For the evil man has no future;
Time passed slowly without one single letter from Billy. Her father's cough grew worse. More slaves ran off every day. The fields weren't tended. The garden had been harvested, and they were running low on food.
"He be gone, Missy. I's so sorry."
Except she glanced over and saw that James had indeed ridden big Sam the plow horse in. He and Mimi had their heads together seriously talking.
"I'm sorry, Miss Tabby, but dem soldiers came and burned the place. I couldn't abide watching it, so I came to find you." He straightened up. "I askt and they say Mimi and I can follow their troops. They need me to dig trenches, while Mimi can do der laundry. They promise to feed us.
"We be sorry to leave you like this, Missy..." Mimi's eyes were almost cold. "We be promised freedom. Don't have to be slaves no more."
Tabitha's jaw dropped. Her husband was gone, her father was gone, her home was gone, and now those she held almost dearest of all, her Mimi and Jane abandoned her. Jane her best friend had shut her door to her. James and Mimi were leaving.
James went on, "You can try to sell your gig. Maybe somebody will give you silver for it, but don't take worthless paper money. Then there's the silverware in your saddle bags. There's also a saddle in the back of the gig." Then he shuffled his feet refusing to look her in the eye. "I even packed another satchel with some of your brother's clothes..."
Her brother? He had died in the first months of the war at Manassas. No one had even stepped foot in his room after that.
"Why did you do that, James?"
"If you can't find a place here, and if maybe you have to go down de road to find your aunt out
Abingdon way, you best be looking like a lad, instead of a lady."
"Find my aunt? She's clear somewhere down in a place called Hilton."
"You got any other kinfolk that I don't know of, Miss Tabby? This ain't very safe here. I heard there's soon to be a battle right here."
"But what if Billy comes back?"
You can leave word at the mercantile, I guess. They say that the shelves are pretty much empty there. So if you is leaving, better see what you can buy with some of those silver spoons."
He was hurrying to put Mimi on Sam's broad back and was about to climb up behind her. "We best be getting on."
"But, but..." But they were gone.
She turned round in the street, but saw only strangers. The only familiar thing was her horse grabbing mouthfuls of grass along the iron fence.
Tabby slowly drove to the livery. Bud Thompson had tried to buy this gig from her father a few months before. She could only hope he was still interested. This stupid, stupid war!
When she asked him, she added, "But I need coin, no Confederate money, sir."
"Nobody needs that worthless paper, ain't that the truth," Bud said chewing on a stem of hay. "I can give you five dollars but not a penny more. These are hard times for all of us, Miss Tabitha. Sorry to hear about your father, by the way."
She nodded and bit the inside of her cheek. "All right. Deal. But can you help me saddle my horse for me?"
"Where you going?"
"I don't know," she said dazed.
"God go with you, ma'am, wherever that be."
She had not ridden astride since she was a girl. It took her three tries before she was able to mount her horse. Tabitha yanked her skirt down but could not help but let her ankle show catching the eye of many a man as she rode through town. Finally, she slipped off to enter the mercantile taking her heavy saddle bags with her clinking all the way. She gazed in amazement at all the empty shelves. "Hello, Mr. Samson."
"Sorry to hear about your father, Miss Tabitha, and about your house." Word sure gets around fast, she thought in amazement. The man went on, " As you can see, we don't have much to sell and that which we do have, we can only accept real coin."
"I understand, sir. Do you have any flour or coffee, salt pork or cornmeal?"
"I'm only selling the cornmeal in one pound quantities. Lots of people are hungry. But I do have a little salt pork left, but no flour, coffee or tea."
"Then how about some fishing hooks and string?"
Mr. Samson's grin looked like it hadn't been used in awhile. "Now you are one enterprising young lady."
She noticed a tall man had come in behind her. Tabby glanced over her shoulder looking at him then leaned forward and whispered, "Can you tell me the best way to get to Abingdon from here, sir? I want to find my father's sister in Hilton, which is beyond Abingdon, I believe."
"Can't go anywhere dressed like that, Missy. T'ain't safe. Is your man James with you?"
She shook her head and determined not to let anyone see her tears. "May I use your backroom? I plan to change into some of my brother's old clothes," she whispered hoping that whoever was behind her could not hear.
The storekeeper scrubbed his face. "There's that trace along the river that's mostly hidden. There's supposed to be some caves about a half day's ride from here near there. I can't tell you much beyond that. If you can find a train to hop on, all the better, but most tracks have been pulled up around here."
"Can I pay you with silver spoons, Mr. Samson?" Tabitha dug into her satchel to pull out two silver spoons, trying to do it quietly but that seemed impossible.
He winked. "For you, Missy, I sure will."
The man bundled her sparse groceries while she slipped into the back to change. When she returned, her head was hanging down with a slouch hat covering her face and with her hair tucked up under it.
Mr. Samson winked at her when she glanced up to take her bundle. He bid her farewell.
"Oh, and Mr. Samson, if Billy comes looking for me, tell him where I'm headed."
"I hear his parent's place burned down as well as the church," he told her.
"Oh, I didn't know that." She chewed her lip. "I'm hoping this war will be over soon so he can come looking for me."
The tall stranger who had been behind her probably gaped at her in surprise dressed as she now was, but she refused to look anywhere but at the toes of her brother's boots as she left shuffling down the aisle until out on the boardwalk. It took her awhile to figure out how to tie her bundle behind her saddle bags, but finally succeeded. It certainly was easier to mount while wearing pants, that was for certain.
She blended in with all the others on the road south with everyone else who was fleeing, though no one seemed to know where to go, just like her. She tried to ride close to other groups until she branched off to follow the river trace. Now she must use her ears not wanting to meet someone here. It could mean danger.
The day started fair, but rain clouds bunched up in the sky. Suddenly it pounded its fist of hard rain down on her head right when she heard someone coming. Scared witless, Tabby jerked the reigns and forced her horse to plunge into the brush away from the riverbank. He was unhappy with her and was quick to knock her off his back by heading under a low hanging limb. She landed in a splat of mud. Only her dignity suffered, but now she no longer had a horse as she saw him run off. "Oh, God, please don't let me lose my horse too and all my worldly goods."
The lightning threatened. The thunder roared. The rain poured. Tabitha had no idea if she was crying right along with it as wet as her face was. But scrambling uphill, she crouched under a narrow shelf of rock. She strained to hear the faint sound of a horse's hoof hitting on the rocks along the rough trail she'd just come from. Pulling out her father's old dueling pistol from her waistband, she waited squatted down.
Then a man came through the brush and stood before her. She had nowhere to hide. She forced herself to look up from his muddy boots, up his gray flannel clad legs to the buttons on his uniform jacket, to his dark beard and staring eyes.
"Hello, ma'am. I saw you loose your seat on your horse. Are you alright?"
She threw down the empty pistol, and curled up in a ball and wailed. She was wet, she was cold, she was hungry, she was terrified, and she was alone. Wait, how did he know she wasn't a he?
Tabitha peeked from under her soaked hat as the man picked her up and carried her close to his chest. "I know of a cave, ma'am. The horses are already there, yours and mine, so I'll take you to it. We'll be safer from the riders that I heard coming. They might be trouble." The man spoke in hushed tones hard to hear over the storm, but she did and felt heartened. He had her horse and wasn't stealing it. She prayed a silent thank you to God.
One glance told her this was the man from the Mercantile. That's how he knew that she wasn't a he."
"Are you following me, sir?" she gulped.
"No, just happen to be going the same way. My grandparents live in Abingdon. I've been down this trail before."
Once in the large cave, he put his finger to his lips. "Sound is magnified by the rock. We best be quiet. Sorry, but it's not safe to build a fire either. Why don't you lead the horses in deeper while I keep watch."
She nodded and took the horses' reigns but was petrified of what she might find in the dark of the cave. Suddenly, a few bats flew out startling her. Tabby barely kept from screaming. She decided this was deep enough."
It seemed like an eternity before the stranger crept back to where she was hiding. He whispered, "I think they gave up. They had seen you, but lost the trail in the rain. She hoped he had come to her rescue and not to capture her. Tabitha couldn't help but be wary.
"Maybe you shouldn't call me ma'am."
"What should I call you?"
"Umm...how about Tad."
"Okay, Tad. Do you want a piece of jerky?"
"I'd better eat something before they hear my stomach growling," she said gratefully taking the meat.
"They might just think it's a wild creature deep in the cave growling and would move on. They probably have already."
Tabitha snickered. She must be losing control on her emotions to almost giggle at a time like this. Sometimes she wondered at her own sanity. Hadn't she fallen apart curled up like a worm in a mud puddle balling her eyes out in the middle of a rainstorm with evil men on her trail, all in front of this man.
She sat up straight, took her hat off and said, "My name is Mrs. Tabitha Duff. I'm married to a Confederate soldier, Lieutenant William Duff.
He cringed. He was well aware of who this Billy Duff was, a womanizing coward. He also knew that another woman claimed this man for her husband, but Tabitha wouldn't hear it from his lips. The man tipped his hat which caused a trickle of raindrops to fall in front of his face. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Duff. My name is...and he paused wondering which name to give her. Sighing, he gave her his name he used when embedded with the southern troops, "Private Harry Pilcher, ma'am." If she or anyone else knew that he'd been a northern spy, that his real name was Shane Harper, his life wouldn't be worth a plug nickel. That's why he had to leave, to get as far away as possible from the battlefields before the war was over, before he was recognized. Sherman didn't need him anymore. The man could taste victory.
"Sorry I can't build us a fire. Someone might see the smoke, especially now that it's quit raining."
Tabitha cocked her head and sat staring at this soldier wondering why he hesitated telling her his name. Perhaps they both should have kept their business to themselves, even their identities. She watched as he unrolled damp bedrolls from their saddles. She curled up on hers and shivered with cold until great weariness overtook her. At least for tonight she wasn't alone.
The next morning he ventured out to see if anyone was near or if they were safe, at least for now. Somehow he felt protective of this woman who had been deceived by the two-timing sniveling Billy. She was an innocent. If he'd overheard right, she'd lost her father, her home, and had lost track of her so-called husband. Even her slaves had left her; their loyalties had vanished in thin air at the promise of freedom. He was glad for them, but knew it left her vulnerable. Alone. Little did she know that she did not truly even have a husband. He knew. He'd been there at the other wedding when a major found out Billy had gotten his daughter pregnant and forced a quick wedding.
Shane went back to the cave entrance, built a small fire and boiled some coffee and fried some corncakes.
"Coffee? You have coffee? It smells so good."
He'd gotten it when he was serving the North. "I make it weak to keep me from running out too soon, but I sure miss a cup of coffee when I don't have it. You got a cup?"
She shook her head looking embarrassed.
"I don't mind sharing, if you don't," he offered.
Tabby knew she turned beat red, but wasn't about to turn down a cup of coffee.
"Thank you, sir." she said grinning. "That is so good!"
Shane stood there stunned by her smile that lit up her face. She didn't know she had a brown smear across her cheek from where she had pitifully laid in the mud. Nevertheless, Tabitha was beautiful. He had to look away. Shane did not know whether she truly was married to that scoundrel or if he belonged to the major's daughter. Since a baby was on the way, a judge would probably throw out his first marriage to Tabitha. Besides, he'd been down that road of marriage, and he never wanted to go that way again.
They ate in silence after that, each taking a couple sips of coffee before passing it back and forth.
"Why did you help me back there, soldier? Why are you being nice to me now. Not all soldiers treat women so well, or so I've been told."
He didn't want to tell her what one general on the field encouraged his men to do, to use the women like it was an ancient Roman conquest. It was a good thing she'd left while she could. Instead he said, "I'm a Christian." Yet Shane struggled to still claim this after doing what had been required of him as a soldier to do in this horrendous war. It wasn't the same as when he'd claimed it as a little boy in church or down at the river getting baptized.
"Do you mind if I tag along with you to Abingdon then?" The young woman looked so hopefully at him, he had no heart to reject her request though she would slow him down."
"Alright, but just to be clear," he looked her up and down, "if we are stopped, and if you are discovered to be a woman, we must tell them that we are married. It's the only way to save your reputation." He could only hope he could get her there safely, but in this crazy war there were no guarantees.
"Yes, sir," she then giggled and said, "Yes, dear."
He chuckled. "I guess we understand each other then. "Let's mount up."
"At least the sun is shining even though it is as muddy as all get out."
"We still will need to be quiet so we can hear any others coming on the river trace."
She nodded. She was so sore, she had trouble getting in her saddle. Finally, the man came and lifted her up as easily as if she weighed a feather. "I'll follow you."
Riding along, looking for tracks, listening for riders, Shane was glad that she wasn't a chatterbox. Goodness knows, the woman had plenty to think about with all the changes in her life. He glanced back at her from time to time to make sure she was keeping up. They needed to go at a pretty fast clip. They would still need to spend the night at least two more times on the way, or more depending upon if they ran into complications.
As they rounded a bend, they ran smack dab into a unit of men in blue who were watering their horses. Hands jerked the reigns away, and she followed the man's lead and put her hands up.
"Looks like we got us a Confederate and a kid," one man grinned showing he had just the number of good teeth left to rip off the black powder charge for his rifle. Some men pulled their teeth in order to avoid the draft. for if they hadn't enough teeth to rip it with, they were useless.
"I want to speak with your commanding officer," Shane said in a commanding way.
One man with stripes on his sleeve look up. "What do you want?"
"I'd like you to read the note signed by Sherman himself that's in my coat pocket. I'd get it for you, but I don't want you to shoot me first and ask questions later."
"The officer looked at him for a long minute. "What's your name soldier?"
"Corporal Shane Harper, at your service sir in the Union Army."
"Looks to me like you're wearing the wrong uniform then soldier."
"Yes sir, but if you read the note, you will see that I have been serving General Sherman as a spy for the Union."
Tabitha blinked several times trying to take this all in. He was a Union officer? He was a spy?
Had he spied on her husband? Had he fought at Manassas where her brother died? Had he burned her home?
The officer moved warily closer. "Keep your rifles pointed at him, boys, and if he so much as twitches, shoot him dead."
Shane swallowed and only raised his hands higher. He glanced back at Tabitha and was relieved that she kept her hands up and her mouth closed.
The officer drew the note out of his pocket and read it. "That's Sherman's signature alright. At ease, sir."
"Thank you. Are you headed east or west, major?"
Our orders are to join the battle for control of Richmond. Which way are you going, Corporal?"
Sherman assured me he had everything in hand now and released me to go somewhere I wouldn't be recognized as a spy. We're heading West. I'll be glad to wear civilian clothes once again since I never know if I'll be taken prisoner by either the North or the South It's kind of double jeopardy, you might say."
"Well, you better keep your letter from the General then. Good luck to you and your pal. Thank you for your service to our great Nation."
"You need to quit scaring this poor girl, Shane," his grandmother admonished.
The man started to come after him, but several strong men in the congregation, including his grandfather, managed to restrain Billy. The pastor came up fearfully but saying, "What is the matter here? Can't we settle this peacefully instead of in the church yard?"
"I'm afraid not, pastor. This man should be locked up for practicing polygamy, and turned over to a military court of his peers for impersonating an officer."
No one was keeping the man from talking, but he still managed to yell over his pregnant wife's shrieking, "I never truly married that woman. She can't prove that without the marriage certificate. I even happened to know that them Yankees burned the church records right along with the church."
"I was there, Billy. I saw you set that fire, but since I was wearing the same color of coat as yours, I couldn't shoot you like you deserved. I'm sure you'd run hiding behind her major daddy anyway."
"You burned the church down, Billy? How dare you! Did you know your daddy's plantation burned? Being so close to the church property, perhaps you caught your own family home on fire along with it. The tobacco fields were so dry that flames would have raced right up to your house. I doubt it was the Yankees doing after all. All I know is that we stood before a preacher after the soiree and said our vows right after Elizabeth and Edward said theirs. There was a room full of witnesses. I saw him give you the marriage certificate which you then folded up and put away in your pocket. I may not have the marriage certificate or the church records, but the minister is still there. He would swear on an affidavit that indeed you are my husband. But somehow I don't think I want you any more, Billy Duff, and I'll make sure the judge knows that. But I certainly do want to see you in jail. I'm sorry, miss, that you were as deceived as I was by this worthless piece of manhood. I'm sure your father will have something to say about it."
The poor pregnant woman whimpered and turned to cry on her mother's shoulder.
Shane's grandmother came up hooking her arm through hers whispering, "Her daddy died recently, dear, I'm sorry to say. At least he did not live to see this man shame his daughter any further."
The sound of loud weeping drowned out any further discussion, and the poor pregnant woman was led away with her mother by their friends.
By now the church men were dragging a fighting Billy to the jailhouse. Fortunately, one of the boys had run for the sheriff earlier, and he was quick to put handcuffs on the miscreant.
"They won't hang him will they?" whispered Tabitha as Shane and his grandmother led her away to their buggy. He helped her up, then his mother. Soon his grandfather climbed in the buggy.
"The sheriff's going to telegram to see if the preacher will vouch for your wedding. But a judge may indeed allow the second marriage since there is a child involved."
"Good, I'm sure I don't want him back. I just want my marriage annulled," she said weakly.
"So does this mean I will have to go before a judge and testify against him in a courtroom?"
"It will probably be done quietly in his chambers, dear. The poor girl's father was well respected here. I'm sure the judge will not want any of you subject to a public display. Once is enough, I'd say."
"I agree," she nodded quietly.
"But it had to be done," Shane said. "As soon as he saw both of us, he would have run and left that woman anyway. It's better this way. If the Confederacy does fall, there will probably be no recriminations against him militarily. I for one would not want to step forward to testify against him seeing how it would mean I would have to put the gray uniform back on."
"No, he has been exposed. That is enough," his grandmother said staunchly. They all agreed.
As soon as the cold Sunday dinner was eaten, Tabitha sunk in her bed and had a nap. Finally, his grandmother woke her and asked if she was alright.
In her groggy state, she croaked, "I think so. I know I don't want Billy, but now I have no one. Except perhaps a widowed elderly aunt in Hilton, one whom I've never met."
She looked so woebegone that Mrs. Harper climbed up on the bed beside her and pulled her head to her shoulder. "We already love you, dear. I understand if you want to go to your aunt's, but we would love to have you stay with us. It shouldn't be hard to find someone better that that dastardly Billy."
The way she said it made Tabitha giggle. A little flicker of a flame of hope was kindled as well deep down in her heart. "I think I'd like that. But I don't think Billy's other wife would appreciate having me around."
"Don't worry about that, sweet thing. I heard this afternoon that they are packing up and going north, of all things, to stay with a relative there."
"I'm sorry for the child who will pay for his father's sins."
"Trust him into God's keeping then let them go. But I have it on good authority, Mr. Duff was given a letter encouraging him to join them where no one will know of his dishonor as soon as the war ends and things are settled here."
"Good. He certainly has nothing left to call home anymore. Not many of us do."
"Well, now you do. You are home."
She sighed deeply then sat in the quietness of the dusk for a long time leaning on this sweet woman holding her cool hand."
"Are you hungry? There's more of that fried chicken and potato salad left."
"I'm suddenly ravenous!" she exclaimed abruptly sitting up. "I was so upset earlier that I'm sure I didn't taste a thing. But now I'm sure I will relish it."
All four of them sat around the table speaking of more pleasant things. She ate her supper while they ate blackberry cobbler. Tabby got to that later. No one mentioned the scene earlier today contrary to what she was sure was spoken around most of the tables in town. It would be hot gossip for weeks, that's for sure.
"Do you want to walk outside?" Shane asked.
"That would be nice. When she went to put her dirty coat on, his grandmother stopped her with a touch and offered her shawl.
"Thank you." Shane opened the door for her, and they walked side by side past the barnyard going towards the orchards.
"Thank you for backing me up at church. I'm sorry I embarrassed your grandparents."
"You have to admit, it was rather juicy gossip fodder. Most people quite enjoyed the scene, except for the two women involved, that is."
"I'm relieved actually. Billy surprised me at the soiree by asking me to marry him that night. Perhaps my father sensed he was unwell, so he seemed to gladly give his permission even though he knew Billy as an insolent and troublemaking youth. Everyone hoped the military would be the making of him, including me. I confess I held a tendra for him since I was a girl next door. But not minutes passed after we exchanged vows than all the men were called away. I have not seen him since that day till now, so it hardly seems like we were married at all."
"You mean," Shane colored up to the tips of his ears but went on to ask, "you were never with him?"
"No never. You don't know how grateful I am now." She paused but then forged bravely on asking, "I know it will help when I talk to the judge, but would it have made a difference to you if I had, if we had, well you know what I mean."
He looked into her eyes melting the tension of the day away. "How could it when I already knew how I felt about you before you admitted that. I just had to guard how I acted toward a married woman is all."
"Ever since I picked up that muddy ball of tears, I was a goner. My protective heart acted, but I thought my yearning heart would never have a chance. I knew your Billy, the scoundrel, and hated that you had such hopes of him coming to your rescue. I wanted to be that man."
"You are that man, Shane."
"I've decided I'm staying here, Tabby."
She sucked in her breath, "Really? That's wonderful! I mean I love your grandparents and I know they love having you here. Have you told them?"
"Yes, while you were sleeping."
They walked hand in hand bumping shoulders every other step staying out to watch the moon come up and until God lit every last star.
The next six months seemed impossibly difficult. A snail could slime its way faster than the slow walking of the days. She counted the months, the days, the hours, the minutes. Once the judge annulled her marriage, new hope sprung and new promises were made. Propriety said they needed to wait at least six months, that it shouldn't appear as a rushed affair. In the meanwhile, his grandmother taught her what a housewife should know, one who did not rely on a servant, and especially a slave.
Tabitha's sentiments turned North like a wind that blew steadily on a weather vane. She saw slavery for what it was. It was if scales fell from her eyes. Her mind wandered and wondered about any ways she had mistreated their slaves, her Mimi. She appreciated what Shane represented, though she still grieved the useless loss of her brother and the hundreds of men like him who died. When news came that the war was over, there was rejoicing in the streets and grieving behind closed doors.
Disgruntled men straggled through. His grandparents never turned any away regardless of their uniform. They fed them, doctored them, and let them sleep in the barn until they had strength to move on to wherever they called home. One man said he had become so hungry in the war that he wanted to eat his own fingers. Many were barefoot. Most itched with lice. So many were heart-wrenchingly injured. But all had signed the oath of allegiance, and their nation was no longer torn asunder. Then the news of Lincoln's death sent a pall over the entire country. Even behind closed doors, few could find reason to celebrate.
But a happier day was coming. She wrote Jane telling her about the man who had held her to his heart when she was at her worst, her lowest point of hopelessness, when she was muddy and wet from tears and rain, and falling apart. She told how he offered her his protection, his strength, and his heart. His was strong, brave, and ready to protect. She admitted to her friend she was right, that now she understood that one could not judge a man by his uniform, but by his character. She wrote about confronting Billy and how he had to face the consequences of his actions. Instead, she cherished her beloved who had lived through the nightmare of war, yet she saw his tender feelings awaken every time he looked at her. She promised Jane that this time when she said her vows, it would be in church, and that they would frame their marriage certificate on their wall for all to see. And best of all, she wrote, her foe had become her best friend and soon would be her husband.