Something made her turn. Her stepfather was there at the edge of the woods, an apparition among the trees, having appeared out of nowhere. For a moment she was awe-struck. Never before had she imagined him as a biblical figure, but looking up and seeing him there on high, his long, gray beard, staring down from atop his ancient steed, brought Abraham to her mind, Isaac and Jacob, all the prophets she’d been made to study in the scriptures.
And when the prophets came to mind, could Judgment Day be far off?
“James?” she called.
He raised his hand in a loose salute. “Here!” He hiccupped, swayed, snuffled, and spat into the undergrowth, thus putting an end, once and for all, to any notion of a holy aura. His horse, Old Lightning, who was older than her, stomped and farted loudly into the bargain.
“My goodness,” she said, standing. She and her young man were on a blanket by the creek, beside a deep pool below where the stream rippled over the rocks. The leaves had begun to turn, some fluttering down into the easy waters. “How on earth did you find us?”
“Just happenstance,” he said. “Wasn’t even looking. It’s a small woods is all.” Was there a smirk on his face? In the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat, she couldn’t tell.
“Do you know my friend here, Lewis?”
“Don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Come,” she said. “Join us. We’ve finished our picnic, but there’s pickles left.”
“Oh, I couldn’t eat another pickle,” James said, swaying in the saddle. “I’m clean up to here with pickles. You go ahead and finish your dinner — you and me, we’ll have us a little talk later.” With a nod, he pulled at the reins, vanishing back into the shadows of the trees.
The young man, Lewis, rose from the blanket, watching after him. “That was him?”
“Yes,” she said.
“How the devil did he find us?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps only by chance, as he said. He spends much of his time out wandering the hills and woods alone — he seems to prefer the company of his old horse to that of mother or me.”
“Ain’t nothing small about these woods.”
“Isn’t,” she said. “There isn’t anything small about these woods.”
She turned to embrace him, half laughing, half crying, clasping his face to her scant bosom — she was a willowy young woman with thin shoulders and dark, skittery eyes. “Lewis, Lewis, Lewis,” she said, squeezing his neck. Christina was in love. It was a new, powerful feeling for her, the discovery of a territory she hadn’t known existed; she felt as she imagined Columbus must have felt gazing out upon the New World. It was hers, this new world, and she intended to keep it, to protect it however she must.
Lewis was smaller than her, younger, wiry and fair. “What do you suppose he’s fixing to do?”
What would he do? Christina couldn’t imagine he’d welcome the unwanted burden of being arbiter of her fate, custodian of her secret — it was not the sort of role he would seek out or desire. Any occasion when he’d ever been called upon to discipline his stepdaughter was only at the insistence of her mother, and even then his part was only to agree with whatever discipline her mother — Anna was her name — had already decreed. Even this was often as not accompanied by a wink and a nod. James Breakey was more famous for his prodigious consumption of spirits, for his reckless sense of humor, than for his sternness. It was Christina’s understanding, from all she’d heard through the gossip of the ages, that if he’d ever possessed any in the first place, his stock of sternness had been depleted in the war; little or none was left in reserve. “I can’t imagine,” she said, “what he’ll do.”
“Suppose he’d tell? We’d be in a awful fix then.”
“He might not even remember,” she said. “He’s had an awful snout-full.”
“What if he’d showed up half an hour ago?” Lewis said. She looked at him, saw his grin. His grin was like that of an imp.
Her brown eyes might have danced, but she kept her own grin to herself. She took his chin and gave it a good wag. “Shown up, Lewis,” she said. “Shown.”
* * *
A fine autumn afternoon, they’d meant to tarry, to perhaps throw a line into the pool, perhaps lay together again, but after James’s visit they were anxious, their sanctuary, their tranquility, having been violated.
Echoes of the holy aura stayed with Christina. Shadows of Judgment Day.
They packed their blanket and basket. He helped her mount her bay roan who was grazing by the brambles at the side of the creek. He led them through the woods to the fallen log in the clearing where they’d met and where they would part. He would walk alone back into town while she rode on ahead; they would not chance being seen together.
“We could always run off,” he said, his fair brow raised in hope. When she only smiled down at him, as if at a playful puppy, he said, “Must be something we can do.”
“I’ll talk to him, if he remembers. I’ll tell him we are in love, that it was written in the stars. He’ll listen. He can be a hard man, but he has always held a soft spot for me.” She reached down for his hand. “He’ll listen. Do not fret — nothing shall come between us. I promise.”
She was the mama bear. Her cub was in danger.
As she rode away, the path widened into the trail that led out to the road. A gust snatched a crop of rust-colored leaves from the trees and sent them swirling down around her. As she emerged from the shower, a lingering leaf or two floating down, she began to rehearse in her mind the words she might say to her stepfather, how she might best present her case. Should she broach the topic first? Or wait until he mentioned the encounter? What if he had truly been too drunk to remember? It had been known to happen before. Her own heartbeat fluttered like the falling leaves. The need to protect the love she felt for her young man. The ominous emotion that that need engendered was growing stronger than the feeling of love itself.
Gradually she became aware of sounds behind her, easy clops and shuffles.
She pulled up the roan — Fancy was her name — and turned. It was him, her stepfather, plodding steadily along on Old Lightning. He nodded and touched the brim of his hat.
She checked the urge to put her heels to the roan. She willed the color to be gone from her face. She waited. When he was close, he said, “Tina,” with another nod, then, “You’d surely made a bad pioneer. If I was a Indian, I’d have your scalp on my belt by now, that pretty little scalp of yours. You passed no more’n six feet in front of me.”
“I was deep in thought,” she said. “I’m a bit preoccupied.” James didn’t pull up, and his eyes in a glance seemed to sparkle. Was there a hint of a smile?
“Yes,” he said. “I seen your preoccupation with my own two eyes.”
She fell in beside him. Putting her shoulders back, she dared a brief glance over. “We are in love, Lewis and I,” she said.
He didn’t look back. “I can see as how you think you are,” he said. “I can understand it. All you been through, it’s easy enough to see why you might think that way.”
All she’d been through. It was no mystery, the meaning of those words, all she’d been through. After her father had been killed in the war — James had been there, with the 105th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and often recounted how bravely the color sergeant, her father, had fallen — her mother in desperation had married a man named Virgil Furley, a man who quickly revealed himself to be a reptile of the lowest nature. A snake was how Christina thought of him to this day, an impression preserved in aspic when he met his maker at the fangs of a rattler when she was only seven — though not until after he’d inflicted his own venom into her. Reptilian was the aura that surrounded all of her memories of that time: dark and cold, slimy, slithery, fearful and dangerous.
Up ahead, a crow floated down to land on the trail, trying to disguise itself as a falling leaf. “What do you intend to do?”
“You been through enough. I got no intention of causing you more misery.”
The relief she felt was quickly held in check when he added, “Provided, of course, you do the right thing,” and her soul came crashing back down.
“And just what do you suppose the right thing to be?”
“Why you got to quit him, of course.” He glanced her way, but she stared straight ahead. “First, it’s not proper. That goes without saying. Second, anybody else finds out, it’ll spell the end of your school-teaching days, probably the end of your church-going days as well — might be the end of your mama too. Don’t know she could bear it.”
She slapped Fancy’s reins on the back of her crest. “But I’ve told you. We are in love.”
“That you did. And I’m telling you muddied thinking’s all that is. I’m telling you it’s Virgil Furley still working his meanness in you.”
“No, that ain’t preposterous. I seen preposterous. I lived through four years of it, and I know preposterous when I see it. No, it’s Virgil Furley is what it is, damn his soul to hell.”
“And if I don’t? Quit him?”
He didn’t answer right away. They plodded on in silence, Fancy nickering impatiently, Old Lightning content with the laggardly pace. The trail widened. The crow, from the sanctuary of a high limb, issued forth a rude and raucous call that perfectly captured her temper. She watched from the corner of her eye as James fetched his flask from the pocket of his frock coat and took a long pull. Then, wiping his lip, he said, “I remember a little girl, hell, you were no bigger’n a sprig of barley, thought it’d be a good idea to start dipping into my chew. I told you to quit then, too, but you didn’t. Remember what happened?”
She did. She’d never been sicker. She remembered her stepfather’s cruel laugh, too.
He began laughing again, at the memory. It was a good laugh, a full-throated chortle, not quite rising to the infectious belly-laugh for which he was famous, more of a knee-tapper than a thigh-slapper, but full and hearty nonetheless. For her part, Christina found it not the slightest bit infectious. She felt a burning behind her eyes. “Lord,” he said, wiping a tear from his cheek, “I never seen a greener little face in all my days.”
* * *
Two days later she told Lewis of her stepfather’s ultimatum. They lay entwined in the loft of the abandoned barn on the outskirts of Hartsgrove, one of the secret nooks where they often sought refuge. In the distance a rumble of thunder. She tickled his cheek with a piece of straw.
“And what did you say?” he said. “Did you tell him you’d quit me?”
“I said no such thing. I said nothing. He can interpret my silence however he will.”
“And however do you suppose he will?”
“I think he will take it to mean that I’ll obey his wishes.”
“But you won’t?”
“What do you think?”
“Please don’t tease me.”
She laughed and kissed the cheek she was tickling. “You may rest assured — nothing shall ever come between us.”
He sat up. “And what happens when he finds out you haven’t? Quit me.”
She sat up, pulled him closer. “Perhaps he won’t.”
“Perhaps he will. Seems to me he’s bound to.”
Together they made their way to the open door of the loft, to look out over the field below, at the edge of the woods, at the road that led out of town. No one was in sight. The sky had darkened, the storm approaching, the wind whisking a maelstrom of dead leaves from the trees across the field. They sat in silence, surveying the scene for a few moments more, until he said, resolutely, “We should run away.”
“Where to? How would we live, dear Lewis? Are you aware of a place in need of a new school mistress?”
“That’s something else,” he said. “I won’t be coming back in November. Father says I’m too old. He means to have me help him in the business full-time.” Lewis’s father, R.D. Smyers, was the owner of Smyer’s Furniture & Undertaking. “He says I’ll be fifteen by then, and should have had my fill of book-learning.”
She took his hand and squeezed it. A gust of wind came through the loft door, riling the musty straw, carrying a heavy smell of rain. “We will still find ways to be together,” she said. “It will not be the end of the world.”
As they watched, the storm arrived, marching inexorably over the hill to the grumbles of thunder and crashes of lightning, rain battering the leaves from the trees, beating down the grasses in the field. It reached them with a roar and a clatter, hammering at the old barn. They backed away from the open door, though still they stared out.
“Good glory,” he said. “Speaking of the end of the world.”
“This too shall pass,” she said.
They watched as the heart of it arrived, the rumble of the thunder loud and constant, streaks of lightning splitting the sky, lashes of rain punishing the ground. “Puts me in mind of Denny Pearsall,” he said at a nearby crash of lightning.
His classmate, her student, had been killed by lightning not two months before. Denny’s father and brother saw him running across the pasture for home when the storm commenced, then a sudden crack and flash, and he was gone. There was no mark on his body at all, except for a shadow in the shape of a tree limb on his shoulder.
Christina gripped Lewis’s hand.
At the same moment, they saw motion, something on the road where it crested the hill out of town. “My God,” she said, blinking her eyes, trying to peer through the veil of rain.
He said, “Is that … Can’t be.”
It was. A man on a horse. A familiar man, a familiar horse. They leaned closer. There was no doubt: James Breakey on Old Lightning, walking at an easy pace down the road in the middle of the howling storm, as if out for a lark on a fine sunny day. Sauntering past the smithy and the neighboring farmhouse, they stopped down below on the road in front of the barn. Lewis and Christina edged farther back from the opening. From the darkness they saw Breakey staring at the barn, saw him draw his flask from his pocket and take a long swallow, impervious to the rain pelting down, rivulets washing off his hat, the thunder cracking, the lightning crashing.
Christina said, “He thinks he’s indestructible. He truly thinks he’s immortal.”
Breakey’d survived countless bloody skirmishes in the war as his comrades had fallen in droves all about him. He’d emerged unscathed from the mean alleys and barrooms of the big cities before he’d come back home afterward. Local lore had it he’d tamed a rattler, spit in the eye of a bear, rode a mountain lion, wrestled a wolf, coming away always without a scratch. He was impervious to danger. He was known to brag that nothing could kill him.
Christina knew better. She’d seen him drooling into his beard, incomprehensible from drink. She’d seen him on his hands and knees, crawling to the stairs, seen him soil his trousers, failing to make it to the privy in time. “But alas,” she said, “he is not. This might be the answer to our prayers.”
Lewis tore his eyes away from the man in the storm. “What prayers is that?”
“Have you not been praying for our deliverance?” she said.
“No, I ain’t. I didn’t know I was supposed to be.”
“Get on your knees beside me,” she said. “Pray with me. Our prayers might be answered here, now, before our very eyes. Pray with me. God delivered me from one stepfather. He might well deliver me from another.”
* * *
God, however, failed to use the situation to His, or Christina’s, advantage; He failed to smite down her stepfather. When she returned home, ostensibly from readying the schoolhouse for the winter term, he stood drying himself before the log fire. Her mother was at a neighbor’s. Christina placed her bucket of brushes, soaps, and rags on the floor. When he turned from the hearth to look at her, James swayed precariously, a pirouette, a large tumbler of whiskey in his hand. He was quite drunk. Normally he did not indulge in such behavior at home — that was why God had invented the Peace and Poverty Tavern — and there was no trace of the humor on his face that normally accompanied his besotted condition. His hazel eyes were hard, trying to seal something inside. “I’m disappointed,” he said, “in you.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Whatever do I mean. What I ever do mean is Luke Kessleman told me he seen you and that boy together, slipping into Wingard’s old barn.”
They’d thought they were being so careful. How had they not seen him? She felt an unholy urge to have her hands about the throat of Kessleman, a phlegmy old treacherous reprobate, a drunken companion of James’s. She said, “I had to see him again. I told you, Lewis and I are in love. It’s all a part of God’s plan.”
“God’s plan my rosy red ass.” Troubled by his blasphemy, she glanced through the window toward the neighbor’s. Her mother would not take kindly to it. Breakey went on. “It’s Virgil Furley’s plan if it’s anybody’s. He’s still got your thinking all twisted up in knots.”
She held her breath, stared back. “What do you intend to do?”
He looked away, gulping another gulp of whiskey, swaying another sway. When he pulled the tumbler away, wiping at his mouth with his sleeve, she noticed the glistening of his gray beard — not from any rain, all that had dried, but from the whiskey that he was too unsteady to keep from dribbling down his chin.
Behind him, the fire cracked and popped, a spark flying over the hearth. Seeing it by his foot, Breakey stamped it out. “Reckon I have to tell your ma,” he said. “And hope it don’t kill her. I don’t want to be the one to ruin your reputation, your livelihood, hell, maybe even your liberty. Maybe your ma’ll have a better notion what ought to be done.” He held up his tumbler. “I been working up my courage.”
“Don’t,” she said. “Please. I beg you.”
“I told you what would happen.” He shook his head. “Your little green face.”
“Please. I was only telling him goodbye — that’s all it was. I was telling him it was all over, that it just wasn’t right, that we can no longer see each other. I had to see him one last time to tell him. Please don’t tell mother.”
“You quitting him?”
“Yes. I promise. I’ll quit him. I have quit him. It’s over.” There were tears in her eyes, genuine tears. James could never stand up to her tears. “Please believe me,” she said.
* * *
When word came that President Garfield had died, several weeks after having been shot, the news spread quickly across the countryside, seizing the headlines, becoming the topic of endless discussion in countless taverns and shops, kitchens, parlors, roadsides, and halls.
In Hartsgrove, Pennsylvania, it scarcely made a splash.
It was utterly overshadowed by the news that, on the same day, a legend of their own had also met his end.
James Breakey, the man whom nothing could kill, slayer of a hundred Johnny Rebs, the scourge of rattlers, bears, and wolves alike, had perished in an inglorious drunken stupor. A spark from his fire had set alight his whiskey-soaked beard and, in his panic, he’d tripped on a log and fell, breaking open his head on a hearthstone.
A blaze of glory it was not.
* * *
They met in the old icehouse off Coal Alley, in the sheltering shadows of a grove of evergreen trees. It was another secret rendezvous. It had fallen into disuse, a gloomy old structure with holes in the roof, the inside dim and unadorned. The chill was fitting and proper.
She took his hands in hers, looked earnestly into his face. “I told you,” she said. “Nothing will ever come between us — it is all a part of God’s plan.”
The fair young man looked at the face of the willowy woman, into her dark, skittery eyes. He pulled his hands away, stood shivering. She smiled. Darling boy.
Another shiver, more furious. He had a thousand questions, none of which he could put into words. She opened her arms. He was drawn into them, taken in. He’d never felt so exhilarated, so afraid. He’d never known that this was what love was.
Dennis McFadden’s “The Color Sergeant’s Daughter” is a sequel to “The Color Sergeant’s Widow.”
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