Glen Herrington spat blood from his mouth, then glared up at the Confederate guard. “I’ll see you in hell!”
Lifting his fist to hit Glen again, the guard glanced at Captain Sneed, the warden on duty. The captain’s angry smirk was all the approval the guard needed. Over and over, he swung his fist at Glen’s face, the last powerful thrust sending Glen and the chair he was tied to crashing to the dirt floor.
Captain Sneed leered down into Glen’s battered face. “Sooner or later, Major, we’re gonna find out who you’re gettin’ your information from and they’re the ones gonna see you in hell.”
The burly guard grabbed hold of Glen’s arm and yanked him and the chair upright. He rubbed the back of his knuckles and sneered. “Sir, do I need to persuade the blue belly some more?”
Peering out of swollen eyes, Glen saw Sneed about to nod his assent when sounds of a female voice drew the warden’s attention outside the solitary cell. Frowning, Sneed held up his hand and shook his head. “Throw that hood over his head, Benson and lock him back up.”
With a last menacing glance at Glen, Sneed stepped from the cell just as another guard hustled around the approaching woman and grasped her shoulder. “Ma’am, I’ve asked you to halt. You are not authorized beyond the hospital quarters.”
With an armload of folded blankets, she jerked to one side. “Unhand me, Jeeters! You know who I am and why I’m here. If it wasn’t for me and the town’s charitable donations of which your mother is a contributor, you wouldn’t be wearing those shiny boots. I’ve been throughout this prison a number of times and this day shouldn’t be any different.” She peered around the guard and through the doorway.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I have orders. This cellar is for dangerous prisoners, spies, and slaves under sentence of death. You cannot — “
“Corporal Jeeters,” Sneed interrupted, “who have we here?” A forced smile hitched the corner of his mouth. “Why, Mrs. O’Malley, I see you’ve brought blankets. God knows our soldiers need them,” he said, standing directly in front of her.
“And …” she said, raising an eyebrow, “for the prisoners as well, brought to them by the Sanitary Commission.”
Jennifer stepped aside the warden to get a better look at the prisoner inside the cell. Her heart skipped a beat. Dear Lord, it was him. The rumors she’d heard repeated throughout Richmond were true after all. Another notorious Union spy had been revealed. Major Glen Herrington had been caught and incarcerated right here at Libby Prison. For a long moment, her eyes met his, direct and probing. Then the guard threw a black cloth over Glen’s head and Captain Sneed led her by the elbow down the hall.
“Mrs. O’Malley, we are grateful for all the contributions of food, clothing,and blankets that you bring, don’t get me wrong. However, you must realize for your own safety, you or any visitor cannot come through this prison without proper authority.”
Jennifer found it hard to compose herself. So shocked was she to see Glen for the first time since … since she had been a mere twenty years old … and he … in her mind’s eye, she could see an image burned into her memory of him at twenty-four, so distinguished in his West Point uniform. Nine years ago, yet it seemed like yesterday.
And now he was a war criminal, his face beaten and bloody, with a dark growth of whiskers and disheveled black hair hanging over his forehead. If it wasn’t for the rumors, she might not have recognized him. Oh, yes, you would, she chided herself. No matter how long it had been, you’d never forget those steel grey eyes. As that old familiar yearning seeped into her heart, she was thankful when the captain’s voice penetrated her thoughts.
“… and Major O’Malley would have me court-martialed if anything inappropriate happened to his wife.”
Jennifer thought better of voicing the retort that instantly came to mind. Sneed’s maltreatment of prisoners that she’d witnessed numerous times could just as well get him court-martialed. Still, not many would side with her and any complaints she brought to the attention of Libby Prison’s commanding officer would only serve to embarrass her husband. Most knew the infamous reputation of the prison but turned a jaundiced eye.
Although Jennifer was against the North’s war of aggression and understood the need for statehood rights, she did not approve of prison brutality on either side. And though she kept her personal thoughts to herself when it came to the politics of war, she wished the fighting would cease and the country could join together in peace as one whole and free nation again. In order for that to happen, the Federals would have to be victorious. Something she knew her husband, a staunch secessionist, would lay down his life to prevent.
As Captain Sneed led her up the prison stairs, she tried to shut out the mental picture of Glen’s tortured body. Union soldier though he was, she knew what she must do. With her mind made up, she would take the risk and set the necessary plans in motion.
Glen wasn’t sure he could take much more. Three days had passed since his last interrogation. He’d never give into the bastards, so the choice would be death, slow and agonizing, or if Sneed had anything to do with it, a firing squad.
Seated on a rickety chair in solitary confinement, he strained to see through the dim light filtering in from the cell’s steel-barred door. Truth be known, he’d give anything to get another look at Jennifer in that doorway … yeah, even his life. Hell, why not, it wasn’t worth anything now.
The warden had addressed her as Mrs. O’Malley. He’d spied the gold band on her finger. Jennifer O’Malley … not Jennifer Herrington as he had once hoped it would be. For all he knew, she may have a brood of kids by now. He smiled, but felt no joy, instead surprised to feel a stab of jealousy stuck deep in his craw.
He’d met her at a dance his last year at West Point. A fellow cadet who was the son of Jennifer’s art instructor in New York introduced Glen to her. Nine damn years and he still could remember everything about her; her sweet Virginia accent, her golden blond hair and sky blue eyes that reminded him of sunshine, the reason he’d nicknamed her, “Sunny.” He smiled again in spite of himself. And oh, how she hated to wear shoes and loved to go barefoot; a vivid recollection surfaced of her wading in the creek that ran past the old abandoned cabin where they met for many a secret rendezvous.
You fool … after all this time, still pining over a woman who didn’t even recognize you … and if she had, she’d probably be the first one lined up to witness your execution.
A sudden draft of frigid air swirled down the hall and through his cell door. He shuddered, his cynical thoughts only serving to emphasize the hopelessness of his existence. Swearing under his breath, he clutched at his ragged Union jacket, then leaned over to pick up the stale cornbread the guard had placed inside the door that morning. His vision blurred and the ground shifted under him. He felt a sharp pain when his head hit the hard dirt floor, then the satisfying relief of losing consciousness once again.
Rats were pulling at his sleeve.
“Cap’n … Cap’n, do ya hear me?”
Glen yanked back his arm, then swung outward, fighting the rodents off.
“Cap’n, it’s me, Tucker.”
Bright light from a lantern flickered next to him, the familiar voice coming from a distance, his nightmare receding. He squinted his eyes and grimaced. “Maj …,” he rasped, his throat dry. Licking parched lips, he looked up at his friend. “Damn it, Tuck … I’m a major now.”
“Yeah, well, at the rate you’re going, you’ll never make lieutenant colonel!” Sergeant Tucker set the lantern down. He grabbed Glen under the arms and pulled him into a sitting position against the wall. He lifted a canteen to his lips. “Here, drink some water.”
Glen lapped at the welcoming liquid, then holding his sergeant’s wrist, raised the canteen and poured the cold water over his head. He wiped his face with a ragged sleeve and leaned back against the wall, struggling to gain control of his thoughts. “How the hell did you get in here?”
“Tell ya later.”
Glen spied the guard, Corporal Jeeters, standing outside the cell door. Baffled, he looked back at Tucker. “What’s going on?”
Tucker stood and walked over to Jeeters. He took an armload of clothes from the guard’s outstretched arms and set them beside Glen. “Put these Greys on, Major, and no more questions until we’re out of here.”
Seated before her easel, Jennifer O’Malley set her paint brush down and peered out the library window. Frowning, she turned and glanced across the hallway into the kitchen. “Snow’s starting to fall again, Kate,” she said, her voice loud enough for her sister to hear.
Kate Lewis flipped a bowl of bread mixture onto a wooden table and began kneading the dough. “I’m getting kind of tired of ‘ol man winter, aren’t you, Jenny?”
Jennifer agreed wholeheartedly, her hope for an early spring reflected in the bright shades of green she’d finished brushing onto the trees in her Shenandoah landscape. She sat back and stared at the painting, but her thoughts weren’t on her artwork, rather about her husband, John.
Hopes for warmer weather were not so much for her sake as his. Last letter she’d received, he wrote they would be setting up an encampment further north. He was concerned for his soldiers, saying they were in dire need of warm clothes, boots and tents. Most of them were sleeping on oil cloths on the bare ground, the sky their only roof. They’d seen so much snow this winter, he wrote, his men were target practicing with snowballs. Jennifer smiled. Always like him to temper war’s harsh realities with a sense of humor.
A quick glance at a shelf displaying a daguerreotype recently taken of John when he’d been promoted to major, prompted memories of their past to surface. At the very time when her world seemed so bleak, John O’Malley nicknamed the “gentle giant” by family and friends, had entered her life, promising the “luck of the Irish” if she’d marry him.
Granted her father, always the pragmatist, had influenced her decision, John being a major investor in his bank. But it wasn’t only the promise of financial security or her wish to have a father for her three-year-old son, Benjamin that swayed her to accept John’s proposal of marriage. More important was his sincere confession of a love she could count on at a time she needed it most. And she’d never looked back … that is, not until…. Jennifer bowed her head, trying to keep visions of Glen from creeping into her thoughts.
“Jenny,” Kate called out, “I think I hear knocking at the front door. Want me to see who it is?”
Not liking where her mind was drifting, she was grateful for the intrusion. “Probably Benjy’s friend, Ethan, come to help him feed the horses.”
Kate chuckled. “Those two are joined at the hip.” Wiping her hands on a towel, she scurried out the kitchen doorway.
Jennifer strained to get a better view through the frost that had collected on the window. She wasn’t surprised to see a light blanket of snow already covering the ground and evergreens alongside the house. She hated to think of John and his regiment dealing with such frigid temperatures.
Kate appeared in the doorway. “A soldier is outside wanting to speak to you, Jenny. Awfully cold out, should I have him step inside?”
Dear Lord, had something happened to John? “Yes, of course, show him into the parlor.” Jennifer slid aside the small table that held her palette of oil paints. “I’ll be right there.”
Hurriedly she pulled off her apron, tossed it over a chair and shoved her bare feet into house slippers. She jabbed at hairpins holding her chignon in place, not caring that several loose tendrils fell about her face. Passing her sister in the hall, she told her to have Benjamin wash up for supper.
Jennifer stepped to the open door of the parlor. The confederate soldier stood across the room with his back to her, warming his hands in front of the fireplace. When he turned around, she froze.
“Hello, Sunny,” he said.
Jennifer grasped the door handle for support. “Glen,” she said, her voice barely audible.
He saw the shocked look on her face and knew he shouldn’t have come. But damn it, he couldn’t help himself. Even with the risk of being captured again, he had to see her, tell her if it hadn’t been for her, he’d be dead by now.
He regarded her for another moment, then walked toward her. When she took a step back, Glen halted. Seeing her visibly shaken, he frowned. “Jennifer, don’t be afraid of me.”
She emitted a heavy sigh as if she’d been holding her breath. With a quick glimpse down the hallway, she pulled the door closed. “How’d you know where I lived?”
“Seems Major O’Malley has made a name for himself in Richmond.” Glen kept his voice even, not revealing the jealousy gnawing inside him. “The local barber was more than happy to give a fellow Reb directions to his house.” Having gotten a shave and haircut, he knew he looked a damn sight better than the last time she saw him.
Jennifer crossed her arms and looked away. Several seconds of uncomfortable silence fell between them before she faced him again. “Sergeant Tucker promised me you both would leave Richmond immediately …, she said, then added with a desperate firmness, “for your sakes as well as mine.”
Glen drew in a deep, tired breath. This was harder than he’d thought, confronting the woman that had haunted his dreams all these years; standing so close to her, yet unable to touch her. His gaze traveled over her pretty face and searched those liquid, blue eyes staring back at him. He rubbed the back of his neck, sensing the tension between them. He needed to say what he’d come to say and then get the hell out of her life, and this time for good.
“Jennifer, we intend to but not before I’ve had the chance to thank you for helping us escape.” He thought something in her manner changed for a minute, her expression softening. “Why … why’d you do it?”
A sudden look of anxiety swept across her face. She hugged her arms across her chest again as if to shield herself … from what, he wondered. Her true feelings? If she had loved him as she’d professed nine years ago, why didn’t she answer his letters? He glanced at a large framed portrait of Major O’Malley, Jennifer, and a child displayed above the mantel. Seems it didn’t take her long to find someone else.
The sound of footsteps could be heard running up the hallway. The door handle turned and a young boy’s head popped in, his eyes partially covered with a fringe of unruly black hair.
“Momma …” He looked from Jennifer to Glen, then grinned back at her as he stepped inside. “Can I go down to the barn and feed Tilly and Cherokee? Papa wouldn’t want me to forget. Besides, Aunt Katey said we can’t eat yet ‘cause you got company.” He offered the same friendly grin to Glen. Below the thick black bangs, his eyes glittered with boyish curiosity. “Are you gonna stay for supper, sir?”
“Benjamin, shame on you!” Jennifer grasped hold of the boy’s shoulders and abruptly swung him around to face her. “You know better than to interrupt when I’m meeting with someone in the parlor. No, you may not go to the barn. Go to your room.”
“But, Momma, I —“
“Benjy, I said go to your room!” she demanded in a voice that forbade any further argument. The boy looked forlornly at Glen, then with head bowed, he eased out the door and closed it behind him.
Glen frowned. “A little hard on the kid, weren’t you?”
He was surprised to see Jennifer’s eyes tearing as she faced him again. She swiped an errant blond curl from her forehead and squared her shoulders. “That isn’t any of your concern,” she said. “You have your forged passes …” she pulled her gaze from his and opened the parlor door, “please leave now.”
Retrieving his hat from the fireplace mantel, Glen gave another cursory glance at the portrait. Sadly, he realized there could be nothing more said between them; time and distance had made them strangers. He fitted the hat on his head. He’d given her his thanks, that’s what he’d come to do. Christ, he knew better … he wanted to do more than give her his gratitude; he wanted to see her again, see if she was really happy. Damn thing was, it should’ve made him feel good to know she had a home, a son, and a husband to take care of her, even if the man was a Rebel. But fool that he was, knowing those things made him feel worse.
When Glen stepped out the parlor door, he purposely brushed her shoulder. For him, the spark of magnetism that shot through his body at the mere touch of her was no surprise.
But for Jennifer, Glen’s touch ignited a feeling she thought had long since died. After he walked out the front door, she silently wept for them both.