"Throw an extra log on the fire Moses. I want to see their faces." The room was dimly lit from the dying embers of the fireplace. I struck a match on my worn bootheel, and when it flared, I applied it to the wick of the oil lamp I had taken down from its familiar place on the Mantel-piece. It had been there when I left three years ago, and it was still there now that I had returned. The room brightened considerably.
"Yes, Suh! Major." And I could hear my Sergeant's footsteps and then the crackle of a fresh log catching fire. I could see their faces now, filled with fear and in hers, mixed with a certain stubborn defiance. I motioned for my men, all five of them, the ragged remnants of my troop which, at one time numbered a hundred fighting men, to stand against the walls of the room.
My homecoming should have been different; a plate of hot southern food and a bath and then to bed with my darling wife. I had waited three years for this, wading through muddy backwoods and bayous, dodging bullets and bayonets, fighting off the oft- humiliating diseases that came with war. Even with the cold seeping into my bones in winter, I had been buoyed by the thought of my home and the wife waiting for me. Now it had all turned to ashes. The taste in my mouth was bitter with the sting of defeat on all fronts. I had lost again! It was the Confederacy all over.
We had ridden all day to get here, hiding out among the bushes and groves of the forest to escape the marauding bands of Yankee blue bellies, lately grown vicious and vindictive after their victory. We were a beaten ragtag remnant of a once-proud troop of cavalry; our gray uniforms showed no other color but dirt. Our boots, those of us who still possessed any, were perforated by multiple holes in the soles through which mud and water squelched while we walked.
We had proceeded quietly for fear of arousing the local Yankee troopers, but as I entered the yard, I saw the light gleam through the glass panes of the windows. I had quietly moved to the door when I heard the laughter of a man mixed with the giggles of a woman I had recognized as my wife. My former house was quite a distance from the town, so I had no fear of being discovered once we entered
I froze and then drew my revolver and motioned my men with it to advance carefully as if we were on a reconnaissance patrol.
Flinging open the door, I stepped into the room. My wife shrieked, and her eyes widened in fear as she recognized me.
"Charles? Is it you?" she asked. But she knew. Even in my wild and bedraggled state, she recognized me. The unshaven face and uncut hair could not hide me.
"Yes. It is I. In person and at your service, Ma'am. These are my men." I was pretty controlled now with an icy calm. I rolled off the names of the five survivors in my best Southern gentlemanly accent, exaggerated no doubt by the hurt in my heart. "Now, you may enlighten me as to the name and nature of your visitor with whom you seem to be on extremely friendly terms," pointing to the almost naked man to whom she was clinging. Then, conscious of her pink charms on display, she quickly threw a robe around herself and said, "This is James. He was riding this way and dropped in for a visit and a cup of tea before going home."
"May I ask, where is your home, James?" I asked in a friendly way to prolong the conversation, knowing that he was acutely uncomfortable being caught with his pants down.
"Pull up your pants, James, and have a seat at the table. I feel that your cup of tea may be delayed for a while. You see, James, I happen to be Charles Feathers, husband to Rose here and the proprietor of this estate. I do not feel that Rose is quite up to the task at present, so I have no choice but to introduce myself."
I looked questioningly at Rose, but James finally spoke up. "You had gone so long that Rose thought you were either dead or captured and so . . . " His voice trailed off.
I filled in the gaps, "You enjoyed a few sessions together. How long, Rose?"
She looked at me openly defiant now, "About a year!"
I felt the bitter venom of betrayal enter my veins. The flickering fire cast shadows about the room where it did not touch. My soul had become frozen.
"Get dressed, Rose, and come sit at the table with James and me. A nice threesome." And I laughed harshly, jeeringly.
She threw on a plain, worn, home dress, tossed the robe on the couch, and came to sit at the table. Firelight played on her cheeks, turning them rosy. Her blonde hair flowed down to her shoulders. James had pulled up his pants and sat rigid in his chair.
"Moses, how long have you been with me?"
"Since we were boys together, Major. You know that." His lean, bearded face frowned in puzzlement at me.
"Then this is the last thing I will order you to do, Sergeant. If anything happens to me, leave these people alone and go where we planned," and I placed my gun on the table. I had taken it from a Yankee officer who would not need it anymore. It was a beautiful gun and brand new. It was no wonder the Yanks had won the war. They had the tools and the knowledge. Then, slowly and deliberately, I picked up the gun. It was well-oiled and smooth. It was one of the few things we tended carefully in the army, as our lives depended on it every day.
"This is a game, Rose. A game that gentlemen sometimes play. It is a game of chance. This gun is new and fancy. There are six chambers here and five bullets. I will give each of us one shot at a designated person. If I die, then all your problems are solved. My men will leave, and you two will be free to carry on as you were. If James here dies, then I was going to kill him anyway as it will be considered an affront to my honor if we still can use those words. No one cares about a man caught in bed with another man's wife. It is called a crime of passion. And if you die, then both our problems are solved. It is still a crime of passion, and I have neighbors and friends who will understand my feelings coming home from the war."
"And if no one dies?" She was still defiant.
"Then I will move on with my life and leave you with yours. I will go far away from here, and I will have to learn to forget you. Time has a way of blurring the memories, as you seem to know well." And I laughed harshly with the bitter gall of loss in my mouth.
I took the discarded robe from the couch, wrapped it around the gun, and fired four bullets into the fireplace. At every shot, sparks flared from the impact on the burning logs. James winced every time the bullets went into the fireplace, even though the robe muffled the sounds. I was not unduly worried by the sounds because I knew we were at least two miles from the town. I discarded the smoldering robe and threw it into the fireplace.
I turned to Rosie.
"Now, there is only one bullet in the chamber. Willing to take your chances?"
I spun the chamber once more and handed the gun to Moses. He took it with reluctance. I said, "me first, Moses. Fire at will," and I stared down into the mouth of the gun barrel.
The hammer fell with a click!
I spun the chamber again. "Now for James! Should I fire next, or will you do the honors, Rosie"
James said pleadingly, "I have a wife and children. Don't shoot. I am a Parson. Let me say my prayers first." His ashen face was beaded with sweat.
"Well, Well! A parson, married and with a family. Your sins are many, Reverend. Remember the commandment which says Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife!" I said jeeringly.
Rose looked at him in disgust and then said boldly, staring me in my face, "Shoot us, and it will be on your soul, Charles."
"I think my soul died in the war, Rose!" The gun came up, and I shot at the Reverend.
The pin fell on an empty chamber. Click!
"Well, Reverend, I see that your prayers have been productive. Now Rose. It is up to me. It is something called poetic justice. Remember the hole in New Orleans where I found you, brought you here, and gave you my name, a gentleman's name? I was a foolish boy then. Wasn't I?" I spun the chamber again.
She stood with her chin up, knuckles whitening as she clutched her old skirt, "I am sorry that it turned out this way, Charles. It was the war." And she stared me in the face, unafraid. I raised the gun and aimed it at her head, just between her wide-opened blue eyes.
My hand dropped. The gun I laid on the table. I looked at her and said, "You were right, Rose. I do still have a soul!"
A shudder went through the room.
I holstered the gun.
"Now, goodbye, my wife. It was nice knowing you! You will have the house and the estate."
"Where are you going, Charles?" She pretended to care about my future.
"We are going west to California and then to Oregon. The war did not reach there too much, I hear. I wouldn't trust this Reverend too much, Rose. Don't think he's much good!"
We went out to the horses and, after mounting, hid in a small copse of trees looking at the house. Soon, as I had foreseen, the Reverend James could be seen galloping down the road towards the town. I knew the Blue Bellies would be coming in a short while.
We turned and headed south to Mexico!