War and the Widow O'Toole


July 2, 1863, O’Toole Farm, Tarttown, PA


“Hell fire and damnation, anyway!” Solace scooped up the tail of the wet sheet and brushed it clean of grass and dirt. The sudden rolling thunder of cannon fire had surprised her and she had let slip one corner of the wet sheet that she was hanging on the line. Just a moment before, she had heard two cannon shots coming from off Gettysburg way, but she had heard sporadic fire most of the previous day, and wasn't overly concerned. She glanced away at the horizon, as if she expected to see shot and shell in the air, and then sighed and turned back to her laundry task just when the barrage began. The war, nearly on her doorstep, was by no means, a new visitor to the farm of the Widow O'Toole.


Solace O’Toole knew that Bobby Lee and his rebel army had spent the previous day fighting General Meade. The Union troops had marched up the road from Emmetsburg two days ago. The cavalry had trampled her hay crop and most of her split rail fence had disappeared during the march. At least her chickens had been spared. At sunup, she had seen Union, she hoped, stragglers passing west along the road, and running through the field where her crop lay flattened. A few men had stopped at her horse trough for a drink, but none had tarried. They seemed to be trying to get as far away as they could, before they were spotted by the Provost riders.


She thought about farms, like hers, near Pittsburgh Landing in Tennessee. Her husband had died there in a battle near Shiloh Meeting House. At least his name had been on the list of dead from that battle. She wondered if some farm wife, whose man was away at the war, had given him water. Her eyes looked beyond her laundry line toward the continuing sound of cannon, now joined by the higher pitched crackle of musket fire.


July 3, 1863, O’Toole Farm, Tarttown, PA


Solace opened the door to the small clapboard farmhouse and looked out and to the east; toward Gettysburg and the dawn. The dark horizon showed the pink line of breaking day. She turned away and walked back into the kitchen. She wore only her threadbare scoop-necked shift and, when she pulled off her nightcap, her Irish red hair cascaded down her back. She pumped a pitcher of water and poured it into the chipped ceramic bowl sitting on the kitchen counter. She dipped her hands in and scooped up the cold water, using it to rinse out the sleep from her eyes and to wash her face and neck. A coffee pot burbled on the wood stove. She scooped up the tail of her shift and wiped her hands and face, displaying shapely legs covered in a light red haze of hair.


“Well, now. That’s a right purty sight, ain't it? Yessir. Right purty.” The voice had an accent not to be found in Pennsylvania. Solace, surprised, fright showing on her face, dropped her shift, turned quickly and drew one hand to her neck. The other, instinctively covered her bodice. Silhouetted in the doorway stood a short stocky soldier. At least, she guessed that he was a soldier from the blue woolen pants and belt with an elliptical buckle. The gathering dawn behind him prevented her from seeing his face fully. She could only see that his feet were bare and his uniform pants were torn and filthy. He wore no hat and no shirt covered the sweat-stained shift stuffed into his pants.


“Get out of my house.” She spoke calmly, but firmly; albeit a tremble betrayed her fear.


He did not move and only smiled.


“What do you want?”


He grinned as he looked her up and down; his eyes pausing at her bodice and waist. “Well, now, ma’am, I was going to see if I might beg some vittles off’n ya, before I skedaddle from this war. But I see sumpthin I think I want more. I just ate yesterday, but it’s been a month of Sundays since I had me a woman. Them’s mighty good lookin’ legs I saw and I might just want to get me a peek under that there shift to see what else is invitin’. Vittles can wait.” He strutted into the room as he began to unbuckle his belt.


“How dare you? Get out!” Her voice quavered with fear. She looked around for a weapon. Her knives were in a drawer and her rifle was behind him, by the door. She tried to run around him toward it, but he caught her arm and harshly spun her around and against the counter. “Stop!” Her scream was that of pure panic. “No! Get out!”


He pushed her hard against the counter. “Now, lady, this’ll be fine with me, but a whole lot more fun for you, if you’ll stop squirming. I’m told by my lady friends that I’m not half bad at this.” He pushed her roughly against the counter and held both hands behind her back, as he pulled her shift up to her waist. He gawked at her naked behind and gave it a tentative stroke with his unburdened hand. “Now, that’s a right pretty bum. I’ll bet it feels as good as it looks, too.”


Solace pushed back and tried to squirm away; still screaming at him to stop and leave her alone. He loosened his belt and started to unbutton his pants; still holding her hands, as she struggled to free herself from his grasp. His pants fell to his ankles. He pulled up the filthy shirt and thrust himself against her.


She felt his erection bump against her nakedness and struggled to pull away from him. “You miserable excuse for a man. If I can reach a knife, I’ll guarantee you’ll never drop your trousers in front of another woman. Now, let me go!”


He pushed her roughly against the counter. He cackled, “Now, lady, I just know you’ll change your mind.” Solace tried again to wrench herself free. He jerked her wrists hard. “Now, look. I don’t want to hurt you none. I just want me a little bit of that sweet litte ...” Solace jerked harder and twisted away from him. “Dammit, woman! Holt still!”


A disembodied baritone voice intruded. “Soldier, I’ll bother you to let that woman loose. I believe I heard her say ‘Stop’”.


“What the …?” The deserter did not let loose of Solace’s hands, but did half turn toward the sound. Standing just inside the doorway, hand resting on the grip of a holstered Colt revolver, was a Lieutenant of Cavalry, as noted by the gold stripe on his blue trousers. “Well, sir, a ‘good morning’ to you. I was just about to give the lady a bit of morning pleasure that she’d asked for.” He turned back and crudely ground his groin against Solace as she struggled to get free. “I reckon you might enjoy her, too, if you’ll wait a bit.” He gave the Lieutenant a broad grin. The sight of yellow rotting teeth repulsed the Lieutenant. “She's a might feisty, though.”


Solace yelled out, “That’s a lie, you pig! You burst into my home. I told you to leave. Now, you let me go!” She continued to struggle and pull. “Shoot him, soldier!” The skirt of her shift dropped back to the floor.


Repulsed by the smell and sight of the man holding the half naked woman, the officer took a step forward. “I’ll not repeat myself. You have three choices.” He pulled the pistol from the holster, half-cocked it and held it loosely, but pointed at the ceiling, in readiness. “You may die where you stand. I am an expert shot; although it would be a pity to get blood on the lady’s garment. Perhaps I will shoot you in the knee, first, and then through the head, as you lay on the floor. Second choice, you may stand court-martial for attempted rape, desertion and disobeying a direct order. In that case, you will be twisting at the end of an Army rope before sundown. Or, you can, immediately, let loose of the woman, apologize for being a cowardly and craven excuse for a man, and run like hell. Run back to whatever corner of the backwoods spawned you. I’ve too much to do to bother with scum like you. Now, your choice?” The pistol lowered slowly and stopped, pointed toward the deserter’s right knee.


“Aw heck, Lieutenant.” The little man slumped, let loose of Solace’s hands and backed away, his hands held before him, but his pants still around his ankles. “I was just funnin’ with her. She’s right purty, though, ain’t she?” Again, he grinned at the officer, as he pulled up his pants, and buttoned them; belt and buckle still dangling, shirt half stuffed in.


“The apology, Private, and be quick. I no longer need to aim at your knee.” The pistol rose until the deserter stared into the darkness of the bore of the 44 caliber pistol. He heard the ominous click of the hammer drawn back to set.


The look of a rodent, trapped in a corner, swept onto the man's dirty face. His rheumy eyes darted side to side, looking for a way to escape alive. He slumped to his knees in defeat. He looked up at Solace and then back at the floor. “Oh, Lord! I’m truly sorry ma’am. I meant no harm. I’m just a poor old country boy. I’m tired, hungry and a running from this here war. I let my heathen ways come over me.” His eyes turned up. “You really oughtn’t display your legs like that. They’s sinful purty.” He adopted the 'pitiful' soul look, pleading with her for some sort of softening.


Solace stood straight, her face turning beet red. Her hands clenched into fists. “Why you lying, filthy perverted scum. Get out of my house and off my farm, before I take that pistol away from the Lieutenant and use it on you myself.” She grabbed the nearest thing she saw on the counter, her big maple rolling pin, and started toward the cowering dirty soldier.


“Yes, ma’am.” He bolted through the door and started running. “Lord amighty!” He jumped the fence and ran into the vegetable garden, tripping and falling on the pole beans before he began running as fast as he could, across the hay field.


Solace sagged into a chair and began to tremble. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Thank you, sir. You are most gallant.” She looked up at the Lieutenant, who had holstered his pistol. “Why did you let him go, if he’s a deserter?”


He took the rolling pin from her and set it back on the counter. “I’m afraid I stretched truth a might, ma’am. He’ll run into a squad of my men, waiting for me in that field. It was fortunate that we heard your screams, as we rode by. Now, him? I expect that the poor bastard, beg pardon ma'am. Well, he just made the second choice and will meet his Maker at the end of a rope, very soon. I’m so very sorry that you had to experience that. Our army collects all sorts and most of them not the best of society. Now, I must be on my way.”


“Again, I thank you. I have little food, but you and your men are welcome to what I have, if only in repayment for your saving my honor and, perhaps, my life. I shudder to think of the foul touch of that man. I feel the need of a bath; he smelled so.”


The Union officer relaxed and leaned against the door jamb. “Regrettably, he represents a fair share of our 'volunteers' of late, now that the President has instituted the draft. We've received thousands of men like him, a rabble of illiterate, ill-mannered scum without conscience. “


Solace bridled at his description and stood tall. “My husband was among your rabble, Lieutenant. He fell at Shiloh Meeting House.”


The Lieutenant stood and came to attention, his face coloring. “My apologies, ma'am. No insult was intended, I assure you. And I'm truly sorry about your husband.” He paused and swallowed, “As to your offer of food, thank you, but we are well provisioned and need not impose upon you. By your leave, I will bid you a good day.” He bowed and turned to leave.


“Lieutenant, at least tell me your name.” Her voice was no longer harsh. “Perhaps we will meet again someday. I am Solace O'Toole.”


He stopped in the door way and turned. “Lieutenant Terrance Thomas, Mistress O'Toole, 1st Division, Cavalry Corps, Army of the Potomac. And, we may meet again some day, if the good Lord so wills. Good day.” He touched the brim of his campaign hat, turned and walked toward the fields.


Solace walked to the door and squinted against the rising sun, watching as a group of blue-clad horsemen rode up with a spare horse. He mounted, gracefully, and they rode slowly away, a pitiful and barefoot creature behind; walking quickly to keep up, a rope around his neck and his hands tied behind his back. She watched them until they disappeared into the glare of the sun.


A quick flash, the reflection, perhaps, from the hilts of his saber, was the last she saw. “May the good Lord so will it, Lieutenant. God speed.”


Then, she closed her door.