Ever the Wayward Sky
Chapter One: The War is Over, But There's no End in Sight
A light haze lay over the North Carolina ground. Sergeant James Taft stepped out of an officer's tent.
"Yes Sir, I will, first thing this afternoon." He replied while moving from the entrance.
As soon as he was completely outside, he became aware of something unusual. The low sound of cheering began to erupt on the far side of the camp. Sergeant Taft turned towards the strange sounds just as his lieutenant stepped out from the tent behind him.
Both men were around the same height and build; five-foot ten inches. However, Sergeant Taft had short dark hair that wasn't curly and unruly as the lieutenant’s was. And, James also wore a mustache and goatee, which was popular among the Union cavalrymen.
"What's going on, Sergeant?" The lieutenant moved up beside James, and both watched as a spontaneous celebration appeared to be overtaking the entire camp.
"I don't know, Sir. But it seems to be moving this way." As Sergeant Taft said this, soldiers walked at a rapid pace closer to the two men. They yelled and shouted along the way. One man came swiftly towards them, waving his hat and cheering loudly.
"What's going on soldier?" The lieutenant asked when the man came closer.
"Lee surrendered, Sir. He surrendered to General Grant." Then the man jogged away, shouting and jumping as he went.
The lieutenant looked at Sergeant Taft, who looked back at him. They both seemed to be in disbelief. Then, as more and more soldiers came running through the camp shouting, both men began to smile. They turned and shook hands; congratulating each other for surviving.
James Taft had seldom thought or believed the war would end. After more than four years of fighting, he had a difficult time accepting this reality. As the next few weeks went by, however, the twenty-three-year-old sergeant began to accept that he had indeed survived the war.
Eventually, his unit, the 9th Pennsylvania cavalry began to muster out in Kentucky.
"What are you going to do now, Sergeant?" A young private asked James as they left the headquarters building. Sergeant Taft examined his discharge papers. He seemed to be a bit confused and disoriented.
"I'm not sure, Private."
"You're not sure? Ain't you going home, Sergeant?"
"I suppose I will. What are you going to do?"
The private laughed. "Oh, I got so many things I'm going to do! The first thing is, I'm going to marry my sweetheart, Dolly. Oh, she is a beauty! You got a sweetheart, Sergeant?"
James glanced at the young man.
"No, I don't suppose that I do, Private."
The young man laughed again. "You should get you a sweetheart."
The man stayed with James as they turned in gear and finished other various tasks to complete their discharge. He spoke with almost no restraint. James didn't care though as his mind was absent of anything to talk about.
He felt lost as he said goodbye to his horse. He felt naked as he turned in his revolver and rifle. The saber he'd bought with his money, he gladly packed it with his other meager belongings.
James couldn't seem to break away from the numbness that had taken over him. During his trip home to Pennsylvania, he again became lost in thought. He remembered those he knew that had died in battle. He considered the men he had killed in combat. They wouldn't be going home, ever. They still lay on the battlefield in the cold earth. The war was over. Why couldn't he be glad like so many others? Why did he feel that he shouldn't be leaving the army and yet at the same time, feel that he could not endure any more of the savage brutality he had gone through for four and a half years?
His hometown presented a celebratory atmosphere as James stepped off the train. Banners were hung all around, welcoming the victorious soldier’s home.
"James, James Taft! Welcome, home James! My, my, I barely recognized you. You were, what, eighteen when you enlisted? You've grown into quite the man, and hero for that matter."
"Thank you, Mr. Carleton." James shook the man's outstretched hand as a small band struck up the Battle Cry of Freedom. A few of the town women handed out baked items, and one of them poured a cup of black coffee for him.
He looked over the small train station as he sipped the coffee. It hadn't changed much over the years. Yet everything seemed different now.
An elderly lady approached him.
"Your mama is going to be so happy to see you, James! She came down here several times hoping you would arrive with some of the other boys that were coming home. But you've all been coming home a few at a time now after the main group returned."
James smiled at the woman; she had aged considerably in appearance since he last saw her.
"Yes Mrs. Johnson, the cavalry had some extended duties to perform. It took a bit longer for us to muster out."
"Well, no matter. I know she'll be very happy to see you. We're all so proud of you boys."
Mrs. Johnson then took her small handkerchief and put it close to her eye. "It's just a shame we lost so many good young men to that," she acted as if she wanted to say something else, but then continued, "that, terrible war."
James tried to sound compassionate. "Yes Mrs. Johnson, I agree."
"Well James, you tell your mother and the rest of your family hello for me. And we're just so glad to have you back."
Mrs. Johnson then went to speak with another soldier that had also returned on the train.
James moved out of the station and began walking through the Pennsylvania town that he'd grown up in. Memories rushed back to him as he passed buildings and landmarks. Some of the memories brought feelings about his father, who had died when James was only fourteen.
"James? It surely is, young James Taft!" An elderly man in an old suit came up quickly to him with an excited expression on his face.
"Hello, Dr. Weston," James said with not nearly as much excitement as he shook the extended doctors' hand.
"James, it is so good to have you back. I'm sorry you didn't get the big parade and all. We had a big to do when our boys from the regiment returned. I wish you could have come home to that."
"It's alright Doc. Mr. Carleton and some of the ladies met us at the station."
"Well, that's good, James. We've tried to have someone at the station as you boys continue to come in."
"I believe we'll be some of the last, Doc," James replied.
The doctor looked down and shook his head a little. "It seems we've lost so many." Then he glanced back up to James. "Do you need a ride out to your place? I can have the horses hooked up to my carriage."
James smiled. "Thank you, Doc, but I would like to walk. I could use a good long stroll."
"Alright James, I understand."
As he moved on out of town and towards his boyhood home, a dark feeling came over him. He gazed over at the "swimming hole" that he and his brother John had swum many times in. Now the laughter he remembered seemed so far away. His heart felt as if it could no longer recover such a joyful time. The death he had seen and dealt with now anchored him to a place neither high nor low. He simply existed.
He continued towards the family home and memories fluttered through his mind. Races with his brother and friends; some of whom now lay buried in the earth of a distant battlefield. Still, James couldn't shake off the darkness to receive the warm thoughts he desired. Maybe, the sight of his home and his mother would stir the embers of joy that he hoped were still in his heart, somewhere.
Slowly the two-story house came into view. As James moved closer, he became frightened. He slowed down and felt a sense of dread. How could a man who had been in more battles than he could recall be terrified of returning home?
James stopped. He stood at a distance from the house. As his heart beat faster, his mind struggled for an answer. Slowly, the problem began to unravel as he searched his very soul. The questions revealed their ugly presence in his thoughts.
Would they see the terrible things? Would his mother sense the blood and death on him? Would his nephew and niece feel the heat of the hell he had passed through, time and time again? Surely, they would know. He started walking again but felt the weight of these concerns with every step he took. Sweat dripped along the side of his head as these thoughts entrenched themselves into his fears.
With the reluctance he had felt before racing into a battle, James forced himself to continue moving forward. The aging house came into view as did his niece who was outside. She had grown much since the last time he had seen her. The years had changed her dramatically from the four-year-old girl he remembered. She had her back to him and was kneeled over, picking wildflowers.
James stood outside the small wooden fence that was in obvious need of repairs. He watched his niece in silence as she hummed and picked the flowers one by one. He felt himself trembling in anticipation of her noticing him. Would she scream in fear? Would she see the things he had been through and cry from sadness?
He wanted to do something to let her know that he was behind her, but he felt too frightened to do anything. Then, as she turned, she noticed him standing outside the fence. She stared at him for several seconds with a slightly startled expression. James smiled a little smile at her.
"Uncle James?" She took several small steps towards him as she asked this.
"Hello, Grace." He said to her, relieved that she couldn't see the wariness inside him.
Grace cautiously walked over to the fence. She then extended her handful of flowers to him. James took the flowers and softly said. "Thank you."
"We've been waiting for you Uncle James." As she said this, James' mother stepped out to the front porch and immediately put her hand to her mouth and began to weep.
"James!" She moved quickly down the porch towards him. His brother now came out and then his wife, with their son behind her. All of them began to say his name and rush to hug him.
Later, he sat in the main room. Everyone sat around him as if he was about to tell a grand tale. His sister-in-law brought him a drink.
"We've been hoping you would show up any day now James." His brother John said and then continued.
"Ma waited at the train station again and again when the regiment began to arrive, but no one could tell us anything about the 9th. We finally stopped going to the station. No one seemed to know anything about the cavalry."
James took a drink and sat the glass on a table beside him.
"Well, we had some extra duties to take care of. We watched over some of the larger reb units as they surrendered. I didn't know how long it would be or I would have written and let everyone know."
His mother appeared to glow from joy.
"No matter, James. We're just so happy to have you back, son."
"Yeah, James, we'll get this place back into shape in no time with you back!" His brother John added.
James smiled a little. He felt strangely out of place sitting peacefully with his family.
"Yeah, we'll do that John." He picked up his drink, more from being nervous than needing it.
As he took a sip, his mind searched for the reason he felt so uncomfortable. He didn't want to talk about farming. He didn't want to think about getting the place back into shape. He felt depressed even considering these things.
Then, with no warning, his nephew Johnny unexpectedly asked a question.
"Did you kill a bunch of Reb's Uncle James?"
John immediately reprimanded his son as everyone looked around in shock.
"Johnny, don't ask such a thing!"
"Why Pa, I want to know?"
A strange sensation swept over James, and he had to get up. He then replied with obvious discomfort, "That’s alright, John... I think I'll get some air for a few minutes."
He left the room as the others tried to explain to young Johnny why he shouldn't ask such questions. James stepped out onto the porch and sat down on the steps, in the dark.
His heart beat rapidly. He realized something terrible now. Only when Johnny asked him that question did he feel alive again. What was wrong with him? He ran his fingers through his hair.
John stepped out on the porch behind him. He sat down beside his younger brother.
"I'm sorry James. He's just... so young."
"No, it's alright. I just needed some air. I'm not used to being inside. We slept under the stars as much as we did anywhere else."
John glanced over at his brother. He took a deep breath of the moist night air.
"I wanted to join up, but with Pa gone and two young children."
"No... John. You did the right thing. You're the real soldier for taking care of Ma and this place. I'm sorry that I ran off and left you like I did. I had visions of being some hero, I suppose."
The two men sat quietly for a few minutes and stared out over the dark fields in front of them. Then John said with a softened voice.
"Sounds like your unit had it pretty rough. Up against Forrest and Morgan, seems the 9th took on some of the toughest."
"Yeah, I guess we got our share of it," James replied.
"Well, at least you didn't leave anything out there on the battlefield." John then slapped James on the leg. He stood up and walked back into the house. James then said in a small voice, to himself.
"I'm not so sure of that."
As the days passed, James felt himself sinking further into depression. He tried to work on the family farm but couldn't focus on the tasks. Darkness slowly began to swallow him from the inside out.
"Well, we finally pulled that old stump out of the south field." John attempted to sound encouraging at the dinner table.
"That's wonderful. That old tree always irritated your Pa. I'm glad we took care of it, and it's gone for good." His mother glanced over at James after saying this.
Her son sat staring blankly at his plate of food. He heard nothing they had said.
His mother turned and looked across the table at John, who then glanced over at his wife, Velma. All three now watched James as he held his fork over his food and appeared to be far away.
The two children took notice of what was occurring and began watching their Uncle also.
Realizing the children were watching, Velma stood up and took a pitcher of water over to James.
"Would you like some more water, James?"
He almost shook as he came out of the apparent trance.
"Oh, no Velma, thank you."
Johnny laughed a little, and this caused Grace to giggle as well.
"You children eat now. No playing."
"Yes, Grandma." Both children replied, almost in unison.
James looked around the table with a lost expression on his face.
"I think it'll rain tonight," John said attempting to bring supper back on track. "What do you think James?"
"Yes, it might."
He knew something wasn't right. He realized now that he'd been somewhere else. But he didn't know what to do about it. He glanced around at his family. He loved them dearly, but he didn't belong here. He wasn't sure where he belonged, but he knew now that it wasn't here.
Later, as James lay down to sleep, the rain began. The soft pattering of raindrops outside his window caused a soothing effect, and he drifted into sleep. Then the thunder came, and as James slipped farther into slumber, he found himself once again on a faraway battlefield. As the sounds of the storm erupted outside, the cannons roared on the battlefield of James' dream.
"I heard them was Morgan's boys over there, Sergeant."
A young private nervously spoke to Sergeant Taft, who was riding back and forth in front of the men. James reined his horse in to answer the young cavalryman.
"Don't matter who they are, Private! That cavalry unit is protecting the Reb's flank, and we'll run them off the battlefield, or die trying!"
When James said this, the private appeared to calm down. But he was still obviously frightened. All the soldiers appeared concerned. The horses moved underneath them nervously, sensing death to be close at hand. Smoke from the guns drifted through the ranks as James scanned the faces of his men.
He then moved closer to the young private. James thought he might be able to say something to calm the young man, but as he came near, the soldier began to speak.
"I sure got the feeling that I'm going to be one of those that die trying, Sergeant. You ever get that feeling?"
James reined in his mount again, trying to calm it. The horse quivered under him in an apprehensive excitement for the battle at hand. Then, James lied to the young private. He always lied in these situations.
"Almost every day, Private." After James had said this, the man calmed some more. He smiled a little. James smiled slightly as well, and then he thought of several other men that had told him the same sort of thing over the years. They all died on the battlefield after telling him this. The cracking of rifle and cannon fire became more intense. He positioned his horse to the front of the unit, ready for battle.
Their lieutenant rode swiftly up from the back of the men.
"Alright boys, it's time, let's give'em hell."
The lieutenant then pulled his saber out and nodded to their bugler, who immediately sounded the charge. Sergeant Taft spurred his horse just as the lieutenant charged forward.
"Let's go 9th," James yelled out, and his heart began to pound inside his chest.
The ground began to tremble as the horses burst into a gallop.
James looked across the field at the enemy just as bullets began to sing around him.
He became hot as the blood rushed to his head. Then, as always, he slowly became numb as the specter of death approached.
He put the reins in his mouth and lowered his head as if facing a fierce wind. He could now see the enemy’s faces clearly.
As the gap closed, he pulled his saber out with his left hand and his revolver out with his right.
The famed "Rebel yell" could be heard from the opposing forces, sending chills down his back.
Now everything began to happen at lightning speed. The two cavalry units collided with the ferocity of a train wreck. As he moved into the Confederates' ranks, he swung his razor-sharp saber and took a Rebels' head almost entirely off from the shoulders. He then turned to his left and fired his pistol into the chest of another, removing the man from his horse in the process.
The sound of bullets flying by him mixed with bodies being struck and cries of pain, all mingled with anger, leather, and metal striking metal.
Another rebel rode up to his right. He was young, and James could see the fear in his eyes. He fired his pistol, but James anticipated it just in time to move. The bullet whizzed by so close that he felt the heat. He maneuvered his saber as the young soldier attempted to cock his pistol again. He lunged the blade forward and felt the steel sink into the man’s body. He watched briefly as the soldier realized James had just ended his life.
He pulled the blade from the man and turned to his left as another soldier was about to fire his rifle at him. James quickly aimed and instinctively fired his cocked pistol. The soldier leaned back as the bullet hit him, firing the gun into the air before falling from his horse.
The enemy was all around him now. He shot another Rebel from his horse. Another one rode toward him as if to avenge his comrade. James shot him also as he tried to swing his saber.
He wanted to get out of the enclosed fighting. He maneuvered his mount to the right, then ran another rebel through the back with his saber. He struggled to pull the blade free as the soldier fell backward onto it.
A bullet cut through the side of his coat, contacting his flesh. He remained on top of his horse. He spotted the enemy that fired the shot. He aimed his revolver and shot as the soldier tried to shoot again. James' shot almost removed the soldier's head.
He pressed his right arm against the wounded side as the pain came. Angered, he spurred his horse forward. He swung his blade and the contact nearly took a passing rebel's arm off.
Another rebel rode toward him at a furious pace, seeming ready to take James down with his saber. James lifted his pistol and shot him from his horse. Then he immediately ran his blade into the side of another rebel that had moved close to him.
James sensed another enemy soldier taking aim; the shot intended for the young private he had spoken with before the start of the battle. James lifted his pistol and pulled the trigger. The clicking of an empty revolver was all he heard. As the young private turned, he would see the bullet from the enemy that would kill him. James yelled out.
He cocked the pistol again as the rebel fired. The young private jerked back as the bullet slammed into his chest. James again pulled the trigger; again, and again, the clicking of an empty pistol.
The Rebel then turned towards him, and everything slowed down. James raised his saber as the hot blood flowed to his head and caused a flash of anger inside him.
"James, are you alright?"
The battlefield began to fade. James slowly saw his room by the light of a lamp that his mother held. He found himself sitting on the edge of his bed. His left arm raised as if he were holding a saber, while his right arm was elevated halfway and pointed from his body in a manner suggesting a pistol ready to be used.
He blinked several times and looked to his mother, who stood in the doorway with a lamp. She appeared very concerned. Then, John stepped up behind her. As James lowered his arms, Grace and Johnny stepped to the door to see what the commotion was. At last, Velma stepped to the door behind John.
"I guess I was dreaming. I'm sorry if I disturbed anyone."
"Come on children; Uncle James just had a dream." His mother attempted to usher the children away from the doorway. John seemed to want to say something but couldn't find the words. Velma turned and went back towards their bedroom. Finally, John spoke in a nervous tone.
"Well, good night James. I'll uh... I'll see you at breakfast." he then waved slightly and left for his bedroom.
James sat in silence on the edge of the bed. His heart continued to race long after everyone had settled back into their beds. He told himself that he hated the battlefield. The smell of smoke and blood still permeated his nostrils, even though it was only a dream. And yet here he sat, on the edge of the bed, in darkness and silence, reliving the vivid dream over and over in his mind. He wanted to be there again, and this frightened him more than any battle ever did.
As the morning light slowly peeked over the horizon, James' mother stepped out onto the porch where her son sat in a weathered chair. He gazed out to the horizon and only glanced away as his mother sat down across from him.
Several minutes had passed before either spoke. His mother began, softly, but seeming to struggle for her words.
"I wish... well, I just wish your father was here, James. He would be so much better with something like this."
James glanced at her and smiled a little. He then turned back to watch the morning sun creeping up. After a few seconds, he spoke with a slow but resolved tone.
"I never really thought about what I would do after the war, Ma. Because I never believed, I would live through it." He paused, and his mother looked down a little as if his words pained her some. He then continued with the same tone.
"I can't stay here. This... staying in one place, it's doing something to me. I'm not for certain what, but it's not good, I know that."
His mother continued to gaze down at the porch, appearing to almost cry. After several seconds, she straightened and again spoke softly.
"You shouldn't run from your problems, Son."
He turned to his mother and examined her face. He loved her so much and wanted to make her understand that he had no desire to leave. He tried desperately to find the words. She looked back to her son with a hope that he might be able to stay. But as she gazed into his eyes, James realized what he needed to say.
"I'm not running from them, Ma. I've got to charge them, at full gallop. It's the only thing I know how to do now. I've got to meet them out there... somewhere, and overcome them, or die trying. I don't know what the outcome will be, but I know now what happens if I stay here."
A tear ran down his mother's face as she realized his words were true, and she would once again be losing her son. She put her head down and wiped the tear away. She nodded a little as another tear dropped to her lap.
Later that morning, John approached his brother, who had walked to the creek. James sat on a large rock, the same one the two had used as young boys to jump into the water.
"It's been a long time since you and I went swimming here." John then sat down beside his brother.
James turned and glanced at him. He then looked back to the creek and tossed a small stone in, as if he'd been waiting for a reason to throw it into the water.
"Yeah, feels like a different lifetime. I've been thinking about those days, before..." James acted reluctant to even say the word.
"Before the war?" John asked, with the tone of a big brother. He obviously wanted to confront the problem and resolve it.
James sensed this, but knew the problem was not as simple as removing a tree stump.
"Yeah, before the war," he replied without looking up.
Again, the silence prevailed and the soft flowing creek, along with a few birds was the only sounds heard. Finally, John felt the need to say something.
"Ma says you're going to leave?"
James reached down and picked up another small stone, then replied.
"I can't stay here any longer, John. The war did something to me. I don't know what, exactly, but I know I've got to move. If I don't, I'll get sick."
John looked over at his brother and tried to find an answer. He could think of nothing to change his brother's mind. With no solution in sight, he decided to do what he could to be a friend.
"Where are you planning on going to?"
James glanced at John and felt glad his brother was trying to understand. He tossed the small stone into the creek.
"West, there's a lot of room to move around out that way. I saved most of my pay from the Army, so I should have enough to get me by for a while. I'll give Ma some money before I leave. I know it won't be the same as having an extra hand around, but maybe it'll help some."
John could only nod in agreement. He knew his brother would stay if he was able to. He patted James' leg and stood up.
"Will you be coming to dinner?"
"Yeah, I'll be back later, before dinner."
John nodded and began walking back towards the house. James again stared at the creek, as if it might answer some of the questions in his mind.
As the sun crept up towards noon, James left the small waterway and went back to the house. He decided he would leave as soon as he could get a good horse and the proper equipment together for an extended trip out west.
Over the next several days he purchased a good mount and all the necessary gear, including two brand new Colt Army revolvers and a Henry rifle.
The departure day came, and he said his good-byes, then moved down the road, away from the house where he had grown to be a young man.
Upon reaching the creek, he turned the horse around and looked back at his home in the distance. He didn't want to leave it. But in his heart, James knew he had to. Something inside him would not rest. The battle within had to run its course, somewhere and somehow. Staying here would only worsen the situation and disrupt the family he loved. With this thought in mind, he turned his horse and moved down the road, towards the struggle he knew he must face. Out there, in the west, somewhere, an unseen enemy awaited him.
Chapter Two: Independence
As James rode, he felt good to be moving again. Somehow, the swaying of the horse felt like home. As time went by, he found himself in a haze that helped ease his mind.
It was no longer necessary to think about anything other than the ride and where to stop and sleep. James examined the landscape and forgot the eyes of men he'd shot during the war. He considered a method for traversing a creek rather than the flash of hot blood, which ran through his veins as he charged onto a battlefield.
He knew this was the best place for him to be. James didn't know how to resolve the battle within himself, but he knew this would be a place he could live until a solution came.
As he passed through the small towns, he examined the people, the women, and children. He wondered if he would ever have a wife and children. Then, he would move through the town and stop thinking of such things. He could again clear his mind and focus on the ride.
Soon, battle-scarred lands passed by and mass graves littered the trails; evidence of the war that was still fresh in his mind. Too slowly for James, these haunting scenes became fewer and fewer as he moved farther into the western regions.
Along the way, James replaced his northern farmer clothing with the buckskins, leathers and apparel of a western woodsman. Soon he began to gain distance from those memories of the soldier inside, which beckoned him to another challenge on the fields of death.
This man fought to avoid the bear or the snake that threatened to spook his horse. He concerned himself with these matters and tried to purge his thoughts of the warrior he had been.
James wandered into Independence Missouri in the fall of 1865. The rough frontier city welcomed the lone rider with many loud sounds, and a gun shot several blocks away. He pulled his buckskin coat a little tighter as the crisp autumn wind found its way into the open folds of leather.
He found a suitable stable for his horse and then carried his Spartan belongings down the street to a boarding house.
The warmth and smell of a wood stove swirled around him as he stepped into the doorway of a large two-story house. A man that looked to be in his forties sat talking with a pretty woman that was obviously half his age. They both looked at James suspiciously as he stood directly in the doorway.
"Can I help you?" The young woman stood up and moved towards him.
"I was wondering if you have a room to rent." James sat his saddlebags, rifle, and other various items down after asking this.
The young woman eyed James and just as she was about to reply, the man stood up and asked in a tone of contempt.
"Where are you from Mister? You don't sound like you’re from around here."
James glanced over at the man, who continued to walk slowly towards the lobby area where James stood.
He then turned back to the young woman.
"I'll pay in silver coin."
When James said this, the woman immediately became more attentive.
"Yes, well, we do have a room, if you have the rent in silver." She stepped closer to him and smiled after saying this.
"I asked you a question, Mister. You need to show some manners. Or is it that you're a Yankee and don't have any manners?"
The man expressed obvious frustration that the woman had told James she had a room.
"Frank, please. He has the rent in silver coin. I don't care where he's from."
Now Frank turned to the woman.
"Mary, that's why we got so many of the Yankees coming down here. He doesn't care about anyone around here. He just flashes some silver coin and gets what he wants."
James said nothing but fished a silver dollar from his pocket. He held it up for Mary to see.
"Right this way Mr.?"
"Yes Mr. Taft, your room is upstairs. It'll be cash in advance, though."
"That's fine." James picked his gear up and glanced over at Frank, then began following the young woman up the stairs.
Frank sneered at him but said nothing else.
After paying the rent and getting settled in James went to the bath house and got a much-needed cleaning. That night he slept soundly, as he'd not slept in an actual bed for some time.
The following morning, he came down to breakfast and found a table with several other boarders, including Frank who didn't appear very glad to see him.
"Good morning Mr. Taft. I'm Millie. You rented a room yesterday from Mary, my daughter. I was out on midwife services."
James nodded to the woman that entered with a platter of biscuits. She was an attractive woman, in her forties perhaps. James could see where Mary had obtained her beauty from.
"Pleased to meet you Ms."
He then sat down at the table. Mary came into the room and glanced over at James with an eye of interest. She served everyone eggs to go with the biscuits. He noticed she gave him an extra egg. Frank also saw this from across the table, and again his face twisted slightly with anger.
James ate his food and excused himself from the table. He then went to the stables to check on his horse. The weather was cold, and a brisk breeze nipped at his face as he walked through the city.
Eventually, James found himself in a saloon, drinking a beer and staring at the wall.
A dance hall girl came up and sat down at the table with him. She was pretty and appeared to be around twenty years old. She didn't say anything at first but merely sat, staring at James. He glanced back at her, and she smiled at him. The saloon was almost empty, and neither one said anything for several minutes.
Finally, she spoke with a strong, but sweet southern accent.
"You ain't no farmer... and you ain't no cowboy. You look like a soldier, 'cept you still got all yer arms and legs. What is it exactly that you do, Mister?"
James took another drink of his beer and didn't reply right away. He sat his glass on the table and continued to look at the young woman. She never turned away from him, and he tried to think of an appropriate answer.
Then James answered her, and as he spoke, he found himself getting further and further into a deep hole.
"Well, I don't like to talk about it. But I work for the government."
The young woman continued to stare at him but seemed a bit impressed.
"Really, and jest what is it you do fer the government?"
James took another drink and gave her a bashful expression.
"I really.... don't like to talk about it, Miss."
Now the young woman became even more intrigued.
"Why don't you like talking bout it? It can't be that bad."
She moved even closer. James turned his beer up and finished it. He sat the glass on the table.
"Well, you see..." He stopped, acted nervously and as if he needed another drink, but the glass was empty.
"Here, I'll get you another beer."
He handed her a coin, and she took the glass and darted away. Soon she returned and sat the beer back on the table in front of him.
Then, she moved very close to James and put her arm on the table, propping her head up on her hand. She stared expectantly at him as he took another drink.
"Uhm... well, you see, I'm a, well, I'm a government-certified 'tongue' inspector."
The woman sat back a little and looked at James as if he were crazy.
"You ain't no such thing!"
James looked down at his glass and expressed embarrassment. "You see, that's why I don't like talking about it. I always get that reaction." James took another drink and turned away as if hurt by her words.
He was beginning to enjoy himself now and perhaps due to this, never considered how far he would go with it.
The young woman sat back up and closed the space between them even more.
"So, jest what sort of 'tongue' inspecting is it you do then, Mister?"
"Oh, cattle tongues mostly, but I do some horse tongue inspecting as well, from time to time."
"Why would anyone need ta inspect cow tongues?"
James glanced down at his beer and became solemn.
"It's a new type of science. A lot can be determined from the tongue. People are just now beginning to realize how much can be discovered simply by examining a tongue."
Now the young woman inched closer to James and leaned towards him.
"Like what? How can ya tell anything from lookin at a tongue?"
"Well, let me see your tongue, and I'll show you."
The woman appeared apprehensive about this.
"It won't hurt, I promise you. I just want to look at it."
After James had said this, several more men walked into the saloon. The piano player stood up, walked over and sat down behind the keyboard. He then began playing a chunky sounding rhythm.
"Well, alright, if it fer sure ain't gonna hurt."
She leaned over to James and stuck out her tongue.
"Hmm, yes, fascinating." James examined the woman's tongue with interest.
"Wha....wha ouu seee...."
She tried to look at James and speak while keeping her tongue out.
"Yes, I see you were born, hmm yes, you were born somewhere south of here."
The young woman pulled her tongue back in quickly.
"Yeah, I was! That's amazin.... How'd you see that from jus lookin at my tongue?"
James had a little difficulty not laughing as the woman again leaned over to him and put her tongue out for him.
"Wat else duo see?"
Slightly, James smiled as he had now become very amused with the charade. He leaned over closer to the young dance hall girl and examined her tongue again.
As he studied her tongue, he could smell her perfume, and then, he happened to glance down. There before him was the young woman's exposed cleavage. He quickly looked up, but immediately his eyes were irresistibly drawn back down to the beautiful sight.
"Yes, well, um, I see that..."
He had by now become very distracted as she leaned even closer towards him with both arms on the table. This created a situation that pressed her breasts together and allowed the top of her dress to open enough for him to gain a great view of her ample female attributes.
"Wat, wat, do uoo see?"
"I, um see that." He struggled for something and began to feel flush as he could not pull his eyes away from her chest.
"I see that uhm... your mother, she was very beautiful."
The woman tried to smile with her tongue out but gazing upwards.
"Yeaa,sthee wazz! Thathas inkredable!"
"And, I see that, um." James again stumbled as he began to feel warm from the sight of the young woman's chest and the two beers.
The dance hall girl then glanced down, as James struggled for something else to say. She became aware that he was, very closely, examining her chest. She pulled her tongue back into her mouth.
"Uhm hmm, and what else iz it ya see?" Her eye lids lowered a little as she asked this.
"Well, I see that uhm your father..." James glanced up and realizing he'd been caught, froze.
The young woman stared at him for several long seconds but never moved. Then, she finally spoke.
"Yer fer certain an inspector, Mister, but I'm thinkin yer no tongue inspector." She then leaned back as James remained frozen with a blank expression on his face.
For a bit longer, the young woman watched James, while she reclined in the chair. Then a sly smile erupted onto her face.
"I like you... even if you are a Yankee; which I'm thinkin you are. Yer a rascal! It waz real clever the way you got yerself a sight of me like that."
James sat back and smiled. Although "getting a sight of her" wasn't his initial intention, he didn't try to explain this since she appeared to admire him for it.
Now the young woman smiled even brighter and sat back up in her chair.
"My name is Nancy." She held out her hand.
"James Taft." He leaned forward and shook her hand, then picked his beer back up.
Perhaps due to the close inspection of Nancy's cleavage, James now examined the rest of her a little better. She had light brown hair, and it was put up in ribbons, as most dance hall girl’s hair was. She wore a knee length dress that was colorful and expressed the general risqué nature of a young lady in her profession. She didn't have the look of a prostitute as some dance hall girls; she still appeared fresh and somewhat unblemished for her early twenty-something age.
She stared at him now, and he watched her as the piano continued to bang out chunky saloon rhythms.
"So where are you from Nancy, other than the south?"
"Huntsville, Alabama. If you'd been payin more attention to my tongue, instead of other things you was lookin at, you mighta known that, Jimmy." Nancy then winked at him.
James winced a little.
"I prefer to be called James."
Nancy leaned up close to him. He could smell her again. He liked that.
"Well, if'n ya ever want to be gettin another sight of me, you'll be makin a ception' ta that rule... Jimmy." She then sat back in her chair and waited for his response with a sultry smile.
He considered this as he gazed into her blue eyes. After another drink from his glass, he replied.
"I suppose under those conditions. I can make one exception."
She again smiled brightly at him. She was very beautiful. He smiled back.
He began to feel nervous, though, as many different thoughts started to run through his mind. He'd never considered becoming attracted to a woman in a saloon. He'd only stopped in for a drink. Now he found himself feeling quite interested in Nancy.
"I suppose I should go now." He turned up his beer and sat the glass on the table. He stood up as she continued to half recline in the hard-wooden chair.
"Yeah, you better go Jimmy. I ain't never liked a Yankee the way I'm liken you. You better go now. You be sure ta come an visit me though, ya hear?"
James turned and glanced down at Nancy. She turned away from him as if also trying to fight an attraction inside herself.
"Yeah, I'll come back sometime. Thank you, Nancy."
She turned to him and smiled, but then frowned immediately after that. Then, she turned away from him again as he left the saloon.
When James entered the boarding house, he found Mary directly inside, cleaning a table. He noticed she was dressed very well for doing house cleaning.
"Mr. Taft, how was your morning?"
"It was very good, thank you." He began to walk up the stairs.
"Would you like to come into the parlor and warm up?"
James realized she must have put the nice dress on for him. He didn't want to be entertained by her right now, but also didn't want to disappoint her.
"Yes, alright, I suppose that would be nice."
Mary nodded slightly and walked with him into the parlor.
Sitting across from each other, Mary smiled at James, and he smiled back. He had already become uneasy by the recent attraction to Nancy. He felt reluctant to have his heart pricked by another beautiful young woman.
"You know, so many of our fine young men died in the war, Mr. Taft. I find it refreshing to speak with a gentleman such as you. May I call you James, Mr. Taft?"
"That would be nice, and I prefer James."
Mary smiled delicately, and James couldn't help but sense the contrast between her and Nancy.
"Would you like something to drink, James?"
"Well, a glass of water would be fine."
Mary stood up and walked by. Her dress brushed against him as she passed. He sat in the warm room, feeling uneasy.
Soon Mary returned with a glass of water. James thanked her and took a drink as she sat again.
She turned to the fireplace as if giving him an opportunity to look her over. He did look her over, and she was a fine specimen of woman. She had darker brown hair than Nancy, and yet it was softer in appearance. Her face was perfectly symmetrical, and she would certainly turn any young man's head on the streets of Independence.
Seeming to sense his attention was on her, she brushed her hand along her neck as if removing a bothersome strand of hair. Then, when she had given James enough time to absorb her feminine qualities, she turned to him.
"The weather has certainly turned cooler hasn't it, James?"
He found himself desiring the atmosphere of the saloon now. Though any man would envy him at this moment, James felt as if he would burst at any time, should he sit here much longer. The chunky piano rhythms and the unpredictable nature of Nancy called out to him as he struggled to find small talk.
"Yes, it surely has turned cool on us." He grimaced now as the fire crackled in front of him.
"Is it too warm for you James?"
Her voice was soft and sweet, as honey dripping slowly from a dauber. It floated into his ears and melted as a subtle mist. And yet, he found it difficult to sit and endure this pristine atmosphere. Why was this? A beautiful and refined woman sat before him. She had taken the time to dress and prepare her delicate hair, just to entertain him. Now she wanted his conversation, and he could only think of leaving as quickly as possible. Or to run to the rough and ill-reputed amenities of the saloon.
"No, I'm fine, thank you."
"You remind me of a soldier, James. Was you in the war perhaps?"
Now he could almost endure no more. He didn't want to speak of the war. The constant speaking of such things tortured his mind. He knew well she wanted to be impressed. She wanted him to tell of gallantry and her, in turn, would flatter him for his brave deeds. He felt a strange feeling of despair as he realized his thoughts were so far from what most considered normal. He ran his hand along the side of his head as he tried to find a response.
Just as Mary began to react to the lengthy pause, Frank walked into the boarding house and then straight into the parlor. When he saw James, he immediately expressed disappointment.
Though James wasn't glad to see Frank, he was relieved by the interruption. It didn't last long, however, as Frank sat down and immediately showed an interest in James.
"Mr. Taft, just what is your purpose for being in Independence?"
"Frank, please!" Mary said.
James glanced at both.
"Mary, you should be more careful. We know nothing of this man."
"You're not my Pa, Frank. I'll be asking you to leave my business to me."
James stood up.
"If you'll excuse me, I need to go... check on my horse."
"You didn't answer my question, Mr. Taft!"
James glanced at Frank as he stepped away from the sofa and moved towards the door.
"Frank, would you just hold your tongue." Mary objected again.
James now replied to Frank with a stern voice.
"I'll also be asking you to leave my business to me, Mister."
This immediately infuriated Frank.
"You damn Yankee! You come back in here and say that to my face!"
"Frank, you.... Ahh." Mary stood up, rushed out of the room and past James, obviously upset.
James stared at Frank and considered taking him up on his offer. His blood became hot. He felt the same rush that always came before a battle. He liked the feeling and almost moved back into the room.
Frank stared at James with fire in his eyes. He moved his right hand slightly. James suspected a weapon to be in his coat pocket. He examined the space between them and felt he had time to take him down before Frank would be able to reach the weapon.
James paused. He realized this was the very thing he'd wanted to get away from; why he left his home. It was evident that he wanted to take Frank down and destroy him. The rush of blood felt good, and this frightened him.
James turned and walked towards the stairs. He had already checked his horse and just wanted to get away from the situation.
"You better leave while you can, boy... I know you're just a yellow-bellied coward."
James ignored Frank’s insults and continued to his room.
He lay on his bed, attempting to calm down. He stared at the ceiling. Everything was out of place in his mind. He finally kicked his boots off and slept.
The next few days James arose early and left the boarding house before breakfast. He would check on his horse and then eat somewhere in town.
By this time, people were moving into Independence and all around the outside of town in preparation to travel the Oregon Trail.
One morning James took his horse out for a ride and came across a mass of wagons and tents outside of town. He studied the congregation of people from afar. He had been avoiding Mary and Frank, but now he wanted to be around people. A few hours later he found himself walking into the saloon.
"Jimmy!" Nancy immediately moved towards James and pushed away another dance hall girl that was approaching him. She took his arm and led him over to a table.
"Why haven't ya come ta visit me, Jimmy?"
She sat him down in a chair and immediately sat down in his lap. He could smell her perfume and feel her warmth. She gazed into his eyes, and he felt frightened and excited at the same time.
"I've been busy; I'm sorry Nancy."
"Ya been too busy fer me, Jimmy?"
He could tell now that she was a little tipsy.
"Ya gonna buy me a drink, Darlin?"
"Sure, and I'll take a beer." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver dollar. She took the coin and went to the bar. Soon she returned with two beers.
She sat his beer down and then she sat down across the table from him. Again, the piano player began banging out the chunky rhythms as several more men came into the smoke-filled saloon.
She took a large drink of her beer and then looked at James.
He felt fascinated with Nancy. He'd never seen a woman drinking beer before, or for that matter, he'd seldom seen a woman drink.
"So, where've ya been, Jimmy? I don't like too many Yankee's, but I kinda like you. Why ain't ya come ta see me?"
She was beautiful and yet dangerous to James. He felt even more attracted to her, and this was a gamble at the very least.
"I've missed you too, Nancy."
She stared at him with a contemptuous smile that he was becoming very fond of.
"I didn't say I missed ya! I jest asked why ya haven't come ta see me." She took another drink of her beer.
James leaned back in his chair and watched her. He smiled slightly as she wiped her mouth with her hand and realized he was looking at her. She smiled seductively, then leaned forward. She positioned herself so that her dress opened slightly on the top, once again giving him a "sight of her."
"I have missed ya, though, Jimmy. But don't ya go thinking too much about that."
He looked her over with a grateful expression on his face. Nancy stared at him as well. They both wanted to find something to hold onto. Finally, James replied.
"I don't think too much about anything anymore. But I have been thinking about you. I think you distract me from things. Things I don't want to think about."
Nancy thought about this as her mouth twisted ever so slowly. Her eyes glistened from the beers.
"That's why I like ya so much... you damn Yankee. You gots a troubled heart. I knew it was something like that. I ain't ever liked a Yankee, but you got a troubled heart, jest like me."
James grimaced a bit when Nancy said this. He realized this half-drunk woman spoke the truth. Perhaps this was why he found her so attractive. Mary was the picture of what any sane man should want in a woman. Yet, he wanted to be here with this provocative woman that most would consider being tainted. The piano player changed the tune now, but it still had the same chunky, banging rhythm as the previous one. They stared at each other as the music created a festive atmosphere. Both searched for something in the other's eyes.
"You're right Nancy. But what can we do about it?"
She stood up, moved over and sat back down in his lap. She put her arms around his neck. She looked into his eyes and said, "You gots to find a place where the thing that troubles yer heart is the thing that's most useful to ever one around. Then they'll love ya fer that awful thing inside yer self. That's why I'm here, Jimmy. I ain't got no place else I can be. My heart's troubled by a man. Now I find men like you and give' em some comfort. It doesn't fix me, but it makes me feel better fer a while."
She then hugged James, and her breasts pressed against his face. She smelled of perfume and beer. He did feel better, and yet he also felt as if he were falling. She spoke the truth and answered a question that burned inside him. But now he realized he had no place to go. Where could a man go and find something useful in the thing that troubled his heart?
He put his arms around her, and for a brief instant, his unsettled soul was peaceful.
As the days passed by, James continued to avoid Mary and Frank. He would ride around Independence but nearly always ended up in Nancy's company by the afternoon.
She would be half drunk, but somehow never became too drunk to entertain him and the other customers. She would dance on the stage and smile as the men yelled out to her and the other dancers.
James would buy her drinks, and he would find himself almost drunk by the time the saloon would close. Then, he would stagger to the boarding house and sleep until almost noon the next day.
He would then get cleaned up and again go for a ride in the early afternoon. As he rode around Independence, he became more and more aware of the gathering multitude of people and wagons. He sat on his horse as the cold wind nipped at his face. Watching from a hill, James began to wonder about this "Oregon Trail." The thought intrigued him momentarily, but then he rode back into town and found himself once again at the saloon and in the company of Nancy.
The winter days began to blur by in a routine of riding around the Missouri town until late afternoon and then eagerly entering the smoky saloon, to Nancy's sweet southern greeting.
"Jimmy, come over here to me, ya damn Yankee!"
James moved over to the colorfully dressed saloon girl.
"Give us a couple of beers, Sam."
James put his arm around her. She felt warm, and he could smell her fragrance as she moved close to him.
The bartender sat two beers on the counter. The piano player moved from a table to the piano and began playing a catchy rhythm that James had become familiar with.
The two went to their usual table and sat down. She quickly downed half the beer and then gazed into his eyes. This had become their routine. He came early in the day so he could have her all to himself for a while.
"You mus really like me, Jimmy. I like you, but I'm thinkin you like me more."
James gazed into her eyes for a few seconds and then took a drink of his beer. After setting the glass back on the table, he replied.
"You make me forget. I like to forget."
She put her elbow on the table and then lowered her head and placed her chin on her hand. She looked at James, and her eyes belayed a young girl that still resided somewhere deep inside the troubled young woman.
"Forgettin don't make it go away. I know bout that cause I try ever day ta forget. Forgettin only makes ya feel better for a lil while."
The chunky piano tune seemed to dance inside his head as he examined her and considered what she had said.
He wanted her so badly. He wanted to take her away and somehow make them both forget. He'd never asked her exactly what it was she wanted to forget. She never asked him either. They both seemed to be tainted and unfit to exist anywhere that was considered 'civilized.'
James took another drink of his beer as several men came into the saloon. Smoke from Sam's cigar floated around his nostrils. The bartender put his cigar in a tray and poured the two men a drink.
Nancy laid her arm on the table and then rested her head on it as if she was tired of trying to forget.
She seemed to be the only person in the world that understood how he felt. He stared at her as the saloon atmosphere invaded the innermost crevices of his mind. She looked back at him and gazed into his eyes. He could see her pain.
She raised her head, seeming to sense James had penetrated her thoughts.
He realized now that he probably loved her. He didn't want to love her, but he did. She turned away from him as if she was thinking the same thing.
That night he stumbled out of the saloon as the doors closed for the day.
The days and nights blurred together now, as day after day he found himself in the comforting company of Nancy and the saloon. She also clung to James as the misery they both felt somehow became less of a burden while with each other.
Independence had gradually become more and more crowded as spring closed in and winter lost its grip on the land.
As he had done almost every day for months now, James woke up feeling the effects of the beer from the previous night. He cleaned up some and walked out of the boarding house. As he passed Mary, she turned away from him. She'd heard the stories of his time spent at the saloon and no longer had any interest in him.
He got something to eat in town and then went to the stables to retrieve his horse.
As he finished putting the saddle on, someone behind him spoke.
James turned to the man.
"You look like a fella that can ride and shoot. You want a job. We need some extra men."
James eyed him with suspicion. Inside, he only wanted to stay at the saloon where he could drown his thoughts with Nancy and beer. He only wanted to hold her on his lap and smell her fragrance, mixed with cigar smoke, while the piano player banged out a tune. He wanted to watch her dance on the stage and forget about everything.
But perhaps he realized this would need to end sometime. His money wouldn't last much longer, and deep inside he knew this.
"What sort of job are you talking about?"
"We need some extra men to help us escort a wagon train up to Oregon territory. You just need to help protect the wagons and such. The pay is good if you got the experience. You got a gun?"
James looked the man over again before replying. The man seemed to be half business and half trapper. He had a buckskin coat and a city style, short brimmed felt hat. His pants were rough cloth, but his shirt appeared clean, white and more of a Sunday meeting style.
"I've got two Colt Army revolvers and a Henry rifle."
Now the man perked up.
"Well, you're just the man we need. You got military training?"
For some reason, James continued the conversation with this man. He had no desire of leaving Nancy. But now this job offer had somehow loosened her hold on him.
"Four and a half years with the US Cavalry."
Now the man became very excited.
"Mr. Taft. We'll pay you a dollar a day. Your meals will be covered by the wagon train. All you need to do is help us protect the wagons. Typically, I require the hired men to do additional duties. But considering your experience, all you need to do is keep an eye out for trouble Mr. Taft. I assure you of that. I need a man with your training, and I'll treat you right if you sign on with me."
James made no expression. Then he replied casually.
"I'll consider it, Mr.?"
"Harvey, George Harvey. And you can find me on the west side of town. Just ask around some of the wagons camped out on the west side of town and they'll help you find me. We'll be leaving in a week, Mr. Taft. I hope you decide to join us. Oregon is the land of promise right now. You would love it. By the time you get to Oregon, you’ll have enough money to set up a nice little homestead."
James nodded, "I'll contact you if I decide to take you up on your offer Mr. Harvey." He then led his horse towards the doors.
He rode out of town and to the wagons and tents gathered. He sensed an excitement from these explorers, all ready for departure to Oregon territory.
As James sat on his horse gazing out over the mass of people, an idea came to him. He could take Nancy out west. They could build a new life in Oregon territory; a life far away from the memories. The thought excited him more than anything had in a long time. Surely, she would like the idea. This could change everything for both.
After returning his horse to the stable James anxiously made his way to the saloon.
Though he didn't like the name "Jimmy," he had come to love hearing it from the flamboyant southern beauty.
Sam automatically placed two beers on the counter soon after James entered the saloon. Nancy moved quickly up to him and took her beer with one hand and his arm with her other.
The saloon was already busy as more and more people entered Independence in preparation for their move to Oregon territory.
Since their normal table was occupied, the two moved to a table towards the corner of the room. He sat down, and Nancy almost jumped into his lap. She nuzzled up to him, and her chest pressed into his face. Everything went away, and for a few moments, he thought of nothing but the smell of Nancy and the warmth of her close body.
The piano player continued to force a chunky rhythm from the instrument with his usual banging style on the black and white keys.
"Buy me a whiskey, Jimmy!" Nancy was in a rowdy mood now. James pulled a silver dollar from his pocket and handed it to her. She stood up from his lap and went to the counter. Shortly she returned with two shot glasses of whiskey.
"Here's you one Jimmy."
She sat down and gazed into the amber liquid with a slight smile.
James tried to think of the best way to ask Nancy about Oregon. He decided to say it straight out.
"Nancy, I'm thinking about going to Oregon territory. I would like for you to come with me."
When James said this, Nancy immediately lost her smile. She turned slowly away as she still held the whiskey in her hand. James watched her closely now as this wasn't the reaction he'd expected.
She turned back to him with a frightened expression. After glancing down at her drink again, she suddenly turned it up, downed it, and then sat the empty shot glass on the table. Her face expressed the strong jolt from the taste.
Seeming to gain some courage from the whiskey Nancy looked at him and replied.
"Ya don't want a woman like me, Jimmy. I ain't no good fer no man."
She glanced down at the empty shot glass and expressed shame.
Now James wanted her even more. The fact that she felt she wasn't good enough for him made him desire her that much more. He moved closer to her.
"I don't care about anything Nancy. I want you with me. We can start new in Oregon territory. We can get a piece of land and not have to worry about anything anymore."
Now a tear rolled down her cheek. She shook her head as if his words were hard for her to hear.
"No Jimmy, nooo, I can't."
He put his hand on her arm as the smoke, and the banging piano accentuated the strange feelings both were dealing with at this instant.
"Why can't you Nancy? Why not? Just go with me, we can forget together. We'll just think about us and nothing else."
Now her eyes were full of tears as she looked up into his. She grabbed his shot of whiskey and downed it. She ran the back of her hand across her mouth and sniffed from crying.
"I jus can't Jimmy. You don't understand."
She stood up and walked away from the table quickly. James stood up, but then sat back down. Now he felt like drinking. He began to drink whiskey. He watched Nancy dance on stage later that night. She wasn't happy. He wasn't either.
Around midnight the saloon sat almost empty. Again, Nancy sat down across from James at their usual table. Both showed signs of drinking far too much, mixed with sadness from deep inside.
As Sam cleaned the tables and the Piano player pulled the cover over his keyboard, James spoke in a tone of disappointment.
"Why don't you want to go with me, Nancy? What's holding you here, this?" He moved his hand to indicate the saloon.
"No, Jimmy... It ain't this." She whined and then laid her weary head on her arm. Both were exhausted from the night of burdened hearts.
"What then? What's keeping you here?"
She raised her head and looked at James. Her hair was a mess, and she was apparently worn out and half drunk. She was still beautiful. She was beautiful and troubled just like him. He wanted so much for them to leave and try to make a life where they could both forget. Finally, she replied to his question.
"It ain't that I can't leave here Jimmy. I jus can't leave with a..." She paused and looked away. "I jus can't leave with a... Yankee."
Now James became angry, and for a brief second, he didn't care for her. But then she turned to him and continued.
"My brother Martin, he was killed by a Yankee at Chickamauga. I know it weren't you that done it Jimmy, but I can't get that from my heart. I can't be with you all the time, do you understand?"
Chickamauga... suddenly, memories of that bloody mess came flooding back. How many rebels did he kill at Chickamauga, seven, eight, twelve? No, it must have been more, much more. He unloaded his revolver and rifle, again and again, every day of that battle. He seldom missed by that stage of the war. He suddenly realized; he indeed may have killed her brother.
Now James turned away from her. Why did she say Chickamauga? Why couldn't it have been Gettysburg, Antietam, or any other battle that he had nothing to do with? He would have had a chance. Now he knew there was no hope. Neither could live with these thoughts every day and, neither had the ability to persuade the other one to overcome them.
"I'm sorry Jimmy." She began to cry now, and the day's events weighed on both.
James put his hand on her arm.
"It's alright Nancy, I understand."
"I want ta go with ya, Jimmy. I really do. But I jus can't get over that Jimmy. I told ya, I don't like many Yankees. I like you a whole lot, though, and if things were different, I would love ya. And, maybe I do love ya... But I jus can't get around that Jimmy." She wept now and wiped her eyes again and again.
"No, you don't have to be sorry Nancy. I understand." He continued to stare out at the floor. Another saloon girl that had fallen asleep with her head on a table stood up as Sam roused her. She staggered towards her room upstairs.
"I've got to go." James picked himself up and walked in a daze past Sam, who was still sweeping the floor.
As he went out the doors, he heard Nancy.
"I'm sorry Jimmy. I'm sorry."
When he awoke the next day, James felt awful. He lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. The fragile hopes he had the previous day had crumbled and now felt like wounds that tormented his heart, along with the repercussions of the whiskey.
A breakfast helped some, as did the coffee. He checked on his horse and went back to his room. He wanted to see Nancy, but now knew he would also see faces of the men he'd killed at Chickamauga.
Several days passed by in a haze of loneliness and despair. He finally realized that he must do something. He had to get away and not think about Nancy or the past. Somehow, he must look forward, even though he could see nothing ahead that would help him.
He packed his meager belongings and told Mary he was leaving.
"Thank you, Mr. Taft. I wish you well."
She turned away after saying this, seeming to be ashamed of ever being attracted to him.
James went to fetch his horse. Then, as he rode past the saloon, he found himself stopping. He jumped down, hitched his mount and went in.
Nancy sat at their usual table. She turned to James. This time there was no lively greeting.
"Hello, Jimmy." She meekly said as he sat down across from her.
Seeming to sense the occasion, Sam brought two beers and sat them on the table.
"Thank you, Sam," Nancy said casually, as James handed the bartender a silver coin.
James gazed into her eyes and she also searched his. They wanted to find something to give them hope. Nothing transpired, and after a few seconds they both picked up their beer and took a drink to ease the tension.
"So, yer goin ta Oregon territory then?"
He didn't answer right away. He thought about what she said and how she said it. He wanted to remember her sweet, southern drawl. He knew at this instant he would most likely never see her again. He took another drink of his beer and sat the glass down.
"Yes, I'm going to Oregon territory."
She lowered her head, and he could see tears struggling to escape her eyes. She buffered up and wiped one eye quickly as if she didn't want him to know.
She turned away now and stared towards the stage. Again, she wiped her eyes, though he could only see the side of her face. She turned back to him and smiled slightly.
"You'll do good in Oregon Territory. I'm thinkin they're iz a way for ya ta forget. Maybe if ya go out there, you can find a place where they need what troubles ya. If ya can find that Jimmy, maybe ya can forget." She turned slightly, again avoiding his eyes.
He glanced down to his beer on the table. She now took the opportunity to look at him closely. He realized she might also want to remember him.
What kind of hell was this? He wondered how he could feel any worse as her eyes drifted over him. The war was over. Now it was tearing her away from him. He could have loved her and together they may have been able to change the path they now seemed destined to walk. He felt angry but had no place to direct the anger inside. After she'd examined him a moment she turned back to her beer.
"I hope you're right Nancy. I hope we can both forget someday. But I'll never forget you."
When he said this, she seemed to come apart. She put her hand to her mouth and began to cry. Then she turned to James and almost shouted.
"Get out of here, you... damn Yankee! Go ta Oregon and hurry up." She wept openly now. The piano player stopped playing.
James squinted as the words flew past him. He slowly picked up his beer and downed the remainder of it. Nancy held her face in her hands as she continued to cry.
As he stood up, the chair screeched across the floor like a scream in the silent room.
He turned and walked towards the door.
"Jimmy!" Nancy called out, and as he turned around, she landed in his arms. She pushed her face and lips to his. Her tears dampened his cheeks as she kissed him passionately. He put his arms around her.
Nancy pulled away from him.
"Go! Go on ta Oregon. I can't love you... I can never love you. You better jest leave." She then turned and quickly ran up the stairs to her room.
James watched her until she had slammed the door behind her.
A few seconds later the piano player again started banging out the familiar, chunky tunes. James stood staring at the upstairs room as the few patrons in the saloon returned to their activities.
He wanted desperately to stay and change her mind. Her kiss lingered on his lips, and her tears brought coolness to his cheek as they gently dried.
There was no hope though. He knew that... even if he could change her, it wouldn't change him. He had no idea how many rebels he'd killed at Chickamauga. He knew it was many. He couldn't love her the way she should be loved, knowing that he may have killed her brother in that battle.
He turned and walked out the door as his heart weighed inside him. Indeed, what sort of hell was this? He got on his horse and rode out towards the wagon camp. He needed to work or do something to forget. And now there was even more that he wanted to forget.