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Liberty
May 7, 1938, pp 15-18

A Girl with Yellow Hair

by Howard Fast

 

CULVER, who was only a boy, fanned himself with his hat. He grinned and put back the hat. "I like this," he said. "I like a picnic. Ain't this like a picnic?"

"War ain't no picnic," old Bradly replied. Old Bradly had been in it since '61.

"You seen nothing. You're just a cocky kid," Morrison told Culver.

"Watch the ditch," Captain Seeburt called back. "Watch the ditch!"

They swept over it, turned on to a dirt road, and trotted between a double line of magnolias. It was noon, with a hot sun overhead; dust from the road coated their faces and clothes. Behind Captain Seeburt, the little body of blue-clad cavalry huddled together.

"It ain't no picnic," Bradly said. Old Bradly kept turning a thing over in his mind. "You're just a kid," old Bradly said, "and you ain't seen it yet."

"I seen enough to know it's all over," Culver told him. "When Sherman hits the sea — it's all over. And maybe it ain't like a picnic now."

Captain Seeburt drew his horse into a walk. Then he stopped and held up a hand. Huddled about him, the two dozen troopers took off their hats and wiped the bands dry. They were mostly old service men, except a few kids like Culver.

Seeburt was a tall man with a black mustache and fine gray eyes. He had been an artist, and even now he would still find himself looking at a thing and realizing that it was beautiful. Like the valley in front of him. The captain pointed down into the valley.

"Pretty, ain't it?" Morrison said.

"I always wanted to live in a house like that," Culver murmured.

"Have to burn the barns," the captain muttered. "The way the wind is — it'll take it on to the house. I don't want to burn the house."

"Still — got to burn the barns," Morrison repeated.

Old Bradly said, "Some one home. There's smoke rising."

Then a black horse came around the house, reins dragging, cropping slowly at the grass.

"That's an army saddle," old Bradly said; and then Morrison suggested that maybe it was a trap.

"What for?" the captain demanded. War was war, and if he had to burn the house along with the barns he would. He looked at his men belligerently.

"Sure," Morrison agreed gently. "You got to."

"That's orders," the captain nodded. "You take Bradly and go down there. Snoop around a bit. Maybe there's still some of Wheeler's cavalry spreading around." He added sharply: "On foot. Step lively, now!"

When war changes from battle to destruction, nerves get raw and tangled — all tangled up; and sitting on his horse and watching the two old troopers creep down into the valley, he recalled the first time he had seen a map of Georgia, a green blob; and now they were cutting a swath of destruction through. Some day his grandchildren would read of Georgia the same way. The hate would be all gone in them — he hoped. He was an artist.

"Good scout, old Bradly," a trooper remarked. "Can't see hide or hair of them."

"Deploy — into the woods," the captain ordered. The troopers led their horses into the green shelter. He saw the kid Culver grinning. Just a picnic to him — marching through Georgia. He dismounted and stroked his horse's muzzle. Then he filled his pipe.

"Home and the kids," he was thinking. He had a little wife with yellow hair — back in Boston. The kids had her hair.

Then Morrison and Bradly popped out of the underbrush; they must have circled. Morrison saluted smartly, but old Bradly shook his gray head.

"What's up, sergeant?" the captain demanded.

"A slip of a girl," Bradly put in.

The sergeant said: "It's orders to destroy all provender. Grain's provender, an' them barns are full of hay and grain. General's orders."

"I'm in command here," Seeburt said sullenly.

Bradly told him: "The horse's wet with running — maybe fifty miles today. We looked through a window and see him — just a kid. A Reb all right, but not like Culver; no fat of the land, just a thin tired kid. And she's kissing and fondling him like she ain't seen him in years. He wears a sword, proud-like, but clothes in rags. You know the way those Reb officers pride their swords.

"She cries a little," Bradly went on, "and says something to him that we don't get — strokes his face—"

"That isn't pertinent," the captain said. "What about the house-servants?"

"None — cleared out and left this girl alone. Or else, she stayed until he came. I mean the Reb kid. Now a thing like that takes a lot of guts, captain, with General Sherman and the army maybe a dozen miles away. But she's that kind of a kid, nervy-like, with a lot of yellow hair."

"We got to burn the barns," Sergeant Morrison insisted doggedly. Morrison was an old army man and resentful of recently brevetted civilians like Seeburt. A civilian never rightly understood duty.

"What gets me" — Bradly was still thinking — "is the way that boy killed his horse to get to the girl. A Reb's human. You got to remember that."

"You'll remember that I'm in command, Bradly," Captain Seeburt said, conscious of Morrison's cold stare. He ordered the deployed men to mount and advance, and they swept down into the valley, their horses' hoofs muffled in the long grass. They were spread in a thin line, and as they approached the house they flanked it. Seeburt and Morrison rode for the entranceway.

 
SEEBURT saw the boy first. His face distorted, he leaped for his horse. Morrison had already grasped the reins, and the boy found himself looking into the muzzle of Captain Seeburt's pistol.

Even the general insisted that war was hell; but you went on — maybe because the land was so big and splendid and beautiful, enough to fight for; or maybe not that: you were an artist, and that made it worse.

"Don't move," Seeburt told the boy. "I don't want to have to shoot you."

From the doorway the girl cried out, and the boy clawed his pistol from the holster. Seeburt sighed with relief as the sergeant's carbine struck the boy's pistol from his hand. As Seeburt dismounted, Morrison deftly unhooked the boy's sword.

"So you won't make trouble, young sir," he said.

"Bad stuff, daylight love, Johnny Reb," Culver called gaily, and then Bradly fiercely told him to keep his mouth shut. The boy stood there, glowering and miserable. The girl came forward to his side.

Seeburt caught his breath. He had a daughter, who was seven, but she would grow up like that, tall and slim and like a breath of air, with yellow hair on top. He could see that the girl had nerve.

She caught the boy's hand, and then his arm went around her and swung her close to him. "Gerry," she said, "God forgive me! I got you into this."

He shook his head. "It's all right."

She swung on Seeburt.

"Haven't you done enough to all of us? Can't you see that he's sick? Take anything in the house that you want, but leave him alone!"

Seeburt took off his hat and shifted his grip on the pistol. Then he put it back in the holster and twisted his broad-brimmed hat.

"I'm sorry, miss," he said. "War is rotten business. I guess you know what rotten business war is."

"She knows what Yankee thieves are!" the boy snapped. "Don't ask them for anything, Joan."

"Easy, lad," Morrison said. Morrison was an old trooper, above hate.

"Take me, then!" the boy almost screamed. "You can't hold her. Do you have to stand there torturing her?"

Most of the troopers had dismounted and were standing close, absorbed in the drama. How would he tell the girl? How would any of them tell her? Any command was hell; it was so much easier to follow. He felt the wind with his hand. It was still blowing strongly from the barns to the house. And time was passing. They had to ride back to the main force.

Seeburt blurted out: "We have to burn the barns."

She stared, uncomprehending. Then she turned around to look at the house.

"Provender," Morrison explained. "Got to destroy it."

 
THE boy began to curse. He sprang at Seeburt, but two of the troopers caught him and held him. He was sobbing: "Damned Yankees — damned Yankees."

"Don't hurt him," the girl pleaded. "He's sick—"

"We won't hurt him," Seeburt said. He had had a lot of war, but nothing quite like this. Just two kids — so what did Rebel mean? A command — was a command. Should he turn to Morrison and tell him to detail two troopers to set a light to the barns? Morrison was an old war dog. Did this mean anything to Morrison?

"You can't burn the house." the boy cried.

"Got to burn the barns. That's orders."

Culver was whistling Dixie. Like a picnic. But Culver wasn't a bad kid; a thoughtless kid — and this kind of war made him hard.

A carbine cracked. Then a muffled thud of hoofs. Seeburt glanced up at the edge of the valley. The rim appeared full of gray horsemen, and Seeburt cursed himself for being caught like a fool. Culver's song halted abruptly; he sighed and pitched forward, and a trooper caught him as he fell to the ground. But no panic. Morrison's whistle was shrilling. Calculating swiftly, Seeburt decided that they couldn't run for it. On the slope they would be in the open under fire.

He gave the order, and they poured into the house, taking the prisoners with them, and Culver too. Some one else had a torn arm. In seconds Morrison had bound the boy's hands and feet. The troopers burst into the downstairs rooms, poked the glass from the windows, and returned even fire. There were at least a hundred Confederates.

After he had discharged his pistol, Seeburt stood by a tall window, watching calmly and giving orders. The charge wavered and broke; Seeburt could hear the Confederate officer shouting orders. A careful man, Seeburt reflected — old veteran. The gray cavalry had turned, dismounted; now they hid in the tall grass, keeping up a desultory fire. They had paused to feel out the opposing strength. If they charged again —

Morrison came in and reported four men wounded.

Turning, Seeburt saw the girl in the same room with him, standing in the line of fire from the window. Nerve there! She stood by the kid. Seeburt wondered whether the boy had tricked him, and then reflected that he hardly could have. The surprise was too real. And he was still glowering, struggling with his bonds.

"Tell the men not to expose themselves needlessly," Seeburt said. "No danger. The main force is rear, and there are plenty of scouting parties in the field."

But Morrison knew that he was making a small thing of a great deal. "Culver's dead," Morrison said, as if one man mattered a great deal in such a small force.

"Culver?" Seeburt wondered why he always felt like a father to fool kids like Culver.

The girl came up to them. "Where are the wounded men?" she said softly. They both stared at her, and Morrison shook his head like a big dog. He walked out with her.

Seeburt remained where he was. The boy, bound, sat on the floor, his mouth clenched. Two troopers crouched by the window, firing now and then. Seeburt tried to think; he had to think. Two dozen men couldn't hold a hundred, and a hundred couldn't linger near an army of sixty-five thousand. So they would charge soon.

Then it would be over — finis. He had left the woman in Boston for this because he believed. To be an artist you had to believe, because beauty was belief. And after three years he didn't know. War was hell — but life was good. He wanted to come out of this and see beauty again.

Twenty-three men looked to him. But what did he know?

He went out of the room into the spacious hallway. Morrison was there.

"A nasty fix, sir," Morrison remarked. "Wouldn't have thought it — so close to the main force. They're plucky devils, those Rebs."

"I suppose you know — when they charge, Morrison?"

"I been thinking, captain."

"What about it?"

"It's our duty — to get out of it, sir. We got the girl. Throw a scare into the boy, send him out there, and buy our way out with the girl. Make it strong. They know they won't gain nothing by wiping out a little foraging party like ours."

Seeburt shook his head slowly. "I don't like it. That's not war. We're white men, Americans — they are too. Where is she?"

"Hot water — bandages. She's got guts."

"Get her! I hate to — Well, get her! Don't stand there like a dumb ape!"

He went back into the room. One of the troopers was wounded, swearing softly at a bullet in his shoulder. Seeburt paced back and forth.

Morrison came back with the girl. She went to the boy, bent over and kissed him. It didn't matter that the men were there. She fondled his curly dark hair. Seeburt noticed how his eyes lighted up at sight of her.

"You love her," Seeburt said. "You love her, and a woman means a good deal to those men out there. I want you to go out there and tell them we have a Southern woman in here. Tell them that we'll trade her life for free passage from this valley. Do you understand me?"

"I understand what a filthy Yankee swine you are," the boy said evenly. "You can't bluff me — you wouldn't dare. Even your generals would not stand for that."

The girl stared at Seeburt, horror and pride struggling inside of her. She shook her head.

"Don't," she said to the boy.

Seeburt wondered how far he could carry this bluff. It was a rotten bluff — plainly rotten. But he was trading for life. He had to. Life was good and big and beautiful. But if the boy didn't break—

Seeburt drew his pistol and sighted on the girl's breast. "Will you go?" he asked the boy. At his side he heard Morrison's hoarse breathing. An occasional bullet entered the room. There was an acrid smell of powder — a blue haze in the air.

"Will you go?" Seeburt repeated, cocking the pistol. Morrison held his breath.

"I'll go." The boy broke. His head hung forward, limply. And Morrison expelled his breath in a great sigh.

The girl turned on them, and involuntarily Seeburt stepped back. He was thinking, Will I ever look at my own daughter again — and not think of this?

"What men you are!" she whispered. "What splendid men you Yankees are!"

 
DUMB, Seeburt stood there, his pistol dangling from his hand. The two troopers in the room were watching this, the way men watch a cat play with a mouse. Only Morrison appeared to have any calm left.

"To your stations!" he ordered the troopers.

Seeburt was breathing hard, like a man who has just finished running. But there was no time to lose. He went to the window and kicked it open. Morrison was untying the boy. Seeburt covered him with the pistol and directed him to the window.

"You know what to tell them. Go ahead. And if you play me bad, I won't shoot you — I'll shoot her!"

"All right." The boy was almost sobbing. He leaped through the open window. He stopped on the veranda.

"Gerry," the girl said. She tried to follow, but Morrison caught her and held her. Then the boy began to walk forward, slowly. He wasn't ten yards from the house when the shot caught him. The firing had slackened almost as soon as he left the window, but the Confederates were spread out, and they couldn't have all known that he was one of them.

Seeburt knew; he should have had a white flag. But now it was too late. He was sick all over.

"Hell to pay," Morrison said hoarsely.

Then the girl tore loose from Morrison, sprang through the window, and ran to the boy. Morrison cursed savagely. And Seeburt followed through the window, ignoring the warning Morrison yelled.

He walked steadily. Vaguely he was conscious that firing had stopped. He walked on to the girl, crouched over the fallen boy.

She looked up at Seeburt, her eyes wide, afraid. "He's dead," she said. "He didn't do anything. He was sick, but he came to me. Now he's dead."

Seeburt knelt down by the boy, tore open his shirt. He saw where the bullet had gone through his breast, through the edge of the left pectoral, but away from the heart and barely nicking the ribs. He stanched the flow of blood with his fingers and then plugged the wound with cloth.

"He's not dead," he told the girl. "He's not even badly wounded. I've seen a lot of wounds — I know. It's the shock. Tomorrow he'll walk."

"He's not dead?" the girl whispered.

"No, no — he's all right," Seeburt said, almost brusquely. A great load had lifted from his heart, but at the same time he was numb, dazed. He stood up and looked around. Confederates were walking toward them. One, an officer, was only a few paces away now. Nobody was firing.

Seeburt looked at the house. His men were standing in the windows — without cover. Morrison was standing at the open window, a funny expression on his face.

Bending over, Seeburt lifted the boy in his arms. Morrison stood aside as the captain came through the window, and Seeburt laid the boy down on the floor gently. Then he took a pillow from a chair and put it under his head. The girl had followed. She stood by the boy. Seeburt saw his eyelids flutter open before he turned away.

At the window two Confederate officers were standing. One of them stepped into the room. Beyond them Seeburt could see the meadow, full of gray-clad soldiers. None of his men were firing. It was all over anyway. He sighed and took off his saber.

 
MEN were pushing into the room. Old Bradly stood to one side, a bewildered look on his old brown face. More troopers — wounded, most of them. Culver was dead — and that was the end of the picnic. Suddenly Seeburt felt old, woefully old.

He went up to the older Confederate officer. "Here is my sword, sir. James Seeburt, captain, Grand Army of the Republic." He spoke almost with mockery.

"I don't want it," the man answered.

They stood and stared at each other, and then Seeburt held out his hand. The other man took it. Seeburt wanted to say something, but he couldn't. His throat was thick and dry.

Then the girl came over. "Thank you," she said to the Confederate officer. Seeburt nodded.

"All right, Yankee," the man said.

"One of my men is dead," Seeburt said mechanically. "I'll want to bury him."

They put Culver in a grave with a gray-clad boy who had just a run of sandy down on his lip. Seeburt made up a kind of prayer, and the bugle played. The men in gray and blue mingled around the grave, uneasy. But Seeburt and the other officer stood together, an immense calm upon them. It seemed to Seeburt that was right; that he had been mad before.

They shook hands again.

"War is hell," Seeburt said. "But when I was a kid I looked at a map of Georgia — just a green blob. Our grandchildren—"

Then he couldn't say the rest of it, but he looked into the Confederate officer's eyes.

Seeburt said good-by to the girl. "I have a slip of a daughter — yellow hair."

The girl held on to his hand. "You're a good man."

"Some Yankees are. Maybe some day I'll be back. It'll be different then."

They rode out of the valley in opposite directions, the two troops. The sun was low and the valley was all full of yellow and red light. The men rode uneasily, still trying to understand how, for an instant, the war had paused.

But Seeburt thought he knew. On the brink of the little valley he paused, turned in his saddle, and wavered. Then, in a moment, he thought he knew. Men like gods, making a great and enduring thing for themselves out of a welter of blood. He was tired, but not numb any more. And when he looked at the valley at the last, the sun was beyond the brink, and the valley lay in a cool haze of mingling gray and blue.

THE END


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