Authors: Patricia Hagan
Travis was silent for a moment as he stared beyond at the brown fields. Finally, he asked quietly, “How long will you be gone, Sam?”
“Six months, more or less. No way of telling. There’s a new marshal coming in here next week, and I’ll head up to Washington to get all the details. I reckon the committee will leave within the month.” He looked at each of them, saw the very different expressions on their faces, and decided he had sounded too excited over his trip. Shrugging as though it really did not matter, he said, “Heck, maybe I’m a crazy old coot to go over there. They got weird stuff in Haiti, I think they call them zombies. You know, people die, and witch doctors bring ’em back to life somehow. Could be dangerous in a place like that. Maybe I shouldn’t even go.”
“You would be crazy to pass up a chance like this, Sam.” Travis gazed toward the field, speaking as though he were far, far away from this place. “And when you return, you will probably have a good offer to do something else for the government. Why molder away here? You have no family ties.”
“I got you folks,” Sam said defensively. Then, quickly deciding it best to change the subject, he turned to Kitty. “Where’s that little one? Taking a nap? Let’s go see if he’s awake, ’cause I’ve got to be heading back to town and I’d like to see him before I go.”
“Stay for supper,” Travis said quietly, almost sadly. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a real visit, and from the sound of things, it will be an even longer time before we see each other again.”
Sam shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ve got to get back to town. Can’t have my replacement coming in here and saying I did a lousy job. I’ve got plenty of work to do before he gets in.
“Well, try to see us again before you go.” Travis walked away, still staring ahead thoughtfully, in a trance. Kitty reached out to touch Sam’s arm, nodding toward Travis.
“He wants to go with you,” she whispered. “You can see it. It’s tearing him up, Sam. He loves me, and he loves little John, but he hates his life here.”
“He’s never said that to me,” Sam responded uneasily. He didn’t like being in the middle of this but it could not be helped. “He’d be miserable if he wasn’t with you and his boy, and you know it. Now let’s gather up this stuff and get to the house, all right?”
Kitty stayed where she was, watching Travis trudge along, shoulders stooped toward the waiting mule like an old man. “He keeps it inside him, you know that. He never talks about his misery because he doesn’t want me to know. But I do know. And so do you, Sam.”
Sam gazed at her closely. What was the point in pretending? “Yeah, I guess I do. But he’s trying, girl. You can’t say he isn’t trying. And he’ll never leave you—though I reckon he’ll always have the wanderlust. It’s just his way.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “I’ve known all along. I kept hoping things would change. I prayed this would all be enough for him, but it isn’t and it never will be. He’s slow on the spring planting right now because he doesn’t really care, even though he’s trying so hard to care. And it’s killing him, Sam.” She began to cry. “I can’t stand seeing him so miserable.”
Sam gathered her in his big arms and held her against his chest as she sobbed. “He won’t leave you,” he said gruffly. “You know you ain’t got that to worry about, so just keep trying to make him happy. He loves you, Kitty.”
She pulled away abruptly, wiping furiously at her tears. Kitty hated herself when she gave way to the weakness of crying. “I know he loves me, damn it, and I love him. I love him too much to see him so miserable.
“I want…” She took a deep breath, held it, then let it out in a rush. “I want him to go with you, Sam. To Haiti.”
Sam stared down at her, astonished. “You don’t mean that, girl.”
She lifted her chin once more in the defiant way that Sam, like Travis, knew so well. “Yes, I do mean it. It won’t be for too long. You said six months or so. It will be good for him to get away. Maybe General Sherman could even arrange a job for him when he returns, a job that would give him some of the adventure he needs. I’ll still be here waiting, with our son. Lots of men move around and return to their women. I’m willing to live that way if it means making my husband happy.”
Sam took her small hands in his burly ones and squeezed tightly. “Listen to me. I hated even to come over here and tell him about my plans, because I was afraid he’d take it just like he did. I know he wants to go, but he won’t because of you. But I couldn’t just ride off without saying good-bye. The truth is, Kitty, General Sherman picked me
Travis, and Travis’ name was first. I wasn’t going to tell him that. I didn’t want to put him in the position of having to turn down that offer.”
“General Sherman chose Travis, too?” she asked, awed. “Oh, Sam, he’ll be so honored.”
“I’m not going to tell him. And neither are you. It’d just hurt him worse to turn it down.”
They fell silent, both turning to watch as Travis walked up to the mule and looped the worn leather reins around his neck. Then he began to plod doggedly through the field once more, head bent.
“His spirit is as broken as that mule’s,” Kitty whispered tremulously. “I can’t stand seeing him like that, Sam. I never let myself realize it fully until this minute. I’ve got to let him go.”
“Let’s don’t talk about it anymore because he won’t go. Come along to the house, Kitty.”
He gave her a gentle nudge, but she continued to watch Travis move under the blazing sun. The man did not belong behind a mule, she thought, heart pounding. He was a leader. A fighter. An adventurer. And she had him in a harness the same as that worn-old mule.
“You send a telegram to General Sherman,” she said slowly, evenly. “Tell him that Travis Coltrane will be on that committee and will be leaving when you do.”
“Kitty, dang it all!” He yanked off his felt hat and threw it to the ground in angry disgust. “This is nonsense and a waste of time. I done told you. He ain’t gonna leave you.”
She raised lavender eyes that flashed with determination. “He will leave, Sam. I can make him. But he will return, and when he does he’ll love me all the more for setting him free.”
“You’re crazy. I won’t be a party to any scheme. Travis would have my head.”
“You will be a party to it, because you know I’m right, Sam Bucher. Now you do as I ask, please, and don’t you dare say a word to Travis about this. Leave everything to me, and I promise that he will be leaving when you do.”
Quickly she stuffed everything into the picnic basket and, with a determined stride, left the woods and began to make her way across the rutted field.
Sam hung back momentarily, and then began to follow. He knew from experience that Kitty would make good her promise and that there was nothing he could do to stop her, not when she had her mind made up. That was Kitty. He only hoped she knew what she was doing, and that Travis, once set free, would return to her.
But that, Sam reflected, was the chance you took when you unharnessed an animal and left the barn door open. Sometimes he wandered away and then came back.
Sometimes he just kept on going.
The past two weeks had been extremely difficult for Kitty. It was not easy to make Travis want to leave her, not when she loved him so much she ached with it. But she had to set him free. Her love would not allow her to keep him a prisoner in a place that made him so miserable.
Would he return? She could only pray that he would, that once he realized she would always be waiting for him, that he could follow his wanderlust and not be shackled, Travis would love her all the more.
She stared at her reflection in the mirror, smiling bitterly. It seemed ludicrous to be standing here in the beautiful gown, for this was not a house for fancy dress. One day, perhaps, they would have a nice home, but returning what Corey McRae had stolen and swindled had left them almost penniless.
She looked down at the dark green silk, the deep folds of material cut down from the shoulders in swaths to shape her ample décolletage. Travis was not going to like seeing her breasts so exposed, but then he didn’t like anything about this evening. She was sure this would be the final step to his losing his temper, and she hated the thought.
She loathed the evening ahead almost as much as she loathed the dress she wore, however beautiful it might be, for it held so many painful memories. Nina Rivenbark, Goldsboro’s foremost dress designer, had made the gown according to Corey McRae’s instructions and Kitty had worn it the night of the ball he had given in honor of their wedding.
She shook herself quickly, wanting to exorcise all those memories. She should have thrown the dress away, but she had stored all those fine clothes in trunks out in the barn, thinking that one day there might be a need for them.
Her golden-red hair was piled on her head in poufs and dips, clusters of curls twisting down to her shoulders. She had entwined dogwood blossoms in her tresses, and as she patted her coiffure, she wondered if it had perhaps gone out of style. Was the dress also out of date? What could she know of fashion, out here on the farm?
Her hand went to her bare throat. Once there had been emeralds, and her violet eyes had somehow caught their luster. Those precious stones, like the rest of her fine jewelry, had been sold to pay Corey’s debts. Corey had bought them for her with blood money and she was relieved to see the jewels go. Like everything else he had given her, the jewels reminded her of Corey’s evil. Now she wished she had also gotten rid of the gowns he had bought her.
Closing her eyes, she thought back to happier times, wearing old muslin dresses, baggy pants, or nothing at all, as she and Travis frolicked in the barn hayloft like children, laughing and loving. They had answered the need of their never-ending hunger for each other, and nothing else had mattered. They had their love, their passion, and she had foolishly believed that nothing else would ever matter to either of them.
“Miss Kitty? It’s me, Lottie.”
She turned at the sound of the soft, hesitant voice, smiling at the old Negro woman’s dear face, peering through the door.
“Lordy, you is still as beautiful as ever, Miss Kitty,” Lottie gasped as her eyes swept over her. “You ain’t changed none. You look just the same, just like you did when you was mistress of…” Her voice trailed away.
Kitty crossed the room to embrace her, murmuring gratefully, “Whatever would I do without you, Lottie? I’m so glad you agreed to come to stay with John tonight. Mattie is going to the party tonight, too, and couldn’t stay.”
Lottie laughed. “Ain’t no trouble for me, missy. I love that youngun like he was my own, and you know it. Besides, I’m always glad to do something for you.”
“I can’t pay you with money,” Kitty sighed apologetically, “but I can give you a nice fat hen for a stew.”
“Didn’t plan on taking anything from you. I’m getting along just fine. Besides, with me and my boys working the crops and sharing with you this summer, there’ll be enough to see us through the winter.”
Kitty pressed her finger to her lips quickly. Travis mustn’t overhear. “Don’t talk of that now, Lottie. Travis knows nothing of my plans, yet. I’m going to break it all to him tonight, all at once. It must be done that way.”
“Miss Kitty, are you sure you wants to do this?” Lottie frowned, chocolate-eyes shaded with doubt. “That man worships you and you is forcin’ him to leave you. Why, he might be so hurt he won’t never come back. You want that?”
“You know I don’t,” the words tore from Kitty’s throat in anguish. “But it has to be this way. Travis was never meant to be a farmer and I was a fool to think he could be. He’ll come back to me, Lottie. Who knows? Maybe he’ll make a new life for us somewhere else.”
Lottie stared, and her look was almost accusing. “Would you go? Would you sell your daddy’s land and go traipsin’ off somewheres else ’cause Travis wants to? You told me yourself you promised your daddy.”
“I know, I know. I won’t ever sell it, Lottie. I’ll keep it for John. One day it will be his to farm if he chooses. Right now, I have to prove to Travis that he means more to me than this land. He’s given me two years of his life, doing what he thought I wanted him to do, and now the time has come for me to prove to him that his happiness comes first. Poppa would understand, I know he would.
“And I will go anywhere Travis wants to take me. When he returns from Haiti with Sam, I’ll tell him the whole story of why everything happened as it did, but not until then. He would never leave me if he knew this was all a scheme.”
“Naw, he wouldn’t. I ain’t so certain he’s gonna go anyway. Just because you think he’s gonna get mad when he finds out what you’re planning to do, that don’t mean he’s gonna pack his things and leave.”
Kitty nodded firmly. “He will leave. Things haven’t been pleasant around here lately, Lottie. I’ve turned into a shrew in two weeks. I’ve made myself nag him about the plowing, the chores—everything I could think of just to needle him. I’ve even thrown up Jerome Danton to him, telling him that Jerome is such a success while we’re so poor. I said every mean thing I could think of.” She blinked back angry tears. “You don’t know how I hate myself. There were times when he would just stare at me with so much hurt in those beautiful gray eyes that I would want desperately to tell him the truth. Oh, Lottie, it’s been so hard! And I had to keep on doing it, driving us further and further apart.”
Lottie shook her head, sighing. “I hope you knows what you is doin’, girl. A man like that, lovin’ you the way he does, if you drive him away and he never comes back, you gonna hate yourself for the rest of your life.”