1842 – Eleanor McManus, upright daughter of a minister, is rescued from kidnappers by a rough and tumble fur trader, Beauregard Gentry, in the wilderness of northern Virginia. With Beauregard’s help, Eleanor makes her way back to her intended groom who declares her soiled, and she finds herself alone, pressured to make life decisions without benefit of family or others she can trust. Beauregard and Eleanor agree to begin a life together, build their legacy together, and their growing devotion to each other is witnessed one cold, crisp Christmas morning.
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November 1842 Virginia
“Twenty dollars and you can have her. Don’t make no never mind to me what you do with her. I just want to see the gold first.”
The filthy-looking bearded man waved his gun in every direction as he spoke, including at the head of the young woman he held in his arms and at the three men in front of him. The trio all had handkerchiefs covering the lower part of their faces and hats pulled down tight, revealing six eyes now riveted to the pistol as it honed in on one random target after the other. The woman was struggling, although it was a pitiful attempt as she was clearly exhausted, and maybe hurt. The wind whipped through the trees, blowing the dry snow in circles around them. Beau Gentry watched the grim scene play out as he peered around a boulder down into a small ravine. He’d been propped against the sheltered rock, dozing, and thinking he’d best start a fire, when he heard voices below.
“Ain’t paying twenty dollars in gold for some used-up whore,” one of the masked men said.
The filthy man wrenched his arm tighter around the woman and put the gun to her temple. “Tell ’em, girly. Tell ’em you ain’t no whore.”
She shrank away from the barrel of the gun and moaned. “Please, mister. Let me go,” she begged.
“Tell ’em you ain’t no whore!”
She shook her head and pulled at the filthy man’s arm around her waist. “I’m no fallen lady,” she whispered. “I’m just, I’m just . . .” The woman went limp, and Beau thought she’d fainted but instead she vomited into the snow in front of her. He watched her choke and gag, bent over the man’s arm, and that’s when he realized she was barefoot.
Beau leaned back against the rock and checked his pistols and shotgun beside him. He hoped his horse wouldn’t bolt from the tree she was loosely tied to when the bullets started to fly. It’d be a long walk back to Winchester if she did, especially as he’d most likely be carrying the woman. “Shit,” he muttered. “Shit and damnation. She doesn’t have any goddamn shoes on.”
From his angle, he’d need to drop the three bandits with the two shells from the shotgun, and finish off any of them still breathing with one of his pistols. They’d be surprised and hopefully slow if the liquor smell floating on the wind meant anything. He was counting on the filthy man being hampered by the woman’s struggling. He was hoping she didn’t get shot in the cross fire, but then she’d be better off dead than facing what was in store for her if the filthy man was the victor. The argument over the gold was getting heated, he could hear, making this as good a time as any.
The snow fell away from the fur collar and trim of Beau’s coat as he stood, lifted the shotgun to his shoulder, and aimed at the first man. He pulled the trigger, sighted in the second man, and pulled the second trigger right after the other, marching forward through brush and snow, letting the shotgun fall from his hands as he went. Two of the men dropped and the third fell to his knees, aiming his pistol at Beau as he did. Beau lengthened his stride, pulled a pistol from his waistband as he made the clearing, raised his left arm straight, and dropped the kneeling man to the ground with a shot to his face, letting the spent weapon fall to the ground. As he turned, he pulled his new fighting knife free of its scabbard and brought his right hand up, wielding a second pistol, side-stepping to get an angle on the filthy man.
“She’s mine! You ain’t getting her.”
“Drop the gun.”
“Twenty dollars in gold and you can have her!”
He wondered how much longer the woman would last. She was white-faced, except for the dirt, and her hair hung in clumps, matted together with blood. Her mouth was open in a silent scream. She raised and lowered her arms as if paddling in a pool of water. Most likely she was long past terrified and all the way to hysterical.
“Fine,” Beau said. “You want twenty dollars?”
The filthy man nodded, and Beau dropped his knife in the snow and reached his hand in his pants pocket as if intending to retrieve a gold piece. The man lowered his weapon by an inch or so as his eyes followed Beau’s hand, and in that moment Beau brought up his right hand and fired his weapon. The bullet tore through the man’s neck, sending blood gushing into the snow as the man tumbled sideways, releasing the woman. She fell in the opposite direction, covered in splattered blood, clawing and crawling away from her captor, turning on her back and shoving off in the mud and snow with bleeding feet, pushing herself away. Her cry echoed in the silent cold night.
Beau pulled his knife from the snow, kicked away the filthy man’s gun, and walked to where he lay, now writhing as he slowly drowned in his own blood. The hair on the back of Beau’s neck stood and he turned. The last of the three men, missing part of his cheek and ear, had retrieved a loaded pistol from the belt of one of his companions and was now aiming it at Beau with shaking hands. Beau released the knife with a whip of his wrist, landing it dead center on the man’s chest. He turned to the woman and watched as her eyes rolled back in her head and she crumbled the last four or five inches, until her back hit the forest floor.
Eleanor awoke suddenly, her eyes opening fully, having no idea where she was, or the time of day, or even what day it was. Panic hit her as she felt the weight of something over her body. Danger and death had hung over her since . . . that day, since everything dear and known was taken from her. Had she been sold? She took a deep breath and tried to wrap her mind around the reality of it, around the fact that she was someone’s property, rather than a living, thinking person on her own.
She sniffed the air and her nose was tickled by fur. It was then she realized the weight she felt was furs or blankets, tucked around her tightly, up to her chin. Could she be warm? Her head pounded a slow beat in her ears, and any movement exaggerated the ache. Her feet were burning as if she were stepping on coals. She noticed a fireplace with a roaring fire on the other side of the small room. And there was a person, a man, kneeling in front of the fire, poking it and adding logs as he did. Who was he? Her thoughts were muddled and her memory as random as the sparks shooting from the new wood. He turned then and looked at her.
Her hands fought their way out from under the heavy robes and she shrieked. Every muscle and bone in her body prepared to defend itself from whatever new danger he presented. She knew she was moving much too slowly, but she couldn’t squeeze one more bit of energy to even prop herself up, if not climb out of the bed and run for her life.
“Shhh,” he said without standing or making any movement. “Steady, now. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Eleanor was taking in short breaths and she could feel her heart racing. Tears came to her eyes as she thought about her own death, hopefully quick, as her mother’s had not been. She was ready to meet her maker and be reunited with her family. She had lived a good and dutiful life, and she was lucky, she knew, to be the daughter of Gordon and Olivia McManus, but now she longed for peace, for her savior’s grace that would heal her suffering and fill her fearful heart with calm.
She watched the man stretch out to his full height, turn, and seat himself in a chair near the fire. He rocked slowly, back and forth, back and forth. He had both hands on the arms of the chair and his feet firmly planted on the floor. He wasn’t even looking at her; in fact, his eyes were drifting shut.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“Beauregard Gentry. Originally from Concordia Parish, Louisiana. Left there five years ago with an uncle to help him with a lumber mill left to him by his wife’s side of the family after her and her parents’ death. The business was contested by a distant relative, and Uncle Chester and I decided to head to Canada to try our hand at the fur business. He took a chill six months past and died.”
Eleanor listened intently as his accent was unique to her ears. She got the feeling he was telling the story for her benefit, to calm her. He returned to rocking when he was finished, back and forth, back and forth. She was staring at him, and he turned his head to her.
“Would you like some water? Are you thirsty?”
“I’m going to stand now and fill that cup there from the bucket. I’m going to set it down near your bed. Do you think you can drink it yourself?”
She nodded again, eyes glued to him as he slowly stood and walked to the dry sink. He poured water in a wooden cup and turned. She was suddenly parched, as if his mention of water made her mind connect with the needs of her body. He walked around the edge of the room, away from her until he came to the table near her bed. He sat the glass down and slid it to her with one finger. He backed up and sat down in the chair.
She pushed herself up on her elbows and licked her lips. She touched the cup with a trembling hand and concentrated on gripping it without spilling its contents. She drank greedily. She sat it down on the table and lay back on the pillow, pulling the warm blankets up to her chin. She could not stop the tear that fell down her temple and into her hair.
“What are you going to do with me?” she asked.
“I’m going to take you wherever you need to go.”
Eleanor shook her head, staring at the wood ceiling as she did. “There’s nowhere for me to go.”
“There’s got to be somewhere for you to go. Shit, there’s somewhere for everybody to go.”
“No. There is nowhere for me,” she whispered and closed her eyes.
* * *
Beau chopped wood and shot squirrels and rabbits ’til he had enough firewood for the following winter and enough raggedy-ass pelts to make a sleeve of a coat. It was the third day since he took the woman to the deserted cabin he’d seen as he started the long trip carrying her and leading the horse and mule back to Winchester. He stuffed the holes in the walls with rags and built a fire he kept burning night and day. He looked up at the gray sky, now promising to drop another coating of snow, and hoped the lean-to he’d pitched would be enough to keep his horse and pack mule dry and warm ’til he could get the woman back to civilization. Then he could find the property named on the deed his uncle had given him before he died.
He unhooked the rope from the door and hurried inside before the heat let out and the woman began shivering like she had the day before. But before he hung his hat on the peg near the door, he saw her standing by the fire, her back to the stone mantel.
“I’m just going to set this firewood down,” he said and walked near the fireplace and stacked the wood on the pile near the hearth.
Beau kept his eyes straight ahead, knowing she watched his every move. He shrugged out of his coat when he was done, hung it next to his hat, and leaned back against the wall, giving her as much space as he could.
“How long?” she asked.
“What do you mean to do with me?”
He shook his head. “Don’t aim to do a damn thing with you. Winchester’s the closest town. I plan to take you there. You can find your people or do whatever you were doing before I found you out here in the wilderness.”
“I can’t. I can never do what I was doing before.”
“Are you from around these parts, miss?”
“Then you’re a long way from home.”
She nodded and looked away from him and flinched as if someone had touched her shoulder and frightened her.
He was quiet for a long minute, hoping she’d reveal something of herself, but she stood silently staring at the wall.
“I found a barrel yesterday ’round back of the cabin. I thought you might want to clean up a bit,” he said. “I’ll bucket you some water from the stream to the kettle on the hearth, and we can fill the barrel with warm water. I’ll take myself off some other damn place and give you some privacy.”
She turned her head sharply. “How would I know you won’t come back in?”
Beau shrugged. “’Cause I said I wouldn’t, and I keep my word. My mother would have beat my ass end with a switch if I didn’t.”
Beau left to fill the buckets and haul the barrel. She stood watching him, in the door and out, her back to the hearth. He dumped the last heated kettle of warm water and looked up at her. She was staring at him with the bland expression she’d worn before, as if she was incapable of any happiness or sadness.
“Are you going to use any of this water or just stand there and look at it?” he asked.
Her eyes flitted to the door.
“I’m going to drag this table over here,” he said and inched the furniture. “When I leave, you push it up against the door. Are you strong enough?”
She watched him and nodded. He went out the door and waited until he heard the scrape of wood on wood. “Do you have it tight against the door?” he shouted.
“Yes,” he barely heard and then, “Yes.”
Even with the sun shining, he was starting to get cold and he certainly was bored, after what he figured was well past the second hour standing outside. He rode his horse around a small clearing near the cabin, and he figured he was probably as happy to do it as his horse was since they’d both been doing nothing for three days. He brushed the nag and checked her hooves before feeding her what he’d gathered.
The door to the cabin opened and stood ajar, although the woman did not come out. He kicked the mud off of his boots and went inside. She was bent over, stirring the stewpot hooked in the back of the fireplace, and straightened as he came in. “I’ll get the water dumped for—” he said, stopping as she turned to him.
Her long hair was damp but already shiny and reflecting a deep red in the light of the fireplace. She had the greenest eyes he’d ever seen on a person, and a smattering of light freckles across her nose and cheeks that he’d not noticed before she cleaned up. At that moment he decided she was as pretty a young woman as he’d ever seen. He took off his hat. “I’ll take care of the water, miss.”
She shook her head and pointed near the dry sink. “I found a pull that opens the floor to the ground. Much of it splashed out as I washed my laundry but I bucketed the rest of it down the opening. I can’t budge the barrel, though. You’ll have to take care of that.”
Beau nodded and pulled and pushed the barrel out the door, dumped the remaining water, and stood it against the cabin in the back. He wiped his hand down his beard and over his brow and thought he might have to do something about cleaning himself up, especially now that this young woman was looking like she was from a good family and on her way to a social or a church picnic. He’d get his kit and at least shave. It was then he wondered what she’d used for soap as he’d not offered the sliver he carried.
Beau came back in the cabin and nodded to the pot she stirred. “It’s just some rabbit I’m stewing there with two potatoes I’ve been carrying in my saddlebag. Help yourself. You must be hungry as blazes if you’re feeling better.”
“It smells wonderful, Mr. Gentry. Thank you. I am hungry. May I dip you some?”
“I already ate, but you go right ahead, miss.”
She turned to the fireplace, stopped short of reaching for the long-handled ladle, and turned back to him. “Eleanor McManus. My name is Eleanor McManus.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Eleanor.”
“I must thank you for all you have done for me, Mr. Gentry.” She swallowed and folded her hands at her waist. “I could never repay it. Not in a thousand years.”
“So you believe me when I say I’m just going to take you to Winchester? To your people?”
“I do believe you. You would not have brought me to this cabin and kept me warm and dry and let me heal. You would not have rescued my mother’s valise from the snow and bothered to bring it for me. You would not have . . .” she trailed off and looked out the lone window of the cabin. “You would not have been so careful to edge around the room so that I would not be frightened.”
“You’ve been through a hellish ordeal by my reckoning.”
“And you have gone out of your way for me,” Eleanor said. Not true of others and especially of one person. Was it a sin to feel as badly as she did over a broken heart as she did over the death of her parents and sisters? Would she burn in hell? She thought perhaps she would. Tears came to her eyes as the image of her family swam before her. All gone. All in the hands of the Lord.
“Nothing more than anyone else would do,” he said.
She shook her head. “No. You’re so very wrong about that.”
Eleanor turned to the fireplace, suddenly starved and weak-kneed from it. She ladled pieces of meat, broth, and potato into the tin plate that had been propped up on the mantel. She sat down on the edge of the bed, and he handed her a spoon. The meat was tender and delicious. She ate slowly, knowing that too much food on a stomach that had been nearly empty for some days would be calamitous.
Mr. Gentry still stood near the dry sink as he’d been doing since he came in. It was just then she realized he hadn’t sat down in the rocker because she had clothes, even unmentionables, hanging from the chair in the heat from the fireplace. She stood and gathered them all in her arms.
“Please sit down. You’ve been on your feet all day so I could wash. Please sit.”
“You did some laundry I see.”
“Yes. It was such a gift to get the smell of blood and dirt and grime from my person, and to clean my clothes. This dress,” she said with a catch in her throat, “was my mother’s. That horrible man grabbed her valise from the wagon when he took me.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“We were traveling from Allentown, Pennsylvania, with a group of families, planning on settling near Charleston, Virginia, where my father had a connection. He was a minister, you see, and he intended to build a church there. We were separated from the rest of the group because of a broken axle on our wagon. My father felt we would be able to catch up with the others in less than a week as he had mapped out our directions with stops along the way, in towns or with families he knew through the church. We were more than halfway on our journey and using well-traveled roads.”
She stopped, feeling the tears spill over onto her cheeks. “They came in the middle of the night and shot Father and my two sisters immediately. Mother screamed ‘run’ and I did, and for whatever reason, they did not follow me, but I stopped, foolishly. I had to see. That was when I saw them tearing her clothes off of her body. The last thing I heard was her screams.”
Eleanor did not know how long she sat staring, the image of her father’s body, twisted and bloody, and her mother standing naked, trying desperately to cover herself. She did not know if she would ever get the image out of her head. Mr. Gentry cleared his throat and stood to throw a log on the fire.
“You got away?”
“We’d been in Winchester for a week or more, resting the horses and getting our wagon fixed. I ran and ran until I found my way back to town. I went to the church that we’d attended while there for help from one of the congregants and they gave me clothes as I was still in my nightdress and they fed me. I asked them to post a letter for me to my father’s sister, my only living relative, that he’d been killed. Perhaps I should have asked to borrow money to get myself back to Allentown and then find a way to my aunt in Philadelphia. I admit I wasn’t thinking straight. I begged for help from . . .”
Eleanor stood, unable to divulge the final dagger to her heart. “I went back to our wagons the following day to bury my parents and retrieve what I could, and that horrible, filthy man came out of the trees and grabbed me. We rode from morning until night, in circles I think, my hands tied to the saddle horn. I thought for certain I was to die when I saw you come out of the woods and kill those men. But then I’d been anticipating my own death for several days at that point.”
Eleanor lay down on the bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. Mr. Gentry sang a song she’d never heard, and then hummed the melody for some time. She let herself drift off to sleep, dry and clean and nearly free of fear.