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DARKLY BOUND: The Gift, Part 3

[Continued from The Gift, Part 2]

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-13, m/f, consensual

In "The Gift, Part 3," the future looms large with both promise and threat not only for Clay and Robert, but also for Gwen, who has risked her reputation by giving them shelter.

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

Colleen J. MacLennan
cjmac444@earthlink.net
3/10/00

Robert panted in the still, evening heat as he trudged up the incline to the pump outside the house. Heíd shoveled manure into a compost pile near the barn for use in the vegetable garden, fixed the broken latch on Missyís stall gate, reinforced the fence around the hog pen, and generally exhausted himself. He hadnít done this kind of work at Oak Wood or Hatton Willows, but thereíd been plenty of it in the army, and he felt pride and a sense of accomplishment here as he put his back into the effort for Gwen, and for Clay, too.

And Clay looked better already, it seemed. He had eaten more than usual of the dinner meal Gwen brought out to them in the shade of the old elm tree at the front of the house, and after a nap under the same tree, he had spent the next few hours cleaning and repairing tack. Now, with the horse to look after, Robert was convinced Clay wouldnít be able to stare silently anymore, or indulge his really frightening urge to cut himself.

He reached the pump and noticed a wash bucket waiting for him on the platform containing two clean shirts for him and Clay to change into before supper, along with a bar of soap and a couple of washcloths and fresh towels. He smiled and glanced slyly toward the kitchen. Sheíd be in there getting supper ready. Maybe she was looking out at him through the screen door every now and then as she passed it during her work. The back door was open, but the screen made it impossible to see inside. She was there, though. He could feel her watching him.

He made sure to face the kitchen door, but attended only to the process of preparing to bathe. Casually, he unbuttoned the dirty work shirt and pulled it over his head, baring his sweat-sheened chest and arms. Opening the top two buttons of his trousers and drawers, he let them slip down to his hips and began pumping water into the wash bucket, making every downward stroke on the handle a deliberately sensuous, muscle-flexing gesture. When it was filled, he sluiced the cool well-water over his head and body with the drinking ladle and soaped the cloth into a lather.

Sliding the cloth across his exposed skin, he thought of Gwen and their lovemaking, and the possibility of laying with her again tonight. The first time he had taken her, it had gone too fast, embarrassingly so. He hadnít been that quick to come with a woman since he was a youth at the academy practicing on the local whores. Heíd been too hungry for her--for the softness, the warmth, the nurturing soul of a woman--and heíd consumed the feast she laid before him without really savoring the taste.

Gwen was understanding about it, thank God, and he gave her pleasure the second time, he was sure of it. Her moans and small cries of excitement were genuine, her tremors and tension were unmistakably real as he trailed soft, wet kisses over her body and took care to go slowly with every stroke of his hands and cock, rousing her to a shaking climax.

The difference between them in years meant nothing to him. Gwenís open-hearted vulnerability melted away those years so that all he knew were her doe brown eyes, her sweet-tasting mouth and her lilac-scented body that yielded so receptively to his touch. He wasnít like Clay, who strongly preferred a certain feminine type, of which Mary fit all the particulars. He could see the beauty in a variety of women. He just liked women, and they seemed to feel it when he looked at them, which was fortunate because his choices were limited when Clay was present.

This time, though, a woman had chosen him first, and it wasnít just because Clay looked like an orphaned waif from a Dickens novel when they got here, either. Gwen would have liked him better even if Clay had been at the height of his old charm. Robert felt smugly pleased about that, after so long trailing behind in his friendís wake, suppressing twinges of envy.

The only other woman who had preferred him to Clay was Rachel, and what a near disaster that had been. A Mosby servant and Clayís paramour, both conditions precluded even the playful flirtation they risked in her young masterís presence, no less the kiss she started and he finished that day Clay had ridden to town on his fatherís business. But he stopped himself before it went any further, even though they could have had all morning in the guest house--now Clayís "bachelor house"--with no one the wiser.

Sometimes, he regretted that choice. He regretted a lot of his choices about Rachel. But he didnít know how it would turn out back then.

When Mary came along, Robert hoped that would be the end of Clayís attentions to his mulatto lover, but it only intensified them--sexually, anyway. Clay would come back from courting Mary full of unsatisfied desires and take Rachel to his bed in the guest house for the night. And Rachel always gave Robert the same look in the morning, full of guilt and accusations and unsatisfied desires of her own, like he could do something about it. Well, he did try, but he could only push Clay so far before Clay would turn cold and push back with a vengeance.

It was Clay throwing looks of accusation at him now, but heíd be damned if heíd give up this woman just to keep misery company.

Would Gwen want him again, though? She might not, now that sheíd had time to consider the situation more carefully. It might only have been a momentary impulse that made her open her door, and her body, to him before. There were risks involved and she was a respectable woman; this was not the sort of thing she would do as a matter of course.

Still, he thought, as he rinsed the lather away and let the trousers drop ever so slightly lower, he could hope, and do everything in his power to persuade....

"What do you think youíre doing?" Clay asked as he came up behind him, interrupting Robertís mood with a distinctly displeased tone.

Robert felt immediately wary, but stubbornly ignored the implicit warning in Clayís voice. "Iím washing up for supper. What does it look like Iím doing?" he returned in deliberate challenge.

"Looks to me like youíre putting on a show for anyone who cares to watch."

"Youíre the only one here, Clay, and youíve seen this show before. I never thought you were all that impressed," he responded mildly, picking up a towel.

"You know what I mean, Robert." Clay glanced at the house. "Sheís watching you, you know."

"Iím counting on it."

"Youíre behaving with all the dignity of a gutter slut!"

"Jesus, Clay, ease off me!" Robert lashed back in an anger that surprised even himself. "Youíve been on my back for months now about every move I make! You ride me harder than that horse down there," he jerked his head toward the paddock where Missy grazed, "and you treat me like I was one of your servants. Damn you, thereís just so much a man can take!"

Clay stepped back and turned half away from the blast of Robertís fury. He swallowed as he looked at the ground, and focused on breathing. He knew he had crossed the line again, had pushed his friend beyond the far-reaching bounds of his forbearance. How often did he think he could do this and expect Robert to overlook it?

"Youíre right. I ... Iím sorry, Robert," he said quietly, still looking down.

"Well, thatís the thing, Clay," Robert responded sharply as he dried himself with short, rough movements. "Youíre always sorry, and you always do it again. Itís getting so I just donít believe you anymore."

They both stood in silence for a moment, but Robert wasnít finished. "What is it that you want from me?" he demanded, throwing the used towel down and turning squarely toward his tormentor. "Because I donít know how to act around you anymore. You better give me the rules if being myself isnít enough for you now."

Clay felt his stomach twist on itself. "No. I ... I donít know ... I donít know what I want. Oh, God...," he trailed off, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to think. He rubbed a hand over his mouth and shuffled away aimlessly.

Robert let him go at first, but his anger spent, he softened at the sight of Clayís flailing despair. "Clay, come back," he called. "I shouldnít have gone off on you that way. Iím just tired is all. Come back and wash up."

Clay stopped and turned to him. "No, Robert, donít apologize. You were right. Iím hateful to you. I donít know why youíve put up with me this long."

"Itís all right," Robert said gently. "I know youíre not yourself lately...."

"No, donít make excuses for me," Clay insisted with a shake of his head and a raised hand. "Iíve made your life miserable and you donít deserve that. If I were you, Iíd have ... Iíd have left a long time ago. Youíd be better off without me to burden you."

"Donít go thinking Iím all that noble, now," Robert protested. "Iím not doing this just because Iím a saint." He laughed a little and was relieved that Clay joined in with a smile. "I need you, too, you know. Youíre the only friend Iíve got left in this world."

"Some friend," Clay commented with a rueful snort.

"Best friend," Robert said.

"Brothers?" Clay amended, fresh hope in his eyes.

"Yeah. Blood brothers. Remember?" Robert asked, thinking of the secret, sacred pact they had made so long ago at Hatton Willowsí ice pond. He grinned, holding his hand out to Clay the way they had done it as boys pressing their gashed palms together.

"Blood brothers forever." Clay gripped Robertís hand and for once lately, found the touch comforting. He and Robert used to touch so easily, without a second thought or the taint of distrust, and it had always felt good. Robert had never hurt him, and never would. He looked his friend in the eyes and vowed to control himself better in the future.

Robert nodded approvingly, relieved to have the conflict resolved. Letting go then, he gestured toward the pump. "You better get washed up, brother," he advised, taking one of the shirts to put on. "Supperís almost ready, and itís gonna be good, too. I saw Gwen fixing up a chicken this afternoon."

* * * * * * *

Gwen set the platter of roast chicken on the table and realized nervously she would have to sit down with them now; she had nothing left to fetch or prepare for the evening meal. Determined to cook a real supper this time, she had killed and dressed a plump young chicken for the main course, and with mashed potatoes, cream gravy, cooked carrots and fresh salad greens, it was a feast the likes of which she hadn't served in over half a year.

It was also a feast the likes of which Robert and Clay hadn't eaten in almost two years. Robert licked his lips hungrily, and even Clay appeared brighter and more attentive than usual to the food in front of them.

Robert half-stood quickly in a gesture of respect and gave her a grin she was coming to know well as she seated herself on the bench next to him. She smiled briefly at him before looking down at the table, trying to organize her thoughts.

He wanted to know. Of course, he wanted to know what would happen tonight, when it was time for bed. He was searching her face for some sign of her will on the matter, and she had seen the hope, the teasing seduction in his eyes, she had watched his sensual performance at the pump earlier. She knew what his will was, but then, she had known that from the moment she eagerly agreed to let them stay awhile longer.

She folded her hands and bowed her head to say grace, fighting the urge to burst into silly laughter. Here she was praying her thanks to the Lord and all she could see was Robert lying naked in her bed. Just what was it she was thanking Him for, she wondered.

"Bless this food, oh Lord, and all who receive it here this evening. We give You thanks for Your abundance," she hurriedly intoned, looking up just in time to see the remains of a scowl on Clay's face.

"It smells delicious, Gwen," Robert said, breaking into her tension. "Would you like me to carve up the chicken? I had some practice in the army, huh, Clay? íCourse, I just kind of pulled those chickens apart to get the pieces off since I didnít have much of a knife, but I promise Iíll do a better job tonight."

She smiled at him somewhat distractedly. "Thank you, Robert. That would be nice."

She watched him rise and take Johnís old place with the carving utensils. A twinge of sadness passed through her, but only momentarily as an unwitting comedy unfolded before her. Robert needed practice with something other than his fingers if he was ever to carve a roast neatly.

"You donít have to beat it into submission, Robert. Itís already dead," Clay commented dryly, looking at the mangled bird with feigned dismay.

Robert glanced at his friend in surprise. Clay had volunteered a second joke in one day. Perhaps things really were improving. "Itíll taste the same no matter how itís cut, Clay, but you donít have to eat it if Iíve put you off your appetite. Iím sure I could eat enough for both of us," he responded quickly, hoping Clay would continue.

"Youíre very kind to make the offer, but that wonít be necessary," Clay sparred haltingly in return, out of practice but game to play. "Even your fumbling attempts at chivalry canít ruin my appetite for a banquet such as this."

Gwen liked the banter between them and was glad to see some life begin to color Clayís face and animate his movements, despite his fatigue from the dayís exertions. Whatever he and Robert had argued about at the pump before supper had apparently been settled amicably.

Although Robert lacked even a trace of cutlery skill, he made up for it in enthusiasm, and soon he had the steaming, crisp-skinned chicken dissected roughly along its anatomical lines. With a gentlemanly flourish, he proceeded to serve her and Clay with the white breast meat they had requested, then filled his own plate with the darker meat of both legs and one thigh. She saw him hesitate as he contemplated the one remaining thigh.

"You can have it later if youíre still hungry, Robert," she encouraged him gently.

He looked up at her, smiling sheepishly, but her reassurance did the trick. They served themselves from the bowls of vegetables and Robert heaped his plate until it was near to overflowing, ladling gravy over all except the salad. He obviously intended to satisfy his hunger fully.

Gwen felt the particular pleasure of a woman to see him go at the food with such abandon, and wondered with rising anticipation what other hungers he might want to satisfy in the same wholehearted style.

But there it was again--the question sheíd debated all afternoon. Would she let him into her bed tonight? She couldnít imagine turning him away. Her mind had been consumed with thoughts of him the whole day. His lean, tough body ... the mischievous smile he flashed at her before a kiss ... the tender way he touched her and held her and made her tingle with arousal. There was no denying it. She wanted him inside her again.

Sheíd forgotten what that was like, how good it felt, to have a man lie over her, press his weight against her, surround and fill her with his loving presence. Not that she thought Robert loved her, but he was careful and affectionate with her body, considerate of her feelings. She found it strange that she could feel so comfortable with a man she had known for only a single day, but what more proof could there be that God Himself had guided him to her?

If it were merely a matter of the heart, she would open herself to him without reservation and enjoy these days and nights of temporary attachment. The real matter, however, was one of a bodily nature--the nature of a womanís body to make something tangible out of shared passion. A child could grow from their union, and every night they spent in lovemaking made that possibility more likely to occur.

But Robert would leave her. He had to leave. He had his own home to go to and Clay to attend. He had arrived under serendipitous circumstances and he was here for a couple of weeks at most. He had not lied to her about his intentions and she harbored no illusions that the situation would change. If she conceived a child, she would probably not know until after he had left, and she wouldnít use that to keep him bound to her in any case.

Of this, there was no question--a child born of their affair would be her own to care for.

She sighed softly and took a bite of salad, tangy with fresh herbs in an oil and vinegar dressing.

"Are you all right, Gwen?" Robert asked, interrupting her thoughts. "Youíre awfully quiet this evening."

She felt his hand slide along her waist and over her back, an intimacy that was warmly soothing and thrilling at once. "Iím fine. Just ... thinking," she said. She looked into his beckoning eyes. At this proximity, he was even more appealing and she had to turn away to keep from kissing him.

"The meal is superb, Miz Morgan," Clay complimented her, feeling unusually awkward as he tried to converse with her. It had been a very long time since heíd engaged in such mundane social intercourse at a supper table, but he had resolved to make the effort. For Robertís sake and for his own sanity, he must behave more like his old self. "It really is a banquet. I donít think Iíve ever eaten food that tasted so good."

"Clayís right, Gwen," Robert chimed in, withdrawing his hand and turning back to the meal. "Itís better than any Sunday dinner I ever had. Iím enjoying every bite!" He was so happy to hear Clay talking normally that he didnít even mind having his attentions to Gwen interrupted.

"Thank you. Iím glad you both like it," Gwen answered, glad to be diverted from her ruminations.

Clay groped in frustration for something else to say. Images of himself from dances and dinners and holidays gone by played out before his mindís eye, and he could see himself smiling and charming the ladies who gathered around him. He could see his lips moving, speaking glib words that flowed like water down a smooth hill. But no matter how hard he strained, he couldnít hear what he said. He felt no connection to the idealistic, self-assured young man in those pictures anymore. That was the other Clay Mosby, the one who was dead now.

Nevermind. Time to move on, find new things to say.

Gwen picked up the conversation for him. "Is your wife a good cook, Clay?"

"Mary? Um...." Again, Clay searched his memory, looking for anything that related to Mary in a kitchen. Nothing presented itself. Servants had done all the cooking before and his mother had planned the menus. Things might be different now, though. Would Mary know how to prepare a meal single-handedly the way Mrs. Morgan did routinely? There was so much he didnít know about her.

Robert jumped into the gap, slyly covering the facts of their old plantation life. "Clay and Mary were married just before the war, Gwen. She was just beginning to learn the domestic arts of a wife before we left home. I guess Clayíll find out what sheís learned about cooking when we get back."

"In her letters, she said Iíd be proud to see how much she could do now," Clay added wistfully. "Itís been hard on them--my family, that is. Theyíve had to go without so many things...."

"Iím sure youíll be very proud of Mary when you see her again," Gwen said gently. "I wonder, would you like to write to her while youíre here, Clay? You could let her know where you are so she wonít worry, and maybe youíd even get a letter from her before you go."

Robert stopped chewing and looked up at Clay with an apprehensive expression. Clay glanced at him in return, but quickly broke the eye contact and stared down at his plate, fidgeting with his napkin and clearing his throat.

Gwen hoped nervously that she hadnít blundered into something painful.

"Mary stopped writing to me a few months before we left the prison," Clay said quietly. "At least, I didnít receive any letters if she did send them. Iím not sure where she is now."

"We think Clayís father took the women to stay with relatives somewhere out of the line of battle," Robert said, taking over as Clay drifted into the fog of his troubled thoughts. "The mail was fairly spotty back then, coming through the lines the way it was." He decided not to mention the other possibilities.

"I see," Gwen murmured, scrabbling for some words of comfort to offer. "Still, it might be worth another try now that the fighting is over. Perhaps theyíve returned home by now."

Clay nodded without looking up, but felt a sudden, inexplicable ambivalence over the idea. "I suppose youíre right, but I donít have any way to post a letter from here."

"Iíll be making a trip into town tomorrow with my butter and eggs. If you want to write to Mary tonight, I can put the letter in the post for you when Iím there. The writing paper is on the desk in the parlor, and envelopes and stamps, too. Use whatever you need, Clay." He looked up and she could see the refusal on the tip of his tongue. "Consider it my gift to Mary, woman to woman," she hastened to add. "I know what itís like to watch for a husbandís return."

Clay shut his mouth and nodded again. Heíd be rude to argue with her now, and maybe he would feel better if he wrote to Mary and his parents one more time. Like Mrs. Morgan said, it was worth another try, anyway.

Rather than worry more over it, he turned his mind to the farm. "I noticed you have a mule in the other paddock, but you havenít done any plowing this year. How are you making out without any crops planted?"

"I make a little profit from what I sell or barter in town, and with the chickens and vegetable garden, Iíve had enough to keep me."

"Iím surprised none of your neighbors has lent you a hand keeping things going," he commented, wondering at the lack of Northern charity even among their own. "In Virginia, youíd have had all the help you needed."

Gwen sighed. "There are ... complications."

Clay stirred the gravy into his potatoes as he considered how to pursue the matter. "You said something this morning about selling the whole farm. I donít mean to be indelicate, but do you plan to stay out here alone for much longer?"

"Clay, thatís none of our business," Robert said, frowning at him. "Gwen doesnít have to tell us her plans." Heíd been content to eat while Clay talked, returning to his place as second in command, but not if it caused Gwen more grief.

"It matters to the work we do around here, Robert," Clay shot back in annoyance. "If she means to sell the place soon, we can fix it up to get a better asking price, but if sheís staying, firewood and food supplies would need our attention more."

Gwen glanced over the food on the table, or what was left of it. Sheíd laid out a generous supper fit for Sunday company, but its dwindling source pressured her to choose some solution. "I suppose I will have to leave before long," she said. "I have a married sister out west, in Nebraska. Sheís asked me to come live with her family on their farm. She has children of her own, though, and I...well, itís so hard to leave everything behind...." She trailed off, unable to explain the way she felt bound to this piece of land, like the ghostly keeper of a cemetery in which her own body lay buried.

Clay noticed her mournful tone and addressed her next with care. "Itís just that I was looking around at your outbuildings before supper and the smokehouse is nearly empty. I know itís not the season for it, but if you want, we could slaughter one of those hogs youíve got and hang the meat to cure for winter. Unless of course, youíre figuring to leave before that."

"I donít know," Gwen said, shaking her head. "I donít know what to do." She wished John was there to tell her what was best, but he seemed far away now.

Robert slid his hand around her waist again in a protective gesture. "Itís all right, Gwen. You donít have to decide right now," he told her, and he warned Clay off with a stern look.

She looked up at him. "Oh, but I do, soon anyway. My neighbor ... George Appleton ... heís made an offer."

"On the farm?" Clay asked.

"No. On me. He let me know, if Iíd marry him, heíd take the trouble of the farming off my hands."

Clay scowled in disgust. "And heíd get everything, including the horse, without paying a penny."

Gwen nodded. "I think thatís why he never sends his sons over to help me, and heís got three of them, enough to spare one at least. He figures Iíll eventually see the reason in his offer when I canít keep up with all the work."

"Charming," Clay said.

"What galls me most, though, is him saying Iíd never be parted from my boys then." Gwenís fork dangled in her handís grip as she gazed out the window behind Clay, toward the two headstones under the oak tree. She shook her head slowly, then turned to them with sudden decisiveness. "Letís slaughter that hog!"

Robert grinned widely and his short, staccato laugh filled the room, relaxing Gwen with his easy humor until she joined in.

Clay smiled, too, but it was more to himself. He knew another pig heíd like to butcher and hang from a hook in a dark, close space.

"Well, maybe itís not such a good idea," Gwen noted when theyíd sobered. She looked at Clay, though she spoke to both of them. "Hog-killing is a big job."

"We can manage it," Clay responded curtly, pulling himself up straight on the bench. Last night heíd been weak and unprepared, but heíd be damned if heíd let a woman coddle him any further. "Robert, I want you to go over that smokehouse tomorrow and make sure itís sound. Iíll start chopping some wood and we should be ready for the butchering in a few days time."

Gwen searched his face, looking for telltale signs of uncertainty, but something had changed in Clay since he had ridden the horse. He had a new air of authority about him despite his fatigue, as if in taking control of Missy, he had also taken hold of the reins to his runaway life.

She took a deep breath. "Would either of you like some apple pie?"

* * * * * * *

The parlor was the only other large room on the ground floor of the little farmhouse, connected directly to the kitchen through a doorway next to the staircase. Gwen glanced around. How long ago it was that she had sat in the padded oak rocking chair with a pile of mending in her lap. Sheíd sing to herself softly while John figured sums in his farm records at the small desk and the boys played with their trains and soldiers on the hooked rug before the fireplace. With sudden force, it occurred to her how rarely she came in here anymore.

She swallowed the lump in her throat and pulled her mind back to its purpose. Lighting the lamp on the desk, she showed Clay to the writing materials. He came forward as if he were approaching an altar, or an open casket, and Gwen noticed his dragging step and heavy-lidded eyes. If he were her son, sheíd send him off to bed at once, but more diplomacy was called for here. "Would you rather do this in the morning, Clay, when youíre more rested?" she asked.

He frowned and stiffened his posture like a newly commissioned lieutenant on parade. "No. Iíll write the letter now," he replied in a rather abrupt tone, then bit his tongue. He hadnít meant for the words to come out so harshly, but for some reason, her query irritated him.

Gwen nodded. Ethan would snap at her the same way when he had worn himself to a limp rag. Best to let him alone until he found sleep irresistible on his own.

"Well, then, Iíll leave you to it," she said and turned toward the kitchen.

"Miz Morgan?" Clay called suddenly, still standing next to the chair.

"Yes?"

"What...what day is it? The date, I mean."

"Well, let me see...." Gwen realized she hadnít been keeping track of the days either, but there had been notices of a Fourth of July celebration the last time she went into town. She could count forward from that. "I think itís July seventh," she said. "That would make it Friday."

Clay felt a shock ripple through him.

"Is something wrong?"

He shook his head slowly. "No. Itís just...my wedding anniversary is coming up. I hadnít remembered...."

"Well, youíve had other matters weighing on you, Clay. Itís no wonder," she said gently. "When is your anniversary?"

He reached back through the years, groping for that piece of his past. "The thirteenth," he said, and shook his head in bitter amazement. "Hard to believe Iíve been married four years. Weíve been together just a handful of days in all that time...."

"Youíll be together soon, and nothing will take you away from her then," Gwen said in the same reassuring way she talked to him the night before.

Clay nodded and smiled weakly. "Anyway, thank you for letting me use your writing materials."

He sat down and pulled the chair up under the desk. Hesitating slightly, he finally reached for the pen and inkwell, and after arranging them to his right side, he took a sheet of blue paper from a small stack in the corner and laid it out before him, smoothing his hand over imaginary creases.

Gwen smiled at his ritualistic solemnity and left him to compose the letter to his wife in private.

Once she had gone, Clay contemplated the empty expanse of stationery waiting to contain his wandering thoughts.

That July four years ago had been a whirlwind. His proposal to Mary, the wedding plans and preparations, the ceremony itself, all had to be compressed into two short weeks of furlough between drilling volunteers at Camp Lee and joining a newly formed regiment at Manassas. Hell, he spent almost half that time just convincing Mr. Clairmont to give his permission.

He could still see Mary smiling shyly, walking toward him as he stood at the makeshift altar in the gardens of Hatton Willows. His officerís tunic hadnít been completed yet, so he wore his V.M.I. uniform, the saber from his father hung proudly by the gold cavalry sash at his waist. Mary wore a simple white day dress and a lace veil borrowed from his mother, but in his eyes, she glowed as if draped in the silken wings of angels.

Both of them were so young, so full of lifeís heart, so in love that nothing seemed impossible if they willed it together.

Pulling himself back to the present, he took a deep breath and dipped the pen into the inkwell. "Dearest Mary," he began, then closed his eyes and breathed again.

* * * * * * *

Gwen returned to the kitchen and smiled to see Robert still at the table, finishing off a large wedge of the pie Clay had turned down.

He looked up at her brightly with bulging chipmunk cheeks, which made her laugh. "I donít think Iíve ever seen a man consume so much food in one sitting," she told him. Without thinking, she reached and caressed the loosely waving hair away from his face.

Robert went still and stared at her, straight into her eyes, as they both held their breath and time halted. Her pupils widened to dark, deep pools that glistened, the way a womanís eyes do when sheís aroused by a man. He felt a stirring in his groin and dropped his gaze, embarrassed by the animal instincts of his body.

Gwen just as quickly busied herself with lighting the kerosene lamps around the darkening room. "Your hair was in your eyes," she explained, as if an explanation were necessary. "Iíll cut it for you tomorrow if you want."

Robert examined his near-empty dessert plate and swallowed the food in his mouth. Taking a deep breath, he attempted to suppress the effect she had on him. He was not an animal in rut, nor was he an adolescent boy, but he had felt inhabited all evening by that combined spirit of impulse and aggression, awkwardness and ruthlessness. He wanted her, but with more finesse than that, and for better reasons than simply physical pleasure. Of the precious little he had to give her for her kindness, he owed her his respect at the least.

"Iíd be most obliged if youíd cut my hair tomorrow," he muttered at last. "Itís a lot longer than I usually like it."

"Clayís hair is awfully long, too. Perhaps heíll want his cut as well," she said while clearing the leftover food from the table.

"You can ask him, but I doubt it," Robert said skeptically. Well, that did the trick. Saying Clayís name was like invoking an ancient god of thunderstorms--the resulting downpour could dampen even the punishing fires of hell, no less the inviting flames of passion.

Gwen began to scrape the well-gnawed chicken bones from the dirty dishes into a pan for later disposal, and, safe from embarrassment now, he jumped up to join in. "Here, let me help you with that."

"Thereís no need for you to help, Robert," she told him. "You worked hard for me all day. You donít have to do a womanís work, too."

"Itís nothing I mind doing," he reassured her. "I had plenty of turns washing dishes for my mess out in the field, and laundry, too, before I got up in the ranks. Why, some even said I was a better washer-woman than their mamas." He grinned at the smile that comment brought to her face.

"Iím not sure I believe that," she teased.

"Oh, itís true, all right. No one complained of graybacks when I got through boiling their clothes, at least not for the first hour of wearing them, anyway."

"Graybacks?"

"Lice. We used to say a prayer about them at bedtime." He folded his hands in a parody of reverence. "Now I lay me down to sleep, graybacks oíer my body creep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord their jaws to break."

Gwen laughed on her way to put another pile of dishes to the side of the sink. Setting the dishpan under the pump, she reached for the red-painted handle to fill it halfway with cold water.

"Iíll do that for you." Robert intervened quickly, leaning around her to take the handle himself.

The position put him close to her, almost up against her, in a way that left her with only the pantry as an escape route. She stayed still and breathed in his salty, masculine scent, trying to concentrate on the task before her.

"If you really want to help, Robert, you can get the kettle off the stove and pour me some hot water here," she said, keeping her eyes trained on her work.

He broke the contact with her reluctantly and went to get the steaming kettle. Wrapping a towel around the handle, he lifted it with both hands from the stove and brought it to her, tipping the spout carefully to pour a stream of the boiling water into the pan as she directed. After replacing it on the stove, he came to stand nearby again, trying to think of another excuse to touch her.

"Iím sure thankful you let us stay, Gwen," he said, watching her slide the dishrag deftly around each plate and cup and utensil and then stack the finished items on the drain rack above. It occurred to him that he could dry the dishes to give his loitering the air of purpose, and he grabbed the towel again off its hook near the stove. "I donít think Clay could have traveled much farther in his condition, even with your horse to carry him. He might not say it, but I know heís thankful, too."

"Clayís a proud man," she nodded.

Robert gave a frustrated snort at her innocent understatement as he lifted dishes from the rack to polish with his towel. "Iím just afraid that damned prideíll be the death of him yet, and heíll take me with him just for the company, if I know Clay." He looked at her and suddenly realized how loose his language had become in the years away from civilized society. "Iím sorry. I guess Iíve forgotten how to talk around a lady."

She glanced at him with a wry smile. "I promise not to hold it against you. I suppose youíve earned the right to a few cuss words now and then."

Robert smiled back and inched a little closer. Gwen looked away, but she didnít move away. It was a hopeful sign. He just wished he knew for sure what she was thinking, what she had decided about him. More seduction might tip the scales in his favor, but heíd have to be pretty blatant at this point. Although he didnít regret his display at the pump earlier, Clay was right--heíd overstepped the bounds of a gentleman there, and it wouldnít do to push those limits any further.

"Do you have any family youíd like to write to, Robert?" Gwen asked. "I could post a letter for you, too, if you want."

"The Mosbys are my family," he said, setting each dish neatly on the worktable after he finished drying it. "They took me in when I was just about thirteen."

She gave him a quizzical look while he scooped up a bundle of utensils.

"Itís a boring story," he added with a chuckle. "Put you out like chloroform."

"I wouldnít mind hearing it," she encouraged.

He shrugged. "Thereís not much to tell. My parents died in a train accident when I was five, so my brother, Thomas, got the care of me. Problem was, he didnít much care for me. When he tried to kill me, though, thatís where Clayís father stepped in."

"He tried to kill you?" Gwen was incredulous.

"Aw, he only managed to break my arm," Robert said with a lopsided grin.

"Sounds to me like youíre leaving out a lot."

Robert shrugged again and kept on drying. Women always nosed around in such things, but he wasnít keen to talk about his childhood just now. He wanted a way into her bed.

She persisted. "So then, you and Clay really were raised as brothers."

"Yes, I guess so ... more or less." If he didnít offer some concession at this point, sheíd just stay on the advance. "Clay was the Mosbysí only child. When I came along, well, it was a little like Clay saving the runt of the litter from drowning and then asking if he could keep it." He gave out a short, self-deprecating laugh. "I donít suppose I looked like much of an investment to them, but the Mosbys were good Christian folk, and in the South, that means caring for the less fortunate. So Clay got a brother and I got a real home. Iíve always been grateful for that."

"I can see you would." Gwen glanced at him and smiled flirtatiously. "Canít say, though, Iíd ever think of you as the runt of the litter, Robert."

He grinned. That was better, moving more in the direction he desired.

He dried the cook pans and watched her as Gwen continued to make small talk. He did hunger for the sex, that was true. But this craving wasnít the indiscriminate kind he felt when he paid for his pleasure. With Gwen, it was different even from those times heíd been with willing country girls he didnít have to pay, for the war had encouraged more than a few to raise their skirts patriotically for a well-mannered officer in uniform.

The difference had to do with the change in himself since those soldiering adventures. It was like, all this time taking care of Clay, heíd been stumbling through another Wilderness, and Clayís words were coming at him like a hail of Minie balls, biting off chunks of his flesh a little at a time till he was down to the bone, and tired, so goddamned tired he could just drop and not care a wit about anything anymore. And then suddenly, by the grace of the Almighty, Gwen appeared to offer him an escape, an open clearing where he could shed his burdens and find peace and wholeness again. Kissing her mouth and breasts and belly, sliding into her wetness, he felt reborn.

"Would you please bring me the roasting pan over there, Robert?" Gwen requested, interrupting his reverie.

He snapped to attention and looked around for the pan, finding it on the stove. It was the last thing that needed washing. He brought it to her and put it in the basin himself, reaching around her to dunk it under the pleasantly warm water. He didnít intend to rub up against her, at least not consciously, but his body had its own plans, and then she leaned back and he pressed in harder, no longer thinking at all. She melded into him, sliding her soapy hand down his forearm, and he put the other arm around her, firm and possessive across her waist. They started scrubbing the pan together in lazy strokes round and round, although neither remembered why as she turned her head toward him on his shoulder. And then his lips covered hers with soft, deep, open-mouthed kisses....

...And he felt ravenous all over again.

* * * * * * *

Clay blew on the ink to dry it quickly and then stopped, turning his ear to the doorway. They had been talking before, low murmuring sounds he couldnít distinguish that somehow comforted him. But it was quiet in there now. Not even the clink of dishes or clang of pots to break the silence. Frowning, he turned back to scrutinize his half-finished letter.

Dearest Mary,

I hope this letter finds you well and safe, and my parents, also. Robert and I have been released from prison. We are travelling home now and it is a long journey. We have been on foot so far, but I have been able to procure a horse for the remainder of the trip. I have not received any letters from you since that one with your poem in it. I cannot tell you how much that poem has meant to me over the last several months. I committed it to memory and it has sustained me through the worst of times. I am resolved to leave all of that hardship in the past, however, because that is the only way to find true peace. I wish only to look forward to the future from now on, and the life we will share together. Although I will not be with you for our anniversary in a weekís time, I will be thinking of you as you looked at our wedding, so exquisitely beautiful in your finery when you said youíd be my wife. I hope you will have no cause for regret when you see me again. What I mean is, I hope you will never feel that your consent to marry me in such haste four years ago was a mistake. No matter what losses we have suffered materially, I will always love you and care for you as your devoted husband.

He looked up with dismay and sighed. Once begun, the words had poured off the tip of the pen in a torrent before he realized what he was saying. He hadnít meant to write that part about regret, and the explanation he tacked on only bungled it worse.

He exhaled again in frustration. After composing hundreds of letters to his beloved wife in the last four years, why did this one feel so awkward to write? Why did she feel so insubstantial to him? Even the image of her face was proving elusive now, when just a half hour ago he could see her clear as day.

Clay shivered despite the sticky summer night and forced the fear creeping toward him to retreat back to its lair. Maybe he should take another sheet of the stationery and start again. That might give him a fresh perspective on the task. But no, the paper wasnít his own to waste, and years of scarcity made it seem as valuable as greenback currency.

Hunching over the partially written letter once more, he tried to organize the rest of it in his mind first. Paragraphs. Thoughts shouldnít run together like that. There should be divisions for different categories.

He dipped the pen in the inkwell and continued.

Robert and I will be staying at a farm in Pennsylvania for a short time before getting on our way. We will be working for the widow who owns it in order to pay, in part, for the horse I have purchased from her. The widowís name is Mrs. John Morgan and she has been very kind to us. Her farm is small and is situated near the border with New York. The countryside is lush and green and reminds me of home. Mrs. Morgan is posting this letter for me in town. If you want to write back, address it to her and she will pass it on to me.

I am glad to have a horse to ride again. She is a dark bay like Othello, and quite smart. Her name is Missy, but I plan to rename her Athena when I leave here. Tell my parents that I love them and that I am in good health. I know my mother will worry anyway, but there is nothing you can do about that.

Please write back.

All my love,
Clay

Relieved, he poked the pen into its stand and slumped down in the hard chair. The letter was an artless effort overall, and it mostly skimmed the surface of truth, but it was done.

Clay folded it into quarters and slipped it inside the small envelope. He looked around then for something with Mrs. Morganís address on it so he wouldnít have to go in the kitchen just yet, but nothing on top of the desk was any help. Reluctantly, he opened its only drawer and carefully searched through the receipts and childís scribbles. Tucked under them all, he found what he was looking for.

There were several letters in the pile, but one envelope in particular caught his attention. It was addressed to Mrs. Morgan from a captain in a Federal army regiment, and it had been posted from a hospital camp near Cold Harbor, Virginia, with an eagle pictured on the righthand bottom corner.

Clay knew immediately what it contained. Heíd written countless such letters himself informing families of their loved onesí deaths, expressing condolences with words like honor, glory, valor, courage, and loyalty. What scraps of comfort those words offered, for both sides, he guessed, but the families would cling to them nevertheless, and they would be repeated for generations to come like a sacred prayer.

Feeling guilty of unholy voyeurism handling Mrs. Morganís letter, he only looked at the envelope long enough to copy the farmís address before stashing it away again in its hiding place.

One last thing left to do now, and then he had to get some sleep. He drew two more sheets of paper off the stack and began writing with much less hesitation. Minutes later, he set the pen down for the last time and breathed out in satisfaction, all his tasks for the day completed. Pushing away from the desk, he stood up on rubbery legs. Yellow stars burst like fireworks before his eyes and he took a deep breath to regain his balance and let his vision clear. At least he wasnít hungry, too, although eating had its own queasy disadvantages for one unaccustomed to it.

Taking the letter and the other papers with him, Clay stepped to the doorway and saw approximately what he expected. Robert had their hostess pulled tight against him in an all-consuming embrace, so tight that she was on her tiptoes. Her arms were wrapped around his neck and their eyes were closed as they kissed like teenaged sweethearts momentarily escaped from a strict chaperone, their passion that much tastier for being stolen.

Clay knocked lightly on the doorframe. "Excuse me," he said, averting his eyes for the moment it took them to respond.

They both appeared startled as they abruptly drew apart, and Mrs. Morgan wiped her cheek with her hand as if that would rub away her blush of embarrassment. Robert kept his arm around his intended loverís waist, however, deliberate possessiveness visible in the gesture.

"Geez, Clay, you came in so quiet, we didnít hear you. Make some noise next time, will ya?" he complained good-naturedly.

Clay noted the touch and took it as the signal it was--he would sleep alone again tonight. He had known that already really, but seeing them together like this stabbed him with another shard of loneliness.

He would fill his mind with Mary. That was the best remedy for his pain. Mary waited for him right now somewhere, sending him love on the night breezes. She would receive the letter he had just written and wait patiently for his return, and when he arrived home, they would make a new start on everything.

It was going to be all right.

He cleared his throat. "I finished my letter, Miz Morgan. Iíll leave it here for you to post tomorrow," he said, laying it on the table. "And I took the liberty of writing up the contract we discussed, for purchasing the horse. You can fill in the amount I still owe you when weíre ready to leave, and I wrote my address on the bottom, so you know how to reach me if you decide to join your family out west." He laid the contract on the table, and a second sheet of paper as well. "I made a copy with your address on it for myself," he added, tapping the other paper, "and after we get home, Iíll be sending the rest of the payment as soon as I can."

"Why, thank you, Clay," Gwen said. "Weíll get that all finished up when the time comes."

Clay nodded. "I think Iíll retire now," he said quietly.

"You need anything before you go?" Robert asked in a solicitous tone.

Robertís question was genuine, but Clay knew his friend hoped he would say no. He shook his head almost imperceptibly, feeling thoroughly exhausted. "Iíll be fine. Thank you for the supper, Miz Morgan, and for the paper and stamps. Youíve been more than kind."

"Youíre doing me a kindness, too," Gwen said with a warm smile. "Iím glad to have you here."

"Good night, then," he said, taking a deep breath to fortify his ascent up the stairs. The terror that usually rose from the dark to claw at him would not keep him vigilant this night. He was practically asleep on his feet already and crumbling fast. How in the world he ever sat a horse this way during the war mystified him now.

"Iíll see you in the morning, Clay," Robert called to him.

"Donít forget that smokehouse tomorrow, first thing."

[to be continued, but as yet unfinished]

Colleen J. MacLennan
cjmac444@earthlink.net
revised 12/15/00


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