Alice Grace Caldwell clutched the sleeve of Alonzo Baker. “Please tell me you’re not going.”
“I’ve no choice. Three companies of Brookhaven residents are going into battle, and I won’t be left behind labeled as a coward.”
“I might never see you again.” Alice blinked her eyes and tried to be strong, but tears trickled from the corners as she batted long lashes.
“I’ll be back. I’m an expert shot. Plenty of experience with a gun in the Mississippi woods.” He took her small hands in his large ones and patted and squeezed them. “Dry the tears from those beautiful ocean-blue eyes. You know I can’t stand back and let them take control of the Mississippi River. We have to have supplies and ship our cotton, and that river is our transportation system. Mississippi’s succession on January 9 has brought the Civil War to Brookhaven.”
“Fiddlesticks.” She pouted. “We haven’t even announced our engagement.”
“Sorry, but the war takes priority, and we’ll have to put our plans on hold.” He stood tall and proud in his gray Confederate uniform. “I’m proud to be fighting for my state. Whitworth College is being converted into a military hospital and training facility. One-hundred-and-four men are being sent into battle. We leave today. As of today, I am one of the Brookhaven Light Artillery, or Hoskins’ Battery. They formed May 11, 1861, but are organizing this spring. Captain James A. Hoskins will lead us. We’ve got to get ready for battle. It’s coming.”
She twisted her hands. “Please stay. I can’t lose you.”
Alonzo pulled her into his arms and held her gently. He lifted her chin so her eyes met his. “You’re not going to. This war will be over before Christmas, and I’ll be home. We’ll announce our engagement at the New Years Eve ball and set a date.”
“Promise.” He bent and lightly brushed her lips. She shoved him back.
“We’re not supposed to kiss since I’m not officially an engaged woman.”
“But I’m going off to war. You can at least give me a good-bye kiss.”
“I suppose.” She let him take her in his arms, and he let his lips linger a bit longer this time. Alice wanted to hold him forever and never let him go. When he removed his arms and held her back to gaze upon her, she felt empty and lost like a part of her was leaving and never coming back. A horrible feeling crept into her heart. This couldn’t be good-bye for good. No, she refused to think like that. She had to be strong and send him off to war so he’d be prepared to fight for his life.
“You wouldn’t want me to stay and be called a coward or yellow-bellied.”
She gave him a faint smile. “No, of course not. You’re my brave solider. I’m glad this is going to be a short war, and I’ll have you back home with me in a few months.” Alice sighed. “This war started last spring with the firing on Fort Sumter and its surrender. They probably thought it would be over by last Christmas, and it is still raging on, so it might not be over by this one.”
His hazel eyes bore into hers and a lock of sandy hair fell over his wide forehead. “ They’re organizing and getting serious now, so it can’t go on much longer. We might not see any action for a while, but I’m ready to get it over with and come back home to you.” He sneaked another kiss. “I’ve got to get a haircut before I leave, so we’ll say good-bye now instead of at the station. It’ll be easier.”
“Nothing about this war is going to be easy even if it will be short. Least of all saying good-bye.” She clung to his hands and squeezed. “I love you so much. I just can’t bear it if anything happens to you. Take care of yourself.”
He handed her a key.
“It’s to our house. You keep it until I come home. Go there often and think of our time together.” He kissed her one last time, and she melted into his arms and hoped no one saw, but they were behind her house in the edge of the woods, so she felt safe from prying eyes. “When this war is over, I’ll add onto our home and build a grand plantation. You’ll be proud to be mistress.”
“I know I will, and I can’t wait.” She used her fingertips to dry the tears trickling from the corners of her eyes, wanting Lonnie to remember her with a smile.
When he let her go, she watched him take the small path through the woods, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time she saw him. The little dirt lane led to their house, as he called it. It was his place, just a simple farmhouse, but he had big plans as the son of a cotton planter. His father and mother owned Lily Oaks Plantation, but his eldest brother was in line to take it over when his father retired, so Lonnie decided to build his own. He was a hard worker, and she knew he’d do it eventually, if the war didn’t keep him from it.
Alice held the cold metal key in her palm. She’d keep it on her until her beloved returned. He didn’t have to tell her to visit and remember him. Memories fought each other in her mind. Visions of them on picnics, at family barbecues, fishing in the great Mississippi River that ran behind their homes. He didn’t have to tell her to remember. How could she ever forget?
She took the trail through the woods knowing he’d be gone, but she wanted to feel closer to him and visit their place. Alice came upon the small white farmhouse graced by giant oaks and curtains of moss. She stepped upon the veranda and sat down on the top step for a moment as visions of the two of them on the swing hammered her heart. They hadn’t been officially engaged yet, so Polly usually accompanied them to keep her from being compromised unless it was one of those times she’d escaped and slipped to their home. No one knew of those visits, but the two of them.
Lonnie, ever the perfect gentleman, would never take advantage of her, and she knew that just as she knew he loved her with all of his heart. She saw it in his eyes each time his met hers.
She stood and crossed the boards to the front door, inserted the key, and turned the lock that flooded her heart with endless memories. Alice strode to his bedroom. His scent still lingered. Nothing but a simple wooden bed and small table, but it’d been all he needed. He planned to build her a homemade bed as a wedding gift. Lonnie was skilled when it came to woodwork, hunting, and fishing. She sat on the edge of the bed and gazed out his bedroom window at the oak limbs waving in the wind before she flung herself across the cornhusk mattress and let her tears flow like a well. She had to cry his leaving out of her system.
What would she do to fill her time while he was gone? She remembered he’d said Whitworth College would be a Confederate military hospital and training center. Maybe she could help nurse the soldiers and at least she’d be there if he was injured. Alice sat up straight and wiped her eyes. She’d be a woman, a strong one, not a weak, simpering southern belle helpless without her man. She would survive until Alonzo Baker returned with her heart.
Alice strolled back down the dirt path until she came to the wooded edge that turned into Cotton Grove Plantation. Her family’s cotton fields spread out on each side of the home past the grassy green yard of Mississippi red clay and from the back lawn to the edge of the woods. Acres and acres of cotton blowing in the wind graced the landscape for as far as the eye could see in three directions, with the exception of where the cotton fields met the woods on one side in the back. If the weather didn’t get too dry in June through August, they’d have a good crop this year.
She stood for a moment and gazed at her family home, a splendid white-columned house with wide balconies and large windows to allow a breeze. It was beautiful sparkling in the noonday sun. Her mother ran it well, and her father kept the home in the greatest condition possible while her mom took great pride in her roses, herbs, and vegetable garden. Cotton Grove was a home to be proud of, but more than that, her family was one that made her proud.
Black bodies hunched over working the fields, glistening in the sunshine as sweat poured rivers down their ebony skin. A plantation like many other Mississippi ones, Cotton Grove thrived on the backs of slave labor. Alice glanced across the field and noticed Polly’s Sam laboring amongst the cotton plants. Polly, her gift from her father, her best friend and maid, had grown up with her. When she was old enough to need help with dressing, Polly had been selected to help her. She used to sleep in a room behind the kitchen until she jumped the broom with Sam. Now, she stayed in one of the slave cabins in the back of the house with him so they could start their family, but she was still Alice’s servant during the day, and Alice had slipped off without her chaperone once again.
Polly came running toward her. “Oh Miss Alice, where have you been? You’s gonna get me in trouble. Mrs. Jasmine be asking for you.”
“Mrs. Jasmine is asking for me.”
“I just says so.”
“Never mind, Polly. What does Mother want?”
“How’s I know? She don’t tell me her business.”
Alice sighed and picked up her steps. She’d best find out what her mother wanted and get it over with. She nearly ran inside the grand home, but forced herself to stroll like a lady. It wouldn’t do to upset her mother and have to listen to another lecture on ladylike virtues. She picked up her skirts thankful she wasn’t wearing hoops in this heat, hurried to the drawing room, and burst through the door.
“Oh darling, there you are. Have you heard about the Mississippi men being enlisted? I’m afraid Alonzo might be one of them.”
Alice sighed. “He is, Mother. He’s gone.”
Jasmine strode to her daughter and patted her shoulder. “Well, at least you two weren’t officially engaged or married. If anything happens to him, you won’t be left a widow, or worse, a widow with a child.”
“He will return. Lonnie promised he would. He’s one of the best shots around. Been hunting the Mississippi woods since he was old enough to carry a gun. He’ll be back.” Alice smiled. “We’ve said our good-byes, but not for long. He says it’s going to be a short war.”
Her mother frowned. “I hope he’s right. Your father seems concerned.”
“Lonnie was, too. That’s why he’s gone to fight to keep the Yankees from taking control of our river.”
“Your father thinks we’re in for a big fight because of our location on the Mississippi River. He says the Union will do whatever they have to for control of Old Man River.”
“Mother, we have over a hundred of our men enlisting today. They’re not going to give up our transportation system so easily.”
“Of course not dear, but I’m afraid the North won’t give up easily either. Your father says this war could take longer than people think.”
“Lonnie says it’s going to be short, and he’ll be home by Christmas. He should know. He’s the one in the Brookhaven Light Artillery.”
“I hope he’s right, dear.” She smiled and patted her shoulder again. “I’m glad you got to see the boy before he left.”
“Me, too.” She gazed into her mother’s eyes and felt tears leaking from the corners of hers again. “He said they’ve turned Whitmore College into a Confederate hospital and training facility. At least the injured will have a place to go for help. I’m going to see if they’ll let me assist so I can be there in case Lonnie comes in injured.”
“That’s going to be a dirty job, Alice. I don’t think it’s for you. You had better rethink that decision. I’m sure there will be many cleaner ways you can help the Cause like rolling bandages and doing charity work such as fundraising.”
“Mom, you help with the cleaner ways. I want to be in the heart of the action. Well, not the shooting, but the heart of the ones who put their lives at risk for the good of their state.”
Her father strode into the room. “State’s rights. That’s what it’s all about even though the Billy Yanks are saying it’s to end slavery. We have the right to live in and run our state the way residents feel we should, not how the Yankees want to order us around. They don’t have slaves, and they don’t understand the South.”
“Oh Hank, don’t get so worked up. Your heart might not stand it. Sit down and let me get you a glass of tea.” A crooked grin spread across his face, and his merry blue eyes lit with a passion as he took a seat in his favorite chair. “I’ll take a glass of tea, but I don’t think there’s a man living in this state who is not worked up today, Jasmine.”
“Calm down, dear. Getting upset won’t change a thing.” Jasmine headed for the kitchen and called behind her, “Alice, come help.”
Alice followed her mother. She had a feeling their entire world was about to change and not for the better, but she was determined to stand her ground and become a nurse if they’d let her. Polly would escort her to the college later that evening. She didn’t have to upset her parents unless she actually got the position.
As she poured tea into glasses, her head pounded just thinking about it all. This time yesterday her world was normal, and Lonnie had been right through the woods. Now, no telling where he would be by nightfall or when she would hear from him again. A lonely feeling pressed down upon her heart, but she put a smile on her face for her mother’s benefit and told herself he was gone, but not for good. She would look forward to Christmas. He’d be back by then. He’d promised.