by Nann Dunne
With his hands in the pockets of his brown serge pants, Scott leaned against the doorjamb of Jessica's bedroom, watching Lindsay dress their daughter for a morning walk with him. A lightweight tan jacket hung loose over his green tunic. Lindsay glanced toward him with a smile. Without his business suit, he looks about sixteen, she thought, her heart swelling with love. And although his face was broader and his jaw heavier, his slightly turned face looked even more like Sarah, a resemblance that often struck her notice.
Sarah. Lindsay felt so frustrated by her sister-in-law's situation. She could easily understand the depth of Sarah's love for Faith, even though those two had known each other for such a short time. Lindsay had fallen in love with Scott about fifteen minutes after meeting him. Some might say that wasn't time enough to fall seriously in love, but it was time enough for her.
She had been visiting her cousin, Jane, when Scott stopped in to see Jane's brother, William. William introduced Lindsay to Prescott "Scott" Coulter, Junior, and the four young people went into the back yard for a game of croquet. That otherwise insignificant little moment precipitated a year-long courtship that fulfilled every wish a girl could dream.
Lindsay's mind shifted quickly to the present when Jessie slipped away from her and dashed toward Scott. "Whoa there," Scott said with a laugh. He scooped Jessie high into the air and gave her a toss even higher, as the child squealed in delight. Then he kissed her cheek and set her back onto the floor. "Let Mama finish dressing you, sweetheart, then we can go outside." He gave her a nudge toward Lindsay with a pat on her diapered behind.
"Ousside, Da-Da," Jessie said and toddled back to Lindsay.
"Scott, don't you think you throw her too high? She could get hurt. Or scared." She buttoned Jessie's calf-length blue dress, then sat her on the edge of the low bed and bent over to put on her matching stockings. She lifted one stocking from the bed, worked her hands back and forth to roll the top down, and slipped it over Jessie's toes.
"Nonsense," Scott replied. "Jessie needs to get tough enough that Pres can't boss her around. Besides, she's a born daredevil." A whimsical smile touched his lips as he returned to his stance against the doorjamb. "How are you and I going to keep up with her, Lindsay? She has Sarah stamped all over her."
"We'll just have to fumble our way through," Lindsay said; then she laughed. "I think Pres is the one who's already getting bossed around." Jessie pushed her mama's hands away and grabbed the stocking's top, yanking it toward her knee. "And so are the rest of us," Lindsay muttered as she lifted the second stocking, went through the same motions, and got the same result.
"Speaking of Sarah . . ." Scott hesitated a moment. "Have you any idea why she's been so miserable to Faith for the past two weeks? I can't for the life of me figure out what she's got against the woman." He shook his head in puzzlement. "Surely, it can't be jealousy; Sarah's had plenty of chances to marry Phillip."
Lindsay tried to slip a shoe onto Jessica's foot, but she had to take it off and loosen the laces before trying again. As she pushed the shoe all the way onto the wriggling foot, she noticed in amazement that Jessie had picked up the other shoe and was loosening its laces. Surely she's just mimicking me, Lindsay thought. She turned her attention back to the shod foot and began at the bottom row of laces, pulling each row tight in succession, then finally tying a double bow at the top.
Questions danced in her head as she stopped to consider Scott's question, leaving Jessie free to try to fit the second shoe over her small foot.
How much should I tell him, Lindsay wondered. Will he even understand, or will he turn against Sarah? No, she told herself. He's a kind man, and he loves his sister. Surely, she couldn't do anything that would make him turn against her. Besides, better for him to know now than perhaps find out later and be upset that neither of us said anything to him.
She straightened up and turned toward her husband, giving him her full attention. "Scott, do you remember Sarah telling us that a woman saved her leg?"
He frowned. "Of course I do. My sister being shot and almost losing her leg isn't something I'm likely to forget."
"Faith is the woman who saved her." Lindsay watched as the ridges of Scott's frown were erased by raised eyebrows.
"And Faith didn't recognize her? How could that be?" Lindsay just looked at him in silence, and he relaxed his eyebrows and answered his own questions. "Because Sarah looks so different. Even without the scars, she's different. Heavier, longer hair . . ." Other possible explanations clicked into place. "And she has no beard and no drawl. Plus, she's obviously not a Rebel sympathizer, not to mention a Rebel soldier." Lindsay nodded as he ticked off each reason.
He looked at his wife and raised only one eyebrow, a habit he and his twin shared. "Why didn't Sarah tell Faith who she was? That first day at Jessie's birthday party would have been a perfect time."
"Think, Scott," Lindsay said gently with a sad smile. "The woman who saved her life also betrayed her to the Union soldiers."
"My God, Sarah hates her. She hates the woman Phillip's going to marry." Scott rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, then dropped it to his side. "I can't believe it. Faith doesn't strike me as the untrustworthy type."
"She probably isn't," Lindsay said. "People do strange things when they feel endangered. Union sympathizers could have made a lot of trouble for Faith for helping a Rebel soldier. And she had Benjamin to worry about too."
Scott looked blindly into the distance, piecing his thoughts together aloud like a wooden picture puzzle. "I know the betrayal rocked the foundations of Sarah's trust in people. But she doesn't want to hurt Phillip by telling him. He might not marry Faith if he knew."
Lindsay glanced back toward Jessie and saw she had the shoe over her toes and was engrossed in her attempts to put it all the way on. She turned back toward Scott. "Yes, that's part of it, but it's more involved than that."
Lindsay nodded. "Sarah stayed with Faith for three weeks. That doesn't sound like very long, but it was enough time for what else happened to her."
"So stop tormenting me, and tell me what else happened to her!"
Lindsay walked over and took one of his hands in both of hers, an action that caused him to look askance at her. "Sarah fell in love with the woman who saved her. She isn't jealous of Faith . . . she's jealous of Phillip." Lindsay watched Scott's expression go from irritation to perplexity to understanding-then to disbelief and denial.
"No." He tried to extricate his hand, but Lindsay held on. "I don't believe it. Not Sarah. Not my sister."
"And why not?" Lindsay knew Scott was aware that some people preferred to pair up with their same gender, but like most people, he discreetly ignored it. She tugged his hand and led him to a seat on the end of the bed where she sat between him and Jessie. Too engrossed to give them much notice, the child had pulled most of the laces loose from her shoe and had her foot halfway in it. When Lindsay reached a hand to help, Jessie frowned and swung her foot further away.
Scott's shocked gaze searched the room, seeing nothing. "Falling in love with a woman? It's . . . it's not natural."
Her glance swung back to Scott. "You fell in love with a woman."
"That's different." Scott raised and lowered his free hand in a gesture of frustration. "It's natural for a man to fall in love with a woman."
"Of course it's natural for you, because that's the way your feelings work. But can't you see someone else's feelings might work differently from yours? Sarah's love for Faith seems just as right to her as your love for me seems to you." Lindsay waited until Scott's look met hers, then she tilted her head and smiled gently. "Do you remember when you fell in love with me?"
Scott stared at her for a moment, then gave her hand a quick squeeze, "It started at the croquet game. I had a suspicion right then you were the girl I'd marry. Within the next few weeks, I was certain."
"Suppose at that point I did something terrible, something so totally unexpected and crushing to you that marriage seemed impossible. Would you still have loved me?"
"I can't even imagine not loving you. If I couldn't marry you, I would have been in agony. Maybe I would have wanted to die."
"Well, that's where Sarah is now. Trapped by love for a woman who betrayed her."
"Love for a woman."
Scott obviously still struggled with that concept, so Lindsay tried a different approach. "You've told me a million times you couldn't understand why she never accepted Phillip's proposals. Try to imagine yourself married to Phillip."
Scott glared at his wife. "That wouldn't happen in a million years."
A quick spurt of laughter burst from Lindsay. "That's been Sarah's reaction exactly, from his first proposal to his last. Marriage to a man seems just as unnatural to her as it does to you. And no matter what we say or do, we can't change the way she feels." She patted the hand she held. "We need to accept it."
"Accept it?" Scott winced. Lindsay nodded, and they sat in silence for several moments. Scott lifted their joined hands and brushed a kiss onto his wife's fingers. As he lowered their hands, Lindsay looked from them to his face and saw the corner of his mouth twist to the side. "Some things do make more sense now in light of what you've told me. Sarah never has displayed what most people think of as feminine ways. But this is going to take some getting used to. I'm not sure I can. I'm not sure I even want to."
Jessie said, "Shoe on!" and swung her foot toward her mother. Lindsay picked her up and sat her on her lap. The shoe, with half of its laces pulled out and hanging, was indeed completely on the proper foot.
"Good girl," she said, pointing a finger to draw Scott's attention to Jessie's triumph. She threaded the laces, pulled them snug, and tied the shoe, afterwards giving her child a lingering hug and kiss. Lindsay loved snuggling against the baby's soft skin and inhaling her sweet scent. Scott nudged her arm, so she handed Jessie to him.
"Jessie, you are so smart." He hugged and kissed her, then set her on the floor. He and Lindsay both rose from the bed, and Jessie immediately raised her arms to Scott.
He reached down and lifted her into his embrace, and Jessie threw her arms around his neck. "Ousside. Ousside, Da-Da."
"That's where we're headed, sweetheart," he said, patting her back and smiling at her enthusiasm. "Children are amazing, aren't they?" He turned his smile toward Lindsay. "She was quiet all the time she was focused on putting on that shoe, but now that it's on, she's on a tear to get outside and play."
He started toward the door, but Lindsay put a hand on his arm. Then she cupped her hand on the crown of Jessie's head. "Sarah has given us the greatest gift she ever could-our daughter. The least we can give her is acceptance."
Scott's voice rasped through a tight throat. "I'm finding that almost impossible. I think Sarah's injuries have twisted her thinking." He turned away, but after a few steps, he swung back. "What about Faith? Does she feel the same way? Should we say something to Phillip?"
"I can't speak for Faith. Even Sarah doesn't know that answer, and I'm sure it's grieving her. I think we should keep silent. No matter what happens, someone we love will suffer, either Sarah or Phillip. Our best choice is to stand by and be supportive wherever we're needed."
Scott's words were hesitant. "Surely, Sarah won't do anything to hurt Phillip."
"I doubt she would." Lindsay's mournful gaze matched her husband's. "Fate has a way of muddling lives, but Sarah's had more than her share of muddling. I'd love to see something good happen for her, for a change. That possibility looks pretty dim."
"You've pointed out at least one good thing that has come from all her problems," Scott said. He bent his head and nuzzled his daughter's stomach, giving rise to a gurgle of giggling. "Jessie."
"Yes, Jessie," Lindsay agreed. She patted the baby and Scott one more time, and as they left the room, her eyes teared up. She shuddered at the thought that went through her mind. Sarah gave away her daughter . . . with absolutely no understanding of what she was losing.
As far as Sarah knew, everyone else had gone out visiting after dinner. The day had been gray and gloomy, and although the sun had shown itself toward dusk, the evening seemed well suited to curling up in bed with a good book. After lighting the wall-mounted gaslight above her bed, Sarah donned her night shift. She climbed into the high bed and concentrated on a book she had chosen from the ample supply on the nightstand. Or tried to concentrate. Even a good book couldn't turn her mind from this awkward situation with Faith. Seeing the woman so often was wrenching, and each day got worse instead of better. For two weeks, Sarah had avoided her whenever possible and only spoke when common courtesy demanded it.
Two more weeks to go, she thought. Maid of honor . . . thank goodness a quiet family wedding is planned. Mr. and Mrs. Phillip Showell. Another twinge struck her, one of many she finally admitted came from jealousy. She set the book on the nightstand and chided herself for her stubborn heart. A strong cup of tea sounded like the perfect prescription for her restlessness. She rose, donned a pair of leather slippers, and headed for the back stairs.
Unlike the winding stairway flanked by a carved balustrade in the front entry of the Coulter home, the back stairway was quite utilitarian. Uncurved and narrower overall, the stairs abutted the wall on one side, with their outer edge bordered by a plain oak banister with poker-straight balusters. With no windows to give light, the dark steps had small, constantly lit gas fixtures at each landing. The flight coming from the second floor dead-ended on the first in a short hallway. An entrance to the kitchen opened immediately to the left, while an outside doorway sat about eight feet to the right, just past a closet. A half-circle turn at the stair bottom would take one down a parallel hallway that met a closed door, which gave access to the cellar stairs.
Sarah noted with relief that the kitchen's gaslight had been left burning; she could see its glimmer spreading into the hallway downstairs. Despite her weakened leg, she made quick time down the dimly lit steps, running from her thoughts as though being chased. As her foot reached the hallway floor, a figure came bursting through the kitchen doorway. Their feet tangled, and Sarah fell, thudding against the hardwood floor. She screamed as a heavy wooden tray landed on her leg, its edge directly hitting the area of her old wound. For a split second, Sarah blacked out from the pain, then her vision cleared. Faith knelt at her feet, lifting the tray and hurrying to set it aside.
"Oh, my God, Sarah, I'm sorry," she said, her words pouring forth in a nervous tumble. "I didn't see you. I was going to put the tray away in the closet. I had no idea you were coming down the stairs . . . I'm sorry. Let me see your leg." Faith reached for the hem of Sarah's nightshift.
"No!" Sarah grabbed a baluster and pulled herself away, into a sitting position. "Don't touch me. You've done enough damage." She got her good leg under her and pulled herself to a seat on the third step.
Faith walked on her knees to bring herself closer. "Don't be foolish. I'm a trained physician's assistant. Your leg could be broken." She reached again toward Sarah, who tried to shift her leg away. But this time, Faith took hold of a bare ankle. Sarah's attempt to move resulted in a short gasp that she quickly smothered, gritting her teeth.
Ignoring the movement and the sound, Faith lifted the nightshift's hem and folded it back above Sarah's knee. Her eyes fell on the scar tissue. "You have an old injury here. And judging from this red mark, the tray crashed right into it." Her hands moved along Sarah's leg. "This feels like a poorly mended break. Bothers you too, I'll bet." She glanced up, but Sarah didn't answer.
Sarah couldn't answer. She had frozen as Faith's fingers felt along the scar and then two soft hands wrapped around her leg, examining and testing it. But she hadn't frozen from irritation. Faith's touch on her bare skin made her heart thud louder in her ears than any drummer boy's beating of a signal. Torn between the pain in her leg and the pain in her heart, she closed her eyes.
"I can't see properly in this dim light," Faith muttered. "Nothing feels broken, but I want to get a clearer look at the point of impact." Holding Sarah's leg immobile, she shifted to allow the light coming from the kitchen to fall on the area she was examining. With her hands one above the other wrapped around the back of Sarah's calf, she bent a little closer to get a better look. Sarah heard a gasp.
"Oh, my God." Faith gently put Sarah's leg down, sat back on her heels, and dropped her shaking hands into her lap. Sarah's eyes flew open, and the two sat staring at each other. Faith's lips moved once, but no sound came, so she tried again. "You . . . you really are Bren Cordell. At first, I was struck with how familiar you and Scott both seemed. But you skirted my questions, and I began to think the idea preposterous. It's been a long time, and you look and sound so different from the Bren Cordell I remember. But you are Bren."
"Don't be ridiculous." Sarah struggled to sound haughty, but she was having such a hard time speaking that her voice was raspy. "Just because I have an old leg injury, you think I'm someone you knew?" She reached up to the banister and pulled herself erect.
Faith slowly stood up too. "No . . . I know who you are . . . because you have a heart-shaped mole right next to your old wound." She gave her head a vigorous shake. "I dreamed about that leg for months. I couldn't possibly forget it."
Sarah realized the futility of continuing to deny her masquerade. "All right. I'm Bren Cordell. So what?" Sarah had gone from hot to cold in a matter of seconds, and she shivered.
Faith raised her hands as though in supplication. "So what happened to you? I tried for months to find out where the soldiers had taken you. No one knew anything. It was like you dropped off the face of the earth."
Bitterness drenched Sarah's words. "What did you care?"
"I was worried about you," Faith replied.
Sarah limped forward two steps until she stood face-to-face with Faith. She slashed her words out like rapiers. "Maybe you should have thought of that before you betrayed me."
"Betrayed you?" Faith's eyes clouded. "But I didn't-" A stinging slap snapped her head back, and a spot of blood showed on her bottom lip.
"Don't lie to me!" Sarah shook with fury. "The soldiers themselves said it was you."
Faith raised her hands, palm-outward, to protect against another blow. "Sarah, they made a mistake. I never told anyone. I swear it."
"You knew I was there, Benjamin knew, and the doctor knew." Faith flinched as Sarah reached up and grabbed a piece of her hair. "They said the redhead told them. Which one of you three has red hair?" Sarah winced as she saw resignation come into Faith's face. In her heart, Sarah had hoped she was wrong. This additional proof of Faith's treachery enraged her.
She let go of the hair and stepped closer, crowding Faith toward the wall. "And do you know what you betrayed me into? Why you couldn't find out anything about me?" Faith took a step back and stopped, but Sarah kept coming. She bumped Faith into the wall with her body as her voice pitched lower and thickened. "Those bastards hauled me into the woods, stripped me naked, and tied me to the ground. Oh, and don't let me forget, their leader kicked my broken leg-the one with the heart-shaped mole-and it has never healed properly." She bumped Faith again, hard. "Then they forced themselves on me…all three of them. Forced themselves on me!" She saw Faith's face whiten with shock, then tears welled in the shorter woman's eyes.
Hoarse now, Sarah breathed hard as her voice hammered at Faith. "You see these scars?" She grabbed Faith's hand and rubbed its palm across the rippled skin on her face, then pushed it up to the depression in the side of her forehead made by the bullet. "Feel them. They're a legacy from you. When they finished with me, the swine put a musket to my head and shot me. They left me for dead."
Sarah let go, but Faith's hand still rested on her face. Tears ran freely down Faith's cheeks. "Oh, Sarah, I had no idea such terrible things had happened to you. I am so, so sorry. I wouldn't have hurt you for the world." Her hand caressed Sarah's ravaged face, her fingers gently touching the scars.
The chance to voice her torment to the woman responsible had some cathartic value to Sarah, purging some of her bitterness, but not all. She knew Faith hadn't intended for such evil to befall her; that part she could forgive. What she balked at forgiving was the act of betrayal, robbing her of ever trusting Faith again. Eventually, the bitterness could be overcome, but that lack of trust would never disappear.
As her torrent of accusations came to a halt, Sarah suddenly became very conscious that her body was pushed up against Faith's. As though a dam had given way, a strong wave of desire flooded through her, and she put her hands on Faith's waist to keep from falling. In the light from the kitchen, she saw Faith's eyes darken and her lips part. Sarah couldn't keep her head from lowering toward such temptation, but she hesitated as her mind screamed: She's going to marry Phillip!
Once again, the other woman's response staggered her. Faith's hand slipped from her face and moved around the back of her head. Faith's lower arm lifted to meet the other, and she folded them around Sarah's neck. With a tug, she pulled herself up toward Sarah's descending lips. That upward movement burned through Sarah's thin nightshift like a tinder strike on dry twigs, setting both women afire.
Sarah wrapped her arms around Faith's waist and splayed her fingers across Faith's hips as their mouths met in a hard, demanding fusion of need. Sarah's arms jerked unbidden, slamming their hips together, and both women moaned. Sarah tasted the blood her blow had drawn from Faith's lip, and its presence was like a slap to her own face. She broke off the kiss and looked down at the woman she held in her arms, the woman she had dreamed about for so long, with no real hope of ever holding her, the woman who was promised to Phillip. Promised to Phillip. Sarah closed her eyes. She couldn't fight the tears any longer; she let them come.
Faith loosened her arms and ran her fingers up the back of Sarah's head. When Sarah's eyes closed, Faith pulled her head down and kissed the tears from her cheeks. Then she very gently kissed Sarah's lips . . . and again . . . and again, until Sarah responded and they fell into a sweet, heart-clenching exploration. Sarah couldn't resist anymore; she could only surrender to the emotions tumbling through her. Finally, she and Faith stopped the kiss and stood there for a while with their arms clasped around one another, each lost in her own thoughts.
Sounds of the front door opening and voices raised in happy chatter interrupted them; the others had returned. Sarah took a shuddering breath and let her arms drop. As Faith released her hold, Sarah stepped back and said, "I have to go." She turned to start up the steps.
"We need to talk, Sarah," Faith said in a low voice.
Sarah only heard the word "talk," and she shook her head. "I have to go." She grasped the banister with both hands as she pulled herself up the steps, limping heavily. She didn't even glance back.
"We'll talk tomorrow," Faith called in a loud whisper, her words sounding as much like a promise to herself as to Sarah.
But what can I say to her? Faith wondered, heartsick as she watched Sarah struggle up the stairs and disappear. I love her like I've never loved anyone else . . . she's in my bones. But I'm promised to Phillip.
Oh, Sarah, don't you see I despaired of ever finding you again? I could only see a lost and lonely life ahead. What's to become of us?
Faith dried her cheeks, took several deep breaths, and walked into the kitchen. Tomorrow would be filled with emotional upheaval one way or another. She needed to catch Sarah first thing in the morning and try to work out some answers.
But the next morning, Sarah was gone.
Sarah's leg pained her with every step up the long staircase and through the seemingly endless hallway to her bedroom. But her heart hurt more. How had this happened? Could she trust her own reactions? What about Faith's response? What did that mean? And where did Phillip fit into this? The desire she felt for Faith battled with her feelings for Phillip. Granted, she wasn't in love with Phillip, but they had a long and loving friendship, and he trusted her.
Even in her agony, she recognized the irony of the situation. Faith had betrayed her so easily in the past, would a promise to Phillip mean anything? The woman might be perfectly willing to abandon him and choose Sarah in his place. Her actions said she wanted Sarah. And Sarah wanted her-more than she had ever wanted anyone or anything. But Sarah still wasn't sure it was love and not just lust. How could she love someone who not only turned her over to the Union, but in doing so, dishonored the Confederate cause her husband-Benjamin's father-had died for? Had she no principles?
These turbulent thoughts threatened to overwhelm her, and only Sarah's ingrained self-discipline kept her going. After throwing on underclothes, shirt, trousers and boots, she forced herself to concentrate on the activity of packing. She gathered her belongings and stuffed them into two saddlebags, which she slung over her shoulders. As she crept softly down the back stairs, the house seemed quiet. Undetected, she slipped out the door and limped toward the stable, every agonizing step a reminder of the woman who had ministered to her body. And stolen her heart. And betrayed her soul.
Get away. Get away. Get away. Drummer's hoofbeats drilled the words into Sarah's skull. As though sensing her desire to put distance between herself and what had happened, the horse lengthened his stride along the moonlit trail.
She struggled to push away thoughts of Faith, but memories of their meeting streaked through her mind like erratic flashes of lightning. The flood of desire engulfing her, mirroring itself in Faith's face. Cool fingers claiming the back of her neck, immediately burning her skin. Faith's body lifting against hers, arousing excruciating passion.
Sarah's hands tightened on Drummer's reins as she remembered the fullness of strong hips against her palms . . . the burst of flame when they surged together . . . the feeling of completeness when they wrapped their arms around each other and Faith's body imprinted itself on hers.
Sarah's tongue moved along her lips while she summoned the taste and feel of their mouths meeting and melting, sending the intensity of her feelings into places she'd never known before . . . places she yearned to explore.
But couldn't. That realization slammed into her again and again, darkening every thought of Faith, every remembrance of their moment together. She rode for hours with her emotions seesawing unmercifully. First a rising surge of passion would grip her, seizing control of her mind, making a life with Faith seem possible, no, inevitable-something she couldn't live without. And she would want to turn back to claim her love.
Then reality would hit, shattering her hopes and dreams, banishing any possibility of ever being with the only woman she had ever loved. Yes, loved, she finally admitted. Just physical desire couldn't hurt this much. Faith was promised to Phillip, and Sarah knew she would never interfere with that promise. She would have to learn to live with it. But the thought of Faith in someone else's arms filled her with an anguish she knew she could manage only at a distance. So she had run away.
Finally, Drummer slowed, tiring from his mad dash through the forest. Sarah dragged her thoughts back to the present. I have to pull myself together. The situation with Faith is impossible. Nothing I can do will change that. I need to concentrate on things I can change.
She knew these few hours were only a precursor of many hours of agony to come. But she still had a purpose-to hunt down Hager. She concentrated her thoughts on Hager until her mind shifted to that focus. Yes, her most important task right now was to find her third attacker. But first, she would try to retrieve Redfire. Faith hadn't brought the horse with her, and Phillip apparently knew nothing about him. Sarah feared Faith might have sold him. Only one way to find out. She headed toward Cranston.
Two days later, Sarah arrived in Cranston at midmorning and tugged Drummer to a stop in front of the livery stable. After dismounting, she tied the horse to a hitching rail, gave him a pat on the shoulder, and entered the rough-hewn structure. The same stable keeper from her previous visit ambled toward her, tucking his tobacco chaw into his cheek in preparation for talking. What was his name? Bullens, she recalled.
"Howdy," he said, squinting up at her as he approached. Sarah touched the brim of her slouch hat in greeting. "You been here before, ain't you?" he continued.
"Yes. You have a good memory." Of course, Sarah admitted, her scarred face and white blaze of hair might have given him a clue. "I bought a chestnut from you about a year ago. Good animal."
"Yeah, I remember now. You look different, though. Younger." His face crinkled in thought, then he raised a finger and waggled it. "You had a beard." When Sarah nodded, he seemed pleased with his recollection. She smiled as he went through what was probably a habitual rite-he spat tobacco juice onto a patch of sawdust littering the dirt floor and wiped a stained sleeve across his chin to catch the dribbles. "What can I do for you?"
"You had a sorrel stallion for hire back then, called Redfire. Is he still here?" Sarah figured Redfire wasn't in the stable; he would have whinnied when she entered.
Bullens leaned a shoulder against one of the stable posts. "Nah. Mizzuz Pruitt had to sell him. Just about broke her heart. Her boy loved that horse."
Sarah's heartbeat picked up. "Do you know who she sold him to? I'm interested in buying him-" She stopped before saying "back."
"Save yourself some time and trouble, friend." Bullens shook his head. "She got a paper signed by the man she sold it to, promising he won't sell the horse to nobody but her."
Sarah quirked one eyebrow. "He bought the horse with the idea of selling it back to her?"
Bullens nodded, and his eyes gleamed. Sarah recognized he had a tale he was anxious to tell, so she prompted him. "That seems like a strange deal."
Sure enough, words flowed from the stable keeper in an unbroken stream. "Yeah, but you see, he did her a favor. She couldn't afford the rates here any longer, and the fella offered to keep the horse on his farm for free. She said it was only fair that she give him a bill of sale, but she wanted to buy the horse back when she could take care of it. He agreed, and I signed the paper as a witness." He beamed. "Just think, me a witness! First time I ever heard of doing such a thing, but they both seemed satisfied."
Sarah's hopes plummeted. "Guess that's that. Thanks for the information." She touched her hat brim again and left. Damn, she thought as she mounted Drummer, there's one more frustration. Getting Redfire back seems as unlikely as getting Faith. Wish I'd never met the woman! But a twinge went through her heart, and she knew the wish was a lie.
Maybe Phillip could get Redfire back for her, after he and Faith are- Oh God, I can't even say it, let alone think about it.
She walked Drummer farther up the street and stopped at the tavern where Leah worked. After dismounting and tying Drummer's reins to a rail, she turned into the alley next to the tavern and tapped on the door to Leah's rooms. She heard some movement inside, but no one answered the door. Leaning closer, she tapped again. "Leah? It's Sarah Coulter. Are you there?"
She heard some rustling and waited. As she was just about to knock again, the door opened. "Amy!" Sarah removed her hat and squatted down. "Do you remember me? Miss Sarah?" Amy nodded, but her face looked sad.
"Where's your mama?" Sarah stood back up, wincing as the discomfort in her leg reminded her of the damage done in her collision with Faith.
Tears welled in the little girl's blue eyes. "Mama got hurt."
"Hurt! What happened? Where is she?" Sarah's troubles flew out of her mind as this new worry displaced them. Amy motioned with her fingers and turned away. Sarah entered, closed the door, and followed her to Leah's bedroom.
Amy went directly to her mother's bedside. When Sarah's gaze fell on Leah, she hurried the few steps to her. A mass of bruises covered the woman's face, nearly obscuring her features. Spots of blood seeped from cuts on her lips, and a dark red line marked where more blood had trickled from her nose. Her arm that lay outside the quilt cover was also discolored, though not so severely as her face.
"Leah, what happened?" Sarah guessed the answer. Prostitution was a risky business.
The blonde opened her mouth. "Sssmmm."
"Wait, I'll get you some water." Sarah went into the kitchen, grabbed a mug from the cupboard, and took it to the sink. She worked the small pump's handle several times until a cool stream of water gushed out. Pumping one more time, she filled the mug and returned to the bedroom.
She set the mug down on a small table and gently lifted Leah to a sitting position. Supporting her, she picked up the mug and tipped it so a little water dribbled past swollen lips. Each time Leah swallowed, Sarah tipped a bit more water for her until she heard the muffled but understandable word, "Thanks."
"Did this happen last night?"
Leah winced, but she was able to nod. "Let me get some ice on it for you." Sarah laid her friend back down and covered her. She returned to the kitchen, found a towel, and filled it with chips of ice from the icebox. Back in the bedroom, she laid the ice-filled towel over Leah's face and soon heard a groan, hopefully of relief.
For the rest of the day, Sarah kept replacing the ice as it melted. Several times she steeped some tea, heaped it with sugar, and spooned it into Leah's mouth. She forgot about lunch, but Amy remembered, and the two shared some bread and cheese. Sarah made some extra sandwiches and put them in the icebox, and she and Amy ate them later for supper. By evening, the swelling receded enough that Leah could open her eyes a crack, and she could mumble a few words. "Don't try to talk," Sarah said. "You'll feel a lot better in the morning, and you can tell me all about it then."
Before the sun went down, Sarah lit a kerosene lamp in the bedroom and one in the sitting room to give Amy light to play by for a while after preparing for bed. Later, Sarah tucked the bedcover around Leah, put a fresh ice-filled towel over her face, and joined Amy.
"About ready for some sleep, darlin'?"
"Will Mama be all right?" The child sounded so forlorn that Sarah leaned down and held out her arms. Amy left the picture she was drawing, ran into the offered embrace, and began crying. Sarah lifted her and walked to the stuffed chair sitting in the corner. She sat and situated Amy on her lap, pulling the small body close.
"Your mama's going to be fine. She's just feeling very sore right now, and it's hard for her to talk." Sarah patted Amy's back slowly and rhythmically until the crying stopped. "Don't worry, honey, I'll take care of you and your mama until she feels better." Sarah wrapped her arms tighter around the little girl and leaned her head back against the soft chair. Neither one of them stirred for the rest of the night.
To be continued in Part TenPlease comment to Nann Dunne at PruferBlue@aol.com
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