This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the
Lonesome Dove television show,
AUTHOR'S NOTES: The Federal prison camp at Lookout Island was invented for this story, and did not actually exist. It is a combination of details from such prisons as Camp Douglas, Elmira, Point Lookout, and Johnson Island. I tried to keep references to prison life as close to what I have found described in various reference texts as possible. Unfortunately, I did have to fudge a little in terms of what Clay and Robert were doing, and where, when they were captured, because it's difficult to reconcile real Civil War history with what information we were given in Lonesome Dove: The Series and Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years. ~ Roberta Stuemke
1866 New Orleans
"Peace on Earth, good will towards men," Robert Shelby muttered to himself. He looked across the dimly lit room at the man sprawled on the bed. "Wouldn't that be great?" It had taken Jasper and him both to get Clay Mosby upstairs, pull off his jacket and boots, and more or less dump him on the bed before he passed out. Downstairs, the Christmas party was still going on, and familiar carols filtered up through the floorboards. Robert could hardly keep from getting sick, listening to it.
Peace there might be, but it had come at a disastrously high price, not only in lives and property lost during the war, but afterwards in the form of loyalty oaths and impossibly high taxes; a peace forced on the South like a foul-testing medicine. As for good will, well, New Orleans was certainly trying. Robert had to give Olivia and her cousins credit for their efforts with this party, but there was no disguising the fact that it was little more than a weak imitation of Christmases gone by. Some of the guests wore patched, threadbare clothing several years old, and the 'feast' had been severely limited by the expense of meat, sugar, and other such commodities.
Liquor, however, was in great supply, if not high quality, and so Clay hadn't noticed the lack of other things. He'd been drinking steadily for almost a week, trying to make the holiday disappear. Olivia somehow found new suits for both men, and she'd insisted on their presence at dinner. She tried to get them to go to church too, for appearance's sake, but Clay was so firmly opposed to it that she gave up, especially when she found Robert equally, if somewhat more politely, unwilling.
Robert yawned deeply. He knew Jasper would cheerfuly take over the watch, but the black man was over seventy years old, and had helped the household staff prepare for the party, so he was more worn out than he'd ever admit. Besides, Robert owed this night to Clay, one more penny into the well of his debt to the Mosbys. On any other night, he would share the watch, but not this one.
One certain carol, painful in its familiarity, made its way into the room, and Robert's chest hurt so much he had trouble breathing. Somehow, the music even pushed its way through the whiskey cloud in Clay's brain, and he struggled to sit up. Knowing what was coming, Robert jumped out of the chair and grabbed his friend's hand just as it closed on the gun lying on a nearby table. They fought over it briefly, but then Robert got a firm grip on the pistol and tossed it across the room, where it should have been anyway. He'd relied on Clay being too drunk to wake until morning, but he hadn't counted on that song. It was Mary's favorite melody, so much so that she'd chosen it as part of her wedding music. Clay cursed and tried to stand up, but his legs wouldn't obey him, and he collapsed back onto the bed, curling up like a child and sobbing into the pillow.
Robert said nothing. What words were there? He sat on the bed and laid one hand on Clay's shoulder, the only consolation he had to offer. His own tears flowed now, as the last chorus of "What Child is This" faded into the New Orleans night. Memories of a childhood that seemed centuries away came back to him, and he echoed his own words of that other life. "May there never be another Christmas!"
Jack Shelby had been more than a little drunk, and as a result, he'd been even freer with his riding crop than usual. Robert finally got away, but he could feel the dampness on his shirt that meant he was bleeding. He huddled next to a tree that marked the boundary between the Shelby farm and the neighboring estate, where one of Virginia's Old Families bred horses and grew tobacco, just as they had for generations, since before the colonies had pulled free of English rule. Shelby Hills was a substantial property, and Jack and Margaret Shelby insisted that they were every bit as good as the Mosbys of Hatton Willows, but no amount of money or land could compete with Old Country blue blood.
"Why are you here? What are you doin'?" A boy's voice interrupted Robert's contemplation of how long he should wait before going back home. He looked up to meet the gaze of the younger of the Mosby sons. He recognized Francis Clay Mosby from church, but they'd never really met before. The Mosby family pew was way down front, far past the Shelby's. Mrs. Shelby always insisted on being 'fashionably late', and the Mosbys were invariably seated before Robert got to church, but the families down front always left first, so he watched them pass by every Sunday. He never paid much attention to the grownups, but he recognized the children: John Matthew, the oldest, already growing to match his father's height; Elisabeth, to Robert just another girl with ribbons in her dark hair; and Francis Clay, exactly Robert's age, according to his mother, but smaller in size, so Robert could console himself with the idea that he could probably beat the other boy up without much trouble, despite all that blue blood.
Now, Francis Mosby didn't look quite so small, because he was mounted on a beautiful chestnut horse. All Robert was ever allowed to ride was a pony. His father kept saying he'd get his first horse when he learned how to behave himself. Robert struggled to his feet, unable to stifle a cry of pain. Before he could say anything, Francis neatly dismounted.
"You're hurt! What happened?"
Feeling more sure of himself now that they were both on the ground, and he was once again taller than the other boy, Robert blurted out, "Nothin' much, just Daddy bein' a little angrier than usual."
Francis didn't seem to notice the difference in their heights. He was looking at the bloody spots on Robert's shirt with an odd expression on his face. "Your FATHER did this to you?" he asked, as though he must have heard wrong.
"Yeah. I played a joke on my silly brother, and he couldn't keep his stupid mouth shut." He swaggered a little, to show that none of this meant anything.
"Your father did this because of a joke? What kind of joke was it?"
"Oh, Joby's such a crybaby. All I did was put a little ol' grass snake on his chair. Joby's mortified of snakes."
"Grass snakes aren't very dangerous," Francis snorted. "Your father beat you on 'count of a grass snake?"
The two boys stood there looking at each other, Robert painfully trying to stand straight, and Francis cocking his head a little to one side and gnawing on his lower lip like he was trying to figure out a difficult puzzle.
"You need to get cleaned up," the smaller boy finally said. "In case your father's still mad, I guess you'd better come home with me."
"You mean, me go to Hatton Willows?" Robert was shocked. His mother talked constantly about wishing she could somehow get invited to the Mosby home. He was torn between the embarrassment of being seen all messed up like this, the fear of what his father would do when he did get home, and the desire to see what the famous house looked like close up. The last feeling won, hands down. What could Joby ever do that would match this? It would be worth another beating, if it came to that.
"Hatton Willows is my home, so I guess that's what I mean."
Robert smiled and nodded, trying not to look too eager. First, though, Francis was going to have to remount that horse, and Robert was very curious as to how he would do it, since he was so small. There was no groom in sight to help him, and nothing around that would substitute for a mounting block like ladies used. Robert's eyes nearly popped out as he watched his new acquaintance lead the horse nearer to the tree, take the reins with one hand, place his right foot partway up the tree and use it to push himself forward and up, so his left foot could reach the stirrup. From there, he could reach the horn and pulled himself neatly into the saddle. For a second, Robert stood there with his mouth open, wondering how often the other boy practiced that stunt, so he could do it without getting his legs twisted around each other, but admiring him for it all the same.
Francis slipped his foot loose again, and leaned down, reaching for Robert's hand. "Come on, I'll help you get up behind me."
Nothing could have made Robert admit that he'd never been on a real horse before. He was tall enough that with Francis pulling him up, he could easily reach the stirrup and from there get all the way up, despite the pain in his back. Off they rode, through the dusky shadows toward the magnificent house he'd only seen from a distance before.
When they arrived in the stable yard behind the great house, they were met by two grooms, who helped Robert down but pointedly did not help Francis, as though they'd been told not to. "Thomas, could you rub her down for me? I need to get my friend into the house right away." Friend! Francis Clay Mosby was calling him, Robert Shelby, his friend! It was hard to keep from laughing outright, thinking of telling Joby about it.
"Course, Mr. Francis. He does look a mite cold. You go on ahead and don't worry none about Selkie."
Robert followed Francis into a garden courtyard that separated the stables from the main house, unable to keep from staring at everything around him. He was barely aware of Francis muttering, "I keep tellin' 'em not to call me that. I hate that name. You call me Clay, you hear? My friends all call me Clay."
The house was big and brightly lit, and so clean it hurt Robert's eyes. At first, it seemed that the whole house was the next thing to empty, and he couldn't figure out what they did for furniture. Margaret Shelby filled her home with fancy covered chairs and couches, tables with fringed tablecloths, artwork on every wall, thick carpets on every floor, and every other kind of elaborate furnishing she could find. This house, however, had polished wood floors with only an occasional rug, heavy pieces of furniture that Robert could tell were older and probably much more valuable than anything his mother had, some portraits on the walls and large plants neatly placed in corners, without a fringed tablecloth in sight. He followed Clay through the halls, beginning to be afraid that he wouldn't know how to behave, but also feeling numb, like none of this was real. The urge to laugh faded rapidly.
Clay led him through several rooms, finally coming to a halt and knocking on a door that was partially open. Robert could see a man sitting at a big desk, and he could hear someone playing a piano. The man at the desk lifted his head. "You may come in, Francis. You're home somewhat later than we agreed."
The stern tones in the man's voice terrified Robert, and he gladly would have turned around and run, but Clay took his hand and pulled him into the room. "I'm sorry, Father, but I found him on the edge of the east boundary. He's hurt, so I thought I should bring him home with me."
The piano playing stopped, and a woman said, "Hurt? How badly?" Two adults stepped forward, obviously Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Mosby, and Robert found himself being studied by the proud and elegant pair. Somehow, he hadn't anticipated meeting Clay's parents. He'd figured on seeing just a bit of the house before being handed over to a house slave to get cleaned up and then sent back to Shelby Hills.
"I'm not sure, Mother, but he's bleedin'. He said his father did this to him, 'cause he played a trick on his brother. I didn't know what else to do. I couldn't just leave him there. I'm sorry I'm late."
"That's quite alright. You did well," Mr. Mosby said, and then he spoke directly to Robert. "What is your name, young man?"
"Robert Shelby, sir," he answered, just above a whisper.
"Son of Jackson Shelby, from Shelby Hills?"
Robert nodded, wishing he would just turn invisible.
"Lawrence, can't you see he's frightened?" Mrs. Mosby said, her voice soft and beautiful. "Come here, Robert, so I can see what's to be done."
He followed her over to a settee, and stood where she told him to, flinching just a little when she began to remove his shirt. She clucked in sympathy, asking her son to fetch someone called Miss Mathers. Much to Robert's dismay, Clay left the room, and he was alone with the grownups. Between that and the pain in his back, he could hardly keep from crying.
A strong hand touched his shoulder. "Be brave a while longer, Robert," Mr. Mosby said. "We'll soon have this cleaned up. Tell me, does your father do this sort of thing often?"
"It doesn't matter if this is the first time or the twenty-first," his wife said. "What kind of parent does this to his own child?"
"Now, Katherine, we've discussed this before. Every parent has the legal right and the moral duty to choose whatever disciplinary measures he feels are necessary, short of outright murder. Not everyone agrees with us concernin' physical discipline, and there might have been provocation. Well, Robert?"
Torn between loyalty to his family and Mrs. Mosby's sympathy, Robert tried to explain. "Not often, sir. Only now and again, when he's dr ... when I make him angry. I don't mean to, I swear, but I ... Momma says I keep doin' things without thinkin', and Daddy says my head's too hard for me to learn any other way."
"I see. Do you attend school?"
"Really, Lawrence. He's not a witness come to stand before the magistrate," Mrs. Mosby chided her husband. "At least wait until Lydia and I have finished carin' for him."
"His parents will have to be told where he is. I need to know as much as possible about his situation beforehand."
"Ah, I can just run home 'cross the fields, sir," Robert said, realizing that they fully intended for him to stay awhile, and were planning on talking to his father. "Really, it doesn't hurt so bad. I was just ... I wanted to stay away 'til he wasn't so angry any more, that's all."
"Nonsense," Mrs. Mosby said. "You're not dressed for bein' outside in the evenin' this time of year. It's startin' to get dark out there. It wouldn't be safe. No, we would be sadly lackin' in Christian charity if we allowed you to just run off like that."
"I agree. No arguin', young man. Listenin' to your elders could spare you considerable pain and trouble. Now, do you attend school?" her husband said.
"I go to the school in town, sir, but I'm not much good at books. Joby's the smart one in the family, everybody says," Robert answered.
"Joby bein' your brother Joseph, I take it?"
Before Robert could answer, Clay returned, accompanied by a thin woman dressed in very severe clothes. He was carefully holding a basin of water, and the woman was carrying several cloths, a bottle of witch hazel, and a shirt.
"I took the liberty of bringing down one of Master John's old shirts, Mrs. Mosby," the woman said, in an accent unlike any Robert had ever heard before. "Master Francis told me something of what's happened, and it appeared that his guest might need something clean to wear."
"Quite right. Lydia, this is Robert Shelby, of Shelby Hills, the farm just to the west of the Willows. Robert, this is Miss Lydia Mathers, who has been governess here for many years." After Mrs. Mosby finished her proper introductions, the two women began to fuss over him, carefully washing off each cut on his back and making him feel thoroughly stupid in the process. Mr. Mosby had taken Clay back to his desk, and they were talking quietly. From the occasional glance cast in his direction, Robert was sure they were discussing him.
Once the women were apparently satisfied that Robert was not going to bleed to death, they gave him the clean shirt Miss Mathers had brought, which was only a little bit too large and therefore fit nicely over the bandages that now covered his back. Then, he stood before Mr. Mosby again, answering several more questions about his family. He stopped protesting or trying to get away after his first few attempts were flatly denied, and finally just told Mr. Mosby everything he wanted to know.
Only after Robert answered all the questions put to him was he allowed to escape from the grownups' presence. Clay took him upstairs to a very large room furnished with several desks, bookcases, and blackboards, just like the school in town, only nicer and much cleaner. "Mother says she'll have our dinner sent up here for us," he told Robert, who was relieved that he wouldn't have to endure sitting to a meal with all these strange and well- mannered people. It didn't occur to him that this was precisely why Mrs. Mosby chose to send their food to the classroom.
Ď"I really wasn't expectin' your family to go to all this trouble," Robert said.
"Helpin' others is no trouble. It's one of the responsibilities of bein' a gentleman," Clay said airily, obviously quoting something he'd heard many times over. "Besides, what if your father is still angry? You'd only get beat more. Father doesn't whip us. He says corporal punishment for children is bar ... bar, I can't remember the right word, but it means primitive or somethin' like that."
"My Daddy says a good whippin' every now and again makes you a man," Robert replied, thinking that the Mosby children were awfully pampered, living in a house like this, with their own governess, and their own school, and parents who didn't use a switch or anything. He was a little proud that he'd always taken his punishment like a man.
"Don't you start thinkin' we're spoiled or anythin' like that," Clay bristled, sensing the unspoken criticism. "We get punished sure enough, if Mother or Father think we deserve it. We just don't get whipped, that's all."
Dinner arrived before they could continue the debate, and both boys ate eagerly, too hungry to say anything else until they were finished. Then, Robert announced, a little regretfully, that he'd better be getting on home.
"Father took care of that," Clay told him. "He was gonna go over and get permission from your father for you to stay here tonight."
Robert gaped at him. "Daddy'll never say yes! I'm not old enough."
"You're ten, aren't you? Just like me, and I've stayed away from home lots of times. Besides, Father's a magistrate. He'll make your daddy say yes."
Robert swore, using some of his father's favorite expressions. "Daddy's gonna whip me proper for gettin' him into trouble with a magistrate. Damn!" he finished.
"Gentlemen don't use language like that," Clay scolded him. "You're lucky Miss Mathers didn't hear you. She'd pin your ears back. That woman's got a tongue sharp as a duellin' saber. 'Course, she's not my governess now. I'm too old. She teaches Elisabeth. Don't worry about gettin' whipped," he added. "Father will make everything all right, you'll see."
So began Robert Shelby's introduction to life at Hatton Willows. Magistrate Mosby not only persuaded Jack Shelby to let his son stay that one night, but also to take his classes with John and Clay and several other boys from neighboring families. The work was much harder than what the town school offered, with better teachers, and Clay often had to sit down with Robert afterward and help him with assignments that were more difficult than what he was used to.
Robert also got his horse, much earlier than he'd ever thought he would. Jackson Shelby wasn't about to have his son ride over to Hatton Willows on a mere pony. Mrs. Shelby was disappointed that Joby wasn't included in the invitation, but she wasn't about to let this opportunity slip away. If she herself was not invited to the great house, well, she could preen herself among her friends with the information that one of her boys was a personal friend of the magistrate's second son, and even took his classes with the Mosby children. Maybe the Shelbys of her generation weren't quite in those social circles, but her children would be.
The whippings stopped too, for the most part, since Robert's father didn't want to jeopardize his son's new position in life, or the chance for friendly relations with the Mosbys. Joby was intensely envious, but there wasn't anything he could do about it, since he wasn't strong enough to beat his younger brother up. The five older boys who were John Mosby's companions only tolerated their new classmate, but they did little more for any of the younger boys, including Clay himself. There were four or five years between the two groups, and the older boys were frequently away on trips or studying special subjects with tutors at the other boys' homes.
Every Tuesday, Clay and Robert went over to the Russell home to study Latin and Greek with Jeremy Russell's father, who'd studied languages in England. On Friday, they went to the Worthey plantation, for lessons in fencing, boxing, and other gentlemanly sports, with teachers that Benjamin Worthey's father had hired. Besides Jamey Russell and Benj Worthey, there were Cortland Herrick, Phillip Layton, and Stephen Edgar, and it only took a couple of weeks for Robert to be fully accepted as one of them, mostly because Clay insisted on it.
Just when Robert was thinking that his life had gotten about as good as it could get, he was invited to spend the entire Christmas holiday at Hatton Willows, as Clay's only guest for the full week of the famed Mosby yuletide celebration. The other boys would certainly be at most of the parties, with their families, but Robert was the only one invited to stay the entire week. At first. Jack Shelby said no, offended that Joby was still being ignored, and that neither he nor his wife received any of the holiday invitations, but Margaret swallowed her disappointment and insisted that Robert be allowed to go. Such an advantage, she told her husband, was not something they could afford to deny their younger son. Surely, as time went by, the rest of the family would begin to get the acceptance Robert already had, if they were patient, and showed Katherine Mosby that the Shelbys could be just as gracious and noble as their neighbors.
Robert was sure it was all a dream that was going to end at any moment. The great house was beautifully and tastefully decorated, there was music virtually around the clock, and guests came and went at regular intervals. There were tea parties, musicales, small evening parties, games, riding parties, and five days worth of presents. He was incredibly surprised that he was never once left out of the gift-getting, even if his parents had only given him enough to reciprocate once; he got gifts from the entire Mosby family, from his classmates and their families, even from Miss Mathers, the Massachusetts-born governess. It was all so different and exciting, Robert could barely go to sleep at night, afraid that he would wake up at home, in the room he shared with Joby.
On Christmas Eve, he went to the evening church service with the Mosby family, and sat in the Mosby pew right down at the front of the church. For the first Christmas ever, he actually sang the carols, because now he knew all the words. Mrs. Mosby loved music, and insisted that it be included in the lessons offered in the big classroom at Hatton Willows, so the boys had been singing Christmas carols for a month, rehearsing for one of the musicales. After the service, he marched out at Clay's side, and saw his mother smiling with pride even as she dabbed away at her eyes with her handkerchief. Joby didn't look at him at all.
At the Christmas Eve ball, following dinner, he danced with Elisabeth Mosby, and with Mary Russell and Constance Worthey, and he never tripped over his feet once. Thanks to the lectures in deportment and manners that Mr. Mosby himself gave, Robert knew exactly how to behave, even though it had only been a little over six weeks since that first visit. He didn't exactly like dancing, because he really didn't think much of girls and how much they giggled and how silly they acted; all the boys felt the same way, but dancing was expected of them, and so they all danced. Afterwards, they stole special treats from the long, glorious table of desserts and other sweets that Mrs. Mosby took such great pride in presenting to her guests.
Finally, after the other children their age had been taken home, Clay and Robert were sent up to the big room that Clay didn't have to share with anyone but his occasional guest, in the same wing as the classroom. Lying in the same bed he'd used that very first night, Robert looked up at the ceiling, watching the moonlight dance off the small chandelier, listening to the sounds of the adults still partying in the great hall, wishing that morning would never come. There would be some more gifts, and another elaborate breakfast, but then he would have to go home, and there would be no classes for several weeks. The Mosbys were going to spend time at their house in Richmond, and then would travel to New Orleans, where Lawrence Mosby had many friends and business associates.
Could any Christmas ever be better than this? Robert dreaded the coming of another one, if it couldn't be spent here. "God, if other Christmases can't be like this, then I wish there would never be another Christmas, ever," he whispered, and then he clapped his hand over his mouth to stop any other stupid prayers. He was about to pray for forgiveness, but then he thought that he shouldn't need it. Surely God was wise enough to know that he meant the celebration of the Christmas holiday, and not the actual birth of Jesus. On that thought, he finally fell asleep.
1866 New Orleans
"Oh, Lord, I didn't mean it," Robert whispered, still sitting on the bed beside his best friend, who had finally passed out again. "Please, I want to believe that there will be another Christmas like we used to have. Don't just abandon us like this." He was crying again, and knew he was over-tired, but he couldn't bring himself to ask for help. Watching Clay was his responsibility, and gentlemen took their responsibilities seriously. That was not something he'd learned from his own father, and certainly Joby had never learned it. His brother had begged off wearing a uniform with the claim that he was an 'invalid', too sickly to serve. Their father had been so gone in drink that he'd not protested.
Once the war was over, Joby couldn't sign that damned loyalty oath fast enough, even though as a noncombatant he probably could have gotten away with not signing it at all. Then, just as soon as he could, he found himself a carpetbagger's daughter to marry, so he could manage to keep Shelby Hills. After the destruction of Hatton Willows and the Worthey and Russell estates, Shelby Hills was the largest holding in the parish, and the oldest,, and Joby lorded it over everybody, taking his seat in church right down in front.
But he still wouldn't know how to celebrate Christmas, Robert told himself. Neither Joby nor his somewhat vulgar wife would ever understand that Shelby Hills with its overflow of knick-knacks and fringed tablecloths was no match for what Hatton Willows had been. It wasn't just blue blood that money and land couldn't make up for, it was good taste, decent manners, and honor. Robert had been blessed with his years with the Mosbys and the education they'd given him, both within the classroom and without. Even penniless, landless, and drunk, Francis Clay Mosby was more a true gentleman than Joseph Benjamin Shelby could ever dream of being, whether or not he sat in the front pew at church, and Robert prided himself on being a gentleman worthy of Clay's friendship.
Robert staggered over to the window and looked out, hoping to see stars, just ordinary stars, he told himself, although he'd never lost his boyish desire to see, just once, the glorious star that had guided the magi to the stable. But there were only clouds, and no stars at all.
Eight years after he first set foot in the great house at Hatton Willows, Robert Shelby was once again Clay's special guest for the Mosby Christmas celebration. At eighteen, he no longer viewed Christmas through the eyes of a bedazzled child, but it was still his favorite time of year, and the Mosby plantation was still his favorite place to celebrate it. Blindman's Bluff in the upstairs playroom had given way to poker or billiards in the gentlemen's gameroom, bon-bons and peppermint candy had been replaced by cigars and good brandy, but the full glory of the holiday remained. There were all the afternoon teas, dinner parties, dances, musicales, and riding parties, with the grand finale still being the dinner and ball after church on Christmas Eve.
However, Robert had to admit that more things had changed than had stayed the same, including his own view of the world, but he had no way of knowing just how much more was going to change in the near future. Mostly, he realized that he had simply grown up, as had they all, and the kind of man he had grown into had been influenced more by Clay's family than any other single force.
Responsibility was the primary code by which Lawrence Mosby chose to live his life, and to raise his children. He himself had learned it from his own father, and his father's father, probably going back through the entire Mosby line, all the way to the years prior to the French and Indian War, when Sir Francis Lawrence Hatton Mosby emigrated to Virginia and built Hatton Willows. Duty and responsibility were at the core of everything that made a man or woman admirable, according to Magistrate Mosby. You accepted without complaint any responsibility that was laid upon you, and took your share of the responsibility - or blame - for any events in which you were involved. This was the foundation for the development of honor, pride, and leadership, all the qualities that lifted a gentleman or a lady above the common sort, and once this foundation was laid, prosperity and security were bound to follow. Mosby's children were expected to mold themselves in this image.
Clay accepted this code, without question, as did his brother and sister, secure in the knowledge that if they followed in their ancestors' footsteps, Hatton Willows and the Mosby family would continue to thrive. No matter how hard Robert tried - and he did, out of respect for the family that had welcomed him into their home and changed his life - he could not embrace the philosophy quite so wholeheartedly. Life at Shelby Hills was very different from that at Hatton Willows, and so he grew up with a cynicism that his friend did not have. Still, Lawrence Matthew Mosby's teachings left a very strong impression on him, stronger even than the influence of his own father, who continued to drink himself closer and closer to his own grave.
In the first few months of his friendship with Clay Mosby, Robert had clung to the belief that all three of the Mosby children had been pampered all their lives. It helped him accept the differences in the two families. Eventually, though, he realized that the occasional whipping, however unpleasant, was actually easier to handle than the high expectations the magistrate and his wife had for their children. Whatever John, Clay and Elisabeth did, they were expected to do well, and Clay smarted under the humiliation of his parents' disappointment far more than Robert had ever suffered under the blows from his father's riding crop. The Shelbys were satisfied as long as he did reasonably well at his studies and did nothing to disgrace his family, although they would forever be bitter about their own exclusion from Robert's social status.
Near the end of his first year as a part of the 'Mosby Set', Robert had learned a very hard lesson about Lawrence Mosby's expectations. He had always been very active, and sitting in the classroom for hours at a time made him even more active when studies were completed for the day. On numerous occasions, he pulled stunts that backfired, and every time he did, Clay would immediately step in and claim that the idea had been his and therefore he was to blame for it. Knowing how stubborn he could be, the other boys never contradicted him, but gradually Robert developed a very guilty conscience. Clay was never whipped, to be sure, but he was certainly punished. Each time, he would be forbidden to ride for a certain number of days, would have to work in the stables under the grooms' authority, or would have to do extra schoolwork, sometimes all three. He never complained, which made it even harder on Robert, who finally couldn't take it any more and mustered up his courage to tell Mr. Mosby that he was the one who really deserved the punishment.
Much to his surprise, the magistrate only nodded and said that he was well aware of the situation. "I've known from the first that Francis was takin' the blame for things you were doin'. I know my children, and he has never been prone to such stupid mistakes."
"But why haven't you said anythin'?"
"What would your father do if he learned about all this?"
"He'd probably whip me good, I suppose. Or maybe just make me stay home," Robert answered.
"Precisely. Francis knows that your father practices corporal punishment, where I do not. Therefore, by takin' the blame on himself, he is sparin' a friend from unwarranted pain. It's no more than I would expect from any of my family."
"But if you know he didn't do anythin' wrong, why do you keep punishin' him?" Robert asked, feeling like he was swimming in a strange and very deep river.
"First, if I did not punish him, the other parents would wonder why, and very soon your father would suspect who the real culprit was. Second, every decision we make produces a result. Francis has freely chosen to accept the responsibility for your actions, and that means acceptin' the punishment as well. If nothin' else, he is bein' less than truthful to me, even if his falsehoods are for the common good." Mosby paused, looking down at Robert, whose forehead wrinkled with his efforts to comprehend all of this. Finally, the magistrate asked a question Robert was already asking himself. "Tell me, young Mr. Shelby, how does it make you feel, knowin' that someone else is bein' punished for your mistakes?"
"I ... ashamed, I guess, sir," Robert knew his face had turned red, and he kept his eyes pointed at the ground.
"That's a sign of growin' maturity, and I'm happy to hear of it. So, how do you propose to prevent Francis from bein' punished any further?"
"I guess I'd better keep out of trouble," Robert admitted.
"Excellent choice. That way we all come out ahead." Mr. Mosby started to walk away, but then he stopped, came back, and forced Robert's head up, so the boy had to meet his gaze. "Let me ask you one more question. Why do you suppose Mrs. Mosby and I chose to invite you to join my son's classes?"
"I've thought about that a lot, sir, but I just don't know," Robert said, feeling miserable. Was he going to lose everything? He didn't think he could bear that.
"By bringin' you home with him that night, Francis was takin' responsibility for you, and that cannot be a simple, one-time-only action, done and then forgotten. It was important that Francis realize that." The magistrate smiled, the same bright smile both of his sons had inherited, which lit up the very air around them. "I must admit, I'm quite pleased with the results. Francis has risen to meet the challenge, and you show many signs of growin' into a fine young man, one I will be very proud to claim as my friend."
Nothing Robert had ever experienced up to that point made him feel so proud as that one statement, and he vowed to earn Mr. Mosby's faith in him. Of course, he still made occasional mistakes, but he tried very hard to beat Clay to the punch and accept the blame himself. Ironically, he was rarely punished. Jackson Shelby expected boys to get into trouble once in a while, considering it a normal part of growing up.
Robert took six years of schooling with Clay, including one full year in Richmond, living at the fine house the magistrate maintained in that city. There were the usual embarrassments of adolescence, including the humiliation Clay suffered when, at a formal party celebrating his twelfth birthday, Jamey Russell's sister Mary announced to everyone who could hear that she was going to marry him. Clay was mortified then, of course, but within three more years, the entire parish had come to accept the simple fact that Francis Clay Mosby and Mary Susannah Russell were 'meant' for each other. Both sets of parents had their reservations, and tried to persuade their headstrong children to wait, especially since there had once been talk of sending Clay to medical school, although he showed more interest in horse-breeding. They wanted both Clay and Mary to see more of the world before they committed themselves completely. So, just before he was seventeen, Clay was sent to an academy in New Orleans for a year, and Mary went to Atlanta to stay with an aunt and be formally introduced to society there, where no one knew she had already promised herself to a certain young man back home.
By that time, Robert was almost as much a member of the Mosby family as his friend. He fit very well into the Mosby Set, and as such was also welcomed at the homes of all the other young men he'd been studying with. He was very much a part of the society that his mother had craved so badly all of her life, but she was left to enjoy that society vicariously, through her younger son, and died early in 1860, still disappointed.
Clay returned to Virginia early in the summer of 1860, one month after Mary did. If their time away from home and each other was expected to give them more polish, maturity, and confidence, the plan succeeded beautifully. However, if their separation was intended to allow their mutual affection to fade into mere friendship, or if the more cosmopolitan lifestyle they sampled during their exile was supposed to make them realize that all they had felt was an adolescent infatuation, the plan was a splendid failure. Even if they were simply supposed to realize that they should wait a few more years before getting married, it hadn't happened.
Within hours of his return to Hatton Willows, Clay was off to see Mary, and after a month of arguments, pleas, and threats, parental blessings were reluctantly given, even though the couple was unfashionably young for marriage. The formal betrothal ball was in August of 1860, and the wedding was set for six months later, the last day of January, 1861, the date of Clay's nineteenth birthday. Mary wouldn't be eighteen until the following April, but her parents knew her stubborn personality and remembered how many years she had steadfastly maintained that this was the only marriage she would ever contemplate, so they consented anyway.
It was the first engagement among Robert's friends, although John Mosby had married Venetia Worthey the previous year, and several others of John's circle were either married or engaged. In Clay's set, there were only two other matches in the works. Phillip Layton was courting Constance Worthey, and Cory Herrick was expected to soon ask permission of Clay's parents to formally court Elisabeth. Robert hadn't met anyone yet who really attracted him, although there had been a time when he dreamed hopelessly of Mary Russell, and had to fight a desperate envy of Clay's good fortune. By the time of the betrothal, however, Robert too had accepted the inevitable, and was truly happy for them both. Clay's happiness was complete and irresistible, and Mary's affections had, of course, been declared years earlier.
With anticipation of the wedding adding to the excitement of the holiday, the Mosby Set gathered at the Hatton Willows plantation for the celebration of the Christmas of 1860. Among Robert's friends, the conversation centered mostly on horse breeding, racing, hunting, and, of course, women. It was the rule in the Mosby home that no gentleman would tell outright ribald stories or jokes, but speculation about who was chasing, or was being chased by, a particular young lady, was fair game. Of course, this year politics was also a very frequent, and much more serious, topic: the election of Lincoln as president, the growing tension between Washington and the southern states, the possibility that South Carolina was already seceding from the union. As yet, however, the subject was more exciting than it was worrisome, and certainly did not ruin anyone's enjoyment of the occasion.
The musicale had long been one of the highlights of a Mosby Christmas. No professional musicians performed on that evening, although there was an orchestra employed for the dancing parties and the Christmas Eve Ball. The musicale was dedicated to the talents of all the young people invited to the festivities. The children performed first, usually singing carols and a hymn or two. Then, the young adults took over. All the ladies performed, either singing or playing an instrument like the piano or the harp. Mary Russell and Elisabeth Mosby particularly shone in 1860, as both women had seriously studied music and could easily out-perform most of their friends and neighbors. Mary had an excellent singing voice, and she persuaded Clay, who had a credible voice himself, to join her in a duet, singing her favorite carol, "What Child is This". As everyone expected, they performed very well together.
Some of the other young men also performed, but Robert was not among them. Music was not highly regarded as a masculine pursuit at Shelby Hills, and Robert had learned to be diplomatic about such things, to avoid aggravating the old wound caused by his acceptance into a world the rest of his family was excluded from. As usual, the musicale ended with a group sing, everyone joining in, on all the popular carols and Christmas songs, and this year, a few patriotic songs as well, and Robert enjoyed participating in this.
The next day was Christmas Eve. After the morning's usual spectacular breakfast, and the usual exchange of gifts, - now, of course, Robert was prepared, and had sufficient gifts for everyone to last all five days of gift-giving - there was a riding party, taking advantage of the mild weather. When they returned to Hatton Willows for a late luncheon, they were met with the most recent news: as rumored, South Carolina had indeed voted to repeal its ratification of the constitution, and thereby to secede from the union. This exciting and yet disturbing confirmation of the seriousness of the political situation became the only cloud over the day's activities, but while the ladies had any control over the conversation, the plans for the coming wedding were still the foremost topic.
As they had for years, everyone attended the early evening Christmas Eve service, but even when the sermon turned into a plea that the cooler heads among the nation's leaders would prevail, the mood of the party could not be ruined. After the church service came one of the crowning events of the season: Katherine Mosby's famous Christmas Eve feast, to be followed by the Ball itself.
Only when the ladies withdrew after dinner to allow the gentlemen to smoke and drink their brandy in peace, did the conversation return to the unbelievable election of Abraham Lincoln as president, and the overwhelming arrogance of Northern Republicans who were demanding that their personal concepts of morality, ethics, and economics be declared the law of the whole nation. When the original thirteen colonies had first won their independence from England, and eventually agreed to form the union that became the United States of America, it was assumed that each state would retain its own individual rights. If Lincoln's administration intended to strip Virginia or any other state of those rights, secession was the only possible reaction.
"South Carolina is showin' more courage than any of the rest of us," hot-tempered Jamey Russell insisted. "We should be doin' the same. Secession ought to be put to the popular vote, and soon."
Quiet Phillip Layton, the conscience of the group, protested. "The union between the states is almost a sacred thing. We can't just throw away eighty years of work without first makin' some effort to preserve it."
"Virginia has always been a leader among the states, and we should be in the vanguard now," Jamey said. "Waitin' is for fools and cowards. Bold action is what we need. That'll show those damned whinin' abolitionists. You want us to wait 'til another John Brown shows up?"
"I think Virginia's pride can afford to wait for awhile," Clay said. "Lincoln doesn't want another John Brown any more than we do. We should see how he responds to South Carolina's decision first. That'll tell us if there's really somethin' to worry about."
"It's not like every other state is rushin' to follow South Carolina, and Virginia is bein' left behind," Robert said. "Clay's right. We have to wait at least a little while. Boldness is one thing. Rashness is somethin' else entirely."
Cory Herrick, always one to rely on his own not inconsiderable charm, snorted at them all. "Listen to yourselves! As if anyone could really take Lincoln seriously! He's a clumsy, ugly man with no more grace or wit than a country mule. Do you really think someone like that could persuade the entire Congress to do anythin' that would seriously threaten the very foundations of this country? He doesn't have a chance in hell! You'll see, even his own party will be disownin' him soon enough."
"I hope it turns out to be that easy," Robert said. "He had enough grace to win the popular vote and get elected president, didn't he?"
Before Jamey completely lost his temper, Clay stepped in. "Don't start tearin' up the Constitution just yet, Jeremy. After all, havin' an unattractive president is hardly grounds to rip apart the whole nation. The constitution's withstood more ominous threats. Let's wait, and see whether extreme action is really called for or not."
The debate continued, with Benj Worthey and Steff Edgar, following along as usual, content to simply listen to the others and only occasionally interject some statement of agreement to whoever was speaking at the moment. The same debate was going on in every other group of men in the room, with many of the same arguments being presented, as well as others that were also being hotly debated in the nation's newspapers.
Still, it was Christmas Eve at Hatton Willows, and nothing could be allowed to get in the way of the Grand Ball. As soon as the ladies had freshened up and were ready to rejoin the men, it was time for the dancing to commence. Of course, all of Clay's friends had to dance with Mary, and Clay was equally sought after by her friends. Once that courtesy had been answered, however, the two of them refused to dance with anyone else for the remainder of the evening. Robert suffered no lack of dancing partners, but he still sat out several times, just watching the colorful scene. No longer infatuated with Mary himself, he was able to rein in his envy as he watched the happy couple circle the room in each other's arms, oblivious to everyone else. He knew that what he really envied was Clay's good fortune in finding someone with whom he was so well matched. Robert had not given up hope yet; he was young, there was plenty of time, and he was determined that he would not marry until he found someone with whom he could be as comfortable as Clay was with Mary.
The party 'went out' in the wee hours of the morning. Those guests who were not actually staying in the mansion made their proper farewells and went home. This time, since he was an adult guest, Robert had his own room in the guest wing, rather than having to share a room in the children's wing, and he was so tired that he fell asleep immediately after retiring, with no reflections whatsoever on either the state of the nation or of the holiday.
1866 New Orleans
Even now, it still seemed impossible that things could have changed so rapidly. Christmas of 1860 had been the last real Hatton Willows Christmas. Five other states seceded by the time Clay and Mary exchanged their vows and were sung off to their Richmond honeymoon by several slightly tipsy friends. Fort Sumter was taken in April, and shortly thereafter, Virginia seceded. The entire Mosby Set, led by all three Mosby men, volunteered for military service in June.
Fate had apparently not gazed on the newlyweds with any great affection. The days of their life together could be counted as less than a year, even if you included the few times Clay had been able to get home after the hostilities commenced.
There was a quiet knock on the door of the dark room, and Robert left his contemplation of fate and the cloudy night sky, to open the door. Olivia Jessup, whose cousins-by-marriage owned this house, slipped in, carrying a tray of food, and Robert's first thought was the incongruous memory that he had first met Olivia during the celebration of the Christmas of 1860. "I thought you could use something to eat. Have you slept at all?"
Robert just shook his head. Olivia set the tray down and looked affectionately at Clay. "It all hit him so very hard," she remarked.
"He lost more than the rest of us, because he had so much more to start with," Robert pointed out.
"He had a bad night again, didn't he?"
"He would have slept through it except for that damned song," Robert said.
"I know. I'm so sorry. I could have sworn I told the musicians not to play it. Maybe they didn't realize "Greensleeves" and "What Child is This" have the same melody. Anyway, I was across the room when they started, and I couldn't get to them fast enough to stop it. All I could do was pray he wouldn't hear it," Olivia explained.
"He'd hear that song if a child was hummin' it in Texas," Robert said wearily. "Don't blame yourself. He fell asleep again soon enough."
Olivia cast one knowing eye in his direction, and then walked across the room to pick up the gun from where it had fallen on the floor; she must have seen it when she first came in, with the light from the hallway briefly illuminating the room. "Not quite soon enough, it appears to me."
Robert gave her a wan grin. "That was my mistake. I thought he was too drunk, so I didn't worry about the gun."
"You need to rest. Let me stay here awhile. I'd have Jasper come up, but Eleanor asked him to help serve drinks, and since we are dependent on their charity ... "
Robert was already shaking his head. "Don't worry 'bout me. Let Jasper finally get some rest, and you get some yourself. Tonight is my responsibility. I'll rest tomorrow."
"It already is tomorrow," Olivia remarked pointedly. She sighed, looked once more in Clay's direction, and gently rested one hand on Robert's shoulder. "You've been a good friend to him, Robert. No man could ask for a better."
Robert looked at Clay himself, and then sagged into the chair. "Iíve had a better," he said softly, "but he's havin' trouble findin' his way back from the war."
1864 Federal Prison Camp, Lookout Island
On December 22, 1864, the rebel officers confined to Barracks 12 of the Lookout Island Federal Prison Camp received some presents from a Ladies' Aid Society on the mainland: socks, mittens, and blankets. For some of the men, including Clay Mosby, Robert Shelby, and Phillip Layton, the socks and mittens were the first such items they had seen since their capture. Unfortunately, Barracks 12, also known as one of the dungeons, had already gotten another present, brought by the newest inmate to join their ranks: diphtheria.
Although diphtheria was known primarily as a child-killing disease rather than a major threat to healthy adults, the general physical condition of the unfortunates in Barracks 12 meant that any man who hadn't had the disease as a child and had therefore acquired immunity, was an easy target. Rather than hospitalize the victims and risk spreading the illness throughout the camp, Col. Pritchard, the embittered, spiteful commanding officer of Lookout Island, simply isolated the affected building and labelled it as a Pest- House. The men's leg shackles were removed, and all the individual cell doors were unlocked, so the unaffected prisoners could care for their stricken comrades themselves. Food and water were left immediately inside the door, and access to the barracks was severely limited. Even the camp's medical staff were not allowed to enter, which meant that the closest thing these prisoners had to a doctor was Col. Francis Clay Mosby, who had frequently accompanied his mother as she tended to the illnesses, injuries, and other complaints of the slaves and free laborers of Hatton Willows, and whose family had once hoped he would attend medical school.
Without medicine, decent food, and real beds, there was very little Clay could really do, but the fact that he appeared to know what to do led the others to believe in his abilities. That many of his actions were really organizational rather than medical in nature, occurred only to a few officers, and the simple fact that they were able to recognize the difference also meant that they understood the importance of not mentioning it to anyone else.
Assisted by Col. Bristol, who'd known the Mosbys in Richmond and was the oldest and most senior officer in the barracks, and Robert Shelby, now a captain, Clay established certain rules that everyone was expected to obey. The large room at the front of the barracks, which contained the only fireplace, was left empty, to be used as a morgue. Whenever someone died, the body was left in that room, wrapped in the rough sheets Pritchard had reluctantly issued for that purpose, and the guards were informed of the death when they next delivered food and water. Soon after that, prisoners from outside, wearing scarves across their faces and gloves on their hands, would be sent in to retrieve the body for burial.
These men had already accepted the oath of allegiance, making them traitors to the majority of prisoners, and so they were in no position to tell anyone else in the camp about the epidemic. Since bodies being removed from a Pest-House were a frequent occurrence at Lookout Island, no one really noticed anything out of the ordinary. Still, these men were Southerners, and still had some sympathies for their ex-comrades, so occasionally they snuck things into the dungeon when they came to pick up the bodies, things like dried apples or 'Lookout Island Chickens' - dead rats, which had become popular in the prison camp as fresh meat, something which was in very short supply.
The first two prison cells formed the 'hospital'; all disease victims were kept here, tended by volunteers among the unaffected who were reasonably sure of their immunity. Everyone else stayed in the remaining cells, moving about in the hallway only when supplies had to be distributed. The 'best' of the food was reserved for the sick, although it was pretty hard to consider any of their rations as the 'best' of anything: moldy bread, near- spoiled meat that often had maggots in it, potatoes that were just about rotten, the inevitable rats, and occasionally the miracle of a fruit or vegetable. Clay took the most edible meat and boiled it, draining off the excess liquid for a weak imitation of broth, to be fed to his patients. At the least, it would help prevent dehydration, and at best, he hoped the hot liquid would have an affect on the ugly thick membrane that was one of the last terrible symptoms of the disease, and which usually meant that the patient was beyond hope. Clay didn't really know that much about diphtheria, but forming these theories about its treatment made him feel less helpless and gave his comrades a little more confidence, and, with the grace of God, some of the procedures might actually do some good.
Although the Ladies' Aid Society would probably never know it, their presents were all the more welcome because of the epidemic: Clay was able to use them to keep his patients as warm and comfortable as possible in a barracks with damp earthen floors, lumpy mattresses in place of real beds, and just the one fireplace in that front room. Another reluctant concession from Pritchard was sufficient fuel to keep a fire going there at all times, to keep water and food hot. The room itself had so many holes in the roof and walls that the floor had the consistency of thick mud, which was why it could only be used as a morgue rather than a hospital room despite the warmth of the fire. So, the hand-knitted socks and mittens, and the blankets, thicker than anything issued by the prison itself, were all very welcome.
Despite being grateful for the presents, most of the prisoners tried very hard to ignore the holiday. If they ignored it long enough, it would simply pass them by, and they could forget it. 1864 would simply be a year without Christmas, better than suffering the melancholy of a holiday in this place.
On Christmas Eve, Robert moved quietly about the hospital cells, checking those men who appeared to be sleeping to be certain they were still breathing, and trying to get those who were awake to swallow some of the weak broth Clay had concocted. Clay himself sat on a mattress, cradling Phillip Layton in his arms. As he had been doing for a week, he constantly whispered to himself, trying to memorize a list of the victims who had died, because they all insisted that he promise them to get some message to their families. Pritchard, that god-forsaken son of a bitch, had refused to give his 'unruliest' prisoners anything to write such a list down on. Col. Bristol and a major from South Carolina were trying to do the same thing, on the principle that hopefully the names one man forgot the other would remember.
Clay had gone without sleep for so long that Robert considered it no less than a miracle that he hadn't contracted the illness himself. Robert and Bristol were the only ones who knew that Clay had not had diphtheria as a child, and therefore could not count on being immune to it. He was such an important element of hope among his fellow inmates that they didn't dare mention this fact to anyone, including Major Holcomb.
"I'll stay with Phillip for awhile," Robert murmured. "You have to get some rest yourself. And I know for a fact that you haven't eaten today. You gave your share to Major Simpson."
"He has a wife and three children," Clay said, in a dreamy sort of voice.
"And so he reminds us at every opportunity. You have a wife, too," Robert said. "These men all need you. Now let me stay with Phillip, and you get yourself some food and a little rest. Col. Bristol is holdin' some supper for you."
"No. I can't leave him now. It's too dangerous. I left Cory alone when I should have been watchin' him. How am I ever gonna tell Elisabeth that I fell asleep when I knew her fiance was sufferin', and that while I was sleepin' he killed himself? I can't leave Phillip. I won't lose anyone else."
Loss. Gods, what they had lost! Lawrence Mosby, maimed, sent home without his left hand and leg; his oldest friend, Oliver Jessup, Olivia's father, dead of his own wounds shortly after going home to Richmond. John Mosby and most of his friends, dead at Sharpsburg. Half the company, including Benj Worthey, dead on the fields of Gettysburg. Col. Templeton, fallen victim to a sniper in Delaware, leaving Clay in command; Steff Edgar, the last man killed by that sniper before Clay caught and executed him. And finally, still in Maryland to get badly needed supplies from a rebel sympathizer, the remainder of the company was caught in a trap and shot to pieces. Jamey Russell was ordered to take any man who could still keep himself on a horse, and try to make it back to Virginia, while everyone else took sanctuary in a church, trusting the local minister's promises of protection.
Clay and Robert had stayed with those too injured to ride without help. As soon as Jamey was gone, they surrendered, as agreed upon with Reverend Percy, so the men could at least get medical care, only the care never materialized. Clay, Robert, Cory Herrick and Phillip, the only officers, were separated from the rest of the men, perhaps 15 in all, who were then shot by the bastard who'd accepted their surrender. He claimed to be acting under the standing orders regarding 'Mosby's Rangers', as given by Phil Sheridan himself: execute upon capture. That the famed Gray Ghost of the Confederacy was operating in Virginia, not Maryland, and that there was absolutely no connection between Francis Clay Mosby and John Singleton Mosby, didn't matter in the slightest. This same coincidence, two Virginia-born Confederate officers having the same last name, had also been Pritchard's excuse for sending the four friends directly to Barracks 12, one of three specially constructed barracks designated as 'dungeons'.
None of the standard privileges granted to the other prisoners in the camp applied to those in the dungeons. They weren't allowed outside except when sentenced to 'ride Morgan's mule', as a particularly vicious form of discipline was called, or forced to parade through the entire prison compound in a 'barrel shirt'; they had no access to the sutler's to buy such things as buttons, writing paper, pencils, tobacco, or newspapers; they could not receive letters or packages from home, nor were they allowed to write letters to send home.
"The South must be pacified," was one of Col. Pritchard's mottos, borrowed from Generals Sheridan and Sherman, and although the statement was originally intended as justification for treatment accorded the civilian population of the southern states through which those men were sweeping, Pritchard had no difficulty applying it to his own work: beat the rebel prisoners down, break their spirit, destroy their ability to resist, because then after the war ended and they were sent home, they wouldn't be inclined to start any new insurrection. His most constant philosophy, however, was 'retribution', a cause embraced by many newspapers in the latter months of 1864. Rebel officers held in northern prison camps should be made to suffer as much as the brave and martyred Union officers did in the hellhole of Andersonville. As this idea had steadily gained popularity among politicians, and in both military and civilian circles, Pritchard was able to conduct the affairs of Barracks 12 with little interference, even from the Committee on the Conduct of the War, especially since he was very careful to note in his logs precisely why certain prisoners were incarcerated there.
Specifically, the three Dungeons were for unruly and difficult prisoners, men who had already attempted to escape from this or some other Union prison camp, and this was standard practice in Federal prison camps. Pritchard used Barracks 12 for what he referred to as 'special cases': agitators, or men who kept extensive journals, indicating that they were really spies rather than ordinary officers. There were also men who had been captured under special circumstances, for instance, fighting men captured out of uniform - never mind that this frequently meant that the unfortunate rebel had replaced a worn out uniform shirt or pair of trousers with a civilian equivalent because the Confederates had run out of supplies. And of course, any rebel, especially an officer, who was captured behind Union lines, was automatically sent to Barracks 12, labelled as a raider or guerrilla; for these men, no treatment was too extreme, and one could even make a case that since they could have been justifiably executed, Clay and the officers taken with him were being treated far better than they deserved. As long as Pritchard could justify the special incarceration of each prisoner in that dungeon, he faced no problems whatsoever - except from the dedicated Ladies' Aid Society, which kept threatening him with letter campaigns and sermons denouncing his 'UnChristian Behavior'. It was due only to these women that he gave up denying access to sanitary facilities as a disciplinary measure, and also started supplying the prisoners with some kind of fresh fruit or vegetable at least once or twice a week.
Along with the scurvy, dysentery, and malnutrition that all the Lookout Island prisoners had to endure, Clay and his companions, like the others in the Punishment Barracks, faced frequent beatings, torture, humiliation, and jokes: such sadistic practices as thumb hanging, standing on the chines, or being bucked and gagged, were regular occurrences. Clay also had to endure mocking promises of better treatment for Robert, Cory, and Phillip if he would only tell the guards where the Gray Ghost's hideout was, when they already knew full well that he didn't have that information. Still suffering from their injuries, Cory and Phillip had broken easily, screaming and begging for mercy from men who had none to give. Robert and Clay held out longer, until Pritchard, more intelligent and at the same time more sadistic that his hand-picked guards, realized that the one sure way to break Col. Mosby was through his men. They concentrated all their efforts on breaking Robert and continuing to destroy what was left of Phillip and Cory, and eventually their efforts were rewarded. Clay started to curse them, and then, to beg them to leave his friends alone, after which he became more susceptible to occasionally screaming when he himself was beaten or tortured, just as Pritchard had figured he would.
Few of the other officers in Barracks 12 saw any dishonor in Clay's action, since they had gone through the same treatment themselves. The only exceptions were Clay and Cory. The knowledge that his own weakness had provided their tormentors with the means to break Clay preyed heavily on Herrick, pushing him to desperate measures. One night, they could see that he was not even trying to sleep, that he was working at something with his hands, but the others were too tired and too sick, and they never tried to find out what he was doing. The next morning, when the guards came in to 'do the count', as regulations demanded even though these prisoners were shackled and chained and therefore could hardly escape, Cory was dead. Somehow, he had gotten his hands on a sharp-edged piece of rock, and had rubbed it back and forth across his neck until it cut the artery, and he bled to death. For two days, all Clay said to anyone was, "What will I say to Elisabeth? How can I tell my own sister that I just let the man she loves die?" He wouldn't listen to anyone when they pointed out that there really was nothing he could have done.
Responsibility, Robert thought bitterly. For Clay, everything came down to responsibility. He spent every possible minute either checking the sick or inspecting the cells to make sure everyone was following all the rules he and Bristol had set down, and when he wasn't doing this, he repeated his list of names, over and over, to burn it into his memory, because he couldn't stand having to turn down dying men when they begged him to get messages to their families. It was that damned Mosby code: if a man accepted his responsibilities and did his best to discharge them, he was honorable and deserved to prosper, and the world would give him what he deserved. But what good was a code like that when the world itself was turning upside down?
"Clay, sooner or later you'll fall asleep anyway. Let me stay here. You can get some sleep, and take over again when you wake up."
Clay shook his head. "Listen, Robert. You can hear him when he breathes. He inhales, there, you hear that now? Start countin'. He has to breathe out by the count of five. One, two, three ..."
Phillip exhaled, the rattle of the membrane that was slowly choking him to death sounding almost as loud as the church bells they could hear from the mainland across the bay, tolling for the holiday.
Robert tried again. "Think of Mary. You have to take care of yourself, for her sake."
Clay looked at him, with a coldness that he had never had before the war, something added to his character just in the last month or so, since Cory's death. "Don't you ever say anythin' like that to me again. Everything I do, I do for Mary's sake. For Mary, and Elisabeth, and my parents. When this damned war is finally over and they have to let us out of this stinkin' prison, Hatton Willows will be waitin' for me. For us. So we can rebuild our lives. We have to deserve it, Robert. We have to deserve THEM."
Phillip drew in another breath. Despite himself, Robert counted. One, two, three, four ... a rattling breath out.
"Will you eat somethin', if I bring it here for you? At least do that for me."
Another breath in, more counting, another breath out. "All right," Clay said finally, so quietly Robert could barely hear it. Grateful for this small concession, he left the hospital cell.
Unfortunately, he was gone a little longer than he'd intended. Some of the prisoners who weren't helping with the diphtheria victims were fighting over food they'd looted from the supplies Clay and Bristol had ordered kept aside for the sick. It took Robert and Bristol both to separate them, recover the stolen food, castigate the men who were supposed to be guarding the sickroom supplies, and then to reheat something for Clay to eat.
When Robert did get back, Clay's head had dropped forward. Despite himself, he was sleeping. Robert reached out to gently shake his friend awake, and then, he realized that Phillip wasn't breathing any more. Clay's head snapped up, and he blinked, momentarily disoriented.
Robert was at a loss for words, aware that by Mosby standards he had failed in his duty, even though Clay would blame only himself, and no one else. Knowing it was necessary, Robert made a halting attempt to explain why he hadn't gotten back sooner. "I ... there was some trouble ... Clay, I didn't mean to be gone that long ..." He stared down at the tin plate of food: bread he'd removed the worst of the mold from, lumps of gray meat in a substance that only a great imagination would call gravy.
Then Clay realized what had happened. He grabbed Phillip and shook him, begging him to try harder, to breathe just a little longer, and when that didn't work he lifted his head and howled, a sound more animal than human and yet terribly human in the pain it expressed. "NOOOOOOO! Not dead, damn you, you can't be dead!" he screamed. "Damn you!"
Robert realized then that he wasn't sure who Clay was damning: himself for falling asleep, Robert for being gone too long and thereby letting him fall asleep, Phillip for giving up and dying, the guards for the vicious treatment that had left Phillip too weak to resist the disease, Pritchard for his inhumanity, or the whole miserable war. Or God Himself, for allowing all of this to happen.
1866 New Orleans
They were friends who had grown up together, gone to war together, and now the war was over and they were going home together, and that was all that mattered. The closer they got to Hatton Willows, the quicker and lighter their steps were. They forgot the blisters and the aches and everything else that was uncomfortable.
Hatton Willows was there to greet them all. The big house was brightly lit, so dazzling that there were stars bouncing off the walls. Everyone was laughing and talking at the same time, all celebrating not only another Christmas but also the end of a terrible nightmare. It seemed there could be no limit to the happiness and the laughter ...
A cloud passed overhead, and suddenly the laughter was gone. Before Robert could do anything, people began disappearing, all the friends and family who had been swallowed up by the insatiable monster known as War. The beauty and grace of Hatton Willows as it had been faded, and its place there were only the cold, blackened stones and charred timbers that were all he and Clay had found when they finally got home. Gone, everything and everybody, all gone months before, an unspeakable horror, and Robert moaned in his sleep.
Helping the ailing Col. Bristol, they had gone first to Richmond, to find the Mosby house taken over as quarters for Union troops. Olivia Jessup, struggling to find funds enough to live on, had learned that Hatton Willows had been burned, and everyone there had been killed. Clay refused to believe it, and so they walked desperately home, hoping against hope that Olivia was mistaken, only to find that the great house was indeed gone. Only one living figure could be seen, wandering aimlessly through the rubble: Jasper, the old man who was Mrs. Russell's favorite house slave, and when he saw Robert and Clay he walked over to them with his head bowed and tears pouring down his wrinkled old face.
It seemed the horror would never end. It was bad enough to see the ruins of the house and the stables, to realize that 150 years of family history, accomplishments, plans, and dreams were all gone, turned to ashes and blown away, but then they learned the terrible truth about the last hours of that house ... Two older women, one just visiting her married daughter for the afternoon, both shot in the head at close range; one crippled man killed with a bayonet; a young woman using one of her father's duelling pistols to end her own life before the raiders could take it from her; and finally the rape and murder of two other young women, Mary Mosby and her personal maid Permilla, Jasper's granddaughter. Jasper was spared only because he was outside when the soldiers came, and they never spotted him, but he'd been close enough to witness what was done before the bodies were taken and thrown into a shallow common grave, and the great house was looted and given to the flames.
Then, because Jasper had not been able to find anyone to help him do it earlier, there was even more horror: disinterring the bodies so they could be given decent, Christian burials in the cemetery beyond the church. This was followed by Clay's first mad attempt to kill himself so he could join Mary, struggling with Robert, Olivia, and Jasper until in their desperation they'd had to knock him out.
Suddenly Robert was standing in an empty gray space, with Clay lying down beside him and Jasper bending over his late mistress's son-in-law, shakily wrapping a bandage around the lump on Clay's forehead. Clay was unconscious, Jasper's attention was on him alone, and Olivia stood with her head bent, crying so Robert was the only one who was looking up, toward where the sky should be instead of this endless gray nothing. Splitting the unceasing grayness he could see a light, dim at first but growing brighter the longer he watched it, until he recognized that it was a star, a star much bigger and brighter than any he had ever seen before, brighter and closer to Earth. He began to walk toward it, but when he turned his head to call the others, the star abruptly disappeared, and a voice told him that it wasn't yet time.
Robert jerked awake, the dream fading as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He took several deep breaths to calm himself, relieved to note that it was still somewhat dark outside. He hadn't really been asleep all that long. It was only the nightmare that had lasted an eternity, and was still around, actually: the nightmare of watching Clay try to survive in a world where everything he'd known before the war had been cast down and trampled into the mud. His very code of behavior, the way he saw the world, had been proven invalid, and he was still struggling to find something to replace it, some standard he could apply to his life in order to rebuild it.
Robert tried to stand up, and realized that there was a blanket over him, the blanket that had been at the foot of Clay's bed. One look told him that he may have failed after all. Clay was gone, and so was the gun. Robert pushed himself up from the chair, intending to search the house, but a voice from the balcony beyond the open windows stopped him.
"Don't panic. My head is still firmly attached. That's unfortunate, actually, considerin' how much it hurts right now."
Clay was sitting on the floor of the balcony, his legs bent and the gun held loosely in his hands where they rested on his knees. From several houses the sounds of continued revelry could still be heard, although the house they were in was dark and quiet. Clay looked terrible: unwashed, unshaven, his clothes wrinkled, his hair tousled and dirty, his eyes hollow. He'd gained back most of the weight he'd lost, just as Robert had, but somehow he still gave the impression of being too thin.
"I saw her last night," he said. "Mary. I saw her clear as I see you now. Lookin' at her, I couldn't be angry any longer."
"What the hell are you talkin' about? You mean you're not angry about her murder anymore?"
"Don't be an idiot! Of course I'm still angry about that. I hate those butchers, and I will continue to hate them for the rest of eternity." The coldness in his voice chilled Robert's soul; it still seemed unfamiliar, although he'd been hearing it for two years. Clay had never been that cold before the war, before The Island. "It's Mary I'm not angry with anymore."
"Why on earth were you ever angry at Mary?" Robert was totally confused, wondering what kind of craziness his friend had seen in his whiskey-tinged dreams.
"She left me!" Clay whispered, and Robert marvelled that there could be so much pain contained in only three words. "She left me alone in this empty world where I can't reach her or touch her! I was so angry, and so guilty over bein' angry ... but that's over now. She was singin'. Do you remember how she used to sing? What child is this who laid to rest on Mary's lap is sleepin'?"
"You can't keep doin' this to yourself! You've gotta accept things as they are, Clay. As long as you hold on to her like this, you're half-dead yourself."
"It's the pain, Robert. It's like the pain's all I've got left now, and it just never stops. Part of me doesn't even want it to stop, because it's the only thing left to tie her to me."
"You've gotta let her go. Mary's restin' now. You're still alive, and it's time for you to move on."
"Only one more day to get through, and then things will be normal again," Clay said, as though he hadn't heard Robert's last words, which was entirely possible when he was like this. "No more Christmas. I can't stand Christmas any more."
Robert reminded him that Olivia would probably want them to go downstairs for the Christmas Day breakfast, to appease her cousins.
"We may have to disappoint them, then. Certainly not the first time. I've seen the way Eugenia looks at you. She figures her money should be able to buy a handsome husband. Lord, with that screechy voice, it would take more money than this whole city has to do that! Anyway, you need to get some sleep, and my head hurts too much. Breakfast, and Olivia's cousins, will survive without us, and we'll both be doin' better by dinnertime."
Someone came into the room behind them. "Mr. Mosby, Mr. Shelby? I done brought you some hot water to wash up with. Be mornin' soon."
"How is it that you keep goin', Jasper?" Robert asked. "You're twice as old as we are, all your kinfolk are dead, and you just keep on goin' like nothin' is wrong."
"Oh, lots is wrong, Mr. Shelby, and I reckon it was hard enough at first. I was awful lonesome, but my Permilla, she's at peace, where there's no more pain can touch her. I don't got to worry 'bout her or my mistress no more. And the men that put them in the ground, they'll face a judge harder'n me, in good time. Ain't that what this here holiday is really about? So the folks that deserve peace will be able to find it?"
"Did you work for Eleanor last night?" Clay asked, ignoring Jasper's speech, predictably enough. "I already told you, you are under no obligation to work for her. Come to think of it, you're not really under any obligation to work for us."
"Now what else would I be doin', Mr. Mosby? Where else am I gonna go? Don't know what happened to the rest of the folks from the old place, and I got too many years on me to learn some other work now. If I was younger, mebbe Iíd be lookiní for some place of my own, but I ainít younger. Least I knows you folks. Long's you give me somethin' to keep myself busy with, and food and clothes and a place to sleep, I got me a home and a place in the world, and that's more'n a lot of folks." Jasper chuckled a little. "And last night weren't so bad. Miss Eleanor asked real nice, and I done enjoyed it. Felt good to have somethin' to celebrate again. Now you two hurry up and use this here water 'fore it cools off. Miss Olivia'll be up to see you 'fore too long."
Clay slowly unfolded himself and moved stiffly into the room. Robert started to follow him, when his eye caught a sudden glimmer of something bright in the deep gray of early dawn. Not the sun, but a star! A star, brighter than any star had a right to be that time of the morning.
"Clay, do you see that?"
"See what?" Clay was already in the room, dropping the gun heavily onto Robert's chair. "Jasper, you'd better hide that for us again. If we're caught with a gun, and some hard-nose figures out that we never took the oath, we could get into trouble. Robert! Come on, let's get cleaned up. Maybe Olivia'll at least take pity on you and let you sleep some more, knowin' you were sittin' up with me most of the night. She'll come up with some excuse for Eugenia."
Robert looked back up, but the star was gone, if it had ever really been there in the first place.
"Have you fallen asleep again?" Clay called. "Get movin'. We've gotta be ready for dinner and for the game afterward, remember? I fully intend to take every penny that fool Halliwell brings with him. Have to pay our way somehow. We have to get out of this house pretty soon, or Olivia's gonna strangle one of those foolish women. Kind, I give you, but foolish all the same, and Olivia never suffers fools gracefully. I think if they'll let us miss breakfast, I could face lunch. There won't be as many people around then."
"Star of wonder," Robert whispered. "Oh, Lord, was it really there? Please tell me it was real."
"Captain Shelby!" Clay called again, in his best colonel's voice.
Robert sighed and stepped into the room, closing the windows behind him. The star had been there, he was sure of it. The star he'd always wanted to see. And Clay had gotten past another painful obstacle, surviving another Christmas. Maybe, all that talk about not being angry at Mary any longer meant that he was beginning to recover. Long journeys frequently began with only one step, as the saying went. Maybe next year, if they were still in New Orleans - and with Clay's growing reputation as a gambler, using New Orleans as a base of operations made more sense all the time - he and Jasper would be able to convince Clay to participate in at least some of the holiday celebration. The world may have turned upside down, but at least they were still alive to find a new path for themselves. Surely there was some place they would fit into, and they could build a new life there.
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