Magnolia Creek

Magnolia Creek

Jill Marie Landis

September 2017 $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-833-2



 
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A year after the Civil War’s end, battle-scarred surgeon Dru Talbot—presumed long dead by all who loved him—returns home. Through everything he’d clung to the dream of starting life over with the bride he’d married on the very eve he left for war. Yet the truth that awaits him in Magnolia Creek is nothing like his fairy tale.

Young widow Sara Collier had risen above her grief for Dru, refusing to mourn her life away. But she’d put her faith and trust in the wrong man and made one wrong choice that changed her future forever. Sara returns to Magnolia Creek an outcast, a fallen woman, the mother of a child born out of wedlock. Soon she must face the man she’d loved so desperately when she was young, innocent, and the world was hers.

Can he forgive her? Can he truly still love her? Or her child?

A seven-time Romance Writers of America finalist for the RITA Award, Jill Marie Landis now also writes The Tiki Goddess Mysteries (set on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she lives with her husband, actor Steve Landis).

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Excerpt

1

When lovely woman stoops to folly

And finds too late that men betray,

What charm can soothe her melancholy,

What art can wash her guilt away?

—Oliver Goldsmith

The Vicar of Wakefield

Southern Kentucky
May 1866

A YOUNG WOMAN clothed in widow’s weeds rode in the back of a crude farm wagon and watched the landscape roll by through a cascad­ing ebony veil draped over the wide brim of her black hat. The misty veil not only cast the world in an ominous dark pall, but hid her auburn hair, finely drawn features, clear blue eyes, and the swelling bruise that marred her left cheek.

Her arms were wrapped around her daughter, a toddler with golden cherub curls who was bundled in a thick, black shawl to protect her from a brisk afternoon breeze. Sound asleep with her head on her mother’s shoulder, the little girl was as oblivious to the chill in the late spring air as she was to the utter desperation in her mother’s heart.

Sara Collier Talbot had traveled for days. She had walked south from Ohio along roads shredded by war, circumvented byways stalled by downed bridges, and trails clogged with foot traffic, carts full of sol­diers going home, and liberated Negroes heading north. Carrying her child, Sara had begged rides in carts, on the backs of crowded wagons, atop piles of straw, wedged herself between barrels of dry goods. She had sold her other clothing to help pay for the mourning ensemble.

She had no place to call home, no money, no pride, nothing but an old, weathered satchel that held a fresh petticoat, two gowns for the child, a dozen saltine crackers, and the heel end of a stale loaf of bread. Her love child, Elizabeth, a child born of shame, was the only treasure she could claim.

She shifted her precious daughter higher on her shoulder, stunned that fate had brought her home to Magnolia Creek.

An unexpected breeze skimmed across the open farmland, teasing the edge of her veil as the sun raked the tops of the trees bordering the road. Behind the protective anonymity of the black veil, Sara contem­plated the only other passenger besides herself and Lissybeth riding in the farmer’s wagon.

An ex-soldier still dressed in tattered, gray wool, the remnants of a uni­form of the once proud Confederate States of America, lay curled up in the far corner of the wagon bed. Sad eyed, defeated, he was so thin that he resembled a skeleton far more than a man. With no more than a nod to Sara when she first climbed aboard, he had promptly fallen asleep. Thankfully there would be no small talk to suffer.

A pair of scarred crutches padded with rags lay on the wagon bed be­side him. He was missing his right foot. His cheeks were covered with sparse salt-and-pepper stubble, his sunken eyes surrounded by violet smudges.

Sara sighed. In one way or another, the war had made invalids of them all.

Looking away from the soldier, she stared out across the surround­inglandscape: gentle rolling hills, yellow poplar, sycamore, oak, chestnut, walnut trees all gathered into woods between open fields now lying fallow. Here and there, trails of chimney smoke snaked up from the treetops, signs of cabins hidden in the wood.

The Kentucky countryside had changed very little since she saw it last, but not so the look of the travelers along its byways.

Before the war, back roads pilgrims were mostly farmers, a few tink­ers and merchants, or families on their way across the state. The majority were war refugees—many of them Confederate soldiers hailing from Kentucky, men banished and marked as traitors after the state legislature voted to side with the Union. Now, a long year after surren­der, those men were still making their way back home.

There were far more Negroes on the roads now. Former slaves who had feasted on the first heady rush of freedom, but now wearing the same disoriented look as the white casualties of war. They wandered the rural countryside searching for a way to survive the unaccustomed lib­erty that had left so many displaced and starving in a world turned up­side down.

Sara had spent nearly all she had to buy the black ensemble to wear while she was on the road. The South was full of widows; the North, too, if the papers were to be believed. The sight of a woman alone in drab black garb was not all that unusual, and she blended in, one more casualty of the war between the states.

On the outskirts of town, the wagon rattled past the old painted sign that read, Welcome to Magnolia Creek, Home of Talbot Mills, Population three hundred and eighty-one. Obviously no one had bothered to change the sign. Sara knew, painfully well, that there was at least one who would not be coming home.

For the most part, the town of Magnolia Creek looked the same, the streets evenly crisscrossed like a fancy piece of plaid that was a bit worn and frayed around the edges. The brick buildings along Main Street showed signs of weather and shelling, as battered as their occupants must surely feel.

Melancholy rode the air. She could feel it as she viewed wood-framedhomes with peeling, whitewashed siding that lined every even street.

A few of the shops and stores around Courthouse Square were still boarded up, their broken windows evidence not only of Yankee cannon fire, but the shortage of replacement glass. The courthouse still re­mained proud and unbattered. The Union stars and stripes flew trium­phantly over the grassy park surrounding the impressive two-story build­ing.

She remembered walking Main Street for hours the day she had first moved into town, recalled staring into storefront windows at all the bright new things. Now she barely gave those same windows a second glance as the wagon rumbled by.

The farmer finally reached his destination, pulled the team up be­fore the dry goods store, and set the brake. Sara gingerly lifted Lissybeth off the floor beside her. The exhausted soldier didn’t even stir as she stepped from the back of the wagon onto the wooden porch that ran the length of the storefront. She thanked the man for the ride and when her stomach rumbled, Sara stared longingly into the store’s dim interior before she turned away and started walking toward Ash Street two blocks away.

"Not far now, baby,” she whispered to Lissybeth. "Not far.” She prayed that she was doing the right thing, that once she reached the Talbots’ fine, familiar house, a hot meal and safe haven would be wait­ing, even if only for a night.

Number 47 Ash Street came into view the moment she turned the corner. Set off behind a white picket fence with a wide lawn, it was still the grandest house in town.

Sometimes late at night she would lie awake and wonder if the magi­cal time she had spent living in the Talbots’ home had been real or merely a figment of her imagination. Her life before the war seemed like a dream; at fifteen, she had moved in to care for Louzanna Talbot; at seventeen, after two glorious, golden weeks of a whirlwind courtship, she had married Dr. Dru Talbot and thought to live happily ever after.

Five years later, it was hard to believe she had ever truly been the in­nocent, starry-eyed girl that he had taken for his bride.

Now she was not only Dru Talbot’s widow, but a fallen woman in the eyes of the world. She was no better than a camp follower. She was a woman who had lost the man she so dearly loved to war, a woman who then put her faith and trust in the wrong man and now had nothing save the child of that union.

Sara lingered across the street from the Talbots’ staring at the wide, columned porch that ran across the entire front and side of the house; she tried to make out some sign of movement behind the lace curtains at the drawing room windows. Then, mustering all the confidence she could, she shifted Lissybeth to the opposite shoulder and quickly crossed the street.

The gate in the picket fence hung lopsided on its hinges. The flower beds bordering the front of the house overflowed with tangled weeds. The same, deep abiding sadness she had felt earlier lingered around the place, one that thrived beneath the eaves and lurked in the shadowed corners of the porch behind the old rockers lined up to face the street. The lace draperies at the windows, once so frothy white, hung limp and yellowed behind weather-smeared, spotted panes of glass.

A sigh of relief escaped her when she spotted a familiar quilting frame standing inside the long parlor window. An intricate bow-tie pat­tern made up of hundreds of small, evenly cut squares of print and check­ered pieces was framed and ready to finish quilting. Louzanna Talbot’s world had been reduced to fabric patches and thread that bound cotton batting between patchwork tops and backing.

Sara stared at the front door while trying to shush Lissybeth’s whin­ing. She lifted the brass knocker and stared at the black, fingerless gloves that hid the fact that she wore no wedding ring. She pounded three times, then tightened her arms beneath her little girl’s bottom and waited patiently. When there was no answer, she lifted the knocker again and let it fall, wondered why Louzanna Talbot’s Negro manservant, Jamie, was taking so long to answer.

A flicker of movement caught her eye. Someone was inside the house, standing near enough to brush the edges of the curtain against the window in the center of the door. Sara pressed her nose to the pane but could not make out a shape through the layers of her veil and the sheer curtain panel at the oval window.

"Hello? Is anyone home? Jamie, are you there?” She pounded on the doorframe. "Louzanna? Can you hear me?”

A recluse afraid of her own shadow, Louzanna suffered from severe bouts of hysteria. Sara resolved to stand there all evening if she had to as she pressed her forehead against the windowpane and tried to see through the curtain.

"Louzanna? Lou, open the door, please.” She lowered her voice. "It’s Sara.”

Finally, a latch clicked, then another. The door creaked and slowly swung inward no more than six inches. All Sara saw of Louzanna was a set of pale, slender fingers grasping the edge of the door and thick braids of wren-brown hair pinned atop her crown.

"Louzanna, it’s me. It’s Sara. May I come in?” Sara knew what it cost her former sister-in-law to open the front door at all.

Dru’s older sister was thirty-eight now, but her translucent skin, hardly ever touched by sunlight, was barely creased at all. Her hair was streaked with a few wisps of gray, but for the most part, it retained its fullness and soft brown hue.

Silence lengthened. The knuckles on Lou’s hand whitened. Finally, in a weak, low voice, the woman on the other side whispered, "Is it really you, Sara? Is it really, truly you?”

Tears stung Sara’s eyes. She frantically tried to blink them away. "It’s really me, Louzanna. Please, let me come in.”

Another pause, another dozen heartbeats of despair.

Louzanna’s voice wavered. More of her braids showed, then her fore­head, then pale, hazel eyes peered around the edge of the door. Those eyes went wide when they lit on the child in Sara’s arms.

"Oh, Sara.” Louzanna’s voice was thready.

"Please, Lou.”

Louzanna clung to the edge of the door, wielding it like a shield, a bar­rier between herself and a world she had shut herself off from long before the war ever started.

Sara couldn’t imagine Louzanna coping all alone for very long. One of the reasons she had felt she could leave Lou at all was because she knew Jamie would be there to care for her.

"Where’s Jamie?” she asked.

"He’s gone. Gone with the Union soldiers. They took him right af­ter you left.”

The sun was dipping low on the edge of the sky. Dusk was gathered in the thick, overgrown hedges and dense woods that ran behind the homes on Ash Street. Her desperation no longer tempered by daylight, Sara planted her thigh against the door, afraid Lou might suddenly be­come fretful and edge it shut.

Dear Lord, give her the courage to let me in.

Frantic, Sara spoke quickly, glancing over her shoulder toward the de­serted street.

"I’ve come all the way from Ohio. I stopped by Collier’s Ferry first, but my daddy turned me away. I’ve no place else to go. I’m begging you, please let me in. If not for me, for my child. She’s innocent of everything I’ve done. Take pity on her and let us in, just for tonight. All I’m asking for is a meal and a place to sleep.”

She remembered there was an old cabin behind the house where Jamie had lived. "We can sleep out in Jamie’s old place. You won’t even know we’re here.”

What did it matter where she slept, as long as there was a roof over her child’s head?

"Lift your veil, Sara.” Lou sounded edgy and fearful, her voice weak, as if unfamiliar with sound.

Slowly Sara shifted Lissybeth, grasped the edge of her veil, and lifted it over the wide hat brim to reveal her face. She smiled, but the result was weak and wobbly at best and a painful reminder of the swell­ing on her cheek. The image of the door wavered as it floated on her tears.

"Oh, my, Sara!” Lou gasped, shaking her head, her eyes gone wide. "What happened to your face?”

"I . . . tripped and fell.” Sara avoided Lou’s gaze as she mumbled around the lie. Daddy had always hit first and asked questions later. Today he had given her something to remember him by before he had turned her away from the family cabin at Collier’s Ferry.

Lou backed up and disappeared momentarily. When the door swung wide enough for Sara to slip in, she moved quickly, knowing Lou’s deep abiding terror of the front yard and the street beyond. Once inside, she turned to her former sister-in-law with a rush of relief that comes after finding something long sought and familiar.

Lou was dressed the way she had always dressed, much like Sara was now, in a black silk gown with black lace trim and jet buttons. A gold wedding band with an opal stone dangled from a long, gold chain around Louzanna’s neck. Her faded brown hair and evenly drawn fea­tures were the same as Sara remembered, save for added etching at the corners of her eyes.

Louzanna had kept her figure, her slender waist, and dignified stance despite bouts of fear and hysteria that bordered on madness. Though the cuffs and hem of her dress were worn and turned inside out and her gown was wrinkled, she didn’t have a single curl out of place.

Quieted by new sights and sounds, Lissybeth lay her head in the crook of Sara’s neck and sucked her fingers as she stared at Louzanna.

"I’m sorry to show up like this without word, but I truly have no place else to go,” Sara apologized.

Lou was watching her closely, her gaze darting to the door and back again as if she suspected some horror had followed Sara inside.

"What are you doing all alone? What happened to the man you ran off with, Sara?”

Humiliation pierced Sara’s heart. She had been such an utter, witless fool the day she had run off and left the wedding ring Dru had given her atop a note for Lou on the upstairs hall table.

Sara licked her lips, swallowed. She could lie, but she and Louzanna Talbot had lived together for nearly two years, shared Dru’s letters, shared their joys and heartaches. Louzanna deserved more than lies, but Sara couldn’t bear to tell the whole sordid story.

"He is out of my life for good.”

Lou stared at Elizabeth, unable to take her eyes off the child. "And so you’ve finally come home,” Lou said softly.

"Yes.”

"I knew you would, eventually. I never lost hope.” The edges of Lou’s lips curled up into what might have been an attempt to smile. She concentrated on the little girl in Sara’s arms.

"What is her name?” Lou and Lissybeth exchanged curious stares.

"Elizabeth. I call her Lissybeth,” Sara said.

One of Lissybeth’s little hands, fingers splayed and extended, stretched toward the lonely recluse.

Timidly, Louzanna slowly raised her hand and offered her index fin­ger to the child. When Lissybeth’s little hand closed around Louzanna’s fingers, Lou closed her eyes and let out a sigh.

"Lou?” Sara was used to Louzanna’s mind drifting and having to coax her around.

Startled, Louzanna looked up, met Sara’s eyes, and suddenly threw her arms around Sara’s neck. She held on for dear life, encompassing both Sara and Lissybeth in her embrace. When she finally drew back, her hazel eyes were shimmering with tears.

"I haven’t much,” Louzanna admitted softly, "but you’re welcome to share it. This is still your home, Sara, if you want it. I’m so glad you’ve finally come back.”


 

 

2

DR. DRU TALBOT stumbled on a rock in the middle of a bone-dry road and hit the ground. He tasted dust and stifled a groan. As the woods along both sides of the road came back into focus, he straight­ened to a sitting position and tried to shake the stars out of his head. Used up by the war, he felt as old as the dirt he was sitting in.

An old swayback mule he’d found wandering a back road blinked down at him without a lick of comprehension.

"I must be a damned terrible sight,” he told the mule. "But at least we’re a matched pair.”

He had traveled with an odd mix of companions on the road be­tween southern Georgia and home, but the mule was the most amiable and the easiest to suffer, by far.

After months of crossing the South on foot, searching for any rail line still running and finding none, meeting dead ends at every turn, he had finally walked across the Tennessee border and was so close to home that he could almost taste it.

His hand shook when he reached out to push himself up off the ground and a groan escaped him. There was a chill in the evening air and he found himself wishing that he hadn’t lost the Irish chain quilt his sister had given him on the night he declared he was going to Tennessee to enlist in the Confederate army. Back in the early days of the war he had carried the tattered keepsake for so long it had almost become part of him, as much as an old ache in his shoulder and the long scar above his right ear. As much as his memories of home, of his sister, and most of all, of Sara, his wife.

His legs were heavy as lead but he pushed on, determined to keep moving until there was just enough light left for him to see by to make a fire. Every step he took put him another minute closer to home.

He hadn’t laid eyes on Sara since the dawn after their wedding. He’d done as she had asked, left the way she had wanted him to, slipping away with no goodbye, the way he had promised her that he would go. Now he wondered if he was fooling himself thinking that after all he had been through he could slip back into his old life just as easily as he had walked out of it.

He remembered every moment of their brief but passionate love af­fair as if it had happened yesterday. He had met Sara two years before they married on a warm spring day, the day he had been leaving for South Carolina Medical College.

He’d first laid eyes on her aboard the ferry raft that her father and brothers ran across Magnolia Creek.

He boarded the ferry deeply lost in thought when sud­denly there came a tug on his sleeve accompanied by a low, se­ductive female voice.

"Nickel fare, Mister. You paid yet?”

Reaching into his vest pocket for change, Dru palmed a nickel, turned around, and suddenly found himself staring into the bluest, most enchanting eyes he had ever seen. The sound of the creek lapping against the side of the huge raft, the low cough of a rheumatic old man, the babble of children crowded along the rail, everything but the girl faded from his conscience. His tongue had stuck to the roof of his mouth, and his lips, of their own volition, had curled into a smile.

Immobile, he had stood there with one hand half out of his pocket and his heart beating in his ears, unable to do any­thing more than gaze into eyes so captivating that he didn’t even mind that they had paralyzed him.

A lovely smile broke across her features and although dirt smudges marred her cheeks, the complexion beneath them was flawless and radiantly aglow. She was tall for a woman, though not tall enough to look him in the eye; whip thin; with well-rounded breasts beneath the rough home­spun fabric of a faded gray gown; and barefoot.

She blinked at him and the spell was momentarily bro­ken, at least long enough so that his hand had come out of his pocket, almost as if it had never stopped moving at all. Once again he had become aware of the sights and sounds around them, but all he could do was stare at the bewitching girl standing before him.

"Thank you kindly, Mister . . .”

He could tell she was waiting for him to tell her his name, but he could only concentrate on her fingers as they closed around the nickel and thought, lucky, lucky coin.

He had to stall and clear his throat before he could fi­nally remember his own name. "Talbot. Dru Talbot.”

Her lashes lazed over her eyes, forcing her to peer through them. She took a step that brought her up heart-stop­pingly close.

"Of the Talbot Mills Talbots?” she asked.

His grandfather had founded a sorghum mill at the old family farm, which had eventually led to the settlement of the nearby town. Farmers from all around the county brought their sorghum cane into the mill to have it processed. Dru’s father, Gerald, took over running the mill when the time came and had kept the family one of the most successful and prominent in the county.

He nodded in acknowledgment. "My family used to own the mill.”

She stood there squeezing the life out of the nickel and Dru found himself thrilled to have her tarry rather than move on to another passenger. Suddenly he didn’t care if the ferry ever reached the opposite shore. He was content to stare into her gorgeous eyes and bask in her warm smile.

"Are you married, Dru Talbot?”

He laughed at her boldness which somehow, coming from such innocent, pouting lips, seemed perfectly natural.

"No. I’m just off to medical college.”

"College? You’re goin’ off to college? Where?”

"South Carolina.”

"So far away.” She shook her head in awe. "I don’t know a lick about either one. I’ve never been past this damn creek.”

When she looked as if she was about to move on he knew a moment of unforeseen panic and before he knew it he had asked, "What’s your name?”

"Sara. Sara Collier.”

She said the name proudly, as if daring him to speak against it. He’d heard the name but only knew that there were lots of Colliers who lived somewhere in the bottomland along the creek. They ran the ferry, surviving off nickel fares, hunting and selling moonshine liquor.

"How old are you, Sara?” A burning need to know and a mounting desire made him ask. She looked very young, but in many ways seemed much older than he. He found himself wondering what her lips would taste like.

"Old enough, I reckon.”

"And how old would that be?”

"Just turned fifteen.”

He had been almost disappointed to think that the last thing he needed was an entanglement with an uneducated, barefoot—though very tempting—backwoods girl.

"What will you study in college, Dru Talbot, that you couldn’t learn right here in Kentucky?” She arched her back, accentuating her breasts, and smiled up at him so flirta­tiously that he found himself captivated by her impetuos­ity.

"Medicine.”

"My granddaddy’s a healer. He taught me to be one, too. I know all about healing herbs. I know lots of charms, too.”

She was charming, he’d give her that, but he doubted any girl that young knew much about healing.

A burly, slovenly dressed young man with a few days’ growth of stubble over the lower half of his face was watch­ing Sara from across the ferry. Dru had seen him loading the passengers at the landing and figured the man for a Collier, too.

He tried to look serious, as if he and Sara might be en­gaged in worthy discussion. "What do you mean by charms? Is he a faith healer?”

If she was worried about taking the fares back to her sib­ling, she didn’t appear to be. "He relies on the Bible, that’s for certain, but to my mind there’s always a bit of magic in it. That and what Granddaddy calls the power of be­lief. Folks have to believe that the healing is going to take or that a charm will work. Some folks think a charm is some­thing like a spell, but Granddaddy would never do the devil’s work.”

Dru shifted, steadied himself against the sway of the raft fighting the current, and watched the breeze toy with a lock of her hair. "Give me an example,” he urged.

"Well, for instance, if a body has the shingles, the cure is to rub the blood of a black cat or a black hen over the trou­bled parts. Or . . .” She glanced up to make certain he was listening. "Shingles can be cured by thinking of the per­son you like best.”

He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out­right and risk offending her, and focused on the far side of the creek as she went on.

"Granddaddy puts polecat grease on folks with rheuma­tism and cures the typhoid by binding onion and fish on the soles of his feet.”

"His feet or the patient’s?” Dru might have dared to laugh at his joke had he not almost choked on his own breath when his gaze slammed into the near iridescence of her huge blue eyes.

"Are you teasing at me, Dru Talbot?” She reared back, acting affronted, but her warm smile and the twinkle in her eye gave her away.

"I’m starting to fear it’s the other way around, Miss Collier.”

"Granddaddy takes his healing serious. He’s passed on a lot to me. Some of it superstition, to be sure, but I’d be will­ing to bet many of his herbal remedies are the same as what you’ll learn at that fancy college of yours.” She tipped her head and eyed him from beneath thick sable lashes. "I’d be more than willing to help you when you start your doc­torin’.”

"I won’t be home for two years.” The notion made him suddenly sober. Two years was a long time to be gone. He wondered where Miss Sara Collier would find herself in two years’ time.

"Dru Talbot?” Sara’s voice slipped over him like warm, fresh cream when she tugged on his sleeve again. "I’m giving you fair warning so you won’t be shocked when it finally happens.”

"When what happens?”

"When we get married.”

THE PRESENT ENFOLDED him again as night crept through the wood, deepening shadows, tempting cicadas to sing. An owl hooted somewhere to the east. He had grown accustomed to the comforting night sounds of the woods and so shut them out as his mind lingered, as it always wanted to, on Sara.

He had returned home from medical college two years after they met to discover Sara Collier was living in his home. Dr. Maximus Porter, Magnolia Creek’s only physician, a man he greatly admired, had intro­duced Sara to Louzanna and strongly urged Lou to hire the girl as a companion, hoping Sara could help Louzanna combat her bouts of hysteria while Dru was away.

Fate, it seemed, had wanted them together.

Now, after rounding one more bend in the road, he noticed the flick­ering yellow-orange glow of a low campfire and cautiously slowed his steps. Irregulars roamed the woods, men who weren’t about to let the war die even though surrender was a year old. Spawned by war, there remained a deep abiding bitterness throughout the South, but he wore the right colors in this state to be insured a modicum of safety.

His uniform trousers had been reduced to rags and exchanged for in­expensive brown homespun long ago. His ragged officer’s tunic of cadet gray was nothing but a sad remnant of the surgeon’s coat he had once worn so proudly. The sash of green silk net that labeled him a medical officer now lashed his sword and scarred leather instrument bag to the trappings on the mule.

"Talbot, Fifth Kentucky!” he called out to identify himself to the two men seated by the fire. It wouldn’t do to get himself killed this close to home.

Both men turned in his direction, looking enough alike to be broth­ers with their strawberry hair and wide gaps between their teeth. One called out an invitation.

"Come on up close and sit a spell, then. We’re here for the night. Got a bit of roasted squirrel to offer ya.”

He led the mule into the welcoming circle of firelight, nodded to each man in turn, and began to untie a bag that held a can of beans and rummaged through his things for a tin of sardines that he’d been hoard­ing.

"I see by that coat you’re a doctor.” The thinner of the two bearded men in Confederate States of America gray was in the process of chew­ing a mouthful of roasted squirrel, but that didn’t keep him from talking.

"That I am,” Dru admitted. Once, a raw recruit and fledgling doctor at the same time, he had been proud of his new profession. But pride does come before a fall, and as soon as the war had turned fierce, he had found himself feeling more helpless and overwhelmed than anything else.

He had learned to work under the most foul of conditions, no mat­ter how spent or mentally exhausted he was feeling. Sometimes he wondered just how many lives he had really saved when he had perma­nently altered a man’s future by removing a hand, a foot, a limb, or sometimes even two, from the same man?

In the heat of his first battle, as cannon fire sounded in the distance and the injured awaiting surgery were backed up ten deep, he was just thankful that he had been given a chance to assist a country doctor for a few weeks before he returned from school in South Carolina.

There were plenty of so-called surgeons active during the first years of the war who had never even witnessed an operation, let alone per­formed one.

Often he found himself with no time to think, acting on sheer in­stinct and brash bravado. There were days he would have done anything to escape the bloody theater of war and, ashamed to admit it even to himself, he had even lived a lie to keep himself away from the conflict for a few blessed months.

Settling into a quiet practice in Magnolia Creek after all he’d been through would seem to be as easy as walking through a flower garden on a warm summer day.

He offered up the sardines, and the scant dinner was accompanied by sparse bursts of conversation. The young men turned out to be broth­ers, farm boys from the Ninth Kentucky Regiment, headed home to Daviess County.

After dinner, cups of acorn coffee sufficed. Few in the South had tasted the real thing in years. Southerners had learned to make substi­tutes out of just about anything they could boil.

The older brother from Daviess County bragged that he hadn’t suf­fered a single gunshot wound and was certain that he had nine lives and he had only used a couple of them. But Dru suspected, from the look of the dense rash on the man’s neck and arms, that the farm boy was suffer­ing the second stage of gonorrhea.

Out of silkweed root, resin, and blue vitriol—all common treat­ments for the ailment—Dru couldn’t even offer to do anything for the young man. He had treated more cases of the disease than he had war wounds. So many young boys, newly off the farm, spent as much time with whores as they did fighting, especially if they were stationed in cities where whores were plentiful. If venereal disease didn’t kill them, then typhoid, or even the measles, often took their toll.

At least he would be going home to Sara clean. He hadn’t touched an­other woman in six years. He had lived through Shiloh and Vicksburg, fought for his life when a minié ball slammed along the side of his head above his right ear, and spent hellish months on the other side of the country in Point Lookout Prisoner of War Camp in Maryland. He consid­ered himself lucky.

The memory of the night he had spent in Sara’s arms and the dream of all the nights they would one day share had kept him alive.

Later that evening, as he hunkered down in his bedroll oblivious to the hard ground and the chilly air, Dru Talbot fell asleep with the hint of a smile on his face.

After six long years, he was almost home.

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