Chapter 3 of the serial novel "Burning Kansas" that is currently running in my community newspaper "The Deadline." Miss a chapter? Don't worry, just click the Burning Kansas or Serial Novel label and you'll be taken to a list of all chapters.
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Burning Kansas – Chapter 3
“Mrs. Cassett, may I ask you a question?”
“The answer is after Osceola and please, call me Caroline.”
His expression asked the question.
“You were going to ask me about Mr. Cassett. He's dead. He ran off with a bunch of damn fool Jayhawkers to join up with that butcher Lane and burn the town. You know what things were like after that. Michael got himself killed on a border patrol one night when some Bushwhacker shot him out of his saddle. Emma and I buried him on Christmas Eve of ‘61. By New Year's we got our first visit from some, shall I say, border ruffians. I can’t believe it has been almost two years. Most days it feels more like ten.”
The fire in her blue-green eyes belied the tired slump of her shoulders. Blaylock knew exactly what she was talking about. He'd been part of that miserable rout in Osceola and helped defend the escape of as many women and children as he could. More than one night’s sleep had been interrupted by dreams of the county courthouse coming apart under cannon fire.
That could have been me in my saddle just as easy as her husband.
“Caroline,” her name felt strange on his lips, “I'm sorry for your loss.”
“Don't be,” she said with a snap. Before he could react, she stirred the fire and refilled their mugs.
“Bushwhacker, Jayhawker, Partisan Ranger, free state, slave state, I'm tired of all of it. I just wanted to raise my daughter while we earned an honest living. I'm given too much of my heart and blood to this fool fight. Michael was insufferable after the Nebraska Act came down. He spent more time in town banging on tables than he did around here. Michael is a hero in these parts. Funny though, not one of his admirers has put a hand to the plow he left rusting in the field.”
The bitterness in her voice didn't surprise Blaylock. He'd heard variations on it from many abandoned wives, widows, and grieving parents the last couple of years.
“So, you're here alone.”
Caroline's gaze swept to the counter where she'd left the shotgun.
Damn it. That's not what I meant.
Before he could say anything, she retreated to a closed door, never taking her eyes off of Blaylock. Lifting the latch, she gave a low whistle. The answering growl turned the coffee to cold lead in his belly.
“Caroline, Mrs. Cassett, let me explain,” he said raising his hands.
The dog's head came to her waist. As she walked back to the table, the animal stayed by her side in perfect lockstep and sat as soon as she flicked her hand palm-down.
“Mr. Blaylock, you can explain yourself. But know that King had better like your answers.”
The silence in the room hung heavy and was broken only by the dog’s panting. Creighton Blaylock kept his hands in the air even though a dull ache was creeping into his shoulders.
“Caroline. By all that I hold dear, I meant no disrespect to you. I’ll admit, I’m exactly what you think I am, but since this cursed war began, I have never hurt a woman or a child, nor have I tolerated anyone who did. In fact, there’s a hole or two occupied by those who thought crossing me on that subject was a good idea. It wasn’t.”
She didn’t say anything, but a subtle hand gesture coupled with a click of her tongue and the dog ambled over to a blanket by the fire. Caroline tossed half a biscuit that King caught in mid-air and swallowed in one gulp.
“King doesn’t care much for Bushwhackers. The last batch that came through killed his brother Rex. Keep that in mind as you lower your hands and finish your coffee.”
Blaylock took the hint and kept his movements slow and deliberate. His coffee was cold, but he finished it gratefully.
“Have you eaten?” Caroline’s voice had taken on its former friendly, yet reserved, tone.
“You don’t need to bother with that, Ma’am.”
“That wasn’t the question I asked you.” She punctuated her words by clanging a skillet on the stovetop. King growled from his corner.
This woman makes John Brown look like a schoolgirl. Think before you speak.
“My apologies, Caroline. No, I haven’t eaten since I took out this morning after Jacob.”
“I don’t have much, but would be honored to share it with you. Why don’t you see to your horse? There’s not a lot left of the barn, but it’s functional. Pump is on the south corner and there’s feed in the bin inside the door. I need to think a bit on where Emma and Jacob might have gotten off to.”
Blaylock had an itch between his shoulders as he walked down the stairs and across the yard. That would be the spot where she’d put the shotgun blast if he hadn’t convinced her to trust him. Blaylock didn’t relax until he reached his horse. It wasn’t that he was out of range, he was sure she was quite a shot. He just had a feeling that a practical woman like her wouldn’t shoot so close to a horse with no reason.
“Come on, Zeus. Let’s get you out of the line of fire in case that hellcat changes her mind.”
As he led his horse toward a half-burned, tumbledown structure that only slightly resembled a barn, Blaylock looked over the homestead with a practical eye. The paint on the house was faded and peeled, but the porch was straight and true. Weeds choked the yard in direct contrast to the spotless garden still heavy with summer vegetables. He smiled when he got to the barn and pushed the door open on quiet well-oiled hinges. It looked rickety on the outside, but was well-reinforced with sturdy latches, bars and defensive loopholes.
And the doors open inward, so visitors can’t pry off the hinges. Is this your hidey-hole, Caroline? It seems this whole farm is playing possum and hiding in plain sight.
A soft whinny interrupted his musing. Inside the dim barn, there were three immaculate stalls. A brown mare occupied the third. Zeus pricked his ears and fidgeted.
“Calm down, we don’t need your head turned by a pretty face. One of us is enough.”
After settling his horse, Blaylock carried his saddle to the tack stand. A well-worn western saddle sat next to a side-saddle that still gleamed with polish and varnish.
Probably another gift from her mother, Caroline doesn’t seem like the dainty type.
He washed his hands and face in the trough and grabbed an armload of wood from the purposely haphazard wood pile. The smell of ham and biscuits reached his nose before he hit the stairs. Despite the gravity of the situation, he had to smile.
A beautiful woman is cooking me dinner. A beautiful woman who likely wants to kill me. All the better.
Blaylock reached for the latch, but pulled his hand back and knocked.
“It’s open.” He could hear a touch of laughter in her voice.
The door dragged on hinges nowhere near the quality of those in the barn. King didn’t even look up from the bone he was gnawing on.
“I thought you could use some wood.”
Well said, Sir Creighton. All that Shakespeare Ma made you read is sure coming in handy.
Her smile dazzled him. Pointing to the empty wood box, she said, “I thank you more than you could know. That has to be one of my least favorite chores.”
Blaylock felt hot blood rush to his cheeks at her compliment. After dumping the wood, he turned to the table. In the short time he’d been gone, she’d set it with a red-checked cloth and simple sturdy china. Real glasses, delicate footed things that matched the fancy pitcher, sat by each plate.
“Mr. Blaylock, help yourself to some lemonade. The biscuits will be out shortly.”
“Please, call me Creighton.”
“As you wish, Creighton,” she said as she put two bowls of vegetables on the table.
He sat down, both charmed and embarrassed by the homey table. Blaylock had joined the movement five years ago, right after the incident at Marais de Cygne and meals like this had been a rarity since then. Caroline put a platter of ham and scrambled eggs on the table and sat down without another word.
“Creighton, you haven’t poured. Don’t you like lemonade?”
“I like it fine Caroline, but a man like me is more used to tin cups and canteens.”
Her laughter sounded like bells as she filled the glasses. “I thought it was the least I could do after drawing down on you. I was thinking while you were in the barn and have some ideas on the kids. We might as well be friends because I do believe we are going to be spending some time together. Please, eat. It has been a long time since I’ve had a real chance to cook. Emma eats like a bird.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years, it’s how to follow an order. Could you pass those preserves?”
To be continued . . .