Here's Chapter Two of the 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 firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts. I will post one chapter a week moving forward. I hope you enjoy!
Catch up on Chapter One: HERE
Emily was half-way through the hen house on her way to milk the cow, lost in the waking wildlife of her surroundings. She had risen and dressed for chores, still in a daze of sleep. When she heard a rustling and a grunt coming from the barn, Emily froze, then remembered that she wouldn’t be alone in there this morning.
Union soldiers were camping out. Stiffening her shoulders, Emily resolutely marched forward, determined to complete her morning chores.
While most of the men were too sick or exhausted to try anything funny, she still worried. Everyone in Texas had heard of the atrocities committed by Yanks. They plundered fields, raided farms, raped women. And Mama had practically invited them in and told them to make themselves at home.
Emily ignored the snores and occasional flatulence as she milked the cow as quietly she could and left. It wasn’t from some sense of curtsy that she didn’t want to wake them. She didn’t know how to act around them. Would they be rude, making lewd comments? Or would they be demanding? Would they just kill her on the spot, now that they’d rested up from their journey? She had no idea, but she wasn’t in the mood to find out.
Carrying the bucket to the kitchen, she found Rachel making several loaves of the dense bread from the yeast bowl she kept on the counter, her face a mask of determination.
“Go kill three of those old roosters, Emily. I’ll make some broth for the sick ones. Get Jamie and Irene to work on your chores. And tell them to put the steer in the back pasture. We need to get it fattened up fast now. I was planning on butchering the pig in a few weeks, but we can go ahead and do it tomorrow, and the steer in a few weeks.”
Never mind that those old roosters were supposed to feed their family. They could eat off one for two days. Three roosters at once? For a bunch of Yankees?
“Alright, Mama.” Emily knew better than to argue. Her mama had a plan, and wouldn’t be deterred. She was feeding these men all their food. Emily wouldn’t think about that too hard. If she fed them all their chickens, the steer, and the pig, what would the family eat after they left? Mama was taking a gamble, and Emily didn’t like it. But who was she to say? Their summer months were supposed to be filled with canning meats and vegetables, smoking meat for the winter, and harvesting the corn to sell for winter supplies. And the bank payment. She couldn’t forget that. They’d mortgaged the farm to buy corn seed and equipment when the cotton embargo had happened.
After wringing the necks of the roosters, and plucking the feathers off, Emily brought them inside the kitchen so Mama could boil them into broth. Normally, she’d make a gravy for the chicken meat and serve it over the bread or make a rich soup and they’d eat off that for a long time. By the time she was sick of chicken, Mama would declare it butcher day, and then Emily could get sick of pig instead. At least, that’s how long it would take without all the extra mouths.
A couple of hours later, Emily found herself in the barn with Louise, ladling broth into sick men’s mouths, and wiping their brows with cool water. They looked better today, certainly cleaner. They were—every last one of them—thin as rails, and Emily had a difficult time imagining them as fierce warriors, fighting against her father and brother. Most of them looked a little less gray after their rest, and now she endeavored to get something inside them. The ones that could handle it, she gave some bread soaked in broth, but most of them just drank broth. She put the ones well enough to work, churning butter, cleaning stalls, and shucking corn. Trying to look on the bright side, she decided having the extra hands at the farm might not be all bad.
Most of the men she fed were responsive enough to thank her, yet others seemed to be hallucinating she was an angel of mercy, coming to escort them home. She wondered at how far yet they had to go, how long it would take, and whether or not they could make such a trek. It was daunting for her to imagine, even healthy. But they wouldn’t be able to make it in the state they were in, she mused, so she would do her part to make them healthy enough to journey home.
At the end of the row, she held the ladle up to a man’s mouth, watching it closely so as not to spill any broth, when his eyes opened to watch her. Something fluttered to life inside Emily as his blurry gaze focused on her features. Her breath caught, and a little broth sloshed out of the suddenly shaky ladle. Gunmetal guarded gray eyes focused on her, as his cracked lips wrapped around the edge of the ladle. Emily could see his throat working as he swallowed until the ladle was empty.
She was transfixed. This man seemed different. Even in his weakened and sick state, he exuded an aura of danger. Not necessary menace toward her, just a dangerous air, as if he were under the bead of a gun at all times. It was different from the other soldiers, who just seemed defeated. This man was sicker than some of the others, but still held a fierce wariness.
When she dipped in for more, he eyes searched her face as he leaned back on his straw bed. The man seemed to be trying to determine her worth with his gaze. Emily felt a strange reaction to his piercing gray eyes. Even though she was scared of these men, and didn’t want them blundering into her life, for some reason, she wanted this one man to find her worthy. She shook that thought out of her head. That was a stupid, fleeting thought. She didn’t want any of them to find her worthy of anything. She wanted them gone.
Repeating the process, Emily continued her examination, wondering why this man was different. She was struck by his features—long dark hair and beard that took up most of his face, swarthy complexion, and piercing eyes. His features would probably be attractive, if he wasn’t so ill, and dirty. She and Mama had bathed them the best they could, but this man sure could use a dip in the creek.
Emily didn’t know what was happening to her, but her heart pounded, she tryied desperately to catch her breath, and she was suddenly burning from the inside out in the heated shade of the barn.
When he’d drunk his second ladle full, the man spoke, a deep rich voice husky with disuse. “You’re like sunshine. Used to call my daughter Sunshine, because she was blonde, like you.” His eyes closed with a small smile on his face, and Emily thought about his words. Pleasure he’d spoken those words with a smile to her swirled around with sadness he had a daughter somewhere who most likely missed him as much as she missed her papa.
Then it hit her. These men had families at home. They were just people. People like her Papa and her brother, and Jakob, who had places to get home to, people who missed them. That one man with the gray eyes and the small smile brought that home to her. As well as a tumbling in her tummy she didn’t know how to deal with. And guilt. She’d been thinking all these awful thoughts about them, coveting her family’s food, when these men knew hunger she couldn’t fathom. She’d been looking at this man in a way that certainly wasn’t appropriate for a woman who was spoken for.
She sat back on her heels and examined him, telling herself she wasn’t being inappropriate, she was trying to understand. He looked like he used to be a strong man, but his muscles had wasted away with starvation and sickness. He was boney—gaunt, and looked fragile. His skin had a yellowish gray hue to it, a frightening color, and Emily vowed to work harder to make these soldiers better so they could get home to their families. She tucked the sheet around him and let him rest. As Emily walked away, carrying the empty broth pail, she was stopped by a man.
“That’s Isaack. I wouldn’t bother with him.” His voice wasn’t unkind, just matter-of-fact. “He doesn’t want to live,” he finished off with a shrug. “You should focus your attentions elsewhere.” Pointing to his puckered lips, he said, “Like here.”
Emily looked at the man, repulsed. This Yankee was living up to her expectations. But, as she thought about it, he wasn’t being cruel or ugly. He seemed to be laughing with her, at some joke she just didn’t find funny.
Her perceptions of the Yankees were shifting. If the way she thought about the enemy was changing, what would that do with how she thought about the rest of her life? Emily wasn’t comfortable with her train of thought, but decided to explore it anyway. She would write about it in her journal later, when she had some time, and maybe things would make sense to her then.
As she ignored the man and walked away from his chuckles, she couldn’t help but wonder why Isaack didn’t want to live. He was bad off, but not as ill as a few of the others. She could make Isaack better, and with her mama’s words finally making sense, Emily vowed to do her best to help these men get well.