Varina, p.23

Varina, page 23



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  Place of Dreams

  May 1865

  THEY PASSED OUT OF SHERMAN’S PATH OF PUNISHMENT and went dragging down ordinary red Georgia roads, sloping south on their beaten way. Small towns and small farms lay wide-spaced among pinewoods. The horses and mules were as tired as the people, and they made fewer than their average ten miles a day. Florida still lay vague in the distance, and the only map forward might have been drawn in a crazy man’s hand, speculating on a place V would never reach no matter how long she traveled.

  Most days Bristol trailed off the back, riding by himself. Delrey kept reminding him he would need to hang a right at some point if he was heading for Alabama, but Bristol said maybe he’d go all the way until they hit the Gulf and then he’d peel off west and follow the coastline around the curve to Mobile. Take his time.

  V sat with him one day at their lunch stop and said, I know you’re hurting two directions. For Ryland and for having killed Elgin. I’ll point out that better boys than that one—hundreds of thousands of them on both sides—have gone down in this mess.

  —So you consider Elgin a war fatality? Bristol said.

  —I don’t consider him anything. He pulled the trigger first, over nothing but words and ideas. But you pulled the trigger over something real—a mean bloody act that took your friend’s life. There’s a difference. Don’t let him weigh heavier on your mind than he merits.

  —Yes, ma’am.

  —Don’t you Yes, ma’am me. This is too important to fall back on manners. A lot of boys would be strutting around, bragging like they’d killed their first buck. But that’s not you, and that’s why we’re talking. I don’t want what happened to ruin you for the rest of your life. I’m assuming your family had some money or else you’d have been in the infantry instead of the academy.

  —Some. My father has a business, not a plantation.

  —Then go home, and when colleges open back up, finish an education. Do something that helps people get through the chaos. For a long time, it’s going to be like Noah after the flood—everybody, black and white, trying to understand what’s left when the water drains away. Bad enough without having your mind overly darkened by that one instant.

  —So we’ve all got a load of guilt to haul? That’s my big lesson?

  —Don’t get sarcastic with me. I’m saying most of the load is not yours to bear. It’s ours, the people who brought it on. When you get home, rest and start clearing your head from all this, and then go and do, Bristol.

  AS THEY TRUDGED SOUTH, V kept Bristol close and watched his moods. She wanted him sitting at her campfire every night, not going off to spread his bedroll alone in the pines. She and the children and Ellen, Burton, and Delrey still usually sat an hour on low camp stools arranged around the fire no matter how tired they were. Some evenings they barely spoke and looked at the flames like they’d been dazed by a great blast of black powder. Cool nights, Jeffy and Jimmie and Billy sat sprawling against each other half asleep. Sometimes V would rouse up from such a moment of gloom and recite a poem. She would tell them all to attend, and then look off into the dregs of sunset and tell them the name of the poem and of the person who wrote it and then launch into something beautiful. V guessed Bristol and all the others were often too exhausted to listen close to the words, only the music of the poem, the tune of it. They could get all the meaning they needed right there in the rhythm without keeping up with grammar at all. That and the flow of light from the fire moving on their circle of faces as she recited.

  At some point most nights she would decide her children looked or smelled dirty, which they all usually did. She’d take a pail of creekwater warmed over the fire, a washcloth, and a worn flat of fragrant pink soap and start scrubbing. And if Bristol was sitting there she’d scrub him too, forehead to collarbones. Push his hair back and scour his blemished teen forehead, run her finger covered with the soapy washcloth deep in his ears. When she was done he glowed red as firecoals, his neck and face chafed near to bleeding. He’d smell like roses and whatever fragrance that night’s creek carried—pine needles or rotted leaves or minerals in the rocks.

  SOME NIGHTS V ASKED BRISTOL to tell a story—a tale from his time in the Naval Academy with Ryland or one of their adventures journeying south from Richmond with Jeff. One night he told about the remnants of the government in Greensboro, how some of the cabinet members and high officers had to sleep on pallets in boxcars.

  From Greensboro on past Charlotte, nothing but confusion and bad weather, blown-up railroad bridges and muddy roads ahead, Sherman coming from the south and Grant coming from the north to rub out the remainders of the Confederacy. Before long, what was left of the Confederate government and army traveled by horseback and wagon train. Day by day, rank meant less, and even the officers lost interest in giving and taking orders. The powerful men became too consumed with the deluge sweeping over their own personal worlds to worry about controlling underlings like Ryland and Bristol, who floated on, rode the tidal wave.

  They made themselves useful to Judah Benjamin and General Basil Duke, who had both so fully let go of rank that the boys weren’t sure how to address either of them. Benjamin had occupied almost every position of power in the government short of president. Call him Mr. Attorney General, Mr. Secretary, Mr. Senator and he would laugh and say, Oh that’s all gone. Call me by my first name. A band of outlaws should travel as equals. So that’s what the boys called him. Mr. Judah. He traveled down the country roads the most cheerful outlaw since Robin Hood. His trunk must have been at least half full of fat Cuban cigars—big, dark coronas. From midday until bedtime he always had one fuming, and he gave them away like penny candy to keep the Yankees from taking them if he was captured. He said he was Havana bound and would restock there.

  Similar attitude with Basil Duke. He looked like an actor playing the part of a young general. He was smart and handsome and knew it, but he didn’t go around puffed up and stiff. He cracked jokes and shared tobacco and rum, and said outright that he thought it a good thing to abolish slavery. Said, Great God, imagine if we’d had the sense to abolish it fifty years ago. He shrugged off the title of general with the ease of a man who expects life to be unpredictable and defines himself anew almost daily.

  When Bristol called him General Duke, he said, The country that issued my military rank is dead and gone. Call me mister or sir.

  —Sir Duke? Ryland said.

  —Damn, that does have a ring to it. But we’re all near the same footing now. So I’ll call you boys Bristol and Ryland, and you call me whatever you want.

  —Yes, sir, Bristol said.

  Every morning, sunshine or monsoon, Basil Duke would get up at gray dawn and exit his tent looking fresh, groomed, clean collar on his shirt. Everybody else wandered around bleary, disheveled, weary, and not wanting to keep doing what they’d been doing—which was break camp, load up, and slog down the road another day, clothes dirty and hair greased tight to their heads. The first miles of the day, Basil Duke talked about how well he had slept and how much he admired the landscape and enjoyed watching it unspool. He always said, A bad day on the road beats a good day sitting at home doing nothing.

  Every night Basil Duke sat by the campfire like he was posing, finding the most flattering angle of light for a painting. He always had exactly three drinks no matter how late the night went. The younger officers—and anybody else who cared to listen, including Bristol and Ryland—gathered around, and Basil Duke led the discussion. Late, after the older men had bedded down, they laid odds that changed night by night as to which of the politicians would escape. Everybody bet that Judah Benjamin would be the first captured, and everybody but Basil Duke bet Davis would escape. But Duke didn’t believe the president wanted to escape. What Davis wanted most was justification, to defend himself in court and be hanged if he lost.

  Odds on Judah Benjamin changed considerably when he took a disguise out of his big trunk—a beat-up brown suit and a gray felt hat with holes in the crown, and a dir
ty shirt without a collar. He took off alone with two half-dead mules and the most broken-down wagon they had. This happened around Washington, Georgia. He said he aimed for the Gulf, and if he met Federal troops, he planned to use his Louisiana French to act like a lost trader trying to get back to New Orleans—pretend he didn’t know a word of English. When he left, he lifted his beat hat from his head, and around the fat, black cigar in his mouth, he said, So long, desperadoes. See you in Havana or Paris.

  All that time President Davis seemed strange, aloof from reality. Some nights he lurked at the edge of the campfires, righteous and doomed, skeletal with the firelight on his face and deep shadows under his cheekbones. He muttered constantly about the Constitution, its precious phrases. Saying how he and the other hard men left over from Lee’s and Johnson’s surrenders would head west and become horseback guerrillas, fighting the Federals—not battles but running skirmishes, covering many miles and several days of desert and prairie. Light and fast. Or he might form an alliance with Maximilian, emperor of Mexico, and return with a vast army to sweep across the South and retake the homeland. Or wear the Federals down over time, make it a hundred-year war. Last resort, the true believers could go to South America and carve cotton fields out of jungle and create a new republic, where the original Constitution and full property rights would rule.

  Basil Duke whispered among the dwindling remainders, said that they accompanied Davis only to help him escape, not out of delusion that the war would continue deep into the future.

  By the time they reached Washington, Georgia, the remains of the treasury had fallen into Basil Duke’s care. He acted as if it were slightly humorous, a burden. He made no secret that it had been represented to him as somewhere between five thousand and five hundred thousand dollars. Who’d lately had time to count? It took the form of gold and silver and other assets, including the Tennessee State School Fund and the old ladies of Richmond jewelry donation program, and it traveled in leather shot bags, green canvas bank money bags, little metal casks and big wooden casks, even money belts stuffed fat as an old gentleman’s paunch with coins.

  Bristol and Ryland helped transfer some of it from a train broken down near the Savannah River into wagons. It was a dream night. They worked by light from a scant few tallow candles. By two in the morning they were so tired from lifting and carrying that all the gold and silver felt unreal.

  Basil Duke supervised, but in a sort of bored, distracted way. As the loaded wagons rolled out, a man came running after Basil Duke shouting, Wait, wait, you forgot this. The man carried a small wood cask filled with gold coins. Basil Duke took it and said to the man, My God, you’re an idiot.

  As conclusion to his story, Bristol said that everybody except that idiot dipped a little from the pot that night. Said he and Ryland eased gold coins down the calves of their boots for traveling money and that Ry’s gold was still down his boots.

  —He’s lying there making fun of me for not taking it, Bristol said.

  THE FUGITIVES CROSSED the Ocmulgee River after a town called Rhine and then camped near the water. Bristol got down in the muddy river to his neck and grabbled two big catfish, which Ellen filleted and dredged in cornmeal and fried. After supper, Burton and Delrey studied their maps and decided an early start might get them near a settlement called Irwinville before dark.

  Next day, afternoon, out of nowhere Jefferson and a last handful of die-hard officers came riding up from behind. V’d worked on the assumption he was halfway to Texas by now, but there he was, pale and wasted, trying to be her savior because he had heard marauders scoured south Georgia for the share of treasure she was rumored to have with her.

  Among Jeff’s small group was John Taylor Wood, the navy hero, who as a boy had lived in the White House during the brief term of his grandfather, President Taylor, Knoxie’s father—so John was Jeff’s nephew. Jeff and Wood had invented false identities—Texas legislators on the way home—since they still hadn’t fully given up on heading west. Jeff hugged and kissed his family, though he looked so changed that Winnie didn’t recognize him and wailed when he tried to hold her. He tied his horse to the wagon so he could ride with V and the children.

  Her group and Jeff’s traveled together for a while. Jeff said he didn’t intend to camp with them, since Federal troops certainly followed him, not far behind. He and his little group would help settle them in for the night, eat supper, and then ride on to divert the marauders. Head for the Gulf and decide whether to catch a boat to Texas. But maybe he’d see her in Havana.

  THEY MADE CAMP at the edge of pinewoods above a clear creek down in a swale. A cool breeze came out of the south, and John Wood said he caught a hint of Gulf to the nose, salt air, though they were still two weeks away.

  V recognized the place immediately from a dream. It happened there, where the road dipped to a creek bordered with dark pinewoods and then a dry rise toward old open pasture. She begged Jeff to go, keep moving.

  He said, Shortly we will. But remember, not all your dreams come true.

  —But some do, V said.

  Late afternoon, Jeff and V wandered up the creek and bathed alfresco.

  They all ate supper right before dark and talked plans—where to go from here, the safest route. John Wood knew people in Florida. A man in Fernandina owned a boat capable of making a run down the Indian River and the coastal lagoons and skipping through the Keys and jumping across to Cuba. Or they could go the other way, hit the Gulf below Madison. Wood knew a reliable man with a boat there too. Except for a few forts, that western path was mostly wilderness, and Federals lay thin on the ground. In his little journal he wrote the names and towns of trustworthy people who owned boats big enough to make it safely across the Straits and tore the page out and gave it to V.

  AFTER SUPPER, Jimmie and Jeffy went to the men’s fire for a few minutes and then quickly backed away. That ring of faces lit red by firelight scared them. Gentlemen all, the men looked like a gang of bandits and killers and brigands, which some of them had become after four years of war. The Federals considered John Wood a pirate, and except for lacking a black eye patch he looked the part—long hair, face like a blade, and an exhausted level stare that examined the world with cool indifference. A useful man as long as you could keep him aimed away from you.

  Long after dark, Jeff still hadn’t left. His horse remained tacked and his pistols in their holsters over the saddle, hobbled to graze between the tent and the creek. Jeff and V took the tent on the far side of the road and the children with Ellen took the other. Bristol went across the creek and spread his bedroll somewhere out in the pines. The other men stayed by the fire, dozing but ready to ride.

  V AND JEFF LAY ON A PALLET of quilts in the tent and he told her how much she would like Cuba. She would learn the language quickly, and with the sea breeze, summer weather was nice in comparison to Mississippi. He talked about his grieving and devastation in Havana after the loss of Knoxie and described the old city as a beautiful feast of loss and sad remembrances.

  —That’s fine for you, V said. But children need a future to imagine. They don’t thrive on nothing but memories.

  —Well, he said.

  —You should go on. You can’t travel at our pace if you plan to escape. Our best day this week was twelve miles. You can go double or triple that.

  He said, Maybe I’ll head out tomorrow or the next day.

  —If you’re waiting around to be captured, say so now.

  —I’ll go soon.

  —Don’t use us as an excuse. We’ve dealt with marauders, and we’ve made it this far. We can make it to Florida and on to Havana, but we can’t outrun the men chasing you. You need to go.

  —Soon. An hour of sleep and we’ll ride the rest of the night and all day tomorrow.

  He fell asleep almost immediately, and V lay awake trying to remember the details of her dream, trying to recall bits that didn’t correspond—maybe the creek had been more like a river or the trees were oaks instead of pines or the
swale had been deeper—hoping to convince herself this was not the place.

  Sometime in the night she walked across the road to the men’s fire and pulled Burton aside. She said, When they leave, you decide whether you go with them and travel fast or stay with us and go slow. Do what’s best for you. I won’t think less of you for going on.

  —I’m seeing you all the way through, Burton said. No arguments on that point. Go sleep.

  BEFORE DAWN, unaware of each other, two separate Federal cavalry units converged from north and south. Daybreak May 10, in a light rain, they burst upon the fugitives yelling and firing. Ellen had started cooking breakfast, and the first she knew of the attack was a ringing spang as a rifle ball struck the skillet from her hand. The confused Federals fired their weapons with such degree of enthusiasm and inaccuracy that the only casualties were self-inflicted—killing two of their own before they stopped firing at each other.

  The next few minutes became a matter of contention and pride argued over in print for decades to follow. Jefferson’s horse was down near the creek, and to escape capture he either disguised himself in articles of V’s wardrobe, or else she tossed a waterproof raglan over his shoulders and a shawl over his hatless head as he left the tent. Ellen went along with him, carrying a bucket so they might be mistaken as two women going to fetch water. Northern newspaper cartoonists delighted in depicting the scene with Jeff in hoopskirt, ruffled pantaloon, and bonnet.

  When a Federal officer held a gun on V and asked who that was walking toward the creek in the gray dawn, V said it was her mother. Then after they discovered it was the president and seemed eager to shoot him, V stood between them and said they would have to shoot her first, and the young officer said he’d be happy to oblige. Another soldier said that if there was any resistance, they had orders to fire into the tents with the children and make a bloody massacre of it.

  AFTER JEFFERSON SURRENDERED, wild looting. In a frenzy all their baggage was broken open. One trunk had a fat padlock, and a soldier pulled his pistol and fired at it, and the bullet ricocheted off the lock and ripped through his boot and tore his foot apart. Soldiers cut V’s dresses and undergarments into scraps for souvenirs, like knucklebones and hair of saints, and one man showed her his long knife and told her to hold real still as he cut a piece from the hem of the dress she wore. They stole or destroyed most of the children’s clothes except what they had on, and the last few thousand dollars in hard money that V still had from selling their possessions in Richmond disappeared like smoke in the wind. Ellen held Winnie, and Maggie stood crying silently. A soldier had told the stunned boys to climb in the wagon and not come out.

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