©2013 Sephira Allen
Virginia: May 25, 1843
The screaming stopped.
At first, he wasn’t even sure what the difference was. Throughout the day, the sound had been a constant companion and once it was gone, several minutes passed before it dawned on him just what was missing. The screaming had been terrible enough, but he was quite sure the silence was worse. He chewed at his lip, waiting in the warmly lit room where they’d left him, pacing back and forth. The soft woven rug his mother had laid over the hardwood floor muffled the sound of his steps.
“Stay here, out of the way,” they’d said. “Don’t worry; shouldn’t take too long.” And with a smile and a kiss, he’d been left alone, with naught but his own thoughts for company. That had been hours ago, but to seven-year-old Matthew James, it seemed an eternity.
His belly rumbled in the empty silence of the room—a not-so-subtle reminder that he’d eaten the lunch and the extra treats they’d left him much too long ago. If only he’d known what soon really meant, he might have saved something, any small morsel that would have kept the worst of the pangs away. Shaking his head, he sighed loudly then continued his path back and forth across the room.
The door opened, barely squeaking on its well-oiled hinges. Turning, Matthew watched his father enter and set a tiny, blanket-wrapped bundle carefully into the ornate cradle standing at the far end of the room. He motioned for Matthew to join him, and they looked down at the squalling baby. She was just a little thing, not much to look at—all red-faced and wrinkly—but man, could she holler.
His father reached over, laid a hand on the polished cherrywood frame, and gently rocked the cradle. His face looked haggard. The lines that had been faint only hours earlier – little more than accents to his character, were now deeply etched. His hazel eyes, normally twinkling with joy, echoed the sadness in his heart as he gazed down at his newborn daughter.
Taking a deep breath, he turned those sorrow-filled eyes to Matthew. “Son, it’s up to you and me now to take care of her. She’s all we have left, and she’ll need her big brother more than ever to protect her and keep her safe.”
Matthew had been right. The silence was worse, much worse, and as his father’s words hit him, Matthew’s eyes filled. Boys don’t cry. He repeated it to himself over and over, biting his lip to keep the tears from spilling over. Even so, it was in vain, and he felt the trail of wetness streak down his face. Ignoring it, he squared his shoulders and looked gravely into his father’s eyes. Finally, with only a small quiver in his voice, he replied, “Yes, Papa, I understand. I… I won’t let you down.”
Lee James hugged his son tight. “You’d be so proud… of both of them.” He whispered, looking longingly toward heaven.
Matt barely heard the words as his gaze dropped again to the precious baby in the cradle. But any joy he might have felt at finally having a sister was tempered by the knowledge that it had cost him his beloved mother’s life.
Virginia: November 7, 1863
Rylee James was sitting in her room, mending a tear in her favorite calico skirt. An odious chore to be sure, but one that needed to be done—no matter that she would much rather have been out riding, enjoying the beautiful weather. Though it was late fall and the chill of winter hovered in the air most mornings, they’d had a bit of a warm spell. Grateful for the break in the weather, she’d flung her windows wide open to take advantage of the fresh air and even now gazed longingly at the clear blue skies.
Sighing heavily, Rylee turned back to the skirt and focused on pulling the needle in and out of the fabric. The stitches were less than neat, but given her distracted nature, it was probably the best that could be expected. Besides, they would hold well enough in the end, and that was all that really mattered.
Her mind drifted again, and she sat, daydreaming in the warm glow of the sun, until the sound of hoofbeats pounding on the hard-packed dirt road brought her swiftly back to her room. “Damn!” she cried, as the needle bit into the soft flesh of her palm. Hand still stinging, she wiped at the crimson drop that was forming, as she heard booted feet run up the front porch steps.
“Ry… You in there?” her brother yelled as he swung open the front door.
Taking care not to get blood on the skirt, Rylee set her sewing aside then hurried out of her room and down the stairs toward the porch, almost running her brother down as he came through the doorway. “Matthew James, what in the world is wrong with you?”
She hadn’t seen him in months, and it was a shock to see how thin and hard he’d become. His normally sparkling green eyes looked tired, and she wrapped her arms around him in welcome, wishing that she would never have to let go again.
“There’s not much time, Ry.” He stepped back from her embrace. “The Union troops aren’t very far behind us. We couldn’t hold the river, and we have to fall back. Can’t stay, but I’ll be back in a few days to check on you.”
“Do you really think they will come through this way?” She tried to conceal the slight note of fear in her voice. “It’s not like we have anything left to give them, and now that Pa is gone…” Her voice trailed off as fresh grief threatened to overwhelm her. Even though it had been over a year, she still missed her pa something fierce. Just thinking of him was enough to make her heart hurt.
Matt grabbed her arm. “Don’t let them know that Pa is gone. Make up whatever excuse you need to, but if they find out you’re here alone, there will be nothing but trouble.”
Ry rolled her eyes at him. “I can take care of myself, you know. Besides, I’m not completely alone. Katie and Samuel are still here with me.”
“I do know,” he said. “I taught you myself.” The prideful grin sneaked across his face, but he quickly sobered. “It wouldn’t be enough for some of these men, and I don’t want to see my baby sister getting hurt.”
“Don’t you worry about us. We’ll be fine. Besides, you’re the one I should be worried about. Every day, I’m terrified that someone is going to bring word to me that you’re dead.” Her eyes were full of unshed tears, and she turned away quickly before he could see them fall. The last few years had taken a toll on them all, especially since the death of their father. “I really don’t know how I’d go on if you were gone too,” she whispered, her voice thick with emotion.
They had been so proud when Matt had been accepted to West Point, and he’d graduated with honors as well. Little had they known that war was right around the corner. Taking a deep breath, Rylee brushed away the tears then turned back to face her brother.
Matt moved to her side and put his arms around her shoulders, resting his head against hers for a moment. There were no words he could say, but the contact was enough for now. Giving her arm a final squeeze, he sighed and let her go, turning reluctantly toward the door. “I’ve got to head back. Keep close to the house and lock everything up tight tonight.”
Ry ran after him and threw her arms around him again. Desperately, she held on, no longer caring if he saw that tears that streamed down her face. “Be safe,” she whispered before planting a kiss on his brow.
“You too.” He gently wiped away her tears. Then he mounted up and rode off, his horse kicking up the dirt as he raced back down the lane.
She stood watching until he was out of sight, then closed the door and walked slowly to the kitchen to warn her housekeeper of the possible incursion. Though the sun was still shining, there was a chill in her heart that had nothing to do with the weather. “Katie… we need to get ready. It’s going to be a long night.”
The late afternoon sun blazed low in the sky, its orange and red hued beams almost even with the horizon, when the first Union troops began passing through. At first, they kept to the fields farther out, and Ry sincerely hoped they stayed there, as far away from the house as possible. Wishful thinking on her part, but it was all she had to go on, so she clung to it. She was helping Katie with dinner when reality finally came crashing in. The loud banging on the front door startled them both, and immediately Ry’s temper flared. Her head jerked toward the sound, and she fought the urge to grab her rifle, wanting nothing more than to give whoever it was a huge piece of her mind. Only Katie’s calming hand on her arm brought her up short.
“Miss Rylee, you need to go hide now,” Katie murmured as she started walking toward the door, another round of loud knocks beckoning. “Samuel and I will take care of this. Go on now… and don’t let them see you.”
“Yes, Katie, I’m going. Please be careful!”
Reluctantly, Ry moved toward the back staircase and up to her father’s room. When she was just a little girl, she’d discovered a small storage area hidden in one of the walls. While the entrance itself was fairly low to the ground, it was much larger on the inside and had been the perfect place for her to play her silly adventure games. This would be completely different, of course, but with little in the way of options, it was the best thing for her to do.
Upon entering the room, Ry took a quick peek out the window. Inhaling sharply, her breath caught in her chest and she grasped onto the frame, willing the darkness that hovered at the edges of her vision to go away. She had never been prone to fainting spells—she would have rather died before showing any such weakness around her brother, but there was always a first time for everything. Matt had warned her that the Union soldiers were coming, but knowing and seeing were two completely different things.
Already, there were several dozen tents set up in the field closest to the house, interspersed with figures in blue. Now that the sun was setting in earnest, campfires had been lit here and there, a stark contrast to the twilight that was quickly fading into the true darkness of night. Faced with reality, the brave words Ry had used to comfort her brother earlier seemed hollow and empty. Not wanting to tempt fate any longer, she moved to conceal herself, taking care to ensure the entrance was hidden from anyone who might dare to look.
Her father’s room was at the front of the house and featured several large floor-to-ceiling windows which opened onto a narrow balcony, where, in happier times, she and her father had often sat at night to talk or look at the stars. So now, even from within her hiding place, Ry could hear most of what was going on in the front hall. Listening intently, she heard Katie open the door, and had to quickly cover her mouth with her hand to keep from laughing out loud when she heard Katie’s polite and respectful, “How may I help you gentlemen?” It was as though Katie had found nothing more than a lost traveler or two standing on the porch, or a neighbor who had ridden over to ask for some much-needed assistance, rather than a whole legion of Union soldiers hell-bent on making their lives as miserable as possible.
The reply, when it came however, was enough to wipe the smile off of Rylee’s face. Though also polite, it held an underlying tone of arrogance. Here was a man who was used to giving orders and having them obeyed instantly. No doubt he would do whatever he wanted, whether they liked it or not. “Captain Elijah Webb, ma’am, at your service. Please inform the master of the house that we would like to speak with him immediately. We will be camping here tonight, and we have orders to gather any supplies as needed.”
Katie, unflappable as ever, simply said, “Mister James is not in residence at the moment, just my husband and myself. We will do our best to comply with your orders, though truthfully, we’ve not much else left to give.”
There was a brief pause, and Ry strained to hear the officer’s reply. “Well… you are free now, you know, since the president’s decree, I mean.” He said it awkwardly, as if not quite sure how to approach the subject, and Ry smiled at his discomfort. “If you’d like, we can help you get safe passage up to the north when we go.”
“Thank you for your concern, but you misunderstand me,” Katie said. “This is our home, and we have no intention of going anywhere. Mister James hasn’t owned slaves here in years. He didn’t need any sort of proclamation to do what was right for his people. Samuel and I stay on because we want to. This is where our family is.”
“I see.” Without another word on the subject, the officer addressed his own men, “Cam, make sure they are finished setting up and that everyone is fed. I don’t want any nonsense tonight. We’ll want to get started early in the morning; the major wants us back at the main encampment as soon as possible. If you need me, I’ll be in here tonight, inventorying the supplies that we will take with us.” Without waiting for a reply, Ry heard him step fully into the house and close the door. The sound of his boots echoing loudly through the house as he followed Katie down the hall.
The unexpected warmth they’d enjoyed during the day had long since faded, and true to the season, the coming of night brought with it much colder temperatures. Still, the skies were clear, and the smallest sounds carried far on the chilling breeze. Ry could hear the men outside settling down for the night, and though she chafed at having to hide like a scared child, she knew she didn’t have much of a choice. She and Katie had stocked the room earlier with a bit of food and water, so with nothing much left to do, Ry ate a small meal, then despite it all, started to doze.
She awoke a short while later at the sound of footsteps in her father’s room, each step as loud as a hammer to a nail. Standing carefully, she peeked through a small crack in the wall and was startled to see the Union officer. It made sense, of course. Given the option of sleeping on the cold, hard ground or a nice warm bed, the bed was the obvious choice. For some reason, it just hadn’t occurred to her that he would violate the sanctity of her father’s room.
Ry fought to control her anger and continued to watch as the soldier walked around the room. It had changed little since her father’s death. She’d kept it as a shrine of sorts to the man whose passing had left such a gaping void in their lives, it was still sometimes hard to believe that he was gone. Though it was no longer used, she and Katie still took turns cleaning and dusting, occasionally putting fresh flowers on the tables. Even now, if she pressed her face into his pillow, Ry could sometimes catch his scent. Her father may have no longer been present in the flesh, but it was no reason not to honor his spirit. She was thankful now that they hadn’t changed too much, and she prayed there was nothing that would give away the fact that no one had been using the room for quite some time.
If they’d met under different circumstances, Ry was sure she might have actually been impressed with Captain Webb. Really, what woman doesn’t find a tall, well-built man attractive? He appeared to be about the same age as her brother, but where Matt was fair like their mother, Elijah Webb was dark as the night sky. She assumed that his eyes would match his raven hair, but when he turned, she saw they were a piercing blue—a color so deep that any woman would be more than happy to sink into their depths.
She shook her head at the thought then grimaced. Too bad he was currently commandeering her house, intent on stealing anything not nailed down. Facts that made her less inclined to swoon at his feet. “I’d much rather have him groveling or better yet, my knife in his ribs,” she whispered viciously.
Angry, she started to pace then stopped herself, remembering all too well that the old floorboards were likely to creak with every step. Shaking off her nervous energy, she sighed. To be fair, Captain Webb had thus far treated Katie and Samuel well, and thankfully, he didn’t seem intent on trashing the place out of spite. But she knew too, that when he moved on, he would be taking most of what little she had left. Even worse, he would be going off to kill men like her brother—good men, who were just unlucky enough to get stuck on the wrong side of this stupid war.
Fed up with it all, she turned away. Eyeing the small cot, she sighed again, silently lamenting that she hadn’t brought in an extra blanket for padding. As a bed, the cot would do in a pinch, but it was seriously lacking in comfort and definitely not something that anyone would want to sleep on for the long term. Climbing in, she settled as best she could, but sleep eluded her, and as the hours passed, she found herself wide-awake, staring uselessly at the wall.
The sound of more footsteps in the hallway had her back out of bed in an instant, and she watched in silence as another officer stepped into the room.
“Captain Webb, everything is set,” he said. “We will be ready to load up the supplies at first light and move out. Also, a messenger arrived. Seems we managed to catch some of those bastards that were running from the river. Should be some fun times when we get back to camp.” The words were punctuated by a vicious grin, and the thinly disguised glee sent shivers down Ry’s back. Her gut twisted sharply, and she fought the urge to vomit up the meager dinner she’d eaten earlier in the evening.
“Thank you for delivering the message. Dismissed.” Eli barely acknowledged the man as he left, too intently focused on reading the rest of the missive in his hands. “Damn, Matthew, looks like your luck finally ran out,” he said after a few moments, shaking his head.
Still struggling with her disgust, at first Ry thought Eli was speaking to her. He was facing the wall concealing her, and they were very nearly eye to eye. Too afraid to move for fear he might notice the shifting light, she stood there stock-still. In her mind, she visualized her father’s room, and it took only a moment to realize the captain was looking at the family portrait hanging on the wall. She never stopped to wonder how he knew her brother, for just then, his words came back to her in a rush.
Oh God… No!
With despair filling her heart, it took all she had not to cry out, but even so, Ry couldn’t keep the tears from streaking down her cheeks. Matthew had used up precious time to come home and give her warning, leaving him none left with which to escape. “You fool!” she cried silently. There was absolutely no doubt in her mind he’d been taken because of her. She wanted to scream at the unfairness of it all, and when Eli finally turned away from the wall, she stumbled back to her bed and sobbed softly into her pillow.
Never one to wallow in self-pity for long, though, her despair quickly turned to anger. Drying her tears, her mind raced ahead, fueled by the rage that was slowly building inside the spaces so recently hollowed out by her grief. The glimmer of an idea hovered at the edge of reason, and as she pulled at each shimmering thread, a plan began to take shape. Not only could she help her brother, but she would make these Union pigs wish they’d never stepped foot on her property.
For a brief moment, she considered coming right out and stabbing the bastard sleeping in her father’s bed. She caught herself, but just barely. The knife was in her hand when common sense finally kicked in. Realizing, as she was preparing to open the hidden door, that being surrounded by a hundred or so of Eli’s fellow soldiers probably wasn’t the best time to do such a thing—at least not if she wanted to live to tell the tale. So as with any good bit of revenge, Rylee would bide her time and wait for the right moment, then serve up the coldest damn dish they’d ever tasted.
Shifting carefully to the bed, she lay back down and pulled her blankets up tight around her shoulders. Willing herself to be calm, she drifted off to sleep as exhaustion finally took hold. Dreaming of what was to come, she waited out the rest of the night safely hidden, not daring to come out until Katie knocked to let her know that all the troops were long gone from the area.
Virginia: November 8, 1863
Ry sat in front of the mirror for a long time. Sunken into her overly pale face, her emerald eyes were dull and shadowed, as the sparkling cheval glass reflected back, in minute detail, all the pain and sorrow she was carrying deep within her heart. Sighing, she examined the lock of hair twisted loosely between her fingers. It too seemed limp and lifeless in the morning sunlight. Truth be told, she wasn’t much for vanity. It was hard to be vain growing up in a house with mostly men, but God, she loved her hair. Loved the way it curled to profusion in soft auburn waves that glinted like fire in the sunlight. Loved the way it trailed out behind her in the warm summer breezes when she galloped across the fields. Without it, she would not be herself, which of course was the point, but even so, the moment weighed heavy.
“It will grow back, you ninny!” she whispered to her reflection, even as she continued to mourn its loss. Finally, recognizing she was only stalling the inevitable—it absolutely had to be done if she was ever going to make this work—she gathered her resolve.
Katie stood just behind her, razor-sharp shears in hand, and for a moment, her brown eyes met Ry’s in the mirror, asking without words, “Are you sure?”
Ry nodded briefly in answer then stilled as Katie raised the shears to her hair. But regardless of her determination to follow through, the glint of unshed tears remained as the long auburn tresses hit the floor.
Despite it all, the close-cropped style actually suited her. She ran her fingers through it a few times before settling on a slightly messy look rather than one that was more clean-cut. Once her hair was gone, the rest was easier in a way. She’d been wearing Matt’s old cast-offs for years when they’d gone out riding, so there were plenty of clothes to choose from as she dressed and packed up the few things she would need to get her through the next few weeks. Making sure her breasts were well-bound, she finished buttoning up her shirt then took a last look around to make sure she wasn’t forgetting anything.
Not even out the door, yet already she wanted to lie down and rest for a bit. The grief and worry threatened to take over, if only she would give them free reign. Instead, she kept moving. If she stopped to think or feel, she would lose her mind. Nearly ready, she grabbed her father’s medical bag from the closet and double-checked the supplies. They normally kept it fully stocked for emergencies, but it never hurt to make sure, especially since her skills and that bag were at the heart of her plan. Without it, she would not get far.
Katie and Samuel had tried to talk her out of it, of course, protesting and threatening, until their voices were hoarse with it all. In truth, their advice was sound as always, and in some small way, Ry desperately wanted to give in to them. In the end, though, she had no choice. Matt was the only family she had left. As much as she had loved her father, he’d been rather distant after her mother’s death. Many a time in their childhood, Matt had wistfully described their father with twinkling eyes and a sunny smile for all, the echoes of his booming laughter frequently ringing from the rafters.
It was a direct contrast to the somber, sad-eyed man she’d known all her life. Not that anyone could really blame him. He’d loved their mother more than anything, and when she died giving birth to Ry, it was as though a light had gone out. Unfortunately for them all, Lee James had never really recovered. Oh, he’d still provided for them. As a doctor, his services were always needed, and he had been well-respected in the community. To be sure as well, Ry and her brother had never wanted for anything, but her care and general upbringing had largely fallen to Katie and then later, once she could walk, to Matt. Though he never complained about it—well… not too much, anyway—she had been a trial to him, following him everywhere for years. She might have gotten her medical skills from her father, but almost everything else she knew about how to survive in life, she’d learned from her brother. It was time to use those skills to get him back.
“You absolutely sure you want to do this?” Katie asked her again, for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“I have to, and you know it.” Her voice was resolute, taking care to hide any trace of the lingering doubts that swirled inside. If Katie knew she was wavering, she would keep needling until Ry broke, and Ry couldn’t afford for that to happen, not with Matt’s life hanging in the balance. “Besides, if I don’t do it, who will?”
For all her determination, she was near to tears again as Katie hugged her tight. “You just be careful, girl. Don’t need to lose both of you… you hear! Matt wouldn’t want you to get yourself killed for him.”
“Maybe not, but he would do the same for me. So I can’t do any less for him.” She gave Katie’s hand one last squeeze. “Don’t you worry. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Mm-hmm, you’d better be,” Katie said, shaking her head.
Samuel stood at Katie’s side as always, and they watched with concern as Ry grabbed her gear. Waving to them both, she headed off, afraid that if she waited much longer, she would lose her nerve.
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