Trail of Storms
“You girls stick tight together. Those blasted Yankee riders are still botherin’ folks.”
Jessica Bingham paused outside the bakery’s front door, letting Ma’s words roll off her shoulders as she rearranged the loaves of freshly baked bread in her basket. She looked down the quiet street. The rising sun’s pink and gold rays chased night’s shadows from the cracks and crannies of Mount Jackson’s storefronts. She inhaled the fresh scents of the morning to clear the heavy odor of yeast from her nose. Spring was here. “Hmmm,” she sighed, and felt a smile of satisfaction lift her mouth. Ma was wrong to worry. This perfect day could hold no danger to her or her sisters.
And yet…the previous week, two young married ladies had been knocked to the ground by a band of cavalrymen of the occupation force. One merely had the wind knocked out of her, but the other had lost her unborn babe. Her husband had protested. He’d been badly beaten. A feeling of unease crept over Jessica. Perhaps there were no perfect days in Virginia anymore?
Her married sister, Hannah, pushed past, saying, “Jessie, get yourself out of my way. This bread won’t deliver itself.”
Jessie stepped aside and let Hannah pass, since she always seemed to be in a hurry. She had to take the lead in every endeavor, and couldn’t abide being late. Maybe that’s why she was born first of the twins.
The other twin, Hepzibah, came out of the door and stopped at Jessie’s side. She tapped Jessie on the shoulder, waited until she turned toward her, then rolled her eyes. “Hannah’s just so rude,” she said. “Don’t give in to her. Ever since she got married, she thinks she’s the queen of the world.”
Jessie shrugged and stepped out into the street, Hepzibah following after. “Maybe she is, in Robert Fletcher’s eyes. He treats her like a fine lady.”
Hepzibah made a small, anguished sound. Jessie looked around at her sister, whose expression had changed to chagrin.
Jessie said in a rush, “Oh Heppie, don’t mind my prattle. I reckon George loves you just as much as Robert does Hannah. He’s bound to say so real soon.”
This time, Heppie’s sound was definitely a sigh, and her eyes began to redden.
Jessie, trying to divert Heppie from having a crying spell in the middle of the street, called out to Hannah, who strode along five yards ahead of them. “Wait for us. Ma will have a conniption if we don’t stay together.” She looked around the deserted street, her nerves beginning to twang. “Do you see any riders down the road?”
“No,” Hannah replied. “It’s too early for those lazy bums to be out. Besides, I ain’t seen ’em for days. Ma’s just got a bug in her ear.” Hannah carried her basket of baked goods on her hip. She stopped walking and gave it a little hitch to make it ride higher.
“Do you reckon they’ve left town?” Heppie asked Jessie as they followed Hannah.
Jessie shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe a customer told Ma they’re still here.” She turned her head to look behind her. “I don’t see them.”
“That don’t mean they’re not around the corner,” Heppie said, sniffing, then wiping her nose with a tiny scrap of a handkerchief. “Look sharp.”
Jessie shivered. Her stomach began to ache, and she felt vulnerable and unsafe. The Yankees had already won the war, ravaging the country in the process. It was terribly hard to make ends meet these days. She’d heard Ma crying at night on that score. Why didn’t the Yankees go home and leave the people of Mount Jackson alone?
She thought of Hannah, who lived with Robert in a house on the other side of town. During the time he worked at the bank, Hannah was all alone. She may lord it over Heppie and me for not being married, but maybe she’s afraid too. She does spend an awful lot of each day at our house.
Jessie stepped over a stick in her path. I reckon I don’t blame her, she thought. She hesitated a moment, sniffing the air. Was that dust she smelled? Don’t panic. Likely a wagon passed on the Valley Pike. At that moment, the sound of hoofbeats coming up behind them raised chills along her spine. She whirled and faced four mounted Yankees, who had seemed to rise out of the very ground.
The men caught up and circled the three women before they could take another step. Two of them spat tobacco juice near the girls’ shoes. One failed to launch his mouthful properly, dribbling juice down the front of his shirt.
“Cal, you can’t hit a tin can with a turnip,” said one man whose dirty red hair poked out in points where it escaped his cap. His laughter rang through the empty street.
Jessie grabbed hold of Hannah’s arm with her free hand. She felt Heppie clutching at her skirt band. Jessie looked around, frantic. Where were the Miller brothers? They were always up early, coming down the street as the girls left the bakery.
“Sez you, Red,” the Yankee named Cal said, spitting a fresh stream that landed on Heppie’s shoulder.
Heppie screamed, dropped her basket, and tried to wipe the juice off.
Cal chewed on his wad of tobacco, turned, and shot a spurt of juice in Hannah’s direction. She shrieked as it hit her cheek. Red laughed again, and waved his cap in the air.
“Hannah!” Jessie shouted, and pulled her sister closer to her. The stink of the tobacco filled her nose as she dashed it away from Hannah’s eye with her hand.
The third man, whose black moustache contained bits of food, said to Heppie, “Here, let me wipe that for you.” He leaned down and grabbed a lock of Heppie’s blonde hair. She cried out as he yanked on it, pulling her closer to his horse.
“You need a knife, Bull?” asked the fourth Yankee, reaching into his pocket.
Bull swore. “I can get my own trophies, Foster. Put away your knife.”
“Get away from her!” Jessie shouted. Her heart thrummed in her chest. She tried to think of what to do even as she shoved at the man’s arm, getting the juice from her hand on his uniform sleeve. He let go of Heppie’s hair and turned on Jessie, trying to swat at her hand, but she evaded his reach. Hannah was cowering away from Foster, who called her unpleasant names. The other men rode in circles around the three young women, laughing, whistling, and making rude talk.
“Get back to the store,” Jessie urged her sisters. She stripped the white towel from her basket and flapped it in the face of the nearest horse. It reared, dumping Red, and galloped off down the road. The girls pushed their way through the interrupted circle and ran for the front door of the bakery. Behind them, Jessie heard the laughter and catcalls the other men showered on the unseated rider, who swore at them, his horse, and Jessie herself.
Heppie made it to the door first, wrenching it open. Hannah followed hard on her heels, and Jessie brought up the rear.
“Lock it, Jessie,” shrieked Heppie. Her big blue eyes seemed ready to leap out of her face.
Jessie twisted the lock, wondering if it would keep the men out if they wanted to enter. “Ma,” she cried out as her mother rushed into the shop from the kitchen. “Those Yankees! They spit tobacco juice at us. Just look at Heppie’s dress!”
“They’re so crude,” Heppie moaned, swiping at her shoulder. “I’ll never get this stain off me!”
“There, there, girls.” Ma gathered the young women into her arms. “Did they hurt you?” Jessie felt her mother’s body shaking.
Hannah loosed herself from Ma’s grasp and dabbed at her cheek with a handkerchief. “I hate tobacco!”
Ma let go of the girls. “Jessie? You ain’t been harmed?”
“No, Ma.” Jessie started to hug herself to control her quaking, but remembered in time that her hand was still smeared with slime. She walked behind the bakery display case, found a cloth, and wiped her hand with it. The day had just begun, and already it was a disaster.
Ma went to the window and looked out. “Are the Yankees still out there?” She craned her neck to the right. “Looks like they’re goin’ off down the street,” she said. “One of ’em is chasin’ a horse. What happened?”
“Jessie spooked his mount and got us out of there,” Hannah said. Her voice sounded calmer. “Heppie, let’s go clean ourselves up.” She took Heppie’s arm, and the twins went into the kitchen.
“Ma.” Jessie joined her mother at the window. “Do we have to go out there again?”
Ma took a deep, shuddering breath, then let it out slowly. It seemed to steady her. “Folks’ll be lookin’ for their bread and pastries. If you leave by the back door, it’s most likely the Yankees won’t even spot you.” She gave Jessie a pat on the shoulder. “I know those Yankee louts are mighty rude to folks, but I don’t think you’ll come to real harm if you stay together. When Hannah and Heppie have cleaned up, you three scoot.”
Jessie sighed. Ma’s right. Folks need their baked goods, and heaven knows we need the money. She shivered. They would have to go back out. Without a protector. Her brother Luke was too young to do much good. Her heart pounded in her chest. Oh Pa! Why did you have to die and leave us so helpless?
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