Authors: Rosalyn West
They were the Men of Pride County:
bold, brazen—ready to fight for what
they believe is right … their
homes, their families, and the women they love …
Juliet Crowley had the most voluptuous lips Noble had ever seen. Full, soft, kissable lips that firmed into an uncompromising line when she noticed his attention lingering there.
“Major, I’m sorry to say it’s not a pleasure to meet you.”
“But the pleasure is indeed mine,” he replied smoothly.
“Are you being honest, Major Banning? I thought Southern men liked their women docile.”
“I can’t speak for all Southern men, Miss Crowley, but I prefer my women spirited.”
She lifted one honey-colored brow. “My, my, such a bold claim.”
“Tell me,” he drawled. “Is it me you dislike, or my former uniform?”
She glanced back over her shoulder to skewer him with a look. “Oh, it’s you sir.” But she knew she was lying, for it wasn’t dislike she was feeling, but something far more disconcerting …
THE MEN OF PRIDE COUNTY
In memory of my mother,
who taught me how to dream
Table of Contents
Almost time …
A lone rider stared down upon the tracks below. The tip of his cockaded hat provided little protection from the chill sleet lashing weary features. He made a single move, to check his pocket watch, clearing away the fog from the crystal with his sleeve.
Almost time, if time was something one could count on in these interminable days of war.
As if in answer, the forlorn wail of the train’s whistle sounded in the distance.
The mounted man’s attention was drawn away from the stretch of track by movement beside him.
“Right on time. Must be a sign that things are going our way.”
Major Noble Banning didn’t answer.
Though he wasn’t particularly superstitious, a part of him didn’t want to jinx their mission with words of false confidence.
“Are the men ready?”
“Ready and anxious to bite some Yankee butt, sir.”
“Tell ’em to look sharp and stay alert. We’ll move on my signal.”
The slicker-shrouded figure faded back into the mist as he continued to watch. To wait.
He’d planned this attack on the Union rail for weeks, using coded snippets gleaned by their network of telegraph spies to discover where the supplies would be shipped and when. If their information was right, the train appearing in the next few minutes would be loaded with enough food and powder to further the Confederate effort through the long winter months ahead. If it was wrong, it would still give his men a chance to work off some dangerous tension. It was always worse when the holidays grew near. His men wanted to be home with family. Hell, so did he. This would be his third year away.
He shook off the moment of melancholy to focus on the immediate goal. A success on this miserable morning would go far toward boosting their wavering morale. And it would prolong the costly confrontation perhaps through another Christmas.
Then it crossed his mind unbidden, a brief, traitorous thought.
Was he crazy to want to do such a thing?
Another year of hardship and death with loneliness and fear as a constant companion. If they all were just to lay down their arms and go home now …
The train appeared at the bend in the track, clearing his mind of all but the immediate objective. He and his men had a job to do. Union flags fluttered boldly on the laboring engine. The incline would slow it just enough to give them the opportunity they’d need to—
Minié balls chopped through the thicket like an axe through kindling, sending branches flying. For a moment, Noble was disoriented, shocked that the bullets were coming from behind him. Federal troops poured out of the dense woods, ringing his men with deadly gunfire. In the confusion that followed, one thought came with agonizing clarity.
How had the enemy known to be there?
Grabbing up his reins, Noble brought his mount around as he reached for his sidearm and sought a target. He never had the chance to fire, for he was already in an infantryman’s sights.
He heard his brave horse’s scream of pain and at first didn’t realize that the ball had passed through his own leg before plowing into the animal’s lung. The stallion went down, he with it, rolling, toppling down the embankment toward the train, which would continue to its final destination.
“Major Banning, you got a visitor.”
Clutching the threadbare blanket about his shoulders as if it could keep the penetrating cold of the blustery Maryland winter from rattling through his bones, Noble shuffled to the door of his tent. Until last week, he’d shared the meager quarters with a planter from Alabama. After they’d carried the man’s wasted corpse away, he’d had the place to himself. But with Point Lookout overflowing with his fellow Southerners, he knew the privacy wouldn’t last long. Perhaps this was to be his new tentmate.
He paused for a moment at the closed flap. Drawing a deep breath that felt as if ice was coating the lining of his lungs, he forced his stiffened form to straighten into a proud military bearing. As a defiant gesture, he tossed the blanket onto the cot behind him and took a moment to align his ragged uniform. Only then did he throw back the canvas flap.
The Union officer waiting in the cold gave him a quick once-over glance, unable to stop the pity from stealing into his expression. Then his manner became crisp.
“I’m Lieutenant Horvath. Might I have a word with you?”
Noble stepped back. “Come in, Lieutenant. I’m afraid I can’t offer you much in the way of hospitality except to cut the wind a little.”
His drawling sarcasm drew a wince from the other officer, who entered, then waved for his aide to wait in the cold.
“What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”
“I’ll get right to it.”
“I’d appreciate that. I’d like to get back to my Dickens before the pages freeze together.”
Another grimace quickly concealed. Noble understood the man’s situation. One couldn’t afford to show sympathy for one’s enemy, even when that enemy was humbled in defeat.
“Major, do you know a Colonel Crowley?”
His features hardened, but his tone remained coolly civil. “By reputation, sir.” By more than that. Crowley was responsible for his incarceration in the Union prison along with the men who’d managed to survive the ambush.
“Colonel Crowley speaks highly of you, sir. So highly, in fact, that he asked me to put forward his request.”
Noble turned and made his way back to the
cot, his gait hindered by a slow-healing wound. He lowered himself gingerly. “If the colonel would like an invitation to dinner, he’s welcome as long as he brings the meal and is prepared for delousing afterward. Lice seem to be the only things that thrive in this place.” Lice and despair.
“The colonel would like to offer you the means to leave these surroundings.”
Noble’s interest leaped but his manner remained purposefully indolent. “Really? Is he proposing to surrender to me, then?”
The lieutenant caught his grin with some difficulty. “I don’t think so, sir.”
“Then what does he have in mind?” Refusing to seem eager, he began to wind a loose thread from his fraying jacket cuff about his forefinger. He glanced up idly for an answer.
“The colonel is on his way to a frontier post. He was impressed enough with you and your men to ask specifically that you be allowed to accompany him.”
“Accompany him?” Unable to maintain the pretense of disinterest, Noble’s demand slashed saber-sharp. “Accompany him as what?”
“As part of his troop.”
“As part of the Union Army?” The question was posed incredulously.
“Yes, sir. You are undoubtedly aware of the parole program—”
“Sir, my men and I were never part of the regular Union army before the war, and we’ve
no plans to change our allegiance now.”
“Major Banning, your men are dying here. I would think that you, as their commander, would be willing to do just about anything to spare them another day in this hellhole.”
Noble said nothing. His glare emitted frost.
The lieutenant’s tone softened. “You lost two more of them just this morning.”
“Burns and Cable.”
For a moment, the prideful disdain crumpled. Noble’s head bowed, his eyes closed as he fought for the strength to find some reply, some words to make sense of the senseless loss. “The fortunes of war,” he said at last.
“It doesn’t have to be yours, sir.”
The man’s angry claim brought Noble’s attention back to him. “What does the colonel offer?” he asked wearily but with no less wariness.
“That you and your men serve under him on the western frontier for the duration of this—this damned conflict. Then you will be free to return home with honor.”
Home … The temptation of it nearly made him tremble.
“What kind of honor is there in betraying one’s homeland?” he asked quietly.
“What kind of honor is there in a useless sacrifice to a lost cause?”
“It’s our cause, sir. One we held highly enough to be brought into your … care.”
“You wouldn’t be fighting against your fellow
Southerners, so how can you see it as betrayal? It’s survival, that’s all. And none of you is going to survive if you stay here. Is that your definition of honor? If it is, it’s a poor one.”
Noble rose, rubbing absently at his thigh before crossing to the tent flap and flinging it open. He needed air to clear the seditious whispers from his head. Home. Bitter cold rushed in along with the bitter sight of what lay around him.
Unlike most Northern prisoner of war camps, Point Lookout had no permanent barracks. Prisoners were housed in tents and died daily from sickness on half rations of beef and hardtack. Those who had the questionably good fortune of surviving lacked fuel and clothing and suffered from the brutal cold. He’d heard the death toll was close to thirty percent, though prison officials denied it.
Burns and Cable. That made eleven brave men who’d sworn to fight an enemy they could see, not one that drained away their vitality day by miserable day.
Noble sighed. How many of his remaining men would last through spring, some sleeping on the ground without blankets? They were still his responsibility, and he suffered from the knowledge of their hardships even as he suffered beside them.
He was being offered a chance to save them, because if he went, the others would follow.
Then his stare narrowed as his mind latched
onto another truth. He was being offered a chance to save them—and also something else, something extra that tempted him even more than the thought of freedom.
“I would like to speak to my men first.”