourself at risk."
"And why not?" Bren's voice grew quieter, somehow making the soft drawl in her words sound more passionate. "If I were a man, I would do the same thing, and you wouldn't threaten me or chastise me about it. In fact, you would expect it. Maybe even admire it."
Faith stomped a foot against the floor, jerking the rocker. She grabbed the chair arms as her voice spurted from her. "No, I wouldn't. I would feel-" She hesitated as a flicker of doubt crossed her face. After a long moment, she continued. "Well, maybe your gender is coloring my thinking, but that doesn't make your masquerade right."
Bren snorted in disgust and threw off the covers. Leaning forward to grasp her injured limb, she swung both legs over the side of the bed, then pushed herself to sit up straight. Faith jumped to her feet and dropped a hand onto her shoulder. "What do you think you're doing?"
Bren's hoarse voice was like a sledgehammer driving a wedge into rock. "I'm getting the hell out of here before you betray me." She tried to stand, but Faith easily held her down. Bren yanked the hand from her shoulder, grabbed Faith's arm, and pulled herself up to stand on one leg, holding onto Faith for balance.
The action startled the redhead. "You're tall," she said rather pointlessly. Standing taller than most women, Faith was a few inches shorter than Bren, though she weighed at least 30 pounds more than the lean and sinewy scout. "And hardheaded."
"So are you," Bren retorted, even as she recognized both truths. Then she frowned and deepened her drawling tone. "Either get me those crutches out of the corner, or move out of my way."
Faith's resolve wavered in the face of such intensity. "Surely you can't be that determined to stay in the army after nearly dying."
Bren's gaze turned even fiercer, and her hand tightened on Faith's arm, making the woman wince. "I am determined. I will keep doing my best to help my cause, no matter what you think." Still holding onto Faith, Bren took one hop toward the crutches, then let go. Immediately, she swayed.
Faith quickly grasped Bren's upper arm. "Sit back down. Please. If you have your mind set that firmly, I won't stop you." She sighed in exasperation. "I don't agree with your choice, but you're right. It's not up to me to decide how you live . . . or die."
Bren turned her head to measure Faith eye to eye then nodded. "All right. I'll trust your word on it." Leaning on Faith, Bren hopped back to the bed, sat down, and took a deep breath. That little bit of activity had taken a toll on her energy. Heh, she jeered at herself. Me and my brave talk about leaving. I wouldn't have been able to get dressed, let alone make it to the barn.
Faith helped Bren raise her wounded leg onto the bed, then pulled the covers up. "As long as you don't step on anyone else's rights, you can do as you please," Faith said with some asperity. She sat down again in the rocker, then leaned her head to the side. "I am curious, though. You're obviously an educated woman. Just why did you want to take part in the war?"
Bren worked to control her emotions. "I wanted to do something to make a difference in the world. Families in my town were sending men and boys to fight for their cause, and I didn't see why I shouldn't go too. I can ride and shoot as well as they can, and I'm bigger than most of them. I didn't see why my gender should keep me from helping."
Faith's lips quirked at that reasoning. "I was bigger than my husband, too, and I have to admit that I probably would have made a stronger soldier. But the idea of joining up never entered my mind. Maybe because I had to take care of Benjamin. Speaking of which-" She turned her head toward the door, then back. "I think it might be better for Benjamin's sake to keep quiet about your gender. This war has been difficult enough for him to understand, without confusing him further."
Bren agreed with that assessment. "I have no intentions of telling anyone. In a day or two, I'll be out of here, and you won't have to be concerned about it." Speaking aloud about leaving saddened her, though she was at a loss to explain why.
Faith's expression had begun to lighten, but now it turned stern, and Bren got a dose of her schoolmarm attitude. "Oh no, you won't. You're not going anywhere until that open wound is healed. I didn't struggle to save your leg so you could go out and get it reinfected." She nodded toward the crutches Bren had tried to reach. They were simply fashioned; each was a long pole with a curved piece of wood attached to the top. "Tomorrow, we'll find out whether you can manage those crutches and get up and around a bit. Until then, you stay right in that bed."
So she doesn't like losing an argument, Bren thought. But I do owe her some consideration.
"Yes, ma'am." She saluted in mock obedience, granting Faith the opportunity to save face. "But may I at least use the slop jar again when necessary? I found it under the bed a little earlier."
Faith's cheeks turned pink. "Of course, you may. I'll see to emptying it for you." She stood up. "Benjamin said you invited him to visit you after you finished eating."
"Yes, I did. He's a fine boy. You should be proud of him."
"Thank you. And thank you for showing him such kindness. He's very excited about your being here. I'll send him right in. Do you need anything?"
"Not really, but I have a question. Isn't The Sibyl a journal for women?"
Faith bent down and busied herself with removing the covered slop jar from beneath the bed. "Uh . . . yes. Are you familiar with it?"
"Indeed, I am." Bren scratched her head above her ear. "I believe they support a woman's right to be whatever she pleases. Even to having equality with men."
Faith stood up with the jar in her hands and said with some crispness, "Look, you won your point. Just don't go getting overbearing about it."
A small smile parted the hair on Bren's face. "Yes, ma'am," she said again, drawing the words out in exaggeration.
With a flounce, Faith departed, closing the door behind her.
The smile broadened as Bren let relief wash over her. So she reads The Sibyl. I like a woman with some fire in her veins. This is becoming an interesting recuperation.
She was still smiling when a knock sounded. "Come in," she called, and Benjamin entered with a cloth bag in his hand. "What's that you have, Benjamin?"
The boy came over to the bed and opened the bag. He grabbed its edges and pulled them apart and held the bag out for Bren to see inside of it. "My Pa gave me these. They're soldiers."
Bren reached over, tugged down the top of the bag with her finger, and looked in. Then she patted the mattress beside her. "Dump them on the bed, and let's take a closer look at them."
Benjamin turned the bag over and a bunch of painted lead figures tumbled out into a pile. Dressed in uniforms of the Revolutionary War, the figures in blue represented the patriots, and those in red, the British. Some figures wielded swords, some aimed muskets, and some were on horseback. Two drummer boys, two soldiers carrying their respective flags, and four cannon mounted on caissons filled out the collection.
They sorted out the two colors, putting a group on one side of Bren and the other on the opposite side. When they finished, Benjamin pointed to the red-clad figures. "I call the red ones our soldiers, and the blue are the Yankees."
"That sounds good to me. Do you want to fight against each other, or both be on the same side?"
Dark brown eyes widened. "Mama always fights against me. Are we allowed to both fight on the same side?"
Bren pursed her lips while she thought, then nodded. "I don't see why not. We're both fighting for the Confederacy, aren't we?"
"Yes, sir." A huge smile lit the boy's face. "You and me on the same side. I like that."
"How old are you, Benjamin?"
"I'm eight, sir."
"Eight? I thought you were at least ten. You're tall, like your mother." Bren picked up a horse-mounted figure dressed in a red uniform and bounced the rider along the mattress. "For now, you're eighteen and we're going to capture us some bluebellies. Get your horse, soldier, and let's scout them out."
"Yes, sir." Benjamin saluted, grabbed one of the mounted soldiers and followed along behind Bren. She brought her figure to a halt and waited for the boy to catch up, then they resumed their mission side by side.
Awhile later, Faith peeked in the doorway, smiled at the two dark-haired soldiers engrossed in their activity, and returned to her tasks. She still wished Bren wasn't going back to the war.
The following morning, Bren enjoyed a breakfast of hot cakes drenched in butter and syrup, then finished it with a cup of tea. Faith came into the bedroom and set the breakfast tray aside, then brought Bren the folded trousers. "Ready to get up out of bed?" she asked. She gathered the crutches from their corner, brought them over, and set them against the wall.
Bren's face lit up at the idea. "Yes, I am." She threw back the cover and moved both legs toward the edge of the bed. Faith slipped the trousers over the splint on the injured leg, then fit them onto the other leg, and she and Bren worked them over Bren's hips. Bren pulled her shirt up out of the way, then buttoned the front flap of the trousers. With Faith's help, she lowered the injured leg to the floor, and Faith handed her one of the crutches. Reaching up to grasp the curved armrest in her left hand, she then lifted the other hand toward Faith's shoulder. With the boost of Faith's hand against the bottom of her arm, she managed to stand on her first try. Faith steadied her while offering her the other crutch, and Bren fit the armrests against her armpits. "Looks like these were made for a shorter person," she said as their length forced her to slump at an uncomfortable angle.
"This is a pair Doc Schafer keeps around for anyone's use," Faith said. Letting go of her patient, she stayed alongside as Bren tried out a few steps. "I would suggest you use them sparingly, or your back will complain about it."
Bren caught onto the rhythm of walking with the crutches and moved to-and-fro across the room. "Speaking of backs, I'm truly happy to be able to get off of mine for a change. Lying abed for so long has weakened my stamina." Indeed, she already felt small drops of perspiration sprouting along her hairline.
Faith beckoned with one hand. "Let me show you the parlor and the kitchen, then you might want to rest a bit before walking any more." Bren followed her through the doorway into the next room. About 30 feet long and 15 feet wide, the parlor's random-planked floor ran the full width of the house. A green sofa and two brown, stuffed chairs formed a sitting area in front of a stone fireplace. Above the fireplace, a mantel held a daguerreotype of a Confederate soldier. Bren recognized the origin of Benjamin's dark complexion and brown eyes, even before Faith followed her gaze and remarked, "That's my late husband, Benjamin's father." On the wall above the mantel, a musket and a saber rested in the hooks of a rack. The far end of the room contained an office area, complete with desk, chair, and wooden filing cabinets. A framed piece of corkboard on the wall behind the desk served as a bulletin board and contained odd-sized pieces of paper as well as a child's drawings. Halfway along the room's wall, a very steep staircase, little more than an expanded ladder, led to a door set into the ceiling. Again, Faith followed Bren's eyes. "That's the loft. Two bedrooms are up there; one is Benjamin's, and the other is mine at the moment."
Bren stopped and looked at Faith. "I'm sorry I've displaced you from your bedroom. Now that I can get around, let me move into the loft so you can have your bed again."
"No, no," Faith hastened to say. "There's no way you should make that climb. I'm comfortable enough up there." She moved past Bren to the desk area. "Come sit down and rest for a minute. You're not used to those crutches yet."
Bren welcomed the chance to sit. Not only did the crutches hurt her arms and shoulders, but weakness made her legs quiver, which surprised and annoyed her. This recuperation would take longer than she had hoped. She hobbled to the chair, stood up straight, and removed the crutches from beneath her arms. After she leaned them against the desk, she sat in the spindle-backed chair and ran her gaze across the items in view.
The desk was sturdily made of dark walnut with a double row of pigeonhole compartments across the back edge. Each pigeonhole had a closed door, and above those two rows, an arrangement of open, wider compartments held various piles of paper. A cavity near the upper right corner of the desktop contained a stoppered bottle of ink, and in a groove cut across the width of the desk, just in front of the pigeonholes, lay two square-leaded pencils and a quill pen. Just beneath the front of the desktop, a drawer was available for more storage and two deep drawers on each side of the kneehole section provided additional space.
Turning in the chair to look at the bulletin board on the wall behind her, Bren skimmed past Faith's notes and examined the drawings that had "Benjamin" carefully printed on each in capital letters. The pictures were drawn in charcoal and colored in with crayon pencils. Although simply fashioned, each figure displayed a developing talent. Bren tapped a finger against a sketch of a robin on a tree limb. "He's good," she said and turned back to Faith. "I do some drawing too. Maybe I could give him a few pointers while I'm here."
Faith's green eyes shone with pride in her son. "Thank you for your offer. I'm sure Benjamin will appreciate your help. He loves to draw. He'll spend hours on one picture until he gets it just the way he wants it. Some of them never suit him, and he won't even show them to me."
Bren chuckled. "I'm the same way. When my mother came across something I had finished, she put it on the drawing room mantel for display. I went behind her and took down the ones I wasn't satisfied with." Then her smile turned wistful. "Of course, being my mother, she thought they all were wonderful. I think my drawing was the one thing I did that she approved of."
Faith cocked her head at this revealing statement. "What does she think of your being in the war?"
Rolling her shoulders to stretch the muscles, Bren looked down and hesitated in answering. Her fingers began a slow drumming on the desktop. Then she stopped her motions and raised her gaze to meet Faith's. "At first, I wouldn't let anyone tell my parents. I've always kept in touch with them through the mail, such as it is, but I would send my letters to my brother and he would send them on so I appeared to be still at home." Bren gave a small shrug. "Then I missed them and worried about them with the war so close to where they live. I stopped awhile ago to see them and showed up as a scout. My father accepted my decision, but my mother wound up wringing her hands, telling me she doesn't recognize the woman I've grown into, and claiming to take no responsibility for the foolish things I do."
Faith lifted her eyebrows. "And you don't care what she thinks?"
"Of course, I . . ." Bren puffed a breath through her nose. "I can't help what my mother thinks." With a shove against the desk, she shifted the chair back then bent to lift her legs away from the kneehole. "I don't care to discuss this any further."
Faith grasped one of the crutches and reached out a hand to help Bren up. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked such a personal question. I was just thinking that, as a mother, I would be really upset if Benjamin chose to fight in a war when he didn't have to."
Bren accepted the hand up and placed the crutches beneath her arms. "Would you try to stop him if his principles were involved?" She moved toward the bedroom with Faith accompanying her.
"I would probably try to talk him out of it, but I can see that the decision would be his. I apologize for arguing against your having the same privilege. That was wrong of me. And rude."
They reached the bedroom, and Bren sat down on the edge of the bed. She leaned the crutches against the wall and turned to look up at Faith. "No apology is necessary. Even a hardhead like me can recognize when a suggestion is meant to be in my best interests." When Faith raised her eyebrows, Bren chuckled. "All right, so it takes me awhile to figure out some things. I get there eventually." She reached down to lift her leg onto the bed, and Faith helped her. "By the way, where is Benjamin? Has school started?"
"He's out picking apples right now. School has started, but I'm keeping him home for a few days. He's too excited to concentrate on school work right now."
"Won't the schoolteacher wonder why he's not there?"
"Not really," Faith answered with a twinkle in her eye. "I'm the schoolteacher. The parson's wife is taking my place this week."
"Because of me?" Bren hadn't fully considered how her presence affected Faith and Benjamin. "I'm sorry about that."
"Now you're apologizing when there's no need to." Faith shook her head, jiggling her red curls and bouncing out a few tendrils that always seemed ready to fall loose. "You didn't ask to be shot. Nor to fall practically on my doorstep. Actually, I find it exciting to have a soldier to tend to. You may consider it my little part in helping the war."
"I was lucky to fall onto your doorstep. I would have died otherwise." Bren said this slowly and reflectively, while nodding. "Your 'little part in helping the war' saved my life, and I'm grateful." She yawned then and said, "Pardon me. I think I need to take a small nap, if you don't mind."
She lay down and Faith pulled the covers over her. "You might want to keep covered while you sleep. We can't have you catching a chill on top of everything else." She patted the cover and smoothed it across Bren's waist. "And if you take your nap like a good little soldier, you might get a piece of apple pie for lunch."
"Mmm. Apple pie sounds wonderful." Bren's drawl trailed away as she closed her eyes and fell quickly to sleep. Against the screen of her mind, a slow-motion kaleidoscope intertwined wispy projections of red curls, green eyes, and apple pie, blocking out blood-soaked nightmares and bringing a peaceful smile to her slumbering face.
Faith stood still a minute, watching Bren's deep, even breathing. She leaned down as if to kiss Bren's forehead then gave a low laugh, shook her head, and tiptoed out of the room.
Over the following few weeks, good food and plenty of rest strengthened Bren until she finally could be up and about all day long without feeling drained. To add to her comfort, she had dispensed with the bindings on her chest. Faith had agreed that, with a little caution, her loose tunic would keep Benjamin unaware of her gender and no one else would be likely to see her.
The open wound on her leg was nearly healed and had left a small depression, covered with an ugly scar. It would be several more weeks before the broken bone finished mending. At first, she had been anxious to get on her way, but as the days went by, she found she cherished the feeling of family she found with Faith and Benjamin. The mother and son had a deep love and mutual respect for each other, but beyond that, there was a sense of warmth and caring between the two that rarely had been evident between Bren and her own mother. Faith, in her generosity, extended that same warmth and caring to Bren. Something in Bren was learning to respond to that warmth, and she knew she would sorely miss the Pruitts when she left. In fact, even the thought of leaving brought on feelings of loss.
Benjamin joined her every day for drawing lessons or for military games with the lead soldiers. This evening, after supper, the two of them sat side by side at the table completing an earlier art project. Faith finished cleaning the dishes and walked over to stand behind her son. "Why, Benjamin, you're doing that drawing in perspective," she said, marveling at his work.
The boy grinned as Bren spoke. "Yes, and I only showed him how to do that yesterday." The scout reached over and ruffled Benjamin's brown curls. "You learn quickly, Benjamin. I'm very pleased with your progress."
The youngster put the last stroke on the picture and held it up for a better look. After he had examined it thoroughly and nodded in satisfaction, his mother lifted it from his fingers and placed it upright against the wall on a shelf. Then he said, "Do you have any drawings you can show us, Mr. Cordell?"
The question reminded Bren that indeed she had. "Yes, yes I do." She slowed her drawl and dragged out the answer, her eyes twinkling as she teased the eager youngster. "If you'll go fetch my saddlebag, I have some in there I can show you." The boy jumped up and went to get the bag. Faith's gaze returned to the picture her son had just completed, and Bren said, "I think Benjamin might have a future in art. His pictures show a lively spirit and a good eye for line and color."
"I'll try to pay more attention to his drawing. With your help, he's already progressed beyond my capabilities." Faith shot Bren a sideways glance and smiled. "Maybe I'll be taking lessons from him. Thank you for encouraging him."
Benjamin came back with the saddlebag, and set it on the table. Bren opened it and brought out the leather-bound book. "This is a journal of my travels and experiences since I started working for the army." Benjamin sat down next to her at the table, with Faith just beyond her son. Bren opened the journal and paged through it, showing them sketches accompanied by strong, precise writing. "Some of these are general scenes of battles or the land I traveled through, and others, like these"-she stopped at one particular page and pointed to three drawings of single figures that were situated among the written words-"are individuals I happened to meet."
"Look, Mama, there's a drummer boy." Benjamin pointed to a youngster who looked about twelve years old. Dressed in a gray uniform, he carried a drum cross-belted over his shoulders and hanging near his waist. He held two sticks above the drumhead as though ready to strike it. "Did you know him, Mr. Cordell?"
"Yes, I did." Bren touched a finger to another portrait-the shoulders and head of an officer. "This is his father, who was a captain in one of the regiments I worked with. He was-"
Faith interrupted. "Who's the woman?" When Bren looked at her and raised one eyebrow, Faith hurried to apologize. "Please pardon me for interrupting you. I'm just very curious about what the woman has to do with the war."
Bren brought her gaze back to the picture in question. The woman wore a long-skirted work dress covered with a soiled apron. She knelt on the ground holding a piece of cloth in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. "Some of the men had wives and sweethearts who followed after them. I suppose at first they just wanted to be near their men, but when the army went into battle, the women went into the field and tended to the wounded. It was an amazing sight to see them out there, sometimes even while shooting was still going on. I've heard that a few were actually wounded. Some may have been killed, though I'm not sure of that."
"I've read about it in the newspapers," Faith said. "But your drawing brings it to life. This is the first time it really has made an impression on me." She shook her head. "They must be a brave bunch."
"Maybe they believe in their men and support the cause they fight for. That would make the risk seem worthwhile." Faith lifted her eyebrows and Bren continued. "To them, anyway."
Benjamin's next question stopped the word battle forming between the two adults. "What's the drummer boy's name?"
"I don't think I ever heard his real name. All the men called him 'Sticks.'"
Benjamin smiled at that. "Is he still with the regiment?" The youngster, engrossed in the picture, didn't see the anguished look Bren quickly fought down, but a trace of it remained in the gaze she flicked toward Faith. The drummer's fate was imprinted forever in the scout's mind.
Strong resistance from the top of the ridge had stalled the Confederate assault. The Union cannoneers laid down a barrage interspersed with musketry that seemed impossible to penetrate. Bren dismounted and handed over the dispatch to the Rebel captain. She quickly remounted Redfire to leave, knowing she had changed the colonel's message. The superior officer had commanded a retreat, but Bren's substituted words now ordered the captain to push forward the regiment at all costs. "Stay here," the captain said. "I might have an answer to send." The officer read the piece of paper, then called to his son, and the boy hurried to his father's side. The captain pulled a quill pen and bottle of ink from a pouch, scribbled some words on the dispatch, and handed it up to Bren. "Take this back to the colonel." The officer turned to the drummer boy. "Send 'em the charge, son."
Bren started away as the beating drum called the soldiers to renew the assault. Slowed by the men streaming by, she looked toward the first wave of troops. The drum cadence beat an accompaniment to the booming of cannon fire, the creaking and squeaking of gear, the shouts and pounding feet of the foot soldiers that filled the air. Even in such tumult, her ears picked out the whine of a particular shot of canister. In a split-second tableau of horror, a hundred chunks of metal pierced father and son together, and a mushroom of blood gushed into the air, blotting them from sight.
Shaking with grief and guilt, Bren spurred Redfire away, in utter disregard of the soldiers shunted aside by the big animal's momentum. The horse thundered through the troops and burst into the woods. Small animals and insects scurried away, and birds darted into the sky in black clouds as the horse tore among the trees. Bren gulped in huge lungfuls of air and finally pulled Redfire to a halt. Calming herself enough to take time to refocus, she took the dispatch from its pouch and read: "We fulfill our duty as ordered, and we trust in Almighty God to reward us in this life or the next, as He sees fit."
"Oh, God," Bren whispered as tears ran from her eyes, "have mercy on us all."
Bren opened her mouth to answer Benjamin, but her constricted throat betrayed her. She had pushed the memory away, hoping to thrust it into the dark pit reserved for such horrors, but this one recurred in blood-red nightmares that seared her soul. Seeing her distress, Faith answered for her as she pointed to a date written below the picture. "Look, Benjamin. Mr. Cordell drew this in March 1862, more than a year and a half ago. He might not have seen the boy since then." She looked up at Bren. "Have you?"
Bren looked back at her with a small nod of gratitude and finally found her voice. "No, I haven't. Armies move all over, so there's no telling where that regiment might be by now."
Benjamin looked disappointed, but he soon perked up as another thought came. "Will you read us some of your journal?"
Faith shook her head. "Not tonight, Benjamin. It's your bedtime."
"Just one story?"
The question was addressed to Faith, but Bren closed the journal with a small thud and answered in her stead. "Maybe another time, Benjamin. Your mama said it's your bedtime, and good soldiers follow orders. The book will still be here tomorrow evening."
"All right, sir," Benjamin said with little enthusiasm. He gathered up his drawing materials, put them away, then went outside for a visit to the outhouse. After watching him leave, Bren turned to face the question she knew Faith would ask.
"What happened to the boy?" Again, Bren found it hard to get the answer out. Her mouth twitched as the drummer boy's face and Benjamin's kept changing places in her mind. Faith waited a moment, searching Bren's expression. "He didn't live, did he?"
Slowly, Bren moved her head back and forth, until she could talk. "No, he didn't. He and his father were both-" Bren stopped as Benjamin came back inside and kissed his mother goodnight. Bren tossed a quick salute at him, which Benjamin returned with a grin, then the boy climbed the ladder to the loft.
Faith softened her voice so her son wouldn't hear. "What happened to them?"
Bren swallowed hard, then answered in a voice so low that Faith could barely make out the slow drawl. "I saw them both die."
"Were they shot?"
"You might call it that." The scene reappeared in all its horror, and Bren's mind screamed all over again. My God, they were shredded! Her hands quivered, and she clasped them together to hide it. "Terrible things happen in war-some too dreadful to ever speak about. You have to harden your heart to survive them."
Faith reached over and laid her hand on top of Bren's, while giving her a look of concern. "I suspect maybe yours isn't as hard as you'd like to think it is."
Bren couldn't argue with that. Her usual way of coping with emotional turmoil was to turn her mind from it as quickly as possible, or bury it. But this time, Faith's touch soothed her. A warmth spread throughout her body, quieting her grieving heart. She didn't question why the touch helped her; she was just grateful that it did.
To be continued in Part SixPlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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