by Nann Dunne
Part Eight - longer, to celebrate the New Year!
Warning: More violence in the third part of Chapter Twenty-One. But not to Sarah, this time. <g>
Sarah checked into Cranston's only hotel, washed up after the sooty train ride, then put some of her belongings away. The hotel room presented the traveler with only the basic necessities. To the left of the door sat a small flattop desk with its dowel-backed chair. A maple bed, covered with a plain, brown cotton spread, snuggled into the far corner with a closet directly opposite the open side. Next to the closet was a wide bureau that provided three drawers and a mirror. On top of the bureau's lace-bordered ecru doily sat a stoneware washbowl and water pitcher with soap, towel, and a washcloth beside them. Completing the items were an oil-filled hurricane lamp and several wooden sulfur matches. Ecru curtains and brown drapes graced the sole window, which opened in the middle of the wall abutting the head of the bed. On the hardwood floor by the bed lay a small brown throw rug.
Before leaving for the telegraph office to check for a message from Phillip, Sarah took a last look into the mirror, something she usually avoided. She and Phillip hadn't seen each other since she had been attacked. He didn't know the whole story of the attack or anything about Jessie being her baby, and Sarah didn't plan to tell him those details. Her parents' household, Leah, and Scott and Lindsay knew, of course, but Phillip heard only that she had been severely wounded.
She recalled her own reaction to Phillip's injury. While Phillip wanted the saboteur brought to justice, she wanted to kill the bastard. How would Phillip feel about the ones who had damaged her? She'd never tell him the full story, but even the wounding could upset him. Sarah hoped to keep his focus on the person guilty of treason. She'd take care of justice for the other scum herself.
The telegraph office occupied a corner of the small train station, and its lone occupant apparently served as both telegrapher and ticket taker. Sarah's inquiry resulted in her being handed a telegram from Phillip that announced his arrival on the late afternoon train. Deciding she had time to greet Leah, who was expecting her, Sarah folded the message and put it in the pocket of her dark brown dress. She left the station and headed up the sidewalk toward the Brass Rail Tavern, several blocks away on the same street.
Sarah's gaze swept the whole area, and she felt restless. She suddenly realized she was searching for a glimpse of red hair and green eyes. Faith's image jumped to mind, and the intensity of her reaction jarred her. She ducked quickly into the alley near Leah's rooms. Fighting to suppress the memory and to slow her racing heartbeat, she cursed herself for letting those stray thoughts affect her. She made her way around and behind the wooden steps that led to the tavern's upper floor and knocked on the door of Leah's rooms.
The door swung open, and Leah pulled Sarah into a strong embrace. The shorter woman released her, then took hold of her hands and gave them a squeeze before letting them go. "You look like a different person! Your cheeks are all rosy, and I see you finally got some meat on your bones."
"You look great too, Leah. Being at Mother's was good for me, in spite of our differences. She decided if she couldn't change my attitude, she could at least change my skinny ass." Both women chuckled, then Leah motioned toward the kitchen table, which held two cups and saucers and the necessities for tea.
"Have a seat. I have tea already made." Lifting a small pot from the iron stove, Leah held a sieve over each cup to catch the steeped leaves as she poured the tea. "Amy's up the street playing with a friend. She was so excited you were coming, I had to send her out before she exploded. She's crazy about her Aunt Sarah." Leah replaced the pot, then joined Sarah at the table.
"You look good, Sarah. The best I ever seen you." Sarah's hand went to her scarred face, and Leah reached out and pushed her hand down. "Never you mind that. I know you won't believe me, but the marks on your face and that white slice of hair look kind of attractive. Mysterious."
"So you said the last time." Sarah barked a derisive laugh. "You still haven't convinced me."
Leah shook her head. "So, how are you?"
Sarah had written to Leah about the baby, and Lindsay's offer to raise Jessica secretly as her own, so she knew Leah already had that news. "Physically, I'm in great shape." Then Sarah's expression hardened and her voice pitched lower. "But I'm so focused on catching those pigs that it's almost all I can think of."
"Then what? When you catch up with them, what will you do? Kill them?"
Sarah's forearms rested on the table on either side of her teacup. Her long fingers curled tightly into fists. "That was my first impulse, but now I think a quick death would be too easy for them. What they did will affect me for the rest of my life. They should suffer awhile for that."
Leah rubbed the goose bumps suddenly covering her arms. "So Lindsay wasn't able to convince you that vengeance wasn't the answer." Her words were a statement, not a question, and Sarah didn't reply. "I'm glad she came to help you out. From what you wrote of her, she sounds like good people."
Sarah's expression softened and her fists loosened. "She's one of the best people I've ever known. I couldn't have asked for a closer sister."
"Will you go back to live with her and Scott and the children when you've finished this mission you're on?"
"I haven't thought that far ahead." A crooked grin pulled at Sarah's full lips. "But that's a good question. I'm not sure I'll be happy there after all I've experienced in the war. That life seems awfully tame in comparison." Sarah suspected that the events of one horrific day had changed her more than all the other parts of the war she had been through. "I'm a different person now."
Leah nodded just as a train whistle wailed nearby. Sarah cocked her head toward the sound. "I have to meet that train; Phillip should be on it." The women stood up. "Leah, is it all right if Phillip and I come by tomorrow to work on the picture of the man you saw? Would after lunch suit you?"
"That's fine, Sarah. I'm looking forward to meeting Phillip." She walked Sarah to the door, then out the alley to the main street. "Amy will be sorry she missed you. If you're still here when she gets out of school tomorrow, maybe she can see you then."
"I'd like that." Sarah gave Leah a hug and walked back to the hotel. This time she forced herself not to scrutinize the street.
Faith stepped out onto the wooden walk and closed the door to the doctor's office. Shifting a medical bag to her other hand, she looked up the gravel street. A few blocks away, she saw one of the women from the tavern just releasing a much taller woman from an embrace. She watched as the tall woman walked away. Long dark hair, not covered by the customary bonnet, swung about as the woman turned to cross the street. Faith had just a glimpse of her profile, and the combination of height, dark-brown hair, and straight features jogged a wrenching memory. She scoffed at her imaginings, knowing there was little likelihood that the woman was Bren Cordell. She wondered if she would even recognize her in a dress-and without a beard.
As she hurried along the sidewalk, Faith thought back to the events following Bren's capture. The picture of the soldiers dragging Bren away still upset her when it came to mind, and occasionally it even intruded on her dreams. The fate that had brought the two women together in such unexpected circumstances had treated neither of them well. Bren had been unmasked and probably sent home against her wishes, and unfair as it might be, Faith had paid dearly for helping the Rebel scout.
After Cranston had been in Union hands for several months, some influential townspeople questioned the advisability of keeping Faith as the schoolteacher. They pointed out that not only had she housed a Rebel soldier in her home, but her husband had served in the Rebel army. After due consideration, the town council revoked Faith's contract, removing her from her teaching position and evicting her from the home included in the original agreement.
Disgusted by the town's decision, Dr. Schafer offered her a position as his assistant and provided two bedrooms and a small sitting room in his home for her and Benjamin. When the war ended, Faith knew her days with the doctor were limited. He wouldn't need her help when all the soldiers had been mustered out and went back to their homes. What would she do then? She decided to worry about that when the time drew nearer.
For a long while after Bren's arrest, Faith hoped the scout might return, if only to retrieve Redfire and her belongings, including her journal. But wishing for any return had been in vain. Faith put the clothes and journal in the saddlebag and stored it in a closet. When she lost the house, she sold her own horse and rented a stall for Redfire in one of the livery stables.
Recollection of Redfire brought Faith back to the present, and some questions crossed her mind. She couldn't understand why Bren never came for him. Maybe she went back home and circumstances kept her from returning. She wondered what would become of Redfire when she couldn't afford to board him anymore? She might have to sell him.
And would she ever see Bren Cordell again? She recognized that a connection had formed between them in the short time the woman had stayed with her. Something about Bren had touched Faith's heart, and the tug of yearning that accompanied any thought of her continued to plague the redhead at odd times. Could she possibly be lovesick over a woman? Although Faith had been attracted to women before, she had never acted on it. Nor had she ever fallen in love with a woman. Now she chided herself for having feelings that Bren hadn't shown any sign of reciprocating. Except . . . unless it was pure imagination on her part, something had passed between them on the morning the Union troops had arrived in town. If only they had had more time.
Faith knocked on the door of her patient's home. As she waited for her knock to be answered, she pushed a feeling of regret deep into the back of her mind. Not much chance they would ever meet again, anyway. She'd best put such nonsense out of her head once and for all and spend more time figuring how to manage a safe future for Benjamin and herself.
Sarah stood on the train station's wooden platform waiting for Phillip to disembark. The clatter and squealing from the train wheels had ended when the train came to a stop, but the boiler still hissed and moaned, driving dark soot-laden puffs from the engine's smokestack. Several other people, mostly businessmen judging from their attire, either greeted arriving passengers or waited to board the train themselves. People stepped down from the passenger cars, and Sarah saw Phillip's blond head rising above the person in of him. As she hurried toward him, she saw he wore an artificial leg and wasn't using crutches.
Phillip spied her, dropped his valise next to his good leg, and held open his arms. Even in her joy at seeing him, Sarah noticed his look of delight momentarily wavered as she neared him and he saw the scars on her face. But nothing was held back in his hug. She stepped toward him, and he pulled her into his arms and kissed her lips. Sarah's stomach got queasy, and she had to fight her inclination to turn away from him. She recognized her momentary distaste stemmed from the soldiers' violation of her, and she wondered if she could ever kiss someone without being reminded of that horror.
After the kiss, Phillip held onto her shoulders as she stepped back. "No fire for me yet, Sarah?"
Sarah bantered back, "The fire of loyal friendship, Phillip, as always." She stood then in silence, watching Phillip's eyes as he scrutinized her face. He lifted one hand from her shoulder and gently traced over the scars with his fingertips, blinking back tears as he did so. Then he pulled her to him again and hid his head next to hers. He sniffed and Sarah could hear his heavy breathing as he fought for control of his emotions. Finally, he mumbled something, straightened up, and released her. Sarah pointed to the side of her head. "I don't hear too well in this ear. What did you say?"
Phillip pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket, wiped his face, and blew his nose. "I said, 'Thank God you're still alive.'" He tucked the handkerchief away. "You could have been killed."
Sarah tugged playfully at his jacket sleeve. "You getting soft-hearted in your old age? No 'I told you so'?"
Her ploy to lighten the atmosphere worked, and Phillip smiled. "I have plenty of those to hit you with. Just thought I'd take it easy on you for a while, since we haven't seen each other for so long."
Sarah smiled too, noticing, not for the first time, that he was one of the few people she had to look up to. "It has been a long time, hasn't it." She stuck her arm through Phillip's, and he picked up his valise. "I see you're walking well with your new leg. Scott wrote that you had gotten one."
"The government kept their word, and I got one from them. I had to wait about nine months for the stump to heal, but as soon as I got the leg, I learned pretty quickly how to use it. Then I got the infection, and that slowed me down." He grimaced. "I still have to take it off once in a while and use the crutches. The stump's still a bit tender."
As they walked from the platform toward the hotel, Sarah said, "Let's spend the rest of the day just catching up on each other's news. Then tomorrow, I'll introduce you to Leah, and we'll get started on the drawing of the man who stole your leg."
Phillip brought them both to a stop and looked down at her in surprise. "He did a lot more than steal my leg, Sarah. He killed hundreds of people."
Sarah's expression hardened. "I know that, and I hate him for it. But I remember it as the day you lost your leg, and that makes it more personal to me. I hate him even more because of that."
They resumed walking. Phillip was silent for a moment, then he shook his head. "It was war, Sarah. In war, people kill people."
"But he wasn't fighting like a regular soldier, face-to-face. He sneaked around and betrayed the people who trusted him."
"Is it so very different from what you were doing?"
This time Sarah pulled them to a halt. "Phillip," she said with words forced between stiff lips, "I'll always carry a load of guilt about my part in the war. I can only hope the soldiers I saved are more plentiful than those who died." She shrugged. "But I was working within the military and following orders. According to what I read in a dispatch, this piece of slime was a civilian."
Phillip raised a hand and dropped it. "Let's put the hate behind us. Don't let it poison you. I'll be happy just to catch whoever it is and have him brought to trial."
"Apparently, I'm not as charitable as you, Phillip." She fingered the scars on her face. "I hate the person who crippled you, and I hate the ones who . . . did this to me. You exact your justice for your enemy, and I'll exact my justice for mine."
The hoarseness of Sarah's voice emphasized her determination, and Phillip shivered. "A dedicated focus on your target has always been one of your strengths, Sarah. This time it could burn your soul."
Sarah sneered and suddenly strode forward, nearly yanking Phillip off balance. "First, I'll worry about the ones who burned my face. Then I'll worry about my soul."
After lunch the next day, Sarah took Phillip to Leah's rooms and introduced him to her. After some tea and chatting, they stayed at the kitchen table and Sarah got her drawing pad, some charcoal pencils, and a soft gum eraser from a bag she had brought. She asked Leah general questions about the appearance of the man who bragged about blowing up the train. "What was the basic shape of his head? Round like a pumpkin, oval like an egg"-she drew small examples as she spoke-"rectangular like this table, or square like a box?" Sarah held the pencil poised above the pad, waiting for Leah to consider her answer. "Don't be hesitant about making suggestions, Leah. We can always erase."
The three spent several hours working on the portrayal, with Phillip helping by trying to jog specific descriptions from Leah's memory. When the face on the pad took on fuller shape, Phillip said, "He's beginning to look vaguely familiar."
Sarah sat up straight, lifted the pad, and held it away from her to study the portrait. "By God . . ." She pulled the pad back, bent over it, and quickly added about twenty more bold strokes. Then she held it back up.
"That's him!" Leah said. "That's the fella who said he done it."
Phillip sounded tired. "Virgil Stegner." He looked at Sarah, and she nodded. He made a fist and tapped his knuckles softly against the tabletop. "That man grew up with us. Went to the same school. Played on the same baseball team with me." The women remained silent as his obvious distress slowed his words. "But he had trouble with whiskey from early on. Drank himself out of a job, and Scott took pity on his family and hired him. We thought he died in the explosion." He tightened the fist and banged it against the table. "That son of a bitch must have done it for money; he never had any principles to speak of." Phillip's voice softened and disbelief colored his tone. "He literally blew people into little pieces. People he knew."
Leah touched his arm. "Now you know who he is, you can make him pay for that."
Sarah growled, and the other two looked quickly toward her. Her face had twisted into an ugly mask. "That won't bring anyone back to life or give Phillip back his leg. He should be shot on sight."
Phillip reached for Sarah's hand and enclosed it in his. "You ask for too much, Sarah. We have to go on from where we are. No one can go back and change anything." He rubbed his thumb along the back of her hand. "I'm living with a peg leg, and you're living with your scars, but we're both alive. I'm thankful for that."
Sarah took deep breaths to calm her anger and smooth away the ugly mask. Giving Phillip's hand a squeeze, she repeated his words. "I'm thankful for that too."
"And me three!" Leah's response brought a smile from each of them just as a knock came on the door. "Here's Amy home from school," she said as she jumped up to answer it. She unlocked the door and opened it, and when Amy spied Sarah, the little girl dashed across the kitchen and threw herself into Sarah's arms. "Aunt Sarah! Hello, hello!"
Sarah swooped her up onto her lap and gave her a big hug and a kiss. "Hello, Amy, darlin'. I have someone I want you to meet." She turned Amy so she could see Phillip. "This is Mister Phillip Showell, one of my dearest friends."
Phillip stood up and took Amy's hand. He bowed low and kissed the back of her hand while she giggled. "I am pleased to meet you, Miss Amy," he said very seriously. Then the giggles won him over, and he laughed as he sat back down. "Your Aunt Sarah told me all about you. I hope she didn't tell you all about me."
Amy's giggles diminished. "She told me you are a very nice man, and lots of fun to grow up with." Amy pointed to Phillip's iron leg. "But she didn't tell me you had a funny leg."
"Amy! That's not polite," Leah said, but Phillip waved his hand in a shushing motion.
"That's all right, Leah. It is a funny leg." He looked directly into Amy's eyes. "I was in a bad accident, and your Aunt Sarah saved my life. But the accident took away part of my leg, and the doctors gave me this new one to take its place."
Amy frowned in thought. "Aunt Sarah saved your life?" Obviously, the peg leg was already forgotten in light of this new information.
"Yes, she did."
"Mama said that when someone saves your life, they are . . . they are . . . what's the rest of that, Mama?"
"They are responsible for you forever and ever," Leah finished for her.
"Really?" Phillip grinned and lifted his gaze to meet Sarah's matching grin. "If that's true, I think I might be in trouble."
Sarah's grin turned sly, and she quirked an eyebrow as she nodded. Then a picture of Faith ministering to her wounded leg flitted across her mind and her smile disappeared. Forget Faith! she told herself. Sure, she saved your life, but then she threw it away. Not what you would call "feeling responsible."
Amy's attention turned to the portrait lying on the table. "Hey, you have a picture of Mister Walker."
The three adults stared at her, astonished. Sarah recovered first. "You've seen that man?"
Amy nodded. "He was helping Mister Bullens at the stable. But I haven't seen him for a long time."
Phillip clapped his hands. "Sounds like a good lead has fallen right into our laps."
Sarah squeezed Amy. "You mean right into my lap." Amy giggled again then gave Sarah a hug back. She jumped down as Leah told her to go change into play clothes. "And please don't say anything to anyone about Mister Walker," Sarah called as the youngster left the room.
"Looks like I'll set up headquarters here in Cranston for the moment," Phillip said.
"How about you, Sarah?" Leah asked. She had remained standing after answering the door and now leaned against a counter, her arms crossed in front of her. "Are you staying for a while?"
"That all depends on Sergeant Angston. Have you heard any more about him? Or Hager?"
Leah shrugged. "Haven't heard nothing recently. Far as I know, Angston's still at the army post just outside of town. Never did find Hager."
"Then I'll investigate the post first." Sarah stood up and tore Stegner's portrait from the pad. She rolled it up and handed it to Phillip. She gathered her drawing pencils and eraser and dropped them into her bag. "Leah, thank you so much for your help."
Phillip stood too. "Yes, I'm in your debt. This is the first solid lead I've had." He waved the roll of paper. "And with this picture of Stegner to show around, it should be fairly easy to track him."
The women hugged and Phillip shook Leah's hand. Sarah called from the doorway, "Tell Amy we said goodbye."
Leah nodded. "You two come back whenever you want to. Tell me what's going on, will you?"
"We'll do that," Phillip said. But Leah noticed that Sarah just waved and went out the door.
The next morning, Sarah finished dressing just moments before Phillip knocked on the door to escort her to breakfast. Their rooms were on the second floor, so they took the stairs down to the hotel's first-floor dining room. Sarah flew down the steps with only a little pain in her bad leg, then turned and watched Phillip as he came down more slowly. "Ladies are supposed to walk sedately, Sarah," he said, only half teasing her.
"Right." Sarah stretched the word sarcastically. Phillip knew she didn't aspire to being ladylike. She waved her hand toward him. "You're doing really well with your leg. I would think steps could be pretty difficult."
"Just plain walking was tough in the beginning," Phillip replied. "You don't realize how much balance your foot gives you until it's gone." He completed his descent, and they walked down the hallway and into the dining room. "I limped a lot at first. But I finally learned to compensate and got rid of most of it."
"Yes, it's barely noticeable. I had a leg wound, and when I get tired, or sore, I limp a little too." They sat at a table and looked quickly at a menu, then gave their orders to a server.
"You say you had a leg wound? Just how many wounds did you suffer that I never heard about?"
Sarah swallowed, stalling to get her voice just right. "Only two major ones-my leg and my head. I got them within a month of each other. A Minie ball broke a bone in my lower leg, and it never really healed right. But the head wound was the one that ended Bren Cordell's army service."
Phillip braced his arms against the table's edge and leaned forward. "When Scott got the letter from your mother about you getting captured and then shot as a Rebel, I was hard hit by the news. We all were. But I have to admit I was glad you were out of the war. And I'm thankful the fighting ended before you got well enough to go back in. With your stubborn streak, I know you would have."
Sarah leaned back and folded her arms. "Well, Phillip, I still have a little more fighting to do."
He frowned. "What's that supposed to mean? Are you talking about Stegner?"
"No." Sarah shook her head. "I'm talking about the Union soldiers who captured me. They were supposed to take me to their camp. I could have revealed my identity there and been released. Instead, they shot me and left me for dead. I'm going to get them for that."
Sarah fell silent, and Phillip sat up straighter as the server brought their food. "I don't understand your thirst for vengeance, Sarah. You've developed a dark side I never saw before."
Copper and red highlights glistened from Sarah's dark hair as she bowed her head. Then she raised her gaze to meet her friend's, and the gold in her eyes deepened. "My thirst isn't for vengeance; it's for justice." She spread a napkin on her lap, then lifted her fork and chopped at a piece of sausage on her plate. "As soon as we finish eating, I'm going looking for the sergeant who was in charge of them."
"What happens when you find him?" Phillip pushed a piece of toast into the yolk of his egg.
Sarah's eyes met Phillip's all the while she chewed the sausage. She swallowed and said, "You don't want to know."
Phillip bit the toast, chewed, and gulped it down. His voice seemed calm, but the toast quivered in his grip as he dunked it back into the egg yolk. "And I can't talk you out of it?"
Sarah pushed the sausage around without spearing any. She looked at Phillip, and her lips curved into a small smile. "Have you ever been able to talk me out of anything?"
"No, damn it!" The words burst from Phillip's mouth. He picked up a second piece of toast and tore it in two. "Not into anything, either."
Sarah laughed out loud, and Phillip finally grinned wryly. She reached over and patted his arm. "Let's finish eating. I'm anxious to get started."
Sarah walked across the army yard and passed through the gate of the wooden fortifications on her way back into town. Her pose as Private Hager's cousin had succeeded perfectly. The sergeant at the post's office had been quickly accommodating when she asked him to excuse her nasty cold, even as she maneuvered a large handkerchief to screen her nose and mouth from his view. A large bonnet pulled tight to the edges of her eyes concealed her scars and slash of white hair, and she shrunk into herself and affected a pronounced stoop to offset her height.
The soldier riffled through some files and informed her Hager mustered out months earlier. When Sarah suggested his friend, Sergeant Angston, might have information about his whereabouts, the soldier agreed and readily told her Angston was currently on leave in town. Sarah thanked him and left.
A few yards from the post walls, she stepped onto the town's boardwalk and hurried the two blocks to her hotel. She went to her room, stripped and packed the clothes she wore, and donned the clothes and beard she had worn as Bren Cordell. As she tied her hair back, she casually noted that the change of clothes also caused a change in her demeanor. Almost instantly, she became more focused, harder minded, more like her old self. But that old self was not Bren Cordell, who no longer existed. She was Sarah Coulter no matter how she dressed.
She took the gun and holster from their resting place and strapped on the belt. Grasping the two pieces of rawhide hanging from the bottom of the holster, she wrapped them around her thigh and tied them tight, anchoring the holster to her leg. Her fingers lifted to the gun's butt, and she slid the revolver out and checked its load. After she pushed the piece back into the holster, she was so anxious to get moving, she had to force herself to pack her belongings methodically into her valise.
Sarah searched the room, checking drawers and closet. Satisfied she had left nothing behind, she tossed her saddlebags over her left shoulder, slapped a slouch hat on her head, lifted the valise, and walked out the door. Downstairs, she checked the valise in Sarah Coulter's name. The obviously confused clerk opened his mouth, but the look Sarah gave him squelched any questions. Nodding to him curtly, she turned away and headed for the livery stable.
When she had taken but a few steps into the dim and pungent atmosphere, a horse whickered nearly in her ear, bringing her head around in a hurry. Redfire! It was indeed Redfire, hanging his head over a stall gate. Bren flung her arms around the stallion's russet neck and hid her face against him to conceal the tears of joy filling her eyes. She heard footsteps approaching and fought to compose her features. "You know that horse?" a nasal, but friendly, voice inquired.
Sarah patted Redfire and took an off-balance step back as the horse kept nuzzling her. With a lame chuckle, she replied, "He seems to think he knows me. Reminds me of one I used to have." She looked toward the man whose sweat-stained and straw-sprinkled clothes proclaimed him the stable keeper. A chaw of tobacco swelled one side of his jaw. "Is he yours?"
"Nah." The man lifted a hand to the area between Redfire's ears and scratched the animal's tuft of hair. "Lady name of Mizzus Pruitt boards him here. Sold her other one, but kept this'n. Said he belongs to a friend. She has 'im up for hire if yer just looking for a temporary ride."
The thought tempted Sarah. She could hire Redfire and never bring him back. She wondered if you could be arrested for stealing your own horse. But the man's next words rid her of that temptation. "Her boy comes here nigh every day and takes this'n out. Calls him Redfire. You ever seen two that belong together like eggs and grits, it's those two. Hell, that young 'un don't even use a saddle; just puts the bridle on, grabs a bit of mane, and flops up bareback."
Sarah figured Benjamin must be a head taller now if he could mount bareback. She smiled at the picture in her mind, even as she denied the yearning in her heart.
The stable keeper spat tobacco juice onto the dirt floor, then eyed Sarah speculatively. "I sure hope that friend ain't in no big hurry to come back for his horse. Be a damn shame to deprive the boy of an animal he cares so much about."
Sarah lightly punched Redfire's shoulder, then rubbed the spot with the palm of her hand as the horse butted her with his head. "I'd have to agree with that." She turned her back for a moment and swallowed the pain of knowing she had to walk away from an animal that was family to her. Someday she would have him back. Someday. She pulled herself together and turned again to the man. "I need to buy one. Tack too. You have any for sale?"
"I got three. Best 'un is a nice broad-shouldered chestnut. Tack comes with him." Sarah examined the horses and decided on the chestnut. He was a powerfully built horse and looked like he could run forever. She paid the stable keeper, saddled and mounted the horse, and rode up the street to the nearest saloon, not allowing herself to look back. She noticed right away that the chestnut put his hooves down with a heavier thud than Redfire did, like a drumbeat. Drummer; she would call him Drummer. She dismounted, gave his shoulder a hard pat, and hitched him to a rail.
Sarah yanked her hat lower over her eyes and walked into the saloon. She strolled slowly toward the bar, which formed a large half-oval against the far wall. Her eyes roved over the patrons, only a few at this early hour of the day. Her heart punched heavily against the inside of her chest as she recognized Angston just rising from a seat at one of the round tables scattered about the floor.
The day has just turned luckier, Sarah thought, as Angston headed toward a side door that probably led to an alley. Sarah did an about face and strolled back out the swinging doors she had come in. As soon as her feet touched the boardwalk, she hurried to the edge of the building and looked around the corner. Sure enough, Angston was in the alley, standing with his back to Sarah, in the unmistakable pose of a man relieving himself.
With a glance around, Sarah saw the street was empty. She slipped into the alley, pulled out her pistol, and quietly walked up behind Angston. She let him finish buttoning his fly before she sapped him behind the ear with the revolver's butt. He slumped to the ground without a sound. Sarah took the soldier's sidearm from his holster and tucked it into her belt. A quick search for other weapons revealed only a sheathed knife, which she removed. After hurrying back to the front of the building, she placed the knife and gun in Drummer's saddlebag, untied the horse and led him into the alley where she laid a rock onto the ends of the reins to keep him still. She pulled some rope and a blanket from the saddlebags and hefted Angston across Drummer's rump behind the saddle. She reached under Drummer to tie Angston's hands to his feet, thankful the horse didn't shy at this arrangement. Then she covered Angston's form with the blanket and tucked it in around him, completely concealing him.
With this accomplished, she retrieved the reins, mounted Drummer, and steered him slowly through the main part of town. The few people about paid her little notice. Once past the town's center, she headed down a side street and into the woods. The exact spot where the soldiers had forced themselves on her was burned into Sarah's memory, and she took Angston to the same location.
She dismounted and tethered Drummer to a tree beside the clearing. Checking first to make sure Angston hadn't revived, she untied him and dropped him on the ground. She stuck the rope in her pocket and searched the saddlebag for the four good-size wooden pegs she had bought for this specific purpose. After she got the pegs, she pounded them into the ground with the handle of the knife she carried in a sheath at her belt. Then she removed the rope from her pocket and cut it into four pieces, laying one piece near each peg.
Angston stirred, so Sarah walked over to him. The sergeant grabbed the side of his head with one hand and sat up. "What the h-" Sarah clobbered him on the other side of his head with her gun barrel and watched with satisfaction as he fell heavily against the sparse grass. She moved to his feet, turned her back and lifted each foot, removing his boots. She turned again, cut Angston's suspenders with her knife, and pulled off his pants and underdrawers. She stowed the knife back in its sheath, then grabbed Angston's shirttails and ripped open his shirt, her lip curling at the popping sound made by the metal buttons. After she yanked the shirt and undershirt off together, she dragged the nude man to the center of the pegs and tied his arms and legs to them, spread-eagled. Then she sat next to him, crossed her legs, and waited for him to revive.
Soon, his eyes flickered open. He tried to move. Though there was a little stretch in the ropes, he quickly realized he was tied down. Sarah relished the look of fear that ran across his face then played back across his features when he became aware he was naked. His gaze jumped around like a treed squirrel until it lit on her.
"Who the hell are you? What's going on?" His effort to be bold sounded blustery instead.
Sarah stood and loomed above his head so he could see her better. "Take a good look, Angston. See if you remember me." She lifted off her hat and laid it upside down on the ground. Then she removed the false beard and set it in the hat. She lifted her arms and untied her hair, letting it fall around her face as she looked down at him. "Now do you remember me? Do you remember this clearing?"
Angston's brows came together in a frown, and he stared hard at Sarah. Then his face paled and his jaw went slack. "It can't be. It can't be. You're dead. I saw Hager shoot you."
"Hmph!" Sarah snorted a laugh and slammed a kick into Angston's side with her booted toe. "Yes, he shot me." She ran her hand over her face and hair. "That's where I got these scars. But he didn't kill me. You should have been more thorough, Sergeant. You should have checked."
Angston's gaze again flashed around erratically, obviously looking for help, knowing that none would arrive. "So what are you gonna do?" he wailed. He seemed to shrink into himself as Sarah stood silent, staring at him like a stone statue. His wail turned into a whine. "Are you going to kill me?"
Sarah let him squirm for a while as he waited for her answer. "If you remember, that's what I promised. But first, you're going to suffer, just as I did." As Sarah spoke, she stepped across one of Angston's legs and placed herself between his spread limbs, facing him. "Of course, I'm not about to rape you, but I can make you hurt just the same." She curled her hands into fists, drew back her foot and kicked him between the legs, hard enough to cause extreme pain, but not enough to kill him. She didn't want him to die too soon. Angston screamed and writhed for a good two minutes before finally stopping. Then Sarah drew back her foot again. She held it there for a long moment. Tears streamed down Angston's cheeks, but he couldn't take his eyes off her foot. She faked a kick several times, until he stopped flinching, then she kicked him again. It took longer this time for Angston to calm himself. His body heaved as he struggled to gulp in air. Sarah lifted her foot again, and a nasty smile spread across her face as Angston screamed for mercy. "I'll show you as much mercy as you showed me." He flinched and whimpered again and again as she merely jabbed at him with her toe. Finally, she drew back her foot and kicked him for the third time. "That's one kick for each rape, you bastard."
Sarah stepped over his leg and walked away as Angston continued to scream. Such murderous blackness filled her that she hardly recognized herself. She paced back and forth, back and forth, trying to rein in her fury. She had wreaked her vengeance, at least part of it, and she didn't feel any better for it. Angston deserved it. He had been the instigator, but there was no way a court would punish him for his crime. Sarah had no evidence. And shouldn't the punishment fit the crime? Well, Sarah had seen to that. He had suffered as he should. Now it was time to finish with him.
Sarah pulled her revolver and strode over to Angston. The soldier's eyes were jammed closed, his face contorted in pain. He heard her and barely opened his eyes. Then he saw the gun in her hand, and his eyes closed again for a moment. They reopened when he heard the cock of the hammer. "You gonna kill me now?" His voice was a hoarse whisper, merely a remnant of his usual loud tone.
Sarah put the end of the gun barrel against Angston's forehead. "You have about five seconds to make peace with your Creator," she said, her words as flat and metallic as a ringer thumping against a broken bell. But should she kill him, which he surely deserved? Or should she wound him the same as she was wounded and let him go through life seeing the scars every time he looked in the mirror? Seeing them every time he looked into a woman's eyes. Should she, or shouldn't she? Sarah thought about it as the recognition of his death grew in Angston's eyes. Then she made her decision and pulled the trigger.
Sarah stopped at Leah's just long enough to let her know she was leaving town. Too wound up for visiting, she didn't even step inside when Leah came to the door. "I'll be going after Hager, now," she said in greeting.
Leah raised a hand to shade her eyes as she looked up at Sarah. "You found Angston?" Sarah's head jerked in a short nod. "What happened? Did you kill him?"
Sarah pulled her gaze away from Leah's piercing look and stared off into the distance, her face set. Leah waited a moment, then laid a hand on Sarah's arm and squeezed. "Hager could be anywhere, you know?" she said, turning the topic away from Angston. "You might never find him."
Sarah jerked another nod. "I have to try. I'm heading toward Cleveland. I'll see what I can find out there."
Leah opened her arms and Sarah stepped into her embrace. As the two hugged, Leah said, "You take care of yourself, Bren Cordell, or Sarah Coulter, or whoever you are. You both take care of yourselves." Sarah gave her an extra squeeze, kissed her on the cheek, and stepped back.
"You too, Leah. I'll keep in touch." Sarah turned and walked away. When she got back to the hotel, Phillip wasn't there. She collected some hotel stationery, pen, and ink and wrote Phillip a letter goodbye. She told him any mail for her could be sent in care of General Delivery in Cleveland. Afterward, she gave the clerk her home address and left some money for him to ship her belongings there. For this search, she would continue to use Bren Cordell as her name, but she would forego the now unnecessary beard and mustache. Her scars gave her easy credibility as a wounded veteran.
With her business in Cranston taken care of, she left the hotel, the town, and the state on her way to Ohio. To find Hager.
Sarah sat on the edge of the hotel bed, fingering the letter she had just read. She frowned and swore under her breath. It was bad enough that she had been all over Ohio for the past five months-winter and most of spring- without finding one shred of useful information about Hager's whereabouts. Now she had received a letter from Lindsay asking her to return home for a visit that would coincide with Jessica's first birthday.
Her gaze lifted to the calendar hanging on the opposite wall. On May 10, two weeks from now, Jessica would be a year old.
Since beginning this part of her journey, Sarah had forced herself to stay focused on finding Hager. She refused to allow any thoughts about the baby to swerve her from her goal. The letter jarred her resolve, and buried memories swirled to the surface bringing her daughter into sharp focus.
My daughter? She's not my daughter anymore, Sarah reminded herself. I gave her away to Lindsay and Scott. Memories of the weight of Jessie in her arms, the warmth of the baby against her body, and the pull of that tiny mouth suckling at her breast rushed upon Sarah unexpectedly. She could almost smell the baby's freshness and feel the soft smoothness of her skin. A bolt of yearning shot through her, and she fought to recover from it.
Sarah had purposely refused to hold her child except for feedings, apprehensive of the growing bond that nursing induced. She threw reproachful looks at Lindsay whenever her sister-in-law tried to hand the baby to her. Sarah hadn't been able to get past the fact that this child came from the seed of a man who violated her. She didn't want to get past it. When she found Hager, she intended to kill him. All of his tears and pleas for forgiveness hadn't stopped him from performing the act. And it wouldn't stop her.
But she owed it to Lindsay and Scott to go home for a visit, if that's what they wanted. She folded the letter and slipped it back into its envelope. She stood and walked over to her saddlebags, which lay on the floor next to the bureau. Squatting down, she slipped the letter into one side of the bags, then stood back up and took a pencil from its place on the bureau. After moving a couple of steps to the calendar, she circled May 10 and sighed. I can do this.
Sarah let go of the handle and straightened up. "I'm sure the ice cream will be hard enough. I can barely turn the crank," she called to Lindsay from the back porch. In the bucket, a mixture of rock salt and ice surrounded the steel cylinder full of ice cream and would keep the treat cold until they were ready to eat it. She heaped some more salt-ice mixture over the crank mechanism and covered everything with a piece of burlap, then entered the kitchen through the screen door.
Lindsay handed Sarah a tray filled with small plates and forks for the birthday cake and spoons for the ice cream. The vanilla-flavored ice cream would be served straight from the mixer into individual bowls and topped with sugared strawberries. "I invited Theo and Phillip to join us for the celebration," the smaller woman said.
Sarah had intended to take the tray into the dining room but stopped and half-turned toward Lindsay. "Phillip has come home?"
Shortly after arriving at the Coulter residence, Sarah had learned Phillip was still in Cranston, using it as a base in his continuing search for Stegner. Nevertheless, Sarah had gone to the Showell home to visit Theo. Phillip had told Theo of Sarah's scarring, but still he had been stunned at her appearance. She satisfied his pragmatic mind by reciting every tiny detail of her wounds without filling in the particulars of her betrayal or even mentioning the soldiers' assault on her. She didn't see any reason to tell Theo or Phillip about either situation; the knowledge would only disturb them. Scott, Lindsay, and the older Coulters remained the only ones who knew the whole story, and Jessica had been accepted as their daughter without question.
Lindsay waved a couple of linen napkins she had just picked up. "I'm sorry. I meant to tell you earlier, but with all the party preparations, it slipped my mind. Scott saw Theo this morning and he said Phillip got home last night. With an announcement."
Sarah turned full face to Lindsay and leaned a shoulder against the wall, bracing the tray against her hip. For some reason her leg pained her more than usual today. "What kind of announcement?"
Lindsay's dark curls danced as she shook her head. "Theo wouldn't say. I guess Phillip wants to surprise us with something."
Sarah moved away from the wall and pushed the door with an elbow. She heard Scott's voice raised in greeting. The opening door gave her a clear view through the dining room and drawing room and into the foyer. What she saw made her gasp, and she turned quickly back toward Lindsay. Her whole body sagged, and Lindsay grabbed the platter from her hands just as Sarah's slack fingers lost their hold on it.
"What's wrong?" Lindsay asked, concern coloring her face as Sarah paled and the taller woman braced herself against the door jamb. Lindsay set the platter on the table and took hold of Sarah's arm, offering support as she led her to a chair. "Are you feeling ill?"
"It's her," Sarah whispered. Shock had jolted through her, causing momentary paralysis and interfering with her power of speech. She struggled with turbulent thoughts. Faith! Why was she here? What was she doing with Phillip?
Lindsay's voice broke through to her muddled brain. "Who? Who is it, Sarah?" She leaned closer to hear.
"Faith Pruitt . . . the woman who betrayed me. She just came through the front door."
Lindsay's eyes grew wide. She moved to the door and pulled it softly closed before hurrying back to sit at Sarah's side. "That must be Phillip's surprise. But why would she be with him? Does he know who she is . . . I mean, in relation to you?"
Sarah's head jerked side-to-side. "No. I told him only a bare outline of being wounded. I guess he could tell I didn't want to talk about it, and he never pressed me for details." She laid the heel of one hand against the table and began tapping all four fingers against the surface. "I can't go in there, Lindsay."
"You have to, Sarah, if only to greet Phillip. You can't just ignore him." She touched Sarah's arm. "Please don't let this question upset you, but would she even connect you with the Rebel soldier she treated? You're a northerner, you've gained weight since then, your hair is longer, and you aren't speaking with the drawl you used." She grinned wryly. "Not to mention that now you actually look like a woman."
Sarah calmed down and considered what Lindsay said. "She never saw me without my beard and mustache either. Or with a scarred face. You could be right about her not recognizing me. But that's only part of the reason for my distress." Her drumming fingers stopped and she made a fist. "Damn it! I trusted the woman, and she turned me in to soldiers she thought of as my enemy." That thought pulled another right behind it. "What's Phillip doing with a Rebel, anyway?"
As the shock of seeing Faith wore off, Sarah's heart thudded for a very different reason. She recognized that Lindsay's earlier assessment had been correct: she had an emotional connection with Faith. But was she really in love with her? She didn't know how else to interpret the yearning she felt. Would seeing Faith strengthen that yearning or help her get rid of feelings that weren't entirely welcome? How could she reconcile her desires with the terrible cloud of rejection Faith's betrayal had cast over her?
"How do you know she's a Rebel?"
"She was married to one." Once again, Sarah chided herself-Faith had been married. That in itself should be proof that her own desires were misplaced. She had beat that into her head a thousand times, but with frustrating stubbornness, her heart refused to listen to reason.
The door opened, and Scott stuck his head through. "What's the holdup, ladies? Our guests are here. All except Theo, that is. He was called away."
Lindsay smiled at him. "We'll be right out, dear. Are the children behaving?"
"Jessie is still sound asleep in the crib, but Pres is getting a bit anxious. Try to hurry, will you? Phillip has something he's dying to tell you both."
Lindsay changed to a coaxing tone. "Give us a clue?"
Scott's gaze flicked from his wife to his sister and back. "Not on your life. Or rather, mine. Phillip would kill me."
Lindsay stood and offered Scott the tray she had taken from Sarah earlier. "Set this on the table, please. We'll bring the cake and get Phillip's news. Then as soon as Jessie wakes, we can serve the ice cream."
Scott opened the door farther and took the tray from his wife. "Hurry up, please" he said again, then returned to the dining room.
Lindsay patted Sarah's shoulder. "Are you ready?"
Sarah sighed. "No. But waiting longer won't make it any easier." She rose as Lindsay lifted the cake from the table, then followed her out.
Lindsay set the cake on the dining room table and proceeded into the drawing room with Sarah beside her.
Phillip spied the women right away and came toward them with arms outstretched. First he hugged Sarah and kissed her cheek, then repeated the greeting with Lindsay. "Hello! I've missed you," he said, then continued without hesitation. "I've brought some people I want you to meet."
Sarah glimpsed Faith seated off to her right and was chagrined that Faith would see the scarred side of her face first. That reaction disturbed her. Why should it matter? She didn't mean anything to Faith. Another figure entered her peripheral vision and lightened her dark mood a little. Benjamin stood next to his mother. Seeing the youngster brought a flood of warmth. He must be nearly ten, Sarah mused. He's grown several inches taller.
Phillip put an arm around each woman and steered them over toward Faith, then he stepped off to the side. "Ladies, I want you to meet my fiancée, Mrs. Faith Pruitt. Faith, this is Scott's wife, Lindsay, and his sister, Sarah."
Lindsay moved next to Sarah as Faith rose to greet them. Sarah stiffened at the word "fiancée," and she knew Lindsay was conscious of it. The "how do you do" coming from her own lips sounded clipped and cold even to her, but Lindsay's greeting was warm. "Welcome to our home, Mrs. Pruitt. We're delighted to meet you."
"Thank you, Mrs. Coulter. I'm delighted to be here. But please, call me Faith."
"Only if you call me Lindsay. She glanced at Sarah, who remained silent.
Faith turned aside. "This is my son, Benjamin."
Benjamin bowed slightly as the two women smiled at him. "Welcome, Benjamin," Lindsay said. "Do you like ice cream?"
"Yes, ma'am." Benjamin's smile would have been answer enough.
Lindsay gestured toward Sarah. "Perhaps you would like to help Miss Coulter get the ice cream from the mixer?" Benjamin smiled and nodded.
"Come with me, then," Sarah said, while blessing Lindsay for her quick thinking. Coming face-to-face with Faith disturbed her even more than she expected, affirming that she needed more time to adjust. She put a hand on Benjamin's shoulder and steered him into the kitchen.
Sarah stopped for a moment and took a deep breath, then she let go of the boy's shoulder and fetched a heavy scoop and two spoons from a drawer. She nodded toward the table. "Please wash your hands first, then bring those bowls, and we can fill them with ice cream and set them on the table. Mrs. Coulter mixed some sugared strawberries to put on top of each bowl. How does that sound?"
"That sounds good," Benjamin said with a shy smile. He washed and dried his hands, picked up the bowls, and followed Sarah outside. The roofed porch was encircled by top and bottom white rails, with matching slats between. Otherwise open to the air, it wrapped around two sides of the house with short steps at front and back giving access to it. The boy blinked in the bright sunshine as his gaze swept the view of the grassy yard and surrounding trees. A slight breeze lifted the front of his hair like invisible fingers clearing his brow. His gaze ended on an oaken bucket-size tub sitting on one of six straight-backed chairs that encircled a wooden table. A tan burlap bag lay across the top of the tub.
Sarah saw curiosity bloom on his face. "Before we do anything else, Benjamin, I think you better take off that good-looking jacket and hang it on one of the chair backs." She watched him obey her suggestion, and she nodded as he rolled up his shirtsleeves.
With the boy hovering next to her, Sarah lifted the burlap bag and laid it on the porch floor. Then she grabbed the tub's handle and tipped the machine toward the burlap. She cleaned out some of the ice and rock salt packed between the wooden tub and a metal cylinder centered within it. She directed the sodden mess onto the burlap bag then set the tub straight again. "Have you ever seen an ice cream maker?"
"No, ma'am. I had ice cream at some parties, but I never saw anyone make it."
Pointing to a crank handle protruding from a metal apparatus connected across the top of the tub, Sarah said, "Try to give that a turn. Use both hands." Benjamin put his hands on the handle and tried to turn it, but it barely moved. Sarah grinned. "That's good. It means the ice cream is hard enough to eat."
Benjamin's face had reddened with the exertion, and he released the crank. "How does this make ice cream?"
"You see the cylinder in the middle?" Benjamin nodded as Sarah unhooked the crank apparatus and bent it back across the top of the tub on its hinges, freeing the cylinder. A short metal rod poked through the top of the cylinder cap. Sarah unscrewed the cap. "There are several different recipes, but this is a pretty plain one. You pour measured amounts of cream, sugar, and vanilla flavoring into this cylinder which also contains a dasher."
The cap came off and Benjamin leaned forward and grinned at sight of the ice cream. "Then you put the top back on, hook the crank across so it clamps onto these gears on top of the lid," she pointed to them, "and pack ice and rock salt into the tub all around the cylinder. Then you start cranking. It's easy at first, but as the ice cream thickens, it gets harder. And when the cream is almost solid, like now, you can't turn it anymore, so you just have to eat it." Benjamin's grin grew wider.
"But the workers get paid first," Sarah flashed a conspiratorial smile. "Remember I said there's a dasher inside the cylinder? Well, this is the piece that trails through the liquid and mixes it as you crank. It keeps the ice cream smooth, too." Her fingers worked down into the cream next to the protruding rod, and she hooked them around something and slowly pulled on it. A flat, cast iron frame with six narrow panels of swiveled wood-three on each side-lifted from the cylinder, carrying some of the frozen cream with it. Benjamin looked so enraptured that Sarah's throat threatened to close. She remembered that same look on his face when he finished a difficult piece of drawing. She wanted to hug him, but knew she couldn't; he had no idea she was Bren Cordell. What would happen if he found out? Undoubtedly the revelation would shock him; he thought Bren was a man.
Sarah's voice came out as a whisper, which fortunately suited the occasion. "Grab a spoon," she nodded toward the two she had brought out and set on the table, "and have a seat." She sat down next to him, laying the contraption on a large platter put out for that purpose. "The first taste is ours."
After watching Benjamin attack the frozen dessert on the dasher with gusto and taking a few spoonfuls herself, Sarah regained tenuous control of her emotions. "So, Benjamin, do you have any hobbies?"
Benjamin's dark head nodded as he finished swallowing. "I like to draw."
Sarah made herself look surprised, but she didn't have to fake her delight that Benjamin would tell her about it. "So do I. What do you like to draw?"
Benjamin shrugged one shoulder as shyness crept in for one last appearance. "Just about anything. I'm not real good yet."
"Would you show me some of your drawings? Maybe we can work together and learn from each other." Sarah nipped a small bite of ice cream, giving him time to consider her offer. Then it occurred to her that he probably had left his pictures at home. "Did you bring any with you?"
"We brought just about everything with us. Mama said we're going to live here now."
Sarah struggled to keep her expression pleasant. Why did that remark bring a twinge to her heart, she wondered. But she knew the answer. She was torn between wanting to see more of Faith and accepting that the woman who owned her heart was going to marry one of her best friends. Owned her heart? Yes, she admitted; in spite of what Faith had done to her, Sarah wanted to hold her and kiss her and . . . She yanked her thoughts up short. Experiencing this consuming desire for a woman confused her. And the passage of time had only made the desire-and the confusion-stronger.
She looked over to see Benjamin waiting for her attention. "You'll be happy here, Benjamin. This is a friendly town, and Mr. Showell is a very good man." She smiled. "Have you decided about showing me your drawings?"
"All right. I like when people help me. A soldier stayed with us for a while, and he showed me a lot." Benjamin merely licked at his next spoonful of ice cream, as though he had more to say, so Sarah pretended to eat too. Finally, he swallowed the spoonful, took a quick breath, and poured out a rush of words. "He went away in a hurry, and we still have his drawing book. He draws really good. I'll ask Mama if I can show it to you." After the outburst, Sarah handed him the dasher to lick clean, and he concentrated on eating.
She was delighted they had preserved her journal, but she kicked herself mentally for not being wiser about offering to help Benjamin. The boy had a good eye for art; when he saw the drawings side-by-side, he would know at a glance that hers looked just like Bren Cordell's. But would he make the leap from a bearded male soldier with a heavy drawl to a longer-haired female with no drawl at all? And scars? Probably not, though children can be surprising with their uncanny perceptions.
Sarah's thoughts darted around like leaves scattered by the wind. Would her current masquerade hold up? She didn't fool Faith the first time, but the circumstances played against her then. Why not just tell Faith who she was? Why try to mislead her? Sarah clamped her mouth tight, trying to hold down the lip that wanted to sneer. Because she betrayed me! The words screamed in her head. She knew if the secret of Bren Cordell came out, she would throw that betrayal in Faith's face and demand an accounting for it. So why not do that now? Why not?
Because of Phillip, Sarah thought with a sigh. If she accused Faith in front of everyone else, people would be forced to make choices. Scott and Lindsay knew everything that had happened and most likely would come down on her side, but Phillip would be caught in the middle. Faith was his bride-to-be, and he would be loyal to her, even though his choice might ostracize him from the Coulter family. Sarah just couldn't put him in that position. He was too good a friend; too fine a person. She would keep her silence and pray everything worked out somehow. The whole situation cast a gray pall over her.
Benjamin had cleaned the dasher of the last traces of ice cream, so Sarah nodded toward it. "You want to put that in the sink and wash your hands again? And give your face a swipe too." When Benjamin finished, he came back to the porch where Sarah was now standing with the scoop in her hand. She gave him a smile, then scooped the cream from the cylinder into the bowls.
"I feel like I've known you for a long time. I think we'll be friends."
Sarah's movements froze, and two seconds later, she forced a laugh. "I think we will too." She turned and winked her good eye at the boy. "You may be a very young man, Benjamin, but you already sound like a grownup."
"Well, here come the ice cream servers! We thought you got lost." Scott held Jessie in one arm as he rose and helped Sarah pass along the two bowls she carried. Then he handed Jessie toward her. "Here, Aunt Sarah, give Jessie her birthday kiss."
Sarah visibly stiffened as Jessie reached out for her. She awkwardly took the child into her arms and raised her up to her cheek. Scott stayed nearby, apparently expecting Jessie would be handed back soon. "She's not going to bite you, Sarah." A light danced in his eyes. "She doesn't know you well enough, yet."
Phillip's laugh brayed out before he had a chance to stop himself. "Good one, Scott," he said. Sarah turned his way and lifted one eyebrow, causing Phillip to push a napkin to his mouth in a weak attempt to smother any further expressions of hilarity. He turned red with the effort, bringing smiles from both Lindsay and Faith.
Sarah pitched her voice higher and batted her long lashes. "I do declare, sir. No one's ever known me well enough to bite me." This brought more smiles and Phillip's face grew even redder. Then a suppressed memory of Angston's attack leaped into her mind, and Sarah's voice and expression turned hard. "Without dire consequences."
Scott jumped into the silence met by this rapid change of mood. "Give Jessie back, and let's get this party going before the ice cream melts." Sarah shook her head as if to clear it and passed Jessie back to him just as the youngster began to squirm and call for "Da-Da."
Scott held her in his arms and took her hand. Whirling her around like a dance partner, he moved to the head of the table. Jessie laughed with glee as the ribbons on her pinafore bow lifted in the air behind her. "Thank you, my dear," Scott said as he sat Jessie in the place of honor and bowed, bringing another laugh.
Benjamin finished placing the bowls of ice cream topped with strawberries, then he donned his suit coat and sat beside his mother. With young Pres' help, Jessie blew out the one large candle sitting in the middle of bright yellow icing. Lindsay cut and served the lemon-flavored slices on delicate Haviland cake plates ringed with gold and trimmed with tiny bouquets of blue and pink flowers.
The birthday gifts had been set in the middle of the drawing room floor, and after Jessie opened them, the children remained there, playing. Benjamin pulled a bag of lead soldiers from his trouser pocket, and he and Pres fought battles with them, as Jessie investigated a new doll, turning it over and over and pulling its arms and legs. The adults returned to the dining room for coffee and kept an eye on the children through the arched double doorway between the rooms.
"Scott," Faith said, after a lull in conversation while the adults fixed their coffee, "I was wondering if you had been in the war?" He looks so much like Bren, she thought. Heavier and no beard, and he's a man. But the resemblance is uncanny. Or maybe I'm just wishing there were a connection between them. She smiled and shook her head when Lindsay offered her more cake.
"I wasn't in it," he answered and his disappointment showed in his voice. "Phillip and Theo got a chance to go, but I had to stay and run the family foundry. We made cannons during the war."
Phillip spoke as he accepted another slice of cake from Lindsay. "And he'll likely never let us forget he got left out. When we played soldiers as children, Scott was always at least a colonel."
Scott grinned at Phillip's reminiscence. "And Sarah was always the general." He reached for the cake plate handed to him and nodded his thanks to Lindsay. "I think we spoiled her, always letting her have her way." Sarah was so unprepared for Faith's question, she almost forgot to project the expected glare.
Phillip snorted, but remained silent as Faith persisted with her questions. "I met a soldier who looked almost exactly like you, especially your coloring and your smile. He was very thin and wore a beard, but he could have passed for your brother. He stayed with us for a while, because he was wounded."
Scott swallowed a forkful of cake. "Sorry, couldn't have been me. I might have had some distant cousins who served without my knowing, but I don't have any brothers." He turned and smiled at Sarah, barely winking the eye Faith couldn't see. "Just a sister." He reached for his cup and drank some coffee.
Sarah could have strangled Scott. It seemed to her that Faith jumped at the opening. "Sarah? Did you fight in the war?"
Sarah pulled in her chin and sat up to her full height. Still, Faith was tall too, and Sarah had to tilt her head back to give the impression of looking down her nose. "What a strange question. Do you know any women who fought?"
Faith glanced toward the children, then she lowered her voice. "As a matter of fact, the soldier I just spoke of was a woman, though I prefer that my son doesn't know."
Sarah touched her fingers to her scarred face. "Don't tell me she was wounded in the head." She smiled inwardly when she saw Faith not quite succeed at suppressing a wince.
Faith clasped her hands in her lap and leaned forward. "No, her wound was in her leg."
Sarah's fingers toyed with a coffee spoon. "What happened to her? Did she go back to fighting?"
Sarah's stomach clenched when Faith's red curls bounced as she shook her head. The woman actually managed to look sad. "No, she was captured by Union soldiers."
The china saucer rang as Sarah dropped her spoon onto it. She raised her voice. "By the Union? Are you talking about a Rebel? You dare to think that Scott might have been a Rebel soldier?"
Phillip cleared his throat. "Sarah, the war's over, remember? We're not Union and Confederate anymore. We're all Americans. We need to make peace with each other."
"Of course we do." Sarcasm painted her words as she looked from Phillip to Faith and back again. "And we can see you've already made your little contribution to that effort." She didn't harbor any ill feeling toward Phillip, she just needed an excuse to leave the group before she exploded. Sitting so close to Faith and conversing with her had roused emotions that dashed from anger to desire to regret. Confused, Sarah struggled to marshal all her defenses, and they were in imminent danger of crumbling.
Phillip's face turned red, but he was too much of a gentleman to join an argument with Sarah at Jessie's party. When Sarah got up, he rose too, and tossed his napkin on the table. But he didn't say a word.
"If you'll excuse me, I'll begin cleaning up the table." Sarah picked up her dishes and let her gaze sweep right past Phillip and Faith, barely acknowledging them with a nod. In her peripheral vision, she saw Scott wave Phillip back to his seat as she entered the kitchen.
She set the dishes in the sink and went out onto the porch to give the spring breeze a chance to cool her brow, and maybe, her emotions. She paced the wraparound porch, turned at the corner and walked the full distance across the front of the house before retracing her footsteps. After half an hour of such pacing, she stopped and stood at the edge of the porch, leaned her hands against the rail, and gazed unseeing into the distance. After a while, she closed her eyes and just stood there.
Sarah's bad ear was on the side nearest the kitchen's screened door, and she didn't know Lindsay had come through it until the smaller woman touched her on the side. Her body jerked, then she turned around and leaned back against the rail, folding her arms across her chest.
"I'm sorry," Lindsay said, "I didn't mean to startle you." She patted Sarah's arm tentatively. "Are you all right?"
Sarah's crossed arms rose high and fell, moved by the deep breath she forced herself to take. "I'm not going back in there." Her voice was flat, devoid of the emotion she had pounded back into its prison. "I can't."
"It's all right, they've gone." Sarah heaved another deep breath, this one of relief. Lindsay tilted her head in the endearing way Sarah couldn't resist. "Does Phillip know you're the one Faith was talking about? Or that she told the Union soldiers where you were?"
Sarah switched her gaze to the brown-planked porch floor and spoke softly. "Apparently not. She must not have told him my name. I never gave him all the details of my wounding, and he understood I didn't want to talk about it. I made him take an oath never to tell anyone I had been in the war. It's nobody else's business." Her voice took on a sharper edge. "Besides, I didn't want any connection made between me and those animals I vowed vengeance on."
"Are you going to tell him?"
Should I, Sarah wondered. How could I hurt Phillip when I'm not even sure that Faith cares about me as a person let alone as a love interest. Sarah's folded arms lifted again, this time in a shrug. "What's the point? He cares enough about the woman to marry her. Why should I cast doubt on his choice?" She stood up straight, uncrossed her arms, and turned again to gaze out across the lawn. With unconscious grace, she lifted her hands and ran her fingers up into her hair, pushing it straight up into a fountain that flowed back down around her shoulders as her fingers passed through. She dropped her arms to her sides just as the setting sun angled its rays beneath the porch roof. The golden light bathed Sarah's face in a warm glow, outlining her full lips and accentuating her amber eyes. Copper highlights danced in every movement of her dark hair.
She heard Lindsay's breath hiss and, turning slightly toward her, raised an eyebrow. Lindsay's hand lifted and her fingertips touched gently against Sarah's jawline. "You really are quite beautiful, Sarah Coulter. Inside and out. That woman is a fool."
It took Sarah a moment to digest the statements, but when she did, a chuckle started low in her belly and bubbled to the surface. She threw her arms wide and gathered Lindsay into a hug. "Oh, Lindsay," she said, "I'm so happy you're my sister-in-law. You are so good for my ego."
Lindsay's arms tightened around Sarah, then she let go and stepped back. "Sarah . . ." The look on Lindsay's face carried a warning of bad news that brought the lightness of the moment to a halt. "I have to tell you something Scott did . . . and you're not going to like it."
Sarah resumed her pose against the porch rail, and her crossed arms lifted once more as she inhaled deeply and then blew her breath out forcibly. "What now?"
Phillip escorted Faith and Benjamin back to the hotel where they were staying. Benjamin changed his clothes and took a sketch pad and pencils out onto the small balcony, while Phillip and Faith settled on a sofa in the living room area. "Would you like something to drink?" Faith asked. Then she made a face. "All I can offer you is water."
"I'll take a kiss, instead," Phillip said with a smile. He put an arm up behind Faith as she scooted closer and drew nearer to him. Benjamin was sitting just outside the door, so the kiss was short and chaste. "Mmm, you smell good," Phillip murmured. "Is that roses?"
Faith's cheeks grew red as a memory of Bren Cordell saying almost the same words jumped into her thoughts. Funny Phillip should say it now. Guiltily, she buried her head in his shoulder. "Yes, it's a fragrance in the soap I use."
Phillip kissed her hair. "You made a great impression on the Coulters. Not that I expected anything less."
"You've talked so much about them, I already felt I knew them," Faith said, lifting her gaze back up toward him. "And they were just as wonderful and friendly as you portrayed them. All except Sarah. She got along well with Benjamin, but she didn't seem to take to me."
"I noticed that, and I hoped it would be different. But it didn't surprise me. Sarah's always been somewhat reserved around strangers. And since her injury, she's even more withdrawn."
"How was she injured? Are those burn scars?"
"Yes, and I don't know how she got them. I went away to war, and when I returned, she had the scars. She's never spoken of them to me, and one doesn't ask Sarah something she doesn't want to talk about." A painful expression appeared on Phillip's face, then receded. "It's a waste of breath. But you'll get a better chance to know her now that you'll be staying with the family."
"Wasn't that terribly generous?" Faith's expression lit with pleasure. "I could hardly believe my ears when Scott offered to have Benjamin and me stay there until the wedding." She chuckled. "He obviously hadn't consulted Lindsay, but she took it in stride. Sarah, though, might be a different story." She changed in a flash from animated to pensive. "Maybe I shouldn't have accepted the invitation. I don't want to impose on anyone."
"Nonsense. It's only for four weeks, and I know Scott and Lindsay will love having you there. If Sarah gets out of sorts, the house is big enough she can avoid you, or vice versa. Besides, Benjamin will have more fun there than cooped up in this hotel."
"Yes, that's true, on both counts. But I hope Sarah doesn't choose to avoid me. I'd like to have her for a friend. Especially since you're so close to her and Scott." Faith lifted Phillip's hand that rested at her waist. She turned it palm up and traced the calluses on it. A broad, solid, carpenter's hand, she thought, knowing that Phillip was in the home-building business. Again she felt a guilty twinge as a picture filled her mind of a strong, long-fingered hand lying on a bed coverlet while its owner fought to live.
Faith couldn't deny Bren Cordell had made a great impression on her or that something inside her yearned to see the woman again. But what were the chances of that ever happening? And even if it did, what would result from it? One can't assume things that never were said. No, better to push such useless longings away and settle down with a good and stable man like Phillip. She and Phillip knew they weren't in love in the romantic sense, but they did love each other. He would make a dependable husband and an attentive father for Benjamin. She hadn't been in love with Nathan, either, but that had worked out all right.
"Do you still think she'll agree to be my maid of honor? Without anyone I'd care to ask, I thought your suggestion of Sarah would be perfect. Now I'm not too sure. Perhaps Lindsay would be a better choice?"
"Sarah will come around. Once you get to know her, you two will be great friends, I'm sure. Besides, with the wedding being private, it's not like she has to parade before a large crowd." Phillip pulled Faith to him for a kiss on her forehead, then let go of her and stood. "I better get home. I'd hoped for some extra time off, but with Theo away, I need to be available to our customers, so it's back to work in the morning."
Faith rose and walked toward the door as Phillip stuck his head through the balcony arch and told Benjamin goodbye. He walked back to the door. "Scott said by the time I finish work tomorrow, he and Lindsay will have you moved in. So I'll see you there." They kissed once more, and Phillip left.
Faith closed the door, and with her hand still resting on the knob, she leaned her head against the door panel. Why do I feel this way, she wondered. I thought I had gotten over that silly infatuation. I know I had gotten over it. Until I saw Sarah, and it all came rushing back. Why does she have to look so much like Bren Cordell-the same dark hair with copper highlights, the same amber eyes? But that's where the resemblance ends. Bren's low drawl was charming and attractive, and she had a warm dignity about her, not this cold hardness of Sarah's. Sarah's voice is squeaky in comparison, and she sounds like a royal bitch. Or a spoiled brat. Maybe both. No danger of an attraction there.
Even in the midst of Faith's turmoil, these thoughts brought a tiny snicker, and she let go of the doorknob and walked back to sit on the sofa. She rested her elbow on the sofa's stuffed arm and put her chin in her hand. I'm going to marry Phillip in four weeks, she thought, and I need to focus on that. He deserves my loyalty, not a wife who gets puppy-eyed thinking of a woman I'll never see again. This is so stupid. I never felt this strong a pull about a woman-about anyone-before. Why do memories of Bren keep turning me inside out? Why do I keep imagining her arms around me, her lips on mine, and . . . even more?
Faith kept arguing with herself until she managed to bring her thoughts under better control. Then one sprung up and knocked her tail over tin cup once again. What if Bren Cordell walked through that door right now and promised herself to me? Would I still choose Phillip? Would I? She knew it wouldn't . . . couldn't . . . happen. But what if it did? She wasn't sure of her answer.
To be continued in Part NinePlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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