When Maude received the letter from Samuel stating that her son was speaking again, she rushed home to pick him up. Their reunion wasnt spectacular; it was just, Maude arriving home and Ezra greeting her. Like the other times shed come home for a visit, everyone expected her to turn around and leave, just like the times before. This time however, she was taking Ezra with her.
Cora, like the mother she was, worried about the young boys future. The last time Maude had left with Ezra, shed returned him in a terrible state, a state that Cora never wanted to see again. At Ezras request, she never spoke to anyone about his fathers death. He didnt want anyone to know, for reasons only he understood. And Cora wouldnt break that promise.
Benny was another matter. He didnt want his best friend to leave. For over three years theyd gotten reacquainted, and rediscovered that bond that theyd had as small children. They told each other secrets, shared their dreams, and understood each others pains. Nobody except Ezra knew that Benny had a crush on Tilly, the daughter of one of the field slaves. And nobody except Benny knew that Ezra wanted to become a music composer. These were secrets that would remain unspoken because theyd made that promise to each other as friends, and brothers.
Ezra looked at the bag that held all of his belongings. Nothing out of the ordinary, except for the book his uncle had given him. The Canterbury Tales, a sweet reminder of his antics from a few months before. Maude wouldnt understand, he knew she wouldnt, but that was okay, because she didnt need to understand.
When Cora entered the room, Ezra looked up and smiled. Is packed you an your mother a nice lunch an some peach cobbler, for when yous need it. She smiled, and ran her fingers through his hair.
Thank you, he responded, and then stood up and grabbed his bag.
Cora followed him out the door and down the stairs. Samuel was there and took the boys bag, along with Maudes. Benny hid behind the bookshelf the rested on the far side of the room. Hed already said his goodbyes, but he wanted to watch and make sure Ezra left okay. A silent support system for not just himself, but those he cared for.
Ill write you as soon as were settled. Maude put her gloves on and eyed her son. Without being told he knew he was supposed to get inside the carriage, and he did, obediently. I appreciate what youve done, Samuel, but its time Ezra was with me. My fiancé has agreed to help him with his studies, you understand that hes my main concern, dont you? She looked at her former brother-in-law, making sure he understood what she was saying.
Of course, Samuel nodded, and then took her arm and led her to the carriage.
The Liddell name isnt as respectable as it used to be, Maude looked over her shoulder, indicating to where Cora stood.
I never would have thought you to be a
Hold your tongue, Samuel, Maude snapped, appearances are everythin particularly in the South.
Samuel nodded, but felt disgusted inside. Ezra, his voice was firm and his despair was well hidden, take care of your mother, and if you ever need anything he let the question hang.
Ezra smiled and then nodded. He knew where he could go if he ever needed a place.
Samuel helped Maude into the carriage, and then he tipped his hat to her as the driver raised his hands and the reins he held slapped the rumps of the horses. Samuel turned and headed back to the house. He ignored the look on Bennys face, as well as Coras. He couldnt cope with their grief at the moment, he had his own to deal with.
When are you getting married? Ezra asked, trying to get comfortable on the stage seats.
I already did, she replied quickly.
But you said
I felt it was better for your uncle to believe that I wasnt married
Who is he? Ezra interrupted, looking out the stage window at the lush lands of the South.
Hes a banker in St. Louis, Maude replied. He wants to meet you. She smiled.
Ezra nodded in understanding: Why didnt you write and tell me?
Everything I do is for your own good, and you should not question it. Maude sent her son a look of warning. Ive told him how smart you are, and hes looking forward to teaching you about the books.
Whats his name?
Christian Simmons, she replied.
And my name?
Maude smiled, pleased that her son had the insight to ask. Standish.
Ezra nodded in acceptance. He didnt understand why his mother was so frequently on the move, or why she felt the need to do the things she did. When his father was alive they moved a lot, usually from town to town, but this wasnt like those times. Preston wasnt there anymore, and Ezra missed his fathers confidence.
Christian Simmons exited his home in robust fashion. His red rosy cheeks, and full figure created more of caricature of the man, rather than the person himself. He was short in stature, and the buttons on his vest strained to keep hold of the position.
Maude, darlin youre home, he said, with more vigor than Ezra anticipated.
Why of course, Christian, she cooed, taking his hand as he helped her from the stage.
Ezra followed, rather surprised by his mothers approval of such an individual.
And this must be your son, Christian said with a warm smile. He patted his belly and looked the young man over. Kinda small arent you?
Ezra pressed his lips together and stood up straighter. He was not small. When his new father grabbed the top of Ezras head and messed his hair, the boy moved away. Christian didnt seem to notice. Instead he took his brides hand and escorted her inside the home.
Christian Simmons was well known in St. Louis as a respectable businessman. Hed started the banking business as a young man, and had never taken time out of his busy schedule to get married. At sixty years of age hed finally found the time to enjoy the life he had, and he wanted Maude to be a part of it.
His home was decorated with the finest furniture, tapestries, and artwork. His house was the largest on Washington Street, and it wasnt uncommon for carriages, coaches, and wagons to stop and seek business there. Christian agreed to see all who came to his door, despite the hour. He was a kind man with a very large heart. Until Maude, most of his money was spent on his brothers children.
Ezra stepping into the dining room dressed in clean clothes. His mother made sure that he was going to look the part. The table had been set with dishes that shined bright beneath the glow of the candles and fire. The smell of the turkey permeated the room, causing the young boys stomach to growl. His mother hadnt told him of the extravagances, but this wasnt like home.
Looks good dont it? Christian said, slapping the boy on the back.
Yes, sir, Ezra replied, watching as the kitchen door opened and several servants brought more dishes filled with rolls and potatoes and set them on the table.
Your mother tells me that you enjoy readin. Anything particular youre fond of? Christian took his place at the end of the table and motioned for his stepson to do the same.
The Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer, and he paused unsure of he should continue.
And Christian encouraged, getting impatient with his bride who had yet to come to dinner.
Ezra looked around, as though his answer would get him into trouble. The Last of the Mohicans, he answered, biting his bottom lip.
Christian laughed: A boy who likes adventure. His nose seemed to glow and his cheeks turned bright red, almost as though he was running out of air.
Ezra laughed along with him, feeling suddenly comfortable with this individual.
Maude, my dear, you look lovely, the older man stood up and walked to where his bride stood.
The woman beamed under the attention. Dinner smells wonderful, she replied, taking her husbands arm allowing him to guide her to the table. She eyed Ezra who was now standing, beside his chair waiting for his mother to take her seat.
I think Ill take Ezra with me to the bank tomorrow, Christian said, taking his knife and slicing into the turkey. That way I can start him on his studies before school this fall.
Sounds splendid, Maude responded, looking lovingly at her son.
Theres plenty to do in St. Louis, and much to learn. Christian slapped a hefty piece of meat on his wifes plate.
Ezra looked at his new stepfather, the man looked like a drawing hed seen of Santa Clause many years ago. The only things missing from Christians physique was a long gray beard and a red suit.
The streets of St. Louis bustled with activity, people of all ages moved in and out of gift shops and the sound of horses feet clipping along the cobblestone roads filled the air. Ezra had been to large cities before, but this was different. He wasnt sleeping in hotels, or sitting at the poker tables, learning his father and mothers skill. He didnt know what his mothers plans were, but she seemed to be happy with this man, or at least she acted like it.
The New Cattlemans Bank rested on the corner of Main Street and First. The foyer was filled with red brick and glass that had been decorated with the name of the bank. Ezra followed Christian into the building and watched as employees greeted their boss. The two entered the office in the back, not far from the large vault.
You know much about figures? Christian asked, sitting down behind his large oak desk.
Yes, Ezra replied. One of the first things hed learned was how to count money to make sure he wasnt getting cheated.
Christian laughed and handed Ezra a large leather bound book. This is a copy of the records I keep for the bank why dont you check and make sure theyre right. He looked at the boy, knowing hed have a difficult time, but the way Maude had told it, shed have him believe her son was a genius. Christian handed Ezra a pencil and the boy moved over to the window and crawled up into the large chair.
Between working the figures in the book on his lap and looking out the window towards the people in the street, Ezra was having a difficult time concentrating. Hed been doing figures since he was four. It was a necessity in life, a skill that he needed to learn early. It wasnt a difficult skill to learn, hed been reading since he was two, and it was just a matter of learning about numbers, and it was easier when he had the visuals of money to work with.
How are you coming? Christian asked, closing his book, and then looking at the clock on his desk. It was lunchtime.
Ezra slipped out of the chair and handed the leather bound text to his stepfather. Im finished, he responded, wishing he were home with Benny.
Youre done? Christian questioned, not believing the boy.
Ezra nodded his head: Yes, sir.
Most children wouldnt be able to do such complicated equations.
Im not most children, Ezra responded confidently.
Christian laughed: No, youre not.
Maudes reason for marrying Christian Simmons was for financial gain. She wanted to live in a financially secure setting. She wanted a lifestyle that would allow her to spend money freely, and not have to work honestly for it. Life had dealt her a bad hand, so she was working to correct it. When Christian came into her life, she knew what he had to offer. Plus the fact he was older, meant, that possibly, she wouldnt have to live with him for an extended period of time.
Maude had planned on sending Ezra to the best school in St. Louis. It was a place that would teach him foreign languages, about the arts, and about class. Christian had agreed to send the child, no questions asked.
However, life had a tendency to not move smoothly.
Ezra looked at the long sword type weapon he held in his hand. He hadnt changed into the white uniform Christian had given him, simply because he didnt know how. The room he was in had been cleared of all the furniture, the older man was going to show his stepson how to fight with blades.
You really should change, Ezra, Maude said, sitting next to the window reading her book. Shed promised her husband that she would watch.
I think Id rather get stuck, he replied, barely above a whisper.
Are you ready? Christian asked, entering the room wearing the white uniform.
Ezra had to turn suddenly, so he wouldnt laugh. The man looked like an egg with a spear. His short legs seemed shorter beneath his hefty weight, and his head seemed to pop up out of the top of his body, like a chick beginning to hatch.
Are you ready, Ezra? Christian asked again, moving to the center of the room. He moved his weapon quickly, creating the soft, yet harsh sound of a blade cutting through air.
Ezra turned and tried not to laugh, but after looking at his mother he couldnt contain himself. Im sorry, he muttered, moving to the center of the room. He cleared his throat and tried to regain control. But he failed. He grabbed his stomach and bent over, just trying to keep to his feet. The more the man moved around the room the more he looked like an egg rolling on a slick surface. I cant he continued to laugh.
What is it? Christian turned and looked at his wife. His face looked amused.
Im sorry, dear, but perhaps, black would be a more suitable color? Maude chuckled.
Ezra fell to the floor; the image of a human egg rolling around trying to hatch would not leave his sight. Hed never lost control like this before, but he couldnt help himself. He tried to get to his feet but fell back to the floor. He never noticed a very confused Christian or his mother leave the room. He was never going to be able to look at an egg again without seeing his stepfathers head poking out of it.
Maude sat with her son in the lawyers office wearing a black gown and veil. She dabbed her eyes with the white tissue. She clasped onto Ezras hand for support as Mark Wright read her husbands will.
It had been Maude who had found Christian, slumped over his desk. The doctor had said that Mr. Simmons heart had gone bad. Just by looking at him nobody would ever guess it. He was always joyous and full of vigor, even Ezra seemed enchanted by his energetic personality. But he was an older man, and time was always short for those that had lived a full life. Maude had known that when she married him.
Im sorry, Mrs. Simmons, but there isnt anything here that says youre to acquire any of your husbands estate
Excuse me? Maude leaned forward, her eyes suddenly dry.
He made arraignments for me to draw up a new will, but he never got in to sign it.
There must be some kind of mistake
No maam, there isnt.
Is there nothing I can do? Maude tried to maintain her composure, she was a con artist, she could do this.
However the lawyer paused and looked at Ezra, Mr. Simmons put a small amount of money away for the child a college fund if you will.
Maudes eyes perked up and she looked at her son.
Mark grabbed an envelope out of his drawer and handed it to Ezra. Mr. Simmons brother expects you to be out of the house by tomorrow, if youre not, hell send someone over to help you. He looked at Maude making sure she understood what he was saying.
Well be out by tonight, Maude snapped, getting to her feet and pulling Ezra close behind her.
Once outside the lawyers office Maude grabbed the envelope from her sons hand. Ezra didnt object, he knew she was upset, and he didnt want to get in her way.
At fourteen years of age Ezra was once more on a train to an unknown town. His mother had seen fit to abandon him, once again, to explore some avenues in the lucrative city of Baton Rouge. This wasnt any different than it had been for the last five years. He knew what to expect, his mothers antics werent a surprise, although he didnt understand her motivation. Ezra missed Georgia, Benny, Cora, and his uncle. He missed the simple life hed lived there.
And so this was Ezras life. Moving from one place to another, staying with aunts and uncles, more or less people that he didnt know, or had ever heard of. Some of them were tolerable of his presence, and others were more put out. Maude usually returned in a timely fashion, only wanting him to play a part in some new scheme. He was turning out to be quite the actor. Many times his mothers cons required him to perform blind, gifted, or younger than he really was. His youthful appearance and short stature aided in the deceit.
Ezra never attended school, simply because he was never in one place long enough to benefit from the environment. However, many of the people he stayed with saw fit to instruct him in different subject areas. He seemed to excel in all of them. He read at every chance he got, mathematics came as second nature, and he mastered the English language better than most college professors. Even though his hands were small he managed to handle a deck of cards with the skill and ease of a professional. He learned under his mothers keen eye how to spot a marked deck, and a cheat. As the years went by his skill improved drastically. It had been a friend of his mothers that taught him to fire a weapon, it was something Ezras father was supposed to show the boy, but he hadnt lived long enough to do so. And just like most things, the youngster had an incredible skill with the firearms, both the pistol and the long rifle.
Because of Ezras size, he was constantly getting into fights with other boys his age. However, they were twice as big as he was. Black eyes, bloody noses, and bloody lips were not all that uncommon. They were easier to bear than the beatings hed received from some of his relatives. Plus it always made him feel better when he actually won.
When the train pulled into the station, Ezra grabbed his bag and got off. He was meeting someone here, another stranger he was going to live with until his mother saw fit to come get him. People bustled around him, greeting their loved ones, and gathering their luggage. Like all the other train stations hed been to in his life, this one was no different.
You Ezra Standish? A big man asked, his beard and mustache hid his face well.
Ezra looked up with his bag slung over his shoulder. He swallowed hard and shook his head. No, sir, he responded, and then he slowly walked by. Ezra didnt turn and watch as the man walked around the platform looking for an Ezra Standish, instead, the youth walked up to the ticket counter.
Wherere you goin? The ticket agent asked.
Ezra bit his bottom lip: Savannah, Georgia, he responded softly. He hoped he had enough money, all the cash he had hed earned playing cards on the train. He hoped it was enough.
Four dollars and fifteen cents, the agent said, writing up the ticket.
Ezra counted out the cash and slipped in under the glass partition. He took the ticket and held it as though it were gold.
He was going home.
The plantation looked the same, except the vegetation wasnt green. It wouldnt be until summer, and then it would look grand. Smoke billowed out of the chimneys and the house looked more inviting than ever. Coras rose garden had been trimmed back, and the fences around the property looked to have been freshly painted. Perhaps things werent as bad as they had been. The door opened before Ezra could raise his hand and knock.
Ezra, Cora gasped, trying to hold back the tears of joy that wanted to fall. She didnt give him time to react as she wrapped her loving arms around him. Its been so long.
Ezra embraced her, feeling as though he were home. Here, waters didnt have to be tested, questions didnt need to be asked or answered, and nobody cared about his past.
Get inside chil, fore you freeze ta death, Cora said, pulling on his coat.
Well Ill be, Samuel said, noticing his nephew had arrived home. He stepped forward and embraced the young man; Samuel tried not to notice the tension in the boys shoulders. Your mother know youre here? he asked.
No she doesnt, Ezra answered honestly.
Samuel nodded and then grabbed his nephews head and messed his hair. Lets get you something to eat, looks like you could use it.
Ezra looked up when the door to the kitchen opened and in stepped a tall black man. It took the younger man a moment to realize it was Benny. He wasnt short and skinny anymore.
Ezra? Benny asked, looking at the younger man sitting at the table.
Ezra nodded, slightly shocked by his friends appearance.
Im so glad to see you, Benny moved over to the table and slapped Ezra on the back. How long you here for?
Ezra shrugged: Not really sure, he responded.
Hey, look at this, Bennys smiled increased and his white teeth shown bright under the lantern light. He pulled the sleeve of his shirt up to his shoulder and flexed his muscle. The girls love it, he snorted, pointing to his arm.
You havent changed, Ezra said, laughing at his friends antics.
Youre still as scrawny as ever, Benny replied, sitting down at the table.
Ezra rolled his eyes and took another bite of his sandwich. Cora said youre working with the horses?
Yeah. Benny grabbed a carrot off of Ezras plate. Tomorrow you should come out and Ill show you some of the stock Master Samuels got some of the best horse flesh in the state. He even gave me one of his geldings named him Spook.
Ezra chuckled: Whyd you give him a name like that?
Remember that ol witch that lived out by Hinds pond? He waited until Ezra nodded. Well, after that ol woman died I was out riding back there and that horse I was on spooked right out from under me.
Hence the name? Ezra answered for him.
Benny laughed: Yep.
Ezra and Benny slipped their boots off when they entered the house. Both boys could hear mens voices coming from Samuels study. Everyone from town seemed to be there, and their voices only escalated.
Whos here, Momma? Benny asked, sneaking a slice of bread from the counter.
Cora shook her head: Just bout everyone I ever heard of, she replied, taking another loaf out of the oven. You boys bes get warm, dont want ya gettin sick on me. She smiled and motioned for them to leave the room.
Ezra stepped up to the study door and listened to the argument happening inside.
the Union is fallin apart, Jim Horn snapped, scratching his graying beard.
I aint ready to give away everything Ive been working for to those Yankee bastards. Another man yelped. Were going to war and nothing can change that.
We all need to calm down, Samuel said, getting to his feet. South Carolina is already threatening to secede, its up to the State of Georgia and those like her to keep the Union together.
What Union, Samuel? Jack Humphrey questioned his long time friend. We know that Lincolns, Secretary of State, Mister Seward, has been lyin to us. Thinkin that us Southerners wouldnt realize that the Union was building up an army Hell, look at Fort Sumter, they were supposed to have abandoned it weeks ago, he looked around at the men in the room, but theyre building up its forces.
Jacks right, Senator Terrell said, stepping forward. The Bill of Rights was signed in Virginia, he paused, making sure his words hit, Since the signing its integrity has been subdued, subdued by the very men who swear to uphold it. The South as we know it is perishing under the iron hand of the North. We are not only losing our rights as citizens of this great nation, but as inhabitants of this state.
So what are we going to do? Jim asked, although he knew the answer.
Fight, Samuel replied, slumping down into his chair.
The room went quiet as all the men took into consideration the words spoken.
Ezra moved away from the door, unsure of what to think. He hadnt been deaf to all the rumors of war hed heard. These men spoke the truth, things were changing in the South, and they had been for many years. It was going to take more than politicians arguing on Capital Hill to stop the threats.
When the bullets started flying at Fort Sumter, the Union believed that the Confederacy would crumble, instead it became stronger. Boys from all over the Southern states enlisted, looking for ways to defend their homes, beliefs, and ways of life. They were not going to give up easily. Mothers, daughters, and wives, stood on their porches watching their men march off to war. Pride and hope fueled their beliefs that everyone would return home.
Cora couldnt pack enough food in the small satchels that Ezra and Benny were taking with them. She sighed, trying to hold back the tears. Her boys were leaving for war. Thats all they were, boys, Ezra wasnt a day over fifteen and Benny was just a few months away from turning eighteen.
Their decision to enlist hadnt been an easy one. But it was Ezras decision that pushed Bennys. Once the boy learned that his mother was leaving for New York to escape the hostility in the South, without her son, Ezra decided that hed rather be in the center of the conflict than on the outskirts. Samuel, devastated by the news, did the only thing he could. He gave both boys a horse and rifle. He didnt want them unarmed. The whole situation tore Cora up inside. Shed never wanted to see this day come, never.
Momma, Benny said, gently taking his mothers hand. We got to go, he said softly, looking her in the eye.
Ill be out in a minute, she said confidently, Is just got a few more apples to stick in for yous lunches.
Benny nodded and headed outside. Springs early sun was already turning the lush grasses and trees to blossom into their magnificent beauty.
Cora took a deep breath and grabbed both of the bags. She could do this she had to. When she stepped out onto the porch she could see Samuel offering some last minute advice to his nephew. She smiled, wanting to be brave for her son.
Theres plenty o food in heres for you boys, an make sure yous eat. She handed a bag to each of them. Gently she took Ezras face in her hands and kissed his forehead. You brin my boy back to me, she said, letting the tears stream down her cheeks, promise me. Her eyes spoke volumes, the eyes only a mother would show. She smiled when Ezra nodded.
I will, Ezra said softly.
Cora turned to her son and wrapped her arms around him. When she released him she tried to straighten up his shirt. Her chin quivered, and her eyes continued to water. You make me so proud, she said softly, trying to be strong. She stopped suddenly and patted his chest, just over his heart. You member, dis is where your heart is, she looked up into his eyes, and dis is where it belongs.
I know, Momma. He knew what she meant. This plantation was his home, it always had been, and it always would be.
Cora shook her head: You come back to me, ya hear, she cried, reaching up and wrapping her arms around his neck. I love you boys, she released Benny and looked at Ezra. Watch out for each other.
We will, Momma, Benny said, kissing his mother on the cheek.
Cora stepped back, wanting more than anything for her son to tell her he wasnt going. But that wasnt about to happen. She knew that in her heart.
Come home, Samuel ordered, watching as they each mounted up.
Both boys waved as they trotted their horses down the lane.
Samuel reached over and wrapped his arm around the woman who had been his rock for so long. He knew he couldnt stop the pain Cora was feeling, but he could be there for her, like all the times shed been there for him.
Theyll come home, he tried to sound confident.
Cora nodded, trying to accept his words.
Samuel embraced her, not worrying about who saw them, not caring at what would happen if someone did.
Boys and men from all over the South arrived with only one thing on their minds, stopping the Northern Aggressor. Regiment leaders from Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia were here looking for men, many were regular army and others were volunteers.
Benny followed Ezra around the camp, the younger boy seemed to know how to handle himself in crowds, and Benny didnt. He didnt like the eyes of soldiers that looked at him, or the questioning glares from folks who werent enlisting. This wasnt anything like working on the plantation.
You there, an officer called to them, what are you lookin for? He asked, stepping out from beneath his tent.
Were here to enlist, Ezra responded confidently.
The officer laughed: You aint old enough boy, and niggers aint allowed.
Im sixteen, old enough by most standards, Ezra lied, looking up at Benny, and the nigger is mine. He could feel Bennys anger before he saw it, but in order to save his life Ezra had to lie.
I dont believe youre sixteen, the officer replied. When were you born?
1844, Ezra responded, already having done the math.
Im Lieutenant Peterson, whats your name?
Ezra Standish. Ezra didnt look at Bennys expression.
The lieutenant nodded, trying to decide if this boy was worth adding on. You can sign here, he responded, showing them toward the tent.
Once they were out of sight from the officers, Benny grabbed Ezras arm and forced him around. I aint your nigger, he said sharply, his anger was clearly written on his face.
Ezra looked around, making sure nobody was watching. This is a different place he looked hard at his friend, we have to look and act like everyone else otherwise you will end up someones slave.
Benny nodded and then sighed. Just so you know, I aint washin your clothes.
Ezra smiled, and picked a piece of lint off of Bennys shirt. You think Id ask? He responded with a chuckle.
Why didnt you give im your real name? Benny asked.
Didnt want to give them any cause to go lookin for Uncle Samuel or Cora.
Benny nodded, not really understanding Ezras words, but unwilling to question his judgment.
History books didnt give accurate depictions of what a battlefield looked, or smelt like. How could it? How could white pages filled with small words describe the smell of men that had been dead for days? It couldnt. This was a war unlike any other. Men, born and raised in the same homes of the same mothers were fighting each other, killing each other, for nothing more than their ideals. Ezra never understood how death could change a man, hed seen his father killed, but hed never taken a life until now. Now, he was firing his weapon at men and boys that could be his family.
The war was changing everyone.
Because the Confederacy didnt have the number of men the Union did, the Southern states saw fit to train their soldiers more efficiently. Men, who were willing, trained in everything. Ezra was willing. He was already skillful with a long rifle, his knack for math made him a perfect candidate for heavy artillery, and his love of horses made him perfect for the Calvary. He was every generals dream soldier, except for the fact he looked so young.
It was highly unusual for a soldier to remain in the same regiment for very long. They were usually transferred, depending on the needs of surrounding companies. Because Benny was Ezras slave, the two of them traveled, and trained together. Most officers didnt think it was unusual, simply for the fact that families who could afford to send a slave with their sons, did.
Ezra never stayed too long in any one camp, until he was transferred to one of General Longstreets regiments. Benny noticed, but never questioned, the fact that his friend never got close to anyone. The younger boy didnt make friends like most kids his age. Oh, he could walk into any situation and make himself look good, telling stories that stole everyones attention, did card tricks, and played poker like many of the professionals, but he was missing that bond that many of the other soldiers seemed to have.
Benny never left Ezras side; he was almost an extra appendage. When Ezra got transferred to the sharpshooters troop, Benny went with him, aiding him and firing along side him. They were quite the team, brothers without the blood ties.
Small fires burned in front of tents containing young Confederate soldiers. The smell of salted pork frying filled the air and the sense of uncertainty embraced those who could bring themselves to celebrate their recent win at Second Manassas.
Ezra looked over at Benny, who seemed content looking up at the sky. A year had passed, and the last battle had given the South the push they needed in order to continue their crusade. They actually had a chance of winning this war.
Ezra flipped the cards through his fingers, watching his precise and graceful movements. His fingers moved like dancers over a well-shined floor. His hands and nails were dirty, callused, and cut, from months of digging, shooting, and clearing debris. The small rectangular objects that moved through his fingers were just as worn. They were the only items that could bring him comfort; his only link to his family his father, and his link to reality.
The battles were all looking the same, it was hard to tell which ones theyd won, and which ones theyd lost. Time seemed to have disappeared, like an hour that never ended. Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and unlike before, there werent any celebrations breaking the time up.
Can you read that letter from Momma again? Benny asked, rolling over onto his side.
You can read, Benny, Ezra replied, never taking his eyes off his cards.
I dont make it sound so good.
Ezra chuckled and pulled the letter out of his jacket pocket. Coras writing wasnt grand, and could hardly be considered legible, but shed written. Something Maude had yet to do. Ezra read the words with the same care that Cora had written them, and Benny seemed to be calmed by her simple vocabulary.
She worries too much, Benny said, sitting up.
She has reason to, Ezra responded.
What bout Maude, wheres she at?
Last I heard, New York, but, Ezra shrugged his shoulders, she could be anywhere.
When Is younger, Benny paused, Is jealous of you. He forced a smile onto his face.
Me? Ezra chuckled, slightly surprised by his friends revelation.
I remember you was always sick, and you was takin her time. Benny looked up at the sky and then at his friend.
Ezra nodded in understanding, but kept his eyes focused on his cards. He didnt know, or understand, his friends feelings. How could he?
Play ya a game of gin? Benny offered, realizing his friend was uncomfortable.
Ezra lifted his chin and smiled. Okay.
The air was soon filled with dense smoke as weapons continued to be fired. Bullets pierced the ground, trees, and the water as Union troops tried to cross what had been dubbed Burnsides Bridge. Ezra continued to fire at men he could no longer see. Benny sat just below him behind the wooden barrier, their rifles firing as soon as they were reloaded.
This was Antietam.
Ezra and Benny were just two of Longstreets 600 sharpshooters firing at the enemy, an enemy that wouldnt stop. Antietam creek was turning red from the blood of Union soldiers trying to cross the divide, and the thirsty ground sucked the life giving force from those who could no longer keep it. Soldiers wearing gray and blue fell together, not caring about their beliefs or differences. Men fought for their lives, while boys lost their innocence.
Bodies of the dead lined the fields like snow on a cold winters day.
Ezra heard the grunt, but he didnt pay it any mind when Benny continued to fire his weapon. Ezra didnt have time to stop. When the order came to retreat, he crouched down and moved closer to his friend.
Lets get back, he said, gathering up his supplies. He knew that in order to survive theyd have to get back past the artillerymen; otherwise theyd be killed.
Benny fired his weapon again. I cant, he replied softly.
Ezra grabbed his friends jacket and pulled. Lets go! He ordered. This wasnt a game.
I cant! Benny replied, pulling his hand away from his belly.
Oh, God, Ezra gasped, seeing the bloodied hand.
I dont want to die, Benny muttered, looking at his friend.
Youre not going to die, Ezra looked into his friends eyes, and not giving him a chance to object, Ezra pulled him up and started moving him away from the oncoming fire. Well get you to the doctor, he gasped, using all of his strength trying to keep Benny on his feet. Ezra struggled under his friends weight and size, but his determination won out.
Bodies, rolling terrain, rocky outcroppings, and scattered wooded areas made it more difficult for both men to traverse. Benny weakened quickly, relying on Ezra to keep him moving. His legs became uncooperative, and he stumbled, but Ezra was there to pull him along. Bennys vision blurred, his body shook, and sweat soaked his dirty clothing.
He was dying.
Snavely Ford was a narrow patch of land that was clear of the rough terrain the men were trying to cross. And after hours of being on the move, it seemed to be the best route to take. Others thought the same thing. Wounded Confederates, and Yankees moved through the area searching for help. Fields of corn ready for harvest lined the path, and harbored the cowards and those that were dying within its crowded walls.
St stop Benny gasped, falling to the ground taking and Ezra with him. I I cant, he spit up blood and saliva. His brow was covered in sweat, and his eyes seemed hollow, as the pain slowly consumed him.
We cant stop here, Ezra said, getting on his feet and trying to pull his friend up by his jacket.
Benny remained where he was, unwilling, and unable to move further. The heat of the sun took all the energy he had left, and he gasped for breath in a chest that refused to take more air. Pl please...please stop, he cried, grabbing hold of Ezras jacket sleeve. Benny was dying and he knew it.
You cant do this, Ezra argued, shaking off Bennys arm and once again trying to get him to his feet. Dont do this, he whispered, and then slumped down by his friends head.
You best leave im, a confederate soldier said, as he started to walk by. Could take days for a belly wound to kill im.
Ezra watched the soldier as he continued down the path, holding his bloodied left arm. Im not leaving you, he said confidently, when Bennys hand squeezed his own. I wont leave you, he whispered to himself.
Benny rolled onto his side and screamed in pain. Make it stop, he cried, grasping Ezras hand forcefully.
Ezra rolled Benny onto his back and gently lifted his shoulders so he could drink from the canteen. I dont know what to do, he admitted, letting his tears stain his dirt-covered cheeks. He tried to wipe them away, but only left muddied marks on his face.
Benny weakly grasped at the pistol in Ezras belt. Ever so softly he muttered, Please. He continued to pull at the weapon he was too weak to hold. Please, he said again, trying to get his lips to move around words he could hardly say. If he was going to die, he wanted to die on his own terms.
Ezra shook his head and stood back up. NO! He snapped, reaching down to once again lift his friend. I promised Id get you home. He struggled with his friends size and weight. When Benny cried out in pain, Ezra stopped and slumped down in defeat. I cant, he cried, understanding what his friend wanted.
Benny pulled at the weapon Ezra now held in his hand. Tears flowed from both sets of eyes freely, one set pleading for death, the other, pleading for life. T take take my heart home to Momma, Benny asked, through clenched teeth.
Ezras chin quivered uncontrollably, and he wiped his nose on the sleeve of his jacket. I cant, he said, looking at the weapon in his hand. Please dont do this, he pleaded, and then looked up at the soldiers that passed them by.
Please, Bennys voice was fading, and the pain continued to rack his body. His body that had been so strong, so unwilling to surrender, and so full of life, was now fading. Please, he pleaded again, as the tremors started to take over.
Ezra looked at the weapon in his hand, and slowly nodded his head. With tears blurring his vision, and lungs that couldnt catch enough breath, he straddled his best friends waist. The sound of the hammer being cocked back didnt mean anything as Ezra leaned over and grabbed the top of Bennys head, and then he pressed his forehead onto Bennys.
I love you like a brother, Ezra whispered between gasps of breath. He felt Benny nod his head the sentiments were returned.
Pl please, Benny choked, spitting up blood from the wounds on his tongue, his tongue that was being bitten by his own jaws.
Ezra cried: I I cant, he gasped, I cant. His heart burned as though it were lit from the fires of hell.
Please, Benny whispered past uncooperative lips, please.
Reluctantly, Ezra nodded and then he carefully positioned the weapon under Bennys chin, and then moved away as he squeezed the trigger. Everything went quiet, as though the world came to a stop. The only sound filling his ears was the beating of his own heart. Ezra released a cry and grabbed the front of his friends bloodied shirt and rocked back and forth over his body. Im sorry, he whispered into ears that could no longer hear, Im so sorry.
With newfound determination, Ezra ripped Bennys shirt open, and pulled the long knife from his boot. Hed take Bennys heart home he had to.
Ezra entered the Confederate camp that wasnt far from Sharpsburg. His clothing was stained with the blood of his friend, his brother, his comrade. His face was streaked with tears shed, dirt, and blood. Nobody seemed to notice him; he wasnt the only one suffering. The loss of the battle had insured a somber mood among everyone.
Officers moved around frantically trying to get notes and supplies sent to regiments that needed it. Wounded soldiers cried out in pain as their friends tried to move them toward the medical tents. Guns went off, killing the wounded horses that could no longer support their riders, or themselves.
Are you wounded? Captain Miller asked, moving away from the tent where several men had gathered and were now going over maps and other important papers.
Ezra shook his head: No, sir, he replied softly.
Standish, Lieutenant Peterson said, stepping up beside Captain Miller. He turned to his superior and started to say something, but the captains hand stopped him.
Wheres Benny? The captain asked, already guessing what his response would be.
Dead, sir. Ezra turned his eyes upward and met the captains. I need to take a few days, sir, and go home, his words were soft, and his voice was full of despair.
You cant, the lieutenant snapped, looking around at the other soldiers in worse shape than the one standing before him, or at least they appeared to be. He returned his gaze to his superior, You cant let him go because his nigger died.
As a Southern gentlemen, Lieutenant, it would be in your benefit to understand that all men dying on these once simple fruitful fields deserve the respect they have earned color is not the dividing character here. His words were strong, and knowing. He met Ezras eyes, I grieve with you, son.
Ezra nodded, but didnt say anything.
I can give you two weeks, the captain said, regaining his composure. He then motioned for Peterson to follow him. And Corporal Standish, report to me upon your return.
Two weeks was not a lot of time for Ezra to get from Maryland to Savannah and back again. But anything was possible for a man with determination. He sold his horse and bought a ticket on one of the few railroads that were still running through the war torn countryside. He received looks from observers, they didnt have to guess where hed been it was obvious. His clothing was still dirty and stained, he didnt have time to change, and he didnt have the money to purchase new attire. His appearance wasnt what he was worried about. His mother would be appalled, but she wasnt here, and she didnt know the circumstances.
Ezra had wrapped Bennys heart in a soft cloth and then placed it in a small tin. He covered it with salt, one of the few things soldiers had that was in abundance, to keep it from going bad. Hed made a promise to Benny and he intended to keep it, at all costs. He wasnt sure if friendship was really worth the pain it caused, not if it involved such heartache. He couldnt even bring himself to shuffle his cards it all seemed so menial.
The war had continued for a little over a year, but its devastation was evident all over the South. And it was only going to get worse. Little things were valued now, sewing needles were like the gold found in California, meat, no matter what kind, was worthy of the finest restaurants, and wallpaper became home to the news of war.
Everything was changing.
Gone were the large hats and the fancy clothing of proud Southerners. Women now were consumed with making bullets out of whatever metal they could find. Slaves were left at home to care for the women and children of the masters who went to war. The proud and noble South was being ripped apart, not only on the battlefields, but in the headlines of the papers up North. Stories of brutality, laziness, and insolence filled the minds of Northern men and women.
Perhaps this is what Maude had been trying to teach him. Nothing could ever be taken for granted. Everything came with a price. And life was only worth what you made out of it. People were merely boxes that needed to be filled, and Maude needed to be filled with money. A child couldnt do it, nor could a husband, but perhaps financial gain could.
Ezra looked up when he felt someone gently touch his shoulder. The woman wore an old dress, but her Southern pride kept a smile on her face, and hope in her heart. She handed Ezra a sandwich. Her gloved hands were scared with holes and stains, but she was lady enough to continue with an honorable tradition.
You look like you could use this, she said softly.
Thank you, maam.
She smiled: Thank you, she answered, and then moved down the aisle.
Savannah had a spirit that few cities, even Southern cities, had. When Ezra stepped off the train car, he was enveloped with the strong force. Gone were the strong scents of spices and perfumes, but the spirit was still there.
Ezra ignored the looks of those who questioned his appearance, and those who feared the blood that had so boldly stained his clothing. He walked down the street, with one thing on his mind getting home. With his bag slung over his shoulder he headed down the road that would lead to the plantation.
The warm breeze felt good on his skin, and the sound of the trees gently swaying seemed to be a comfort, but the questions remained. How was he going to tell Cora? What, was he going to tell her? That fire that had started in Ezras heart hadnt stopped, and it seemed to consume his whole being. Did he do the right thing? Could he have saved Benny, if hed tried harder? Ezra had seen what a belly wound could do to someone. Hed seen and heard the pain that men went through while suffering from the brutality. That confederate soldier that had told him it could take days for Benny to die wasnt lying, it could take days, and those days would be long and without mercy. Was that what hed done? Shown his best friend a merciful end, or taken his life because it was easier? These were simply questions he didnt know the answer to, questions that would never be answered.
Cora stood up from her garden and stretched her back. At thirty-six years of age she was already feeling the tightness in her bones. But she was thankful for it, it pulled her mind away from the hollow feeling in her stomach. She wiped her brow free of the sweat that had gathered there and looked up into the blue sky. The sound of birds singing filled the air, reminding her of a simpler time. She retied the bandana that shed had around her hair and looked up the road, wishing her son were coming home, wishing both her boys would come home. Quickly, she turned back to her garden and then stopped, as though a voice was telling her to.
She walked to the gate as though an angel were leading her, not understanding why, but knowing she needed to go there. When she saw the lone figure walking towards her, all the blood drained from her face. She knew. Her heart constricted, and her lungs clenched in search for air. She remained frozen in place, as though her feet had suddenly grown roots.
Cora knew it was Ezra, even before she saw his face. Hed grown, and he was still thin, but his walk was just the same. However, it wasnt difficult to tell that the weight of the world rested on his shoulders.
Benny wasnt with him.
Cora looked past Ezra, praying that her only child was following at a distance. Hoping that he was there, but knowing he wasnt. Tears sprang to her eyes when she saw the blood on Ezras clothing. He hadnt even had the opportunity to change.
God, no, Cora pleaded, when Ezra stopped in front of her. She grabbed the fence for support, not wanting to fall.
Ezra reached out to support her, but she shoved his hand away. He took a step back, unsure of what to do. Im sorry, Cora, he whispered. Reluctantly, he tried to hand her the tin box. He didnt know what hit him, he lied, wanting only to comfort her.
No, Cora snapped, refusing to take the box. No, she said again, stepping backwards. She clenched her fist and held it over her chest. Please, God, no, she cried.
Her son was dead.
He saved my life, Ezra said softly, not understanding her hesitance. He took a step forward and pushed the tin toward her.
NO! Cora snapped in anger, she slapped Ezra across the face, and then stopped suddenly, as though everything unexpectedly became clear. Slowly, she reached up and took the tin, tears running down her cheeks. She knew what was inside it. She didnt need to be told. Cora wrapped her arms around the cold metal container that held her sons heart.
Her son was dead.
Ezra looked at her, watching her grief, and not knowing how much the pain of her loss hurt. He rubbed his eyes, eyes that were now dry of so many tears shed. He looked up when he saw his uncle come rushing towards them from the house. Concern was etched on his face; it was understandable as to why.
Ezra, Samuel gasped, grabbing hold of Coras shoulders in support. Benny? He asked, looking at his nephew, and sighed when Ezra nodded his head. Come to the house, he said softly, gently guiding the mother of the child he could never claim.
Their son was gone.
Ezra watched them walk away, suddenly feeling as though he didnt belong. He looked around the plantation, at the house hed played in, been born in, and wanted so much to call home. But he couldnt, not anymore not after what hed done. Reluctantly, he turned around and headed back to the train station. He needed to get back to the war he needed to forget.
Wheres Ezra? Cora asked, looking around the small gravesite.
Samuel shook his head: He, ah left, he responded sadly, feeling guilty for not having forced the youth to stay.
What? Cora turned and looked at him, not quite believing what hed said. She turned and felt Samuel grab her arm.
Hes gone, Cora.
Dear God, what ave I done? She cried, covering her mouth with her hand. What ave I done? She let her tears fall.
When Ezra reported back to Captain Miller the youth wasnt expecting a promotion. But he got one, as well as a small unit of men. The captain had said it was because of his skill as a soldier, but Ezra thought it had to do with something else.
Because of his smaller size and youthful age, he could sneak across enemy lines easier than most. The South was in desperate need of medical supplies, mostly ether. The anesthesia was difficult to come by but most Union field hospitals had it in abundance, and therefore they became targets.
Dressed in rags, covered in dirt, and looking more like a farmer than hed ever imagined he could, Ezra walked through the dense trees and bushes. He didnt look a day over fourteen, and most who saw him didnt pay him any mind. He discovered the easiest time to sneak into the medical tents was right after a battle. Most doctors were out aiding the wounded and therefore most supplies were left unattended.
Ezra hid the small bottles of ether in dolls that the Confederacy made special for just occasions. Nobody thought to look in a childrens toy. The ploy worked exceptionally well, until his five foot five inch frame sprouted to five foot ten inches in the course of a year. No longer was he the youthful boy he once was. Now, he was tall, and filling out, becoming the handsome man his father had been.
As the war continued to rage, Ezra was transferred to heavy artillery, and along with that transfer came another promotion. His skill with his men and ability to know what was going to happen before it happened made him the perfect candidate for a position as an officer. And he took that position with pride. All soldiers accepted him, despite his age. He wasnt the only one of extreme youth to be placed in a situation of control. With the dwindling amount of able-bodied Southerners it became necessary for boys to become leaders, and most took that responsibility seriously.
The sound of cannons roaring still rang in Ezras ears, and the smell of the battlefield continued its hold in his nose. They had won Fredericksburg, at the cost of 5,300 confederate soldiers, but it was worthy of their loss. The Union had suffered greatly, losing more than 12,500 men. The sight had been horrid, but like so many others, it blended into the memories of a sixteen-year-old boy.
I call, Al Dalton said, tossing in his coins. His dirty fingers clenched the cards tightly.
Ya cant call, it aint your turn, John Carpenter replied, slapping his friend on the back.
Its his turn now, Ezra replied, placing his bet.
I call, Al said again, replacing his coins.
What are you gonna do after the war? John asked, placing his bet.
Mas workin the farm alone, figure Id get home and find me a good woman and take it over, Al replied, lying his cards face down on the table. He sighed when he noticed Ezra lay his full house down, and then he took the pot. One of these days Im gonna figure out how you do that.
Not unless your aptitude for cards drastically improves, Ezra replied with a grin, and then piled his winnings on the edge of the small log they were playing on.
Al sighed, and then looked at all the men surrounding them. Many were playing cards like they were, and others were writing letters, and some just stared out at the night sky. How many men ave you killed? He asked, looking at Ezra. Of the three of them, Ezra was the one whod been fighting the longest.
What kinda questions that? John snapped, picking up the cards that were dealt to him.
One that needs answered, Al defended, picking up his hand. So, Ezra, how many men ave ya killed?
Too many, Ezra replied softly, unwilling to further explain. Are you going to play, or talk?
Hell, Standish, you already ave most of my money, John sighed, tossing his cards.
I take it youre quitting, Ezra chuckled, picking up the abandoned items.
I want ta go home, Al said softly, more to himself than anyone around.
We all want to go home, John quipped, making light of Als comment.
Ezra glanced in Als direction before returning his attention to his cards.
No, Al sighed, I dont think Im goin to make it. His voice was soft and almost inaudible almost.
When the 5th of May 1864 arrived, eighteen-year-old Captain Standish held firm his position on Hamiltons Thicket. The Wilderness. The trees and underbrush grew so closely together that squirrels would have a difficult time traversing the terrain. Even the undergrowth became a hindrance as men got their feet stuck in upturned roots and dead trees.
The smoke of cannons and guns filled the air creating a heavy fog over the dense forest. Ezra ordered his men to continue firing. The horses they sat astride stood their ground, and waited patiently as paths were cut into the wilderness.
Like so many battles before, this one wasnt any different. Except now, men were dying slowly by the fires that burned unmercifully throughout the battlefield. Doctors and other soldiers couldnt get out to their friends and comrades. Even through the night the sound of weapons firing and the cracking of fires burning filled the ears of every soldier fighting.
Lees idea had been grand, but the Union wasnt as willing to quit as the Confederacy had predicted. The Wilderness was supposed to put a stop to Grants push frontward, but it didnt. Instead, the Union army pushed forward with their unwillingness to give up.
Ezra watched as men rushed around the battlefield trying to fight the enemy while officers gathered behind them, trying to come up with stronger plans to stop the Union. Hesitantly, he stepped up to the tent, his tattered uniform covered in dirt and sweat. The determination in his eyes let everyone know he needed answers. His men were dying, and he wanted it stopped.
General Longstreet had sent some of his men north, to help General Hill. The action resulted in weakening the hold Ezra and his men had, allowing US General Hancock to push them back.
We need those men here! Cornel Webber yelled, pointing to the position on the map.
Where do you anticipate finding those men? Cornel Stevens snapped.
Both men looked hard at each other and sighed when they realized they werent the only ones in need. Cornel Webber stood up straight and looked at the young captain that entered the tent.
How long do we have? Webber asked, looking around at his fellow officers.
We need to send support to the southern lines A lieutenant started to say.
Is this true? General Longstreet asked, looking in Ezras direction.
Yes, sir, Ezra answered, stepping forward.
We cant afford to lose General Lees right flank, the general replied, and then he looked down at the map before him. Any suggestions? He looked around the table at his most trusted officers.
Send reinforcements to the right, and pray that Johnston and Gordon arrive before Sedgwick can take the left flank. Stevens replied, taking a long drink from his coffee cup.
Thats not the plan I was looking for, Longstreet replied bitterly.
Ezra cleared his throat and pointed to the writings on the map. If you send my men and I further around the right flank we can support General Hills front, he moved his finger along his plans, and then we can cut Hancocks regiment in half and push back Burnside.
General Longstreet scratched his chin and looked up at his men. Do it, he ordered, looking at Ezra. Kandice, he yelled, get me my horse. He watched as one of his captains quickly left the room, and another officer left to retrieve his mount. The rest of you get back to your positions and win this damn thing!
Ezra and his men moved through the trees and weeded overgrowth firing at anything that moved before them. The reinforcements to Lees far right flank arrived just in time as Hancocks men started to take over the Confederate lines. However, Ezras plan and Longstreets orders were working, Hancock was being forced back, they were on the run.
The smell of burning flesh filled the air, causing horses to stall, and men to fall ill. Shots rang out, and the bullets landed in the trees, dirt, and some unfortunate souls. However, the push forward by the Confederate troops was working, and Hancock and Burnside were suffering the consequences. Ezra and his men were able to split up the Union troops, making their forces weaker and less efficient.
At the cost of 10,000 men the Confederacy won the battle, but the North was winning the war.
When the news came of Robert E. Lees surrender at Appomattox, the hopes and dreams of Southern soldiers were crushed. After four years of combating the Northern Aggressor on battlefields where the Confederates were fighting three to one, it was now over.
They had lost.
It wasnt just losing the war that caused so many Southern men and women to feel animosity towards the Union, but the fact so many rumors and stories had been built up against them. Things that werent true were taken as gospel in the North, and history was being written by these lies.
Ezra flipped his cards between his fingers, and thought about reading the letter his mother had sent him four months prior. Four months ago he knew what he was going to be doing, where he was going, and who he was fighting. Four months ago he didnt need to read the letter, although, he kept it close. Now, however, he didnt know where his future was leading.
The last four years of his life he wanted to forget. But mostly, he wanted to forget that dreadful day at Antietam but he couldnt. Hed killed his best friend, taken his life, ripped him from his mothers embrace. How could he have expected Cora to forgive him, when he couldnt forgive himself. Hed tried to put it behind him, but everywhere he went, and everyone he saw, reminded him, in some way of Benny.