The key turned in the lock and the door opened on the room he had not seen for more than four years. The low ceiling, slanting slightly where it reached out toward the gable window, the faded pattern of the Chinese wallpaper, the big spool bed with its crazy-quilt covering, all were as he remembered them. Gray dust lay thick over everything, as if to hide his secret from the world.
The man moved into the room and closed the white pine door softly behind him. A smile tugged at the corners of his wide mouth. Ben Leap had oiled the hinges, as he had been told to do. The man paused a moment, his eyes sliding to the heavy iron-banded chest that stood below a long Elliott mirror on the wall. Then he was striding to the dormer window, lifting the shade, letting sunlight come into the room. He set the long Kentucky rifle he carried gently on the floor.
The sunlight gilded the white buckskin hunting shirt he wore, with its fringes at sleeves and back, and slid across the green sash about his middle that marked him for one of Morgan's Rifles. Under the sash was a wide leather belt that held his shot pouch and long knife. He was a tall man, and lean. The breadth of his shoulders stretched the buckskin tight to the muscles that rippled as he lifted the hunting shirt and threw it from him.
He knelt and worked at the lock on the big chest. Dust rose in a little cloud as he threw-back the iron-bound top and revealed the blue velvet jacket and breeches and lawn shirt, the riding boots and frilled jabot. A smile twisted the corners of his mouth as he drew out the frock coat and held it up.
Billy Joe Stafford felt a twist of regret for the might have been. Four years in the North, fighting in Morgan's company against the English lobster-backs, from Quebec right down through Monmouth and the seemingly endless little fights that followed that debacle. That long, endless winter in Valley Forge. His arm twitched where a white scar marked it: the scar a British saber had put in his flesh on Christmas night of '77. Four years! Four years without Laura Lee in his arms, without her wide, moist mouth to spot he away his hurts and hungers, without her pale body to entice his senses in the great bedchamber at Stafford Hall.
The thought of Laura Lee Stafford, that sultry beauty who was his wife, put a tempest of impatience in his blood. He stood and worked at the green sash, at the wide leather belt and deerskin leggins. Naked, he bent to the chest and drew out linen shirt and cravat, breeches and boots.
He dressed, remembering the day in 73 he had brought Laura Lee Moulton to Stafford Hall, which his grandfather had built in 1723. Lord, but she had been a temptation in her nightrail, laughing and running from him, bringing him-French wines in a crystal beaker and goblet, standing like that in a shaft of revealing moonlight, maddening him. For three years, he and Laura Lee had been lovers. Then word had gone south from Lexington and Concord: The colonies were in rebellion. He himself had been eager to get away, to ride to Fredericksburg and join the company Dan Morgan was gathering: Virginia rifles, and each man of them a sharpshooter. His wife refused to let him go. Laura Lee was a royalist, a Tory.
Her white face swam before his remembering eyes. Her full mouth was pinched to a thin red line and her dark eyes blazed hotly at him. Her voice was rasping. "You're insane. Insane! You know that, don't you?”
Her ringed hand gestured, making him see the pillared majesty of the Hall, its white outbuildings with their blue roofs and trim, the fields of wheat and cotton, the sleek, fast horses in the west meadows and the herds of cows that would be ambling now through the early dusk, back to their big, clean barns.
"You'd give up all this to ride with a pack of ragamuffins to fight against your king! With a rag-tail mob! And what for? To find yourself face down someday on a field or in a ditch, with your blood oozing out! Dying! You don't expect to gain anything from this little rebellion?”
His smile had been a patient thing. In the years of his marriage to Laura Lee, he had learned patience. “The King taxes us blind. His ministers come stalking with their noses in the air, arrogant as peacocks. They take our pride as they take our money. Our English agents conspire with each other to short-change our every shipment. They treat us worse than we treat the slaves!"
She flung mocking laughter at him. "Tell the rest of the world all that, Billy Joe. Tell me the truth! Tell me that the Stafford blood runs hot in your veins! The same blood that drove your grandfather into seven duels, until the eighth one killed him. The same blood that haunted your father through the last two wars with France, in '48 and '56! That gave him the chest trouble that killed him.”
He-said softly, "Because of all that, you find yourself mistress of the richest plantation in the Dan River country.”
“And I want to keep what I have, Billy Joe!s Not just the plantation, but you as well!”
She had thrown herself into his arms then, and the weight of her soft, fragrant flesh and the touch of her hungry mouth had silenced him. He had been a coward. He had crept from her bed in the early hours of the morning while she lay sleeping placidly, had donned this blue velvet riding suit and written her a letter, then ridden off on one of the plantation's big stallions to his room at Ben Leap's ordinary.
Now he was coming back, unheralded and unannounced, four years later.
Billy Joe Stafford stared at his reflection in the mirror on the wall. He had put weight on his chest and arms and legs in those four years. His shirt and jacket and breeches were tight to bursting with his added bulk. The pale yellow of his hair seemed almost white against the dark mahogany of his tanned face. The Stafford nose, high and thin, and the Fairfax blue eyes and dimpled chin, which were an inheritance from his mother, mocked at his beating heart.
Will she be waiting? The words that came up from his very depths, in answer to each throbbing heartbeat, taunted him. He knew the pride that ran in Laura Lee. He had hurt that pride by running away. Now, in this November, 1780, he was coming home, to learn if her pride was still as fierce.
With steady hands he set the gold-laced tricorn more firmly on his head, then paused for one last glance about the little room that had been his since his sixteenth birthday. His father had paid a year's rent on it, giving it to him for a birthday present, telling him a man needed to get off by himself once in a while, away from his troubles. He had sat on the edge of that big canopied bed, staring as he saw his first woman undress for him, remembering the bayberry candle hanging on a rung of the ladder-back chair where his foot was propped, casting shadows across her slender thighs. Beyond it in a nook under the slanted ceiling, was the writing desk where he had sat for three hours the day his father died. It had been on that desk that he had first composed the letter he had slipped under Laura's pillow, the night he ran away. Aye, he told himself bitterly, the room was filled with memories for him, but it was not those memories that held him here. It was the fear in his middle, the fear that made him linger.
He was afraid to face Laura Lee. “What will she be like?” he whispered. “Will she welcome me back or turn me over to the Tories? Is the plantation a ruin? Did she go back to Charles Town, where I married her?”
A hand on the knob of the door, a wrench, and he was out in the hall, breathing harshly, feeling the lawn shirt cut into his shoulders from its tightness. “She's my wife!” he told the heavy canvas floor cloth on the hall plankings. Then the stair was underfoot and he was leaping downward, anxious now to see her, and to learn what was waiting for him at Stafford Hall.
He came into the taproom from the inner hall, not seeing the huge brick fireplace with its brassland irons and fire back gleaming from their years of polishing, the long fowling piece and carved powder horn on leather thongs and wooden pegs above it. A few fiddle-backed rockers stood between the hearth and a large trestle table in the middle of the room. In the west corner, taking up more than half the wall, was the planked bar, its slatted corner railing reaching upward to the beamed ceiling.
Stafford moved through the room and out onto the stone slabs that served as steps to the entry door. Early afternoon sunlight showed him the road stretching off toward the Dan and Stafford Hall. Bermuda grass and low evergreens made a sea of green beyond the road, as far away as the Blue Ridge Mountains. The sound of trotting hoofs and the whinny of a horse made him turn and come down onto the graveled carriage drive.
Ben Leap, who ran the Black Thistle ordinary, came around the corner of the house, the reins of a big bay stallion in his large hand. A grin distorted his plump cheeks. His white head bobbed, but not before Stafford saw a fresh bruise on his lined cheek.
"A new horse every month,” he told Stafford. "Brought by Old Gem, who comes every week to curry him, and exercise him on the road yonder.”
Stafford smiled to cover the lump in his throat. Old Gem had been slave to his father and his grandfather before him, and had taught him to sit a saddle and handle a frisky mount. It would be like Old Gem to keep coming back, week after week and month after month for four years, certain that his master would return someday.
He was reaching for the black leather rein when a man shouted with laughter inside the tavern. There was something lewd in the manner of that laugh. It was followed by a sob and the sharp cry of an angry woman.
Ben Leap flushed. The bruise on his cheek stood out darker against the tide of blood. When he caught Stafford's inquisitive glance, the old man grimaced. "A damned Yankee. Roaring drunk last night, sir. Put this mark on my phiz with a beer cup when I asked for manners.”
The woman screamed, and Stafford relaxed his grip on the rein. He said softly, staring at the door of the ordinary's long room, "There's teacher's blood in me at the moment, Ben. I've a mind to show this Yankee how we behave to a woman this far south.”
The old man said, "He's a mean one, sir. Big and heavy. With a slant to his eye that I mislike.”
Stafford nodded. "I've seen his kind before. First to join when the battle is won, first to go when the fighting gets rough.” His hands rose to his blue velvet frock coat. He removed it and put it across the saddle. As he walked toward the long-room door, his fingers worked busily, rolling up the sleeves of his lawn shirt.
He came into the long room, with its twin fireplaces and small trestle tables, ladder-back chairs and hanging Betty lamps. A blonde girl in a homespun dress of green wool that was ripped from a white shoulder and torn halfway up her leg was sprawled across the knee of a big man, whose fleshy face was thrust deep in her throat. His big hands were fondling the girl even as her fingers clawed at his shoulder. Her right hand left his arm and tangled its fingers in his thick black hair, tugging savagely. Her breathing was hoarse and frantic.
Whether it was her hand in his hair lifting his head or the sound of Stafford's top boots on the floor that stayed the man, Stafford never knew. The big man raised his head and stared at him, and his loose mouth sneered. He was fleshy, with tangled black hair and pig eyes, and his teeth showed rotten when he sneered.
"A gentleman farmer come to save your virtue, girl. As if you've any left to salvage!”
He pushed the girl from him, thrust her rolling across the floor with a foot. With a curse for Stafford, he brought his big pewter beaker to his lips and swallowed noisily. Before he was finished drinking, he took the beaker from his mouth and hurled it in a movement curiously fluid for such a big man.
Stafford heard the girl scream as the beaker caught him at his cheek and gashed a bloody furrow. Then the big man was coming for him, rolling the table from his path with a big hand at its edge, his feet pounding dust from the floor boards as he came.
Stafford slid aside from the bullish rush, and his fists went out, left and right, slamming into the big man at jaw and belly, turning him around to face him. A fist brought blood from the wide nose and opened the corner of his lips. The fleshy man blinked a little stupidly. Slowly, the stupidity of surprise gave way to a rush of anger that mottled his cheeks. He roared and lowered his head and charged.
The Staffords were big of bone, with thick sinew on them, but this Northern giant outweighed Billy Joe by twenty pounds. He was fat, but the ease with which he had swung the table from him showed he was strong under his blubber. Stafford rode before his rush, fighting as he had fought in camp fights from Canada all the way to New Jersey. He used his fists as a duelist uses his point. He jabbed until blood trickled from an eye and gushed from a nose. He flailed at the man's belly until he fought for breath, wetly, bent far over.
The big man was a knowing fighter. He gave out punishment too, so that Stafford felt on fire where a huge fist raked the side of his face, and where an iron poker tore a gash in his side as the man swung it wildly.
Vaguely Stafford was aware of the blonde girl, crouched on the floor and staring at them with wide eyes: Once he saw her rise to her knees, when two right-hand blows doubled up the big man. Her fingers fell from the torn green gown they held together over her bosom to ball into a fist, and he caught a flashing glimpse of a thin golden chain and the locket it suspended.
“Kill the pig!” he heard her whisper. “Kill him for what he did to me!”
Stafford did not kill him, but he beat him to his knees, and when the big man stood again he felled him with a left hook that almost broke his jaw. Standing-over him, fingers slowly unclenching, he gulped at the air.
"You'll find a pistol in my room, Ben,” he told the old man, who had sidled in to watch the fight with awed eyes. "Load and prime it. If this beast isn't gone when he's washed off the blood, put a ball between his eyes.”
"Aye, sir. That I will, with pleasure!"
The girl was at his elbow then, a dirty hand reaching out to touch him fearfully. As he swung on her, she recoiled, blase eyes shading themselves behind long yellow lashes. She was a pretty thing, with a thick mass of blonde hair spilling across white shoulders, her hips straining the Lindsey-Wolsey of her dress. Her features were grimed by a splash of dirt from ear to mouth and a smear of oil lay above her left eyebrow, but her mouth was ripe and red, and there was a creamy texture to her skin that made his eyes dip to the torn bodice where her breasts pressed their roundness into the homespun.
Thank you, sir. Thank you for saving me from—from that."
He had seen camp trulls before. They followed the armies from camp to camp, and waited for the men, sometimes, within smelling distance of the cannons. This one was a cut or two above most of the wenches who knew the blackberry clumps and buttercup fields with such easy familiarity. Something inside him answered when she let him see her blue eyes fully, for the first time.
“I don't require your thanks.” He smiled, staring at his torn sleeve and blood-spattered shirt. How could he ride to the Hall-like this? He said almost unconsciously, "I did it for Ben, it you must know.”
Her gasp told him he had been rude. He flushed and explained, "At first I did it for Ben, because he hit him. Then, later on—“
Her chin tilted. There was pride in those blue eyes, he was discovering. "Just the same, I thank you.”
The big man stirred, groaning, and the girl trembled and stared down at him. She moved closer to Stafford, and now he could sense the fright in her. "He'll be after me again, soon's he comes to his senses. After you go, he'll get me.” The girl put a grimy hand on his wrist. "Please, sir, could I go along with you, for just a little way?”
“I’ve only one horse. I'm sorry.”
“I could ride behind you!” she pleaded eagerly. "I've done that before. Ridden behind a man on a horse, without a saddle under me.”
"Yes, I rather suppose you have.” Stafford was staring at the big man on the floor, and so he did not see the deep-red flush that slid from her throat into her cheeks. He said reflectively, "He'll be vicious when he comes to. His kind always are, after a beating. Perhaps you'd best come with me, after all.”
Her gaze was steady on his face. "You'd take a dog with you, to save him from a beating, wouldn't you?”
Stafford was surprised. “Why, I suppose I would. Yes.” For a moment, he thought she was about to slap him. Then she whirled on a heel and moved toward the door. For the first time, Stafford saw that she was barefoot. He wondered, idly if she wore anything at all under that thin Lindsey-Wolsey thing. He turned to Ben Leap.
"Get the pistol, Ben Put it handy when he washes up.”
"I will, sir. And—it's good to have you home again.” The girl was standing beside the stallion waiting for him, smoothing its nose with a palm, speaking to it in whispers. Grimy though she was, with a trace of the street urchin about her, the sunlight on her golden hair and face seemed to soften the dirt with an earthy honesty. Her slim white ankles made him curious as to the shape of the legs the green homespun skirt hid. His eyes traced her round hips and slim waist, and the firmness of her bosom.
When she felt his eyes on her, she slid away from the horse.
"Mount up,” he told her gently. "I'll walk beside you.”
"No," she whispered, letting him see the gratitude shining in her eyes. "No, I won't let you do that. I'd rather ride behind you.”
Stafford put on his blue velvet jacket and studied himself. The coat would hide the tears in the shirt and the blood that flecked it. Then his toe jabbed the iron stirrup and he rose easily into the saddle. He bent and grasped the girl by her wrist and helped her swing behind him.
She straddled the stallion, skirt pulled to mid-thighs. As he turned back, Stafford reflected that the promise of her slim ankles was fulfilled in the shapeliness of the legs she bared by her action.
"Hold to me,” he told her gruffly, and felt slim brown arms creep about his waist. A toe moved the horse into a Canter.
They rode through the Virginia afternoon with the cry of a blue heron in their ears, with the scents of fall wildflowers growing in little bunches beside the dusty road touching their nostrils. The sunlight made a haze of the Carolinas to the south, and dappled the forestland stretching as far away as the mountains with golden splinters.
The girl was warm and soft behind him. His back was aware of her unbound breasts prodding it, and his waist tightened against the occasional tug of her young arms when the stallion broke stride to avoid a rut in the road. Once a thick yellow strand of hair brushed like a soft whip across his face, its perfume faint and disturbing. Against the back of his neck, he felt her soft breath.
She was a camp trull, though the most attractive one he had ever seen. If he wanted, he could turn the horse aside into the flanking forests that made this southern edge of Virginia a vast woodland and draw her down and enjoy her. She would not put up such a fight as she had with the big man—in the ordinary. There was tenderness in the clinging of her arms around him, and a hidden hunger in the sudden hardening of the breasts on his back that told him she might even be eager for the caresses he could give.
Stafford thought of Laura Lee in the Hall, hoping she was waiting after four years to welcome him home, and put such thoughts from him. He urged the stallion to a faster pace.
When they came at last to the crossroads between the Dan road and the Carolina settlements, he turned in the saddle and smiled at her. “Where will you go now?”
“To Charlotte Town.”
Charlotte Town. That was where Dan Morgan, recently made a brigadier general by the Continental Congress, was gathering the remnants of the army Horatio Gates had allowed the British to smash at Camden. A camp girl like this one, with her pert face and comely body, would find good pickings there. Men from the Maryland and Delaware regiments, mountaineers with their long Deckard rifles, and the army moving south with Nathaniel Greene would furnish her with an unlimited clientele.
She was very near. An arm hooked about her waist would crush her softness against him. Those full lips, pouting a little under his regard, would taste sweet to his starving mouth. As if sensing the hunger in him, she sat waiting, breathless, her blue eyes locked with his gaze. Four years is a long time, he told himself.
And then the moment was gone, and she was sliding ground-ward, her skirt lifting nearly to her hips. She paused on the ground, shaking out her dress, ignoring the fact that her bodice gaped where it had been torn. Her smile was bright as she raised her head, and he fancied that her blue eyes mocked him.
"I wish you luck, sir,” she said softly. "All, the very best of luck.”
Then she was moving away, with the dust rising in little puffs about her bare feet, her hips twitching to each stride, the long yellow hair falling almost to the small of her back. Stafford stared after her, motionless, until she was gone out of sight around a bend in the road and under the sheltering branches of the towering pines.
He sighed and toed the stallion to a gallop. Eagerness beat in him with a rising pulse. Less than a dozen miles from here was Laura Lee, and home.
Ezra Whipple bent to the wash pan, sloshing cold well water onto his bruised face, Fire ate in him, a roaring flame of hate and frustration that called on his pride for vengeance. No man ever before had stood to the thud of his meaty fists. He had fought fair and foul more times than he could remember, with all manner of men. Once his thumbs had gouged the eyes from a Pennsylvania farmer. Once his teeth had chewed off the ear of a New York merchant in a Fly Market tavern.
He did not like the taste of his bruises. He toweled his face gently, aware that Ben Leap watched from the planked bar, a long-barreled horse pistol primed and cocked in his hand. The old man had taken the pistol from an upper room, from a room that belonged to the man who had beaten him so savagely.
“A good man, that one,” he said grudgingly to Ben Leap, pretending affability. “At another time, I might have been his friend."
Ben Leap spat across the bar. “No friend of yours, you scum. He's a plantation man, a gentleman. The Staffords have been here in Virginia for near a century.”
"Still and all, he's a man. A good man with his fists. He never let me get close enough to hug him once. If he had, I could have snapped the ribs of him like dry sticks. A good man.”
“They come no better.”
Whipple chuckled, and held his shirt aloft. "Tore it to tatters with his knuckles. Now where'll I get me another?" Ben Leap eyed the big man curiously. He was an ordinary keeper, and his trade was buying and selling. He said slowly, "I could sell you one, for a shilling and tuppence.” The big man put a hand in his breeches pocket and brought out some coins. Placing them carefully on a tabletop, he backed toward the stair. "Fetch me one. There's your money. I'll stay near the stair, to prove I mean you no harm.”
Ben Leap reflected. The grip of the pistol in his hand was reassuring. "I'll fetch one from the storeroom. No tricks, mind. I'd as leave shoot as not. I may be old, but I can use a firearm still.”
Whipple laughed. “No tricks.”
When the old man was gone, Whipple whirled and went up the stairs, three treads at a time. Impatiently he hunted, opening bedroom doors until he came to the room with the slanting ceiling and the dusty furniture. With the instincts of the burglar he once had been, in New York town before the war, he knew this for the room he sought. On silent feet he went to the mahogany dresser, opening and closing drawers and finding them empty. He turned to the writing table, but abandoned that after a glance. His eyes touched the iron-bound chest, slid away from it, and then returned.
He knelt. The lock was open. As his hands pushed up the chest top, he gasped. A hunting shirt and leggings, a carved powder horn marked with the Stafford name, a green sash and moccasins lay piled before him.
Wonderingly he lifted out the white buckskin hunting shirt. "One of Morgan's men! Ah, now why should he be so sly about the fact, unless he wants to keep it secret?”
Ezra Whipple knew the South was torn apart by strife between Tory and rebel. Fathers fought sons and daughters fought mothers. It might be that Colonel Billy Joe Stafford—the fringes on the hunting shirt told Whipple his rank—would be hurt by having his secret exposed.
The big man rolled the powder horn under the hunting shirt and tied them both with the green sash. His loose mouth twitched in a grin. Moving to the window, he tossed his little package out onto the grass of the side yard. He would cozen Ben Leap into telling him where the Stafford plantation was located. After that, he'd trust his ears and his tongue and his nimble wits to turn this secret to his advantage.
His fingertips touched the swollen bruises on jaw and cheeks. Billy Joe Stafford would pay for the beating he had given Ezra Whipple, in the way that would hurt him most.