I've mentioned a time or two that I'm working on a historical series that correlates with the ghosts in my Book B!tches series. They are unedited, although their draft form is pretty complete. Please leave a comment or contact me at email@example.com with thoughts. I will post one chapter a week. I hope you enjoy!
June 12, 1865
Emily felt the change in the air before she saw the dust rising on the road. She’d woken up with an itchy feeling of anticipation she couldn’t explain. So, while unexpected, the plume of dust on the road leading up to her house didn’t exactly surprise her. As she pumped water from the well in the yard for wash day, her hands worked faster, trying to fill the bucket as her eyes scanned the horizon. It wasn’t the tall, billowing plume of a wagon or horses, but it was larger than the plume Mr. Stein had made yesterday. Which meant it was more than one person, most likely on foot.
A tingle of apprehension stole up Emily’s spine. Strange things had been happening in Texas since the war had ended, and she and Mama had been trying to hide the goings on from the rest of the kids, so as not to worry them. Banks had been robbed, stores looted, and farms raided. Every time one of them went into town, more bad news awaited them. Fortunately, Brantville had been spared, so far. But news of King Springs, a mere forty miles away, was dire.
Jamie came racing through the trees into the yard, breathless and flushed. “Emily! It’s soldiers! Soldiers are coming!” He didn’t stop, his excited state propelling him into the house, while Emily braced herself for trouble. The war was over, but that didn’t mean her world was at peace. She wondered when it ever would be.
Her heart pounded, wondering what soldiers would want with them, and she forced air into her lungs. They were on a private drive, not the main road, and anyone coming this way would have to have their farm in mind for a destination. Breathing heavier than necessary, Emily watched as the dust heralded the arrival of several men, limping into her family’s yard. Emily knew with a sickening sense of foreboding, that this group of men heralded more than just an arrival. The presence of these soldiers illustrated a change for her family, whether she liked it or not. That was the feeling she’d woken with this morning. It was a sense of doom, because the axis of her world was tipping even further from the comfort level of her past she longed with all her heart to get back to.
When the rag-tag bunch approached, one man walked forward, the dust unable to hide the markings of a Union soldier.
“Sergeant Major Breck, at your service Madam.” The man bowed low, swiping his cap off his head and clutching it to his chest reverently. Emily found herself in a brief curtsy as a response, even though she had no real reason to be civil to this man, but she was too scared not to be. She could name twenty reasons to be frightened, none of which she would actually voice. So Emily stood as stoicly as she could, lifting her chin.
Her eyes roamed the men behind him, about twenty in all, looking like an awful mess. Five or six men were managing to hold up the rest of them, obviously ill. The war was over, and they were on their way home, back North. She couldn’t imagine what all was wrong with them. They looked sick, tired, and hungry. Even through the warnings going off in her mind with the knowledge they were the enemy, a sense of pity pervaded. Were Papa, John, and Jakob going through the same trials to get back home? Were they as sick and wounded as these men were? Were people being nice to them, in an effort to get them to leave and come home to their families?
“I am Rachel Evans, and this is my family’s farm. My daughter, Emily.” Mama had made her appearance on the porch, and her regal disposition shone through the rugged exterior, awing Emily. Her mother worked harder than any woman she knew, yet she’d come here with Papa from New York City years ago, and her polished background managed to shine through when needed. Like now. Her rigid spine and elegant demeanor belied the threadbare dress she wore.
Something in her tone spoke of a kindred spirit to the Yankee and he smiled before bowing even lower to Rachel. Rightfully so, because Emily only wanted to shoo them away and tell them to send her men back.
“We are in need of food and lodging. We are trying to make our way back home, ma’am, but most of us are sick. Just until we get on our feet, if you please.” Emily couldn’t be sure, but it seemed his words spoke plainly, even while his expression was calculated. His eyes darted about, inventorying the farm, the barn, and the surroundings. She wanted to extend her arms and pull the entire property into them, to keep it all hidden from his curious gaze. First the bank was trying to take it away, and now this man was here, looking around like he suddenly owned the place. Her hackles rose, but her mother’s next words had her snapping her head to look at the woman.
“Of course. You may make lodging in the barn. Stay as long as you need. Emily will be out in a moment with food and supplies.” Chin raised, Mama dismissed them and walked into the house, tugging on Emily’s sleeve to follow.
“Mama!” Emily hissed under her breath when the door was closed. If her heart pounded before, it was now galloping out of her chest. It was almost as if she stood in front of a stranger. The stories she’d heard of Yankee soldiers raping women on the road they’d come across were horrific. Her mother was inviting them to stay? “What are you doing? They’re Yankees!” She cried urgently, unable to not state the obvious. Her past, tied with her future, was slipping away with every minute of this day. Each new action proved to her that she would never find her old life again.
“I know, child. Don’t sass me.” Softening her tone, she continued. “The bank is coming in two days. I doubt they want to take back a farm that’s overrun with Union soldiers.”
Emily’s gaping mouth snapped shut, speechless at her mother’s wisdom. Once again, she realized she didn’t know as much as she thought she did. Of course, the entire country side had heard the horror stories. Nobody would want to be around the soldiers. The two women turned to the kitchen, where Jamie and his two sisters, Louise and Irene were staring at them, slack-jawed, Irene holding her beloved rag doll in her mouth, as she did when she was upset.
It was a tricky plan, one that could backfire on them. They may indeed get to keep their farm, but at what cost? If the soldiers ate all the food before winter came, the Evans would have nothing. By the time the soldiers took their leave, would there be a farm left? There wasn’t anything to be done for it. They could comply, or they could boot them off the place, and apparently Mama had made her decision. The soldiers would stay.
Emily smoothed down her skirts, in a concerted effort to calm her nerves.
“You’re catchin’ flies…” Emily muttered as she walked over to the stove to start piling corn cakes on a platter for the soldiers. This was supposed to be their supper, but they’d have to make more. Scooping up the pitcher of buttermilk and stuffing a sheet under her arm, she walked to the door. Her mama started barking orders at the children to fetch eggs, make more corn cakes and pick some tomatoes from the garden. Apparently Mama was going to feed them well.
Emily quieted her thoughts, managing to balance everything and still grab the bucket of water on her way to the barn, determined not to grumble, but when she arrived, the scene stunned her.
The men had looked rough before, standing in her yard, but they had been hanging on to a tenuous thread of dignity. Now, they just looked pitiful, either lying in heaps on the floor of the barn, or sitting, obviously exhausted. She handed off the plate and pitcher to one of the men, who took it gratefully with a mumbled, “Thank you, Ma’am.”
Overwhelmed by the sight in front of her, Emily struggled to know what was next. They had a place to stay, as well as the Evans’ dinner. Now what? The men who looked able, barely looked able for anything. Fatigue marred their every motion, from passing the plate and pitcher, to stretching their legs. The ones who didn’t look able, looked next to death, and Emily didn’t know if there was anything to do for them.
Emily gulped past the lump in her suddenly dry throat. “All the way, Mama?” she whispered.
“All the way, child,” her mother responded with gentleness she rarely showed. Rachel must have read her trepidation, because she went a bit further to allay Emily’s fears. “I’ll explain later, Emily. Just do this now.” Mama’s mouth was set in a stern line, her shoulders straight. She clutched her skirts and went to work.
Pretending she was playing with her rag doll from childhood, Emily began undressing the men, most of whom had slipped into unconsciousness as soon as they were prone, doing her best to not look at their privates. But she just couldn’t help it.
She had never seen a naked man before. She had bathed and changed Jamie’s diapers when he was a babe, but that didn’t come close to what she saw now, with these men and their hairy, flaccid, filthy appendages.
Her mother interrupted her ruminations, “They’ll be more comfortable if they’re clean.”
So she did. She washed the beards and hair on the men’s heads while her mother took charge of the parts she’d presumably already seen before. After about the third man, it became a stilted routine, and Emily was finished before she realized it. But the intimacy with such men made her guilty. Thoughts of Jakob overwhelmed her—memories of him helping her brother chop wood and mend fences, eating supper at their table, even lazy summer afternoons fishing at the creek—all conspired against her duty to her mama.
“Right then,” Rachel stood, clapping her hands together. “You and the girls get to washing clothes, and I’ll get Jamie to help me with supper.” Emily raced away, thankful to be out of the barn, and away from the strange men.
With Louise and Irene at the wash pot, dutifully stirring the clothes for their wash day chore, Emily unceremoniously dumped the soldier’s clothing in a pile on the ground. Louise carefully placed more wood under the pot, to keep the ashes from rising into it and getting the clothes dirty.
Emily fished out the girls’ dresses and lost herself to her own thoughts as she scrubbed them clean while her sisters put the soldiers clothes in the pot to soak. She missed her Papa and her brother. William and John had willingly gone to go fight in the war close to three years ago, to show solidarity to their sister states of the Confederacy. Jakob had not gone until he was conscripted two years ago. They were to be married on his return.
Thoughts of familiarity, paired with the cleansing motions of scrubbing clothes, made her feel better. When the men came home, life would get back to normal. She and Jakob could get on with their plans of building a house on the property and raising a family while Jakob and her father worked the crops. Maybe they could even go back to planting cotton, like before. John would find a nice girl from town to marry. Jakob’s parents would come over for a Sunday meal after their worship and Bible study, and Mama and Papa would help her make her new house a home.
Of course, she hadn’t heard from any of them in over eight months, and she had no idea if that meant they were dead or not. Lots of men hadn’t been heard from, but some were beginning to make their way back home now. What would Papa and John say if they came home to find a bunch of Union soldiers sleeping in the barn? What would Jakob say when he found out Emily had seen them naked? She chided herself. Jakob would never know if she didn’t ever tell him. The dishonesty stuck in her craw, but she was doing her duty to her mama, and obeying her wishes. That had to count for something.
As she scrubbed the clothes on the flat rock Emily used, her hands red and getting raw from the heat of the water, lye fumes permeating the air. She found it difficult to clear her mind. She kept pondering the mysteries of men. She had felt Jakob’s parts once, when he’d kissed her, he’d been hard against her hip. It had scared her a little, but she could admit she was more curious about it than anything now. Did he look like the soldiers when he wasn’t kissing her? She was taken aback. How strange it must be to have that fleshy thing dangling between your legs all day.
Emily blushed at the turn her thoughts had taken. Her face was nearly as red as her hands.
Louise broke through her musings. “How long do you suppose they’ll stay?”
Emily shrugged. “I really don’t know. I suppose as long as Mama will let them.” She hoped it wasn’t very long, but by the set of tilt of Mama’s head, she’d gotten an idea about them. There was no telling what was going to happen.
“I don’t like them,” Irene said with finality. “What if they killed Papa?” Her bright blue eyes her youngest sister had inherited from Rachel filled with tears and she clutched at her precious rag doll as if it would protect her. The rag doll had been handed down from girl to girl as one outgrew it and the next one longed for such a precious item.
“Hush now. Papa’s not dead. He’s just taking a lot longer to get home than he expected.” Emily had been saying this so long she almost believed it. The truth was, this war had changed her life from a comfortable existence to one marred with uncertainties. And the biggest uncertainty of all was who would be here when the dust of war settled? Would her family ever be whole again?
After scrubbing the dresses, Emily draped them over the line in the yard before they rinsed them in the creek. She had to do the Soldiers’ clothes next. She let out a sigh at the thought of these soldiers making more chores for her. Emily was weary enough with their own chores.
Mercifully, the girls were lost in their own thoughts, and didn’t pester Emily with more questions she couldn’t answer.