The Month the Babies Cry, a western series by Rickey Pittman.
Chapter Two: Shreveport
The next morning, Micah and Elbert saddled their horses and rode to where two Louisiana infantrymen were standing guard at the road with two-dozen Federal prisoners. Micah showed the corporal his orders and the pair moved on. A pile of rolled blankets and tin cups had been dumped on the edge of the road.
“They’re a sorry looking lot, ain’t they?” Elbert said. He pointed to one. “What’s your unit?”
“The 23rd Massachusetts Cavalry,” he replied.
Micah said, “You boys eaten?”
“Just some hardtack we had left in our haversacks,” one replied.
“Well, maybe that will do you. Pick up a blanket and cup and let’s get going.”
Ezekiel rode up to them, leading their pack mule that carried their food and camp gear. He carried a Springfield across his saddle and two revolvers thrust into his belt. A large Bowie knife protruded from his boot.
“I didn’t think they armed their Negroes,” one said.
“Is the slave yours?” another asked.
“No, he ain’t,” Micah said. “Ezekiel’s going to cook for you boys, so I’d be polite if I were you. He’s proven himself to be a good Yankee killer when he rode with us, so don’t irritate him neither. He might want to cut your head off with that big Bowie knife of his. We’ll get along fine if you don’t run your mouth, and don’t try to run away from us. When you’re on death’s doorstep, you better watch where you put your feet.”
“Are you going to tie us?” a young one asked.
“Not unless we have to,” Elbert said. “We’ll make better time if you’re free. I know you’re not in a hurry, but we’re anxious to get to Texas.”
“Well,” Micah said, “We’ve got some walking to do. I know you were cavalry, and I wish I could put you on horses or in a wagon, but I can’t.” He looked at their feet. “Before we’re done walking, you’ll wish you had brogans instead of those shiny boots. Just follow the road yonder. I want a good pace, but I don’t want to walk you to death neither. We’ll stop now and then and let you rest some.”
“Where are you taking us?” one Federal asked.
“They got a prison camp set up for you boys in Tyler, Texas.”
“How far is that?”
“About a 150 miles, best I can calculate. Now get those sky-blue pants of yours to moving. If we’re lucky, you’ll catch good weather. Ain’t nothin’ finer than Texas weather this time of year.”
An hour after, it began to rain.
* * *
The Texans and their dozen prisoners marched on. The rain stopped just before dark. They made camp and boiled dry peas with hardtack for supper. After they ate, the exhausted prisoners lay down on the clay ground. Elbert posted himself as guard until midnight, then Micah relieved him until dawn. Ezekiel was given no guard duty.
Outside of Shreveport, late on their third day of travel, they were hailed by a vidette. He walked out to the road and met Micah. Micah saw a horse tied to a hickory tree just off the road. The soldier’s two-band Enfield was cradled in his arm.
“How you boys doing?” the picket asked.
“Alright,” Micah said. “And how might you be?” He looked back at the prisoners. “You boys can set yourselves down a minute if you want.”
The sentry rested his musket butt on the top of his brogan. “Better now that my heart has settled down some. The nerve-racking part of vidette duty is having to decide ever time I see someone if I should hightail it back to the picket post, shoot the ones coming my way, or wait for them on the road and see what their business is.”
“Much obliged for not shooting,” Elbert said.
“Yes, sir, but since I saw three riders and a bunch of blue men on foot and I figured it was more prisoners. I’ve been seeing a host of prisoners coming this way. You taking them to Camp Ford?”
“I reckon so,” Micah said.
Micah handed him his orders. “How far are we from Shreveport?”
The guard handed Micah back his papers. “When you reach the picket post, you’ll be one mile out from Shreveport.”
“Is there anywhere I can deposit these prisoners for a while once we get to Shreveport? Elbert and I would like to get a drink.”
“I’d take them to the provost marshal. He might relieve you a spell. If he can’t, you might go to Army Headquarters. It’s on Commerce Street if they ain’t moved it again. As far as drinkin’—there’s a mess of saloons to choose from. We Louisiana folks are fond of our spirits.” He looked at Ezekiel. “Who is the Negro?”
“Ezekiel is Captain Allison’s manservant. He’s riding back to Texas with us.”
The sentry nodded. “I’ll let you boys be on your way. Try not to startle the picket. They’ve got a couple of youngsters who are the nervous sort.”
A half-hour later, Micah could see the picket’s campfire. He hollered, “Picket! Texas troops with prisoners coming your way!”
One of the soldiers met him at the road. He wore a floppy, felt hat that had seen better days, and his Arkansas frock coat was buttoned only at the top button. He slipped on a pair of reading glasses and pondered Micah’s orders. “What is your destination?” he asked.
Micah noticed the man held the letter upside down. “Camp Ford at Tyler, Texas.”
“What’s your commander’s name? I can’t quite make it out.”
“Captain Allison, 23rd Texas Cavalry.” Three other soldiers lounged about the fire. One called out, “It’d be easier to just shoot them Federals. By the time you walk them to Texas, they’ll wish you had.”
“Shut up, Jacob. Wouldn’t be right to shoot them prisoners without cause and you know it. Every time you drink whiskey you yak like a durn magpie.”
“Can you spare a drink?” Elbert asked. “I’ll pay you.”
One of the soldiers staggered over to him and held up a gourd jug. “Take a drink, but you can keep your money. You boys watch yourself in town.”
Elbert uncorked the gourd and took two swallows. “Much obliged. I’ll not forget the favor. That’s good whiskey,” he said. “Smooth. No bite to it at all.”
“My cousins made it. They do know how to make good moonshine in Arkansas.”
“I’ve drank mescal and whiskey in Texas that would scald your insides it tasted so bad.” Elbert offered the jug to Micah.
Micah shook his head. “I’ll drink some later in town.”
“I’d like a drink,” one of the Federals said.
Elbert edged his horse near the man and kicked the man’s shoulder. “You best shut your mouth.”
“Any more Federal prisoners coming this way?” the sentry asked.
“Not that I can tell,” Micah said. “But hell, we keep chasing them and catching them. Wish they would have all just surrendered at once. Federal prisoners are becoming a damn nuisance. We best get on our way. You boys don’t get too drunk out here.”
After they passed the picket, Micah said, “Don’t that beat all. Ever one of those men on picket duty was half-drunk. You’d think they and their commanders didn’t know there was a war going on.”
“Picket duty is boring work. Ain’t much war going on in these parts since Banks’ army got turned back. Things will tighten up if the Yankees decide to quit running south. And I hear that Steele’s troops in Arkansas are getting thrashed too. I’m glad they were drinking though,” Elbert said. “That sure was good whiskey.”
As they neared Shreveport’s southern line of defense, they used a plank causeway to cross a boggy marsh called Silver Lake. Micah could see batteries spaced along the Red River and on a riverbank hilltop, Fort Turnbull. The fort bristled with the Quaker guns Micah had heard of—false cannon hewed from fire-blackened tree trunks and mounted on wagon wheels.
“Damnation,” one of the prisoners said. “Porter’s gunboats could never have reached Shreveport anyway. I bet those cannon would have blasted him out of the water before he could make the turn in the bend.”
“Banks has probably retreated his way back to New Orleans now. I wonder how this campaign got so disastrous and convoluted,” another Federal soldier said.
“Cotton,” Micah said.
“What?” the soldier asked.
“Banks was counting on getting rich by taking Southern cotton. What did you think all those empty wagons you had with you were for?”
One of the Federal soldiers sang a little ditty:
General Banks wants to be president
So says the Boston Gazette,
But making blunder after blunder,
He’ll lose this war for us yet!
“Maybe Lincoln should have picked someone else for this campaign,” said another.
“Don’t let it worry you none,” Micah said. “We got our share of commanders like Banks in our own army.”
* * *
Micah deposited the prisoners at a holding pen used by the provost marshal for Federal prisoners. It was a simple cattle stall, on the edge of a stockyard by the railroad. Micah swung open the board gate. “You boys get inside. This is where you’re sleeping tonight.”
“I ain’t never had to sleep in a cattle pen before,” one said.
“It’s better than that pigpen of a house you were raised in,” said another.
Two soldiers assigned to guard the Federals joined them, sat down outside the pen and began a game of checkers. While Ezekiel saw to the horses and made camp outside the pen, Micah and Elbert walked into downtown Shreveport. They entered the first saloon they came to.
Once inside, Micah and Elbert sat with glasses of watered-down whiskey and a bucket of flat, warm beer that they drank with their own tin cups. One of the saloon girls caught Micah’s eye. She had raven hair and wore a modest blue calico day dress.
Three dusty drovers surrounded her. Two were Anglos, and the third a Tejano, and they wore leather chaparreras. Such men were skilled riders and their tanned skins were toughened by sun and wind and work. Micah thought they would have made fine cavalrymen, but tonight they seemed indifferent to the soldiers about them, to the talk of war filling the room, to even the importance of their own work to the cause of the Confederacy. The South was hungrier with every year of the war, and Texas cattle were an important source of food. The girl laughed at something one of the drovers said and tossed her hair. She caught Micah looking her way and smiled bashfully.
“Damnation,” Micah said. “She sure is a pretty thing.”
“I think she cottons to you, Micah,” Elbert said.
“She’s a hussy. She’d cotton to anyone who would pay her.”
“You going to pay her?”
“Likely not. I’ve got Erin to think about. I swore to her that I’d behave myself around other women.”
Elbert drained the glass of whiskey and chased it down with a sip of beer. “I’m married too, but it ain’t going to stop me from going to that whorehouse next door. Doing without a woman makes a man not think right.”
One of the soldiers called out for the girl to sing “Lorena.” She was young, and yet when she sang, Micah detected a voice that held years of passion and suffering beyond her age. She got some of the notes wrong, but Micah received some comfort from her voice anyway.
Elbert set down his cup of beer and stood up. “Well, I reckon I’ll see you sometime before morning.” He lifted the tin bucket of beer. “You done with this?” Without waiting for Micah’s reply, he went to the cowhands and set it on their table.
“You boys look thirsty. Can’t abide the thought of seeing a fellow Texan thirsty.”
“Much obliged,” one of the cowhands said.
Elbert motioned the girl over with his hand. “My lonely friend over yonder and I liked your singing. Micah said he would pay you if you’d come over and sit with him a bit. He’s a timid sort or he would have asked you himself. I think he needs some cheering up. How about some whiskey, boys! Then we’ll go next door to the bawdy house and sample their wares.”
“I think we’ll take you up on that. It’s been a long trip. We’re dry,” one of the drovers said. “Days and days of looking at nothing but these ornery cows makes a man thirsty for whiskey and women.”
The girl left the cowboys and walked to Micah’s table. They sat together and drank and talked a while then she led him into a back room. After they undressed, he held her tightly to himself, savoring the warmth and softness of the slender body next to him. Her skin was clean and smelled of rosewater. As he kissed and touched her, his mind moved to the tents of the camp followers that he had occasionally visited during the war, to thoughts of a spring three years ago and a field of bluebonnets and the girl with the bluebonnet eyes. He whispered, “Erin, you are so beautiful . . . ”
“My name is Mary,” the girl whispered, “but tonight I’ll be anyone you want me to be.”
Micah woke from his reverie and pushed the girl away. “I don’t want you to be nobody for me.” He reached for his haversack, dug into it, and pitched her a dollar. “Get dressed and get your skinny ass out of here.”
“This is my room,” Mary said. “So, I think you should leave instead.