Read Surrender at Orchard Rest Online

Authors: Hope Denney,Linda Au

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance

Surrender at Orchard Rest

BOOK: Surrender at Orchard Rest
9.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Surrender at Orchard Rest



A Novel

by Hope Denney

Copyright © 2014, Hope Denney

For my husband.

His advice is always timely.

Or perhaps timeless.

Table of Contents

Catoosa County, Georgia

September 17, 1863


Eric Rutherford crept forward on the packed black clay, ignoring the underlying chill in the September breeze. Below him in the hollow stood two Union scouts, a map spread between them, the corners curling up in the wind. They were animated, pacing and marking the map with heads close enough that they sometimes touched as they worked. Eric wondered if they reported to Rosencrans. He was not yet close enough for their voices to carry to him on the wind.

Eric tasted iron as his pulse raced with the knowledge that they would both be dead soon.

He could spot his fellow sharpshooters from his sheltered location against a pockmarked boulder set in the side of a hill. Joseph Forrest and Sawyer Russell were trapped, crouched in the accommodating branches of an oak. They were too close to the scouts to move without sacrificing their lives before they could aim their weapons. Eric saluted them from where he crouched, mocking them. He knew Joseph rolled his eyes in response.

Joseph was less concerned about his whereabouts than any man in the war. He claimed he didn’t care whether he had slaves because he had never met a man who could do a better job or harder day’s work than himself. He said he had come along so that his buddies wouldn’t become better marksmen than him. After two-and-a-half years of perfecting his aim, he wasn’t homesick in the least and was happy that his law studies were on hold. He missed Fairlee, but he claimed she was such a frequent, lively correspondent that her letters were almost as good as being with her.

It chilled Eric’s blood to think of Joseph’s efficiency in picking off Yankee soldiers. It was casual business to Joseph, and he could coolly pull the trigger with the same expression on his face when he carved a ham or directed a mule. Eric knew Joseph was eager to be in on the action. Although he was motionless on the tree limb, he looked as though he might spring off of it and tackle one of the helpless scouts.

Sawyer Russell, on the other hand, looked intense as he tried to make himself small on his perch in the busy wooded landscape. He hadn’t even registered his cousin’s teasing salute, so focused was he on avoiding the enemy. He wasn’t eager to pull out his rifle and render the enemy useless. Although he was a skilled assassin, it was etched in his face that he wanted to go home. He had developed lines around his eyes during the last year, and he would only go through the belongings of their slain if no one else was around to do it, being wary of finding a photograph of a child or its mother on the corpse.

Eric thought he looked like a golden mountain lion uncertainly surveying his prey, silhouetted as he was against the autumn foliage.

Theodore Forrest was on the high stony ridge above Eric and the only member of their quartet that he couldn’t see. It was a wonder to him that a man of that size could traverse territory as fast as Theodore. Theodore was a leader of men, the leader of their group. He was charismatic, intelligent, and innately good to the core. He wore many hats, filling in for the gouty chaplain when he was indisposed and then switching over to fulfill the role of scout within the hour. None of them would have become sharpshooters had shooting not been their favorite hobby at home.

There was no glory in sniping, but it didn’t seem to bother Teddie so it was fine by the rest of them. They took no joy in the kills, comforting themselves with the fact they were helping their side with what had once been a hobby. Only Sawyer thought that rising through the ranks earning titles might be more gratifying, but all of them refused promotion for fear of being split up. They were determined that if they must be at war, they could treat it as a kind of gentlemen’s club. Their fellow enlistees seemed appropriately impressed when they told their tales at the dying campfires in the short tense evenings before bed. No one knew how many missions or campaigns they had destroyed. Everyone respected them more than their commanding officers, and they were careful to avoid offense to the group.

Eric eased around the side of his boulder and darted behind a thicket of tangled shrubs. He was within a few yards one hundred yards of them now, and their Ohio accents were becoming clearer. He caught phrases such as “barricading the bridge” and “crossing the river.” He felt a little contemptuous. Two shots and they’d both be extinguished, memorialized in black crepe and marble headstones on a couple of Midwestern farms.

A quick survey of the area revealed no more soldiers within shooting range. Sawyer was still ensconced on the oak branch. Joseph was having trouble staying situated, so hungry was he to be in the game. Glancing over his shoulder, he could just make out Teddie at his post, no larger than a hawk in the sky. Eric whistled the tremulous questioning notes of the bobwhite into the cooling air, his question to Theodore whether he should proceed with the first shot. Silence, a caution, met his ears. He surveyed Teddie’s location once more, doubtful that he had heard him. In five minutes he echoed his call again, louder. To his disbelief, silence resounded again.

They always worked as a group to make their kills. Silence meant another member thought he had a better shot. Eric looked up the bluff. Theodore lifted his hand to indicate that he had heard him. Eric raised both hands, palms up, questioning. Theodore shrugged. As leader of the band they trusted him implicitly, but Eric could not believe his eyes or his ears. They had tracked this pair for over eighteen hours in the changing weather, losing them multiple times in the craggy hilly land. Joseph wasn’t convinced they were worth the time, but Teddie kept saying he thought something incredible was going to happen on the Chickamauga. They seldom tracked common scouts for so long, but having lost them three times, the kill was as much about self-preservation as anything else because they weren’t sure the scouts hadn’t spotted them, leading to their effective disappearance so often.

Eric felt the familiar burn in his thigh muscles as he crouched behind the underbrush and let Theodore finalize whatever plans he was considering. Eric was closest. There was no reason why he shouldn’t take the first shot. Unless there was another person or group close at hand, there was no reason to be waiting, and Eric hadn’t detected the first clue that anyone else was near. Their skills were sharp enough to be able to coordinate their shots, two and even three at a time—a true marvel achieved through years of practice, animal calls, and when close enough, facial expressions. It was humbling to see two bodies crashing to the sod in unison, to witness the force with which they hit the ground. Theodore admitted he averted his gaze before they hit, the final impact too cruel to witness.

A surge of alarm passed through him as the Union scouts began strolling toward him. They were less than a handful of yards one hundred yards from him. He could hear the congestion in one’s chest as he barked a rumbling low laugh. He was young with a short, squat build and had a thick yellow shock of hair falling in his eyes. He held his pencil like an artist’s brush as he casually marked the map. Eric gripped his Whitfield. If they continued in the same direction, they would soon be upon him. His mouth went dry. He looked over his shoulder but could no longer see Theodore. He noticed even Joseph was starting to raise his own weapon in case it was needed. He estimated they were one hundred feet away. Where had Theodore gone? There must be trouble on the ridge, another group of Union soldiers, or an enemy sniper. Eric gulped. He gave out the emergency signal, the frantic yap of a fox, to let them know he could wait no longer, he must act. Joseph was ready to fire on the second soldier.

He swung the Whitfield up in a smooth practiced motion. He eased down on the trigger, feeling the ripple through the body of the gun, and the disarming kick in his shoulder. The blond man careened back as the bullet lodged in his chest, and the second shot from Joseph took down the older man as the sound of the first bullet met his ears. Then there was only silence and two bodies lying motionless side by side.

Eric wiped the sweat from his forehead and willed his body to stop shaking for a moment before he began to back away from the shrub to ease behind the boulder. Joseph had lowered his weapon and waved at him as he began his slow descent from the tree. Eric stretched out his abused muscles and bent to retrieve his pack from the ground. They would locate each other soon and begin the long trek back to camp, get a bath, and see if there was anything to eat.

He jumped as he heard gunfire and ducked to the ground, pulling his haversack over his head. Theodore had been cautioning them for excellent reason. Multiple shots rang out through the crisp air. There were other enemy soldiers. They’d always feared they would fail to make a clean assessment of men in the area, and it had happened: an ambush.

He heard the bullet whizz like a firecracker as it sliced through the air. He tried to drop to his belly against the stone bluff as the shot reverberated off the stone walls around him, but he fell onto his back instead, gasping as the wind was knocked out of him. His eyes wheeled in his face, seeking out his comrades. There was shouting, but for all he knew, it was coming from himself.

Joseph’s face, drained of its golden brown color, appeared above him.

“Eric!” he gasped.

Eric knew. He had never heard Joseph speak in such a tone, breathless and shaken.

“I think—I think Theodore—I think he got them all. They’re dead. Here, let me stop the bleeding.”

Joseph was yanking off his own coat, hands trembling. Eric thought Joseph might be pressing the coarse fabric against his neck.

“You hang on,” Joseph continued, trying to sound jovial in that unknown voice. “There was a pair on the ridge with Theodore. They must have been tracking us like we were tracking that pair of men. When Theodore and Sawyer make it back to us, we’ll carry you back to camp. Doc Humphries can pull out the bullet with forceps and sew the wound back together. “

Theodore’s hoarse shouts of alarm were preceding him as he scrambled down the bluff, mindless of who might be within shooting range.

Eric tried to close his hands around the earth under them. He was vaguely aware that he felt nothing. He could not move his hands. He could not twitch a toe. His lips wouldn’t curl to create a single syllable.

Joseph exhaled loudly. His breath was starting to show on the air.

“So much for winning this war,” he said. “Now you and I can’t go home. My sister will kill you for getting shot but not before she kills me for letting you get shot.”

His laughter was hitching and ragged.


He wanted Somerset to know—what?

The house wasn’t finished but it was hers.

Why couldn’t he feel anything?

Eric’s vision was becoming dim. There was a starling circling above them, fighting to stay aloft in the wind.

He relaxed into himself, transfixed by Somerset. She was playing the piano. The red glow from the kerosene lamps in the parlor cast a flush over her bare neck and shoulders. She was laughing, calling him a rake.

They were picking pears on a stifling autumn afternoon on Old Man McKennasaw’s farm. There was juice on her chin because she couldn’t stop sampling them.

They were on the front steps of Orchard Rest. She was going to make a wish on the first star of the evening. He reached out and cupped her oval cheek, letting his hand graze the warm skin of her throat. A chaperon cleared their throat in disapproval in the parlor.

Home! How he missed it. Century Grove was beautiful. There was frost everywhere. The old riding trail was slippery, but Juno was surefooted. His rifle slapped against his thigh in time to the horse’s gait. Mother would have supper on the table and then he’d be off again to see Somerset, stealing kisses when her sisters weren’t watching.

Eric came to. Joseph was talking hurriedly, but he couldn’t make out a word he was saying. Something was wrong. He tried to speak, to raise his hands to ward off what was coming. Out of nowhere, a rifle butt swung overhead and connected with the back of Joseph’s head. Eric wanted to catch him but his arms were heavy. Joseph went down in a heap at his feet.

Eric saw the still, expressionless face of the soldier close to his own and then nothing.


BOOK: Surrender at Orchard Rest
9.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Power of Love by Elizabeth Chandler
Secrets Behind Those Eyes by S.M. Donaldson
Shades of Gray by Brooke McKinley
Play Dead by Leslie O'kane
Dot by Hall, Araminta
I Love You More: A Novel by Jennifer Murphy
Cherish (Covet #1.5) by Tracey Garvis Graves