November 1865, Six miles south of the Chittaloosa, western Claiborne County, Mississippi
“Our land ends here, follows the creek just beyond that tree line. He’s holding on to his river-front property as long as he can, but if the rebel states have to pay all those back years in Federal taxes, I don’t know how long he’ll manage.”
Eustacia Franklin said something typically self-righteous in response to Uncle Peter’s remarks, and Aunt Betty murmured a platitude focused on the misfortunes of others. Mrs. Franklin took offense at that and launched into another sermon on sinners reaping what they’d sown.
Alice Shelton, late of Ohio by way of Chicago, crept farther into the woods, away from the rough dirt road that had brought Peter Franklin and his extended family to the site of his new property, one hundred fifty acres of rich, black-soil farmland. They’d come to the end of it, but what Uncle Pete had wanted Aunt Betty to see, to get a grasp for, was the lovely site not far from the Mississippi. A house nearby sat on what remained of the owner’s land. The sight, some distance from the river, was situated near a spring-fed creek and shrouded by cool woods and a wild flower garden. Uncle Peter wanted that house.
Alice wanted nothing.
Eustacia Franklin’s shrill voice faded. Aunt Betty had ceased to talk, and Alice gathered, from what she could hear behind her, that Uncle Pete had moved away from his dead brother’s wife and was now speaking to his nephew Jonathan, Eustacia’s adult son, on the benefits of cotton planting. She hoped her uncle’s excitement would hold Jonathan’s interest for a while.
Alice breathed in clean air. It had rained last night and the ground was a sodden carpet of brown and yellow leaves, leaves from other Novembers. She stopped and looked up. Here, in war-ravaged Mississippi, fall had only now begun to color the foliage. Gently she exhaled, and her breath formed a soft mist against the mosaic of forest green and clear blue sky. This was a pleasing spot, a luscious contrast of light and shadow, pierced by sun-fractured raindrops. Quiet, serene, but cloistered, like the peaceful seclusion of a forgotten grave.
Uncle Peter’s voice grew softer, but Eustacia raged on about God’s swift justice, if four years permeated with losses that could not be recouped could be considered either swift or just.
Raising the hem of her sun-mottled dress, Alice moved to the crystal creek, its turbulent rapids sparkling like fireflies in the filtered sunlight. The sedgy bank indicated the stream had flooded with last night’s downpour, and she saw no place to cross without soaking her feet and skirt. Just as well since her uncle said the creek represented his property line. Thus thwarted, she removed a glove and squatted, and cupping her hand, she drew a drink from the icy water. Sweet, she thought. A bitter reminder that life goes on.
Vision blurred by tears, Alice shook the water from her cold fingers and watched—she frowned—the droplets pit the now placid surface of the creek, and on that mirrored surface, the reflection of a young woman reached for her across the water.
Alice jerked her head up, then rose and stumbled back two steps. No one stood on the opposite bank. The hackles rose along her spine. No one, at least, that she could see.
She blinked, blur and tears forgotten. The creek flowed along as it had before, its surface too turbulent to reflect anything but light and the muted colors of the forest.
Hesitant to get close to the water now, Alice bent forward to make sure she’d really not seen anything. An image of herself, perhaps, beckoning her to oblivion?
She took another step back, thinking it prudent to leave this place, but reluctant to turn her back on the stream. When she did look up, ready to bolt, she caught her breath. Across the torrid creek, a man stood a far stone’s throw away, too distant to have been what she saw in the water, but close enough for her to know he watched her. She returned his stare and hoped he, proud dressed in butternut, was too far away to see the tear tickling her cheek. For that reason alone she did not wipe it away. They stood, watching each other, until she broke eye contact and glanced down the length of him. He was tall and lean. Two dead rabbits were tied to his belt, and he held a rifle in his right hand. A hunter, a poacher, or the owner of this land, which her uncle, still to be heard talking to Jonathan Franklin some distance away, lusted for? If the latter, she was embarrassed this person overheard their conversation.
Momentarily, he raised his hand to his hat and tipped the cover in silent salute. She noted the braid of faded gold on his coat sleeve. A Confederate officer and, undoubtedly, the owner.
He turned his back and walked away.
“Alice?” Aunt Betty called.
“I’m here,” she called over her shoulder and swiped at the errant tear. Except for her aunt, their party still milled about in the sunlit clearing where the road ended. For sure Betty Franklin was eager to escape her protesting sister-in-law. In that, Alice’s search for brief solitude would find favor, though Alice was sure her aunt’s gratitude would be overshadowed by a gentle admonishment. Aunt Betty worried over her niece’s emotional frailty and feared, Alice knew, the nature of the solitude Alice sought.
Alice looked back across the stream, but the man had disappeared. There’d been another son, Alice knew. The older of the two brothers died in combat. This person—her gaze scoured the area—must have been the younger one…or a ghost.
Alice jumped at her aunt’s voice, and Betty Franklin pulled her close. “I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
“You came up so quickly, that’s all.”
Her aunt glanced at the stream. “What are you doing over here, sweetness?”
“Exploring your new farm. It’s nice here, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” Aunt Betty said, glancing first at the stream, then looping an arm through Alice’s. “Is the water deep?” She guided Alice back toward the clearing.
“Not very, I don’t think.” Alice sneaked a last peek at the sparkling brook as she moved away. “Do you think the owner will give up his home?”
“Peter thinks he may have little choice, given the situation here.”
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