Summer 1841, Just South of Natchez, Mississippi
Rumble reined in the horse and gazed west from the bluff, feeling the familiar sheen of sweat on his body and breathing in the fragrance of magnolias. He’d galloped south from Natchez at first light, and the sun was still ascending in the east.
The Mississippi River appeared deceptively slow and calm, but beneath its muddy surface was a twisted and tangled knot of dangerous currents. Much like Palatine. The grand house was almost grand, maintenance having been a bit slack over the past couple of years since last he’d seen it. The fields were ripe with cotton, yet he’d heard rumors in town that there were problems with shipments from Palatine being delivered on time and in the proper bulk. To his right, steamers cruised up the river, heading for the docks of Natchez for their loads of white gold.
Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any other in the United States. The townsfolk liked to say it was cotton that brought the money, but for Rumble it was much costlier: The blood of the slaves who worked the fields and the souls of those who ruled over them. Eli Whitney had had no idea the misery he was inflicting on the world when he invented his cotton gin. Prior to that, slavery had slowly dying out due to its inherent inefficiency.
Rumble wore his uniform, proud of the chevrons on his sleeve from his recent promotion to sergeant by Superintendent Delafield. And proud of his Army blue. Also, he knew it would grate on Tiberius, who often liked to be called Colonel, though the man had never worn a uniform or wielded a weapon in battle.
“I do swear, I do not like that river,” a woman’s voice drawled behind him.
Rumble turned the horse, a smile lighting up his face. “Mother. You never swear. Not really.”
Dressed in a dark-red riding dress, Violet Rumble sat sidesaddle on her old horse, a closed parasol in her deerskin gloved hands. A bright red bonnet with the feather of some exotic bird crowned her head. She looked elegant, as always. The horse was perfectly still, almost a statue. His mother had been riding that nag as long as Rumble could remember. It had been broken a long time ago and seemed content to stay broken and be a pedestal to Violet Rumble. He rode up to her, and she leaned over, pecking him on the cheek.
But she was still focused on the river. “It almost took you from us. I stay as far away from it as possible.”
“I think that is a wise thing,” Rumble said. “So you still watch the road and saw my approach?”
“It is better to watch the road than the river,” Violet said. She gently nudged the reins, facing toward Palatine House. “What do you think of the old place?”
“I think it looks fine.”
“You never were good at lying,” Violet said with a laugh. “It’s falling apart. Your father spends all his time up there—“ she pointed with the parasol toward the second story porch. Rumble could make out a figure dressed in white seated in a large wicker chair. “He never goes out to the fields any more.”
“You mentioned in your letter that he was ill.”
“He had a spell where he could not stand for two days. He refused to have a doctor come. He can get up now, but he is not the same.”
“He knows I’m here?” Rumble asked.
“He does now,” Violet said.
“You did not tell him of the letter?”
“He did not tell me he was sending the message via St. George,” Violet said as if the quid pro quo of deceit was the natural state of affairs and quite reasonable and normal.
“How did you know then that—“ Rumble stopped. Violet knew everything. “So what will be the welcome?”
“I’ve already welcomed you. It’s my home also, you know.”
She reached out and her gloved hand gripped his forearm with force. “It’s true? You have a child.”
Rumble licked sweat off his upper lip. “Yes.”
“You’ve done well. And his name?”
“Ben Agrippa Rumble.”
“Oh my!” The normally unflappable Violet Rumble, formally Violet Rudolph of the esteemed Rudolph’s of Clarksville, Tennessee, was rarely shocked, but she regrouped quickly. “That will make things more interesting to say the least.” She glanced back at the Mississippi. “You did it in his memory?”
“That was noble.” She flicked the reins and her horse began ambling toward Palatine House. “But short-sighted and impetuous.”
A new blog post every day leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the start of the Civil War on April 12th and the publication of Duty, Honor, Country, a Novel of West Point & the Civil War, the first in my series.
Tomorrow: The only mutiny in the US Navy, which led to the founding of Annapolis