Ozarks — 1864
Matthew MacEnroy sniffed the air and sighed. Fall was here and soon winter would come with all its misery for a soldier. The memory of how badly his brother Robbie had been injured when attacked by some men who wanted to make him join the Rebel army was no longer strong enough to make him eager to spend another year in the Union Army. He was tired of the blood, the death, the amputations, and the never-ending filth.
He glanced at the boy riding beside him and suddenly felt every hour of his thirty years and more. Boyd was still carrying the pride of turning older, to an age many considered a man, and finally leaving his childhood years. He was undoubtedly new to the army and found pride in his uniform. Matthew knew it was going to bother him deeply when the youth finally lost that glow of innocence.
The other three men who rode with them had some seasoning. Their years of fighting and lying in the mud and blood, seeing friends and kinsmen die or be horribly wounded, showed in their faces, especially in their eyes. Matthew wondered if his eyes also had that look, but he had not yet found the courage to check.
It was time he went home, he decided. He had contracted for two years and that ended in a few months. That was true of the other three men and he had no idea if they would stay or leave. He felt strongly about sustaining the Union but was not sure even that could make him stay.
"When did ye sign up, lad?" he asked Boyd.
"When the war began," the boy replied.
"Wheest, how old were ye? Ten?" He heard the three men at his back badly smothering their laughter.
Matthew bit back what he wanted to say, that the boy was a fool to leave such relative safety and comfort for the killing and filth a "true soldier" had to wade through, and just nodded.
"Sir?" James said as he rode up beside Matthew, his blue eyes watchful. "Thinking we may have unwelcome company soon."
"Then we best move a wee bit faster. There is a cabin up ahead a ways. Have passed it several times. We can hold up there."
James nodded. "If the folk in the cabin don't feel inclined to shoot us."
"Aye, true enough. Bend low in the saddle," he urged as he kicked his horse into a trot.
He did not question James's warning. The man had a knack for sensing approaching trouble. It had saved him more often than he cared to think about. Glancing back to make sure his men were with him, he saw the gray uniformed men just clearing the edge of the trees behind them.
"Ride hard, lads!" he yelled and urged his mount into a gallop.
* * *
Abigail Jenson straightened up from the weeding she had been doing, grunted softly, and rubbed at a twinge in her lower back. She hated weeding. There did not seem to be any position one could get into to accomplish the task without some part of your body aching.
She was just bending down to begin weeding a new section of the garden when she tensed and slowly straightened up. Cocking her head to the side she listened more carefully to the sound that had drawn her attention. Someone, more than one in fact, was heading toward her at an increasing speed.
Sprinting to the cabin, Abigail cursed beneath her breath. This would be the third time they had been attacked. The first had cost her her brother who was dragged off to take up arms in a war he had never wanted any part of. The second time the men had robbed them and beaten her father nearly to death when he had tried to stop them. That time she had hidden from them and still felt guilty about it, for she was certain they had done her mother harm as well. The woman had not been the same since and Abigail was certain it was not just because her father was badly injured.
Abigail rushed inside to find her mother kneeling by her father's bed, bathing his face and chest as he lay unconscious. Each time Abigail saw her father now grief choked her for she knew he would never rise again. The smell of death was on him although she was painfully aware that she could find few who would understand what she was talking about. It had been over a week since he had spoken a word or even opened his eyes. She slowed down, cautiously moved to her mother's side, and lightly touched her on the arm.
"Riders are coming. We need to hide," Abigail said, hiding her shock at the look in her mother's glazed eyes. "We must move quickly." Tightening her grip, she tried to pull her mother to her feet.
"No!" Her mother yanked her arm free. "We cannot move your father and we cannot leave him here!"
"I doubt they will do anything to him as he does not move or speak. Does not even open his eyes."
"I will not leave him. You go and hide. Go!"
"You cannot stay here! Da will not be harmed, for there is no reason for them to do so. He is no threat to anyone. We are. Please, come with me!"
"No! I will not desert your father. As I said, you go and hide if you wish to. I am staying. They can do no more harm to me. They have already done their worst." She wrung out the rag she held and gently bathed her husband's face again.
Glancing behind her, Abigail felt her heart leap. Five men were reining in in front of the cabin. She had lost her chance to flee. Racing to the fireplace, she grabbed the rifle hanging above it. Checking that it was loaded, she was just turning to aim it at one of the men when it was snatched out of her hands. All Abigail could think of was that her mother was helpless, vulnerable as she tried to shield her father. She lunged at the man and struggled to get her rifle back. There was no give in his grasp, however. Muttering a curse, she kicked him in the shins. To her surprise, he fell back and took her with him.
"Enough, lass. Ye have to stop fighting me. I am nay your enemy."
Something in his voice made her grow still. She looked at him and suddenly thought that she would not have been able to shoot him. His face was unshaven, the dark stubble accentuating the sharp lines. His dark hair was a bit too long and a lock fell over one green eye. He had a strong, well-shaped nose and a mouth that revealed a softness she doubted he often showed. Suddenly that mouth cocked up in a small smile.
"Who are you?" she asked when she decided she had flattered him by staring for too long, but she did wonder what the accent was, for she had never heard the like before.
Matthew stepped back, letting go of what he considered a very nice armful of woman, and made a little bow. "Lieutenant MacEnroy, officer in the Union Army. We are, at this moment, fleeing some Rebs."
She looked over his uniform. "The Rebs are the ones in gray? The men now outside?"
"Aye." He turned and hurried to the door on his hands and knees.
As soon as one of the other men dragged the horses out of the barn, the lieutenant slammed the door. He briefly stood up to put the bar across it then dove under a window to the right. She jumped when he threw open the window and started firing at the men outside. The four men with him did the same and she stayed crouched on the floor and covered her ears.
Abigail looked toward her mother. The woman was still at her father's bedside, which made her a target. On her hands and knees, trying to stay low to the floor, Abigail scrambled up behind the woman and yanked hard on her skirts. When her mother sat down hard on the floor, she spun around and glared at Abigail with such fury, Abigail let go of her skirts and backed up a little.
"You stupid girl, what are you doing?"
"The men are shooting. You were making yourself a target. You have to keep low to the floor." Abigail did all she could to keep her voice calm and steady.
"I need to protect your father!"
"You cannot protect him if you get yourself shot," Abigail snapped. "Stay down!"
The punch to the face her mother gave her caused Abigail to fall backward. She stared up at the ceiling, rubbing her cheek and fighting the very strong urge to weep. Her mother had never struck her before, not even when she had been small and troublesome. She had never spoken so harshly before either.
Her mother was not well, Abigail told herself as she slowly sat up. The woman had been broken by the loss of her son, the abuse she had suffered at the hands of the soldiers, and by what had happened to her husband. In truth, her mother had not been herself, had in fact been growing worse every day, and nothing Abigail had done had pulled the woman free of the growing darkness in her mind.
There was one thing she could do now, she thought, and scrambled to the front window. The man had set her rifle down on the floor in front of the window and she grabbed it. She would do her best to end the threat her mother chose to ignore.
"What are you doing?" demanded Lieutenant MacEnroy.
"Making certain the fools shooting up my home do not shoot my mother." Abigail took careful aim at one of the men in front of the house. "They will not shoot my mother."
"Tell her to get down," Matthew said.
"I did. She did not care to listen."
Matthew saw his men looking at him and shrugged. He turned back to find the girl holding the rifle as if she was very sure of what she was doing. Just as he opened his mouth to ask if she was certain she wanted to shoot a man, she fired. The man outside yelled and then fell silent. James cursed softly and turned to look at the girl. Matthew chanced a look out of the window to see that one of the ten men attacking the cabin was sprawled on the ground, his mount already disappearing into the trees. The girl had already reloaded her gun and was calmly taking aim again when he turned back to look at her.
"You killed him," he said.
"That was my intention."
"He was a moving target."
"Da always said I had a good eye."
Matthew just shook his head and returned to his own shooting. It was somewhat humiliating when she picked off another man before he had even managed to wound one. She did have a good eye and remained steady. He had to wonder what she had experienced in her life that had made her so calm about shooting at men.
One soldier pulled away and went to the side of the house. He winged another one who moved to follow. Not sure what the soldier had been trying to do, he turned to ask the woman about what other windows and doors there were, only to see her hurrying toward the back of the house. Cursing, he moved to follow.
"Do you ken where he is headed?" he asked as she opened a door and ducked into another room.
"Just a suspicion." Abigail kicked a stool in front of a small high window and got up on it so she could peer outside. "Oh no, you don't," she muttered when she saw the soldier hurriedly picking the crop and shoving it in the sack.
"What is he doing?" Matthew asked when she slowly, silently opened the window and aimed her gun.
"Stealing our crop. They have already taken my brother one time, and all our stock another time, and have murdered my father. I have had enough."
The man by the garden must have heard her because he turned and looked right at her. Abigail felt her stomach turn as she pulled the trigger and his eyes widened in shock and horror when the bullet hit him square in the chest. She swallowed a sudden rush of bile in her mouth as she watched his body fall. Quickly stepping down, she took a deep breath to steady herself and then headed back to the post she had chosen by the front window.
Matthew looked out the window she had just left and shook his head when he saw the dead soldier. This one had troubled her for he had seen how pale she had gone. As he moved to follow her he wondered why she was so shaken this time but not the others.
The moment he entered the main room he heard a cry of pain. He looked toward his men and saw Boyd on the floor, the top of his arm bleeding badly. The girl scrambled over to him, reaching Boyd before he could. By the time he reached the boy she had already cut his sleeve off and was tying what looked like a strip from her petticoat around the top of his arm.
"Bullet went right through," she told Boyd.
"Is that good?"
"Well, yes, I believe so. At least it means I do not have to go digging for it."
The young man paled. "Okay. That is good. Who are you?"
Boyd closed his eyes as she turned his arm to study the exit wound. "Thank you kindly, miss."
She just nodded and scrambled over to the bed where her mother still knelt tending her father and ignoring all of them. Matthew moved closer to Boyd, politely ignoring how shiny his eyes were with tears he fought not to shed. He looked at the wound and winced. The bullet had made a messy exit. Matthew was not sure how well it would heal.
Matthew was just about to give Boyd a warning about what he may face when he was shoved out of the way. Abigail was back with strips of cloth and a small pot of something that smelled medicinal. He watched as she cleaned the wound, appearing oblivious to Boyd's badly smothered sounds of pain. She studied the exit wound with a frown he was pleased Boyd could not see, faintly shook her head, and then turned to her pile of supplies to pick up a needle and thread.
"This is going to hurt," Abigail said quietly. "Take deep breaths and let them out slowly. It sometimes helps. I will work as quickly as I can."
She also worked fast, Matthew noticed as he grabbed Boyd's hand and let the boy hang on to him. Wincing, he silently hoped Boyd would still be able to shoot. When she was done, she wiped the sweat from the boy's face and kissed his cheek. The way the boy blushed made Matthew grin.
"Could you get on his other side?" Abigail asked Matthew. "We need to tie his arm to his side."
"Why?" asked Boyd.
As she wrapped his arm, Abigail explained, "I can't say for certain, but it looks as if that bullet tore a bit of your muscle and nicked a vein. It needs a lot of healing and that means it must be kept stable. Sir"— she looked at Matthew —"I am going to slide the strip of cloth beneath him. Could you please pull it through and hand it back to me?"
Matthew nodded then did as she asked. Twice more she passed the cloth under the boy, pinning his arm tightly to his side. As she tied the bandage Matthew could easily read the dismay on Boyd's face. He now had only one usable arm and that meant his time to be a soldier was done, at best at least until the wound healed.
There was a sudden flurry of shooting, the glass in the window shattering and the sound of bullets hitting the wall, echoing in the house. Matthew ducked and, keeping low to the floor, hurried back to the window. Looking out he could count six men left, and all of them attempting to hide themselves behind rocks and trees, and half of them had dirty ragged bandages tied around some limb. Two men were slowly crawling back to their horses. Tired of the battle, he decided as he shot at a man huddled behind a tree. A loud curse told him he had winged the man.
"We gonna shoot 'em down as they try to crawl away?" asked James.
"Nay. Just dinnae let them ken we are nay going to do that."
"Is the girl going to be shooting?" asked Danny. "'Cause maybe you should tell her we ain't aiming to kill."
Matthew laughed. "True, but I think she is settled with caring for Boyd." He was busy loading his gun when another mad flurry of shots peppered the house. "What the hell?"
"Trying to make us all hunker down so they can flee, I reckon," said Jed, daring a peek out the window. "They are all trying to back away."
"Good. Shoot just enough to keep them retreating," Matthew said and immediately shot toward another man hiding behind a tree.
Matthew could see his strategy was working the few times he was able to look out the window. Once he glanced toward Abigail and saw that she had gotten Boyd sheltered on the far side of the big fireplace. He had heard her plead again with her mother to get down, but the woman continued to ignore her despite the number of bullets that slammed into the wall near the sick man's bed. The woman appeared to be oblivious to the battle going on around her.
Taking another turn at shooting out the windows, Matthew could see that the men were close to leaving. The two who were crawling toward their horses were by the animals now and just waiting for a chance to mount and run. The other four were closer to their horses. He knew many another officer would order the horses shot but Matthew had never been able to give such an order. He also suspected it was more a love for the animals than moral uncertainty about shooting wounded men.
Another round of gunfire hit the house and he ducked down. He looked back at Abigail and Boyd again, relieved to find them unharmed. She had removed the tourniquet on his arm and was intently watching for an increase in bleeding. He then looked toward the mother and tensed. Her dress was dark but he was certain he could see blood.