Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The six white pillars of the Hall beckoned Stafford from three miles away, The rows of tall, shutter-hung windows, dimly seen in the shadows of the columned portico, were shy eyes peering out as if in disbelief at the sight of the master riding home at last. Sunlight glinted on the gambrel roof with its three great red-brick chimneys. Fresh paint gave the building an elegance that touched something deep inside him.
He let the stallion run along the graveled drive that curved by the outbuildings and the long white stables with their sweep of cypress shingles neat and spotless. Reining in with a scrape of gravel scratching sparks under iron horseshoes, he came out of the saddle with a call for the stables.
A black face framed in white hair was thrust above the half door of a stall. The eyes opened very wide and the mouth fell open. For a long instant Old Gem stared. Then his shaking hand was pushing aside the lower part of the door, and he was running forward, weeping in his delight:
“Master Billy! Master Billy!”
Stafford opened his arms wide and pulled the old slave into his hug. Then with his hands on the bowed shoulders he pushed the old man back and ran his eyes over him. “You look well fed, Gem! Something tells me that we aren’t exactly starving at Stafford Hall these days.”
A curious look touched the old slave’s features. His eyes dropped as he said, “We eat good, Master Billy. We work hard, too. The mistress stands for no nonsense, ‘cepting from—”
He broke off and fear showed in his old eyes. For a moment he hesitated, then straightened his shoulders. Old Gem knew what an angry master could do to a slave, but he was an old man, soon to die anyhow. For sixty years he had lived within sight of the Dan. He had seen the Hall grow from a little cabin to its present elegance. His hands had taught two generations of Staffords how to ride a horse. Besides, this young giant before him loved him like a son his father.
“They’s British officers always at the house, Master Billy. They bring gold for the wheat and vegetables we grow. The mistress has made you rich.”
“On British gold,” said Stafford, and he frowned. Old Gem licked his lips. He said with a strange inflection in his voice, “One gennelman in particular. He’s most always here Right now, even.”
He winced as powerful fingers dug deep into his arm. A hellish light began to glow in his master’s eyes, a light that flared once and then died out to a still more frightening blankness.
Then Stafford was whirling and moving away, tall and powerful and somehow magnificent to the old slave even in the old blue velvet frock coat and breeches that were too tight for him. Old Gem reached for the reins of the big stallion. His hard hands patted the sleek nose gently, but his eyes watched his master mount the stone steps of the portico and disappear between two tall white pillars. “Never see the Stafford hell light in the young master’s eyes before,” he whispered to the horse. “Only in his daddy’s eyes and in his granddaddy’s eyes, when they were bent on killing a man.”
Old Gem sighed and moved away, with the horse patiently trailing in answer to his tug on the rein.
The hall of the house was cool and white, with a high sheen on its mahogany butterfly table aid matching chairs, as Stafford came through the doors. A gilt scroll-top mirror reflected the peacock design in the wallpaper and the glass base of the chandelier hanging on its chains from the high white ceiling.
Directly ahead was the wide, white door that led out to the herb garden. A spiral stairway twisted upward to the second story. Where the wide treads began, an open door spilled the sound of a teacup clinking against a saucer.
The thick hall carpeting caught the sound of his boots as Stafford moved toward the long parlor. He stood framed in the open doorway, seeing a tall Englishman in the red uniform jacket of a colonel of the Thirty-third Foot bowing before his wife, who sat with shoulders bared in the fashionable French cut of her gown, smiling up at him.
Laura Lee did not see him. The dark magnificence of a Chippendale highboy set between the garden windows framed her, flushed face and its spirals of coiling brown hair. Moisture lay on her full red lips.
Remembrance of the hours they had spent in this room, and in the herb garden beyond the far windows, swept in a flood of weakness through Stafford. Laura Lee had come to Stafford Hall as a bride, young and ardent and curious, seven years ago. Time had matured her, put a gloss and a confidence in her manner, as it had added curving flesh to the body that the British officer was surveying as he sipped his tea.
“I vow and protest, Laury,” he giggled, “you put a fever in my blood with your eternal teasings and cajolings. Promise me every dance this night. Promise me that.”
With her ivory fan she touched his chin as he bent low above her. “La, sir. Such a fire in the man! I’ll promise only the first and the last, to cool your fever.”
“But later, when the ball is over? Ah, what then? Shall we—“
He broke, off and straightened. Laura Lee was staring beyond him at the door, and there was something in her wide eyes that brought him around on a boot heel. The big man in the ill-fitting riding suit standing like a frozen giant in the doorway was staring at him with eyes that were strangely disturbing.
“Billy Joe! Oh, it can’t be!” Laura Lee whispered, and put a trembling hand to the upholstered arm of the settee to rise to her slippered feet.
She swayed a little, and the Colonel took advantage of the fact to steady her by an arm about her waist. He growled, “Impertinent trespasser! Shall I throw him out on his ear, Laury”
Her eyes touched his face a moment. “This is my husband, Colonel. Billy Joe Stafford, of Stafford Hall. Colonel Edmund Emerson.”
“God’s love!” Emerson whispered. Stafford came forward to bow stiffly, a grim smile on his lips. Golden epaulets and a sword dangling from leather straps made Emerson seem a fine figure of a soldier to Stafford, who was used to the ragged Continentals and the buck-skinned Marylanders and Virginians.
“I’ve been rude, Colonel,” Stafford said. “I should have come with bugles blowing and heralds before me. Then I wouldn’t have found you at such a loss.” He swung to Laura Lee. “Four years is a long time, Laura. I can understand your state of shock. Shall we adjourn to the upstairs parlor?”
He was deliberately cold, almost aloof, but inside him he was fighting the same sort of seething madness that had taken his grandfather to his death on a dueling plot and sent his father racing off to two wars.
Laura Lee Stafford stared from the white lips of her husband to the florid countenance of the Colonel. Her smile was forced as she said, “Of course, darling! You’ll excuse us, Colonel?”
The Colonel was profuse in his protestations of delight at being left alone. Stafford eyed the thin film of sweat on his forehead and smiled mirthlessly. He gave his elbow to Laura Lee, and noticed that the hand she rested on it trembled faintly.
With her painted satin skirts swishing crisply beside him, with her fragrance all around him, he led her to the doorway. As he turned, he saw the Colonel dabbling at his flushed face with a kerchief. Stafford bowed and closed the door.
Laura Lee took him up the spiraling staircase, wide hips swaying to each stride, past the paintings by Benjamin West and Sir Joshua Reynolds in their carved, gilded frames. Then the poplar planks of the upper floor were under their feet and she was pushing open the door to the upstairs parlor and moving into it.
Stafford followed, closing the door and putting his back to it. His eyes touched the smooth skin of her shoulders and strayed to the cleft of her bosom.
He sighed and said, “You’ve no idea how I looked forward to this home-coming, Laura. I pictured it to myself so many times. Each time it was different. Yet in all the different ways I pictured it, none mirrored the reality of your conduct with that lobster-back!”
Her ringed fingers clasped her little fan until the knuckles showed white. “Am I to be denied friends, even if they don’t wear your precious Continental rags? You ran away, Billy. You left me all alone. I was never sure you’d come back.”
His laughter was harsh. “Old Gem was sure. But then, Old Gem loves me.”
She came forward three steps, until she stood close to him. Her eyes were dark and glowing beneath their long lashes. “You didn’t run out on Old Gem! Ah, I waited. Waited and yearned for you to come back! But was I to bury myself like a nun in your absence? Don mourning clothes? I managed the plantation. I made new friends.”
“The time must have gone very swiftly, in your amusements with His Majesty’s officers!’ He spoke out of the bitterness and the jealousy welling up inside him, born of the years of campfire dreams and the endless marches and retreats.
She came nearer, swaying easily, the smile on her moist red lips an intimate thing. Her body was soft and yielding as she pressed herself against him where he stood with his back to the white door. Tenderly she kissed his chin, standing on her toes. From his chin her mouth slid to the corner of his lips.
“Have you seen the house and outbuildings, the fields beyond them, dearest Billy? We have twenty more slaves and half a hundred more horses. And a fine new carriage. In the deepest part of the ice-house there are two chests buried. Each chest is filled with gold. I’ve been a good overseer in your absence.”
Despite his anger and his hurt, she was a temptation to a man. Her breath was honey, and her stayless gown permitted him to feel the softness of her thighs and middle. She laughed and writhed lazily, lifting her bared arms to coil them about his neck.
“Are you supposing I’ve been unfaithful to you, Billy Joe? Do you accuse me in your mind of bundling with every officer in a red jacket that comes with payment for the goods I sell him? Is that what eats in your heart when it should be filled only with love for me?”
“Laura, Laura,” he whispered, and moved his head so that her lips were grazing his. He shivered to their teasing while she whispered.
“We’ve a new bedroom suite,” she told him, “done in mahogany by Thomas Chippendale of London town. You’ve never seen it, Billy Joe.”
His palms were sliding up over her arms to her satiny shoulders, and down her back to the lacings of her French gown. Almost unconscious his fingers worked at those laces, until the gown fell apart to the small of her back. Dimly he was aware that she was choosing this method of making him her slave again, as she had done those years before, when she had come as a bride to the Hall. She had come a virgin to his big canopied bed, but she had brought her library with her, and such wisdom as she had culled from the pages of Ovid and Jean de la Fontaine and Restif de la Bretonne. Her desire to test that wisdom was as fierce as his anxiety, to share it. With languor and with hungry sensuality they had learned together the arts of the flesh.
Her thin silken shift parted as he ripped it. Now her entire back was like creamy satin under his hands and fingers, as far down as her rounded hips. Moaning softly, she arched to him. A single movement of his hands would bring gown and panniers, modesty bit and Medici collar from her body, leaving her naked to his eyes.
“Billy Joe! It’s been so long, so long!”
“Too long, Laura. Too long!” What thought had he for the fact that she was a Tory and he a rebel? She was his wife, and he had not seen her for four years. She was in his arms now and quivering against him, pleading a little, with her wet lips to his ear, her own hands like hungry talons. Of this pressure of lips to lips and hands moving easily on soft flesh he had dreamed in camps from Quebec to Valley Forge. Now the opportunity was with him to turn those dreams to reality.
His cry was harsh and frantic as he brought his arms down, his hands filled with lace and satin. For an instant he paused, staring at the white body that was even more intoxicating than he remembered, and then he was lifting her and moving toward the bedroom suite that he had never seen.
The sweetish scent of bayberry candles, the clink of Stourbridge glassware, and the muted drone of conversation made Stafford drowsy. He lolled against the high back of his Elfe chair, aware that the officers of His Majesty’s Thirty-third Foot, Thirty-seventh Foot, and Royal Welsh Fusileers were drinking his health and the health of his beautiful wife in rich red port. His buff and purple coat and breeches, hurriedly altered and refitted by a tailoress in from the slave, cabins on the Dan, fitted him exactly, so that he seemed a very Beau Nash for elegance.
The war was far away. It was good to sit here, with the candles guttering softly, with the wild turkey he had just eaten and the varieties of wines he had quaffed in pleasant toasts to the standards of the several British regiments warm within him. He looked at Laura Lee, and smiled contentedly. In the upper bedroom that long afternoon, she had made his every dream a reality, draining him of the hungers that had run in him for a seeming eternity. He put his thoughts of the war behind him and reached for the goblet that Old Gem was filling.
Over the rim of the goblet he caught Colonel Edmund Emerson staring at him with savage intentness. He had seen men who looked at him like that before, over the muskets that King George III issued to his soldiers. Then Emerson was glancing aside, and Stafford put the look he imagined down to the jealousy that had burned in him that afternoon.
A chair scraped. A scabbard clanked on its chains. Golden epaulets caught the gleam of the table candles. They were rising, these British officers and the women they had brought with them from Winnsboro and from Charles Town, to adjourn to the large ballroom across the hall. The cadence of strings and spinnets was summoning them to the dancing.
“The first dance belongs to me, Laura Lee,” he whispered.
“To no one else, my darling.” She smiled, and the pressure of her fingers on his handmade his heart leap.
He went with her across the hall, the British officers drawing back courteously. He did not see Colonel Emerson staring after him with slitted eyes, did not see him turn on a heel and move toward the tall French windows that opened onto the terrace and to the herb garden beyond.
The nights were cool in November. Colonel Emerson moved to the stone rail of the terrace and stared out over the fall herbs and flowers in their patterned beds, biting hard at his full lower lip.
It was only a whisper in the night from the darkness below him, but it made the Colonel freeze. He put a hand to his belt, where his service pistol hung, as he leaned over the balustrade.
“Who’s there? Eh? Who is it?”
“Ssssst! Not so loud, mi-lord!” A big man came out of the shadows, a bulky package in a hand. He was heavy-set, with uncut black hair and small, glittering eyes.
Emerson surveyed him, faint disdain curling his lips, “You want me, my man?”
“You’re a Britisher, ain’t you? A Britisher interested in capturin’ a rebel posing as a loyalist and a man of property?”
There was something in the tone of the big man that caused the Colonel to glance at the French windows off the terrace. He went and closed them, then came back to the wide stone steps that ran down to the garden. A vague hope was blooming in him as he saw the big man kneeling and undoing the green sash with which he had tied his bundle.
Ezra Whipple spread the buckskin hunting shirt wide and laid the green sash on top of it. He held a powder horn carved almost to transparency in his hands, turning it over and over as his eyes caught at the Colonel.
Emerson gasped. “A rebel uniform. One of Morgan’s sharpshooters!”
“Aye! The fringes mark it for a colonel’s shirt, mi-lord.” Colonel Emerson lowered his voice. “Who owns the thing, man?”
Cunning lay deep in Whipple’s eyes. He shifted restlessly, and sighed. The beating he had taken that afternoon had put the thirst for vengeance in him, but not to such an extent that it removed the greed that was a perpetual fever in his blood.
Putting a hand to his pocket, Emerson drew out a velvet purse. As he hunkered down, he unfastened it and poured a flood of round golden sovereigns into his palm. Silently Ezra Whipple eyed that small fortune, licking dry lips with his tongue. Impulsively he held out his hand for the gold.
Colonel Emerson laughed softly. “Not so fast, not so fast. How do I know it’s worth my gold, this uniform you bring?”
Whipple scowled. His narrowed eyes studied the face of the British officer, reading the sensuality that lay in his too-full mouth, in his flushed cheeks and glittering eyes. For an hour he had lain on the flagging of the terrace, staring in at the diners. He had seen the manner in which this man’s eyes roved the figure of the woman who sat at Stafford’s elbow.
“Ye mind the man in the high splat-backed chair? The man who’s wed to the dark beauty?”
Emerson gasped and hunched closer. “Stafford? God’s my life! Can you mean Stafford?”
“Aye. Billy Joe Stafford. One of Dan Morgan’s colonels!”
Emerson came to his feet. He stood rigid, letting triumph sweep across him. Stafford a rebel Stafford, now in gentleman garb, out of uniform. He could hang him out of hand, now, to the nearest tree!
As a man might savor old wine, so Colonel Emerson savored the thoughts he held. Now he would not be a trespasser in that big canopied bed above the ballroom. Now he could wed with Laura Lee, and own the plantation she governed. All these fine buildings the slaves and horses, the meadows rich with wheat and cotton would be his when the war was over, he would stay on in the colonies, perhaps helping to administer this rich territory of Virginia for the crown.
It was a magnificent prospect to a man who had been born out of wedlock to an English earl, to a man who had been trained for war at a military academy, who expected nothing other than his officer’s pay and an occasional chance to loot a Southern plantation in return for his service.
He swept the gold and the purse into Whipple’s hands. “Tell me how you came by them. Tell me what proof you have that they belong to him.”
Ezra Whipple told him of the fight that afternoon, and of the blonde girl, and of the little room in the Black Thistle ordinary and the chest it held. Then he showed him the powder horn with its scrolled Stafford crest.
“It will be enough.” Emerson laughed, and there was cruelty in the sound.
Whipple stood up and put the gold in a pocket. He said hoarsely, “Your worship may have need of me in later times. I’ll not be far away.”
Emerson looked at his grossness, at the pig eyes and hulking shoulders. He smiled faintly. “It may be as you say. Don’t go far away.” Then he swept up the green sash and the hunting shirt and the powder horn and paced lazily toward the deserted dining room.
They were moving in the stately steps of a minuet as he came through the archway bf the ballroom, its glass chandeliers and candles blazing, the music washing across the officers in their scarlet jackets faced in blue and silver, and over the women with their arms and shoulders bared. The paneled walls were rich with pine wainscoting, and the dark, polished, flooring was so bright that it caught and held the reflections of officers’ boots and swinging panniered skirts.
He stood with the hunting shirt and sash in a hand, savoring the moment. Laura Lee moved easily with Stafford, laughing up at him, cajoling him as she was wont to cajole himself. A few moments from now those lovely brown eyes would be wide in terror. Stafford would be wrestling against the grip of a score of hands, being dragged outward to the nearest tree!
Laura Lee Stafford would be a widow soon. He would remain behind to comfort her, after the others were gone. The anticipation of that comforting was in him as he made his way to the musicians’ dais.
The music ceased abruptly at the wave of his hand. In the silence, men and women turned toward him Curiously. Colonel Emerson spread out the hunting shirt and sash on the spinnet.
“Colonel Stafford, I’ve just been handed your uniform. It marks you as an officer in Morgan’s Rifles. I find you out of uniform at the moment.” The Colonel paused, savoring the stunned shock on Stafford’s face, the dismay in Laura Lee’s white cheeks. He said lazily, “I presume you know the rules of war, and what happens to a spy when his enemy catches him?”
The gloating was clear in his voice. His hand lifted the powder horn and held it high above his head for all to see.
“Gentlemen: his powder horn, with the Stafford crest worked into it! I ask your aid in hanging this man for a spy!”
There were some who cried out against such a return for Stafford hospitality, but the majority of officers had seen those expert riflemen of Dan Morgan’s cut more than one command to pieces behind them, and so they surged forward now, crying out harshly, dragging at their swords with eager hands.
Stafford stood still, the shock of discovery paralyzing his muscles.
Laura Lee gasped beside him, her hand working tensely at his forearm, “Deny it, Billy Joe. Deny it! You can save yourself that way!”
He could not save himself. Something in the face of Colonel Edmund Emerson whispered that he would listen to no argument. Something also told Stafford that it was not because he was a rebel that the Colonel was so eager to hang him.
Stafford was aware that everything in his life was crystallizing at this moment. Like his father before him, he had been born on this side of the Atlantic, and the vast freedom of the pine forests and the distant blue mountains was in his blood. Against that love of liberty was balanced the love he gave his wife. Not to embarrass her, Not to extend into a perpetual bitterness their sometimes angry quarrels over a supposed duty to George III, he had run away four years ago. Now his absence was explained; now all the world knew him for a rebel.
He was not ashamed of the truth. It was only that he hoped to protect Laura Lee. It came to Stafford in this instant of his exposure that he was somewhat symbolical of the entire South. The Southern colonies were torn with inner dissension between loyalty to the crown and rebellion. Father and son, nephew and uncle, cousin and cousin were on opposite sides. Even as his own family was being torn apart now, so other families, from the Georgia settlements to the Piedmont uplands of Virginia, were being sundered by this war.
The scrape of a sword blade coming out of its scabbard called him to his senses. Men were pressing forward. Hands came reaching out to grasp him.
Stafford moved like a panther.
His years of fighting and starving with Morgan had made a steel spring of his big body. One moment he was standing motionless, as if dazed with despair, then he was five feet away, gripping the arm of a captain and whirling him sideways off his feet, flinging him against the men who ringed him in.
He needed no weapon in his hand. There were too many men around him to swing a sword, even if he should yank one from a scabbard, and too many men for any of them to fire a pistol, for fear of dropping a fellow officer.
Women were screaming, fainting into the arms of their escorts, unconsciously aiding him as he drove for the garden windows. Majors and captains must pause and attend to the women who fell into their open arms. More than half the others were in aware of what was taking place until after Stafford hit the tall, glass-set doors and was through them and out onto the terrace flaggings.
The night air was cool on his face. He put a hand to the rail and vaulted it, and angled his run toward the big white stables. He did not see Ezra Whipple come up out of the shadows with a musket at his shoulder and take aim.
Stafford was diving for the darkness of the stables as the musket blazed. The ball caught his jacket at the shoulder and tore a hole in it. If the light had been more even, and Stafford a little slower of foot, the ball would have caught him in the forehead, where it had, been aimed.
Old Gem came out of a stall, leading a big black gelding.
“Here, Master Billy! The fastest thing on four legs we own!”
“Good, Gem! How’d you know?” Old Gem Smiled, showing glistening white teeth. “I hear the noise. I see you come out the door. I can saddle a horse in the dark, real quick.”
The stirrup was underfoot, taking his weight, and then his leg was going over the saddle and he came down hard into the saddle. The other end of the stable was open to the meadow. Gem cried out, and Stafford heard his old palm hit the gelding as his own toes rammed its sleek black sides.
The gelding erupted into full gallop. Head bent, Stafford went out the west door, riding low. Behind him were the hoarse yells and outcries of angry men. A voice was shouting into the stable, but Old Gem would be fading to invisibility, through the roofed arcade that joined the stable with the carriage barn. In a few minutes the old slave would be tucked in his bed, stupid with sleep when they came to question him.
Stafford rode at breakneck speed for a mile, then swung the gelding southward into the pine barrens that ranged for miles beside the Dan. No man living could find him in these barrens. Stumbling Bear, a Cherokee brave who had met his death with Cornstalk in the Ohio country in ’77, had taught him woodlore in his youth. Sometimes a group of Carolinians, on their way to Boonesboro and the blue-grass country of Kentucky, stopped overnight at the big Stafford plantation. Those men had added their own wisdom to the canny teachings of the Cherokee. Finding a branch tipped with foliage, Stafford broke it off close to the bole and used it as a drag along the ground behind him. Switching it back and forth, making it seem some grotesque tail that waggled as the horse walked, he obliterated his hoof-prints in the sandy soil.
The rhythmic sway of the horse as he walked put a bemusement in Stafford. Behind him, a part of his life was ending. No longer would he chase a giggling, teasing Laura Lee through the upper rooms of the Hall, to catch and subdue her breathless with kisses. Never again would they ride side by side across the meadows to survey the ripening wheat and the little white puffs of budding cotton. The disunity between them, which they had tried to ignore as long as it was secret, was now an open sore.
Laura Lee was a loyalist. He was a rebel. From the agony of spirit inside him, he knew at last the wrenching fury, that was splitting his Southland. For his country, because of this wild hope for freedom that was inside him, he was giving up his wife and all his wealth.
When he was five miles into the barrens, he dismounted beside a little stream and sat a while, brooding at the water as it gurgled over the pebbles and between fallen pine branches. The scent of forest underbrush was strong around him, and somewhere a wolf howled its hunger.
“It isn’t the wealth I mind losing,” he told the brook, “but Laura Lee.”
Yet Laura Lee was as determined in her way as he was in his own. She had called him traitor aid turncoat when he first broached the idea that she go North, as so many Southern women were doing, at the start of the revolution. Fiercely she had challenged him, using tears and sobs to distract him from his beliefs. Finally, almost in desperation that last night, she had used her body.
A wry grin twisted his mouth as he remembered that night. He groaned and struck a fist to his knee. “If only I could convince her I was right! If only I could change her mind She could live like a queen on those little chests of gold in the ice-house. She wouldn’t want for a thing! Just so I could get her North, in Philadelphia or Boston, away from these British officers who bedazzle her eyes with visions of society!”
And what sort of man could he call himself, an inner voice asked, if he gave up now, and rode off like a beaten creature? One last try, one last and final argument. He was her husband. Once she loved him deeply. Perhaps she loved him still. He came to his feet eagerly, a pulse of excitement making him shiver. She had been wanton with him short hours ago, welcoming home her husband as a loving wife should do. Were those sighs and soft moans only acting? If she loved him as much as it seemed, she might be willing to listen to him at last.
“No, by God!” he breathed through his teeth. “She couldn’t have been play-acting! She loves me! She told me as much today! Since she loves me so, she’ll do as I say, to please me!”
He laughed, and there was no memory of their former quarrels in that laughter. Like a boy he went to the gelding, talking in careless fashion to the big black horse, rising easily into the saddle, Sweep her off her feet! Give her no chance to refuse! Make her agree! Then bring her with him, stirrup to stirrup at a mad gallop for Charlotte Town, where Dan Morgan was gathering his men.
She can go North under the protection of Old Gem and some younger slaves, he thought. I’ll hire rifles to go with her, if need be.
As he rode he hypnotized himself with delusions that were born of his desperate need for affection and belief after the years of starvation and loneliness. He rode flushed and confident in his eagerness.
It was long after midnight when he came in sight of the Hall and its six towering white columns. The gigs and carriages were gone from the drive. Only the moonlight on white columns and Flemish brickwork relieved the darkness of the house. Quietly he walked the black across the grasses of the yard, until, by mounting onto the saddle, he could reach up and grasp the lowest crossbar of the latticework bordering the west wall. There was no sign that there were British soldiers still about, but he took no chances.
He pulled himself upward, foot by foot. The house was silent, dark, seemingly deserted. Now the middle bar was under his shoes, now the topmost.
A hand fumbled to find the window open against the autumn air. Then his leg swung over the white sill and he was halfway into the bedroom when he heard a voice cry out hoarsely.
A man and woman sat up in the bed where he had lain that afternoon. The woman was Laura Lee, with the moonlight silvering her body. She came out of the bed to stand staring at him.
“You fool!” she cried out hoarsely. “You poor, misguided fool!”
Then she was turning and running for the door, reaching out for its iron knob. The man who had been with her in the bed stood up now, and Stafford saw that it was Colonel Emerson. His right hand held a pistol that he had snatched from a little bedside table and he trained it on Stafford, an inch above his belt buckle. The Colonel said triumphantly, “I told you he’d be back, Laury! I win our little bet! Now unbolt the door and summon the guards I posted below.”
“Laura Lee! As you love me, leave the door alone!” He was not aware that he cried out so with the bitterness alive in him and the numb shock and disbelief raging. Behind him his hand fumbled, and his fingers closed on a covered compote glass. Even as his grip hefted it, he remembered the day he and Laura Lee had bought it in a Charles Town chinaware shop.
Then he was darting sideways and hurling the glass, seeing the cover fly off as it hurtled across the room. Startled, Colonel Emerson fired. A spit of flame ran at Stafford. He heard the ball whistle past and shatter a window glass behind him. Then he was lunging forward, following the glass, taking Emerson about the knees and hurling him backward onto the bed.
Stafford was a madman for a few minutes. The hell light in his eyes was alive and leaping, and the frenzy rose up into his throat, shaking him with its power.
His fists thudded home on jaw and belly. He rode then man’s middle, hunting for his throat with hard hands. As his fingers tightened on that throat, the door opened and a shaft of yellow candlelight from a wall sconce came in and showed him the purpling face, the bulging eyes and protruding tongue.
Laura Lee was screaming at the doorway.
Heavy feet were pounding up the spiral staircase. Men were shouting, and the noise of their shouting was growing louder.
Remembering her nakedness, Laura Lee ran to a chest of drawers, snatched up a thin night robe, and slipped her arms into it. As if that were a signal, red-jacketed soldiers of the Thirty-third Foot came swarming through the door and raced for the men grappling on the bed.
Stafford whirled back to sanity as a rifle butt came stabbing through the pool of yellow candlelight at him. He rolled from the musket, taking the man who held it in the middle with a hard fist. As the man fell, Stafford shoved him sideways and dived for the open window.
Beyond the window was a big cypress. He bunched his legs under him and aimed for the branches. Then the air was cold on his face and the tree was coming nearer and there was nothing between him and the ground, thirty feet below. His hands went out and closed on bark. He slipped and slid, and then his hands caught purchase.
A musket spat at him from the bedroom window. Another musket joined it. He heard the balls bury themselves in the tree bole.
A numbness of spirit made him cling there, with his back offering a splendid target for the British soldiers. In this moment of stark heartbreak and agonized despair, he did not care whether he lived or died. What he had seen in that big bed as he came through the window, the contorted positions of Laura Lee and the British colonel, had put a disease in his brain.
He wanted to die, hanging here, with a branch under a leg and bark cutting into his palms. What reason had he to fight for life? What did life hold out to him now? His former love for Laura Lee, which was, all that had been left to him after the earlier happenings of the night, was a bitter taste in his mouth. Let her have her British colonel, if she wanted him so badly. By dying here, he could give her that much.
The thought of the Colonel did what nothing else could do. It turned the bitterness in him to anger, and the anger into a need for vengeance, Live! his mind cried out to him. Live so that you can make them pay for this moment! As another musket-ball grazed his cheek, he swung down and to the far side of the great tree bole. Feet feeling for branch crotches, he went down. Ten feet from the ground, he jumped.
The gelding sidled nervously as he came at him. Scorning the stirrups, he went up over his rump in a hand-propelled leap. As his weight settled hard-in the saddle, the big black lunged forward into full gallop. For the second time that night, Billy Joe Stafford rode away from his family home with death only half a step behind him, with musket balls whistling in the air and a curious deadness settling in his middle.