The Yankees had been camped down by Muddy Creek since the day before and there was no doubt in Laura's mind that three of their best laying hens had mysteriously disappeared. Their nests were usually the first to provide warm, fat, brown eggs each morning and this morning they had not only been empty but cold. She and her younger sister, eight-year-old Sara Beth, had been watching the coming and going of the Yankee cavalry patrols for over an hour safely hidden by a thick tangle of scrub oak and blackberry vines which dominated the hillside overlooking Muddy Creek.
They had been sternly warned by their father, Reverend James Thaddeus Tyree, to go nowhere near the Yankee soldiers because it was not fit and proper for young ladies. Like most adolescents, this harsh warning was soon forgotten in their eagerness to lay their eyes on the devil invaders; to see for themselves what kind of men would sell their very souls to Satan by robbing and murdering innocent women and children of the newly independent Confederacy. Although the Yankees had passed through their farm on many forays and had occupied the town of Ripley scores of times, Reverend Tyree had persistently sheltered his children, forbidding them to go near the "devil's spawn" as he termed the northern invaders.
As they watched another Union patrol enter the sprawling camp, Laura was entertaining the thought of boldly walking down to the Yankee commander and demanding the immediate return of their missing hens, an angry arch furrowing her brow, a subtle hint of rashness in her sparkling green eyes.
She was tall for a young sixteen years, nearly five-feet-six-inches, but her slender frame carried a mere one hundred ten pounds, slim but not skinny, as her sister Elizabeth Jane often taunted her with. Her long honey blond hair curled lazily down to her slender waist and she kept it in a single braid most of the time, but the thick silky strands always managed to work their way loose and float like a golden cloud at the mere wisp of a breeze. Her eyes were an emerald green that her mother said reminded her of the rich emerald fields of her homeland in Ireland. They also possessed a mischievous twinkle that furthermore lent credence to her father's saying that Laura was far too wild and carefree. Unlike her three sisters and four brothers, Laura did not possess and abundance of freckles. Her skin was flawlessly clear and exceptionally smooth, especially across her high cheeks and slim Grecian nose. Altogether she would be considered a strikingly beautiful young country girl.
“Look!” Sara Beth exclaimed, breaking into Laura’s bold thoughts, “Nigra soldiers.” Sara Beth half stood from their hiding place amid the briars in her eagerness to see this new amazing sight, for they had never before seen Negro soldiers. Laura pulled her back down with a scowl, fear quickly replacing the anger on her face. Half a dozen black soldiers riding insecurely on the bouncing backs of army mules brought up the rear of the latest cavalry patrol. The pain on their shining black faces proof that they were new to the rigors of riding the obstinate and stubborn animals. Sandwiched between the end of the Yankee cavalrymen and the front of the Negro soldiers, four men wearing the tattered but recognizable gray uniforms of the Confederate cavalry were tied hand and foot on their weary mounts. Their horses were lathered with white foam flecking their bits as if they'd been pushed far beyond endurance.
“Them's our boys,” Sara Beth stated in an unnecessarily loud whisper, her right index finger pointing through the tangle of briar bushes. “What for are they doing with them nigra soldiers?”
“They ain’t with them,” Laura shushed, “They're prisoners. The Yankees done captured them.”
“Lordy mercy,” blurted Sara Beth, “What do you reckon they’re gonna do with them, kill them?”
Laura placed her finger in front of her lips as a sign for Sara Beth to be quiet before answering. When she did, her voice was low and much quieter. “No silly, they don’t kill them. They ask them questions then send them off to a terrible camp where there is little food and mean guards watch over them. Now, be quiet!”
As the winding patrol drew nearer to their unknown hiding place, the two disobedient young girls watched in awkward and unconcealed amazement. A sudden overpowering smell of horse manure and the heavy stench from the unwashed bodies of hundreds of men was carried to them on the gentle breeze. Sara Beth held her nose and looked over at Laura with a disgusted smirk. Laura did not return her stare, her entire attention was suddenly riveted in the direction of one of the prisoners. Even from their scant hiding place, a distance of a hundred yards or more, Laura could tell that the young man was uncommonly handsome and carried himself like a gentleman of fine breeding; obviously an officer, and a very young one at that.
They watched intensely as one of the Negro soldiers wearing the stripes of a sergeant undid the bonds tying the prisoners feet beneath the belly of their mounts then roughly pushed them from their saddles, their arms still tied behind their backs. Both winced as the prisoners hit the solid ground with heavy thuds, falling flat on their backs or sides, one Confederate captive cursing profoundly at the unnecessary rough and brutal handling. Sara Beth's face turned a bright red as she heard and obviously understood some of the extremely colorful words mouthed by the angry man.
All thoughts of regaining her missing hens evaporated as Laura watched the Negro sergeant and two other colored soldiers begin to beat the prisoners with heavy mule straps as they lay helpless on the manure spattered ground. A white Yankee soldier, an officer from the gold bars on his shoulders, pointed at the squirming prisoners, spat a stream of tobacco juice in their direction, then strolled slowly away, laughing and pointing behind him. A few loud words could be heard coming from the Negro sergeant as he vented his anger upon the helpless captives, laying about with enough force from his blows to bring blood from the back of one prisoner.
“How's you like dat, masser!” he yelled as he continued his whipping unabated. “How's you like dat, and dat, and dat! Speak up masser, I can’t hear you.” The Negro sergeant suddenly halted his violent swinging when another colored sergeant with a diamond above his stripes walked up and prevented his swing from going forward. They stared at each other with pure hatred until the new sergeant finally spoke. His voice was low and sounded more like that of an educated white man than an ex-field slave.
“We don’t abuse prisoners in that manner sergeant,” he stated, glancing angrily at the other Negro soldiers. “No matter their past, slave owner or no, we do not treat them that way. They are prisoners of war and will be accorded all rights pertaining to that status. Do you understand me?”
Instead of answering, the first Negro sergeant threw his mule harness to the ground and stalked angrily away. Turning to the remaining two colored soldiers, the second sergeant ordered, “Take these prisoners to the Provost Officer for interrogation, and no more beatings or you'll both loose those corporal stripes you're wearing. Is that clear? Do you fully understand me?” They both nodded and quickly turned to the task of escorting the prisoners away.
As the prisoners were marched in the direction of whatever fate awaited them, a sudden commotion from behind them startled the two young girls. Stalking towards them and making enough noise to wake the dead was their ten-year-old brother George. He was either unaware of the presence of the Yankees or was totally unafraid of them as he approached in the open and stood glaring down at the girls.
“If Pa knowed you were down here he’d tan your hides,” George blurted, a hint of adolescent arrogance in his voice. “He done said we were not to go down near the Yankee devils,” he ended, his knuckles resting on both hips like a stern parent reprimanding disobedient children.
“Well, what for are you down here?” Sara Beth smartly answered, having no fear of her sassy sibling.
“Ma cooked early supper,” George spat back, “and sent me to fetch you.” His eyes glanced over the sprawling camp ground where the hundreds of Union cavalrymen were preparing their own evening meals, the aroma of frying fat back slowly replacing the dominant harsh smell of men and manure. With a wistful look in her eyes, Laura Jean turned and headed back towards the farm house located on the other side of the gentle slope, the memory of the Confederate prisoners weighing heavily on her mind.
The knowing look on their father’s face and the stern glance their mother, Margaret, gave them as they rounded the corner of the chicken house more than told her that their disobedience had not gone unnoticed. Therefore, when her mother ordered them to wash for supper with a stern voice, they hastened to obey her. What shocked Laura as she entered the large family dining room and stopped her in her tracks, was the appearance of a large stranger sitting in the place of honor at the head of the huge oak table which was heavily laden with steaming platters of food.
The man was attired in the dusty uniform of a Union officer. He was a large heavyset man with a big head and bull neck and possessed an abundance of dirty blond curly hair crowning his head. His nose had a rosy glow as if he had been fighting a summer cold or had been tipping the bottle too much. Following her father's pointing finger, Laura quietly took her usual place at the family table on a bench between her sisters, Elizabeth Jane and Rebecca Ann. Both gave her a disapproving look as she slowly sat down. Laura could easily tell from the unnaturally nervous way her father glanced at the faces around the table, and especially the quick jerky way he looked at their guest of honor, that he didn't particularly approve of the man’s presence.
“Before we begin with our blessing,” Reverend Tyree stated, motioning with an exaggerated sweep of his arm towards the Yankee officer, “I’d like to introduce our distinguished guest. This is General Samuel Sturgis of the Union Army, commander of all those Yankee soldiers camped down by Muddy Creek.” He threw a special and knowing glance in Laura's direction before continuing. “He has graciously accepted our hospitality by joining us this evening for our supper meal. General Sturgis, I present my daughters; Elizabeth Jane, Laura Jean, Rebecca Ann, and Sara Beth, and my sons’ George Robert and Enoch Matthew. I believe you've already met my wife, Margaret.”
“Yes indeed,” General Sturgis replied, nodding his plump head up and down. “I feel out of place among such beauty and grace. I also feel obligated to congratulate you, sir, on the splendor of your home and elegance of your fine estate.”
After the lengthy blessing, the silence at the table was unusual and out of place for a family who normally discussed the day’s activities with expansive talking and good-natured bantering. Even the younger children held to an unnatural silence, glancing furtively at the uniformed figure slouched at the head of the family table, eagerly stuffing his cavernous mouth with new potatoes and fresh string beans. Laura picked at her food, glancing sideways at the imposing general then in the opposite direction at her father’s reserved visage. Her mother, though it was completely out of character, was first to break the harsh silence, her voice as smooth as honey as she spoke.
“Will you be staying in our peaceful little valley for long General?” she politely asked, merely as a means of breaking the taut tension around the table.
Taking his time to chew and choke down a large piece of meat before replying, General Sturgis finally blurted, “Tomorrow we leave for Memphis. I’ve been chasing that devil Forrest halfway across the state but I fear he’s out run me, and our poor animals are exhausted and without sufficient food to continue. Citizens down in Ripley-town and at the Crowder Plantation south of here say he passed this way several days ago heading south, probably Tupelo. He didn’t happen to pass through here did he, Reverend?”
“Bedford, or General Forrest if you prefer, has often been the guest of honor in my home,” Reverend Tyree replied, serving notice to General Sturgis that he was after all, a loyal Confederate citizen. “However, he did not grace us with his presence as he passed through this time.”
Laura felt a surge of pride at the staunch manner in which her father had stood up to the Yankee general. A slight smile formed on her face as she noticed General Sturgis’ obvious discomfort. She kept the smile until Sara Beth innocently gave away their open secret by blurting out her knowledge of the Yankees down at Muddy Creek.
“We saw some of our boys,” she declared. “They was prisoners of the devils and we saw some nigra soldiers beatin’ them with mule straps.”
Reverend Tyree, though still upset at his youngest daughter for disobeying him, was even more concerned with the information just released. “Is that true General?” he sharply demanded, “Do you have nigras beating white prisoners of war down in your camp?” His suddenly angry eyes left the General and focused on Laura as if to seek confirmation of this evil news. The steady look she returned and her haughty demeanor portrayed the truth of Beth’s statement.
General Sturgis, well aware that he was being entertained by a minister of God, though somewhat reluctantly, and also cognizant of the fact that he had very loose control of the men under his command, took his time before answering. A quick glance at the smug Sara Beth who was fidgeting and frowning steadily at her older sister across the table caused him to frame his reply very carefully. “My orders concerning prisoners are very explicit,” he finally stated. “They are to be accorded all rights and such privileges as their status demands. Mistreatment and abuse will not be tolerated and any officer or enlisted man under my command will be severely reprimanded should I find cause, unjustified cause, in the disobedience or dereliction of my standing orders.”
“Then I may rest assured that you will look into this serious allegation?” Reverend Tyree replied, his fierce eyes boring into the general.
“Immediately upon my return to camp,” stated General Sturgis, “without delay. Often times, Reverend, soldiers go beyond the letter of their orders,” he offered in way of an excuse, “but having little knowledge and exposure to military matters I’m certain you would not understand nor fully appreciate my sensitive position in a case of this nature.”
“As to your position, I cannot ascertain,” replied Reverend Tyree, “However, as to matters’ military I will point out that both my brother John and I served with Colonel Jeff Davis in the past war with Mexico. My brother. John Tyree, was laid low at the battle of Monterey and he lies to this day beneath the soil of that heathen nation.”
“And my brothers, John Philip and James Thomas, are fighting with Colonel Falkner of Ripley,” blurted ten-year-old George, his mouth full of new potatoes. He knew he had spoken out of place when his father turned to him with a fierce look of anger. The silence around the table became more intense as all heads turned to stare down into their plates, each trying to avoid the explosive anger their father was famous for.
“I was informed of the fact that you were a rebel sympathizer,” General Sturgis stated, with just the right touch of personal affront, “however, I had no idea you supported and endorsed secessionist activities within your own immediate family.”
“Neither my political nor personal views are a matter of your concern, sir,” replied Reverend Tyree curtly, fighting hard to control his trigger temper. “As for my sons and my son-in-law, they are not rebels as you imply, but patriots engaged in a supreme effort to overthrow a repressive and morally corrupt government. A government, which I might clearly point out, has seen fit to send invading and barbaric military forces into our homeland, proof of which sits at my family table before me and despoils the land with their presence on my sovereign estate. There was a time when you Yankees were known as rebels, so called by the occupying British forces. Do you see any difference between yourself and the British, sir?”
“Gentlemen,” Margaret Tyree quickly inserted between the growing tension among the men. “I will not condone such behavior in my home and in the very presence of my children. Political matters of such nature are best held in a public meeting hall where events can run their due course. General Sturgis, I have a wonderful blackberry cobbler, will you honor me with your Epicurean appraisal of it?”
As the General accepted with eagerness her mother’s face-saving offer, Laura could tell from the barely suppressed anger in her father’s eyes that the matter was far from being settled. Her father handled any problem or concern with the tenacity of a dog gnawing on a bone, he would never let it rest until every morsel of marrow was extracted or the bone put to rest beneath a foot of dirt. The remainder of the meal passed with relative calm and the general finally excused himself to retreat to the parlor for an after-dinner smoke. By that time her father had sufficiently calmed his anger to fence back and forth with the general in a much more collected manner.
“I still can’t understand why you southerners call your meals, breakfast, dinner and supper,” the general remarked, as they headed for the parlor, “up north we stick with the traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
“The Lord did not have a last dinner,” Reverend Tyree replied with good-natured humor, “he had a Last Supper.”
The meal had been taken several hours earlier than normal, no doubt due to the presence of their guest, therefore, the children found themselves with extra time to account for before beginning evening chores.
Laura, since it was her week for kitchen duty, helped her mother with the supper dishes. From her preoccupied mood her mother could easily tell that something was bothering her. “Tell me about it?” she questioned Laura, who gave her a look of feigned ignorance at the query. “What did you see in the Yankee camp that’s made you so distant and abnormally thoughtful? And, don’t even try to pretend you and Sara Beth weren’t spying, we both know the truth of the matter.”
Laura leaned back against the sink counter and twisted the dishrag into a knot looking at some imaginary spot on the ceiling above. “The way those nigra soldiers were beating our boys was really awful,” she replied, “and they just pushed them from their horses like sacks of tied grain to fall painfully to the ground. It was brutal.”
“I suppose Sara Beth witnessed this brutality,” her mother stated, “what else happened? Lord knows, your sister will have nightmares for a week, you know how sensitive she is.”
“Nothing else happened Mama. A nigra sergeant stopped the others from beating our boys, then they went further into the Yankee camp. I think one of the prisoners was an officer though,” Laura finished, turning to grab a plate to dry.
“And what difference does that make?” her mother returned. “Regardless of rank or rating or whatever you call it, they’re still our boys, all our boys. Just like your brother, James, is a lieutenant and your brother, John, is a private and Elizabeth’s husband, Tony, is a captain, each are doing what needs to be done.”
“I didn’t mean it that way, Mama, it’s just that he was different.”
“Different in what way, child?”
Laura did not want to admit to her mother that, even considering the long distance and short time she had seen the young man, for some reason her heart had fluttered and she had entertained silly, romantic notions about him. She knew her mother would simply scold her for harboring licenscious and immoral thoughts and fostering immature, teenage daydreaming. Instead she simply muttered, “Just different,” and returned to her task of drying the plates her mother was washing.
Although she knew for certain that her father would take a strap to her for again disobeying him, especially in view of the stern look he had given her at the supper table, for some overpowering reason, Laura was unwillingly drawn towards the Yankee camp. For half an hour or more she had paced back and forth behind the barn trying to resist the powerful urge to return to the hillside, but her thoughts kept returning to the prisoners, to one prisoner in particular. Now, once again hidden in the blackberry thicket overlooking the enemy camp, she mentally scolded herself for being so weak minded. The searing sun was beginning to settle beneath the hilltop behind her and twilight’s shadows were already racing down across the wide valley below.
Just as she had made up her mind to abandon her silent vigil and turned to head for home, a sudden noise and flickering movement to her left brought her to a quick halt. Squatting down further and deeper into the thick briar patch, she curiously watched as a young Yankee soldier made his way cautiously through the darkening scrub oak, finally coming to rest in a hidden open spot no more than twenty feet from her. For ten minutes or more the small soldier simply stood in place surveying the camp below, listening attentively for the slightest sound, his head moving back and forth in quick jerking moves. Evidently satisfied that he was safely alone in his privacy, the soldier began to remove his trousers in preparation for a personal toilet.
Suddenly blushing, Laura turned her head to look in the other direction, embarrassed but not eager to give away her hidden position. Wild thoughts of being ravished by the soldier entered her mind as she was forced to listen to the satisfied grunts as he completed his toilet. Laura held her breath in fear of being overheard as her racing thoughts blossomed into shameful detail in her ever-active imagination. She began to chastise herself for being such a fool, such a curious and scatterbrained fool.
Finally, hearing the sounds of movement and the clink of something like metal against metal, Laura risked a quick glance in the direction of the soldier. To her relief he sat comfortably against a small tree taking a thirsty drink from his canteen. The sight and thought of water made Laura's mouth taste dry and cottony. The twilight was deepening and more fires had begun to spring up throughout the scattered camp below. She kept one eye on the soldier and another on the camp, afraid the soldier would never leave his comfortable spot against the tree.
Suddenly, the small soldier stood and removed his heavy wool jacket, hanging it on a convenient limb of the small tree. Beneath his jacket he wore a tattered and stained blouse, which he also pulled over his head, shook violently, and hung across the same tree limb. Freed of the encumbrance of his coat and blouse, the little soldier began to unwind what appeared to be a wide wound bandage covering his upper chest, although Laura could see no signs of blood or other stains. Finally, the wide bandage fully removed, the small soldier stood and began to knead and massage himself. Shocked to the depth of her being, Laura could only stare open mouthed as the little soldier moaned in pure ecstasy and pleasure as he rubbed and squeezed what were all to obviously the mature breasts of a female.
In her sudden shock, Laura stood and yelped in pain as her unruly hair was caught and held tight by the thick, sharp thorns of a briar bush. The small soldier instinctively crossed both arms over his breasts and yelled, "Who's there?," his wide eyes quickly spotting Laura as she sought in vain to free herself.
"Who are you, girl?" he asked, quickly closing the distance between them and glancing furtively around in every direction like a cornered animal.
Suddenly regaining her composure, Laura went down on both knees in order to pry loose the thick briar holding her long hair in its unrelenting grasp. "I'm Laura Jean Tyree," she replied. "Who in blazes are you?"
"Private Albert D.J. Cashier of the 95th Illinois Infantry," the little soldier responded, sounding as if he had repeated that answer on numerous occasions, or had even practiced it over and over again.
"You're no Albert," Laura emphatically stated, pointing at the obvious signs of femininity, which the small soldier had unconsciously failed to cover in his rush to Laura's presence.
"Real name's Jenny Hodges," the soldier finally admitted, reaching into her pocket for a folding knife that she opened and used to cut the thick briar vine from Laura's hair. With Laura freed, Jenny turned and walked back to her tree where she had dropped the wide bandage, picked it up and begin to wind it back around her breasts, flattening them down to look more like the muscular chest of a man.
"Not going to give me away, are ya?" she asked, as Laura slowly approached her.
A thousand questions entered Laura's mind at the same time but all she could respond with was, "Why?"
Jenny's quick come back was a simple, "Why not?"
Why any woman would want to pretend to be a man, to become a soldier, to live among rowdy men, to fight in horrible battles, to suffer the agony and hardships of an army on the move while constantly in fear of your dark secret being discovered, was completely beyond Laura's comprehension. Hers was an orderly world of family, wife, home and children. No room in it for crazy, totally bazaar, simply outrageous and incomprehensible actions such as this. This went far beyond anything she had ever thought of, even in her wildest dreams.
"I was rubbing my breasts because the binding hurts after a spell," Jenny replied, donning her blouse and heavy jacket. "Weren't nothin' other than that." She continued to look imploringly at Laura as if seeking or needing approval and recognition from another female. Close inspection revealed that she was actually smaller than Laura originally thought and now armed with the knowledge that this enemy soldier was not what the eyes truly beheld, Laura began to notice other small details of femininity. Although plain and common of appearance in the face and certainly no real beauty by most standards, her eyes and the upward tilt of her nose bespoke of prettiness if properly applied make-up were to be used. Definitely as pretty or prettier than some girls Laura knew. How she managed to fool hundreds of men was beyond Laura's ability to understand, and the why of it still eluded her.
"I've never belonged to anything in my life before," Jenny stated. "The 95th Illinois is my home, my family, everything I care about. The only way I could be with them, to go where they went, to belong, was to pretend to be a man. I joined up as Albert Cashier at Camp Fuller back in ‘62, been with the 95th ever since. And you know something else?" she emphasized, "I ain't never regretted my decision, not one single time."
Finally over the initial shock and for some unknown reason beginning to develop a friendly feeling towards Jenny, Laura got up enough nerve to ask her, "What about the killing and dying, doesn't that bother you? Lord knows, I could never kill anyone."
Don't know as how I ever kilt anyone," Jenny replied, offering her canteen to Laura who accepted it with eagerness. "Most fights I been in, and there ain't been a whole lot, I just point the end of my gun in the direction everybody else is pointing and pull the trigger. So many's firing I can't tell if I done hit anything or not. 'Sides, after the first shots are fired 'bout all we're shooting at is a cloud of powder smoke on the other side of the field. Never been up real close and fightin' like some of the boys brag on. Most of soldering I reckon ain't the fightin', it's goin' from place to place, camping, cooking, standing guard, moving to another place and camping again."
"But what if they catch you?" Laura questioned. "I mean, what will they do to you if they find out you're a girl?" Her voice held more concern in it than Jenny had ever felt before and the unusual feeling warmed Jenny inside. When she replied, she sounded more like a caring sister than a Union soldier.
"Oh, I ain't the only one," she stated. "Rumor was they's a girl up in old Virginnie caught pretending to be a soldier in one of Little Mack's outfits. She was so well-liked by the men they simply let her hang around with them afterwards. Course, they took her uniform and such and made her wear women's clothes, but she went with them wherever they went and helped cook and clean and such. Reckon that's about all would happen to me was I to get caught. Fellers of the 95th already took a real liking to me."
The two continued to talk; so wrapped up in their conversation and in each other’s company that they lost all sense of time. Laura was fascinated by the stories of army life Jenny told her, and obversely, Jenny was enthralled by the warmth and beauty and serenity of a family life that she had never had. They were finally brought back to reality when a loud commotion in the camp below broke the spell of friendly companionship they were enjoying.
"Lordy mercy!" Laura exclaimed, suddenly realizing that full darkness had overtaken them without their even noticing it. "Pa's gonna skin me alive." She knew beyond a doubt her father would be out and about looking all over for her, his anger barely held in check, the fury of his wrath near the boiling point. Although he hadn't strapped her since she had become a woman, she had really never given him justifiable cause to do so either. Suddenly, her growing fear of his overpowering anger was all she could think about.
"They's men with torches walking around the camp," Jenny stated, as if that was very unusual. "Appears they's looking for somebody or something."
They watched the figures moving about silhouetted by the flickering light from the many campfires. Suddenly, Laura caught sight of a tall, imposing figure at the head of half a dozen men. Although it was far too dark, and the distance too great to distinguish individual features, she knew beyond doubt that the tall figure was her father, for his ambling and fast-paced stride was one of the sure things that singled him out from other men. She took a deep breath, her heart skipped a beat, raw fright enveloped her entire being, and she shuddered involuntarily.
To return home now and try to pretend she was no where near the Yankee camp would be impossible. For some unknown reason she had never been capable of lying to her father, not that she hadn't thought of doing so on many small trivial matters. She simply knew that her eyes would always betray her just as they had done earlier that day at the supper table. No, the only thing she could possibly do now was to let him know where she was and pray that his explosive temper would be held in check, at least until they reached the calming interference of her mother.
"They're looking for me, Jenny," she finally stated. That's my Pa in your camp and he's there looking for me."
"What are you gonna do," Jenny asked, worry and concern heavy in her voice. It was a long few minutes before Laura finally replied, but when she did it was with a sigh of resignation.
"I have to go down and let him know where I am. Will you take me down to your camp Jenny?"
"Yes," Jenny replied, "and it's ‘Albert,’ Laura, remember? Make sure you call me Albert. We'll swing around to where the 95th is and I'll pretend I held you up from going home if you think it will help. Mayhap your Pa won't be so harsh on you if we make it appear like you had no choice in the matter."
The short walk down the gently sloping hill took no more than five minutes but to Laura it seemed like an eternity. As soon as they reached the perimeter of the Yankee camp, her nostrils were once again assaulted by a hundred different smells, and her ears tingled with a symphony of new sounds. The rich smell of fresh horse manure was dominant closely followed by that of acrid wood smoke, burning tobacco, and oddly enough, steaming leather. The sounds were predominately the voices of hundreds of men, crackling firewood, and the lonely sound of someone playing a mouth harmonica, the tune new to her, but sad and sounding of home and loved ones in some far off place.
As they slowly picked their way through the sprawling camp, only an occasional soldier would look up from his warm fire and greet them with a simple nod or turning of the head. Laura came to an abrupt stop at the sight she saw as they walked around the end of several large supply wagons near the far edge of the camp.
Two men were hanging from the low limbs of a sturdy oak tree, their hands tied behind their backs, the ropes leading from their wrists to the limb above bending their arms back and upward in what had to be pure agony. A third man was tied upside down against a large wagon wheel, his head no more than a few feet from a small simmering fire, the skin of his face already red and blistered from the heat of the slowly burning coals.
All three had obviously been whipped, for raw, bleeding lines crisscrossed their backs and rib cages, their shirts torn into ribbons. Near the men, now recognizable as the four Confederate prisoners, stood four Negro soldiers, the Negro sergeant who had earlier whipped them holding a burning brand in his hand as if he was preparing to use it on the helpless captives.
Off to the right, casually sitting around a blazing fire and carefully sipping hot coffee or tea from soot blackened mugs, sat two white officers, their faces impartial and uncaring as if nothing more was happening than a quiet leisurely evening. Sitting next to them was the fourth Confederate man, obviously a traitor and not a prisoner of war.
Without conscious thought, spurred only by the sight of the suffering men and nonchalance of the officers and unaware of the seething anger building within her, like her father's daughter, Laura rushed forward and began to throw wild blows at the two officers who stood and quickly backed away in self defense, shocked by the sudden and unexpected appearance and fiery rage of the young girl in their midst.
Laura, her tender knuckles bruised from the heads and hard muscles of the officers, repeated over and over again, "animals, animals, animals!" As tears clouded her eyes and frustration dulled her impulsive anger, one of the officers grabbed her arms and held her pinned down to protect himself from her stinging blows.
With a sudden and unexpected surge of strength, Laura broke free, but in doing so lost her balance and fell back heavily on her backside to the hard packed earth.
At first disoriented and dazed by the sudden fall, Laura looked up from her un-lady like position on the ground into the fiery eyes and angry flushed face of her father standing no more than ten feet across the blazing fire from her. To his right and slightly behind him stood the Yankee General Sturgis, his pudgy face glowing red from the flickering light of the flames. Speechless and unable to move, Laura could do nothing more than stare back at her father, her peripheral vision capturing Jenny's shocked face standing to the rear of the small gathering.
"In the name of the Almighty!" Reverend Tyree bellowed, "What are you doing, daughter?" He slowly walked towards her, but as he rounded the fire he suddenly caught sight of the suffering prisoners hanging from the bending tree limb and the blistered face of the man tied to the wagon wheel. If at all possible, his eyes grew even wider as he caught sight of the colored sergeant standing next to one prisoner, his black face shinning from the fire light; arrogance, hatred, and defiance dominating his features.
Now, fully aware of why his daughter had been found in such an uncompromising position, for he was, if anything, a very astute man and knew instantly she had been fighting the evil before her, he turned his rage onto the man responsible for this affront to both men and God.
"You will explain this," he yelled, his arm extended and pointing directly at the suffering prisoners, his entire body shaking from uncontrollable fury, his chest heaving like the bellows of a blacksmith.
General Sturgis, just as shocked and overwhelmed by the sight before him as the Reverend, was totally speechless, his squinting eyes bouncing from face to face until he finally bore down on the two white officers standing nervously next to Laura.
"Release those men," he ordered, addressing both officers. "Who is responsible for this outrage, this atrocity?" he continued, his gaze still riveting the two men, his own temper now beyond control.
"Can't do that General," a voice spoke from the shadows behind them. The Negro sergeant moved into the firelight and repeated the words. "Can't do that, them's my prisoners."
Laura thought the General was going to explode, his chest swelled until the buttons on his jacket were ready to pop off. His eyes became tiny dots in a red balloon face, his hands clinched tight until the knuckles turned white, and thick pulsating veins popped out on his bull neck like writhing snakes. Again he addressed the two officers and screamed, "Get this African baboon out of my camp! Get all your nigra soldiers out of my camp. Tonight! Now! Do you hear me?"
"Where will we go, Sir?" one of the young officers had the audacity to ask the raging general. "There's Rebs all over the place out there," he continued, pointing at the darkness beyond the fire.
Gaining a degree of control over his temper, General Sturgis replied. "You will take your nigra soldiers out of my camp immediately. If you're lucky enough to make it back to Memphis, you will tell Colonel Bouton that I shall personally attend to this disgusting matter immediately upon my return. Am I being clear, Lieutenant?"
"You wasn't at Fort Pillow," the Negro sergeant yelled, again breaking into the conversation. "You didn't see how these sesh scum kilt men what had surrendered. You didn't see womens crying as they kilt their children or threw them into the river to drown. You didn't see Lieutenant Ackerstrom nailed to a wall and burned alive. I was there. I see it with my own two eyes."
"Sergeant Major Bauer," General Sturgis yelled, calling for a regimental Sergeant Major, who magically appeared next to him. "Get a detail and cut those prisoners down. Make sure this man," he stabbed a pudgy finger at the colored sergeant, "is out of my camp post haste. Also, Sergeant Major, see to it that you rip those sergeant stripes off his jacket before he leaves. The man is a disgrace to the rank and privileges. If it was within my power," he continued, turning to face the two white officers cowering behind the blazing fire, "I would see you both dishonorably cashiered from the service as well. You have your orders," he finished, turning to face Reverend Tyree. "I hope, good sir, this will assuage any further concerns you may still harbor about the sincerity of my actions as well as to the depth of my apology?"
Without responding, Reverend Tyree walked over to assist the detail in releasing the suffering prisoners, all thoughts of Laura forgotten. Throughout the entire exchange, Laura had sat unmoving on the muddy ground. As her father strode past her without so much as a glance, she turned over and rose to her feet. The first thing she saw was the face of the Negro sergeant, looking at her with venomous hatred.
His withering stare told her that he would never forget her face, that some day, some way, he would have his revenge against her. Her father's voice finally broke the spell created by the black man's hate-filled eyes.
"General," he demanded, "these men need immediate medical attention. I trained in the medical arts for a spell and I demand you release them into my care."
"I regret, sir, that I cannot do that," General Sturgis replied. "They are still under the Provost Marshall's authority as prisoners of war. We do have several fine surgeons assigned to this expedition who will see to their care," he finished, in a conciliatory tone.
"This one be an officer, Sir," a burley sergeant stated, pointing to one of the prisoners cut loose from the tree. "Ain't right and proper he be mixed with enlisted."
Taking his cue from the sergeant's words, Reverend Tyree spoke up once again. "At least let me see to this young officer's care," he asked, seeing indecision on the face of General Sturgis.
The General, more than anxious to rid himself of the pesky Reverend and his feisty daughter, finally replied. "If you give me your word as a man of God that he will be present when I leave for Memphis on the morrow, I will relent, sir, and place him into your custody."
By way of reply, Reverend Tyree asked that someone be dispatched to retrieve his pram on the far side of the sprawling camp. He then turned to Laura and finally spoke. "Come, daughter," he said, with an unusually warm and comforting tone of voice. "Help me get this young man ready to move to our home."
An instant later, Laura's entire life changed forever. Below her, sitting placidly on the hard ground, his features highlighted by the dancing light of the suddenly blazing fire, appeared the young Confederate Lieutenant she had seen from afar.
She did not see the ugly, bleeding cuts on his back where the heavy mule strap had left its indelible mark, nor the dirty, torn uniform clinging to his muscular chest, but she did see his bright shining smile, the twinkle in his sky-blue eyes, and she felt a tremendous jolt flash throughout her entire body.
Her throat constricted so she could barely breathe, the blood in her temples raced like a raging torrent, her heart pounded like savage drums. Her knees became so weak she was certain she would collapse to the earth. She no longer feared her father's potential anger, her bruised knuckles and sore bottom were completely forgotten. She didn't even notice the broad smiling face of the little soldier of the 95th as she passed by in her short trip to the carriage.