Sometime on the morning of the first day in June, 1848, Deirdre Chancellor Storm died. Had old Doc Mortimer been there, he would have probably said the thirty-year-old widow and mother of two expired from natural causes; heart attack, most likely. The handsome, ebony-haired boy of eleven, who stood beside her bed with the aid of crutches, was old enough to know that.
But Gideon Chancellor Storm was also old enough to know his mother was murdered.
Sunlight spilled through the windows, highlighting her form. Even in death her face was beautiful, her fair complexion marred only by the shading of crimson on her right side, the side on which she lay and where the blood had settled within her spare frame. Indeed, were it not for her motionless breasts, it would take only a small amount of imagination to believe her sleeping.
And with all his might, Gideon tried to do just that. Panic throbbed his forehead and formed tears in his dark eyes. Perspiration soaked his linen nightshirt. A nauseating stench filled his nostrils. Once again, he touched his mothers bony wrist, knowing it was fruitless, but searching for a pulse just the same.
A fit of rage seized him, mind-numbing, gut-wrenching, heart-hammering in its intensity. Gideon ignored the blistering agony erupting from his bandaged left leg, slumped his shoulders, and sank onto the mattress at her side. He wept into his trembling hands, cursing his mother for breaking her pledge never to leave.
If you couldnt trust a mother, who could you trust? Why did she have to abandon us now--now when we needed her the most?
But as grief rocked his body and churned his stomach, it also became clear that the fault for this heartache lay with him. Three weeks earlier he had learned a valuable lesson--he could never trust anyone. Why should he think his mother was any different from the other people who had deceived him?
His tear-dampened hands curled into fists. He pounded his thighs, yet forced back the scream of self-loathing, fearful of waking his sister. He couldnt allow an eight-year-old to view her mother in death. It would certainly cause Briana untold anguish, perhaps even her own demise, and that would add another black mark on Gideons guilt-burdened soul.
No, he thought, instead of cursing his mother for reneging on her promise, he should be cursing himself. He had caused his mothers death, just as sure as he had caused his fathers murder. He alone should be blamed for his gullible nature, for his ill-conceived trust of the world around him.
He rose from the mattress and hobbled to the window, his bare feet slapping against the oaken floor. Pain shot up his leg, causing his teeth to clench. But he didnt care. It was just reward. He had brought all of this on and deserved the pain. Deserved whatever hell God chose to inflict on him as punishment for his childish blunder.
At the window, he drew a deep breath, hoping to scour the stink of death from his nostrils. The morning air, heavy with heat and humidity, seemed to scorch his lungs as he stood overlooking the modest farm. A gaggle of geese squawked in frolic by the small pond; a peep of chickens clucked from the coop in the yard; a murder of crows fluttered across the heavens and landed in the trees of the windswept apple orchard.
Off to the southeast, across the rolling five-hundred-yard stretch of plowed and stubbled fields and into the hollow, the waters of Antietam Creek sparkled and sent a shiver up Gideons spine. If his gaze followed the dusty road leading past the Storm farmstead, he would probably be able to locate the Rohrbach Bridge hidden somewhere within the verdant tangle of woods. There, three weeks earlier, he had experienced his first taste of betrayal. Betrayal of the most devilish stamp.
But he didnt want to look. Memories of that horrific moment, already engraved in his mind for eternity, were troublesome enough. His leg, sliced and maimed under stained bandages, would serve as a painful reminder his entire life. The humble tombstone, under the shady oak near the pond where green grass now peeked through brown earth, stood as an additional token of his na´vetÚ.
If only he hadnt placed trust in that thirteen-year-old boy from Virginia. He should have heeded parental warnings regarding speaking to strangers about his familys abolitionist stance, especially with the countrys slavery debate growing to a fevered pitch. If only he hadnt been so gullible. He should have never invited his new friend--Friend?--and his Southern companions to the fishing spot where his father, a God-fearing and peaceable farmer, lazed away Sunday afternoons. Now, Gideon looked upon his fathers grave and prayed forgiveness. If not for him, Udell Franklin Storm would still be alive.
But Gideon felt himself a fool, a fool taken in by their smiles and kind words, willing to accept people at face value. A fool who had believed the young men were visiting Sharpsburg, Maryland, with nothing on their minds but a little rest and relaxation. A fool too blind to recognize the burning hatred in their eyes, too ignorant to see the knife hilts poking out of their waistbands until it was too late.
Gideon shook his head and rued the day he was born. This trusting oaf, educated with books and formal schooling but lacking in the knowledge of human nature, would forever be cursed with the physical scars and the invisible mental torment.
And he felt he deserved nothing better.
He turned toward the bed and cried in renewed fervor. And now his mother was gone, another victim of his intolerable stupidity. Three weeks of grieving the death of the man she loved, three weeks of anxiety regarding her sons injuries, three weeks of experiencing bloodcurdling nightmares in which the scoundrels returned to slay them all in their beds had taken its toll on her already ailing and fragile body.
Gideon stomped his foot and spat. Yes, his mother was murdered. Though not by the blade, it was murder just the same. And his own dimwitted, moronic actions had caused it.
Damn me! Damn me to a life of hell!
He whispered his apologies to the woman on the bed and staggered from the room. Fire engulfed his leg; though suffering its intensity as punishment for his crimes, he generally dismissed it. All he could think of now was how he could wake Briana, the girl who had always looked at him with fawning admiration in her sweet eyes, and explain to her that, once again, her hero had caused the death of a parent.
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