As routine dictated every fifth day, Willie’s company was roused from bed at seven a.m. one April morning and assembled in front of headquarters for picket detail. Sleepily, the soldiers waited while being issued forty rounds of ammunition and two day’s rations of hardtack and salt pork. After Company E was likewise furnished, the Bucktails trudged four abreast out of camp toward the 150th’s bivouac. There, they joined four hundred other riflemen from the 150th and 143rd Regiments and were again formed into double lines for weapons’ inspection. When they shifted into formation, Private Henry Cole didn’t even have to think about where his feet should go.
An hour later, a stiff wind buffeted the Bucktails as they tramped down a familiar muddy road to their outposts stretched along the north bank of the Rappahannock River. When the gray sky spit a few flurries, Henry muttered to his brother, “Ain’t it ever gonna quit snowin’ this year?”
“Yeah, ya wouldn’t believe tomorrow’s Easter.”
“But this sure beats another day o’ drillin’,” reminded Asher. “An’ we’ll be on active duty keepin’ the Rebs at bay.”
“You’re right, coz,” agreed Willie. “The last time we was out here we captured a Reb who fired at one of our boys. That was somethin’!”
Suddenly, a fierce squall swept down upon the soldiers, ending all conversation. In response, Willie and his mates pulled their overcoats closer about them and shoved their hands deep into their pockets. It wasn’t long before drifts obscured the roadway, making the footing more treacherous for the smooth soles of their brogans. By the time they had trudged over the full five miles to the Rappahannock, the only sounds rising from the spent Bucktails were slipping footsteps and labored breathing.
The column emitted a collective sigh when it spied an orange glow leaking from a pine grove ahead. Around a row of campfires huddled the veterans of the Iron Brigade, and Willie gawked at their distinctive uniforms that had been worn with pride and valor in the bloody cornfield at Antietam. Their dark blue coats and dark blue pants framed them against the snowy backdrop, while their black Hardee hats made them look even taller than the Bucktails.
Captain Sofield wasted no time dismissing his company from the ranks, and the Coles rushed to the nearest campfire to unthaw their frozen limbs. As they held their hands over the licking flames, they nodded to the huddled veterans who sipped hot coffee or puffed on corncob pipes.
“It’s about time you fellas showed up ta relieve us,” said a burly corporal, after staining the snow brown with tobacco spit.
“S-s-s-orry,” stammered Willie. “It was tough marchin’ on the drifted road.”
“Yeah, ya need snowshoes er webbed feet ta go very fast,” joshed Henry.
“If a little walkin’ gives you trouble, what are ya gonna do when you see the elephant?” asked a stern sergeant, rising to gather up his gear.
“Oh, we already seen ’im,” assured Henry. “At the circus Cousin Asher found so thrillin’.”
“Boy, are you a fresh fish! Don’t ya know I was talkin’ about goin’ inta combat fer the first time?”
“No, sir,” answered Willie.
“Well, ya best get ready ’cause there’s at least three more Reb camps across the river since the last time you boys was here. An’ yesterday, we had to burn out some rascals jess down the line a ways that’s been spyin’ on us. That fire sure stirred ’em up, let me tell ya. Myself, I’ll be glad when the roads are dry, so Fightin’ Joe Hooker can lead us ta victory.”
“But it’s gotta stop snowin’ first,” countered Willie. “Sometimes in Pennsylvania, sir, that don’t happen ’til May.”
“I hope that gives ya time to get trained like them first Bucktails. They’re sharpshootin’ wildcats in battle,” declared the corporal, again spitting into the snow.
“We want ta live up to their fightin’ reputation,” replied Asher, beaming with pride. “That’s why we joined this here unit.”
“Bully for you! We’ll see you boys again in two days.”
After the Iron Brigade had filed away into the storm, Captain Sofield divided his men into two forces. One force of reserves remained resting at the campsite, while the other he led to the active front. He personally took the men to their posts and admonished them to stay alert. It was now snowing so hard that visibility was less than a hundred yards.
Sergeant Warriner’s men were posted at the farthest point from camp. In clear weather, they could often see the rooftops of Fredericksburg across the river to the west. Willie and Henry stood shivering together behind a large oak, while the professor and Asher shared the shelter of the adjacent pines. It was too cold to squat down, so they used the trees to conceal their positions and shield themselves from the wind.
The night became so bitter that finally the entire squad withdrew into the brush and built a low fire to keep their hands from freezing solid. Vigilance was impossible when darkness descended to swallow up the surrounding countryside.
“Ain’t much need fer guards tonight,” mumbled Henry. “It’s darker than inside a coal bin.”
“The Rebs can’t see nothin’ either,” agreed Willie, “so they won’t be movin’ no place.”
“But that don’t mean ya should fall asleep,” growled the sergeant, rubbing the frost from his goatee.
“Ain’t no way that’s gonna happen,” snorted Henry. “I’m shakin’ like a dog crappin’ peach stones.”
The next morning dawned fair, and the shivering sentries set down their rifles to stretch their cramped muscles. In the distance they could see the smoke from a dozen campfires curling into the cold, blue sky.
“The Iron Brigade was right,” yawned Willie, pointing across the river. “Them Rebs are gatherin’ fer some reason.”
“Well, it sure ain’t ta boil maple syrup,” said Asher.
“Er to git stock ready fer the spring fair,” added Henry.
When the rising sun broke above the horizon, Willie and his squad dug hardtack from their haversacks and had a quick breakfast. Heating coffee over their fire, they dipped the hard crackers into it until Henry quipped, “Look, even the weevils is unthawed. Now, I can have hot meat fer breakfast, too.”
The Coles had just picked up their rifles when a covey of grouse burst from the nearby brush. After ducking behind trees, the pickets sighted down the barrels of their Enfields as approaching footsteps reached their ears. In the next instant a disheveled woman burst into view with two bawling children in tow. Tears streamed down her cheeks, as well, and a wild look blazed in her eyes.
The woman ran straight for the soldiers’ campfire and glanced helplessly about until Asher stepped from hiding and asked, “What’s wrong, ma’am. Are the Rebs chasin’ ya?”
“No! It’s my cows! They got loose, and now I can’t find them. Soldiers made off with the rest of my stock. Without milk, my little ones will starve.”
“Now, take it easy, ma’am,” urged Sergeant Warriner when the woman ran to bury her head on his broad shoulder. “I reckon I could spare the Coles to help ya. They’re farm boys an’ know how ta run down strays.”
“Thank you, major,” sobbed the woman. “I-I-I’m beholden to you.”
“Why, I’m jess a sergeant,” replied Warriner, blushing crimson. “Go on, Asher. Take Henry an’ Willie an’ help this poor mother.”
“Come this way, you brave soldiers, and I’ll show you where I last seen my cows.”
Willie, Henry, and Asher followed the woman through the brush to a narrow, hilly pasture that led to a distant farm. The pasture was rocky and full of dips and gullies. An apple orchard sprawled across the entire left corner. Pine trees bordered it along the other sides.
After surveying the landscape, Asher asked, “Where did ya last see them cows, ma’am?”
“You can call me Polly. I was following them animals fine over by the orchard until snow covered up their tracks.”
“That makes sense,” said Willie. “Cows is like deer. They love late season apples. They’ve been known to git drunk on ’em.”
“Let’s go then!” exclaimed Henry. “A hike’ll git the blood flowin’ ag’in after we jess ‘bout froze ta death last night.”
“Yes, please help us, mister,” pleaded Polly’s little girl. “We ain’t had anything to et since yesterday.”
“Then, chew on this,” said Asher, handing both children a chunk of salt pork. “It ain’t too tasty, but at least it will fill yer bellies ’til we fetch ya some milk.”
The Coles raced off across a hill toward the apple trees. Even before they reached the old orchard, they heard a faint lowing that led them directly to the cows. The animals had ropes tied around their necks, and the ropes were tangled in the brush.
“Boy, are we lucky these gals got caught here,” said Willie, running to free the Holsteins. “Let’s git ’em back before they burst an udder.”
“We almost found ’em too easy,” Henry muttered.
“Yeah,” agreed Asher, “it looks like they was tied up by clumsy hands. We best keep our eyes peeled.”
When the Coles emerged from the orchard leading the rescued cows, Polly and her children were standing near a barn. The kids were waving madly to attract the soldiers’ attention. Skidding down the slippery pasture proved exhausting work. The Coles were covered with sweat by the time the reached their destination.
“Bring Sarah and Blanche in here,” shouted Polly, swinging open the barn door. “Could you be dears and milk them while I go in the house and get you some coffee and biscuits?”
“I thought the kids said they hadn’t et since yesterday,” said Henry suspiciously. “If ya baked biscuits, they shouldn’ta gone hungry.”
“But milk is what they need, dear boy,” replied Polly with a nervous laugh. “I’ll only be a minute.”
“We shouldn’t eat anything she gives us,” warned Henry.
“Oh, Polly’s all right,” assured Willie. “She jess fergot about them vittles when her cows run off. Without milk, an’ the cheese an’ butter they could make from it, them poor folks would starve.”
Willie and Asher fetched buckets and stools from a shelf and began to milk the animals with firm downward strokes of their teats. Henry, meanwhile, paced nervously back and forth, glancing at the barn door. “I wonder what’s takin’ Polly so long?” he grumbled. “I wish she’d come back so we could git outta here.”
“She ain’t comin’ back!” boomed a deep voice that made Willie leap from his stool. Peering around the black-spotted rear of the Holstein, he found the doorway blocked by six burly farmers. Battered slouch hats were pulled low over their foreheads, and their eyes gleamed with menace. What worried Willie most, though, were the clubs clutched in the men’s hands.
“What do you fellas want?” asked Asher, rising to face the intruders.
“Seein’ the odds is in our favor, we’ll do the demandin’.”
“Yeah!” snarled a second man. “What we want is them rifles you’re carryin’.”
“Like heck!” barked Henry.
“Bein’ it’s six to three, you’ll do as you’re told er get pounded. You Yanks done burned our farms yestiddy fer no good cause, an’ our huntin’ guns went up with ’em. Now, we aim to take yers.”
“But our guns are loaded, an’ all you got is clubs.”
“We done some sniffin’ ’round that guard post o’ yers an’ know you’re farm boys who ain’t killed nobody.”
“That don’t mean we don’t know how to fight!” snapped Asher. “If you want these rifles, you’ll have ta take ’em!”
“Have it yer way, then,” grunted the first man. “Git ’em, boys!”
As the farmers rushed forward, Asher, Henry, and Willie instinctively formed a battle line. Using their rifle stocks, they smacked the clubs from three of the attackers’ hands and laid them flat with bone-jarring thrusts to their jaws. When the other men stormed Willie’s flank, Henry and Asher wheeled to beat back the surprised Rebels with savage blows to their chests and shoulders.
Snarling like wounded beasts, the farmers then snatched shovels from racks in the walls and moved to surround the young Bucktails. The soldiers fended off each blade thrust until the insurgents swung with unbridled fury. This left them open to clouts from rifle butts that left them bloodied, bruised, and cursing.
The ring leader became so incensed that he yanked a pitchfork from a hay mound and rushed to impale Willie. Henry whipped up his rifle and fired without aiming just before the sharp points of the weapon stabbed his brother’s side. The farmer was struck through the shoulder and blown backward across the barn floor. He hit the dirt hard with a yelp as his gang streaked for daylight and was gone.
“Gather up that rascal,” said Asher. “Looks like we got ourselves a prisoner.”
“An’ let’s git outta here,” urged Henry, “before we learn that Polly’s kitchen is a barracks full o’ musket-totin’ Rebs!”