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DARKLY BOUND: The Gift, Part 2

[Continued from The Gift, Part 1]

This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which currently belong to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended. All other characters and storylines belong to me.

Rated: PG

Background Information:

In "The Gift, Part 2," Robert, Clay, and Gwen each take stock of what they've gained from their brief time together. And as that time comes to a close, Clay faces a difficult decision that could affect the remainder of the journey home. A letter and poem from Mary to Clay in prison is also mentioned, so I've copied it below to make the reference understandable. Robin Moore wrote the poem for me and also collaborated on the letter--thanks, Robin!

* * * * * * *

Col. F. Clay Mosby
14th Va. Cavalry C.S.A.
Prisoner of War, Block 17
Elmwood Prison Camp, New York

My Beloved Husband,

I am becoming intolerably selfish. I find that I envy your parents for their time together, as we have had so little. I know our Southern Cause is still just and deserves every effort our country can muster, but forgive me for saying that I look forward now to the end of the fighting when you can return to me and your home again and leave that place behind you forever.

Something compels me to tell you of a dream I had this morning. I dreamt that I was awake with you beside me, content and secure as we were so long ago, but then I truly awakened and found myself without you--a cruel trick to have you and as quickly have you taken away. I closed my eyes against that desolate emptiness, and on the brink of sleep, I saw you once more in a kind of fearful vision. I know you would never tell me of defeat in any way, but oh, Clay, I saw such sadness in your eyes!

If there is any truth in this, my darling, please, you must not despair, for all will be well again soon, I promise. I cannot imagine the difficulties you have had in these four years of strife, but I assure you I will wait for you always and with open heart, no matter the pains that weigh on you. It is a silly girl's fancy to think you might take comfort from yet another of my poor little poems, but I send this one to you anyway with the hope that it will suffice for now.

In the quiet sweep of morn',
Love's solitary bed;
I dreamt I saw thine opal eyes,
Their lustrous fire gone dead.

Should these willows fade to brown,
Concern for me dismiss.
My love, I will restore to thee
Their brilliance in a kiss.

No worldly tide can wear at thee,
Erode thee in disgrace.
Envisage, here, within my arms,
All carrion stains erased.

For the rest of this letter, I will not trouble you with small affairs. Simply know that I am well, as are your parents, and you have nothing to fear on that account. The fighting continues around us here and there, but I feel completely safe with our soldiers about.

I am sending a package containing the things you requested as much as possible. You should receive a quart of dried blackberries, two rolls of butter, a jar of sorghum syrup and one of pickles, two dozen sweet biscuits, a tin of oysters and two of tomatoes, some tobacco to smoke, and five Federal dollars for you to buy stamps and other necessities. It is not easy here to come by these "greenbacks" as you soldiers call them, but your father was able to exchange some tobacco for them.

I must regretfully close now, but I pray constantly that Providence watches over you and Robert in the time you have remaining there. Write to me as much as you can and I will do the same.

Your loving wife,

* * * * * * *

Thanks as well go to Debbie Minyard for contributing part of a scene in this installment that involves a horse.

Please write to me about my stories if you get the urge. I welcome any and all comments from my readers.

Colleen J. MacLennan

DARKLY BOUND: The Gift, Part 2

As always, Gwen woke to the sound of the rooster's crow. Outside the windows, she could see the faint light of the approaching dawn and, like Shakespeare's Juliet, felt regret. They would leave today and she would be alone again. Had it only been last evening that they'd entered her barren world and made her feel needed and wanted once more?

She looked at Robert as she washed at the basin and dressed for the day. He lay in a leaden sleep, a peaceful look on his young, unlined face. She would let him sleep a little more. He might not see another bed for a long time to come after this.

Going into the hall, she closed the door carefully and looked over to the boys' room, wondering how Clay had fared the rest of the night. She turned and tiptoed down the stairs, planning the breakfast she would make for them and the things she would pack for their journey after her early morning chores with the animals.

She was surprised at the bottom of the stairs to see Clay sitting at the table. He was fully dressed, just as she had seen him in bed during the night, except now he also wore an old pair of John’s shoes, which seemed to fit him fairly well. She doubted he had ever undressed at all after the bath. He had lit a lamp and was looking at one of Ethan's school books, a collection of Bible stories for children. He seemed unsure of what to do when she came into the room.

"Good morning, Clay," she greeted him, smiling slightly to put him at ease.

He nodded to her. "Miz Morgan," he acknowledged her solemnly.

"Did you find something to read there?" she asked gently, glancing at the book.

He swallowed and said after some hesitation, "David and Goliath." He finally looked into her eyes. "I was told on the highest authority I might find it of interest."

Gwen smiled widely at that and went to the kitchen door, lifting an empty pail from the corner by the stove. "Why don't you come out to the barn with me? I'll show you how to milk the cow so you'll know how to do it next time you want to steal some," she coaxed teasingly. She could see for a moment he wanted to balk, find some excuse to remain alone, but he followed her anyway.

As they walked down the pathway, she saw him look over at the simply marked graves in the small cemetery out by the old oak tree, and then down at the ground, but she caught a glimpse of the shadow that crossed his face before he did. She knew that shadow well herself--it was the longing to join the ranks of those passed on because life had nothing left to hold to. She wondered again, as Robert did, what could have ground the will to live out of one so young. It was something worse than the war. She had seen that in his eyes when he had looked at her during the night, drowning in despair, unable to surface out of its thick, engulfing depths.

At the barn, she swung the doors open to let in the light and went to the cow, pulling up the three-legged stool to sit as she positioned the pail under the animal's udder. She looked back and saw Clay still standing just outside the open entry, frowning and apparently distracted by something on his mind. "Clay?" she called to him. "Come on in now, sweetie."

Clay looked up as if she had startled him, and then rubbed a hand over his mouth, but still he hesitated and appeared upset about something.

Gwen noticed his distress and wondered about what Robert had said, about Clay not being right in the head and hurting himself. She wasn't sure why, but she felt compelled to add, "It's just a barn, sweetie. Nothing's going to hurt you in here, I promise. Come on in now."

Hesitating just a little longer, he finally came to stand behind her and wrapped his arm around the post as if to hold himself up with its support. Still, though, he remained silent and slightly disoriented.

She went back to milking the cow. "See, you take the teat here at the top, then squeeze and pull down at the same time," she said, demonstrating.

An insistent whinny drew Clay's attention away from her and to her husband's prized possession, a thoroughbred mare enclosed in a stall at the farthest end of the barn. As if pulled by some great magnetic force, he walked over to her and they took a moment to size each other up. When the introductions went favorably, he gently began to rub her nose and scratch under her chin.

Gwen smiled. "I see you like horses."

Clay stood straighter as he ran a hand down her strong neck appreciatively and combed through her mane with his fingers. "She's a fine animal," he answered without turning.

"She's usually skittish around strangers, but she seems to be taking to you just fine," Gwen said cheerfully.

Clay suddenly became animated. "I had a horse like this, a dark bay stallion, a while back. He'd do anything I asked of him. Barely had to squeeze his flanks with my legs and he knew what to do. Got shot out from under me just before...." He trailed off into a sigh. "Anyway, I sure do miss him."

Gwen tactfully moved the conversation back to the horse at hand. "My husband John loved that horse more than me, I think!"

Clay looked over at her. "I can hardly believe that'd be true, Miz Morgan," he said with a small smile of his own.

Gwen wondered at the sudden hint of charm and spirit he displayed. It was as if the horse had lent him some of her own life force, conveyed to him through the palms of his hands on her powerful body.

"Oh, yes, and Missy there, she loved him back, I can tell you," she went on. "His mistress, I used to tease him. Going to see your mistress tonight? I'd ask, and he'd just wink at me and say, that's right so don't wait up for me. Never thought she'd even flirt with another man, but then I can see you'd have a way with the ladies."

Clay glanced down at the barn floor for a moment with an inscrutable expression, then asked, "Did he race her?"

"Well, he wanted to," she said softly, feeling the familiar pain again in her chest at the thought of lost dreams. "He had me keeping a close eye on her while he was gone. Afraid with no man around, someone would take her. Turned out he got taken from me instead." She stopped and drew a long breath, noticing that Clay had busied himself brushing Missy's coat with the curry comb by her stall. "Don't know what to do with her now. I can't ride her the way she needs and I can't bring myself to hitch her to a plow either," she finished at last.

"I suppose you could sell her. She'd bring you a sizeable sum, I'd guess."

"That's true. But the man who wants to buy her...." Gwen stopped and shook her head. "My late husband would never forgive me if I sold Missy to that puffed up old cockerel, no matter how much he offered."

"Sell her to someone else, then," Clay suggested. "Surely you wouldn't lack for interest in a horse of this quality."

"Mr. Appleton has quite a bit of influence in this county. He’s made it known he wants her, and it’s not likely anyone will cross him," she said, then sighed and shrugged. "I suppose I shouldn’t care. I'll have to sell the whole farm soon anyway. Can't really manage it on my own and there's no point in keeping it, without the boys...." Her hands slowed as she stared into memory’s darker corners.

Clay appeared uncomfortable. "I'm sorry for your losses," he said.

Gwen looked at him and smiled sadly. "Life gives and life takes. That's the way of things, I suppose. Just seems sometimes, it takes more than its fair share."

Tears pressed for release from her heart and she renewed her efforts at the cow’s udder in silence for a couple of minutes, thankful that Clay seemed content simply to groom Missy.

Missy, however, was not so easily quieted, and she began nosing Clay’s hands and chest as if searching for something.

"She thinks you're hiding something good to eat," Gwen finally said, glad for the distraction. "John always brought her a carrot or an apple in the mornings. She's gotten spoiled now and wants her treat."

"A beautiful lady should be spoiled by the man who loves her," Clay responded. "She's special and she knows it. Just like you, Miz Morgan." He flashed a quick smile at her.

Gwen almost laughed. He was charming when he wanted to be, no doubt about that. She watched him as he laid his cheek against the horse's neck, feeling that strange emotion go through her again. "If you'd be willing, I'd appreciate you giving her some exercise later, while Robert is cleaning out the barn. She needs a good run to stretch her legs."

Clay looked at her with a face full of hope she hadn't seen before. "I'd like to do that, if you'd let me."

She smiled warmly. "That'd be just fine. You can saddle her up right after breakfast."

He turned away. "I'm not too hungry," he said, his expression distressed again.

Gwen thought a moment. He was obviously underweight and weakened physically, but he hadn't eaten much of the supper she fixed for them the night before despite Robert's encouragement. Whatever his personal horrors contained, they had put him off his appetite for life and for the food that would sustain it, and he was killing himself slowly now through self-imposed starvation.

"Oh, I don't know, Clay," she said. "Missy's a handful to control when she smells the wind and gets to running. Without some food in you, you might not have enough strength to handle her. I wouldn't want to take the chance of you getting thrown and hurt. Maybe I can find something else for you to do."

Clay appeared crestfallen, but suddenly got a determined look in his light brown eyes. "Well, maybe I could eat a little something, and then I could ride her," he offered in negotiation, then added in a coaxing tone, "You said yourself, she does need the exercise."

Gwen nodded thoughtfully as if considering his proposal. Even though he had seen right through her ploy, it had worked and that was what mattered. "That'd be fine. If you eat enough, you can take Miss Priss here out for some air."

She finished milking the cow and they headed back to the house, framed now by a magnificent pink and yellow sunrise. Clay insisted on carrying the full pail for her, and even though Gwen knew she was actually stronger right now, she let him play the gentleman she hoped he would be again someday.

By the time Robert came down the stairs, yawning and stuffing his new shirt into the oversized pants, Gwen had made a full breakfast of ham and more eggs, griddle cakes, stewed apples and coffee. He stopped at the landing and stared at Clay with undisguised amazement.

Clay was seated at the kitchen table with a half-eaten plate of food in front of him and a forkful of ham poised in the air as he looked up at his friend.

"You're eating!" he exclaimed, then turned to Gwen to hide his surprise for fear Clay might stop just to spite him. "Good morning, Gwen," he said with an easy smile. "Anything I can do to help?"

"You can sit down with Clay and have some coffee," she answered as she poured more batter onto the griddle. "Nothing worse than men underfoot in a kitchen." She spooned some eggs on a plate with a thick slice of ham and brought it to him at the table. "I'm sorry you're just getting another breakfast," she apologized. "I hope you're not too tired of eggs."

"Not at all!" he assured her enthusiastically, digging his fork into them. "We're the ones should be apologizing for eating up all your food stock."

"Well, I'm going to work you for it," she joked as she went back to the stove to turn the cakes. "Clay, too" she added with a smile.

Robert looked at Clay with more amazement, questioning with his eyes, but only received a glare in return. He was not put off this time. "Really? You got a chore to do, Clay?" he pressed mischievously, taking a large bite of ham. "What is it?"

Clay remained silent, but intensified his glare as if he were trying to bore holes through Robert's skull.

"He's going to give my horse some exercise while you're cleaning the barn," Gwen filled in amiably, setting a plate of the griddle cakes to the left of him.

"Is that right?" Robert teased as he reached for the maple syrup. "Well, how gallant of you, Clay. How downright ... charitable of you, to offer your assistance to a--"

Clay kicked him under the table and Robert suppressed a laugh. "Clay's good with horses," he commented to Gwen. "Why, I swear horses like him better than most people do."

"All I know is Missy liked him, and she's a very shrewd judge of character in my opinion," she responded in defense of Clay.

But Robert wasn't ready to quit. He'd had food and sleep, a bath and a woman. He felt remade and relaxed, and he was having fun, more fun than he'd had in a very long time. "So you've been charming farm animals now, Clay? Maybe I should grow hooves and a tail, if that's what it takes to get some kindness out of you."

"You made your point," Clay said irritably. "Now leave off!"

Robert grinned. "Well, I suppose I did make my point. You think you'll remember it, or should I repeat it every so often just to refresh you?"

"I am really getting tired of this now." Clay leaned forward and looked at him with an old intensity. "You better be careful with your flights of fancy, Robert. Might be, in your transformation, you’d take after a donkey and not a horse."

Robert threw his head back and laughed loudly. "It’s good to hear you in such fine form, Clay, even if it is at my expense."

Clay ignored him, but the sense of victory coaxed a tiny smile from his lips. He finished the last of his eggs and set the utensils on the cleaned plate before turning to Gwen with an expectant look.

She nodded in approval. "You did just fine, sweetie," she said as she came over to take the dishes to the washbasin in the sink. "Go on now. Missy's waiting on you."

* * * * * * *

Clay stood in the open doorway, gazing into the dark cavernous structure. The smell of alfalfa hay reached him, sickly sweet. He'd been in the barn twice already, but each time, it was the same--the same filthy memories, the same skin-crawling panic, the same sickening dizziness. And this time, he had to face it all alone.

He breathed faster, trying to focus as the vertigo spun him, but the smell only filled him more, pulling him into that other barn.... 

He could feel the rope binding his wrists ... abrading his neck ... their hands on him ... holding him tightly ... dragging him to the....

No! This was not going to happen now! He had to focus on something, hold to it. He glanced toward the milking stool, the one Mrs. Morgan had sat on. He tried to remember her there, remember what she said. It's just a barn. Nothing's going to hurt you in here....

The smell of hay, the hay bale...he was kneeling at it, laying over it. They were forcing him to lay over it, yanking him forward by his hair. He felt the sharp ends of the hay pricking his chest, and Jensen behind him ... straddling his legs....

No, no, no! He shook off the memory with a gasp, his breath rasping in his lungs. Reeling slightly, he blinked his eyes to clear the view and tried to recall how he'd come to be here. The soft nicker of a horse reached him from inside the barn, and he remembered.

He took several long, deep breaths and exhaled slowly until his heart stopped pounding.

For the first time in well over a year, he was going to ride. And not just some nag, but a fine, spirited thoroughbred mare. He focused his mind on that thought, just that one thought, letting it become his entire world, letting it fill him with longing and enthusiasm.

Reaching into the pocket of his borrowed trousers, he felt for the three chunks of sugar he'd taken from the table as treats for Missy. He took a hesitant step toward the barn, then stopped again, staring at the dirt floor...

...the packed gray dirt floor ... those blue uniform trousers so close to his face. It was all he could see. God, that fist in his hair hurt like hell. What were they going to do? He couldn't see what they were doing ... but he felt the hands ... and the barrel of the gun....

"What’re you standing out here for, Clay?" Robert asked, slapping his friend on the shoulder.

Clay felt the hand on him, the sensation of someone behind him, and he spun around, lunging for his assailant’s throat. "You stay away from me, you filthy bastard! I swear I'll kill you!"

Robert grabbed Clay’s arms and pried his hands away, grateful for once that while he had grown stronger since their release, Clay had actually grown weaker.

"It's me, Clay!" he told him. "It's me, Robert!"

"Robert." Clay relaxed suddenly and dropped his hands away. "Goddamnit, don't sneak up on me like that!" It was no use, he thought. It wasn't worth it, not even for a chance to ride a fine horse. The memories were too powerful, the pain too intense.

"I wasn't sneaking, Clay. I was walking."

Robert brushed past him and went into the barn, glancing over his shoulder. "You coming?"

Robert was here now. Maybe that would make it all right. He could go in with Robert here, he told himself. Nothing would hurt him in there. But somehow still, he couldn't make himself move. "Walk her out for me, will you?" he called, trying to sound calm and reasonable.

Robert sighed impatiently. "Clay, I've got work to do. I'm not going for a pleasure ride today, you know."

"No, you did that last night, didn't you?" Clay said, feeling suddenly irritable. Why couldn't Robert just do what he asked and not make it so difficult?

"Damn it, Clay! I swear--!"

"I'm sorry," Clay interrupted, truly ashamed of himself. "I want to see her walk. If you'll bring her out, I won't ask you for anything else."

Robert shrugged. "All right."

Robert took the halter and lead rope from the peg outside the stall and stepped inside, speaking softly to the mare as he slipped the halter over her head and hooked the rope to it. Clay watched as she followed Robert out. She walked free and even without any stiffness. She pricked her ears as a cat dashed across the walkway in front of her but did not shy--another good sign.

He stepped back as Robert led her out of the barn. "Stop there," he said when they drew even with him.

He studied her for a moment, her clean profile, her dark coat gleaming in the morning sunlight. There were no angles to this beauty, only curves. The word flawless came to mind. He walked toward her slowly so as not to spook her, though he could already tell she wouldn't spook easily. He raised a hand so she could see his intention before placing it on her shoulder, then slid it over her glistening coat and down her leg. He bent and lifted her foot, inspecting the sole for moisture or damage.

Mrs. Morgan might not ride this horse, but she took very good care of her, he decided as he moved around Missy and examined her other front leg. No evidence she'd ever stood in a dirty stall for long. And her hooves were well-trimmed and newly shod.

"You're not buying this horse, you know, just riding her," Robert commented.

Clay scowled and took the lead rope from Robert. "Thank you." He withdrew a piece of sugar from his pocket and held it out for Missy, who reacted enthusiastically, tickling his hand with her lips as she sucked up the small treat like it was a feast.

"Spoiled rotten, that's what you are," Clay teased, caressing that irresistibly soft muzzle.

Robert walked away with a smile. "Hmm," he mused loudly. "All things considered, the life of a jackass might be downright luxurious."

Clay found himself smiling in return as he watched his friend re-enter the barn. It would be all right. He'd been in the barn before, and Robert was here now. He couldn't stand outside forever like this. With a deep breath, he led Missy toward the open door.

This was a new barn, not an old one. It was occupied, not abandoned. He was not in prison anymore. He knew the truth, but when he reached the door and the smell of hay assailed him again, he nearly gagged. Even so, he forced himself to go inside, and it took all his courage not to falter as he led the mare to the tack closet and tied her loosely to the top rung of an unused stall.

Robert worked in Missy's empty stall, raking out hay and stirring up a powerful stench that caused Clay to curl his lip in disgust. He found the curry comb again and used it to break up any dirt that might cling to Missy's coat. As well cared for as she obviously was, there was no telling when she'd last been bathed. And by the way she moved so smooth and willing, it appeared she'd spent at least as much time in the pasture as she had in her stall. It wouldn't do to put a saddle on over a burr or dirt clod.

A few minutes later, she protested a little at the weight of the saddle. "Been a while, has it girl?" he asked. "Well, it's been a while for me, too, so don't you go giving me any trouble, you hear?" He dropped the far stirrup and the saddle girth over her side, then reached under her belly for the girth. She shifted her weight from one side to the other and twitched her ears a bit, but reacted no further. "We're gonna get along just fine, aren't we?"

The memory of his last horse returned at these familiar preparations. "Robert, remember Othello’s tricks?"

Robert straightened from his work and ran a sleeve over his brow. "I most certainly do. That damned stallion thought it was right tricky to take a bite out of my shoulder once, if you'll recall. That's not something a man forgets."

"He just thought you were a rival for your mare’s affections," Clay laughed, threading the cinch through the buckle. "Remember when he was a colt, how he figured out the latch on his stall? We’d wake up and find him grazing on the front lawn."

"Hell yeah, I remember. And the way we hid in the stables to catch him at it, too," Robert laughed. "There we were, thinking it was a servant letting him out, and it’s the damn horse himself doing it. I think he was the smartest horse I ever saw."

"He was something, wasn't he?" Clay tightened the girth, remembering also the day a Yankee bullet ended Othello’s short life and landed his rider in hell. "Yeah, he was something."

Clay turned his mind to Missy as he bridled her. She shuffled warily and tossed her head at the taste of the bit, but he kept up a steady stream of calming words to soothe her fears. When he sensed she was ready for the next challenge, he patted her neck and very slowly stepped up on the stirrup, letting her get reacquainted with the feel of human weight before swinging his leg over and easing down into the saddle. It took a minute for them both to relax, but sitting astride a horse again awakened something inside Clay and a sense of joy surged through him.

"Mr. Morgan must have been a tall man," he said, reaching down to adjust the stirrups.

"You're not going to wander off too far, are you?" Robert asked, suddenly nervous.

"You're acting like my mother again," Clay scolded lightly.

But Robert's countenance remained serious. "I don't wanna have to come after you on foot. I mean, anything happens, you could bleed to death before I could get to you."

"You worry too much," Clay said, tapping Missy in the flanks with his heels so that she moved toward the barn door. "But if it'll make you happy, I'll stay in sight of the house."

"Yeah!" Robert called after him. "That would make me happy!"

* * * * * * *

Clay walked the horse toward the paddock gate not far from the barn, nudging her more firmly when she balked at his commands. He had to smile at that. He knew she wanted to get to that open pasture as much as he did, but like a two-year-old child brandishing the new weapon of language, she was ready to spite herself for the sake of saying "no."

"Oh, so you’re a Rebel now, are you?" he said to her with a small laugh. "What would your old Yankee master say about that?"

He dismounted at the gate to swing it wide for them to enter, and without the hindrance of a rider, Missy pranced in at double quick time, anxious to be about her private business. She jerked with annoyance at the rein Clay gripped tightly in his left hand as he closed the gate behind them.

"No, not yet," he said sternly, curbing his willful child. "Playtime comes later. You’ve got some work to do first." He stepped up into the saddle once more and reined her around to head down the fence line away from the farm buildings. "All right, girl, let’s see what you can do," he urged, gradually moving her from a trot to a canter, settling into the shared rhythms that were such an integral part of him.

God, it felt good to be riding again!

They sped forward and the wind they created whipped through Clay’s newly clean hair and Missy’s freshly brushed mane. Clay breathed deeply, happily at last, forgetting everything else as he melded his abused, neglected body to the energized mass of this powerful animal. United completely, they formed one being like the Centaur of Greek myth, and Missy obeyed him perfectly now. They continued to follow the fence, both eager for a good run, traveling the entire circumference of the rectangular paddock a couple of times in racetrack style.

He had been away from this too long to be healthy, and his starved spirit devoured the nourishment in huge gulps. Always before, he felt closer to God in a saddle than in a church pew. Here now, on Missy’s broad back, the vibrations of her rippling muscles enlivened and cleansed and baptized him anew, making a whole man of him again. It was as if, with their speed, he could outrun the last four years of blood, grief and shame and leave them ground into dust behind heels and hooves.

For at least an hour, he put Missy through her paces, performing quick turns and halts and even trying a few cavalry maneuvers. She preferred to run and initially fought him, but as their bond grew, she made an admirable attempt to comply with all his requests despite her lack of previous training. Eventually, not wanting to discourage her, Clay returned to simple commands. She possessed the requisite intelligence, however, and if only he had the time, he felt certain he could shape her into a prize-winner for racing or hunting. The one thing they didn’t attempt was jumping. He thought to have a go at the fence, but he knew he didn’t have the strength, even if she did, and a weak rider could spell disaster for man and animal alike.

As reward for her hard work, he let her run again, and upon reaching the far corner of the paddock, he headed her out on the diagonal, pushing her into a gallop despite his own disappointing fatigue. Mrs. Morgan was right; he needed to eat more and build his endurance if he ever wanted to handle a horse normally again.

At the opposite end of the field, he had no choice but to rein Missy in--his overtaxed body trembled at the effort to remain mounted any longer and he needed a rest, even if this energetic racehorse was only getting started. He walked her to the paddock’s center with his last ounce of will and reluctantly slid off in a most ungraceful fashion to lie back in the grass. One rein remained in his hand like a lifeline to her as his aching muscles buzzed with an electric hum. Missy nosed him and they both breathed heavily while he rubbed her muzzle and blew his breath into her nostrils with an exhausted laugh. Reassured somehow by the equine communication, she went to sniffing the wind and nipping at the grass near his head. Surprisingly contented himself, he gazed up at the morning sky.

"Clay? You all right?" Robert shouted at him suddenly from the fence, barely suppressed fear in his voice.

Oh, God. Robert was watching him again. Clay sighed and waved a hand toward his friend. "I’m fine. Just resting," he shouted back as best he could, but when he turned slightly, he saw Robert still standing there. "Stop worrying!" he chided with more annoyance. "I said I’m fine."

Really, that wasn’t fair, though. Robert had good reason to worry--he had put up with insanity these last few months. No one could ask for a truer friend, and the burden of that weighed heavily on both of them sometimes.

Once Clay was satisfied that his self-appointed guardian had headed back to the barn, he resumed his lazy observation of the watery blue sky and the stately cotton ships that sailed its currents. When he was a very young boy, he’d do this sort of thing on the lawn behind the house, near his mother’s flowerbeds. He’d watch the clouds float by and make pictures out of them until he was dizzy from it.

If he laid there long enough, he could actually feel the whole of the Earth rotating on its enormous axis, carrying him along for the ride, an insignificant speck of a person rooted to a gigantic living ball. A little longer still and he’d start to float up to the clouds he stared at, breaking the bonds of gravity that could no longer contain his expanding awareness. It was like becoming part of the universe itself, a magical experience, except for nearly throwing up afterward.

He closed his eyes, not prepared today for that loss of equilibrium, and listened instead to the summer orchestra serenading him. Insects roved industriously about the vegetation, birds sang to each other of territorial pride, and leaves rustled like a lover’s whisper in his ear. Closest by and more prosaically, Missy snorted and grunted and chewed, and off in the distance, he could hear Robert coming and going from the barn with the creaking wheelbarrow. Each of the sounds was a comfort in its familiarity, a bridge to another world untouched by hatred and war and prison.

He turned his head to look at Missy and reached out to stroke her bent neck. For an hour, he hadn’t thought about it, not even once. A whole hour without the memories. "Did you know you could perform miracles, Missy?" he murmured to her. She pricked her ears forward at his voice, then tossed her head and searched about, looking for a tasty new patch of grass. "Well, I suppose you won’t be getting a swelled head from it. I’ve known some preachers who could benefit from the example of your humility."

Swishing her tail at horseflies, Missy continued to chew, unimpressed by the flattery.

Clay chatted on amiably. "Now, if you wouldn’t mind obliging me a little further, I’d sure like it if the South had won the war. And there are a few people...," he paused, narrowing his gaze into the past. "I think I’d like to see them safely delivered to hell, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble."

Missy walked away from him, trailing her reins on the ground.

"Not your department, eh? Too much red tape, or are you spurning me because I’m a Confederate and you’re a Yankee?" he called after her in feigned dejection.

But no, that couldn’t be it. Missy didn’t care if he was from the North or the South; she didn’t know or care a wit about the disputes of men armed with the arrows of conviction, and if she missed her former owner who fell to one of those arrows, it wasn’t apparent. Her supreme indifference to worldly matters, in fact, was most pleasing to him.

"You don’t know how fortunate you are, girl," he said softly into the air, thinking of the thousands of army horses starved on the march, ridden to death, or ripped apart in the fires of battle, including his own beloved Othello. He hadn’t been prepared for that--for the horses to die so horribly. Men had a choice to fight or not, but it seemed unfair that their noble beasts of burden pay the price as well.

Clay remembered one in particular that he had helped along. It was early in the war, before ammunition became dear and his heart had crusted over. He could see the scene vividly still, a frozen image in his mind. A lieutenant then, he came upon the animal after the battle as he and the remaining members of his company searched the field for their regiment’s dead and wounded. She was a chestnut mare, the mount of a Federal cavalryman, and she’d tripped on a tangle of her own disemboweled intestines when a canister exploded beneath her belly. Her rider lay in a pile near her, parts of him looking very much like meat from a sausage grinder.

She had raised her head weakly at his approach and looked into his eyes with such hope. The best he could do for her was a bullet in the brain. He hadn’t been so soft later, after other battles, when the sight of dead and dying horses had become commonplace to him, but he would never forget the way that one mare looked at him, like he had the answer to all her troubles.

Well, maybe he did. Maybe that was the answer for his own troubles, too.

No, he couldn’t keep thinking like that. He was going home now, and when he got there, Mary would hold him and exorcize all his demons, just like she wrote in that poem. "Envisage, here, within my arms, All carrion stains erased." He had to believe that was possible, he had to, or he might as well put a bullet in his own brain this day.

Of course, he would never tell her everything. But maybe it would be enough just to have her close, to smell the lavender scent of her hair and skin, to feel the light, healing touch of her hands on his face. She liked to comb out his hair before bed at night, and rub her cheek against his beard, telling him how soft it was. He could almost feel her gentle caresses now. Would he be able to let her near him? Just last night, he had despaired of it. But after eating Mrs. Morgan’s breakfast this morning and riding Missy here in this reassuringly mundane pasture, normality--or some semblance of it--began to seem within reach.

"I love you, Mary," he whispered like a prayer released into the wind. "Wherever you are right now, know that I love you and I’m coming home to you."

But was home even there anymore? Was Mary? Where was she and his parents?

The last letter he’d received was the one the guards had given him at the end of March, after his release from the dungeon. The one with the special poem in it. It was strange--she’d written it hundreds of miles away while he lay in that fever, but she had known something was wrong. In moments of fancy, he wondered if his spirit had traveled to be with her in the dream she described, sparking her concern and her comforting rhyme. He liked to think so. That meant her love was what brought him back to life, and not just his own cowardice in facing death.

He had eventually written to her and his parents after returning to the barracks. It had been hard at first, because he couldn’t think what to say. But when they didn’t respond, even to send a brief note to let him know they had taken shelter elsewhere, his letters multiplied along with his anxiety.

Robert told him Jensen was probably behind it, secretly withholding his mail as further punishment. Legally, the major couldn’t do that, but Clay doubted the law would be an obstacle for him. The idea made sense, and he hoped Robert was right, but still....

Clay sighed and sat up. No point in dwelling on it now. He’d be to Richmond by summer’s end. He could do nothing until then, as Robert was so fond of telling him. Besides, they’d be departing Mrs. Morgan’s farm soon, leaving him just enough time for one more ride.

* * * * * * *

Gwen stood in the yard throwing feed to the chickens while she watched them, these two Rebel soldiers doing the chores she had given them. As if they did it every day, Robert hauled loads of soiled hay out of the barn and Clay worked with Missy in the paddock, and for the first time in years, Gwen felt at peace. How odd that after taking so much away from her, the war had finally in the end provided her with this gift of contentment.

She wondered what John would have thought about her Southern visitors. Perhaps most telling, however, was what he thought about the war.

"I hope you kill lots of those rebels, Daddy," Ethan had said on the eve of John's departure.

"I don't, son," John had answered very somberly. "They're just doing what they think's right, defending their homes."

"Why are you going then, if you don't want to kill them?" Ethan had been genuinely confused.

"I'm doing what I have to do, Ethan. The president says I’ve got to fight for our country, to keep it together."

Ethan hadn't been able to make sense of his father's logic. "But that means those rebels are wrong, if they want to go off on their own and not be in our country anymore. We should fight them, shouldn't we?"

John had sat Ethan on his lap and put his arms around him. "War's not about who's right and who’s wrong, son," he had said with gentle firmness. "Victory in battle never makes anyone right, any more than defeat makes someone wrong. War's about who's strongest. You want to work out right and wrong, you got to talk it out. You remember that next time you want to hit your brother."

Gwen smiled and decided John would have liked these two young men, so earnest in their determination to pay their way with hard work. Of course, for Clay it was hard work softened by his obvious affection for Missy, but the spirited horse was giving him a time of it nevertheless. She’d gotten wild without John to discipline her, and she wasn't willing to submit to another man's direction without some protest, no matter how lovingly that direction might be given.

A sudden bolt of energy rooted her to the ground, as though lightning had just passed through her. She gasped and put her hand to her heart, almost crying from the odd ecstasy. It was John--she recognized him from the loving warmth that filled her soul. How long it had been since she had felt his presence so clearly. And his message for her was just as clear. She took a breath and wiped the wetness from her eyes with a corner of her apron as the intensity of the feeling faded, replaced by excitement.

She would give Missy to Clay. She fairly burst into laughter from the perfection of it. Not only would it solve a large part of her dilemma, it was what John wanted, and it would give Clay a reason to live, too, at least for the moment. The only question remaining was how to go about the offer without offending his gentlemanly pride.

She returned to the kitchen and began to gather up useful articles for the rest of their journey--a small cast-iron skillet, a six-inch kitchen knife and a pair of eating utensils, two blankets that would do double-duty as bedding and luggage, a couple of clean shirts. As she worked, though, she couldn’t help but wish they would stay a little longer. She hadn’t realized before how much she had missed human companionship, and Robert....

Well, she shouldn’t hope for that. Perhaps, though, if she suggested it, they'd stay another few days. Clay could use some more time to recover his strength and prepare Missy for riding again. But he had a wife waiting for him. How could she do that to another woman, even one she didn’t know? How could she delay Clay’s return to her and make her wait even one more day than necessary to put her arms around her husband again?

Gwen sighed. It would be selfish of her to keep him here, to keep both of them here, just for her sake.

* * * * * * *

Clay finished grooming Missy and prepared to lead her back out to the paddock.

They would have to leave now. Robert had found more than enough in the barn to keep him busy, but Clay knew he had deliberately stretched out the time to let him be with the horse. Stalling any longer would be inconsiderate. They’d be coming up on the dinner hour soon and Mrs. Morgan would feel obliged to cook for them again if they weren’t on their way. Gentlemen, after all, did not overstay their welcome.

His legs a little wobbly still, he walked the horse to the gate and removed the halter. Before releasing her, he held her head against his chest and scratched around her ears, which she seemed perfectly happy to let him do. "You gave me something I haven’t had in a long time, girl. I won’t ever forget you," he told her affectionately, a lump in his throat. God, this was hard. How did he become so attached to her after just one morning? "Go on now." He kissed her between the eyes and one last time breathed in that strong horse smell that was a perfume to his senses. Turning her toward the field then, he slapped her rump lightly so she trotted off.

Clay watched her a few more seconds before beginning the labored walk back toward the house, where Robert was washing up at the outside pump. Mrs. Morgan came out the kitchen door just as he reached the wooden platform built around the pump works.

Robert looked at Clay, and then smiled at Gwen with a tinge of sadness. If it weren’t for Clay’s sure disagreement, he’d be willing to rest up here a few days more. He liked what he had going for himself on this small, Northern spread, and it had been a blessed relief to share the care of his addled friend. "I guess we better get going," he said to her, his reluctance obvious. "I got the barn all cleaned out for you and some of the farming implements, too. It doesn’t seem like enough for your kindness, though. You’ve been an angel of mercy to us."

"No need for thanks, Robert. It was a fair exchange," she said, and looked at him with her own smile full of regret before turning to Clay. "How did Missy do, Clay? Did she behave herself for you?"

"She’s an exceptional animal, Miz Morgan, intelligent and quick to learn. You should sell her at top dollar. She’ll make an excellent racehorse for the man who buys her from you," he nodded solemnly, wishing he could add the thanks that were stuck in his throat, but unable to choke past the humiliation he felt to be indebted to her.

"I’m glad you think so highly of her," Gwen said, smiling now with more pleasure. "There’s just one more thing I have to ask of you, Clay. I hope it’s not too much, but you’d be doing me a tremendous favor if you took her off my hands."

He frowned in confusion, trying to comprehend her meaning. She knew he couldn’t afford to buy the horse, no matter how much he would like to.

"I told you already I can’t sell her," she went on in explanation. "But I want her to go to someone who’ll love her and care for her the way John did, and I know you’d do that. It would solve a big problem for me and put my mind to rest if you’d take her. Mr. Appleton can’t make trouble for someone who doesn’t even live in the state."

Clay shook his head, his brow furrowed as he attempted to sort through his mixed feelings of longing and anxiety, anger and gratitude. "I can’t. I can’t take her, Miz Morgan. I...I like her well enough, but it’s too much for you to give. I’m grateful for the offer, truly I am, but if I took her, I’d be accepting charity, and I can’t do that. I’m sorry. I know that sounds unkind." It was agony to refuse, but he had no choice.

Robert had brightened considerably at Gwen’s offer, however, and he wasn’t ready to give up yet. "Clay, a horse would get us home a lot faster."

"I said no, Robert," Clay said with a sharpness honed on his torn desires.

Robert thought fast on his feet, the way he did in the midst of battle when his men were pinned down and looking to him for a new strategy. Maybe they could both get something out of this. "What if we stay here a little longer and do some more farm work in return? That is, if you’d want us to, Gwen," he added with a hopeful glance in her direction.

"That’d be fine, if you want to stay. I’ve got plenty of work needs doing," Gwen responded quickly.

Robert was pleased to see the eagerness in her face. "What do you say, Clay? It wouldn’t be like charity then. We’d be paying for her."

"We couldn’t do enough farm work to pay for a horse like that." Clay’s mood was growing darker from the effort to resist temptation. Damn, why couldn’t Robert just shut up and leave it be? Why did he always make everything so hard?

Robert looked down and rubbed the palm of his right hand over his chin and jaw, taking a deep, exasperated breath. When he looked up again, it was toward their benefactor. "Excuse us a minute, Gwen," he said.

"Of course," she nodded, gazing intently at Clay as if to say something to him. When he would not meet her eyes, though, she apparently concluded to keep her counsel there. Turning back to Robert, she added, "I put some food and things together for your trip. I’ll just go get it now."

When she had gone, Clay launched into the argument first. "Not another word, Robert! I’m not taking that horse and that’s final!"

"Clay, a horse would get us home in less than half the time. Every day riding is worth at least three days walking, maybe more with the way you’ve been lately. You can’t afford not to take her!"

"Can’t you see, Miz Morgan just feels sorry for me. That’s why she’s doing it. I don’t want anyone’s pity, least of all a Yankee woman’s!

"Goddamn you, Clay, you are stubborn! Is your pride still so important to you that you’d die for it?" Clay looked ready to fire all his ammunition at once, so Robert held up a hand to halt the fusillade. "Don’t answer that. I already know it is." He searched desperately for a way to flank that suicidal pride. "Look, what about this? We could stay and work a little more as partial payment now, and you could send the rest from home when we get there. It wouldn’t be charity because you’d pay the horse’s full worth eventually. Could you live with that?"

Clay’s defenses started to crumble. "I don’t know ... maybe...."

"Even if we stayed two weeks, we’d still get home sooner than walking, and you’re gonna need another horse anyway."

"Two weeks?" Clay questioned pointedly. "You seem awfully eager to stay, Robert. Is there another reason you’re working so hard at this?"

Robert stared back at him just as pointedly before growling, "All right, you say how long then. Whatever you want. But we’re not likely to meet up with many more friendly Yankees between here and Richmond. I just don’t think we should let this opportunity pass us by."

Clay pressed a thumb to his bottom lip as he considered Robert’s proposition. If he paid for the animal, he could accept it, but would there be money enough for such things when he got back to Hatton Willows? Even if the plantation was untouched, finances would be tight, especially with no servants to help with the crops. It bothered him to borrow on unknown collateral. But that horse--the devil take him, but he did want that horse, and Robert was right about the advantages of riding.

Hell, whatever it took, he’d find a way to pay for her.

"You should’ve been a lawyer, Robert," he said sourly before brushing past him to head up to the house.

Mrs. Morgan came out the door to meet him, bearing two blankets rolled and tied compactly around the other items she had packed for their life on the road. A bag slung over her shoulder like a haversack probably contained the food she mentioned. The sight reminded him of the day he and Robert left home to join their regiment at Manassas.

"I’m sorry to put you to such trouble, Miz Morgan," he said, nodding at the bundles in her arms, "but we won’t be needing those just yet. We’re going to stay a while longer if you’ll have us, and we’ll do some more work for you. That’s just to show good faith, though. I’ll send you the rest of the payment for Missy when I get back to Virginia."

Gwen smiled warmly. "All right, Clay. I’m glad you decided to take her. You’ve eased my load considerably."

"I do mean to pay for her, Miz Morgan," he reiterated with emphasis, in case she thought his promise was empty. "I want you to know I’m a man of my word."

"I never doubted it. But if you want, we could put it in writing, so it’s a legal contract."

"That’s a good idea."

"We’ll do that right after supper tonight, then," she said with a nod, then inhaled deeply. "Well, I better get to making you men some dinner. You’ll be hungry again before long." She looked out at Robert, who had hung back to let Clay handle the arrangements lest he be accused of further manipulation.

He smiled and winked at her, and she seemed blushingly unsettled by it. Another good omen, he thought.

Clay rushed to hold the door for her as she mounted the stairs, and when she was safely inside the house again, he exhaled and suddenly drooped with the fatigue he’d been trying to hide.

Robert saw he was near collapse and walked quickly to him, just in case. It was a damn good thing they weren’t leaving after all. Clay had exhausted his strength on that horse. "Let’s sit down a minute, Clay. I could use a break," he said, massaging the muscles of his own neck as if he ached all over, which actually wasn’t far from the truth.

Clay nodded in agreement, annoyed that he didn’t have the luxury of choice. They dropped down beneath the shade tree toward the front of the house and remained silent for a few moments. Finally, Clay spoke. "Robert."

"Hm?" Robert had stretched out on his back, his eyes closed and his arms crossed under his head.

"Pride is all I have left. Don’t ever ask me to give it up again."

Robert sighed. "Whatever you say, Clay."

[Continued in DARKLY BOUND: The Gift, Part 3]

Colleen J. MacLennan
revised 2/23/00

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