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Raider's Heart

By Marcia Gruver

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Prologue

Fayetteville, North Carolina, 1852

Silas McRae crashed through the moonlit cornfield and burst out the other side panting like a hounded deer. Free of the noisy stalks, he lit out at full speed then tripped and kissed the bottom of an irrigation canal. Cursing his foolhardy decision to return to Fayetteville in the first place, he lifted his mud-smeared face and took stock of the situation.

He saw not a soul of his band of misfits across the wide expanse of newly mowed grounds, and no one hunkered along the tree line past the nearby manor. They’d cut out on him when the heat turned up. As simple as that.

A surge of warmth crept up his neck at the thought of the skirmish he’d just dodged. Every lead slug exploding from the end of a scattergun had missed him cold. Every indignant hand on the scruff of his neck had fallen away as he ran.
By thunder! He loved the thrill of the chase. The bulging knapsack of loot under his arm only topped the cake.

His roaming gaze eagerly swept the stately main house, and he closed his eyes for fear their sudden twinkle might be spotted from afar. It appeared his night of plunder wasn’t done. What treasure lay behind those gilded walls? Beckoning. . .

As stealthy as a panther, Silas crept toward the siren’s call. With any luck, he’d have a king’s portion to lay at Odie’s feet on his return. His lovely wife would be most proud.

He angled across the courtyard to the backside of the house and came to the first window. Squinting in disbelief, he watched the curtains gently swaying. With a sense of destiny, he raised the sash higher and peered inside. Cocking his head, his trained ears strained for the slightest noise.
Nothing.

Smiling, he swung his lithe body over the sash and soundlessly touched the floor. When his eyes adjusted to the meager light, he gasped.

Trinkets and charms of every description lined the top of the polished dresser. On one side a solid brass bell, a fine kerosene lantern on the other. In the center, a delicate silver tray held an infant’s brush and comb along with matching vessels of various shapes and sizes. Fanciful falderal, his for the taking.

He placed the lantern near the window to snatch up as he slipped out. But first. . .

Stuffing a crocheted doily into the mouth of the bell to silence the clapper, he opened his sack to add it and the silver pieces to his collection. Rubbing his hands together, he took inventory of the dusky room to see what might be next.

A glint of reflected moonlight caught his eye from across the room. He tiptoed toward it, amazed that the shimmer seemed suspended in midair. Closer inspection revealed an item displayed on a glass-topped table.

A chill shot up his spine. Had he stumbled across Aladdin’s magic cave?

The curious low-slung lamp had a long spout and ornate handle—fashioned of gold, if he knew his business. Breathless, he hefted it to test the weight and smiled.

Worth a fortune!

Rustling in the corner spun Silas toward the sound. More startled by what he saw than what he heard, he crept close for a better look. Heart racing, he parted the mosquito net draped around the crib and gazed at the unforeseen windfall.

A baby sat up in bed, propped by legs so fat they creased in impossible places. A white nightdress tucked under one side of its bum made it difficult for the little mite to stay upright. Struggling to keep its balance, the child stared at him with round, questioning eyes.

Laying aside the lamp, Silas’s hands inched forward, stopping when sudden creases feathered the delicate brow and the rosebud mouth puckered to cry.
Odie’s words flew at him like darts from the shadowed corners. “Promise me! Swear on your life you won’t steal a babe and leave its mother with empty arms—not even for me.”

He straightened and patted the pudgy leg. “S’alright, snippet. Don’t aim to hurt you none.”

With practiced hands, he eased the child down on the mattress, tucking the cover into the folds of its chubby neck. The delicate threads of the blanket were so fine, they snagged on the tips of his calloused fingers. “There you are, little one,” he cooed. “All snug in your bed.”

The baby blinked up with wary eyes.

Silas chuckled. “Don’t fret, now. Go on to sleep. Tomorrow’s another day.”

He carefully swept up the nearby bounty and bundled it into a spare knapsack. Satisfied, he nodded. “Your husband’s a man of his word, Odell McRae. What I take from this room will leave no empty arms behind.”

Crossing to the door, he cast one last glance at the sleeping baby in the cradle and nodded. “That’s right, good wife. A man of his word.”

One

Fayetteville, North Carolina, December 1871

Dawsey gasped and ducked behind the broad trunk of a live oak, her lovely mood snuffed like a hearth doused with dishwater.

Aunt Lavinia had charged onto the columned porch and stood peering down the tree-lined street, shading her eyes with both hands. “It’s no good, child,” she shrilled. “I’ve seen you.”

So much for pride in a timely escape.

Dawsey hid her bundle behind her back and searched her mind for a fitting Psalm.

“Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him.”

Whispering a prayer for strength, she stepped out onto the path. “Morning, Aunt Livvy.”

Scowling, her old aunt scurried to meet her. “Dawsey Elizabeth Wilkes! Were you hiding from me?”

No sense denying. It would be a lie. Dawsey swallowed hard and ’fessed up. “Forgive me, dear. Not hiding from you, really, more from what you’re about to say.”

“Then I’ll have it over and done. Did you keep your appointment with the dressmaker?”

Dawsey hung her head. “Not exactly.”

Aunt Livvy caught her chin and raised it. “Kindly explain.”

“I reached the door this time, Auntie. Touched the knob before a basket on display in the general store caught my eye.” She pulled the package from behind her, attempting a winsome smile. “Sweet potatoes. For the Christmas meal. Once I saw them, I forgot everything else. Father adores them sugared, and you know how he loves my holiday bread.”

With her head cocked back, Aunt Livvy groaned and sought the heavens. “What is this fixation with the kitchen? Winney’s a perfectly capable cook, dear.”

“Yes, but I—”

“Young lady, I’ve tried to be patient, but sweet potato bread is hardly more important than your coming out party.”

This time Dawsey groaned. Inwardly, of course. “I respect your opinion, Auntie, but in this case, I can’t agree.” She softened her tone. “Father seems to love my special dishes, and I’m eager to offer him every comfort.”

Aunt Livvy drew a breath, her lips moving as she counted on the exhale. She made it to number five before frowning and stamping her foot. “Your stubbornness in this matter is outright indecent. Your refusal to cooperate has positioned this family soundly beyond the pale. This is Fayetteville, North Carolina, Dawsey! General Sherman burned our buildings to the ground, not our spirits. You must conform or be blacklisted.” She tilted her head. “Don’t you wish to marry well?”

Dawsey took her arm and started for the house. She dared not voice the thoughts swirling in her head. The truth was, after surviving the ravages of war, few citizens of the Old South concerned themselves with coming out parties. Marrying well seemed the last thing on their minds, especially Dawsey’s. Only the elders held fast to fading traditions. Sadly, no matter how stubbornly they clung, the old ways bore the stench of death and begged a decent burial.

Sadder still, stubbornness oozed from every pore of her well-meaning aunt. Lavinia believed Dawsey’s standing as the only daughter of a wealthy planter would suffer crisis should she stay her meddling hand.

Despite Aunt Livvy’s zeal, more pressing matters consumed Dawsey’s heart. Her father’s depression had worsened, if such a thing was possible. Curiously, her aunt seemed too busy to notice her only brother losing his mind.

When they reached the front porch, Dawsey found the courage to answer. “To be honest, Auntie, marriage hasn’t entered my mind. I’d be perfectly happy to stay in this house forever, cooking for Father and tending his needs. Is he in his room?”

As always, when Dawsey mentioned him, her aunt grew flustered. She sputtered and waved behind her. “In the den, I think.”

“Is he alert today?”

Aunt Livvy promptly changed the subject. “Take those silly tubers to the root cellar or they won’t be edible by Christmas. Then freshen up and meet me right here.” She poked Dawsey’s shoulder with her finger. “Don’t keep me waiting. I only hope the seamstress will work us in after you’ve missed two appointments in a row.”

As she spoke, the gangly boy who tended the grounds ambled up the walkway behind them. Barely out of knee pants, the lad made a vague impression of grimy overalls, tattered coat, tousled red hair, and a willful cowlick.

Aunt Livvy wiggled her fingers in his direction. “Yes, you’re late. Don’t waste my time apologizing. Get out back and weed the roses. We’ll address your habitual tardiness when it’s time to settle up.”

Without a word or a missed step, the poor boy—Tiller, if Dawsey remembered his name correctly—lowered his head and crossed the lawn in a sulk.

When he disappeared, Aunt Livvy spun on her heels and entered the foyer still muttering under her breath.

Dawsey followed her inside. Dawdling at the coat rack, she waited until her aunt reached the top landing then placed her bundle on the hall table and crossed to her father’s den. Sweet potatoes and dressmakers could wait.

Dreading what awaited her on the other side, Dawsey held her breath and pushed open the door. She strained to see her father in the dimly lit room, but the horrid smell reached her first. A mixed odor of stale cigars, musty wool, spoiled food, and unwashed body assailed her nostrils. Suppressing a retch, she briefly wished to step outside and slam the door against the foul smell and her heartrending pain.

Father coughed, the sound a damp rattle, and concern propelled her inside.

“What’s this I hear? Are you ill?”

He jerked as if he’d been dozing then lifted shaggy brows, his gaze bleary. He grunted but didn’t speak.

Dawsey felt his brow. Clammy, but blessedly cool.

Smoke saturated the oppressive air, providing an excuse for her watery eyes. The real reasons for her tears—dried egg on his tattered sweater, three days’ growth of whiskers, and his vacant stare—she’d never allow him to know.

She lifted the pitcher and poured a shallow bowl of water. Dipping a rag, she wiped the sleep from his eyes and a spot of drool from his bristled chin. He didn’t shrink from the cold cloth.

Squatting, she sought his face. “Are you hungry? It’s nearly noon.”

Eyes straight ahead, he responded with a cough.

“If you keep that up, I’ll have to call the doctor.”

This earned her a twitch in his cheek.

Laying aside the cloth, Dawsey sat next to her father, wondering how much deeper he could sink before losing his way back, how much farther he could slip before she lost him forever.

The dark paneling and deep mahogany furnishings, meant to create a rich, impressive space, thrust the dismal room into shadow. A swirling beam of sunlight, the only bright spot in the room, pierced the gloom like a beacon of hope. Dawsey gazed at it; grateful for any hope she was offered.

She closed her eyes and leaned against his chair, longing for something she’d never known. Whatever force pulled her father into darkness by degrees had been tugging him away her whole life. There were stories about the brilliant man Colonel Gerrard Wilkes had once been, and Dawsey loved to hear them. She’d caught glimpses of that man in her early years but had never known him whole.

The door behind her opened with a flourish, drawing a rush of cold air from under the sash. Her aunt hovered on the threshold as if she couldn’t bear to step inside. “I might’ve known.”

Dawsey hustled to her feet. “I was just coming.”

“Don’t tell lies, dear. I know you forgot.” She held up the package. “About these potatoes, as well.”

“I’m sorry, Auntie.”

Aunt Livvy glanced at her brother and a grimace twisted her face. “I’ll have Levi draw him a bath. Finish up here and meet me out front by the carriage.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The door closed as briskly as it had opened.

Approaching the window, Dawsey shook her head and pushed down the familiar wave of sadness. She raised the sash higher, reached for the peculiar golden lamp on the sill, and came face to freckled-face with the boy, Tiller, kneeling in the flowerbed. Their eyes locked briefly, before Dawsey snatched the lamp inside and lowered the pane.

She knew her efforts were wasted. The next time she entered the den, the window would be open, the lamp outside on the ledge. The pointless ritual had gone on for years.

Crossing the room, she placed the gaudy bauble in its proper place on the glass-topped table, resisting the urge to rub it and summon the genie on her father’s behalf.

It would take a grander wish than a genie could grant to help her understand what was happening to her father. . .and a God-sized miracle to save him.
Fortunately, Dawsey believed in God-sized miracles.

Casting a hopeful peek over her shoulder, she slipped into the hall and closed the door.

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