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Chapter 1: “Lasting Impressions”
July 3, 1864
“Steal his clothes. Quick, afore he turns an’ sees us.”
“Why me? This was your idea.” Mae Parrish surrendered her cramped hiding place behind a tangle of smooth sumac, exasperated but disinclined to waste more time arguing. Coralie Dawson was her roommate and closest friend, plainly contestable honors in moments like this, but she knuckled under for the sake of simple expediency. She had better places to be. “Let’s get this over with,” she grimly decided.
“I can’t wait to see the look on his face! Hurry, while the coast is still clear.”
Mae took two steps toward the strange character standing midstream in Vickery’s Creek and froze. “It isn’t his face I’d be worrying about.” Her eyes sprang wide with discovery. Creighton Branagan stood immersed to his waist, his concentration intent on some unidentified movement beneath the water. The protuberances of his spine gleamed like pale eggshells as he leaned forward, an empty jar in one hand, the other braced upon his thigh, and all while wearing nothing more than a disreputable pair of drawers.
She spun around and hissed in a scandalized voice, “Are you seein’ this? The man’s underwear is all but fallin’ off! I can even see the crack in his rear.”
“Lemme see!” A racket of snapping twigs and merciless fern-tromping ensued, followed up by a short burst of enchanted laughter as Coralie arrived alongside her. “Side tapes look broken,” she cheerfully diagnosed. “As I live an’ breathe, that there is one white bottom. With a bit of luck, another step out into that current an’ those drawers’ll be down ’round his ankles.”
Mae didn’t want to laugh; it was never good to encourage Coralie when she was in one of her moods, but a snicker escaped anyway. “God’s sake, Coralie,” she disapproved, hoping to compensate for the slip.
But Coralie wasn’t deterred. “I wonder if he’s exter endowed in places, like maybe the Lord made up for his unfortunate affliction by givin’ particular attention elsewhere, if you git my meanin’?” She twirled a fold of her homespun skirt in lewd contemplation. “I’d maybe like to take a peek at that.”
“I wouldn’t, so bite your tongue,” Mae advised, a wary eye affixed to the spectacle that was Creighton Branagan. She regretted her hand in this, but he would do well to accept a certain amount of responsibility for his odd reputation. He was friendless and reclusive and purely strange. Case in point, only an eccentric would squander his single day off from the mill in so laughable a fashion, but she supposed his indulgences were stranger than most, him being a deaf-mute.
She finally made a quick grab for his garments—tossed on the embankment with a negligence that attested to fraying seams and thinning cotton fibers—but Coralie unexpectedly elbowed her aside and seized the bundle for herself.
“Make up your mind, will you?” she complained.
“Well, I seed you were in the clouds again. Reckon I’d be dead an’ buried afore you got ’round to doin’ your part,” Coralie predicted. She scrambled up a nearby tree with the merry ease of a primitive. “You’re more absentminded than usual today.”
“And you’re a bossy cow. Give me his shirt.” Mae caught the denim pullover midair. “By the by, you’re gonna break your silly neck,” she dispassionately predicted.
“Stop bein’ sich a wet blanket.” Grinning, Coralie lodged Creighton’s boot in the crotch of two pawpaw branches and tossed down the matching pair. “Here, take his other one. Put it somewheres high where he’ll have to work for it.”
“So I can fall and land on my head, dead as a doornail? I’ll find my own hidin’ place, thank you very much.” Disregarding Coralie’s smirk, Mae caught the boot and summarily jammed it down inside the nearest convenient bush. “Now hide his trousers so we can leave. I’m past due in meetin’ Wade at the bridge.”
“For the life of me, I don’t know what you see in that country boy. Wade ain’t even a real soldier.” Coralie moodily bounded away, Creighton’s trousers sailing festively above her head like a child’s kite. “Let’s see what this here country boy makes of seein’ me with his britches. Yoo-hoo, lookee what I got!” she happily caroled, skipping up and down the creek bank. “Finders, keepers!”
“Are you off your head, Coralie? Stop that!” Mae ran after her. “He’s gonna see you!”
“Well, that’s the ideer, goody-two-shoes.”
While their extensive conversation had gone by unnoticed, the indiscriminate display of leaping and running easily drew Creighton’s eye. He surmised the situation in a single glance. Face reddening, he sloshed madly through the water, apparently so intent on reclaiming his purloined goods that he neglected to hitch up his sagging waistband.
It immediately slid due south.
“Sakes alive, I was right! Seein’ is believin’,” Coralie declared. “God surely knows how to be fair an’ square!”
Another slip of reckless laughter confounded Mae. Unlike Coralie, she had no interest in scrutinizing Creighton Branagan’s endowments, extra or otherwise; she expeditiously turned her back and allowed an adequate interim for adjustments. She spun back around a moment later, her amusement quickly vanishing. It clearly wasn’t going well for her roommate, her bosom friend, the so-called mastermind of this nefarious plot. Creighton sprinted toward Coralie with murder in his eyes, and there was a marked absence of the shuffling or floundering one might expect from a man hindered by ill-fitting drawers.
Scores of unsavory rumors had followed Creighton Branagan to Roswell and chose that moment to reassert themselves. Choice among them was his penchant for murdering pretty women. For the first time in Mae Parrish’s life, she experienced immense gratitude for her humdrum looks.
Not that Coralie seemed to have the good sense to recognize her peril. “Lookee here, stupid! I found yer ugly pair of sit-down-upons,” she merrily jeered. Though poorly educated and possessing a rather cruel streak, Coralie’s blooming complexion and tumble of hair the exact shade of sunflower petals made her one of the more eye-catching women in Roswell. “Ain’t ya gonna try an’ git ’em back, stupid?” She sent Mae a look of exasperation. “Didje ever see sich a dumb critter as the likes o’ this one, Mae?” She glanced back at Creighton, impatient. “Hey, dummy. I’m a-talkin’ to ya.”
“Stop it, Coralie! There’s no call for that sort of meanness,” she criticized, uneasy with the spitefulness on display. “Anyways, your white trash talk is comin’ out thick,” she further dissuaded. “You know how that white trash slang starts comin’ out when you get too riled up.”
A slip of surprised laughter escaped her. “Yer right. But it ain’t like he can heer—hear me,” she corrected nonetheless. Ignoring the rest of Mae’s counsel, she laughed delightedly and whipped the object of contention in happy figure eights above her head. “Hurry, stupid, an’ catch me if you can, or your britches go swimmin’ in the crick!”
Mae deciphered the volatile expression that blazed across Creighton Branagan’s face in a mere instant, so why didn’t Coralie? They had undeniably grabbed a tiger by the tail. The water barely came to his knees at present, and soon enough he’d be within easy reach of her friend. He would spring and snatch her by the throat, but she didn’t have the good sense to notice the threat, too intent was she on twirling and hopping and laughing like a ninny.
She briefly considered not meddling and instead leaving Coralie to her just desserts, but it was a short-lived consideration. Sighing, she skimmed the ground for rocks and quickly settled on a round specimen roughly the size of a walnut.
“Sorry that my friend is such an idiot,” she quietly apologized, taking careful aim at Creighton’s arm, “but she’s the best one I got. I can’t let you kill her.”
The rock bounced off Creighton’s shoulder. He made a painful grab at the abused limb, his head whipping around to locate the source of this most recent affront. He was just able to level Mae with an accusatory glare before losing what remained of his balance. Rock, jar, and man hit the water in rapid succession, the sequence capped off by some bloodthirsty screeching thing demanding vengeance from the nearby woods.
Both women locked gazes. Each had forgotten about Creighton’s orphaned nephew and his tendency to be found poised within a twenty-foot radius of his uncle.
“No need to look so grum. I doubt that little goober even saw us.” Cheeks pink
with laughter and excitement, Coralie launched the doomed pants out into the current and praised, “You done took the wind right outta his sails with that there rock! You’re a rare bird, Mae. Nearly split my sides laughin’ when I saw you hit ’im.”
Feeling querulous, she opened her mouth to reply, but a volley of blubbering and macabre speculations poured forth from the trees, stopping her.
“Was it a swift, Uncle Creighton? Did a Yankee shoot you?” A small boy scampered around an elderberry tree, appearing equally fretful and morbidly curious as to what he might find. “I’ll save you!” he valiantly cried, glimpsing his floundering relative and hurdling into the creek with what approached enthusiasm, if not skill.
“There was no call for that, Coralie,” she criticized anew.
“Well, I’m pert soured on your high-falutin attitude, so we’re both of an opinion.”
Most of Coralie’s amusement had waned and now she simply looked bored. It always astounded Mae how quickly she could lose interest in something that had previously been tended with such single-minded malicious devotion.
“I ain’t in any mood to quarrel,” Coralie suddenly announced, turning lively again. “Let’s go. We’re already late meetin’ Lonnie an’ Wade at the bridge, like you done said.”
Mae wasn’t exactly riddled with shame, but she did feel a twinge of pity that prevented her from immediately surrendering her position. Coralie felt no similar compunction and plowed through the tightly woven branches of smooth sumac. The saw-toothed leaves snapped back into place and stilled, underscoring the fact that she was now alone.
Creighton Branagan and his nephew were thoroughly saturated but otherwise in no danger of drowning as they carefully picked their way toward the embankment, and it was only when she became the recipient of his approaching rabid visage that her sudden scruples fled, to be replaced by self-preservation.
“Wait for me!” she demanded, tension leaking from her in the form of a nervous chortle. She whirled and followed Coralie’s path through the compact shrubs. Skittish laughter changed into a screech as she heard the unmistakable sounds of pursuit, but she was too terrified to glance behind her. “Help! I think he’s followin’ me!”
“Dang, that’s skeery! Best not let ’im catch you.” Coralie’s voice sounded far away and suspiciously devoid of sympathy as she sunnily reminded, “Else he’ll murder you like he done poor Sadie Levine.”
Mae thought it would be fairly easy to outrun Creighton Branagan. Her newfound desire to throttle her reputed bosom friend, paired with her lack of enthusiasm in getting slaughtered by the village madman chasing her should have been ample motivation indeed, hence it was all the more baffling that one second she was running swiftly along the narrow brink, and the next found her sprawled face-first in a pool of gelatinous mud.
A wail of despair rose up the back of her throat that had little to do with her bitten lip and more to do with her abused Sunday best, which had been patched too numerous times to count and was nearly three years old thanks to the blockade. Mae was often overly preoccupied with material things, frequently to her detriment, and this time was certainly no exception. Muddy stains and crushed lace inhabited her thoughts when she should have been contemplating escape.
In the following instant, escape was moot and fashion woes were rudely ejected from her brain by a pair of sturdy hands that seized her from above and roughly set her to rights. The fall had dislodged her spoon bonnet somewhat, hampering her field of vision, and so the only thing to announce her accoster’s identity was a pair of droopy underwear. As expected, this was enough to launch a string of threats and petitions.
“Wade Remold is practically my fiancé! It’s true. Hurt me and he’ll bring the entire Roswell Battalion to your front door. Believe you me, that’s a piece of trouble you don’t want!” Her throat emitted a cowardly yelp as she was seized about the waist. “Please, PLEASE don’t kill me! I don’t get along well with pain—”
Mae lost her footing and staggered back a step as Creighton succeeded in wrenching something away from her. Her panic gave way to feelings of absurdity when she glanced down and realized he’d only retrieved his shirt. Apparently it had been in her possession all this time, though she had no memory of running away with it.
“Is that why you chased me?”
She didn’t expect an answer, naturally, but lifted an interested brow all the same. A blob of black mud, perched jauntily on that very same brow, was immediately dislodged and began an indecorous migration down her cheek. Creighton’s attention snapped to her face. She stood frozen as he tracked its relocation, the corners of his mouth deviously tucking inward.
“You tried to kill my uncle!”
Mae swiped the muck away in time to see Owen Scott rush forward, a blur of retribution that ruthlessly kicked her in the leg.
A hand steadied Mae beneath the elbow; if not shock would have deposited her in yet another undignified heap. Too many upsets in so short a time, and now she was hearing a deaf-mute speak?
“Lady? She ain’t no lady! I seed her hit you with that there rock!” The boy’s furious stare reintroduced itself to Mae’s dripping profile. “I thought you was a dad-blamed Yankee, sure enough. Laws, you’re just as lily-livered as one,” he boldly topped off.
“AhwanScwott! Ahgennelmahn nahvahstwaks ah laydee, nah madder whhatdah cuhcumstances! Yew whah taugh buhter.”
She shoved off her bonnet until it dangled by its apple green chin ribbons and watched the exchange through wide eyes. Each additional word increased their circumference. She couldn’t understand any of Creighton’s horribly muffled speech, yet if the way Owen effortlessly shouted back was any indication, the nasally consonants and vowels were indeed coherent sentences, or at least to him they were.
“You’re able to talk? Since when?”
Owen fixed a mutinous stare on his uncle and shook his head.
“Sorry, lady—sorry I didn’t break your cussed leg, that is! I seed you throw that there rock. Time to ’fess up an’ acknowledge the corn, as my mama used to say.”
“You didn’t see me do anything. Children who amuse themselves with wild tales and spread falsehoods get stolen from their beds at night by monsters,” she insinuated, but in the perkiest tone imaginable and with a smile on her face. The uncle’s suspicious stare and his struggle to read her lips as she exchanged menacing comments with his nephew was becoming increasingly difficult to throw off.
“Liar! Grown-ups ain’t s’posed to lie.”
“And children aren’t supposed to talk back to their betters, trifling little brat.”
Owen’s small foot repeated a speedy visit to Mae’s shinbone. From the corner of her eye, she noticed Creighton put together a feeble swipe to save her, but he only succeeded in unburdening her cuff of its lace. With a dying screech, she tumbled over backward in the creek, her hoops flipping high in the air and revealing the starched white pantalets beneath.
“Pervert!” Mae was quick to slap the wired monstrosity down. “I saw you peekin’ at my limbs, Creighton Branagan!” Her outrage, based merely on speculation at that point, became founded in reality when she glimpsed him trotting along the soggy embankment after his nephew, the state of her person obviously the last thing on his mind. “Come back here!” she demanded, feeling as if something in her brain was about to rupture. “This is no laughin’ matter, mister. You can’t leave me stranded like this—dang it, I’m wearin’ hoops!”
Mae’s voice drifted away when it became apparent that he could abandon her and in fact had. She released a miserable wisp of air to convey her dissatisfaction of the situation in particular and life in general.
Copyright © 2016-2018 Marti Ziegler