When Clay burst into the front room, screeching like he'd been attacked by a lion, Julia dropped the shirt she was patching.
"Ma! Mr. Bates rode through. The Yankees are coming down the pike." He rubbed his neck. "They're takin' the stock and burnin' the crops and harvests. Ma, they will surely burn the barn."
|Sketch of Custer's troops burning the countryside by Alfred Waud|
She took a breath and looked up. "Here's what to do. Get Albert and Marie." She looked at her youngest, who had followed Clay into the room. "Anna, you go with them. Clay, all y'all drag out the corn sacks. Mind you, tie them closed tight. Put as many sacks on the backs of the cattle as they will tolerate. Tie them on mighty secure. You don't want to spook them with shiftin' loads or they'll run off from you."
She laid a hand on his shoulder to steady his quaking frame. "When you finish up, take your brother and drive the cows up the mountain. Stay till the Yankees pass. I reckon you'll be there a few days, so I'll rustle up enough provisions for your stay." She squeezed his shoulder. "Go, you two. Get a wiggle on!"
Clay hesitated. "Mr. Bates said they're a mean bunch. They burned his house."
Julia set her jaw. That would not happen here. She shooed her son away and went to the kitchen. She fried the last of the pork skin to make cracklins, boiled eggs she'd been collecting from the last laying hen about the place, and wrapped corn pone in brown paper she had saved for stationery. No matter. Rod hadn't received but half of her letters. She would be spared the trouble of making ink from ground walnut hulls and stove soot. She never could achieve the proper fluid mixture to get it to flow smoothly from her nib anyhow.
She gathered the food and stuffed it into a carpetbag that would have to serve. She ran with it to the barn. Smoke wreathed above the windbreak trees to the south. The Yankees were coming.
The boys threw the dairy herd across the road and into the fields, riding after them on nearly the only horses left. Julia called after them, "Muffle that clatterin' bell or take it off." She and her daughters watched them go into the trees and down the creek bed, heading toward the Massanutten. She hoped her sons remembered the way to the hidden spot Rod used to take them to when hunting. It was their only hope for saving the herd and the corn.
She turned and stared down the pike. The smoke now billowed in black shafts in the distance. The Yankees were coming.
Julianna began to sob, tears coursing down cheeks smeared with corn silk and pollen from her labors.
"Stop that, child," Julia scolded, wiping the girl's face with her apron. "Show them your spirit, not your fear."
The three of them stood in the lane, waiting, watching as the Union soldiers advanced down the pike, marching unevenly as they came. Men broke out of the main body to torch the fields on each side. On they came. The Yankees were here.
Check your pulse. Is it racing? What would you do under such extreme circumstances?
The historical event in which my fictional Julia Owen finds herself and her family is still known in Virginia as "The Burning." I wonder if our relatively comfy life has robbed us of the ability to act coolly in times of crisis.
I hope you enjoyed this scene from Gone for a Soldier, my forthcoming novel set during the American Civil War. Thank you for visiting. I love to read your comments, so if anything in the sample compels you to speak up, rest assured that I eventually read what you write and will reply, if needed. Questions? I'm open to them, too.
Please come back next Saturday for another sample. Thank you!
Marsha Ward is the award-winning author of the acclaimed novel series featuring the Owen family. Her latest book, Spinster's Folly, won the 2013 USA Best Book Award for Western Fiction. A former journalist, Ward has published over 900 articles, columns, poems and short stories. She is the founder of American Night Writers Association aka ANWA.