NaNoWriMo 2020: Installment 1

Nov. 6, 1865

The sign could scarcely escape the notice of the woman’s one good eye:

DANGERS AWAIT IN THE FRONTIER.
NONE SAVE GOD MAY VOUCHSAFE YOUR PASSAGE.

Hardly a comfort for anyone traveling alone, never mind a Confederate widow in her middle twenties looking to start life anew. She knit her brow and scowled, clutching her father’s faded leather billfold to the waist of her blue cotton morning dress. She wore her light brown curls in a net snood. The patch over her ruined right eye was black leather.

The clerk behind the polished oak counter of the Tipton stagecoach office didn’t even turn to follow her gaze. “Standard disclaimer,” he said with a thin smile.

“Indeed?” The widow didn’t return the smile. She didn’t have to ask what dangers awaited. Corbin Darwood, her father and patriarch of the prominent Darwood tobacco family, held nothing back in his rant against her mad westward ambitions.

He had ticked them off on the fingers undamaged at the Battle of the Crater – and on the four stumps of his right hand, for good measure:

“Bandits. Blizzards. Mud-stuck wheels. Sandstorms. Flesh-hungry savages. Horses get sick or hurt. Food might go bad. Water runs out. Wagon flips. And then there’s the other passengers. So much can go horribly awry.” Standing on the porch of their plantation in Tuckahoe, near the James River in Virginia, he’d fixed her with those sky blue eyes that stirred the hearts of many a debutante in his younger days. “No. Bad enough the war took the boys and your Henry. Your mother could scarcely countenance another loss this year.”

Ever since her sons Carlyle and Clement had died at Gettysburg, Annabelle Hiller Darwood had spent much of her time medicated with tincture of laudanum. She would sit on the upstairs balcony of River House, gazing out across the landscape without really seeing the fields gone fallow in the absence of slaves freed in the aftermath of Appomattox Court House. Rarely did she speak. If she made any noise at all, it tended toward pitiable sobs and haunting moans that lent a chilling air to the post-war plantation. Mother only briefly emerged from her self-imposed stupor in mid-April after word arrived that an actor had shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater. She had raised a glass with her husband in candle-lit tribute to John Wilkes Booth, downed the last of their whiskey, and then chased it with a comforting spoonful of opiates. Afterward, back to oblivion interrupted by occasional weeping.

The widow understood her mother’s desire to anesthetize herself against the horrors wrought by the conflict. The twins, both serving in the 33rd Virginia with the Stonewall Brigade, had died within seconds of each other in the pointless second advance against Culp’s Hill. The telegram had arrived at River House two days later. The Darwoods knew plenty of landholders in and around Tuckahoe that lost sons and husbands to the United States Army. Two deaths, so close together, proved less common. So, absolutely, the widow understood her mother’s grief.

The widow had wept for her husband, Henry, who had died holding her hand in the medical tent during those last meaningless hours of battle at Appomattox – gutshot by Union cavalry before the white flag flew. But she hadn’t felt the urge to drown her sorrow in laudanum and alcohol. She hadn’t wanted to wallow in self-pity among the ruins of the Confederacy, watching her father struggle to keep the plantation a going concern while Mother drifted away.

Instead, the widow felt a single compulsion: flight. Escape to the west. She could start over on her own terms. She’d found an article in the Richmond Christian Advocate newspaper about a need for nurses at Bennett Methodist Hospital in San Francisco. Her wartime experience had proved quite appealing to Mr. Penton, the hospital administrator, as they exchanged telegrams.

Now, she had her chance. Perils be damned, it seemed foolhardy to turn back now.

“Only one seat left,” the clerk said, tugging at the bill of his charcoal gray eyeshade. He looked to be in his late forties, early fifties, with thinning black hair touched with gray. He wore a white long-sleeve, button-up shirt with black cotton pants held up by gray suspenders. He rested the pencil lead on a line in the passenger manifest for the 8 a.m. Western Horizon coach. “The fare is two hundred dollars. Greenbacks, of course.”

“Of course,” the widow said. She opened the billfold and produced the federal currency. She’d brought along a small stack of Confederate money in her allowed forty pounds of luggage, but only for the value it yet retained in the wake of the War of Northern Aggression, for cleaning up at relief stops along the route.

“Name, please?”

“Utley,” she said. “Cinna Utley.”

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Wes Platt

Lead storyteller. Game designer and journalist. Recovering Floridian.

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