The Color Sergeant’s Widow

“He’d ridden into battle before, many times, with never an ounce of rehearsal. That was why the Lord had invented liquor and laudanum.”

Serpents

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When Anna Manzell and her daughter came down the wooded path toward him, Breakey figured they were simply out for a stroll on a warm April day, maybe picking early laurel blossoms to prettify their kitchen table, and happened upon him by chance. As it turned out, that was not the case. “James Breakey?” she said. “It would seem you have been chosen. I do believe the Lord has sent you in answer to my prayers.”

Breakey’s response was to laugh — not a moderate chortle, but a belly-laugh, a bourbon-squirting-from-the-nose laugh (for he had just taken a liberal mouthful from his flask). He slapped the pommel of his saddle and waved the flask in glee, wiping his nose with his sleeve into the bargain. His horse, an aged chestnut named Old Lightning, lifted a hoof and knickered along, for Breakey’s laugh had always been notoriously infectious.

Anna was mortified. Her fearful gray eyes opened wide and she clutched her little girl — Christina was her name — close to her bosom, her hands covering the girl’s ears to shut out the blasphemous laughter. “Why do you laugh? Stop! Why do you laugh?”

“Oh,” he said, depositing his flask into the pocket of his frock coat, giving his black shovel beard a tender stroke. “You mean to say you’re serious?”

“I am. As God is my witness.”

“I been a lot of things, Anna Manzell,” he said, “but the answer to somebody’s prayers has never been one of them.” James Breakey was a man still trying to survive the war that had ended two years before. He was a man without a profession, without a wife, without prospects, a man whose industrious and prosperous father was on the verge of washing his hands of him. It was enough to make any man laugh.

“That is not my name,” she said with a puff of righteous sorrow.

Breakey sobered his gaze, wiped his lip again, staring down at her from atop Old Lightning. He nodded. “No. Not anymore.”

The countryside was rife with widows — the war had ensured a plentiful crop — and to Breakey’s mind, up until now at least, Anna Manzell had made out better than most. She’d remarried, and to a well-off farmer at that, a man named Virgil Furley. Breakey sometimes wondered: Is a remarried widow still a widow? Is an adopted orphan still an orphan? Is a fried venison steak still a deer? Age-old questions such as these had to amuse him when matters of a more humorous nature were in short supply.

Anna stepped out of the dappled shadow of the trees, gazing up at him. “I have no one else to turn to,” she said. In the sunlight her puffy cheek was the color of a plum, and beneath her eye was a heavy brown pouch. “I was praying for deliverance. I looked up, and out through my window I saw you there, riding by at that exact same moment. You were gazing up at something you were holding before you, and the sun was shining off it, and it was like a star you were following. It was a sign.”

It was his flask — his other flask. He’d been eyeing it to see how much laudanum he had left. “I ride by quite often,” he said.

“And I pray quite often,” she said. “But this is the first time they both come together.”

Breakey liked to roam the countryside with Old Lightning, the hills and hollows around Hartsgrove, the haunts of his youth, his life before the war. Often he rode past the small farmhouse on Coolbrook Road where she lived. Once he’d encountered her coming out of Clover’s Store and he told her about her husband, Harvey Manzell, dying at Gettysburg, how bravely and valiantly he fell. He didn’t tell her the regiment had gone through six other color bearers that day. He didn’t tell her the exact manner of his death, how he’d thrown back his head to yell when the ball went right into his mouth, blowing his brains out the back of his head. That story he kept for the Peace and Poverty Tavern, where it often engendered some hilarity.

“How?” he said. “How do you suppose I might be able to help you?”

“It’s Virgil.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

“It’s not for my own sake so much,” she said. “I can take most all of the meanness that man can dish out.” Her hand went up, as if on its own, and touched her plum-colored cheek. “It’s her — ” she reeled in the little girl again, pressed shut her ears again — “it’s Christina. He’ll be the ruination of her. Why, it’s already commenced.” The little girl’s eyes were full of hope and trust and fear as she looked up at him with the same look he’d seen in the eyes of a wounded war horse just before it was put down. Her pinafore was white and dirty. Anna put her shoulders back, her shawl slipping down, drooping forlornly.

“You ladies oughtn’t to be out traipsing around in the woods with nothing on your feet but slippers,” he said. “It’s rattler season — they’re coming out of their dens. You got any idea how many rattlers there is in these woods? And a day like this, a fine day for sunning.” He was not stalling, he told himself. It was a true and proper warning.

“We’re watching careful,” Anna said. Then she said the one word, “Please.”

“I don’t know how I can help,” he said.

“The Lord will show you how.”

“Well, that’s one mighty big load off my mind. When do you suppose He’ll get around to doing that?”

“Soon, I would suspect. I’ve made Him aware of my desperate need.”

“I suppose maybe I could try talking to him.”

“To who?” Anna said. “To Virgil or to God?”

“Whichever one comes first,” said Breakey.

 

Silas Breakey’s muttonchop whiskers were white and full, two unlikely clouds on the sides of his face. Between them rested a stern countenance that was entirely miserly in the dispensing of smiles. James had not sought his father’s counsel in some time, since before he’d volunteered, which was possibly the last topic about which he had sought his counsel, but he felt the need to do so now. Being the answer to somebody’s prayers was no easy burden.

His father was surprised to see him. “What happened, son? Peace and Poverty burn down?”

“God forbid,” Breakey said, then, “Speaking of God.” He sat on the straight-backed chair across from his father’s desk in the office of his wagon factory and told him about his encounter with Anna Manzell and her daughter in the picnic spot in the woods. The sounds of hammering came through the walls and windows like distant artillery.

Silas mulled it over. “My son the savior,” he said.

“If I’m the savior,” said Breakey, “doesn’t that make you the God?”

Silas shook off the question with a flick of his head, having no use for impious banter. “From what little I know about her, Harvey Manzell’s widow is a hard-working, God-fearing woman,” he said. “You can’t just make believe she didn’t come to you seeking her deliverance.”

“No. I can’t. Don’t think I’m not tempted, though.”

“Oh, I know you’re tempted son. I know you too well these past two years.”

Breakey said nothing to that. He said, “Maybe I ought to just tell her to take her troubles on up to the sheriff.”

“That won’t do you no good, nor her. Blane Dickey, he beats on his own dang wife.”

“The beating she can take, she says, that doesn’t bother her so much. It’s the little girl. The way I read it, Virgil is harming the little girl.”

“Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

“Not that way. That’s not what she meant. She meant worse than that.”

The old man’s brow darkened. “Any man does that ought to be shot.”

“Well, there’s an idea. Wouldn’t be the first I shot.” It was quiet, except for the artillery. “Wonder would it do any good at all if I just rode out and had a chinwag with him.”

“Might. Maybe take your war reputation and your deer rifle with you, go out there and go at him full chisel. The man’s a coward, so maybe that’d be enough to warn him off.” Virgil Furley was judged to be a coward and a shirker long before any gossip about his cravenly ways with little girls — any man who’d bought his way out of service was so labeled. What’s more, the fee did not even come from him — $300 being the small fortune that it was — it came from his father. It was Virgil’s father who owned the large, prosperous farm adjoining Harvey Manzell’s modest one, it was him who paid his son’s commutation fee, and who purchased the Manzell farm, providing Virgil the means to ride to Anna’s rescue after she was widowed. Or so it was believed at the time.

“Maybe,” Breakey said. “Either that or make things worse for her. And the girl.”

“You got to think positive. Virgil Furley might see nothing but the hero of thirty-eight bloody fracases, defender of the union, slayer of a hundred Johnny Rebs. He might not know that ever since you got back you seldom been sober, that you spend purt near every waking hour engaging in drunken sloth, idleness and a whole mess of other unwholesome habits.”

“There’s a positive thought, all right.”

Silas drummed his fingers on the desk, echoing the cannons. “I’m afraid I don’t know what else I can tell you, son.”

“You can tell me what to say to him.”

“Oh, I got no idea. But maybe Anna’s right. Maybe God’ll tell you what to say.”

“Me and Him ain’t exactly been on speaking terms lately,” Breakey said.

 

He waited till the next morning to ride Old Lightning out Coolbrook Road at an easy walk. He was in no hurry to get there, and neither was the old chestnut. A little breeze rippled through the new leaves and over the short grass, though the sun was hot for April. He wasn’t acquainted with Virgil Furley, didn’t know the man, though he’d seen him a few times in the course of his rambles. What he’d seen was a narrow-shouldered fellow with black hair slicked back over his big ears, a pug nose that didn’t amount to much, and a gold tooth — not the sort of man you’d look at and think of as a danger. But then some of the meanest killers in the 105th had been baby-faced brats as well.

He didn’t know what he’d say to the man. The Lord was keeping mum. Breakey didn’t mind. He’d ridden into battle before, many times, with never an ounce of rehearsal. That was why the Lord had invented liquor and laudanum.

The road curved and the small farmhouse came into view where the woods opened up and a freshly plowed field unfurled across the way. In the morning sun the field was the same color as Old Lightning’s coat. Breakey patted her flank, pulled up, reached into the pocket of his frock coat and pulled out his flask.

By the time he’d taken a long, thoughtful quaff and nudged the old horse on, he saw Furley. He’d come out of the house, and was waiting for him. He was not alone. Two other men in denim and flannel stood close by, farmhands most likely, each holding a shotgun as if a hoe or a scythe might be better suited to his grip. Anna was there too. Furley had a tight red hold on her arm, just above the wrist.

Breakey approached, still at an easy walk. Ten feet from Furley, he dismounted and walked up to him. He left his deer rifle in the saddle scabbard. Furley let loose of Anna’s arm, and she rubbed at it, as if to wipe it clean. He wore red galluses over a white linen shirt and gray wool breeches, all dressed up for the occasion. “Get the hell off my property,” he said.

“Your wife come to me for help.”

“What goes on under my roof ain’t nobody’s business but my own. And you got no call sticking your nose into my business.”

“My business now. Anna made it so.”

“She fed you a pack of lies. Ain’t that true, my dearest?” Anna said nothing, and when Furley heard it, he turned and started to raise his hand. She squeezed her eyes shut, pulled back her shoulders and raised up her chin. Breakey saw the fresh bruises and shiner.

“She’s not afraid of you,” Breakey said. “Hell, she told me she’s been hit harder by a baby butterfly.”

“Then I’ll just have to try harder.” Furley managed a tight grin.

“She told me something else. Told me you been fiddling with that little girl of hers. That’s what troubles me most.”

Furley spit in the dirt. “Hell, she ain’t even my blood.”

“That’s so,” Breakey said. “She’s the color sergeant’s daughter.” He took two quick steps forward and walloped Furley in the face with a closed fist.

Furley went down hard. From the seat of his gray wool breeches he touched the rip on his cheek, looked at the blood on his hand and then up at the farm boys. “Shoot him! Shoot him!” he shouted, gold tooth flashing. “He’s trespassing! Shoot him!”

But the farm boys only fingered their shotguns and looked at one another and backed off a step or two. “Shoot him!” Furley insisted.

“Virgil,” said one of the men, “he ain’t even armed. Why, I can’t shoot a fella that ain’t even armed.”

From a pile of rocks not three feet from where Furley landed came a scratching, rattling sound. As they watched, the snake materialized from behind the rocks, black etchings on a scaly, yellow hide, slithering forward, toward Furley, then coiling and raising it’s head, the rattling going louder.

“A sign from God,” Anna whispered.

Furley scrambled to his feet, stumbling away, as everyone backed off except Breakey. He walked up to the snake, shot out a fist and seized it just under its head. He held the furious reptile at arm’s length, high in the air, the hissing tongue, the long, meaty body — four feet if it was an inch — squirming and writhing and rattling, twisting about in the air, searching for purchase. He held the head not six inches from his face. “Is it true?” he asked the snake. “Did the good Lord send you from up above?”

The others looked on in wonder at the madman and the serpent. Breakey turned in a trot toward Furley, brandishing the snake before him. An unmanly squeal escaping him, Furley turned tail and scampered toward the farmhouse. Breakey turned the snake on the two farm boys and they too backed off, scurrying away with only slightly more dignity. Anna didn’t budge.

She clasped her hands beneath her chin. “Praise be to God.”

Breakey held the serpent at arm’s length, the better to behold it. “You really reckon this here fella was a sign from God?”

“I do,” she said, her gaze drifting from heaven to him. “It is.”

“That puts me in kind of a fix, then. How do you suppose the Lord’ll take it when I cut off the head of His sign?”

The snake writhed, whipping about with renewed vigor. Breakey held fast. From the safe space by the farmhouse, the three men looked on. Anna said, “His will be done.”

Breakey pulled his hunting knife from the scabbard under his coat, inserted it into the back of the snake’s neck, and sliced. The head fell into the dirt by his boot. The body continued to writhe and rattle. He let it, for a good minute or so. Then he flung it toward Furley and the farm boys, who had taken some tentative steps forward.

He pointed down at the head and the fixed yellow slits of eyes. He told Anna, “Stay away from that, hear? It’s as good as alive, and it will be for an hour or better. Leave it be.”

She stood gazing down at it. Breakey walked back to Old Lightning. When he looked back, she was still staring at the snake head. Furley made his way to her. The farm boys were retreating back across the field, dragging their shotguns like drooping tails. Furley said, “What’d he say? He said something about that there snake head.”

Anna looked up as though a spell had been broken. “Poor Virgil,” she said. “He left it there as a warning. He said that snake head better be there when he comes back tomorrow morning, or you’ll really be in for it then.”

“Why, damn his eyes — ” said Furley, reaching down to take the thing and fling it at Breakey. He pulled back his arm, but when it came forward the head refused to be flung, fangs buried deep in Furley’s wrist. He screamed and fell to his knees, shaking his arm about furiously, but it wouldn’t shake loose for the longest time. Not before the venom was well on its way.

 

In the weeks and months that followed, Anna asked Breakey more than once whatever possessed him to walk up to that snake and take it up with his bare hand. After they’d come to know each other, after Breakey had spent more time with her and Christina, after he’d decided — and Anna had accepted — to marry the twice-widowed woman, he finally told her: It was not courage. He’d come to learn in the war that nothing could kill him, and so he had nothing to fear.

Anna kept her devout ways. Often, after the weather had turned cold, she knelt by the hearth, and Breakey, in the rocking chair by the lamp, listened to the mumbles of her prayers. Sometimes then he pictured Furley in the dirt. Breakey in his time had seen fields and forests strewn with dead and dying men and had found not an iota of humor in it, but the unlikely sight of a man in white linen and red galluses dying under a silent sky, howling on his knees, gnawing at his arm with a golden tooth like a wolf in a trap, never failed to raise a titter or two.

Anna had her way of praying. Laughing, he figured, was his.

Featured image: Fabrizio Conti/ Unsplash, Sudowoodo/Shutterstock

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Comments

  1. What a tremendous story. I guess I’m not above rooting for comeuppance, but maybe only because it was written by someone as skilled and masterful a fiction writer as Dennis McFadden. (Dennis, my email reply to you keeps getting bounced back, so I am letting you know here how much I enjoyed “The Color Sergeant’s Widow.” Please email me again.)

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