Message in the Night
by Nancy Julien Kopp
Mama’s pale face and the pillowslip seemed one and the same. Her hand closed over mine, and a weak sigh escaped from her lips. “Rand, you can’t go. It’s much too dangerous.”
“But Mama, Papa’s regiment is so close. I can get through the Yankee lines and find him. I know I can. Cousin Nell knows where they are. Please let me try.”
Mama never took her eyes off me as I paced before the big four-poster bed. “This would give Papa something good to think about, wouldn’t it?” My heart pounded in my chest while I made my case.
“What if you’re caught, Rand?” Mama struggled to sit up in the bed. “This is Yankee territory.”
The single tear that slid down her cheek only made me more determined. “You go to sleep now, Mama.” I patted her shoulder and slipped out the door before she could protest again.
Cousin Nell stood in the hallway, plump arms crossed, her mouth clamped tight. “And where do you think you’re going?” She hissed the words, and her eyes flashed with anger.
“Why—to my room, Cousin Nell.” I spoke more pleasantly than I felt, even though we were guests in her house. The War between the North and South kept us here far from home.
I turned the brass knob on my bedroom door slowly and called back to Cousin Nell. “Where did you say the Yankee camp was?”
I held my breath as she rattled on scolding and telling me what I needed to hear at the same time. My hand rubbed the smooth knob while I waited for her to divulge every bit of information I wanted to know.
A frown crossed Mama’s cousin’s broad face. “Your South Carolina regiment isn’t far away either. There’ll be a battle soon. You go into your room and pray for them all, Yank or Reb, no matter!” She put a quick smile on her face and glided into Mama’s room.
I dressed in warm clothes, ones Mama and Cousin Nell might not approve. They belonged to Cousin Nell’s son, Frank, who was away at school. The coat and pants were a little big, but they would serve me well on this cold Pennsylvania night.
I crept down the stairs, my hand barely touching the wide, curved banister. A gust of cold, November wind hit my face as I opened the side door and stepped outside. I shivered and hunched down farther into Frank’s coat, pulling his wool cap down at the same time. The soft glow from Mama’s window gave me the courage I needed.
The moonless night, dark and cold, was so unlike the Carolina winters I knew. An eerie howl rent the air and made the hair stand up on my neck. I froze in the middle of the road. All I wanted was to turn back. I tried not to let my mind dwell on the dark woods on either side of the road or what might lurk within it. The way would be shorter through the thicket, but I chose to walk straight ahead on the road.
Before long, the distant sound of a horse’s hooves left me no choice. Groaning softly, I plunged into the woodland where darkness swallowed me. Only my groping hands led the way between the tall trees. Low branches snapped back to scratch my face. When I finally reached the meadow beyond, I stopped to catch my breath and to listen for the sound of men and horses. I was rewarded with blessed silence.
Afraid to go on and fearful of turning back, I closed my eyes and forced my father’s face into my mind’s eye. My lower lip stopped trembling, and I moved away from the thicket. Thankful for the moonless night, I crouched down and moved slowly across the open area of the meadow.
The sounds made by restless horses and the smell of smoke told me I was nearing the Yankee camp. Farther on, I knew, I would hear voices that sounded like home, and one of those soft toned voices would help me find my father among the many men camped there, waiting to engage the northern enemy.
I heard a voice, all right, but it had the harsh tone of a Yankee, not the Carolina accent I longed for. I flattened myself on the cold, hard ground. The aroma of the damp, pungent soil seeped into my nose.
In only seconds, a large, rough hand clamped me on the shoulder. I cringed inside Frank’s coat.
The clipped northern voice was inches from my ear. “And what do you think you’re doing, boy?”
The hand never loosened its grip as it hauled me to my feet.
The soldier repeated his earlier inquiry with a growl. “What are you doing here?”
The man had only one eye visible, as the other one was covered with a dirty bandage that continued around his head. The eye I could see glinted with anger.
I squeezed my own eyes shut and brought Papa’s face back again. Then I swallowed hard and said, “I’m looking for my father. I have important news for him.”
One-Eye glared at me. “Who is this high and mighty father that his son walks out in the night to meet him?”
“He’s Colonel Robert Whitburn of the 49th Regiment of South Carolina,” I answered as I looked straight into his eye.
He let go of my shoulder and squawked, “What? What did you say?” The soldier switched his rifle from one hand to the other. He leaned so close to me I could see spaces where his teeth were missing and smell his stale breath.
He said, “You got some nerve, boy. Too bad you hit the wrong camp first, ain’t it?” He straightened up and rubbed his stubbly chin. “Come on,” he said, grabbing me again, “we’ll see what the captain says.”
He walked fast, half dragging me to a tent nearby, shouting as we entered. “This here boy’s got hisself in the wrong spot, Captain. Says he’s lookin’ fer his daddy over on the other side.”
His eye didn’t seem so fierce anymore. In fact, he seemed right friendly compared to the cold look the other man directed toward me.
After a long silence, the officer spoke. “Son, this is no place for you. There’s danger to be met by any who venture this way.” His mouth and eyes matched the hardness in his voice. “Your name?”
My answer came in a half whisper and half aloud. “Rand Whitburn, sir.” I continued in a voice made stronger at the thought of my mission. “Please sir, I must get to my father. I have news for him, a message he needs to hear before….before something happens to him.” My bottom lip quivered as I finished.
“What is this important news?” the captain said, impatience evident in his voice. “Come here and tell me.”
I shook my head in denial so hard the cap flew off, and my long hair fell down my back.
One-Eye howled. “He’s a girl, sir!”
The captain’s eyes widened as he ordered, “Suppose you come over here now, Rand. What kind of a name is that for a girl anyway?” One corner of his mouth twitched ever so slightly.
“It’s short for Miranda…sir.” I picked up Frank’s cap and edged closer.
The captain clasped his hands behind his back. “I’m going to help you, but I’m not sure why. I should lock you up as a prisoner of war.”
At those words, I stepped back until I felt One-Eye’s hand on my shoulder, more gently this time.
“Sergeant,” the captain said, “get four men, horses, and a white flag. Then escort Miss Miranda Whitburn to the enemy camp. She can ride with you. See that she delivers her message and returns here.”
One-Eye grinned broadly as he saluted and snapped, “Yessir.”
I turned to follow him, but the captain stopped me with one word. “Wait.” He stomped across the dirt floor of the tent and stared down at me. “What assurance do I have that you’re not passing vital information? I must know your message before you go.”
I had little choice. I stood on tiptoe, and he leaned closer as I whispered in his ear. He straightened quickly, and a wide smile crossed his face.
“A man would like to hear such news, Miranda. It would give him something to live for.” Looking serious again, he said, “You’d better put your hair back under that cap. Continue on with the disguise.”
I soon found myself in the night air again, riding behind One-Eye, my arms around his ample middle. My heart beat rapidly with both fear and excitement. Could I trust the white flag? Or One-Eye himself? Once again, I had little choice, so I closed my eyes and lay my cheek against One-Eye’s scratchy coat as his horse carried us through the darkness.
“Halt!” a voice ordered when we neared the camp of the South Carolina regiment. Men with rifles surrounded us.
”I have business with Colonel Robert Whitburn,” One-Eye said. “Send him out. Then we’ll be on our way.”
The Confederate soldier stared at him, open-mouthed. He didn’t look much older than I.
One-Eye leaned down and barked, “Now!”
I started to slide as he bent over, but he neatly pushed me back up with one hand behind him. We waited for what seemed like a long time, the armed men still surrounding us. The only sound came from the horses that pawed the ground, snorted, and shook their heads. I was numb with both the cold and fright.
At last I saw Papa coming straight toward us, his long legs covering the ground quickly. I swung my leg over, slid to the ground, and ran to my father.
“Halt! Halt!” several voices ordered, but I didn’t stop until I nearly knocked Papa over. My cap sailed off, and my hair streamed down the back of Frank’s coat again.
“Rand? What…? Miranda Whitburn, what in the world are you doing here?” Papa held me at arm’s length, then pulled me close. I wanted to stay in his arms forever.
With a sigh, I stepped back and crooked my finger at him. He leaned close, a frown on his face. “Papa, I came here to tell you that you have two fine sons, born this morning. Twins, Papa. What do you think of that?”
The moon broke through the clouds, and the joy on Papa’s face erased all the cold and fear of this night. He blinked hard, but I could see the tears that threatened to spill over.
Finally, he answered me. “I think I have twin boys with the bravest sister in all of South Carolina.” Papa hugged me again before he escorted me to One-Eye for the return ride to the Yankee camp.