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Rated: 18+ · Chapter · Military · #1497819
The Civil War Battle of Brice's Crossroads.
Chapter 8

  The trip to Ripley had been uneventful, except for the constant chattering of Rebecca Ann who insisted on knowing every small detail concerning the alleged affair between Laura and Will.  She had invented so much in her wild imagination that even Laura was finding it difficult to remember what had really happened.

  There was one place in the road, about a mile north of Ripley, where evidence of a large number of horses had chewed up the earth and the sides of the road leading into the thick woods.  Either a skirmish of some kind had taken place or a large party of cavalry had turned around, for the shoe prints were clearly those of cavalry horses.

  The small town of Ripley was alive with people busily going from place to place, all appearing to be in a festive mood.  It was almost eleven a.m. and Mister Jacob suggested they stop for a quick meal before continuing as none had eaten breakfast in their haste to leave the farm, and the team of horses needed to be rested and watered.

  They halted at a small café on the town square and, after helping them down from the carriage, Mister Jacob continued on to water the horses.  He would pick them up in an hour after he had eaten in some lesser establishment that allowed Negroes in the back.

  Upon entering the small café, Laura spotted two of her friends sitting at a corner table in idle chitchat.  They weren't exactly friends, but at most simple acquaintances who occasionally attended her father's church and lived a few miles west of the Tyree farm on a small road leading toward Salem.  They smiled in greeting and signaled for Laura and Rebecca Ann to join them.

  "Norma Jean and Anna Pearl Burkhart, what brings you to Ripley?" Laura curtly asked as she and Rebecca Ann sat down.

  "Pa's doing the monthly supply run and Ma's shopping for fancies," Norma Jean replied.  "Barbara Ann went and got herself engaged and there's to be a party Saturday next.  Surely you all will come won't you?"  Had her voice been any smoother it would be dripping with honey and any slower they would have been there all day.

  "We're heading south to visit with friends," Laura replied, intentionally skirting the reasons for their sudden journey.  "We may not return in time for the party."

  "What's all the excitement?" Rebecca Ann asked, pointing to the large number of people on the streets and the carnival like atmosphere.

  "Why, you just missed all the action," Norma Jean exclaimed, obviously doing all the talking for herself and her sister.  "Our boys captured a Yankee cavalry patrol just north of town and they were here up to a few hours ago.  It was so excitin', all those handsome young men."  Her voice trailed off but the expression on her face needed no explanation.

  "Anybody hurt?  Anybody shot or killed?”

  "There was a young soldier, a beautiful specimen of manhood, taken to old lady Falkner's house," Norma Jean slowly replied.  "His back was bloody, but no blood anywheres else as I could see."

  Could it have been Will? Laura thought, suddenly alert and breathing deeply.  "What did he look like, Norma Jean?" she asked, aware that her question sounded more like a demand than a request.

  Norma Jean looked askance and took her time before replying.  "Sandy blonde hair, slim, real nice build, tight tush, and, oh, those eyes, they were the prettiest blue I ever saw."

  Laura's heart started going thumpety-thump again as Norma Jean continued in her ever so slow drawl.  "I think he was a lieutenant or captain or something or other.  I can't rightly remember all those military ranks what with so many bars and stars and stripes and all."

  "Is he still at Mrs. Falkner’s?" Laura questioned, trying hard to slow down her voice and rapid heartbeat.

  "Goodness no.  Like I said, they left several hours ago heading south outta town.  I'm just afraid you missed it all."

  It had to have been Will, Laura thought.  Blood on his back, handsome, sandy blonde hair, and those sparkling blue eyes, that alone would identify her Will.  And to think, she had just missed him by a few hours.  There was no possible way to catch up with him now. Cavalry units had been known to make as much as eighty or more miles in a 24-hour period, much too fast for the slow animals pulling her carriage.

  "Well, you don't have to look so glum," Norma Jean stated, seeing the disappointment on Laura's face.  "There's soldiers in Ripley might near every time we come to town."

  "Laura's looking for one particular soldier," Rebecca Ann chimed in, a smirk on her pretty freckled face.  Laura gave her a, shut your mouth look, but she continued on anyway.  "He's an officer that was visitin' our house, and Laura and he got awful close and she let him escape."

  "My goodness!" Anna Pearl finally joined in.  "I certainly hope he was one of ours and not one of them damn Yankees."

  "Of course he's one of our boys," Laura blurted back, flustered by the sudden digging into her personal affairs.  "Me and Pa helped him to escape from the Yankees."

  "Do tell," Norma Jean stated, in a syrupy voice.  "Don't stop now, tell us all the sublime details."

  "You been reading too many trashy dime novels," returned Laura, "Nobody uses words like sublime in real life.  "Besides, we don't have time for idle gossip; Mister Jacob will be back soon to pick us up and I, for one, am half starved."  She signaled for the waiter to come to their table, her face still rosy from the embarrassing insinuations.

  Despite Rebecca Ann's protestations, she ordered fried chicken to go, not wanting to spend any more time than necessary with the two Burkhart girls.  She already knew that by nightfall half of Ripley would know about her short sojourn with Will, the story no doubt embellished with rich and imaginative dime novel details, and by the time she returned through Ripley, she would probably be viewed as a soiled dove if not worse.

  Several hours after leaving Ripley they reached the Hatchie Bottom, a stretch of bog all but impassable.  And, as luck would have it, their small carriage became so mired in the thick pasty mud, no amount of effort could free the wheels, which were buried past their hubs.  Mister Jacob, apparently nonplused by the situation, finally unhitched the team of horses and helped the two girls to high ground, all the time quietly talking to himself or to the horses.  He then insisted that Laura and Rebecca Ann ride the two horses as far as Stubbs' Farm, a few miles southeast, and ask if a brace of mules or oxen could be borrowed to free the stuck carriage while he waited and guarded their belongings against road pirates or vagabonds.

  They arrived at the Stubbs' plantation, one of the highest spots in the entire state of Mississippi, in less than an hour and were warmly received.  Mr. Stubbs himself insisted on returning with half a dozen mules to free the carriage and rescue the stranded Mister Jacobs while the two young girls were being refreshed and pampered by his wife.

  Again, despite the fact that Rebecca Ann begged to stop for the night at the Stubbs' place, Laura emphatically demanded they continue on to the Agnew farm.  She knew her chances of ever catching up with the Confederate cavalry were slim to none, still, the slightest possibility kept pumping adrenaline and hope into her system.  It was not a happy sister or gleeful Mister Jacob who left the Stubbs' plantation very shortly upon Mr. Stubbs return with the carriage.

  The remaining seven or more miles to Doctor Agnew's house passed in almost complete silence, except for the singing of the birds and occasional chatter of squirrels, and the wind whistling in the tall pines.  Laura was totally preoccupied with thoughts of Will interspersed with worries about her family.  She knew she would never forgive herself if anything serious happened because she had freed Will.  She also felt that General Sturgis might have been angry but he did not seem to be the kind of man who would exact extreme retribution, especially against a man of God and his family.

  The road was dry since they were now running on the high ground, but it was very narrow, scarcely enough room for two wagons to pass each other, and thick scrub oak and vines created an almost impenetrable barrier at the edge.  It would be very difficult for a person on foot to penetrate the thick mass and a person on horseback would make it no more than a few yards.

  The Agnew house dominated a small rise of land just off the main road.  It was a large white house with a garden, both completely surrounded by a white picket fence.  There were Negro quarters to the rear of the house about fifty yards and a cotton gin and gin house not far away.  Like most farms in the area, it was a self-sustaining enterprise with pigs and chickens, turkeys, a few head of cattle, goats; actually, just about every farm animal or foul imaginable. Cotton, of course, was the staple crop along with the large family garden, some tobacco, corn, even several rows of grape and muscadine vines.  Just off the main road on a well-worn path leading to the house was the family well.  A young girl, no more than 10 years old, was drawing water from the well to fill a large wooden bucket as they pulled in and stopped the horses.

  Unable to quickly identify who the unexpected visitors were, the young girl stopped what she was doing and ran like a jackrabbit towards the house, her pig tails flopping back and forth, her bare feet making plop-plop sounds on the hard packed trail.

  Moments later she was back at the front entrance with a middle-aged black woman who was almost as wide as she was tall, her chalk white eyes standing out in vivid contrast to her dark ebony skin.  A large smile sprang upon her face as she finally recognized the unexpected guests.

  "Lawdy mercy," she drawled, "Mister Jacob and de Tyree girls.  What brings you alla way down here?"

  "Pa said we could come visit for a spell," Rebecca Ann answered, "I do hope we haven't come at an inconvenient time?"

  "Heavens no girl, we ain't had company for an awful long spell now, reckon Doctor Agnew and the rest of the Agnews' be right glad to have you all.  Get on in here now whilst I tell the missus youins here.  Frannie, go git that water what I asked for, an hurry it up now."

  Once inside the rambling house they were met by Letitia Agnew, a spry elderly woman in her mid-sixties, Mary Agnew, a matronly woman in her mid-thirties, and their longtime friend Rachel, a teenager who spent a lot of time with the Agnews.  None of the Agnew men were present, all out working in the fields.  Twelve year old Elmira Brice was visiting with Rachel.  Elmira's father owned a farm and store a few miles down the road at a crossroads.  Most people called it Brice's Crossroads for that reason.

  "Are Reverend Tyree and the rest of the family going to join you here?" Letitia asked, a warm motherly smile on her face.

  "I don't believe so," replied Laura, rummaging around in her handbag until she found her father's letter.  "He asked that I explain our reasons for this sudden and uninvited visit and to make certain I apologized for our breach of courtesy."

  "Apology not accepted," Letitia blurted, acting as if she was deeply insulted.  "You know very well that you do not need an invitation to visit with us anytime and for as long as you like."

  Laura could tell from the frank smile and warm eyes of Mrs. Agnew that she passionately meant what she said.  However, before she could think of a way to explain their sudden presence, they were interrupted by the arrival of another family member, Parson Samuel Agnew.

  Parson Agnew was a medium-height bear of a man with a generous thick brown beard.  He was dressed primarily in dark clothing that made him appear more like a Mennonite than a Presbyterian.  As a young girl, Laura had always been drawn to him for reasons she could not understand, and called him Uncle Sam even though they were not blood related.

  Immediately upon seeing the two girls, Sam Agnew walked over with his arms spread.  "Little Jean and Becky," he growled, grasping them both in a punishing bear hug.  "What brings you all the way down here to visit with your old Uncle Sam?"

  "Jemima," Letitia Agnew cut in, addressing the rotund black woman, "bring these girls a glass of sweet tea will you, they must be tired and thirsty after their long journey."

  Over the next half-hour Laura explained in detail the circumstances surrounding their visit.  The Agnews listened with avid curiosity and an occasional sympathetic remark.  After she had finished her tale, Sam Agnew asked with a grim voice, "You don't reckon this Yankee General will take it out on your family, do you?"

  Unable to predict just what General Sturgis might do, Laura replied, "I don't know, Uncle Sam, I really don't know."  She had been grasping for an answer to that very question ever since they had left the farm early that morning.  But, each time she told herself that everything would be fine, nagging doubts sprang up.

  "Well, generals are usually educated Christian men," Sam Agnew stated.  "I sincerely believe everything will be just fine, so you stop worrying your pretty little head, you hear me?"

  "What did this Lieutenant look like?" Rachel asked, itching to ask the question but uncertain if it was proper.  Sam Agnew gave her a disapproving look then turned to Laura. "You can stay here with Doc and Mother, or you're welcome to come over to my place.  But, you can stay as long as you want and I recommend it be as long as possible."

  "We've got lots more room Sam, "Letitia answered, "Why don't you let Rachel stay here with the girls” The way she said it was more like a motherly command than a request.

  By way of reply, Sam simply nodded his head.  "Here're the candles you wanted," he remarked, handing Letitia the small box he had gotten at Brice's store.  "Gone up in price a penny, but Bill gave them to me as a church donation.  By the way, Little Jean," he added, a mischievous grin on his face, "I met a young man dressed in civilian clothing at the Brice’s’ store, seems like he had a story similar to yours.  I think he said he was a Lieutenant Welch or something or other like that."

  Taking note of the huge grin on her Uncle Sam's face, Laura couldn't believe her good luck.  "Is he still there?" she demanded. "You've got to let me go to him!"

  "After you've cleaned up and had some decent supper we'll drive you over to the store," Letitia responded, her statement another motherly command.  Seeing the hesitant and challenging look on Laura's face, Sam was quick to add, "Said he'll be spending the night at Brice's, best do what mother says, Little Jean."

  It took a supreme effort for Laura to obey their requests. She could think of nothing but Will as she hurriedly changed her travel clothes, then sat picking at her food throughout the entire supper meal, which seemed to last forever.  Finally, feeling guilty for putting her through such intense waiting, Sam ordered thirteen-year-old Ebenezer to go hook up the buckboard.

  "Let's all go," Rachel stated, her curiosity getting the best of her.

  Before Laura could protest, Letitia Agnew spoke up.  "Now you know better'n that, Rachel," she admonished, "How would it look to the young gentleman if the entire family crowded into Brice's to gawk at him like he was a circus freak or something?  No.  Laura can handle a rig just fine and she can take Elmira home while she's at it."  As family matriarch, her word was the law and no one would dare question her decision.

  Will and Bill Brice were sitting on the porch of the small store enjoying an after dinner smoke and a small glass of muscadine wine.  The sun was slowly going down behind the tree line to the west, broadcasting the last of its dying rays through the small openings and gaps.  Across the road stood Brice's large two-story white house with about an acre of cleared land around it.  Just down the road from Brice's house was a small church with a cemetery near it.  From where he was sitting, to their northwest the Ripley Road wound its way down an incline to a small bridge over the Tishomingo creek about half a mile away.

  The sound of horse's hooves clopping across the distant bridge attracted their attention.  Standing in unison, they spotted a small black buckboard rapidly making its way up the incline towards the crossroads.

  "That's old Doc Agnew's buckboard," Bill Brice stated, "But it shore ain't old Doc drivin' it." As the buckboard drew closer, Brice continued. "Well, I'll be darn, that's my daughter Elmira and I think it's one of Big Jim Tyree's girls driving the thing.  What for is she doin' way down here?"  He knew the answer to his question as soon as he saw the look on Will's face.

  Will was in complete shock.  More than half way up the hill from where he stood, beating the reigns of the buckboard as hard as she could, was Laura, his Laura.  She drew to a stop in front of the store, and even before the small buckboard had stopped rolling, she flew out of the seat and hit the ground running.

  Will jumped off the low porch and met her ten feet from the store, catching her as she flew into his arms, hugging her tight against his chest, oblivious to the pain from her hands clasping his wounded back.  For what seemed like an eternity they simply held each other until finally Will backed up enough to look into her tear drenched eyes.  Holding her at arm's length he asked a simple, "How?"

  "Pa thought I'd be safer down here with an old family friend, Doctor Agnew," Laura replied, her voice still choked up with emotion. "I never dreamed you'd be here, though.  I hoped we'd catch up with you and the cavalry unit, but I truly never thought we would.  Parson Agnew told me you were here."

  "Is your family safe?"

  "We left before the Yankees came to get you.  Pa thought it best, sent Rebecca Ann down with me."

  Mr. Brice, still standing on the porch finally spoke.  "You're Laura Jean ain't ja?"  How's ol’ Big Jim doin'?"

  "Fine, sir," Laura replied, finally recovering from the emotional reunion.  She hadn't fully realized the extent of her feelings for Will until she saw him standing on the store porch a few moments ago.  Impossible as it seemed now, the very thought of being without him made her shiver inside and the fact that she met him for the very first time less than twenty-four hours ago was even more incredible.  She always thought that love at first sight was the basis of the dime
novels that the Burkhart girls read so avidly, not something that happened in real life.  Yet, here she was in the arms of a man who in effect was a complete stranger.  But, somehow, for some reason, she felt as if she had known Will all her life; that he had always been a part of her existence, a part that she had been missing.  It wasn't simple physical attraction or the yearnings of a teenaged mind, his presence was like an antidote to a fatal poison, restoring life, bringing hope and promise, erasing fear, soothing and comforting.

  "Elmira, come on inside the store or git over to the house and let these young people be," Bill Brice ordered, seeing his young daughter standing awkwardly behind the couple.  He then turned and walked back into the small store as she headed for the house across the road.

  "I was ordered by General Buford to stay the night here before moving on to Tupelo in the morning," Will stated, at a sudden loss for words.  He wanted to tell Laura just how beautiful she was and ask her to wait for him, but for some reason he could not find the right words.  He also felt that events were moving too rapidly, that he had no right to feel the way he did about this young lady, and he couldn't understand it.  How could he convince her that he was desperately in love with her and he barely knew her name?  Somehow, it just didn't seem natural.

  Sudden, overwhelming love just didn't happen, did it?  If it did, it happened in romantic novels about tales of knights and dragons, castles and princesses, not in backwoods Mississippi amidst the terrible backdrop of a never-ending war.  But, how could he deny it?  He had hunted and been hunted by scores of pretty girls, from prim socialites to tavern bar maids and had never felt the flood of emotion and overwhelming joy he felt in the presence of this wonderful person in his arms.  Looking down into her crystal green eyes he could only say, "I love you."

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