The sound of a rooster crowing was the only clatter on the Maclay farm at daybreak. The south Alabama cotton farm had seen noisy mornings in the past, but this wasn't one of them. Slowly, but surely, the sun crept up over the horizon to blanket the bare cotton fields with rays of light. That same orange hue struck the face of Tara Maclay as she walked towards the old barn carrying a wooden bucket. A small black and white kitten followed closely behind the winsome blonde haired girl. The kitten was trying to keep her paws out of the dew-soaked grass by hopping from one dirt spot to another; she had almost mastered this route to the barn for the daily cow milking. Her owner giggled sweetly as she watched the kitten shake a white paw that had strayed into the damp grass.
The pair came to a stop at the gate and the blonde girl hung her bucket on the fence post. She reached for the catch and pulled up to release the wooden gate then pushed slightly to let the kitten run through the opening. As she followed her feline friend inside, her skirt caught on a rusty nail protruding from the creosote post. The ripping sound of the cloth brought her attention down to the gash in her pleats. With a deep sigh she shook her head from side to side and committed to memory yet another task on her endless to do list. The girl unraveled the cloth from around the nail head to inspect the tear; she thought she might have enough white thread to repair it in her mama's mending kit.
Smoothing the worn skirt back into place Tara paused to remember when her mother gave her the calico dress. It had been fours years ago. The war was underway and Donnie had just been drafted. Her mother had spent countless hours in her rocking chair with needle and thread sewing the dress for her only daughter. Making the dress seemed to be a way for her mother to keep her mind off the pending fate of her only son. Tara painfully reminisced about how excited but sad she was when her mother brought the dress to her room the morning they were to see Donnie off. Her mother's eyes welled with tears as Tara tried on the dress. It was a meager triumph on a day of impending defeat. The blonde closed her eyes briefly to shake the feelings as she shut the gate.
Taking her bucket from its position on the post, the blonde crossed the barnyard to pull open the double doors to the stalls. With well worn hands, she grabbed the stool from its hook on the wall and proceeded to the milk cow's booth. The black and white heifer had her head hung over the gate and snorted as Tara stroked down the middle of her forehead, "good morning Bessie," she said lowly. The blonde placed the stool down and moved to the hay bin. She put three double handfuls of silage at Bessie's front feet and then went inside the stall with the cow.
After milking Bessie, and giving the kitten a squirt or two of the tasty milk treat, Tara put the bucket of cream on a bench and went to feed Jasper, her pride and joy. The six year old sorrel was her 16th birthday present; even though her Daddy didn't care that it was her birthday he figured she'd be delighted to take care of the animal, which meant less work for him. Jasper was in the last stall of the barn. He'd been watching her the whole time as she maneuvered around doing her morning ritual. Before feeding him, she placed both hands on either side of the steed's snout. Knowing this daily rite, Jasper leaned his large head forward and let the blonde kiss between his eyes as she scratched his jowls, "good morning Jasper." She went in his stall and opened the window to the outside, letting the morning breeze flow through the barn.
After placing a sufficient amount of hay in Jasper's trough, she filled a bucket full of dried corn kernels. Chickens scattered everywhere when she opened the gate out to the back of the barn. They knew it was feeding time and carried on as such. Tara grabbed one handful after another and scattered the feed about the pen as she watched the corn splay through the air and hit the ground. The rapid pecking of her chicks cleaned the feed up kernel by kernel.
The early May sun was up over the tree line now, in two hours time it would be beaming down without remorse on her in the cotton fields. She looked to the bare fields and pondered the planting season and how she'd make it through. She had 30 acres to plant, tend and harvest alone, otherwise she'd lose the farm. She walked back to the barn worrying. As she approached, she noticed the kitten in Jasper's window cleaning her paws and watching the chickens eat. "Let's go Miss Kitty," the cat was quick to follow Tara as she picked up the bucket of milk.
Tara made her way back to the big country house and climbed up the rear steps. She sat the bucket on the porch so Mammy Ginny could churn it for butter. Pulling open the screen door to the kitchen she watched Ginny put a plate full of biscuits on the table. "Smells good Ms. Ginny," she sniffed the air and smiled warmly at the middle-aged black woman.
"Miss Tara you betta pull up a cheer an git you sum befo that youngin of mine gits down here," she warned the blonde girl of the pending arrival of her 8 year old with a bottomless stomach.
"Yes ma'am," Tara obliged and drew out one of the wooden chairs to take a seat at the table.
The woman screamed, "Abraham! Brekfass is dun!"
Both of the women heard the boy's tiny feet hit the hardwood floor above them and run to the stairs. Within moments he was skidding up to the table in a long night shirt. "Mornin Miss Tara, mornin Mama." He said while grabbing three biscuits to put on his plate. The boy clearly favored his daddy, Mr. Thomas Washington. He was tall and slender, unlike Mammy Ginny who was short and round.
"You think daddy'll be home taday?" He asked before sticking a biscuit in his mouth.
"Don't you worry ‘bout that, just eat up yo brekfass." Ginny scolded. They had last heard from Thomas four weeks ago when he telegraphed from New Orleans to say that he'd be making his way back home. That was three days after the war had ended. Fortunately, Thomas had made it through the war alive. Donnie had not.
Tara knew Ginny was anxiously awaiting Thomas's return. She also felt terrible that the woman's husband had been drafted into the war to fight for a cause he certainly did not support. Tara hoped that the man would stay on and help with the cotton harvest, but she would surely understand if the Washington's chose to leave. The blonde told Mammy Ginny she could stay on the farm as long as she liked, but Ginny reminded Tara that she had never felt like a servant on this farm. Tara also knew that the woman was speaking with the exception of Mr. Maclay. She went on to tell the girl that this farm was the only home she had ever known and she, Thomas, and Abe weren't going anywhere.
Tara prodded, "Ginny, please sit down and eat with us. Those dishes can wait a little while." The woman put her towel down and joined her family at the table.
The youngster spoke up for the first time after being reprimanded, "Mama, kin I go hep Miss Tara in the fields?"
Before Ginny could respond, Tara winked at the boy and told him he could come along only if ate everything on his plate. To which he began to gobble up the food in earnest. He loved to spend time with Tara; he'd even confided in her that she was not as cranky as his Mama. Tara giggled and told him it would be best if he didn't tell his mother that she was cranky.
After finishing up breakfast, the blue eyed blonde exited the front door of the house on her way to the fields. She halted abruptly at the top of the steps when she saw two soldiers traipsing up the lane to her house. Abe came running out the screen door and let it slap back against the doorframe. The thin boy ducked into Tara's skirts when he saw the strangers approaching. The men, or rather young men, were dressed in Confederate uniforms.
She looked down to the boy and directed, "Abe go in the house and tell Ginny to bring me my pistol." She motioned with her head towards the men, "they could be Yankee posers." The boy took off immediately, and within seconds Mammy was on the porch alongside Tara. The older woman handed the blonde her pistol, and in turn Tara buried it in the folds of her pleated skirt.
Will Rosenburg kicked at the dirt outside of the General Store in downtown Greenville, Alabama. He looked from one end of the dusty street to the other and pondered where to seek out employment. His Confederate comrade and cousin Xander Harris strolled from the diner in which they had just eaten. "Well, where do you suppose we try first Will?" The darker haired boy asked.
"I figure we could try the feed and seed place. They may need some laborers." Will flashed his emerald green eyes at his cousin, "watch out!"
His warning was too late. An older gentleman exiting the General Store backwards with his hands full bumped into Xander, knocking him off the wood planked side walk. The dark haired boy regained his balance in the street as Will helped the man with his goods.
"Oh dear, I'm terribly sorry young man," the gentleman apologized voicing a pronounced English accent.
"No problem sir," Xander said as he helped the man with his items as well. The three fumbled to the man's wagon and loaded his supplies.
After settling his cargo the man turned to his helpers noting their grey uniforms and introduced himself, "Ah, thank you very much, Rupert Giles."
The redheaded Will stuck his hand out promptly, "Will Rosenburg, and this here is my cousin, Xander Harris."
"Nice to meet your acquaintance, you boys headed home from your tour of duty?" Mr. Giles cordially extended.
Xander was eager to elaborate, "Yes sir, we were stationed on The Tennessee under General Faragut's Navy at Mobile Bay. We're working our way back to Tennesee, the state not the boat, and my sweetheart." He lowered his voice and head; he began to push the dirt around with his boots, "just need to make some more money." Will glanced at him with pity and then to Mr. Giles.
Mr. Giles removed his brown hat, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and proceeded to wipe his forehead. "Hmm, I believe my neighbor is in need of a few laborers for the cotton season. Would you like a ride? It's the least I can do for a couple of brave young men." The older gentleman offered as he took his seat on the wagon.
"Absolutely!" Will perked up. Xander shot the red head a strange look after his high pitched acceptance. Will shoved the boy towards the back and both of them hopped on with enthusiasm. Mr. Giles' bid had come not a moment too soon. The boys had run out of money earlier than they expected. Hopefully the job lead would pan out and Will could help get his cousin back in time to marry his sweetheart before the fall.
As the wooden wagon rattled along the dirt road, Will sat facing Xander who was napping against a bail of hay as they traveled. He didn't understand how the boy slept with so much motion and noise. As children Xander was the same way, he could fall asleep anywhere. He had even fallen asleep once near the railroad tracks by their home in Tennessee and never woke up as the train roared past. The wagon jostled over several bumps and Xander's head bobbled against the hay. Will shook his head full of flamey red hair then looked to the fields they were riding past.
After several miles and many cotton fields, Mr. Giles pulled up reins on his horses to bring the wagon to a stop at the end of a tree lined lane. "Here we are boys. Follow that lane for about a half mile and you'll reach the Maclay home."
"Thank you, sir," Xander replied abruptly, as Will jabbed him awake with his brogans. He and Will hopped from the wagon and grabbed their knapsacks, securing them snuggly to their backs.
"If you're ever in town, come by to see me at the school." Mr. Giles slapped the reins to move his horses again, "Have a good day," he remarked as the horses trotted off.
The dark haired boy plunked his grey slouch uniform hat on his head, "why'd you hafta hit me?"
"If I hadn't you'd still be sleeping on the back of that wagon." Will replied while pointing down the road at the carriage.
"Nah," Xander put his big clumsy arm around his cousins neck and proceeded to tousle his red hair. Will squirmed loose to punch the taller boy in the chest. "Ow, owwie, do ya hafta be so rough Will?"
The red head rolled his green eyes at his cousin then started up the drive, "Let's go." He situated his hat on his head and pushed the growing red locks over his ears.
The smell of honeysuckles permeated the soldier's noses as they marched up the lane in search of employment. Will fixed his eyes on the pretty yellow and white wildflowers that reminded him of home and breathed the sweet fragrance in deep. Xander on the other hand spied a small patch of blackberries along the roadside and went over to pick the biggest blackest ones he could find before Will had a chance to discover them. Realizing that his cousin had found some treats Will hurried over to indulge as well. The two stood over the bush until nothing was left but green and red berries.
Continuing on, they saw the pointed rooftop of a house appear over the rise. The further they walked the more of the white house that appeared, until finally the home place was spread before them with fields to east and a tree line in the distance. A little more and they could see a rickety brown barn to the rear. Will noticed the unkempt flower beds and wondered how long it had been since someone had taken care of them. He then fixated on the front porch and the swing that swayed gently in the wind. When the screen door swung open Will suddenly felt like a Union bayonet had penetrated his lungs. His breath rushed from him the moment he laid eyes on the alluring blonde emerging from the house.