In early March the ice still stood on the Tombigbee, clinging to the shores and around the rocks in the middle like hoary halos defying the rotation of the Earth, swearing to prevent Spring in vainglorious desperation. Touches of balm would thread themselves into the winds at midday as though the earth were whispering hope; but the sun still fled early, and the night breeze carried touches of ice to keep things balanced.
The evening of March 12, 1851, the chill was cutting into the bones of Frederick Montgomery as he stepped out onto the colonnaded porch of Blackburnnon, his manse and acreage just south of the neat village of Batelle, Tennessee. Traces of old ice still lay under the eaves and here and there at the base of the portici columns, by the bricks lining the curved and graveled drive, and around the thickest trees.
"Remember, now!!" he said sharply. "Matthew Stanford and no other. You lose this despatch, Pickett, you may as well come home dead. Do you understand me, you good fer nuthin??!" He shoved an oilskin-wrapped packet into the slave boy's chest.
Pickett, standing by the portico astride a swayback and underfed mare with no fight in her, nodded. "Yessir. Ah unnerstan Mistuh Stanford only!!" He took the packet with a ferocious grip and shoived it under the crude rope belt he used to hold up his ragged trousers. The wind but through his thin raincoat and torn shirt.
"You tell him when you git to him that I said I'd expect to hear from him prompt-like, you hear me?!!"
"Yes sir, you wanna heah back prompt."
"Get along then, before I cane you out of here!!"
Pickett dug his bare heels into the bony flanks of the wornout mare and urgently clicked and slapped the reins, causing her to break into a desperate shamble down the drive on the long dark road to the Stanford place, several towns and several lifetimes away...