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Excerpt from my newest manuscript, Carvers

Day Two

Water sheeted from the sky in what seemed biblical amounts, allowing no travel. An ugly dawn the gray of spent coals was just beginning to stain the horizon when Aurelia’s eyelids parted. She squinted, resisting wakefulness, her mind sunk in blessed, temporary unconsciousness, still webbed in a fading dream. A hard, driving rain battered the arch of canvas above her. She was so cold that simple movements were nearly beyond her capability; she winced in the attempt to curl her fingers inward. She’d fell asleep bent over her open trunk and her back and forearms ached accordingly; damp patches adorned the canvas, the droplets beaded its inner curves. The rain seemed an assault and she worried over Turk and Tilly, tethered out there with no barn to offer shelter.

She had not exchanged her dress or undergarments for dry replacements, and her damp skin was violet-tinged and puckered, as it appeared after excessive submersion. Aurelia was a strong swimmer; her father, Emmett Carver, had insisted each of his children learn to swim, and taught all four in the shallow, reedy body of water less than a mile from their farm. Aurelia recalled summer afternoons spent splashing about in Shady Lake, so named for the abundance of draping willows and leafy cottonwoods that decorated its bowed banks. The lake and its sandy beach, shaped like a crescent moon and rife with broken pieces of snail and clam shells, had been the site of many a pleasant childhood day; swimming until blue-lipped and chilled, catching frogs with her siblings while their father fished, riffling through the pale sand for small treasures – jay feathers, mica-flecked rocks, iridescent bits of shell.

Where am I?

Shady Lake and its benign beauty, the lingering lilt of her younger sister’s laughter, were so prominent in Aurelia’s muddled, sleep-drenched mind that she was momentarily disoriented. She blinked into the dimness, upper eyelashes clinging to lower, obscuring her vision.

What is that dreadful smell?

Her gaze lurched to Henry and she hissed a high, tight scream. The loud aggression of the rainfall had muted the buzzing of blackflies; what seemed dozens of the loathsome creatures crawled upon and hovered over the quilt tucked about Henry’s remains.

No.”

The word was torn from her lips. She tripped over her feet as she rose, hindered by her damp skirts, and stumbled forward, arms flapping madly, displacing no more than a few insects. Her heart seemed to swell with its sudden ferocious beating and sweat prickled along her scalp and spine, pearled beneath her arms. She screeched, swiping anew, perceiving now the delusion of believing that she could somehow haul Henry’s remains over many hundreds of miles in the swelter of August. The horror of the flies overrode the fact that the scent of mild but increasing rot rose from his corpse.

Henry’s hair showed at the top, where the covering had slipped; Aurelia meant only to reposition the quilt so that it might better protect him. Thus, she was unprepared for the blistering shock of the sight of his slack face beset by flies. There were flies in his half-open mouth, flies in his nostrils. Flies crawled across his cheeks and entered his ears. The abrupt buzzing nonsense in her skull was surely more of the despicable creatures, which would soon consume her flesh if she remained stationary.

Get, get, get…”

Later, she would be unable to access the memory of frantically batting flies from Henry’s head. It would retreat to the secret hollow deep in her mind, a dark space only her subconscious could henceforth ever access, a dank and rancid concavity boarded over with heavy planks, the very substance of nightmares. There, too, lurked the moments just after Quincy’s foreleg, in a hideous act of ill fate, sank within the well-concealed hole of a small animal’s ground burrow; the cantering horse, her husband astride, lurched to an abrupt halt, the forward motion of its powerful body over its suddenly-trapped hoof becoming a parabola of destruction before Aurelia’s disbelieving eyes.

If a board began to crack a new one was promptly placed atop it, nails pounded, weak spot mended.

But that dark hollow beneath the boards existed, nonetheless.

* * *

“My dear, are you quite certain?”

Aurelia’s mother, Elspeth Carver, sat on her wide front porch shelling the first of the sugar snaps as she asked the question of her eldest. Rather than offer immediate response, Aurelia reached to grasp a handful of the bright green peapods, enjoying both their sweet scent and bumpy shapes against her palm. She fell to shelling, a task with which her fingers were so accustomed she could have neatly split and emptied a hundred without glancing down. The tiny round vegetables joined the growing pile in the yellow bowl upon her mother’s lap; Elspeth waited expectantly, delicate brows raised, offering up a silent prayer that this announcement, and the subsequent upheaval it entailed, would pass with the spring rains. Elspeth knew Henry Savage for a steady-minded man, unlike his elder brother, Cullen; had Cullen become her son-in-law, Elspeth would have been better prepared for such startling news.

Please, do not let her go so far from me. She is my eldest, my comfort.

Aurelia traced her thumbnail along the wet green line of the final peapod in her hand, stalling, sensing to some extent her mother’s thoughts. She let her gaze dance out over the dooryard in which she’d been raised, absorbing the clear evening light falling across the gentle undulation of farmland; in the nearest pasture, goats grazed on lush spring shoots while closer to the their stone barn her mother’s milking cows gathered around their trough. The sun was an amber-tinted jewel balanced just where two distant ridges met, creating a bright crevice of pure gold. Aurelia and Henry’s land was adjacent to the Savages’, only a few miles from Aurelia’s childhood home. The towering silver maple, with its multiple conjoined trunks and long, graceful limbs, in which there still dangled a wooden swing, next hooked her eye; she recalled sitting atop that swing, twining its rope about her fingers in a coquettish manner, Henry leaning a shoulder against one of the trunks to grin at her in their courting days.

“The prospect fills me with exhilaration,” Aurelia confessed, lifting her eyes to her mother’s. The older woman sat in her rocking chair while Aurelia claimed the second-from-top step, leaning one elbow on the porch floor, her skirts creating a billowing hammock between her thighs.

Elspeth studied her daughter and beheld the young woman’s sincerity; her heart contracted and her well-worn, sun-spotted hands fell still atop their repetitive task.

Already I have lost her, Elspeth thought. She and Henry are set on this course; it is plain upon Aurelia’s face. Elspeth spoke quietly. “California is a tremendous distance from Illinois.”

* * *

The Booten brothers were no strangers to death, poverty, hard times or hard work; in turn, they feared none of these things. Indeed, though they could not have exactly articulated the sentiment, the brothers viewed each as inevitable, necessary parts of a fellow’s life, certainly nothing you would waste time complaining over. You were born to poverty and hard times, you spent your days working hard and scraping together a living; eventually death claimed you and off to Jesus you went, if you were lucky. The Booten boys weren’t entirely sure if the bulk of their kin was lucky in that particular fashion, but they retained some hope for their own two souls.

Augustus Booten, or Gust as he was known to those familiar with him, was the eldest at twenty-eight. A tall, lanky fellow, whose arms were invariably too long for his shirtsleeves, allowing a good two inches of bare wrist to appear between shirt cuffs and hands, Gust was fonder of his horse than nearly any human he’d ever met, saving his youngest brother. Where exposed to the relentless Texas sun, his fair complexion had long since burned to the polished brown of saddle leather, creating sharply-delineated lines along various parts of his body. His eyes bore squint lines at the outer corners and were the pale blue of the sky when the hard summer sun gouged a path through its center. He was a deader shot than anyone in any county bordering the one in which he’d been raised.

Wylie Booten, named for a great-grandfather he’d never known, was twenty-two. In the original birth order of the family there had been two additional brothers between Gust and Wylie, both lost to illness over a decade ago, when their mother, Alvina, was still living. Wylie was not as tall as Gust, built with a more pleasing shape to his shoulders and arms; his movements were unconsciously more graceful. Like his brother he was also fair of complexion, and with hair and beard of nondescript brown, though the pale tint of his eyes leaned more toward green than blue. Neither brother, both raised on the dusty Texas plains where wind stole words and hats and often one’s very sanity, could be considered a conversationalist. They spent most of the daylight hours riding in companionable silence, speaking only when necessity absolutely dictated.

And so it was that, after hours of silence, Wylie startled Gust by standing in his stirrups and proclaiming, “There’s a wagon, yonder.”

Gust pulled Rambler’s reins with a small, economical motion, elbows jutting, and the liver-chestnut gelding halted compliantly. Gust had spied the circling ring of birds a half-mile back, with their distinctive wing feathers like widespread fingers catching the lazy current. A cluster of buzzards was no cause for concern; small critters fell prey to larger ones and the buzzards appeared in the aftermath to pick at the bones. A wagon beneath the ring, however, raised alarm.

Sentry snorted and shook his head, turning so that his body was perpendicular to Rambler’s, and Wylie drew him back in line with one effortless tug of the left rein. There were no apparent signs of violence, danger, or life, but the brothers took heed of the buzzards and retained caution, slipping firearms from their cross holsters before proceeding.

“Anyone about?” Wylie hollered when the horses were perhaps fifty paces out. “Hallo the wagon!”

A solitary hawk drifted in an arrow-straight formation beneath buzzards, seeming to pierce their circle; there was no response from the wagon.

“We’re riding in!” Wylie announced to the wagon, jerking a shoulder in a one-sided shrug, angling his brother an expression of uncertainty, brows crooked; should we ride in?

Gust nodded at the unspoken query, heeling Rambler with a light touch to his flanks. Both kept their pistols drawn, aimed just south of deadly, and their mounts at a walk as they approached. No livestock to speak of, no bullet holes or telltale arrow shafts embedded in the wagon. No bodies, human or otherwise, sprawled across the ground, and yet the buzzards floated just above, crisp black silhouettes against the bright sky. The creatures knew something.

“I don’t like it,” Gust muttered.

“Something ain’t right,” Wylie agreed, and sweat snaked from his nape and made a slippery trail along his spine.

They rode to within ten paces and halted again, studying the quiet scene beneath a midafternoon sun. Wylie tilted his head, indicating that they circle ’round the wagon. He took Sentry to the right while Gust went left; Sentry hadn’t taken five steps before Gust uttered a hoarse shout. Heart slamming, Wylie heeled his mount, expecting to find his brother skewered through the gut. Gust, unharmed, dismounted just as Wylie rounded the corner and spied what Gust had already seen, a forearm dangling from the oval opening, fingers slack.

“Aw, shit,” Wylie muttered, chest constricting. He dismounted Sentry and hastily caught up both his and Rambler’s reins, looping both animals’ lead lines about the tailgate. Gust had climbed atop it, both brothers loathe to discover the extent of the damage within; the drooping arm belonged to a woman, Wylie was fairly certain.

“Ma’am,” Gust was saying, his top half having disappeared within the oval opening. “Ma’am, can you hear me?”

Wylie crowded his brother, joining him on the narrow tailgate, attempting to peer around Gust’s shoulder. A strong, stale scent hit their nostrils but it was not the smell of death; Wylie and Gust knew that particular odor well.

“Help me, Wy,” Gust instructed. “I’ll climb in and together we’ll lift her out. She’s hurt but she ain’t dead.” Gust hadn’t strung together so many words in the past week; Wylie nodded at once, angling so that Gust could move past him and climb over the woman hidden inside, a feat which he performed gingerly. Gust spoke to her, his voice too loud in the cramped space. “Ma’am, we’re here to help you. Don’t fear, ma’am.”

No response. Gust crouched while Wylie poised on the tailgate, watching. A few seconds later Gust rose to a stooping stance, his arms hooked beneath a woman’s torso. Wylie stepped back, allowing Gust room to maneuver; moving with care, Gust turned and exited the wagon backward, bumping his head and knocking his hat to the dusty ground. Once Gust felt reasonably balanced, he eased one leg out the opening, and Wylie was ready to assist, sweat glistening on his earnest face. His first sight of the woman was of her lolling head in the crook of Gust’s left arm. The sight did not convince Wylie that she was indeed living; her skin was ashen, cheeks hollow and gouged by long furrows of rust-colored scabs.

“C’mon,” Gust grunted, his hair flopping over his forehead and sweat leaking from his temples.

Wylie wrapped both arms about the woman’s legs, hesitant to place his hands upon a woman without invitation, but the touch reassured him, to some extent, as she felt warm beneath layers of dirty, torn skirts.

“Here now,” he murmured, working with Gust to carry her to the oblong patch of shade provided by the wagon’s south side.

They knelt with her body between them, and both were reluctant to let a woman’s head rest upon bare ground.

“She’s been hurt bad,” Gust acknowledged, eyeing her face. “Someone harmed her. There’s blood all about her garments, see there.”

Wylie had seen, and his chest tightened all the more. It pained him to witness a woman hurt; women reminded him of his mother and little sister, both long departed from the world but prominent in Wylie’s fonder memories.

“Cheyenne, you reckon? Ain’t no sign of them,” Wylie mused.

“There was a blanket in there, fetch it up, brother,” Gust said.

Wylie nodded, releasing his hold on her lower half. Gust sat, awkward with his burden, folding his long legs and allowing the woman’s head to rest atop his lap. It was an oddly intimate position, one that Gust, at least in Wylie’s estimation, had never shared with a woman. Gust, hatless and disheveled, kept his gaze on the woman’s face, brow furrowed like plot ruts in a spring field. When Wylie didn’t spring to, he barked, “Go on, now!”

Wylie entered the unpleasant space with a twinge in his heart; he despised confined spaces. He would rather sleep in the rain than beneath a canvas covering. Since his boyhood the sensation of smothering had plagued him; though he retained no memory of the dreadful event, this claustrophobia was the result of a fall into a well at age six. Gust, twelve years at the time, had rescued the boy, who’d sustained a lumping bruise on his left temple but no memory of the occurrence. Though it had been an accident, Gust knew it was no one’s fault but his own; he’d been tasked with minding his brother that overcast day in the summer of 1839.

That Wylie had nearly died tore at Gust’s conscience in ways large and small, ever since; he loved the boy and hated the fact that his own sense of self-preservation kept him from relating the tale to their parents. Their father, a man long rendered helpless to the onslaught of nightly grain-alcohol consumption and a subsequent mean drunk, would have thrashed Gust to the point of unconsciousness, not because the man cared for Wylie but because he enjoyed beating his sons. Instead, Gust constructed a story on the way home that afternoon, beneath a growling, lowering sky, toting his little brother, the boy so wretchedly thin, mouth slack, temple bleeding.

Holding a woman’s unconscious body atop his lap, Gust was smote by the memory of Wylie’s fall, and his own part in the boy’s rescue, in a visceral fashion he’d not experienced in many years.; the older brother reflected that had he failed to save Wylie that long-ago summer day, he would be the last of his siblings left alive this day.

“Here.” Wylie was back, clutching a quilt, which he shook out and spread over the ground, taking care to keep the blanket in the shaded spot.

Gust placed the injured woman upon it and the two brothers knelt, peering down at her.

“No one else about,” Wylie murmured, thinking aloud. “No horses, no mules. They must have been stole.”

Gust scrubbed a knuckle beneath his nose. “But what about other folks? It don’t figure. There ain’t no one else about. Were they killed? Run off?”

“She couldn’t a-been traveling alone,” Wylie agreed. “Not way out here.”
They held gazes for the space of a breath.

“We can’t leave her here.” Gust spoke around a troubled sigh.

Wylie thought hard, his gaze roving the western horizon; they’d meant to be a good twenty miles farther that direction by nightfall. “I figure we best make camp. Maybe she’ll come to and be able to tell us what happened here.”

Gust nodded acceptance.
Chapter One

I probably could have guessed long before he finally told me the truth.

It wasn’t as though the signs were absent; what was missing in the long term was my own self-awareness, my ability to see what was before my eyes. Instead I was blinded, daily, by the petty things, the minutia. So many excuses, each more demanding than the next – job, household, needy teenagers. When I heard the garage door and then the sounds of Dan’s car that evening, I was stealing ten minutes to catch up on the local news – I’d been so busy with the final flurry of tax season that I’d not been allowed a moment’s indulgence in the past few weeks – lounging on the arm of our couch with a bowl of Rainier cherries perched on my knees, a plastic keg cup into which I spit each subsequent cherry pit clutched in my right hand. With my left I fiddled with the remote, muting the volume so I could call hello to my husband, home after three days away at an academic conference in Des Moines.

“They wonder why no one is jumping at the chance to go,” Dan had joked a month ago, when informed where the conference series he was required to attend was held.

“Right?” I agreed. I’d been folding laundry during that particular conversation. Catching a towel beneath my chin to crease it, I added, “Shoot for Orlando or Vegas next year. Then you’ll get the whole department, with no complaints,” and was gratified by my husband’s laughter; I’d always been able to make him laugh so easily.

I heard Dan hanging up his coat, the closet opening as he stowed away his umbrella and briefcase, and then Jeff’s footsteps thumped across the floor upstairs; seconds later our fifteen-year-old leaned over the railing to catch a glimpse of his father in the entryway. Lisa’s bedroom door remained shut. Only a few years ago I would have heard her stereo blasting, but with the advent of smartphones and earbuds, my daughter might as well have resided on a distant planet. I’d come to realize I quite hated the silence, finding it louder than any blaring music; the press of quiet lodged in my ears like a recrimination.

Jeff called, “Hi, Dad! Welcome home.”

I stood and set aside both pit cup and remote, noticing a streak of purple-red juice that had dripped over my left breast, unmistakable against the light gray of my sweatshirt. I wore matching jogging pants, my hair slung in a low ponytail, my feet in fuzzy slipper-socks since the April air still retained a chilly bite. I rounded the corner a second ahead of my son, truly glad that Dan was back on this Friday evening, and felt the first splash of trepidation; something in the way his eyes met mine and held steady, conveying a silent message that only those married for many years – in our case, nearly twenty – can exchange. He remained stooped, tugging at a rain boot, the entryway lightbulb shining starkly against the small balding spot that had appeared on the very top of his head in the last year, picking out each individual hair follicle. For a horrible moment I was sure he was going to tell me he was ill. That he’d only just discovered this fact, and that I’d be left raising our children without him.

I was always one to leap to dramatic conclusions.

Oddly, my anxious initial inkling would prove closer to the truth than I could have imagined. Dan, it turned out, was not ill. In fact he’d never felt healthier. I would, however, be without him from roughly this week forth.

He’d said, “Aura,” in a voice I barely recognized. Standing to his full height, my husband regarded me with his brows and lips set in solemn lines. His gaze moved at once to Jeff, on my heels, and his entire expression changed as he smiled and held out both arms to his son; Jeff, though a high school sophomore, remained unashamedly a daddy’s boy, and hugged his father without compunction.

Dan ruffled Jeff’s thick, wavy hair, so very like his own, and said warmly, “Hi, bud. Where’s Lisa?”

“Upstairs texting Brent, where else?” Jeff said, referring to his sister’s boyfriend.

“You want to run and get her for me?” Dan asked, and another few inches seemed to bottom out of my stomach; other than speaking my name in a voice reserved for funerals, Dan hadn’t yet directly addressed me. I could tell he wanted us to have a moment alone, hence the request for Jeff to run up to Lisa’s room. I crossed my arms and pressed them hard against my midsection.

“Sure,” Jeff said with his usual affability, and jogged up the steps, hollering, “Lisa! Dad’s home!”

“What is it?” I asked instantly, not quite accosting my husband, but not far from it; I held my ground, feeling my erratic heartbeat against my crossed forearms. “What’s wrong, Dan?”

“Aura, I have something to tell you,” Dan began.

“I can see that,” I interrupted, and my voice emerged in a hoarse crackle. “And you’re freaking me out.”

Dan’s posture changed as he approached, wrapping me into his arms. I leaned against the familiar strength and scent of my husband and he tucked his chin over the top of my head, fitting me against his chest; my concern only amplified. This embrace left me with an absurd feeling of finality; Dan had returned from an academic conference in Des Moines to bid me farewell.

“Are you sick?” I demanded, pulling away and studying his tanned, handsome face, the periwinkle of his eyes. Dan’s irises were the clearest blue I’d ever seen, angelic-looking, a feature which he’d gifted Lisa. I had never seen an expression quite like the one blooming in my husband’s eyes just now. My heartrate ratcheted up another ten notches. I insisted, “Tell me.”

Dan kept hold of my shoulders and I could see what it cost him to deliver the words. Upstairs, our children were bickering about something. I heard the fridge resume its tuneless, intermittent hum. A car rumbled past on the wet pavement of the street outside. Lisa’s door slammed and Jeff’s footsteps were once again headed our way.

Dan said quietly, without challenge, “Aura, I’m gay.”


The landline rang later that very same night. April eleventh, a gray and sullen day, complete with weeping sky, had yet another blow to deliver before giving way to the twelfth; I groped for the phone on my nightstand, knocking it to the floor in my stupor of denial, in which I’d been wallowing since Dan’s announcement only hours ago. The bedside clock’s green display read 11:52.

“Shit,” I muttered, slogging over the edge of the mattress to catch up the cordless receiver. Maybe Dan was calling. Maybe he was going to tell me that this was all one big fucking joke. I brought it to my ear and croaked, “Hello?”

A small and trembling voice inquired, “Is this Aura Clausen?”

“Who’s this?” I demanded ungraciously, wrapping a hand over my aching forehead. I stretched out with my senses, hearing Jeff watching television in the living room but perceiving no trace of Lisa; after attending the short, tense, “family meeting” Dan requested to inform his children of his homosexuality, she had walked right out the front door and into the drizzling rain. I chased her, yelling after her, but she ran; her feet, clad only in socks, slapped against the drenched sidewalk. Dan immediately followed her in the car, but Lisa, never without her cell phone, had already called or texted Brent. Dutiful boyfriend that he was, Brent came to pick her up right at the corner on our street, near the orange fire hydrant Lisa had loved to climb atop as a little girl.

Look at me, I’m a fireman! Lisa would announce, showcasing her teeth as she grinned and bounced, riding the hydrant like a pint-sized pony.

Dan waited in the car, parked at the curb a couple blocks from our front door, until Lisa, stubbornly soaked to the skin, was safely inside Brent’s truck.

“This is Lillian Evans,” warbled the hesitant voice. “Do you remember me?”

I blinked into the gray dimness of my bedroom. The rain had finally stopped and I thought of a line from one of the kids’ old Dr. Seuss books, about how the drops stopped dropping so the storm could start stopping; it was funny how those old picture books stuck with your subconscious. I sat up and winced at the pain in my head but said honestly enough, “I do remember you. How…” I stumbled a little, but managed to ask, “How are you?”

And why the hell are you calling me?

“I’m so sorry to call this late,” Lillian rushed on, and I pictured the small, birdlike woman who, the last I knew anyway, was my father’s girlfriend. I imagined Lillian with the phone braced between one shoulder and her ear, wringing her hands – soft and wrinkled, her fingers decorated by silver-wire rings she crafted herself – as she added, “I mean, it must be really late there, what with the time difference. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” I muttered, gruff with impatience. I’d figured after Dan’s big news that nothing else could shock me, probably ever again. But I was wrong for the second time that night, and a needle of dread dug sharply into the silence before she spoke again.

With quiet dignity, Lillian said, “Your dad passed tonight, Aura.”

I bit back a hard lump of air, which then jammed the hollow space behind my breastbone. A buzzing filled my ear canals. I whispered, “What?”

Like heavy gray water cresting a crumbling dam, her words came gushing. I could tell she was crying, but it didn’t impede her rapid speech. “I took him in just after supper, I made him go in, I mean. He told me his chest hurt while I was making the cornbread, and I said, ‘Paul, let’s go to the ER.’ And he said, ‘It’s all right, Lil, don’t worry. You always make something out of nothing.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think it’s nothing,’ but we ate supper just the same. And then right after he lay down on the couch and I knew he was hurting. I said, ‘Paul, get in the car.’ I blame myself, I do. I should have bullied him into going before we ate.”

Unable to speak, I listened to her continued explanation.

“In the car he was having terrible gas. I’m sorry, I know that’s awful to tell you. And then he crumpled over in the passenger seat and I was so scared. I’ve never been so scared. He crumpled right over.” She gave way to weeping.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “Oh, my God.”

Lillian collected herself; I envisioned her pressing her knuckles to her lips before she said, “I got him to the ER and they wheeled him away, but he passed. He passed once they got him back there. My last sight of Paul was him getting…wheeled away…”

My first thought was, I want Dan.

And then I thought, selfish though it was, Goddammit, Dad. Why did you have to pick tonight to up and die on me?

Paul Leeward had not been the world’s worst father. In fact, he’d been a pretty darn good one, especially when I was little, before the advent of boys and backseats, cigarettes and pilfered booze, small-town teenage elements by which he quickly lost control of his only daughter. I felt an imaginary eulogy bubbling up inside my chest, settling in the small, dark space of my voice box, waiting for its subsequent delivery.

Our last name means ‘protected,’ he had told me when I was in second grade and crying about not having a mom like the other kids did. My father, an auto mechanic, possessed wide, flat fingernails constantly rimmed with a black semi-circle of grease. I recalled absently tracing my index finger over the unkempt nails of his right hand as he said, I wish I could protect you from all the ugliness in this world, honey-bear, but I can’t. But I promise to do my best. Our house will be like the leeward side of a mountain, how’s that? You can come in here and be sheltered from the outside world.

Our “house” had been a doublewide trailer with metal siding the color of dead daisies, boasting a view of a rundown playground possessing two swings – one with a broken chain – attached to poles faded even then to a muted mud color. Hard clumps of sand beneath a sheet-metal slide; the backs of my thighs burned if I slid down in the middle of a hot summer day. Dad took me there if he wasn’t too tired in the evening. Later, once I’d been deemed responsible enough, I could play at the park on my own. I saw my old self, my little-girl self, sitting on the swing whose chain was intact, poking listlessly with bare toes at an anthill erupting in the dirt, and was overwhelmed by a surge of self-pity so powerful I couldn’t draw a full breath; a hunk of lead settled upon my chest.

The exterior of our trailer was bleak, the yard consisting of a strip of concrete, a small, rusted-out charcoal grill, and Dad’s lawn chair; I made do with a sawed-off log for a seat. But Dad had always taken care to tend the hollyhocks that grew in a towering array of color on the south side of our home – bulbs planted by my mother in a burst of uncharacteristic sentimentality when I was one or two, shortly before her permanent exit from our lives. Five summers ago, the last time I’d visited Dad, the summer he’d put up the trailer for sale, the hollyhocks were in full, splendid bloom, well over six feet tall, scarlet and plum and magenta in color, friends I’d forgotten were there, patiently awaiting my return nonetheless. Dad was planning a move to Lillian’s place back then; she also lived in a trailer park, but one located the next town over, just across the Chippewa River in the northern Wisconsin countryside where I’d been born and raised. Dad had asked during that visit if I wanted to take anything from the trailer, but I hadn’t. My memories were more than enough baggage to haul around.

A different evening flashed through my mind, unbidden and wholly unpleasant, of Dad saying, If you need money, come to me. December, 1988, and I had just turned nineteen. Bon Jovi was crooning “Bad Medicine” on the radio atop the fridge and in the glow of the Christmas lights strung on our old tinsel tree, stationed as always on top of our TV, Dad had studied me with a somber set to his face; the wrinkles crisscrossing his forehead gouged deep crevices. He held a can of beer but had not popped the top, searching my eyes as though for clues, gauging a possible way to reach me. He said, I don’t have much, but enough that my daughter doesn’t have to work as a stripper. Jesus Christ, Aura.

But I make so much cash at the club, I’d had the audacity to counter. I’m saving it. I don’t need your money, Dad.

When Lisa was born, in February of 1994, Dan and I made a pact, at my insistence, that we never tell our kids that their mother made her living for a time as an exotic dancer. To this day, I had never revealed this personal fact to my children. It wasn’t that I was ashamed, exactly…

Your name is actually Aura? Randy had asked, rolling his office chair back and forth in a habitual motion I was later to become quite familiar with. He laughed and slapped his desk with the butts of both broad palms. That’s fucking priceless. I couldn’t come up with a better one myself. Shit.

Randy offered to buy me new breasts within the first three months, after I’d earned him a pile of money and in this way proven myself. I worked damn hard as a dancer, performing three weeks on, one off (which was typically the week of my period), and at that particular moment in my young life, I’d been short-sighted enough to believe I would continue down this career path until I met my goal of saving twenty thousand dollars, an arbitrary amount to which I’d never come close, always too quick to spend, rather than squirrel away, my cash. At least I had been smart enough to turn down the implants; I’d never had a single complaint about my breast size. Even at age forty-two and after nursing both my babies for the first year of their lives, my breasts still looked damn good.

My husband is gay, I thought, stunned anew at this alleged fact; I hadn’t yet overcome my disbelief, despite Dan’s sincerely heartfelt explanation delivered just hours ago in the living room, with the bowl of cherries and my pit cup adorning the coffee table. I’d listened to my husband speak candidly about his sexuality wearing a juice-stained sweatshirt and slipper-socks. Jeff’s mouth dropped open like something out of a cartoon, and stayed that way; he’d been that shocked. Lisa still hadn’t returned home. My mind would not bump beyond these things. Again I thought, My husband is gay. He wants to put his penis in other men instead of in me.

Dan was a graduate student at the university in Madison when I first met him, late November, 1990. He arrived at the club that night along with a bachelor party group, standard frat-boy fare, generic guys with Daddy’s money who drank plenty and expected favors of the blow-job variety, not that any of us obliged. I gave Dan a lap dance that very night, while he sat dutifully on his hands, as per club rules, and seemed unable to take his eyes from my face, which I’d found oddly endearing. He kept saying, You’re so beautiful. And then finally, You look like a woman Klimt would paint.

I’d heard buckets of compliments by that point in my career as a dancer – drunk men are especially free with them, most generally when your nipples are in the proximity of their eyebrows, but this was a first. I wasn’t familiar with the painter he’d named, uncertain if I’d even heard correctly over the club’s pumping music. Vanilla Ice was all the rage that autumn, and “Ice, Ice Baby” vibrated from the speakers. My hands were braced on Dan’s shoulders – though I hadn’t known his name then – wide shoulders, strong beneath his dress shirt; I remembered even now that his top two collar buttons had been undone. He was handsome in a very sensual way, with curved lips and wavy, honey-tinted hair, those clear blue eyes. Long eyelashes, almost as long as the falsies some of the girls at the club wore, and a serious demeanor I was completely unused to encountering. I’d been gliding rhythmically over his crotch, lightly grinding on him, letting my breasts brush his chin, and reflected that rarely did I notice such details about a man’s looks. Men were men were men as far as I was concerned, but Dan seemed different.

Encountering what probably looked a lot like pure skepticism on my face, he hurried to say, No, I mean it. Like the women he painted in his Golden Phase. Klimt actually used gold leaf in that particular phase, hence the name –

I had stopped moving, a little amazed at this explanation.

Dan apologized. He babbled, I’m just so nervous. I don’t know what to say or where to look. Or if I should even be talking right now.

Maybe that should have been my first clue, literally right in front of me the night we met.

But I'm still in love with him, I thought now, horribly wounded, raw with disbelief. What do I do about that?

Dan was so easy to love. He was kind, unfailingly patient, with students and strangers alike, a doting father. Even after what seemed like perhaps the most enormous marital confession outside of cheating, I couldn’t deny these attributes. He would have stayed in the house tonight, I knew, but I’d asked him to leave. Not in an angry way, not as an order or an ultimatum. No, it had been with quiet shock and bewilderment. I’d whispered, Please go, and he’d left without drama, collecting his coat and the car keys, hugging Jeff and promising to call us in the morning. He said, I understand. I didn’t ask where he was going, nor did he offer.

Perhaps a minute had ticked by as Lillian continued waiting for me to speak, while I lay steeped in memories. I thought, My dad is dead.

And for the first time in a very long time, sobs heaved against the barrier of my breastbone.


Morning came at long last, a sunny dawn spilling over the windowsill with no regard for my shattered emotional state. I’d slept not at all but proved too exhausted for much tossing and turning; instead I spent the passing hours flat on my spine, wrists draped over my eyes. If I’d had the power to flip a switch and mute my thoughts, I would have paid any amount to do so.

The word why swimming through my head would not be quietly drowned.

Dan was a gentle lover, a considerate one. When we were first married, I’d orgasmed pretty regularly; he was always slow and steady inside my body, getting me there eventually even if I would never have described our lovemaking as incredibly hot, or wild. It was simply good enough, and after three years of stripping I was more than ready for a man who didn’t all but slobber at the sight of my vagina. Who didn’t flick a dollar bill my way for the privilege. After Lisa was born, Dan and I didn’t make love as often but I’d expected that, especially with the advent of a colicky baby girl; once Jeff came along, two years later, Dan and I were lucky to find time every other week to sneak in a quick round of sex. Every other week dwindled to every other month; these days, he held me and stroked my hair far more often than anything else. I couldn’t actually recall the last time he’d shucked his pajama bottoms in bed.

Remember when he told you on your fifth anniversary that he felt like it degraded you to give him head?

Shouldn’t that have been another clue? What man doesn’t want oral sex?

It was a crude thought but I hadn’t slept for a minute and enervation claimed the upper hand in my mind. Lisa had crept inside about an hour ago, tiptoeing up the steps and to her room; the soft click of her door closing was almost imperceptible over the sound of Jeff snoring from the living room couch. No one had eaten supper last night, even though I’d made corn-flake chicken casserole, a perennial favorite in our house. Surely the big red casserole dish containing it was still sitting front and center on the stovetop, awaiting our family, unless Jeff had thought to put it in the fridge.

Our family.

Hot tears welled in my sore, grainy eyes and I draped a forearm over them, blocking out all sight of the advancing day. I did not want the sun to shine so benignly; I needed storm clouds today, heavy pewter ones that would broil menacingly across the sky, perhaps kind enough to strike me dead with a stray bolt of lightning. It wasn’t that I was a coward (nor did I truly have a death wish); I simply did not want to deal with Day One, the first day of knowing my husband was gay, the day I would have to tell my kids that their grandpa in Wisconsin was dead, the last grandparent they’d had. Yesterday I’d been blissfully unaware of these giant stumbling blocks in my life. Yesterday my dad had been alive and I could have called him one last time. I could have said, Hey Dad, I know I haven’t always been the best daughter, but I know you loved me. I know you did the best you could, but you were an alcoholic and had your own demons. I get it, I really do. At least you stuck around.

Oh, Jesus Christ…

What will I do now?

I realized I could not hide out in bed, no matter how tempting; I bundled into my quilted yellow robe, one that perpetually smelled like my honeysuckle-scented hand lotion and was as comforting as a child’s favorite stuffed animal. I’d no sooner secured the tie around my waist when a hesitant tapping on the bedroom door sent my heart into a frenzy of wild beating. My first thought was, Dan? Had he returned to talk? Should I proceed to let my anger surge as I had not last night, to tell him exactly what I thought of his little announcement? The trouble was, I wasn’t even sure; I was still buried beneath the weight of shock. Before I could speak, my son whispered, “Mom? You up?”

Sweet Jeffy. When we brought him home from the hospital Lisa had peered down into the bassinet and wrinkled up her forehead. Curling her little fingers around the top edge, not yet willing to touch the baby, she asked, “Is he going to live with us for always, Mama?”

“He sure is, sweet pea,” Dan had answered for me, lifting Lisa into his arms and bouncing her. “You’re his big sister. He’ll always look up to you!”

At just over six feet in height, Jeff looked up to neither Lisa or me these days, but in all other ways he quietly worshiped his big sister; I understood that children were each different, were possessed of their own personalities and peculiarities, but mine could not have been more opposite had they willingly tried. Jeffy was inherently kind, like his dad, considerate of others’ feelings, quick to blush with uncertainty, to lend a hand without being asked; he was not one to offer his opinion, had been so painfully shy in elementary school that his teachers sent home concerned notes and wondered aloud at conferences what we could do to help encourage him to speak up. He’d retained a dear tendency to lean his cheek on my upper arm, plunking beside me on the couch and resting his face against my shoulder; this tenderness never failed to turn my heart into something resembling melted ice cream.

I knew, however, that Dan had been the better parent overall. I was in no way attempting at melodrama, or self-pity; it was simply true and I was honest enough with myself to admit this. Dan was patient; where I often lost my cool, shouting, threatening a grounding or loss of other coveted privileges, Dan would speak in measured tones, offering advice or, more often, a well-meaning story geared toward a higher understanding of said issue. And I’d never been aggravated by my husband’s ability to retain calm; in fact, I’d been relieved that our children listened to him, alleviating me from having to further deal with their anger. Lisa and I – so very similar in temperament, though I’d done my best over the years to refrain from throwing this fact in my daughter’s face – butted heads with exhausting frequency, and had since she was roughly six months old. I loved my kids more than I’d known I was capable of loving anything or anyone, even Dan; motherhood awoke a ferocity of love that startled me from the moment Lisa was born, and which never failed to alarm with its capacity to leave me vulnerable, more vulnerable than any sane person wants to be, ever.

It was more that I showed love differently than Dan; I was reserved, less demonstrative, I knew this. Dan was the hugger, effortlessly affectionate, the one to whom the kids ran if they’d fallen off their bike and needed consoling; at least, if he wasn’t at work. I’d acknowledged early in our marriage that if any task requiring confrontation was required, I had to step up. I didn’t resent this. Instead, I congratulated myself time and again that I’d found a man who was not only incredibly handsome but tenderhearted and emotional, who put my feelings before all else. So what if he left it up to me to challenge the extra charge on our car repair bill, or the neighborhood bully’s equally tyrannical mother; Dan simply wasn’t a hothead. And after years of dating (and/or just sleeping with) hotheads, I could only appreciate my sweet husband. Surely I wasn’t in a position to complain about him; he loved me and I loved him, and could not have asked for a more wonderful father figure for my children. I’d never in all our years of marriage considered that he was hiding a painful secret.

“When did you realize?” I’d asked last night, as though if he was able to pinpoint the moment it might make some difference.

Dan said quietly, “I’ve always known in my heart of hearts, honey.” The endearment rolled from his tongue without guile; it was so him to refer to me with such tenderness. It served only to further shred my heart. He’d rested his gaze upon Lisa and Jeff, including them as he explained, “Since I was a boy, I knew I liked other boys. You can’t imagine how difficult it was to feel like I was bad or wrong for feeling that way. I submerged it for as long as I was able, and it in no way negates the love that your mother and I share.” His earnest blue eyes came back to my face as he whispered, “I will always love you, Aura, and take care of you. I just can’t love you like…that, not anymore.”

I restrained a flinch with all of my strength. The bulge in my throat nearly impaired my ability to respond, but I whispered, “As difficult as sitting here listening to you say these things to us, I suppose.”

Dan only shook his head, slow and resigned. Ancient pain flickered over his features as he disagreed quietly. “No. You have no idea how difficult living a lie is, Aura, you couldn’t. It was killing me.”

Couldn’t I? I wanted to scream, feeling the words rising like an arson fire started in my chest, intent on creating a blazing inferno of our living room. Only the presence of the kids kept me from really letting go. Aren’t you sitting here telling me that our entire marriage has been a lie?

“Mom?” Jeff repeated now, dragging me from my thoughts.

I opened the door to see my son standing in the hallway, the picture of dejection. His wavy hair hung in a mess of snarls and puffy shadows bloomed in shades of plum beneath his eyes, which were russet-brown in color, just like mine. He wore the same clothes from yesterday, now much-wrinkled, and tears tracked his face the moment I appeared. He dove into my arms and clung, bending his forehead to my neck.

“Aw, baby,” I whispered, furious at Dan for putting the kids through this torture, even as the reasonable, rational part of my brain (albeit numb just now) acknowledged that continuing to live a lie was fathoms worse than his confession. I realized afresh that I would have to tell Lisa and Jeff about their grandfather this morning, in addition to everything else.

“Is Dad still gone?” Jeff mumbled, drawing away and swiping his knuckles over both cheeks. “He didn’t come back last night?”

I drew enough of a breath to reply, “No, sweetie, he didn’t. But he said we’d talk more today.”

“I feel like Dad was just lying, that what he said wasn’t really real,” Jeff went on, his voice gruff, emerging deeper than usual. His cheeks were still sleep-flushed. “Like he was telling some joke and today he’s going to come home and tell us that he didn’t mean any of it.”

As much as I wanted to perpetuate this comforting delusion, and had in fact indulged in it last night, I said firmly, “Jeff. I know it’s hard, it’s an outright shock, but your dad was not lying. He meant what he said,” and though it was really fucking difficult right then, I mustered up the will to add, “Think about how tough it must have been for him to tell us the truth. Think about how Dad is probably suffering right now.”

“So, does he have a boyfriend?” This angry, accusatory question flew like a little arrow from the direction of Lisa’s room, where her door was open roughly two inches.

I entered my daughter’s bedroom without knocking, not something I usually dared these days, the same space she’d called her own since we’d first moved into this house in North Seattle, a quiet suburban neighborhood near the university where Dan taught art history. Lisa had been just over a year old and the bones of the room were relatively unchanged since those days, despite the overflowing mess created by a seventeen-year-old’s belongings – the walls were still painted a cheerful shade of warm peach, the oak floorboards covered by two round throw rugs of braided rag that appeared to have been crafted by a beloved great-granny; an overstuffed chair embroidered in bluebell-patterned chintz was positioned near the double, west-facing windows and a narrow floor lamp topped by a shade decorated with dangling amber beads. The bedspread was the quilt we’d purchased at an Amish furniture store back in Wisconsin during a long-ago summer visit, hand-pieced in a traditional heart-and-nine pattern in predominantly blue tones.

The difference was the feeling that punched at me when I entered her room now, the subtle undercurrent of aggravation that colored Lisa’s attitude toward me. The readiness to argue, to provoke a response; I reflected anew upon the irony that the child I had the most difficulty dealing with, wanted to throttle about every other day, was the one most like me. I progressed no farther than the doorway, keeping one hand on the porcelain knob, studying Lisa’s bare lower leg poking from beneath the mounded bedcovers, her toenails painted a glittering raspberry; it was the only part of her visible. I was not falling prey to blind maternal subjectivity when I acknowledged that my daughter was beautiful; she really was, and I dreaded the chance of Lisa discovering the truth of my past far more than Jeff. I knew all too well what a good-looking young woman with a gigantic, sense-obscuring chip on her shoulder was capable of doing to rebel.

Lisa’s coloring was closer to Dan’s: skin that tanned easily and without a freckle in sight, those clear-blue eyes and wavy hair which caught the sun in its honey strands. When had her girlish and engaging smile turned slightly coy? When had she started to wear clothing that accented her curvy hips and long legs, her flat belly? About the time boys began looking twice – and boys (and plenty a grown man) had been eyeing my daughter for the past few years. I was honest, and blunt, enough to acknowledge that this sort of attention held tremendous power over a young woman, was something unduly heady and dangerously intoxicating; hadn’t I once reveled in being noticed? In earning whistles and winks, and eventually invitations to go for a drive, a date? I knew every trick in the book, excuses and lies and how to cover my own tracks. I’d given my poor father a harder time than he’d ever deserved; even though he’d certainly never attempted to hide the scent of booze on his breath, or the lingering aroma of tobacco on his work shirt.

It was an old song, sung many a time, and maybe I was a goddamn fool for thinking I had the power to change anything. God knew I’d granted my children a far better start in life than that which I’d been allowed; a spacious and tasteful house in a pretty Northwestern community, home-cooked meals, new clothes and music lessons; enrollment in science summer camps, or soccer, depending; civic theater programs and bi-annual vacations to tropical resorts. And by far the most important, a home in which dwelled two loving parents, both gainfully employed (I was a completely respectable accountant these days, though Dan earned enough that I typically only worked from January through Tax Day).

Lisa had never known poverty or abandonment, had never been expected to continually shoulder household duties best completed by an adult (never mind a clumsy preteen), had never witnessed the aftereffects of her father’s sporadic drunken benders or been ashamed to bring friends home for a sleepover. She’d instead lived in a home where alcohol was consumed only occasionally and never without restraint, had been assigned reasonable chores to earn allowance, completed her nightly homework at our cherrywood dining table with the scent of dinner drifting from the kitchen and me to offer any assistance; the bottom line was, she had no reason to rebel. No reason to defy me or openly act out – except for perhaps the maddening inevitability of my genes comprising a full half of her.

Even so, I stubbornly refused to believe that my Lisa Louise (Lisa Lou, as we’d once called her with affectionate regularity and to which she refused to answer these days) would stray down any dark paths it was within the realm of my ability to prevent. I pursed my lips and released a quiet, elongated breath, girding my loins for dealing with that which I was required to today. Jeff joined me in his sister’s doorway, resting a shoulder on the opposite frame, and heaved a world-weary sigh.

I finally said, “Dad doesn’t have a boyfriend. At least, not that he mentioned.” I slogged on, admitting, “That would be extremely difficult for us to hear, but you two aren’t little anymore, and you know we might have to deal with that in the future.” Surely we would have to deal with it, but I purposely kept it ambiguous for now.

Excerpt, Grace of a Hawk

For a time I drifted along in the lazy current that exists at the edge of sleep, thinking on my father; I imagined he was truly sitting alongside the fire and so there seemed to be two of him, the one in my mind and the one lit by embers. He sat whittling a chunk of blackgum wood, shaping it with his smallest paring knife. His features were highlighted by the red blaze, lit from beneath; his nose created a long shadow and his pupils were tinted orange. Goddamn, he muttered, and used the knife to skillfully nick a little mistake from the wood in his hands. Humming under his breath, as he always did.

Daddy, I whispered, and my boots twitched as though to get up, scraping the ground with a quick jerk. I wanted to go to him and feel him put his hand over my shoulder. When he put his hand over my shoulder I felt safer than a fox snug in its den for the winter. I felt loved, and cherished. I felt as though my life meant something beyond what it probably rightly did. And it had been so damn long since I’d felt that way. I craved it, the way a body craves a soft bed and a solid night’s rest. A different craving than for that of a woman, but equally as potent, in its own way.

My boy, Daddy whispered, and seemed to be crouching near my head now, the glittering ruby mass of embers visible between his boots. And I was his boy in that instant, no longer a former soldier and full-grown, but a boy who wished to burrow and be enclosed in the protection of his father’s embrace. I fancied, half-asleep, that I had been poured into a warm cup, neatly contained and unable to be harmed, from that moment forth. I wanted my daddy to take that cup and hold it between his palms, forever.

A man ain’t nothing without a family, you hear me, boy?

He spoke in his low voice, close to my ear. I caught the familiar, comforting scents of him, tobacco leaf from his clothes and whiskey on his breath; I was exhausted and slipped another few inches along the low grade that descended into the cavern of sleep. I tried to ask him another question, but my jaws wouldn’t flap. Eyes closed, I promised, I hear you, Daddy.

Wake up, son. Wake up, he insisted, and I heard the sudden marked change in his tone, now urgent. He put his hand on my shoulder and shook, his gaze directed away from me now, out into the prairie.

The boy Theodore made a small groaning sound and kicked in his sleep, jerking me to sudden full consciousness. I sat upright, staring wildly about for my father, but of course he was gone – a dream, nothing more. Conjured up to comfort myself as I lay in a fitful doze. The prairie was dark as a length of cloth cut for a burying suit, the waxing moon having tumbled beyond the western edge of the world. Turning away from the fire sent a chill over my exposed skin and I made certain that Malcolm was rolled tightly in his blanket. He was, and snoring as usual, the last of the red glow highlighting his freckles and serving to clench up my heart – he looked his age, younger even, in sleep, and it scared me.

Beyond me, a few dozen steps out, Fortune whickered as if she knew I was awake. Crickets scraped their tuneless song and all around the tall grass sighed and rustled; I reminded myself, twice, that I was no longer a soldier. No more would Federals, real or imagined, creep close as I slept, wishing to pierce my ribs with a musket blade. I sighed and rolled back into my blanket, but hardly a minute ticked past before I relented, admitting that I could not shake the distinct sense of watchful eyes somewhere out in the darkness. I leaned and drew my rifle closer to my body, keeping a hand curled loosely about the receiver, and felt a measure safer.

Then, uncertain exactly why other than to quiet a small but persistent voice in my head, I rose without a sound and stepped deliberately away from the fire’s faint glow, allowing nothing more than a gut feeling to guide my feet. Keeping my rifle in the crook of my arm, aimed low, and the fire where my brother slept at the corner of my sight, I crept southeast, staring intently as my eyes adjusted, peering at the wavering line where the grass met the sky. Mundane objects, trees and the like, took on monstrous forms – just as they had when I was soldiering and the half-sick fear I’d felt at any given moment distorted the natural shape of things. Treading with care over the uneven ground, slightly hunched, grass scratching knee-high at my trousers, I thought, Where the hell are you? I know you’s out there.

My silent, wary steps carried me well away from the fire; I felt as though I was hunting, stalking game that might at any given second spring to motion before my eyes. Not wanting to seem a fool and yet unable to cease the motion, I went to one knee and swiped a handful of loose, dusty dirt, spreading this carefully along the barrel of my piece, to smudge out any telltale metallic glinting. I brought the stock to my shoulder, sweeping to the right, peering down the barrel. I wanted to taunt, to call into the night that I knew he was there, but that would give away my exact position. Whoever in the goddamn hell he was, I longed to flush him as I would quarry – quarry I would then corner and claim. Despite the chill in the night’s air, a belligerent stubborn heat kept my bones adequately warm.

You’s acting right ridiculous, I thought, but I did not lower my rifle even as I reprimanded myself. Letting your wits get addled, like you always done as a boy. Acting no older than Malcolm, an’ even he’d know better than to let his imagination take hold this way.

I swept slowly to the left.

Nothing.

The night was still as a severed limb. I strained to listen, ripples of awareness creeping along my scalp. He was close. I knew this. I hunkered lower and drew tighter my piece, and it was then that I heard the low, muted hoot of an owl – my hair near stood on end – and immediately after, the faint but distinct sound of shifting grass stalks. Someone was hiding in them, moving quietly along the prairie. Not far south of my position the rustlings came – I’d been right in this assumption; someone tailed us. Sweat slid down my temples and made damp my neck.

I’ll find you, bastard, I thought, edging closer. For once in my life I took no satisfaction in being proven right. If I caught him in my sites, I would take him out – no time for questions. Shoot first, ask questions later, in my opinion. My heart galloped, striking my ribs as solidly as a horse’s rearing hooves. I crept forward, watching for any hint of movement ahead.

Where are you?

Who are you?

And then, sudden as a deer bolting from cover he rose to his feet, a smudge only a little darker than the night sky, roughly ten yards from my position – the crack of a discharging rifle snapped straight my spine and I roared in anger, the sound lost in the bullet’s report. I returned fire, the stock slapping my shoulder with gratifying power. I chambered a second round and fired after his retreating figure, to no avail – some hell of a shot you are, I derided myself – and then I was up and in pursuit. I heard nothing but the swollen bursts of my angry breath, my ears muffled from both shots, the world narrowing to a furious, red-gray corridor.

The ground slammed the soles of my boots, my throat dry and tight, the rifle slick in my grasp. He fled afoot, a blur of motion only paces ahead, the both of us trampling prairie grass as we ran. My free hand bunched into a hard fist, ready to beat him to death the moment I clenched hold. He was a fleet son of a bitch, I’d give him that, and this thought had scarce cleared my mind before he leaped to the side, seeming to disappear. My brain stumbled to the conclusion faster than my feet; I skidded to a halt and then instantly to a crouch – not a moment too soon, as his rifle discharged again. The bullet made a high-pitched zinging whine in its deadly flight. I prayed, Please let Malcolm stay put.

The round struck the dirt only arm’s length from my right side.

Goddammit, the bastard is a good shot.

I cursed, ducking lower still, blood hopping. A few seconds passed, in which I heard only my labored breath. Then another few, until an unmistakable sound met my ears.

A horse, I realized, and flew to my feet to see him running again. His mount was undoubtedly tethered out there, waiting. He appeared no bigger than the top joint of my thumb by now, a blur in the distance; he’d bought himself time by firing at me. I knew I had no hope of running many yards back to Fortune and then overtaking him on horseback, especially in the dark. I aimed the rifle as squarely as I was able on a moving target and fired. My shot missed its mark; he kept running. I wasted another round, cursing the darkness, but he was out of sight.

The excited stir occasioned by my shooting match allowed for no chance at stealing a few hours’ sleep. Malcolm ran to meet me as I stalked back to the fire, hollering fit to wake those already dead and buried, clutching Gus’s rifle. His dark eyes were wide and agitated; he insisted upon knowing everything that had happened before I could even open my yap. Kristian stood over Theodore with his pistol at the ready – the boy cowered low to the ground, surely at Kristian’s instructions – both father and son watching me with stun as I neared, Malcolm dogging my elbow.

I ran a hand through my sweating hair and admitted, “I don’t know what in the hell just happened.”

“Someone was shooting at you, that is what happened,” Kristian said, his voice shaking with concern, but I detected anger as well. He cried, “Who was shooting at you?”

Irrational though it might be, my temper flared. I yelled, “Whoever the hell it was intended to kill us while we slept, for all I know! Likely I saved us!”

“It is my belief that ill luck stalks you,” Kristian said, holstering his piece and motioning to the boy. “Come, Teddy, let us go. We will stay no longer with these people.”

I could hardly believe my ears. I demanded, “What do you mean, ill luck?”

Kristian answered as he collected their gear, clearly preparing to depart despite the early hour. He explained, eyes now averted, “Storms destroy your belongings and steal your money, and now men shoot at you in the night hours. I have not heard of such ill luck striking one man in a week’s time and this is why we will take our leave from you now. Son, fetch your mule,” he said, more kindly, and in short order the two of them were ready to ride.

Rigid with angry energy, I observed in disbelief; even Malcolm had no words. Kristian made sure the boy was settled before claiming his own saddle and then regarded us with a long face. Theodore watched silently. Consternated, I offered no farewell.

“May better fortunes find you.” Kristian spoke somberly, and then heeled his mount.

A cold thread seemed to tighten around the bones in my spine but I refused to let his words upset me. Malcolm and I stood side-by-side and watched them depart. Theodore, his mule trailing a step or two behind, looked back once before they disappeared from our sight.

Excerpt, Carvers

Day One
Blood welled from Henry’s temple and seeped between his dirty knuckles, cascaded over his open collar and there bloomed, in the fashion of the thick red dye Granny pressed from ripe summer raspberries. The garish color smeared the lithe brown fingers Aurelia had witnessed in a hundred, a thousand, distinct movements – curled around the slim metal column of his rifle barrel, thumb extended; in a loose fist about the worn leather straps of Quincy’s reins; those hard, familiar knuckles forming a ridge of peaks as he gripped his skinning knife, plow handle, or the smooth, rounded bowl of his walnut-hewn pipe; roughing up the coarse hair on Old Joe’s shaggy, devoted head; parting from their small, secretive slits the little pearl buttons which ran the length of her good Sunday blouse.

She could not reconcile the sight of Henry’s sturdy, capable hand in its current state – trembling, scrabbling, fumbling in an attempt to restrain the ebb of his life.

Gasping soprano cries, tainted by desperate disbelief, fled her open lips as birds escaping a burning house. Her own hands fluttered; pale, defenseless moths with no wish to alight upon that gaping, shiny, scarlet-edged horror. Alighting upon it would force an acknowledgment of it, and all the other horrors crowding for attention at the borders of her perception as she knelt on the unforgiving ground –

Quincy on his flank, pawing the air with his left front foreleg in a weak and fading refrain; the horse’s high-pitched shrieking had reduced to a snuffling whimper.

The covered wagon from which she’d clambered, falling over her skirts, bruising her knees and thwacking her elbow, had become nothing more than a silhouette on the horizon some sixty running paces away, an oblong shape against a delicate blue sky; the team of mules hitched to it watched with hides and ears twitching.

Her tongue scraped her lips as she tried to speak her husband’s name. She bent her body around his huddled form, sheltering him, her skirts shackling her booted ankles. A benign August sun perched at its warm noon zenith; no shadows were cast as Henry twisted to his right, seeking Aurelia’s face. He knew was dying as surely as Aurelia knew it in that moment, but he rallied his wits and reached to grasp her wrist. Sunlight created a nimbus about his wife’s head and Henry blinked, uncertain if he was still alive. His vision hazed and he could no longer discern Aurelia’s individual features. He tasted blood as he instructed, “Turn back, love. Turn back for Missouri…”
And then, only seconds later, she was alone.

Where does a soul go, immediately after death?
It must go someplace.

Does it flee upward and soar with the unencumbered exultation of a hawk, at last released from the physical constraints of human form? Does it hover for a time, perhaps a mere arms’ length above those left behind, close enough to touch if touch remained possible?

Is enlightenment immediate, uncertainties stripped away as cleanly as bands of animal flesh beneath a butcher’s blade? Direction and purpose instantaneously gifted to the departed, senses sharpened, heightened, self-doubt no longer an inhibiting cloak.

Or is there simply nothing? A shell of tissue gone limp, a body already in the process of becoming dust from the moment the final breath escapes. No joyous reunion with previous generations long deceased. No enchanted flight to the biblical realm in which they’d been versed as restless children in Sunday school.

Aurelia would not speak the word dead, not even in her mind. The word that loomed, yanking at her hair and buzzing in her ear canals, was remains.

The remains of Henry Joseph Savage.

Henry Joseph Savage, second son of Joseph Theobald and Alice Sibley Savage, born the first day of August in the year of 1832. A Wednesday.

Wednesday’s child is full of woe.

Flights of fancy, Aurelia dear, you are dreadfully prone to them
.

The Paterson, a heavy .36-caliber Colt revolving rifle, proved clumsy in Aurelia’s sweating grip. The barrel slipped, forcing her to reposition the small, round nose on Quincy’s jaw; she imagined the flickering beat of the animal’s pulse beneath the barrel. The broken gelding appeared lifeless except for the continuing rise and fall of his ribcage; Aurelia refused to allow Henry’s beloved Morgan trotting stallion to suffer any further.

Aurelia Anne Carver, firstborn of Emmett James and Elspeth Anne Carver, born the thirteenth day of October in the year of 1836. A Thursday.

Thursday’s child has far to go.

Dawdling in daydreams again, little one?


The bullet’s report sent birds fanning in great, sweeping arcs, its black echo ringing over the peaceful prairie in rippling blasts of sound.

Quincy’s remains were now rendered as immobile as his master’s. Man and horse lay perhaps ten steps apart.

Henry. My husband.

Numb with stupefaction, Aurelia could not weep; no tears fell to wet his dirty face or bloodstained shirt. After shooting his horse she lay at his side, rested her head upon the cold rock of his shoulder and hooked her right arm across his torso, creating a wretched tangle of half-living, half-dead humanity.

Henry Joseph Savage and Aurelia Anne Carver, joined in holy matrimony at the Leland Township Church of Christ on the third day of June in the year of 1854. A Saturday.

It had been a day drenched in sunshine. Aurelia wore roses, lovingly divested of their thorny stems, in her coronet of braids, and the sun spilled over her upturned, beaming countenance. The deep pink scent of the blossoms lingered in her hair, Henry said, as he unwound its heavy length much later that evening, and there buried his face.

Henry’s blood was upon her skin today. That night, June third, 1854, hers had been the blood upon his, the evidence of her innocence discoloring his distended flesh after its entrance within her body. She recalled her wedding night as one of her most cherished memories; Henry’s warm and knowing hands guided her past any hesitance.

Blood had now dried and stiffened his collar. Blood crusted along the edges of the wound opened upon his temple and gathered in his beard, lending a rusty tint to his hair. One of his eyes remained slightly open, the salvia-petal blue of his iris no longer visible, only a narrow white strip where the eyelids would not meet. The sun had shifted to an hour past noon.

She attempted to lift his broad torso, threading her slender, wiry arms beneath his shoulders, and knew she would never manage to carry him to the wagon. The sky, viewed through a thick lens of debilitating shock and grief, appeared the sickly green of spoiled vegetables. Indeed, all light bouncing from the rolling, grassy earth and entering Aurelia’s skull via her eye sockets induced nausea. She could scarcely muster the requisite wits to return to the wagon, haul herself over the front wheel, situate upon the seat, and release the brake. She flicked the reins across the mules, setting them into motion, wracked anew with terror that she would fail to see Henry’s remains, invisible to her from this current vantage point, and drive the wagon straight over him.

Damned if she would bury him here in the Territory prairie, alone with no grave marker. He had ordered her to return to the States and so she would; never mind that she hadn’t but the slimmest margin of success in the completion of this intention. Henry’s remains would accompany her and she would see to it that he was properly interred near his parents and the three sisters lost in childhood, there amid the quiet oak grove in the Leland churchyard, the Illinois town in which they had both been raised from infancy. She would get word to Cull, somehow.

As of this morning, Monday the sixth of August, 1855, they were some five weeks west of the Missouri border.


Night took its time arriving.

The prairie had proven a manageable force with Henry at her side. Alone within its vastness, wrapped double in her wedding quilt and still as chilled as a winter window, Aurelia was more elementally frightened than she could recall in over eighteen years of existence.

It happened so quickly. I turned my eye for no more than a heartbeat.

So quickly.

Was death stalking us these many empty miles, biding its time?

So quickly.

They had ventured forth from Independence over a month past, just before dawn in the grayling light, and beheld the sunrise a few miles west of the bustling river town, Aurelia’s hand tucked in the curve of her husband’s elbow, the two of them abreast on the wagon seat. Henry had padded the boards with a folded quilt, especially for her; Aurelia, no stranger to hard work or handling livestock, had been content with driving the mules during the uneventful journey from Illinois to Independence, Missouri, while Henry ranged in small arcs, riding Quincy, often as not with a grin upon his lips as he beheld the wide path that led to their future.

“Would you look at that,” he had murmured of that first sunrise outside the boundaries of the United States. “Couldn’t ask for a prettier sign than that, Ree, what do you say?”

Indeed, the heavens had spoken of abounding promises that morning. A smooth breast of rich saffron sky laced with stripes of long cobalt clouds and dotted by smaller, plum-tinted puffs; it was a sunrise worthy of an artist’s canvas. There were many blessings piled upon their shoulders in that moment; had she dared to take them for granted?

So quickly.

Oh dear Lord, I cannot go onward.


This night’s moon was in the process of setting, a slim, curving crescent of purest ivory following along with Aurelia, the mules, and Henry’s remains. She was so cold she was certain her limbs had been overtaken with frostbite, though in truth the August evening was one of calm, balmy beauty. Nature has no regard for human sensibilities; what should have been a ravaged, shrieking sky, razed soot-black by the ferocity of her grief, the earth below carved in hollow pits by the depth of her loss, instead displayed a creamy lavender face, decorated by the tilted smile of a waning moon, beset by crystalline star-jewels. No wind to mar the creaking passage of large wheels over the uneven ground, the steady plodding of eight nimble hooves; mules were more surefooted than all but the slenderest of Morgan horses, a breed long favored by Henry’s father.

The wagon rumbled past the brushy outcropping of cottonwoods that lined the small creek they had forded only yesterday.

What if we pass the ghosts of ourselves on this same path?

Only a day since, she and Henry had traveled this exact stretch of prairie, headed west with no notion of the dreadful events that would soon transpire. Aurelia found she could not reconcile this moment with that one; had she truly passed so blithely along that selfsame wagon track, conversing with Henry, a part of her mind happily engaged in spinning images of things yet to come – but pleasant things, of course – baking bread within the walls of her own home on their own land; nailing the handstitched curtains over the window; collecting late-summer wildflowers to arrange in a canning jar on the hearth? Henry had promised a stone hearth.

Foolish, childish, pitiful.

It was all a lie, she realized, watching the light fade from the matched mules’ gray hides. Images of things never to happen.

What trick of hell entered her consciousness now – from beyond her shoulder came the sound of feeble, straining breath and in that instant she knew Henry was restored. Returned to the world of the living; not dead, as she had believed. Twenty yards shy of the creek she drew on the reins so hard she toppled to an elbow as the team obediently came to a halt, the contents of the wagon so tightly-packed that it did not, likewise, shift position. Henry, bound within a quilt long ago pieced by his mother, lay motionless at the rear of the wagon. Aurelia scrambled over trunks and tins, hearing the harsh inhalations of breath; she tore the quilt covering from Henry’s face, crying his name, shaking his shoulder. So desperately did she cleave to the fantasy that he was miraculously awakened that it was not until her lips met the cold, unanimated flesh of his face that she realized.

The breath was none but hers.

She screamed then, a wailing, grating cry. She ripped at her hair, snatched the broach from her dress and flung it among their belongings, clawed her arms and cheeks until blood slicked along in hot trails, painting red ribbons on her skin. The wooden ribs that supported the canvas appeared to twitch, then spin. She felt as though the entire covering would close over her head if she remained within its confines and so bolted from the small oval opening and over the tailgate, falling to hands and knees and crawling away from that terrible, smothering space in which lay her husband’s remains.

The crescent moon was but a finger’s width from the long, flat horizon that would one day consist of part of the state of Nebraska. But for tonight it was simply a Territory prairie upon which a young widow collapsed to her side and screamed until her throat would issue no further sound. The prairie had mutely witnessed its share of death, eons’ worth, bones hidden in the fertile earth to the horizon, and then some, on all sides. Aurelia was not alone there among the calcium-rich soil comprised of more bones than there were stars in the quadrant of sky arching above her; she functioned as the exact center of a circle of passing life, darkness leaching the color from her faded homespun dress and long hair, which shone with the richness of chestnuts by day.

Bats, small and brown, fluttered in the mellow air above, feasting upon mosquitoes. Fireflies glinted between the stalks of prairie grass, darting as though at play. Nightingales and meadowlarks, mourning doves, mockingbirds, wrens, jays and sparrows; each called and chirped as the sun disappeared and dragged with it the sixth of August, 1855. The same day would never come again but sure enough the exact sun would rise upon the exact stretch of prairie tomorrow, and Aurelia would call it Tuesday, August the seventh.

The mules required care. If not for them, she may have simply waited for death to find and subsequently claim her; the notion of joining Henry in whatever lay beyond flirted in a dangerous fashion with her usual good sense. Perhaps she would even have hastened its inevitability; the Paterson was again tucked beneath the wagon seat and they possessed ample ammunition. Henry’s skinning knife was secure in its leather scabbard, should she have decided that simple starvation and exposure were too long in producing the same end result.
But the mules would be left to slowly wither and die, and Aurelia could not allow that. She knew that even if she unhitched them they would only remain standing near the wagon, awaiting command. They were well-behaved to a fault.

She was so cold. Coldness crept beneath her skin, reaching the interiors of her bones and the smooth curves of her internal organs, hardening her blood. She could not rectify the coldness. It was beyond mending. She lay with shoulder blades flat upon the ground, having beaten herself to silence, and stared at the canvas of nightfall. The moon had set. Stars blazed but she was blind to their magnificence. Dew seeped through her garments. The cloth binding she wore during her monthly bleedings grew inundated and served to further soak her skirts.

No baby, she thought.

She placed her fingertips upon her face; the bones circling her eye sockets seemed impossibly delicate, thin as willow wands. Her eyes felt unpleasantly jellylike. Blue, like Henry’s, but a paler hue, and flecked with bits of rust and gilt, like gold beneath creek water, as he used to say. The skin over her cheekbones seemed stretched taut, chilled as a pebble plucked from a deep well. Her lips stung; the lower quivered before she bit down upon it.

Henry will be disappointed, she thought.

The bleeding means there is no baby.


“Do not fret, little one,” Granny Anne had said, laying a kind hand upon Aurelia’s head. Anne Elspeth Owens, Aurelia’s maternal grandmother, had weathered an ocean, a new country, two husbands, four daughters, and over a dozen grandchildren in the seven-odd decades of her fruitful life. Aurelia’s mother, Elspeth, was the youngest child of Anne and her second husband, and Aurelia was Anne’s unnamed favorite, the only daughter of her sweet Elspeth.

“But we have been married these many months.” Aurelia spoke quietly, mindful of the rest of the family gathered in the adjacent sitting room; though laughter and chatter permeated the air, she did not want Henry to overhear. He would be concerned by her distress, she knew well. She knelt beside the steady creak of the rocking chair and resisted the urge to lay her head upon her grandmother’s knees, as she would have as a girl. This conversation had occurred last December, within reach of the hearth’s abundant warmth; the winter solstice fire burned with bits of dried rosemary and holly, sending forth a crisp, pungent aroma. The flames crackled pleasantly; roasting venison, laden with garlic, and the small, ribbon-bedecked fir tree rounded out the familiar scents of Yuletide.

Despite many a discussion concerning the matter, Henry and Aurelia had not yet then made the decision to venture westward.

“It takes time.” Granny’s eyes were shrewd and compassionate on that winter’s afternoon, both at once; she spoke with low tone, matching her granddaughter’s. She understood the depth of Aurelia’s desire to bear Henry’s child; the love between the two was unmistakable, and filled the elderly woman with equal measures of gratitude and relief. She’d been apprehensive for a time that the Savages’ firstborn son, Cullen, would be the one to draw Aurelia’s gaze; though eye-catching in appearance there was a troubling recklessness about the man, present since his youth.

Henry Savage, while younger than Cullen, was a far more dependable man, with none of Cullen’s fickle nature, and if anyone was a fair judge of the marriageable qualities of menfolk, it was Anne Owens; it had provided her with much comfort when Cullen Savage announced early last spring that he was undertaking the labor of a journey west to make his way across the Territory borderlands to the distant state of California, a wild, dangerous endeavor that perfectly suited a rashly-tempered man. Cullen conceded to delay his journey until after Henry and Aurelia’s wedding; not two days later, he left behind his hometown and entire family, laden with provisions, determined eyes fixed upon the western horizon.

“I keep such careful track of my monthly cycle,” Aurelia confided. Long had she been able to speak openly with her grandmother, conversations she would never have dreamt of sharing with her mother, Elspeth.

Granny Anne nodded, conveying encouragement. “Good. Keep your patience, little one, and in due time you will have your child. With the coming of spring, I’ve a feeling you’ll be rejoicing.”


Aurelia blinked at the heavens, its endless sweep overtaken by darkness. Her eyes had long since adjusted to the gloom, picking out the individual stalks of grass, roving over the bright pinpricks of sharp-edged stars, small puncture wounds to mar the sky’s black silk. The echo of her grandmother’s voice faded, the word rejoicing a cruel mockery of her current circumstances.

I’ll never make it.

There is no hope of returning to Missouri of my own volition.

She blinked again, wrapping both arms about her midsection; as she squeezed, an exhalation escaped her lungs, a half-moaning gasp.

Dear Lord, am I to believe we deserved this?

We do not deserve this. Henry did not deserve such a fate.


Sudden anger spiked in her blood, fueling a rush of heat. She gritted her teeth until her skull ached, letting the fury’s venom infuse her trembling body, awarding her the strength to sit, then roll to hands and knees. She was a wretched mess, soaked through, unprotected beneath the callous nighttime sky. She recognized that she could not spend the night prone and helpless; duty dictated that she care for the mules and attempt a few hours’ sleep. By morning’s light she would take stock of her situation. She would continue the eastward route, as Henry instructed. If she kept the mules at a steady pace she would return to Missouri by mid-September. She could be home, in Illinois, by the end of that same month; she beat back the insidious suspicion that she could not manage the journey alone, that she was every inch a deluded fool for imagining it possible.

Further, you know you cannot travel five weeks with Henry’s remains in the wagon.

The knowledge intruded like a plow blade into soft, resilient earth, creating a painful furrow. She clamped savagely upon it; the notion of leaving behind Henry in a shallow grave on the Territory prairie was beyond bearing. She would haul him home and see to it that he would rest in the ground in a place she was able to visit, where he would not be forgotten, and beneath a proper stone memorial that would withstand the ravages of time. Out here, exposed to the elements, any pitiful grave marker she could manage to construct would wither away long before her lifetime. He deserved far better.

Henry is gone. Oh dear Jesus, he is gone from me.

She hung her head, groaning as the plow blade now dug its biting edge into her pliant belly. He could not be gone. It was not conceivable. Henry, with his wide, affable grin and merry chatter. Henry, her husband, whom she had loved with an abandon she now recognized as stupidly blind.

A woman should give her heart only to God. Reverend Herbert Schooner’s wife, Margaret Mary, had spoken these words many a time when Aurelia was the woman’s Sunday school pupil. Even as a well-behaved child Aurelia found space to wonder at the sentiment; did Mrs. Reverend Schooner not love Reverend Schooner? Reserving one’s heart for God seemed noble to the young girl Aurelia had been, and yet wholly undesirable.

I loved my husband, Aurelia thought, shaking with the force of this truth as she hunkered upon the prairie. I love him still and I will never regret a moment I spent as his wife. You, Mrs. Reverend Schooner, may go directly to hell.

Thinking the words, tinged with a lash of the forbidden – Aurelia would never have expressed such a dreadful statement aloud, despite having been privy to the same declaration a time or two in her eighteen years – lent her the strength to wobble to a standing position.
Wiping her chilled and dripping nose with the back of one wrist, she whispered, “Directly to hell.”

And then she caught her breath, making a fist of her hand and pressing with her knuckles, driving the force of the motion into the soft hollow between the halves of her ribcage.

This is hell. You are in hell, just now.

Her overwrought gaze jerked to the wagon, a substantive, lumping shape slightly darker than the surrounding night. Henry lay there in its confines, cold and stiffened, his soul having departed elsewhere hours since. How long? Eight hours? Ten? She could not exactly recall and was unduly troubled. How long since a gaping chasm had split the solid earth of her existence?

What if his eyes are open?

Suppose I climb inside and find him staring?


It took true effort to place one foot before the other, to force forward motion. The mules, long since having expected to be released from their harnesses and properly watered, snuffled and nickered at the sound of her approach. She bypassed the wagon and went straight to the animals, catching the bridle of the mule to the right; the mules were a sturdy pair, a male and female sired by the same stud horse. Aurelia rested her cheek to the familiar texture and scent of the male’s neck; they called him Turk, and his sister Tilly.

“There’s a good boy,” she murmured, the words distorted by a slight slur, unbeknownst to her; shock had rendered her a step removed from reality. The contact of her face against the bristles of his hide stung, a result of her self-inflicted injuries; at that moment, Aurelia could not remember having clawed her skin.

Though her fingers felt weighted, and performed the routine task of unhitching the team with unusual clumsiness, Aurelia managed. She led both to the narrow, shallow creek, clutching their lead lines, and they bent their long noses and lapped with abundant relief. Did they have the capacity to wonder why their mistress was the one handling them, rather than their master? Surely the animals had no way of realizing that Henry would never again lead them anywhere, but Aurelia wondered, all the same. By day, this waterway had glinted with gold coins of sunlight; by nightfall, the stars reflected upon its meager surface area appeared ominous. Indeed, the scrape of cricket song, the whine of mosquitoes, the bass grumbling of bullfrogs; all rang with menace.

She released the lead lines and knelt, shutting out the bleak, perilous darkness, cupping a hand and bringing creek water to her lips. Inadvertent trickles escaped through the cracks between her fingers and leaked over her lap, but she did not notice. Her damp skirts flapped against her thighs as she staked Turk and Tilly to the left of the wagon, the south side. Thoughts swam across her mind as tadpoles through the icy and unforgiving waters of early spring, battling cruel circumstance for existence. Fire. Dry clothing. Food. Aurelia hitched her skirts past her knees and climbed over the right front wheel to the wagon seat; the interior, cloaked in impenetrable pitch, might have been the passageway through which an unlucky soul would enter into the realm of hell.

“Henry, I’m coming inside.” Her voice was a shaking leaf of sound, dry and rattling, ready to fall from the tree. Her throat bobbed as she waited for a response. Scraping loose hair from her eyes, she repeated, “I’m coming inside, did you hear me?”

Silence pushed back, a force with bony forearms and hard fists. Aurelia kept her movements slow and deliberate, as though to do otherwise would upset a fragile, unspeakable balance. Too numb to consider lighting their lantern, she instead relied upon her memory of the arrangement of their belongings to fumble a dry set of bindings and underskirts from her trunk, which issued a creak as she eased open its lid. The motion released fragrant scents into the still air, those of dried lavender and thyme from the small sachets stowed within the folds of her garments. She struggled to remove her wet dress; it was difficult to manage the lacings and buttons along her spine without Henry’s nimble assistance.

She tried to speak her husband’s name but it broke in two around a harsh lump at the back of her mouth. She cleared her throat and attempted again. “I need…your help…”

Henry. Please help me.

I cannot do this alone.

Aurelia folded in half as neatly as a wooden clothing rack, sinking almost gracefully to her knees before the gaping mouth of her open trunk. She pressed her cold nose to the soft linen clasped in her hands, imbibing the aromas of security and home, the sweetness of the promise of a life as Mrs. Henry Joseph Savage. Her violent weeping was muffled by the underskirts and the rising wind, carrying with it another familiar scent, that of rain.

Excerpt, Grace of a Hawk

August, 1868
“I just can’t figure,” the boy began, and I recognized the calculated innocence in his voice; I’d sounded the same plenty of times in the past, when I wanted more information than I knew I was rightly going to get. He stalled, peering crossways at me.

“Nope,” I said, staving off his opinion. The afternoon sun was hot as a devil on my hat, even pulled low as it was, sending slick trails down my face, burning near through my clothes. I shifted, cursing the dull ache across my low back, and reached behind, retrieving my canteen. With care, I allowed a small trickle down the front of my shirt, open two buttons and where a patch of painful red would no doubt mark me by nightfall. But I didn’t give a damn. A wet, sweltering heat had settled over the land and I was already hurting far worse than a little sunburn. Never mind the healing pistol shot that had hacked a chunk from my side.

Malcolm leaned from his saddle, tugging at my elbow to force my attention. Warm water slid over my belly and I shuddered as I proceeded to sip; tepid as it was, it still provided relief from the sticky heat. While I was preoccupied downing a second swallow my brother hurried to make his point. “What I meant to say was I just can’t figure – ”

“I ain’t got a word…on the subject,” I said, interrupting him, coughing on the mouthful of water, and that was that. I borrowed my daddy’s tone as best I could, that which preceded a thorough strapping if my brothers and me weren’t smart enough to quit pestering, or flat-out disobeying. With a fair amount of desperation, I thought, Please, boy, shut your trap. I can’t think about what you intend to say. If I do, I won’t be able to keep riding away.

But Malcolm was not so readily put off; I’d never strapped the boy, and likely would never have the heart to do so, and he knew it. He possessed a keen and earnest nature just exactly like our mama’s, and pressed on with his usual sincerity. “Boyd, I can’t figure why you’d leave her behind when I know it pains you so.”

“You ain’t old enough to understand,” I muttered, which was not a fair statement, nor did I kid myself it was true. My voice grumbled, stiff and hoarse, thanks to a wedge the size of a ripe plum in my gullet, one that would not be swallowed away.

Malcolm bristled, just as I always had when Daddy said the same. His voice cracked with indignation as he sniped, “I’m old enough to see what’s before my eyes. I’m old enough to see that she cares for you, even if you can’t see it yourself!” And then, figuring he might have pushed too far, the boy fell silent. He eyed me from the corner of his gaze before angling Aces High, his chestnut gelding, away from my surly mood, heeling the animal’s sturdy flanks and riding ahead on the dusty trail; the chestnut flowed into a smooth canter, he and the boy graceful as a dancing pair.

I let them go, for now.

Sawyer, I thought, wishing again for the comforting presence of my oldest and dearest friend. Goddammit, you should be here with us. You an’ Lorie should both be here. We wished for this together. This ain’t how it’s supposed to be. We ain’t supposed to be riding for Minnesota without you.

I watched Malcolm and Aces grow smaller on the horizon, dust creating a butternut-colored haze behind them. A line of muddy clouds gathered along the western edge of the prairie and I dared to hope for a soaking; though I didn’t relish riding wet, rainfall would cool the air and seemed the lesser of two evils, just now. Fortune nickered and tossed her head, as though sharing my sentiments; I patted my mare’s familiar neck, stroking with my knuckles.

I murmured, “There’s a girl. You’s restless, ain’t you?” and scanned the horizon, wondering if a critter stalked us in the prairie grasses grown tall and rangy with approaching autumn, and therefore beyond my sight. The horses had been skittish all day, for no reason I could identify. I fingered the stock of my pistol, rubbing a thumb along the familiar wood grain; we hunted with the rifles and there’d been no need to use the smaller firearm as we’d ridden northward, but I was reassured by its presence on my hip, all the same. We’d left Iowa City a good fortnight past, traveling since then beneath mainly warm, dry skies; Iowa City was a town we’d meant to travel through and well beyond much earlier this summer, with no plans to linger within city limits. A string of misfortunes kept us there long past our original intent.

Things happen for a reason, son, I heard my dear mama say. Trouble is we don’t always understand until we look back.

Aw, Mama
, I thought, and a familiar lash of pain struck me at the memory of her voice. It seemed every bit of love I’d ever dared to feel was tangled up with hurt, and I did not know how, or if it was even possible, to go about untangling it.

My folks loved each other, this was a certainty I’d never questioned. Growing up in the holler in the wilds of eastern Tennessee, my kin had not been blessed with fortune – at least, not the sort you could stick in a bank to collect interest. Ours was fortune of another kind, the blessing of a contented life. Daddy farmed, grew corn and flax on the ridge; many a night I lay on the feather tick alongside Beaumont, my elder brother, who always fell asleep before me, our hands callused and our napes burnt red, staring into the darkness and seeing nothing but the neat, straight rows of black earth which we’d worked all the livelong day. Even when sleep did come, at last, I dreamed of the orderly dropping of seeds into the ground.

And yet, I had not been unhappy or restless as a boy; I sure as hell never figured I’d settle farther from my family’s land than I could chuck a sizeable stone. I lived for the evening hours, when Mama would ring the dinner bell and we’d gather to eat in the purple gloom of twilight. Candlelight would shimmer over Mama’s hair and reflect in her bright eyes. Daddy would put his hands around the delicate notches of her waist and nuzzle her neck with his beard until she shooed him aside. There would be a spat or two between Beau and me – mild-mannered as Grafton was he could seldom be roused to fighting, and was Mama’s baby long before Malcolm came along – which Daddy would settle with a cuff to the back of the worse offender’s head. Mama would scold and squawk even as she clapped food upon our plates, using the serving spoon that came all the way from England with Daddy’s family generations ago, and finally everyone would settle at the table for grace. After dinner, Daddy played the fiddle.

Daddy’s elder brother Malcolm lived near in those days, and our Carter cousins were present for about every other dinner hour, along with the Davises, whose homestead ran the length of the holler on the opposite side of the ridge. Uncle Malcolm had proudly constructed the family fiddles, a trade which he inherited from his own daddy, Brandon Bartholomew Carter, who was a carpenter’s apprentice in the land of his birth before he ventured across an ocean to America. Those golden evenings on the porch blend one into the other in my memory; Daddy would uncork a jug of apple pie, or buckeye bush, and he and Uncle Malcolm wielded their bows between sips, each pull longer than the next, until the stars shifted halfway over the holler. We kids stole nips when we thought they wasn’t looking. Far removed from those days and that familiar place, I could still taste the whiskey on the back of my tongue, the sharp sting that prickled a boy’s nose hairs, followed by the heady warmth of the booze.

I longed for a jug of my daddy’s whiskey just now; I would slip free the cork with a flick of my thumb and down the top half in one good swallow. And still it would not banish the picture of Rebecca Krage’s eyes from my mind, this I knew. Not all the ’shine in Tennessee could do that. I had not intended to look back as we rode away from the dooryard of her homestead, there on the outskirts of Iowa City. I meant to keep my gaze on the horizon where my future lay in wait, in the North, but in the end I disobeyed my own order.

“Please take care of yourself,” she’d whispered the grim, overcast morning we rode out.

A wad of cotton batting had seemed lodged in my throat as I stood near Fortune with one hand resting atop my sorrel’s hide, the other hanging uselessly. I wanted to gather Rebecca to my heart and hold her close, as I had dared to do only once before. I’d studied her face in the early-morning light, greedy for a last sight of its sweet beauty, for a final glimpse of the expression in her eyes; no one had ever looked at me exactly the way Rebecca Krage did. She held my gaze and did not cry, but her lips trembled before she bit savagely upon the lower. My eyes followed the motion and I felt kicked in the ribs at the sight of her soft, curving mouth; even in the brief time our paths had crossed, I’d imagined claiming it probably hundreds of times…imagined what I would feel to taste her kiss, to sink my hands into the thick waterfall of her dark hair…

Jesus Christ, I thought, torturing myself anew. I refused, fiercely, to let the vision follow through to its end. Rebecca was a lady, born and bred, and a Yankee widow, to boot. I was no gentleman, and bore little hope of ever attaining the title. I had not been the one to kill her husband, Elijah Krage, but I may as well have – a Reb bullet sent him to whatever lay beyond death back in the wretched summer of ’sixty-three. And I’d been a Reb soldier to the bitter end. Elijah Krage had left his beloved wife and home to march to War in 1862, same as me, likely for reasons just as good as I’d once believed my own, and later died on a battlefield distant from Iowa. He would never look upon his youngest son’s face; neither would his elder son remember him, as Cort had been very young at the time of his daddy’s death. Rebecca was the one left behind, plagued by her memories.

Before Malcolm and I left, Lorie had clutched my elbows and fixed me with her sternest brow. When she spoke, her voice held notes of both determination and desperation; she knew I was set on my course, but it didn’t stop her from saying, Becky loves you, Boyd. Do not claim you are unaware of this.

I scrubbed a hand over my face as I rode beneath the blistering sun, swiping at sweat and painful regret, with little hope of easing either. My jaw clenched and I tasted blood from the small cut inside my cheek, which I’d bit only this morning. A teetering pile of heavy stones, blunt and cold, seemed stacked atop my heart; I could not deny the truth in Lorie’s words any more than I could deny that I saw in my best friend’s remaining eye that he believed I should not leave Rebecca behind.

It’s what’s best, I’d argued. Sawyer, Lorie, and I had been gathered in the small bedroom within Rebecca’s home, debating in hushed voices that night. She’s a Yankee. Besides, she’s promised to Quade.

Growing ever frustrated with me, Lorie had contradicted, She would refuse Quade in a heartbeat if you stayed here, you know this.

My hands fisted around Fortune’s reins at the thought of Marshal Leverett Quade, even as I continued arguing with my pitiful self.

I thought, Rebecca wanted you to stay in Iowa, don’t pretend otherwise. But…would she have chosen you over Quade, in the end? You’d be the fool if you stayed behind and she had not.

Furthermore, I was determined to reach the place I had set out to reach upon leaving Tennessee last spring, come hell or high water as Daddy always used to say, and Minnesota was this place. The very last of my blood kin, other than Malcolm, there lived, my mama’s youngest brother, Jacob Miller, who had left Cumberland County and roamed northward long before War ripped apart the country. Having forged a life in the North, Jacob now homesteaded near a lake called Flickertail, was wed to a Winnebago woman named Hannah, with four children of their own. Malcolm could not remember Jacob but I’d been near to thirteen years old before he left the holler with little more than his horse and hunting rifle, and Jacob’s face and voice were both present and accounted for in my memory.

Come to us in Minnesota, boy, Jacob wrote last winter, and the draw of family was more than I could resist. I recalled sitting near the hearth in the home of my youth and reading aloud this request to my brother, and later, to Sawyer and another longtime friend, Gus Warfield. Jacob’s words insisted, Come to Hannah and me, and bring with you young Malcolm. We will welcome you. You boys can make a new start here. There is nothing left in Tennessee for you now.

I’d written Jacob in return, painstakingly, as I was a poor student at best. I explained that I would be joined on this journey by Gus Warfield and Sawyer Davis, two men Jacob had known in the years of our old lives, those of quietude that existed before the War. I assured my uncle I would work hard, that I would earn my keep and my land, and would not be a burden to him; I’d sold that which we did not require for the journey, scraping together enough for the fee to file for a homestead in Minnesota, an amount of ten dollars. The only assumption Uncle Jacob made wrongly was the one concerning Tennessee – but what was left in my beloved home state was a deep hole of memories, raw and sore as unhealed wounds. All the Carters that had once populated the ridge were gone, dead and buried, almost as though they’d never existed. Tennessee was a place best left behind, we all four understood well and good; Gus, Sawyer, the boy, and me.

Rebecca darlin’, and I dared to call her such in my mind, if not actual life. You are better off without me. You’ll see this in time, now that I ain’t there. But it hurt to leave you. It hurt so goddamn much. If things was different…if I had a hope of being the man you deserve…

You are too harsh on yourself, by far
, Sawyer had said the night before Malcolm and I planned our leave-taking.

My oldest friend, who had survived the War with only minor physical damage, studied me with his remaining eye; the other had been lost to the bullet of a Federal soldier no more than a month past, and well over three years after the Surrender. The man who had done this to him, Zeb Crawford, would have liked to see us all dead. Crawford’s hatred I could understand, hatred being something I grappled with myself. Dozens of times I’d fought Federal soldiers for my very life, in battles made all the more miserable for the sultry summer heat, or during winter campaigns, when the snow grew red with fallen blood far faster than the fallow brown fields of autumn. Enemy soldiers clad in the faded blue I had come to loathe, bearded and grizzled and ever thinner as the War dragged on, and on, long past all reason. Hatred I understood. It did not mean, however, that I would allow someone who hated me and mine with such ferocity to live to see the dawn. Hell, no. I felt no guilt, or shame, and would not, over firing my pistol into Crawford that terrible night last July. I only wished I had fired with truer aim, so the bastard had been dead all the quicker.

I’d said to Sawyer that evening, I ain’t harsh on myself. I’m simply speaking the truth. But Sawyer knew me as well as any brother; he saw my faults and my weaknesses, and I knew he was right, even if I wouldn’t admit it.

Lorie had stood at Sawyer’s side, as befitting the two of them, and she’d sighed, leveling me with her eyes and the somber set of her chin. In a last effort to convince me, she’d whispered, Boyd, please...

Please what?
I’d responded, too sharply, as Sawyer sent me a look of warning. Even with only one eye, he made sure I understood his look. I heaved a sigh; I loved Lorie like a sister; I’d said, I’m sorry, Lorie-girl. But I mean what I say. There ain’t no good can come of it.

And I could reach no other conclusion, even now as I rode my sorrel through the blazing August heat. Rebecca would not leave, and I could not stay. She was a Yankee, a widow, and a truer lady I had never known, other than my own mama. Rebecca was educated, well-spoken, and unafraid to speak her mind, which I admired above all else. And I admired her nearly every moment, whether she was in my line of sight, or not. Her skin was the tint of cream skimmed from the top of the milk pail, the kind I’d licked from the spoon many a time. I dreamed by day and again by night of kissing that fine skin, of unbuttoning her dress and tasting her mouth, her breasts, her belly and thighs and what was surely the damp sweetness between her legs…

Stop, I ordered, sweat beading along the full length of my spine. I was short of breath, lightheaded at the very thought of putting my mouth and hands upon Rebecca that way; it only proved to me that I did not deserve her, entertaining such lustful thoughts about a proper lady. I was no virgin, and had not been since the tender age of nineteen. The first instance I’d been allowed the gift of a woman’s body was with a girl who was part of a troupe the Second Corps recruits, tenderfoots and has-beens alike, referred to as camp followers.

Play yer cards right, fellas, our commanding officer had said, grinning around his cigar. They ain’t the marrying kind if you know what I mean, boys. But they’s good gals, an’ willing to spread their legs for the right price.

This particular girl’s name had been Sallyanne; she did indeed spread her legs and if I learned her surname I had long since forgot it. Long, hay-colored hair falling over plump bare shoulders, a wide, knowing smile with two teeth missing from the bottom row; nipples near the size and shade of ripe cherries. I’d been nervous as a hen in her cramped tent, and embarrassed myself nigh unto death when I let loose before even gaining entry into her body, at merely the sight of the treasure hidden beneath the layers of her skirts. Until that moment, I had only the stories Ethan Davis told of girls to satisfy my curiosity, and there before my eyes in the lantern light was a tangle of dark hair, arrow-shaped – to guide a man’s way, as Ethan always joked – and soft folds the color of the pinkest of the cosmos in my mama’s garden. Greedy, I’d wanted to touch every part of her at once. She laughed and gamely let me have another go, for no charge. Even the second time around and firmly within her body, I’d come faster than I ever had using my own hand.

I like this curly hair, she told me, fingering my scalp. You’s a right good-looking fella. You’ll have a longer frolic next time, honey, don’t you worry none. You’s just too fraught this time around.

And since, there had been many such frolics with many such girls, the brides of no one and everyone, all at once. I was not proud of myself on that front. My daddy would thrash the devil out of me if he was alive and knew how many women had spread their legs and let me spill my seed within their bodies, unable to resist the momentary rush of flooding pleasure, the sweetness of holding close a warm, naked woman and feeling her breasts and belly pressed flush to my thrusting body. Until meeting Lorie that night in St. Louis, I was nigh ashamed to admit I hadn’t given a thought to the daily lives of those whorehouse girls. I never considered where they’d come from, or who they might have loved, or been loved by, in their pasts. They’d all seemed the same until Lorie – lusty women with coy smiles and soft thighs easily parted. That fateful night we first met Lorie was the last time I’d been with a woman.

If things was different, sweet Rebecca, if I’d never fought for a Cause your husband, and you, so strongly opposed…I need to make my way beholden to no one, do you understand? I ain’t good enough for a lady with a proper way of speaking, with proper opinions…

I would be your wife,
she seemed to whisper, but it was only the play of the wind over the prairie, and my damnable imagination, wishing as always for things it would never have. I supposed I should know better by now; I’d always been a fine one for wanting that which was beyond my means. I wished my daddy was alive, for more reasons than I could rightly name, but mostly – at least, just now – so that he could wallop some good sense back into me.

I knew Rebecca’s middle name, as I’d heard her uncle, Edward Tilson, once address her using it, and thought, fancying that she could hear, Rebecca Lynn, I know I rode away from you but I will never forget you, I swear on my life.

I’d looked over my shoulder as Malcolm and I rode out of the yard at a steady trot and saw her, watching after us. She stood with her arms crossed at her waist, gripping her elbows; she did not lift a hand in farewell. She watched until we were out of sight, I knew, and could not force the picture from my head. I damn well realized that soon enough she would become Rebecca Lynn Quade – Marshal Quade had pursued her hand without rest – and if I knew what was good for me, I would stop thinking of her altogether.

Writing From a Male Perspective

Writing from a male perspective has been an experience of great contrast. At times surprisingly sweet, at others frustrating, at others still wickedly divine, but never boring. Any author of fiction understands the escapism present in writing - more so than that found in reading, I would argue. A writer is never alone, and in fact often prefers solitude; characters are always nudging at your mind, seeking attention and subsequent deliverance onto page (after page). To be alone is to be surrounded by voices of all kinds, many of which you don't fully know and appreciate until you've commenced writing. Planning chapters, researching, outlining; while all worthwhile pursuits in the business of writing, none of these actually are writing. The best way to tell a story is...to tell it. No mystery there. Sit down, tune in the finely-wrought wires connected to your internal voices, and write.

I've spent the past year happily engaged in writing Grace of a Hawk, the third novel in a historical romance series set just after the American Civil War. While primary character Lorie Blake retains a prominent narrative role, a secondary character from the first two books, Boyd Carter, takes up the reins of this tale. Here I sit, a woman in the twenty-first century whose only experience with war of any kind involves either books or television. An arms-length, stationary "understanding." I will, however, claim no small amount of imagination and a strong ability to empathize, and I believe these gifts are what allowed me to follow the torn and twisted path of this particular soldier's story. When Boyd speaks, I listen. I hear the cadence of his voice, move with his stride, respond to his thoughts. I can close my eyes and observe his past, a collection of vivid memories, some dusted with soft, benign sunlight, full of humor and good nature, and others bathed in a cold, depthless horror; I imagine myself kneeling at the edge of these memories, my knees growing wet in the damp grass, but as I look down I find that my jeans are soaked in dark, muddy blood. I bat away the sticky white strands of hanging moss that fall over my shoulders and mar the view - I want to see what Boyd sees, both the cherished and the hideous. When I write, a sort of body-swapping occurs; he is me, or I am him. I haven't quite sorted through this phenomenon.

There was a certain amount of trepidation associated with the realization that Boyd would be the primary narrator of book three. Lorie, whose voice is as natural to me as my own, told both of the first two books, her words flowing from my fingertips in a sweet, poignant stream of memory, experience, and observation. (Note: first-person perspective is highly limiting and doesn't always lend itself to a story; it's just my preferred narrative style. To me, it feels "real"). In the second book, Soul of a Crow, it was therefore necessary for Sawyer Davis to relate relevant parts of the story, as Lorie wasn't present to know what was occurring in her absence from him, Boyd, and Malcolm. Sawyer's narration is relatively minimal in the overall length of the story; I did, however, relish the small chance to explore this young couple's devotion to one another through his eyes. Sawyer's love for Lorie is a powerful force, equally matched by her love for him. The last two-thirds of Soul of a Crow are very tense, brimming with danger; while writing, it was not uncommon for me to grow as anxiety-ridden as the characters, literally on the edge of my desk chair, heart thumping. The thing is, I don't always know what will happen next, where the tale will lead me (or, at times, run with me). When I'm in the zone (mental faucet cranked full-force, words and images gushing all across my mind), the story just appears on the pages. Maybe it's my attempt to dodge accountability - but it's how the writing process has always worked, at least for me.

The same outpouring of words occurred in the writing of Grace of a Hawk, with Boyd at the helm, to my relief; I was not certain that he would cooperate as well as Lorie in the telling of the story. I'm not going to lie - I fell in love with Boyd as I wrote (and therefore learned) about him. I know it's crazy but go with me here, for just a second. As I followed Boyd on his journey north, I came to understand him in a way I had not in the first two books, when he provided many instances of comic relief and proved a strong, loyal friend to Sawyer and Lorie, fierce protector of Malcolm. I liked him a great deal in the first two books, and understood that the story could not exist without his presence, but because I had not yet fully developed his character (i.e. let him speak), it wasn't until book three that I came to love him. Other concerns I harbored included several necessary scenes involving heat of the lovemaking variety - both from Boyd's somewhat sordid past and in his much-altered present. Would it be too awkward attempting to write these from a man's point of view? I couldn't help but wonder, but sat at my keyboard one hot, dark night, placed aside my inhibitions (in a neat bundle, so I could gather them up again at some future date), and gave it a go. I have written many a love scene (and have always thoroughly enjoyed the process) but all my previous experience involves a woman describing the action. To my relief, I overcame this concern and believe that some of the most explosive love scenes I've ever attempted are the ones Boyd narrates in book three. All I can say is damn! but that man knows what he's about.

A male perspective has been a refreshing change for me, as a writer. I enjoyed the freedom to explore a man's mind and heart with no compunctions. I hope Boyd reads as plausible, and as enjoyable as I found him to be; he proved full of surprises. I love his physical capabilities, his strength and familial devotion, his depth of memories and sense of humor, and beneath all of this I discovered a carefully-hidden well of vulnerability I hadn't been able to explore before now. By the time he comes full circle in the book and concludes the tale, I was a mess of tears, struggling to let go. Grace of a Hawk became a story of intense and often brutal action, testing Boyd and Malcolm to their physical and emotional limits. They travel further than I'd anticipated in each of these realms. Several new characters sprang forth (without asking permission; they just appeared) to complement the overall story. The culmination of the action left me in a state of nerves best resolved by a stiff drink and some time spent staring blankly into the middle distance.

All in all, I loved the process of writing this book; it was a learning curve, I will not deny, but as in all writing endeavors, I view it as an opportunity to grow my craft.

Top Ten Shore Leave Love Scenes

I love this sort of thing. ;)

A reader emailed me her top ten favorite love scenes from my nine-book contemporary romance series, which is being currently re-released in a sequence of three books at a time.

Not only is it fascinating to read someone else’s opinion on this steamy, all-important matter, I loved comparing my own ratings to hers. (I have to admit that the dock scene in A Notion of Love is one of my absolute favorite in the entire series). The reader added that these scenes ranked in this particular order based on both “physical heat and emotional intensity.”

Overall, a great list (which I’ve transferred to a picture of a lake at sunset). And what I learned was this – my characters tend to make love anywhere but their own bedrooms! Happy reading!

Fascination

Most of the very best days in my past were wholly unplanned. I spent no time scheduling, only enjoying. No mapped routes, no guidebooks, no organization. And to this moment, those rare, impulsive days remain my sweetest memories.

Early this morning, with the prospect of an unexpected day in the sole company of my middle daughter, we debated over a breakfast of avocado-and-mushroom omelets just how to spend it. My children are all girls, each named after a flower and each as different from one another as shapes in the clouds on a windy day. I treasure time spent with all three at once, but it takes a day alone with one of them to remind me how much they truly observe about the world they inhabit. It’s amazing the range of topics you can discuss with your child when she’s alone with you and not preoccupied bossing, teasing, nagging, or fighting with her sisters.

We decided to start with a walk through the local nature preserve – a place unique in its own right, as the grounds were at one time the sight of a nineteenth-century asylum. (I use this outdated word with all its negative connotations because, by nightfall, the crumbling foundations of the old dormitories and the deep, chilly limestone caves where food was preserved before modern electrical wiring are way beyond eerie). But by the dusty-gold light of a sunny day, the preserve is a lovely place to explore; there are miles of hiking trails through forests of towering, lacy maples and feathery, aromatic cedars, butterfly gardens displaying late-summer goldenrod and sunflowers, a fishing pond…and acres of memorial stones for all the people who passed away while patients at the asylum.

It is a strange fascination, I admit, but I have always loved finding those forgotten, rundown cemeteries that dot the countryside, usually in the proximity of old, empty churches surrounded by hectares of corn fields; the kind with phlox growing thick around lichen-covered headstones that list at cockeyed angles. Rows of stately evergreens and gnarled, ancient burr oaks typically guard these sorts of burial grounds in Minnesota. I find a sort of peace in exploring the headstones, often kneeling and scraping away overgrown grass and weeds, gently tracing my fingers along the shallow indentations of a person’s name, birth and death dates; of course, only a small dash marks the entire passage of his or her life, a hyphen symbolizing the sum total of an existence. The older, the more fascinating; my mind pinwheels as I construct story after story, with plans to write like mad once I get home.

With my middle daughter in tow today, we spent an entire afternoon exploring the asylum markers, making note of particularly interesting names – such as Gust Wylie, born 1843, and Jesse Booten, born 1845 (I am already outlining an entire novel surrounding this kick-ass name and the man I envision attached to it), and Emelina Holloway, born 1887. I snapped a few pictures of my daughter exploring these markers, an uncharacteristically solemn expression on her eleven-year-old face; she was troubled by the fact that whoever recently mowed the grounds had inadvertently covered the older, more sunken markers with shorn clumps of browning grass. Together we spent time brushing aside the debris, uncovering the markers and exposing the engraved names once again to light.

Afterward, walking along in the sun-dappled shade as we returned to the car, she said, “You know, it makes me sad that no one remembers all those people. They had lives, but now no one remembers them.”
We walked in silence for a few beats before I said, “Well, I plan to write a story about Jesse Booten.” I kept my tone light on purpose, letting her mull over her thoughts.
She brightened a little and said, “There was a girl there named Jetta. Like the car. Who knew people named their kids Jetta in the 1800s?”

After our walk, we drove back into town under a slowly-sinking sun and proceeded to eat more than our fill at Del’s, our local diner, a place with an antique walnut curio cabinet behind the till counter (it’s no-frills, no fuss at Del’s) laden with handmade signs, my favorite of which reads Strays Gather Here. The place smells like fried fish no matter the day of the week or the season, comforting in the way of a favorite reading chair or pair of warm socks. We ordered fried shrimp, root beer, and onion rings, and then proceeded to hit up the salad bar for deviled eggs, clam chowder, cucumber salad, and pickled beets. Of course it was strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert and I could feel my Grandma Ruthann looking down on us with a beatific smile as we asked for an extra scoop of vanilla to top it all off.

Now, home at my writing desk with crickets sawing and a peach-tinted gauze decorating the western horizon as dusk descends, I feel immeasurably grateful. I didn’t spend more than twenty bucks all day (counting Del’s), my cheeks are sunburned, and I am reminded how much I love listening to elderly people chitchat in the line for the salad bar at the diner, an older generation that makes me feel secure and even a little loved, even if they aren’t my actual relatives. I value simple pleasures, and today was one. My daughter and I laughed, had a philosophical conversation, and enjoyed extra ice cream for dessert. And I am further reminded that what makes life worth living, what makes days joyous and nights content, is the wonder that exists all around us.

Fascination.

Excerpt, Summer at the Shore Leave Cafe

Prologue

We are a family of women.
In my childhood and early teens, there was the dual force of our grandmother Louisa Davis (with her denim overhauls rolled to mid-calf, long white braid tucked under a battered, wide-brimmed straw hat), and Great-Aunt Minnie Davis, her older sister (who fastidiously kept her own long hair dyed its original shade of cornsilk blonde until the day she died). Both women contentedly smoked homegrown tobacco plucked from the sprawling garden behind Shore Leave, kept their nails trimmed short, could catch, clean and delectably prepare any fish that shimmered beneath the silver-blue surface of Flickertail Lake, in general disdained the company of men and were adamant about the giving of advice.
Though Gran was married for a time, long enough to produce both Aunt Ellen and my mother Joan, my grandfather reeled in his fishing line, snapped the clips on his tackle box and hiked out of Landon before Mom was quite a year old. At that time, in the late 1940s, Gran and Great-Aunt Minnie’s own mother Myrtle Jean was still living and, according to every version of the story I’ve ever been told, agreed that Gran was better off without the thick-skulled son of a bitch anyhow. My grandfather’s name? Lost to time, no doubt, though the womenfolk would tell me if I ever asked. I haven’t yet, though I do know my own father’s (Mick Douglas) despite the fact that he too made an early and entirely voluntary departure the summer I was eight months old and Mom was carrying Jillian.
Jilly was born when I was one year and one day old, in August of 1968; I cannot recall a time without the knowledge of her. People forever asked if we were twins, to which we sometimes replied yes, then laughed about it later, wondering if we could get away with the pranks that real twins were able to pull; we certainly resembled each other, with fair, freckled skin, long, straight hair and wide smiles, the image of our mother.
Jilly, however, had eyes for which I was jealous, very direct and intensely blue, the color at the bottom of a candle flame, framed in lashes too dark for a blonde. It was a parting gift from the father we never knew. I inherited my eyes from Gran and Mom: the Davis family eyes, a blend of gold and green, with the pale lashes Jilly should have possessed. My oldest and youngest daughters have my eyes, but my middle girl opened hers a few moments after birth and stared up at me with the eyes of my sister and my long-gone father, true indigo. Jilly always joked that the stork brought me Tish by mistake; Jilly is the only one of us to have produced a son, and likewise is the only one of us whose man was lost accidentally.
I left Landon, the only home I’d ever known, the August after high school to follow my simultaneous boyfriend of four years and husband of two weeks, Jackson Gordon, to the teeming wilds of Chicago. Trouble was I was already pregnant, a discovery made a month after senior prom, in April of 1985, and so for me Chicago’s nightlife consisted of carrying a screaming infant through our tiny one-bedroom apartment, snow hurtling against the rattle-trap windows while Jackie attended freshman year at Northwestern. Flash forward a decade and a half and his high-school educated home-making wife was a step away from being a completely hollowed-out crazy woman who, after bearing three children and raising them virtually alone (not that my genes hadn’t prepared me for it, really), discovered my husband screwing a lovely young colleague at his law office’s otherwise prestigious Christmas party, which I unexpectedly attended. I stormed in on them going at it on Jackie’s desk, suspicions horrifically confirmed; a sight so sickening I could have vomited there on the plushy taupe carpet. I wanted to kill him with my bare hands. My bare hands wrapped around a functional weapon, anyway.
I scanned the room with a vengeance, hearing Gran and Great-Aunt Minnie in my head, egging me on, telling me to grab the weighty bronze sculpture of a cat near Jackie’s elbow and smash it over his cheating skull. Trouble was, I couldn’t ruin that head, connected to the man whose broad shoulders I used to grip with both hands, around whose slim hips my own legs used to wrap possessively, whose hair I clutched in my hands like dark, curling treasure. Jackie straightened up, attempting to look as shameful and dignified as a man with designer slacks around his ankles and a pair of long, gleaming legs around his waist can possibly contrive. He said, “Jo, I’m sorry, I am so sorry,” while I felt the earth shift beneath my feet like fresh spring mud and melting-hot blood flood my face with the heat of scorn. I had guessed the truth all along, but like a fool I refused to heed my gut instinct, Gran and Great-Aunt Minnie’s most vehement advice.
Jackie was mine for so long, my connection to past, present, and future. He was the father of my children, my husband and companion in this enormous gaping mouth of a city we called home since leaving Landon. We, and eventually our daughters, lived in what amounted to a parade of ever-increasingly expensive and well-furnished properties; together we’d spent exactly as much time here in Chicago as we had in Landon. It seemed to mean something. I fled Jackie’s office and hailed a taxi home, far too numb with shock to drive. Camille would be seventeen years old in just a few days, on December twenty-seventh, the baby I carried on my shoulder and nursed to sleep in the dim, multi-colored glow of our first Christmas tree, alone, as my husband hit happy hour with his college buddies. I was only eighteen then, smooth-skinned and blindly naïve, my long hair tied back in a ragged braid most days, washing dishes by hand and trudging at least three loads of laundry a day down to the basement of our apartment building, while my baby girl shrieked.
I called Jilly the moment I arrived safely in my bedroom that night, a weekly ritual. My little sister knew something was wrong before I even opened my mouth. Jilly knowing things was not unexpected; ever since we were kids, Jilly, like Great-Aunt Minnie before her, possessed a powerful sense of intuition.
“I had a dream,” she said upon answering, hundreds of miles to the north of me, snug and warm in Mom’s kitchen, the kitchen of our childhood with its scarred counters and farm-style sink, the solid maple table where we sat to eat when the café was closed. Jackie once bent me over that table on a hot summer night when we were sixteen, while my family slept, both of us further exhilarated by the thrill of the forbidden. In those days, I was the one Jackie could not get enough of.
I imagined Jilly sitting at her usual place, wool socks braced on the seat to the right, my old chair. She would have Mom’s crocheted, pine-needle-green afghan tucked around her shoulders, the “Christmas blanket,” and a fire would be burning in the potbelly stove, flickering orange through the small cut-out shapes in the cast iron. I imagined it all, correctly I knew, and suddenly ached with homesickness, a kind I hadn’t experienced in years. The ache subdued some of the scathing anger that kept me from tears all the way home and through the crowded townhouse to my bedroom.
Jilly demanded, “What did he do?”
A scab seemed to have formed on the back of my throat, obliterating words. Down two flights of stairs, the girls and a bunch of their friends were laughing over How the Grinch Stole Christmas on television; the scent of popcorn and melted caramel drifted in the wake of their happiness.
“Jo, I know he did something. What is it?” Jilly’s voice dropped a notch and she implored, “Tell me.”
“What was your dream?” I asked, hedging, managing a shallow breath, and it was her turn to sigh. In my mind I saw Jilly’s right hand lift and cup her forehead, an age-old gesture of uncertainty.
“Jackie was a centaur,” she said, and I laughed, caught off guard, though her tone did not indicate a joke. She continued in a rush, “He was mounting a female horse, like, hard-core. And then I woke up. He cheated on you, didn’t he? Goddamn him. Gran knew, too. That bastard!” Her voice rose in both pitch and volume.
In the background I heard our mother call, “Jillian, is that your sister on the telephone?”
“Jilly, shut up!” I squeaked. “Now Mom’s going to have to know, too. Fucking hell.” These days, I only swore this much when speaking to my sister.
“Jo, I am so sorry. That piece of shit. I knew it.”
Anger slowly won out, driving the hurt and sorrow back down my throat. I snapped, “I’m glad all of you knew and no one bothered to call me!” Even as I spoke the words I imagined my mother’s scolding voice: You can’t always blame the cheater. It takes two, you know.
As if she could read my thoughts, which she accurately had too many times to count, Jilly retorted, “Jo. You could not have been blind to this possibility. That bastard.”
I was about to respond but Jilly muttered, “Dammit,” and in the next moment my mother’s familiar voice swelled in my ear.
Mom asked, “Joelle, what is this about? Why is Jillian sitting here in the dark swearing at you?”
“Hi, Mom,” I muttered. Defeat hovered like a cloud of noxious smoke and I didn’t have the energy to sigh.
In the background I heard Aunt Ellen call, “Joanie, is that Jo? Hi, honey!”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” I groaned. But in our family of women, no secrets were ever kept for long, try as we might, and I surrendered to the inevitable.

Chapter One
Landon, MN
May, 2003


Five long months later, I drove northwest on I-94, angling into Wisconsin as the sun skimmed the surface of the sky, melting to a golden dusk. The girls, released a good ten days early from their private schools at my rather desperate insistence, chattered to each other, alternately fighting over the radio station and coming up with new and inventive ways to entertain themselves with sights available through the car windows. For a spell they played the alphabet game, using billboards and license plates to earn points; then, as we entered dairy country, moved to Hey Cow, a ridiculously simple game that involved yelling the phrase to any cows we happened to pass. The “winner” of the game was the girl at whom the most cows glanced. I was utterly grateful when they at last drifted to sleep, somewhere near the Twin Cities in Minnesota. At that point, the temptation to get us a hotel gnawed at me, but we were so close to Landon that I couldn’t bear not to get there tonight. Just a few more hours…
The last mile hummed away at long last and I took the final turn into Landon, whose population now totaled three hundred seventy, plus four. Jackie and I brought the girls here to visit of course, every summer of their lives, but there was something about the potential permanence of this trip that quickened my blood and sent pin-prickles of emotion through my limbs. The girls remained blessedly asleep, but I murmured, “Here we are,” as the most deeply familiar street of my life rolled beneath the tires. The geography of a hometown, whether beloved or loathed, is nonetheless engraved on a person’s soul.
I drove slowly, both hands hanging at the top of the steering wheel, leaning forward, the better to gaze at everything, hungry for the sights. The towering, ancient pines at the southern edge of town gave way to Fisherman’s Street, Landon’s main drag; at the northern-most end, Flickertail Lake was visible from the moment the sun rose, its rocky beach a brief walk and subsequent twelve-step descent from any downtown business. The beach itself curved like a clamshell, widening into soft, pale sand as it met the water of the lake a good twenty feet out.
To my right stood the Angler’s Inn, the only hotel in town, with a private balcony for each of the rooms on the second floor. Jilly and I always called those “prostitute perches,” then laughed hysterically whenever we spied a female guest standing upon one to admire our little hometown. The boardwalks were quiet now at such a late hour, though the windows of Eddie’s Bar, a longtime fixture in Landon, just across the street from Angler’s, glowed in welcome behind the Moosehead Beer light and a faded wooden shingle, painted by Eddie Sorenson decades ago, inviting COME IN ALREADY.
A handful of the vehicles that graced my childhood memories waited at the curb, patient as old dogs and as familiar to me as their aging owners bellied up to the bar inside. There was the immaculate red ’76 Charger driven by Daniel “Dodge” Miller, who ran the filling station on Flickertail and took care of the heavy work at Shore Leave for Mom and Aunt Ellen; beside the Charger sat the once-blue, well-used ’74 Ford pickup owned by my daughters’ great-uncle, Nels Gordon (Jackie’s only remaining relative in Landon, as his own folks passed away before Camille turned thirteen). I spied Jim Olson’s rimless, rusted-out Chevy Celebrity, and our high-school shop teacher Del Christianson’s pecan-brown, speed-boat sized LTD.
The last vehicle I idled past proved the newest of the bunch, Dodge’s son Justin Miller’s sporty silver Dakota truck. Justin graduated with Jackie and me back in 1985, and since suffered through a lengthy marriage to and subsequent messy divorce from Aubrey Pritchard. Messy in that Aubrey, lovely Homecoming Queen of Jilly’s class and Justin’s longtime sweetheart, cheated after Justin sustained a disfiguring injury working in his and Dodge’s service garage. I didn’t know the details of the divorce, mostly because Jilly hadn’t known, but she did tell me about how Justin’s face and neck sustained burns all along the right side. This happened five summers ago, but somehow I had not come across Justin since then. My stomach tightened with sympathy; I suppressed the perverse desire to make my way inside the warm, familiar space and see the damage for myself. Once, Justin was like a brother to Jilly and me – in summers of old, Dodge often carted Justin and Justin’s little sister, Liz, to Shore Leave when he came to help out.
I realized that I’d come to a full stop in front of Eddie’s and sat watching the door, while in the background my girls breathed with the soft sighs of exhaustion, both physical and emotional. After a moment, perhaps wak¬ened by the absence of movement, Camille, with Ruthann’s head on her lap, stirred from the back seat and murmured, “Mom, are we there?”
I turned to look back at my oldest daughter, whose head rested on the pillow she’d braced against the window back in Illinois. My heart, as always, tightened with the ache of a love so powerful it overrode any other in my world; I vowed I would stay strong for my girls – no matter how difficult this vow sometimes proved.
“No, sweetie, not quite,” I whispered in response, letting my bare foot ease off the brake. The car rolled smoothly forward, but enough that Tish, strapped into the passenger seat beside me, snorted and began rubbing her eyes.
“Mo-om,” she complained in a whisper. “My head hurts.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” I responded automatically, and accelerated to twenty miles an hour – much faster at this hour and I’d risk a ticket from the local patrol cop, Charlie Evans. I assured, “We’ll be there shortly. Look, it’s the lake.” I gestured out into the glimmering starry night as I made a left and angled around Flickertail, where a mile up the lake road, known locally as Flicker Trail, the Shore Leave Café waited.
Tish, fortunately, fell for the distraction and lowered her window, allowing the sweet scent of an early spring evening into the car. The smell of the lake, so deeply ingrained in my consciousness, as familiar to me as my children’s skin, was musky and welcoming. I could hear it lapping the shore to our right as the tires crunched over gravel and the headlights illuminated walls of sharp spruce and towering oaks, lacy maples and dense grapevine, decked in new emerald leaves and smelling of childhood and remembered happiness. My thoughts centered on Jackie, against my will; so often I’d driven this road with him, tucked against his strong side, my hand caressing his leg, both of us laughing…
I squelched these memories with real effort; it was like pressing on a bruise. No, more like cramming a couple of fingers into an open wound. I bit the insides of my cheeks, feeling the sleek wetness of tears on my eyeballs, glad that the darkness hid any evidence. I would not cry in front of my children again; I promised myself, fiercely, before we left Chicago for Minnesota.
“What was that?” Camille asked from the backseat, her voice startled.
“A loon,” I said, listening as it wailed again from somewhere out on the lake. It was a haunting, ululating cry, almost human in its emotional intensity. “Don’t worry, that’s just how they keep in contact with other loons on the lake.” The second I said it, another responded, farther out on the dark water.
“It gives me the shivers. They sound so lonesome, like they’re lost or something. I always forget that until we’re back,” Camille said, and Tish cackled a laugh, twisting around to give her big sister a skeptical look.
“It’s awesome,” Tish said. “You’re such a chicken.”
Camille playfully kicked a bare foot at Tish, jostling twelve-year-old Ruthann, who made a sound of protest.
“C’mon, you guys, knock it off,” my youngest mumbled. “I’m sleeping.”
“And I’m carsick,” Tish chimed in, helpfully. I angled a long-suffering gaze at her, and she scrunched down in her seat as if to visibly prove her claim. Tish, unlike her sisters, kept her thick curly hair cut short; the subsequent face-frame made her striking blue eyes appear even larger and more sincere. I knew her well enough to see through any of her attempts at manipulation, but people less familiar to her wiles proved easily captivated by those stunning eyes and pointy pixie chin. Her father, especially, which was the reason our fifteen-year-old sported double-pierced ears.
“Here it is,” I said, immeasurably thankful, as the gravel widened and became the pitted blacktop lot of my family’s longtime business. Two vehicles were parked beneath the lone streetlight at this late hour, one belonging to Rich Mayes, an elderly man I loved like a father, and who’d cooked at the café since my childhood; next to Rich’s car sat an old black truck I didn’t recognize. I thought, Dammit. There’s still a customer here.
The café was a long, narrow structure, shaped vaguely like the letter L, with two porches, both angled to take full advantage of the gorgeous lake view, each porch constructed of wide cedar planks, now the gray of ashes from years of sun and wet feet. The café received a fresh coat of white paint every other June; Jilly and her son Clint took care of that now. Long ago, the task belonged to Jilly and me; I admired Jackie for the first time while painting the side of Shore Leave, around age twelve. He’d come in with his family for lunch, all those Junes ago…
I parked next to the unfamiliar truck and rolled my head slowly, first down and then back up, still hearing the rush of tires on the highway. Usually Jackie drove us to Minnesota for our annual summer visit; I reminded myself that I was determined not to think again of him for at least ten minutes. The Leinenkuegel, Moosehead, and Hamm’s beer signs in the front window splashed warm tints into the night; technically Shore Leave was still open at this hour, but it was a weeknight and most of the locals retired to Eddie’s. This early in the season, tourist traffic tended to remain light, but in less than two weeks that would change. From the direction of the boat landing, down the shore about twenty yards, came a yodeling cry, and I grinned in spite of myself.
“Mom, Aunt Ellen, everybody! They’re here!” my little sister shrieked, and the girls began hooting and screaming in response, falling out of the car and running to hug Jillian. I climbed out more slowly, happy on the surface, where people could see. Fuck, it just sucked (there was no other way to put it) that I was coming home as the spurned woman, the jilted, separated wife, the girl who couldn’t keep her husband in her own bed…I was gritting my teeth and stopped myself instantly. And then I couldn’t help but laugh as the girls and Jilly collided hard enough to send all four of them into a heap on the grass at the edge of the parking lot. My mother’s golden labs loped down the porch steps, barking at the top of their range. The girls climbed all over Jilly, wrestling to get closer to her as one of the dogs grabbed the rear pocket of Tish’s shorts and began tugging.
“Joelle!” My mother hurried out the front porch door, banging the screen we’d always been bitched at for banging, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. Aunt Ellen and Rich followed in her wake, waving and calling, and I jogged forward and into Mom’s warm arms, resisting the urge to burrow against her, like a child seeking refuge. No matter how much time passed between my visits here, my mom always smelled exactly the same, of Prell shampoo and rose-scented lotion, just a hint of the fish-fry batter. She hugged me close and planted a kiss on my temple before turning me over to my auntie, whose plump, freckled arms, so much like Mom’s, curled me tight and snug. Rich hugged me next, and then ruffled my hair, and his scent, tobacco and aftershave, was likewise comforting, blessedly familiar.
“Looks so pretty, long like that,” Rich added, indicating my hair, grinning so that his bushy white eyebrows drew nearly together over his kind brown eyes. He was as dear and solid as ever, and I felt a momentary flash of gratitude that these people, my foundation, remained here, as unchanging as the summer stars. In my teenage years, they made me claustrophobic with their concerns, driving me out of my skin with constant advice and commentary; but now, seventeen years later, I sought this place, my true home, to regroup and lick my wounds. Never mind that Jackie should –
You weren’t going to think about Jackie for ten minutes, remember?
“Hi, sweetie,” Aunt Ellen said, gathering me against her side. “You look like you could use a drink.”
“Or a bar,” Mom added, meaning dessert.
“You want a sandwich, honey?” Rich asked, thumbing over his shoulder in the direction of his kitchen.
“Not just now,” I told them, although a drink sounded fantastic. “But thanks.”
In the next moment my sister bolted across the parking lot, shrieking with laughter as my kids and both dogs pursued her. I turned to catch her in a hug and we rocked together before being attacked by the mob.
“Look at these beautiful girls,” Mom said, claiming her granddaughters for a round of hugs and kisses. “Camille, you look so grown-up, doesn’t she, Ellen? Look at that face! And my Patricia, what have you done to your hair?”
Rich caught up Ruthann in a bear hug, and then bounced her on his arm. “Ain’t you grown a bit since I saw you last,” he observed, and Ruthann, my baby, grinned shyly. Rich and Dodge were the only grandfathers my girls had ever known.
“Aunt Jilly, where’s Clint?” Tish asked, peering around as though her cousin and best friend in Landon was hiding in the woods, purposely avoiding her.
Jilly, small and deeply tanned, her hair cropped as short as Tish’s, bleached platinum from long summer days outside, gave me a look I couldn’t interpret (unheard of) and then neatly caught Tish in a light headlock, knuckling her scalp. She blustered, “Not here, punk. He must not care that you guys were coming.”
Tish ducked away and fastidiously smoothed her hair, contradicting, “Whatever! Where is he?”
“Inside, sleeping, along with your great-gran,” Aunt Ellen answered. “He was tuckered out from his ball game today. He waited and waited for you-all to get here and ended up falling asleep on table three. Rich hauled him home to bed.”
The girls giggled. “What a baby,” Tish felt compelled to add. “It’s not even midnight!”
“Time for these bones to head out, though,” Rich said, and pecked my cheek before taking his quiet leave. He added, “It does my heart good to see you, Joelle-honey. Joanie, tell the grandson I’ll see him tomorrow.”
“Will do, Rich,” Mom agreed, as Aunt Ellen herded the girls inside for food and drink.
“G’night, Rich,” I added, following Jilly up the porch steps. Mom walked Rich to his car and the girls were already in the café, no doubt being plied with sweets and possibly booze by Aunt Ellen. I paused before entering and instead leaned over the porch rail, my gaze absorbing sights as well-known to me as my own body. The lake, cloaked in warm, velvet May darkness, stretched back to Landon’s little downtown, where the streetlamps shone like small golden stars in the blackness.
In the other direction, to my left, Flickertail curved around a slender bend before opening into a much wider surface area, where jet-skis and motor boats whined from dawn until early evening, dragging skiers and wake boarders. The farthest shore, not visible from our porch, was similarly busy in the daylight, where fisherman tarried for hours upon end, drinking and bullshitting and doing what they loved. Though fully dark, I could see the edges of the trees that ringed the lake, from memory; if I lifted my index finger I could trace the wavering line in the air. Jilly elbowed up beside me and I rested my head on her shoulder.
“You okay?” she murmured, and I lifted my head, and sighed.
“Rich’s grandson?” I asked, wishing I held a burning cigarette between my fingers just now. Years had passed since my last one, but the moment I got home, on ancient turf, an insistent craving began until I either gave in, guilted the hell out of myself, or fell asleep. I elaborated, “He doesn’t have any kids, does he?” At least, none that I knew of. And I’d known Rich for exactly as long as I’d been alive.
“Actually, it’s his stepdaughter Christy’s son,” Jilly reminded me. “You remember her, don’t you? Pam’s daughter who lives in Oklahoma?”
“Yeah, I guess, vaguely.” A memory flickered. “Teeny bikini and big hair, like 1978, right?”
“Yeah, that’s her. She stayed with Rich and Pam that summer. It seems like a million years ago now.” Jilly sighed, too. “Anyway, Christy had a kid, and now he’s staying with Rich in his trailer, even though Pam’s gone. Mom hired him to help in the kitchen this summer. He’s actually here now, having a beer.”
“Dammit,” I murmured, annoyed that a stranger, even a stranger connected to Rich, infringed on my homecoming. I complained, “Is he even old enough to drink?”
“Yeah, he’s in his twenties,” Jilly said. “And he was in jail.”
My head darted to the left and I stared at her in shock. All of the mother-activated alarm bells in my head began wailing. I demanded, “What?”
“Seriously, I freaked a little bit, too, but Rich insists that he’s a good kid.” In response to the panicked question in my eyes, she added, “He stole a car and some cash in Oklahoma, two years ago.”
I absorbed this not-so-bad-as-I-imagined information, but still felt fidgety and irritated. I could hear my daughters chattering with Aunt Ellen, their sweet voices excited and genuinely pleased; just around the corner in the bar, my family’s bar, an ex-con sat having a drink, listening to them.
“Jilly, what was she thinking?” I whispered furtively, peering over my shoulder, and my sister surprised me by laughing her warm, rollicking laugh.
She unselfconsciously ran her fingers through her close-cropped hair and then squeezed my arm before saying, “It’s not like you have to whisper, Jo. I don’t think he has superhero senses.”
Mom climbed the steps as Rich’s taillights winked with a ruby flicker before he turned right and headed back into town. I accosted her immediately.
“Mom, how could you?” I demanded, yelling in a whisper, also annoyed at Jilly, for laughing at me. Jilly was a mother, but not of daughters, and that caused a distinct difference in outlook. Clint was already tall and strong, the image of Chris, his dad. He wasn’t vulnerable the same way my girls were.
Mom stopped and sighed; she’d tossed her dishtowel over one shoulder and reached now into the front pocket of her overhauls for a slim pack of smokes. Her silver-streaked hair was still long, caught up in a tortoiseshell clip on the crown of her head, her ears appearing sunburned in the yellow glow of the porch light. Wordlessly, she passed one to me and then Jilly, and next drew a lighter from her side pocket. She never smoked much anymore, unless under stress. I sincerely hoped the stress wasn’t caused by the proximity of a former criminal. Let it be instead her eldest daughter’s disgraceful and undignified return home, bearing her children and all of her dearest worldly possessions, these crammed into the trunk of a luxurious Toyota. Mom lit up and passed the small plastic tool to Jilly; I sighed and handed back the cigarette, unwilling to smoke in front of the kids. I settled for second-hand instead.
“Honestly, Jo, he’s a good kid,” Mom said at last, speaking quietly, blowing smoke in the direction of the lake. “Do you think Ellen or I would’ve hired him if we didn’t think so?”
“Because of Rich,” I pointed out, my voice unpleasantly contrary. “You couldn’t say no to him, you know it.”
Mom shook her head, and from my other side Jilly elbowed me. Mom griped, “Rich wouldn’t have taken him in, even in honor of Pamela’s memory, if he thought Bly was dangerous. Crimeny, Joelle.”
“Bly?” I asked, turning to my sister.
“His name is Blythe,” she informed, blowing smoke from both nostrils. Mom dropped her filter into an empty beer can on the windowsill and went inside without another word. Enough of the day and her daughters questioning her judgment, I supposed. Quietly, and yet full of teasing, Jilly added, “And she’s wrong, he is dangerous.”
I gave her a withering look but she only smiled, so Jillian. “The girls are meeting him right now,” she said, heading inside, and I darted after her at these words, all of the repressed concern under the surface of my skin rushing up and into my throat. My children would not exchange introductions with a criminal without me in the same room.
“Girls, this is Rich’s grandson,” I heard Aunt Ellen saying. I followed Jilly through the arch separating the bar from the rest of the café, my lips set in a hard line. I came around the corner and blinked once, then again, noticing things as though in slow motion. My oldest daughter’s radiant smile. Tish’s slightly open mouth. Ruthann’s hazel eyes round and glowing. Aunt Ellen and Mom both grinned up at the man I could only assume was the car thief with the ridiculously sentimental name, Gilbert’s name from Anne of Green Gables.
He was gorgeous. There was no denying it, no matter how much older than him I must certainly have been, no matter what his sketchy past. I stopped as though having run up against a barbed wire fence and stared inanely before catching myself and darting my gaze elsewhere. My daughters certainly noticed, and were in various stages of adoration; he glanced momentarily over at me and nodded slightly, acknowledging yet another female presence in his sphere of influence before turning his attention back to my mother. He was grinning about something, grinning more with one side of his mouth than the other, a sensual mouth set in a lean face with a strong cleft chin. He towered over all of us, a dark-blond ponytail hanging down his back, navy-blue bandana tied around his forehead, the kind a short-order cook wore to keep sweat from his eyes. His eyebrows were darker than his hair, framing amused eyes, the kind of eyes that would be grinning even when he was not. Long lashes. Stubbled jaws. Hunky shoulders.
I observed this wealth of handsomeness in less than five seconds. It also proved sufficient time to set my pulse hammering before I cursed myself for a nearly-middle-aged fool. Just as I intended to introduce myself, Aunt Ellen did the honors for me, saying, “Honey, this is Rich’s grandson, Blythe Tilson. Bly, dear, meet my niece, Joelle Gordon. She’s just in from Chicago.”
“Hi,” he said just for me, warm and deep-voiced, offering a hand. I swallowed and gathered myself, smiling back at him, wishing I’d checked my reflection even once since leaving the city around dawn yesterday. I shook his hand swiftly, trying not to stare dumbly at him. His hand was warm and strong and hard. Of course it was.
“Hi,” I said, my voice unnaturally husky, and then managed, “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” he returned politely; surely I imagined the way he seemed to really study my face. He said then, as though in a sudden hurry, “Well, Joan, Ellen, I better head home, let you have some family time,” and a gaggle of girls, including my mother, followed him to the front porch. Only Jilly and I remained behind. She grinned knowingly, like an imp of misfortune, while I sank to a barstool and lowered my chin to my right palm. From the other room, Blythe called back, “Have a good night, ladies. Good to meet you, Joelle.”
I shook my head slowly, not visible from where he stood, letting my children offer a chorus of heartfelt good-nights. The screen door clicked shut behind him and we all heard his footsteps reverberate over the porch as he headed for his truck. I hoped the girls weren’t pressing their noses to the window screen.
Jilly hauled a barstool closer to mine and said succinctly, “Told you so.”

Excerpt, Grace of a Hawk

“I swear – ” I started to say, but then thought better, and bit back the words.
Malcolm, who'd been uncommon quiet since the night the storm destroyed nearly all of our supplies, sent a curious look my way, clearly awaiting the rest of the sentence. While I took a moment’s time to be thankful that the bulk of our belongings remained behind with Sawyer and Lorie, to be carried along in the wagon come next spring, there was no denying we’d been left in a dire circumstance. I kept my fears from Malcolm, best as I could, but he was sharp, and too long burdened by the cares of a grown man. I was fooling myself if I thought he failed to understand, even without my directly saying so, that our journey had been made all the more difficult. The twister destroyed our provisions – extra clothing, my pistol and a box of rounds, and much of the food store. Our money was lost, not even a coin scavenged from the remains of our belongings, of which a few not torn to shreds were scattered for the pickings on the prairie. But far worse, fathoms worse, was the ten-dollar note I’d carried all the miles from Tennessee, which I intended to use towards the filing fee for our land purchase.
Now gone.
I debated turning back more than once since the storm but kept this possibility from Malcolm, as he’d no doubt bend my ear in favor of it, without let-up. A part of me felt that returning to Iowa City would be akin to a kicked dog slinking home with its tail tucked between its hind legs, and I’d had enough of that feeling to last a lifetime, and then some, after the Surrender. Neither could I ask Jacob for the money – not only did my pride prevent this, but he hadn’t such an amount to spare. Further, I understood I could not return to Iowa to be a burden to Tilson or Rebecca; the thought of being near Rebecca for the length of a winter sent me into a near-seizure of hunger for her, but the temptation would only prove torture. I understood it was up to me, and no other, to determine a solution to the lack of funds. And God knew I was well acquainted with getting things done on my own.
Malcolm continued to study me from beneath the brim of his hat, wordless, and I figured I might get lucky, that he’d let my words drop just as he would a prickly weed accidentally plucked, but my shoulders sank as he pressed somberly, “You swear what?”
“I swear if you ask another question, I’m gonna tie a cloth over your mouth,” I said, my tone not quite as severe as the words would suggest; Malcolm rolled his eyes heavenward but I ignored this. We were, as of this moment, utterly penniless – unless I counted our mounts, but I refused to consider selling either Fortune or Aces High, animals I loved, and that without we would exist in even more lamentable circumstances. We’d been goddamn lucky the stand of blackberry bushes to which we’d tied the animals kept them stationary that night; what food we did possess had been stowed in our saddle bags.
“I know that ain’t it,” Malcolm groused. And then, truly pushing his luck, he grumbled, “Jesus, Boyd, I ain’t stupid.”
I closed my eyes, thinking on what Daddy would do if I’d dared to sass, let alone curse, in his presence at age thirteen; just as swiftly a memory struck, of myself somewhere near that tender age, hiding around the side of the stock barn with Beau as we shared Granny Rose’s clay pipe, the bowl once carved with a delicate tracery of flowers but worn near smooth as silkwood from five decades of use, passing it between the two of us and coughing with every puff.
Why’n the hell do folks smoke this stuff? my older brother wondered aloud, then choked a wheezing laugh. Think I’d rather chaw tobaccy any ol’ day.
In our boyhoods there was scarce a fellow in the South who didn’t dip; later there were many, myself included, that claimed tobacco kept them sane during the War. A fella unable to accurately aim his plug was fair game for disdain, and likely near as much chaw created muck along the roadways as mud, churned to a slogging mess under booted feet. Most smoked a pipe in addition, including many a woman. Our granny was no exception, though she smoked on the porch out of respect for Mama’s window curtains, edged in Brussels lace. Beau and I dipped when we could steal a pinch from Daddy’s quid, but Beau was fonder than me of the taste of the juice; to this day, I preferred to roll my own smokes rather than pack my lower lip.
Dammit to hell, I ain’t having no luck, I’d responded to Beau on that long-ago afternoon, irritated upon realizing the bowl no longer burned. It was my misfortune that Daddy found us just as I spoke these words, the left corner of my mouth clamped around the pipe stem while I tried in vain to relight the tobacco with the end of a small, dried reed we’d first jabbed into the woodstove.
Boys, you’s fixin’ to get yer hides walloped, Daddy said conversationally, holding out one wide, gnarled hand for the pipe. My daddy was a big man, fifteen stone as Mama liked to tease, with a full beard and a thick black mustache that hid his upper lip unless he smiled, dark eyes that could snap like the devil’s own coalbed.
I didn’t dare refuse and handed over the pipe, which Daddy tamped with the ease of a knife through warm butter. I dropped the reed and hastily ground it beneath my boot; Beau looked as though he meant to run, but then considered the outcome and thought better.
Daddy looked between us, his two elder sons, and there was a gleam of humor in his eyes as he used Granny’s pipe to gesture, rumbling, Now, I seen you boys bare as eggs since you was born, an’ when you got hair on your chests an’ ballocks to match the hair on your heads, then you can smoke yourselves pipes, we clear as a May mornin’?
We’s clear, Daddy, Beau and I said, near in unison, and I scrubbed a knuckle over my chest in the here and now, thinking, Well, I got plenty to match these days.
What I’d been about to say to Malcolm, but had not, was that I swore someone was following us. The thought was like a gnawing beetle, nibbling at the back of my mind. Had Sawyer been riding Whistler at my side I would not have hesitated to speak my suspicion, but despite everything he’d contended with in his young life, Malcolm was a boy, not a man, and under my protection to boot. I would not rouse his already fractious nerves even more with mentioning what was likely a result of my tired, over-addled mind. But then, I wasn’t one to second-guess myself. I’d not survived the War by pure good grace; at least a part of it came from learning to trust my instinct, and when I felt that certain coldness on the back of my neck, it wasn’t a thing to ignore. I shifted position, casual-like as I could, and peered over my right shoulder. I half expected to catch a glimpse of a telltale flash of blue.
There was nothing but waving prairie grasses, across which we’d traveled since first coming upon the Mississippi River, way back in Missouri, and I felt a mite foolish at my tetchiness. The prairie was a sight rather pretty in its own way, I’d not deny, endless fields of blooming wild grass; now, as August dwindled, there was a fair amount of gold amongst the green. Brown-hearted yellow susans and daisies, those I recognized, and coneflowers of deep pink and frosty white. The clusters of pale purple blossoms, spiked like spears, Rebecca had called hyssop; these grew beyond her dooryard back in Iowa City, and I’d imagined picking great walloping armloads and presenting them, as I would if properly courting her. And then she would…
I gritted my teeth, refusing to finish that thought.
Malcolm and I had crossed many a small waterway here and there on the trail, where the road petered out and took up again on the far side. Copses of trees, mostly willows and cottonwoods, whose leaves shivered and rustled in a companionable fashion, grew near the creek banks; though I felt a certain comfort in the occasional thick stands of trees, I was suddenly glad they had thinned some on the main route, as I reckoned fewer trees meant fewer places for anyone trailing us to seek cover.
Yancy? I wondered, and my upper lip curled at just the thought of the man’s name. But it seemed unlikely that he would venture northward, when his kin – his two boys – were still in Iowa, dozens of miles south from Iowa City. There’d been no word of Yancy’s whereabouts as of the day Malcolm and I departed. I would not know, one way or the other, if the man had since surfaced until I could send word to Sawyer, or receive word from him. And, as we were on the move, I could reliably post a letter, but would be long gone from any posting office before one could make its way back from Sawyer and Lorie. I had promised them I would write when I could, to assure them that we were safe…and so that Rebecca would know the same. I tightened my knees around Fortune’s flanks, as though the mare could possibly carry me beyond my memories. My horse responded accordingly, increasing her pace. Malcolm cried, “Hey!” and heeled Aces, riding to catch up.
The prairie provided good grazing for our animals and I patted Fortune’s solid neck, in pure affection. I’d purchased her upon returning from War, one of Piney Chapman’s stock and kin to Whistler, and a better horse I’d never had, saving Arthur, the blood-bay gelding I’d ridden to War. Malcolm and I had entered into the state of Minnesota a day past, as we’d learned from a rider we met, a man whose homestead was just north of the Iowa border. Friendly folks thus far, even after hearing our Tennessee drawl; I felt the Northerners were the ones that spoke with a strange rhythm, their words that clipped along like spooked mules, near foreign to my ears, though they seemed ready enough to poke a bit of fun at our speech, if not outright misunderstand what we attempted to say.
You are saying ‘guard,’ as I recently came to realize, I recalled a Yankee prisoner telling me, sometime in the autumn of ’sixty-four. I thought you were attempting to say ‘god’ until just this very moment’s time.
“You ain’t no fun without Sawyer an’ Lorie-Lorie,” Malcolm griped, wiping his right hand on his thigh. He’d polished off the last of the penny candy Rebecca packed for him, tucked into a kerchief and stowed in his haversack. The boy was armed with Gus’s Winchester, secure in its saddle scabbard, which he’d used to fire after Yancy that terrible night, and with which he was a good shot; before we’d left, I considered allowing him a pistol, but was still hesitant – pistols were a gamble, at best, a chance for a misfire or injury, and spoke of close-range shooting. And if it came to close quarters, I intended to be the one doing the shooting, not the boy.
I tried not to let his words needle me; I was eldest, after all, not a young’un who could be provoked to bickering. Diverting his attention like I would a crayfish I intended to snag, I said, “Maybe there’ll be a chance for a hot bath, once we reach St. Paul.” Never mind that I couldn’t afford it unless our fortune changed markedly before then.
Malcolm sighed, perhaps seeing through my trick. He mumbled, “I’m just tired, is all. But I like being on the trail, I truly do, Boyd. I like seein’ what’s beyond the next rise.”
“I do, as well,” I allowed, feeling a small lifting of spirits; the boy was a good one for that, whether he knew it or not. I said truthfully enough, “I like being on the move. I aim to settle, I do, but I know just what you mean.”
“What if I can’t remember Tennessee?” he asked then, on a winsome note. “Sometimes I feel like it’s been years since I lived there. Do you s’pose we’ll ever get back that-a-way?”
Taking great care with my response, I said, “I’d like to believe someday, boy. I do. But it ain’t gonna be for a long time.”
After a spell, “Boyd?”
“Hmm?”
“Do you wish you weren’t never a soldier?”
My brother knew how to throw out a question to catch me smack in the gut. This one was even tougher to answer than the last. I said, evasively, “There ain’t nothing can be done about it, either way. Whether I wish it, or not.”
“But do you?” he pressed, shifting on Aces. His chestnut gave an impatient whicker; Aces High was a good horse, greatly in tune with his master.
“I wish a great deal of things was the way they used to be,” I said. Damn, I was acting like a sidewinder with these sorts of answers. I looked full at my brother and said, “I wish I ain’t seen half of what I did as a soldier. But I believed in defending our home state, our homeland. I thought I was brave, boy, an’ leavin’ the holler to be a hero. Back then I thought – shit, we all thought – we’d be home by New Year, don’t you recall? Beau aimed to marry Sara Lynn LeMoyne by that next spring, in ’sixty-three. He said at dinner, only the night before we done left, that he planned to make her a happy woman.” And I could not help but smile a little, at the memory of my brother’s boldness.
Malcolm murmured, “I recall.”
I held in my mind a picture of my eldest brother, Beaumont Anson Carter, whose brimming confidence aggravated me to no end when we were children, but in which I’d later found comfort, as a soldier alongside him. He died in a charge only arm’s length from my left flank, taking a musket ball to the forehead. The force of the impact unseated him from Charley Bean, his horse; from the corner of my vision, through the gathering smoke of cannon fire, I’d watched him fly back as though dragged by an unseen fist, head arched at an unnatural angle, arms pinwheeling. He’d been dead before hitting the ground.
Aw Jesus, Beau, my brother…
You should be married to Sara Lynn, with five or so young’uns by now, an’ we should be playing fiddles side-by-side of an evening in the holler, sippin’ hooch, just like Daddy an’ Uncle Malcolm.

I figured such thoughts would never stop plaguing me – that which should have been, but never would. Grafton, some eighteen months my junior, born the year after Sawyer’s twin brothers, had died clasping my hand, not long after Beau in the sweltering summer of 1863; weather to make a pig sweat as Granny would have said, Grafton stretched on a threadbare blanket in a battlefield doc’s tent as he slipped from this life. Quiet, gentle Graf, who suffered through an amputated arm, a sawing of his bones, before passing; whose remaining hand stayed clenched about my own even after the light went from his dark eyes. He died without wearing his boots, stocking-footed; I remembered a hole in the left sock, which two of his toes stuck through. I also recalled thinking that Mama would be sadder to hear about Graf than any of us, as she worried most about him – his softhearted ways earned him the dearest spot in her heart. And Mama loved all of us to pieces, a near violence of love.
Sawyer and I were the only ones left to each other after that; already close, the deaths of our kin bonded us that much more. I loved Sawyer as I would a brother of my own blood – we survived the duration of the War together, rode into Georgia and witnessed hell. The hell that existed there, following Sherman’s path, overrode even the horror of seeing our brothers slaughtered before our eyes. Sawyer knew what I knew – because we had witnessed it, together. Parts of our Corps earned a bad reputation in Georgia, thanks to the actions of a negligent few, but I had long learned that folks, and history itself, tend to judge a group on the worst of its lot. Perhaps we were all to blame. God knew I partook in my share of whoring. And killing – but in battle, killing could be justified. There was no joy in it, even when I hated the men coming at me with a passion borne of dread, and pride, and raw terror.
Malcolm said, “People here been kindly to us, so far. I was worried some. I ain’t heard anyone call us ‘Rebs’ yet.”
“Not so far,” I agreed. “But then, we ain’t come across that many folks yet, neither.”

It was nearing dusk when Malcolm announced in a whisper, “I hear voices.”
He had uncommon good hearing. There was little wind as evening came on and I leaned forward, cocking an ear in the direction the boy indicated. To be sure, I heard the rise and fall of a man speaking, and a younger person, perhaps a child, responding. Within a minute’s time I also smelled smoke and roasting meat, and the latter was enough to spur us ahead. We’d bagged a couple of rabbits, always plentiful on the prairie, now tied by their ears to Fortune’s saddle. Perhaps these folks would be willing to share their fire.
I stood in the stirrups and called a greeting as we approached, not wanting to startle them; Malcolm and I watched a man stand tall and gaze our way, shading his eyes against the setting sun – two unknown riders coming his way through the gloaming. His right hand hovered near a piece strapped to his hip but he did not palm the pistol. The evening was a fine one, weather-wise, calm as a mill pond and with the sunset burning yellow-gold in a great sweep over the prairie; its beauty made my chest ache a little, thinking of watching the fireflies in Rebecca’s yard beneath a similar evening sky. Behind the man and child were tethered two sturdy mules, whose heads lifted before they fell again to grazing. A fire crackled and the man called, “Hallo there!”
“Boyd Carter,” I said, drawing Fortune to a halt a goodly distance, perhaps ten strides, and dismounting. I tugged my hat brim, a gesture so deeply ingrained I reached for the brim even when I wasn’t wearing my hat, and said, “We’s been on the road since Iowa City. Saw your fire an’ hoped for a bit of company.”
The man said, “Kristian Hagebak,” pronouncing his first name with a strong emphasis on the front half of it. In a deliberate way that suggested English was not the language he’d been raised speaking, he told us, “You may join our fire, if you wish. We are making our way home, just now. We have been visiting with my sister and her husband, some fifty miles from our homestead.”
“Thank you kindly,” I said, leading Fortune closer. Malcolm dismounted and followed a few paces behind, drawing Aces after him. I explained, “This here is my brother, Malcolm. We’s bound for the Northern part of the state. Never been this far up the country, to be sure.”
“Then let me welcome you to the state of Minnesota,” Kristian acknowledged, and offered a grin, exposing a prominent front tooth, brownish with rot. He appeared outwardly friendly, a stout man perhaps ten years my elder, with hair of such a pale yellow it was nearly white, and a full beard to match. He indicated the child and said, “The young fellow is my son, Theodore.”
“Good evening,” the youngster said, bobbing his head in a nod. He was not Malcolm’s age, perhaps only five or six.
Kristian said, “Please, do take a seat. I see you have two fine hares for your dinner.”
In short order Malcolm and I staked Fortune and Aces by their lead lines, removed their saddles, and joined Kristian and his son. I gutted and skinned the rabbits, Kristian spitted them over the fire alongside their roasting prairie hens, and I tried, without much success, to quell a powerful surge of longing for Rebecca. It struck so forcefully that I clenched my jaw. In my mind’s eye I saw her settling at the table to my right, where she’d customarily sat, in her warm house with its sense of cheer, hundreds of miles back along the trail, in Iowa. I pictured her two boys, Cort and Nathaniel, who’d pestered me with endless questions and who I also found myself missing just now, fiercely. My chest stung anew. Unshed tears burned my eyelids and the inside of my nose, but I would as soon receive a severe beating as let them fall in front of strangers.
Malcolm caught my gaze and his brow wrinkled. I could tell he was asking, What’s wrong?
I’m right as rain,
I said silently, glaring at him, and Malcolm heaved a small sigh, not believing me for an ever-loving second.
Addressing Kristian, I said, “We was in the path of a twister, big as I ever seen, a few days back. It ruined a goodly amount of our things.”
Kristian nodded, listening despite his busy work of dividing the small, tasty prairie hens. I was more than a little stunned at the level of what seemed like homesickness in my gut – it was akin to what I’d felt the first few weeks away from the holler, as a recruit in the Army of Tennessee. At least then I’d had my brothers, and the Davis boys, to joke and share memories of home with. This evening, even with Malcolm nearby, who I dearly loved and would defend to my last breath, I felt more alone than I could ever remember. The sense of it settled deep into the cellar pit of my belly.
Kristian filled the boy’s tin plate first, before his own; I thought this a kind gesture. The rabbits were near ready – Malcolm could scarce take his eyes from them. Our diet had been slim these past days and guilt swiped a paw over my heart. I straightened my shoulders, sucking a painful breath; I was the closest thing to a daddy that the boy had, and I did not mean to shirk my duties. I would get us safely to our kin and I would make a life for Malcolm. I would see him grow to adulthood – he was already a fine boy, with the makings of a good man. I would make Mama and Daddy proud, wherever it was that their souls lingered, whether they was privy to our doings here in an earthly realm, or no.
“You said you were bound further into Minnesota?” asked Kristian, settling with his plate, nodding to encourage a conversation.
I turned the rabbits on the spit. “We’s got at least a month of travel yet, best I can figure. We plan to stop in St. Paul to petition for a homestead. My uncle’s settled north of there, an’ we plan to join him.”
Kristian nodded again. “Family ties are the strongest, and the best. When did you begin this journey, if I might ask?”
“Last April,” I said. I slipped my small boning knife from its pouch about my neck and Malcolm gladly accepted the meat I sliced for him. He tucked into his meal, watching me speak with Kristian, but not speaking himself. The boy Theodore was likewise quiet, eating and observing.
“You are traveling light,” Kristian said, and sounded concerned at this observation. “For a journey so far, certainly you need more supply than you have? Was it the storm?”
I briefly explained about Sawyer and Lorie, and their plan to join us next summer. Just now, 1869 seemed a good two hundred years away, an unimaginable length of time before we would see them again. I concluded, “We brought along a winter coat each, an’ extra clothing, but much of it was lost in the twister. We’s running low on money.” This was an outright lie, as we weren’t just low; we had exactly none. I did not say how frightened I was at being unable to provide for my brother. Jacob was our blood, our uncle, but I could not arrive at his home with no means, dependent as a nursing calf.
“There is work in St. Paul,” Kristian said, with an earnest tone that helped stave off the aching tension in my chest. “When we first arrived to the state last year, we worked until we had saved enough to apply for land. It is a fee of ten dollars, for the filing. The Minnesota Valley Railroad Company runs the land department. My brothers and I have acquired land, what a tremendous thing! Our family never dreamed of so much land, back home in Norway. We come from Norway. We arrived in America to the town of New York. We come to Minnesota when we were able. We do not like New York so much.”
I had heard tales of this port city on the coast. I said, “I would imagine not.”
Kristian spread wide his arms; the gesture seemed to encompass the entire sprawling prairie. “Here, there is space. It is uncrowded, and clean. It is a balm to my heart. It is no small task, minding a farm, let me tell you, but you have the look of a fellow who knows hard work.”
I allowed a small smile, aware that Malcolm watched my every move. I knew the boy’s mood was hitched directly to my own, that when I was upset, or troubled, he was as well. I agreed, “Me an’ hard work are longtime friends.”
“You will find work in St. Paul, a few days’ hard ride from here. There is much work for able-bodied men. You will shortly save enough for the filing fee.”
And I tried my damnedest to believe him.

I was thankful we’d been blessed with clear nights since the twister. It was cold, though, and the mosquitoes were thick, but wrapped in a blanket and aligned with the banked fire, it was tolerable. I lay awake long past everyone else nodding off; Malcolm’s snores were so familiar to me I scarce heard them anymore. I rolled to my back and studied the heavens, seeking the pattern of stars I fancied was the souls of our families, the Carters and the Davises, all together in the beyond; I found a small measure of solace in the thought.
Sawyer insisted this notion was the truth. I still did not know whether to believe his experience was one of an actual near-death, though he’d been mightily ill, or a vivid dream come to comfort him; I wanted to believe that our families were safe, having found one another and henceforth continued on, together, without the pain and turmoil, or physical wounds, inflicted upon them in life. That they were happy in this place beyond, watching over us. Sawyer relayed the messages from each of them – Mama’s kisses and Daddy’s words of pride, even that of Ethan wanting me to know he could still whup me.
You’s gone daft as an old man, I thought, as tears again threatened. I pressed the base of both palms to my eye sockets, hard, until I saw swirls of bright color, thinking of my old friend’s missing eye, thinking of my family together in the holler somewhere in the afterlife. And of Rebecca. I thought her name, Rebecca Lynn, and my breath grew shallow, my palms slick, as though I was a youth who’d never touched a girl. I thought of all the pretty, proper words she had spoken to me; she saw straight through my teasing every time, and returned it, dished it right back to me. And I could not help but picture her face, and the curve of her waist, the bowed shape of her beautiful lips. I kept my eyes closed to better glut myself on these precious memories.
You’s vain as hell, I thought, of my sorry self. You love the way she looks at you, like she’s seein’ an angel, or a hero. Like you’s somethin’ special.
And there was no denying, Rebecca had a way of looking at me that seemed to suggest she believed all of these things. Her eyes with their thick lashes, a rich brown flecked with green and gold, rested upon me so adoringly. I relished it, I could not pretend otherwise. The evening that the circuit judge declared he would overturn the order to hang Sawyer, I’d taken Rebecca in my arms, unable to resist the temptation, and she whispered my name, not once but twice, her voice coming in urgent bursts, as though she was being struck. Her lips had been at my ear. She’d put her hands into my hair. And I had not wanted to let her go. If truth be known, I’d wanted to do a hell of a lot more than that – I wanted to bury my face between her legs and hear her cry out my name, repeatedly.
You are a goddamn, lowdown fool, I raged, rolling restlessly to my right side, away from the fire. My face was hot enough as it was; my body swelled insistently with need, almost against my will. You don’t deserve her. She is a lady and even imagining such wanton things about her is wrong.
I aim to reach my family, my uncle, the last of my kin.
I get where I set out to get. Carters do not give up.

And then a new thought struck, and I flopped to the opposite side, studying the embers.
Perhaps you ain’t the marrying kind, like Captain Coll.
The thought, once expressed by a former commanding officer, set my jaw in a firm line; Darius P. Coll had fought in the Spanish-American War and was a seasoned leader, but admittedly altar-shy. Even nearing two score in age, he had never settled down with any one woman. When asked why, he laughed and said readily, I ain’t the marrying kind, boys. I want my women when I want ’em, God love ’em, an’ I don’t want no fussing, when not. Hen-pecked, that’s what married men are. You boys ready to be hen-pecked all your livin’ lives?
And at the time, I admitted I was most assuredly not. Over six years ago that was, and I’d been with more women in them years than I could rightly remember. Seemed there was always willing girls for the right price, as I’d once been told. Never once had I felt something stronger than lust for any of them – lust being a formidable thing I had trouble resisting, I’d not deny – and all of these things contributed now to my understanding that Rebecca was far too good a woman, decent and pure, to truly consider the likes of me.
Not everyone can have what Sawyer an’ Lorie have. There ain’t many do, an’ you know this is true. Lorie accepted Sawyer – and he’s been with women too, though not near as many as you. Not for the ladies’ lack of trying, of course.
I paused, realizing I considered Lorie nothing less than a proper lady. It was more that I could not think of her as a whore. It made me wriggle like a hooked worm to think on it, but certainly Lorie had lain with far more men than Sawyer had with women. Girls had always fought over Sawyer, even in our boyhoods, I recalled this well; the night we’d first met Lorie in St. Louis, two of the whores in the saloon came close to blows over him, I saw with my own eyes. I’d always teased Sawyer about being a ladies’ man, even though Eth was the true ladies’ man; no one got under more skirts in our growing years than Ethan Davis. It seemed all Ethan had to do was offer a few compliments in the Irish that he, Sawyer, and Jere had learned as boys, and girls went all breathless and doe-eyed. I’d been jealous as hell.
Even with the considerable advantage his good looks afforded him, Sawyer, unlike Ethan, had never been much for sweet-talking – and he’d been content with only a few dalliances during our soldiering years, when he could bear the pain and solitude no longer and sought momentary comfort, whereas I was a downright fool for the company of whores. And until now, I’d not felt more than a nudge of guilt over it. But Lorie, who was the closest I’d ever come to a blood-kin sister, had worked as a whore for near on three years. It pained me something fierce to picture Lorie doing any of the lusty things that I’d done with those whorehouse girls.
Aw, Jesus. You’d kill someone for trying to take advantage of Lorie that way, now. For even lookin’ at her like they meant to think of her that way.
What would Rebecca have to say, if you told her these things? Would she cringe away from you? If she was your wife, would you have the courage to tell her the truth about all them women in your past? All them whores…

I raged, She ain’t never gonna be your wife, so’s there no point thinking on it. Shit, you gotta figure out how you’s gonna get ten dollars to buy a land voucher.
This thought left me ill. I was a Carter, near the last of my daddy’s line, and I meant to do him proud. I thought, Daddy, you taught me everything you could, how to be a man, a good an’ decent man. I mighta failed in some regards, but I aim to make you proud. Aw, Daddy, I want you to be proud of me. I swear if I ever marry, my first son’ll be named in your honor.
I drifted, near to dreaming though not fully asleep, thinking on my father; for a spell I thought he was really sitting alongside the fire, so there seemed to be two of him, the one in my mind and the one lit by embers. He sat whittling a chunk of blackgum wood, shaping it with his smallest paring knife. His features were highlighted in the red glow, lit from beneath; his nose created a long shadow and his pupils were tinted orange. Goddamn, he muttered, and used the knife to skillfully nick a little mistake from the wood in his hands. Humming under his breath, as he always did.
Daddy, I whispered, and my boots twitched as though to get up, scraping the ground with a quick jerk. I wanted to go to him and feel him put his hand over my shoulder. When he put his hand over my shoulder I felt safer than a fox snug in its den for the winter. I felt loved, and cherished. I felt as though my life meant something beyond what it probably rightly did. And it had been so damn long since I’d felt that way. I craved it, the way a body craves a soft bed and a solid night’s rest. A different craving than for that of a woman, but equally as potent, in its own way.
My boy, Daddy whispered, and seemed to be crouching near my head now, the glittering ruby mass of embers visible between his boots. And I was his boy in that instant, no longer a former soldier and full-grown, but a boy who wished to burrow and be enclosed in the protection of his father’s embrace. I fancied, half-asleep, that I had been poured into a warm cup, neatly contained and unable to be harmed, from that moment forth. I wanted my daddy to take that cup and hold it between his palms, forever.
He said, A man ain’t nothing without a family, you hear me, boy?
He spoke in his low voice, close to my ear. I caught the familiar, comforting scents of him, tobacco leaf from his clothes and whiskey on his breath; I was exhausted and slipped a few inches further along the low grade that descended into the cavern of sleep. I tried to ask him another question, but my jaws wouldn’t flap. Eyes closed, I promised, I hear you, Daddy.
Wake up, son. Wake up
, he insisted, and I heard the sudden marked change in his tone, now urgent. He put his hand on my shoulder and shook, his gaze directed away from me now, out into the prairie.
The boy Theodore made a small groaning sound and kicked in his sleep, jerking me to sudden full consciousness. I sat upright, staring wildly about for my father, but of course he was gone – a dream, nothing more. Conjured up to comfort myself as I lay in a doze. The prairie was dark as a length of cloth cut for a burying suit, the nearly-full moon having tumbled beyond the western edge of the world. Turning away from the fire sent a chill over my exposed skin and I made certain that Malcolm was rolled tightly in his blanket. He was, and snoring as usual, the last of the red glow highlighting his freckles and serving to clench up my heart – he looked his age, younger even, in sleep, and it scared me.
Beyond me, a few dozen steps out, Fortune whickered as if she knew I was awake. Crickets scraped their tuneless song and all around the tall grass sighed and rustled; I reminded myself, twice, that I was no longer a soldier. No more would Federals, real or imagined, creep close as I slept, wishing to pierce my ribs with a musket blade. I sighed and rolled back into my blanket, but hardly a minute ticked past before I relented, admitting that I could not shake the distinct sense of watchful eyes somewhere out in the darkness. I leaned and drew my rifle closer to my body, keeping a hand curled loosely about the receiver, and felt a measure safer.
Then, uncertain exactly why other than to quiet a small but persistent voice in my head, I rose without making a sound and stepped deliberately away from the fire’s faint glow, allowing nothing more than a gut feeling to guide my feet. Keeping my rifle in the crook of my arm, aimed low, and the fire where my brother slept at the corner of my sight, I crept southeast, staring intently as my eyes adjusted, peering at the wavering line where the grass met the sky. Mundane objects, trees and the like, took on monstrous forms – just as they had when I was soldiering and the half-sick fear I’d felt at any given moment distorted the natural shape of things. Treading with care over the uneven ground, slightly hunched, grass scratching knee-high at my trousers, I thought, Where the hell are you? I know you’s out there.
My silent, wary steps carried me well away from the fire; I felt distinctly as though I was hunting, stalking game that might at any given second spring to motion before my eyes. Not wanting to seem a fool and yet unable to cease the motion, I went to one knee and swiped a handful of loose, dusty dirt, spreading this carefully along the barrel of my piece, to smudge out any telltale metallic glinting. I brought the stock to my shoulder, sweeping to the right, peering down the barrel. I wanted to taunt, to call into the night that I knew he was there; but that would give away my exact position. Whoever in the goddamn hell he was, I longed to flush him as I would quarry – quarry I would then corner and claim. Despite the chill in the night’s air, a belligerent stubborn heat kept my bones adequately warm.
You’s acting right ridiculous, I thought, but I did not lower my rifle even as I reprimanded myself. Letting your wits get addled, like you always done as a boy. Acting no older than Malcolm, an’ even he’d know better than to let his imagination take hold this way.
I swept slowly to the left.
Nothing.
The night, as the evening before, was still as a severed limb. I strained to listen, ripples of awareness creeping along my scalp. He was close. I hunkered lower and drew tighter my piece, and it was then that I heard the low, muted hoot of an owl – my hair near stood on end – and immediately after, the faint sound of shifting grass stalks. Someone was hiding in them, moving quietly amongst the prairie. Not far south of my position the rustlings came – I’d been right in this assumption; someone tailed us. Sweat slid down my temples and made damp my neck.
I’ll find you, bastard, I thought, edging closer. For once in my sorry life, I took no satisfaction in being proven right. If I caught him in my sites, I would take him out – no time for questions. Shoot first, ask questions later, in my opinion. My heart galloped, striking my ribs as solidly as a horse’s rearing hooves. I crept forward, watching for any hint of movement ahead.
Where are you?
Who are you?
And then, sudden as a deer bolting blindly from cover, he rose to his feet, a smudge only a little darker than the night sky, roughly ten yards from my position – the crack of a discharging rifle snapped straight my spine and I roared in anger, the sound lost in the bullet’s report. I returned fire, the stock slapping my shoulder with gratifying power. I chambered a second round and fired after his retreating figure, to no avail – some hell of a shot you are, I derided myself – and then I was up and in pursuit. I heard nothing but the swollen bursts of my angry breath, my ears muffled from both shots, the world narrowing to a furious, red-gray corridor.
The ground slammed the soles of my boots, my throat dry and tight, the rifle slick in my grasp. He fled afoot, a blur of motion only paces ahead, the both of us trampling prairie grass as we ran. My free hand bunched into a hard fist, ready to beat him to death the moment I clenched hold. He was a fleet sumbitch, I’d give him that, and this thought had scarce cleared my mind before he leaped to the side, seeming to disappear. My brain stumbled to the conclusion faster than my feet; I skidded to a halt and then instantly into a crouch – not a moment too soon, as his rifle discharged again. The bullet made a high-pitched zinging whine in its deadly flight. I prayed, Please let Malcolm stay put.
The round struck the dirt only arm’s length from my right side.
Goddammit, the bastard is a good shot.
I cursed, ducking lower still, my blood hopping. A few seconds passed, in which I heard my labored breath. Then another few, until an unmistakable sound met my ears.
A horse, I realized, and flew to my feet to see him running again. His mount was undoubtedly tethered out there, waiting. He appeared scarcely bigger than the top joint of my thumb by now, a blur in the distance; he’d bought himself time by firing at me. I knew I had no hope of running many yards back to Fortune and then overtaking him on horseback, especially in the dark, and so let him go.
The excited stir occasioned by my shooting match allowed for no chance at stealing a few hours’ sleep. Malcolm ran to meet me, hollering fit to wake those already dead and buried, clutching Gus’s rifle. His dark eyes were wide and agitated; he insisted upon knowing everything that had happened before I could even open my yap. Kristian stood over Theodore with his pistol at the ready – the boy cowered low to the ground, surely at Kristian’s instructions – both father and son watching me with stun as I neared, Malcolm all but tugging my elbow.
I ran a hand through my sweating hair and admitted, “I don’t know what in the hell just happened.”
“Someone was shooting at you, that is what happened,” Kristian said, his voice shaking with concern, but I detected anger as well. He cried, “Who was shooting at you?”
Irrational though it might be, my temper flared. I yelled, “Whoever the hell it was intended to kill us while we slept, for all I know! Likely I saved us!”
“It is my belief that ill luck stalks you,” Kristian said, holstering his piece and motioning to the boy. “Come, Teddy, let us go. We will stay no longer with these people.”
I could hardly believe my ears. I demanded, “What do you mean, ill luck?”
Kristian answered as he collected their gear, clearly preparing to depart despite the early hour. He explained, eyes now averted, “Storms destroy your belongings and steal your money, and now men shoot at you in the night hours. I have not heard of such ill luck striking one man in a week’s time and this is why we will take our leave from you now. Son, fetch your mule,” he said, more kindly, and in short order the two of them were ready to ride.
Taut with angry energy, I watched in speechless disbelief; even Malcolm had no words. Kristian made sure the boy was settled before claiming his own saddle and then regarded us with a long face. Theodore watched silently. Consternated, I offered no farewell.
“May better fortunes find you,” Kristian said somberly, and heeled his mount.
A cold thread seemed to tighten around the bones in my spine, but I refused to let his words otherwise upset me. Malcolm and I stood side-by-side and watched them depart. Theodore, his mule trailing a step or two behind, looked back once before they disappeared from our sight.