The flash and almost simultaneous thunderclap jolted me from my Saturday nap. The lights flickered and thankfully went back to full brightness. It was always this way in spring in Kansas – thunderstorms that threatened the power grid if we were lucky, a tornado if we weren't.
It was time I got up anyway, although I couldn't do anything outside. Maybe I should look over the household expenses, I thought. When I sat down at my desk, another flash of lightening shattered the dismal afternoon sky.
The checkbook was already out, right in front of the old tintype photo of my great grandparents. I had to smile. I was here because of a thunderstorm. Grandma told me so, later in her life when she wasn't quite so careful about what she said to me. She's gone now, but I still remember her telling me the story like it was only yesterday...
The storm had been brewing all that May day, the tall, billowing thunderheads turning an ominous black as they rolled in angry waves across the sky. By noon, the seething black mass was split by a lightening bolt, then by another. The thunder that followed was still a ways off, but on the horizon Daniel could see the dark gray line that marked the front of rain coming his way. He started looking for a place to weather out the storm.
Daniel was alone because he wanted it that way. The last four years of his life had been filled with people. Most of those people had been men. Most of them were now dead. Mannassas, Seven Pines, Antietem, Fredricksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and then the siege at Petersburg, all had claimed the lives of men he'd once called friends. Now they were faces that visited his dreams. Sometimes, they screamed, or maybe that was him. He was never really sure.
It had been a righteous quest, or so they told him, and his side had won, or so they told him. But, how could there be a winner when so many lay in the ground far from home? Did the mothers and wives who lost sons and husbands consider themselves winners? In the end, he decided, the winners were the ones who stayed safely at home and sold supplies to both armies, and the politicians who were now planning how to turn the outcome of the war into personal profit.
On the day he was mustered out, Daniel decided he'd had enough of war, people, and everything else, and started walking west. There was no plan running through his mind except to put as much distance as possible between him and the acrid smoke of gunpowder and the stink of dirty men.
Winter found him in St. Louis living and working in a livery stable. He scrimped on everything, saved his money, and by spring had enough for two horses and supplies. On the first of April, Daniel started for the Kansas territory. There weren't many people there, he'd heard, but there was land to farm and game to hunt. For a while, he followed the wagon ruts left by settlers on their way to Oregon, but there were too many other people going the same way and they asked too many questions. He began riding parallel to the trail, but a mile or so away.
Another bolt of lightening shattered the sky, close enough this time that he caught the smell of it on the wind. If he didn't find some place soon, he was in for a wet night.
The wide, shallow stream had been swollen almost to a river by the spring rains, but he found a place to cross with the horses. In the trees that lined the opposite bank, Daniel found his shelter. The massive oak lay, fallen, on a small rise and two large limbs almost parallel to the ground formed a natural support for the canvas tarpaulin he carried on his packhorse. Satisfied his bedroll probably wouldn't get wet when it rained, Daniel draped the tarpaulin over one of the limbs and staked it securely at the bottom, leaving a flap he could tie shut. After moving his perishables inside, Daniel hobbled Duke and Bill so they could graze, then chopped some of the deadwood from the oak and built a small fire in front of the open flap. A trip to the river filled his coffee pot and canvas water bucket.
He started the coffee first, then cut two thick slices from the side of bacon in his pack and dropped them in the cast iron frying pan. While the bacon slowly fried, he mixed a handful of corn meal, a little salt and water together and dropped the batter in the skillet. His meal was done about the same time the first raindrops fell, so he moved inside.
The storm came on quickly and fiercely, but didn't last long. The flashes of lightening threw flickering light through the opening to the shelter, and the crashing thunder that followed seemed to shake the very ground on which he sat. Nature could be frightening, he thought, but he'd been through worse and still come out alive. Daniel sipped the last of his coffee and then stretched out on his bedroll for some sleep.
He woke sometime later thinking he'd heard a cry, then decided it must have been just another of the dreams that haunted him at night. He stepped outside to relieve himself before going back to sleep.
The storm had passed, but the lightening in the distance still cast occasional flickers of light on the river and trees. Daniel listened for a few minutes and heard nothing except the water drops falling from the trees and the crickets that always sang after a rain. He'd started back to the shelter and his bedroll when he heard the voice.
It was more of a loud moan than anything else, and it took him a while to find the source in the dark. Finally, during one of the infrequent flashes of distant lightening, he spotted a boy floating near the riverbank about ten feet down river from his camp. As Daniel made his way through the thick willows that lined the bank, the boy slipped away, floated about ten more feet, then stopped. Another lightening flash showed Daniel the hand desperately holding to the brush on the riverbank.
The river was deeper here than where he'd crossed, and Daniel was up to his waist in the strong, swirling current when he reached the boy. He grabbed the first thing he could reach, the boy's hair, made sure his face wasn't in the water, and started back up river. Twice, he slipped on the muddy bottom and almost lost them both.
As soon as Daniel stepped out of the water, he began to shake from the cold. The nights were still chilly, and his teeth were chattering. He could only imagine how the boy he'd just pulled from the water must feel, that is if he was still alive. Daniel felt the boy's wrist for a pulse and finally found it, slow and not very strong, but it was there. They both needed heat and dry clothes and they needed them now.
Daniel pulled the boy into his shelter, covered him with a blanket from his bedroll, then went outside with dry tinder and his flint and steel. Although shivering from the cold, in a few minutes he had a small flame flickering through the thin splits of oak he'd kept in the shelter. He laid larger sticks over these, and when they caught fire, put two small logs on either side. Now for some dry clothes.
Daniel stripped to the skin and let the growing warmth of the fire bring life back into his chilled limbs, then went to the shelter for his spare set of clothes. After dressing and adding more sticks to the fire, Daniel went to help the boy.
The boy was still alive, but unconscious and convulsing with shivers. Daniel raised him to a sitting position, sat down behind him and pulled the loose homespun shirt over his head. He was laying the boy back down when the fire flared and cast a faint light through the flap of the shelter.
Daniel drew back. This was no boy, not unless boys in Kansas Territory grew breasts. Another shuddering convulsion shook the body lying on the blanket. She was freezing too. He'd have to apologize later.
He pulled off her shoes, then untied the rope that served as her belt, and pulled the pants off her body. Daniel had no way to dry her, so he wrapped her in the blanket as tight as he could. Her pants and shirt joined his on the frame of branches he placed beside his fire.
Hot coffee would help revive her, so Daniel filled the coffeepot again. The coffee was almost ready when he heard the moan from inside the shelter.
Her face was warm to his touch. That was a good sign at least. She moaned again. In the flickering light of the fire, Daniel saw her eyes open. She looked up at him questioningly and then her eyes took on the look of a terrified animal.
"Don't worry, Miss. You're safe and sound now. Had to pull you out of the river a bit ago, but you'll be all right as soon as you warm up some. I'll go get you some coffee to help with that."
He was filling her cup when she shrieked. Daniel rushed back to the shelter, spilling the scalding liquid on his hand in the process. He swore under his breath, then entered the shelter.
"My clothes, where are my clothes?"
"Outside, drying by the fire."
"Who took them off?"
"I did. I thought you were a boy at first, but after I ... well, it was either that or you'd've caught pneumonia from the chill."
The look of terror was still in her eyes. Daniel reached behind his bedroll for his Winchester and laid it beside the girl.
"Miss, I'll just stay outside until morning and I'll leave you my rifle if that'll make you feel safer, but you needn't worry about me. As soon as I can get you someplace with other people, I'll be on my way, and nobody but you and me'll ever know this happened. Now, I'll just leave you this coffee and take my bedroll and you can stay in here by yourself."
Daniel sipped his coffee and watched the yellow-orange flames of the fire die down to glowing red coals. It had been a long time since he'd thought about a woman. In St. Louis, there had been women, but the only ones interested in a stable hand were only interested in that stable hand's money. Before that, before the war, he'd known women, girls like this one really, but he could never have gone back to them. They'd known the happy farm boy of nineteen he was when he left. They'd never understand the hardened man who'd been forged in the fires of the battlefield. Daniel tossed the dregs of his coffee into the fire, stretched out on the bedroll and tried to sleep.
Melody felt itchy wrapped in the wool blanket, and she felt confused too. She was indignant that any man would be so bold as to take off her clothes even if it was to save her life. Mother had told her about men's ways and warned her that to let a man see her body before her wedding night would brand her as a harlot. So now, was she a harlot?
The man didn't appear to pay any attention to what he'd seen and she wondered about that too. Why was this man different? That he was different she had no doubt. He seemed so distant and cold. Be that as it may, he was still a man. Mother had explained what men like about a woman's body and what they like to do with a woman. This one had just given her his rifle so she could keep him away.
Maybe he didn't like what he saw, and that's why he was leaving her alone. She'd had no other women to talk with since Mother passed on, and she didn't remember ever seeing her mother naked. Maybe something was wrong with her that she didn't even know about. Then she realized she was exhausted and just making up things to worry about. Melody fell asleep wondering if he'd be the same gentleman tomorrow as he appeared to be tonight.
Daniel woke to chirping birds and blazing shafts of sunlight slashing through the treetops that forced him to squint his eyes shut again as soon as they opened. It must have been mid-morning, he thought, and cursed himself for sleeping so late. Then he saw the clothes draped over the branches by the dead fire and remembered.
Her clothes were still there and the shelter flap was still closed. Evidently she wasn't awake yet. How did you go about waking a woman you didn't even know? Daniel was pondering this question when the shelter flap opened and she poked her head out.
The girl had wrapped herself in the blanket and all Daniel could see was her face and short, matted hair. She looked at him, frowned, and asked "Would you give me my clothes?"
Daniel gathered her pants and shirt from the branches and offered them to her.
"I ... I can't take 'em or this blanket will fall off. Just throw 'em in here."
Daniel did as she asked. He heard a murmured, "Thank you", and then the flap closed again. He had the fire started when the flap opened again and she crawled out with his rifle in her hand.
Melody felt uneasy about the man; she was glad he'd left her the rifle and glad her father had taught her to use one. It gave her a little confidence in this strange situation. The man was staring at her as if trying to make up his mind about something. He didn't look mean, or like he was a crazy man, but then, she'd never seen a crazy man before either.
He looked nice, she thought, almost handsome except for the scar on his left cheek. Her father had been a handsome man, at least her mother had said so. This man looked as nice to her, but he also looked ... tired was the only word that came to mind. He looked as if he'd been worked until he could do no more, and then beaten to make him work again. It was his eyes. The man's face was kind, but his eyes looked tired.
The fear in her mind slowly changed to pity. Melody tried a little smile to see if the man would smile back, and then said, "'Mornin', Mr."
He hadn't really been interested in much of anything last night except getting her into the shelter and getting her warm, but this morning was different. Daniel looked her over in a glance, forming his opinion quickly as he'd learned to do on the battlefield. That skill had saved his life a few times then. Now, it was just for information.
The girl was smaller than he'd thought, and young, but not really a girl. He placed her at a little over twenty. Her face would probably have been pretty if her short hair hadn't been a tousled mess of mats. As for the rest of her, the pants and loose shirt, both obviously made for a man much larger than she, effectively hid everything. He wondered that any woman would wear pants instead of the dresses he was accustomed to seeing back home. Maybe Kansas Territory was that different.
Daniel didn't miss the fact that she held the rifle across her chest as if she'd used one before. Her right hand held the grip, and while her finger wasn't on the trigger, her thumb was resting on the hammer. She could cock the weapon and fire in less than a second if she'd had any practice at all.
He nodded and softly replied.
"'Mornin'. You feel all right?"
The girl laughed.
"I feel as all right as anybody that's been half drowned, I guess."
"All I got's some bacon. That all right with you?"
Daniel fixed coffee and carved more bacon off the slab in his pack. While the bacon fried, he took down the shelter and packed up everything to be ready for travel again.
He finished before the girl, then rounded up Duke and Bill. He was checking to make sure the cinch on Bill's packsaddle was tight when the girl walked up beside him.
"I put out the fire. There's one more cup of coffee left. I thought you might want it. I'll bring you the pot and the skillet. Couldn't wash the skillet, but it doesn't look much like you ever wash it either."
Daniel took the cup from the girl, and she walked back to the dead fire. That had been nice, her bringing him the coffee, and something he wasn't used to. When she came back with the pot and skillet, he took them, then asked, "What's your name, girl?"
"Melody ... Melody Wainwright." She smiled at the man. "And who are you?"
"Well, Daniel Morgan, I suppose I should thank you for saving me last night."
"Well, I just wanted to say that. I am thankful. I'd have been all the way to the Missouri by now if you hadn't pulled me out, and as dead and cold as the grass in wintertime."
Several minutes passed with no reply from Daniel.
"Daniel Morgan, you sure don't talk much, do you?"
"I suppose I just got out of the habit, and just Daniel is fine."
"People must think you're pretty strange if you don't talk."
"I don't see many people to talk to. You're the first in almost a month."
"It's the same with me. Haven't really had anybody I can talk to since Mother and Father passed. It's just been me and John and Jacob ... oh, and the pigs and chickens."
"John and Jacob ... they'd be your brothers?"
"I don't have any brothers."
"Well who are John and Jacob then?"
"They're our ... my oxen." Melody grinned. "They listen real good, but they don't hardly ever say anything back."
Melody hoped she'd made a joke, and looked at Daniel hoping for a smile. Almost. There was a slight twitch at the corners of his mouth.
Daniel wasn't talking because he was thinking. Melody was a pretty name, and the girl was a pretty girl. He liked hearing her talk, hearing the softness of her voice, seeing her eyes flash when she smiled. He cursed himself for being so stupid as to not say anything back, but he couldn't think of anything that might be interesting. Maybe they'd better be going. The sooner he got her someplace, the sooner he could be alone again.
"Melody, you couldn't have been in the river long. Where'd you come from?"
"Well, I've never been this far down-river before, but if we just go upstream, we'll find it. I was trying to pull a baby pig out of the water when I went in, and I could still see the house from where I was."
Daniel finished packing everything on Bill, then saddled Duke, slid the Winchester in the scabbard, and eased himself into the saddle. Melody took his offered hand and Daniel swung her up behind him. In a few minutes, they left the trees and started into the endless sea of prairie grass before them.
Daniel let Duke pick his way through the stalks and rustling blades at a walk. He wasn't in a hurry, never was really, but now...
She had put her arms around his waist to hold on, and the gentle rocking motion of Duke's walk forced her body into his with every step. The breasts he'd caught a glimpse of the night before brushed softly against his back, and when she moved aside to look ahead, her face touched his shoulder.
Melody tried to keep her chest away from his back, but the horse's movements made it very difficult. After a while, she just relaxed and held on. After a while longer, she realized she enjoyed her body touching his. Maybe it was just the coarse cloth brushing her nipples, maybe it was the strength she felt in his belly and back, or maybe she had turned into a harlot after all; she didn't know. What she did know was that she felt different riding behind this man whose name was Daniel Morgan, and she liked the feeling.
They both saw the soddy at the same time.
"That it up ahead?", Daniel asked.
"Yep, that's my place."
The earthen house sat beside a small creek that was swollen from the rain just as the river had been. Daniel had heard of soddies before, but this was the first he'd seen and it didn't look like much. When Melody opened the door and then went inside, he was less impressed. It was dark and smelled of moldy earth. The darkness got a little lighter when Melody lit a lamp, but the smell was still there. It was the same smell of the graves he'd help dig, and he knew he could never live in one. The room was small, and a cloth-draped opening evidently led into one that would have been even smaller.
"This is where you live? In a house made of dirt?"
"You get used to it. Besides, it's all I have. Father was going to cut trees by the river and build a cabin, but then he got sick. I have to bring up clay from the river every spring to plaster the sides again, but it's not too hard to do, and it keeps the rain off."
"Every spring? How many springs you been here by yourself?"
Melody counted on her fingers for a moment.
"Ever since Father passed ... four, I guess."
"I'm surprised you're still alive."
"Why, because I'm a girl? They didn't have no boys, so Father taught me about farming and raising stock and how to hunt. Mother taught me how to raise a garden and put up food and cook. I eat better'n you, I bet. When's the last time you had a proper meal?"
Daniel smiled shyly.
"'Bout six weeks, I reckon."
"Well, Daniel Morgan, if you'll go fetch me some water from the creek, I'll cook you one."
That night, stretched out on his bedroll in front of the fireplace, Daniel had to smile. Melody was as good as her word. She'd served him a thick slice of ham, fried potatoes and fresh-soaked leather britches beans with bacon. Melody was a good cook and he was full as a tick. He'd almost said no to the cobbler she'd conjured up from flour and dried chokecherries, but was glad he hadn't. As the fire died down, Daniel mused that if there had been no war, he'd probably be going to sleep beside a wife. That wife would make him breakfast the next morning. They'd have children. The flames that flickered in the fire soon caused his eyes to close, and he fell asleep thinking Melody would make a good wife for some man.
The scream was terrifying. Daniel turned in the water and saw William holding his arm. As he watched, a man in a tattered grey uniform leveled his rifle at William and sighted down the barrel.
It all happened so slowly. Daniel saw the hammer fall, then the cloud of smoke around the rifle barrel, and William collapsed in the water just as two more grey uniforms joined the first.
He and Joseph turned and tried to run, but in seconds, Joseph screamed. Daniel barely had time to see the front of Joseph's uniform turn red before another ball caught him on the cheek. He fell down, dropped his rifle and started swimming underwater for the shore. Even underwater, he could hear Joseph's cries for help. Another ball bored through the water beside Daniel as his lungs screamed for the breath he knew would mean death.
He was wet and shivering when the hands shook him.
"Daniel! Wake up!"
He was shaken again.
"Wake up. Please wake up!"
The mist that clouded his conscious mind made everything just outlines and color. There, in the soft red glow of the coals in the fire, was a person.
"What? Where are we? Are they gone?"
"Who? There's nobody here."
"But William ... they shot him ... and Joseph ... They're both gone."
Her voice was soft and calm and brought Daniel back to the soddy and Melody.
"Daniel, it was just a dream. You're safe, right here with me, just the two of us. Remember?"
Daniel reached for her, and Melody pulled him to her breast. With a gentle hand, she stroked his hair. Something deep inside her reached out to this stranger, pulled at her heart and made her hold him tight. Without thinking, she kissed him on the forehead.
Daniel looked up into her eyes.
"Melody, I'm sorry."
Daniel took a deep breath.
"I was in the war. Sometimes things come back to me in my sleep. I'm all right now."