Her skin was the color of a sweet piece of buttery caramel. Her long hair, kinking soft and wooly down her back, had been a honeyed brown when she started her trek. The sun had since stroked it with bright touches of copper and gold. Her eyes were shiny coal, her mouth a sweet peach pucker. She knew all of this because she watched herself in the water when she stopped for deep drinks and baths. She knew all of this because this was why she had left her “home,” way back, so many states ago.
It was a warm morning, but still she clutched the tattered wool shawl to her shoulders—to cover her breasts. Although as natural as clouds, they could be dangerous things, breasts. She sighed at her own burdensome habits—the dangerous past was behind her and this was the future—blew a curled strand of copper out of her eyes, and dropped down to sit, gangly legs folded in the bright green grass. Then she smiled.
“Cal-I-for-nee-ya” she sounded it out, liking how it felt on her tongue. “Hello, California, I be Jemma.”
The girl hadn’t talked to anybody in a good long while—maybe throughout this whole state—other than herself. She had kept to the wild parts because the weather was kind lately and she knew the roots and berries and how to catch silvery fish, to crack nuts and shellfish, and how to smell for water. Along her lengthy trek her people, all her people, had taught her all of these things to live by. Some had even offered her homes, sons for husbands, hinted that she could be a daughter for widows, that she could take places in sorrowful beds. But she’d always smiled and declined and continued on. These were her people, her good other souls—even the Indians were good, she’d learned, contrary to what the fancy folk had told her. But there was one out there who was a hero and her true blood.
She would find him.
Jemma lay back and squinted at the sun. Ole’ sunshine, always following her. Keeping her alive and changing all her colors, from her hair to her dress. The sun was a fickle friend. She had liked her dress red, but the sun had decided some time ago it was going to be an old faded pink, so who could complain? And her hair had hardly ever belonged to herself anyhow, so any color seemed just fine.
She let herself drift: the crisp whip of wind through the long grass, the tickle of a flower on her calf, the drowsy hum of bees, a bird yelling at some bigger, peskier bird. A man, an old man, who was blood and legend and who would tell her something true, give her something all her own. She had often tasted blood, her own, when she’d worried her lips over some wearisome job or another. Funny, it didn’t taste like life; blood tasted like… money. She’d had a penny once and secretly sucked it because it was so pretty. That was blood. Tinkling, pretty pennies that piled up until you had something big and shiny and worthwhile….
“Excuse me… Miss?” the voice was soft, but it was like a rabid whorehouse howl to her. She jumped, frantically, suddenly aware that she’d gotten too close to the road, that she’d let herself drowse. There was a mad scramble backwards, coal eyes slanted up at the shadow man over her, and then she stilled, crouched down small and in a tight coil.
She tried to catch her breath, knew that he could probably see the thumping rabbit jump of her heart along her thin collarbones. Her shawl? She glanced around frantically, found it on the ground behind her, and clutched it to her belly.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.” He had backed off, was no longer a looming shadow. “I’m so sorry, Miss.” He slowly lowered to his knees, now a good distance away, his hands out in a gesture of peace, of friendship. His voice was lazy, like the sound of the bees that had lulled her down.
She cocked her head to one side, studied him. Would this man—this one man—match his voice? Could he possibly match those careful words? He was gold hair and bright eyes and light clothes, in tans and pale blues. The sun must like him too, she mused. That might be worth something.
“Honestly, Miss. You just gave me a scare is all. I thought you might be sick or… hurt?” His eyes slid down her form quickly. Not in that bad way, but maybe to really look her over, to see if she was alright.
“I’m fine.” Her voice sounded scratchy to her own ears. “I was jes’… listenin’ to the bees. Guess they tole me to fall asleep.” And off his relieved glance she flashed the smallest smile. There was a long beat between them. He, on his knees in the grass, she playing nervously with the shawl in her lap.
She took one shuddery breath, then raised her chin in a mimicry of pride. “I be Jemma,” she said in a light gravel voice, giving him a full gaze.
“Charmed, Jemma. I’m Heath.”
He took in the full picture of her in another quick glance. A long, lean girl, not much older than eighteen, and gorgeous like a feisty spring colt. He knew in an instant that she needed food, rest, and water, not necessarily in that order. But he also knew that she would bolt if he twitched in even the slightest way wrong. He kept his voice low and lulling, as when he was working with the wildest stallions. He slid his tan hat back carefully so she could see his full, welcoming smile.
“Well, I’m rightly sorry to have interrupted your meeting with the bees. See,” he gestured backwards with his head to the horse some distance behind him, “I was just having me a meeting with my horse. We were about to have us some lunch. Would you do the honors of joining us? You AND the bees, of course…”
She squinted black eyes at him for another long beat. It was a crucial moment, he knew, so he remained still and relaxed, simply willing himself to breathe. Then finally she smiled fully, bright and dimpled. “Of course they’s coming. They’s bringing what I got’s to give, ‘cause me and the bees, we don’t take no charity.” So saying, she reached for a worn carpetbag, pulled out a rusty lidded mason jar. Inside, Heath could see, was a large chunk of honeycomb—probably the last of the girl’s store.
“Well now,” Heath chuckled, “you just wait right here with your bounty, and I’ll get mine.” He stood up and headed for his saddlebags, then called over his shoulder, “but don’t get your hopes up. My horse ain’t nearly as good a cook as your bees.”
Heath’s mind was whirling as he loosened his horse’s cinch and gave the stallion a good long draught from the canteen, poured into his hat. He tethered Charger so he could nibble at the sweet grass, then finally moved forward to offer his plentiful lunch to the nervous girl from nowhere.
What was she doing lying in a Barkley field? What was she doing alone? It looked as if she were traveling, but to where, and from where? The “from where” he could guess. She’d have been a child during the Civil War—no older than Audra had been—but still a slave. And no doubt grooming to become a house slave, a “high yella” token who would have been a prize keep for the slave owner... even though the owner was most likely also her own daddy. It all still sickened him. But that was past.
Today he had a scrawny beauty sitting on his property with probably no idea where she was. But maybe, just maybe, he’d seen a bit of determination flash behind those piercing jet eyes. After she had gotten past the surprise and the fear. And maybe, although her past was behind her, and her present seemed murky, she might have ended up here because she had some idea about her future.
Heath had been there himself.
And he suddenly knew, if it was in his power, that he would lift the ranch from its moorings and set it back down again to help this colt-like gal with whatever sacred quest she was on.
He shored up emotionally, put those thoughts away, and concentrated simply on the lunch in front of him. Silas had packed it, so it was bound to be substantial: a pair of thick steak sandwiches on planks of home-baked bread, several tart, ripe apples, a large wrapped chunk of sharp cheddar cheese, and a smidgen of cold fried chicken from the night before. He thought back to starvation times—it wasn’t a far stretch—and decided he would be best to immediately offer her only a half a sandwich and a small bit of the cheese. Her mind would want more, but her taut stomach would accept less. To be honest, the fried chicken’s grease might upset her, and the fruit would probably not be wise… might bolt right through her probably fragile system.
He pulled a clean kerchief from his saddle bags and readied himself to set out a lunch for this new-found mystery girl. “Here we are,” Heath grinned, carefully laying the cloth and structuring the lunch in the way he hoped she would dine: a half a sandwich and a wedge of cheese in front of her, a cluster of the leftovers between them, and the second thick sandwich in front of him. And, of course, her artistically planted jar of honeycomb. Neither of them would be harmed from a bit of nature’s sweet! In fact, smart girl, it might be one of the best things for her.
Heath smiled, satisfied with the layout. “But before we dine, a toast,” he held up his canteen to her curious dark gaze, “to honeybees and horses.” And, he wanted to say, to exotic girls from nowhere who pass out in my pasture. He quickly passed her the canteen, waiting for her to drink her fill.
He pretended not to be mesmerized by Jemma’s thin, dusky throat and the tiny wisp of an Adam’s apple bobbing with the force of her drinking. Had she drained the whole canteen? Was she that low on juice? Did he need to get her to the ranch, to society, far before he had even estimated?
“You might wanna go easy on that” he tried, softly. Her eyes peered over the canteen, the convulsive swallowing stopped. And then she nodded, and handed it back to him. “Has it been awhile?” he asked.
She wondered why she found herself... trusting this one. He wasn’t one of her soul people. He couldn’t be. But he talked the same and felt the same. She shrugged. “I found a little trickle of a stream yesterday, but I didn’t wanna lose my honeycomb, so I couldn’t fill my water jar.” And then she leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “I must confess, I got an awful sweet tooth.”
He found himself laughing at the absurdity of it all. She had shifted from starving ex-slave to charming aristocrat in an instant. What must this girl have experienced in her life? He looked forward to finding out.
“Is you laughing at me?” she queried, but her black eyes twinkled merrily.
“No, Ma’am. I wouldn’t dare. Now eat up.” Then his own eyes twinkled. “Seeing you drain my canteen, I’d hate to get between you and this here food.”
She nodded as if that were a correct response. Then daintily picked up the sandwich and took a nibble. She worked on the bite slowly and carefully, almost as if she were counting each chew. Heath knew she was being wiser with the food than she had been with the water. But he also knew from too much experience that the pain of not having water was far more sharp than the pain of not having food. An empty belly would get quiet after awhile, just a constant mumbling at the back of the brain. A body could ignore that mumble for some time. A dry tongue, though, it screamed at a body, screamed in a thick, dry voice of fires and tortures and hell.
After she had taken a few slow bites she set the half sandwich down, as if to rest. Yes, Heath thought, this was a hungry filly indeed. Little bit at a time to get the belly used to food again. As he watched she craned her neck towards the horse.
“I must say, Mister Heath, your horse does fix a fine spread. And you said he couldn’t cook as good as my bees. I do believe you was jes’ bein’ polite!”
He chuckled again. “Well, I must say, Miss Jemma, the horse didn’t actually fix the food. My good friend Silas did me the honor. He’s a fine man and…” He stopped in mid sentence as he took in her sudden startled countenance. What had he done wrong? Was she ready to bolt? If she did he’d simply have to go after her, reel her back in.
“Did you say… Silas?” she whispered, her hands now limp in the long grass at her sides.
He carefully nodded. “Yes Ma’am, Silas. He works for my family.”
“Is he a nigger?” The word was used casually, painlessly. At least to the girl.
“He’s an ex-slave, yes.”
She took another one of her long pauses. The wind moved her long, thick hair but the rest of her was limp, frozen, hands still fallen at her sides. And then, much to Heath’s relief, she smiled that full dimple smile. “Well I’ll be. That there sandwich man, he be the last of my blood kin. Knew he’d gone North, then got word he’d headed West. Then heard he was in California, somewheres near here. Been following all those clues, walking near on two years to get here to him.”
Heath tried to hide the shock, but his breath still sucked in just a touch. Two years? A young girl, alone? She noticed, and tried to cover his obvious distress with humor. “Then again, Silas is a right common name.” Again the conspiratorial whisper and a grin. “Why, I’ve knowed at least forty or fifty Silases in my day.”
Heath nodded casually. “I once ran with a gang in Mexico called The Silases. Every last one of them, and there musta been near sixty, was named Silas. Never did figure out why they took me in. They just took to calling me Heath Silas. Then there was Big Red Silas, Little Red Silas, Jim Bob Silas…”
“I knowd Jim Bob Silas.” She nodded playfully, working on another careful bite of her sandwich. “He courted me, but then that was before he went to the bad side and ran with that gang you talking ‘bout. I wouldn’t have nothing to do with him after that.” She took in Heath’s full appearance. “Glad to see you reformed.”
“Well, Jemma, I do my best, even though it is a day to day struggle. And I will say I’m glad too. If I were still in Mexico, I couldn’t have found you sleeping with the bees here in my pasture, and I couldn’t take you home with me after this here fine lunch so you could finally meet your kin. Wouldn’t want to ever be accused of disappointing a lady.”
The lunch finished, Heath cleaned up, all the while keeping a surreptitious eye on his new charge. She was certainly a sight. Her clothing was beyond worn and, unless the girl intended to suddenly sprout into at least a six footer, her shoes had to be two sizes too big. Probably, he mused, to accommodate stuffing for holes in the soles. He remembered that trick well enough too.
She had seemed to deflate after the meal, her beauty now fragile like a fine crystal flute in a squeezing fist. But he suspected it was more than just a full belly and the lulling hum of the warm afternoon. Even more than years worth of lonely travel, hunger, and fear. He suspected that it was the near completion of such a lengthy and monumental quest. When a body is right on the very brink of such a success, it suddenly becomes that much more terrified of failure.
She sat still in the tall grass as he walked Charger over, her gaze taking in the sweep of the pasture. “This all be yours?”
“My family’s,” he nodded.
“But this tweren’t never a slave state, so how does one family work so much land?”
“Just that,” he grinned, “work. Lots and lots of work.”
“I know about that,” she sighed, but with a touch of wry humor.
“I’m right sure you do,” he said softly. “Now, if my horse and I may escort you, I’ll take you to meet Silas.”
“I’d just as soon walk, if’n you’d point the way?” There it was, a slight twisting of her features, a tiny hint of fear.
“I could no more let you walk to my home than I could my own mother. Or any fine lady. You know how to ride?”
She looked up at him, her eyes narrowed. “Yes, but I ain’t takin' your horse neither. They hang niggers for breathing loud where I’m from, much less for ridin round on some fancy fella’s horse.”
He held up his hands for a truce, chuckling again at her wild range: from humor, to pathos, to raw bravado, this was one willowy wildcat. “No, Jemma. Silas would have my hide if I left you here. You ride, I walk. I won’t compromise you if you don’t want to ride with me.”
She threw her head back then and laughed. It was a delightful sound, throaty and rich, and it made him grin. “You do beat all. You compromise me! That surely is as rich as cream.” And then she shot him one of those startling coal gazes, full of merriment. “You did hear me mention that part about me being a nigger, right?”
“I heard,” he frowned, “but I suggest you change your language lessen you want Silas to tan your hide too. Nigger ain’t a word we use, leastwise in my family. Besides, my very own best auntie was once a slave. I tugged at her skirts, I slept in her bed, I rocked on her knees—and I tried as best I could to work as hard to keep her fed as she did me. And she wasn’t so uppity that she wouldn’t take a simple ride with me!” He held out his hand to help her stand, the dangerous twinkle in his eyes indicating that he wouldn’t accept a refusal.
She pondered him with a sideways gaze, then shot him one of those full sunshine grins. She took the proffered hand, straightened her skirts, and stood up, her head held regally. “Me, uppity? You is too much.”
He tied her threadbare bag behind the saddle, mounted in a single liquid leap, and then held down a strong arm to pull her up in front of him. But he was startled when he actually found how light she was. Audra was a wispy thing, so this one must be made of feathers. One of his first tasks would indeed be to get her eating properly, but that would be no problem. He knew how to slowly teach a body how to live again.
When she had settled in front of him, he lightly took the reins in hand, careful to keep his arms wide on either side of her so that she wouldn’t feel confined. The horse began a steady walk, Heath keeping it from the trot that would lead to the smoother canter because he didn’t want to jar her without having a grip on her—and without true knowledge of her horsemanship. Finally she leaned tentatively back against him.
“You can nudge this pony if’n you want. You can even squeeze me a bit tighter. Long as you don’t com-pro-mise me.” He heard the laughter in her voice and noticed with a smile that her thick coppered hair smelled like fresh rain.
As they neared the gates leading to the house she put a nervous hand on his arm. “That’s a mighty fancy house for you to have had a slave auntie. ‘Specially one you had to help feed.”
He halted Charger, swung down, and held up hands to help her dismount. His large grip fairly swallowed her tiny waist. “Let’s walk the rest of the way in and I’ll tell you a few secrets.” He knew she had to be a wreck right now; any distraction would be a favor.
“See, I didn’t grow up in this here fancy house. I’ve been here maybe a year. My pa, this here was his doing, his family. My ma, she raised me in a tiny mining town a few days off from here: me, my ma, my aunt Rachel, and my aunt Hannah. She’s the one I was telling you about. I only found out about my family, this family, when Mama died. And so I came here.”
“And they just let you stomp right on up those shiny steps?”
“Yup. They’re good people; you’re about to find that out. The best, in fact.” He stopped their forward progress, put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “But settling in, settling down, it wasn’t easy for me. And mine wasn’t a two year walking journey like yours, not nearly that hard.”
She gave him another one of those sideways glances. “I be ready. ‘Sides, I can hear ‘tween your words—you had it plenty hard. Had to have if I’m thinking you might be one of my soul people. Sure I walked a long long time to find my blood, but I only knew to start looking just a bit before I started out. You, I ‘spect, always knew you had a daddy out there somewheres. So even if you didn’t head to this place ‘til a year ago… you was prob’ly looking for it all your life.”
“Well, that’s mighty insightful Jemma,” he mused.
“That be me, insight-ful Jemma.” She smiled up at him. “Thank you, Heath, for helpin’ me get here.”
“I don’t expect I did much at all.”
“Not true. Everybody who helped even the littlest got me here, whether they traded me a crust of bread, a tepee to sleep in, this ole pair of shoes, a train ticket... or offered a free fist that got me movin’ again when I sat down too long. You, you gave me lunch and nice words and sweet eyes. And Silas.”
“So are you ready?”
There was a long pause and then a small voice: “Would I compromise you if I asked you to hold my hand. I 'spect I’m a little bit scared.”
Heath reached out, gently took her thin hand in his. “And I 'spect it won’t be the last time. But my hand will always be here for you.”
If the few ranch hands that milled around outside found it curious that Heath Barkley waltzed up to the house in the middle of the day, leading his horse and holding the hand of a lovely but unkempt dark-skinned gal, they kept it to themselves. At least for the moment. And if Jemma found their glances frightening she only indicated it by the faintest trembling of the fingers clutching Heath’s.
Heath handed Charger off to Ciego, which did raise a more overt eyebrow or two since the cowboy was notoriously protective of his mounts, and then tucked her trembling hand securely in the crook of his arm. “This way, my lady.”
He led her through the grand front door, smiling lightly as she craned her neck to marvel at the luxuries of the house. “You sure did find you one fancy family, Heath,” she whispered.
“Looks like you did too, Jemma,” he stage-whispered back. The sound of movement from the dining room halted their forward progress. Heath suddenly realized that he was sweating—actually nervous for the girl. This was ridiculous. “Mother?” he called. Jemma jumped at the abrupt boom of his voice.
“Heath!” Victoria called back, delighted. “You decided to join us for lunch!” She swept from the dining room into the foyer, arms spread to greet him with a hug. Then she stopped short at the odd sight before her. There was a tiny beat then, ever the hostess, Victoria flashed her most charming smile. “And I see you brought a guest?”
“I did at that. But we’ve already had lunch.”
“You have?” her voice registered an odd note of surprise.
“Mother,” Heath offered the introduction, “Jemma. Jemma, this is my Mother, Victoria Barkley.”
Jemma dropped her hand from his arm, gave a deep, formal curtsey. “I be very glad to be in your grand home, Mrs. Barkley.”
Victoria paused for another long beat before finally breaking the moment and sweeping forward to take the girl’s hand. “Come into the parlor, please, and have a seat. Since you’ve already dined, Heath, maybe Silas can get your guest some lemonade?” She led the girl to the settee, perched herself imperiously beside her.
“Actually, Mother, Jemma is here to see Silas.”
Victoria cocked her head, appraising the girl. Jemma cleared her throat before speaking. Heath noticed a tremor in her voice. “He be my only kin.”
It seemed odd to Heath that Victoria suddenly relaxed. An unusual stiffness was gone from her manner. She grabbed both of Jemma’s hands in her own. “Oh, darling, that is delightful news. Heath, go get Silas. No, maybe we should surprise him? I knew he had sisters, but we thought they were dead. Are you a niece then? A grandniece perhaps? I’m rambling. This is just so wonderful for Silas. He’s been alone so long. Well, not alone; he’s had us.” She turned to Heath with a laugh. “Please interrupt before I make a fool of myself.” Then she stood. “I know. I’ll take her upstairs so she can freshen up; you lead Silas into the study. Oh, you’ll find some pretense. I’ll bring her back down shortly.”
Jemma gave Heath an almost desperate glance. But it wasn’t fear that he perceived, it was what he had felt so many times early on while in the presence of Victoria Barkley. A sense of being overwhelmed by grace, and the resultant feeling of almost claustrophobic awkwardness. “Tell you what, mother, I sort of made Jemma a promise that I wouldn’t leave her alone until she felt comfortable here. I’ll show her to the bath, maybe dig through one of the chests for an old dress of Audra’s.”
“No thank you, Heath,” Jemma said, her chin raised but her eyes bright. “Remember, me and them bees, we don’t take charity.”
“Right,” he winked. “How could I forget that?” Before Victoria could intervene he reached his hand down to Jemma. She took it gladly, stood, but gave Victoria another curtsey before following him out.
As her son escorted the thin, bedraggled beauty from the room, Victoria subconsciously stiffened again. Then she blew out the briefest sigh and stood to find her houseman.
Heath escorted Jemma down the grand staircase. “How do I look,” she whispered, her pause on the stairs giving off her only hint of nervousness.
Heath looked her over with a pretend critical eye. She was shining, eyes gleaming with excitement, her hair weighted down now by remnants of a bath, and so darker in hue. He found he missed the golden glints. The dress had been brushed of its dust, and there were wet spots where she’d obviously taken soap to a few stains. Even the boots, buffed up a bit, looked less, well… big.
“Radiant,” he grinned. And he meant it.
She raised her chin. “That’s a fine word, radiant. I’m gonna use it tomorrow.”
“You do that,” he laughed, then gave the hand on his arm a gentle squeeze. “Let’s go before Mother runs out of excuses for keeping Silas in the parlor so close to dinner time.”
They entered the spacious room together. Victoria was seated gracefully beside Silas on the settee, going over what appeared to be a menu for some upcoming event or another. Heath nodded at them both, winking at the sly shine in his mother’s eyes. “Mother, Silas,” he said, then pressed Jemma towards them.
Jemma took a pause to seemingly absorb the man in front of her. Then she broke out into a sweet grin. She gave Silas the same formal curtsey she had offered twice before to Victoria. “Hello, Silas. I be Jemma.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Jemma.” He turned a curious gaze at Heath. “Mister Heath, you want I should get your guest a drink?”
Jemma smiled patiently. “I ain’t no guest. I be your niece.”
There was a sudden stillness in the room, broken only by the steady ticking of the clock. Silas stood, gaping, his voice finally coming in small gasps. “My… you mean my sister… which one… is she…”
“Nah, she dead. Your sister Emma was my Granny. Nobody knows where her sister, your other sister…”
“Fancy,” Silas whispered the cherished name.
“That be her,” Jemma grinned. “Baby Fancy. Like I said, nobody ever knowed what happened to Baby Fancy. She got sold ‘round the time you left.”
“Just before,” Silas sighed an ancient sigh. Heath felt his pain, somehow.
“And I never even met Emma, my Granny. She died of hard work a long time ago. I did talk to her a lot coming up ‘cause she buried at Rosewood, where I left from.”
“I ‘member ‘bout Rosewood,” Silas nodded darkly. “I heared all about it after they sold my Emma there.” He broke his mournful reverie, encouraging her to go on with a wavering smile. His eyes were full of tears, Heath noticed; he also noticed that Silas shifted to position himself with his back to them. No man likes his weakness exposed.
“But anyway, Granny had my momma. She gone too now. She got beat near to death after Missus found out about her and Massa and wasn’t alive for very much longer. She was stooped after, all bent at the back, that’s mostly what I remember of her. She scared me.” The girl spoke of the tragedy mildly; only Victoria flinched.
“Anyway, Granny name her Sally, after you. Though some folk took to calling her Silly ‘cause nobody should get caught and beat for jes’ doing they job. Nobody with living sense nohow. And obviously my momma had me.” She held out her arms to display herself. “So I be your kin. Some time back, word came through to Rosewood that a nigg…” her eyes shifted quickly to Victoria, “negro named Silas was living the high life in California. I knew in my belly you was my Silas. So I walked all the way from Georgia just to meet you. You’se a legend. You’se the one that lived.”
Silas finally moved. He rushed forward into the girl’s welcoming arms, and Victoria wasn’t certain which one was comforting the other. He sobbed, she laughed tears of joy, and the embrace went on and on, until finally Silas found his voice.
“Praise be to Jesus. Praise be!” His voice cracked and, clutching Jemma’s hands the whole while as if afraid she would fly away, he whirled to face Victoria, who had moved to stand beside Heath. “I got me a niece Mrs. Barkley. Look at this pretty gal here, Mister Heath. She be my own!”
“I couldn’t be happier for you” Victoria’s smile was filled with warmth, but she still felt compelled to tear herself from the scene, from the casually spoken horrors that had just filled her parlor. “Oh, Silas, you deserve this and so much more.” Then she took Heath’s hand, leading him from the room. “And to mark this occasion, Heath and I will be cooking dinner for you two while you catch up. We’ll see you in the dining room at 6:00.”
Silas didn’t seem to notice the words, his eyes drinking in the only good remnant of his former life. Hope made flesh, that was this girl, his Jemma.
There was an odd silence in the kitchen as Victoria, an apron covering her gorgeous mauve gown, dressed a tray of hens and Heath sat chopping vegetables per her instructions. Finally the matriarch spoke. “Heath, I think I take Silas for granted.”
His head reared up, his eyes narrowed, but his voice remained steady. “In what way?” He was curious about the sudden flare in his heart… what was it? And then it dawned on him, full blown. He had a grudge against this woman who had only shown him kindness… maybe a grudge against the whole family. A silent one, one only just acknowledged, but it was there, must have always been there, gnawing at him.
For all the talk of Silas being family, he wasn’t. He was a houseman, and a “nigger” houseman at that. It was so subtle as to be… what would Jarrod say… well, you couldn’t rightly prove it in a court of law. But suddenly his heart saw the difference between the way his own mother had treated Hannah and the way Victoria treated Silas.
One was family. By contrast, the other most certainly was not. One would be the center of their parties and prayers, laughter and meals, the other would always linger in the background, fixing and nodding and working. Not slaving; he was paid for his services, boy howdy. But he was certainly not family, no sir. And Heath was angry at himself. How could he—the bastard—have so completely overlooked someone else’s outcast state?
“I mean,” Victoria continued after a pause, as if collecting her own thoughts as well, “It was so long ago. I’ve just… always assumed all that nasty business was behind him.”
“Just like Carterson is behind me?” It was a sharp remark—sharp as the blade he suddenly hacked through the sturdy potato in front of him, sending both ends flying—but he couldn’t help himself. While he controlled his breathing, Victoria’s hands stilled. But she wouldn’t look at him. Then she sighed.
“Oh Heath, I just wish the human spirit were stronger than the human memory. That the former could overcome the latter.”
“Mother, I think Jemma, Silas, maybe even myself… we’re all testaments to exactly that. Spirit is stronger than memory. You can’t erase memory, not by choice. All you can do is survive with it. Surviving… that’s what human spirit means, to me at least. Maybe it means something different to you.”
“Maybe,” she mused darkly. But the conversation was finished. And for the moment Heath was glad.
Dinner was a most interesting affair. Based on the laughing flash in Jarrod’s cobalt eyes, he found Jemma amusing. Nick’s sighs and frequent shifts in his chair suggested that he found her mostly annoying. Heath could almost hear his thoughts: how anyone could talk more than Audra, Nick would never figure; was this a dinner or a sewing circle? Audra listened, leaning forward to absorb every word of the girl’s tales of her “adventures,” even encouraging her to provide overlooked details. Heath observed that Victoria merely looked stiff, even uncomfortable.
Perhaps it was because Audra needn’t hear about a girl her own age trekking, mostly alone, across so many states. And if not alone, with strangers, which in some ways could prove far worse. Heath hoped it was that, and not the two new plates at the table. Which made him realize that Silas had never dined with them in this room, at least not since he’d been here. They would each share occasional meals with Silas in the kitchen, but usually it was because they interrupted his work and he graciously paused to sit with them. When did the man eat? Was it always alone?
Always alone. His thoughts turned to Jemma. She was somehow animated, at ease, and nervous all in one bundle. She enjoyed telling her tales, was strangely comfortable at this fancy table, seemingly more familiar with all the cutlery and whatnot than Heath had been at first—although, Heath surmised, she had no doubt been a house slave herself. And she cast frequent nervous glances at Victoria. All Jemma’s glances at him, however, were warm, wide, graceful. He grinned and shook his head. Jarrod caught him, quirked a questioning eyebrow in his direction. Heath shrugged, but found that he was blushing.
“So let me get this straight,” Nick boomed. Heath perked up at Nick’s sudden interest in the girl. “You traveled, alone, from Georgia to Louisiana…”
“That the worst part,” Jemma nodded sagely. “Lot’s of folks to hide from. Only know what Alabama looks like from underneath a bush.”
“Then up to Iowa?” Nick continued.
“Worked me a riverboat. That was some fun after Alabama.” Jemma wrinkled her nose again at the memory of Alabama, then flashed her dimpled grin, pretended to whisper, “Don’t tell Uncle Silas, but I even learned how to play a bit of poker on that there boat.” Silas and Victoria shared a glance, silently agreeing to pretend that they’d missed that bit.
“Did you now?” Jarrod laughed, then caught himself and turned a quick frown to Audra who had to suddenly swallow a suspicious grin. “When you work for passage on a riverboat, young lady, you too can learn poker. But not until then.”
“Where’d you head next?” Nick was now clearly much more interested in the girl’s chatter.
“Well it was comin’ hard on winter, so I had to find me a hole to hide in or die.” She shrugged, took a dainty bite of her chicken. Heath was glad to see her eat it.
“So?” Nick demanded.
She gave him the sort of patient gaze that one would give to an idiot. Heath choked on his wine. “So,” she said slowly, “I found me a hole. I obviously ain’t dead.”
“What kind of hole? Where’d you winter?”
“In the Dakotas. With some Sioux. They smelled funny. And they sure did talk funny. But they was right nice folk once you got past all that.”
“You lived with the SIOUX for the winter?” Audra demanded, eyes wide.
“Maybe we can continue this story another time, Jemma,” Victoria abruptly declared. Heath mentally relaxed. So her tension was, after all, most probably because of the presence of Audra. He wouldn’t want Audra to know about all of his own hardships either. “For now, I suggest we all adjourn to the parlor for coffee.”
Silas stood, readying himself to clear the table. Jemma followed his lead while Silas addressed Victoria, eyes down, as he worked. “Actually, Mrs. Barkley, if you don’t mind, I’d sure be glad to borrow a buggy. I want to show this here girl off to some of my church friends.” Finally he gave his Mistress a look, “If that’s alright with you, ma’am?”
“Why of course it’s alright. That’s a splendid idea. And leave all this. If Audra and I don’t get to it, it’ll be here when you get back.”
“That’s jes’ fine Mrs. Barkley,” Jemma smiled sweetly. “This’ll take me and Uncle Silas no more than a few minutes. No bother.”
“’Cause she and the bees, they don’t take no charity,” Heath mumbled as he headed towards the parlor.
“What’d you say, boy?” Nick slapped him soundly on the back.
“And what do you have to say for yourself, missing almost a whole afternoon’s work just to bring that skinny gal here? Why, what’s another day after a few years of walking?” But Nick’s wink was sad, full of compassion.
“I knew you’d be all heart, brother. So I just planned on going out at midnight, maybe digging a new well or something to make up for the lost time.”
“You just see that you do that.” The family retired to their usual evening in the parlor, each to his own thoughts. And most of those thoughts centered on Jemma.
Heath perched on the fence, watching with a wry smile as Nick lined up bottles. “Thought you were so all fired for me to make up yesterday’s work, Nick?”
“Yeah, but I got to itching for a little target practice. Thought maybe reminding you how quick and steady on the draw I was would put the fear a’ ole Nick Barkley back in its rightful place.”
“Mmmm,” Heath nodded, amused.
“Besides, we’ve already done at least a full day’s haul and it’s barely lunch time. You do work right well next to me, Little Brother. Can’t let you out of my sight for even a minute, though, it seems, else you’ll be dropping everything to drag in more strays than Audra does.”
“Mmmm,” Heath agreed, fishing around for a piece of hay to chew on.
Nick squinted, took careful aim and fired, exploding the first bottle in pretty spray of green glass. “Are you feeling it yet, Heath?”
“Mmmm,” Heath conceded, pushing his hat back and settling in, elbows on knees. He took a quick jerk of his neck to the right, satisfied with the gratifying sound of joints popping. Out of the corner of his eye he saw her creeping up. He grinned as Nick took two quick shots, shattering two more glinting bottles.
“The fear a’ Nick Barkley! Don’t let it consume you, Boy.”
Jemma bent over, and was fishing around in the sparse grass. Heath was curious, enticed. What did the girl have up her sleeve… perhaps literally.
Nick fired three more times, but missed the middle bottle. It stood alone across the pasture.
“That’s one sad looking bottle, Nick,” Heath drawled, “missing all it’s friends… ‘cause you missed it.”
Nick was about to offer a scowling retort when Jemma voiced her own opinion, startling him with her presence. He whirled to face her.
“That show was not only pitiful, Mister Nick, it was plum noisy!”
“Do tell,” Heath queried dryly as Nick raised amused eyebrows in her direction.
“Why, if you was huntin' and you missed like that—shot that wide and that loud—well I don’t ‘spect you’d get no second try.” Her words were taunting but her eyes were full of that merry spark Heath found himself coming to adore. “Why, unless you made that poor critter deaf and confused from all the blastin’ and he ran right up to you for help, you’d be hungry that day for sure.”
“Hungry for sure,” Heath nodded sagely.
Nick finally leaned back, folding strong arms across his chest, but his mouth was twitching to hide a smile. “And I imagine you could do better, little gal?”
“Oh no, not with no fancy gun. No, Sir.”
“So what, you gonna creep up on that bottle and strangle it with your bare hands?” Nick barked.
“Don’t even need to do that. What a waste of good restin’ time.” She rolled her eyes at Heath over the ignorance of some folk. Then she extended a fist, turned it over and spread her narrow fingers. In the smooth honeyed palm was a round black rock. Heath swallowed a laugh.
“How much that gun and those bullets set you back, Mister Nick? ‘Cause see this rock? The good earth just give it to me for free.”
Nick knew he’d been had, made an expansive gesture allowing her to take his position. She studied the bottle for a long moment, still as a deer on the scent, then with stunning speed and force she let hurl the rock. The bright green bottle burst to join it’s dead companions.
“That was mighty fine shooting, Little Red Silas.” Heath grinned down at the girl, who simply bowed at Nick.
Nick, feigning disgust, had excused himself for lunch. Heath dallied, wanting to spend a few moments with Jemma. She and Silas had overnighted, returning in the morning after Heath had already headed out to get a start on the day, but in plenty of time for them to prepare the family’s breakfast.
The pair now sat, side by side, back to the barn, as she worked on her own lunch, a paper wrapped chicken and potato sandwich pulled from her borrowed apron’s wide pocket. She had offered him half but he’d steadfastly refused. “I’ll head in and eat in a bit. How did the visits go last night?”
“Friendly folk,” she mused. “And they speak well of you.”
“Oh, I’m a common topic of conversation among Silas’ circle, am I?”
“You do come up. They talk nice about all your family, asking about them and such, but they usually ask about you first.”
He was suddenly embarrassed, felt he needed to offer an explanation. “Well, I have met a right many of those folk. Helped build a wing on their church not too far back.”
“And brought ‘em food when they was hungry, and took care of they sick animals. Why, you even slipped a dime under one little girl’s pillow so’s she’d believe in the tooth fairy.”
Her affectionate teasing eased his discomfort. “You got me,” he groaned, hanging his head in mock shame.
“The tooth fairy,” she clucked disapprovingly. “Who ever heard of such foolishness?”
“Not me, when I was a kid, that’s for sure,” Heath agreed bemusedly.
“Well, that little misled child tole me a secret, but I ‘spect I best share it with you. Since it’s about your future and all.”
“She plans to marry you, Mister Heath Barkley. Now I knew you ran with gangs in Mexico, but foolin’ little girls and then stealing they hearts? Ain’t that a bit much? They’s gonna hang you for sure. ‘Specially once I get done testifying against you.”
“Oh? About what crime?”
“Stealing little girl’s hearts, I ‘spect.” There was a beat, and she gave him a long, full, black gaze. He blinked, smoothed his hands down his pant legs, and suddenly found himself hoping she meant what he thought she did. Then she pulled a Jemma, turning the subject around a quick corner.
“Your horse in the barn?” He nodded and she fished a small green apple from her pocket. “Silas said I had to eat my whole sandwich, but he didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout this here apple.”
“Thought you had a mighty sweet tooth?” he grinned.
“Yeah, for sweets,” she declared haughtily, standing. “This apple be so sour it make my jaw set to waterin’.”
“So you’re gonna torture my horse with it?”
“Least I can do for him after the bruises he put on my backside yesterday.” She shrugged and headed lightly towards the barn.
Heath groaned, lowered his head to his chest, gathered his wits… and tried to put images of her backside from his mind. Why did he feel he was on Gal and racing a train again? Only this time he was supposedly older and wiser, and less eager to take risks. And it was a much faster train.
Jemma crooned to Charger, stroking his feather nose, and relishing the woody sound of his chewing. Nothing like the sound of horses chewing, she mused, unless it was the quiet sound of the first snow when you were safe indoors. Why, it was like the whisper of eyelashes. Then she made her way along the rest of the stalls, visiting with the few mounts there, watching for any wildness with a careful eye.
So busy was she with the horses that she didn’t notice the silent eyes of Wynn Tapps, who watched her from the tack room. He’d had many a gal like that, back before the war. Taken them as he chose. And this here gal was just waiting for a man like him. He’d missed the darkies, indeed. They were so compliant. And if they treated you right, you could even get to liking ‘em. He watched her movements with narrow-eyed interest, holding himself as still as a hungry cougar in a crouch.
As Jemma neared the last stall, she heard a tiny mewling, and then another. A chorus really. She giggled when she found the source. A passel of kittens waiting for their momma to come back. One of them was blond, like Heath. She picked the baby up, stroked it under her chin. Silas had mentioned, in his endless chattering about “his” family, the Barkleys, that Miss Audra was “always comin’ home with strays.” This here must be a result, Jemma mused. “Maybe Audra would let me keep you,” she whispered to the bundle. “And you gonna be such a fierce little kitty, I can tell. Why, I could name you Heath Silas.”
The kitten was purring now, nestled warm against her, Jemma’s stomach was full to bursting from the sandwich, and the hay in the loft smelled fresh. She climbed up, looking for a short rest, since she wasn’t needed right back and didn’t even have a proper bed yet.
Wynn Tapps took his sweet time reaching the loft himself, making sure all the while that no other hands were nearby.
Heath joined the family for lunch, excusing himself for his tardiness.
“Yeah, he and that gal had to hang back so they could plot more mischief to pull on me,” Nick grumbled as he passed Heath a platter of salted, corned beef and tangy cabbage. A heaping bowl of potatoes followed.
“Sure did,” Heath nodded as he piled his plate. You know how hard it is to sneak just the right bullet out of a man’s gun—while he’s firing it no less—so that he misses the only bottle rigged with tiny explosives?”
“So I see Jemma is working her magic on you too, Brother Nick?” Jarrod queried. Heath stopped in mid-chew and quirked an eyebrow at Jarrod, but was only met with an amused grin.
“Magic! Hah! She’s a little scoundrel is what she is,” Nick declared, but his own eyes crinkled playfully as well.
Victoria cleared her throat. “Audra isn’t here, but I think we should hold an impromptu family meeting regarding our… little scoundrel.” Her three sons looked at her, each with a differing degree of curiosity. “What are we intending to do with Jemma?”
“Do with Jemma?” Heath bristled. It sounded as if they were suddenly discussing a terrible family secret.
“Well, hire her, obviously,” Nick shrugged. “She deserves to be with Silas after all of this time.”
“And I’m certain Silas would benefit from the assistance,” Jarrod offered. “He is getting older and we certainly manage to make him work for his pay.”
“Heath?” Victoria asked for his opinion on the matter, locked him with steel gray eyes.
“I suppose she wouldn’t be opposed to working alongside Silas. I could suggest it to her, see what she thinks.”
“There, situation settled,” Nick barked, readying himself to stand. “We got more work to do Heath. You ain’t getting out of it so easy this time.”
“But you’re the one who made us stop early so you could look like a blamed fool while…”
Their banter was interrupted by Victoria’s quiet demand. “We are not yet finished, Nick.” She waited until he settled himself back in his chair, choosing to overlook his dramatic sigh. “So if the girl decides to stay, and there’s no doubt that she will after having traveled all this way to find Silas, where exactly do we house her? There is only one servant’s quarter downstairs, and that has been Silas’ home for as long as this has been our home. And I certainly wouldn’t expect them to share it.”
“Of course not,” Nick frowned. Heath felt his heart constricting as the conversation plummeted forward.
“And I’m certain you all agree that she cannot bunk with the men, no more than Silas could.” At least that was delivered humorously, Heath mused darkly.
“What are you getting at, Mother?” Jarrod asked.
“I’m simply presenting a problem of logistics. Although this is a spacious house we only have the appropriate room for one servant.”
“Well, since Silas is a member of the family,” Heath knew those words sounded bitter in his mouth but he proceeded, “why not move him to a larger room upstairs? Jemma could have his old quarters.”
“I don’t think that will do.” Victoria’s voice was flat but firm. All of her sons were again staring at her, Jarrod openly curious, Nick frustrated. Heath’s clenched jaw indicated his slowly rising ire.
“Well, hell,” Nick growled. He amended himself after his mother’s scolding glace. “Heck. We put the girl in the cabin off the back pasture. It’s a bit of a walk, but it might give the wild thing a sense of freedom. She can throw rocks at all the squirrels and cows and bottles she sees on the way to the house.”
“That might just prove acceptable,” Victoria nodded after a contemplative pause. “She would probably welcome the chance to have her very own lodgings. I’ll have Silas take her there this evening, after dinner, to see the place. She can stay in the guest room until it's readied for her.”
Heath wasn’t sure what had exactly just happened, knew only that he didn’t like the feeling in the room, the secrets behind some of the words. He needed time to chew on it. “If you will all excuse me,” Heath knew his chair was pushed back with too much force, but it was too late to fix that. “Nick, I’ll meet you in the orchards in a bit. I believe I need me some air.”
Jemma awoke to a strong hand pressed over her mouth, almost over her nose… and to sickening groping beneath her dress. Her first instinct was to bite, and to bite hard, her next to work her knees up with all the strength she could, and her last to grab around for anything that could be used as a weapon. She came up with a handful of hay, found that amusing in some strange part of her brain. Then she registered her foe’s guttural moan.
“You bitch,” the man hissed, grabbing his crotch where he’d caught a powerful knee. She scrambled backwards, blindly trying to reach for the top of the ladder, but ended up tucked under the slope of the far wall. “You cursed bitch,” he growled again, still rocking, clutching both his stomach and his crotch now. Thankfully, Jemma saw the man was still clothed down there.
“Jemma?” She heard Heath’s voice. And then it came again, more frantic. “Jemma?” Heath was really here!
“Please,” she moaned, her voice guttural and animalistic in her own ears, and Heath was scrambling the ladder in the time it took her to blink. He looked her over in a flash, saw her disheveled dress, now torn at the skirt, the blood that smeared the bottom of her face, her coal eyes wide and feral.
“Did he?” Heath demanded.
“No, I don’t think… no. I fought him.” But she had one arm strapped across her breasts as though they ached. The other lay limply in her lap.
Only after he saw that Jemma was indeed alright did he whirl on the man. His voice was a cold razor. “Tapps, you son of a bitch, pack your bags and get off this land. I’ll send your pay to town. If I look up again and see you I’ll kill you.” Heath’s fist were balled so tightly that his fingernails bit half moons into his palms, but he didn’t hit the man because he knew that, if he started, he might not be able to stop.
He knelt down beside Jemma, pulled out a handkerchief, lifted her chin to find the source of the bleeding.
“I tried to bite him,” she whispered. “Caught my own lip instead I ‘spect.”
“What’s a matter Barkley?” Wynn coughed. “You don’t want to share with the rest of us? She’s just a nigger. It ain’t like she’s Miss Audra or…”
That was when Wynn Tapps, fourth son of the once wealthy Louisiana Tapps, found himself pulled to his feet and thrown bodily out of the hayloft. He landed with a sickening thump.
The action broke Jemma’s fear. “Heath! Did you kill him? Oh no, Heath!” She slid to the edge of the loft, peered over. There was a long and, for her, terrifying beat, and then Wynn crawled to his feet, staggered once, straightened his clothes and, without a backwards glance, hobbled out of the barn.
Heath was still standing where he’d been when he’d thrown the man. His fists were now unclenched but his neck was corded and his nostrils flared. To say he was surprised when she leapt up and suddenly shoved him hard enough to land him in the hay would be an understatement.
“Heath Barkley! Don’t you ever do nothin’ like that again. Don’t you EVER be takin’ on that kind of trouble on my account!” Her eyes were flashing black fire, but she was worrying her bloodied lip.
Heath reached up, took her hand, sought to pull her down beside him. She allowed it. He spoke softly, calming both of them with his practiced tone. “Whoa, little girl, whoa now.” As he crooned he checked her over again, feeling with the gentlest hands for any unseen injuries. She allowed him to, flinching only now and again when his light fingers danced past a bruise she hadn’t yet discovered herself.
Then he grabbed both of her shoulders tightly, shot her a piercing blue gaze. “Are you SURE?”
“Nah, he didn’t. I woke up and he was on me, but I got him a good one. Don’t ‘spect he be trying nothin’ with a gal for some time to come.”
“Well know this. What I just did for you I’d do for any lady.”
She laughed, but it was a mournful sound. “Don’t you get it, Cowboy? I ain’t no lady.”
He pulled her head to his chest, calmed her further with a steady stroking hand through her hair, unconsciously removing bits of hay as he found them. Finally he spoke, his voice a sweet drawl. “No, Jemma, you ain’t no pure white lady. But what you are is gold inside and we can rise you above this, you and me.
“A whole war couldn’t even do that, Heath.”
“I know,” he sighed. “I was in that war…”
That was what finally made her tremble and let go a single sob. “You was only a baby,” she whispered mournfully.
“That’s the hard thing about this world. Babies suffer. And grownups, and pretty girls who need someone to protect them from broken men like that. Let me do that for you, maybe even just this once, deal?
Finally she nodded, let him help her up. “I don’t want your mother seein’ me like this.”
”No, I’ll take you through the back, straight to Silas. It’s ok if Silas sees you, right?”
She considered that a moment, then nodded. “’Spect he best get used to it.”
“Not when I’m around,” Heath promised solemnly. They headed to the house, once more hand in hand.