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Western Pennsylvania Mensa presents.... Gray in the Dark

Carole Mclntyre

Gray as the General's horse, he was, and the troops swore he even meowed with a Southern accent. He also had a stubborn streak, as befitted a Johnny Reb, so they named him "Custis," and grinned when they called him. Custis knew every man in the battery he'd adopted, and one who wasn't, although he never betrayed her.

He did, however, enjoy her gentle touch, so he visited her tent to be stroked when the troops were encamped. He made it a point to hitch a ride on the commissary wagon when they were on the move, and because he kept mice out of the provisions, everyone approved of this.

The Army of Northern Virginia had been camped in the Wilderness all winter and well into the spring. They were there because General Hooker and the Army of the Potomac were on the other side of the Rappahannock, and the muddy roads were impassable. Who knew what Hooker intended to do, and more to the point, when? General Lee would give much to know. He was trying to fit together a puzzle without all its pieces.

Mounted pickets ranged on the northern side of the river, posted within sight of each other. Infantry troops prowled between them. Hard information about the Union general's plans was unknown, because he had been uncommonly closemouthed about them. There were no rumors to be had, not even in the occasional informal, officially prohibited exchanges between the troops of the opposing armies. Little boats with rigged sails crossed the river, trading: coffee. Tobacco. Newspapers. Rumors.

But there was no rumor, not a whisper, about Hooker's plans. Nobody knew because nobody knew. Lee wondered if Hooker even had a plan. But he must. Whatever it was, Lee had to counter or, better, forestall it. The General would pace, staring north, as if a vagrant breeze might bring him a whiff of Hooker's intentions.

# # #

"What d'ya think we'll get back?" Private Andrews squinted after the offering.

They'd put bacon and corn meal in the little boat, lashed the sail so the wind would push it across the current, and waved at the men downstream on the other shore. The spring sun warmed them all, dried the roads, and shrank the rivers back to their usual size from winter floods.

"Maybe coffee. Do you think.., maybe coffee?" Private Potter sometimes dreamed of real coffee. Custis, who had stowed away in among the sacks of cornmeal, had designs on the bacon, and knew nothing of the exchange between men who opposed each other staunchly in battle, but fudged a little in secrecy. The boat was beached, hauled up, and its contents loaded onto a pack mule by men in blue. In a few hours, Potter and Andrews would be waiting to see what the boat returned to them.

They watched and fished long into the afternoon, but no troops turned up on the other side to launch the little boat. They caught a few carp, and their relief came, but no boat. It wasn't until their next watch that a frog call alerted them to the delivery: real frogs made no comment until later in the day. Out of the morning mist drifting on the river the little sail appeared, and Andrews waded out to catch the boat.

"You're in luck, Potsy? he whispered. "1 can smell coffee. And... What's that?" One of the mealsacks, tied shut, wriggled. It reeked of cheap perfume. Cautiously, the men opened it, and out popped a gray head.

"Custis!"

There was a newspaper in the sack with the cat. It was dated less than a month before, and detailed the visit of President Lincoln to review the Army of the Potomac. Atop the masthead there was an unsigned note. "Rec'd yr. cat in error. Wrong color. Y'alls too much. Also smelled bad, fixed that."

Word had filtered through the ranks that any information obtained about the Union troops was to be passed up to officers for evaluation. Definitely, a newspaper would have to be sent up, just as soon as they could cobble up a reasonable explanation for having it. But what about the cat?

"Where would a bunch of Yankees get perfume?" Potter asked, as he and Andrews considered the cat rolling in the grass to try to scrape off the scent.

"They're Hooker's troops, ain't they?" Andrews said, and grinned. "Maybe they had some company. Visitors. Maybe they left, and didn't pack everything."

"We better have a talk with the Sarge. How'd we get this paper?"

"Best just tell him, I guess. He prob'ly knows, anyhow. Real coffee ought to sweeten him up, some."

By the time they got passed up the ranks, they had told their story a dozen times, with varying degrees of candor, to officers who received it with varying degrees of exasperation about the fraternization it seemed impossible to stop. Still, sometimes good things came of it, such as the time they'd convinced the men on the opposite shore that the Yanks had taken Charleston, on the grounds that feeding the enemy false information was almost as good as having the truth, themselves.

Here they were, two privates with a month-old newspaper and a scented cat, giving a rather shame-faced explanation to General Lee himself. Sure, they'd often waved to General Lee, hurrahed him from a distance. They'd never expected to actually have to explain themselves to him, this man who cheated on nothing, who had gone all through West Point with never a demerit. How to tell him about the little boats that plied the river to the enemy?

"Well, sir, it had been such a long time since we'd had any coffee, you know, and we could smell their sentries brewing it clear across the river," Potter began. "We had bacon and cornmeal, and we thought maybe..."

General Lee knew about the boats. He had, on occasion, contrived to send a paper or two north, when information seemed diversionary. This newspaper about President Lincoln would be pored over by his staff. But the cat, now...

The General was downwind of the cat, and getting the full effect. He had never, personally, known anyone to wear that scent, but he could imagine its origins. What could it mean? "How did you come to have this cat?" he asked the men.

Andrews was picking his way through a dangerous field. He didn't think that Robert E. Lee was actually a saint, not being dead yet, but he was definitely in line as having no bad habits. "He's our cat, sir, that is, he travels with us. On a wagon. He went north by accident. They sent him back on purpose. The Yanks said that Cussedest smelled bad, and they 'bout drowned him, sir. In this perfume. See this here note on the newspaper? But where would soldiers get perfume? We thought General Hooker's Le... uh, that is, ladies, maybe figured they'd play a joke on us, sir, 'cause ain't no women over here, and..."

"Cussedest?" General Lee had noted Andrews carefully drawing the word out to three syllables.

"Uh, yes, sir. He's a right stubborn cat, sir. We, uh..." Andrews ran out of words at this point. This little joke had certainly never been meant to come to the attention of General Lee.

"Perhaps I might have the cat for a while. I need to think about this."

Andrews handed over Custis, who was being remarkably placid about everything, or perhaps he was embarrassed about his odor. General Lee looked north, turned to his left, and slowly walked off down the row of tents. He stroked the cat, absently, feeling the velvet of his ears, and when he got to the picketline where the horses were tethered, he gently put him down and turned on his heel back to the headquarters tent.

Custis immediately trotted to the line of horses and rolled behind them diligently. If ever he could get rid of this smell, it was here.

"General, sir, why don't you let me sponge down your coat? It wouldn't do for..." his orderly was scandalized that the general would be wearing such a coat. The cat's fur didn't show, but a memory lingered on the cloth.

"Pass the word for General Jackson, would you? We need to talk. Oh, here, if you must," Lee allowed himself to be helped out of the coat. "Something might be starting to happen across the river." In shirtsleeves, he headed for the map table to look once more at the roads and rivers that lay between his troops and those who so outnumbered them. He thought about the secretive General Hooker, and the visit of Lincoln, known to urge his generals to action. The gray cat, he mused. He should promote that cat. No one could get through the picket line, but that cat did.

A woman who might need it, he thought, would not waste perfume on a cat. No woman living in an army camp would do that. So, the women were gone. Some Union troops, as a joke, had soaked that cat - named for his own in-laws! he privately grinned - in cheap scent, not realizing that it carried a message of absence, a telling absence. When Hooker had taken over a demoralized Army of the Potomac, he had used furloughs and visits to cajole his men into better fettle. He was a good administrator, if not the general he considered himself to be, Lee thought grimly.

Hooker's effort had worked, but it had given rise to the sobriquet, "Hooker's Legions," a term which had amused the troops of the North and South alike. Pieces of the puzzle arranged themselves in Lee's mind as he toyed with map markers. Hooker had evidently sent the women away from what would become the front in battle, so he must finally be ready to do something. Why sit still and let him set the terms of encounter? Jackson had been chafing at the leash, wanting action. Who better than Stonewall to hurry west and spring a trap on those who thought to trap him? Now, how many troops could he spare to Jackson? He bent over the maps, stared at them, through them, seeing the wing of cavalry spread to cover his left flank. Somewhere out there, he could count on Jackson to find, or make, an opportunity.

Custis oriented himself and made his way back to the commissary wagon set up near the cannon his friends served. There was still a lingering souvenir of his adventure clinging to his fur, but long rolls in the dust of the picket line helped to mask it. Unfortunately, his new scent was no more welcome, but his status as a spy had to be rewarded somehow, so Potter flaked some of the carp for the gray cat, who ate and basked in the late afternoon sun.



Reprinted from the October, 1999 issue of THE PHOENIX,
the monthly newsletter of Western Pennsylvania Mensa,
Tamara Wardell, editor.   Reprinted with permission.



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