The Woman Who Loved Jesse James

The Woman Who Loved Jesse James
Cindi Myers

January 2012 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-082-4

In a life full of secrets, she was the only one who knew the truth.

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

I never meant to fall in love with Jesse James, but I might as well have tried to stop a tornado or a prairie fire. The summer that sealed our fate, when we saw each other with new eyes and our love began to grow, Jesse was all heat and light, and I was tinder waiting for a match.

Zee Mimms was just nineteen in 1864-the daughter of a stern Methodist minister in Missouri-when she fell in love with the handsome, dashing, and already notorious Jesse. He was barely more than a teenager himself, yet had ridden with William Quantrill's raiders during the Civil War.

"You'll marry a handsome young man," a palm reader had told her. "A man who will make you the envy of many. But . . . there will be hard times."

Zee and Jesse's marriage proved the palmist right. Jesse was a dangerous puzzle: a loving husband and father who kept his "work" separate from his family, though Zee heard the lurid rumors of his career as a bank robber and worse. Still, she never gave up on him.

And he earned her love, time and again.

Cindi Myers is the author of more than forty novels, both historical and contemporary. Her work has been praised for its depth of emotion and realistic characters. You can learn more about her and her work at www.CindiMyers.comor www.RomanceoftheWest.com.

Reviews

"…a breath of fresh air…a fresh/unique twist on the old Jesse James story. I think fans of historical fiction will really enjoy this book and find it a worthwhile read!" -- Jade Hankes, Chasing Empty Pavements

"...never a dull moment in this book.Zee and Jesse's passion for one another was something to be marveled at." -- Taryn Du Plooy, Truth Reviews

"Jesse James – notorious outlaw to some, hero of the Southern cause to others – is brought brilliantly to life in this novelization of his courtship and marriage to his cousin, Zee… This book is not only a love story. The Reconstruction Era is recounted through the viewpoint of a state split between the North and South… the reader gets a sense of the political atmosphere of post-Civil War America. This is a sympathetic viewpoint of the infamous outlaw, but nonetheless a poignant one with interesting details of the era and an immaculate recounting of the retaliatory crimes committed by Jesse James." -- Arleigh Johnson, Historical Novel Society

"…the spirit and sexual urgency of Zee Mimms springs forth from the pages and turns this book into a real page turner. I highly recommend this book to anyone that loves Jesse James, the wild west, romance, or historical fiction.” -- Amy Brantley, A Girl and Her Kindle

"…a fascinating biographical fiction… readers will enjoy Cindi Myers fine nineteenth century look at Jesse James through his spouse’s loving perspective." -- Harriet Klausner, Senior reviewer at The Midwest Book Review

"The story is well written and unique… I loved that the author weaved this story around historical events and the outlawry that the James gang orchestrated. I enjoyed the story of Mrs. Jesse James from beginning to end and it makes me want to dive into more of Cindi Myers books... I haven't always gotten into historical romances and this one proved to be a real treat." -- Jessi Myers, The Juici Life

"…a fascinating biographical fiction that looks at the famous outlaw through the eyes of mostly his adulating beloved wife in a world still suffering from the ravages of the war and the consequential agony of defeat." -- Harriet Klausner, Genre Go Round Reviews

Excerpt

 

Chapter One

I never meant to fall in love with Jesse James, but I might as well have tried to stop a tornado or a prairie fire. The summer that sealed our fate, when we saw each other with new eyes and our love began to grow, Jesse was all heat and light, and I was tinder waiting for a match.

But I wasn’t thinking of Jesse that hot August day in the summer of 1864 when my oldest sister, Lucy, was married to Bowling Browder. I merely welcomed the distraction of a celebration after years of hardship before and during the war.

"I hear tell there’s to be a band, with fiddles,and a flute player,” my best friend, Esme Purlin, said. Clad only in shimmy and drawers in the stifling heat of my attic bedroom, hair twisted in dozens of rag curls all over her head, she waltzed across the floor, arms extended to grasp the hands of an invisible beau. The air was heavy with the scent of honeysuckle that trailed across the sloping tin roof below my window, sweet with the promise of honey from the bees that droned among the golden blossoms.

"And dancing,” I said as I struggled to roll my own hair in the strips of rags I’d torn from a worn-out petticoat. "Lucy promised there’d be dancing.”

"It’s a shame we can’t dance,” Esme said, letting her arms fall to her sides. "It always looks like so much fun—though perhaps that’s why Papa says it’s sinful.”

"I don’t care if it’s sinful or not,” I said. "If someone asks me, I intend to dance.” How many chances would I have to whirl around a dance floor in a man’s arms?

Esme sucked in her breath. "Zee, you can’t! What will people say? What will your father say?”

"If he sees me, he won’t like it.” My father, a Methodist minister, would be scandalized by even the thought of one of his daughters dancing. If caught, I would be punished, perhaps severely. Having sired eleven children, my father was not one to spare the rod. But even a caning seemed worth the opportunity to give free reign to my feelings.

Too often lately my life seemed a constant battle—the outer meekness I was taught was proper for a Southern lady warring with an inner boldness out of all proportion with my upbringing as a pastor’s daughter. Like the country itself, I was unsettled of late, and wondered if peace was truly possible, both for my nation and for myself.

"I’m looking forward to the cake,” Esme said.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten real sugar or light flour. The war had brought hard times here to Missouri, especially for Sesech families like ours. "But dancing’s better than cake,” I said. "Lucy said that after dark the Browders have ordered lanterns hung in the trees to light a dance floor. Which means there’ll be lots of dark shadows for sneaking away and stealing kisses.” I had never kissed a man, but I had thought of it often, and on a night when I anticipated such a rebellion as dancing adding kissing seemed scarcely to compound my sin.

Esme giggled. "Maybe the unfortunate Mr. Colquit will try to kiss you.”

I made a face and knotted the last rag into place. "Mr. Colquit and his misfortunes would do best not to come near me.” Anthony Colquit was a member of my father’s congregation, a widower who, in addition to three unmanageable children, was possessed of a prominent mole on his left cheek. His wife had died of cholera the year before, leading my mother and the other women in our community to refer to him as "the unfortunate Mr. Colquit.” Recently, he had indicated an interest in me, one which I had no intention of reciprocating.

Esme plopped onto my bed, making the ropes holding the mattress squeak. "He’s not so bad,” she said.

"I’m not interested in Mr. Colquit,” I said.

"I’m not so sure either one of us can afford to be uninterested in any man who courts us,” Esme said. "We’re both of us already nineteen and it’s not as if there are a great many young men available, what with the war and all. At least Mr. Colquit has a farm, and he’s not so terribly old.”

"He must be almost thirty!” I protested. But neither his age nor his mole nor his three terrible children were the chief reason I rejected the notion of Mr. Colquit as a husband. "I’m already a poor farmer’s daughter. Why should I end up a poor farmer’s wife?” And I didn’t want to wed a man who sought a convenient mother for his children; I wanted a man who would love me—not for what I could do for him, but solely for who I was.

I searched in the drawer of the dressing table for the bit of red flannel I used to darken my lips, and the precious tin of rice powder, which I would wear to the wedding, even if my mother had forbade it. I avoided looking at my reflection in the spotted glass of the mirror. I was thin and pale, yet who of us wasn’t after so many years of deprivation? "I’m tired of suffering and making do,” I said. "I want someone who can offer me more in life.”

"As if you’re going to meet a man like that in Missouri.”

"Mrs. Peabody says a woman should never sell herself short.”

"My mother says Mrs. Peabody is no better than she should be.”

"My mother says the same thing, but that doesn’t mean Mrs. P. is wrong.” Amanda Peabody lived alone in a little cabin a quarter mile from our farm. She said she was a widow, though some folks thought otherwise. And no one could deny that Sheriff T. Wayne Henry—a married man—spent a great deal of time at her place. The sheriff claimed Mrs. Peabody was only doing his ironing, which led to any number of ribald comments about what, exactly, was being ironed.

"I guess if anyone knows about a woman selling herself—short or otherwise—it would be her.” Esme hooted with laughter, and fell back on the bed.

I scowled at her. "Mrs. Peabody is my friend, and I won’t have you saying mean things about her. She’s never been anything but nice to us whenever we’ve visited her.”

"You’re right,” Esme said, staring up at the sloped ceiling. "I’m sorry. I’m just out of sorts, wishing I was the one getting married, and not your sister. With most of the young men off fighting the war and the ones left at home either old or crippled or Northern sympathizers—it makes me despair of ever finding a husband and having a family.”

"The war can’t last forever,” I said. "When it’s over our men will come home and they’ll all be looking for wives. You’ll have so many beaux you won’t know what to do.”

"I’ll have to ask Mrs. Peabody what to do. She’ll be able to tell me.”

We were both laughing over this when my mother called up the stairs. "Sister! Esme! You girls come down here. I need you to take the punch over to the wedding.”

Grumbling, we slipped on our wrappers and hurried down the stairs. We found my mother in the kitchen, stirring something on the stove with one hand and wiping jam from my little brother Henry’s face with the other. A row of flatirons heated on the stove, bundles of dampened linens piled on the hearth.

"We can’t go anywhere right now, Mama,” I protested. "We just rolled our hair.”

"Put on your bonnets and no one will see you. Your father’s already loaded the cask of punch into the trap, but he and Joey had to leave to see about a cow down by the creek.” Joey was the darky who worked for us part-time. We were too poor to afford even one slave, unlike the family my sister was marrying into. The Browders owned seven slaves, both field hands and household servants.

"Why do we have to take the punch now?” I asked. "The wedding’s still hours away.”

"It has to be put on ice to cool. Now go. All you have to do is drive over to the Browders and one of their men will unload it for you.”

Esme opened her mouth to protest, but I tugged on her arm, silencing her. "We’ll be happy to go, Mama,” I said. "Let me run upstairs and fetch my bonnet.”

I raced up the narrow flight of steps to my room, Esme at my heels. "What are you looking so cheerful about?” she asked. "It’s hot as Hades outside and over a mile to the Browders’s place. We’ll melt.”

"We can come back the long way by the creek, in the shade.” I threw open the wardrobe and pulled out the dress I’d made special for the wedding. Or made-over, rather, from an old-fashioned ball gown Mrs. Peabody had given me. No one around here had seen new cloth since before the war.

"What are you doing?” Esme asked as I tugged off my wrapper and tied on the crinoline hoops necessary to make the wide skirts then in fashion fit correctly.

"Tighten my laces for me, won’t you?” I asked, turning my back to her.

She did as I asked, pulling the laces to my corset tight and tying them in neat bows in the back. Then she helped me lift the dress over my head. Fashioned of blue and buff striped satin, it featured wide flared sleeves trimmed with flounces, a low, square neckline with more flounces, and a deep flounce around the hem. I had spent many an hour gathering all those ruffles and carefully attaching them to the dress, but I was proud of the results. I was sure I would be as fashionable as any young woman at the ball.

"On the way home from the Browders’s we can stop by Mrs. Peabody’s,” I said as I smoothed my skirts over the hoops. "I want to show her my new dress.”

"You can’t go downstairs all dressed up,” Esme said. "What will your mother say?”

"Nothing. She won’t even notice.” My mother was so distracted by the demands of running a large household that whole days passed without her looking directly at me.

"We’ll get in trouble.” Esme looked unsure.

"We’ll ask her to read your tea leaves—to tell you about the man you’ll marry.”

Esme’s expression brightened. "All right.” She shed her wrapper and took her crinolines and gown from where she’d laid them out on the end of the bed. "Pull tight on my laces,” she said. "This is last year’s dress and it’ll never fit, otherwise.”

In record time we were dressed and down the stairs, our rag curls hidden by deep poke bonnets. Mama was busy in the kitchen; she didn’t look up as we passed.

The sun beat down on the main road, baking us beneath the patched parasols we held over our heads. The horse moved at a plodding pace, puffs of dust as fine as face powder rising with the impact of each hoof. Esme and I held an old blanket over our laps in spite of the heat, to protect our skirts from the dirt.

The Browders’s property was marked by a wooden fence, whitewashed each spring by a team of darkies. Horses grazed behind the fence, and beyond that stretched fields of corn and hemp that drooped in the heat.

I turned the trap in at the front gate, which stood open, its broad expanse decorated with wreaths of laurel and oak. An old darky near the front told me how to get to the kitchen, and I guided the horse to the open-sided cook house behind the main house. A trio of black women—two small and one very large—worked amid billows of steam from boiling pots and smoke from the pit fires where big joints of meat were roasting. I told the big woman I’d brought the punch and she ordered a younger man to unload it for me.

As soon as we were able, I turned the trap and left. "We should have asked to water the horse,” Esme said. "And we could have asked for a glass of lemonade for ourselves.” She fanned herself. "I’m parched.”

"Mrs. Peabody will have lemonade.” I slapped the reins across the horse’s back, urging him into a trot. He could have all the water he wanted at Mrs. Peabody’s.

"But she won’t have ice,” Esme whined. The Browders were the only ones in our neighborhood who were wealthy enough to afford to have ice shipped down the river and packed in sawdust all summer in a special ice house they’d had cut into the side of a hill.

I ignored her and turned the trap onto the shady creek road. I was thinking about what I’d said earlier to Esme—that Mrs. Peabody would read her tea leaves and tell her who she’d marry. I would ask Mrs. P. to read my leaves as well—to tell me of my future husband. Please God, let it not be the unfortunate Mr. Colquit, or any man of his ilk. Give me a man with some spark and sense of adventure. A man with ambitions that went beyond planting the next hemp crop.

Mrs. Peabody’s cabin sat close to the road, with a small yard swept free of any greenery, behind a sagging wooden gate. I tied the horse to the gatepost and while Esme was pumping a bucket of water for him, Mrs. Peabody came out onto her porch. "Don’t you girls look pretty,” she said, with a Georgia accent as smooth and sweet as thick cream poured over ripe strawberries. She was dressed in a loose wrapper of faded pink cotton, a white lace cap pinned to her closely-cropped curls. "Come in out of this heat,” she urged, and motioned us over to the porch swing in the shade of a wooden arbor onto which wild jasmine had been trained to grow. "Sit yourselves down and I’ll fetch some refreshments,” she said, clearly delighted to have our company.

Esme and I sat in the swing, arranging our skirts around us. It felt good to stop in the shade, and I even imagined a faint breeze stirring the jasmine.

Mrs. Peabody returned bearing a silver tray on which sat a cut-glass pitcher of some amber liquid. "Cool sassafras tea,” she explained, filling three china cups. "Very refreshing on a hot day like this.”

She served us, then sat back in a wicker rocker across from the swing. "Now let me look at you. Are these the dresses you’re to wear to the wedding?”

"This is the one I made over from the gown you gave me,” I said, fingering the striped satin.

She nodded. "And a fine job you did. It looks just like a picture from Godey’s.” She turned to Esme. "Did you make your dress as well? It’s very pretty.”

Esme blushed and smoothed the brown cotton figured with pink roses. "My mother made it,” she said. "I don’t sew as well as Zee.”

Mrs. Peabody set her teacup on a small round table between us. "Tell me all about the wedding. I hear it’s to be a grand affair.”

"We delivered a keg of punch to the Browders’s just now and they’re fixing enough food to feed an army,” Esme said.

"Likely they’ll have enough guests to fit out their own regiment,” Mrs. Peabody said. She leaned forward and spoke in a conspiratorial tone. "My friend, Mr. Henry, tells me you’ll be having some very special guests at the wedding.”

"Who?” I asked, confused. Why would Sheriff Henry know more about the wedding guests than we did?

"He’s heard your cousins, Jesse and Frank James, plan to attend—they who’ve lately distinguished themselves with Bill Anderson’s men.”

"Frank and Jesse James?” Esme turned to me, eyes wide. "I’d forgotten they were your cousins. Are they really going to be there?”

I shrugged. "They might be. There’s no reason they shouldn’t.” Though I was named after Jesse and Frank’s mother Zerelda, their father, my mother’s brother Robert James, had died many years previous. Zerelda had married a prosperous farmer, Ruben Samuel, and the family lived in Kearney, a two days’ ride from our home in St Louis, so we didn’t see them often.

"Those boys aren’t very popular with the Yankees at present,” Mrs. Peabody said. "Jesse in particular is said to have quite distinguished himself on their raids, inflicting heavy damage on the Union men.”

"Jesse?” The last time I’d seen my cousin, he’d been a gangly fourteen-year old, a pale Mama’s boy who had terrorized us girls by throwing mud balls at our skirts. I couldn’t fit this image with that of an elite soldier.

"No doubt he’s out for revenge,” Esme said. "After the scandalous way the Northern Militiamen treated his mother and step-father.”

"It was disgraceful, hauling a woman in her condition off to jail simply because she refused to tell what she didn’t even know,” Mrs. Peabody said.

"And poor Dr. Samuel almost died from their ill treatment of him,” Esme said.

That spring, a group of militiamen had descended on my aunt and uncle’s home and demanded to know the location of William Quantrill and his men. Though Jesse was still at home at the time, his brother Frank was said to be riding with the famous guerrilla. Zerelda and her husband, Dr. Samuel, refused to provide any information to men they viewed as their enemies, and for their trouble Dr. Samuel was beaten and hanged to within an inch of his life and Zerelda, pregnant with her sixth child, had been jailed for many miserable weeks. Shortly after this, Jesse had joined his older brother in riding with the bushwhackers, aligning himself with one of Quantrill’s lieutenants, William "Bloody Bill” Anderson.

"He and Frank will have to watch themselves today,” Mrs. Peabody said. "Lest some Northern sympathizer decide to try to make himself a hero and take them out.”

I shivered at the idea. I might not care for Jesse and his brother much, but they were still my kin. "The Browders wouldn’t invite any Yankees to the wedding,” I said.

"A party that large, who’s to tell?” She smoothed her skirts, then looked at us expectantly. "Now surely you girls didn’t come all this way on a hot day to show me your dresses. What really brings you here?”

"We were hoping you’d read our tea leaves,” Esme said. "And tell me who I’m to marry.” She glanced at me. "Though my father says such things are tools of the devil.”

"And who’s to say the devil doesn’t know the truth as well as the Lord, considering Satan was once said to be the highest angel?” Mrs. Peabody laughed at Esme’s shocked expression. Then she turned to me. "What about you, Zee? Do you want to know what type of man you’ll wed?”

I nodded. "Yes.”

Mrs. Peabody rubbed her hands together. "It’s too hot for brewing tea, so I’ll read your palms instead. You first, Esme.”

Esme hesitated, then thrust out her hand, as if she half-expected Mrs. P. to sever it at the wrist. Our hostess grasped Esme’s arm and held it steady while she bent low over the palm.

"You will live a long life,” Mrs. Peabody said, tracing the crease across the center of Esme’s palm. With her forefinger, she followed another line. "You will marry a man with three children. A farmer, I think.”

Esme’s eyes widened. "That sounds like Mr. Colquit! Does my future husband have a mole?”

"A mole? I can’t tell that. But he will treat you well and you will be happy and have...” She paused and studied Esme’s palm again. "You’ll have five children of your own.”

"Five?” Esme grinned. "I hope you’re right.”

"My turn.” I offered my hand. Mrs. Peabody took it, her skin cool and dry against my own, her fingers work-roughened and red as she traced the lines across my palm. Deep furrows marred her brow as she studied my hand for a long time, saying nothing.

Esme and I exchanged glances. "What is it?” I demanded. "What do you see?”

She hesitated. "You’ll marry a handsome young man.” She released my hand. "A man who will make you the envy of many.”

"What else?” I asked.

She shook her head, avoiding my gaze. "Nothing else. I wish you every happiness.”

"There was something else,” I said. "You saw something that upset you. What is it?”

She pursed her lips. "I saw that it won’t all be happiness for you,” she said. "There will be... hard times.”

Hard times were nothing new, but the way she said the words sent a cold shiver up my spine—the feeling my mother referred to as ‘someone walking across your grave.’ I wanted to ask for more details. What kind of hard times would these be? But I was a coward and kept silent.

Mrs. Peabody refilled our cups. "Enough of worrying about the future,” she said. "Tell me what your mother is wearing to the wedding. And your sister.”

"Mother is wearing the best dress she made before the war,” I said. "Lavender checked taffeta with leg-o’-mutton sleeves. Lucy has a new dress—white cotton lawn worn over big hoops and trimmed in yards and yards of handmade lace.”

"I heard the groom’s friends talked about kidnapping the bride tonight and having a chivaree,” Esme said.

"Bowling told them if they tried he’d shoot to kill.” I shivered. "I don’t know if he meant it, but my father spread the word he wouldn’t stand for any trouble where his daughter is concerned.”

"She’ll have enough on her mind with the wedding night, without worrying about a bunch of drunken young men dragging her away from her new husband,” Mrs. Peabody said.

"Is it so awful?” Esme asked. "The wedding night?”

Mrs. Peabody let out a bawdy laugh. "Who told you a wedding night is awful?”

Esme blushed. "I overheard my mother talking to my older sister, Liz, before she was married. Mother told her a lady doesn’t enjoy lying with a man, but it’s necessary in order to bear children, so the best thing to do is to submit quietly.”

"That’s the biggest bunch of horseshit I ever heard!”

The words were as shocking as the sentiment behind them. "My mother says men always enjoy marital relations more than women,” I said. "That it’s part of women’s punishment for what happened in the Garden of Eden, when Eve tempted Adam.”

"So Adam holds no blame for taking the apple from Eve?” Mrs. Peabody waved away the notion, then leaned toward us and spoke in a confiding tone. "Believe me, girls. Women can enjoy sex every bit as much as men—provided they’re with a man who knows what he’s doing.”

"But how would we know if the man knows what he’s doing or not?” Esme protested.

"You know because you learn for yourself what pleases you and you inform him if he comes up lacking.”

Esme and I exchanged glances again. We had eavesdropped on enough conversations among the older, married women to know that men had strong sexual urges. It was a wife’s duty to satisfy these urges, but the closest I had ever heard any woman come to admitting to enjoying the marital bed was once when my Aunt Zerelda said her husband, Dr. Samuel, was ‘considerate’ of her feelings in this regard.

"Don’t look so owl-eyed, both of you,” Mrs. Peabody chided. "Don’t tell me you’ve never touched yourself for pleasure.”

Esme and I couldn’t even look at each other now. Yes, I had touched myself. I had enjoyed discovering the changes in my body as I grew into my womanhood. And sometimes, on lonely nights in my rooms, the caressing and fondling of my own body had been a kind of comfort. But I would never admit such depravity to anyone else.

"It’s all right if you have,” Mrs. Peabody said cheerfully. "Everyone does. It’s how we learn about our own bodies. And about the most pleasurable ways to be touched.”

Cicadas hummed in the trees just beyond the porch. Or was that my own head, buzzing with this onslaught of dangerous ideas?

Esme looked as distressed as I felt. "Is it true what people say—that you and Mr. Henry are lovers?” she blurted.

Mrs. Peabody frowned at her. "My relationship with Mr. Henry is a private matter,” she said.

"But he’s a married man,” Esme protested.

"A man whose wife is an invalid, whom it would be dishonorable for him to leave.” She leaned toward us. "I don’t expect either of you girls to understand this now, but I want you to listen to me and take what I have to say to heart. When you find a man you truly love, with both your body and your heart, you will be willing to endure a great deal of pain for those moments of pleasure. Not merely sexual pleasure, though that is not to be undervalued, but the pleasure of knowing that he loves you with the same intensity and passion.”

Passion. The word and the sentiment it conveyed were as exotic as a rare orchid or a tropical bird. It was a word that hinted at sex and sin and emotions not kept demurely in check. The ideas made me shiver and started an ache deep inside me. Thatwas the kind of man I wanted—not cool Mr. Colquit and his good manners, but a man of passion.

"Mr. Henry?” Esme’s astonishment reminded me that the man to whom Mrs. Peabody was so devoted was not the sort to make my own heart beat faster. The sheriff was a stout, graying man who walked with a limp from a ball he had taken in the leg at Antietam.

Mrs. Peabody laughed again. "A man’s looks and age have little to do with his skill at pleasing a woman,” she said. She patted my knee. "Now that I’ve sufficiently shocked you, why don’t you take off those bonnets and let me fix your hair? I have a new issue of Godey’s that shows some very fetching styles.”

The wedding of my sister Lucy to Mr. Bowling Browder was the social event of the year in our part of the county. Easily a hundred buggies, traps and saddle horses filled the pastures and lined the drive leading up to the Browders’s house, a two-storied, white-washed manse with a broad front veranda.

Lucy looked happy and not at all nervous as she stood with her husband-to-be to say her vows. My father performed the ceremony on the top step of the verandah while friends and family looked on. Bowling stammered a little, but recovered enough to plant a not-so-chaste kiss on his new wife, while his friends whistled and cheered.

Afterwards, Esme and I joined the crowd making its way to the buffet spread beneath trees behind the house. Darkies in crisp white aprons delivered trays of smoked meats, pickled and fresh vegetables, fried chicken, baked beans, and steaming rolls. To finish, there was a huge white-frosted cake decorated with sugared flowers, its layers rising three feet above the table where it sat, watched over by a small black boy who kept away the flies with a palmetto fan.

Esme and I filled our plates and found a spot on a blanket beneath a spreading oak, from which vantage point we could observe the crowd. "There’s Mr. Henry,” Esme said, nodding toward a group of men who loitered near the cookhouse. The sheriff stood at their center, gleaming pistols just visible beneath his open coat. I studied his stout, stocky figure. This was Mrs. Peabody’s skilled lover?

"He must be over thirty-five,” Esme said. "Almost as old as my father.”

"Mrs. Peabody must be at least that old,” I said. Though I still couldn’t imagine wanting to sleep with a man like Mr. Henry.

"Have you seen your cousins yet?” Esme asked.

"Frank and Jesse?” I shook my head. "No.” Then again, would I even recognize the boys if I saw them again?

We were almost finished eating when Fanny and Rachel Grace, friends from school, joined us. "There’s a group of young men here, recently returned from the war,” Fanny said, her eyes shining.

"How many of them are there?” Esme’s face brightened. Young men meant possible suitors.

"I heard half a dozen,” Rachel said. "Though if any of them are worth knowing, I can’t say.”

"I say any eligible young man is worth knowing in these times.” Fanny glared at her sister. Already twenty-two, she was in danger of being labeled an old maid, while Rachel was just eighteen.

"Or even an eligible older man,” Esme said, giving me a knowing look. "If he’s nice and can support a wife I wouldn’t say no to him.”

"Frank and Jesse James might be worth knowing,” Rachel said. "I hear Jesse in particular is a handsome one.”

"Are they here?” Esme asked.

"So I hear,” Rachel said. "Though never having met them, I couldn’t say.”

"Frank and Jesse are Zee’s cousins,” Esme volunteered.

Fanny regarded me with renewed interest. "Then perhaps you’ll introduce us.”

"Perhaps.” I stood and excused myself, pretending I had to visit the outhouse, when all I really wanted was to escape from the cloying desperation of these women who were so determined to snare a man at any cost.

Yes, I wanted a husband, and a home and children of my own. But our visit this afternoon with Mrs. Peabody had made me more certain than ever that I wanted to do more than settle for the first man who would ask me. I wanted the grand passion she’d spoken of—a man I could love with both my body and my heart, who would add color and adventure to my life, and not merely more drudgery.

 

Chapter Two

I slipped around the side of the house, toward a grove of trees along the edge of the back pasture, anxious to return to the relative coolness of the shade. I leaned against the gnarled trunk of an elm and squinted up at the pattern of light and shadow filtering through its slipper-shaped leaves. The hum of voices from the party seemed very far away, the indistinguishable conversations of a dream.

"Don’t you think it’s dangerous for a young lady to be wandering into the woods by herself?”

I gasped at the low, deep voice so close to my ear, and whirled to face the speaker. He laughed at my obvious discomposure, but swept off his hat and sketched a bow. "I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said.

"What did you expect, sneaking up on me that way?” I studied him through lowered lashes. More than the sudden fright made my heart race now. He was a handsome man, near my own age, with fine, sharp features, thick sandy hair and broad shoulders.

But his eyes were the feature that caught and held me. Eyes as blue as the summer sky, as full of light and heat. Eyes that looked directly into mine without flinching, seeing not just the picture I presented of myself as a nicely dressed young lady, but seeing me—the secret self few others bothered to notice.

"Cousin Zee, don’t you recognize me?” he asked.

My gaze fell to the hat in his hand—a flat-brimmed felt pinned up on one side, of the type favored by Quantrill’s guerrillas. "Jesse?” I gasped.

"At your service, ma’am.” He sketched another bow, lithe and graceful in a black suit, gray-striped waistcoat and string tie.

"What are you doing hiding out here in the woods?” I demanded, drawing on anger to cover my confusion. I couldn’t quite believe the dashing man before me was my whiny cousin Jesse.

"I might ask you the same question.” He replaced the hat on his head and regarded me from beneath the rakish angle of the brim.

"I came for a breath of fresh air and the coolness of the shade,” I said.

"I wanted a good look at the crowd before I ventured forth.” He nodded toward the gathering. "Who’s the stocky man with the frock coat and the pistols—standing by the punch keg?”

"That’s Sheriff T. Wayne Henry. Why?”

"Is he Union or Secesh?”

"Southern. He fought at Antietam.”

Jesse nodded. "Anyone here who might have Northern sympathies?”

"No. My family and the groom’s are both firmly with the Confederacy.”

"Then I suppose it’s safe for me to join the party.” But he made no move to leave.

"Is it true you’re riding with Quantrill’s men?” I asked.

"I have the honor of serving with Quantrill’s lieutenants, Bill Anderson and Archie Clement, as we strive to further the Southern cause.”

"Bloody Bill” and Archie Clement were well known to Missourians. Among Southern sympathizers they were revered for their success in wiping out whole groups of Union soldiers in daring raids on encampments and troop trains. Unlike the regular Army, the guerrillas were free to choose their own targets, and to attack and withdraw with lightning speed. That a not-yet seventeen-year old could distinguish himself in such a company of seasoned fighters spoke volumes about Jessie’s abilities and made me see him in a new light.

I began to walk along the edge of the trees and Jesse fell into step beside me. "Are you really worried about Union soldiers disrupting the wedding party?” I asked.

"I’ll leave and draw them away before I let that happen.”

I stumbled on a fallen branch and he took my elbow to steady me, his hand remaining there for a heartbeat too long. I glanced up and found his eyes fixed on me with uncommon intensity. "What is it?” I asked, annoyed at being the object of such scrutiny.

"Last time I saw you, you were a skinny girl,” he said. "You’ve grown into a fine woman.”

My cheeks burned and I looked away, reminding myself that this was the boy who had ruined my skirt with mudballs, the one who had cried and run to his mother when I dared to retaliate by firing a rock at him.

But this was no boy standing beside me. Jesse’s voice was the deep, rich tones of a man, and he had a man’s build. A man’s capable hands reached out and guided me over a second fallen branch, and this time they did not release me. He leaned close and I caught the smells of leather and gun oil that clung to him. "Did you truly not recognize me just now?” he asked.

"It’s been a few years since we last met,” I said. "I was thinking of you as a boy still.”

"I’ve done and seen things no boy should do or see,” he said solemnly.

A shout rose from among the wedding guests, distracting him. He looked across the clearing to where his brother Frank, who Jesse always called Buck, stood with a group of young men. The men were surrounded by a bevy of young women, including Rachel, Fanny and Esme. "I’d better join my friends,” he said, releasing my arm. "Good afternoon, Cousin.”

He nodded, then strode away. I stood as still and calm as the atmosphere on a sultry afternoon, nothing within me moving, though the air around me had the heavy, charged atmosphere of a storm about to break.

 

The handsome, young bushwhackers swept into the celebration like a cool mountain breeze, enlivening the party with a jolt of energy and daring. Women circled them like butterflies around blossoms and the men obliged by flattering and flirting, paying court to each young miss with equal fervor. Darkness fell and lamps were lit and hung in the trees and from the eaves of buildings, and large canvas sheets were spread on the ground for dancing.

The band began a lively reel and the young men and women paired off. I was more than pleased when one of the bushwhackers, a handsome young man named Cole Younger, bowed before me. "May I have the pleasure of a dance?” he asked.

On trembling legs, I stood and put my hand in his. "Certainly,” I said.

Though forbidden to dance, Esme and I had practiced the steps of the waltz and the quadrille in my attic bedroom, humming to ourselves as we turned, twirled, and promenaded. We were determined to be as accomplished as the young women in the novels, also forbidden, that we read in secret—hours spent in the seclusion of the woods behind my house, huddled over the pages of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights and other romantic tales.

But dancing with a man would be a different thing altogether, and I prayed I would not disgrace myself in this, my maiden public effort.

"Zerelda! What do you think you’re doing?”

I froze as my father’s voice cut through the hum of conversation and whirl of music. Cole released my hand as if singed, and turned to face my father. "Sir,” he said, with a stiff bow.

Father ignored him and turned to me. "Zerelda, what are you doing?” he demanded again.

I held my head high, and willed my voice not to shake. "Mr. Younger has done me the honor of asking me to dance,” I said.

Father turned to Cole. "I am sorry if my daughter has misled you,” he said. "But she does not dance.”

"The fault is entirely mine, sir.” He flashed me a look full of sympathy, bowed, and melted into the crowd.

Father turned to me once more. "Zerelda,” he began.

"I don’t see what harm there is in dancing at my sister’s wedding,” I protested. "What sin can happen here in the open, with so many people watching?” And what is so wrong with a little sin if it makes me feel more alive? I thought, but did not dare say the words out loud.

"You know that not all sin is evident for all to see.” He took my arm in his and began to lead me away from the edge of the dance floor. "We must also be concerned about the sin within our hearts.”

If my father only knew the things I had thought and felt and longed for, he would no doubt judge my heart black with sin. Yet better black than empty of any true emotion or feeling.

He patted my hand. "I know it is hard for you, dear,” he said. "The war has deprived you of so many little pleasures. But there are still many things for you to enjoy. Go and sit with your friends and enjoy their company. And no more talk of dancing or other unseemly behavior.”

"Yes, Papa.” I allowed him to lead me to a chair with the other unattached young women. While their conversations flowed around me like the twitters of a flock of birds, I searched the crowd until I found the one young man who did not participate in the revelry. Jesse sat on the sidelines, in a group of older men, their faces somber as they talked of the war, of depredations visited upon friends and relatives, and of the success of the guerrillas.

I finally broke from the group of young people and edged to the outermost rim of this circle of Jesse’s admirers, darkness concealing me from my mother and father, who wouldn’t hold with their unmarried daughter associating with so many men who were strangers to me.

One of the other men, a Mr. Cleveland, had taken up the tale of Jesse’s exploits: "The reins in his teeth, a pistol in each hand, Jesse charged into that camp, guns blazing,” he related to an avid group of listeners. "Those Yankees must have thought the devil himself was riding them down. They fired, but none of them even grazed him.”

The image of Jesse as avenging warrior stirred me. I watched his face as the flickering lantern light highlighted the fine bones of his cheeks and hard line of his jaw. Too many men who had returned from the fighting had a hollowed-out look, as if the rigors of battle had drained their very souls. Yet Jesse radiated health and vitality. Where others bore the weary air of defeat and failure, Jesse held the promise of a bright future.

"The Yankees are scared of us, boys,” he said. "I’ve seen it in their eyes when we charge them. They turn tail and run at the first sight of us. It’s only because there are more of them than us that they’ve lasted this long. The South has better men in a single county than the whole of the Northern Army, I’m convinced.” His voice rang with conviction, and I saw many an older man nod his head in agreement.

Then I noticed I wasn’t the only female in the group. I spotted Esme and Rachel across from me at the edge of the circle of lantern light. Fanny was a little farther away, watching Jesse with all the avarice of a cat who has cornered a mouse.

I looked away from her, and at that moment, Jesse raised his head and his eyes met mine. He rose. "If you’ll excuse me, ladies. Gentlemen.” He nodded and crossed the circle of admirers at an angle that would take him away from me, and disappeared into the darkness.

I didn’t hesitate to go after him. I moved carefully, on the very edge of the lantern light, making sure I was unnoticed. I met Jesse near the elm where we’d first encountered one another that afternoon. The band struck up a mournful rendition of Lorena, the sweet, soulful notes soaring over the shuffling of feet on the canvas and the muted conversation of the crowd. "Why aren’t you dancing?” Jesse asked, before I could speak to him.

"You know the answer to that.”

"Dancing is an invention of the devil,” he said, in perfect imitation of my father delivering a sermon.

I laughed at his apt impression, and he caught my hand in his. "I’ve noticed that the devil has cornered the market on interesting amusements,” he said. He removed his hat and hung it on the lowest branch of the tree, then offered me his arm. "Will you walk with me?”

I slipped my hand into the crook his elbow, surprised by the iron hardness of his muscles, aware of a growing tension within my own body. I thought of the devil and his amusements, and wondered at Jesse’s own devilment, and how he seemed to speak to every contrariness in my own soul.

"Where will you go from here?” I asked as we strolled just outside the line where light met darkness.

"Wherever I’m commanded to go. It may be a good while before I return."

”Do you think the war will be over soon?”

"The formal battles may end soon. Conditions are bad all over, but especially in the South, and people and politicians are crying for an end to the fighting. But a treaty won’t end this fight. As long as the North insists on trampling the rights of Southerners, men like me will keep fighting.”

"I want the fighting to end,” I said. "I want life to get back to normal, to be able to buy coffee and sugar and cloth again.”

He patted my hand. "It’s natural for women to want such things. Men have to be more contrary.”

"Then you want to fight?”

"I can’t explain the feeling a good fight gives me. In the midst of battle, every sense is more keen. I feel so powerful, as if a force greater than myself is guiding my horse and firing my pistols.” He stopped and faced me, grasping me by the shoulders. "I believe God made each of us for a purpose in this life and fighting for the South is my purpose.”

"And what is my purpose?” I asked.

"Perhaps your purpose is to wait. To support the fighters.”

Then he pulled me close and kissed me, his lips firm and sure against mine. I cried out, but not in protest. Though I had never been kissed by a man before, I had never wanted anything more. I leaned toward him, pressing my body to his, feeling the hard wall of his chest, his strong arms enfolding me.

He tasted of the whiskey I knew the men had passed amongst them in a flask, and smelled of leather and gun oil and the faint tang of sweat. The stubble of his beard scraped the side of my face, and the callouses of his hands caught on the silk of my dress. Every softness in me was answered by a hardness in him, everything familiar transformed in his embrace.

I never wanted the moment to end, but of course it must. He released me and stepped back, his breathing uneven, his voice rough. "I have to go now,” he said. He retraced our steps to the elm tree, where he retrieved his hat and replaced it on his head. Then he slipped into the darkness once more.

I waited until even the echo of his footsteps had faded, unsure if I could walk on legs that felt made of jelly. I thought of what Jesse had said about going into battle and feeling as if something larger than himself had taken over. That’s what I’d felt when he had kissed me—as if someone other than me was kissing him back, pulling him close, behaving so wantonly. So honestly. That woman—that other me—had shaken off the bonds of demure Southern womanhood and surrendered to what she wanted. I had wanted Jesse, but now he was gone. Who knew when I’d see him again, or how much I would suffer until then?

Esme married Anthony Colquit on a bright September morning scarcely a month after my sister’s wedding. At her request, he had grown a beard, which did a fair job of camouflaging his mole, but only served to make him look older than his years, owing to the fact that it was heavily streaked with gray. Esme professed not to mind and indeed, she looked happy as she stood in the parlor of her family’s home to say her vows. I stood up with her and wished her well, while the three Colquit children looked on with the expression of generals plotting disaster.

As happy as I was for Esme’s marriage, the loss of the company of her and my sister in the same month filled me with restlessness. Everyone was moving forward with their lives while I was plagued by uncertainty about the future. The bleak picture of myself as an old maid, spending my life by the side of my aging mother, seemed a very real and unsettling prospect. My two older sisters were married, my five older brothers either away fighting or established on their own, as my younger brothers Thomas and Henry eventually would be. And as pretty and lively as my younger sister Sallie was, I had no doubt she would marry well. I might one day soon be the only one of my siblings left at home.

For now, I welcomed the chance to run errands, escaping for at least a little while the house that might very well be my tomb. Even a trip to the general store for a packet of pins offered the opportunity to hear news and gossip, or glimpse a stranger passing through. If the storekeeper’s wife, Mrs. Riker, looked down on me, what did I care? Any chance to tweak her nose was a welcome diversion.

Mrs. Riker was absent from the store the October Saturday I next heard news of Jesse. Mother had sent me to the store for a tin of saleratus and a bottle of bluing, but I was making the errand last as long as possible, lingering amongst the sewing notions, examining cards of buttons, when a man burst into the store.

"Word just come from Centralia!” he shouted. "Bloody Bill’s done wiped out a hoard of Union soldiers.”

I froze at the mention of Bloody Bill. "Was Jesse James with him?” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

But the man gave no sign that he thought my question unusual. "The James boys was with him, I hear,” he said. "Right there at the front lines. Bloody Bill had some eighty men with him. They cut the Northern Missouri rail lines and cleared the Yankees out of Boone County, then wiped out a bunch of bluecoats just returned from the Battle of Atlanta. Word is more than a hundred and fifty of the Yankees was slain in a fierce battle.”

Word of what came to be known as the Centralia Massacre soon spread. It was all anyone talked of and many of their tales featured Jesse, who was lauded as a particular hero of the day, though so many versions of the action circulated I could never be sure what, exactly, had happened.

But I pictured Jesse as Mr. Cleveland had described him, riding into battle with the reins of his horse gripped in his teeth, a loaded pistol in each hand, putting the fear of the devil into his enemies. In my mind, he was no devil, and certainly no mere man, but an angel—not the ethereal, meek harp players in the paintings in my father’s big Bible, but a powerful, beautiful, fearful being wielding a gun instead of a sword.

In less fanciful moments I knew Jesse was mortal, and subject to the same injuries as other men. In the days after that first announcement of the massacre, I combed what papers reached us, searching for mention of his name and news of his safety, but found nothing to ease my mind or satisfy my curiosity.

Finally, I resorted to asking my mother. "Have you heard from Aunt Zerelda if Frank and Jesse are safe?” I asked one evening while I struggled to darn a pair of black stockings that had already been mended so often there was more darn than sock.

"As far as I know, they’re fine,” Mother said. "Zerelda is very proud of them and talks of their heroism to everyone.”

To say that Aunt Zerelda was proud of her sons was an understatement indeed. From the time they were small she had praised her boys as the most handsome, the brightest and the best sons a woman could want. Any schoolmaster who dared to try to correct the James boys knew he would face a tongue-lashing or worse from Zerelda. Six feet tall with shoulders as broad as any man’s and a tongue twice as sharp, she reduced many a man to trembling, and the neighborhood girls had learned not to bat their eyes at Frank or Jesse, or risk Zerelda’s wrath.

"I’m glad to hear they’re safe,” I said, setting aside my darning, too weak with relief to focus on my work.

"I worry that Zerelda boasts too much,” Mother said. "She’s never been one to act meekly, but now is not the time to be so outspoken against the North. I heard just last week of a young boy being dragged through the streets of Quincy and beaten for stating a wish for the South to win the war.”

"Surely Aunt Zerelda’s suffering in jail has made her more circumspect,” I said.

My mother laughed. "My sister-in-law is not one to hold her tongue. If anything, jailing her made her more outspoken than ever. She’ll never cease to champion the cause of the South—or to sing the praises of her sons.”

I didn’t say, but I couldn’t see that championing ‘the cause’ was doing much for us. The sympathies of the entire state seemed to be shifting to the North, leaving those of us who clung to loyalty to the South isolated and in desperate straits. With so many men fighting, women had to work in the fields. Slaves were abandoning their masters and many farms fell into disrepair. My father preached about the darkness before the dawn, but I saw no sign of light.

In late October, Major Price’s troops were defeated in the Battle of Westport and Confederate forces were driven from Missouri. Three days later, a Union Scout named Samuel Cox captured and murdered Bloody Bill. The rest of the guerrillas, including Jesse, were said to be on the run.

That winter was the hardest we’d yet endured, with no word from Frank or Jesse and no sign of the war’s end. We ate a wild turkey my father shot for Christmas dinner. It was the first fresh meat we’d had in months. I made a duster out of the feathers and presented it to my mother, who gave me a pair of stockings she’d knit out of a vest of hers she’d unraveled.

In January, word came down that Aunt Zerelda had been banished from the state, forbidden to live here on pain of death. She was staying in Nebraska with friends, and sent frequent letters declaring her hatred of the Northerners who would persecute an innocent woman so. My mother read the letters, then burned them in the stove, unwilling for their venomous words to taint our family by association.

In April, the final blow came. General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. The Confederacy was dissolved and everyone was required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Union.

Many did so gladly, anxious for peace and hopeful for a return to the prosperity we had known before the war. But our oaths were not enough for the federal troops who now descended upon our part of the state. These men went out of their way to take offense and to mete out punishment. It was as if the victor in a horse race had turned around and trampled the loser.

Still, I was naïve enough to believe those I loved would be safe. My father had an excellent reputation as a man of God, and my mother was known for helping anyone who needed nursing or a hot meal, or assistance of any kind. I was no longer allowed to come and go as I pleased, without my father or brothers accompanying me. I chafed at these restrictions, but I recognized their sense. The Union men were a rough lot, and not to be trusted.

But all my innocence was shattered on the day in May when my younger brother, Thomas, raced into the house, face flushed and eyes wide with excitement. "The militia men have taken Mrs. Peabody!” he shouted.

I almost dropped the kettle of blackberries I’d just removed from the stove. "Taken her? Taken her where?” I asked.

"It happened last night.” Thomas snatched a blackberry from a bowl on the table and popped it into his mouth. At eighteen, he was a charmer who could talk himself out of almost any trouble, and he was a favorite of my mother. "I heard folks talking about it in town just now.”

"Who took her?” I asked. "And where did they take her?”

"Some militiamen put her on a boat early this morning. Folks said they’d bloodied her nose and she was wearing nothing but her shimmy and a petticoat. They hung a sign around her neck that said "Confederate Whore.” He glanced at Mother, ready to dodge any blows she might mete out for using such language.

But Mother was too distressed over his news to scold him. "Where was the Sheriff while all this was happening?” she asked, her expression grim.

Thomas shrugged. "I guess he wasn’t there.”

With trembling hands, I stripped off my apron and flung it to the floor. "I have to go see,” I said.

"Sister, no!”

But I ignored my mother’s words, running out of the house and down the road toward Mrs. Peabody’s cabin. Tears blinded me as I ran, the horror of my friend’s disgrace filling my head.

Ever since President Lincoln’s assassination the month before, times had been hard as ever on anyone who formerly sided with the South. Groups of men—former Union soldiers and militiamen—had taken it upon themselves to punish those they deemed not sufficiently loyal to the Union. But why would they attack a defenseless woman who had never harmed a soul?

By the time I reached the cabin my side ached and my hair had come undone. Before I even entered the yard I saw that the jasmine arbor had been pulled from the porch, and the front door hung loose from its hinges. I heard footsteps pounding behind me and turned to see Thomas. "I figured I’d better come with you,” he said.

I nodded, grateful for his company in the eerie silence of this once-familiar cabin. Slowly, we walked up onto the porch and into the house. Broken pottery littered the front room, the remains of a tea set that had once held pride of place in a corner cupboard. Furniture was overturned, the drapes ripped from the windows. In the kitchen, sugar crunched under our feet and flour drifted over everything like lime dust.

Thomas stepped into the bedroom first, then blocked the doorway. "Don’t go in there, Sister,” he said. His face was pale, but he was doing his best to be manly.

I shoved him aside and stepped into a scene of more chaos. The bedclothes were dragged to the floor, the dressing table mirror shattered. The silver dresser set Mrs. Peabody had prized was gone, along with a blown-glass bird that had been a gift from Mr. Henry.

Only when I had absorbed these things did I recognize the other, more grisly evidence of what had happened here—the things Thomas had tried to keep me from seeing. Frayed rope hung from the four posts of the bed, knotted, then cut with a knife, as if someone had been tied there. Rusty stains flecked the linens of the bed, along with a single muddy print from a man’s boot. I turned away, fresh sobs escaping as my imagination filled in the story behind these ugly details.

Thomas took my arm and led me back onto the porch. The swing had been chopped to splinters, so we sat side by side on the top step. He gave me his handkerchief and I struggled to control my sobs. "What else did people in town say happened?” I asked. "Tell me everything.”

"There’s nothing else to tell,” he said. "They said she was put on the boat at dawn, so the militiamen must have come here some time during the night.”

"Why wasn’t Sheriff Henry here?” I wailed. "They wouldn’t have dared do this if he’d been here to stop them.”

"He didn’t usually spend the night here,” Thomas said. "Not all night, anyway.” His cheeks burned. "Leastways, that’s what I heard.”

So Henry had been safe at home in his own bed while his lover was abused and driven out of town in disgrace. Mrs. Peabody had said the moments of pleasure she enjoyed were worth the moments of pain—but surely not this much pain.

"What did Henry do when he found out about this?” I asked.

"I don’t guess he did anything. Nobody mentioned it.”

If he loved her, why hadn’t he gone after her? Why hadn’t he raised a posse to hunt down the men who had done this? How could he claim to love her, yet do nothing to avenge her? Was his reputation worth more to him than the woman he loved?

The cruelty of the answer to that question showed me the kind of man he really was. No matter that he was the Sheriff and a veteran of the war; Henry had been weak. He’d professed to love Mrs. Peabody, but hadn’t had the strength of his convictions to stand by her in her time of need.

While Mrs. Peabody had loved enough to give up whatever her life had been, to move here and live alone under the censure of her neighbors, Mr. Henry’s feelings had not moved him to raise even a word of protest in her defense.

One night not too many weeks later, her old cabin burned to the ground. Six months later Mrs. Henry, who was apparently not so much of an invalid after all, gave birth to a son, named Thomas Wayne Henry, Jr.

And still I had no word from Jesse.

The summer dragged on long and hot. I vowed to no longer think of Jesse. What was he to me but a boy I had kissed once?

But Jesse was a man I could not ignore. Though I banished him from my thoughts during my waking hours, he visited my dreams—as an avenging angel robed in white, or a laughing man who lobbed dirt clods at my skirt, then caught me up in his arms and kissed me until I was breathless.

Then Jesse came back into my life, not as the avenging angel I’d dreamed of, but as a ghost of a man who frightened me more than anyone ever had.

 


 

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