Leigh turned at the sound of cheering soldiers to see the peach and apple trees go up, each one stoked with a bundle of hay and straw kindling soaked in lamp oil. They went up fiercely in the frosty air like row upon row of burning martyrs. The flames leapt to the pretty gazebo where Earl and Charlotta had spent so many sultry summers a life time ago, and burned it down to nothing within minutes.
A group of soldiers rode their horses through the vegetable garden, tearing up the ground, pulling down the fences and throwing them into the nearest conflagration. She heard a shot ring out in the direction of the woods, and suspected that the cow was dead.
This pointless destruction caused Leigh to turn back to the Captain, her eyes narrowed with loathing. ‘Where’s your humanity? Can’t you control these men!’
He didn’t deign to answer, merely stared back at her for a moment and then slowly turned his horse away. When the wagons were loaded, the group started to move off. Leigh ran after them, placing her hands on the wooden sides of the wagon holding Minnie. The other woman leaned across and tried to take her hand, but the jolting of the wagon only allowed them to touch each other’s fingertips. Minnie was bleeding from her right ear and her lip was red and split.
‘Baltimore!’ Leigh yelled at her. ‘Sixteen North Eutaw Street. Maggie Branson!’
Minnie nodded, and two fat tears sprang from her eyes. Leigh clung desperately to the wagon in a last ditch attempt to comfort Minnie. Her long skirts caught under her feet and she tripped and fell, wrenching her ankle and crying out in agony. Then the cavalry spurred on and Minnie was gone.
Leigh sat in a crumpled heap on the frosty ground, nursing her twisted ankle and stared after them until they disappeared from view.
EARL still stood on the veranda when Leigh finally turned limping to the house. Her ankle throbbed and she winced with each step. As she approached, he pulled up the old mahogany rocker and sat down like a sleepwalker, staring with rapt attention at the burning barn and outbuildings.
For the first time she noticed he was wearing his nightshirt beneath a long black greatcoat. It was reaching midday and already it felt colder and looked darker. The heat from the flames felt scorching but still Leigh shivered. ‘Earl?’
He gave a great sigh, then turned to look at her. ‘They’ve been doing this for months,’ he whispered. ‘All along the Shenandoah Valley. Sheridan’s men. This is all in retaliation for the damage done by Mosby to the Union. I’ve been supplying his rangers with bloodstock and corn. I guess I had to pay for it sooner or later.’
‘It’s over now, Earl. They’ve gone.’