Sunday, June 29, 2014

Letters to Mary

Letters to Mary
By Marge Burke
Historical Women's Fiction - 579 pages
Cover art by Richard Stroud

Mary Crouch and her two young children are as much casualties of the Civil War as the soldiers themselves. Mary is afraid of losing her Daniel, afraid of all the dangers she must face with her children, and of failing at the work it will take to keep their lives going. What her trials prove is that Mary is as courageous as Daniel.

Mary struggles to keep her focus, longing for words of love and encouragement but receiving empty words on the pages of Daniel's letters. Daniel's journey takes him to southern battlefields; Mary's journey is one of determination and faith, and finding answers from very unexpected sources.

Daniel got off the train and stood on the wooden platform of the Pittsburg train station, watching great gulps of gray smoke puff into the air. A white fog rose to meet the smoke, lifting from somewhere underneath the engine. In the dim light of the early September morning, it looked to Daniel as though the train were an apparition, a ghostly object that did not really exist.

The great black engine slowly began to move, and Daniel stood watching as his last link with home clattered off down the tracks, headed back to Albion, to his Mary. He shifted his knapsack to his other shoulder, trying to ease the burden. He realized suddenly that the weight he struggled with was not on his shoulders but deep in his chest. It threatened to suffocate him, and he gulped in several deep breaths. His thoughts swirled around him like the gray smoke.

He glanced around him at his regiment. Most of the men on the platform with him looked as disoriented as he felt, although a few were relaxed and joking with each other. Daniel could see Sergeant Prentis across the platform by the depot, conversing with another officer. He watched as the senior officer saluted and then turned and strode off. Sergeant Prentis lifted his hat from his head, rubbed his other hand through his matted hair, and replaced the hat snugly. Then the sergeant turned toward his new recruits.

For the next several minutes the soldiers stood at attention, struggling to understand all of the information being hurled at them. Daniel heard the how to, where, when, why, why not, cannot, do not, who, and in what condition he was expected to perform. The words buzzed around him like a swarm of bees.

Daniel was used to hard work and considered himself in good physical shape, but standing erect with a fifty-pound knapsack slung across his back for so long at a stretch was taxing his stamina. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the slight shifting in the position of the men down the line.
"Eyes straight ahead, soldier!" Sergeant Prentis barked.

Daniel snapped his eyes forward.

The train ride from Girard to Pittsburg hadn't been as uncomfortable as Daniel had expected. He had heard horror stories of men being piled into cars shoulder to shoulder with no room even to sit down. They had all been seated, for which they had been thankful, and had even been served a breakfast of biscuits and fruit. It was undoubtedly the last bit of comfort they would experience for a long time.

Laying his head back in the seat, he had closed his eyes and transported himself back to Mary and little Alice, standing in the yard where he had left them. Alice had his black felt hat nestled on her head, and she could barely see out from under it. Daniel's breath caught in his throat as he saw again the unshed tears glistening in Mary's eyes as she struggled for composure. Daniel knew she did not want his last sight of her to be one of despair or anger. His Mary. He loved her for a thousand reasons, and he could have named them all right then.

He could still hear Charlie's loud good-byes at the station as he and Uncle Minos had seen the train off. Daniel had leaned out the window, waving his army issue hat from the train window above the crowded platform.

"That's my pa, the one waving to me," Charlie had proclaimed to anyone who would listen. "He's going to fight Rebs."


Daniel jumped, bringing his thoughts back to the present. He focused on the wide eyes staring him in the face. Sergeant Prentis spat his words so that Daniel felt a spray of accompanying spit showering over him. The sergeant then continued his tirade at the other soldiers. They dared not move.

The gray skies began to close in around the soldiers on the platform, and a fine mist materialized out of nothing. It was not rain; it was just there, like a thick fog suspended above the ground. Despite his hat, Daniel felt the dampness against his face, even settling on his eyelashes.

Sergeant Prentis glanced upward, scowling. It was as if he dared the skies to defy him. Finally he drew his men into two columns and sent them marching from the platform onto the muddy street in front of them.

Daniel's backpack weighed him down, and his feet sloshed in the mud, making a sucking noise as he lifted them. What was really only a mile stretched out like two, and when they finally stopped to make camp he was surprised to find it was barely ten o'clock in the morning.

The great wooden building in front of the recruits offered little comfort. When the command to fall out came, each man trudged up the steps to find a place to call his own. Daniel was appalled at the sight that greeted them. The floor was covered with ashes and mud. Straw from old mattresses was strewn about, matted together and dried in clumps. Cobwebs clung to the corners and the windows. Tobacco spit stained the walls and floors.

A cold dampness permeated the room, even though the windows had been boarded up from the outside elements. The stench was overwhelming. He gagged at the rot and waste and turned away.

"Move in, there, Crouch," called a voice behind him. "It's wet out here."

"At least we can breathe outside," Daniel muttered as he stepped into the building.

"Your first assignment, men," Sergeant Prentis spat, "is to get this place in shape. You'll find supplies in the lean-to outside the back door. Snap to it. We don't have all day!" With that, the sergeant stomped through the archway and disappeared into the mist.

"Maybe the mist will swallow him up, and he won't come back," muttered the man beside Daniel, looking for a clean place to drop his knapsack. Instead, he walked across the room and stuck it on a protruding nail. Daniel and several others did the same. It promised to be a long afternoon.

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