Read My Vicksburg Online

Authors: Ann Rinaldi

My Vicksburg (4 page)

BOOK: My Vicksburg
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He purred his "I don't know."

Half bravely, I followed the stream around its bend, and there found two soldiers. One was seated on a rock beside the stream. He was definitely Confederate.

The other had his back to me. But even then I knew he was Yankee because of the blue coat. And an officer because of the trappings on his uniform.

And a doctor because of the yellow hospital flag he'd stuck in the horse's reins. Pa had told me about that flag and how it was respected when a doctor soldier from an opposing side went through enemy lines.

This wasn't Pa, though, because there was no gray in his hair. Landon? Yes, I recognized the spread of his shoulders. His horse, Rosie.

The Confederate wore no shirt, and Landon was bandaging his shoulder, expertly. There was blood on the Confederate's arm. It was he who sighted me first. He cleared his throat and whispered something to his blue-coated friend.

I calculated a little humor wouldn't hurt about now. "More visiting," I said in contempt. "You people make me sick. You kill each other all night long and in the morning you visit and drink coffee and fix each other's hurts. What about what you've done to our town? To our people?"

Landon stood up straight but did not turn around. "There can be only one person on God's earth who would say such a thing," he said. "My sister, Claire Louise."

And then he turned around.

He looked so tall in his uniform. And it was kind of
dusty, and the top buttons of the coat were not closed. His face was sunburned, a wide-brimmed hat was set aside with his sword. He wore his sidearm. "Hello, Claire Louise," he said.

"Hello, Landon. What are you doing here?"

"I might ask the same of you. You've got black and blue all over you, so you must have been picking berries, and if you've eaten too many, it means I'll have to give you some kind of a decoction later on. You've got a cat in your arms and the hem of your dress and your shoes are soaking wet. Which translates into a sore throat. Your face has high color. Do you have a fever?"

"You have one patient already. Isn't that enough?"

He grinned. God, that grin could break your heart. That old crooked grin that made all the girls swoon.

"You need a shave," I told him. I liked the way he looked with a couple of days' worth of dark beard on his face. Like a villain in an English novel.

Behind him, his friend was painfully reaching for his shirt, embarrassed at being seen without one by a girl. If he'd known all the times I'd seen Landon without one, he wouldn't care.

"I know. I was going to shave after I fixed up Robert here. By the way, this is my friend, Robert, whom I've known for weeks and wasn't firing upon yesterday. May I remind you that I don't kill people? Robert, this is my little sister, Claire Louise. Sweet child if you can take the mouth she gives you."

"I'm not a child anymore," I told him. "I'm thirteen now."

He looked at me from beneath lowered eyelids, while he straightened things in his medical bag. He was trying to figure what I was saying.

"Since when?" he asked.

"Since last June."

"Well then, you're a proper young lady. Congratulations. See that you act it."

I stuck my tongue out at him.

He sighed. "I meant around boys," he said.

Was he going to give me that lecture, too? How to act around boys now that I had my woman's time of the month? I'd gotten this talk from Pa, from Mama, from Easter and Clothilda, from everybody except James and Sammy, the cat.

He gave the subject a new turn. "We're headed to Jackson. Robert's family lives there."

I gasped. "You mean you're not coming home?"

He sobered. "Am I wanted?"

"Landon Corbet, you haven't got the sense of a wet otter," I scolded him. "Mama's been praying for you. And praying you'd come home. She'd just faint away if I told her you were here and didn't. You've got to come. We live in a cave, yes, like everybody else. But it's big, and we've got all the conveniences of home. And we've got room for you both. Now you just mind me and come."

He looked at Robert. "Doesn't it appear to you that I'm the one who's supposed to be doing the scolding here?"

Robert remained neutral. But it was more than that. He just didn't smile. He hadn't yet, not with his mouth or his eyes, and I supposed he had a beautiful smile.

He must be carrying around a fearful burden, I told myself. I wondered if Landon knows about it.

"I'll wager a month's pay my mama doesn't know where she is right now," Landon was saying to Robert. Well?" He looked at me. "Does she?"

"No," I admitted shamefacedly.

"So with all she's got to worry about, you're giving her more."

I put down Sammy and the blackberries. "Landon, can I hug you?"

"Oh no you don't. Playing on my sympathies. And you're about as helpless as a Yankee in a bayonet charge." But he took me in his arms anyway, and his hug was like coming home for me. When I was in need of a hug from Pa, and Pa held off for some reason he was using to play on my senses, Landon always supplied it. And he always knew the right moment, too.

"Hello, Claire Louise," he said gently. "Are you still my little orphan girl?"

"Landon, I'll soon be fourteen."

Then he touched my forehead. "You do have a fever, sweetie." He got serious. "What's wrong? Something bad happen? Come on. Up here on Rosie with me." He lifted me onto his horse. "You fill me in on the way home."

He tied on my pail of blackberries, and put Sammy in
an empty saddlebag with just his head sticking out. Robert got atop his horse, too.

"We'd best get home before the shelling starts again," he said.

We rode ahead, and Robert followed at a discreet distance. We walked the horses slowly and carefully. Landon found himself saluted several times, even though he was in enemy territory.

"These Southerners are nothing if not polite," he said, joking about himself. "So"—he poked me in the ribs—"what's happened to make you so upset?"

So I told him. About losing Jewel and Diamond.

"That's considerable bad," he agreed.

I told him about Sarah running off to join the Confederate army as a man. He was taken, even more, with that. "Damned stubborn girl," he swore. "Excuse my language, Claire Louise. Why'd she go and do a thing like that?"

"You won't scold if I tell you?"

"Tell me."

"She did it to worry you. That's what she said, anyway. To punish you."

"Who'd she join up with?"

"She didn't say. Just said she was going to be with Lee in the Cumberland Valley."

"That's where Pa is. I'll write to him and tell him to be on the lookout."

We rode in silence for a moment. It seemed like I
could feel the confusion, the anger, and the anguish coming off his very being.

"She won't get far," he finally said. "First time she gets scraped by a minie ball, the doctor will find out she's a girl and she'll be sent home."

"Would you tell on her?" I asked.

"Don't know," he said gruffly. "Do know that she wouldn't have run off if I'd been home."

"What would you have done?"

"Would have spanked her good first, and then married her. She needs both."

"Landon, you're really besotted with her. I think she is with you, too."

Another poke in the ribs. "Mind yourself."

"Do I get a question now?"

"Yes. One."

"Landon," I asked softly, "what's wrong with Robert?"

"Took a minie ball in the shoulder at the Big Black River."

I knew he was lying.

"But why is he so ..."

"So what?"

"Like he's carrying such a burden inside him?"

"You mean suspicious, mistrusting, and fearful?"

"Yes."

"He's no coward. Let's get that straight now. He does have a burden. But I can't tell what it is. Patient-doctor relationship."

"Oh, Landon."

One more poke, this one harder. "That's all. No more questions. My God, look at those caves on that hillside. What in the name of all that's holy have they done to my Vicksburg?"

I got defensive. "If not for the caves, we'd all be dead," I told him.

He turned in the saddle and spoke to Robert. "Let me apologize for my town, Robert," he said. "But this is what you get for being the only rail and river junction between here and Memphis and New Orleans."

"It can be made right again," Robert said wisely. Apparently, to him, anything that could be made right again was not worth wasting your time worrying about. There were things that never could be made right again, he was reminding my brother.

Landon sighed. "Come on, Claire Louise, show us the right cave," he directed.

Chapter Six

Mama stared at me across what was now her dining area. I handed Sammy to James, whose face was swollen with crying. He held the cat close and made a gulping ending to the crying he'd been doing all morning, thinking the cat was gone for good.

"He wouldn't eat breakfast, he wouldn't listen to any reasoning," Mama told me. "I tell you, I couldn't bear it. And now he's running a fever and hiccuping. You know what his hiccups are like. Just like Claire Louise's. They last
hours.
To say nothing of the worry I had over
you,
Claire Louise. I tell you, I wish I'd left you with your grandmother."

"I have somebody outside who can fix James up," I said softly.

"I don't know why I didn't leave you there. Your father has a fixation about the family being together, is why. And I don't know why I just don't take up a wooden spoon and paddle you good right now. What did you say? You brought someone home? Into this quagmire? Who?"

He'd sneaked in behind me. "It's me, Mama," Landon
said. He came right past me, putting a reassuring hand on my shoulder, and went directly into Mama's arms.

"Oh, my boy, my boy." She clung to him, crying. He was at least two heads taller than she was.

"It's all right," he kept saying, "I'm home. I'm here. I'm fine, Mama. All in one piece." He lifted her right off the floor and held her. She reached for her handkerchief and blotted her tears.

"God is good," she said.

"Yeah," Landon said, "though sometimes He gets a little confused. Having trouble with the kids are you, Mama?" He released her and leaned down next to James, who sat with the cat in his arms. "How you doin', Buddy?"

James smiled at him. A knowing and secretive smile. They hugged, Sammy squashed between them. They had a great deal of feeling for each other, these two. James worshipped Landon and Landon didn't treat him like a child. He talked to him like a man, and James responded in kind.

Landon felt his face. "You seem a bit warm, Buddy. You know, I got the greatest new fixings for fever. You take some of it, and I'll take you outside to give some carrots to Rosie before the shelling starts again. What do you say?"

James said yes.

Landon stood and took James by the hand and they went toward the hall. "My bag is outside," he said. "Hope you got carrots, Ma." And then, "I'm bringing somebody else back in. Hope you got coffee, too. Oh, and I don't
mean to outrank you, Ma, but she's too big for paddlin'. I'll talk to her if you want. Just let me know."

He winked at me and tweaked my nose as they walked out into the sunlight.

Within less than an hour, Robert was welcomed, sat down at the table, plied with food, fussed over by Mama, undressed, and washed by Easter, who told him to hush his mouth. She worked, even now, at the hospital two days a week and if she hadn't seen it already, then it didn't exist.

They gave him a room of his own with clean sheets and a light summer blanket. Easter approved Landon's bandaging of Robert and told him to go and clean up, too, or did he want
her
to do it. After all, "it ain't been that long since I done it when you wuz a little boy, Master Landon."

Landon skedaddled out of there, quick as he could.

But not before he took me into my room, where he put a newfangled thing called a thermometer into my mouth. When he took it out, he showed me my temperature. "One hundred and two," he said.

Then he gave me a dose of quinine and told me to get out of my wet shoes and stockings and dress and go to bed. I put on my nightgown and followed him into the kitchen.

He'd already dosed James with medicine, he told Mama, and Easter had put him to bed. With the cat.

"What is the fever from?" Mama asked. "This place is clean. I wouldn't have moved here if it weren't."

"Change of climate," he told her. "Undo excitement
over being shelled. Something in the water supply. Or something in the sand itself that surrounds you. I wouldn't stay here a minute more than I had to, Ma. The kids'll be all right for now, though, I promise. And I'm on leave. If worse comes to worse, I can get them back to our grandparents, if you want."

"I don't want to go," I put in. "I want to stay here with you, Mama."

"You still here?" Landon looked up. The look was severe. "Go and do as you're told."

I went, but I lingered outside the kitchen, listening. "I'd wager half the people in these caves have it," he was saying. "And they don't even know it." Then another turn in conversation. "Ma, did you know that Sarah went and joined the army as a man?"

"No!" Mama was taken aback. "All I know is that she came to your father one day and had him remove the mole on her face so she wouldn't be recognized. Oh, Lan-don, I'm so sorry."

"I should have married her when I had the chance," he said.

"Would that have changed things?"

"Yes. I think she did it to get back at me. Because I wanted to wait until after the war was over. Look, when she sees what it's like out there, she'll be back. She won't be able to take it."

Silence for a moment. Then Mama asked, "Tell me about Robert, Landon."

He shrugged. "Can't, Ma. He's got trouble. Big as a panther in a hen house. But I can't tell. Doctor-patient relationship."

"Oh, you sound just like your father."

He sighed deeply. "I guess we all sound the same after a while."

He was saying something about going to the surgery when the shelling stopped.

I ran to my room down the hall. I sat on the bed. I suppose it was the quinine, but soon I was fast asleep.

BOOK: My Vicksburg
10.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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