Colonel Black in Lemons for Jackson
Night fell on the Valley District of the Army of Northern Virginia's camp near Chancellorsville, Virginia. The moon shone on the neat rows of white tents, the slow burning embers of the campfires, the soldiers taking a last respite before the upcoming battle, and the piles of rifles that would soon be making slaughter all along Spotsylvania County. Most of the soldiers were preparing for the coming battle, cleaning their rifles and bayonets, adjusting their uniforms, and writing last letters home. Cavalrymen saw to their horses and polished their sabers. In the tent of Lieutenant General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson, the lamps still burned.
Jackson and his staff stood over a map of the area spread out over a table. Major General J.E.B. Stuart was dashing in his gray coat, golden sash and feathered cavalier cap, a sword thrust rakishly through his belt and his beard neatly combed. The other generals noted the contrast between the handsome, perfumed and well-groomed Stuart, and Jackson in his filthy uniform, drooping forage cap, scraggly black beard and pale face.
"We will strike the Army of the Potomac hard from the flanks," Jackson muttered. "We'll have to move fast, cover a lot of ground, and strike with….with…." He balled his hand into a fist and frowned. The other generals sat on wooden chairs, but Stonewall Jackson stood bolt upright, and ram rod straight. His hands were at his sides and he stared directly forward.
Stuart grinned wryly. "With the fury of Almighty God, sir?"
"Do not make mockery of the lord, sir!" General Jackson cried, his face reddening. The other generals hid their smiles and turned away. Jackson shook his head. "I'll need your men harrying the flanks of the enemy, keeping them on their toes, and then we'll connect with Lee's Army and destroy them."
"You do seem quite agitated, I say quite agitated, General Jackson," Stuart said, genuine concern in his voice. "Are you getting enough sleep? You do tend to spend a lot of time praying."
"It's…it's my humors, gentlemen," Jackson whispered. "Ailments plague me, spiritual as well as physical." He held up one hand and stood on one of foot. All of the generals and staff shifted uncomfortably in their seats as Jackson continued. "Yes, I do believe that demons reside in my body, attempting to possess my immortal soul. They shall not have it. And a certain posture must be taken at all times to remove various chances of disease, as well as an important special diet." He gulped nervously. "A diet that I'm afraid I cannot follow."
"Perhaps that's what's making you so damnably nervous!" Stuart suggested. "Not having time to munch on your favorite foods. What are those fruits you always like?"
"Lemons, sir!" Jackson cried mournfully. "Nothing benefits the body and brings quietude to the mind and soul like the succulent citrus specimen known as a lemon." He moaned softly. "And a Union artillery strike crashed into my private culinary wagon, destroying them all."
J.E.B. Stuart stood up. "Easy there, Stonewall. I think I may have a solution to your grievous problem." He whispered something to his fresh-faced aid, who quickly dashed out through the tent flap. "I have a soldier under my command, a Colonel, who I employ for jobs of an odd and difficult nature, and he has not failed me yet. He's a good old rebel and a loyal son of the South. I reckon he'll find you those lemons."
"In occupied territory? That is soon to become a battlefield, sir?" Jackson asked. "I don't know, Jeb."
"I assure you, I say, I assure you, General, he's quite the man for the job." Stuart stroked his beard. "His family name is Black, but I regret that I do not know his first name. He'll get those lemons for you, never fear."
Soon enough, the aid returned, with a tall cavalryman wearing the gray uniform and broad brimmed hat of a Confederate cavalier. He had a thick black moustache, a hooked nose, and hawkish eyes. A cavalry saber was at his belt, as well as twin LeMat revolvers. He saluted the generals, and then bowed low.
"I am at your service, sirs," he said.
"At ease, Colonel Black," Stuart said, waving his hand. "Colonel, we have a delicate mission for you, and it may seem a little strange, but I assure you it is vital, I say, vital for a victory at Chancellorsville, and to forever force the Northern boots from the necks of Southern gentlemen!"
"What can I do, sir?" Colonel Black asked.
"Lemons," Stonewall Jackson whispered. "I need you to find me some lemons."
"Lemons?" Black asked, staring at General Jackson in surprise. "May I ask why?"
"Old Stonewall here likes his lemons, Colonel," Stuart explained. "If he's sucking on them, his mind is at ease. We can have a victory like Fredricksburg a hundred times over. If not, then General Hooker will fight us to a standstill like they nearly did at Sharpsburg, or worse. It is vital that General Jackson gets his lemons." Stuart patted Black's shoulder. "You'll have free rein of the battlefield, Colonel, with my permission to cross over past enemy lines, or to commandeer the lemons from whatever civilians you happen to encounter." He cocked his head. "And the same to all your men. How many of those good Southern gentlemen will be riding with you?"
Black thought for a few seconds. "One, sir. Most of the boys went down in the Seven Days Battle, and we lost the rest to an artillery barrage in the Second Manassas."
"One?" Jackson asked, turning away in despair. "I'll never get my lemons!"
Stuart laughed. "Come now, Stonewall, two men are perfectly suited to this delicate mission. Why, they'll be able to sneak, I say sneak where a full cavalry column cannot, and go undetected as they ride through the ranks of Lincoln's lackeys." J.E.B. Stuart turned back to Black. "General Jackson needs those lemons, Colonel. You may ride out tonight."
Black saluted. "Yes, sir," he agreed. "I'll return as soon as I can find them."
"I know you will, Good luck, cavalier."
Jackson bowed his head low to Colonel Black. "I will pray for you," he said. "And may God smile on your efforts."
"Thank you, sir." Colonel Black saluted all of the generals again, including the sobbing Stonewall, and marched out of his tent. As soon as he was gone, he spat a long stream of tobacco juice onto the pounded dirt. "Holy Hannah," he whispered. "Goddamn inbred donkey-brained generals. Gonna put me in an early grave." He shook his head and walked off.
He found the sole surviving member of his command seeing to the horses near a campfire. The younger cavalryman wore a forage cap salvaged from a dead infantryman, a gray coat pierced with bullet holes, and twin Colt Peacemakers he had managed to take off of dead Union officers. The younger man turned around and saluted to Black. "Howdy, Colonel," he said. "What did the brass want?"
Black sighed. "A cockamamie mission, Private Reeper, and one we gotta go on."
"What is it, sir?" Private Clark Reeper asked. He said he was of age, but Black knew the youngster couldn't have been older than sixteen. The private had the pimply faced of a youth, and was tall and lanky. He had uncombed brown hair and bright eyes. Even though he was just a kid, the war had made him grow up darned fast.
Colonel Black went to his horse and took the reins. "Lemons. Lieutenant General Thomas Jackson wants us to ride out and find him some lemons."
"Hell, Colonel, what does old Stonewall want with lemons?" Reeper asked. "I mean, couldn't he just munch on some apples or something?" Reeper had been recruited in New Orleans, but he had an accent that was pure Texas, probably because he spent his early childhood there.
"Private, I have fought the Mexicans, the Indians, and one war or another for most of my life, and if I live to be a thousand and two and continue my stretch in the military, I shall never understand the ways of the brass." Colonel Black pulled himself onto his horse and patted his Enfield cavalry carbine. "Let's ride, son."
Reeper mounted up as well, and the two men urged their horses out. They hadn't had time to unpack their bedrolls, and so they didn't have to prepare them again to move. The horses cantered through the resting Confederate soldiers, and the drowsy infantrymen looked up at them and waved.
"Where you boys going?" a wide-bellied rebel asked.
"Gonna find lemons for Stonewall!" Reeper replied, smiling.
"Good luck, boys!" another Confederate agreed to them.
Someone started to sing 'Riding a Raid,' and the rest joined in. "Now each Cavalier that loves honor and right, let him follow the feather of Stuart tonight!" they cried, before launching into the chorus. "Come tighten your girth, and slacken your rein! Come buckle your blanket and holster again! Try the click of your trigger and balance your blade! For he must ride sure that goes riding a raid!"
"For he must ride sure that goes riding a raid!" Private Reeper repeated, waving his hands in the air. "So long, boys. Reckon we'll see y'all soon!"
They rode to the outskirts of the Confederate camp and rode off into the dark woods. Colonel Black had his horse gallop forward, and Reeper urged his steed after him. Black looked behind him and watched the younger man, grinning like an idiot as he bounced up and down in the saddle, still humming 'Riding a Raid.' Reeper seemed like he was running from something, and almost took great pleasure in the companionship of the men. But Colonel Black saw the innocence and joy leaving the boy with each slaughter they waded through, and it was like to break his heart.
Black considered their mission, and realized he had no plan to see his way through it. Where would they find lemons on a battlefield? Perhaps they could raid the quartermaster's column of the Union, but the chance of them having fresh fruit of any kind, let alone lemons, was slim to none. There was the town of Chancellorsville, and they might have lemons there, but General Hooker had set many ranks of Union troops around there, and it would be hard to break through the Boys in Blue. Maybe if they crossed the Rappahannock River, and rode the long way around the Union ranks, they could find a way to the town.
But that put them far behind enemy lines, and if they were caught there, it meant waiting out the war in some prisoner of war camp, or dying at the end of the rope, depending on the feelings of the men who captured them. Colonel Black pondered the question as they rode onwards, the horses passing along a dirt path that rode through the forest. He must have dozed off, as the night went by too quickly. Private Clark Reeper amused himself by humming 'Riding a Raid' and 'Rose of Alabama' and 'Bonnie Blue Flag' and a dozen other tunes until the sun rose over Chancellorsville.
The sun awoke Colonel Black and he looked around and then reached for the map. He had no idea where they were. Private Reeper was singing 'Dixie', loudly. "Reeper!" Black shouted. "Shut the Hell up before Billy Yank hears you and quiets you down with lead!"
"Jesus, Colonel," Private Reeper whispered. "We ain't that far towards the Union boys, are we?"
"I been sleeping and a dumb kid like sure as hell ain't been paying attention," Black replied gruffly. "Now shut up and keep on riding."
Private Reeper fell silent, and they rode in silence for a few minutes. The dirt road wound into the forest, and Black held up his hand, bringing his horse to a halt as Reeper did the same. The Colonel dismounted and led his horse to the side of the road, where he tied it to a tree and crouched down. Reeper did the same and walked on tiptoes over to the colonel.
"What's going on?" Reeper asked. "Why we stopping?"
"On account of them, son," Colonel Black whispered. He pointed with a gray gloved hand at a the forest floor near the rode, where a full platoon of Union infantry was cowering. They were facing the opposite way as Black and Reeper, their bayonet-equipped rifles shaking in their hands and their blue coats looking fresh and unused to the dirt and grime that clung to them. These were new recruits, waiting for some order to advance.
Private Reeper opened his mouth in surprise. "What do we—" He started to say, but Colonel Black put a finger to his mouth, and Reeper fell silent. For a few seconds there was absolute silence in the wood. The Union soldiers were too nervous to look around or even talk amongst themselves, and Black and Reeper merely crouched down and said nothing.
Finally, Private Reeper could bear it no more. Black saw the flush in the young man's face. Reeper drew out one of his revolvers. "We gotta take them," he whispered. "Start shooting and run for it. They'll be so surprised they won't have the time nor inclination to shoot back."
"What about the boys behind them? Or the others lurking around here?" Black replied. "You think they'd hesitate to blow us away, we gave away our position by blasting off a couple rounds. Lie low. They'll move when they do, and then we'll sidle away."
"I ain't no coward," Private Reeper said. "I was at Sharpsburg remember, and I'll—"
An artillery shell interrupted his words. It screamed down from the skies above and crashed in the road next to them. More artillery pounded down, sending branches, bodies and dirt flying through the air. One shell crashed into the side of the crouched Union soldiers. Men were torn apart by the explosion, bodies ripped open, guts laid out, limbs shorn off. They screamed and yelled, and the others stood up and joined in.
Like the young fool he was, Reeper stood up and smiled. "That's our artillery, Colonel!" he cried. "C.S.A.! Hell yeah!"
"It's just as likely to blow us apart, you idiot!" Colonel Black shouted, grabbing the private's arm and pulling him down. "Keep your damnfool head down, son! Keep it down and keep alive!"
The shells continued to rain down, and the Infantrymen stood up and leveled their rifles into the mist and fire before them. The officer was shouting, but nobody could hear his words. Someone was playing a bugle, but nobody could hear the tune, and even if they could, they weren't about to advance straight into cannon fire. All along the front, other battles and skirmishes were occurring as the Confederates struck. Jackson's forces hit hard from the flank, while Lee drove his army forward and straight into General Hooker's surprised middle. Rifle fire, cannons, and the screams of the dead, the wounded or the scared echoed through the forest and the fields beyond.
Then a louder noise ripped through the battlefield, a terrifying screech that chilled everyone's blood – the Rebel Yell. Gray clad infantry came charging forward, running straight for the stunned Union men. They fired their rifles as they ran, reloaded on the move and fired again. The Yanks that stood up were cut down, and the others just sank into the ground and took what cover they could.
Private Reeper and Colonel Black were lying on the ground as well, bullets whistling past their heads, dirt kicking up on all sides of them. Their gray uniforms could pass for blue, what with all the smoke going around, and Black was worried about both sides shooting them. "Just stay low, Private!" he shouted to Reeper. "Stay low and don't move!"
He saw the boy staring forward, looking at the Union ranks. A fire had started from somewhere, the numerous dead branches and leaves lying about making the perfect kindling. The wounded lay in the trench, unable to move, and the flames were burning closer and closer to them. They screamed all the more, and not just from the pain of their wounds. The soldiers that were still standing tried to help them away, only to be picked off by Confederate rifles.
"Oh sweet Jesus," Reeper whispered. "Oh sweet Jesus, those men!" His eyes were locked on the growing fire, staring at the screaming wounded men through the raising fire. "Oh good Lord, that ain't right!" He came to his feet and started forward.
Colonel Black grabbed his arm. "What the hell you doing?" he asked. He pulled the private down, just as a bullet cracked over his head.
"We gotta help them!" Reeper cried. Black saw tears in his eyes as the boy turned around and watched the gruesome scene. "Them Yanks can't move none and the fires…the fires are getting higher and closer to them!"
"A minute ago you wanted to shoot them, now you want to help them?" Black asked. Behind them a shell exploded, a tree fell down with a crash.
Reeper nodded. "It's a war, shooting's okay in a war. But this…this ain't war. This is…this is…hell, I don't know what it is, but it sure ain't good!" He started towards the wounded again, but Black grabbed his arm.
"We'd be shot to death by our own side if we got close enough. Let's get to the horses and get out of here. There's enough confusion that we can slip by any ranks of Blues."
Private Reeper didn't say anything and Colonel Black had to drag him away to the horses, and nearly throw him into the saddle. Once he had the reins in his hands, Reeper wiped his eyes with a sleeve and seemed to come back to life. He dug in his spurs and rode forward, charging madly down the road. Black followed after him, and they rode through the smoke and the fire.
They got a good distance between them and the front, not that it mattered much. The forest was filled with men retreating, running backwards to the main body of the Union Army, Stretcher bearers carrying the dead and wounded, and officers riding about on horses or on foot and screaming orders that no one bothered to listen to.
Reeper looked forward, his eyes not blinking and his body not moving as his horse trotted on under him. Colonel Black rode forward until he stood next to the younger man. "Easy there, son," he said, putting his hand on Private Reeper's shoulder. "That kind of thing happens in war. No one means it to, but it does. Don't let it get to you."
"Jesus…" Reeper whispered. "They was just ordinary fellows, and they got shot to pieces and cooked alive all on account of they was wearing blue. What the hell do you call a thing like that?" He looked away. "You see me crying, sir?" he asked. "I didn't mean to."
"I know," Black said.
"I ain't just a boy. I done some bad things in my time, and I shouldn't let things like this make me weep like some coward, but I just couldn't help it!" Reeper shook his head. "I ain't seen nothing like that out of a goddamn nightmare!"
They rode by a Union officer, a dapper fellow in an impeccable uniform with a moustache and sideburns. The officer was waving his sword, a column of Infantry rushing up behind him, when his eyes locked with Colonel Black. In a split second he realized that under the dirt and grime their clothes were gray.
"Traitors!" the officer shouted, pointing his sword at Black. "Rebs! Gun them down boys, Reb cavalry here! Gun them—"
Black drew out one of his LeMat revolvers and fired. He struck the officer in the chest, knocking him backwards. The infantry saw him go down and ran forward, leveling their Springfields and starting to fire off shots. Colonel Black turned his horse to face them, Reeper doing the same. "Charge them, private!" Black said. "Stun them and force them back! Fire everything you got!" He drew out his second revolver and dug in the spurs.
His horse galloped forward, as Colonel Black starting emptying the chambers. The Union soldiers were forced back, some of them still managing to crack off shots. A bullet passed through Black's hat brim. Another cracked against his cheek, drawing a line of blood as it grazed him. But Black was shooting back, gunning down the Yanks one by one.
Reeper rode next to him, training and instinct rushing to front and knocking the shock, terror and fear into the back of the boy's mind. Private Reeper fanned off his revolver, blasting down the Union soldiers and driving them backwards. A Yankee came at him from the side, but Reeper swung his pistol around and fired, striking him low in the chest. The soldier dropped his rifle and fell to the ground, holding up his hands and wordlessly opening his mouth. For a second, Reeper paused.
"He's gut shot, son!" Colonel Black cried. "Go on and finish him!"
Mechanically, Reeper cocked his revolver and fired again, striking the Union soldier straight through the eyes. The body fell down, and Black saw a little more of the cheerful boy inside the private die, never to return.
Black turned his head and saw another Union rifleman running for him, about to stab upwards with his bayonet. Quickly, Black fired the second barrel of his revolver, planting a load of buckshot into the soldier's face, obliterating the features and sending him falling backwards.
He turned back to Reeper and dismounted. "Lose the horse, private. They make us too visible. We'll go on foot for now."
Dully, like he was hearing the words from far away, the boy nodded and dismounted. He took his rifle and placed it on his shoulder, then grabbed his pack, and Colonel Black did the same. The two of them ran forward, deeper behind enemy lines.
Colonel Black was looking around as they ran, watching every scrap of blue that passed them. "We ain't gonna last long this way," he muttered. "Another soldier gets wise, realizes we ain't on Lincoln's side, starts yelling, and the whole goddamn Army of the Potomac is gonna be after us." He looked back to Reeper, and saw that the private was gulping for breath. Black ducked behind a tree. "Let's rest for a spell," he muttered.
Reeper caught his breath and nodded. "Much obliged, colonel," he said, leaning against the tree. An artillery shell smashed down nearby. From somewhere near the tree line, the Union guns returned fire, spitting cannon balls in a volley so loud that Black and Reeper and every other soldier there was still hearing it several seconds after it had stopped.
"How we gonna find those lemons, colonel?" Private Reeeper suddenly asked. "There ain't no hope for it, is there? We're marching around waiting to get killed, trying to do the impossible."
"Hell, private," Black muttered. "That means that our orders ain't no different from any other trooper's."
"How'd do you figure?"
"Win the war," Black said. "That's every soldier's goal. And they don't have a hope in hell of reaching it. No, private, we've got some new orders now – try and survive." He reloaded his revolvers and holstered them. "Right. Let's get moving again. The further back we go, the less chance we got of getting shot."
"Okay." Reeper walked away from the tree, and stood next to Colonel Black. They walked forward through the underbrush when suddenly the private let out a shriek of terror. Black turned around saw that Reeper had stepped onto the corpse of a dead Union rifleman. There were a few other rifleman laying about, bullets blasted through their chest.
"They must have crawled back here and died," Black whispered, watching as Reeper regained his composure. Colonel Black bent down and looked at the uniforms of the dead men. They were dirty and bloody, but that wouldn't look anywhere near out of place in Chancellorsville. "Help me strip these boys out of their rags, son," Black said. "We'll put them on."
"But Colonel," Reeper started. "We get caught in enemy colors, and they'll hang us as spies!"
"Gotta better chance of catching a bullet in these rags then getting spotted in those," Black replied. He removed his gray coat and tossed it town, then tore the blue jacket from the back of one of the soldiers and slipped it out. It was a little big, but he didn't think anyone would stop to notice. Reeper didn't do anything at first, but then got to work. He took off his grays and put on the Union blue, then stood up.
"How do I look, sir?" he asked.
"Like a regular Billy Yank. Let's move." The two men walked forward, as other Union men dashed past them, fresh infantry moving forward towards the battle. An officer came riding by on a horse, waving his sword around. He rode over towards Reeper and Black and his horse reared up, nearly striking them with its hooves.
The officer wore a broad brimmed campaign hat and had a red face. "Where are you men going?" he shouted. "The battle is over yonder!" He pointed to the west and then shook his head. "No, that's not right. It's back the other way. No, the Rebs are coming in from all sides, except that way…" While he was tongue-tied, Reeper and Black dashed away from him.
Suddenly, the forest ended, and they found themselves on the outskirts of the town of Chancellorsville itself. It was a small settlement, one main street with a church, an inn, and a few houses. All of the buildings, except for the Chancellor Inn, had been commandeered by the Union officers.
Private Reeper followed Black towards the town, and then both men stopped. The wounded had been laid out before the church, down the main street and all around. They lay on stretchers or on the ground, nurses and doctors moving around them and doing what they could, while others were taken to the white tents behind the church, to be operated on. The wounded shrieked and cried, begging for whiskey, for their mothers, wives and girls, or for death. Blood was thick as a carpet on the ground. Lying right before Reeper and Black was a large pile of human limbs.
Reeper stared at the awful pile, which stood taller than man. The amputated limbs were attracting flies, and were started to rot in the April sun. Quickly, Colonel Black grabbed Reeper's arm. "This way, private," he said. "Come on. We'll go to the inn. We can get some rest there."
They walked into the town of Chancellorsville, stepping through the crowded streets. The staff of the generals were dashing about, messengers were arriving from the front on horseback, waving parcels of notes and screaming about new orders or the latest casualties coming in, and the reporters were thick on the ground, pencils and pads in hand. It was easy to get lost in the crowd, and Reeper and Black did just that, and then ducked into an alley.
"Long as we're this far behind enemy lines in enemy uniform," Colonel Black muttered. "We might as well ditch these blues and just get some rooms in the inn as civilians."
"Y-you reckon we can find a lemon in there?" Reeper asked.
"Maybe. Better chance in there than in the battlefield," Colonel Black explained. He took off his blue coat and tossed it behind him, then took off his hat and held it in his hands. Reeper did the same, and just with undershirts and gray trousers on, they walked on to the Chancellor Inn.
It was just as chaotic inside as it was outside. Officers sat in the saloon in the bottom floor, drinking heavily and romancing both local girls and the ones they had brought. Black had heard that McClellan, Burnside, Pope and the rest were straitlaced and kept things running with exact discipline, but that General Fighting Joe Hooker liked him women and whiskey. They were kept around even during the worst of the battle.
Reeper and Black moved to the desk. Colonel Black had a few Yankee dollars in his pockets, and tossed them in the table. "Room for the night," he said. "Just for two fellows."
The innkeeper was a harried looking balding man in a vest and apron. He took the money and nodded. "We just got the one left," he said. "You boys can have it." He looked up at them. "What you doing here?"
"We're reporters," Black replied. "We just got here a mite late, is all."
"Sure got funny accent for newshounds," the innkeeper muttered. "You sound like Southern boys."
"We moved up north early on," Black said simply.
"Uh-huh." The innkeeper handed them the keys. "There you are. Don't bother me about changing the sheets on your bed. Damn army done commandeered ever yard of linen I got." He adjusted his apron. "Sleep well, now."
"Say, sir?" Private Reeper asked. "You wouldn't happen to have any lemons, would you?"
"Lemons?" the innkeeper asked. "Why you need lemons for?"
"I like me the taste mighty fine," Clark replied. "You got any?"
"Sorry, fellow. Can't help you. We got some apples in the back room, but no lemons."
"Oh. Thanks anyway." Clark Reeper turned away and faced Black. "Upstairs then?" he asked.
"Yeah," Colonel Black agreed. The two walked to the stairs and vanished into the second floor of the two-story Chancellor Inn. Back on the ground floor, a fellow in the corner watched them go. He wore a black vest and suit with a red tie, a black bowler hat on his head. One eye was permanently whitened by a scar, the other watched Black and Reeper with interest. He carried a Bowie knife in his hands, and he moved his thin fingers over the blade.
Soon as Colonel Black and Private Reeper had headed up the stairwell, he walked over to the counter and stared at the innkeeper. "Who were those fellows?" he demanded.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Hertzfield, I can't divulge information about my tenants," the innkeeper said.
"That a fact?" Hertzfield slammed his Bowie knife into the counter. He opened his mouth and sang, very loudly. "We are a band of brothers and native to our soil!" He sang loudly, so that every officer in the inn could hear. "Fighting for our property we gained by honest toil!" In the back of the room, a number of other men dressed exactly similar to Hertzfield, in black suits and bowler hats, stood up. "And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far! Hurrah, for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!"
When he finished, the innkeeper saw that everyone was staring at him. "What…" he asked. "Why did you—"
"Why did you just go on singing 'The Bonnie Blue Flag,' innkeeper?" Hertzfield asked. "I just heard you sing it. Ain't that right, gentlemen?" The men around him nodded. "And they did to. You must be a loyal follower of Jefferson Davis and a true blue secessionist snake. We can have you swinging from a tree outside within the hour, you know."
"But I—" the flustered innkeeper started.
"I am a proud member of the Pinkterton Detective Agency, and under the command of Allan Pinkerton, I will do whatever it takes to ferret out spies. Now tell me everything you know about those folks who rented the room, or by god I'll see you dead in their place."
"They said they was reporters!" the innkeeper cried.
"And you believed them?"
"Landsakes, mister, they're just customers!" the poor man cried. "That's all they said. I gave them a room. Oh, and they wanted lemons, for some reason."
"Hmmm," Hertzfield turned and faced his men. "They're damn late if they're just reporters. And those gray trousers, and those accents – I figured them for Rebs. We'll let them stew up there for a bit, and then we'll make our move near early evening, before the sunset."
"What if you're wrong, Hertzfield?" one of the Pinkertons asked.
Hertzfield took the Bowie knife and sheathed it in a leather holster on his belt. "So we string up a bunch of reporters, probably sons of the South anyway, and sympathizers with Jefferson Davis, if not outright copperheads. Ain't gonna cause me to lose any sleep."
Upstairs, Colonel Black and Private Clark Reeper went to their room. It was a sparse chamber. An open window overlooked the crowded thoroughfare, while the room was filled with a pair of beds with dirty sheets, and a wooden chair in the corner. Private Reeper laid down on one of the beds, and Colonel Black sat on the chair. Black reached into his pocket and withdrew a small canteen. He tossed it to Reeper, who was staring up at the ceiling.
Reeper caught it and pulled off the cap, then sniffed it and stopped. "This ain't water, is it?"
"No, son. That's a man's drink. You ever had one before?"
"No, sir." Reeper shook his head. "Well, my old man, when I was living with him, he let me sip some tequila once, when we was riding through the New Mexico Territory. I nearly threw the damn thing up."
"This ain't as bad as Mexican rotgut. Sip it fast."
"All right." Reeper knocked back the canteen. He coughed and gulped, but nodded. "Goes down easy," he whispered. "Yeah, it's all right. You think I should have some of this on account of…of what we saw today."
Reeper sucked it again, not coughing or gulping now. "Oh goddamn it, colonel!" he shouted. "What's the damn point of all this slaughter? They're unleashing pure Hell out there, ten different shades of it, and bringing pain and suffering like never before, and what's the point of it? And what happened to our friends, colonel, cut down while they was riding along, why the hell did they have to die?!"
"Politicians can't come to an agreement. Folks can't settle an argument. So the soldiers get to go and settle it for them." Black sighed. "That's the way it's always been with governments and people."
"But like this?" Reeper sat up and took another long drag on the canteen. "This is just a damn waste and everyone knows it! How can everyone let it get this way, the soldiers, the generals, the politicians, everyone! How can they let this kind of thing happen?"
"It's the way it's always been," Black replied. "Some folks like it. You can best believe the fellows own the big factories up north, they're getting loads of cash to pump out guns, cannons, uniforms. They like it fine. And the fellows own the big plantations, the ones with the hundreds of negroes working for them, they like it as well. Means they get to stay in business a lot longer, maybe forever."
"You think," Private Reeper asked. "You think we're gonna win?"
"Starting to look that way," Black replied. "We keep on beating the stuffing out of all the boys Lincoln sends down, they'll have to pack it in sooner or later, if the Europeans, the French and the British, don't step in and make him, just to take the Union down a few notches. But if they got for the grit for it, and I'm starting to think they do, then there's no way in the world we can win."
"What you talking about?" Reeper asked. "We whoop all the Yanks come down here! General Lee can even go up north and harass them all he wants!"
"How long?" Colonel Black asked. He was voicing his own thoughts, and the thoughts of every Confederate politician and general that had a little bit of foresight. "How many factories we got cranking out rifles? We have to steal ours, or ship them in from Europe, and that won't last when the Yankee fleet puts up a good blockade. We ain't got no factories, and manpower – hell, they outnumber us three to one. They ain't never gonna run out of folks to slap in Blue uniforms and send to fight us, and if they do, they can just bring in Irishmen and they'll die in their stead. And what have we got? Negroes? We gonna make them fight, private? I doubt they even know what side of the rifle the bullet comes out of."
"You'd be surprised, sir," Reeper whispered.
"Maybe." Black sighed. "Well, I reckon you need some rest. I'll take first watch. You just curl up and get some rest."
"Okay, sir." Private Reeper rolled over and pulled the blankets over him. He took off his forage cap and set it on the nightstand. Black watched him go to sleep, fatigue grown greater than his horror from the events of the day. He saw how thin the private was, how lanky and youthful he was, and he knew his private was just a boy, no matter how much of the wretched battlefield he had to wade through.
Colonel Black moved his chair to the door and waited. He took one of the LeMats and set in his lap, waiting for any sign of trouble. Outside, the wounded were screaming in an endless chorus, the battle was still raging and the generals and their messengers were rushing about, just trying and failing to control it all.
The sun started to go down, and Black closed his eyes and yawned. It had been worse in Mexico, he told himself, and even worse than that when they fought the Indians, which was all the time, but somehow that didn't seem to make what was going on outside any better. Black stood up and walked over to Private Reeper. He looked at the boy, sleeping peacefully.
"Wake up, son," Colonel Black said. "Go on and wake up now." He rubbed Clark's shoulder, and the young man cracked open his eyes. "Your time for the watch," Black explained.
"Sure, colonel," Reeper agreed. "Y'all get some rest now." He walked over to the chair and sat down, drawing out one of his Colts and setting it on his lap. Colonel Black put his broad brimmed hat over his eyes and slept on top of the covers, his pistols at his side. He was snoozing lightly within seconds.
Private Reeper watched the door, and folded his hands. "Goddamn waste is what that is," he muttered. "My old man did things like it, but he got paid better than I did. Oh, Clark, you damn fool, why'd you go an sign up for something like this?" He paused before answering. "Because you would be dead if you lingered in New Orleans, that's why, you mule-brained peckerwood!"
He heard a footstep in the hall, followed by several more. They were spaced out and slow, and Reeper could barely here them. But he grabbed his revolver and held it up. "Colonel?" he whispered. "Colonel? I think there's someone outside."
Colonel Black sat up. He was a light sleeper. "What?" he asked. "What do you mean?"
The door was slammed open, and the Pinkertons rushed in. Two Pinkerton gunmen leveled their derringers at Reeper, but the Confederate soldier was faster. He drew up his Peacemaker and fired twice, fanning the shots and blasting back the detectives.
The other Pinkertons jumped in after them, one holding up a large shotgun. "Die, rebel scum!" Hertzfield shouted. "Take no prisoners, boys! These fellows are traitorous spies and that's a fact!" He had a large Walker Colt in one hand and his Bowie knife in the other. "Gun them down, wrap them in the Stars and Bars and be done with it!"
"Get down, Clark!" Colonel Black shouted.
Reeper jumped forward, leaping off of the chair and landed on the ground. The shotgun thundered, blasting both barrels full of lead into the wooden chair. Hertzfield fired his Walker at Reeper, but the bullet cracked into the floorboards and missed him. Clark fired again, shooting the Pinkerton with the shotgun in his side. Colonel Black raised both of his revolvers and fired them, striking the Pinkerton in the chest and knocking him backwards. Hertzfield stepped in and fired his Walker at Black, causing him to leap over the bed.
He turned to face Reeper and leveled his Walker. "Looks like you've stopped whistling Dixie, boy," he said.
"Son of a gun, son of a gun!" Private Reeper cried, trying to raise his revolver. Hertzfield leapt for him, pinning him down and trying to shoot him in the chest. Reeper grabbed the Walker and pulled it from Hertzfield's hand, but the Pinkerton still had his Bowie knife. He slashed the blade at Reeper's face, drawing blood at his cheek before the private grabbed Hertzfield's wrist and pushed the knife back.
"Gonna cut you up, boy!" Hertzfield shouted. "Like I would a hog!"
"Oh, mercy, mister, mercy!" Clark started to cry, struggling to push the knife backwards. "I don't want to die like this, oh Lord don't let me!" But though he was crying, his grip remained strong. Hertzfield gritted his teeth and strained, but he couldn't bring the blade down.
While they were struggling, Colonel Black came to his feet and pointed his revolvers at the door. Another Pinkerton stepped in and Black basted him back with both pistols, then leapt over the bed and ran to Hertzfield's side. "Close your eyes, son!" he said. "Close your eyes and look away!"
Private Reeper did so, and Black pressed both of his LeMats to the side of the Hertzfield's head and fired the buckshot. The rounds tore into Hertzfield's skull, splattering blood and brain all over the walls and Clark Reeper. Hertzfield collapsed over Reeper's body, and Black kicked him away.
The colonel looked down at the boy and held out his hand. "You okay, son?" he asked. "Any of that gore yours?"
"A mite," Reeper replied. He stood up and looked down at Hertzfield. He walked to Hertzfield's fingers and pried them away from the Bowie knife, then picked up the blade. "My old man taught me some knife throwing, when I was still in short pants," the private said. "And some fighting skills too. Reckon I'll take this. He won't need it no more."
"Jesus, son," Colonel Black whispered. "You sure do got sand. I figured a boy your age would be broken right now."
"Well, sir, I done some tough things back home, and I ain't no stranger to violence."
"You'll have to tell me about it some other time." Colonel Black went to the door and stepped into the hallway, where three corpses waited. "We gotta make some trails before anyone else comes up in here. It's nearly night, so that should make our escape easier. Get all our gear and let's go."
They dashed down the stairwell, and into the lobby. Several Yankee officers were staring at them, many with pistols drawn and cocked. Black held up his hands, pointing his revolvers at the ceiling. Reeper did the same.
"Easy, fellows," Colonel Black said. "Just a misunderstanding."
"What's with your accent, southern snake!" one officer asked.
Black fired his pistols into the air. He blasted the lantern, spilling fire and glass onto the floor, and then dashed for the exit. The officer ran to stop him, but Colonel Black buffaloed him with his LeMat and shoved him out of the way. An officer came at Private Reeper, his sword drawn. Reeper grabbed his rifle and cracked the butt of it against his chest, knocking him over the bar.
They ran for the door and dashed out into the darkness. The crowds were surging around them, some trying to get closer to the violence, others running away. It was easy to lose their pursuers, and quickly make their way to the stables. Reeper and Black dashed inside, and the Colonel aimed his revolver at the stable boy, keeping him back while Reeper grabbed two horses.
They mounted up and dug in the spurs, and rode off into the streets of Chancellorsville. "Stop the Rebels!" the call came through the city. "They're making off! Stop them!" But Colonel Black and Reeper were already riding to the outskirts of the town, past the encamped Federal troops, and then down a dirt road and into the night.
Colonel Black kept his horse going at a gallop until he was sure they weren't being followed. He slowed his steed, and Private Reeper did the same. They rode along in silence for a spell, down an open dirt road, well trod by thousands of Union boots, with open corn fields on both side. Black turned to Reeper. "What was you running from when you signed up, private?" he asked.
"Ah, hell, Colonel, I don't rightly know if I want to go talking about it."
"What else we got do, private?" Black asked. "Look for lemons?"
"Yeah. You're right." Clark sighed. "You told you knew me old man, Josiah Reeper. That so?"
"Met him in Mexico as I recall. Was on a special mission, straight from the top, to assassinate Santa Anna. We fought the Irish traitors in the San Patricio brigade together. He told me he was at the Alamo when he had been younger. Quite a fellow."
"Weren't Santa Anna," Reeper said. "Was his prized fighting rooster, actually. That was before I came around, I think. So, he had me, and I still ain't to clear on the particulars, such as who my mother was. Woman of easy leisure, I should figure, somewhere in Texas. Anyway, he hung around while I was a baby, and took me around when I was a toddler, and taught me certain things, but I could tell his heart weren't in it. He was a true man of the wilderness, and any companionship out in the wild places nearly drove him to madness."
"I sort of figured him for that type," Colonel Black said. "Being in Mexico, with the war and soldiers and all, that was near enough to drive him mad."
"Yeah. So when I was but nine years of age, he handed me off to his old girlfriend, Marie Laveau, down in New Orleans."
Colonel Black shook his head. "You're pulling my leg, son! Marie Laveau! The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans! That can't be!"
"It's true. She was a good mother too. She was kind, and had some tutors teach me all the things my father couldn't, though I weren't such a good learner. She taught me about other things, magic and mysticism, and that sort of stuff. Most of it might seem like a load of bunk if I told you, but it seemed real when she was talking about."
"So why ain't you there now?" Black asked.
"Well, my old man and her had a falling out. I don't know exactly what happened. Was about a year or so ago, he comes in and she demands to talk to him. She had some proposition, I think. Something to do with Harper's Ferry."
"And John Brown's raid?"
"I don't know. Whatever it was, my old man didn't want nothing to do with it. He stormed out and she got mad. The next day she sent me out to the river to go fishing." Reeper stopped. "Sent three men after me to finish me off."
"Christ…" Colonel Black whispered. "What happened?"
"First fellow who shot missed. I whacked them with my fishing pool, got the revolver from his hands, shot him, shot his friend. The other fellow leapt at me. He had a knife, and he got the revolver out of my hands real quick. I just reached up with my fingers, and rammed them into his eye." Reeper looked down. "Hearing him holler as I rolled away, covered in mud and blood, was about the worst thing that could ever happen, it seemed to me. So I ran off and joined the cavalry. And I know now that watching poor Caesar with his eye pulled out weren't the worst thing by far."
"That's quite a story," Colonel Black said.
"You don't got to believe it, sir. But it's true, swear on my own soul." Private Reeper said. They rode on for a little bit. "You got something to go home to after this over? Because I surely don't."
"That makes two of us." Colonel Black sighed. "Never really saw much of a cause to go on making a family. Tried it once or twice, but it just didn't take. And after being in this war, fighting the Mex and the Red Men, god help me, but I don't know how to do anything else."
A spring rain started to come down, turning the road to mud. It was similar to the disastrous 'Mud March' that General Hooker had tried to lead his men on, and Private Reeper and Colonel Black slowed their horses. Black looked down the road, and was surprised to see a large covered wagon rolling their way, but the wheels stuck in the mud. He galloped his horse over, drawing out his revolvers, while Reeper took out his rifle.
They rode over to the wagon, and saw the driver cracked his reins towards the horse. The poor animals were straining, but the wheels remained stuck in the red. The driver wore a tweed jacket and a plug hat, and he was no soldier. He looked up at Colonel Black.
"Easy there, friend," Colonel Black said. "Your wheels are stuck pretty good in the mud. You ain't gonna get nowhere just cracking the whip."
The driver glowered at him and Colonel Black held up his hands. "Didn't mean no offense," Black said.
"Don't mind him, sir." A feminine voice came from within the wagon. "He's a mute." Colonel Black and Reeper rode around back. They found themselves looking at four young women, each wearing checkered dress that were cut low, and waving at themselves with fans. There were two blondes, a redhead, and a raven-haired girl, all looking mighty nice.
Colonel Black removed his hat, and Private Reeper did the same. "Howdy, ladies," Reeper said. "Where you going?"
"We were going to join General Hooker, sir." One of the woman stood up and leaned out of the covered wagon. Rain spattered her blonde hair. "We heard there is a need for women of our ilk around his camp."
"I'll be damned," Colonel Black whispered. "Hooker's girls." He coughed. "Well, ma'am, the rain's coming down pretty fierce, and I don't know if it will be over any time. These roads will be pretty dangerous, what with all the mud and the soldiers running about." He pointed to a copse of trees a little off the road. "If you want, we'll help you get the wagon unstuck and take you and your friends over there, under the shelter of them trees, and we can wait our the rain."
"Oh, such an honorable offer, sir!" the woman of low virtue waved her fan in front of her face. "My name is Clarabelle, and this is Madeline, Odette and Claudette. They're twins."
"That a fact?" Colonel Black asked.
"There's just one question," Clarabelle said, leaning forward. "How are we ever gonna thank you for your services?"
"I don't know, ma'am," Black replied. "I suppose we can think of something."
He and Private Reeper dismounted and went to work with the wheels. Private Reeper seemed a little confused by the whole situation. "What do you mean, 'think of something'?" Reeper asked. "And these Hooker's Girls, they're camp followers, right? What are they gonna do to thank us for looking after them?"
"Easy, private," Colonel Black, as they freed one of the wheels. "A soldier's lot is a lonely one. Take what you can get."
A little while after that, Private Reeper lay under the shade of a number of large oak trees, sheltered by the branches from the rain. One of the blondes, Claudette, had seen to him, and she lay next to him under a checkered blanket. Reeper's face was red and his hands sank into the dirt.
"Whooo-weee," Reeper whispered. "That, uh, that was sure something!"
"Your first time, Johnny Reb?" Claudette asked. She was smoking a cheroot cigar, and blew out a cloud of smoke.
"What?" Reeper asked. "How'd you know?"
"About it being your first time? All the caterwauling. About you being a Confederate? Your Texas accent, and the belt buckle that I undid had C.S.A. written across it in big letters." Claudette yawned. "You want another ride, Johnny Reb?"
"Uh…" Reeper said, not able to reply.
Claudette sighed. "Figures. All the other girls get to enjoy the fellow who knows what he's doing, and I get stuck with you." She leaned up and blew out some more smoke. "What you doing so far back here, rebel?"
"Looking for lemons," Clark replied.
"Seriously? Why you doing that?" Claudette sat up and looked to the covered wagon, which they had set in the small grove of oaks.
"Stonewall Jackson wants them," Private Reeper explained. "Old Stonewall's a good general, but he's a bit off. He always stands bolt upright, prays all the time, thinks he's got every disease you can think of and a lot more that you can't, and if he don't got his lemons, he freaks out, big time."
"Hmmm," Claudette said. "Well, Reb, I guess you're in luck." She stood up, pulling the blanket away from Reeper. The private screamed in terror, and dived for his trousers and shirts. As he hastily put them on, Claudette returned from the wagon holding a small crate in front of her. She set it down in front of the private. "Have a look at these, boy," she said.
Private Reeper took off the lid and gasped. Inside, bright and yellow in the dewy morning, were a couple of lemons. Reeper picked one up and turned it over. He smiled at Claudette. "Jesus, ma'am," he whispered. "You're gonna let us have these? Just one would be enough."
"I guess you can have one." Claudette stood up and stretched, then pulled on her bloomers and stockings.
"If you don't mind me asking – why?"
"Well, Johnny Reb, I always did have a thing for losers." She walked away into the trees, leaving the half-dressed Clark with the lemon in his hands.
Private Reeper eventually stood on and put on his forage cap, his trousers and coat. The rain had stopped, and Reeper carefully walked to the other side of the grove. He saw Colonel Black lying on the ground, dressed only in his shirt, with three of the Hooker's Girls sprawled around him. They were all getting up, pulling on their clothes and going to the wagon. The rain had stopped.
Reeper ran over to Colonel Black, holding up the lemon. "Sir! Colonel, sir! Look what I got!" He handed Colonel Black the lemon. "We've done it! Our mission's accomplished!"
Colonel Black looked at the lemon and nodded. "That's some good searching, soldier. But we're not done yet. Now that we got the damn piece of citrus, we gotta get it back to General Jackson." He took the lemon and set it in his coat pocket. "And that means going back to Chancellorsville, and the battle."
"Right…" Private Reeper agreed. "Well, I guess we gotta. That's our job after all. I'll get the horses ready."
The private headed off, while Colonel Black leaned against a tree. Clarabelle stood next to him, adjusting her shawl. "Surely you're not taking him to war, Colonel!" she cried. "He's just a boy!"
"He's growing up pretty fast," Colonel Black replied. Private Reeper brought the horses around and the two men mounted. Black touched the brim of his hat to Claudette. "Ma'am," he said. "Much obliged for everything." He reached into his pocket and withdrew two rolls of bills. "Yankee dollars and Confederate scrip. Should get you around no matter who wins."
"Thank you, sir." Clarrabelle said, taking the money and pocketing. "Have a pleasant trip, now."
"We'll try," Colonel Black said. He rode his horse back towards the road, with Private Reeper following. They rode through the green field, leapt the fence, and then were pounding down the road.
They rode on for a while, until Colonel Black slowed his horse to a trot. The private did the same, and the two men rode side by side. Colonel Black looked at Reeper and smiled. "Them girls show you a good time?" he asked.
"Yeah," Private Reeper agreed. "That was the first time, I mean, the first I ever—"
"I know," Colonel Black agreed. "Hooker's girls, they're all right for a bit of fun on the side, but that's all they're good for. Building a family, getting someone who loves you rather than your money, that's an entirely different field, and one I got no expertise in."
"Oh," Reeper said, nodding. "My old man, I reckon he was the same."
"You think you are?"
Private Reeper looked down. "Well, sir, I don't likely know. I mean, riding out on the prairies with my old man, just the two of us, and seeing that wide open country, the sun rising over the reds rocks in New Mexico Territory, there ain't nothing prettier than that." He paused and shrugged. "But then again, when I was living with Miss Laveau, and she was kind to me, and real worried about how I was doing, like a mother would be, well, I liked that mighty fine."
"Up until she tried to kill you," Colonel Black muttered.
"Yeah." Reeper gulped. "I don't know, sir. But I do know this -- I don't like fighting these big old battles, and watching whole lines of men blown to red rags by cannons and rifle fire, and I don't like having these fellows ordering me around just on account on they got more medals pinned to their suits than I do." The private sagged in his saddle dejectedly. "But where else am I gonna go to get away from that?"
"Go west," Colonel Black said.
"Out west, there's a lot less generals on the ground, a lot less men too, come to think of it. The war's still going, but I figure that's true everywhere. You can fall in with some of those partisans, those Bushwhackers. They're bad folks, real mean, but you can fall in with them. And the line between outlaw, soldier, bounty hunter, mercenary, all of that is blurred up real good up there."
"But I got my command under you," Reeper said.
"Everyone else has left me, gone on to the grave. You can too." Colonel Black looked down the road. "I won't mind." Black saw a large convoy riding towards them. Several wagons of a dozen different sizes and shapes, and them the infantry headed down the road, walking wounded following after them. "We'd best get off the road," Black said. He rode towards the fence and jumped it, and Reeper followed him.
They rode off into the large field, dashing between the corn stocks. After a few minutes of riding, Colonel Black held up his hand and stayed his horse. He dismounted, and Reeper did the same. Less of a chance of being spotted if they were on foot.
"Go slow," Colonel Black said. "Don't brush aside the corn stocks and—" He paused. "Someone else is in here."
"What do you mean?" Private Reeper asked. "Blues?"
"Maybe." Colonel Black drew out one of LeMat revolvers and walked forward. Reeper followed him, holding his rifle in one hand and the reins of his horse in the others. They walked to a narrow path that wounded through the corn and stopped.
Before them was a group of six people, all Negroes. Two of them were young men, the other was a woman, and the rest were kids. The men wore dirty trousers and torn shirts, the women wore homespun dresses that had been torn and wrecked from the long travel. They were heading north.
Black lowered his pistol at them. "You darkies best freeze," he said. "Just stay right there."
"Colonel." Private Reeper started to say something. "You ain't gotta—" He stood behind Colonel Black.
"Don't worry, son. We'll just send them back to whatever plantation they escaped from." Colonel Black looked to the escaped slaves. "Drop down now, hands over your head. I'll tie you up and take you back to camp with us. What's the name of your master?"
"Please, sir," one of the Negro men whispered. "We just wanted to get to freedom. We just gotta go a little bit further."
"Well, you ain't gonna." Black turned around to fetch the ropes, when he saw Private Reeper had aimed his rifle at him. Colonel Black instantly raised his LeMat at Reeper. "Drop that firearm, private," he commanded.
"I can't, sir," Private Reeper whispered. "I can't let you do this. Them folks are human beings, and you'll be sending them back to a life of slavery ain't fit for beasts. They'll probably whip the menfolk for punishment, sell away the kids just to drive it home, and do all manner of nasty things to the women. I can't let you do that."
"Why not, private?" Colonel Black asked. "They're just some darkies."
"Well, sir, I was raised by Marie Laveau, and though she was high yellow, she was a Negro, and so were the people in her household, and they was good to me. They told me about the kind of things that happen on plantations, and I can't let anybody go back to those." He cocked his rifle. "Let them go, sir."
Black thumbed back the hammer on his LeMat. "You keep pointing that at me, I will kill you," he whispered.
The six negroes were silent and motionless. Reeper kept his rifle level. "Then I reckon you better start fitting me for a casket, seeing as I'm a goner."
Slowly, Colonel Black lowered his revolver. "I can't kill no idiot child," he whispered. He looked back at the escaped slaves and waved his hand at him. "Get on then! Off with you!"
They came to their feet and dashed away into the corn. Colonel Black holstered his LeMat and looked back Private Reeper. "Son, I came pretty damn close to shooting you down. Your fast, and your good, but you ain't nowhere as good as me, and you know that. And you were scared as all Hell. But you didn't give up. Why's that?"
"Cause sending them folks back to a plantation is wrong, sir!" Reeper said. "The things I heard going on at Laveau's house, what her friends and servants told me, they were about some of the worst things in the world. And I'd die to make sure they didn't have to happen to other people!"
"That there, that willingness to die for some other people instead of compromising your values so you can get paid or get away with your life – that's what makes you different from me, son. And maybe different from your old man."
"What do you mean?" Reeper asked, slinging his rifle on his back and grabbing the reins of his horse.
"You was wondering if you was gonna be the kind to settle down and raise a family, or to keep wandering all over the world, your only life being war and the taking of lives." Colonel Black turned around smiled at Private Reeper. "It's gonna be the former, I'll wager. You'll settle down and make a woman very happy, and have a whole mess of kids, and be the best father imaginable."
"You think so?" Private Reeper asked.
"Yeah." Colonel Black looked back to the road. "Reckon we're far enough away from the road now. Let's ride."
They mounted up and galloped away, back towards the Battle of Chancellorsville. Like a great, ferocious beast that was already dead but kept alive through pure rage in its death throes, the battle was coming to a close. And just like any hunter will tell you, when a beast is in its death throes is when it's always the most dangerous.
The battle had moved back through the forests and out into the open fields, and here it was ending. Lee and Jackson had united their armies, and were forging ahead and crashing into the ranks of the Union Army. Stuart's cavaliers rode across the battlefield, their swords making short work of stragglers as they sowed chaos everywhere they went. Lee's infantry marched forward like an unstoppable tide, while Jackson's men struck like lightning, taking down column after column of Union troops, killing them or taking them prisoner without a shot fired in return.
Colonel Black and Reeper arrived at the rear of the Union forces, just as they were moving out into the open fields. Cannon fire was pounding down amongst them, tearing men apart, and withering rifle fire from the now stationary Confederates decimated the Union soldiers before they could manage to make more than a few yards. New columns were sent in, fresh men going to the slaughter. A cacophony of the endless volleys of rifles, the screams of the wounded, the dead, the frightened, the shouts of officers and the maddened calls of the bugle and the roll of the drums sounded across the fields of Chancellorsville.
Black rode into the shadow of the woods and dismounted. Private Reeper did to, looking at the ground. The blackened corpses of the wounded from the fire before were there, lying amidst the newly dead and the smoldering branches.
One half-dead Yankee came to his knees, pointing his Springfield at Reeper. The private raised his bayonet and plunged it into the soldier's chest, digging out his guts and knocking him back. Private Reeper stepped back and gasped.
"I would have just let him be," he whispered. "He had no call to go on and do that."
Colonel Black looked out across the battlefield. "We're gonna have to go across that to get back to our lines." He took the lemon from his pocket and stared at it. "Hope this little fruit makes it all worth it."
Reeper looked at the battlefield. Large portions of it were obscured by smoke, but they could see the ranks of gray and blue firing at each other, the cannons roaring away, the occasional unit of cavalry charging across the open ground.
"Ah hell," Reeper muttered. "We gotta cross that? What with the Blues and our own boys cracking away at us? Ain't gonna happen."
"Sure it can." Colonel Black set the lemon back in his pocket. "We just gotta do it fast." He got over to his horse and hopped on. "Let's ride."
The two of them galloped out from the shelter of the trees, and tore straight through the battlefield. They pounded through a group of Union soldiers falling back, who looked up at them and started shooting. A bullet crashed into Black's shoulder, punched out the other side and knocked him flat on the ground.
He landed hard as his horse continued running past him. Black fired with his LeMat revolvers, blasting the Yanks trying to bayonet him. Private Reeper was ahead of Colonel Black, but he saw him go down. "Son of a gun!" the private shouted. "Hang on, colonel! I'm coming!" He put the spur to his horse and turned the animal around, then charged the Union soldiers. The riflemen leveled their guns at him, but Clark Reeper pulled out both Peacemakers and opened fire, killing several of them and driving them back.
Reeper rode over to Colonel Black and held out his hand. He grabbed onto Black's arm and hauled him up, swinging him onto the back of his horse. "Hold on, colonel!" he shouted. "I'm getting you through this!"
Private Reeper rode forward, straight towards one of the lines of Confederate infantry. Colonel Black saw them raising their rifles. "What are you doing, son?" he asked Private Reeper. "They won't see us as friends! They'll blow us down! Turn this horse around and quickly!"
But it was too late. The first couple of riflemen fired. The horse took several shots and slumped down, and Private Reeper and Colonel Black tumbled down as well. The Confederate infantry ran forward, holding their bayonets ready to finish them off, if they had any fight left in them. Reeper looked up and saw the Stars and Bars, the Confederate Battle Flag, flying proudly at their head.
"We ain't Yanks!" Reeper shouted. "We're with you boys! Don't kill us! We're Confederate cavalrymen!"
The infantry marched past them, a few standing around and covering them with rifles. The officer, a young man with a neat goatee, approached. "What the hell are you boys doing charging us from the Federal lines?" he asked.
"We was on a mission, for Old Stonewall." Reeper went to Colonel Black's side and drew the lemon from his pocket. "We were sent to get him this lemon, and we went through Union ranks, nearly got killed by our own artillery and Yankee rifles, got attacked by Pinkerton detectives, met Hooker's girls, and escaped slaves and we got the lemon and now we're gonna give it back to Jackson!" Reeper finished and sat down on the dirt next to his dead horse.
The officer took off his hat. "You can walk on back to the camp. Jackson is over there, but I don't think he's in any condition to enjoy that lemon. He was riding back to camp last night, and they thought he was a Union picket and opened fire. He caught some slugs in his arm and they had to amputate, and now fever's set in. They don't think he's gonna last long."
"What?" Reeper helped Colonel Black and grabbed the lemon. "No way. Not after all we been through. Old Stonewall ain't gonna just up and die on us!"
The two of them walked past the Confederate battle lines, and soon reached the camp. They asked around, and found the large tent in the middle, where the generals were. As they approached, they saw several surgeons and generals standing around a bed, where Lieutenant General Thomas Jackson lay, his arm gone.
General Stuart stood next to him, his hat over his heart and his head turned away. Reeper and Black headed over to Jackson, the lemon still in Private Reeper's hand. They saw Jackson mumbling weakly, his eyes white and wild.
"Let us cross over the river…" he whispered. "And rest under the shade of trees." Then his eyes closed and he lay still. The doctor looked up and shook his head.
Reeper turned away from Jackson and looked at the lemon. "Well that just about tears it!" Private Reeper shouted. "Everything we did was pointless! All that dying and killing and horror and Jackson's dead! All a goddamn waste!"
Colonel Black touched his shoulder and winced. "Come on to the horses, son. I got something I gotta show you. Then I gotta go the medical tent and get this wound cleaned up. But I'll risk a little more time. Come on, now."
Still smoldering, Private Reeper followed the colonel over to where the horses were kept. It was near the infirmary tent, which was near the shallow pits where the dead had been gathered. They filled up the pits and spilled out on both sides, bodies in all conditions and sizes, torn apart by rifle shot, cannon ball and blades.
Black looked down at them. "You asked if we're gonna win this war," he said. "I'll tell you this, private – no matter whose flag is flying at the end of the day, ain't there gonna be a man that fought in this war that could be said to come out a winner."
He took grabbed an empty canteen from one of the horses. "Why don't you take that Bowie knife of yours and cut the lemon in half and we'll have ourselves a little treat."
"All right." Clark took out the Bowie knife and cut the lemon apart. He handed the halves to Colonel Black, who squeezed them over the canteen. Black grabbed a few sugar cubes and crushed them, letting the sweet sugar fall in as well. He tossed in a little liquor from his own canteen and shook the mixture around, then handed it to Clark Reeper.
"Drink up, son," he ordered.
"All right." Private Reeper knocked the drink back and licked his lips. "Colonel, that is the best lemonade I ever tasted!"
"I'll say," Colonel Black agreed, taking a sip. "You take one of these horses and ride on to the west. I'll report that you died on the mission. Won't surprise no one. Ride on, and don't you come back here."
"Things are only gonna get worse, Private Reeper," Colonel Black muttered. "Worse and worse. The Union will keep on throwing divisions down here, and they'll start making headway sooner or later. And then they'll toss out Fighting Joe and put someone competent in charge of the Army of the Potomac and it will all go to Hell. You got out West, where the spaces are wide, and our losing won't mean so much."
"I don't know if I ought to just leave…" Private Reeper whispered.
"Go on," Colonel Black assured him. "Like I said, you're a good sort, Clark Reeper. You deserve a better life than one on a battlefield. Get going now."
"What about you?" Clark asked. He selected a horse and saddled it, grabbing onto the reins and adjusting his saddle.
Colonel Black stared at the boy. "I'm just an old soldier, son. What else can I do?" He slapped the rump of Reeper's horse, sending the steed off. "Ride sure, son," he said. "Go on now."
Private Reeper nodded. He trotted his horse out of the camp, then turned around and looked at his colonel. "Come tighten your girth, and slacken your rein!" he sang as he rode away. "Come buckle your blanket and holster again!"
Black his voice and joined in for the final verse. "Try the click of your trigger and balance your blade, for he must ride sure that goes riding a raid!"