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Fire by Night: Refiner's Fire, Book 2

Chapter One

Bull Run, Virginia

July 21, 1861

The rippling cry split the air like torn cloth. It shivered down Julia Hoffman's spine, making the hair on her neck stand on end. "What was that?" she murmured.

"The Rebels," Uncle Joseph said. "God help us ... they're attacking." He passed his binoculars up to Reverend Nathaniel Greene, seated in the carriage across from Julia. "Here, Reverend. Just look at them all!"

Julia leaned forward, watching the young minister's face as he pressed the field glasses to his eyes and surveyed the distant battlefield. When Nathaniel spoke, his voice was hushed with awe or maybe fear. "Where did they all come from?"

"What's happening?" Julia asked. "Tell me what's going on."

"Confederate reinforcements have arrived," Uncle Joseph said. "Looks like thousands of them. Is our line going to hold, Reverend?"

"I can't tell." Nathaniel offered the binoculars to Congressman Rhodes, seated beside him. The portly congressman shook his head, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.

"I've gotten sweat in my eyes. Burns like the devil. This blasted heat is too much." He slouched on the seat beside Nathaniel, looking very much like a lump of lard slowly melting in a frying pan. Empty champagne bottles clinked at his feet.

Julia turned to her uncle, who stood in the dusty road beside the carriage wringing his hands. "I thought you told me we were winning this battle," she said.

"Well ... we were. But now ... I don't know where all these Rebels are coming from."

The carriage horses suddenly tensed. They lifted their heads in unison and stared in the direction of the fighting. They had grazed sluggishly along the roadside all afternoon while Julia and the others had watched the battle, but now the pair stopped eating. The hair along the big gelding's spine rose in a ridge, and he whinnied softly, a sound like a shiver.

Julia stood and took the binoculars from Nathaniel. They gave her an excellent view of the two armies fighting in the distance and the battered farmhouse that stood between them. But what she'd thought were stones scattered across the field were clearly fallen soldiers. Dead soldiers. She quickly looked away from them, pointing the glasses toward the horizon. A solid mass of gray marched forward into the clearing, bayonets glinting, crimson flags visible in the wavy heat. Then the binoculars slipped when the carriage lurched, and Julia fell backward against her seat.

"Are you all right?" Uncle Joseph asked her.

"I think so. Here, you can have these glasses back. What's wrong with the horses? Why are they acting this way?" They had grown increasingly restless, capering nervously in place, rocking the carriage. The Negro coachman pulled hard on the reins to hold them steady.

"Sorry, miss," he said. "Must be some horses out there been hurt. Making these ones upset."

Julia had encountered few Negroes during her nineteen years, and most of those had been viewed from a distance—former slaves who'd spoken at the abolition meetings she'd attended with Reverend Greene. There weren't any Negroes back home in her wealthy Philadelphia neighborhood, and she'd certainly never observed one as closely as this coachman. His skin was very black. Glistening with sweat, it reminded her of black satin.

"Yes ... I can see some fallen horses," Uncle Joseph said, looking through the binoculars again. "A cavalry unit is fighting near Sudley Road."

The carriage rocked as Nathaniel jumped down from it. He was tall and lanky, with the ruddy, freckled look of an overgrown schoolboy in a clerical collar. Julia climbed down to stand beside him. She wished he would take her hand and offer her comfort and reassurance, but he took no notice of her. She watched the steadily mounting activity on the distant battlefield, feeling as uneasy as the horses.

They'd all been here since noon—four hours—and Julia had quickly grown restless. Like the congressman, she hated the sticky Virginia heat that pressed against her like too many sweaty bodies in a crowded bed. Beneath her bonnet, Julia's golden brown hair had escaped from its hairpins, curling damply around her face. But after pleading to come along in the congressman's elegant landau to watch the battle, she hadn't dared complain when she'd grown hot and bored with the distant skirmish. She had tried to engage Nathaniel Greene in conversation—the minister was the real reason she had begged to join the group—but he seemed more interested in talking politics with the men than in conversing with her.

As the hours passed they'd eaten crab cakes and ripe peaches from the picnic basket. The two older men had drunk champagne, cheering with hundreds of other spectators as the Union army slowly pushed the Rebels across the battlefield. "This should teach them a lesson or two," the congressman had said. "Now we'll see how eager they are for war."

"I daresay it will all be over with after today," Uncle Joseph had predicted.

But now the tide of battle had clearly changed. The men appeared worried and no longer confident as they stood silently beside Julia, watching. The intermittent pop and rattle of gunfire grew to a steady clamor, like a storm of hailstones. The smell of sulfur and gunpowder drifted across the field in a haze of smoke. Julia's cousin Robert was fighting out there. Uncle Joseph was surely thinking of his son.

"Do you think we should leave, Joseph?" the congressman asked from his seat in the carriage. "Your niece ..."

"I'm not afraid," Julia said, even though her legs felt strangely limp and she had to lean against the carriage for support. No one spoke as they watched for another half hour, the flash of exploding rifle fire visible through the smoke. Shouts, screams, and the blare of bugles filled the stagnant air with noise.

The thrill of fear that tingled through Julia was both dreadful and exhilarating. She'd been jealous of her cousin Robert—now Lieutenant Robert Hoffman, a newly commissioned graduate of West Point—as he'd prepared to invade Virginia with the Union Army. She'd pleaded for permission to travel with her aunt and uncle to Washington by train to see him, especially after she'd learned that Reverend Greene would be joining their party. Her cousin and his company of ninety-day volunteers had been certain that the rebellion would end quickly. None of them had wanted to miss out on the excitement—and neither had Julia.

But that excitement now turned to apprehension as she watched the Rebels slowly force the Union army to retreat the entire distance they had advanced. The ground shook with the rumble of booming cannon.

"This is not going well," her uncle murmured.

"Hold your line!" the congressman shouted to the distant troops. "Don't let them push you back!" But the blue-coated line gradually splintered and broke apart before the onslaught of gray. Union soldiers scattered as the field dissolved into chaos.

"Dear God, our men are retreating," Uncle Joseph moaned.

"That's not an orderly retreat," Nathaniel said. "It's a rout."

Julia clutched her uncle's sleeve. "They're coming this way!"

"Stop, confound you! Stop!" the congressman yelled. "Stand and fight!"

Then, above the din of clattering gunfire, an eerie whistling sound sliced the air. A roar like a burst of thunder crashed nearby, followed by another, then another.

"They're shelling us!" Congressman Rhodes cried out.

Nathaniel gripped Julia's arm. "Everyone into the carriage. Quickly!" He propelled her up onto the seat, then helped her uncle.

The congressman's face was pale behind a sheen of sweat. "Driver, let's go! Make haste!" he said. For a long moment the coachman didn't move, his eyes wide and very white against his dark face. "Hurry! Move!" the congressman shouted. "What are you waiting for?"

The coachman finally turned around and snapped the reins. The horses, more than eager to run, lurched forward, throwing Julia backward against the seat. The carriage started down the rutted turnpike toward safety. But dozens of other carriages, coupes, and landaus bearing fleeing spectators already mobbed the road, slowing their progress. Julia turned around to watch the battle as the sounds of warfare grew unmistakably louder: exploding cannon, volleys of gunfire, and the eerie, inhuman scream of the Rebel yell.

Congressman Rhodes suddenly stood, swaying in the jolting carriage, waving an empty champagne bottle at the retreating soldiers. "Stop! Go back! Stand and fight, you cowards!" His orders were lost in the tumult as troops sprinted across the fields toward the river, their panic made worse by the mad flight of everyone around them.

"Please, sir. You'd better sit down," Nathaniel urged as the cannonading grew louder. "Those shells are falling much too close."

"The Rebels are probably trying to destroy the bridge across Bull Run," Uncle Joseph said. "Can't you go any faster, driver?"

"I sure would like to do that, sir, but they all backed up ahead. Everybody try and get across that bridge, same as us."

Julia saw a long line of army wagons with white canvas covers clogging the road ahead. Her carriage made very little progress, then, a few minutes later, stopped altogether. The excitement she'd felt earlier vanished, replaced by horror as fleeing soldiers staggered past, dazed and bleeding, their lips blackened from tearing open their powder cartridges. Sweat and dirt and fear covered their faces. Their abandoned knapsacks and bedrolls littered the road.

"Let us through!" someone shouted. "Please! This man needs help!" Two soldiers hurried past the stalled carriage, supporting a third man, whose bloodied foot dangled from his leg. Julia quickly looked away.

A hundred feet ahead, a tangle of vehicles and pushing, shoving men jammed the bridge. Dozens more men plunged headlong into the river in their haste to retreat. Then Julia heard the eerie whistling sound again, tearing the sky apart, roaring toward her like thunder. Her heart seemed to stand still. She was going to die.

The shell slammed into the ground nearby, the powerful blast pulsing through her body and hurling her to the floor of the carriage. Julia felt the explosion at the same moment that she heard it. Her nerve endings prickled from the concussion as dirt and grass and tattered cloth rained down on her. Everything vanished from sight in a blinding cloud of smoke and dust.

Above the ringing in her ears, she heard the terrible screams and moans of the wounded and the driver's frantic shouts as he fought to restrain the rearing horses. She was still alive.

"Are you all right?" Uncle Joseph asked as he lifted her onto the seat. He sounded far away even though he sat right beside her. Julia nodded and realized she was weeping. Dirt filled her mouth and coated her tongue. Grit stung her eyes. The front of her new blue dress had turned gray with dust.

"Hurry, driver!" the congressman pleaded. "Get us across that bridge before they reload their artillery!"

Julia felt the carriage jolt forward again. Through a blur of tears and dense smoke she saw that the Confederate shell had missed the bridge by only a few hundred feet. A jumble of blue-coated bodies littered the roadside where the missile had struck.

"Help me! Please!" a soldier begged. He lay beside the road, both of his legs missing below his knees. A man lay dead beside him, still gripping his gun, the top of his head blown off.

"Driver, stop," Nathaniel said. "We have to take some of these wounded men on board."

"No, don't!" Julia cried, hugging herself in terror. "Don't stop. Please don't stop! We have to get out of here!"

Nathaniel stared at her, shocked. "Julia! These men need our help."

"I don't care! I don't want them near me! Keep going. Please, keep going!"

Then, unable to stop herself, she leaned over the side of the carriage and vomited her lunch. Her entire body shook. Bile burned her throat, humiliation seared her cheeks. She reached for the handkerchief Uncle Joseph offered, her movements clumsy with fear. She couldn't control her arms and legs. They seemed to belong to someone else.

"Please, we must help these wounded men," Nathaniel begged.

"No! No!" Julia was terrified that another bomb would explode, that a shell would destroy the bridge and they'd be trapped, that the carriage would become an enemy target if they took soldiers on board. And she could no longer bear to see the blood and muscle and glistening bone of the soldiers' wounds.

"Don't force her, Reverend," Uncle Joseph said. "She's very upset. I'm responsible for her, and I don't want her hysterical."

"Help me ... please!" One voice carried above the moans and cries of a dozen others. Nathaniel stood and leaped off the moving landau as it finally reached the bridge.

"What are you doing, Reverend? Come back!" the congressman yelled.

"We can't wait for you," Uncle Joseph pleaded. "Come on. Get in, get in!"

"No, go on without me. I'm staying to help."

"We can't leave you here."

"Go on," Nathaniel called. "I'll find another way back."

"Please, get me out of here!" Julia begged. "I don't want to die!" She covered her face with her hands as the horses clattered across the stone bridge and plowed through the crush of stampeding soldiers on the other side. The horses gradually picked up speed as they finally pulled ahead of the troops, leaving the cries of the wounded far behind. Only then did Julia dare to open her eyes.

"What should we do about Reverend Greene?" the congressman asked. Dirt and sweat turned his handkerchief black as he mopped his face. "We can't leave him here. He's in danger."

"It was his choice to stay," Uncle Joseph mumbled. He looked pale and badly shaken. The layer of dust on his hair and mustache aged him ten years. "Look, I have my niece to consider. Let's get her back to town, then we can decide what to do about Greene."

The ride back to Washington seemed very long. Though the sounds of battle gradually faded in the distance, the thunder of artillery and the screams of the wounded continued to echo in Julia's mind. At dusk, Washington's church steeples finally appeared on the horizon beneath lowering clouds. The carriage reached the safety of Congressman Rhodes' home moments before the rain was unleashed.

"I'm so sorry, my dear, for putting you through that," Uncle Joseph said before a servant helped Julia upstairs to bed. "I should have known better than to let you come with us."

"It wasn't your fault," she murmured. Her hands still shook as she accepted the laudanum pill and glass of water her aunt offered her.

Julia held back her tears as the maid helped her undress and turned down the bedcovers so she could crawl in. Then, alone in the darkened room, with rain hammering on the roof above her, she finally allowed herself to cry. She wanted to die of shame. It was bad enough that she had proven a coward, fleeing in fear and leaving Nathaniel stranded. But refusing to help the injured men had been unforgivable. Worse, she had disgraced herself in Nathaniel's eyes. If she was ashamed of herself, what must he think of her? Julia wept until the laudanum took effect, then fell into a nightmare-filled sleep.

Excerpted from FIRE BY NIGHT (Refiner's Fire, Book 2) © Copyright 2003 by Lynn Austin. Published by Bethany House Publishers. Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

Fire by Night: Refiner's Fire, Book 2
by by Lynn Austin

  • Genres: Christian, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 429 pages
  • Publisher: Bethany House Publishers
  • ISBN-10: 1556614438
  • ISBN-13: 9781556614439