Aimee Lebrun leaned forward and checked out her open window again, half in anticipation half in dread. Her future appeared no better now than it had a moment earlier.
They were still there.
"Aren't we about to the harbor, Elijah?" She called up to the driver. "I've simply got to get out of this thing." She leaned back in and sighed.
Her head thumped harder. She pressed two fingers to her temple. No doubt it had to be the insufferable heat.
"Don't you worry none, Miss Lady Ma'am. She's just up ahead," old Elijah Johnston called down as the carriage neared the loading dock.
Aimee could hear him twist around uncomfortably in the squeaky seat above her. "It's about time. It's stifling down here."
"Yes, Miss Aimee. I's hot too and weary to the bone."
Did the leathery patches on the old man's face and arms still show the after-effects of yesterday's stale heat? She couldn't help but wonder. She, he, and Lulu, her maidservant had been out in the elements it seemed, forever.
Aimee had also noticed earlier the poor old man's britches were full of sticky wetness and smelled bad, too.
She leaned her head out the window once again. Where was that boat? There wasn't much time.
The breaking dawn had turned a dirty-brownish hue, almost hazy after the prior night's sodden rain...much too sultry for that time of morning in late August in Southern Mississippi.
"Talk to me, Elijah," she hollered up again. "Tell me when you see it. It must be there...somewhere."
"You knows I will, Miss Lady Ma'am. I'm searchin' hard as I can."
Aimee rocked back and forth as she felt the driver pull her horse, Smoke, to a jerking stop.
With the stamping of Smoke's hooves and his nervous whinnies, the thinning gray steed finally settled down but not before his hoof-beats caught the attention of the harbor crowd.
Staring out beyond the Vicksburg waterfront, Aimee could not see a familiar Confederate ship anywhere. Instead, only several armored gunboats scarred with shrapnel were nestled against the port in organized fashion, huffing and puffing, to be of service at a moment's call if ordered.
She had to believe what she'd been searching for was out in that harbor. "Elijah! I think I see her. See that one riverboat looking out of place and lost? I'm sure that's it--the St. Honorine. "
He squinted his eyes. "Yas'm, Miss Aimee, there her is," he replied, "I sees your boat, too. I's just been rubbin' my eyes so's I can see good."
"Then let's get going."
"But wait, Miss Lady Ma'am. Oh, My! Does you see what else I sees? I'm thinking you better sit tight!"
"What is it Elijah?" she asked.
"It's one of them boys in blue, and he's headed this way."
With a side-long glance, Aimee gave a shudder as she watched the soldier saunter over to seize the horse's bridle.
He cocked his head sideways and peered in.
"Hey there! Where'd you folks get this carriage and horse? Don't you know all means of transportation has been cut off to most of you southerners and belongs to the Union? None of you don't look like no Union soldiers to me."
Aimee didn't like the way the gruff-sounding blue-clad private talked when he turned to stare first at her then up at her driver.
"Are you directing your attention to me soldier?" she asked.
After his brief glance back in the window, she watched as the soldier turned back and ordered her driver down from the top, motioning for him to open the carriage door.
"You heard the man, Elijah," she returned. "Go ahead and come down."
Aimee continued watching out the window as old Elijah eased his worn-out body off the side and stepped down onto the soggy ground. He reached up for his old hand-carved cane then rested his hip against the side of the carriage.
"I's awful sorry, Miss Lady Ma'am," he rasped as he peeked in. "I don't wants to have to tell you to get out if you don't want to."
She nodded and gave him a half smile. "You did what you could."
Pulling back, he unlatched the passenger door. He gave a nod as he watched as she stepped out onto the street and gave him her hand with her maidservant following behind.
Once on the ground, she blinked then focused her gaze downward, refusing to make eye contact with the private.
Following Aimee's smug motion, in unison, the others pulled together with her and turned to face the harbor, standing as stiff as soldiers in a fresh pile of horse dung.
After getting a whiff of the foul spreading odor, the scrawny private pinched his nose and pulled back. He attempted to make way for Aimee to step up onto the boardwalk to get out of the foul-smelling waste.
Instead, she clenched her jaw and swiveled, turning her back on him. When she eventually turned around, she noted he was not only studying her from head to toe but Lulu as well.
Poor thing, now she too is a victim of this man's glare.
A huge ache filled Aimee's heart, but her expression hardened the more she watched him.
"Hey, girl! I thought you'd be something sweet to for my beady eyes to look at! Not only ain't you that, she ain't neither! Why that thing ain't nothing more than a haggard slave!"
He was far from being finished.
"Let me see here," the soldier mumbled, walking around both her and Lulu, while rubbing his whiskered chin. "You sure don't seem nothing like them Southern Belles I hears about back at the barracks."
No doubt about that, soldier. Like other young and ignorant Yankees she'd come in contact with lately, he was making her blood curl.
His barracks talk had to have been heightened by the women they encountered during their momentary triumphs at the plantations they frequented. Their conversations most likely drifted toward tales of boastful conquests at a most degrading level.
Even now she could not stand the illicit look this one gave her. Aimee knew she didn't look like much more than her servant right now. 'Twas true. It wasn't her fault.
Bare of foot and ankle, all she wore was a singed and stained yellowed muslin dress, tattered in several places, caked with mud.
She wanted desperately to plug her ears from the dim-witted man's talk. He just would not be silent.
"...though it's hard to say what might be behind the dirt and grime," he rambled on, picking a small clod of dirt off her arm. The private shrugged his shoulders and then eyed her more closely from head to toe.
"I can just about see 'neath that clingy rag you're wearin' on your back," he said, laughing. "One might wonder, 'cept for that bidding shape, if you's even worth the time or effort I'm spendin' here talkin' at you."
His eyes narrowed and hardened. "That is, 'less, of course you have something to offer me...for later in the evening...after you clean yourself up a bit."
Aimee found it difficult not to turn and glare at the soldier. Maybe if she answered, he would cease.
"The carriage and stallion belong to me. If you want them, Private, you might as well take them, but you'll not have me!
Her snap came out swift, cross, and sharp. When she finished talking, she turned her head to avoid having to face the man any longer than necessary.
Her back stiffened, as unwelcome bitterness crept up her neck. No matter what her Papa tried to teach her about kindness to others, there was no help for the hostility in her heart for all the male population dressed in the deepest of blue now. She refused to allow it to go away.
Taking another corner glance at the private as he reached up to scratch his whiskers, she noticed he was about to speak again. Her lips thinned as she waited.
"Beggin' your pardon, ma'am, maybe I coulda' been more careful with my tongue when I was speaking out like that," he spoke again.
Looking half-humbled, he slowly licked the leftover grime off his upper teeth. "Sides, you should probably be celebrating, ain't that right? I hear your fellow Johnnie Rebs are being paroled right and left. Now ain't that exciting news for you folks?"
Moseying in closer, the private reached up and pinched her cheek. He cleared what looked like stale chaw out of the corner of his lip and spewed it out.
Aimee swallowed, nearly choking as the spittle fell on the ground directly in front of her right foot.
"Hows about you and me, just the two of us..."
Just as she noticed he was about to finish his proposition, his face suddenly drained of color, his words hanging like icicles in thick air.
Her first impulse was to reach up and strike the begrimed soldier hard across his face. His intentions, after all, were less than honorable. She also knew she was being treated like poor-white-trash or worse...if there was such a thing.
Maybe the man figured he had good reason to insult her by her appearance, but she was not about to stand for his crude talk, not today...not any day.
Fighting the urge, Aimee clasped her hands together tightly and remained silent as she glanced up and caught sight of the approaching captain,
The closer the higher-ranking officer headed toward her, the more memories of her burned home came to mind.
With stiff dignity, she forced back her tears. She didn't want to have to think about it all...not again. On any other day, perhaps, when thoughts of the critical war were not on her mind, she might have been more apt to notice the color of the handsome officer's deep-set hazel-hued eyes. Once they caught and held hers, they never left.
It was something she normally enjoyed, looking at the eyes of men from a distance...and knowing they looked at her. But the way he seemed to be boring through her filled Aimee with a sudden icy contempt. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.
On this morning especially, the look in the captain's eyes only frightened her. Would she forever have these fears growing inside her that were difficult to explain even to herself?
Strikingly handsome or not, the officer was an enemy from the North--a Yankee--a soldier. It was the Union Army who had destroyed her home, most of her family. Thanks to him and the soldiers he commanded, she no longer had anything to live for. Too many experiences from her past remained etched in her mind, as if they had happened only yesterday. And yet her father had always said she should be nice to them.
Well, Papa was now dead.
Seeing nothing but a great mass of blue surrounding her, she shut her eyes and sent up a silent plea to whoever might listen. Perhaps if she prayed, the men in arms standing around would disperse...somehow. She and her companions could then board the tired riverboat before it pushed off the docks. Aimee might finally get out of Mississippi.
She simply had to get to her sister's in New Orleans. What other choice did she have? There was always Tante Fran's. But she would have to go to her sister's to find out how to even get there. Her anxious mind fluttered at what was to come. Even going to Florette's frightened her now, particularly knowing about her sister's questionable reputation.
Besides, Florette doesn't even know me anymore. If Papa were alive he would tell me what to do. He always made things so much easier for me
When her eyes blinked open, she was disappointed to see the long-legged, flat-stomached officer still standing there. To her surprise, however, with great zest, he suddenly commanded the private back to his post with the promise of a reprimand if he left it again.
Her mouth dropped open as she watched the young private respond with a muttered, "Yes, sir, Captain Jordan, sir."
In the next moment, he slumped off into the crowd, his shoulders bent like that of a spoiled child. His commanding officer further rebuked him for being disrespectful to a woman.
She glanced back at the captain, amazed.
"How can I be of assistance to you, ma'am?" he then asked in a deep but gentle voice.
"You can't...and you won't, not if I have anything to say about it," she said.
She pointed across the harbor towards the battle-scarred sidewinder. "We intend to board that riverboat over there if we can get past your vulgar-minded and foul-mouthed men!"
Nodding in its direction, she continued. "That's all that matters to me. I don't need assistance from the likes of any of you Billy Yanks."
He peered beyond her and back. "You've signed your oath to the Union, I presume," the ramrod-straight soldier stated, lifting a brow. "It's necessary, you know; otherwise I cannot allow you to leave the area."
"I signed your absurd oath! If it truly meant something, maybe I could believe in it...sir!"
He nodded slowly. A momentary look of discomfort crossed his face as he asked the next question. "Excuse me...ma'am. I am assuming you know St. Honorine is primarily used for Federal shipping, mind you, and elsewise as a hospital ship. Only a small number of civilians from here in Vicksburg will be taken. And even if you have a destination in mind, it would cost you some heavy coin."
Aimee stood stiffly as he searched her over from head to toe. "Are you able to pay for the ticket?"
"I beg your pardon?"
As the captain surveyed her, his mouth curved in a lopsided grin. "There's also the chance you could run into some danger on the trip...what with the war and all...ma'am."
Aimee frowned. "In what worse danger can I be now? Take a peek around you, Yankee. You've already destroyed my town and all whom I dearly love, one by one. Is there anything worse I can experience?"
She went on. "I doubt you are truly worried about me in the least. Isn't that right...Yankee?"
Thumbing behind her, she drew attention to her last link to home. "As I told your underling before, the stallion and my papa's carriage should cover ample fare for the ride. It may appear rough now, but it can be cleaned up with a little lye and water."
He leaned around her for a closer observation. "You're absolutely right, ma'am."
Aimee chewed on her lower lip. "I promise you, officer, the horse is of good breeding. He won't let you down...if you can bring yourself to learn to treat him kindly."
After pulling Lulu and Elijah in closer by her side, she finished. "These are my friends, and they shall accompany me. Did you want to try to challenge me on that too...sir?"
Captain Jordan drew his brows together as he watched and listened to the blue-eyed young woman speak. It took greater effort to contain the slight smile stealing across his face over the girl's rough appearance.
There was no doubt in his mind she would become the brunt of many a joke on the boat by the primary occupants--lonely young men
He'd hoped to save her from embarrassment or from having to beg, but his attempt to make excuses for her would fall only on deaf ears. He caught himself scrutinizing her further.
As he continued observing the girl, he noticed she stood only a few hands high. Though she appeared more than amply proportioned in the correct places with her waif-like stature, she didn't look as if she weighed much more than a large bale of hay.
She could not have been more than around ten and eight, if that. No less than a couple of years older than Annabelle, his kid sister.
In spite of her humble appearance, she seemed not the least bit bashful. She'd certainly made that known to the world during what he'd heard of her discussion with his private a few minutes earlier.
He cleared his throat. "Listen, ma'am, I don't care who you bring with you. It wasn't my idea to have a war."
"Nor mine, Captain, but I've no choice in the matter, do I?"
"Excuse me." She was visibly trembling.
"You see..."A warning voice whispered in his head. Leave the poor girl alone. "Never mind. I will be on my way then, if you don't mind."
With a slight gesture, Palmer lifted his chin and clicked his boots together, touching the edge of his wide brimmed hat in a salute with his fingers. "We'll pick up the horse and carriage later, and I'll inform the captain of St. Honorine you will be boarding."
Without waiting for her acknowledgment, he made an about face and walked off to where a couple of other Union officers up ahead stood and waited for him.
Stopping, he turned and stared over the pedestrians in the harbor to get another glimpse at the barefooted girl still standing in the dung with her two traveling companions. His heart stirred within him.
"God speed to you, young redheaded miss," he murmured. "Who knows, perhaps someday, God willing, we can meet under more favorable circumstances."
If he could have had his way, he would have been anywhere but where he was that day, like back in Virginia at Pencil Ridge working cattle with his Pop or helping out with the hay harvest.
Home would always be Virginia where he and Annabelle spent all their summers until their dad died, and they were constrained to move with the relatives up to Ohio. Life had never been the same since then.
Palmer knew the facts. If he and his cousin, PJ, had not been in Ohio the year the war began, neither would have found themselves fighting for the Union. Both their lives had radically altered and had played a large hand in how Palmer had ended up in Vicksburg that August morning.
He heaved a sigh and stared back at the girl again. There was no way this victim of the war would know about all that, much less care. It would do no good to return and tell her now.
One of the other officers shifted his weight on the other foot. "You coming or not, captain?"
He swung back. "I'm here. Hold up."
The three officers soon fell into step, making their way towards the St. Honorine. Palmer made his way up the gangplank. When he glanced back one more time, the girl he'd searched for earlier had disappeared completely from his view.