by Nann Dunne
Warning: Some extreme violence to come. Those readers with very sensitive natures might want to skip Chapter Fifteen.
Several days later, on a Sunday morning, Bren awoke to the thumping of many feet and the unmistakable creaking of gear. She sat up and looked toward the window, but soon realized the sound came from the dirt road in front of the house. With a caution that had become second nature, she pulled out the drawer in the side table and lifted the false beard and spirit gum from it. Hurriedly, she attached the beard, then replaced the gum, shut the drawer, and pulled on her trousers. Fitting a crutch under one arm, she hobbled into the front room.
Faith, also awakened by the noise, stood at the window, peering out. The sun had risen just enough to reflect softly from the white cotton shift she wore, and Bren felt a rush of warmth as she admired the way the rays burnished Faith's russet curls. She was feeling these rushes of warmth often and recognized she was growing overly fond of her. In the midst of a war was no time to get emotionally attached to anyone, and especially not a woman who favored the Confederate cause. No one had ever aroused these feelings in Bren before. That a woman had this effect on her took some getting used to. But she would worry about that later.
Glancing back, Faith grimaced toward Bren, who moved up behind her. "The Union seems to have taken over our town."
Bren leaned over Faith's shoulder to look out and study the troops. The redhead smelled fresh and clean, tinged with a hint of roses new-bloomed on a spring morning. The mix of scents filled Bren with longing; she wanted to put her arms around Faith and pull her close. "You smell good. Like roses," Bren surprised herself by saying. Embarrassed by her outspokenness, she fought to bring her focus back to the marching men. She rested a hand on the redhead's shoulder for balance and felt Faith tremble. It has to be disturbing to see the enemy come into your town, she thought. The soldiers marched four abreast, and she could see the end of the column. Her drawl deepened even further. "Assuming that the beginning of the column woke us up, it looks like there's a fairly small number, maybe a couple of hundred or so. But I don't hear any resistance."
Bren guessed that Faith was more disturbed than she would ever admit: Her voice started out as a strangled whisper, then gradually grew stronger. "The only thing here of any importance to the military is the telegraph office. But the lines to that were cut so many times, they finally abandoned repair attempts." She shrugged and lifted her hands into the air then dropped them. "That's hardly worth fighting for. Most of the Confederate soldiers come here on leave, looking for food and relaxation. Any who were here are probably scurrying back to their regiments."
Relaxation? An image of Leah pulsed through Bren's mind, and she turned her head away to hide her small grin. It dawned on her that soldiering had broadened her acceptance of people's differences. In polite circles, Leah would be considered a fallen woman, not worthy of respect. But she was kind to me, and she didn't betray my secret, Bren mused. Faith's voice interrupted her thoughts. "I had no idea they would bother taking over the town; I thought the fighting was passing us by. You could be in danger."
Hunched over the crutch, Bren turned her head to meet Faith's eyes. "You could be in danger too. For harboring a Confederate soldier."
Faith's eyes widened. "That thought never occurred to me," she said, then looked back out at the blue-clad troops, her expression turning anxious. "Please keep well out of sight."
"Don't worry, I've been really careful about that," Bren answered. "And I won't stay any longer. My wound is healed well enough that I can slip away tonight, after dark. Once I get on Redfire, the splinted bone shouldn't hinder me."
Faith swung around toward Bren, and Bren's body turned of its own accord. Faith looked up with her lips parted, and a surge of desire washed over Bren. She could almost swear that Faith's eyes were filled with desire too. But the moment ended when noise came from the loft above. Benjamin had awakened.
Faith's tongue peeked out to moisten her lips, and Bren sucked in a breath. Then Faith spoke, and her voice held a slight catch. "I hoped you could stay until the bone knit all the way. But perhaps it's best that you go."
Benjamin came scrambling down the ladder from the loft, still in his nightshirt. "No!" he cried. "I don't want Mr. Cordell to leave." He ran to Bren's side and tugged on her shirttail. "Please don't leave."
Bren placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed gently. "I have to go, Benjamin. We don't want those bluebellies catching me here. Besides," she said with a smile, "how are we going to win this war if I'm not there to help?" A pang struck her heart. She had lowered her defenses enough to begin to feel like a part of this small family. The arrival of the Union troops, however, brought home the unpleasant fact that Faith and Benjamin were on the opposite side of the war.
"Yes, sir," Benjamin answered reluctantly as Bren released his shoulder and put her hand back on the crutch.
Faith moved away from the window. "Since we're all awake, I might as well fix breakfast. I'll stoke the stove so it can warm up while we change." She patted her son's head. "Put your good clothes on, Benjamin. We'll be going to the Sunday service as usual. Especially today." She tilted her head and met Bren's inquiring gaze. "A lot of people come to church and mingle afterward. It's a great place to get all the news. Maybe I can find out where the soldiers will be billeted."
"That's a good idea," Bren said. Then she realized she needed to ask for the information that a Rebel would want. "And see if you can learn where the others are camped outside of town. That's an area I'll want to avoid."
"I'll do that," Faith said. "Now, let's get ready for breakfast."
While Faith and Benjamin were at the Sunday service, Bren sat at Faith's desk, adding another drawing to her journal. She paused to look out through the window beside her. The sun shone brightly, a gentle warmth filled the air, and a mild breeze was just kicking up. Bren sniffed the air, then frowned. What should have been a remarkably beautiful day was tainted with the odor of the men and beasts that had passed by earlier. Thankfully, the breeze should carry the smells away and let nature's pleasanter scents revive, at least for the moment. Bren's face contorted briefly, as if from pain. The Pruitts had helped her forget the war for a while, but now it had come to fetch her back. Faith was right, she could choose to be out of the war, out of danger. Her original na´ve patriotism had burned out after a few battles, but she knew her participation could help shorten the horrors of war. That deeper purpose sustained her patriotism and kept her going. Breathing a sigh of resigned acceptance, she resumed her drawing.
The picture she worked on portrayed her, Faith, and Benjamin, sitting at this same desk, looking at this same journal. She placed the final stroke, then smiled, satisfied with her rendition. When she heard a noise just outside the front door, she assumed it was the two returning home. She knew Faith had locked the door, but Bren hadn't bolted it from within, so she didn't need to get up.
Suddenly, something hit the outside of the door with a loud thump, and the door burst open. Three Union soldiers charged into the room and leveled their muskets at Bren. "So the redhead was telling the truth," the largest of the soldiers said. "There is a Johnny Reb here. Put your hands in the air." He motioned upward with the musket.
Startled into submission, Bren laid down her pen and raised her hands as her body tensed for action. Then her common sense took over. She would just quietly go along with the soldiers. After all, she was Lady Blue. Once she gave that information to the officer in charge and he made inquiries, she had no doubt the authorities would release her. But a torrent of other thoughts tumbled through her brain. Faith gave me up. She turned me in. No, she wouldn't do that. But maybe she did it to protect her home . . . to protect Benjamin. No, I can't believe she would think she needed to do that. But no one else knew I was here. Only the doc, and he wouldn't have any reason to betray me. She did it; she must have.
Bren felt battered by the betrayal, and dark anguish seeped into her heart. In the short time she had been here, Faith and Benjamin had treated her like family; she had begun to love them. And the strength of what she felt for Faith . . . confused her. She hurt more from the woman's betrayal than from any danger to herself.
"Get up, and get over here," the large soldier commanded. The men tensed as Bren reached for the crutches, but she merely slid the curved tops under her arms and moved forward, inspecting the soldiers as she went. The big man wore a sergeant's triple chevron on his sleeves, obviously giving him charge over the two wearing no insignia. Her brain automatically took inventory of their physical appearance: two with brown hair, brown eyes, and dark beards; the third and youngest one with black hair, blue eyes, and only the patchy beginnings of a beard. The young soldier and the burly sergeant stood nearly her height, while the other man was a head shorter.
Bren stopped in front of the sergeant. "I want to see your commanding officer," she said. Immediately, the man swung his rifle butt around and smacked the side of it against her face, knocking her to the hardwood floor as the crutches tumbled away. The blow slammed her cheek against her teeth, splitting the inside skin. Though momentarily dazed, she tasted blood crossing her tongue.
"You'll speak when you're spoken to, you swine," the sergeant said with a snarl. Bren shook her head, trying to clear it. Retrieving one of the crutches, she attempted to rise. The soldier knocked her back with a hard slap across the face, spurting blood from her mouth and dislodging the fake beard. "What the hell . . ." He reached down and yanked on the loosened bit of hair, and the whole piece came free in his hand. The man squinted at the hair, then back at Bren. "Why the hell are you wearing a false beard?" he said, pondering the question even as he asked it.
Bren had stayed on the floor this time, lying on one side. She swallowed some of the blood that pooled in her mouth while most dribbled out the corner. "I'm working for the Union. Take me to your commanding officer, and I can prove it." Her tongue flicked at the split in her lip, softening it. "And keep you out of trouble."
The man snorted and looked at his companions. "He must think we never heard that one before, huh?" He laughed, and the two joined him. He kicked Bren's shoulder, flopping her over onto her back. The movement pulled her shirt tight against her body, outlining the curves of her breasts. "By God, you're a woman!" At once, his whole demeanor changed. "A woman pretending to be a man-that's blasphemy." He looked again at his men. "Do you know what we have here? A whore. She figures dressing like a man will give her a chance to mix with the Johnny Rebs and make herself a pot of money." He turned back to Bren. "Well, bitch, if you want to be a whore, we'll treat you like one." He motioned toward her. "Pick her up and follow me. We just found ourselves a free plaything. We can use the woods out back of here to give us some cover." The men hesitated, and the sergeant barked at them. "Do what I say, dammit. I'm in charge here."
The younger man spoke up. "But Sergeant Angston, we're just supposed to round up the Rebs we find and bring them to the jail."
The other soldier nodded. "Hager's right, Sergeant. We could get in trouble."
"Shut up, Wertz. I'll worry about that. You'll get in worse trouble if you don't do what I tell you."
The soldiers glanced at each other, and Wertz shrugged. They slung their rifles onto their backs and reached for Bren. She tried to fight them, but Sergeant Angston slammed her in the head with the rifle butt, knocking her unconscious. Then the men kicked the crutches out of the way, pulled her up, and drew her arms across their shoulders. With Bren's head lolling and her bare feet dragging behind them, they followed Angston down the hallway and out the back door of the house.
Faith and Benjamin strolled across the fields, using a shortcut to return from church. As they neared home, Faith was talking to her son about some chores that needed done. Benjamin interrupted her and pointed to the house. "Mama, look!" A soldier held the back door open, and two more men came outside, hauling Bren between them. Her head was down, and her hair fell forward, obscuring her face, but if there had been any doubt about her identity, the splinted leg dispersed it. "It's Mr. Cordell." Benjamin said. "They're taking him away! We have to help." Benjamin tried to bolt toward the soldiers, but Faith grabbed the straps of his overalls.
"No, Benjamin. Stay here. We can't do anything for Mr. Cordell." Her free hand flew up to cover her mouth as she watched, and her heart hammered against her chest.
"But where are they taking him, Mama?" She pulled the boy into an embrace and buried his head against her, shutting the scene from his vision. "Mr. Cordell is their enemy. They'll probably put him in prison." Bren wouldn't have to suffer those consequences, Faith told herself. As past newspaper articles had indicated, when they discovered Bren was a woman, she would merely be sent home.
Faith heard her son start to cry, and she hugged him closer. "Bad things happen in wartime, Benjamin. Soldiers know they run the risk of being captured. Or even killed. At least Mr. Cordell is alive." And out of danger, thank goodness. She kissed the top of Benjamin's head. "He's a strong person. He'll be all right." As the group passed the corral, Faith saw the sergeant lift a rope from a post and slip his arm through the coils. A perplexed look crossed her face when the soldiers took Bren into the forest. She wondered if the army had set up a stockade in the woods.
Faith could have cried too. From the time she had discovered Bren was a woman, she had been intrigued by her. Over the several weeks of the soldier's recuperation, that interest had astounded her by gradually turning into a physical and emotional attraction. Faith tried to deny it, but the fact had been amply demonstrated by several small occurrences. The one that convinced her she had fallen in love was her body's reaction to Bren's proximity when they watched the Union troops enter town. When Bren had come up behind her and leaned over her shoulder, Faith's knees had become weak. And Faith had shivered with the heat of the passion lit by Bren's innocent touch on her shoulder. She wanted more.
Faith had always been attracted to women, even more so than to men, but she had never met one she cared enough for to love. Now she had met a woman who captured her heart, and she had no way of knowing if she would ever see Bren again. Or even whether Bren felt any attraction for her. Although, for that brief moment in the parlor . . . But so what if Bren did care? They would never have met if it hadn't been for the war, and now the war had come between them, making any intimacy virtually impossible. Faith's insides screamed at the unfairness of it all.
Sergeant Angston led the others half a mile into the woods and finally stopped in a small clearing. "Drop her there." He motioned with his head, then shrugged off his rifle and knapsack and set them on the ground. Bren's unconscious form slumped to the ground like a straw-filled scarecrow, arms and legs akimbo. Angston opened a knapsack compartment and drew out a metal flask. After removing the cap, he took a long swallow then capped the flask and tossed it to Wertz. "Take some. You two look like you need some nerve." The soldiers each took a hefty drink, and Hager coughed a little, then handed the flask back. Angston stuck it in his back pocket. "Get me four pegs to tie her to." The men set their muskets against a tree trunk and started searching.
The sergeant pulled a knife from a sheath at his waist, grabbed one end of the rope hanging on his arm, and let the rest fall to the ground. While Wertz and Hager gathered four peglike pieces of fallen tree limbs, Angston cut four equal lengths from the rope. The pegs and ropes were tossed into the center of the clearing, then Angston stepped close to Bren, who was lying on her back, motionless. "Now for the fun part," he said. He reached down with the knife and slit open Bren's shirt from top to bottom. Grabbing the collar at the back of her neck, he heaved the shirt off of her, dropped it to the ground, and stood for a moment just looking at her, breathing heavier than his exertion warranted. After sheathing the knife, he unbuttoned her trousers, untied the drawstring of her underdrawers, and tugged roughly on both garments, but the pant legs hung up on the splint. Cursing, he pulled his knife again and sliced through the splint's bindings, then finished removing the clothing.
Tossing it aside, he paused again. "Good-looking woman for a whore," he said with a sneer. His passions continued to build as he took another drink of whisky and passed the flask again. "Tie her to the pegs," he said.
"Can't we just do her now?" Wertz asked. His initial hesitation had disappeared as soon as he saw the woman's naked body.
"Nah," Angston said. "I want her awake and fully conscious. It'll be better that way." He laughed. "For her too. She might as well enjoy some real men for a change."
Wertz and Hager spread-eagled Bren's body and tied her down. Angston snorted at how the young soldier worked with his head turned away. "Hey Hager, she's just a whore. Hell, she makes a living selling herself. We're not doing anything all those other men don't do, just we're getting it for free. If it makes you feel better to throw some money down first, go right ahead." He pulled the flask out again. "She's pretending to be a Reb soldier, and we captured her. The way I look at it, we're just taking the spoils of war that we've earned." He took another swig from the flask, then capped it and threw it to Hager. "It's a soldier's right."
Bren stirred, and Angston's lust surged. He hurried over and kicked her in the bad leg to rouse her more quickly. She screamed at the pain, and her eyes flew open. The sergeant stood over her and there was no mistaking his intent. He unbuttoned his pants. Her whole body jerked to bring her arms and legs up to fight him off, but she could barely move them. She was tied to the ground-and naked. Oh God, oh God. Not this. Help me! Terror flooded her brain, and pounded against her throbbing head. "Stop him!" she called as her eyes flicked to the other soldiers, but they looked away. Within seconds, she realized the futility of seeking anyone's help. She was about to be violated, and she could do nothing to prevent it. Nothing physical, that is. Terror changed to rage-a rage that laid cold, black slabs of hate in her heart, constructing a wall that she vowed would not be breached by whatever happened to her today. A wall she would carry with her until she had her revenge.
Angston fell on top of her, his hands groping along his prize, and she looked straight into his eyes. "You are a dead man," she said in a flat voice, with her teeth grinding together.
He laughed. "Girlie, you're going to find out I'm not as dead as you think." He moved against Bren's body, and every thrust laid another slab in the wall of hate. She forced her humiliation and disgust behind the barrier, and true to her vow, blocked out all other sensation. I can do this. The words plunged into her psyche like iron spikes driven by a sledgehammer.
Angston finally was sated, and with little prodding, Wertz was next. He received the same flat warning, and drew back for a moment, but his urges overcame any qualms he might have had. When he was finished, he dropped to a seat under one of the trees and hung his head.
Angston looked at the kid. "Your turn, Hager."
The young soldier shook his head. "No."
Angston jumped up from where he had been sitting. "What do you mean, 'no'?"
Hager looked down at the ground. "I don't want to force a woman. I don't believe in it."
"A woman? I told you she's a whore. She don't deserve no respect." Angston was getting angry. "You thinking of going back to camp and reporting us?" Hager just continued to look down, and Angston picked up his musket. "You better get on over there and take your turn, or I'll put a bullet in you," he said. "I'm not letting no whiney boy turn me in." The sergeant pointed the weapon at Hager. "You stupid kid, you ought to be happy to have this chance. I bet you never even had a woman before. I'll give you to the count of three, and you better be servicing that bitch or I'll blow your balls off. One . . ."
Slowly, Hager rose. He walked over to Bren and slowly knelt between her thighs. "I'm sorry," he whispered, "I'm truly sorry."
The sergeant ran out of patience. "Get to it, Hager, or I'll unbutton your pants for you, and you'll never be able to have another woman."
Hager fumbled with the buttons, then cringed when the woman's husky voice struck his ear. "You are a dead man." In spite of the young soldier's remorse, his nearness to the woman's body aroused him, and he completed the act that Angston had forced him into. He cried afterwards, mumbling, "I'm sorry. Please forgive me." The soldier's tears wet her face, but Bren had no forgiveness to offer him. Hatred had burned away any hope of that as soon as the first soldier violated her.
Hager rose and buttoned his pants. Angston brought the soldier's musket over and handed it to him. "You took so damn long, we have to get back to camp right away. Shoot the bitch."
Wertz's head snapped up, and Hager's jaw dropped. "Sh . . . shoot her? But why?" the young soldier said. "Can't we just leave her here?"
"Use your head, dummy. What do you think she'll do as soon as she's loose?" Angston spat toward her. "She'll run squealing to the camp, then we all have a pack of trouble. Shoot her." He raised his own rifle and pointed it again at Hager. "Either you shoot her, or I shoot you. Then she gets shot anyway. Suit yourself."
Hager swallowed hard and nodded. "I'll do it. Just give me a minute-and some space. I want to pray for her first." Angston snorted, gave a toss of his head for Wertz to follow him, and they moved about forty feet away, looking into the forest as they waited.
Hager went to Bren. "I guess you heard. I've been ordered to shoot you." He wiped at the tears that had begun to run down his cheeks again. "Oh, God, forgive me," he said, then mumbled another prayer as he put the musket barrel against Bren's forehead.
He hesitated and looked back toward the other two soldiers just as Angston glanced toward him. Then he met Bren's gaze. She looked up at him with empty eyes. She had repressed her emotions so thoroughly that she didn't feel any grief, just a morbid curiosity. So this is the end, she thought. I wonder what price I'll have to pay for all the dead I sent ahead of me? Maybe they'll be waiting for me. Her mouth curled up on one side. "Do it," she said.
BAM! Her head exploded and her world disappeared.
When Hager pulled the trigger, the bright flash that erupted from the musket barrel forced him to close his eyes. He opened them and saw blood running from one side of the woman's forehead. His breath caught as he watched the red stream move across burnt skin, then slide down to cover the smoldering area where hair grew a moment ago. The smell of blood, scorched skin, and burning hair nearly overwhelmed him. Staggering for a moment, Hager fought off the queasiness, then leaned down and turned Bren's head toward where the sergeant stood with Wertz. He pulled the pegs out of the ground and untied Bren. Then he arranged her arms and legs and partially covered her torso with her ripped shirt, muttering another prayer as he did so. Afterward, he joined the other soldiers. "She dead?" Angston looked toward Bren as he asked. Even from here, he could see blood all over the side of her head.
Hager nodded dumbly and showed his bloodied hand. He had to clear his throat to answer. "I checked."
"Let's get back, then. Here's our story. We chased a Reb into the woods and hunted for him, but he got away." Angston gestured at each of them with his musket. "And I don't want to hear nothing else about this, you hear? We're all in it together." The men trotted back to town silently, while Hager's tears ran unchecked.
Bren fought to awaken to consciousness. For the first glorious moments, her body felt nothing, then a deluge of pain swept over her. She had never experienced the kind of storm now filling her head, seeming to thrust her brain so hard against the inside of her skull that both brain and skull felt crushed. And she didn't want to think yet about the burning sensation that covered part of her face like a hot blanket and touched one corner of her eye. The eye was swollen nearly shut. A lava stream of anger surged through her, and she fought to control it. Those pigs had ravaged her.
Stifling the aches as best she could, she slowly worked her way to a sitting position. She rested briefly, but her mind screamed: Who am I now? I'm someone else. Someone I don't know. I'll make them sorry for the day they created me. Driven beyond the pain, she threw her head back and glared with one good eye toward the sky, lifting her arms high as though beseeching God for an answer. Who am I?
As she lowered her arms, she fumed at the power of the soldiers' evil deeds to make her feel this way. Her locked-in rage banged at the wall of hate she had built, but she refused to let the wall shatter; she would need its protection . . . at least until she healed enough to seek revenge.
She moved an arm to swish away the flies that gathered to feast on her blood, and her head thudded with even greater agony. She groaned as a new source of pain revealed itself. The three bastards had used her body roughly, and she was bruised inside and out, body and soul. The honey-colored shirt, sliced open from top to bottom, had fallen into her lap. As she picked it up, she only now absorbed the fact that her hands and feet had been untied, and the shirt had been draped over her. Did Hager really try to kill me? she wondered. Or did he just pretend to? Either way, I'll find them all, no matter how long it takes, and they will pay for what they've done to me. That I promise.
Bren slipped the shirt on backwards, affording her a small bit of modesty, then crawled to where her trousers had been thrown, every movement of her legs sending rivers of agony to meet the aches swirling around her head. She decided to forego the underdrawers; just donning the trousers would be a struggle. Her mending leg was swollen from the kick the sergeant had delivered. By God, it hurt enough to be rebroken. She was astonished that she could isolate one pain from another.
It took a long time to pull on her trousers, and her breath came in gasps by the time she finished. She gazed slowly around, and her look fell on the splints that had been cut away. Bren collected them, then used strips torn from the underdrawers to tie the splints back into place. She tucked the rest of the garment into her waistband, knowing it would be useful for cleaning herself. A further search of the ground turned up a fallen branch that could serve as a crude crutch.
Using the branch to struggle to her feet, Bren waited for her initial dizziness to lessen, then took stock of the terrain. From her earlier travels to Cranston, she remembered a small stream just south of this area. She also remembered the tavern where Leah worked was in the south end of town. Leah might be willing to help her. It was worth a try. She muttered her mantra, calling upon reserves of strength as she hobbled painfully toward the stream to wash herself. She could barely hear her mutterings; her right eardrum must have been damaged from the musket's blast.
At the bank of the shallow stream, she sank to her knees and took a good look at her reflection. Bile rose in her throat and gagged her. Quickly, she tore a large piece of cloth from the underdrawers, folded it, and slapped it into the water, dispersing the damaged likeness. She bent over the stream and laid the cloth against the burned area of her head and face. Moaning from the pain, she held the cloth still and eventually its coolness provided some small relief. After awhile, she lifted it away, then dipped it back into the water and washed the blood from her forehead. She wanted to clean her whole body and get rid of the filth from what they . . . Bren couldn't bear to think about it anymore. She removed her shirt, unbuttoned her trousers and pulled them down to her knees, and washed as well as she could. When she finished and re-dressed, she knelt beside the stream, clasped her arms tightly around her body, and cried. At last, she forced herself to accept a stark reality: Sarah-Bren Coulter would never be or look the same again.
Those soldiers would answer for that.
Amy knew she was supposed to stay inside after dark, but Mama was taking a nap, and she didn't want to wake her. It would take only a minute to run outside and get her dolly Ree-Ree. Amy felt bad about leaving Ree-Ree outside; her dolly was afraid of the dark. She pulled a kitchen chair over to the door, climbed up on it, and lifted the latch. Pushing the chair back into place, she opened the street-level door and looked back and forth. She didn't see anyone moving in the alley that the door opened onto, so she slipped out, leaving the door ajar. She knew exactly where she had left Ree-Ree. The spot was only a few steps away, and she moved toward it. Sure enough, the doll was there, and Amy picked her up and hugged her to her chest.
"Amy." The little girl jumped at the whisper of her name, and her gaze flitted toward the sound. She backed toward the door, holding Ree-Ree even more tightly. "Don't be afraid, honey. It's Bren, the soldier. Remember you gave me some pretend food a long while ago when I was sitting on the steps with your mama? Go get her, please. Tell her I need her."
Amy must have remembered the big soldier who had played "breakfast" with her; she took a step forward. "No, Amy," the voice continued. "Please, just go get your mama. I'm hurt."
Amy sucked in a quick breath. "All right." She turned and fled through the open door. A few moments later, Leah came out, straightening the waist of the blue calico dress she wore. Amy followed until Leah stopped her and sent her back into the house.
"Bren? Where are you?" Leah squinted into the shadows, raking her gaze along the alley.
"Over here, Leah. I'm injured. I need help." The blonde recognized Bren's voice. Then one of the shadows grew taller, and she saw someone lurching toward her. Hurrying to the scout's side, she slipped one of Bren's arms over her shoulder and helped her toward the door. Bren leaned on her heavily and tried to balance some of the weight on a branch that she held. They stumbled as far as the kitchen, and Leah eased Bren into one of the chairs, took the branch from her, and leaned it against a counter.
Bren placed an elbow on the table and rested one side of her head against her palm. Her hair had fallen forward and partly obscured her face, but now she lifted her chin, and Leah looked at her.
One hand flew to Leah's mouth, and she gasped. The woman in front of her was a mess An inch-long wound, still seeping blood, showed on the right side of her forehead. Her skin was burned and blistered from the top curve of her forehead, down along the very edge of her eye to the bottom of her earlobe, and back into her hairline. Her right eyebrow and eyelashes were gone, and only charred stubble remained of the hair bordering the burned skin. Bren wore her shirt backwards, and Leah realized that was because the front of it had been sliced open. There must be something wrong with her leg, too, since she had such trouble walking.
Leah sat down diagonally from Bren and rested a hand on her arm. "My God, what happened to you? You need a doctor."
"No. No doctor. Please. No one can know I'm here." Bren's arm slipped, and she barely caught herself before her head hit the table.
Leah rose and hurried to grab her. "You poor thing, you're exhausted. Let me help you over to the bed. You can explain everything after you get rested up." She handed Bren the crutch and helped her rise, then led her to a narrow bed in a small room off the kitchen. She sat Bren on the edge of the bed and noticed for the first time that the scout had no shoes on and one foot was swollen. "Let me at least get you a nightshirt, then you need to sleep and we can clean you up in the morning." Bren reached out and gave Leah's hand a squeeze.
Amy had been following along, watching everything wide-eyed. As soon as her mother said "nightshirt," she hurried from the room and returned with one. Leah hugged the child and sent her out of the room, then cautiously pulled off Bren's torn shirt, and replaced it with the nightshirt. Gently, she pushed Bren back onto the mattress, then lifted her legs up into the bed. Before she removed the trousers that Bren wore, she noticed one seam was cut, and she lifted the cloth to examine the leg. The movement disclosed a roughly bound splint, with evidence of a recent wound. Leah saw the whole lower leg was swollen-not just the foot. Sure looks like she has a broken bone, Leah thought. Guess that's why it's splinted.
She took off the trousers, being careful not to jar the injury. Bren had already fallen asleep, so Leah put a light cover over her, then went to one of the kitchen cupboards and hunted up some burn ointment. She lightly dabbed the ointment on the burned area of Bren's head and face, hardly disturbing her, and left her to rest. But Leah's curiosity was piqued. What story would this woman have to tell?
Bren woke at dawn the next morning with the same terrible headache that had plagued her since her brush with death the day before. The long rest had improved her vitality, but the aches in her head, body, and leg-and innermost self-almost made her wish for a return to her original numbness.
She groaned aloud. A blonde head popped up next to the bed, and the scout shuddered. Leah patted her arm. "It's all right, Bren. It's just me. I put some quilts on the floor next to the bed and slept here." Leah stood up the rest of the way and pointed to garments lying on a chair. "I got together some clothes and shoes for you-dresses, I'm afraid. But I think it's better for now to give up your disguise, anyway." She tilted her head. "You'll need some makeup to blend the tan skin with the light."
"Don't worry about my looks." Bren's voice was raspy.
"Oh, honey, you'll look lots better when you heal. But don't think about that right now. You must be hungry. I'll fix you an early breakfast. Amy's likely to sleep late this morning. She was too excited to go to sleep at her usual hour. We'll go ahead and eat, then you can tell me what happened to you."
"Sounds good. I need to use the . . ." She swallowed and waved a hand.
"Sure," Leah said and pointed. "It's over there behind the curtain. There's a wash jar with a basin too. Do you need help getting to it?"
"No, I can manage as long as there's no rush to get back and forth."
"Well, I have to wash and change before I cook. So you have plenty of time."
"Thanks, Leah." One side of Bren's mouth quirked up, though her eyes looked sad and troubled. "Thanks for coming to my rescue."
"I'm happy to help you, Bren." Leah patted the woman's shoulder. "Now, let's get ready for breakfast."
"To be tied down like that and . . ." Bren's chest heaved. "Then to have my life tossed away as though it were nothing . . ." Her voice failed, and she sat back in the chair at the table, with her chin resting on her chest.
"Oh, Bren," Leah clutched a hand to her chest. "Oh, my heart hurts for you. I'm so sorry this happened. I've had a few awful experiences myself." She shook her head. "But nothing this bad. I know you have to be feeling a lot of hate right now."
When Bren finally looked up, her expression was full of malice. "Hate?" she spit out the word. "That doesn't even come near to describing what I feel. I want to take them apart, piece by piece. I want to tear off their-" Bren stopped and shook her head as the words couldn't get past her closed throat.
Leah switched to a chair alongside her. "This might sound odd coming from me, but most men are pretty decent sorts. Please don't let these three turn you against them all."
Bren struggled to calm herself. "I haven't turned against all men, Leah. Believe me, I'm focused on the animals who did this. They will pay." Her face changed to an unreadable expression, while her tone grew icy. "And it was a woman who betrayed me. So, you see, my loathing is not reserved just for men."
Leah shivered. "This woman meant something to you?"
Bren looked down again, and pain roughened her voice. "I trusted her. I cared about her. She treated me like one of her family. She even saved my life." She looked up, and winced at the anguish squeezing her heart. "I never suspected she would give me away. I guess she was afraid, and maybe for good reason, but I was going to leave anyway. I just don't understand it."
Leah patted her shoulder. "I suspect the only one who understands it is the woman herself. We can't get inside other people's minds." She stood up as Amy entered the kitchen, rubbing sleep from her eyes. "Hi, darlin'. Mama made some pancakes. Go wash up and come eat."
Amy plucked at her nightshirt, pulling it from where it was stuck against her body. She walked over to Bren and stopped beside her. A smile pulled Bren's lips up the uninjured side of her face. The child studied the scout, tilting her head several times. "Something hurted you."
"Yes," Bren said. "I got too close to a fire, and it burned me."
Amy's mouth formed a circle. "Oh." She drew out the word. "But Mama will make it all better. She fixes hurts good." Then her face screwed up, and she frowned. "Are you a girl today, like Mama?"
Bren nodded. "Yes, I am."
Amy smiled and stamped her foot. "Good. You make a really pretty girl."
Tears welled in the scout's eyes as she reached out, gathered the tot close, and gave her a hug. The last thing Bren felt was pretty, in any way, shape, or form. But the child's innocent remark found its way through the blackness engulfing her, and a tiny spark lit the darkness for a moment. "Thank you, Amy," she said hoarsely.
Leah waited until the hug was finished, then she tapped Amy on the shoulder. "Go get washed, sweetie." The child, as though sensing Bren was troubled, patted her on the thigh and scampered away.
"She thinks I'm pretty."
Leah took hold of Bren's chin and turned her full-face toward her. "You are, you know. This will heal, and you probably will have some scarring, but your natural good looks will offset that." Leah released the chin and playfully tapped Bren's nose. "Don't go getting vain on me."
Bren's grin was sad. "Don't worry about that. I never put much stock in looks. At least not in my own." Her gaze lightened for a split second as the vision of a sun-haloed redhead with laughing eyes slipped past her defenses. But she quickly pushed the memory away, replacing it with recollections of her betrayal.
Darkness crowded in on her again, and she rose from the table. "Do you mind if I take a nap?" she asked. "Then maybe I can figure out what to do. I can't stay here forever."
"You will stay here until that burn heals. You'll be my cousin from Kentucky. No one will bother you. By the way, my last name is Overton. Guess you better know that." Leah dished up a pancake for her daughter. "Amy, come eat," she called. She turned to Bren. "I go back to work tomorrow night. You can stay here and watch Amy for me and save me a few dollars. How does that sound?"
Bren lifted her hands and shrugged. "Too generous, by far. But I leap at the offer." She walked to the bed, removed her shoes, and lay down. For once, she hoped she did dream of battles. Anything would be better than reliving the nightmare of the attack. She flung her arm across her eyes, then quickly jerked it back. The burn would hurt for quite a while. She sighed, placed both hands on her stomach, and went to sleep.
To be continued in Part SevenPlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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