Message in the Night

by Nancy Julien Kopp -

“I can do it, Mama. Please, let me,” I pleaded.

Mama’s pale face and the pillowslip seemed one and the same. Her hand closed over mine, and a weak sigh escaped from her lips. “Rand, you can’t go. It’s much too dangerous.”

“But Mama, Papa’s regiment is so close. I can get through the Yankee lines and find him. I know I can. Cousin Nell knows where they are. Please let me try.”

Mama never took her eyes off me as I paced before the big four-poster bed. “This would give Papa something good to think about, wouldn’t it?” My heart pounded in my chest while I made my case.

“What if you’re caught, Rand?” Mama struggled to sit up in the bed. “This is Yankee territory.”

The single tear that slid down her cheek only made me more determined. “You go to sleep now, Mama.” I patted her shoulder and slipped out the door before she could protest again.

Cousin Nell stood in the hallway, plump arms crossed, her mouth clamped tight. “And where do you think you’re going?” She hissed the words, and her eyes flashed with anger.

“Why—to my room, Cousin Nell.” I spoke more pleasantly than I felt, even though we were guests in her house. The War between the North and South kept us here far from home.

I turned the brass knob on my bedroom door slowly and called back to Cousin Nell. “Where did you say the Yankee camp was?”

I held my breath as she rattled on scolding and telling me what I needed to hear at the same time. My hand rubbed the smooth knob while I waited for her to divulge every bit of information I wanted to know.

A frown crossed Mama’s cousin’s broad face. “Your South Carolina regiment isn’t far away either. There’ll be a battle soon. You go into your room and pray for them all, Yank or Reb, no matter!” She put a quick smile on her face and glided into Mama’s room.

I dressed in warm clothes, ones Mama and Cousin Nell might not approve. They belonged to Cousin Nell’s son, Frank, who was away at school. The coat and pants were a little big, but they would serve me well on this cold Pennsylvania night.

I crept down the stairs, my hand barely touching the wide, curved banister. A gust of cold, November wind hit my face as I opened the side door and stepped outside. I shivered and hunched down farther into Frank’s coat, pulling his wool cap down at the same time. The soft glow from Mama’s window gave me the courage I needed.

The moonless night, dark and cold, was so unlike the Carolina winters I knew. An eerie howl rent the air and made the hair stand up on my neck. I froze in the middle of the road. All I wanted was to turn back. I tried not to let my mind dwell on the dark woods on either side of the road or what might lurk within it. The way would be shorter through the thicket, but I chose to walk straight ahead on the road.

Before long, the distant sound of a horse’s hooves left me no choice. Groaning softly, I plunged into the woodland where darkness swallowed me. Only my groping hands led the way between the tall trees. Low branches snapped back to scratch my face. When I finally reached the meadow beyond, I stopped to catch my breath and to listen for the sound of men and horses. I was rewarded with blessed silence.

Afraid to go on and fearful of turning back, I closed my eyes and forced my father’s face into my mind’s eye. My lower lip stopped trembling, and I moved away from the thicket. Thankful for the moonless night, I crouched down and moved slowly across the open area of the meadow.

The sounds made by restless horses and the smell of smoke told me I was nearing the Yankee camp. Farther on, I knew, I would hear voices that sounded like home, and one of those soft toned voices would help me find my father among the many men camped there, waiting to engage the northern enemy.

I heard a voice, all right, but it had the harsh tone of a Yankee, not the Carolina accent I longed for. I flattened myself on the cold, hard ground. The aroma of the damp, pungent soil seeped into my nose.

In only seconds, a large, rough hand clamped me on the shoulder...

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