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THE SOUTHERN DEVIL
By DIANE WHITESIDE
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Tennessee, December 1863
Twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant Morgan Evans stepped inside the tiny, ice-cold room in the small farmhouse and waited, his weary eyes running affectionately over General Nathan Bedford Forrest. He'd just returned from a week in the river bottoms and knew he looked it; not that clothing mattered much when his weapons were ready to fight. By the other window, the few tattered, starving staff members worked hard at a dinner table. His old friend Rafe was sitting at a lady's dressing table before a glass mirror, scratching diligently in a ledger.
The scene was a very far cry from the comforts of a few months ago, when they'd been part of a major Confederate army. But the self-taught Forrest had whipped too many enemies too easily, then told the truth once too often about his superiors' lack of fighting ability. He'd finally gained an independent command only by going to a place long overrun by the Federals, with only three hundred of his handpicked men and no supplies whatsoever, told to enlist whatever men he could find.
Morgan tried to think up a joke to tell on Rafe about sitting at a lady's dressing table. After two years with these men, there was very little they hadn't shared and jokes they hadn't played on each other.
He'd followed Forrest for almost two years, ever since the icy night in February 1862 when only Forrest had the courage to find a way out of Fort Donelson before it surrendered to U. S. Grant. Forrest had been given permission to take command of every man willing to ride with him that night, no matter who their original units and commanders were.
Morgan and his father, John, had simply glanced at each other, then gathered their horses when they heard the offer to follow Forrest. They hadn't needed to talk to know that escape was more honorable-and more militarily useful-than surrender. Three years in the Arizona Territory, after Morgan's mother and brothers had died of yellow jack, had stripped them of sentimentality about warfare, even as it had honed their skills as cavalrymen. Later the same night, they'd happily realized they followed a genius when Forrest forded a river running chest deep in ice, without disaster. Two months later, John Evans died at the Hornet's Nest during the Battle of Shiloh, leaving Morgan an orphan. He'd had little time to mourn, since Forrest had a way of keeping his picked men more than busy.
Morgan's stomach rumbled and tried to glue itself to his backbone, an occurrence of such frequency over the past year that he ignored it. He'd eaten far better when he'd ridden with Cochise as a teenager.
Forrest dismissed the fellow he'd been talking to and Morgan quickly snapped a salute. "Evans, sir, reporting as ordered."
"Evening, Evans. How many were you able to bring in?" At the moment, Forrest looked and acted like a mild-mannered country farmer. But in battle, he became an incendiary fiend, the image of how he fought.
"Forty-eight, sir. Three of them had rifles, one with some ammunition." He'd spent a week gathering those recruits at various hidden rendezvous, all in dense thickets along river bottoms during the cold, wet December. Still, it was easier work than hunting with the Apaches.
"Very good." Forrest considered him, and Morgan straightened further, frowning slightly. He could do nothing about his muddy, threadbare, much-darned clothing. But he could keep his carriage erect, as befitted an Evans of Longacres, as his father had taught him.
"I understand you have some connections in Memphis, Evans," Forrest observed.
Inside, Morgan came on alert. Forrest had made a fortune in Memphis and his family lived there. Why was he asking Morgan, whose ties were much thinner? "Heyward Tyler, my father's Harvard roommate, lives there with his family. Our families visited regularly throughout my childhood. Also, my father and I visited him for a few days in '61 during our return from Arizona, before we enlisted."
"Would he welcome you again?"
"I'm sure he would, sir." Morgan's eyes narrowed as he watched the general. "He served on General Albert Sidney Johnston's staff but was invalided out just before Shiloh."
"Ah!" Forrest pounced on the tidbit. "So if you arrived on his doorstep, he would shelter you."
What the hell? If Uncle Heyward sheltered a spy and the Federals caught him, he'd be sent to prison, which would be very dangerous to his health. But Uncle Heyward was a patriot so he should still be willing to serve the Confederacy, no matter what the risks.
"Why, sir?" He'd have to take Uncle Heyward into his confidence and negotiating Jessamyn's high standards of honor could be tricky. He had no notion of how she'd regard spying, even though she must support the Confederacy as her father's daughter.
"You're no doubt aware that the Federals are hunting us."
Morgan snorted and answered just as laconically. "Occasionally, sir." Their eyes met-half-smiling, half-weary, a look born of too many years spent riding into battle together.
Then Forrest bent over a map and beckoned Morgan to join him. "They've sent many hounds after us." His finger stabbed at far too many roads. "But the most important is Grierson."
Grierson, the bastard who diverted us from relieving Vicksburg? He'd be the devil to fool and he's a veritable bulldog in a fight. With only three hundred trained men and no real weaponry to protect two thousand raw recruits, Forrest's new command could be trampled by Grierson in an afternoon.
Faces flashed before Morgan's eyes, of the men and boys he'd just brought in, who'd come to protect their homes from the Federals, who trusted what he'd told them of Forrest. Faces of the men he'd fought beside for almost two years, the few remaining of those who'd slipped past Federals and swum icy rivers to escape Fort Donelson. His hands clenched and unclenched.
Forrest nodded, watching Morgan. "Lucky for us, they're keeping him close to Memphis. I need someone who isn't known as mine, but can find out where and when Grierson will move. As soon as you learn, bring me word."
Morgan snapped to attention. He'd do his damnedest to keep his friends alive. "Yes, sir!"
"Good." Forrest continued more slowly. "There's a paid informant in Memphis, whom Richmond is mighty fond of. But most of his material tastes more like sugar water to me than military information. If you think his findings are useful, then they may be worth listening to."
The younger man nodded, smiling grimly. A double agent? Or someone selling worthless information for as much gold as he could find? In either case, better men had died because of such Judases. His lip curled.
"If you think he's trying to set traps for better men, then kill the rat."
Morgan smiled unpleasantly, remembering the lessons he'd learned from the Apaches. Some of those tricks would be a fitting punishment for such a traitor. "It would be a pleasure, sir."
He saluted and was excused, plans churning in his head. Most of them centered on talking to Heyward and Jessamyn as quickly as possible, especially his old friend. Jessamyn would know exactly how to discover the information he needed. She'd always been the thinker in the trio of friends he'd grown up with: Jessamyn Tyler, his cousin Cyrus Evans, and himself. He'd had the inspirations and Cyrus had been the rock, who'd planned and carried things through.
But he had to be careful of Jessamyn's sense of honor and trust, which her damn mother had ripped apart ten years ago. The old growl boiled up in his chest, as it always did when he remembered those two days.
He'd been eleven years old and Cyrus was sixteen, but Jessamyn was only seven when they sailed north from New Orleans on that fancy riverboat in 1853. Everyone aboard was listening to Matthias Forsythe, a California millionaire, talk about how he'd made his fortune. Heyward and Sophia Tyler, John and Rosalie Evans, and all the other first-class passengers had been transfixed by the bastard's stories. But as befitted children, Morgan, Cyrus, and Jessamyn sat in chairs against the walls and simply watched the grown-ups.
"You see, gentlemen, it was easy. I picked up that miner's claim as payment for an unpaid bill at my general store. They struck gold there a week later and matters have gone very well since!" He had laughed and held up his hands, covered with flashing rings. "I have an instinct for succeeding in get-rich-quick schemes!"
"What's Aunt Sophia looking at?" Morgan had whispered, referring to Jessamyn's mother. Both families considered each other kissing kin: not blood relatives, but dear enough to be kissed on both cheeks and treated in all ways like blood kin. "He's not talking about any fun stuff, like fighting Indians."
"She's looking at his jewelry," Jessamyn had said, terror and cynicism creeping into her voice, a note Morgan had never heard from her before. "It's the same look Uncle James gets when he sees a pigeon at the racetrack, ripe for the plucking."
He'd swung around to stare at her and met Cyrus's eyes. His elder cousin had looked equally appalled.
The next day there'd been a great uproar when Heyward Tyler found his wife's bed empty just before dawn, upon his return after an all-night poker game. A search of the entire riverboat established that she and Forsythe had disembarked, just in time to catch a riverboat bound for New Orleans.
Jessamyn's face had turned gray when she'd heard and yet seemed alarmingly unsurprised. Morgan and Cyrus had drawn together on each side of her in a silent vow of protection.
After that, she'd quietly accepted only those with the highest standards of personal honor and duty into her circle of friends.
* * *
He hadn't seen Heyward or Jessamyn since '61. He'd barely spoken to her the two days he'd visited here in '61, since most of that time had been spent talking politics with her father. She'd been a fifteen-year-old girl then, still looking more like the tomboy he'd grown up with than a Southern belle.
If he'd been looking for her now, he'd have sought the scrawny eleven-year-old tomboy he'd ridden with, fished with, and laughed with. She also had one of the cleverest minds he'd ever had the pleasure of dueling with. The three of them-himself, Jessamyn, and ever-reliable Cyrus, his orphaned cousin-had been inseparable whenever they'd been in the same town. None of them had ever been able to lie to each other.
They'd parted only when Morgan's father obtained an appointment for Cyrus to West Point, as the simplest way to provide for him. Cyrus's rigid sense of honor had been honed there to an almost ridiculous edge. Why, he'd refused to resign his commission when Mississippi seceded. Instead he'd stayed in the Federal army and was now fighting for the Union in the East.
But Jessamyn was Southern born and bred. She'd understand and help him.
Morgan rode quietly into Memphis just before sundown, his worn clothing and tired mare confirming him as the country bumpkin his forged pass proclaimed. He dodged clumps of suspicious, well-armed Federals, saying he was looking for a midwife for his pregnant wife-and tried not to think about how recently they'd eaten and he hadn't.
He eventually eased his way into the expensive old residential district above the river, where bankers and cotton brokers had once strutted and preened as they watched fortunes pass up and down the Mississippi. Here, the Tyler mansion glimmered in the brief December twilight, its white columns shining like a beacon above the street. A green wreath hung on the front door. Smoke rose from a back chimney, carrying the delicious scents of pork and other culinary delights.
Morgan's heart shifted and his breath caught. It looked exactly as Longacres had at Christmas, while his mother was still alive before dying of yellow jack.
A riverboat's whistle sounded, snapping his head up and around toward the Mississippi River, less than a mile away. There a troopship headed north, full of convalescent Federal soldiers.
Morgan cast a last, wary glance around from under his wide-brimmed hat. A soft cluck to his patient mare set her into motion again and they headed for the kitchen door, not the front door which he'd always used before. He tied the mare's reins to a hitching post, promising her treats soon. If he knew anything about the Tyler household-and Jessamyn in particular-there'd be delicacies for visiting horses. After all, they were famous for "the gold of Somerset Hall," their famous horses that Heyward had somehow managed to keep together despite every calamity and thieving hand that war could bring.
After a wry glance at himself in the window-he certainly didn't look like an Evans of Longacres anymore-he knocked politely on the door, straw hat in hand.
The tiny cook opened the door, immaculately clean from her crisp white apron to the brilliant scarlet turban atop her head.
He sniffed deeply, unable to help himself. Heaven on earth rolled through his nose in the glorious aromas of baking bread and roast chicken.
She started to give him a commonplace greeting but her golden eyes narrowed, looking even more feline in her petite face. He recognized her immediately from his visit in '61: Cassiopeia, the houseman's wife.
Horror crossed her face but she quickly wiped it clean. What the hell was wrong?
Then she pursed her lips, looking him over like a particularly scrawny turkey. That was more what he'd expected-a grudging acceptance, as befitted a country bumpkin begging a meal in the city.
She held the door open and stepped back, her voice as neutral as if she were announcing the time of day. "Best come in, Mr. Evans."
Morgan scraped the mud off his boots and stepped inside. A slender young woman was silhouetted against the hallway leading into the main rooms.
His heart thumped and his body came alert at the sight of those curves. He blinked, quickly adjusting to the dimmer light indoors.
"Morgan?" It was Jessamyn's lilting voice but grown almost husky for a woman. She came all the way into the warm kitchen, holding out her hands to him. "What on earth are you doing here? Is anything wrong?"
For a moment he stopped breathing but her looks were as burned into his brain as her form was stamped on his eyes.
Good God, what a beauty she'd become at seventeen. She looked like the goddess Diana, slender and curved, lithe enough to leap into the saddle and ride all day. Her face was a pure oval, with great green eyes, a straight little nose, and curving red lips, surrounded by raven black hair that he longed to thread his fingers through. Or better still, cup her face in his hands and kiss her until her heart was pounding as hard as his was now.
For the first time, his father's endless lectures on the duty to sire sons, as the Evans of Longacres, sounded like an enjoyable task.
He'd never had many opportunities to be around women. He'd left for Arizona before he'd investigated the opportunities in the slave quarters. There, his father had made him swear not to sire a half-breed as the price for riding with Cochise, which his fifteen-year-old self had thought an easy price to pay. Oh, he had some experience with the gentler sex-he'd tumbled two since the War started, both of whom had made it more than clear they were available. But Jessamyn was different. Their fathers had been classmates at Harvard and their marriage was first planned above Jessamyn's cradle. All he had to do now was name the day and she'd be his.
"Jessamyn," he began and looked at her more closely. She was thin, too thin even for her. Her mouth was drawn tightly and her eyes were red. She seemed to be on a knife edge of control and physical strain.
He started again. "Jessamyn, honey. It's good to see you but ..." He tried to think of a polite question.
Her green eyes were enormous, as they roamed over him. "Are you well? Are you wounded? Have you eaten? Did you ride here? How is your horse?"
Morgan chuckled, a little hoarsely, but mightily glad to see some return to normalcy. Trust Jessamyn to be concerned about his mount. "I'm well and my horse is well enough. There's nothing wrong with Honey that a few days' rest won't cure." He didn't add he'd stolen her on his way into town from a man who'd been mistreating her.
Jessamyn pulled herself together with a visible effort. "I'll dish you up a big bowl of soup and some fresh bread, plus some milk, since you must be very hungry."
Morgan's stomach rumbled an enthusiastic assent and he seated himself on a bench at the battered table, while she prepared the simple meal with the ease of someone who'd spent a great deal of time in this room. The house was oddly quiet, too, as if it lacked the dozen or more house servants it had always known before.
As promised, his bowl was filled to nearly overflowing, while an entire loaf of bread was placed on the table beside a crock of butter and a pitcher of milk. He swallowed hard and rubbed his hands on his legs, trying not to grab anything on the table. He said a simple prayer, and a moment later, his mouth was too fully occupied to form words.
"You're probably wondering why I'm here," he offered when his first rush had slowed.
Excerpted from THE SOUTHERN DEVIL by DIANE WHITESIDE Copyright © 2009 by Diane Whiteside. Excerpted by permission.
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