Thick orange dust clung tenaciously to the emerald green kudzu. Deep purple Wisteria wove its way along the pale brown split rail fence posts. Here and there, patches of spiky pink blossoms stood out in the early afternoon light as the rider passed tall, lacy-leafed Mimosa trees. A striking red Cardinal darted out from among the scrub oak branches standing hunched over the silver-shot river and dove gracefully into the shimmer of the blue sky.
Colors, the rider thinks as his tired eyes take in the passing scenery, are such a balm to the senses. Colors put reality to life and bring peace to the heart. A riot of colors, a profusion of sensual delights catching the eye, can go a long way in easing the ache in a mans soul, no matter how lost that soul had become. How long, he wonders has it been since he has indulged his delight in colors?
Four years, he remembers with a wince. It has been four long years since he has noticed any colors other than Confederate gray, Federal blue, and blood red.
He forcibly tears his mind away from those vicious, brutal hues and concentrates instead on the pale yellow of a field of dandelions.
The cicadas were tuning up and he pulled back gently on his mounts reins. The roan came to a halt, nickering softly as it bobbed its head, and there was stillness on the road save for the clicking of the cicadas.
Just as his world had been leeched of the pigments which once had colored it so richly: the pastel elegance of silks and satins; the royal hues of velvet; the imposing grandeur of white cotton shirts crisply starched; champagne-colored brocade embossed with lustrous embroidery of golden thread, so too had gentle sounds also disappeared to be replaced with roaring cannon, crackling rifle fire, the screams of dying men.
Dont think about it, he said aloud.
The soothing sound of the cicadas reached into the riders battle-scarred soul and he hung his head, tears gathering at the edges of his glazed brown eyes.
How gentle that sound. How much like home. But the reminder of days past when he had sat on the veranda of WindLass alongside his brothers and listened to just this monotonous chant, brought other memories as well and he heard ghost sounds that hurt him deeper than any shot driven into his body.
Laughter: the tender tinkle of beautiful young women and the hardy guffaws of brazen young men.
Music swirling about the dance floor in patriotic abandonment: the glorious strains of Dixie swelling the heart and underlining the fervor.
Firecrackers exploding in the night air: the ominous precursor to the earsplitting boom of battle.
Ivonnes voice: her soft drawl with just a touch of French rhythm to entice a young mans passion.
The riders chin came up sharply and he pushed away such thoughts with an angry shake of his head. What good were memories when they tormented you worse than anything the Union prison guards ever could have conceived?
Dont think about it! he repeated through gritted teeth.
Lifting a pale hand to his road-dirty face, the rider plowed trembling fingers through a scraggly crop of limp brown hair. His grip tightened in the lank curls and he tugged brutally, trying to tear the memories from his head.
Youll take care, wont you, Sinclair?
Ill do my best.
And youll come back to me as soon as this awful war is over.
Ill move heaven and hell to do so.
And Ill be waiting, beloved. On my honor, I will.
Honor? the rider questioned. He swiped angrily at the tears which were streaking down his grimy face. What the hell was honor?
Honor was something they had been forced to abandon long ago. Not sure exactly when that had happened, he climbed down from his horse and walked the beast to the river. Could have been at Chancellorsville. Maybe at Bull Run. Or on the day he and his men had been marched into Camp Douglas and had become prisoners of the Union. There had certainly been no room for honor in that hell-hole deep in the freezing climate of Illinois. It had been a struggle just to stay alive.
Hunkering down at the river bank, he drove his hands into the tepid water and splashed his face. The wetness felt good; the cleanness felt even better. He smelled and the very odor of his body caused more hurt to fester in his soul. For a long time he just squatted there, staring at the rippling water, then he stood up and reached for the tarnished buttons of his tattered uniform tunic.
I had Mr. Duvalier use the very best wool, dear, his grandmother had assured him. You will be the most dashing officer in the regiment!
The once-elegant uniform was frayed now at the cuffs and along the collar. The pants were torn at the knee and the seams at the cuffs were gone. A blackened hole just below the left shoulder board gave mute evidence of a round of shot that had pierced the stiff gray wool and plowed a furrow all the way through its owners chest. There were bloodstains—his own and others.
You are a lucky man, Captain, the field surgeon had mused. Another inch lower and wed be burying you.
Rory Sinclair McGregor laid his uniform top carefully, respectfully on the ground and unhooked the buttons of his pants. He shrugged out of his shirt, then sat down on the ground to pull off his boots. The worn boots which had been issued to him upon his release from prison were a size too small for his feet and he breathed a sigh of relief when he tugged them off. There were holes in the toes of his socks and already blisters were forming on his heel from the rub of the too-tight boots. When hed removed his pants and the filthy union suit beneath, he waded out waist deep into the water, dragging the union suit and socks with him.
The cleaning of his underclothes was more important than washing his body, he reasoned and he set to scrubbing the material as hard as he could to rid it of the dirt and accumulated sweat and—he knew—the lice that infested it. Once he thought it clean enough, he waded back through the water and draped the garments on a low-hanging oak branch to dry, then he turned and dove, arching his body gracefully through the slow-moving river.
He never knew how long he swam that day. When he had finally had his fill of the freedom of the water and the wonderful feel of it caressing his tired and aching body, he stood up and trudged back to the river bank.
And discovered his clothes were gone.
What the hell? he roared, turning around and around, searching for his clothes or the sonofabitching varmint who had dared steal them.
The Lord knows, he fumed, the gods-be-damned things werent worth anything. Who in their right mind would want such rags?
YOUD BETTER GET YOUR ASS OUT HERE WITH MY DAMNED CLOTHES RIGHT NOW! he shouted.
And realized his horse was gone, too.
SONOFABITCH!! he thundered.
The broken-down nag wasnt much, but it was all he had to his name. You steal a mans horse—no matter how much the beast was worth—and you forfeited your life! Murder had never been a welcomed part of Sinclair McGregors life, but it was something he fully intended to commit just as soon as he found the thief who had taken his meager possessions.
With his face red with fury and his thin body pale from years in prison, he stomped over to the bushes alongside the river and poked around among them, seeking in vain for what he knew he wouldnt find.
You bastard! he snarled, totally oblivious to his nakedness. Ill gut you when I find you.
With what? came an amused chuckle from behind him.
Sinclair spun around, crouching in a battle stance that was as much a part of him as the skin on his back. When he saw the man sitting on the imposing stallion, he straightened up, eyes narrowed with lethal intent. You are a dead man, Brendan Brell! he growled.
The man on the golden stallion crossed his wrists on the pommel of his saddle and leaned forward, eyeing McGregor up and down. Surely you dont mean to show up in town in all your natural splendor do you, Sin? Brell cocked his head to one side. With your dangly bobbing around like that?
One moment the younger man was seated on his Arabian, the next he was flat on the ground, an enraged warrior pinning him to the ground.
Where are my clothes, Brendan? McGregor growled through clenched teeth.
Gone, came the gasp, for Sinclair McGregors rump was pressed firmly into Brells belly.
Sinclair reached up and grabbed a handful of thick black hair, tugged, lifted Brells head from the ground, then punctuated each word with a deliberate pull on the curly locks. Gone . . . where . . . Brendan? Sinclair snapped.
I . . . b . . . burned them! Brell whimpered, trying to free the clenched hand buried in his dark hair.
You better not have! Sinclairs explosion of anger made him slam the young mans head viciously on the hard ground, hard enough to make Brells eyes cross.
You certainly wont knock any sense into him that way, Sinclair. Everybodys tried and it just doesnt work.
McGregor didnt need to turn around to know who belonged to the new voice. He lifted Brells head once more, tightening his grip in the young mans hair. Ill splatter your worthless Irish brains all over the ground if you dont tell me where my clothes are!
Conor, make him stop! Brell pleaded, his face scrunched up in pain. Hes killing me!
Conor Brell snorted then swung his leg over his horses head and slid to the ground. I know of no one whod care if he did, Brenny, Conor told him. Maybe one or two people you owe money to, but certainly no one else.
Hes killing me! Brell repeated, howling as his head was slammed once more into the ground.
Oh, do stop brutalizing your cousin, Sinclair, Conor grunted. We couldnt let you go home dressed like a field hand, now could we?
Sinclair spat out a vulgar word or two then pushed himself up. He turned around and fixed Conor Brell with a steely-eyed glower. Do you know how hard I had to fight just to keep those gods-be-damned clothes on my back for the last two years, Brell?
The smile slipped slowly from Conor Brells face. He turned and took a carpetbag from his saddle and walked to the cousin he hadnt seen in three years. He held out the carpetbag. I think youll feel better with new clothes, dont you?
Sinclairs jaw clenched. Maybe. Maybe not. He swiped the carpetbag from his cousins hand and, without sparing the young man sitting on the ground another look, opened it and began to drag out the clothes.
We were only trying to help. Brendan pouted.
Leave him alone before he pummels you again, Conor warned. He had spared one glance at the too-thin body of his first cousin—taking in the scars that had not been there before—and had looked away.
Wheres my horse? Sinclair demanded as he stepped into the twill breeches that were too loose by far. He hoped C. J. had thought to bring a belt.
Just around the bend a ways, Conor replied.
You two look well enough, Sinclair told the Brells. He twisted his head as he pulled on a crisp cotton shirt.
You dont, Brendan mumbled.
If Conor had been closer to his little brother, he would have slammed the brats head down onto the ground, himself. As it was, he had to content himself with glaring at Brendan, which had the desired effect.
Sinclair sat down on a fallen tree to put on his socks. Prison has a way of taking its toll on you, Brendan, he remarked.
Brendan, already stung by his older brothers venomous stare, realized there had been no need for his careless remark. I understand that, Sin, he said, chastened. I should have minded my tongue.
Youd best remember that, else one day someone might well relieve you of it! Conor declared.
Dressed in new clothing that itched and felt glorious at the same time, Sinclair stood up, flexing his toes in a pair of new boots that fit like gloves on his feet. He spread his hands out beside him. Am I presentable enough? he inquired.
Conor shrugged indifferently. Youll do. He walked over to his cousin and held out his hand. Welcome home, Sin.
Sinclair looked down at Brells hand, then shook his head. Without saying a word, he stepped up to Conor Brell and put his arms around his cousin, drawing the man into an embrace that said more than mere words could have anyway.
Brells own arms enclosed his cousin and he felt the hot prickle of tears flooding his eyes. This was a man he had loved all his life. A man who had been the driving force in Conors world before he had marched off to war: a war Conor Brell had also fought.
How are things at WindLass?
Conor flinched. Wrapped in the arms of this man he had admired and respected more than he had his own father, Brell wanted desperately to give him good news. To make his homecoming a wonderful thing. He swung his gaze to his little brother, shaking his head slightly to warn the boy not to open his big mouth, but for once, Brendan knew better and kept silent.
C. J.? Sinclair prompted and pushed back so that he could see Brells face.
Conor drew in a deep breath, locked his eyes on Sinclairs, and tightened the grip he had on the other mans shoulders. Slowly, he exhaled and a grim smile touched his mouth. He would rather have undergone a beating that have to tell Sinclair what he was about to. Im afraid I have some rather distressing news, Sin, he offered.
A shadow darkened Sinclair McGregors face and he abruptly stepped back, dropping his hands from Conor as though the mans flesh had become red-hot to the touch. They burned it, he stated flatly, fear making his voice break.
NO! C. J. was quick to say. No! Its still standing; none the worse for wear.
There was something in the way his cousin was looking at him that told Sinclair he might well wish his ancestral home had been burned to the ground when the coward Sherman had marched through Georgia to the sea.
Savannah was spared, Brendan put in, not liking the sudden silence that had gripped his brother and cousin. Nothing was torched, Sinclair.
Sinclair ignored the younger man. He was staring intently at Conor, searching the other mans face for a hint of the disaster he knew that had occurred to the place where generations of McGregors had been bred and buried.
Conor could not prolong the agony he saw flitting over Sinclairs face. He lifted his chin. It was sold, he said firmly, then in a voice that was bare of both force and belief, he whispered: For back taxes.
The sound of screaming horses and yelling men; cannons blasting away; a trumpet calling retreat; stampeding feet of fleeing men shattered the quiet afternoon and a blood-red haze tinged Sinclairs sight. He turned, stumbled in his grief, and sat down heavily on the fallen tree. When Conor went to him, he put out his hand, refusing to allow the comfort he knew his cousin wanted to give. For a moment or two he just sat there, staring blankly at the tumbling water beside him, then he straightened his shoulders.
Who? he asked, already knowing in his heart, but refusing to acknowledge it.
Conor took a step forward, but Sinclairs head came up and he stopped, recognizing all too well the look that was now aimed at him. I think you know, he said softly.
Sinclair nodded, his gaze still fused with his cousins. For how much?
Conor shrugged helplessly. Four thousand. His mouth trembled. We tried to come up with the money, but . . .
I offered to sell Seachance, Brendan put in, flinging a look toward the Arabian, but no one . . .
Sinclair held up his hand. Dont think about it, he said, repeating the litany that had become his mantra over the last three years.
You will stay with us at Willow Glen, Conor insisted. Thats a given.
A part of him wanted to shout that it wasnt right that the Brells had been able to retain their lands while he had lost his. That they had a place to call their own while he had nothing to call his but the clothes on his back. A snort of laughter rushed from his chest when he realized the folly of that thought. Hell, he said thickly, I dont even own them!
Beg pardon? Conor asked, coming a few steps closer. He didnt like the bitter look on Sinclairs thin face. How much weight, he wondered, had the man lost?
My horse? Sinclair asked, looking to Brendan.
The young man bobbed his head. Ill go get it, he stated and hurried over to his own mount.
Shes with him, isnt she? Sinclair asked after Brendan had ridden off.
Conor bit his lip, nodded without speaking.
A brutal spike of intense jealousy, hurt, betrayal, and downright fury drove straight through Sinclair McGregors heart, but he did not let it show. Instead, he thrust his hands into the pockets of his new breeches and hunched his shoulders. Children? he inquired as noncommittally as though he were discussing someone who had not been the single most important entity in his world before the War.
Brells voice was deep and hesitant. One on the way, he answered.
Sinclair nodded. Due when?
Conor wished with all his heart he could say something that would put a smile on Sins once-handsome face. That face that once had made all the women of Chatham county swoon with delight was now haggard and drawn with deep hollows beneath the dull brown eyes. A livid scar stood out along his left jaw where the backswing of a saber had narrowly missed severing McGregors head from his body. There was a look in those heralded brown eyes that bespoke a torment beyond understanding and now Conor had added still another circle to Sinclairs private hell.
Dont think about it, Sinclair said, knowing full well his cousins thoughts. He looked out across the river. What about Tina?
Conors lips moved into a beaming smile. Were going to be married in less than a week.
Sinclair looked around. At last here was something good. He tried to smile, but the smile never reached his lifeless eyes. Congratulations, Conor James. I know youll be happy.
Brells own smile slipped a notch. You will be best man, wont you? he asked, never realizing the pain his innocuous words inadvertently caused his cousin.
Sinclair winced, but he withdrew his right hand and extended it toward Conor. I would be honored.
As Conors hand closed around his own, Sinclair could hear the ghosts whispering to him once more: I would like you to be the best man at our wedding.
Are you sure? Conor had asked. I thought Duncan . . .
Duncan may be my older brother, Sinclair had replied, but youre my best friend.
But I would have thought Ivonne would have preferred either him or her brother, Robert. What . . . ?
I want you, Sinclair had interrupted. You will be best man, wont you?
I would be honored, had come the hitching reply.
The thunder of hooves pounding on the ground brought both men instantly alert. They stepped away from one another, Conors hand going to the Colt he wore slung low against his left side. Get my rifle, he said urgently, nodding toward his horse.
Sinclair sprinted to Brells mount and drew out the rifle. As he turned and faced the galloping horses headed their way, he recognized Brendan, but had to strain to hear what his young cousin was shouting.
Cane Stewart! Brendan called out. He was trying to take Sins nag!
Conor snorted with disgust. And you had to come racing back here like a bat out of torment just to tell us some worthless white trash was—.
Its WindLass! Brendan interrupted, throwing Sinclair his horses reins.
The fields on fire!
Not even stopping to think what he was doing, Sinclair grabbed the pommel of his mount and threw himself up on the horses back. Before either of his cousins could stop him, he had dug his boot heel into the horses flanks and was racing away.
Conor ran to his horse and vaulted into the saddle. Whipping his reins against the steeds neck, he fell in behind Brendan, slapping his heels against the horses sides.
It was a three-mile ride from the river to WindLass and it was the longest three miles Sinclair had ever ridden in his life. Not even the night he had tried to outrun the Union patrol and had been captured had been as harrowing a ride as the one he was on at that moment. The image of the plantation was before him as he whipped his mount to a faster gallop. The harsh dry wind stung his eyes and lashed at his cheeks, but he barely felt their intrusion. He had to reach WindLass at all costs and he had to reach it before anything could happen to his home. Its Edward Delacroixs home, a niggling voice reminded him.
Dont think about it! Sinclair snarled.
He came over a rise and there before him was smoke rolling up from the south field were cotton had yet to be harvested. The dirty-white bolls would burn quickly, spreading the fire like oil on water toward the plantation house.
OVER THERE! Conor yelled.
There was a line of people slapping wet burlap bags at the growing fire and a wagon loaded with water barrels from the big house was careening wildly toward the place where the flames were the thickest. Men were plying shovels as fast as their arms could piston, digging a firebreak ahead of the encroaching flames. The women had formed a bucket brigade and were lined up, passing their precious water from one hand to another.
Sinclair yanked on his horses reins and was out of the saddle before either Conor or Brendan. As he ran, he stripped off the new shirt the Brells had given him and threw it away, hoping no one would see it and take it.
WET DOWN AHEAD OF THE FIRE! Sinclair shouted, pointing past the men. He knew that a single spark from the fire could set ablaze the cotton beyond the firebreak. Several men turned and looked at Sinclair. Some were pleased to see him, but a few looked as though his presence among them would poison the very ground on which they stood. A couple moved out of his way as he snatched up a shovel and began to work the tool into the red clay, destroying plants as he went.
Mr. Delacroix aint gonna like you digging up his plants, one of the men mumbled.
Sinclair cast his eyes toward the speaker but didnt reply. It was better to lose a few dozen plants than the entire field.
Why you want to come back here for anyways? the speaker demanded, stopping to glare at Sinclair. You know aint gonna be nothin but trouble you coming back here.
Its my home, Sinclair snapped around a clenched jaw. He hadnt meant WindLass. He knew well enough that the land on which he had been born, on which he now stood, was no longer his. He had been referring to Savannah, herself, but the man whose glower was aimed at him had took McGregors words literally.
Aint yours no more! the man spat, his beady eyes flashing. It belong to the Delacroix now!
Sinclair itched to slam his fist into the mans mouth, but he kept digging the shovel into the soil, widening the firebreak, taking his frustration out on the land that would never betray him.
And Miss Ivonne belong to the Delacroix now, the man stated hatefully. She be Mrs. Edward Delacroix.
How bout that? Sinclair snapped, doing his level best to keep himself from thrashing the man.
Gonna have his youngun, she is, the speaker insisted. My wife say it gonna be a boy, too, and she know dese things!
The speakers identity finally fell into place in Sinclairs mind: André Thibodoux, one of the Delacroix familys bastard offspring. André and his wife, Seville, had come to Savannah from New Orleans about a year before Sinclair had gone off to fight. Seville fancied herself a voodoo priestess or some such nonsense. André was nothing but white trash.
You better go back to where you come from, André warned. You dont want no trouble wid the Delacroix. You start trouble wid him, he take moren just your woman and your place. He take . . .
Sinclair reacted before he realized hed done it. He dropped the shovel and hit Thibodoux with a roundhouse punch that broke the mans nose and knocked him out cold. André Thibodoux fell backward into the cotton and lay still.
You always had you a wicked punch, Mr. Sin, an old black man chuckled.
McGregor bent over, took up his shovel and started in again. SOMEONE COME GET THIS CAJUN SWAMP RAT OUT OF MY WAY! he bellowed, flinging dirt on Thibodouxs body.
The old black man sputtered with laughter as two men rushed forward and picked up the unconscious man. They cast fearful looks at Sinclair, but didnt greet him.
She waited as long as she could, Mr. Sin, the black man observed as he armed sweat from his brow.
Not long enough, Sinclair snapped.
From his place astride his big black stallion, Edward Delacroix stared across the wavering heat of the fire to the man who was helping to dig the firebreak. He ignored the furious activity around him as men in his employ, as well as neighbors, worked frantically to stop the fire. At that moment in time, the biggest worry Edward Delacroix had wasnt the fire destroying his cotton crop. The biggest concern on his mind right then was the only man he had ever hated.
We got it almost under control, Mr. Edward, Delacroixs overseer said as he hurried up. I sent back for another wagonload of water, though, just to be on the safe side.
Delacroix nodded absently. He had never worried about the big house catching on fire. The field was too far away and the money represented in the cotton crop wasnt all that important, either. He had ventured out to the fire simply because he was bored and Ivonne indisposed.
At the thought of his wifes nausea and bloated belly, Edward Delacroix shuddered. Thank God for Jeanine, he reminded himself. Had it not been for his mistress, these last seven months would have been sheer hell.
By Jove, isnt that Sinclair McGregor over there, Edward? Delacroix turned his head and looked at his friend, De Layne Corcoran.
Yes, De Layne, I believe it is.
De Layne lifted one thick blond brow. Well, thats not good, now, is it?
Edward looked back at the man who had stopped digging and now seemed to be issuing orders to some of the men around him. On the contrary, De Layne, he protested. I think it may well be the answer to our prayers.
Corcoran frowned. I cant imagine how, he responded. He stared at his friend. I certainly wouldnt want my rival showing up on my doorstep.
Delacroix straightened in his saddle, controlling his mount with a slight pressure from his thighs as the animal shifted to the right. I must go and welcome our returning hero home, he stated.
De Layne blinked. You cant be serious!
A vicious, brutal smile stretched across Delacroixs thin lips. I am always serious, De Layne. The smile became a predatory leer. Especially when I set out to destroy whats left of a mans life!