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The hooves of a thousand horses charging across the open field made the ground tremble beneath Marabelle's feet. She steeled herself not to flinch or cry out as the women around her did. When just a few yards shy of the line of spectators, the gray and butternut-clad cavalrymen reined in their steeds in a cloud of dust and swept their plumed hats low in one gallant salute to their admirers–the ladies, young and old, attractive and plain, of Culpeper County, Virginia.
Mara pulled off her own wide straw hat with the yellow ribbon hanging down the back and waved it furiously at the horsemen. She leaned over to the petite blonde woman at her side. "If that doesn't perk up your spirits, Jenny, I don't know what will."
Her sister-in-law brushed at the red dust settling on the fine gray fabric of her bodice, and with a wry look, glanced up at Mara. "Give those boys one day on the march and you won't be able to recognize them. And if it rains, they'll look like little urchins making mud pies."
Mara smiled at the image. "Come on. Let's find Mama and Amy. They'll be as close to General Lee and J.E.B. Stuart as they can get."
"Can you blame them?" Jenny asked, trying to keep the skirts of her four-hooped dress from getting soiled as she and Mara made their way through the crowd of carriages and wagons. "General Lee is the handsomest man of Mama Talbot's generation and General Stuart…well, of ours."
Before Mara could reply, a gust of wind threatened women's bonnets, parasols, and elaborately coifed hair, and stirred up a cloud of dust, which swirled through the air. It was a fine day for a review–a typical, warm day inearly June with the sky as blue as a Yankee recruit's trousers. On such a day Mara could easily forget that the country had been at war for more than two years, that is, if General J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry corps were not flaunting their soldierly skills to the entire county.
Seeing Jenny struggling to manage the climb up the hillside, Mara suggested that they rest on a large rock half way up. They sat back, breathing in the fresh, sweet air the elevated spot provided while watching the swirl of movement among the cavalry troops below.
Jenny glanced at Mara. "I'm surprised you've so much energy after the busy week you've had. Gathering supplies for the Army was hard enough without last night's ball."
Mara laughed. "If I let myself stop and think about all that work, I'll just curl up under a tree somewhere and fall asleep. I scarcely slept more than a couple hours last night, between the ball and catching an early train out here from Culpeper. And by the way, the dress looked beautiful. I couldn't have gotten through the week without your help."
Jenny waved away her contribution. "Remaking your old ball gown was a pleasure. Why, I haven't sewed on anything so pretty since the war started."
They lapsed into silence, watching the cavalry review below them. Mara was pleased to see Jenny enjoying herself. Her sister-in-law had given birth to her first child just six weeks before. And it had been a difficult winter and spring for her–her hometown, Fredericksburg, virtually destroyed; her husband, Mara's brother James, captured during the battle and now up North in a Yankee prison camp.
When Mara saw Jenny's hands going to the little reticule on her arm she asked, "Are you ever planning to share that letter with the rest of us?"
Jenny unfolded a single sheet of paper and smoothed it out in her lap, her hands lightly, almost reverently, touching the words scrawled in pencil across the page. It had been delivered almost a week before, in a dirty and torn envelope with a postmark from somewhere in Pennsylvania.
"I've already told you most of it. Some of it is private. Little things really. Things only I would understand."
"But he is all right? He wasn't wounded or sick?"
"No, his health is good, sound as an ox, he says." A brief smile tugged at Jenny's lips. She turned over the page and folded it, showing only the end of the letter. Handing the paper to Mara she quietly admitted, "You'll have to read it yourself. I haven't been able to get through it without crying."
With a quick glance at her sister-in-law, Mara began to read. "Sweet Jenny, I don't wish to frighten you, but I must tell you that you are now my reason for living. I would rather have died on the field of battle than suffer the shame, the horrible loss of honor attendant on being captured by my country's enemies. We are not harshly treated, no more so than Yankee prisoners by Confederate soldiers. No, it is the hourly humiliations that make up a prisoner's lot which prove so painful. It is the loss of freedom. Were it not for you and the child you carry, I might find it difficult to muster the fortitude to carry on. But for your sake, and for the pleasure of some day seeing my son or daughter, I will endure. I thank God I was not wounded at Fredericksburg. Many poor men captured with me have not survived imprisonment. Dear Jenny, I would not wish such a fate on my worst enemy." Mara closed her eyes, willing away the tears, before opening them to read the last line. "I am, as I ever have been and ever shall be, your loving husband James."
"At least he's well, and safe, in a way." Mara tried to make her voice sound hopeful. "And they're still exchanging prisoners every now and again. He may this very moment be on his way home."
"And just what do you think Lieutenant Colonel James Madison Talbot would do if he were to come home today? After he kissed me and took a moment to hold little Thomas Jonathan? Return to his regiment." Jenny folded up the letter and put it back in her reticule. "My James won't be safe. We'll none of us be safe, until this cruel war is over."
The pounding of approaching hooves drew Mara's attention back to the review, which had just ended. A young officer on a black stallion rode up the hill, slid to a stop and leapt gracefully from the saddle. In contrast to the multi-colored clothing of his troopers, he wore a finely-tailored uniform of exquisite gray wool, with a long line of yellow braid extending down the outside of the trouser leg and a matching yellow sash at his waist. Mara smiled at the handsome image her lean, blue-eyed fiancé made in uniform.
Pulling off one leather glove, he reached out to take Mara's hand and draw her to his side. She leaned into him as he slipped his arm around her waist, just like he had hundreds of times over the years, since their families had decided that they should wed.
Copyright © 2002 by Pamela Cummings