Civil War Mail Order Brides
Three young civil war widows become fast friends, and find second-chance love in a trilogy full of tears and laughter.
BOOK 1 IN THE CIVIL WAR TRILOGY
Please enjoy these two taster chapters from the first book, exclusively made available for Terri Grace subscribers.
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
(Henry F.Lye 1847)
** Prologue **
The World will never be the dwelling place of peace
until peace has found a home in the heart of each & every man.
The Battle of River’s Bridge, South Carolina, 1865
The Battle of River’s Bridge, South Carolina, 1865
Bentley Winter’s heart pounded as he peered over the crumbled wall into the dark. It was hard to see anything at all. The moon peered through the dark clouds for a moment and cast elongated, eerie shadows over the muddy ground. At least it no longer rained, but that was a small comfort.
But, he was still alive. Susan would have called it a miracle, but miracles didn’t happen. Miracles were crutches for the uneducated riff-raff, a class that he greatly despised. And although Bentley, in his efforts to be well-liked, claimed to be a God-fearing man, true religion and faith in God meant little to him. God either didn’t exist or He didn’t care. All that Bible stuff and those miracle stories were nothing more than fairy tales that stuffy old ladies told gullible children at bedtime to keep them happy.
From his position behind the rubble, he kept his eyes glued on the trees about 50 yards away. That was where the Lincoln boys lay hidden in the grass. That much was clear.
In the early evening, Bentley and his regiment had walked into an ambush. Out of nowhere, the gunfire had exploded and most of his buddies had died in that first attack. He and two others had escaped, but not for long. Soon, the enemy had picked up their trail and killed the other two. Bentley swallowed hard as he remembered the fearful and contorted faces of his friends as they fell in the mud. But the enemy wouldn’t get him. He would survive.
He squinted to spot any movement but noticed nothing. Everything seemed quiet and calm. But appearances could be deceptive. He was certain that if he betrayed his position, or he stuck his head too far above the stones, all hell would break loose again. Those Yankee Doodles were just waiting to fire from their positions behind the trees and would be all too happy to send him to the next world.
The next world? He grimaced as he pondered Susan’s faith. Susan believed in a better world, but she had it all wrong and he would make her see the light. Heaven did not exist. Only hell. And that was right here. Death was the final end of everything – back to the dust of the earth. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise.
Somewhere far away, an owl made a soft, wailing sound. As he listened to it, a deep sense of loneliness overcame him and he wished he too had wings. Then he could fly away to safety.
There were no other sounds, except the rustling of the wind through the leaves and his own strained and irregular breathing. How strange. The stillness of the night covered the earth like a thick blanket, but death lurked behind those distant trees and violence could erupt at any moment.
As he changed his position he let out a muffled scream and cursed himself inwardly. Pain shot up his leg and his bullet wound pounded. It didn’t bleed so much anymore, but that was a small comfort. He gritted his teeth and forced his thoughts back to the invisible soldiers nearby. No time for pain right now.
Wait… did something move?
He narrowed his eyes and scanned the dark silhouettes of the trees. No, everything seemed fine. The drenched earth leaked through his army pants and for a moment he shivered and cursed again.
Stupid Yanks. He hated them – all of them. They should not be here. Ape Lincoln and his baboons, with their hypocritical and moralistic ideas, needed to get the hell out of South Carolina.
When the war escalated, he had enlisted right away. That day he had celebrated with his drinking buddies. War was a glorious thing. A chance to prove they were men. He and his friends would teach those Yanks that they shouldn’t mess with South Carolina.
Susan did not agree. Of course not. She was weak, and when he’d told her he would fight and kill Yanks, she’d cried.
So typical. Foolish woman. She always cried and her fears affected the children too. When he told Billy and Naomi about his plans to go fight the Union, they wept as well.
Come on. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was weeping children. Billy had recently turned five and Naomi was three, so they didn’t even know what war meant. Nevertheless, a five-year-old should not be a cry-baby.
“Stop that nonsense,” he’d shouted, but that only made them cry all the harder. He slammed his fist on the dining room table, but that didn’t help either. Then Susan crossed him and told him to behave himself.
Stupid heifer. A woman should be quiet and yield. Anger rose in his chest. For a moment he stared at her. Then he took two steps forward and swiftly planted his fist in her face. “Quiet, all of you!”
Susan reeled backwards and stumbled into the bookcase, after which she sunk to the floor. That did the trick. Finally. The kids stopped instantly and stared at him with fearful faces.
He looked at them with an odd sense of satisfaction.
Susan crawled up from the floor and avoided his gaze. Her face had turned white and blood dripped from her nose onto the floor.
“You want more, huh?” Bentley’s face was swollen and his fists itched. “I meant it when I tell you all to stop.”
It gave him a sense of power when the children looked up to him like they did that day. And Susan? He didn’t care about her or about her opinion of him. His love for her had left long ago. A woman should serve a man. That was nature’s course. Even the preacher had said it. God first made man and then he created a woman as a helper for the man. But Susan, with all her holy talk about mercy and sweet forgiveness, didn’t seem to want to yield to these God-ordained duties. So, she got what she deserved.
After the beating, she took the kids to the Millers’.
Fine. Good riddance to bad rubbish. But inside he was fuming. No doubt she would slant the whole story and make him out to be the bad guy.
“You spoil my kids,” he still shouted when she left. “You’re nothing but a rebellious woman.”
But Susan did not say a word.
Now, in the dark, he carefully tried to change his position again. He was stiff, cold and drenched, but he just had to survive.
Why did he think of Susan all the time? He needed to concentrate.
In the far distance, the owl made his forlorn but melodious sound again. Would that bird see the enemy soldiers?
He looked up at the sky. The moon was just peeking through the clouds again and he noticed several stars. He guessed it would be another few hours before daybreak. His eyelids became heavy.
Susan forced her way into his mind again. He squinted his eyes and shook his head. This was no time to doze off, and he did not want to think of Susan. Not now. He tried to force the image of his wife out of his mind, but it kept worming its way back in. And so his thoughts drifted off to the time they had first met.
It was during a garden party in Charleston and it was true, he fancied her. She wasn’t what you would call beautiful, but he liked her dimples and the freckles on her face. Her friendly blue eyes looked up at him with respect. That made him feel good. Her medium-length, curly dark hair, tied in a customary bun, looked soft and velvety and made him want to touch it. That night she wore a light-blue dress with many hoops and it radiated cheerfulness and happiness. He followed her around, waiting for a chance to talk, and at last he caught her alone in the garden. The perfect place to get to know her.
They married six months later and she gave him Billy and Naomi. But his love for her turned sour rather quickly. She was so religious. She always wondered what God would think. It was so stupid. As if God would think. God didn’t even exist.
But it sure took the joy out of living and worked on his nerves. A wife needed to keep quiet, keep house and keep out of the way.
Fresh drops of rain fell and Bentley groaned. As if he wasn’t in enough trouble already. Had he dozed off? He couldn’t tell and he chided himself. Come on, man. Don’t be a sissy. Just hold on.
There was the moon again. Bentley squinted again, trying to see. Still no movement…or was there? His heart was beating faster again. Why was that?
He steadied his grip around his rifle and wished for morning. The darkness worked on his nerves. Daylight wouldn’t change much, of course. His bullet wound would still make it very hard for him to move without excruciating pain, but at least the oppressive blackness, with its eerie stillness, would be gone.
He shivered again, and just as he tried to move his wounded leg to a more comfortable position, it happened.
“Hold it right there!” The strained and nervous voice behind him broke the stillness of the night. “Don’t even move. We’ve got three guns ready to shoot.”
Bentley froze and let out a curse. He had dozed off and the Union soldiers had crept up on him. He turned his head toward the voice. A few yards away stood a Yankee soldier, his rifle trained on him. Bentley gasped. A boy. Only a boy, not more than sixteen years old. The boy’s uniform was torn and dirty and he stared at Bentley with hollow eyes. Then he shifted his feet and commanded, “Drop that gun and raise your hands in the air.”
Bentley stared into the barrel of the gun, his mind racing. The boy had said there were three guns. But where were they? Bentley did not see them. What if the kid was just bluffing and there were no three guns? Even though his leg hurt badly, he would rather take his chances. He could knock this kid out. No boy would ever scare him.
The young soldier seemed to guess his thoughts and wavered. “N-now…d-do as I say. Drop your gun.”
Bentley lowered his gun, but all his muscles tightened. The boy moved a little closer and Bentley studied his every move like a wolf would study his prey only seconds before the kill.
Bentley let out a guttural roar and with all the strength he still possessed he lunged forward. “You stupid Yan—!”
The sound of gunfire burst through the night from three different positions. Bentley felt the bullets cut through his body and he fell forward. As he landed in the mud, he noticed streaks of light. The first early morning rays. It was dawn, but not for him. For him the light was about to go out. Then he saw the face of Susan again.
“Susan? Why are you here?”
God is your only hope, Bentley.
The words echoed in his mind. Those were the words she always said. God is your only hope. But he did not want to hear that. Not now.
“No!” He shouted in agony. “I don’t want to hear it!”
Then all became black.
Bentley Winter was no more.
*** Chapter 1 ***
Never return a kindness. Pass it on.
June 1865, Charleston
“Next,” the clerk shouted with a monotonous voice. The man adjusted a pair of spectacles on his pointed nose and from behind his desk he glanced at the row of waiting women, with a bored expression on his face.
Susan Winter looked up. Still about twenty women before her…. She sighed. She hated this place, but she had no choice. The line of women seemed endless and Susan’s feet hurt from the long wait.
It was a musty place, in need of a good scrubbing, dreary and depressing, with too little light. When she’d arrived early that morning, at least 250 women stood in line before her. Step by step they all moved along a rickety, wooden railing that led to the desk of the clerk. A few yards behind the clerk the only window in the room let in the light, but it was too small to brighten up the place and for some reason nobody had opened it. No fresh air. Thus the atmosphere was stale and oppressive. When Susan entered the place for the first time she had almost walked out again, but found that after only a few minutes in the throng, the many body odors and other undesirable smells somehow seemed to vanish. She just had to be there. She needed the money and although she did not like to hold up her hand and accept charity, she had no choice. Many people had it worse. She, at least, still had her beloved children, Billy and Naomi. And, as always, underneath were the everlasting arms. She had her faith in God and God never left her and would be there for her, even though the country lay in shambles after the civil war.
Ever since she heard that her husband Bentley had died in battle, she came here to collect her army widow’s pension on prearranged days. It wasn’t a whole lot, but she didn’t complain. At least it helped somewhat, as life was expensive. Billy would soon turn six and they had celebrated Naomi’s fourth birthday only last week. She could not believe how much children ate. They were virtual wolves for food. And then the bills…they never stopped. No, Susan Winter would not murmur and complain, but she did often plead with God for her needs.
And Bentley could no longer hurt her….
Sometimes guilt crawled up when she thought of these things. After all, he had been her husband, and had given her these beautiful children. But he had been cruel, selfish and hard. Those nights after she received a beating from her enraged husband and he went to the saloon to drink would haunt her for years to come.
“Takes forever, doesn’t it?” A gentle but impatient voice broke through Susan’s thoughts.
She turned around and looked into the face of a young woman with thick, wavy blonde hair that reached over her shoulders. Dark circles framed her green eyes, but they were smiling and held an attractive softness. Susan nodded and gave her a weary smile. Right then she realized that the main reason she hated this place wasn’t the long wait, the smells or the oppressive heat. It was the assembling of so many discouraged, heart-broken women. Everyone here had a story to tell and had lost their husbands in this stupid, senseless war. In war, nobody ever wins. Even the so-called victors lose.
“I can’t afford not to come here,” the woman continued. She spoke with a strong Southern accent and wore a simple but stylish skirt, a colorful bodice a bright red shawl. “That awful war…. It’s not just killing our husbands, is it? War leaves the country with three new armies — an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves.”
Susan smiled. “I think I must agree.” She extended her hand. “Susan. Susan Winter.”
The woman took Susan’s hand in hers and smiled back. “Charlotte Beads; pleased to meet you.”
The queue moved forward.
“Are you living in Charleston?” Charlotte asked after they moved up a few steps.
“On the outskirts,” Susan answered. “It’s a decent place, but I am not sure I can stay there. We didn’t own the house, but rented and now…well, my husband is gone and…well, you know….” Susan shrugged.
Charlotte nodded. “You don’t have to explain. I understand. I am in the same boat.”
“Got any children?” Susan asked.
For a moment Charlotte stared into space, her expression somber. At last, she shook her head. “I almost had one. I lost a baby at seven months after complications. And now the war put a stop to that possibility.”
“I am so sorry,” Susan said and pressed her lips together.
“It’s all right,” Charlotte said. “There’s not a woman here that has not suffered.”
Susan nodded and peered at the end of the queue. “Only about fifteen people before it will be our turn.”
“Good,” Charlotte said. “This place is killing me.” She pulled a handkerchief out of a small handbag and wiped drops of sweat from her forehead. “I meant to sa—”
But she couldn’t finish her sentence. Someone in front of them fell over and let out a muffled scream. Several other women yelled and a wave of confusion washed over the queue. Susan raised her eyebrows and stepped out of the line to look. A middle-aged woman had fainted about six or seven people up the line from them.
Poor woman. Susan wanted to run over and help as she saw the well-dressed woman sprawled out on the dusty, wooden floor, her face a ghastly white. A skinny lady with protruding teeth and messy, grey hair was pointing at her and kept yelling that someone needed to move her out of the way. The clerk at the desk looked up for a second and shrugged. Then he looked down again and went back to his paperwork. He didn’t seem impressed. It must have happened before and he couldn’t be bothered. A buxom woman in front of the grey-haired lady decided something needed to be done and bent over to move the unfortunate lady to the side. She grabbed her feet and while she was huffing and puffing she dragged her out of the way. The other ladies only stared. Susan’s eyes became big as she watched the spectacle.
“Come on,” she gestured to Charlotte, “this is ridiculous. We’ve got to help that poor woman. Maybe she’s hurt.”
Charlotte hesitated. “If we leave the queue we may lose our place altogether. Then we have to do all this waiting again.”
But Susan already stepped forward and walked up to the buxom woman. She had just moved the lady to the side and out of the way. She wiped her brow with her hand and looked at her work with obvious satisfaction.
“This woman needs help,” Susan said through gritted teeth and glared at the buxom woman. “Ever hear of the Golden Rule?”
The lady’s eyes narrowed into tiny slots and she wanted to say something back, but right then Charlotte walked up. She shrugged her shoulders and pushed her way back into the queue.
Susan knelt down and placed her hand under the woman’s head. She groaned.
“Poor thing,” Susan said as her fingers touched the pale face. “It was getting too much for her and she fainted.” Susan looked up at Charlotte. “Can you see if you can get her some water?”
Charlotte nodded and left.
Susan realized they were quite an odd spectacle, but she refused to think about it. She studied the pale face of the lady and guessed she was in her forties. Her hair was parted right in the middle and, as was the style, twisted into a neat bun kept in place with hairpins and pomade. The side sections were braided and looped around her bun.
As Susan looked at her thin, red lips and her sunken cheeks, a wave of compassion welled up. Why is there so much pain in this world? As she looked up again her eyes met those of Buxom Lady. They were cold and hard. Susan marveled at the hardness she sensed in the lady’s spirit. How could people be so indifferent at times like this? But she dismissed the bitter feelings that were knocking on her door. She should not give in to those dark feelings.
The lady on the ground blinked and opened her eyes. She stared at Susan with a startled expression.
“W-where am I?” she mumbled.
“It’s all right,” Susan whispered. “You fainted.”
Right then Charlotte returned with a small metal army cup filled with water and knelt down. Susan helped the lady up and placed the cup to her lips. “Here, this will help.”
After she took a sip, she sighed and rubbed her head and seemed to remember where she was.
“I-I am sorry. This is my first time here. I guess the heat got the best of me. It’s not a very pleasant place.”
“Tell me about it,” Charlotte groaned. “But we have no choice.”
“Thank you,” the lady said. “I am Abigail Jacobs.”
“Pleased to meet you,” answered Susan with a grin. “I am Susan and this is Charlotte.”
Abigail nodded and she tried to get up, although she was still dazed.
“Let’s see if we can get back in line,” Susan offered. “We still need our money.”
Abigail nodded and rubbed her sides and as Charlotte offered her an arm they looked for a place to enter the queue again.
That was easier said than done, as most women where not too happy to allow three people back in line, but, after some desperate pleading, they found a place.
“Let’s stick together,” Charlotte said.
Susan grinned. “There’s only about 50 people in front of us. We’ll be out of here in a jiffy.”
Abigail nodded. “Thank you both for your kindness. Would you do me the honor of coming to my house this afternoon? Friends are hard to find these days and maybe we can…well, you know…be friends?”
Susan’s face lit up. “That would be wonderful, Abigail. I will gladly come.”
“And so will I,” added Charlotte. “Let’s be friends.”
TO BE CONTINUED…