SIDESHOW AT HONEY CREEK
By Steven D. Malone
Text copyright © 2012 Steven D. Malone
All Rights Reserved
To Terry and Colin, my wife and son for their toleration and for bringing me into the modern age.
“I have woven together strands of unrelated events into a historical wickerwork that cannot be unraveled, and followed the evidence closely, I have worked in a description of the uncertain cycles of wars waged here and there with uncontrolled fury. I could do this because, as I see it, the more I retained the order of events, the more was my account without order. Who can arrange either by number, chronology, or logic the disturbances springing from every kind of hatred?”
Orosius.Seven Books of History
Against the Pagans.
The callous resisted the prodding given it by the thumb. The callous, on the side of the middle finger between knuckle and nail, was Brinson Miles’ old friend. An ink stained leathery thing born of his work. The work sat on the utilitarian desk in the quiet back office with the Mexican sun spilling on it through the window. Leather bound accounts ledgers. A stack of invoices. Another stack of ships’ manifests. Brinson Miles bent over the table with broad shoulders rounded by six years of bending over such tables. Brown hair, indifferently kept and long like on a stage actor, fell in front of his face, sunshine glittered through bronze colored highlights. His lip pursed as he picked up a pen. His hand flickered until the pen rested correctly against his old friend the callous. He dipped the stylus in the ink well and began again to scribble on the ledger pages. As he finalized the monthly reports to be sent to Havana, the entry door burst open. Shattering glass rang loudly outside Miles’ own door.
“Where’s Taylor,” came a young man’s voice.
“Where’s the man that killed my father,” the voice said again, its guttural quality giving away a German background.
“Brince? Brince, come in here,” Henry Owen, the senior clerk said. His fear was in his voice.
“I want Taylor - now!” the boy’s voice said.
Miles went to his door and opened it. The intruder was blonde, tall, and about seventeen. He held a pistol in his hand, another in his belt, and desperation in his eyes. Henry Owen rose slowly from his desk as Miles entered. The boy raised his pistol to point at Miles.
“Go slow, boy.” Henry said quietly. “Mister Taylor is not here. He’s in Havana.”
“You’re lying! I want him now. He killed my father,” the boy said. His eyes were crazy eyes.
“He’s not lying, son. Mister Taylor is in Cuba. He’s been there all winter. Now, tell me what’s going on. I can make it right no matter . . . .” Miles said softly. The boy was not listening.
“I’m going to kill him. I’m going to kill all of you!”
His pistol exploded. Once, twice, more. Henry Owen dropped wordlessly hit in the breast with the first bullet. The other shots buried themselves in the wall each one closer to Miles. Miles threw himself backwards into his office followed by another bullet that tore up his desk and sprayed the room with splinters. Miles slithered snakelike behind it digging frantically in his drawer for his own pistol. The boy’s gun spoke again. Miles heard Peter Bronstead, the apprentice clerk, howl. You didn’t stay put, did you Pete, Miles lamented. He crouched low feeling his sphincter crank down - his belly freeze up. He could hear the boy coming toward is office.
“Hold on, please. This is not necessary. Please!” Miles pleaded.
“Go to hell.”
Miles came up with his gun. The boy was in the door. Miles wanted to wait. He wanted to live. He wanted both of them to live. Instead the boy raised his pistol. They fired simultaneously.
When he came to, people crowded around him. Some faces he knew, some he didn’t. Blood was on his face and he put his hand in a pool of it as he tried to raise up. The boy lay on the floor with a bullet hole in his upper lip. A Mexican in uniform rummaged through the boy’s wallet. In it was where they found that letter from the boy’s mother. That letter that told the boy that his father, a Union sergeant patrolling the Rio Grande back in ‘63, died trying to intercept a wagon train of Taylor and Company cotton around Eagle Pass. Bill remembered that wagon train, the shipment of smuggled cotton, and the mule skinners that were shot by the Union patrol.
Bill Burns stumbled forward along the battered and worn rails that made the Orange Plank Road. The Orange Plank Road ran toward the place called Chancellorsville cutting through a southern part of a great brambled forest the locals called the Wilderness.
Bill Burns was weary, cut up, and ragged. He, along with the Fourth Texas, marched all night from their encampment just north of Gordonsville. The march was across plowed fields and stubble and through briar and underbrush until they intersected the rough road. General Gregg then ordered ‘double-quick’ cadence and the Texas Brigade accelerated toward the sound of battle. It was just after dawn, May 6, 1864.
This goddamn forest, Bill cursed straining to get a sense of what was going on amidst the tangle and smoke and noise. It was worse here than at Antietam Creek or Chickamauga. Here, Bill had no sense of how the battle played itself out around them. Nowhere that Bill had been was like this swampy forest. Ewell’s men were supposed to be up on the left. If they are, they’re getting a fine pasting by the sound of it. A. P. Hill’s Corps was in front of the Texans. Bill’had seen some of his stragglers. The battle sounds up with General Hill were diffuse, more fluid. Hill must be backing up, Bill thought because those sounds ebbed closer.
The eight hundred odd men of the Texas Brigade finally approached the Confederate batteries - Poague’s men. The gunners cheered and waved through the dirty haze. Bill made a sad smile at them. The Brigade was seriously undermanned so the gunners were not getting the help they could otherwise expect. Bill’s own company mustered 16 privates. Bill suspected the entire Fourth Texas didn’t come up to more than two hundred men and some of them were not fit for duty this day. The rest of the Texans and all the Mississippi boys didn’t come up to maybe two thousand. Rumor had it that Meade crossed the Rapidan with more than a hundred thousand men. Half of them, Bill thought grimly, had to be on this flank.
Out of Poague’s cannon smoke came a wagon, and then another and one after that and finally most of Hill’s supply train fled passed the brigade. When Bill emerged from the smoke, he found confusion and chaos. Fleeing and stranded wagons, riderless wagonless horses and mules crying out, shouting panicked bullwackers. Threading between this turmoil were Hill’s retreating troops bleeding and panicked and driven from the line by the approaching Yankees.
Out of this muddle rode General Longstreet himself. Bill was close enough to see the relief on the face of the harried commander. His shouted orders, indistinct to Bill, made General Gregg point the Texans toward the north side of the road and Humphreys’ Mississippians, a thousand or so who had accompanied them, to the right. Bill gritted his teeth and concentrated on putting himself in line amidst the churning legs, dangling rifles, and shouting sergeants.
“Look! Do you see that? Look - by holy damn,” Jamie Curtis said as he moved up behind Bill.
What now, boy, Bill thought suddenly aggravated at the young private that had been a liability at the Second Manassas when he’d been nicknamed “Dirty Jamie” for shitting in his breeches from fear. Bill turned to look where Dirty Jamie pointed. There was General Lee himself riding up to Gregg with some staff officers. “Marse Robert” looked so tired and so calm atop his horse while more frantic men skittered around him.
Bill looked from Lee to the retreating Confederates now almost through the relief formation.
“Boys, that’s a sorry sight for the General to see,” someone said. Other of the Texas veterans nodded their agreement, those not too scared, not too envious of the whipped troops now out of the battle.
“Let’s show ‘em there’s still fighter’s to command,” Dirty Jamie said teeth chattering and face pale.
“Let’s show your sergeant how to make a line first, private,” Second Sergeant John Johnston said coming up from behind them. Some of the men chuckled. “And, I’ll tell you something true, boy, I need you alive tomorrow to fight again for Marse Robert. No heroics, you juss’ do what I tell you. Yuh hear me?”
Johnston didn’t wait to hear Dirty Jamie promise, but went on down the line getting the men calm and ready. That is, if the long-boned, lanky, knurled, one time mule driver with sloped shoulders and a tobacco stained beard could compose anything short of a field stump. Bill truly liked his Second Sergeant and he agreed with him about Dirty Jamie. The boy was dead set on proving himself worthy and to live down his dirty britches. That made him dangerous because he was too quick to expose himself, too slow to duck, and too often in need of rescuing which put the others in danger with him. But he doesn’t run and his britches stay clean, Bill thought, and that was enough for today. When Johnston decided that the company was ready he returned to his place. Bill’s stomach went cold and the fear dried his mouth.
He looked amongst the depleted ranks, smelling their fear, feeling their strength. They were ready today standing in their rags, smelling to high heaven of terror and sweat and rotting leather and wet cotton. They hugged their Enfields like lovers. Most of the veterans were now eyeing the Yankee skirmish line.
The Union troops in dark new uniforms gathered in the shadows of the pine trees where the small farm ended. Southern boys showing up behind the panicked troops they so recently pushed from those same trees gave the Yankees a pause. Not a hundred and fifty yards separated the two lines. Already sharpshooter smoke was popping from under the pines. One or two Mississippians fell. We’re next, Bill thought. Those Yankee boys still think they have us on the run. The cold knot clenched the harder. General Gregg began to trot along the line, the Mississippians first then the Texans.
“It’s our turn now, boys. We’ve done it before, we’ll do it again. It’s our turn now, boys . . .” he repeated again and again, here and there straightening the line or throwing a comment out to a scared soldier or an old friend in the ranks.
He finished and returned to his place to the front and center when a cheer came from troops to Bill’s left. He turned to see General Lee standing in his stirrups. Bill wondered what he’d said. The cheering spread through the whole brigade, though Bill did not join in. Lee then moved through the gap between the First and Fourth Texas as if to lead them in the advance. Troops from both regiments jumped from the ranks to grab at Lee’s reins and saddle. Bill heard their calls.
“Go back! Go back! Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!” the Texans yelled to the worshiped leader. General Gregg and some staff colonel, it looked like Col. Venable, led him off toward the knoll held by Poague’s batteries.
Damn circus performer, Bill thought. Bill wasn’t the only one among the Texans that didn’t like ‘Marse Robert’, a thing he kept to himself like they did. However, by in large his antics could get men moving and make them braver in the face of death. But that is what Bill hated about the old man. That one bit of greatness was bleeding the Texas boys, his friends, to death. It was bleeding the whole army to death - the South to death. In this, the Year of our Lord 1864, Bill thought as the order to chamber rounds passed along the line, the South had to begin doing its fighting behind entrenchments or in the night like the raiders do. No more of this European glory of mass ranks and vain charges - not with these weapons.
As he bit off the paper butt of the .577-caliber round and poured the gun powder down the Enfield’s barrel, he eyed his enemy across the scorched corn patch. The sharpshooters were still busy. The Yankee skirmish line retreated and infantry emerged from the shadows forming their own line. Bill could see their confidence in the manner of their activity. The Yankee’s must have had it pretty easy with Hill’s men. It wouldn’t be that easy here. Bill knew himself and he knew his brigade.
“Forwarrrrd!” came Gregg’s booming command. The company commanders repeated his words in uneven tenors. “Marrrrch!”
The Mississippi and Texas soldiers surged forward at a brisk walking gate toward the Union line, itself moving out from the shadow of the trees. More and more men fell from the sharpshooters’ fire, and then the Union infantry stopped in its tracks.
Bill Burns knew that would give them the first chance at mass fire. His jaw tightened. Around him the Texan’s cadence stiffened girding for the anticipated Yankee blast. Dirty Jamie began praying. “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Our father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” he repeated over and over as was his habit. Others did the same. ‘Reb’ Higgingbotham, to Bill’s immediate right, kept repeating, “Fuck it. Fuck it,” quietly under his breath. Behind them all, Second Sergeant Johnston stormed back and forth. “Close it! Close it up!” he chanted hoarsely. The Second Sergeants of the other companies were doing the same, but their words were a waste for the natural fear of battle made the Texans crowd together needing the closeness of their fellows. That was a good thing, Bill thought as he always did when he moved toward the enemy. The strength of their fire was dependent of their being shoulder to shoulder just as it did for the Yankees.
They were close enough now to hear the commands of the Union Officers. Bill saw the Union rifles raised, all of them seeming to point at Bill. The entire blue line erupted into a giant white cloud. Then came the sound of lumber jacks whacking down a forest with their axes - the peculiar sound of hundreds of lead rounds slamming into human flesh. Only after that came the thunder of the rifles.
A man fell immediately to Bill’s front and an empty space cleared itself of troops to Bill’s right. Higgingbotham among them. Six or eight men fell in a bunch, but Bill didn’t turn to look. It was enough to be alive through the first Yankee volley.
“Close it up! Close it up!” Johnston yelled. He was screaming now and hoarse from his fear.
Gregg called his orders, repeated by the company officers. “Brigade! Halt! Ready!”
It was our turn for real now. Bill raised his rifle with a thousand others.
Instantly, the battle field disappeared in a cloud. The Texans’ cloud seemed grayer than the Yankee’s but Bill knew that was because they were closer to it and it shaded the sun somewhat. Without needing orders, he fished another round from his kit, bit off the end paper, and poured the powder down the rifled barrel.
“Independent fire!” came the orders, repeated by the officers. “Firrre!”
Bill rammed the round home and carefully returned the rod to its seat. He’d forgotten to do that in the excitement of Gaine’s Mill and had sent his rod through some hapless Irishman all dressed up in a new blue tunic. He pulled back the hammer and carefully pushed a percussion cap on the nozzle. He peered through the clearing smoke looking for a target. Clumps of Yankee’s stood firing independently at the Texans, making those axe noises followed by the roar of rifle fire. Bill took aim at a thick bunch of standing troops and discharged his rifle. He felt the kick but barely heard the Whoom - the battle noise deafened him. More than one Yankee fell in that group, so he could not tell if his round had found its mark. He reloaded without thought.
“Cease fire! Port arms! Forrrrwarrrrd - March!” came the orders. The Brigade walked out of their own smoke and closer to the enemy lines. They absorbed another volley and let one loose. And then another and another always going forward at a walk, the “Hell Roaring” Fourth and the “Bloody” Fifth marched into the face of a line of Union Springfield rifles. But, that line of flame was being pushed back into the forest and finally back onto their log entrenchments. Bill could see them through the smoke and the trees. Some of them were burning, or the logs were.
Thwack-thud-ud-ud-whack! All of a sudden, the forest to their right turned white in a cloud of rifle fire, and the axes sounded amongst the Texans. Bill wanted to turn as his company turned to head for the new threat. Nothing worked. His body was abruptly numb and wouldn’t obey. Then the underbrush rose up to an envelope him, to entangle him.
“God, they’ve killed me!” Bill cried, but no one paid attention. Struggling legs and feet, some of them bare, churned over him - on top of him. “Help me.”
No one stopped. He knew well enough that they wouldn’t. Why help a dead man, he thought and began clawing at his clothing searching for his wounds.
“Don’t let it be in the gut. Please, don’t let it be in the gut . . .” he thought as the blackness came.
The light came but it was later. How much later? Bill did not know. He opened his eyes to look again up toward trees and the daylight that shined through them. Different from the trees he remembered. He looked down. All his parts were there. All seared with pain. He lay on a tattered stained blanket in the shade. Around him were others, hundreds of them. Line after line of them. Lumps under their own filthy blankets. Down to the right were several tents with unwounded men rushing in and out, some of them carrying wounded. Screams came from the tents. Moans and whispered chatter came from the men around Bill.
Someone walked up to stand over him. Bill had to scrunch up his eyes to make him out in the light. A bean pole wrapped in rags wearing a floppy-brimmed cap.
“Look at you, you sorry malingerer, laying there when there’s work to be done and Blue Bellies to kill. How do you feel?” came the voice of Second Sergeant Johnston, bless his ugly countenance, Bill thought.
“I feel like stepped on horse shit thrown in a fire.”
“Well, you’re not dead. At least not yet,” Johnston said. He squatted down next to the blanket.
“Neither are you. How come that?”
“That’s because I have a company of the sorriest, dumbest farm boys in the entire world to do all the bullet stopping for me. That’s why Marse Robert gave me these stripes, don’t you know?”
“Sergeant, I can’t feel nothing but the Devil’s own fire from my chin to my toes. Where am I shot?” Bill asked afraid to his bones of the answer.
“Rest easy my friend. You're among the lucky. ‘Nearest I could tell from what the aide said, you caught one in the thigh muscle and got clipped in the ankle. The fire you feel is because the Yanks tried to roast you for supper. Do you remember what happened out there?”
“I remember chuggin’ into the trees and the ass end of a bunch of Yankees. They started shootin’ at us from off to the right . . .”
“The fun was just startin’ then. ‘Looks like you missed it all. We all went off that-a-way and got caught in the damndest barrage I’ve seen in a long time. ‘Set the woods on fire. You were on fire for a while, ‘least your clothes were, by the time we found you. But, that was after we stopped the whole Union army from coming down that plank road. ‘Stopped them twice without your help, thank you.”
“You - I was burning?”
“Well, if the truth was known, it was just your clothes and that was just from cinders raining down from the trees. You were lucky, like I said. Prescott, Downs, and Beden were charbroiled. I hope to God they were dead before the fire found them . . .”
“It was hell to pay, boy. But, you’re going home and that’s a good thing.”
“Home,” Bill said. It didn’t sound like a question but it was. He felt sleep coming. God’s own mercy.
“Yeah. Home, but you come back now. I need you,” the Second Sergeant said quietly.
The blackness came again.
Blue-white light from the Mississippi planter’s moon fell into the dark of the farm house. It did little to illuminate the silent clutter and disarray telling the tale of the violence so recently ended. The silence spoke of the death scattered around. Only the breathing of the one man was heard.
Private Patrick Fenian Dillon sat at the dining table surveying his work. The rebel - the old man - slouched in his rocking chair, the darkness hiding what the exit wounds did to his face. At his feet lay the young boy - fifteen, maybe - and still holding the Confederate sword Dillon knew came from the boy’s father blown to bits at Shiloh. The boy’s fear still fixed the open dead eyes. On the bed, in a rumpled pile of clothing and bedding, lay the boy’s mother. Her naked legs spread wide and glowing blue-white were the only bright things in the sable darkness, but that was the moonlight spilling in. Patrick Dillon raped her before cutting her throat. She’d watched the deaths of her father and son before being raped. To Dillon it was a just end to this family, who’d spilt Union blood, who’d given succor to the devil General Forrest and his traitors.
He did no less to the betrayers of his Irish gang on the streets of New York. He did no less to the Virginia rebels who had aided Mosby’s bushwhackers. To Dillon, it had to be done. To Dillon, he had to do it. There was peace after. The dreams stopped . . . for a while.
He heard the quiet voice of his Lieutenant call from outside.
“Dillon? Dillon, ‘you in there?” Lt. O’Shaughnessy said very calmly from out by the road. O'Shaughnessy was afraid of Dillon and Dillon knew it. Yet, the Lieutenant treated him well enough. It was as if he understood somehow.
Private Dillon rose from the chair and went over to the boy to pry the rebel sword from his dead clenched hand.
“Dillon, ‘you there?”
“Yeah. I’m coming,” Dillon said, stepping out onto the porch and brandishing the sword. “I got some this time. Real rebels, by God. They even had receipts - signed by Forrest himself.”
He could see O’Shaughnessy force a smile even in the darkness.
“You want to come in? There’s got to be more stuff here. No telling…”
“No, Patrick. I don’t want to see it. Come on, it’s time to go.”
“Something wrong, Lieutenant?” Dillon said, on his guard. And, deep in him was a pride in what Dillon called ‘his work’ that was suddenly ready to be wounded.
“Nothing’s wrong, Patrick. I just know what’s in there, and I don’t want to see it.” O’Shaughnessy said. “Anyway, you have other business. There’s someone up at headquarters that wants to see you.”
Dillon went cold. Was there a threat in O’Shaughnessy’s voice?
“Trouble?” he asked peering at his Lieutenant’s face as he walked out the road.
“No trouble,” O'Shaughnessy answered carefully. “And, put on your cap. That blonde hair shines out like a beacon. I swear, a sharpshooter could pick off an ear in a cave, soldier.”
O’Shaughnessy didn’t appear to be eager to talk about the mysterious person waiting at the Provost Marshal’s headquarters. He didn’t seem to be hiding any danger for Dillon either. Dillon’s trained sensitivity toward traps did not flare up, so Dillon relaxed and followed his commander. The road back to Collierville was still churned up by “Baldy” Smith’s retreat from Columbus and Okolona a few weeks ago. Forrest whipped him good and sent him packing back through Collierville and back to Memphis. Now the rebs didn’t have the men to occupy this stretch of ground. However, the two men kept an ear to the sounds of the night in case of patrols. O’Shaughnessy promised to send others from the Provost to the lonely farm to search out the evidence of any complicity in helping the rebels. And, since there was no hint of a trap and the two men had shared a year as brothers-in-arms, the way was made in silence.
They reached Collierville after midnight the next night. The town slept next to the rails that traveled along the border between Mississippi and Tennessee. However, the lamps burned brightly in the Provost’s building. In Collierville, that building had once been the office of a cotton processor. The cotton industry died here when the Union army came down the river. Marshal Law lived here and it lived in the brownstone Gothic of Collierville’s largest building.
They left their horses with the sleepy guards and entered the brightly lit and busy headquarters.
Clerks dressed in Union blue walked the halls in every direction hands filled with the paperwork so necessary in ruling the captured populous and controlling wayward warriors. Here and there, provost officers like Dillon tended or escorted the arrested, citizen and soldier. O’Shaughnessy led Dillon up the stairs to the third floor. Here it was quiet; the offices mostly empty because of the hour. Their footsteps echoed loudly. Dillon turned to look at his Lieutenant. The dark-haired Irishman from Massachusetts had embarrassment in his green eyes. Dillon stopped short as O'Shaughnessy indicated the door they were to enter.
“Lieutenant, what’s going on? Am I in trouble?” he said suddenly afraid and for no good reason as far as he could tell.
“No, my friend. It’s your freedom I'm giving you,” O’Shaughnessy said cryptically. “There is a man in there that I’ve known since the fifties. Since I was with the Immigrant Aid Company out in Kansas. He wants to meet you. I think he has a job for you.”
Dillon looked closely at his ‘friend’.
“That’s all Dillon. I swear.”
“Okay, Lieutenant.” Dillon said frowning, gauging all his feelings. He just didn’t sense danger. “Lieutenant, what happened? What’s going on? The truth, now.”
Lt. O’Shaughnessy thought for a moment. Dillon knew he was thinking about the tight spots and the tenor of the job and Dillon’s relative worth throughout this year of war.
“Okay, Dillon. This stuff’s getting to me. There’s never anything about what we do that is pleasant, but . . . Damn, Dillon, I just can’t handle you anymore. I got no more stomach for - for your methods, some of them . . . .”
It was Dillon’s turn to think.
“I’m sorry. Lieutenant,” Dillon said quietly.
An awkward moment passed as the two looked at each other then at the floor. O’Shaughnessy shrugged.
“Good bye, Dillon.”
“Good bye, Lieutenant,” Dillon said also shrugging.
Before O’Shaughnessy rounded the corner, Dillon knocked on the door, waited until he heard a voice, and entered. It was the typical office of a provost officer, old and beat up furniture, the photograph of the president alone on the wall, and all the clutter and paperwork needed to do the job. One man, a major wearing a new uniform and spit-shined leather, stood at the window. Another man, a civilian dressed formally in coat, waistcoat, light pants, choker collar, and high Cravat, sat at the desk. What first appeared to be a scowl to Dillon turned out to be the way the man’s skin formed on his skull. Both men sized up Dillon as he walked to the center of the room and came to attention.
“Private Dillon reporting as ordered.”
“At ease, Private. Sit down, please. We requested your presence. We didn’t order it.” The Major said. He would remain standing as only one other chair graced the office.
“I’m Major Allen, District Provost, Indian Territories. This is Colonel Seldes of the Immigrant Aid Company out of Kansas.”
Dillon shook hands with each of the men as he sat. Colonel Seldes did not rise. He looked deeply into Dillon’s eyes. A strange smile entered his eyes as he watched.
“The Major tells me,” Seldes said pulling a thick file from the desk. “That you’re a real killer.”
Dillon felt his anger flash. He remained silent.
“No, please. Don’t flare up on me, young man. I want you to be a killer. I came here looking for killers.”
“Pretia, Pre - shah, Preshah. Very beautiful, Miss Burns,” said Don Jose Machado in almost perfect accentless English, as cold bold hungry eyes dropped slowly to Pretia Burns’ throat and shoulders.
“Oh, thank you, Don Jose, but I always thought it such a silly name,” Pretia answered flashing a smile she didn’t mean, fluttering her fan coquettishly. Don Jose’s smooth aristocratic pretenses flamed to ruin under reptilian glances and poorly veiled forwardness. Pretia prayed she wasn’t blushing.
“You and your beautiful sister. So pleasing to have such beautiful ladies here in poor Havana, Miss Burns,”
“Poor Havana?” Pretia said suddenly cold inside at his notice of Martha dancing with some other Spanish rake. She hoped she hid her disgust. Much depended on hiding it. “Cedar wood Ballroom floors, German crystal, Parisian mirrors, Ottoman carpets, Italian marbles, gold and silk and what all. What is poor about Havana? What is poor about the House of Machado, Don Jose?”
“Mere show, Miss Burns. Trinkets and toys to impress your Confederate officials. That is all.”
Pretia looked again over the unfettered opulence. Beyond any impression it may have made on these men, it was paid for with their desperate money - the profits of war time trade between their blockaded new nation and Spanish Cuba. Of course, she’d heard Havana did not compare to British Nassau in riches and opulence. How long would it all last? Long enough for Martha and me to get through to Texas, Pretia hoped. She had no illusions as to the permanence of the situation here or within the Confederacy. In this she was sure she was alone among the patriots, the profiteers, or the privateers that danced the night away in Don Jose’s great ballroom.
Captain Bates, the handsome clear-eyed blockade runner, approached. In the light of Don Jose’s thousands of candles, the Captain’s silver hair and beard shone as bright as Moses off the mountain. His midnight blue mariners’ uniform glittered with gold buttons and braids. All of that paled in those piercing gray eyes that flashed with awareness and understanding. How different from the hard serpentine glint in the eyes of her host.
“Miss Burns, good evening,” Captain Bates said.
“Captain,” Pretia said.
“I’m hoping your dance card is open for the next dance.”
Pretia looked down at the blank card tied to her delicate ivory wrist. Blank because it was assumed she was Don Jose’s property for the evening. Only Captain Bates had the backbone to give her more than passing attention. Pretia could feel the anger of Don Jose’s stare.
“I’m open, Mon Capitane,” she said simply.
“With your permission, Don Jose?”
“Certainly,” he said piercing her again with his eyes. Eyes that pretended to dismiss her, merely one of the toys and trinkets now to entertain the Confederates. Eyes, never-the-less, that followed her onto the dance floor.
Pretia thanked God for the waltz that floated down from the musician’s balcony. Not a cotillion or reel or anything that required partner exchanges or wild stepping. Captain Bates took her up in strong arms and stepped out on the beat. The Captain danced to make her own movements effortless, almost superfluous. Pretia wondered over his wife blockaded and alone in his house along Charleston Harbor. How the woman must miss him.
But now he was here, and it was spring, and there was the music. She allowed herself a real smile.
Captain Bates watched her. She looked up.
“Your waltzing is heaven,” she said.
“We’re dancing?” Captain Bates made the perfect answer.
“Captain, you’re a romantic,” she laughed. What was the change in his eyes? “Ooh, I smell intrigue in getting me on this dance floor.”
“You’ve caught me, Miss Burns.”
“And,” he said. “And, I want to try again to talk you out of sailing with me tomorrow. What I do is not without its dangers.”
“Your ship books passengers for a price, correct Captain? We’ve paid that price, haven’t we?” Captain Bates nodded each time. Pretia smiled a real smile again. “I understand the dangers.”
“Then understand, Miss Burns, this can’t go on forever. If you could just wait, the war will end. The seas will be safe.”
“No. No more waiting. I have a home to go to. Something my sister and I have not had for a long time. So I want to go now.”