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HER TRAITOR’S HEART

Colleen Hall


HER TRAITOR’S HEART

By Colleen Hall

Copyright 2017 Colleen Hall

Smashwords edition


Published by Anaiah Romance

An imprint of Anaiah Press, LLC.

7780 49th ST N. #129

Pinellas Park, FL 33781


This book is a work of fiction. All characters, places, names, events are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any likeness to any events, locations, or persons, alive or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form. For inquiries and information, address Anaiah Press, LLC., 7780 49th ST N. #129 Pinellas Park, Florida, 33781

First Anaiah Romance ebook edition December 2017

Edited by Kara Leigh Miller and Hayley Stone

Book Design by AnaiahPress

Cover Design by Laura Heritage


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and remains the copyrighted property of the author. Please do not redistribute this book for either commercial or noncommercial use. If you enjoyed this book and would like to share it with another person, please encourage them to download their own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Dedication


To my own special hero, Warren, for encouraging me to pursue my dream and supporting me all along the journey. I love you.


And to my mother, who encouraged a little girl to read, opening up the wonderful world of fiction.


Acknowledgements


This book wouldn’t be possible without the love and support of my family. I love you all!


Thanks to my daughter, Juanita, for cooking supper, doing the laundry, and cleaning the house so I could write after work and on weekends.


Thanks to my daughter-in-law, Laura, who spent long hours on her vacation designing my business cards and the one sheet for my manuscript, as well as my cover design suggestions.


Thanks to my sons, Sean and Stephen, and my daughter-in-law, Andrea, who provided tech support.


Thanks to the gentlemen at the Greenville Civil War Museum who willingly answered all my questions and took things from their storage area so I could touch and handle actual historic items.


Special thanks to my editor, Hayley Stone, whose patience, guidance, and expertise made this book possible.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my Yankee ancestor, who was part of the Union occupying army in the South after the Civil War. The story of his relationship with a Southern lady, and their letters, has been passed down in the family. Their story provided inspiration for HER TRAITOR’S HEART.


Table of Contents


ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT



CHAPTER ONE


As her buckboard trundled down the street, Coral Leigh stared about with embittered eyes. Gaunt chimneys rose amid charred foundations. Tumbled bricks and scorched beams squatted in haphazard heaps on lots where shops, public buildings, or gracious homes had once stood.

The Yankees did this.

The sight of the ruined town brought Coral back to that terrifying night in February when, from the veranda of their plantation home east of Columbia, she and her mother had watched the lurid glow of flames stain the sky red while the city burned. They’d stood huddled together all night, fearing at any time to see Yankee troops riding up the long drive of Elmwood, intending to torch the mansion about their heads. When at last the sun had banished the darkness from the earth the next morning, no troops had rampaged as far east as Elmwood.

“Those Yankees sure did the work o’ the devil when they came through with their torches,” Silvie said, her brown face puckered.

Coral nodded in stricken agreement.

A profusion of early June roses in the empty lots where homes had once stood flamed in an explosion of crimson against the blackened ruins. Main Street, down which their mule trudged, languished beneath the vindictive hand of Sherman’s troops, laid waste by the soldiers on their march through South Carolina. Not one shop remained.

“Pull the wagon in over there. That’s as good a place to wait as any.” Coral issued her instructions to the muscular black man who drove the mule as she spied an empty spot along the footway.

When the wagon had rumbled to a stop at the side of the street, Coral clambered down by the front wheel. She reached over the side of the buckboard and lifted a muslin-wrapped parcel from the floor.

Before the war, she wouldn’t have ridden into the city in a farm wagon. Instead, she would have arrived in her family’s elegant equipage driven by a liveried coachman and drawn by a pair of matched thoroughbreds. Nor would her dress be several seasons old, meticulously mended by Silvie’s skillful fingers. Her bonnet would have been a stylish confection in the latest Paris fashion, rather than a hat refurbished from bits of other bonnets too tattered to wear.

Tucking her parcel beneath her arm, Coral turned to the titan tying the mule’s reins to the wooden hitching rail. “Scipio, please stay here with the wagon. Silvie and I will try to find a shop where I can sell my vase. Then I’ll fetch the doctor.”

Walking along the footway a moment later with Silvie at her shoulder, Coral observed the few shops already rising from the ashes of Columbia. Business appeared to be picking up.

Perhaps she could find a buyer for her vase, get the medicine her mother needed, and leave the city in time to reach Elmwood before dark, after all.

Coral roused from her inspection of the construction along the street, transferring her attention to the crowds jostling the footways. Women wearing dresses of threadbare homespun and haggard Confederate veterans straggling home afoot mingled with blue-jacketed Federal soldiers. Guards stood watch on every street. Sweeping aside her skirts, Coral averted her face as she passed two troopers patrolling Main Street.

“These soldiers won’t cause you any trouble, not while I’m here to take care of you,” Silvie muttered.

Despite her distress over the desperate position to which the South had sunk, Coral managed a slight smile. “I doubt any Yankee would dare accost me with you hovering at my shoulder like an avenging angel.”

“No Billie Yank is going to lay a finger on my baby Coral,” Silvie vowed with staunch ferocity, clenching the handle of the straw basket she carried as though contemplating cracking the hamper over the head of any soldier who might dare speak to her charge.

“I haven’t been your ‘baby Coral’ for over twenty years. I’m a grown woman now, a fact you keep forgetting. Don’t take your role of protector too seriously, Silvie. You’d probably get arrested if you so much as looked cross-eyed at a Yankee soldier.”

As they hurried along the footway, Coral hoped to find the shop of a merchant whom her family used to patronize. She could make a more profitable sale from someone who knew her. Hoping the mercantile she sought might be open for business, Coral forged ahead, ignoring any Federal troopers she encountered.

Near the end of Main Street, a frame structure had been erected on the lot where once had stood an imposing brick edifice. A white sign with black letters hung above the door, proclaiming the establishment Garner’s Emporium.

“We’ll try here first.” Approaching the shop, Coral shook her head in dismay as she observed the inferior clapboard structure which replaced the original brick building. Both windows flanking the door lacked glass; rough shutters standing open against the wall could be closed at night to provide security. The sign above the door, its crude letters splashed in black paint, must have been painted by someone with more resolution than talent. Coral resented the fact that the shop’s owner, Mr. Garner, had suffered such a complete loss of property at the hands of the Yankees when he’d been guilty of nothing more than engaging in commerce. During the long conflict, Mr. Garner had never raised a weapon against any Federal trooper, yet retribution had been meted out to him without such consideration.

Forcing her lips into a smile to conceal the ache in her heart, Coral reached for the doorknob. As she made her way through the shop, its interior dim after the dazzling sunshine outside, Mr. Garner called out a welcome from behind the counter.

“Well, if it isn’t Miss Coral Leigh. I haven’t seen you in town for months. How did Elmwood fare when Sherman marched through?”

Coral halted before the rough planked counter. “We fared better at Elmwood than you did

here, it seems. The troops never reached our plantation. What those Yankees did to the city is criminal! And now they’re everywhere like a scourge.”

A frown puckered Coral’s brow. Her nostrils flared with distaste as she contemplated the presence of the scorned Federal blue bellies. Seeing triumphant Northern troops on sacred Southern soil roused in her an unaccustomed waspish temper.

Mr. Garner removed his spectacles, polishing them on his sleeve as he regarded her through faded blue eyes. “Don’t keep fighting them, Miss Leigh. They’ve defeated us. They’re here as victors, so we might as well make whatever adjustments are necessary to live peaceably with them.”

“Mr. Garner! Surely you don’t mean you’ve bowed your knee to the Yankee invaders.”

The elderly gentleman returned his glasses to his face, hooked them over his ears, then adjusted them on his nose before replying. “I’m an old man, Miss Leigh. I’m tired of conflict, and I have to earn a living. The war’s over. We’d all best get about putting our lives back together.”

Coral stared at him, not crediting what her ears had just heard. She should live peaceably with the victors?

“I’d like to put my life back together, but I’d prefer to do it without the presence of the Yankees.” She clamped her lips shut to refrain from continuing her diatribe and laid her parcel on the counter, peeling back its wrapping with careful hands. As the bleached muslin fell away to reveal an antique Sevres vase, she lifted the ornament out of the protective fabric with reverent hands. The bleu-de-roi glaze of the vase, lavishly trimmed in gold, glowed in the shop’s dim light. Her fingers caressed the graceful lines of the vessel. “I . . . I know you can’t pay me what this vase is worth, but . . .” Her voice shook, and she stumbled to a halt, snatching a breath to regain her composure. Parting with the vase grieved her, for the antique had been in her family for over three generations. Coral straightened and squared her shoulders. “How much will you give me for the vase?”

“Why are you parting with this treasure, Miss Leigh?” Mr. Garner touched the vase’s curved body with an appreciative finger.

“A treasure sitting on a mantel is worthless to me. My mother is ill and needs medicine.”

Mention of her mother brought Coral’s anxiety back in a sharp rush. Mrs. Leigh had felt too poorly to accompany her today, so she’d stayed behind at Elmwood.

Mr. Garner lifted the vase from the counter and examined the fragile china piece from every angle, tilting the ornament first this way, then that. The early June sunshine filtering through the open shutters gleamed off the lustrous blue glaze and the gold trim. Setting it gingerly back on the wooden planking of the counter, he shook his head. Sweeping his hand toward the merchandise lining the shelves along three walls, he said, “This vase is worth much more than I can pay you. The rest of my stock is definitely of an inferior quality to your fine antique. Right now, I can’t afford to stock expensive items any more than the people of Columbia can afford to buy them. People need necessities, not luxuries like this vase.”

“I don’t expect to get full value. I just want enough money to buy medicine for my mother. Please! I’ll be satisfied with whatever you can give me.”

Coral touched the tip of her tongue to her dry lips. She needed the money with a desperate urgency. Her best chance of acquiring the cash she needed lay with Mr. Garner.

The shopkeeper scratched his head, his pink pate gleaming through his thinning white hair as he peered with compassion at the girl on the other side of the counter. “I’ve never cheated

a customer yet, especially a Leigh. If I buy your vase, I’ll pay you as much as I can without taking a loss. But before we do business, I must ask if you’ve taken the loyalty oath. Have you?”

“Loyalty oath?” Color drained from Coral’s face. Did the Yankees think forcing Southerners to take a loyalty oath would humble them? Surely the North had already stripped the South of everything except pride and dignity. Did the Yankees intend to wrest those qualities away too?

“Before any of us can transact business, we have to take an oath of allegiance to the United States and to the president.”

“Never!” Coral backed away. “I could never swear loyalty to the North!”

Mr. Garner let out a long breath. “If you want to sell this vase,” he said with gentle sympathy, “and if you want to buy medicine for your mother, you’ll have to take the oath. It’s as simple as that. I can’t buy your vase until then, nor can any other shopkeeper in Columbia. No doctor can sell medicine to you unless you can prove you’ve sworn loyalty to the Federal government and to the president.”

Feeling treacherous tears of frustration prick the back of her eyes, Coral turned to Silvie. The older woman’s thin brown face revealed wisdom and understanding. As Coral struggled with her pride, Silvie nodded in approval. If not for the medicine her mother desperately needed, Coral vowed she’d walk out of Garner’s Emporium, returning to Elmwood empty-handed. Instead, necessity forced her to take the despised loyalty oath.

Drawing a deep breath, standing with imperious dignity at her full diminutive height with her shoulders barely clearing the four-foot counter, Coral turned back to Mr. Garner. Despite the

outrage tearing at her, she managed to keep her voice steady. “Where would I go to take this oath?”

“The military headquarters is located on the south side of Columbia College campus. An army officer will administer the oath and give you a certificate of allegiance.”

“Will you keep my vase here until I return?”

“Your treasure will be safe with me.”

Mr. Garner set the antique on a shelf behind the counter as the two women left the shop.

During the walk across town, Coral’s gloved hands clenched at the sight of every blue uniform she encountered. Though she simmered at the intrusion of the enemy, she maintained an outward calmness. She kept her attention on the scenery, not allowing her thoughts to dwell on the prospect of taking the despised oath. The oath, taken under duress, certainly couldn’t change the loyalty of her heart.

Silvie’s low voice beside her pulled Coral’s attention from the rubble alongside the footway. “When we get to the campus, you keep your tongue on a leash, Miz Coral. If you say what you want to say instead of what you ought to say, you’re going to get yourself in a peck o’ trouble.”

Coral let out a frustrated huff. “You’re right. It will be difficult, but I’ll try to be civil. You know I can’t abide their arrogance.”

“I expect you cain’t paint all Yankees with that brush.”

“Silvie! Surely you aren’t beginning to sympathize with the Northern troops! Look at what they did to Columbia! How could they be anything other than inhuman beasts?”

Silvie shrugged. “They’re just men, some good, some bad. You need to learn to get along with them, like it or not. You mind your tongue now an’ act like the lady your momma raised you to be.”

“I can show these Northern brutes what a real Southern lady is like. Never you mind, I’ll be a pattern card of propriety, just to spite them.”

At the arched brick entrance of Columbia College, however, Coral hesitated. Once she passed beneath this gateway, she’d step into a territory inhabited by men of the occupying force, soldiers who had cut down thousands of Confederate men in battle. She stiffened her spine and took a deep breath. No matter how much she resented their presence on Southern soil, she wouldn’t let them overset her.

Coral forged through the entryway and turned toward a three-story brick building with a portico supported by fluted white pillars. From the number of blue-jacketed officers entering and leaving, she guessed this must be the administrative headquarters of the Union army.

Coming to a standstill before the steps, she looked up at the wide paneled entrance. Her breathing quickened at the prospect of taking the oath, and her stomach knotted. She’d violate every principle her loved ones had fought and died for when she pledged allegiance to the United States and the president.

“May I help you, Miss? You look lost.”

A masculine voice, spoken in clipped Northern accents behind her, interrupted Coral’s musings. She turned about, bracing for her first verbal encounter with a Union soldier.

“I’m looking for the administration building. I’ve been told that’s where the oath of allegiance is taken.”

“Yes, ma’am. You’re going in the right direction.” The soldier inclined his head toward the building before them. “The oath is administered in there. Take the first door on your right as you enter the hallway.”

Coral almost forgot to reply while she struggled with her reaction to the soldier. The man standing before her was no ordinary trooper. From his uniform, she saw that he was an officer of high rank. She tipped back her head to accommodate his height. He stood with broad shoulders held erect in precise military bearing, with the blue wool of his uniform molding an athletic frame. The morning sun picked out russet highlights in his dark hair. Austere features graced his lean Yankee face, clean shaven except for a dark slash of mustache. No callow youth, the officer standing before her embodied the confident strength of a fully mature man. Vivid blue eyes scrutinized her closely.

He held the reins of a black Thoroughbred stallion close up by the bit. The black’s superior bloodlines and his impeccable lineage were evident to Coral’s knowledgeable perusal. As she studied the horse’s proud carriage and intelligent eyes, she knew only a proficient rider with a will as strong as the stallion’s could control him.

She returned her reluctant attention to the officer, who scattered all her notions of her former enemy. Admiring a Union soldier seemed disloyal to her Southern heritage, yet she attempted to show civility. “Thank you kindly, sir.”

“My pleasure, Miss.” The officer smiled at her and swept his cavalry Stetson onto his dark hair. “If you’ll excuse me, I have an inspection tour to do.”

“I won’t detain you, then. Thank you again.”

Coral watched as he turned to his mount and flipped the reins over the stallion’s head. He stepped into the saddle with an easy grace, then acknowledged her with a dip of his head and a two-fingered salute. A touch of his spurs to his mount’s sides sent the horse beneath the gateway at a collected trot.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it, Miz Coral? You can be polite to Yankees when you set your mind to it.” Silvie spoke at Coral’s elbow.

“I promised I’d behave with propriety when I took the oath. I can’t promise my goodwill can extend beyond that to the next encounter.” Coral spun back toward the portico and climbed the shallow granite steps. She crossed the porch to the door. Reaching out a gloved hand, she turned the knob and entered a spacious, high-ceilinged hallway.

Orderlies in blue uniforms bustled about, papers clutched in their hands. She halted just inside the door. Should she wait to be addressed or continue to the office where the oath was administered?

One of the men approached her, so she had no need to make the decision. “Are you here to take the oath?”

Coral nodded.

“Right in there.” The orderly motioned to an open portal on her right. “Sergeant Thomas will handle it for you.”

“Thank you. I’m most appreciative.” Coral stepped into a plain office which held only a wide oak desk, a wooden filing cabinet, and a chair angled before the table.

The youngish, sandy-haired sergeant who sat behind the desk rose to his feet when Coral entered. “Good afternoon, Miss. I presume you want to take the oath of allegiance?”

No, I don’t want to take the oath, Coral felt tempted to reply, but she tamped down her rebellion and murmured, “Yes.”

“Please be seated. This won’t take but a moment.”

Sergeant Thomas pulled a paper from the filing cabinet and laid it on the desk. He picked up a pen. “What is your name, Miss?”

“Coral Leigh.” Her voice shook.

The sergeant scribbled her name on the proper line, then glanced up. “If you’ll repeat after me, that will qualify you as having taken the oath.” He paused, looked down at the page, and glanced at her again. “I, Coral Leigh, do solemnly swear, in the presence of Almighty God . . .”

Now that the moment was upon her, she almost refused. Her pulse raced. Her throat closed, and her mouth grew cottony. She could scarcely form the words.

Sergeant Thomas regarded her with sympathy. “Take your time. I can wait until you’re ready.”

I’ll never be ready, she thought. With scarcely concealed reluctance, she drew a breath and spoke in a low voice. “I, Coral Leigh, do solemnly swear . . .”

“I will henceforth defend the Constitution of the United States . . .”

Coral repeated the hated words.

“. . . and support . . . all proclamations of the president made during the rebellion . . .”

The words stuck in her throat. For a moment she balked, remembering that her father, her brother, and her fiancé had spilled their life’s blood on the battlefield to defend the Confederacy. How could she betray their deaths by pledging allegiance to the Union? She swallowed hard and forced out the words.

“. . . so help me God.”

“So help me God.”

The deed was done. She’d taken the oath. Coral shook with the knowledge.

“Miss Leigh, if you’ll sign on the line below the oath, everything will be official.” Sergeant Thomas passed her the pen and pushed the paper toward her.

Coral took the pen and leaned over the desk to sign the oath. Her hand poised, motionless, over the document. Her fingers trembled. When at last she signed her name, the pen wobbled so she could barely scrawl her signature on the paper. She wrote the last letter of her name and tossed the pen onto the desk.

Sergeant Thomas recorded her name in a ledger before he passed the official document to her. “This is your copy. Keep it with you whenever you intend to purchase anything.”

Coral rolled the page into a small cylinder and tucked it into the fringed reticule dangling from her wrist.

“Good day to you, Miss Leigh. Thank you for coming here this morning.”

Coral met his concerned gaze, pierced to the heart by her betrayal. “I had no choice.”

She fled the building, Silvie trotting at her side. They hurried away from the Union headquarters, back onto the footway leading to the main street, jostling against men and women who crowded the path.

“Miz Coral . . .”

“Please, Silvie, not now. Not one word. I can’t talk about what I’ve done.”

In silence, they made their way to Garner’s Emporium. Mr. Garner gave her more money than she expected for the vase, with the promise of more when the piece sold. With some of the extra money she purchased a length of calico, enough to make dresses for her mother, Silvie, and herself. She also bought a pair of stout leather shoes of a kind she never would have considered putting on her feet before the war.

Now she reminded herself those days had vanished like the morning mist, never to return. From this day forward she’d be content with calico or homespun. Serviceable brogans for her feet would have to satisfy.

After locating the doctor, she acquired a brown bottle of Camphor’s Soothing Elixir for her mother, along with Dr. Davis’s promise to check on Mrs. Leigh the next day.

#


“Money, Silvie!” Coral shook her beaded reticule which held the greenbacks and gold coins acquired from the sale of her vase. She twisted about on the buckboard’s seat in order to address her companion, who sat on a blanket in the wagon bed behind her. “I haven’t seen real money for months, but now when we get home, I can pay you and Scipio the back wages I owe you.”

Silvie waved a hand in dismissal of Coral’s words. “Don’t you fret, Miz Coral. Scipio and I know you didn’t have the money to pay us. We aren’t stayin’ around just for the money.”

“I know that, and I’m ever so grateful. My mother and I would be in a sad way if either of you left us.”

“We won’t leave you. You’re all the family we’ve got.”

Coral squeezed Silvie’s shoulder. “Thank you, Silvie.”

Swinging around again to the front, Coral slumped against the back of the buckboard’s seat. Beside her, Scipio maintained his silence. Although he was invaluable to her in doing the heavy work about the plantation, he spoke sparingly.

Coral’s thoughts returned to her visit in Columbia.

“If I never see another Yankee soldier, it will be too soon.” She fanned her heated face with a folded scrap of paper. Curling tendrils of hair escaping from her chignon stuck to her cheeks and neck in the afternoon’s heat.

“These Yankee soldiers are here to stay, Miz Coral, so you’d best get used to ’em,” Silvie said.

“As long as I stay at Elmwood and don’t go to town, I won’t have to deal with them.”

“You have to go to town for supplies, so you’ll have to deal with them. You cain’t pucker up like a sour lemon every time you see a Yankee soldier.”

“Perhaps I’ll send Scipio to town for supplies.” Though it might take him a while.

Scipio let the reins lie slack on the back of the ancient mule hitched to the traces. The wagon creaked harshly with each ponderous turn of its wheels. Coral thought the ancient mule heaved itself along more slowly than it had on the way to Columbia. In her impatience to get home, she felt she could walk faster than the wagon traveled.

“You’ll have to go yourself, Miz Coral, and you know it. You cain’t send Scipio. You have to take the certificate of allegiance when you buy anything. It has your name on it.”

“I never want to see that dratted certificate again. I feel like the veriest traitor for signing the thing.”

“You did what you had to do to get medicine for your momma.”

“This morning I pledged my allegiance to the Federal government of the United States, while my father and brother lie cold in the ground. They gave their lives for the Cause, while I just signed away everything they died for.” Her voice broke on the words as she recalled her betrayal.

“And would you let your pride keep you from gettin’ the tonic to help your momma?”

Sighing, Coral declined to answer Silvie’s indisputable logic. She wanted nothing more than to return home to Elmwood, to the peace the plantation offered, where no visible reminders of the Yankee conqueror could disturb her.



CHAPTER TWO


They covered three miles without meeting a single person. In the afternoon shadows of the sweet gum, cedar, and scrub oak trees flanking the ditches, the dappled ribbon of dirt road stretched before them. Only the squeak of wagon wheels and the rhythmic plodding of the mule, whose hooves raised tiny spurts of dust with each step, sounded in the hush. Coral relaxed against the boards of the seat back, closing her eyes, letting her body sway with the motion of the buckboard. She had nearly dozed when Scipio exclaimed sharply and jerked on the reins.

“Lawd a’mercy!”

Coral’s eyes snapped open at Scipio’s outcry, a question hovering on her lips. The question died into terrified silence as she stared at what had stopped them.

One man had appeared without warning from the brush beside the road, leaping into the lane, blocking the buckboard’s passage. While she watched, three more disreputable-looking men thrust their way through the bushes to join their companion. Several days’ growth of beard stubbled their faces. Grime stained their clothing. The acrid smell of sweat burned Coral’s nose as the wayward breeze gusted from their direction.

The four men created a formidable human barricade across the lane, with their rifles leveled in a threatening manner at the occupants of the wagon. Their hardened faces showed no compassion. Coral guessed they wouldn’t hesitate to use those weapons. She wished she’d brought her father’s old pistol with her.

Renegades. Deserters from one or another of the armies.

Since the end of the war, such deserters roamed the South, preying upon civilians. Coral’s heart leaped within her chest, banging against her ribs with a wild rhythm, driven by a panic which threatened to consume her. Beneath her muslin dress, the perspiration of fear trickled down her back and chest.

“Well, look what’s here, jest waitin’ for us to take. A mule and a wagon. Maybe there’s supplies in the back o’ that wagon. An’ maybe the lady has money in her purse. Boys, this is our

lucky day.”

The speaker, standing a pace ahead of the others, drawled as his rifle now dangled, barrel

down, through the crook of one elbow, the thumb of his other hand hooked beneath his rope suspenders.

For the space of a heartbeat, none of the three in the wagon said a word. Then Scipio protested. “Please, sir, you cain’t do that. This mule is all Miz Coral’s got. If you take her mule, she cain’t plow her fields. She won’t have any way to get to town, and her mam is dreadful sick.”

Beneath his drooping brown mustache, the renegade’s lips curled in a caricature of a smile, displaying long yellowed teeth. He abandoned his suspenders to lay his palm over his heart. “That’s a touchin’ story. Y’came near to breakin’ my heart. But it won’t hurt the little rich gal none to walk. She’s no better’n the rest of us.”

Another of the deserters spoke up. “Yeah. It’s our turn to ride now.”

The leader swung the barrel of his rifle up, his casualness belied by the ruthless expression on his face as he aimed his weapon at Coral. “Ma’am, I know you won’t mind none sharin’ your wagon and mule with us. It would be an act of charity, and I know you rich folks set such store on doin’ good deeds and all. Now you three in the wagon kindly step down, and we’ll be on our way.”

Coral sat in rigid defiance, fury overriding her panic. Who did these outlaws think they were to order her off her own wagon, to brazenly steal the only animal left on the plantation? She refused to budge, looking down her pert nose at him as though he were a loathsome variety of insect. “You’re nothing but low-down thieves. This is my mule and wagon. You can’t have them.”

“You’ve got a sharp tongue, Missy. And a bit of fire as well. But you’d best not get me riled.” Cold rage wiped the humor from the renegade’s face.

“I suppose you wouldn’t hesitate to shoot a lady.”

“I might think twice about shootin’ a purty gal like you, but I won’t let you stop me from takin’ that rig of yours.”

Still Coral sat in stubborn defiance, lifting her chin with haughty resolve.

Anger radiating from every line of his body, the outlaw stomped around the mule to her side of the wagon. When he reached her, he clamped his fingers about her elbow, hauling her down over the side of the buckboard. Her feet slithered over the front wheel. She lost her balance, tumbling to her knees on the dusty road. The renegade’s fingers bit into her arm with cruel force. She caught her breath to keep from crying out in pain.

Coral caught sight of Scipio bolting to his feet, muscles tensing.

The voice of another armed renegade, now positioned on the other side of the wagon, stopped him short. “Don’t move if you want to live.”

Scipio froze.

Coral scrambled to her feet. Close up, the stench of the outlaw nearly gagged her. Gasping from the man’s odor, she writhed furiously as the ruffian forced her arm up behind her back. She tried to twist free. He held her in an unbreakable grip.

Crouching in the dirt road as she struggled against the bruising grip of the outlaw, she ignored the pain in her arm. Twisting her head so that her face brushed her captor’s grimy sleeve, she clamped her teeth into the muscles of his upper arm.

The outlaw leader bellowed in pain as Coral’s teeth sank into his flesh. With his other arm he swung the rifle butt at her skull. Flinging up her free hand to protect her head, Coral tensed for the blow but refused to loosen her hold on his biceps.

The impact never came. Instead, the sharp crack of a gunshot split the air over their heads, accompanied by hoofbeats approaching from beyond the bend in the road ahead.

The renegade who gripped Coral’s arms whirled at the blast. Coral jerked free and scrambled away. One of the other ruffians wheeled, lifting his rifle as he spun about. The blast of another shot from their rescuer’s revolver sent the rifle spinning into the dirt. The outlaw screamed in pain, clutching his bleeding hand to his chest as he stumbled backward. The remaining bandits froze.

Mounted astride a magnificent black brute, Coral’s rescuer loomed over the renegades as they huddled beneath him in the road. The rider and his stallion were well matched. With a Colt revolver balanced low across his McClellan saddle, his face set in resolute lines, the Yankee officer looked as formidable as his mount as he addressed the outlaws.

A sharp jolt of recognition flared through Coral. It was the same officer whom she’d met that morning outside the administration building at the army headquarters.

“You gentlemen kindly toss your weapons into the ditch. Don’t think about trying to get off a shot at me. I’d hate to shoot you in front of a lady. All of you get down on the ground on your bellies, hands over your heads.”

The aura of authority emanating from the officer, along with the weapon he held in his steady hand, must have impressed upon them that he meant business. As Coral watched, they sullenly tossed their rifles to the dirt. With dragging reluctance, they dropped to the road, stretching out with their fingers interlocked against the back of their heads, faces pressed into the soil.

“You, sir.” With a gesture of his revolver, the officer indicated Scipio. “Get down off that wagon and gather up their firearms. Destroy them so these gentlemen will have no opportunity to use them again.”

At their rescuer’s command, Scipio leaped from the wagon to gather up the weapons. He checked the magazine of each rifle, ejecting the shells, before he smashed the firearms against the trunk of a nearby pine tree. With a satisfied grunt, Scipio flung the disabled weapons into the ditch.

“Now, you men can count your blessings you didn’t harm the lady before I came upon you. This encounter would have had a very different ending had you injured her or her companions in any way.”

Animosity rolled from the outlaws in dark waves at the cavalryman’s interference in their robbery.

“Since we’re in the presence of a lady, I won’t deal with you as you deserve. Take this opportunity to hie yourselves down the road. Don’t even consider ambushing me. If my stallion gets a glimpse of you or scents you, he’ll let me know. If I catch sight of even a hair on your heads, I won’t be so lenient as I am now. Now git.”

Clumsily the renegades scrambled to their feet, scurrying down the road toward Columbia.

Coral’s gratitude at being rescued battled with the unpalatable fact her rescuer wore the abhorred blue uniform of the conquering foe. While she studied him, she rubbed her aching arm which the renegade had twisted behind her.

Effortlessly holding his restless mount in check, the Yankee tracked the progress of the deserters until they disappeared around a bend in the road. After returning his revolver to its holster, he swung a long leg over the stallion’s rump to dismount with practiced ease.

Good manners dictated Coral should thank the officer for saving her life, though her pride rebelled at being indebted to a member of the despised Federal army. Nevertheless, she forced herself to meet him as he strolled toward her, holding the stallion on a tight rein.

“I remember you from this morning, though I regret that we should meet again under such unfortunate circumstances, ma’am.” His clipped New England speech jarred her sensibilities, sounding foreign to ears accustomed to the slow, soft drawl of Southern aristocrats. “Are you hurt?”

“Fortunately, no. I offer my sincere thanks for your intervention.”

“My apologies for not arriving in time to prevent the whole incident. You could have been badly hurt.”

Coral shrugged, turning away from the officer. That her initial scrutiny couldn’t find fault with his appearance or character only increased her irritation. Admitting some Northerners might have commendable qualities which she could admire made hating all Yankees unconditionally more difficult. In her present state she wouldn’t consider the possibility she might be wrong.

The officer moved a step closer, doffing his cavalryman Stetson in a graceful bow worthy of a ballroom floor. “General Clint Logan, ma’am. At your service.”

Coral acknowledged his introduction with a slight nod. “Miss Coral Leigh.”

Settling his hat low on his head once more, he turned his attention back to her face. “Miss Leigh, I truly regret the ill treatment you suffered at the hands of those ruffians. Deserters like those make travel for honest folk hazardous. I hope it won’t be long before we’ll have order restored.”

Reaching into the wagon, Coral plucked her bonnet from the floor where it had fallen when the renegade hauled her off the seat. She adjusted the hat over her chignon, tying the ribbons as she swung about to face the general. “I suppose such lawlessness is an inevitable result of the war. We’ll have to learn to live with the anarchy for as long as it takes to establish civil order.”

“Do you have far to travel? Would you like an escort? I’d be happy to accompany you to provide protection for the rest of your journey.”

“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary. I don’t want to inconvenience you. You’re headed back to Columbia, and I don’t want to take you out of your way.”

“You wouldn’t inconvenience me. As a member of the occupying force, it’s my duty to

protect civilians.”

Coral breathed deeply to bite back her impatience at the officer’s insistence of aid. His chivalry made it difficult for her to decline his offer, when her nerves were stretched to the snapping point, and she struggled to maintain a show of courtesy. “Again, I appreciate your kind offer of help, but it’s not necessary.”

Conversing with the enemy seemed disloyal to the Southern men who had given their all for the Cause. Coral resented this man’s confidence, his assertiveness, even his height, which made her feel small and insignificant. Removing herself from his presence seemed imperative.

“If you’ll excuse me, we have some distance still to travel and should be on our way. Scipio, let’s go home.”

As Coral prepared to climb onto the wagon seat, General Logan’s warm palm cupped her elbow in assistance. The simple act of gallantry, performed by a member of the despised Federal army, infuriated her. A perverse little voice inside her head whispered she’d have considered the same courtesy to be gentlemanly behavior had it been performed by a Southerner. Coral ignored the contrary voice niggling at her conscience as she clambered over the wheel and took her seat. She refused to look at her rescuer, keeping her face straight ahead.

“Be safe, Miss.”

The simple words, spoken as Coral ignored the handsome officer who uttered them, struck her in the heart. Still, she refused to acknowledge him. He threatened all her carefully nurtured prejudices with his thoughtful courtesy. As the wagon lurched forward, the general stood unmoving, booted feet planted in the road, while the buckboard rolled past him.

As soon as they were out of earshot of the Yankee, Silvie turned to Coral and said, “We can thank the good Lawd that He sent us a strong hand to help us in our trouble.”

“If it weren’t for Yankees such as that one, we wouldn’t be in trouble,” Coral retorted.

“Everything would be the same as it was before the war.”

“Don’t be sour. Such bitterness ain’t becomin’ to a young lady.” As Coral’s nurse from babyhood, Silvie didn’t hesitate to be painfully honest with her charge when she felt the necessity.

“Well, it’s the truth.”

Coral lapsed into a sulky silence which lasted the rest of the drive home. Silvie’s rebuke smote her. The older woman spoke truthfully.

What kind of bitter spinster had she become?



CHAPTER THREE


Only when the wagon turned into the long avenue which continued for half a mile between rows of towering elms did Coral rouse. Fierce pride in her home brought tears to her eyes. Lack of cash and manpower during the war had sunk the plantation into a state of shabby disrepair. The fences sagged. Cotton fields languished from lack of cultivation, overgrown with weeds. Paint peeled in flakes from all the buildings. To her uncritical eyes, Elmwood remained unchanged, a jewel of an estate much beloved by its inhabitants.

At the end of the drive, the elms gave way to a wide expanse of lawn. Before the war, when several gardeners maintained the grounds, verdant grass grew with a smooth velvety texture. Now the lawn resembled a patchwork quilt of ragged vegetation.

As the wagon rumbled up the drive into the open space around the house, Coral stared with passionate pride at her home. This was the view she always loved best. Flanked by spreading elms, the ground-floor veranda balanced the mansion’s three-storied symmetry.

After Scipio halted the wagon beneath the porte cochere, the women scrambled out. Eager to see her mother, Coral hurried ahead of Silvie, sweeping upstairs to the room at the back of the second floor. She checked her hurried pace at the threshold of the master bedroom. Her mother lay where they’d left her. Mrs. Leigh gazed with listless disinterest at the uncultivated cotton fields visible between threadbare gold brocade drapes which had been looped back in brackets on either side of the French doors that opened onto a balcony at the rear of the house.

“Good afternoon, Mother. We’re back.” Coral fixed a bright smile on her face as she stepped toward the bed.

Mrs. Leigh rolled her head toward her daughter. Her lackluster eyes held no spark of interest. She spoke in a weak, muffled voice. “How did you find Columbia?”

“The Yankees burned the whole center of the city. The sight was enough to make your heart bleed. And Yankee soldiers are crawling all over like locusts.”

A faint sigh fluttered from between Mrs. Leigh’s lips.

Coral, fearing her thoughtless outburst had further mired her mother in despondency, changed topics. She forced more enthusiasm into her voice than she felt. “I saw Dr. Davis, Mother. He gave me a tonic that will have you feeling better in no time. And he promised to drive out here tomorrow afternoon to see you. Imagine, a visitor! Won’t that be exciting? We’ll get you prettied up in your best gown. Silvie can do your hair. Perhaps we could have tea with him while he’s here. Do you think you could come downstairs for tea, Mother? I even bought you some calico so you can have a new dress the next time we have visitors.”

At the mention of a calico dress, Mrs. Leigh gave a muffled sob, turning her face away. Her mother had made it clear to anyone who would listen that she deplored the poverty which now defined their lives and lamented the fact their former life had been swept away by the war.

Coral eased down onto the mattress beside her mother, perching with care on the counterpane so as not to jostle her. Determined to rouse a response, she continued her chatter.

“I saw Mr. Garner today, Mother. He purchased our Sevres vase. I got enough cash from the sale to buy some supplies for the plantation and a new pair of shoes for myself. That’s the first pair of shoes I’ve had since the war began.”

Coral leaned over her mother, who lay with her eyes closed, her head still turned away.

“Silvie will sew new dresses for us from the calico I bought. New clothes will make us feel much more cheerful.”

Mrs. Leigh declined to reply.

“Mr. Garner thinks that a Yankee soldier or a Northern businessman who’s come down here will buy the vase. He said Yankees have plenty of money to spend. He promised to give me more cash after the vase sells. Won’t that be grand? I’ll need to make a list of supplies we need. Our lamp oil is running low. Perhaps I should buy some seed for the garden too.”

Mrs. Leigh maintained her silence.

“Mother, please look at me. Say something, won’t you?”

After a hushed moment, Mrs. Leigh turned a wan face toward her daughter, her faded eyes dull.

Coral squelched a spark of impatience when her mother remained obstinately mute. “Why don’t you come downstairs for dinner? We can eat in the little morning room, just the two of us.”

A hush trembled on the air before Mrs. Leigh replied in a faint, die-away voice. “It’s such a long way down to the morning room. I don’t believe I could walk that far.”

“Silvie and I can help you. You’d feel better if you came downstairs. We have such happy memories of the morning room. Remember how you used to read me stories there while Daddy and Curtis went hunting? And that’s where you taught me to embroider.” Coral smiled to herself. “Do you remember how my threads got tangled? You were so patient with me when you showed me how to untangle my threads.”

“I don’t have the strength to go downstairs. I’d rather just stay here.”

“You’ll never get well if you stay in bed. You need to be up and about to get your strength back.”

“I don’t want to get up. And why should I get well? My husband is dead. My son is dead. My life is over.”

Exasperation laced Coral’s voice as she struggled to pierce the despondency which ensnared her mother. “Have you forgotten you still have a daughter who wants you to live?”

A piteous sob shook Mrs. Leigh’s shoulders in response.

“You’re not the only woman who lost a husband in the war. The South is full of widows, but they keep on living. They don’t give up and fade away in their beds.”

A silver tear trickled from the corner of Mrs. Leigh’s eye into her hair. She glared at her daughter. “How could you be so cruel to me? You know how I loved your father. How do you expect me to live without him?”

“I loved him as much as you did. I also lost a brother, as well as a fiancé, but I haven’t given up on life. Now I have to take care of all of us. I don’t have time to lie around in bed.”

“You disrespectful child! How dare you speak to me this way? Leave me! I don’t want you in my room!” Mrs. Leigh jerked away from Coral, presenting her thin back to her daughter.

Coral slid from the bed. “I’ll send Silvie up with a tray. You at least need to eat, even if you won’t get out of bed.”

As she’d promised, Coral sought out Silvie after supper, carrying a coin purse clutched in one hand.

Silvie had just dumped the dishwater from the tin washbasin over a section of vegetables in the garden when Coral located her.

Silvie straightened when Coral stopped beside her. The evening breeze played with the coronet of braids wrapped about her head, and her flowered calico skirt billowed about her knees in the wind.

“Hold out your hand, Silvie.”

“What game are you playin’, Miz Coral?”

“This is no game, Silvie. Please hold out your hand.”

Silvie held out her free hand, the other down at her side gripping the washbasin.

With glee shining in her eyes, Coral unsnapped the clasp of her purse and shook several gold coins into the older woman’s palm. She fished out some of the greenbacks and added those

to the money in Silvie’s hand, then curled Silvie’s fingers around the stash. “There. That’s for the wages I owe you. You can go where you please now that you have funds.”

Silvie stared at the money in her hand, then swung her dark gaze to Coral’s face. “You know I’d never leave you, Miz Coral. Even if you couldn’t pay me.”

With an impulse born of lifelong devotion, Coral hugged her former nanny. “I know, but you deserve to be paid for all your work, now that I have some cash.”

“When your daddy gave all us slaves our freedom before the war, that was enough. I’m surely not leavin’ you an’ your momma here with no one to take care of you. You’re family. Always have been.”

“Thank you, Silvie. You’re family to me too. But I insist on paying you since the money Father left for that sort of thing is gone.” Coral paused, taking a deep breath as her thoughts jumped to her ailing maternal parent. “Both of us will have to take care of Mother now. She needs us to help her get well.”

Silvie nodded in solemn agreement.

Turning about, Coral spied Scipio stooping over the vegetables in the back section of the garden. “Now I must pay Scipio.”

Lifting her trailing skirts, Coral tramped her way alongside the rows of corn, tomatoes, butter beans, and okra to where Scipio pulled weeds from around the base of the cornstalks. Before Coral reached his side, Scipio heaved himself to his full height and nodded at her with respect.

“Miz Coral.”

Coral craned her head to look into his face. “I have money for you, Scipio.”

Scipio shook his dark head. “What do I need with money? I have everything I need right

here. I have a cabin. I have clothes and food. Where will I spend money?”

“When next we go to Columbia, buy something for yourself. Think of something you’d like to have, and get it. This money is yours. You’ve earned it.”

“Your family has always given me everything I need. I don’t need money.”

“I know my father paid you wages after he gave you your freedom. He would want you to have this money.” Colonel Julian Leigh had been a just master whose Christian principles had guided his every action. Everyone on the plantation, from the youngest kitchen maid to Coral’s own beloved brother, had adored her father. Scipio was no exception. “If you won’t take it for me, take it for my father.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Scipio relented, stretching out his hand. Coral dropped his wages into his open palm.

Later that evening Coral stood before the pier glass in the corner of her room, running a brush through her hair and gazing at her image. Memories troubled her thoughts. Perhaps it had been the sight of Federal soldiers in Columbia or the encounter with the Yankee cavalryman that had stirred up her reminiscence. Whatever the cause, she couldn’t shake her musings.

As the brush stroked through her hair, strands clung to the bristles and spun in a shimmering fall below her shoulders. Ransom, her fiancé, had loved her hair. On the night he’d proposed marriage to her, he’d touched the curls piled atop her head.

“Your hair is the color of sorghum molasses, with spun-honey highlights,” he’d murmured in a moment of poetic inspiration. “Beautiful, just beautiful. May I take a clipping for when I join the cavalry?”

Grinning, he’d produced a tiny pair of embossed scissors from his pocket and brandished them before her.

Coral had leaned against the back of the bench on which they sat, stretching out her hands in mock horror. “Ransom, you shouldn’t!”

“A fiancé must take something with him to remember his sweetheart when he goes off to war.”

“All right, then. Just one curl.”

Ransom had snipped a curl from her hair and wrapped it in his handkerchief. Now Coral smiled at the memory. So much had changed since those days of innocence.

Leaning close to the pier glass, she peered at herself in the mirror. In the soft light of the kerosene lamp on the table beside her bed, her oval face and hazel eyes looked no different than they’d appeared when Ransom had proposed, though Coral knew the truth. She was twenty-four, and by prewar standards her age made her a spinster. A spinster, without any prospects of marriage.

She straightened, unable to look at her image a moment longer. Wheeling away from the mirror, she stalked to the window. A chill breeze sifted between the satin drapes framing the opening. The draft slid over the sill, tickling her bare toes and ruffling the folds of her cotton nightdress. The monotonous sawing of cicadas filled the darkness with sound.

Coral lifted the brush and swiped her hair once more, then let her hand fall to her side. Her fingers clenched the brush handle as despair rolled over her in a crushing wave. Her father, her dear brother Curtis, and Ransom had all been taken by the war. Alone, she faced the

daunting task of rebuilding Elmwood, of making the plantation productive once again. How was she to do that with so few resources left to her?

Coral’s thoughts turned to One who seemed to have turned His face from her. As a child, she’d grown up with an unquestioning faith. Now it appeared the Lord had forgotten her, the heavens seemingly closed against her prayers. Where was the Lord when her loved ones fell in battle? Where was the Lord during the hardship of the war?

Unbidden, the image of her Yankee rescuer floated into her reflections to further disturb her thoughts. Try as she might, she couldn’t banish him. She turned from the window and paced to her bedside. Tossing her brush onto the lamp table beside her four-poster, she lifted the coverlet and slid between cool sheets.

Coral wriggled until she gained a comfortable position. Her weary body begged for sleep, but the handsome face of General Logan obstinately prevented her from drifting into much-needed oblivion. Each detail of his rescue played itself out in an unending loop in her mind until she sat up, elbows on her raised knees, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes to shut out his image, yet his face stubbornly persisted in disturbing her.

Coral flopped back against her pillows, closing her eyes in determination. But sleep still did not come.

#

“Now that you’ve seen my mother, Dr. Davis, what do you think?”

Coral stood on the front veranda of Elmwood, leaning against a fluted white pillar. One hand lay on the beveled wooden balustrade beside her; the other clenched into a tight fist concealed in the folds of her muslin skirt.

Hunching his shoulders, gazing at the girl from beneath spiky eyebrows, the doctor shook his head. “There’s nothing wrong with your mother that a good dose of courage couldn’t cure. She has lost her will to live, Miss Leigh. The deaths of her husband and son, the loss of a familiar way of life, the prospect of poverty—these things are more than she can face. She doesn’t have your strength. She’s simply given up.”

“But what can I do? How can I make her want to live?”

“Try to interest her in what’s going on here at Elmwood. Find delightful things to talk about. Give her something to do, something that will take her mind off herself. If you can’t rouse her interest, she’ll continue to decline until she grieves herself into the grave.”

Refusing to dwell on the peril her mother faced, Coral focused instead on the doctor’s advice. “Yes, I’ll try to get her interested in the plantation. Perhaps she’d like to work in the flower garden. Before the war, she used to putter around with the roses. And she loved to sit in the back parlor and embroider.”

Dr. Davis smiled at her. “That’s the spirit. But don’t deceive yourself into thinking helping your mother will be easy. Her malaise is deeply entrenched.”


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