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YOUNG ROBERT & CLAY: Brothers, Part 2

[Continued from Brothers, Part 1]

The remainder of the day was a blur of activity. More people arrived, which meant more people to meet and more people to witness his awkwardness. Dinner went better, though, thanks to Clayís earlier assistance, and the Mosbys and their guests continued to be very friendly towards him. Still, he had much left to learn by carefully watching how Clay behaved, listening to how he spoke to his elders. So despite the dayís late start, it was a relief when his friend decided they should retire early for the night to look at his Indian book.

Again, the room had been prepared for their arrival with lighted lamps, a well-banked fire to dispel the winter chill and nightclothes laid out on the beds, almost magically as if fairies had anticipated their plans. The Mosby house servants were far more efficient and industrious than the ones at Oak Wood, whose primary interest was in avoiding Thomasí drunken rages while getting by with the least amount of work possible.

Not ready to change yet, they shoved the nightshirts aside and merely pulled off their shoes, anxious to get to more important matters.

Robert lifted the heavy book out of his designated bureau drawer with two hands and brought it to Clayís bed, where they both sprawled on their bellies side-by-side to look at it together. Although the tome belonged to Robert, Clay took charge of their perusal. He opened to the title page, which announced its contents to be Events in Indian History, followed by a number of longer subtitles summing up the different sections. The part they focused on most keenly, though, was the section about "Narratives and Captivities," accounts of clashes between Indians and white settlers from pioneer days that promised fascinating violence and adventure.

The book contained eight illustrations to accompany the text, large lithographs that unfolded to reveal scenes of Indians in various encounters with whites, and these Clay decided they would look at first. Robert had already seen the pictures, because, of course, that was the first thing he had done when David Rutherford had shown him the book, but he was used to Clayís tendency to dominate by now and he felt content to let his friend do as he pleased.

Clay liked the scenes of fighting best, and stopped at one featuring a British cavalry officer on horseback. "Thatís a noble profession," he commented, gazing at the rearing horse and its smartly uniformed rider.

"Being a soldier?" Robert asked.

"Not just a soldier--an officer," Clay corrected. "Thatís what Iím going to be, after I go to V.M.I. like my Cousin Bradley. Heís my Uncle Georgeís son, only my Aunt Caroline married someone else after my uncle died, so Bradley grew up on a different plantation. Heíll be visiting us, too, pretty soon. I hope heís wearing his cadet uniform so you can see it. Itís quite grand."

Something suddenly occurred to Robert. "So if your uncle wasnít killed, then your cousin would live here instead of you," he observed.

Clay mulled that over for a moment. "I suppose," he said slowly, then shrugged, dismissing the thought. "Bradley is a real leader. He only started at V.M.I. this year, but heís already been made a cadet corporal--that means heís an assistant squad leader."

"Whatís V.M.I.?"

"Virginia Military Institute. Itís in Lexington."

"If you become a soldier--I mean, an officer, wonít you have to go far away, to the west, maybe? You would have to leave Hatton Willows to do that. How will you take care of your fatherís business from there?"

"I wouldnít be in the army all the time. Just when thereís a war and trained men are needed to lead. A gentleman must be able to protect his home and family, you know, like the Texans did in the war with Mexico."

Clay seemed to have memorized an endless list of the rules gentlemen must obey, and Robert recognized Mr. Mosbyís influence again. It made him feel a little sad. If his own father had lived, he would have taught him how to be a gentleman. But at least he had the second-hand benefit of Clayís father.

"How long does it take to become an officer?"

"Four years. Itís sort of like college, except they teach you things like military history and war tactics and how to use artillery, things like that so youíll know how to command your men in battles. I want to train for the cavalry--thatís the best branch of the army to be in." Clay suddenly looked at Robert with some urgency. "Youíll go to V.M.I. with me, wonít you?"

Robert squirmed uncomfortably. Not much for book learning, he looked forward to the day school would be behind him, and the idea of joining the military had never seemed appealing, either. Heíd battled enough hostilities at home to last a lifetime. "I donít know...I donít really want to be a soldier--"

"An officer," Clay corrected again.

"An officer, then. I want to go traveling and exploring."

"You could do that in the army. You could be an engineer and make maps of uncharted territories. Youíd like doing that, wouldnít you?" Clay persuaded.

"Iíd have to think about it," he hedged. "Thatís a long time from now, anyway. How do you know youíll still want me to be your friend by then?" Even though Clay had singled him out to be his closest companion for the moment, Robert thought it unlikely that this relationship could last for years. Sometimes, in fact, it felt as though Clay had taken him in like a stray dog and made a pet of him--something he could take care of for awhile, until the responsibility bored him.

Clay frowned as if insulted. "Iím very loyal to my true friends," he said, a tinge of defensive irritation in his voice.

Robert could almost hear the unspoken rule behind that statement: Gentlemen are always loyal to their true friends. But he understood then--Clay felt hurt by his doubt in their friendship. That surprised him. He hadnít believed anything could hurt Clay. Only time would tell, though, if he meant what he said.

"Well, so am I," he responded, anxious to smooth Clayís ruffled feelings.

Clayís face softened, much to Robertís relief. "I guess you can decide about V.M.I. later," he allowed, turning back to the book.

Glad for the change of subject, Robert suggested they read the story that went with the next picture, which portrayed a man named James Smith, who was captured in 1755 at the age of eighteen and lived with the Indians for five years. "Iíve read part of it and they taught him to be a warrior just like them," he offered temptingly. "You can start at the beginning, though, so you can see how they adopted him into their tribe."

"All right," Clay agreed, brushing stray curls out of his eyes and clearing his throat to read out loud.

Robert rolled to lay on his back while listening to his friendís strong voice sail confidently through the narrative, not stumbling even once on the words Robert couldnít pronounce for love or money, no less define. Occasionally when such words came up, Clay looked at him as if he sensed Robertís confusion, and without ceremony, he would add a synonym or two in clarification.

James Smithís personal account of his capture moved quickly from the initial ambush of his party of road-cutters in the woods of Pennsylvania province, when he witnessed friends killed and scalped, to his arrival at the Indian camp, where he was beaten senseless while running the gauntlet, to seeing captured British soldiers tortured to death, a fate he expected would be his, too, soon after. Instead, he found himself led through a series of strange rituals and preparations that were intended to strip him of his white identity and induct him into the tribe as a full-fledged member.

The adoption was followed by great celebration, and in this part, Clay came to another of those difficult words as he read Smithís description, "ĎThis evening I was invited to another sort of dance, which was a kind of promiscuous dance. The young men stood in one rank, and the young women in another, about one rod apart, facing each other.í"

"What does Ďpromiscuousí mean?" Robert interrupted to ask.

Clay thought for a moment, then said, "It means immoral, or sinful. I think itís when men and women who arenít married have sexual relations with each other."

Robert hadnít read this far before. He perked up and rolled back onto his stomach to peer at the passage for himself. This definitely had potential.

Clay read on, eager now himself to see what important information they might glean about that secret world of adults. The dance did indeed involve courtship, but as it turned out, not the sort they had hoped for based on the initial enticement. They had been misled--all the Indian couples did was sneak private conversations amidst their singing and dancing.

"That doesnít seem very immoral," Robert noted with disappointment. "They werenít having any relations with each other except for dancing, and they hardly even touched!"

"I know," Clay said, just as perplexed and disappointed. "Maybe when James Smith wrote this, he didnít know what Ďpromiscuousí meant."

Robert hesitated a few seconds, trying to decide if he should ask the question weighing most heavily on his mind at this point. Finally, he burst out with it. "Clay, what do men and women do when they have relations?"

Clay appeared unfazed, as if Robert had merely asked about the weather. "They have to get undressed first," he began authoritatively, "and then they hug and kiss a lot until the manís thing gets big. Then they have to get in bed and he lays on top of her and puts it between her legs."

Robert was impressed with Clayís knowledge. "How do you know all that?"

"I heard the servants joke about it around the quarters, and my father has a medical book that says some things about it."

"So what happens after the man puts it between the womanís legs?"

"The woman has to squeeze it and rub it around, and then I think the man puts it into her somehow, but Iím not sure about that part." Clay frowned in concentration. "Iíve only seen the mares being bred in our stables, but it doesnít seem like it could be like that."

Robert laid on his back again and crossed his arms over his chest, considering the mystery. Sometimes he rubbed his own privates and it felt really good. He wondered what it would be like to be naked with a girl and let her squeeze and rub him. The idea held great appeal, although he wasnít exactly sure why. The rest of it, though, if true, seemed better left alone.

"When we get older, we can go to a whorehouse to practice with the girls there," Clay added. "Then weíll know what to do with our wives. Real ladies stay pure for their husbands, so they donít know about sex before they marry. Itís a manís duty to teach his wife about such things on their wedding night."

Another rule to remember, although Robert had to admit, this one made a lot of sense. Nevertheless, he was ready to think about something else. "Read some more of the book," he said to prompt a change in subject.

Clay obliged, proceeding through several more pages describing the congenial customs of Smithís new Indian family, his hunting trips with other braves, and the many things he was learning in order to survive in the wilderness.

"What would you do if you were captured by Indians?" Robert asked when his friend had paused to catch his breath.

"I would fight them off until I got free," Clay asserted confidently.

"But what if they overpowered you and you couldnít get free, and they took you back to their camp to adopt you into the tribe, like they did with James Smith?"

"Then I might go along with it to fool them, but Iíd escape as soon as I could find a way."

"Not me," Robert said thoughtfully. "I think it would be fun to live with Indians and become a brave. I could live outside in a teepee and hunt for food with a bow and arrows and I wouldnít have to learn Latin grammar anymore."

"Youíd have to learn the Indian language, though. That would be just as hard, donít you think?"

"Maybe, but at least it would be useful. Latin isnít good for anything but reading stupid old books that I donít even care about."

"The old classics help us learn to be civilized gentlemen," Clay said, repeating what the schoolmasters told them.

Robert wasnít buying that nonsense, nor did he believe Clay did either. "Do you like learning Latin?" he demanded, sitting up to look into his friendís eyes.

Clay crooked his mouth. "Not really. But itís important to be civilized."

"Why?"

"Well, because it makes us superior to other people."

"Why do we have to be superior to other people? Why canít we just be equal?"

Clay gave him a shocked look and sat up as well. "God ordained it that white people should rule over the inferior races, Robert. Itís our duty to guide them and civilize them and make them Christians. Itís in the Bible," he said, speaking forcefully, as if Robert should already know this.

"Where in the Bible?" Robert challenged.

Clayís frustration made him defensive again. "I donít know, but it does say that somewhere because the preachers are always talking about it and my father says it, too. Everybody knows that white people are more intelligent. God made us to be the masters. Thatís just the way it is."

Robert threw himself down on the bed again. "Iíd rather live with the Indians," he said.

"Then youíd be a barbarian," Clay warned.

"Thatís all right. I wouldnít mind being a barbarian."

Clay leaned over him, a determined look in his darkened eyes. "What if we were captured together and I wanted to escape? Wouldnít you come with me?"

That was a dirty trick, making him choose between their friendship and life with the Indians, who were probably more civilized than any of the white people he lived with. "You just want to know if Iíd be loyal to you," he accused.

"No, I donít," Clay denied.

Robert turned and looked pointedly at him.

"Well, maybe I do," his friend conceded. "But wouldnít you come with me? Friends should stick together no matter what, donít you think?"

"I would still be your friend, even if I stayed there," he answered, and thinking of another angle that might justify his choice, he added, "Besides, I might have a squaw wife by then. I couldnít just leave her behind."

Clay sighed and Robert sensed another lecture coming on.

"You canít love a woman who isnít white, you know."

"Oh, Clay," he said, breathing out his own exasperation.

"Itís true!" Clay insisted. "My father keeps a Negro girl he likes, but he doesnít love her. He only loves my mother."

"Your father keeps a Negro girl he has sex with? Who is it?"

"Her name is Bessie. She used to be the housemaid, but now she works in the laundry house. Donít tell anyone I told you that, though. Iím not supposed to know about it."

"Does your mother know?"

A strange look came over Clayís face. "Of course not," he said, but his voice lacked his usual conviction.

Robert had never known Clay to lie to him. If he didnít want to talk about something, he just wouldnít talk about it. Nevertheless, Robert knew for sure this was a lie, and it made him all the more curious.

"How do you know about Bessie?" he persisted.

Clay put a thumb to his bottom lip and chewed the tip for a second. "I just know," he said evasively.

"My brother has a favorite servant, too, but he hits her all the time, so I know he doesnít love her. I donít understand, though--why would your father want a Negro girl if he loves your mother?"

Clay shifted uncomfortably. "There are some sex things men need that are improper to do with a lady," he explained. "My father is just protecting my motherís dignity this way."

It was obvious Clay had no idea what those improper sex things were. More importantly, though, Robert could see he was unhappy about his fatherís behavior with Bessie in spite of the rationale he offered for it. He was sorry now he had pursued the subject. He hadnít meant to cause Clay any pain.

Clay must have taken his silence for disapproval. "My mother has a delicate constitution," he continued. He looked down at the quilt and traced its embroidered patches with a finger absently. "She might die if she had another baby."

"Oh," Robert said, still at a loss for words. He wondered if his own father ever had a favorite servant girl, but like Clay, he didnít want to think about it. Instead, he tried to think of something that would cheer his friend up. "Want to hear a ghost story?" he asked.

Clay looked over at him and smiled gratefully. "Do you know any good ones?"

A light knock at the door interrupted them before Robert could answer. "Clay?" a womanís voice called softly.

Clay scrambled off the bed to open the door. "Come in, Mama," he invited.

Robert noticed his friend had an air of guilt about him. Clay only called his parents "mama" and "papa" when he was off-guard or feeling sentimental. He felt some guilt, too, after what they had just been discussing.

Mrs. Mosbyís voluminous skirt dwarfed her small figure and seemed to fill the room as she entered. "Itís getting late. Why arenít you boys in bed yet?" she asked. She looked around and spied the book on Clayís bed. "Donít tell me youíve been reading all this time?"

Her voice held a touch of amusement and Robert felt transfixed by her presence, remembering with sudden, aching vividness the times his own mother had come at night to help him say his prayers and tuck him in to bed. Clay was lucky to have his mother, even if she did worry over him too much.

"Robert brought a book about Indians. We were reading some of it and talking," Clay told her. "It is a holiday, Mama. Canít we stay up if we want?"

His mother smiled indulgently. "I suppose thereís no harm in staying up late, but mind you, I want to see both of you at breakfast tomorrow. You are a part of this family, Clay, and you have an obligation to spend time with all our guests. Your father expects it."

"Yes, maíam," Clay replied obediently.

"Very well, Iíll say goodnight then. Sweet dreams, my love." She embraced her son quickly and kissed his cheek. Then she did something surprising--she went to Robert, who had stayed standing by the bed, and brushed through his unruly hair with a gentle hand. "You sleep well, too, Robert," she said, cupping his cheek and gazing at him with the same bottomless eyes Clay possessed.

Robert was left open-mouthed and nearly speechless. "Yes, maíam," he murmured, echoing Clay.

After she had left, Robert continued to feel a strange floating sensation. Even though she hadnít kissed him the way she had Clay, it was like she was his mother, too. A good warmth spread outward from his middle, the way it did when Uncle Joshua patted his back and praised a new skill he had mastered.

"I told you my parents would like you," Clay said, smiling at Robertís dumbfounded expression. He pulled his nightshirt over and started undressing for bed. "You were gonna tell me a ghost story, remember?"

"Oh, yes," Robert said, reluctantly coming out of his reverie. He put his book back in the drawer and followed Clayís lead, changing clothes as he proceeded to repeat a story he had heard from Jeff Cantwell in their class.

It was about an old black groundskeeper at the academy named Isaac, who took a scare one day years ago when some boys dropped a snake on him from a tree. Old Isaac fell on his scythe, cutting his head near completely off. Now he walked the grounds at night, his bloody head dangling upside down against his chest, swinging his scythe at any boy foolish enough to be out after curfew, and according to Jeff, if he caught you, heíd cut your head off, too.

By the time he finished telling the story, Clay had snuffed the lamps and they were ready to crawl under the covers of their respective beds. The only problem was, ghosts now appeared to dance all around the room in the flickering remains of the firelight.

"You can stay up here tonight, Robert," Clay said, magnanimously offering a place in his own big feather bed. "My bed is more comfortable than that flat, old mattress."

He made no mention of fear, but it hung in the air, thick as glue.

"All right," Robert said, and using the trundle bed as a step stool, he climbed in as fast as he could.

The big bed was not only more comfortable, it was warmer with the two of them in it as well, and they snuggled down, burying themselves beneath the blankets to keep the ghosts from grabbing at exposed limbs.

Apparently feeling some safety in numbers, however small, Clay volunteered then, "We have a ghost here at Hatton Willows. Itís an Indian brave from the early days when Virginia was just being settled."

Despite his fear, Robert was immediately fascinated. "Have you ever seen him?"

"No, but some of the servants have. My Mammy Rose told me she heard about him from her grandmother when she was a girl. She said his name is Red Feathers and he haunts the woods all around here."

"How did he die?" That was always the key question when it came to ghosts.

"There was an Indian village by the ice pond in the 1600s and thatís where he lived. The English colonists got into a war with all the Indians in Virginia then and they killed everyone in Red Featherís village. Thatís how the pond got its name, Brownís Point, because the leader of the colonists was named Jeremiah Brown."

"They even killed the women and children?"

"Everyone except Red Feathers, who was away on a hunting trip. When he returned home, he found all the dead bodies of his friends and family, or what was left of them. The wild pigs and crows had been eating them."

"The colonists didnít even bury them? That brave must have hated white people after seeing his family killed and all chewed up by animals," Robert observed. He was tempted to say something about the supposedly civilized whites, but he kept his opinion to himself on that matter. "Did the colonists kill him, too, when he came back?"

"No. He dressed and painted himself for a last fight with them to avenge the loss of his tribe, but he never got that far. While he was singing his war song all alone in the woods, he died of terrible grief. Ever since then, heís been haunting the grounds of Hatton Willows, and the servants say heís still on the warpath, looking for the colonists who killed his people. Mammy Rose said she heard him singing his war song many nights, and Matthew said the hands see him prowling along the edges of the fields on full moon nights when theyíre working late."

Robert shivered involuntarily. "Does he ever attack anyone to get his revenge?"

"Well, the servants say he killed Uncle Dan two years ago, because he went off in the woods after an argument with his wife and they found him the next morning with his head caved in from Red Featherís war club. My parents say thatís just superstition, though. They say he died from falling on a rock when he was drunk on wine he stole from the cellar and it was Godís punishment for stealing."

"Do you think Red Feathers killed him?" Robert asked, yawning and feeling suddenly very tired.

"I donít know, but the servants know a lot about these things," Clay responded solemnly, and then yawned in sympathy.

Robert fingered his evil eye talisman, which he still wore for protection, and felt comforted to have its power at his disposal. "If an Indian village was by the pond, there must be lots of arrowheads around there," he hinted, hoping for some new additions to his treasure box.

"I suppose. Iíve never really looked for any," Clay shrugged sleepily and closed his eyes. "If youíd like, we can go look for some when the weather gets warmer."

"I bet I could dig up a bunch," Robert said happily, his own eyes beginning to close.

"Good night, Robert," Clay murmured after another yawn, his breath deepening.

Robert sighed and smiled, very glad he was here instead of at Oak Wood for the holiday after all. "Good night, Clay," he answered as he fell asleep.

* * * * * * *

After that night, the trundle bed became unnecessary. With the precedent established, he now slept in the softer feather bed with Clay every night, and every morning Clay shook him awake with a boisterous announcement of how many days left till Christmas.

Their arrowhead expedition had to wait, but there were many other activities to occupy his interest, and Robert truly began to relax and enjoy his visit. Mrs. Mosby liked him and Aunt Annie liked him and Mr. Mosby was nice to him even if he did think he was less advantaged. His fears melted like snow in a spring thaw and he participated more and more in the Christmas revels like one of the family, letting his natural buoyancy emerge.

Mr. Mosby helped him learn to handle a gun just as Clay promised, ruffling his hair when he did well the way he did to his own son. And just as his friend predicted, a few days of practice proved him to be a reasonably good marksman. Clayís father also gave him a horse to ride during his time at Hatton Willows. Her name was Belle--Bella Donna in jest because she was so gentle, but Robert didnít mind. He and Clay rode fourteen miles round trip one day to see Mace at his familyís plantation, his first ride on his own like a real gentleman, and although he was sore all over afterwards, the pleasure was worth every aching bit of the price.

Aunt Annie insisted he call her that even though they werenít related. She and Miss Olivia taught him to dance after a fashion so he could "cut a rug" with the younger ladies at the afternoon frolics and evening supper parties he attended with the family. He dined with more confidence now, rode more firmly in the saddle as he grew accustomed to commanding a horse, and even managed to shoot two partridges on the dreaded hunt. No longer did he slink around the edges of high society, peering in enviously. At long last, he actually belonged, and he finally understood firsthand the source of Clayís cherished pride.

Eventually, that harbinger of happiness, Christmas Eve, arrived, and he discovered it was almost as important as the high holy day itself, especially for the servants. This was the day Mr. and Mrs. Mosby distributed to them their gifts and new clothes for the winter, and Robert watched the proceedings with great curiosity. Extra provisions of bacon, corn meal, molasses and flour meant better eating for the next month at least, and everyone received a complete set of clothes made by the plantation seamstresses of cotton blended with wool--shirts and pants for the men and boys; dresses, aprons and hair scarves for the women; and shoes all around.

Special clothes went to those in special jobs, including linsey-woolsey dresses for the female house servants and cast-offs from Clay and his father to the young and old male house servants. Those like the wagon drivers who were exposed to the weather most received wool coats, hats and brogan boots. In addition to this, new blankets were issued, a mass of cotton and wool was given to the women to make into socks and stockings, and tobacco twists were bestowed upon the most industrious workers.

Thomas didnít conduct this holiday ritual at Oak Wood. As far as Robert knew, their servants made their clothing whenever materials could be obtained for it, which wasnít often. Certainly, they were never given extra food. They supplemented their miserly rations with edibles they grew themselves or scrounged from the woods as best they could manage without guns, which werenít allowed to them. Uncle Joshua, in fact, had taught him all about sling-shooting and trapping bullfrogs, rabbits, squirrels, and birds of various kinds. Robert had never realized until now, though, that it was more than just a sport to his surrogate parent.

The quarters were filled with singing and celebration that evening because most of the servants had the coming week to themselves. From Christmas to New Yearís Day, they had their own vacation--all except the house servants and those absolutely necessary to ensuring the comfort of the Mosbys and their guests, and even they took turns so everyone would have some time away from work.

Christmas Eve in the big house was similarly rambunctious, with a veneer of gentility to set it apart. He and Clay hung about the smoky games rooms in the west wing that evening until late, watching the men play poker, faro and billiards. They even joined a game once in awhile when their elders wished to share a bit of hard-won knowledge with two admiring proteges, and sneaked sips of whiskey from guestsí glasses when they thought no one was looking.

The big day itself could not be delayed in its approach, however, and around midnight, Mr. Mosby packed them off to bed. The two of them trudged up the stairs, wistfully looking back at the partyers below, but much to their own surprise, the stolen sips of liquor overtook them and they were asleep within minutes of crawling under the covers.

Clay woke him barely six hours later at the first faint streaks of dawn outside the tall windows.

"Itís Christmas, Robert! Itís Christmas! Wake up and see!"

Robert pushed him away, still groggy from their night of debauchery. Clay would not be put off, though. He yanked the covers back to let the cold do the work for him, and finally Robert rubbed his eyes and pried them open, groaning in complaint. He had come to look forward to Christmas, too, or at least, he wasnít nervous about it anymore, but without the expectation of gifts, he was in no hurry to leave the enveloping comfort of bed.

Clay pointed to the fireplace. "Look!" he insisted. "Wake up and look!"

Robert couldnít fathom this inane command. It was too early even for the servants to have rekindled the fire and all he could see in the faint gray light were indistinct shapes about the mantel. "What do you want me to look at?" he asked with little interest.

Clay gave an exasperated sigh and slid down from the high bed. "Christmas stockings--one for each of us." He unhooked them from nails Robert hadnít noticed before and brought them over.

Robert came awake immediately and sat up to gaze at them in amazement. They were Christmas stockings, all right, but how did they get in here? Someone--the Mosbys, perhaps?--must have tiptoed in during the night to hang them on the mantel, but how did they do it without waking him or Clay?

He abandoned the questions as Clay lit the bedside lamp and then spilled the contents of his overlarge stocking onto the bed in a pile. "Come on, Robert. See what youíve got," he said, encouraging him to do the same.

Robert looked at his stocking and was further amazed--his name was actually embroidered in green across the top! He upended it and giggled at all the goodies that tumbled out. Each of them had received an orange along with a quantity of nuts and candies, but underneath them was a little wrapped package. A present! He had been given a present!

Quickly, he ripped the paper from the heavy box and opened it to reveal a brand new set of marbles, only they werenít just the plain baked clay kind he always had before. These were real carnelian and banded agates polished to a shine and painted "chinas" made of hardened porcelain. He made a depression in his pillow and poured his new treasures into it reverently to examine each one in awe, so happy he could burst.

Clay opened his package to find a similar collection of marbles, but when he suggested a game on the rug, Robert balked. He had never owned anything so precious and beautiful, and probably never would again. It was unthinkable to knock them about and possibly chip them.

The other occupants of the big house roused earlier than usual as well, and servants suddenly appeared, scurrying around to light fires and prepare the dining room for breakfast. But first, the Mosbys and their guests gathered in the parlor to greet each other and the sacred day of the Saviorís birth with the traditional exchange of gifts, and Robert found there were even more--and biggerĖpackages with his name on the labels.

Clayís mother gave him a set of matching wool gloves, muffler and hat, Mr. Mosby gifted him with two classics he really could enjoy--Robinson Crusoe and Gulliverís Travels, and even Aunt Annie had something for him--a steel fountain pen with a bottle of ink and a copy book "to keep a record of your own adventures," she told him with a mischievous smile. But as wonderful as these gifts were, the most surprising one was from Clay, who gave him a brass-handled magnifying glass.

When he opened the velvet-lined box that contained it, he looked up at his friend with a lump in his throat.

"You can study nature things up close with it. Do you like it?" Clay asked, grinning happily.

"Itís the best, Clay," he said. "But I didnít get you anything."

"Yes, you did," his friend responded in all seriousness. "You came home with me. Thatís a better present than anything you could buy me in a store."

Robert rode a cloud of euphoria for the remainder of the day. Mrs. Mosby made much over the vase, saying that roses were her favorite flower and complimenting his exquisite taste as if he had chosen it himself. Breakfast was sumptuous and even church, which consumed the late morning and early afternoon hours, seemed unusually fun with all the singing and shouting of glad tidings.

Christmas was complete by then as far as he was concerned. The highlight of the festivities for everyone else, though, appeared to be Mrs. Mosbyís carefully planned dinner, and Aunt Daisy certainly lived up to her reputation as "best cook in Virginia" with a multitude of dishes that strained the limits of both table and sideboard. A brown and juicy gobbler took center stage, while a round of beef and a glazed ham filled the spaces on either side of the extended walnut dining table. A variety of side dishes crowded around them, leaving barely enough room for the diners themselves, and countless desserts tempted anyone who glanced at the sideboard.

All attending were dressed in their finest frock coats and gowns, but apple toddy and egg-nog before dinner ensured an easy-going meal with much joking and laughter. Robert felt a touch of nervousness for the servantsí sake when he noticed the butler and his assistants were as tipsy as the guests, but even that impropriety was overlooked in the forgiving mood of the season, and being the consummate professional, Joseph made sure nothing was spilled in the end.

When everyone felt as stuffed as the turkey had been, the best musicians from the quarters began to play in the double parlor, calling to them like Pied Pipers until most guests could not resist the lure. The floor had been arranged to accommodate dancing, which commenced once the Mosbys themselves led the way, gracefully twirling to the infectious tune of a Virginia reel.

Clay managed to convince Miss Olivia to dance with him and Robert stood to the side near the Christmas tree and musicians, watching his friend with a crooked smile. New guests were still arriving, and from the corner of his eye, he noticed two girls their own age enter and gaze at Clay as well. They tipped their heads together and engaged in animated discussion, giggling behind gloved hands. Suddenly, though, one looked at him and started to preen for his benefit, casting flirtatious glances in his direction. He almost turned away in embarrassment, but glimpsed Clay again and remembered what a gentleman would do.

Mustering his courage, he strode to the young ladies and bowed slightly. "May I have this dance, Miss?" he asked, just as Aunt Annie taught him.

"But sir, I donít even know you," the young lady protested coyly.

He hadnít prepared for this contingency, but he tried not to let his inexperience show. "My name is Robert Shelby, Miss." She looked at him blankly, so he added, "Iím a friend of Clay Mosby. We go to school together."

At this, the girlís friend gave her a very unladylike nudge. "Well, go on, Charlotte. You been stariní at him like a moon-eyed owl. Go on aní dance with him."

Charlotte blushed and lowered the lashes of her dark blue eyes, and Robert was immediately smitten. A real live girl was interested in him! Nothing could be more attractive than that. He held out his arm to lead her into the dance. "Shall we?" he encouraged, feeling highly encouraged himself.

Charlotte turned out to be quite the conversationalist, but Robert hardly heard a word she said as he concentrated on the steps of the dance and her pretty face and golden hair. Luckily, she hardly noticed his silence, and when the dance came to an end, she curtsied and thanked him with a smile. Robert had just bent to kiss her hand, congratulating himself on his heretofore untested charm, when Clay abruptly broke into the idyllic scene.

"Cousin Charlotte! Itís good to see you. Is your brother here?" he said in a breathless stream of words.

The girl turned and batted her lashes at Clay now, and Robert frowned at her duplicity. "Why, Cousin Clay," she exclaimed. "I do believe you are the boldest boy I ever met."

Clay sighed and roughly took her hand to plant a quick kiss on it. "I apologize, Cousin." He glanced at Robert, impatience pouring from every gesture. "I see youíve met my friend, Robert."

"Yes, we just shared a lovely dance together," she said, looking only at Clay. "I hoped you might dance with me this eveniní, too, Clay."

Clayís eyes glinted with mischief. "I do believe you are the boldest girl I ever met, Cousin," he observed. "You must save a dance for me ... after Iíve spoken with your brother. Did he come with you and Aunt Caroline?"

Recognizing, but not embracing, defeat, Charlotte pouted, "Yes, stupid olí Bradleyís here, actiní like heís a general or somethiní. I donít know why you want to see him so bad, though. He isnít any fun at all."

"Thank you, Cousin Charlotte," Clay said, already turning away in his haste to depart, a disappointed Robert in tow.

They caught a glimpse of cadet gray in the crowd near the door to the games rooms and Clay lit up, dragging Robert across the parlor floor to dodge brightly colored silk skirts and the red glow of cigar ends at breakneck speed. At last they reached their quarry, who stood with another young man, laughing and conversing and examining the ladies in the room.

"Cousin Bradley! You came! I knew you would, and in your uniform, too. Didnít I tell you it was grand, Robert?" Clay rambled excitedly, glancing at his bemused companion and then gazing once more with admiration at his older cousin. "How is it at V.M.I.? Have you made squad leader yet?"

Cousin Bradley appeared somewhat less enthused than Clay at their meeting, Robert thought, but for all he knew, the eighteen-year-old might always look that bored.

"Ah, Cousin Clay. I expected you would find me eventually," he said, and it was a wonder to Robert that Clay didnít hear the lilting sarcasm in his voice. "V.M.I. isnít all fun and games, you know, Cousin. We have to study hard and keep our quarters in spotless condition as well as drill from morning till night. Iím not sure youíd have the discipline for it."

"Oh, I will. I can do anything when I put my mind to it, and I am resolved to become a cavalry officer. Then I can bring great honor to our family just like you, especially if we must go to war again someday. A man must be prepared to defend hearth and home, as you know."

Bradley snickered and turned to look at Robert appraisingly. "Whoís your mute friend, Cousin?"

"This is Robert Shelby, my best friend from school," Clay said proudly, putting an arm around Robertís shoulders. "Robert might go to V.M.I., too, to become an engineer."

Robert felt so happy, he didnít even mind that Clay was planning his future again. "Pleased to meet you, sir," he said, fairly certain a "sir" was called for in this situation.

"Shelby ... hmm...," Bradley mused. "You wouldnít be related to Thomas Shelby, would you?"

"Heís my brother," he answered, his stomach sinking fast. Clayís cousin reminded him of the big orange tom cat who prowled the barns for luckless mice at home, the feral one no one could touch without getting clawed.

"Your brother," Bradley said, as if all was clear to him now. Turning to his companion, he said, "John, wasnít it Thomas Shelby who asked your father for that loan last month? You remember, we couldnít stop laughing over that ridiculous machine he wanted to patent."

Clayís arm dropped and Robertís face flushed with heat. Through welling tears, he saw that his friend had made fists of his hands. But the two older boys werenít done yet.

"Your estate is called..., uh, what was that name, John?"

"Wormwood, I think," John said with a grin.

"Thatís it--Wormwood!" Bradley agreed, and the two of them laughed hysterically again.

Clay stared at them coldly, and when they had quieted, he said in a low, dangerous tone, "You should be careful of your tongue, Cousin. You might cut yourself with it and bleed to death." He put his arm around Robertís shoulders again. "Come on, Robert. There are obviously no gentlemen here for you to meet."

"Little snots," Robert heard from behind him as he blinked back his tears and pushed ahead of Clay on their way out of the parlor, desperate to be alone with his humiliation. He had let his guard down, gotten too comfortable in his borrowed role of gentleman. He should have known heíd never really be free of Thomas and the Shelby curse.

The entrance hall was crowded with holiday celebrants, too, when he reached it, so he kept going until he was outside and down the portico steps, not even watching for Clay to follow.

"Robert! Wait for me!" Clay called through the frozen darkness, his cloudy breath visible in the moonlight as he ran after him across the snow-crusted lawn.

He stopped to let Clay catch up and rubbed his face on a sleeve roughly to wipe away the wetness. The last thing he needed on top of everything else was for Clay to see what a crybaby he was.

"Donít listen to them, Robert," Clay advised between huffs of air when he had reached him. "You arenít anything like your brother."

"How do you know? Youíve never even met him."

"I know youíre an honorable gentleman, not like Bradley and his stupid friend, and not like Thomas, either."

"I thought you liked your cousin because of V.M.I. and all."

Clay stared off with an expression icier than the weather for a couple of seconds. "Bradley showed his true colors tonight. Iíll never talk to him again, not even about V.M.I.. Heíll probably flunk out anyway."

"Itís no use, Clay. It doesnít matter what you think, donít you see? Iím just a Shelby from ĎWormwoodí! Everybody thinks the Shelbys are trash, even your father. Youíd be better off if we werenít friends anymore."

"My father doesnít think that," Clay protested. "And I told you, Iím very loyal to my true friends. I donít care what anyone else says about you. I like you." He stamped his feet to warm them for a few seconds and looked over his shoulder at the house. "We have to go back now."

"I donít want to go back."

Clay was gentle but firm. "We have to, Robert. Otherwise, theyíve won. We have to show them weíre stronger warriors than they are and they canít hurt us with their idiotic words. Thatís what Alexander and Hephaistion would do."

Robert didnít feel much like a warrior at the moment, but at least he had Clay as an ally in this battle. He took a deep breath and sighed. "All right, letís go back," he said, then grinned at his friend. "But Iím not dancing with that danged Charlotte anymore, thatís for sure."

Clay grinned, too. "Weíll go watch my father and his friends play billiards. Maybe she wonít see us there."

* * * * * * *

The middle of January approached and so, sadly, did the end of Robertís visit. He had enjoyed the splendors of a Mosby Christmas celebrated in such extravagant style, but he really didnít care whether there were three different meats and five vegetables and ten desserts at every meal; he had little investment in the singing after supper or the dancing with young coquettes or even the gatherings with Tal Wilson and Mace Jackson to play bandy and pitch quoits. His favorite times were when he was alone with Clay, and he would trade even his new Christmas presents for the happy, special feeling that suffused him anytime they were together in private.

With school looming in the background and time running out, he pressed Clay to make that promised trip to Brownís Point Pond for arrowheads. The weather had warmed, leaving the ground wet and mushy--perfect for digging, so right after dinner on their last day of vacation, they dressed in old clothes and headed for the infamous massacre site, garden spade in Robertís coat pocket.

On their walk, Robert noticed a plot of ground fenced with ornate wrought iron off to their left. Bare honeysuckle vines laced the unpainted metal designs, nearly obscuring the white stone markers inside. Rising above the fence line and easily seen, however, was a small, weather-worn but proud stone building. "Is that a cemetery?" he asked, distracted from his quest for the moment.

Clay seemed uninterested in the subject. "Yes," he said and kept walking.

Robert wanted to take a closer look, though, especially after their previous discussion about ghosts. "Come on, I want to see," he said, veering off their path to head toward the solemn spot at a faster pace.

Clay sighed and followed slowly. "There isnít anything to see there, Robert," he complained.

Robert hung on the fence until Clay caught up with him. "Whatís that building for?" he asked, pointing to the windowless structure. It was guarded by a relief of a beatific angel spreading its arms and wings above the door.

"Itís a mausoleum. A lot of people from my family were buried there a long time ago."

"How do you bury someone in a building?"

"The coffins are put on shelves inside. Can we go now?"

"Why do you want to go? Are you scared of this place?" Robert climbed higher on the fence. He found the cemetery fascinating and was reluctant to leave before exploring it fully.

"No!" Clay snapped. "I just donít like looking at it is all. Itís boring."

That seemed like a flimsy reason to Robert, so he continued his examination and noticed a number of half-sized markers to one side. "What are those little stones in a row over there?"

"Theyíre for my dead brothers and sisters," his friend replied tersely, turning his back on the small graveyard.

"Oh," Robert said, jumping off the fence to the soggy ground. He thought he understood Clayís distress now.

"You can stay if you want, but Iím going to the pond," Clay announced, already making his escape.

It was Robertís turn to run after him. When they were shoulder to shoulder again, he contemplated his taciturn friend and finally asked quietly, "Are you sad about them being dead?"

Clay just crooked his mouth and shrugged silently, his forward stare unwavering.

Robertís gaze dropped to the ground for a few seconds, and then he looked again at Clay. "I still feel sad about my parents being dead. Sometimes at night I look at their pictures and I canít help crying, even though Iím almost grown up now." That was a risky thing to disclose, but he thought Clay would understand.

Clay ventured a glance in his direction. "Did you go to the funeral?"

"No. Mammy Lou watched me while everyone else went. I didnít really know what happened for a long time, even though Mammy tried to tell me. I guess I didnít want to know. Then one day I was crying for my mama and Thomas dragged me to the cemetery and showed me where they were buried, and he said, ĎThatís where your mama is, all rotted and shriveled up with worms crawling in her.í"

Clay frowned. "That was cruel. He shouldíve been tarred and feathered for treating you so badly."

"I had a lot of nightmares about it after that," he nodded. "Do you ever think about dying, Clay? What it would be like, I mean."

Clay sighed tiredly. "I used to have these dreams that I died whenever I took sick. It was the same dream every time. My parents would put me in the mausoleum and seal it shut, only I wasnít really dead and I would try to tell them that, but nobody could hear me. I would scream and scream, but no sound came out. They went away and I was stuck alone in the dark forever with all these dead people around, only they werenít really dead, either. I always woke up just when their skeleton hands were scratching at me."

"Thatís a bad nightmare, all right. If that really happened to someone, it would be worse than hell," Robert observed. "Do you think people really do go to heaven or hell after they die, like the ministers say?"

"I suppose so. It says it in the Bible, so it has to be true."

"I think they do," he said with confidence. "Mammy told me angels came and carried my parents up to heaven, and they were at Jesusí side watching over me. I like to think about that when I feel sad."

Clay looked at him, his expression very serious. "Iím sorry your parents died, Robert."

"Thanks. Iím sorry your brothers and sisters died," Robert said, returning the consolation with a warm pat on Clayís back.

Clay breathed deeply and gave him a small smile as the pond came into sight. "Iíll race you the rest of the way," he challenged.

"All right," Robert agreed as he sprinted ahead, "but you know Iíll win!"

They stuck to the center of the road as they ran to steer clear of the muddy ice-wagon ruts, and when they reached the historic pond, an other-worldly sight greeted them. Mist rose off the water as its icy surface evaporated in the unusually warm weather and the surrounding woods steamed eerily as well. Overhead, the sky was packed with clouds, threatening rain by evening to quicken the winter melt. The ominous portent in the scene sent thrilling shivers through Robert.

Even more eager now, he tread carefully along the slippery bank, searching for a likely place to dig for his coveted arrowheads. His feet sank and squished through matted, decaying grass, raising pools of cold water around his soaked shoes, but he gave it no thought as he concentrated on his mission.

Clay stayed on higher ground, avoiding the muck with some distaste. "You want to smoke?" he asked nonchalantly.

"What?" Robert turned around and saw Clay holding a cheroot ready to light, a big grin on his face. "Whereíd you get that?"

"The cigar box in the card room. With all the visitors coming round this time of year, itís always kept full. So do you want to smoke it with me?"

Robert eyed the cheroot with ambivalence. He did want to smoke it just to see what all the fuss was about, but what if Mr. Mosby found out they had stolen one of his good cigars? Clayís father might never allow him to visit again if he proved himself a thief after all.

He stalled while thinking. "Have you ever smoked before?"

"Sure, lots of times. This is a tobacco plantation, you know," Clay said. He struck a match and lit the cigar, puffing on it until the end crackled red.

Robert watched him blow a cloud of smoke from his mouth. Clay looked the tiniest bit silly playing like a grown-up, but when he held the cigar out to him, Robert knew he had to try it, too, or look like a goody two-shoes. He took the burning brown cylinder and tentatively put it to his lips.

"Just suck the smoke in like when you have a cold and you have to breathe through your mouth," Clay instructed.

Following directions, he filled his lungs with the harsh tobacco smoke and immediately choked on the suffocating cloud. He gave the cigar back to Clay amidst his dizzy spasms and urge to throw up, afraid he would drop it in the mud as he coughed and gasped for real air. Why ever did people like that awful stuff anyway? It only gave him a spinning head, a sore throat and a queasy stomach.

"It takes some getting used to," his friend noted, calmly taking another draw.

Robert couldnít understand why anyone would want to get used to it if it made you feel so sick. "I donít think I like smoking, Clay," he said, coughing some more. He took another few cleansing breaths and finally his vision cleared. "You smoke it. Iím going to look for arrowheads."

He poked at a few places with the spade and finally found a spot that appeared promising. Forgetting Clay and the evil cigar, he knelt to dig into the damp, cold ground above the waterline in more earnest, certain there must be ancient arrowheads buried there. If this had, indeed, been a watering hole where Indians lived and hunted, some spent and broken arrows would have been lost no matter how carefully they were collected after a kill.

He had just uncovered a layer of rocks and debris to sort through when he felt Clayís hand tugging on the back of his coat collar.

"Robert," Clay hissed, sounding faint and strained. "Robert, look up."

Robert shrugged off the interruption. Intent on searching for the notched flint stones of old, his interests were already amply occupied, and he certainly wasnít going to puff on that cigar again.

"Robert!" Clay jerked more insistently on his coat and let the remainder of the cheroot slip from his fingers to extinguish in the wet grass. "Look up. Itís him!"

Something in Clayís voice alarmed him this time. He looked up as ordered and glanced from his friendís blanched face to the woods where he stared wide-eyed. A thickened mist hovered in front of the leafless gray trees, but it dissipated as Robert squinted to see what had frightened his normally fearless companion. "What is it? What did you see?"

Clay swallowed so loudly, Robert could hear his throat muscles working. "It was him, Robert. It was Red Feathers. I saw his ghost!"

A rush of nervous excitement coursed through him. "You saw Red Feathers? Really? What did he look like?"

"He ... he looked ... like an Indian brave ... on the warpath," Clay said haltingly as he bent forward, hands on knees, trying to catch his breath. "He had red and black paint all over him--"

"You could see colors? I thought ghosts are glowing and white like sheets."

"No, I could see colors--red and black mostly, and he had red feathers in his hair, for his name, I imagine."

"What else did you see? Was he mean-looking? Was he going to kill you--I mean us?" It occurred to Robert with a start that he would have shared Clayís fate had Red Feathers attacked. His scalp prickled at the thought.

Clay stood up, slowly recovering. "I donít think so. He looked quite ferocious at first, and he had a war club and a big knife besides his bow and arrows. But then he just smiled at me and left."

"Maybe he thought you were someone from his tribe. We are standing where his village was. Maybe to him it looks like when he lived here."

"I donít know. Maybe." Clay smiled in wonderment, no longer pale as a realization sunk in. "I saw a ghost, Robert! A real ghost!"

"Gosh, Clay, you sure are lucky! I wish I had seen him," Robert said, disappointed now that he hadnít looked up when Clay first called his name. He glanced down at the hole heíd been digging. "Hey, look!" he exclaimed, pointing. The tips of two arrowheads protruded from its center. He bent and scraped the densely packed dirt away from them until they came loose. Rinsing them in the water, he stood to show the find to Clay.

Clay had gotten that expression on his face, the one he wore when he felt graced with a divinely inspired idea. "It was a message, Robert," he said decisively as he stared intently at the arrowheads and then into Robertís eyes. "Red Feathers was telling us we should become blood brothers, like the Indians do with their best friends."

Robert wasnít sure Indians actually did that, but it sounded like a good enough reason for the visitation, and anyway, who was he to argue with one of Clayís ideas at a time like this?

Clay took one of the arrowheads and rubbed its surface with his thumb. "See, thereís one for each of us. We should keep them with us always as a symbol of our bond."

"All right." Robert felt completely convinced now that Clayís interpretation of events was the correct one. Why else would there have been two arrowheads in the hole? But Clay wasnít finished.

"And we have to mix our blood together in cuts," he added. He stowed the Indian artifact in his coat pocket, then rummaged around and withdrew a penknife, which he unfolded. "Thatís the only true way to be blood brothers forever."

Robertís stomach churned at the sight of the gleaming steel blade, but there was no backing out now. The spirit world had spoken, and so it was decreed. Blood would have to flow, at least a little.

Clay took a breath and winced as he jabbed his own palm with the knife tip. A tiny pool of crimson welled up in the resulting slit, and made a rivulet that dripped to the ground when he turned his hand sideways.

"Now give me your hand," he instructed Robert, who obeyed, however hesitantly.

"Ow!" he cried out when the knife broke the skin, but it was over quickly and he was proud to see he had a decent smear of blood to show for his pain at the end.

"Now we clasp hands to make the blood go between us, but not the white manís way of shaking hands. Do it like this," Clay said, holding his cut hand up, indicating the proper grip.

Robert wondered where Clayís views on the "inferior races" had abruptly gone, but he followed suit and they pressed their bleeding palms together for a good, long minute to ensure the riteís success. When they were done, they looked at their bloody hands and then at each other in wonder.

Something had transpired here, something truly miraculous. He and Clay were related by blood now, and everyone knew no bond was stronger than that. Robert even felt different, reborn like they talked about at those revival meetings, only this was better than any dunking by a preacher.

Clay seemed to feel it, too, because he fell into giddy laughter on the wet ground at the exact same moment Robert did, both bursting from their excitement as they wrestled energetically.

"We canít tell anyone," Clay finally breathed after they had exhausted themselves. "They would say weíre crazy."

More likely they would say Clay was crazy, Robert thought, but no matterĖfrom now on, whatever happened to Clay happened to him, too. That was the way of things between blood brothers. "I know," he agreed. He rolled onto his belly and leaned over Clayís prostrate form. "Are we, Clay? Do you really think Red Feathers gave us a message, or are we crazy?"

"I know what I saw," Clay said firmly, sitting up again. "You believe me, donít you?"

"Of course I do!"

"All right, then." Clay gave him a solemn, authoritative nod. "But we canít even tell Mace and Tal, Robert. It has to be a sacred secret just between us."

"I wonít ever tell anyone, I swear."

"I guess we should go back to the house now," Clay said, although he appeared as reluctant as Robert to return to the world of ordinary humans. "Itíll be suppertime soon and weíll have to change."

Robert looked down at his own wet and muddy clothes. "I guess youíre right. I am pretty hungry, though." He got to his feet and brushed himself off. His hand throbbed from the cut, but that was a small concern next to the contentment he felt.

Clay also stood. "Me, too. Must be, seeing spirits gives you an appetite."

Robert suddenly had a revelation of his own. "Wait. Weíve got to leave something for Red Feathers to thank him or he might get angry and come after us."

Clay thought for a moment and then bent to retrieve the half-smoked cheroot. "Indians always give tobacco for a peace offering," he said. "Iíll give him the rest of the cigar."

That seemed appropriate to Robert, but he felt he should give something as well. Instinctively, he fumbled at his neck and pulled the evil eye Mammy Lou had given him from beneath his shirt. He slipped the knotted cord over his head and held the bit of carved bone out in front of him. He would be sorry to part with it, but he had a new, more powerful talisman to protect him now, and maybe his old charm would help Red Feathers rest in peace.

They decided to leave their gifts at the place by the woods where Red Feathers had appeared. Clay found a flat rock there that had the feel of an altar, so they pried it up and concealed their offerings beneath it, figuring the warrior ghost would know where to look. Satisfied then, they headed back to the house for their last evening of freedom.

* * * * * * *

Upon their return, Clayís mother fussed at them for their dirt-encrusted state, but even steaming bathwater couldnít dampen their delight or wipe the immutable grins from their faces. The farewell supper served to them afterward included some of Robertís favorite delicacies this time as well as Clayís. Demonstrating great gusto, they stuffed themselves on the specially prepared foods, nudging each other now and then with irrepressible cheer.

"Itís interesting to see you boys in such good humor, considering you return to the academy tomorrow," Mr. Mosby commented quizzically. "I donít believe Iíve ever seen you so anxious to get back to your studies, Clay."

Always ready to defend her son, Mrs. Mosby jumped into the conversation. "Well, I for one am pleased to see these young men so devoted to learning and improving themselves. I am sure the change must be Robertís doing. Heís been a very good influence on our son, wouldnít you say, Husband?"

Mr. Mosby gave Robert an appraising look and winked at him before turning to smile at his wife. "I daresay you are right, my dear, as always."

"There now, Robert," Mrs. Mosby said in her most maternal voice. "You must take that as an invitation to visit our home again whenever you wish."

"Thank you, maíam, and thank you, Mr. Mosby," Robert said as politely as possible. "Iíve enjoyed myself very much. It was the best Christmas I ever had almost in my whole life."

Clay nudged him again with an I-told-you-so grin.

In Clayís room later, he debated whether he should write their encounter with Red Feathers into his copy book. Heíd been recording his vacation in it ever since Aunt Annie gave it to him for Christmas, but those entries were tame compared to the drama he experienced today, and Aunt Annie had said it was for his own adventures. He had even titled it on the first page "The Adventures of Robert Shelby," just like in real books. Would it be breaking his promise never to tell anyone if he wrote about it just for himself?

He sat at Clayís writing desk, pen poised over the blank page. "Clay, would it be all right if I wrote it down in my book?" he asked finally. Neither of them had referred to Red Feathers directly since returning from the pond. It seemed taboo to invoke his name casually anymore.

Clay looked up from sorting and packing his things. "I suppose it would be all right, but youíll have to lock the book into your trunk at school so no one finds it."

"I will," he said, happily scratching across the unlined paper with his new fountain pen to describe his first book-worthy adventure.

After filling five whole pages with the story of Red Feathers, the warrior ghost, and the blood brother pact he and Clay had made, he closed the diary and buried it safely in his carpetbag with the treasure tin and all his new presents, ready for transport in the coach.

A pang of sadness gripped him as Clay snuffed the lamps and they climbed into bed. This was really his last night here, his last time to sleep like a prince in this enchanted room where he and Clay had talked their hearts out with each other. His last chance to wake up knowing he would be taken care of by two responsible, loving parents, even if they werenít his own. He had found it easy to pretend that the Mosbys were his mother and father, but tomorrow he had to go back to being a penniless orphan in the clutches of an evil half-brother. It was like a fairy tale in reverse.

As had happened so often recently, Clay seemed to know what he was thinking. "My mother likes you a lot," he said softly from his side of the bed. "Both my parents do. I think they wish you could live here with our family."

"I wish that, too," he said. "But wouldnít you mind if I lived here?"

"No, I think it would be fun. Maybe if my father writes to your brother about it, Thomas will let you come for the summer."

He might for a price, Robert thought cynically. For Thomas, it would be no different than selling one of the servants to cover debts. "Thomas just wants money from your father, Clay," he said, sighing as the hard truth hit him. "He wonít let me visit anymore when he finds out heís not getting any."

"Weíll see," Clay said with characteristic determination. He rearranged himself under the covers to face Robert. "It sure was a good thing you wanted to hunt for arrowheads today. Do you have yours with you?"

"Itís right here under my pillow," Robert said, grasping it for reassurance.

"Mine, too. We should put them on cords to wear like you did with that carving. Does your hand hurt?"

He flexed his fingers. "Not too much. Does yours?"

"Nah," Clay shrugged. "Itís healing up already, probably because it was for a sacred ceremony."

"Do you think we left him enough gifts?" Robert shivered at the possibility that Red Feathers might still come after them.

"I think so. But Iíll bring him a whole cigar next time just in case."

"Heíd like that." He closed his eyes and started to drift off, but Clayís voice whispered through the darkness a moment later.

"Robert?"

"Hm?" he murmured sleepily.

Clay took a long, slow breath and exhaled. "I always wanted a brother."

Robert came awake instantly at the barely audible words, which he knew meant something deeper than even their ritual at the pond could express. "Iíll be your brother, Clay," he said.

Silently, Clay reached over and patted his arm, and Robert smiled.

THE END

Colleen J. MacLennan
cjmac444@earthlink.net
5/1/99
revised 12/13/99


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