It was morning. Jane stood with her back to the sun, her apron full of still warm eggs, looking west at the smoke drifting into the sky.
A man had ridden up to the house yesterday with the news that Sherman and his men were approaching at a rate of fifteen miles a day, on foot no less! Just their speed was terrifying, but this army appeared to be operating with little to no sleep and did not waver in their intentions, to destroy everything in it's path. They were burning the railroad ties as they pried up the tracks, creating fires hot enough to soften the rails so that the metal could be bent, crippling the railway.
The information being brought east was that the army was young, exuberant and fit, but oddly polite and chivalrous, leaving women and children mostly unharmed. As there were no able-bodied men to drive them back, the yankees took what they liked, crops were ignited, houses were ransacked and anything of value was seized. It was said that Sherman's men were marching with hams slung over their shoulders and sacks of tobacco loaded onto their wagons.
As soon as they had heard the news that Atlanta had been taken, Jane and Robert had turned the pigs loose knowing the animals would be able to fend for themselves and could be hunted later. The garden, the horses and the cow they'd simply left alone, continuing to harvest the vegetables they needed, milking the cow and trading horses with the men who rode up daily bringing news and warnings.
Jane and Robert still had two horses, but had no idea who they belonged to, the horses had been swapped so many times. They kept them fed, watered and safe, waiting for the next exhausted man and beast to appear.
Wind blew into Jane face and she inhaled deeply, not wood smoke, probably cotton or late peas. If it was late peas, the army was mostly likely only twenty miles away, time to think about leaving.
Robert came and stood beside her, his hat cocked onto the back of his head. Jane's sunbonnet blocked him from seeing her face, but he knew from her total stillness that she was frightened.
Robert liked this new country called the United States of America. A place named for an Italian, settled by the British who had successfully broken from the most powerful country in the world to create a new nation.
He liked the vastness of the southern geography. Being able to gaze at the horizon line so far away it seemed like the end of the earth made him feel small and insignificant, which elated him. Having so much space was exhilarating, to not be crammed into a city surrounded by stench and people made him feel as if he were a king on this patch of land and woods. He had bought the farm outright, although the idea of owning land still amused him, his appreciation of having property that was his to control was never ending.
He and Jane grew their own food, milked their cows and collected the chicken's eggs. Jane was strong and healthy from plentiful food and hard work.
He had built the house himself from trees he had felled, split into boards and smoothed with an axe head.
This place was truly his own and now another war threatened to take it from him. It would not, however, take Jane. Of this he was sure.
Jane turned to him, showing him her face filled with fear, her eyes full of silent question.
Robert nodded "It is time to pack."
He turned toward the stables to start preparing for their trip into the woods. The fact that Robert was here with her was made possible by one of his parlor tricks. He had joined up, as all men of age and ability had done. At the first battle he'd fought, he jumped in front of a line of rifles, taking two shots in the chest. He'd laid in the field waiting to be either dragged off to a mass grave, or be left to rot. He told Jane he'd actually dozed off as he'd landed deep in the shade of a pecan tree and the grass was cool. When he woke up from his nap, the battle had stopped so the bodies could be cleared away, Robert then allowed himself to be hauled over a small hill, where his name was noted from the paper pinned to his tunic and when no one was looking he'd gotten up to start his long walk home. And now he'd just told her the war was coming to their front porch.
Jane took her eggs into the kitchen, carefully placing them in a wooden bowl before putting water on to boil. She would boil the eggs in the shell and bring them into the woods with them. It would probably be a long time before they saw eggs again.
As the water worked it's way into bubbles, Jane and Robert prepared for their short journey.
"I have to go to the Marsden's and help them escape." Jane said simply, stuffing a quilt her mother had made into her trunk. She had already packed her treasures along with seeds, Robert's tools, her apron, the plow head and her sewing kit. The trunk had opened up to accept much more than should have fit, but it was at capacity now, the quilt the last thing to fit.
Robert sat on the trunk lid so Jane could latch it. "No." Robert shook his head. "Do not go there. They would want to pack their silver and rugs and who can guess what other useless things. They would still be running around like chickens do when the army marches down on us. If you want to help someone go to the Miller's shanty. With Mrs. Miller with child they might need help loading their wagon. They have been good neighbors to us, to them we have an obligation."
"The Miller family moved on three days ago." Jane worked to close the latch. "They will be sixty miles from here now. And Mrs. Miller has birthed three children easily. She will have no trouble should the baby come. I showed her how to boil the scissors and I gave her the waxed string. She has the raspberry leaf tea she will need. There is no need to be concerned for their well being."
She continued "The Marsden's will try to hide in their barn cellar like fools. They will be found. I should go help them load their buggy and tell them what to leave behind."
Robert looked angry. "No Jane. I forbid it. You have assisted those helpless people enough. You gave them a peep of chicks and had to tell them to keep the box near the stove. Then they ate three of the chickens before you explained to them to wait until a hen stops laying to eat it. They are not your responsibility."
Jane stood. "Please Robert, if I do not go and try to convince them to flee I won't be able to sleep. We are taking so little. We can spare the time."
Robert stood and stomped outside, where he paced in a circle before throwing his hat on the ground. Then he went to halter the cow and saddle the horses.
Fifteen minutes after that, they were riding towards the Marsden's plantation on the ownerless horses, loaded down with the few things they'd need for a few days stay in the woods and leading the cow.
The ride to the big house took two hours, leading the slow cow.
Mrs. Marsden stood on the porch of her plantation, looking towards the smoke with her three daughters clustered behind her wringing their hands. All four women still wore their corsets, laced into them by Aunt Sadie, one of two houseworkers who had not fled with the rest of the slaves. All the women were gasping for breath, struggling to inhale against their near panic.
"Oh," Mrs. Marsden said when she saw Robert and Jane. "Have you come to put your cow into our barn? Has something happened at your farm?"
Robert dismounted and then helped Jane down before going to find water for the cow. He anticipated needing to fill the trough from the well.
Jane went up the porch steps "Mrs Marsden, Sherman's army is approaching fast, it is time for your family to move to safety. If you go north into the woods now, it will be safe to return in two days time. I will tell you what to bring."
"Oh, dear me! I shall have Aunt Sadie begin packing the china and the linens. Oh, and the ball gowns, the girls will need them for the coming social season. Please Miss, come in while I have Sadie and Toby begin the preparations."
"Mrs. Marsden, you cannot bring any of those things...." Robert heard Jane say before she moved into the house and out of his earshot.
He set to the tasks of tending to the few animals left. After carefully checking over the horses for well being, he began to hunt for the harnesses he would need need to hitch them to the buggy.
These were not work or draft horses as he would have preferred, but high steppers, meant for pleasure riding or perhaps jumping.
Robert located the things he needed, left the horses to eat their fill and went to let the chickens go. As he approached the coop, he was pleased to see the birds alive and well, their coop clean, with fresh straw for their nesting. He carefully checked for eggs, then chased the chickens out into the yard, closing the coop behind himself.
He heard shouting coming from an upstairs window, women's voices raised and arguing about dresses. Robert went into the barn to ready the buggy.
While Robert was in the middle of securing the buckles on the second horse, Jane came out onto the porch, leaving the door open behind her. She ran to the barn and finding Robert said 'Unhitch them, they won't leave. Mrs. Marsden wants to pack her daughters' ball gowns and says she has never eaten a boiled egg and will not eat one now. Nor will she sleep outside or travel so far only to come right back."
Robert saw tears in her eyes and did not say anything about his turn of events, he simply unhitched the horses and left them in the yard. If they ran off into the woods, they would come back to the house but if he left them Sherman's army would take them. Robert did not like the Marsdens and their complete lack of ability to care for themselves, he did not want to see them in any worse condition than they already were. All the women had grown thin since Mr. Marsden had gone with the army, the four females left to tend for themselves as best they could without a tended garden or chickens until Jane had given the chicks to them.
He walked to the front of the house and found Jane already in the saddle. Robert swung up onto his horse, looked over at Jane, "One day out, two days to wait, one day back. They'll be gone by then." Jane just looked at Robert and kicked her horse to a faster pace, fear clear on her face.
"We'll be safe. They're moving quickly and...... I haven't heard of such an efficient army since the days of the Romans. They're not wasting time, just destruction. This is going to break the South, it's going to get worse before it gets better. People are going to starve. You'll need to prepare yourself for that. I'm sorry, but you do."
Jane bit her lip and looked away. Robert knew she'd been feeding anyone who stopped at their door, all of them fleeing before Sherman. He'd seen one wagon with a harp sticking out of it but they had not one scrap of food and only a bucket full of water they'd collected at a creek. Jane had fed them, given them blankets and food to take with them. Robert had thrown down his hat in disgust before storming out to the stable. How did these people stay alive? And why did they think Savannah would be any different?
The supply lines to the Confederate States of America had been cut, there was nothing in Savannah the same way there was nothing anywhere. They were not going to find a storehouse full of dresses, kerosene and sweet cakes by the sea, they were going to find burned buildings and a starving population.
As they rode, Jane tried not to cry and Robert silently fumed while they both kept one eye turned toward the west. All day the wind carried the smell of smoke to them, making both of them anxious and wishing the cow would go faster.
When it began to come on dark, they found a small creek and made camp there. Robert cleared a large circle down to bare earth where Jane built up a fire using a precious stick match and began to cook a supper of salt pork and turnips. While the turnips cooked, she went to the creek to wash her face and hands. Robert took the cow to a patch of good grass and left it to graze. They would milk her in the morning and have fresh milk to go with their boiled eggs for breakfast. Robert wished they could stay here forever, pretending there wasn't a war that was dragging on and on, living on rabbits and milk. It would be a fine, simple life, but he knew Jane needed to have other people close by so he agreed to live with neighbors only ten miles away.
The smell of smoke died away as they ate their supper and then drank the tea Jane had brought with her, to help them sleep. She knew without it she would lie awake all night, waiting for a soldier in blue to leap from the tree line, yanking her up and away. She'd never lived during a time of war and she hated it. She hated how people suffered, died and how she was afraid all the time.
Robert and Jane made a nest of blankets on the ground and laid down like spoons for warmth. With the combination of the tea, Robert's body heat and the rhythmic sound of the cow chewing her cud, Jane slept.
The next morning upon waking, Jane built a fire with the kindling Robert had gathered and made them tea before milking the cow. They ate boiled eggs and drank milk for their breakfast after which Robert walked into the woods to set snare traps for rabbits. While he was gone Jane washed their dishes in the creek, neatly stowing them in a flour sack. She folded their blankets and, now done with her morning housekeeping, she settled down with the small embroidery project she had carried with her.
Was it a necessity? No, but neither she nor Robert were comfortable with being idle. She enjoyed the stitching and it would help pass the time.
As the day passed, they filled it with the small chores of walking the trap lines, sewing, gathering more firewood and listening for the army approaching. Although they were miles from the farm, the sounds carried very well and they kept their ears open for gunshots and shouts.
As dark was coming on, a cracking of branches brought both of them out of their own thoughts. Robert reached for his rifle, making sure it was cocked. He held it up to chest level. They both waited, the crackling coming closer.
A few moments later, Tabitha, the smartest of the Marsden girls came into view, riding one of the high steppers, her mother riding pillion. Her mother, of course, was sitting sidesaddle clinging to her daughter who rode astride as she understood this was not a casual, easy ride to show off one's latest riding habit. Behind her came her sisters, also riding double, on the other fancy horse.
Tabitha reined in her mount and slipped down to the ground. "We heard gunshots and screams. I think the army was still far away, but the wind was blowing in our direction and they carried. I told mother I was going to let the horse find you myself if she wouldn't come. You told me you would leave a path of broken branches and trampled underbrush to follow. And here we are." Tabitha looked plainly at Jane and Robert. "I have brought blankets, all the food we could carry and our stick matches. We still have over a hundred, but I understand we need to use those as little as possible. Mother and my sisters insisted on bringing the ball gowns, but I think we'll be using those for rags soon enough."
Jane smiled "I'm glad you left. Come and make your camp, what food have you brought? We'll have supper."
Mrs. Marsden suddenly blurted out "Aunt Sadie and Uncle Toby are coming behind us on foot. We can wait for them to do that. "
Jane looked up at the woman. "I am quite accustomed to preparing my meals Mrs. Marsden. And you must be tired and hungry, why don't you and the girls wash at the creek? I know it will be uncomfortable for you, but the water is sweet."
Mrs. Marsden, Margaret and Alice, her other two daughters went in the direction Jane pointed as Tabitha opened the bundle that contained their supplies. Jane was proud to see the blankets were thick and the stick matches wrapped in a piece of oiled cloth should they need to keep them dry.
"Did you bring any of your valuables?" Jane asked quietly.
Tabitha nodded "My mother and grandmother's jewelry. Father's pistol. I buried grandfather's Revolutionary War sword in the manure pile, although I don't doubt they will dig that up. We had a rider after you left, he told us the army was ripping up gardens, looking for what the owners had buried there. I left things in place so they wouldn't look too hard for the things I hid. As long as we live we'll be alright. I thought a night in the open would be better than watching the Yankees rip up our home."
As she spoke, Tabitha handed Jane a number of boiled eggs and a plucked and gutted chicken. "I know I oughtn't have killed it, but I thought it would be a long time before there would be chicken or eggs again. I would rather eat it than the army use it to sustain themselves. I made Aunt Sadie show me how to pluck and prepare it. I would like you to show me how to cook it. Aunt Sadie will need my help. She keeps trying to do all the tasks the house workers did. She can't possibly do it on her own. I need to talk with her about what we need to do now as our life is going to change."
"Did you butcher the bird yourself?" Jane was impressed at Tabitha's taking on the responsibility of leading her family to safety and thinking of their survival rather than comfort.
"Uncle Toby did it, but I watched. I think I will be able to do it myself before long. I am going to practice with the hatchet on small branches. We are going to need to gather firewood upon our return, the house was cold when we started out."
"You have done well by your family. I am proud that you became matriarch."
Tabitha smiled shyly. Jane also noticed that Tabitha had shed her corset and had donned the simpler, wider dress her grandmother had favored later in her life. The old woman had still worn her corset, but she was larger due to birthing ten children and the rich food and drink she enjoyed as a woman of means. It appeared that Tabitha had gone into her grandmother's armoir, thinking that being able to draw a deep breath would be beneficial in their travels.
Mrs. Marsden and Tabitha's sisters returned with clean but damp faces. As soon as they arrived at the camp they wrapped themselves in blankets and looked both horrified and mortified while Jane taught Tabitha how to cook the pullet.
Soon after, Aunt Sadie and Uncle Toby came into the clearing, with expressions on their faces to match Mrs. Marsden's. They were houseworkers, unaccustomed to being outdoors. Each of them carried a box, which turned out to be filled with the girl's ball gowns.
Jane fed everyone, being sure to give the servants their fair share of chicken, although they protested and Mrs. Marsden sniffed. Jane knew she made everyone uncomfortable, but she would treat all human beings as human beings.
She showed Tabitha how to arrange the blankets to provide padding on the ground and explained that they needed to sleep together for the warmth. She had Margaret and Alice bundle with their mother, Robert doubled up with Uncle Toby, who looked sick at the idea and put herself with Tabitha and Aunt Sadie. Jane gave them all her tea to help them sleep, brewing it strong for the ones new to camping.
And, so they passed the night. In the morning, Jane continued Tabitha's lessons showing her how to milk a cow. She explained that once a cow began to be milked, they had to be milked at the same time every day. When she gave Tabitha a drink of the warm milk, the girl's eyes lit up at the deliciousness of it.
"If you have milk, you can make cheese, which will keep a very long time. We will begin on gardening when we return home." Jane hesitated, unsure if she should push on to ask a rude question. "Would you like me to come stay with you and help run the household until you feel you can handle things yourself?" Jane was ashamed she had invited herself, but the family needed knowledge, and quickly.
Tabitha looked at Jane, "I should appreciate it ever so much. Please, do come and stay with us."
The two of them brought back the milk for breakfast. Mrs. Marsden ate a boiled egg, most likely because she was hungry. The girls nibbled theirs daintily, dabbing at their mouths with their handkerchiefs.
After everyone had eaten their fill, they started out towards home. The slow ride again took all day. Jane opted to walk with Aunt Sadie and Uncle Toby, tired from her days of being less active than she liked. She continued to lead the protesting cow, who wanted to settle and chew her cud.
Jane had told Robert she would be staying with the Marsden's until Tabitha was capable of feeding the family, then she would return home. Only ten miles away, she could easily come home on Saturdays, returning on Sunday afternoon. Tabitha was a quick study and should not take much time to teach her what she needed to know. She was already thinking differently, asking Robert to show her which plants could be eaten, if he would teach her to trap rabbits to breed for food and other questions.
Robert was glad to answer her, he liked people who took initiative and wanted to learn. As they neared the Marsden plantation they were all relieved to see the house was standing. The chicken coop had been torn apart and the small garden had been dug up, but the house was standing. Then they saw smoke from the west, Robert and Jane's farm. Jane quickly shouted to Tabitha that she would come to them once she had seen her house then allowed Robert to pull her up behind him before they took off a gallop.
As they rode up to their land, Jane saw the barn standing, but the house was nothing but a pile of smoking rubble. The Yankees had burned down their house. The chickens had returned and wandered around the yard, pecking at bugs.
Then Jane saw her trunk sitting in the exact middle of the smoking beams, covered with ash but completely intact. She burst into laughter.
"Well," she said to Robert wiping away the tears that rolled down her face "I guess we'll both be helping the Marsden's"
Robert joined her laughing as he went to the barn to find a shovel so he could fetch Jane's trunk.