Above and Beyond: A Novel of the Civil War by Jessica James

Posted on Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Chapter 3

Joan of Arc with fierce intent,

Has oft o’er southern saddle bent,

To guide the hero o’er the plain,

And help to victory with her rein.

—“Dedication,” a poem by General J. E. B. Stuart, 1864

November 1862

Dusty from hard riding and weary with fatigue, Benton loosened the collar of his shirt and unbuttoned his coat the moment he entered his chamber. Although he’d been back at his post for almost four months now, the news that he’d been given an independent command primarily for the purpose of protecting a woman continued to consume his thoughts and annoy him. He cringed at the thought of his men discovering this fact, and though he was familiar enough with the integrity of the president and General Lee to know they would not divulge the truth, the same could not be said of Sarah Duvall.

He removed his coat with a violent shrug and carelessly threw the garment across a chair. As grateful as he was for the appointment to his own command, the new responsibility was now as much a burden as an honor.

“’Scuse, me. Sir?

Benton turned at the sound of his aide’s voice. “Yes, Hancock, what is it? Make it quick. I know it’s early, but don’t let anyone disturb me until sunup.”

“Well, sir, there’s someone here to see you—”

“Tell him I’ll see him first thing in the morning.”

“Sir, he says it’s imperative that he speaks to you…uh, now.”

Benton took a step forward, and the aide took a step back. “All right, send him in! I’ll get rid of him myself!” He turned his back to the door and proceeded to unclasp his shirt. Just as he was getting ready to kick off his boots, he heard the door open and close.

“Perhaps you could wait to do that until our interview is complete,” someone with a hushed, familiar voice said from behind him.

Whirling around, Benton stared into the same blue eyes he had last seen in Richmond. For a moment, he was so stunned to see her that he forgot his state of undress, but when he saw long lashes touching the top of her crimson cheeks, he began re-clasping his shirt.

“Major, I beg forgiveness for the unannounced visit.” She finally raised her gaze. “But I do bring urgent news. There was no other way to deliver it.”

Partly confused, partly suspicious, Benton stared at her with a forbidding look intended to warn her that whatever she wanted was out of the question. Dressed as a man, she wore boots obviously not designed for her and that appeared painfully too large. Even more noticeable was the mud with which she was covered from the knees down, and splattered with from the waist up. The depth of mire she had traveled through to reach him was clearly visible by the amount of it she still carried upon her.

“Have you no horse?” His gaze lifted from her mud-coated boots to her eyes. Although her beautiful face seemed out of accord with her ragged and dirty clothes, she somehow appeared attractive and alluring.

For the first time she looked uncomfortable and slightly unnerved as she looked down at her soiled attire. “I was forced to travel most of the way on foot,” she said. “My horse is old and lame.”

“Yes, so it appears.” Benton tried to keep the humor from showing in his eyes. Never before had he met a woman who valued her patriotism over outward appearance and clean clothes. Yet even in her state of disarray, he had to admit she possessed a poise and grace that were slightly unnerving. He turned his back to her a moment to light a cigar, waiting until the end glowed red to speak. “Out with it. What brings you?”

“They are taking to the torch, sir. The plan is already in motion.”

He spun back around to face her, puzzled by her calm composure. Her tone indicated neither excitement nor fright, and her frank gaze confirmed she felt neither. She seemed to be offering the information candidly, without giving him the impression he was obligated to accept it. “I have received no intelligence that would show or even suggest that attempt.” He studied her closely, looking for any sign of hesitation or uncertainty.

“Nevertheless, it is true. The plan was conceived and put into action in my parlor not four hours ago.”

“Are you sure?” His voice was tinged with suspicion. “You will have to excuse me. I am not accustomed to consulting with women on the status of the field.”

“I have traveled a great distance and at great peril.”

“Show me.” Benton took her by the arm, suddenly forgetting his reluctance to work with a woman, and pointed to a map on a table.

“Most of the Union troops will be vacating Glenville.” She pointed immediately to the small town that had been in Union hands for months. “Captain Daniels moves here, to torch barns and granaries. Major Pittman is here, to the east, to do the same. Others will fan out in this direction to begin the destruction of Newton. They know these families are assisting you. They are to leave nothing for them to subsist upon.”

Benton rubbed his hand across two days growth of beard as he paced back and forth. “I’ve not the men to go after them all,” he said as if to himself. “And the ones I have are worn from two days riding.” He paused and faced her. “But if they have abandoned Glenville, it should be occupied by us at any cost.”

“Colonel Beckham is here, is he not?” Sarah pointed to a remote spot on the map.

“Yes, but I’ve no men to spare to alert him. And a lot of good he will do me with no direct roads between us.”

“I know the way,” Sarah said. “If you give me a horse, I’m certain he can be in Glenville by first light.”

Benton failed to suppress a laugh, as he shot her a look of patient tolerance. “Please do not take my hesitation personally, but I do not feel that a battlefield is any place for a lady.”

She nodded and gazed over his shoulder. “Yes, I’m familiar enough with your reputation to know where you believe a lady’s place to be.”

There was no sarcasm in her voice, only disappointment, but Benton’s temper got the best of him. He walked up to her and shook his finger in her face. “Allow me to assure you, I am not going to send a woman into that countryside alone!”

“And why aren’t you?” She stared straight into his eyes, unblinking.

Benton lowered his cigar for a moment and favored her with a martial stare. “We have rules here. Be they unwritten, they are no less binding.”

She tilted her head curiously. “And what are these rules of which you speak?”

Gentlemen do not ask ladies to send for reinforcements alone.”

She smiled politely. “But, Major Benton, you need not ask. I just volunteered.”

Benton’s temper erupted at her calm and composed persistence. “Why you tormenting, headstrong little pest! Must I tell you that if you are caught in those clothes, you will be tried as a spy?”

He didn’t say “hanged as a spy” because he knew it was not necessary. They both understood what the ultimate outcome would be.

“That is of little concern to me,” she responded simply. “I do not stand here asking if you will let me, but only that you will not stop me.”

Benton began pacing in front of her, the ashes from his cigar falling unnoticed to the floor as he silently assessed the danger and the need. “The main roads are picketed and the minor ones patrolled.” He stopped right in front of her. “How would you get through?”

She seemed to take the question as full acceptance of the venture rather than reluctant approval to consider it. “I have lived here all my life and am familiar enough with the land.”

He cocked his head and studied her. “But I wonder if a woman is capable,” he murmured under his breath.

“You may wonder all you wish,” she snapped, apparently tired of his stalling tactics. “But do not doubt it.”

Although the words were spoken softly enough, Benton took issue with her tone. He took a step toward her and did not even attempt to keep the condescension out of his own tone. “Are you sure you know your way?”

For the first time he saw the usually composed countenance flash with anger. “Major Benton, I would not be here nor request the service if I did not know the way. Cast aside your reservations for the sake of the local citizens!”

Now it was his turn to voice anger. “Look here, Mrs.…Sid.” He stood and shook his finger at her again. “I never asked for your service, nor requested your assistance!”

He watched her take a deep breath. “You have little choice.” Her voice was calm. “You forget, perhaps, that I am a lieutenant in your command.”

Benton sat down and squeezed his temples—not sure if he should be angry or appreciative for the help. “Does Colonel Beckham know you?”

She looked down and fumbled with her coat sleeve. “No, of course not.”

“That will never do. He won’t believe you for a moment, and I won’t risk writing anything down.”

He stood and started pacing again, then turned to face her.

“Here, take this. We graduated from the Point together. He’ll recognize it.”

She looked at the ring he held in his outstretched hand and nodded. “Very well.”

Benton strode to the door and called to an orderly, turning his head toward her after doing so. “You can ride a strong horse?” Benton didn’t know why he asked. He instinctively knew she could handle any animal, if not with those small hands, then with the strength of her will. Before she could answer, a young soldier entered the room. “Private Jenkins, I need you to saddle Sultan for this boy.”

The man nodded, saluted, and turned to leave, but Benton stopped him. “And when he returns, I want you to instruct Lieutenant Haines to give him his choice of the remounts. Do you understand?”

Above and Beyond

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Genre - Christian Fiction

Rating – G

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Website www.jessicajamesblog.com


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