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1869 – Matthew Gentry joined the Confederate Army at eighteen years of age after an argument with his father, leaving Paradise, his Virginia home and famed horse breeding stables, for the fields of Gettysburg. Having survived the War Between the States, Gentry is haunted by the violence and inhumanity of the war. He continues to roam the country long after the conflict is over, finding solace in the arms of soiled doves and at the bottom of whiskey bottles. Finally traveling home after learning of a family tragedy, he nearly loses his life in a spring-flooded riverbed.
Annie Campbell, lone survivor of her family, lives at a remote farm near the North River, raising pigs and trying to grow enough to feed herself, and to stay out of the cross hairs of the Thurmans, violent men who run the town of Bridgewater. Annie’s secrets threaten her safety, even as she rescues and nurses Matthew Gentry.
Matthew knows he must return to Paradise, to grieve with his family. Will his heart lead him back to Bridgewater and Annie Campbell?
1869 Outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky
“Don’t pinch, Esmie! It hurts!”
The blond woman propped against the foot of the metal bed giggled and fondled her own breast. She glanced at the man lounging against the headboard and ran the tip of her tongue around her lips. “Tillie looks put out, sweetheart. Why don’t you and me have some more fun?”
“I like to have fun, too, Esmie. I’ll play,” Tillie, the redhead lying on her side next to the man, said.
Matt Gentry took another swig of whiskey from the bottle in his left hand. He was drunk, not so far gone that he couldn’t enjoy himself with the two naked women in his bed, but it had been a day or so, he thought, since he’d done much of anything but drink his rye and screw. He was almost tired of it. Almost.
Esmie crawled to him, eyes on him, and began to kiss and lick his bare leg. He leaned back against the pillows and sighed a hum of contentment as Esmie found other things to run her tongue over. Not to be outdone, Tillie crouched near him, swinging one enormous breast in front of his face as she did. He sucked her nipple until it stood straight and hard. His hips were starting to pump when the door to his hotel room flew open.
Matt’s right hand shot up, aiming a six-shooter at the man in doorway, as he disengaged himself from Tillie’s breast to take a look-see at who he was pointing his gun at. “Ben? Is that you?” he asked.
“Who else would it be?”
Matt shook his head and barked a laugh. “Who else would it be? Ha! How about that, girls? ‘Who else would it be?’”
Ben Littleship, the ranch manager for Paradise, the Gentry family’s spread in Virginia for as long as Matt could remember, was staring at him. Ben was as stone-faced as a man could be, but even Matt in his stupor and having been away from home for almost seven years could tell Ben was disgusted with what he saw. Matt pushed Esmie away and sat up. The room tilted even though he had two feet on the floor. “Go on girls. Get some clothes on and take a walk.”
“We could entertain ourselves, honey,” Esmie said and winked at Ben Littleship, “and your new friend, too.”
“Does he owe you any money?” Ben asked the two women.
“He pays us good but we’d do it for free,” Tillie said.
“Go on,” Matt said. “Time for a break.”
The two women walked around the bed and to the door. Ben held out a coin as they went by. “Have a pot of coffee and two meals sent up. Right quick.”
Esmie took the coin, bit down on it, and dropped it in the pocket of the silky robe she wore. “Sure thing, honey.”
Ben sat down on a dainty velvet-covered chair and looked out the window of the second-floor room.
Matt pulled on his pants and ran a hand over the stubble of his beard. His hair was dark red, nearly brown, just like his mother’s, and he was as powerfully built as his father with a broad chest and thick arms. He rubbed at his left shoulder where a horse had kicked him years ago.
“What are you doing here, Ben?” Matt waited while the old man casually watched the passersby on the street below.
“Mother send you? She worried the devil in me finally won? Sure as hell wasn’t Daddy that sent you, that’s for damn certain.”
Ben turned his head to stare at him. The two men were quiet together for nearly a quarter of an hour; Matt was determined to wait him out.
Tillie opened the door and let in a young boy carrying a tray of food and an older woman behind him carrying a coffeepot and tin mugs. Tillie winked at him, and he could see Esmie over her shoulder, smiling wickedly. The two women suddenly looked cheap and sordid, but he imagined he looked the same to them. A young drunk with plenty of money, little judgment, and a reckless glint in his eye.
Ah . . . what had he become?
The woman and boy left the room and Matt shooed the two women out the door. He eyed the beefsteak and fried potatoes and burped. He filled a mug with coffee, hoping Ben didn’t see his hands shaking as too much liquor, too little sleep, and no real food he could remember took their toll.
Ben pulled a plate from the tray and sat it on the table beside him. He opened the napkin, shook it, and laid it across his lap. He cut the meat into small pieces, speared a potato, and ate. Matt found himself staring at the ranch manager as if he’d never been taught any fine manners or courtesies and did not know what to make of the behavior of a gentleman. Matt went to the washstand, lathered up his hands with the scented soap beside the bowl, washed his face and arms, and rinsed out his mouth, gargling with the warm water and nearly gagging. He combed back his hair and tied it with a piece of rawhide.
He dragged a second chair to the small table, thinking the food smells were appetizing now, more than the aroma of coffee or the stench of the booze on his clothes. He ate in small bites and chewed slowly, not trusting his stomach to manage a large or quick meal. The food and coffee cleared his head, leaving him to wonder what the ranch manager was doing here. He looked up from his plate, searching the face of the man staring at him with an unrelenting gaze. A shiver trailed down his arms, a ghost or a memory, flitting over him and leaving him with the sure knowledge that there was bad news coming.
Matt wiped his mouth with his napkin and laid it on the table. “What is it? What has happened?”
“Your father’s dead. Almost a month now.”
Ben Littleship nodded and turned to stare out the window.
A picture sprang to his mind, his father, Beauregard, wrangling yearlings and smiling with a whoop and holler when he finally brought one to heel. Larger than life itself, Beau Gentry never shied from work, digging in to tasks with more energy than his sons, and had a shrewd sense for business and life. He was respected by other men, held in awe by the young bucks, and was formidable to all but his wife. Eleanor Gentry ruled him with softly spoken requests and guidance, and Beau gladly accepted them and complied. Their history and his love for her were legendary to all those who knew the Gentry family. Gone? How can it be?
“Negroes, mother, father, and six or seven youngins coming north in a wagon, passing by Paradise on the eastern side. Your daddy was up that way riding one of the Morgans and saw them. Some outlaws still wearing gray come upon the coloreds and meant to take one of the young girls, maybe twelve or thirteen years old. The father said no and they shot and killed him. Beauregard went at the bandits, clearing a three-rail fence and shooting at the same time. They gut-shot him, and the horse dragged him home, his foot caught in the stirrup. Miss Eleanor doctored him and he hung on for three weeks, but the poison finally took him. She sent me and Adam to find the men and rescue the mother and her children.”
“Weren’t pretty. None of it.”
“Did you get them? The outlaws?”
“Adam and I found their camp and waited ’til they got drunk. We slit the throats of the first two we come upon as we crawled toward their fire and shot the other ones. They’d already raped the older girl and her mother by the time we got there.”
“This all happened at Paradise? At home?”
“Right there on your daddy’s property. Miss Eleanor sent me to find you shortly after. She knew he didn’t have long. I got a telegraph a week ago that he’d passed.”
Matt stood then, sick, so sick of the violence, the killing, the senselessness of it. He pulled the chamber pot from under the bed and vomited, over and over again, until he was on all fours, breathing heavy, sweating and counting the wood boards between his hands to try to take his mind off the rolling of his stomach. He pulled himself onto the bed and curled on his side. He heard Ben’s chair scrape back.
“We leave at first light.”
* * *
It had been a long time, maybe years, since Matt was on his way before sunrise. The air was crisp for May as he walked to the stables with Ben, his saddlebags over his shoulder. He’d given Tillie and Esmie a twenty-dollar gold piece each the night before, prompting Tillie to kiss his cheek and tell him about the new dress and hat she’d buy with it. Esmie had plopped down beside him at the table he sat at in the saloon and started crying. Even when the barman yelled at her to get her fat fanny back to work, she didn’t move, just kept sobbing and thanking him and telling him she was going to start over, maybe as a seamstress, find a husband and have a passel of kids. She’d given up dreaming that dream until just then.
“How many days do you think ’til we get to Winchester?” Matt asked as he checked the saddle on his horse, Chester.
“Could do it in five days, riding all night and all day, but after seeing you, I figure it’ll take us a couple weeks.”
“What in the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re looking paunchy. Your eyes are all sunk in, and you smell like a still. I imagine your horse isn’t in much better shape.”
Matt found the stable master and paid the tally for both horses. He pulled himself up in the saddle. “Me and Chester are just fine, but what’s the hurry? Isn’t anything for me to do there now.”
“No. Nothing to do except properly mourn your daddy, see your brother and sister, and put your mother’s worries at ease. That woman hasn’t been the same since you rode out at eighteen.”
“Mother never defended me to Daddy. She knew he was wrong.”
Ben took a long look at him and spurred his horse toward where the streets petered into a trail. Matt followed and let the morning air and the rhythmic sound of the horses’ hooves on the packed earth against the occasional squawk of an early bird lull him to relax. He let his mind wander, which he rarely did, as he was not typically sober and the places his mind took him when he was were hideous and brutal. But he had little choice today it seemed.
By noon, he knew that Ben was right. He was not the same man who’d left Paradise all those years ago, or the man who’d led others into battle, carried wounded soldiers, and clamored over hills carrying his pack and his gun. His legs were aching and his behind was so sore he was afraid he’d never sit right again. He did though, after drinking water from his canteen and eating a piece of cheese and a heel of bread. By the time they built a fire that evening, he was too bone weary to do more than eat what Ben handed him and lie down on his bedroll.
* * *
The following day, Matt pulled his collar tight, hoping to keep the rain from rolling off his hat brim to the bare skin of his neck. It wasn’t quite cold, but the damp air under the canopy of trees and the rain left him chilled to the bone. His nose was running, and the last thing he needed on this godforsaken trip was to fall ill. Ben held up a hand for him to stop and then motioned him forward.
“This mud isn’t any good for the horses. There’s a rock overhang up ahead.”
Matt turned Chester and followed Ben. They pulled their horses under one end of the massive slab of stone and got under the wide end that had obviously been used by others on the trail they were following. The charred remnants of a fire remained and a scrap of blanket was caught on a jagged rock. There was even a small pile of dry tinder. Ben walked away from the rock and came back with some felled wood. He dropped to his knees and spread the dry tinder on the half-burned pieces from the last fire.
“Find something to give these horses. We’re going to have to ration what’s in the feedbags.”
Matt stared at the top of the other man’s hat and shrugged his shoulders. “What am I supposed to find? These woods are too dense for any grasses.”
Ben continued stacking and shaping twigs until he bent down to the wood and lit a match, blowing softly as the flame flickered. He looked up when he reached for one of the larger pieces of wood he’d carried back. “What are you still doing here? The horses need fed.”
Matt turned on a heel and began stomping through undergrowth, pulling dead grasses from between rocks and felled trees while cursing his luck to be traveling with Littleship. He also felt a stab of guilt for the reason he was making the trip. What had Mother thought of my leaving more than six years ago? It wasn’t that he hadn’t thought of her; he had, thinking of her continuously before a battle and picturing her face as he drifted off to sleep more nights than not. He’d heard her voice when facing restless, tired, and hungry soldiers and when his situation, on or off the battlefield, had seemed hopeless. Her quiet, consistent anthems of patience and hard work, with little use for self-pity or guilt, had formed his habits as a man and as a leader. Had he silenced her voice in his head since the end of the war? Yes, he supposed he had.
Matt hand-fed Chester and Ben’s horse, pulled off their saddles and packs, and let them drink their fill from the puddles of water that had formed on the stone ledge. He opened the saddle blankets and spread them over the horses’ backs. He petted Chester’s nose and then turned to the fire Ben had built up. He squatted near it and warmed himself.
“How is Mother doing?”
“Miss Eleanor’s grief is private, but I believe it is particularly deep.”
“She is strong, though. Stronger than Daddy ever was.”
“They were both strong in their own ways. Paradise and you youngins were the benefactors.”
Matt stared out into the drizzle. “How is my sainted older brother?”
“Adam has done his duty. He saved the Morgans from the Johnnys and the Blues, and they are now back to stud.”
“What? His grand scheme to hide them in the hills?” Matt harrumphed. “What a joke.”
“Adam lived in the mountains, taking care of the three purebreds, moving them every week or so during battle seasons for nigh on two years. He lived in strung-up tents and got home for a few weeks at a time when your daddy or I would handle them.” Ben turned to stare at him. “I’d be a bit more grateful considering he saved you inheritance.”
Matt felt the heat rise up his neck until his cheeks flushed. “I am grateful. I don’t have a choice, do I, since I’ve never contributed to the family coffers.”
Ben sipped the coffee he’d brewed and stared into the forest.
“Nearly married a year ago. Wasn’t to be, and she took it hard. Beau and I didn’t think much of her young man.”
“Nearly married? She’s just a kid!”
“She was when you left.”
“Her man didn’t turn out to be all he said he was. Good thing she figured it out ’fore the wedding.”
Matt pictured his sister at nine or ten years old, all teeth and freckles, in a gingham dress with a dirt-covered white apron over it. He wondered why his mother had allowed a romance to develop. How old is Olivia? What year is it? 1868?1869? Must be ’69. Which made Olivia twenty-one, almost twenty-two years old. Didn’t Esme tell him she was nineteen? Matt was suddenly queasy, thinking about his last encounter with her before Ben had opened the door of his hotel room.
“I suppose she’s beautiful.”
“I’ve been gone six years.”
“Yep, you have.”
Ben said nothing else and began whittling, and Matt tried to remember all the places he’d been, all the things he’d done since he’d heard that the South had surrendered. There were months that he couldn’t recall at all. A few sober patches stood out, when he’d stopped drinking, either out of worry that he was no longer quite sane or when there’d been no whiskey handy. But much of it was a blur of towns, saloons, and whores. At least he wasn’t one of those drunks that shook with tremors when their drink or their money ran out, sometimes doing humiliating or dangerous acts to earn some coin and feed their habit.
Matt sniffed and looked out into the night’s drizzle of rain, watching drops bounce off the wide, flat leaves growing up between the trees. At least he wasn’t one of those drunks, he’d told himself—leaving him to wonder exactly what kind of drunk he was. He pulled his saddlebag to him, found his bottle, and made his way past the horses to relieve himself. He pulled the cork from the bottle, took a swig, and then dumped the remainder on the forest floor.