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PROLOGUE
1904, WEST FLORIDA, NEAR THE MOUTH OF THE CALOOSAHATCHEE RIVER


Joe Ashley came home late, grim and smelling of whiskey. He woke his wife, Leugenia, and their nine children and told them to quickly pack up whatever they wanted to keep because they had to leave at once and would not be back.

“Was there gunplay?” his wife asked. Her eyes fearful in the lamplight, her voice trembled. “Is anybody dead?”

“No, but a man was shot. He’ll live, but if we don’t leave now, somebody will die.”

She began to pack her best linens in a wooden chest.

The children, still half-asleep and in their nightclothes, began to gather their belongings, except for John, who was sixteen.

“Where are we going?” he asked his father.

“Get your things together, now, son.”

John dressed quickly, carried his guitar and his banjo out onto the front porch, left them on the steps, and broke into a dead run down the dusty road. The dust, white in the moonlight, looked like silk.

His father stepped out and glared after him.

“It’s that girl,” he said bitterly, then moved to go after the boy.

His wife placed her small, worn hand on his forearm and raised her eyes to his. “He just wants to say goodbye, Joe,” she said softly. “You remember how it was.”

He nodded gruffly and caught her in his long arms.

“I got to get busy,” she said after a moment, and gently extricated herself.

“You can’t bring that sideboard,” he said hoarsely, as she turned away. “It’s too big.”

It had belonged to her grandmother.

“We can fit it in the wagon, Joe. Bobby and two of the girls can ride up front with us.”

He nodded and went to harness up the team.

Laura lived a mile and a half away. John arrived breathless, his lungs bursting. The place was dark. He stood beneath her window and whistled three times like a mourning dove, a signal they sometimes used. When there was no response, he found a feed bucket, carried it to her window, stood on it, and scratched the screen three times.

He heard her whisper in the dark. “John?”

“It’s me, Laura . . .”

She was suddenly there, a swift shadow in the dark. He couldn’t make out her face or what she wore but recognized her sweet scent, orange blossoms and roses. At that moment a mockingbird burst into a soaring, full-throated, heartbreaking song in the night. John knew he would never forget the sound or that moment.

“John, what are you—”

The front door burst open with a crash as though kicked by a mule. Laura’s stepfather loped barefoot across the creaky porch in his long johns, brandishing his breech-loading, double-barreled shotgun.

“I got you now, boy!” he shouted. “Freeze right there! Caught you dead to rights climbing into my little girl’s bedroom!”

John stood his ground, heart pounding. He felt no fear. He could die now, he thought, with no regret, outside her window.

“No, sir,” he said boldly. “I did not try to climb into your daughter’s room. I would never do that. I just tried to get her attention, to tell her something important.”

Laura’s mother, in nightclothes and a hairnet, materialized like an apparition on the porch. Laura’s brother, Dewitt, trailed after her. “Mama, what’s happening?”

“Hush, boy!” she told him. “Git yourself back to bed, right now.”

“What could you have to tell our Laura at this time of the night?” her stepfather asked, then racked one into the chamber.

“Daddy,” Laura cried. “Stop! Don’t do anything! Please!”

John turned to her. “Don’t worry, Laura,” he said softly. “We’re leaving tonight. I came to say goodbye. You are my girl, aren’t you?”

“Goodbye? When are you coming back, John?”

He shrugged. “Don’t know, Laura. But I will, I promise. Remember that. I’ll be back!” Out the corner of his eye he saw her stepfather advance.

“Get down from there, you son of a bitch, now!”

“Are you my girl?”

“Yes, Johnny.”

“Sorry, darlin’,” he said. It was the first time he had called her that. He liked the sound of it as he stepped off the feed bucket.

“Git your skinny ass outta here. Now!”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re damn lucky, boy. Last time I came this close to shooting somebody, I did it! Kilt me a Yankee. Git outta here now, afore I shoot you too!”

John stole a fleeting glance at her window then left the way he came. When he arrived home, heartsick and out of breath, the house was empty, his family gone. He and their dog, a bluetick hound that emerged from the woods behind the house, followed the wagon’s tracks for two miles before they caught up with it. His father reached down and with a strong arm lifted both the boy and the dog into the wagon. His mother hugged his neck. “We worried about you, son.”

“No need, Mama. We’re together. Everything’s all right.” To cry in front of his mother would not be a manly thing to do.

Clouds drifted across the moon’s face, darkening the trail ahead. Joe Ashley constantly searched the shadowy road behind them, to see if anyone was following.

John regretted all the things he didn’t say to Laura. Too late now. With a ragged sigh he wrapped his arm around his little brother Bobby who was sitting up, sound asleep.

Is she asleep too? John wondered. Or awake and thinking of me? He knew he’d see her again. But how? And when?

© 2011 Edna Buchanan

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