Fighting for Nellie
The mid day sun beat down. Humidity hung thick, sultriness filled the air. The ninety-degree temperature felt oppressive but adrenaline raced through my veins. The square was packed with people – our volunteer regiment, one-thousand men strong, and a mass of spectators rallying ‘round – for we were to leave in less than a week to fight for the North in the War of the Rebellion.
The ceremony closed, the flag raised, and the band struck up ‘America.’ Cheers and shouts went up as the crowd dispersed for the streets with the sound of bridles clicking and spoke wheels turning, swirling dust all around. I told my friends, Andy and Lester, I’d catch up with them later, leaving them looking puzzled as I hurried off to my horse, tied to an oak tree on East Genesee Street.
“It’s a big day, Freedom,” I pronounced, stroking his white stripe running down his black snout, his ears twitching at the sound of my voice. I untied his reins, reached in my pocket and took out a small, velvet box. I inhaled deep, opened it. Smiled.
The ring sparkled.
The setting the jeweler created was just what I’d envisioned.
Exhaling, I snapped the box closed, replaced it and mounted, turning Freedom’s head in a familiar direction, tipping my hat at those I knew but not exchanging more, for there were ten miles to travel from Fayetteville to Syracuse and I was in a hurry.
Near the banks of Butternut Creek the crowd thinned and country widened. I spurred Freedom on with my heart pounding as the trees moved beside us, the green grass beneath us. Freedom felt strong as ever. His hooves beat the ground and sleek muscles glistened. My unbuttoned jacket snapped in the wind.In short time, we approached the city of Syracuse and at the edge of a steep hill overlooking the valley, under the shade of a lone Maple, with thick mature leaves, I brought Freedom to a halt. His flanks heaving, he shook his snout and snorted, slowing his breath. The stiff breeze, though humid, felt welcome. I looked out at the panoramic sight before me – the green hills of the valley, which lay low and long, continuing to the far horizon, and the city below – it stunned me like I was seeing it for the first time. Men and women moved about City Hall, Western Union, and Riley’s General Store. Along the edge of the Erie Canal, harnessed horses and mules worked to pull barges carrying goods of all kinds while straight across the valley stood the rising slope of James Street Hill and in the distance, Onondaga Lake. The entire scene reminded me how much I love home and why I am willing to go to war. Straightening my stance, I steadied myself on the pommel. My heart beat faster.
“Let’s go see Nellie boy!”
We raced down hill to the edge of town and canal, where we met a bustle of activity, then turned right onto James Street. Beside the stone Unitarian Church, I spotted the minister hunched over in the garden cutting wildflowers.
“Beautiful day, Reverend May!” I called, waving my hat.
Startled, Joseph May stood up, holding a good-sized colorful bouquet, and fixing his small round glasses back on his nose, recognized me.
“Indeed, Osgood! Make it great!”
I sent him a passionate fist clenched wavesuggesting nothing could stop me. Freedom sensed my charge and we continued to race up the Hill, passing houses dotting the way,the views growing more beautiful the higher we went.
Half way up wasmy childhood home. My older brother, Jim, sat on the front step, surrounded by his friends, roaring in laughter with their heads rolling back. Jim must have been telling his usual jokes. The boys held coffee cups, likely containing my mother’s Java and knowing Jim, a good dose of whiskey. I beamed a smile and waved my hat, which nearly flew out of my hand. The boys signaled back, raising their drinks but looking perplexed to my rush.
The moment I’d been waiting for, though, wouldn’t be long now. Since as long as I could remember, I have loved Nellie Sedgwick.
I love her because of how good I feel when I am with her and how I miss her when I’m not. Simple!
At the top of the Hillthe land sprawled and there was the Sedgwick home. I slowed and dismounted, hitching Freedom beneath the wooden pergola crawling with purple wisteria. I tucked my shirt into my trousers and dusted off my jacket, trying to catch my breath and calm my nerves. Running my fingers like a comb through my hair, I entered the picket fence and walked with a brisk step up the winding walk under the tall Elms. At the large, clapboard house I stepped up the porch stairs, which creaked beneath my feet like they always did.
I love this home!
I knocked, peering through the side panes of the front door. Nellie’s stepmother approached and swept it open. Fanning herself with a Harper’s Weekly, she beckoned, “Come in, dear!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Sedgwick,” I said, stepping into the hall, taking off my hat. The humidity had curled her black hair wilder than ever, sending long, wavy ringlets cascading over her slender frame, down the middle of her back.
Suddenly, the kitchen door swung open.
“Osgood!” Nellie’s father, forty-seven year old New York Representative Charles Baldwin Sedgwick, of square jaw and stocky buildboomed, moving through the living room, decorated by dark cherry wood and overflowing bookshelves. Reaching me, he threw out his hand, which I met with a firm grip.
“Sorry to miss the rally, son. The office kept me away. I head back to Congress tomorrow.”
“Mmm…Washington,” Mrs. Sedgwick frowned, rolling the magazine in a tight wad.
Mr. Sedgwick glanced at his wife then plowed head.
“How was it?”
“Well attended sir,” I said, treading between the two. “Miss Gage’s speech inspired our men.”
This brought a smile back to Mrs. Sedgwick, herself an abolitionist and feminist.
“Matilda is a true Friend of Freedom,” she stated.
“Yes,” Mr. Sedgwick agreed. “Your father would be proud, Osgood.”
Yes, my father, James Grant Tracy, would be, if he were still alive. He, like Mr. Sedgwick, had been a lawyer and land agent, and like Mr. Sedgwick and Miss Gage,consumed with aiding The Underground Railroad.
“Remember Osgood, war is the only answer now. No compromises, no concessions,” Mr. Sedgwick winked, my hand still cupped in his palms.
“Oh, yes sir!” I concurred.
Nellie, her family, and Congress for that matter, had heard him say this before. He hoped to leave the heritage of a free government, wholly absolved from connection with and responsibility for slavery and I believed he’d stop at nothing to obtain that goal.
My thoughts, however, were delivered back to the moment. Nellie appeared at the top of the stairs, taking my breath away. I dropped Mr. Sedgwick’s hand as his oldest child started to descend, dusting each step she took with the silky hem of her skirt.
“There’s my dear good child, my lovely Nell!” her father announced, grinning.
My heart pounded. Her sleek dark hair was combed into a bun at the base of her neck. She wore a fitted white blouse under a black bodice with ribbons dangling down the sleeves. When she reached the bottom, I stood gazing, forgetting what I’d planned to say.
Nellie blushed, smiling. “Shall we take a stroll, Osgood?”
“Yes, I’d like that,” I laughed, knowing she knew I’d been staring. Snapping out of my daze, I placed on my hat and turned to the Sedgwick’s.
“Good day, M’am, Sir.”
Nellie and I headed down the porch steps. I held out my arm. She took it and I drew her close. Mr. and Mrs. Sedgwick stood at the doorway watching. From the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Sedgwick put his arm around his wife, squeeze her shoulder, and overhear him whisper, “What do you think of that, my Cat?”
I smiled, then Nellie and I moved down the path, weaving through the front yard, my stomach turning butterflies while she pointed out the garden – containing ripe tomatoes, green beans, strawberries, and blueberries- which Wilson Gardens planted months before. The apple trees’ had just flowered and the breeze sent their soft white petals floating down on us like confetti on a wedding day, their sweet scent filling the air.
We reached the pergola where Nellie’s attention turned to Freedom, busy swishing horseflies from his hindquarters. She stroked his neck and as she did, I couldn’t help but think how much Nellie loved the horse, a colt of her favorite mare, Jeannie. He’d been a gift to me from Nellie’s parents when my father died. Mr. Sedgwick had named Freedom, and together, Nellie and I cared for him as a foal. To me at that moment, though, no one or anything else existed in the world.
“Nellie,” I called.
I beckoned for her hands and she gave them, feeling so petite and warm in mine. I looked at her.
And those eyes!
They often changed shades, were greenish brown at the moment. Nelliethen drew quiet, seeming to note my seriousness. I smiled and drew her to me, feeling my chest throb against her from my ride and anticipation. I looked down, brought my lips against her ear, and murmured, “Nell, when I return from war, I want to spend every day and night with you.”
With that, and all the anticipation and confidence I knew, I fell on my knee to the grass, beaming, and pulled out the small box. I opened it, presenting it to her.
“Will you marry me Nellie?Marry me before I leave!”
Looking at the ring, Nellie’s eyes widened and mouth dropped open. She cupped my cheek with her hand.
“It’s beautiful, Osgood. You’re a good man,” she said. “Well- intentioned – faithful – considerate.”
Suddenly, aloud crack of thunder sounded near us. Down the Hill over the city, a bolt of lightening tore acrossthe dark sky. Another crack. Freedom shrieked this time, pawing the ground and pulling at his reins, clanking them against the wrought iron hitch. The wind picked up, swaying the Elms, setting Nellie’s hair loose to cross her face in fine, long strands, her blue crinoline skirt to gust. More thunder sounded, shaking the ground.
Nellie bit her lip, shifted her feet and, letting go of my hold, blurted over the sounds of the storm, “Perhaps you should think of me now only as a friend!”
My expression must have said it all.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized, tears trickling down her cheeks.
“Nellie, please,” I pleaded, shaking my head. “You mean everything to me!”
She dropped her gaze, though, and turned. Gathering her skirt, Nellie ran toward the house as I watched in disbelief as the girl I long loved, the love of my life, the meaning of my day, my life, dashed past the porch where the bench-swing swung and squeaked, striking the side of the house while the blue hydrangeas whipped in the wind.
The deep bark of Buz-Fuz announced Nellie’s arrival at the backyard. Still standing in the doorway were Mr. and Mrs. Sedgwick, peering at me, and though they seemed to love me like a son and looked forlorn, they closed the door. I was left alone, still on my knee, holding the precious jewel. Crushed, my head fell, cupped in my hands.
The rain drenched down in buckets.