“Nolan, I want Tilman and Jackson in the barn in ten minutes. I’m taking them with me.” Breakfast was, if not the best meal he’d ever eaten, at least unburnt and palatable. He’d originally meant to take Chambers with him this morning, but he seemed to be of more use overseeing the kitchen.
“You’re taking Graham as well, Captain?” his second in command asked as he cleaned his plate off with his last piece of toast; they’d all learned to make use of every bit of food they had, which was why no one had complained about the meals the last few days. That, and the fact that a few of them, like Nolan, were gentlemen.
“I’d be a bloody fool not to. Even in a name place he’s never been no one’s better at finding their way around.” Knowing that he could trust Nolan to round up the other men, Gold stopped briefly in the library to collect a map of the area and his saddlebag and headed for the barn. Though it was full light outside the inside was dusky. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light.
“We’re goin’?” There was a barely perceivable thump as Graham lept from the hayloft, where he’d probably been staying since they’d arrived, and landed on the dirt floor. Gold suspected that he only made that little bit of noise out of deference to Gold’s well known lightening speed with his pistol. No man wanted to be shot by the enemy, but at least there might be victory in that tale. There was only shame in being shot by your commanding officer. Not that Graham paid much mind to things like chains of command. It was respect, and the fact that Gold had proved himself worthy of loyalty, that kept the man listening.
He’d met Graham more than a decade before, in Texas when the man wasn’t much more than a boy, too thin and half wild. He’d been taken by Indians a few years before, recent enough that he remembered how to speak the Queen’s English but long enough ago that he called himself Tuhubitu Wasápe. Black Bear. His language was guttural, but with a soft Irish lilt that made for the oddest combination that Gold had ever heard. It had taken weeks before the boy had spoken of the Irish immigrant parents that had been killed on the journey west. The whole party had been slaughtered except for Wasápe, then called Graham. To this day Gold didn’t know if that was his first or last name. He didn’t know if Graham did either.
“Jackson and Tilman are coming. Would you saddle three horses?” Graham never rode with a saddle, and Gold knew there was no reason to tell the man to get a horse ready for himself. He simply would.
“We’d move quicker without them.” He still went for the saddles, though.
“Aye, but today is not an exercise in speed, or stealth. The men need to know this area if they’re to defend it.” They couldn’t afford to have their supply lines blocked; it was a well known truth that an army marched on its stomach. Starving men could not fight; nor could those that died of pneumonia. For that matter an army without bullets was even more pointless. It was his job to keep those lines open, for supplies and communication.
Graham didn’t say another word, but made quick work with the saddles. Like all animals the horses stood perfectly still, soothed by the low voice that spoke in a mix of languages that meant more in tone than anything else. By the time they were joined by Tilman and Jackson all four horses were ready, pawing at the ground with the same nervous energy that Gold himself felt. After three days he was more than ready to be away from the house for a morning.
They rode until mid-afternoon, later than he’d planned but there were more shortcuts and alternate routes to explore than he’d been expecting. Graham had discovered both good vantage points to spy on anyone who used the main roads, and ways to get around if the roads were blocked. Jackson had noted everything on the map. Tilman, a blacksmith when the country wasn’t at war, had watched after the horses when the other three had done their scouting on foot.
The dried meat they carried in their saddlebags hadn’t been enough to assuage their hunger, but they returned far too late for lunch and well before there was any hope for dinner. He was about to send Jackson to the kitchens for whatever could be eaten cold when he saw Leroy crossing the yard, a large basket in hand. As the man avoided work as much as he could, Gold looked at him curiously. As he got closer the curiosity only grew; the basket was filled with the blues of uniforms.
“What are you doing?” He’d left no orders for the man other than making sure there was enough wood chopped; if there was one thing Leroy could be trusted with, even drunk, it was an ax. That and the bottle were all he tended to pick up unless under specific orders or being fired at.
“The laundry was dry.” Leroy stood, his shirtsleeves rolled up, uniform coat either long abandoned or never put on that morning. Gold waited for the rest of the explanation, but that seemed to be all Leroy planned to say.
“Are you a washer woman now, Corporal?” he snapped, irritated at the hold up. He was hungry, damn it.
“Miss. Belle seemed to be struggling, sir. I was just giving her a hand. I didn’t want her to hurt her arm again.” His tone was bordering on surly. Not unusual, but not something Gold was in the mood to let him get away with. Leroy, known to most of the men as ‘Grumpy’ both to his face and behind his back, was the kind of man that barely hacked it as a soldier, and only because they were at war. He’d been a miner up in Pennsylvania but the coal dust irritated his lungs too much. Rather than death by black lung he seemed intent on destroying his liver. There was a story behind it, Gold was sure, but he’d never asked and Leroy didn’t talk about it.
“Well since you seem to enjoy such work you’ll spend all day tomorrow doing whatever else laundry needs done.” He caught, from the corner of his eye, the pale pink of a dress; they had an audience. It didn’t make a difference.
“What the hell?” Leroy’s eyes narrowed. “I’m being punished for carrying one damn basket of clothes?”
“Would you like that to be two days of laundry, Corporal?” His limited wardrobe would probably suffer, but the men that served under him had to understand that his word was law. Orders were to be instantly obeyed; what seemed harsh in times like this might save lives in a battlefield.
“No.” He thought better of his tone. “No, Captain.”
“Good. And don’t forget the starch when you iron. I like my collars stiff.” He smirked to himself as he walked away, leaving a muttering Leroy in his wake, and headed for the kitchen. It was empty, but he managed to find fresh bread and leftover ham, making himself a sandwich to take into the library with him. The library which was, apparently, not empty.
“Spying, Miss. French? Hoping to learn all our weaknesses?” He slid his plate onto the desk, covering most of the map that Jackson must have returned while he’d been busy with Leroy. He sat on the edge of the desk, making no effort to hide the fact that he was staring at her. She didn’t back down.
“What do you think I can learn from a survey of land I’ve been over hundreds of times? This is my home, sir. You can’t show me anything new. Besides, who am I to tell? I’ve seen no one but your men since I agreed to stay here.” She didn’t raise her voice. She even smiled, though there was no sincerity in it.
“Speaking of my men, they are not here to do your work for you. Please refrain from recruiting them in the future.” She made a valid point, not that he felt the need to admit as much. Besides, she couldn’t be allowed to think she could go through his papers. The map might not hold any secrets, but other things in the room were more important.
“If you mean Leroy carrying the laundry basket I didn’t ask, he offered. He was concerned about my arm, which I thought was rather sweet.” For a brief moment her smile was genuine. It was as warm as the laughter he’d heard the night before, and not meant for him.
“Leroy has to be pulled out of gutters and off of barroom floors, more often than not. Neither his breath, his disposition, nor anything else about him is sweet.” It was still a surprise, that Leroy would not only volunteer to help with a chore, but spoke with a woman as well. He wasn’t one to spend any time with the fairer sex.
“You’re hardly a gentleman, talking about someone like that.” She frowned, and shook her head. Her curls bounced. “What can it hurt, to do such a small thing for me? You didn’t have to punish him for it.”
“What I did or did not have to do is my business, and the business of the US Army. I am responsible for these men and, for the foreseeable duration, yourself. That makes my word law. One of my laws, just to be clear, is that you are not to come into this room without permission.” He expected her to protest about following his rules. He didn’t expect her face to fall.
“I can’t come in here?” For the first time since he’d come into the room she took a step back, her eyes suddenly cast downwards. She brushed at the skirt of her dress as if cleaning away lint or crumbs, but nothing was there.
“It’s my office, as long as I am here. I don’t wish any of my belongings to be disturbed.” He didn’t own her an explanation, and wasn’t at all sure why he was giving one. Perhaps it was the fact that though she was annoyed by being forced out of her bedroom she wasn’t upset by the idea, as she was now. “It’s just a room, dearie.”
“It’s my favorite room.” She glanced up at him, quickly, but looked away again.
“There’s dozens of rooms in this place. Why would this one be more important than the rest?” Both his mother-in-law and late wife had spent more of their time in the parlor; his wife even preferred that room to their bedroom and Bay’s nursery, his favorite rooms in the house.
“Does it matter? You’re not going to change your mind, are you?” She turned to pick up the dusting rag he hadn’t noticed she’d left on the edge of the desk.
“You’re never going to know unless you answer my question. Why this room?” He’d all but forgotten the food that he’d been so eager for a few minutes ago. Something about this woman fascinated him. She was a puzzle, and he was never good at leaving a puzzle alone until he’d figured it out.
“This is where the books are,” she said simply.
“You like to read?” That hadn’t been the answer he’d been expecting.
“You sound as puzzled as Louis. He didn’t understand why I picked up any book at all after my governess left.” Which, by the looks of her, wasn’t more than a year or two ago. It had never occurred to him to ask her age, but she couldn’t be more than twenty.
“Louis is your brother?” None of the rooms stood out as being one that might belong to a young man, but it could have been cleaned up. For all he knew she had a brother dressed in grey, more than willing to fire against him on a battlefield.
“Louis Gaston lives on the next plantation over. When this war ends we’re to be married.” She stated it as a fact, without emotion. He had no idea how she felt about it. he knew that he didn’t like it, but only because it meant she had an ally that close. He’d have to send out someone to find out if the next plantation was still lived in. Graham would be best for the job except that he wouldn’t know how to handle it if there were people around. Best to send Nolan; David could appear charming to anyone, even Southern plantation owners that surly hated them all.
“I’ll make you a deal, dearie.” He made a mental note to talk to the Lieutenant later, and turned his attention back to the girl.
“A deal?” Her head was cocked to the side, and she was finally looking at him again. Her eyes were slightly squinted with puzzlement.
“If you promise never to come in here when the room is empty, and you promise that your work comes first, then I promise to allow you access to the room to trade out books. You’re welcome to do as much reading as you like during your free time.” Though he didn’t have time for it lately he’d always been fond of books. When Bailey had been a boy he’d read stories to the lad every night, and often on gloomy weekend days as well. “Do I have your word?”
“You do. Thank you.” For the first time since he’d met her she smiled at him. Not a polite smile, or fake smile, but the kind that actually showed up in her eyes.
How could a smile make someone’s eyes bluer?
“Good. Now good back to your dusting or laundry or whatever it is that you hopefully do better than cooking. I have things to do.” Like eating his sandwich, for one. A stern lecture to himself about not enjoying her smile so much was on the list as well. She was almost to the door when he remembered Leroy’s excuse for helping her. “How is your arm, Miss. French?”
“Archie said it looked much better this morning. He’s going to look at it again after dinner tonight. Thank you for asking.”
“Archie?” he muttered to himself once the door was closed. They’d spoken for the first time just over a day ago; how was it that she was already using his Christian name? As for why it bothered him, well that was just a matter of professionalism. They were all away from their families; it would be easy for one of the men, such as Hopper, to grow too close to the caretaker. Wartime romance was almost as dangerous as dysentery. It was his job as commanding officer to make sure that nothing happened. He was going to have to keep an eye on both of them.
A close eye.