Vengeance is Mine. . .
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended by the author. The ideas expressed in this story are copyrighted to the author.
Leaning forward so that his wife could light his evening cigar, Royce Wardell smiled with satisfaction. “One month, my darling Victoria. One perfect month.”
She pulled the hassock close to the chair and sat down, resting her arms on his knees. “You’re very gallant—keeping up with the time like that.”
“I’m a lucky man.”
“We’re both blessed.”
He nodded. “I had a letter from my brother Paul today. He invites us to visit.”
“You’ve met my family. Perhaps it’s time I met yours.”
“I haven’t been to Tennessee in over a year, but I’d like to go now—to go and show off my beautiful bride.”
“At my age, I’m scarcely a bride.”
“Of course, you are! Paul says that the family is anxious to see the woman who stole my bachelorhood.”
“Is that what I did?”
“Well, perhaps I relinquished it to you.”
They laughed together.
“When are you considering the trip?”
“Could you be ready to go next week?”
“Whenever you like, Royce.”
“The weather’s good—we can ride if you like, and you’ll see where I came from.”
“I’ll enjoy that very much.”
“Good. Then I’ll get the rail tickets and telegraph Paul to expect us. We’ll stay with him. He and Ona have more room than Ellis and Eliza—their daughter is living there temporarily while her husband is in England on business. She has five children under the age of eight and needed help with them.”
Victoria shook her head. “I remember those days.”
“Paul’s sons are married, too, and live on the farm, but they built homes of their own.”
“What about your other brother, Royce—the one killed at Gettysburg?”
“Andrew was the youngest. My mother never got over his loss.”
“Is he buried there?”
“Oh, yes—there was no money to bring him home. My parents are buried on the farm, of course. A small family cemetery—much like the one on Barkley land.” He put aside his cigar and took her hands. “I wish my mother could have known you, Victoria. She would have loved you very much.”
“Did she know Catherine?”
“She met her only once—we were always posted at such remote garrisons.” He hesitated, then shook his head as if to clear it.
“Your thought is unfinished.”
He twisted his mouth a little. “I was just going to say that our baby daughter—Catherine’s and mine—was named for her—Rose Ellen.”
“We had decided on the name quite early—though a boy would have been named for me, of course.”
He kissed her hands. “Are you quite sure you want to take a sentimental journey with a foolish old man?”
“Not with a foolish old man—with my husband. My dashingly handsome, magnificently charming husband.”
“Ah, Victoria, we’re blooming with youthfulness, I believe!”
“I’ve heard that love keeps one young.”
“Or makes one young again?”
He opened her palm and brushed it with his lips. “I do love you, my darling Victoria.”
* * * * * * * *
Victoria charmed and was charmed by her husband’s large extended family. “It seems as if I’ve always known them,” she remarked one afternoon a few days before they left for New Orleans again.
“Well, they are unfamiliar with the Barkley name. The Barkleys of Stockton.”
“Would that make a difference?”
“Not necessarily, but it’s a name fraught with some celebrity in California.”
Victoria sighed. “I suppose I realize that.”
“That’s not a bad thing.”
“Tom intended to build an empire and rise above all those he felt had slighted him in his youth. He came from an impoverished family in Georgia.”
“He wasn’t alone—many from such backgrounds went west to seek their fortune.”
“Sometimes I felt his pursuit of wealth and power took precedence over his family.”
Royce frowned. “I’ve never heard you speak like that before.”
“Perhaps for the first time I can be honest about some of my long-buried feelings. They don’t shadow my good memories.”
“I should hope not.”
“But I think, Royce, that you’ve brought out a part of me that I’d kept hidden for a long time—that I’d tried to deny.”
“And that is?”
“A softer side. A side that needs tenderness and complete devotion—selfish as that may sound.”
“Not at all, my love. I need it myself.”
“I hope you feel that you have it.”
He lifted her hands to his lips. “Every moment of every day.”
* * * * * * * *
Most days after breakfast they rode over the countryside. Royce said it was like coming home for the first time. “I have good memories of my childhood despite the poverty. My parents were good people. There was a great deal of love in our family.”
“But you’ve been back before.”
“Only to visit—not to reconnect—and there’s a difference.”
“Yes, I see.”
“And I have you to share all this with now. That makes a difference, too.”
They reined in their horses at the top of a small rise behind the house that Royce had built for his mother and which the family kept maintained in her memory.
“Mamma had a hard life, but she never complained. She taught us not to complain.”
“How did she feel about your selection for West Point?”
He smiled ruefully. “Well, Mamma wasn’t very well-educated, and she wasn’t quite sure what West Point was. To her, it just meant that I’d be leaving home—probably for good. Pappa wanted me to be a preacher like he was, you see.”
“But you never felt called to do that.”
“Not really. If Andrew hadn’t died in the war, I think he’d have followed in our father’s footsteps.”
“It’s too bad he never had the chance.”
“Yes—too many young men never had a chance to live out their lives the way God intended.” He looked thoughtful for a moment, then glanced at her. “You look quite at home on horseback, Victoria.”
“I must admit that I feel quite at home. I always rode astride after we came West.”
“Much safer and more sensible—and it doesn’t detract from your feminine qualities.”
“You’re full of compliments this morning.” She edged her mount closer to his. “Repaying me for last night, perhaps?”
He grinned broadly. “I’m afraid that debt is impossible to repay.” He leaned over and kissed her. “You’re a very satisfying bedfellow, you know.”
He kissed her again. “Shall we ride a little more?”
* * * * * * * *
On the last morning but one, they walked down to the cemetery where his parents were buried and stood in silence for a moment. Then, after Victoria laid a small handful of flowers on each grave, they started back for the farmhouse. “Where is Catherine buried?” she asked almost as an afterthought.
“I don’t know,” he said tersely.
She stopped abruptly. “You. . .”
He patted her hand on his arm. “I don’t know, my love. Just leave it at that.”
* * * * * * * *
Ona sat with her sister-in-law as she completed the packing the next morning. “It’s been a real pleasure, Victoria.”
“For me, too, Ona.”
“I—well, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but Paul has commented on it several times. You’ve made a big difference in Royce’s life.”
“As he has in mine.”
“He’s a good man—but until now, there’s always been something—oh, I don’t know—sad—almost defeated—do you know what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“He needed you.”
“We needed each other, Ona. I love him very much.”
“That’s plain to see.”
“You know what happened to Catherine, of course.”
“Yes.” Ona looked away uncomfortably.
“Tom Barkley died violently also. We have that in common.”
“I didn’t know.”
“He was shot by the railroad men almost six years ago.”
“Yes, well, I did my grieving—and then, when I met Royce, I knew it was time to get on with my life.”
“Your family approved then?”
“All except my second son, Nick. I don’t think he’s dealt adequately with his father’s death yet—but I pray that he will. The others like and respect Royce a great deal.” She smiled automatically as she heard Royce calling her name. “In here, darling.”
Royce put his head past the door. “Paul has the wagon ready.”
“I’m just finished packing. Ona was keeping me company for a last chat.”
He came in and lifted the valise from the bed. “We should be going. Ona, thank you for your hospitality,” he said, brushing her cheek with an affectionate kiss.
“You’re welcome, Royce. I hope you’ll come again.”
* * * * * * * *
The visit had been pleasant, but on their first night at home, Victoria woke in the night and found the bed empty. “Royce?” she called.
He materialized from the balcony, the tip of a cigar glowing red in the darkness. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “No, don’t get up,” he added hurriedly as he heard her moving around. “I’m all right.”
When he lay down again, she pillowed her head against his shoulder. “Thinking of all the work you’ll have to catch up on at the office tomorrow?”
“That’s it,” he said quickly—too quickly, she thought. “”Although I’m sure Rand Vandemeer has seen well to the business.”
“Still, you’re in charge.”
“Yes.” He stroked her hair. “I’m in charge. Go to sleep, Victoria. I’m sorry I woke you.”
* * * * * * * *
It happened again at the end of the week—and a third time a few nights later. Victoria thought her husband seemed tired in the mornings and slightly removed from her. Oh, he was attentive and affectionate, but there seemed to be an invisible veil between them that was as impenetrable as a wall. Even their lovemaking took on an impersonal aura—the gentleness was there, but the passion wasn’t.
She didn’t speak of her feelings, however. Whatever was troubling Royce would resolve itself sooner or later. And something was definitely troubling him. Was it going home to Tennessee? By his own admission it had been a true homecoming—and she had felt welcomed by his family. But when she analyzed the time, day by day, she came to the conclusion that the visit to his parents’ graves had begun the restlessness. No—on second thought, perhaps it was her mention of Catherine—her query as to her grave. Royce’s reply that he didn’t know had shocked her, and he’d told her to leave it. Perhaps that had been a mistake. Perhaps, with some encouragement on her part, he’d have talked about it—gotten rid of his feelings which, she suspected, had been bottled up far too long.
Several times she was on the verge of revisiting the subject, but something held her back. Then it happened.
They’d been to dinner with the Vandemeers that night, and Royce had seemed more like himself. He’d made love to her when they came home, and they’d fallen asleep wrapped in each other’s arms. Now he was thrashing about—and then the screaming began.
She sat up. “Royce! Royce! Wake up, darling! It’s only a dream!” Her hands smoothed his face and neck comfortingly, and the screams subsided into moans that tore at her heart. “Royce, darling, wake up! I’m here! It’s all right!”
Without warning he bolted upright and grabbed her roughly.
Her voice brought him out of his dreams just as his hands closed around her throat. “Oh, my god! Oh, my god, Victoria, I’m sorry! Oh, my god!”
She pulled is head down and cradled it against her breast. “Shhhh, shhhh, darling. It’s all right. It’s all right.”
“I didn’t mean it,” he whimpered almost like a child. “Please—I didn’t mean it!”
“I know. You were far away—where, Royce? Where were you?”
“In a dark place I thought I’d left forever,” he murmured.
“The war? Afterwards?”
He shook his head and clung to her. “Forgive me, Victoria.”
She rocked him in her arms. “I love you, Royce. We’re here together. Everything is all right.”
He didn’t speak again, and afterwards, though he slept, she lay awake. Despite the uncharacteristic display of near-violence, she hadn’t felt afraid of him—but she was afraid for him. They’d shared such perfect happiness for almost three months, and she loved him with all her heart. But she realized now that she didn’t know him—not all of him—and that ignorance could destroy them.
Since the next morning was Saturday, Victoria didn’t wake her husband when he slept past his usual time for rising. But she kept watch on him, and when he stirred, she hurried away to give him some privacy. She was arranging flowers in a bowl on the foyer table when she heard him on the stairs.
“Good morning,” she said pleasantly.
“Good morning. Why didn’t you wake me?”
“I thought you needed the rest.”
“Victoria, I. . .”
She turned, holding up her hand to silence him. “Whatever’s troubling you will remain your affair until and unless you choose to share it. Would you like some breakfast?”
He nodded. “Thank you.”
As she prepared a tray, she considered how haggard he looked. She’d seen Tom Barkley worried—impatient—angry—but never like this. If Tom’s soul had ever been in turmoil, he’d hidden it well. He’d known what he wanted and set out to get it, and she’d met his demands without flinching or complaining. She’d known what he expected and what to expect from him.
But Royce Wardell was not Tom Barkley. She’d known him scarcely six months and been his wife for only three. He demanded nothing of her except to be allowed to love her. Despite his economic success, he had no agenda for increasing his wealth or becoming anyone except who he was. Now she realized that it was who he was that was troubling him—and she felt helpless to assuage his anguish.
She brought the tray to the parlor where he’d drawn up a small table beside his armchair. “I brought a little for myself, too,” she commented casually. “After such a large dinner last night, I wasn’t really hungry again until now.”
He filled their cups from the silver coffeepot. “It was a feast, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was.”
They ate in silence, and finally Royce laid his head back against the chair and closed his eyes. “Thank you, Victoria.”
“You’re very welcome.”
“I am sorry about last night.”
“You’ve no need to be.”
His eyebrows went up slightly. “Well.”
She replaced the table with the hassock and sat beside him. “Heath still has nightmares about Carterson occasionally.”
“And well he should.”
“We ask the impossible of our men—to fight and die and take the hell of war in stride—and to forget when it’s over.”
“Fighting and dying isn’t impossible—it’s the rest of it.”
He moved his hand to her hair and stroked it gently. “It’s not the war that haunts me, Victoria. I commanded troops—fought with them, saw them die, watched them buried—or rode away of necessity and left them to rot. I did what I had to do and prayed for forgiveness—and felt I received it.”
“God and glory are rather at odds, aren’t they?”
“It’s not the war. It’s afterwards. It’s what I did afterwards that I can’t forget—or even begin to feel I deserve forgiveness for.”
“The men you tracked down.”
“I would have killed them in cold blood, Victoria. Shot them down like dogs and laughed at their death throes.”
“Perhaps I’d have killed the men who murdered Tom if I’d had the opportunity.”
“It was only God’s mercy that they were out of my reach when I finally found them.”
“Being hung wouldn’t have vindicated Catherine. The man she loved wasn’t a murderer.”
He touched her face. “Why is it you always understand?”
“Perhaps because I want to understand.”
He sighed deeply. “I never knew that Catherine had been—killed—until much later. One night I was checking our picket lines—I had a habit of doing that even though it wasn’t a colonel’s job—I ran into another old classmate from West Point. He was scouting—which wasn’t his job, but we’d both learned from the same book, you see.
“Anyway, he had a bottle, and we found a rock overhang and tucked in. In the dark, the difference in our uniforms wasn’t apparent, and he knew why I’d enlisted in the Confederate army—and understood. By then we both knew the South was dying, so we put the war aside for a few hours and talked about better times.
“He told me about some of the people we’d known at the Point—and mentioned in passing that John Lyles had been bushwhacked by deserters—beaten, robbed, and hung. Then he said that he’d heard John was more or less out on his own—meeting a woman—and that the woman had been killed, too. That’s how I found out.”
Victoria caught his hand and laid her face against it. “Oh, Royce,” she murmured.
“I couldn’t believe it—couldn’t accept it—so I prayed he was wrong and went on. Lee surrendered a few weeks later. I threw away my uniform and used my old officer’s credentials to get to New York. When I reached Catherine’s brother’s house, he wouldn’t even let me in. I—I was in shock, but I remember asking for her things—our things, and he refused to give them to me. But the next morning there had been a box left for me at the desk. It was her wedding ring and the picture we’d had made before we went to our first post. He’d written in a note that he wanted me to have them and remember that they were—that I was—why she was dead.”
Victoria fought back tears, but he saw them and brushed them away gently.
“I went to Washington then and managed to find out a few things about John’s death. His parents lived near there, so I went to see them, and they filled in the rest. They knew about Catherine—he’d written to them that he was going to help her—it was so like him, you see—to be loyal to an old friend—to want to help where he could.
“They didn’t blame me. It was the war, they said, Mr. Lincoln’s war. They called it an abomination—said that it hadn’t solved anything—just taken the best and the brightest of an entire generation—and they were right. Before I left, I swore to them that I’d get the men responsible. They let me know that they felt vengeance was wrong—and said they’d pray for me.
“It took me five years, Victoria—and it’s those five years I can’t forget and for which I can’t forgive myself.”
“I’m not sure I follow your reasoning.”
“I drank—I fought—I gambled—that’s how I financed my single-minded pursuit. I was conscienceless—without any scruples about whom I hurt. I became estranged from my family. My brothers begged me to come home and rebuild the farm with them, but I refused. I never went to bed at night without picturing in my mind exactly how I’d take the lives of the men who’d taken mine. I reasoned that I was dead anyway, you see.”
Victoria nodded, steeling herself against the weary bitterness of his words.
“I found two of them in Virginia—or rather their unmarked graves in a prison cemetery. They’d been hung for other crimes—the court records never mentioned John or Catherine. After that—after that, I was lost. Rage and hatred consumed me completely.”
“And you found the others, too. . .”
“One by one—serving prison terms in three states—safe—where I couldn’t get to them. Oh, I tried. I even signed on as a prison guard in one of the places, and I carried a knife that I intended to use—but there was no opportunity. Once I thought the time had come, but. . .” He caught his breath. “That night I got very drunk and broke up a saloon. In the morning I found myself beside the river covered in my own waste. . .”
Victoria gripped his hand tightly.
“Covered in my own waste—and I realized that I’d become as inhuman—as much of an animal—as the men I wanted to kill. I managed to crawl to my horse and mount, and then I threw my gun into the river. I’ve never touched one since.”
Victoria gazed up at him with brimming eyes, unable to speak.
“I made peace with my family—heard of an opportunity in New Orleans and came here and tried to rebuild my life. I won’t say that I was content to be alone, but I never dared think it might be different—until I met you.”
Taking her damp face in his hands, he looked unflinchingly into his eyes. “Tell me, Victoria, if you’d known the truth—known everything about me—what would you have done?”
Covering his hands with hers, she met his gaze straightforwardly. “I’d have loved you even more, Royce,” she said softly.
I have a rather urgent request to make of you. Since you had Royce investigated—yes, we both know and understand—you will know how to get this next bit of information: where his first wife Catherine is buried. Let me explain.
Her family blamed him for her death. When he went to New York after the war, they refused to receive him or to return their mutual possessions except for her wedding ring and photograph—which they said they hoped would remind him of his responsibility for her violent end.
Victoria paused and looked up. She would not tell Jarrod what Royce had shared with her about the five years following the war. She would never violate his confidence, even if she felt Jarrod would understand—which he might—but it wasn’t anything he needed to know.
He never knew where she was buried—therefore, though he has done his grieving for her, he has never said a final goodbye. It is something he needs to do.
On the last afternoon before I came to New Orleans, I stood beside your father’s grave and told him that I was in love with Royce and was going to be with him. I thanked him for the years we had together—for my four wonderful children—and for Heath, my unexpected blessing. Then I said goodbye. As I walked back to the house, I realized that my whole being was lighter—for though I’d done with my grieving, I, too, had never said goodbye.
Loving Royce as I do, I want that catharsis, that freedom for him, too. He’s such a good man, Jarrod—so kind and gentle, unfailingly thoughtful of me, always generous with his attention and affection. Our life together is one of joy and contentment.
Yet this one thing remains undone— to say goodbye to Catherine, to feel (as I did when I stood beside your father’s grave) that she sleeps more peacefully because the man she loved has a second chance at happiness.
So I am asking you to use your contacts in New York to locate her resting place. If I can give this gift of closure to Royce, my happiness will be truly complete.
On the one hand, she wondered if she’d stepped outside the bounds of marital loyalty—but on the other, she felt strongly that only at Catherine’s grave could Royce find self-forgiveness and an end to the gnawing guilt.
Since he’d spoken to her of his feelings—and realized that she accepted them without reservation—he’d been more like his old self. They’d drawn even closer, and their passion for each other was as intense as ever. Still, from her own experience, she knew what he had to do—and he would, if given the opportunity, accept that, too.
There was a chill in the air every morning by the time Jarrod’s letter reached her. It was brief and to the point—and filled with his own mark of infinite love and understanding.
My contact in New York has written to me with the information that the Wrights have a summer home in ________, a small town in upstate New York, and that there is a family cemetery on the estate. He spoke with the groundskeeper, who lives there year-round, and learned that there is indeed a Catherine buried there. I am enclosing the hand-drawn map he sent me and wishing your both Godspeed.
You have earned every moment of your newfound joy, Mother. You were a good wife to Father—not to mention your devotion to your children. We look forward to seeing you and Royce whenever you are able to make the trip to California—perhaps at Christmas?
Much love to you both,
As she waited for Royce to come home that evening, Victoria chided herself for the nervousness that refused to let her concentrate either on reading or her latest needlework endeavor. She’d given Isabel the night off and finished dinner herself. It was Royce’s favorite—chicken smothered in rich cream sauce with sautéed mushrooms and wild rice on the side.
For the dozenth time she laid aside her book and went to the window. Would Royce feel she had betrayed his confidence by writing to Jarrod? Would he consider her suggestion that he visit Catherine’s grave? And, if he did, would he find the peace she craved for him? The sight of him striding up the walk shook her from her jittery reverie and sent her to the foyer.
“Good evening, my love,” he said, bending to meet her lips before shedding his coat and hat. “I’m sorry I’m late—a matter of business that couldn’t wait until morning came up at the last minute.” He took her in his arms. “And I do look forward to getting home to you, you know.”
“Do you?” she parried. “Or could it be the chicken with cream sauce and wild rice I promised you tonight?”
He laughed and caught her in his arms again. “Any meal is delightful as long as it’s shared with you—and followed by dessert.” He let his hands wander a bit.
“You’re incorrigible,” she said. “Go freshen up, and I’ll serve dinner.”
He was talkative during dinner—the day had been a good one, and he’d signed a new contract to ship for a prosperous firm in Mobile. Rand Vandemeer had engineered the whole thing. “He’s got a good head for business,” Royce finished with satisfaction, “and he’s honest—that’s an unbeatable combination.”
They took their coffee upstairs to their sitting room where Royce had lit a fire before he came down for dinner. Victoria gathered her courage as they sat together on the small settee near the hearth. “I had a letter from Jarrod today.”
“He suggested that we might spend Christmas in California.”
“I was thinking of that today. I see no reason why we can’t get away.”
“That would be nice.”
She decided to ease into the rest of the letter. “Royce, do you remember the night you asked me to marry you? You asked me first if I’d done with my grieving, and I said I had. But it wasn’t until the day before I came to New Orleans that I actually said goodbye, you see. I visited Tom’s grave—and then I came back to the house and took off my wedding ring and put it away for Audra.” She took a deep breath. “You said you’d done your grieving, too, but—but I know now that you never said goodbye.”
He set his cup down carefully before he replied. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at, Victoria.”
“Just this—after you were so honest with me—when you told me—oh, Royce, I felt so sad that you’d been cheated of your memories—of your right to say goodbye to Catherine! Please don’t be angry with me, but I wrote to Jarrod and asked him to have a detective he knows in New York locate her grave—and he did.”
The room fell silent except for the crackling of the fire. Victoria watched Royce’s face pale. He swallowed twice with obvious difficulty and turned away slightly. She ached to touch him, to comfort him, but instead she sat very still and waited.
Finally, without looking at her, he said, “Why? Why did you feel it necessary, Victoria? Have I been less a husband to you because of what I shared?”
“No! Oh, no, Royce, no! Please try to understand—I love you so much that I can’t bear your pain—it’s mine, too, don’t you see?”
He reached for her hand. “Yes. Yes, that’s like you.” He fell silent again, but he continued to grasp her hand warmly. “So what is it you want me to do? Go to New York?”
“For your sake, Royce. For your peace of mind.”
He nodded. “All right. Will you come with me?”
“If you want me.”
Turning slowly toward her, he fixed her with a look of utter trust. “I want you,” he said softly. “More than that—I need you.”
* * * * * * * *
They rented a small surrey in town and, following the map, drove to the Wright family’s summer home that was located some five miles out. Stopping at the ornate iron gate at the end of the drive leading up to the house, Royce got out and rang the bell, and a middle-aged man appeared from the brick gatehouse.
“I wonder if I might trouble you to let us in to visit the cemetery?”
The man put his face against the palings. “Why?”
“My—my first wife is buried there, and I’d like to visit her grave.”
“Nobody told me anythin’ ‘bout you comin’.”
Victoria leaned out of the surrey and smiled pleasantly. “There was no time. We weren’t sure we’d be able to get up this way, but Mr. Wright said that you’d let us in.”
Royce spun around and stared at her.
“You know th’ Wrights?”
“Oh, yes,” Victoria said glibly, “for many years.”
The man hesitated. “Wal—guess it’s all right then.” He unfastened the lock and swung both gates backward. “Cemetery’s just behind the house and down a little.”
Out of earshot of the groundskeeper, Royce turned to his wife. “I didn’t know I’d married a con artist.”
She smiled grimly. “There’s a little larceny in my soul, I’ll admit, but it was justified in this case.”
Royce chuckled. “I believe I shall watch my back around you from now on.”
She tucked her hand through his arm. “No need, my darling. That’s not the part of you I’m the least interested in.”
He sucked in his breath, then laughed aloud.
They drove in silence past the elegant three-story mansion with a veranda that wrapped completely around it. It was shuttered and seemed cold and uninviting to Victoria.
“I was never here.” Royce answered her unspoken question. “Only the cream of society was invited here.”
“Cream spoils,” she replied tersely. “And too much of it can make one ill.”
The small, well-manicured cemetery was surrounded with a low white wrought-iron fence. Royce could have stepped over it, but the gate was unlocked.
“You go in alone,” Victoria said softly. “I’ll be here if you need me.”
She watched him open the gate and step inside almost hesitantly. There were perhaps twenty graves, all marked with tall white markers, some of them elaborately carved, and all appearing freshly washed and polished. Her eyes never left him as he followed the stone path that ran through the middle. His bearing was still so militarily erect, yet not haughty or overbearing. It was what she had noticed first about him as he’d crossed the floor of the town hall that night and asked her to dance.
She glanced down briefly at the small bouquet of flowers they’d purchased in town. Royce had mentioned that Catherine liked violets best, but there were none to be had in November, so they’d settled on what was available. A chilly breeze stirred the bare limbs of the maple trees planted in a semi-circle behind the cemetery. She frowned as Royce made his way from tombstone to tombstone, pausing to read each inscription. Jarrod had assured her that Catherine was here. What if…
Then she saw her husband stop beside the last marker. He stepped forward, bent slightly to read it, then drew back as if an invisible hand had pushed him—pushed him so roughly that he staggered slightly. She tensed. His arm rose mechanically—his fist clinched tightly. “My god!” Even at that distance, she heard his words clearly.
It wasn’t the reaction that she’d expected. Something was terribly wrong. It took all her strength of will not to rush to him, but she’d promised to wait until he needed her—and she didn’t think he did—not yet.
“My god!” He staggered forward again and bent over, resting his hands against the broad side of the tall, pointed tombstone. “What did they do?”
Victoria could stand it no longer. In seconds she’d reached his side and placed her hand on his back. “Royce, what. . .”
And then she saw. Engraved below the carving of the angel of death were the words Sacred to the memory of our beloved daughter and sister who died violently and too soon at the hands of traitors and infidels.
And below that
The tragedy was complete. The gentle Catherine had lost not only her life but her identity as well, and Royce had lost her the second time—and forever.
Victoria’s eyes filled with tears. “Oh, Royce,” she murmured. “Oh, my darling.”
A lone bird twittered annoyingly from a low-hanging branch. From somewhere in the near vicinity came the sound of rushing water. The mare pulling the surrey whinnied nervously.
Victoria felt an icy chill of fear. She had done this terrible thing to the husband she loved—dared to believe that she knew what would cure the pain she couldn’t fathom—boldly intruded herself into his private hell—and now it had become hers. She had opened old wounds which would now fester and even become putrid. And for what? For what?
Royce’s bent body shuddered once—and again—and then he straightened. “I didn’t kill her,” he said, his voice strong and full of the old confidence. “But they did. Her own flesh and blood destroyed who she was—punished her even in death for straying from their archaic conventions, for following her heart—for being herself.” He drew a deep breath. “I was avenging a ghost. Thank God—thank God, I didn’t succeed!”
He turned to face Victoria. “And thank you, my love.”
She stared at him uncomprehendingly.
“The two of you were very different, but you’d have been friends—good friends—I think. I hope she knows about you. Whether or not I always deserved her efforts, they were directed toward my happiness. And so are yours.”
“Then it’s all right?” Victoria asked, her voice breaking.
“Yes. Oh, yes, my love, it’s all right.” He reached into his pocket and brought out a thin gold ring. “It was all I could afford when we married,” he said, cradling it in his palm for Victoria to see. “I wasn’t sure why I brought it with me—until now.”
Stooping down, he worked the ring into a crack at the base of the marker. “Now I’ve given her back her identity—the only one she wanted. It wasn’t vengeance that she needed—it was restoration.” With one more push, the ring disappeared into the stone, and Royce stood up again. “Ah, Victoria—I am blessed.”
Reverently, she laid the bouquet on the dead, brown grass that covered the grave and took her husband’s arm, and together they walked away without looking back.
December 1, 18-
My dear Jarrod,
Royce asks me to extend his thanks with mine for your efforts—and your good wishes. We returned from New York two days ago with quiet spirits and a profound feeling of gratitude for our individual pasts and our mutual present.
I have shared with him about Beth, and we both hope and pray that you will embrace a second chance at happiness with Sarah. Though you have not mentioned her in your letters, your sister—as you might guess—keeps me informed about every detail of her brothers’ lives—though perhaps not so much about her own. Is there anything I should know?
Victoria paused and laughed softly. Audra loved being the Belle of Stockton, but she was maturing into a lovely young woman who would become, in time, a wonderful wife and mother.
We shall certainly be at the ranch for Christmas. Royce looks forward to his first real Christmas since before the war, and I am anxious to have all of my children around me once again.
I know that Nick still disapproves of my remarriage, but I’d hoped that time would mellow his feelings. Perhaps it hasn’t been enough time. Perhaps the Christmas season may foster “peace and goodwill” in his large, stubborn, loving heart.
Once again, Jarrod, I want to thank you for your consistent support—not just in this instance but in everything since your father died, and you found yourself thrust into a position as head of the family which you did not covet and for which you felt you were unready. But you have filled it magnificently, my darling.
You—my firstborn—have never disappointed me, have always made me proud. You have endured so much undeserved pain and sorrow in your life, and yet it has made you strong. The words “my son” take on a life of their own whenever I speak of you.
With much, much love,
* * * * * * * *
“Mother and Royce are coming home for Christmas,” Jarrod Barkley announced at dinner that night. He let his glance fall briefly on each of his siblings—and a little longer on Nick. “Home. You all know what that word encompasses, don’t you? Acceptance. Loyalty. Love. Do I need to remind you that we were taught all those things from our cradles?”
Later, Nick caught Jarrod at the front door. “Where’re you goin’ so late, Pappy?”
Jarrod smiled and patted his pocket. “I have a delivery to make in town.”
“To whom, brother Nick, and it’s none of your business.”
“Well, pardon me!” Nick turned and stomped off toward the library.
Outside, Jarrod drew a velvet jeweler’s box from his pocket and flipped it open. The tasteful—albeit very expensive—diamond sparkled in the moonlight.
Looking upward, he smiled. “Thank you, lovely lady, for once again giving me the courage to get on with my life—by getting on with yours.”