A House Divided Against Itself
This story was inspired by the aired episode, The Guilt of Matt Bentell. To some extent, the story is built around the facts the episode gave us, while at the same time, the power of fiction has allowed me to create a ‘missing scene’ story to that episode. The missing scene details what happened between the time Heath suffered the blow to his head in the lumber camp, and when he returned to the ranch. This story starts where the aired episode ended – Matt and Lucinda Bentell have returned with Heath to the Barkley ranch from the Barkley logging camp.
His heart slammed against his chest as adrenaline flooded his veins. His legs twitched within their shackles, his body’s ‘fight or take flight’ mode begging him to do one or the other. His head whipped from side to side. His eyes were wide and filled with panic as he searched for a means of escape. How foolish of him. Escape? What was he going to do? Break the shackles that bound him to the wood floor, and then what? Flee through cinder block walls and race across hundreds of miles of desert? Not likely. In the first place, no one had ever broken out of Carterson. And in the second place, he was too weak and sick to survive beneath the unrelenting New Mexico sun.
He could hear the man’s footsteps now. Slow and deliberate - heavy as they came down on the boards. You never had any doubt when Bentell was approaching. And the whip. He could hear that, too. Bentell slapped the thick handle against his palm as he approached the teenager’s cell.
Heath took a ragged breath, and then another. He would not allow his terror to show. He would never give Bentell that satisfaction.
The squeak of the cell door announced the captain’s arrival. Heath looked up. The smile on Bentell’s face made Heath want to punch the man until he couldn’t smile any longer. The teenager had seen that smile so many times. Bentell always wore this same smug, self-satisfied smirk, when he was punishing a prisoner.
At fifteen-years-old, Heath was the youngest prisoner in Carterson, but one of the most mature. The life he’d led before joining the army had forced him to grow up fast. He possessed the common sense and quiet reasoning abilities of a man far beyond his years. Up until two days ago, he’d been smart throughout his stay at Carterson. He’d done what he was told, done it well, and made certain not to draw attention to himself. Early on in his captivity Heath had learned those things were the key to survival. But then he’d made the mistake of helping a prisoner to his feet. The man had fainted after being made to stand at attention for six hours beneath the broiling sun. Heath didn’t regret what he’d done. His mother had taught him that you never turn your back on someone who needs help. It was a simple lesson, but one Heath carried with him no matter how far he traveled from home.
Heath had been in this four-foot by four-foot windowless cell since he’d helped Sergeant Raymonds stand. He knew they’d killed the sergeant already. He’d heard the man’s screams echo on and on the night before, then suddenly heard them stop. Sometime shortly after dawn, Heath had heard a body being dragged past his cell. That would stand to reason if Raymonds had died. Bentell wouldn’t try to hide the man’s demise. His corpse would be strung up in the prison yard for all the Yanks to see when they were brought out for roll call.
Sweat trickled down Heath’s face and chest. He wasn’t certain how much of it was due to the stifling cell he’d been kept in for the past forty-eight hours, versus how much of it was due to fear. He’d guess right now a good dose of it was due to fear. A fear he vowed not to let Matt Bentell see.
“Well, boy,” Bentell said, as he unbolted the thick wooden door and swung it open, “it doesn’t look like you’ve gone anywhere, huh?”
Heath turned away.
“Oh, I see. A quiet one. Well, you quiet ones always do cause the most trouble. And make the most filth. You stink, boy! You stink like the dirty little bastard you are!”
A part of Heath knew that Bentell was simply taunting him. The phrase ‘dirty bastard’ didn’t define Heath here, the way it did when he was back home in Strawberry. Nonetheless, the words brought fury to the teenager’s soul. He fought against his chains, which only made Bentell laugh harder. He kicked Heath in the ribs with the rock hard toe of his right boot.
“Dirty bastard! Dirty Union bastard! That’s what you are! That’s what you are, you no good, stinkin’ Billy Yank! Shit in your own pants, did you? Wet yourself, did you? And don’t tell me it’s ‘cause we didn’t let you outta here to take your meals and take care of your needs, ‘cause I know better!”
Yeah, you know better, the boy thought as he was slapped across the face. You know damn good and well I haven’t been let outta here since you had Trevers put me in here. And you know I ain’t been fed, either.
Heath never knew how long the beating with Bentell’s boots lasted. Nor did he realize Bentell had unfurled the whip until the first stroke sliced the skin on his back. He didn’t scream. He wanted to, but he didn’t. Not with that first stroke, nor the second, nor the third, nor the fourth.
Later, when Heath was hunched in a bloody heap still chained to the floor, he realized maybe he should have screamed. Maybe Bentell would have stopped the whipping sooner if he had. Maybe he’d only angered Bentell more by gritting his teeth and keeping silent.
It didn’t matter now, though. It was finally over. There was nothing left of his shirt but tiny shreds of material, and Bentell was right, he did stink. His back was on fire with a pain he never thought it possible to feel. His rib cage ached with every breath, his mouth felt twice its size, and he couldn’t see out of his right eye.
The boy sagged sideways and curled into as tight of a ball as his chains would allow.
Have to be brave, his numb mind repeated the chant that had started with Bentell’s first kick to his ribs. Have to be brave. Have to be brave for Mama, God, and country. Have to be brave.
The litany didn’t stop until the pain drove the young soldier into unconsciousness. Only then, with his mind in a state of unawareness, did tears run freely down Heath’s face.
Heath Barkley didn’t scream when he shot up in bed. But then, he never did no matter how bad the dreams were. The room was black, and it took him a moment to remember where he was. It was the whinny of a horse outside in the corral that told Heath he was in his bedroom in the Barkley mansion.
Barkley mansion. So many months ago now, that phrase had been replaced by one simple, heart-felt word - home. But ever since Heath had returned from the lumber camp with Matt and Lucinda Bentell, ‘home’ had been removed from his mind in favor once again of ‘Barkley mansion.’
Yes, Heath had been fussed over when the family found out he’d been injured in the explosion set by Gil Condon. Though the fussing wasn’t necessary, because by the time Heath had arrived back on the ranch he was fine. Maybe they should have been around to fuss when Bentell dumped him in the barn at the lumber camp and left him there to recover on his own through one long, dark, damp night, when Heath alternated vomiting blood and coughing up thick black mucus caused by the smoke that had gotten into his lungs. No doctor had been summoned, though Heath had heard Bentell assure Victoria, “The boy was seen by a physician, Mrs. Barkley. The man told us no permanent damage was done. None at all. Me and Lucinda nursed him back to health. A couple of days of bed rest and Lucinda’s good cooking were all he needed.”
No one bothered to inquire of Heath if that was really what had happened. They just took Bentell’s word for it and dropped the subject. Maybe Heath should have told them differently, but then again, maybe they should have asked.
The bed rest Heath had gotten came each time he passed out in the haymow, where he’d sought refuge after the sun came up. The “good cooking” was nothing more than the beef jerky Heath dug from his saddlebags. Three days passed before the pounding in his head receded enough for him to leave the barn, bathe in the river, put on clean clothes, and join the loggers in the chow line. He had never slept in the cabin provided for the Bentells, and his presence had certainly never been welcome at their table. Which was funny, in an ironic sort of way, when Heath thought about it. After all, he was a Barkley now, and by rights the two bedroom cabin the Bentells stayed in at the lumber camp was his cabin, too. Yet Matt Bentell didn’t see it that way, and Heath had too much pride to point it out to anyone. If Heath’s family wanted to believe Matthew and Lucinda Bentell had helped him to recover, then so be it. His family hadn’t been receptive to anything else he’d had to say on this subject since Bentell had arrived, so what was the point in going through the same old arguments all over again? Victoria had made it clear that Heath had one choice and one choice only. Learn to love thine enemy. In theory, that might be the best course of action - if your enemy hadn’t taken a bullwhip to your back, that is.
Heath wiped the sweat from his forehead with a hand that trembled so hard he finally had to thrust it beneath his thigh to get the tremors to stop. For so long now, the dreams had been a thing of the past, but with the arrival of Matt Bentell, they’d been resurrected.
It’ll be better when he leaves. He’ll be goin’ back to the lumber camp in a few days. When he’s gone, it’ll be better. So much better.
Heavy footsteps sounded in the hall. Heath’s heart picked up its pace again when the person stopped in front of his door. He squinted, straining to see into the darkness. The door didn’t open, but then it didn’t need to for him to hear what was coming from the other side. That laugh. That laugh that made his stomach tie itself in knots. Soft laughter. The kind meant for no one else’s ears but his.
The cowboy jumped out of bed and flew to the door. He yanked it open, only to find the hallway dark and barren. He looked to his right, and saw the door to the guest room was closed.
Heath stared in that direction a long minute, and then shut his own door. He leaned against it, and when his legs could no longer support his weight, sagged to the floor. His shaking hands raked through his sweat-soaked hair until it was standing up in wild spikes.
What’s happening to me? Why am I suddenly reliving Carterson eleven years after the war has ended? Why?
No answers came to the troubled man throughout that long night. But then, in the month since the old dreams had started again, none ever had.
The Barkleys and the Bentells gathered at the breakfast table the next morning. Victoria took note of Heath’s vacant chair and frowned. This was the fourth day in a row he’d left the house before anyone else was stirring. The empty chair wasn’t lost on Matt either.
“Heath’s already gone again, I take it. I haven’t seen much of him since we arrived back here.”
Nick glanced at his mother and caught the look of displeasure in her eyes. For Heath’s sake, he quickly covered for his brother.
“Heath lives by Ben Franklin’s creed of early to bed and early to rise. He’s up and out before the sun on most mornings.”
Matt nodded as he buttered his toast. “He’s a hard worker. I noticed that when we were up at the camp.”
“Yes, he is,” Jarrod acknowledged. “A hard worker who can’t stand to waste a minute of daylight. Which explains his vacant seat at our table this morning, I’m sure.”
Victoria smiled at her sons. She was grateful for the diplomatic way they were handling Heath’s absence.
Jarrod changed the subject.
“Matt, I’d like you to come into town with me this morning. I can show you the maps we’ve had drawn of that timber stand in Oregon we’re hoping to buy. If the deal goes through as planned, Barkley Timber will have enough work to keep you busy for another two years.”
“I’d be happy to go with you, Jarrod. You won’t see me turning my nose up at the guarantee of another two years of employment.”
Victoria took the platter of sausages Nick handed her. She put two on her plate, then passed the platter to her daughter. “And while you men discuss business, Audra and I will take Lucinda on a picnic beside the Diamond River.”
“That sounds wonderful, Mrs. Barkley. A picnic is just what I need before I begin packing our things for the return trip to the lumber camp.”
“We’re going to miss you,” Audra said. “It’s been a pleasure having you here.”
“Thank you, dear.” Lucinda smiled and patted Audra’s hand. “That’s sweet of you to say. It’s not...well, it’s not often that Matt and I are made to feel as welcome as we have been in your home. We truly appreciate your kindness.”
From the head of the table, Victoria watched as her family and their guests enjoyed the bountiful breakfast Silas had prepared. She had no doubts they were doing the right thing by extending employment to Matt Bentell. It was past time for people to put the war behind them. It was time for the United States to truly be one nation again. The Barkleys had always led by example. Ever since Tom and Victoria had come to the valley, they’d been leaders, rather than followers, no matter how unpopular some of the choices they made were. Victoria wasn’t about to change that now. Not for anyone. Not even for Heath.
When breakfast was finished, everyone rose and scattered in various directions. Audra went to the kitchen to begin packing the picnic lunch, while Lucinda went upstairs to change into a more casual dress. Nick headed outside to begin his working day. Matt followed Nick as far as the front veranda, where he lit his pipe while waiting for Jarrod to gather his briefcase and hat. Victoria stopped her oldest son as he stepped out of the study. She kept her voice low while making a request.
“Please talk to Heath after dinner tonight. Tell him I expect to see him at the breakfast table each morning until Matt and Lucinda leave. There’s nothing that needs to be done with such urgency that he has to be gone from the house before the rest of us are up. I doubt he means to be rude, but considering the circumstances, I’m sure our guests are confused by his absence.”
Jarrod smiled. “As are you, dear lady?”
Victoria shrugged. “I’m not sure. I thought Heath had come to terms with Matt Bentell, and Carterson Prison, during the three weeks he was up at the lumber camp.”
“I think he did. He certainly didn’t come back yelling and threatening to kill Bentell, which was a marked difference from how he left here. As a matter of fact, I’ve found Heath to be a perfect host ever since his return.”
“He has been. But I do want him at the table in the mornings. We’re a family that is entertaining guests. If I allow Heath to skip out of that duty, then Nick will be disappearing, too.”
Jarrod chuckled while giving his mother a kiss on the cheek.
“You know your boys too well, Mrs. Barkley.” The lawyer put his hat on his head and turned for the door. “And don’t worry, I’ll talk to Heath tonight. Matt and Lucinda will be gone in a couple of days. I’m sure Heath will see fit to sit through breakfast until they leave. Especially since the request is coming from you.”
Jarrod winked at his mother before walking out the door. “For you, Mother, and you alone, Heath will do anything.”
Victoria didn’t know why Jarrod’s words bothered her whenever she thought of them the rest of that day, but for some reason, they did. After all, she should be proud to discover that her stepson thought so highly of her, and proud to discover that his devotion for her ran that deep.
But not at the expense of his own needs, Victoria thought as she watched Audra and Lucinda spread a checkered cloth on the ground beside the river at lunchtime. Heath should never do anything for me at the expense of his own needs or desires.
Victoria didn’t know why those thoughts came to her, or what they meant. Several weeks later she would figure it out, but by then it would be too late.
The man stood at the window, looking out over the grounds of the Justice Department. The cherry trees were in full bloom. The delicate white blossoms brought the nation’s capital alive after a long, cold winter, just like they did each spring. The beauty he used to absorb from this event had gone unnoticed for many years now. Ever since the death of his only son, the joy life had once brought him no longer existed. There was a part of the man that readily acknowledged this was destroying his marriage, and had irrevocably altered his relationship with his five daughters. Though they weren’t foolish enough to speak of it in his presence, the man knew his wife and girls couldn’t understand why he was still allowing himself to wallow in grief so many years after Avery’s death.
“Death,” the man muttered, as he placed an open palm on the windowpane. “Murder is more like it.”
The man stood at the window until a group of boys came into view. He watched them walk this route each day on their way home from school. There was one boy of about twelve years old, with wavy dark hair and an exuberant air to him that reminded the man of his long deceased child. He was always drawn to this window at this time of day, simply to catch a glimpse of the boy. He had no idea why he put himself through the agony. He could only stand to watch the boy for mere seconds, before being forced to turn away.
Today was no different than any other day. He saw the boy jump and twirl in mid-air, then land on his feet and begin walking backwards. All the while his hands waved as though he was conducting an orchestra, and a grin lit his face while he regaled his school chums with some tall tale or another. The man squeezed his eyes shut to keep his tears from falling.
“Oh, Avery, why? Will I ever know why?”
When the man had composed himself, he turned to face the center of his office. The American flag hung in one corner, while oak bookshelves filled with volumes of legal texts and reference materials lined the east and west walls. The south wall, directly behind him, held a row of windows. The north wall contained the door, and his framed diploma from Harvard Law School.
The man ran a hand through the unruly chestnut-hued hair that was just beginning to be flecked with gray. He would turn fifty years old in three months. He supposed he should feel blessed because of the boyish features that made people think he was ten years younger. But he wasn’t ten years younger, and often felt old, and weary, and tired of the world and the aggravations she brought, in a way he’d once imagined a man of seventy might feel. But then that’s what Avery’s death had done to him. It had made him old and weary. He hadn’t even gotten a body back to bury. He’d been told there was nothing left to send home.
The man crossed in front of his desk. He glanced down at his gold nameplate with the deeply etched engraving.
A. Garrett Reece, Attorney General.
“Yes, that’s me,” he said to the empty office. “A. Garrett Reece. Avery Garrett Reece, Senior. Though I don’t suppose one is a senior any longer, when the son who was named for him is dead.”
A knock on the door caused Garrett to turn. His hand went to his throat. He quickly looped the string tie that had been hanging limp at his collar into a neat bow. He grabbed his black suit jacket off the back of his chair and shouldered into it while calling, “Come in!”
John Laramie entered the room. He was the opposite of his boss in so many ways. Garrett was six foot one, his body as lean and hard as a steel mill worker’s. John was five foot seven and twenty pounds overweight. He was thirty-one years old, with honey blond hair and hazel eyes. Garrett’s eyes were deep brown, and seemed to be able to look right through a person until he found the secrets contained within the deepest parts of his or her soul. That’s probably what had made him such a good lawyer in the days when he was in private practice. John had no doubt it was part of what made Garrett Reece one of the best attorney generals the United States had ever possessed. Garrett was a deep thinker who took his time and gathered all the facts before forming an opinion. At the same time, he could tell if someone was lying to him just by looking at their face and listening to their tone of voice.
The one thing John had in common with Garrett, was his family. John, too, had five daughters, and one son, a three-year-old boy named Robert. He never talked to Garrett about Robbie. He’d learned long ago that the subject of sons was just too painful for Garrett to discuss.
Garrett relaxed when he saw who his visitor was. He took off his suit coat and tossed it over the back of his chair.
“Shut the door, John. Then have a seat.”
John did as requested. He sat in one of the two chairs positioned across from Garrett’s desk. The attorney general rested one hip on the corner of the massive oak structure. John wasn’t surprised when Garrett’s hand rose to undo his tie, then the first button on his shirt.
“We’re starting a new investigation tomorrow morning.”
“I’ve got two tickets for the train. We leave at eight a.m. Tell your wife you might be gone for an extended period of time.”
“But, Garrett, we’re right in the middle of the Hornsby investigation.”
“I’ve turned that over to Sinclair and Cates.”
“But you never turn one of your personal investigations over to someone else. Especially not two people as green as George and Adam.”
“Don’t worry about them. I spent the better part of today briefing them, and Mark Donner. Mark will oversee their work. I have no concerns.”
“Exactly what is this new investigation all about? And exactly where is it we’re going that brings with it the need for me to tell Maggie I’m going to be gone for an ‘extended period of time’ as you phrased it?”
“We’re going to California.”
“Yes, California. And the investigation involves a man by the name of Bentell. Matthew Reynolds Bentell.”
“Matt Bentell? Garrett, you know as well as I do that Bentell was cleared of all charges ten years ago. Exactly who authorized this investigation?”
“I authorized it. I am, after all, the attorney general.”
“I realize that, but...” John paused, knowing any argument he offered would do no good. He switched tactics. “If you find Bentell, what are going to do with him?”
“Bring him to trial.”
“He was already put on trial, Garrett.”
“Yes. But not a trial that meant anything. Not a trial with witnesses who gave testimony to the type of treatment they received at Bentell’s hands.” Garrett stood and began pacing the room. “I’ve never been able to discern why that is. There had to be people in our government who were protecting Bentell. People who didn’t want to see him hang for what he’d done - for how he ran that prison camp. Maybe even people who owed him favors for some reason.”
John nodded as he turned in his chair so he could face his boss. “I suppose it’s possible. Though I don’t understand why. After all, he was a traitor in a loose sense of the word. A Northern military officer who chose to fight with the South, before being put in charge of Carterson.”
“His wife was a Southerner,” Garrett said. “Born and raised in Mississippi. I’ve always assumed that had something to do with Bentell’s allegiance to the South. I’ve heard his wife is unstable. Supposedly always has been.”
“And that would cause a man to side with the Confederates?”
“It could. Love does strange things to people, John. But regardless of Bentell’s reasons for joining the Southern cause, the fact that over three thousand men died at Carterson in twelve months time still remains. The fact that not one of the men who survived the ordeal was brought forward as a witness at Bentell’s so-called trial remains. I plan to rectify that situation, and rectify it soon.”
“Have you talked to the president about this?”
“I have an appointment with him later this evening.”
“What will he say?”
“Don’t you worry about what he’ll say. I’ll handle Sam Grant. You just go home and pack.”
“Garrett, I’ve worked for you for a long time now, and in that time we’ve grown to be friends. Therefore, I hope you understand what I’m about to ask you comes as a direct result of that friendship.”
“You’re right, John. We’re friends. So you may ask me what you will.”
“If we launch the investigation you describe, can you remain neutral throughout it? Can you...well, can you forget that Avery died at Carterson Prison?”
Garrett shoved his hands in his pants pockets. He let out a heavy sigh and crossed to the windows. He looked down at the cherry trees a long moment, before finally answering his assistant.
“No, John, I can’t forget. No matter how long I live, I’ll never forget Avery lost his life while under Matt Bentell’s rule.” Garrett turned to face his chief assistant. “And there must be other men out there who can’t forget either. I intend to find them, and find Bentell. And then, Johnny boy, only then, will we have the trial that should have taken place a decade ago.”
John left his boss’s office a few minutes later. He didn’t like the look in Garrett’s eyes, but there was little he could do about it.
With luck, the president will put an end to this before Garrett takes it any farther. Regardless of the final outcome, no good is bound to come of this. No good at all.
Lucinda sat on the window seat in the Barkley guestroom she and Matt had been given use of. It had been a glorious afternoon for a picnic. The sun was bright, but not too hot. The Diamond River had sparkled for her visitors just like her name implied. The beauty around her had fascinated Lucinda, and she was envious, too, that one family owned all of this land. This is how it might have been for herself and Matt had the war not come along. Her family had been wealthy at one time, too. She was an only child, adored and shamelessly spoiled by her parents. Matt would have inherited her father’s plantation had those damned Yankees not burned it to the ground.
But thanks to the war, that’s not how things would ever be. The most Matt could hope for was to always be another man’s employee. Another man’s nigger. Thanks to the Barkleys, at least a home and a job were a guarantee for some months to come. Even if the home was nothing more than a two-bedroom cabin in the middle of a lumber camp.
Lucinda reached up and took the pins out of her hair. She knew dinner wouldn’t be served for two hours yet, and that she should be napping like Mrs. Barkley had suggested. But she didn’t feel like taking a nap. She felt...restless. Untamed. Unsettled. Wild. Yes, she felt wild. That wild feeling was coming over her like it often had since she’d reached her mid-teens.
The woman laughed as she slipped out of her dress. She tossed it across the room, not caring that it landed in a heap on the floor.
“Heaven’s to Betsy, what made me put on that dumpy frock? I’m not an old maid. I’m young and free!”
Lucinda stripped until she was wearing nothing but her corset. She untied the strings, allowing her breasts to flow from their confinement.
“A girl shouldn’t have to bind herself so. It’s not right to keep such treasures hidden.”
The woman shook her head until her blond hair fell to her waist. She ran her hands through it, fluffing it until it was a wild mane. She twirled round and round in a circle with her arms spread wide. She stopped to gyrate her hips and flaunt her breasts as though she had an audience.
“Men love long hair. Oh they do, they do, they do. They love to run their hands through it. They love to see it cascading down a woman’s back in the soft glow of a lamplight, while she slowly undresses for them. I’ve undressed for a lot of men, ‘cause that’s just the kind of gal I am.”
Lucinda laughed at her rhyme. She repeated it over and over as she twirled until she was too dizzy to continue. She collapsed on the window seat, laughing and breathless and panting. Her panting increased when she caught sight of the blond cowboy working a horse in the corral.
“Oh, I love him. I’ve loved him for a long time. Ever since he was a boy. I wanted him so bad. So very, very, bad. But Matt said no. He said leave the boys alone. All the boys. Matt was just jealous. He doesn’t understand that a woman needs more than one man to keep her happy. I had that other boy. I liked him a lot. But I wanted this one, too. His friend.” Lucinda’s eyes danced with delight as she watched Heath’s every move. “Yes, I wanted this one. I almost had him one time. Maybe...just maybe, he can still be mine.”
When Matt Bentell entered the room thirty minutes later, his wife was still sitting on the window seat half naked, while watching Heath Barkley’s every move. She smiled as he quickly shut the door.
“What’s the matter, Matty, you afraid someone might see me in the all-together?”
“Cinda, get dressed for dinner.”
The woman stood and slinked over to her husband. Her southern drawl was even deeper and stronger than usual. “Oh, Matt, it excites me so when you talk to me like that. Like I’m a naughty, naughty, girl and you’re my daddy.”
“I’m not your daddy, Cinda, I’m your husband. And I’m telling you to get dressed for dinner.”
Lucinda reached for Matt’s belt. “You may not be my daddy, sugar, but I ain’t your Cinda either. I’m Clarice. You know me, baby. Clarice. And you know I won’t be a good girl until you give me what I want.”
“Cinda...Clarice, please. We’re expected downstairs in the parlor in an hour.”
Lucinda ran her hands over Matt’s chest as she unfastened the buttons on his shirt. “That gives us plenty of time for what I have in mind, sweet Matt. Plenty of time.”
Matt knew there was no use to protest. Especially not here, in the Barkley house. That would only cause a scene he didn’t want to explain. He tried not to flinch as his wife unfastened his trousers and slipped them down his legs. Her hands left not one spot untouched while she divested him of his clothing. When he was naked, he allowed her to lead him to the bed. She made love to him like a whore would make love to one of her clients. When she’d gotten everything from him he could physically give, she laughed, flipped him sideways, and slapped his rear end. She returned him to his back, straddled his hips, and gave him one last open-mouthed kiss.
“Oh, Matty,” she pouted when she finally came up for air, “I wish you liked it better. I wish you liked it as much as I do.” With that, the woman rolled off her husband and onto the mattress, promptly falling asleep.
Matt sat up and swung his legs over the bed. He buried his head in his hands until he had no choice but to wash up and dress for dinner.
A Negro butler led Garrett to President Grant’s private quarters. The sun had set an hour earlier. The White House glowed both inside and out with more gaslights than Garrett could count.
The president stood at a sideboard in the parlor with his back to the double doors. When the butler had taken just one step into the room, he stopped and announced, “The attorney general requests an audience with you, Mr. President.”
A smile was already lighting President Grant’s face when he turned around. He crossed the room with hand extended.
“Garrett! It’s a pleasure to see you. Quite a pleasure.”
The butler exited, shutting the doors behind him without either man taking more than slight notice. But then that’s what the White House staff was paid to do, come and go quietly and discreetly.
Garrett shook his friend’s hand. Anyone who hadn’t known Sam Grant as long as Garrett had, might not detect the weakness in his grip, or the slight tremor of his limbs, or the recent weight loss that made his face look drawn and pale beneath his mustache and full beard. Garrett Reece was also one of the few people who knew the president’s given name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, as opposed to being Ulysses Simpson Grant, like many thought, or Ulysses Samuel Grant, like others thought. It was Ulysses Grant himself, who let the misconceptions stand amongst the press, and the American people. When a West Point clerk had mistakenly registered Cadet Grant as Ulysses S. Grant in May of 1839, young Grant didn’t correct him. The S didn’t stand for anything as far as Grant was concerned, though it was true that his mother’s maiden name was Simpson. The fact that the president’s closest friends called him, Sam, was a long standing joke that went back to his days at West Point, when Grant had enjoyed allowing the confusion over his name to reign.
Sam patted Garrett on the back, and then led him toward the sideboard. “May I offer you a drink? Whiskey? Brandy? Or how about a glass of French champagne given to me by the ambassador himself.”
“I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
Sam threw his head back and laughed. “Whatever I’m having? Garrett, I’m having a lady’s drink called apricot nectar. Or I believe that’s what my wife refers to it as. It’s thick as molasses, sweet as a child’s penny candy, and makes me gag when I’m tossing it back, but such is my life recently.”
Now Garrett understood the signs he was seeing in Sam. At first he thought it was the heavy weight of the presidency taking its toll on him, but now he knew it was the familiar demon Sam had fought on and off since he was barely twenty years old. Alcohol.
“Apricot nectar is fine.”
Without turning his head from the bottles and glasses on the sideboard, Sam’s eyes slid to his friend. “You’re a better man than I am, Garrett. Always have been. Always will be. My best aid during the war years. The trusted advisor who was always at my side. Your opinion meant more to me than anyone others combined. You got our asses out of hot water more times than I can count. Your strategies won the war as much as mine did, yet you never got the credit, nor would take it when I tried to give it to you.”
Garrett took the glass of thick orange liquid Sam handed him. He followed the president to the two chairs that sat at an angle in front of the fireplace. He watched Sam sink into his favorite chair. Garrett seated himself in the remaining chair. When Sam took a cigar out of his pocket and lit it, Garrett did the same with his pipe.
“I was never interested in public recognition,” Garrett said, as he kicked off his shoes, wiggled his toes a long moment, and then settled his stocking feet on the ottoman in front of him. “Look at where public recognition got you.”
Sam laughed again. “Yes, look at where it got me. Right here in this miserable White House.” Sam sobered. “I thank the Lord my term is coming to an end, Garrett. I truly do. At this time next year, I’ll be traveling around the world.”
“Around the world?”
“I promised Julia the trip of a lifetime when I leave office. What the hell, we’ve got the money, so why not bring a little pleasure to the wife who has stood by me through thick and thin.”
“I’m sure that will make Julia happy.”
“Judging by the amount of gowns she’s already having made, I’ll agree with you there. And what about you? How are Madeline and the girls?”
“The girls are fine,” Garrett said, as he took two puffs on his pipe and then blew out the smoke. “Four are married with families of their own now. Only my youngest, Jane, still lives at home. This is her last year at Miss Hillbridge’s Academy. If I’m not mistaken, she has her eye on a young man she’s known since she was a little girl. About the time you set sail for your trip, I imagine I’ll be walking her down the aisle.”
Sam waited his old friend out. When Garrett let the conversation end there he said, “And Madeline? You didn’t mention her. How is that beautiful wife of yours?”
For the first time all night Garrett broke eye contact.
fine. Fine. Says I work too hard, and am away from home too many hours. But what wife doesn’t say that to her
Though the president had long known the reasons behind Garrett’s marital problems, he kept his reply neutral. “Good point. After all, can a woman really ever hope to understand the man she loves?”
Garrett looked into his glass, swirling the bright orange liquid round and round. “No, Sam,” he said so quietly the president had to strain to hear his words. “No, I don’t believe a woman can really ever understand.”
The two men fell into a companionable silence. When it had lingered long enough, Sam spoke up again.
“While I’m honored that you took the time out of your busy schedule to come see an old friend, Garrett, I have a feeling there’s more to your visit than what you’ve revealed thus far.”
The attorney general tore his gaze away from the fireplace and met Sam’s eyes. “More?”
“I know that look. It’s the look you get whenever you’re determined to have your way. Whenever you’re determined to do something you know might not be met with a round of applause.”
For the first time since arriving at the White House, Garrett smiled. He raised his glass and toasted the president. “Here, here.”
Sam raised his glass, then winced as he took a long swallow. He stuck out his tongue and shook his head. “Damn crap. We never woulda’ won the war if they’d made us drink this vile concoction while we were fightin’ the Rebs.”
Garrett laughed as he wondered just how long Julia would manage to keep Sam a teetotaler. She’d attempted it in the past, many a time. Her attempts were successful for a few months, but rarely extended beyond that.
Again, silence fell over the room. Garrett finally took a deep breath and set his half full glass on the marble tabletop beside his chair.
“Sam, I want to reopen the Carterson Prison investigation. I want to bring Matt Bentell to trial again.”
The president didn’t shout, “What!” or “Have you gone daft in the head?” like Garrett half expected him to. Instead, Sam stared at his friend with quiet contemplation. If the truth were told, Grant was surprised it had taken Garrett so long to get around to making this request. He took a long swallow of nectar, grimaced again, and then asked, “What do you have to go on?”
Garrett gave a heavy sigh of relief. If nothing else, Sam was willing to listen.
“I’ll be honest with you and say, not much at this point. I do know Bentell is working for a family in California by the name of Barkley.”
Sam nodded. Though he didn’t know the Barkleys, he’d heard of them. “Wealthy people, aren’t they?”
“Yes. Very. They own a ranch that spans ten thousand acres. Not to mention orchards, vineyards, plus mining and logging operations. Bentell’s been running a new lumber operation for them.”
“Do you think they know who he is?”
“I’m assuming they do. From what little I’ve uncovered so far, he’s now using his legal name.”
“He was going by Matthew Toddman for a long period of time, but just recently returned to using Bentell.”
Sam stroked his beard. “Mmmm, that’s interesting. It makes a fella wonder why the Barkleys would hire him. They weren’t Southern sympathizers, were they?”
“No. Quite the contrary. The oldest son, Jarrod, who now practices law in both Stockton and San Francisco, served with a Union intelligence unit right here in Washington. He also saw battle and rose to the rank of captain. The second son, Nick, rose to the rank of sergeant within an infantry corps. He joined up at the age of eighteen, and was twenty when the war ended. There’s a third son, Eugene, but he was barely out of diapers when the war started.”
“Sounds to me like the Barkleys are loyal servants to their country.”
“I agree. And from what I understand, one of the most well-respected families in the state of California. I can only assume that they are trying to set a good example for their neighbors by employing Bentell.”
“That’s possible.” Sam studied his friend in the shadows of the gas lamps. “Perhaps they feel like the war ended over a decade ago, and it’s time to put the old hurts behind us.”
Garrett met Sam’s eyes without flinching. “Not all of us have had the opportunity to lay those hurts to rest, Sam.”
“Look, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say Avery’s been dead for eleven years. You’re going to say it’s time I come to terms with that. You’re going to say it’s time I move on. Well, damn it, Sam, I can’t move on! My child is dead! My only son was murdered by that poor excuse for a man Bentell!”
“You have no proof of that, Garrett. All you know is that Avery died while at Carterson Prison. You have no proof that Bentell had anything to do with his death. He could have died from disease, or an infection, or he could have been injured in battle before he was captured, or--”
Garrett’s fist slammed against the arm of his chair. “No! Don’t ask me how, but deep in my heart I know Avery’s death wasn’t caused by any of those things. Bentell wasn’t stupid. The Confederate officers knew who was who amongst the Northern troops, just like we knew who was who amongst their troops. Bentell had to know Avery was my son, and that I was your chief aid. I don’t know what he did to my boy, but I know whatever it was, Bentell did it because he was trying to get back at us, Sam. At me.”
“He doesn’t even know you, Garrett.”
“Not personally, no. But he doesn’t know you either, yet if it had been one of your sons who’d ended up in his stinking filth of a prison – if it had been Fred, or Ulysses, or Jesse - how do you think he would have fared when Bentell found out who his father was?”
The president readily admitted to himself that Garrett had a point. Still, most of this was speculation, nothing more. He watched as his friend stood and crossed to stand in front of the fireplace. It was too warm on this late spring night for any logs to be burning within. Garrett caressed the smooth maple wood of the mantel with his right hand.
“Avery ran off and joined the army when he was sixteen years old, Sam. If I would have been home, I’d have forbidden it. But I wasn’t home. I was with you. By the time Madeline got word to me, it was too late. I don’t suppose I could have changed his mind anyway. You know how boys are at that age. No longer children, but not yet men. It’s an in-between stage that I remember from personal experience as hell. Maybe even more so when you’re the son of a famous man off fighting in the only civil war this country has ever seen. I’ve always assumed Avery thought he had to prove something to me. Why, I don’t know. But deep down inside I’m sure that was the reason for his actions. That, and probably the thought of the type of adventure a war holds to a sixteen-year-old. He was three weeks short of his eighteenth birthday when he died, Sam. Still a boy. Still my boy. Someone, somewhere, has to know why Avery’s life was cut short.”
“And if you find this someone?”
Garrett turned to face his friend. “If I find him, I’ll make him testify.”
“I see. And just how will you go about finding this elusive man? If he even exists.”
“I have a list that contains the name of every man who left Carterson Prison alive. There were only ninety of them. Ninety. Even if I have to travel throughout this entire country, I’ll track all of them down.”
“I seriously doubt it, but that’s beside the point. Garrett, it’s highly probable that these men you’re talking about won’t be willing to speak of their experiences in Carterson at this late date. Most of them have no doubt moved on with their lives. Gotten married and are raising families. You know how these POW survivors can be. It’s quite likely many of them haven’t even told their wives they were in Carterson. The experience...well it affects these men in ways even the best doctors don’t understand. Mark my words, they won’t want to relive any of it.”
“I can subpoena them. Then they’ll have no choice but to tell what they know.”
“Spoken like a true lawyer. Yes, you can subpoena them, but you can’t make them talk.”
“I don’t need all of them to talk. Just one of them, Sam. Just one.”
Garrett knew when it was time to stop pleading his case. He kept quiet while Sam stood and walked over to the sideboard. This time when the president turned around his glass was filled with whiskey. He took a long drink.
“Better. Much better.” He took a second drink, then looked Garrett. “How long will this take?”
“I don’t know. Several months possibly. Maybe even longer.”
“If this takes several months, or longer, you’d damn well better come back with enough evidence to hang Matt Bentell.”
“I will. I promise.”
“Who’s working with you on this?”
Sam nodded. “Good choice. And I want you to take someone else.”
“Yes. A major still on active duty by the name of Christian Fletcher. I’ll have one of my people contact him tonight. You write down when and where you’re departing from, and leave the information with my butler. I’ll see that Chris gets it within the hour.”
“Why is it so important that I take Major Fletcher with me?”
“Because he was a POW in Andersonville. If you want to find a man who’s willing to testify against Bentell, then you need someone with you that person will trust. Someone who’s shared the same experiences. Someone who’s honest and easy to talk to. Chris Fletcher is your guy.”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word on that.”
“I guess you will.”
Garrett crossed the room and held his hand out to the president. “Sam, thank you.”
“There’s no need to thank me, old friend. But I do want a promise.”
“Don’t turn this into a witch hunt, Garrett. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on Bentell, then leave him be. Come back to Washington without him. Come back to your wife and family. Accept the fact that justice is not always served. Allow Avery to rest in peace.”
Garrett wanted to say that Avery would never rest in peace as long as Matt Bentell was a free man, but he knew he was treading on thin ice, and didn’t want to risk Sam denying him the time he’d just requested to be away from his office. So instead of voicing what he was thinking, Garrett simply nodded in reply to Sam’s words. He had a feeling the president wasn’t fooled by his acquiescence, but that mattered little at this point. Tomorrow morning, Garrett was leaving for California.
Tomorrow morning, Garrett Reece was starting the first leg of a journey that would end with Matt Bentell swinging from the end of a rope.
John Laramie sat in front of his father’s desk. Robert Townsend Laramie was one of the most powerful men in the senate. He’d come to Washington D.C. by way of Massachusetts, where he owned a factory that produced firearms. Aside from being powerful, Robert Laramie was also rich. That hadn’t been the case when John was a boy. Not that the family had been poor, or that John ever went to bed hungry, but the war had been Robert Laramie’s good luck charm. The tragic war in which six hundred and twenty thousand men had lost their lives had made Robert Townsend Laramie a wealthy man. A man whose name was well-known by the war’s end. That notoriety was what helped Robert get elected twice to the senate thus far, and would no doubt get him elected again.
John stood when his mother entered the room carrying a silver tray. His parents owned a large estate outside Boston now, but this Washington townhouse was their base. John accepted his mother’s kiss on the cheek, then watched while she did the same to his father. She gathered the empty coffee cups and cake plates from the desk.
Johnny? May I get either of you anything else before I retire for the night?”
“No, thank you, Mother.”
dear. Thank you.”
“I’ll say my goodnights then.”
John’s mother gave him a final smile as she passed him on her way out of the study door. “Kiss my grandchildren for me when you get home.”
“I will. Goodnight, Mother.”
Helen Laramie shut the study door behind her. John didn’t bother to reseat himself. He had nothing left to tell his father.
Senator Laramie leaned back in his chair. Like his son, he wasn’t a tall man, barely topping five foot eight. And like his son, too, he carried more girth around his middle than he needed. But unlike his son, Robert Laramie had thick, powerful hands that were still callused from the days he worked on his own factory floor. He hadn’t done physical labor since the second year of the war, which is what he attributed his weight gain to. But even so, he’d never lost the barrel chest and wide shoulders that came from loading wagons with steel for hours upon hours at a time.
Robert opened his right hand desk drawer and pulled out a cigar. He offered one to his son, but John shook his head no.
The senator bit off the tip, then spit it into the garbage can. He didn’t light the cigar, but rather sat chewing on it a long moment. When he finally spoke, Robert kept his words vague and quiet. Granted, the household staff had gone home right after the supper dishes were washed, and Helen had just gone to bed, but still, Robert hadn’t become a United States Senator without learning that exercising caution when you speak was of the utmost importance.
“This can’t happen, Johnny. You know that as well as I do.”
“Yes, Father, I know.”
“Matt Bentell cannot be brought to trial again. Especially not with witnesses. You know what Bentell will do if they get him in a court of law and things start to look bad for him.”
“Yes, sir, I know.”
“Can you guarantee me that Bentell won’t be brought to trail?”
“I believe it’s highly improbable, Father. After all, where is Garrett going to find any witnesses at this late date? From what I understand, most of the men that were in Carterson were nothing more than California’s rejects. Kids from mining towns, or kids who grew up on small patches of dirt their parents were trying to turn into a ranch. Most of them never even attended school.”
“Avery Reece attended school.”
“That’s true. But it was only by some fluke that he was with that unit - that he was in a sharpshooters regiment made up of the California boys.”
“So, you think we can dismiss concerns regarding these ‘California boys’ as you refer to them?
“Yes, sir, I believe we can. The likelihood that Garrett will find anyone is slim to none. And even if he does...really, Father, why would anyone from Carterson be willing to relive what he experienced there, and in front of an audience? Everyone knows the place was a hellhole above and beyond any POW camp that existed during the war. Everyone knows that Matt Bentell was a sadist, and that some of the things he did are unspoken of yet today, even by the men who were his victims.”
“Everyone may know that, son, but it takes only one man to be willing to step forth and testify. We got lucky ten years ago. I was able to manipulate the Bentell investigation to the benefit of the Laramie family. This time, I might not be able to do so.”
“Father, the Laramie luck won’t run out here, I promise. As I said, I think Garrett’s just chasing rainbows. In a month or two, this will have blown over. He might track down Bentell, but he’ll never find the one man he needs the most. The man who knew Avery.”
“What makes you so certain of that fact?”
“I’m certain, because such a man doesn’t exist. Only ninety men survived Carterson. Some of those men are bound to be dead now, too. It’s unlikely that any of those left knew Avery as more than a casual acquaintance, or knew him as more than just another casualty of Carterson.”
“I hope you’re right, son.” Robert pointed his cigar at John. “I hope to God you’re right. Because if such a man exists, you’re going to have to pay someone to kill him.”
Jarrod, Audra, Victoria, and Matt, gathered in the parlor promptly at six-thirty that evening. Matt cast a nervous glance at the stairs, as Jarrod poured him a glass of brandy.
“I hope Lucinda will be joining us soon,” Audra said to Matt, as she accepted the sherry her brother handed her. “We didn’t have her out in the sun too long, did we? I know when someone isn’t used to the outdoors, that it can be tiring.”
“No, no. She’s fine, Audra, just fine. She was...she was getting ready when I came down. You know my Cinda. Won’t be seen less than perfect in the public eye.”
Victoria smiled as she, too, accepted a glass of sherry from Jarrod. “Well now, we’re hardly the public. We hope you and Lucinda think of us as friends.”
Matt did his best to smile in return. “That we do, and we’re mighty grateful for that friendship. As for Lucinda - I imagine she’s still doing her hair. You know, pinning it up and all. I’ll just go see if she’s about ready to--”
The man held his breath when he caught his first glimpse of his wife as she began to descend the stairs. He let that breath out slowly, when Lucinda came into full view wearing a royal blue dress with a lace collar that rose to her chin, and lace cuffs that came to her wrists. No longer was her hair hanging loose and in a tangled mass, but rather it was secured in rolls on the back of head, as was her normal style.
Thank God. Thank God my Cinda’s back.
Matt walked to the bottom step and held his hand out to his wife. He smiled at her as he escorted her to the parlor. He knew she’d have no memory of the episode that had taken place in their bedroom just one hour earlier. For years now, these spells had confused and frightened him, but he could never be angry with her. Never. She was too fragile for that. And besides, somehow he knew whatever was happening when Clarice, or one of the others appeared, was not Lucinda’s fault. He’d thought of taking her to a doctor more than once, but what was he going to say? How was he going to explain that his wife seemed to harbor other personalities? How could he say that other people seemed to live inside her body? How did you go about explaining something so improbable, and difficult to understand?
No, Matt could never do that. They’d take her away from him. They’d lock her up in an institution. Maybe even bring her to trial for what she had done that one time at Carterson when he’d arrived too late to prevent a tragedy from occurring. If anyone ever found out about it, she’d hang. He had no doubt they’d call her a witch, or an instrument of the devil, and then sentence her to die.
“Ah, another lovely lady in our midst,” Jarrod smiled while toasting Lucinda with his glass. “May I offer you a sherry, Mrs. Bentell?”
Lucinda smiled in return at the charming lawyer. “That would be most appreciated, Jarrod. Thank you.”
Lucinda took a seat on the sofa between Victoria and Audra. Jarrod handed her a glass of sherry, then refilled Matt’s glass for him. The two men stood and talked about the proposed Oregon deal.
“Cinda, you should see the drawings and pictures Jarrod showed me. If this deal goes through like the Barkleys hope, we’ll be living in one of the most beautiful areas of the country.”
“And not in a log cabin either,” Jarrod promised. “You’ll be up there too long for that. We’ll build you a real house before you even head that way.”
Matt’s eyes sparkled like a child’s at Christmas. “Did you hear that, Cinda? A real house! A real house like we haven’t had since before the war.”
Lucinda shared in her husband’s joy. “I heard, Matt. And I’m just as excited as you are by the prospect.” She looked at Victoria. “Not that I mean to imply I’m ungrateful for the cabin. It’s clean, and cozy, and warm, and easy for me to take care of. But a house...” the woman’s voice trailed off there, as she thought of all the luxuries a house could bring her in this rapidly changing industrialized nation.
Victoria squeezed Lucinda’s hand. “I understand. My late husband and I lived in a four-room cabin on this ranch until Jarrod and Nick were ten and six years old. It was at that time we moved into this home. I hadn’t lived in a ‘real’ house since I’d left my parents’ home in Philadelphia twelve years earlier. I know how grateful I was for the amenities this house offered us.”
“Yes, a real house can do that,” Lucinda agreed, barely able to contain her excitement over once again living like a lady should. No more burned out plantations. No more prison camps. No more cabins.
These two people have suffered so much, Victoria thought as she glanced from one smiling Bentell face to another. They deserve a home, and a good dose of happiness to go along with it.
Victoria briefly allowed her mind to drift back to Heath’s words of a month ago. He’d shouted about food littered with maggots, water not fit to drink, beatings given to men whenever Matt Bentell decided they deserved one. As she looked at Matt now, it was hard to believe he could be the person Heath claimed. Was Heath wrong? Had Matt simply been the victim of circumstance, as much as any man during wartime is the victim of circumstance? Possibly Matt had wanted to give his prisoners good food and water, but was unable to acquire it. After all, Southern soldiers held in Union POW camps suffered from the same atrocities. War was war - awful, pointless, and heartbreaking for everyone, no matter what side he fought on. What more could be said than that?
Heath was so young. Only fifteen. Maybe if he’d been a grown man while in Carterson, his opinions would be different. Maybe he’d understand better the ramifications of war. If only he’d lived with us then. Why oh why did Leah ever let him join the army? Tom would have never allowed it. Never. I would have never allowed it. Why did Leah?
Victoria realized her thoughts toward Leah Thomson were unfair. First of all, there isn’t much a woman can do when her fourteen-year-old runs off and joins the army. Especially when she has not the money or the means to go after him. Second of all, Heath had told Victoria that part of his motivation for lying about his age and joining the army, was so he could send the monthly wage he earned home to his mother in an effort to help her make ends meet.
Any further thoughts Victoria might have had on this subject left her when two dusty cowboys walked in the front door. Hats and gun belts were put on the marble table in the foyer. Before Nick and Heath could set their sights on a before dinner drink, Victoria pointed the way upstairs.
“We’ll be eating in five minutes. Neither of you has time for a bath, but please wash the scent of horse off for our guests, and put on clean clothes.”
Nick sighed. He’d be darn happy when the Bentells left. Not that he didn’t like Matt and Lucinda, but conforming to his mother’s rules while entertaining them was growing old.
“Yes, ma’am,” Nick replied.
Heath merely nodded. No one paid any attention to the fact that he didn’t look at the Bentells. But then, he hadn’t been looking at them, or talking to them, in days now without anyone noticing.
There was no playfulness in Heath Barkley tonight. When Nick swatted him on the chest and declared, “I’ve got dibs on the bathroom!” Heath didn’t even bother to race him up the stairs. He simply turned and walked toward the kitchen. He could just as easily wash up at the sink in there, then head up the back stairs to his room, where he’d change his clothes like Victoria requested.
Jarrod smiled at his mother when he heard the bathroom door slam. Nick must have thought Heath was in hot pursuit. “Two of your boys will never completely grow up, Mrs. Barkley.”
“No, Jarrod, they won’t. And I don’t suppose I really want them too, either.”
Heath had been with the Barkleys for fifteen months now. Despite that relatively short period of time, Victoria could no longer remember when she didn’t think of him as her son.
But perhaps, if Heath really had been her child, Victoria would have realized something was troubling him when he quietly retreated to the kitchen.
If Heath had his preference, he’d be eating in the kitchen. Hell, he’d rather be eating out in the barn if given his choice. He despised being forced to take his meals with Matt Bentell, and despised even more that he was seated directly across from Bentell and his wife. At least he managed to get out of the house each morning before breakfast was served, and so far he’d been lucky at lunchtime, too. In the four days the Bentells had been here, Nick and Heath had eaten lunch out on the range twice. The other two times, like today, the Bentells had gone places with Victoria, Audra, and Jarrod, meaning Nick and Heath took their noon meal alone at the dining room table.
Jarrod filled his brothers in on the proposed Oregon lumber deal, and what Matt’s thoughts were regarding it. Nick had plenty of his own thoughts to offer. He peppered Matt with questions in-between bites of roast beef.
Heath glanced up from his plate every so often. He pretended to be interested in the discussion, just as he knew was expected of him, but he didn’t say anything. Thankfully, Nick was more than happy to dominate the conversation, as usual. And Bentell could be quite a talker, too, if prompted. He and Nick carried the full weight of the men’s conversation, with Jarrod interjecting his thoughts every now and again. The women were engrossed in their own conversation that Heath only half listened to. Something about a new house, and lots of windows with southern exposure for warmth, and a fireplace in the parlor and master bedroom to ward off the Oregon chill.
Oh, so now we’re building them a house, too. What the hell, we might as well just given ‘em my room, ‘cause if they stick around much longer I’ll go live in one of the line shacks.
Deep down, Heath knew this wasn’t true. He could just imagine what Victoria would say if he proposed such a thing.
I have to be a gentleman. The perfect Barkley host. Never mind what happened to me, or the men I served with, in Bentell’s prison. Let’s just ignore the truth, and above all, remember to act civil like all good Barkleys do. No more embarrassing the family by telling them what a POW camp is really like. Just another thing I have to keep hidden so I’m not ‘different.’ Just another thing I have to keep hidden so I fit in. Just another thing I have to keep hidden so everyone thinks of me as Tom Barkley’s son, instead of Tom Barkley’s bastard.
Heath allowed Silas to take away his almost full plate. He was grateful to the black man for not pointing out to anyone that he’d eaten only a few bites. But then, he’d been grateful to Silas in that regard ever since he’d returned home with the Bentells. Though Silas hadn’t been in the study when Heath’s initial blow-up over Matt Bentell’s presence occurred, the cowboy had no doubt the man knew. There wasn’t much that went on in the Barkley household that Silas didn’t sooner or later overhear discussed, or didn’t figure out on his own. Of everyone in the room, Silas was the one who understood how hard Matt Bentell’s visit was on Heath. Silas was the one who understood what it was like to be chained up and beaten. Silas, the Barkley servant, understood better than Heath’s own sister and brothers did. Silas understood better than the woman Heath now called mother. Silas understood, but it didn’t matter. Heath would never talk to him about it, either. He knew Victoria wouldn’t approve of Carterson being spoken of again in her house.
Heath ate no more of his dessert than he had his meal. But again, everyone was too busy talking to notice. By eight o’clock the meal had dragged on for an hour. All Heath wanted to do was troop his weary body up to his room and collapse on the bed. Sleep would be welcome, provided nightmares didn’t come along with it.
The blond cowboy made no move to excuse himself from the table, despite his desperate desire to do just that. Without being told, he knew Victoria would frown on such an action. Aside from learning about things like the use of multiple pieces of silverware, and how to dance a waltz since arriving on the Barkley ranch, Heath had also learned that the hosts and hostesses never made a move to rise from the table after a meal until the guests indicated they were ready.
Fifteen minutes later, Heath wondered if the endless chatter around him would ever cease. Finally, Matt pushed back his chair and stood.
Thank God. Now maybe I can get outta here.
Heath waited until Jarrod and Victoria stood as well. For good measure, he even allowed Nick to get to his feet. Matt offered his hand to his wife. When Lucinda smiled at her husband, Heath’s blood ran cold. Why, he didn’t know. But that smile, there was something about that smile that tied his stomach in knots and forced him to look away from her.
Once Lucinda rose, everyone walked in a cluster toward the parlor.
“How about a game of billiards, Matt?” Jarrod offered. “Ever play before?”
“It’s been a good many years, but I think I can still handle a cue stick.”
“I’m sure you can.”
Victoria steered Lucinda toward the French doors. “Let’s take a walk in my rose garden. The sun set from out there is beautiful.”
“I’d love to, Mrs. Barkley. I’ve been admiring your rose garden for days now.”
Audra exited the house with her mother and Lucinda. Heath followed the men toward the study, but turned for the stairs. Jarrod caught his brother’s movement out of the corner of his eye. He lagged behind as Nick and Matt walked into the big room that held the billiards table. When the two men were out of earshot, Jarrod said, “Coming, Heath?”
Heath stopped with one foot on the bottom stair. “No. No, I think I’ll go up to bed. I’m tired.”
“You look tired.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve had a couple of early mornings.”
“I know. And speaking of early mornings, Mother has convinced Nick there’s no need for you to be up before dawn while Matt and Lucinda are here. Nick has graciously conceded to Mother’s point of view, and has agreed that you should sleep an extra hour or two, then join us at the breakfast table at eight.”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind gettin’ up early.”
“We know you don’t,” Jarrod smiled. “But Mother wants you there, Heath. Just until the Bentells leave to go back to the lumber camp.”
Though Heath could guess the answer, he asked his question anyway. “Why?”
“Oh, you know how Mother is when it comes to acting the part of gracious hostess. She wrote the book on etiquette.”
And that’s all I’m doin’ too, Jarrod. Acting. It’s just one, big stinkin’ act for this family’s benefit, because it’s been made clear I have no other choice.
Heath’s thoughts were not broadcast through verbal means, or via facial expression. He merely gave a tight nod and said, “I understand.”
Jarrod put his arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Now, come on, let’s play a few rounds of billiards. You and Nick against Matt and me. Best two out of three. The losers buy the winners a drink. Or in this case, pours them a brandy.”
As much as Heath just wanted to go to bed, he knew that, too, wouldn’t be allowed without a fuss.
“Sure, Jarrod. Whatever you say.”
Heath shrugged out from beneath Jarrod’s arm and walked into the study.
Jarrod’s brows knit in puzzlement at the mood Heath was broadcasting that the lawyer couldn’t read. When he was unable come up with label for it, Jarrod assumed he perceived something that wasn’t there.
He’s just tired. He’s been up early every morning since he got back with the Bentells. And no doubt his ordeal at the lumber camp took a toll on him, too. Now that he knows Mother wants him at the breakfast table until Matt and Lucinda leave, he can allow himself the luxury of sleeping late. He’ll be fine once he gets a few extra hours in bed.
Silas looked on from the parlor where he was refreshing the liquor decanters. He’d heard every word of Jarrod’s exchange with Heath, and watched now as Jarrod joined the billiards players in the study.
None of them understand. Not a one. Only me and my Heath know what men like Matthew Bentell are really like. A leopard don’t change his spots, as the saying goes. No siree, a leopard don’t never change his spots.
The sleeper thrashed in his bed. Blankets and pillows lay in scattered heaps on the floor. His hands banged against the headboard, but the pain didn’t awaken him. At least not the pain that was real. The pain in his dream caused him to turn his head from side to side and give a deep, shuddering moan of despair.
Heath’s eyes popped open as his upper body flew from the mattress. For the next few seconds he knew he was in Carterson, but then slowly the terror of the dream began to lift. He leaned forward and brought his knees to his chest, hugging his trembling legs while rocking his body back and forth. He sat there, huddled, and scared, and rocking, for minutes on end. He didn’t like this. He didn’t like it one bit. Things best forgotten were coming to the surface. Memories he thought he’d buried in Carterson along with his friends who had died there, were being pushed to the forefront of his mind.
But I don’t wanna remember, do you hear me? I don’t wanna remember!
When Heath realized he was rocking back and forth like a child, he made himself stop. He moved to stand, but had to grab onto the footboard’s knob to keep from falling when his shaking legs threatened to collapse beneath him. He took four deep breaths, and then walked to his closet. By feel alone, he exchanged his muslin sleeping pants for tan jeans and a blue shirt. He dressed, then pulled on a clean pair of socks and his boots. He didn’t bother to button the shirt as he silently descended the stairs.
The blond man glanced at the Grandfather clock in the foyer as he passed. It was three-fifteen in the morning. He’d been asleep exactly five hours. Which had been about average for him since the Bentells had arrived on the Barkley ranch a month earlier. It was by far not enough for a man who put in long hours of physical labor six days week. By far not enough for a man who was used to getting nine hours of uninterrupted sleep a night.
Heath walked through the parlor without lighting any lamps. He opened the French doors and stepped out onto the back veranda. The predawn spring air was chilly, but Heath didn’t bother to return inside for a jacket. Nor did he bother to button his shirt. He sat down on the top step that faced Victoria’s rose garden, as though he was in a daze. Or still trapped within his nightmare.
The cowboy didn’t know how long he sat alone that night as his mind traveled back to a series of events he hadn’t allowed himself to think of since the day he left Carterson. The faces of friend after friend flashed before his eyes. They all seemed so young now. So very young. He’d grown from a boy to a man since his release. He was twenty-six. Older now, than any of them had been when they’d died. Older than any of them would ever be. He remembered one boy, one name, with a poignancy that forced him to fight back tears.
It was wrong. So wrong what they did. How could I have thought I’d ever forget it? How could I have just wiped it from my mind as though it didn’t happen?
Before Heath’s thoughts could travel farther, a hand reached out of the darkness and touched his shoulder. He jumped and gave a startled gasp. His heartbeat returned to normal only when he heard the familiar feminine voice.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. Did I frighten you?”
Heath looked up at his stepmother. As she moved to sit beside him, Heather turned his face back toward the rose garden so she could view no more than his profile.
“No. No, not really.”
He felt a blanket being wrapped around his shoulders. At any other time this act of motherly love would have brought a smile to his face, but not this time. This time he just wanted Victoria to leave.
“I thought I heard someone down here. Then I saw you through the open doors. You were shivering, Heath. Why didn’t you at least come in and put a jacket on?”
“Don’t know. Guess I didn’t notice.”
Victoria chuckled. “Didn’t notice? You must be lost in a world all your own not to notice you’re sitting out in the damp night air shivering at three-thirty in the morning.”
“Yeah. Suppose I must be.”
Victoria wrapped her long robe around her bare feet. “Were you having trouble sleeping?”
“No. Just used to gettin’ up early, I reckon.”
“Not quite this early.”
“No. Not on most days. But in an hour or so.”
something bothering you, son?”
“No. I’m fine.”
Victoria heaved an internal sigh. It had been a long time since she’d had to draw words out of Heath’s mouth. Granted, he wasn’t a talkative man, but she hadn’t experienced this much trouble having a conversation with him since his first few months with them. It was almost as if he was holding her at distance, like he had when he’d first arrived. Like he was afraid of her for some reason, or fearful that he wasn’t good enough to gain her approval.
Victoria waited Heath out. When he offered no more, and refused to look at her, she reached a hand up and rubbed it over the blanket that covered his back.
“Honey, are you sure you’re okay?”
“Would you rather I go back in the house? Do you want to be alone?”
Victoria was surprised when Heath said softly, and without hesitation, “Yes, Mother, I wanna be alone.”
Victoria bowed to Heath’s wishes, while hiding the little stab of hurt she felt at his words. She stood and placed a kiss on top of his head.
“I’m going back to bed. If you want to talk anytime, about anything, Heath, you know I’m always willing to listen.”
Heath’s, “I know,” didn’t seem to hold much conviction. Victoria stood over him a moment longer. When he said no more, she gave him a pat on the back and walked into the house. He heard a soft ‘click’ that indicated she’d closed the French doors.
Heath felt Victoria’s eyes on him from behind the glass doors. He didn’t allow himself to relax until he sensed she’d walked away. He went back to staring into the night until the first rays of dawn began to bring a faint glow to the sky.
It happened. I know now it really happened. It wasn’t just something made up in a dream. It really happened, and all these years I’ve gone around pretending it didn’t. Pretending so hard that I made myself forget. I promised you I’d never forget. I’m so sorry. I promised you, Avery. I promised you.
The train chugged west, keeping a steady pace as it climbed over mountains and crossed rivers wider and cleaner than any Garrett Reece had ever seen. Despite his many travels before the war, and since it ended, he’d never been farther west than Missouri.
John Laramie had gotten off of the train in Denver. From there, he would travel by whatever means were available to visit towns, cities, and ranches in four different states, and/or territories. Men who’d been held in Carterson had been traced to Colorado, Texas, the New Mexico territory, and the Arizona territory. With the help of three Pinkerton agents Garrett had hired before they left Washington, John would try his best to make contact with the former POW’s listed on the paper he carried in his suit coat pocket.
Garrett looked out the window at the California landscape. Their journey had started fourteen days earlier, but for Garrett it had really started eleven years ago when he read Avery’s name on the list of Carterson deceased. He looked across the seat at his traveling companion. At six foot three, Christian Fletcher was a tall man with finely chiseled, Nordic features. His hair was more white than blond, as were his brows and lashes. But beyond his handsome face and pale hair, what you immediately noticed about him were his eyes. Eyes so deep blue they appeared to be purple. And then Garrett supposed, you noticed his smile. A warm, friendly smile that immediately made a person feel at ease in his presence. Sam Grant had been right. If anyone could make a Carterson survivor feel comfortable, it would be Chris Fletcher. And now Garrett had the benefit of knowing that not only was Fletcher a major in the army, but he was also a doctor, and had specialized in that new area of medical science they were calling psychiatry. Not that Garrett put a lot of stock in that mumbo jumbo about the inner workings of a person’s mind, but if nothing else, he was always open to hearing about new ideas.
Chris set his newspaper aside and looked out the window as well. He fished around in the pocket of his uniform coat until he found his watch. He snapped open the lid, glanced at the time, then put the watch back.
“It’ll be dark when we get there.”
“Yes,” Garrett nodded. “But I already wired ahead and made reservations for us at a place called the Stockton House. It’s supposed to have good food, clean rooms, and warm baths. We should be booked in their two bedroom suite.”
“Tomorrow we start the day by visiting the Barkley ranch. The first thing we have to do is make sure Bentell’s still working for them. If he’s moved on, then I want to know where he’s at.”
“But you can’t arrest him.”
“No, not yet. Maybe not even for weeks yet. It depends on how many men we find to testify.”
“I hope you’re prepared not to find any. Or at least not any who are willing to speak of their experiences.”
“Now you sound like the president.”
“No. Now I sound like a man who knows the facts. Like a man who spent two years in Andersonville.”
“And just what are the facts, Major Fletcher?”
“I told you ten days ago to drop the major. Chris will do fine.”
Garrett smiled. He hadn’t dropped the major in Fletcher’s title because, at that time, he had no desire to be the man’s friend. It wasn’t that he hadn’t liked Chris immediately upon meeting him, but his mind was focused on other concerns. Concerns he didn’t want to be drawn away from. But Chris was a difficult man to hold at arm’s length, so maybe it was time the formal title went by the wayside.
“Okay, Chris it is then. Now tell me, Chris, just what are the facts I need to know regarding the Carterson survivors?”
Chris glanced discreetly at the passengers surrounding them. Three women sat across the aisle. The seats directly in front of them and behind them held two men apiece. When the major was confident no one was eavesdropping on their conversation, and that the clattering of the train’s wheels against the tracks would drown out what little anyone did attempt to overhear, he began.
“First of all, it will surprise you to learn that these traits will vary little from man to man. Regardless of how many of them you interview, you’ll discover they have no desire to talk about their experiences – and most especially not with someone who wasn’t incarcerated with them. The majority of them have never even told their closest family members the details of what they went through. They would be far too embarrassed, ashamed, and humiliated to ever discuss it with those they love.”
“Why? What do any of those men have to be embarrassed about? It should be Bentell who is ashamed, not the men he held prisoner.”
“See,” Chris’s smile was edged with sadness, “already you don’t understand. Garrett, when a man is held captive like that the first thing his tormentors do is take away his dignity and pride. They break his spirit like a cowboy out here in the west breaks a wild stallion. And when they break that spirit, they do it in ways you can’t imagine even in your worst nightmares. Sure, everyone’s heard of the beatings that went on in Carterson, the bad food and water, the unsanitary and crowded conditions. Being made to live like an animal is hell, or so you think until a guard uses you for target practice, or forces you to urinate on a friend’s corpse, or forces you to eat your own fecal matter.”
Garrett couldn’t help but blanch at Chris’s last statement.
“See, Garrett. This is exactly what I’m talking about. You can’t stand to hear what I went through, and I’m not your brother, or your cousin, or your son.”
Garrett clenched his jaw at Chris’s last word. Son. “You’re wrong. I can stand to hear about it.”
“Then you’d better not flinch, or pale, or turn away, because as soon as you do that you make me feel the humiliation and shame all over again. And every time I feel those things, I stop talking. I clam up. I assume I’m being sent a message that says, ‘The war is over now. It’s not necessary to talk about these things. Put in the past. Forget about it and get on with your life.’ But I can’t forget about it, Garrett. None of the men who were POW’s during the war, regardless of what side they fought on, can forget about it.”
“Is that why you’ve never married?”
As soon as Garrett asked the question, he regretted it. After all, what business was it of his why this handsome, virile, thirty-seven year old man was single?
A small frown tugged on the corners of Chris’s mouth, but he willingly answered Garrett’s question. “To some degree, yes, and to another, no. I became engaged the day I left for West Point. My fiancé and I were planning to be married when I graduated, but then the war broke out. When that happened, I decided it was best if we waited until the conflict ended.”
“I was mature enough to understand the risks of war. I wasn’t foolish enough to think I was going off to play some little boy’s game. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Daphne a young widow. Or even worse, a young widow with a baby to raise on her own. As much as she argued against it, I convinced her we should postpone the wedding. Fortunately, her parents agreed with me. So she waited. Through five long years, she waited. When I got out of Andersonville...well, let’s just say I was not the same young man, physically or emotionally, who had once squired his intended to every ball and party in the state of New York. Hell, Garrett, I spent a year recovering my health and physical strength. And a lot longer than that getting my mental health in order. Daphne thought we could take up where we had left off. She tried so hard to pretend the war had never happened. When I attempted to talk to her about Andersonville, about the men there, about what all of us had experienced, she’d turn away and say we shouldn’t talk about such ugliness. But how could I not talk about it? The ugliness was inside of me, and I needed her to help me get it out.”
Christian stopped there. He looked out the window, so quiet and still, that Garrett thought he was done speaking. Just when he was about to ask Chris if he was all right, the major made eye contact once again.
“She broke off our engagement shortly after that. She said I had changed. She said I was odd. Strange. Not the man she used to know. Well, that part was true. I was by far, not the man she used to know. I never could be again. I had lived through a special kind of hell that would change any man, and she made me feel at fault for that. Just like is normal for someone in her position. So again, I assumed it was best if I didn’t talk about my stay at Andersonville with anyone, because no matter who I’d tried to talk to up until that point - my parents, my sisters, my brother, a favorite uncle, they all had the same reaction. ‘Chris, put it in the past,’ they’d say. ‘Don’t talk about it. It’s best if you just forget.’”
“But you’ve dealt with it somehow,” Garrett said. “Based on what you’ve just aid, if you hadn’t dealt with it you wouldn’t be sitting here with me today.”
“You’re a very perceptive man, Garrett. And you’re right. I dealt with it. But it took a lot of years until I learned how. Then I went to college and studied psychiatry. It’s a relatively new field of medicine, as you probably know. Considered quite unorthodox by most. But it helped. It truly helped. For the first time I understood why I felt like I did. For the first time I learned how to be a part of the world around me again. And in so doing, I learned how to help other survivors.” Chris finally smiled. “And now you know why there hasn’t been another woman in my life since Daphne, or at least not one that I’ve courted with any thoughts of marriage. I’ve been too busy. Though my mother, two sisters, and Evelyn, are trying to rectify that.”
“My housekeeper. She’s been with my family since I was a boy. When I moved to Washington five years ago, she came with me. Evelyn told my mother I needed her more than she did.”
“What’d your mother say?”
“Well, as the saying goes, every man needs a good woman.”
“That’s true. And though she’s a bit on the outspoken side, Evelyn is a good woman. And an excellent cook and housekeeper.”
“Let’s redirect our conversation back to these traits you mentioned that would be common amongst all Carterson survivors. What else will I notice?”
majority of them will suffer from nightmares on and off, most likely for the
rest of their lives. They may have
periods of time when they’re short tempered and surly without understanding
why. Many of them are probably what
their family and friends consider to be loners. Men who like to go off by
themselves for days, or even weeks on end, and not be bothered by anyone
else. This might be especially true
when their tempers have flared. When
they return to their families after their time away, they will appear to be
their old selves. At least for a
as if they’ve gone off on a sabbatical?”
“That’s a good way to phrase it, Garrett. Yes. A sabbatical for a weary and broken spirit that has no one to turn to for support.”
“But what if the man I’m looking for has the support you speak of? Has a family that will stand by him through thick and thin? Will my chances of getting him to testify improve?”
“They might, but that all depends on the man...and his family. But first things first. Let’s face it, the man you’re looking for might not even exist.”
“He has to,” Garrett declared, while looking out the window as Stockton came into view. He was so sick of hearing this. First from John, then from the president, now from Christian Fletcher. “For the sake of Avery’s memory, and the memories of every other man and boy who died in Carterson, he has to.”
think you’ll find him in Stockton?”
As the men stood to disembark from the train, Garrett gave a small smile.
“No, Chris. Despite what my wife, my daughters, and President Grant think, I’m not a complete fool. I could never get that lucky.”
John Laramie sat in his Denver hotel room and scanned his list. Of the ninety Carterson survivors, thirty were dead. John had unearthed this information about four of them, the various Pinkerton agents had wired him about the rest. First thing in the morning, he’d send a wire to Garrett in Stockton so the Attorney General could update his own list.
John looked down at the pocket watch he had sitting open on the table in front of him. If nothing had delayed Garrett and Major Fletcher, they should have arrived in Stockton an hour earlier. John wondered if Garrett would actually locate Matt Bentell. Personally, John thought it was a long shot. He doubted Bentell was welcome in one place very long. By now the man had probably moved on.
Laramie sat back in his chair, his eyes roaming the paper he held in his hand. The thirty men from Carterson who were now deceased died from a variety of causes. It hadn’t surprised John to learn that twenty-four had passed away during the first six months after their release. The poor physical condition of most newly released POW’s, meant they had about a fifty-fifty chance for survival. Of the remaining six men who no longer walked the face of this earth, one died in a measles epidemic, one drowned in a flash flood, one had been stabbed in a fight over the outcome of a poker game, one had hung himself for reasons unknown to his wife, and two, brothers by the last name of Condon, had died in some sort of explosion at a logging camp.
John set his list on the table next to his watch. He yawned, then turned his chair sideways so he could stretch his legs out in front of him. So far this assignment had been without challenges. John smiled when he thought of how easy it had been to convince Garrett to allow him to get off the train in Denver, so he could start his own investigation from this point. Because of the many miles that now separated them, Garrett would never know if John was actually doing his bidding or not. After all, there was nothing to stop John from lying to Garrett and claiming he’d tracked down the men assigned to him, then claiming they’d refused to tell him their stories, and wouldn’t do so even if subpoenaed. Nor nothing stopping him from claiming he couldn’t find them at all.
The Pinkerton agents might present a bit more of a challenge, but John had already thought that through, too. If the private investigators found any of the men assigned to them, they were to wire John. From there, John was to travel to the revealed location to interview the former POW. To be on the safe side, John would indeed do the traveling. He might even conduct the interview. But if the former Carterson inmate indicated he was willing to testify against Bentell, then John would do as his father had instructed. He’d pay someone to kill said man.
For just a moment, John wondered how he could have such a casual attitude about murder. But then he remembered the scandal that would befall his family if Matt Bentell were ever inclined to testify about all that he knew. And there was no doubt Bentell would be inclined, if he feared his neck might end up in a noose. If Bentell talked, Robert Laramie’s career would be ruined. Not to mention that treason, even this many years after the war, was still punishable by death. A punishment John could face, as well.
And a punishment John Robert Laramie was determined not to.
The accommodations at the Stockton House proved to be exactly what Garrett promised his traveling companion. Their two-bedroom suite was immaculate, and included amenities that ranged from stationary, to a stocked liquor cabinet, to a box of cigars, to a private bathroom. Christian had no doubt the suite cost upwards of fifty dollars a night. Upon his first exploration of the rooms, Chris had turned to Garrett and smiled.
“I do have to say I like the government’s idea of how to provide for her weary travelers.”
“The government’s not paying for this trip,” Garrett replied as he tossed his suit jacked on the sofa. “I am.”
“That’s right. If I am able to bring Bentell to trial, I don’t want anyone to say I’ve taken advantage of my position as attorney general because Avery was my son.”
“Then the train tickets, the private detectives, the meals--”
“All paid for by me.” Garrett held up a hand, as Chris started to say something. “And don’t bother to offer me money. I won’t take it. Part of bringing Avery’s killer to justice, means funding the research that goes along with that. I’m fortunate in that I have the income that allows me to do this. Think about how many other fathers there must be who lost sons in Carterson, and would therefore like to have the opportunity to do what I’m doing. Without the money and the resources, their hands are tied. But mine aren’t. I’m doing this for them, as much as I’m doing it for myself.”
Christian watched as Garrett carried his valise into one of the bedrooms. He was glad to hear the attorney general say he wanted to bring Bentell to trial for all the fathers who had lost sons at Carterson. If nothing else, those words gave Chris the indication that Garrett realized he wasn’t the only man who had suffered a tragic loss. And if Garrett could keep that in mind, then he was less likely to make this trip anymore of a personal vendetta than it already was. Chris didn’t know the attorney general well enough yet to guess how the man would react if bringing Matt Bentell before a military tribunal for a second time proved to be impossible. For that exact reason the major, who was also a doctor, would be keeping a close eye on his new friend.
The men had each taken turns making use of the bathtub that night, then went down to the dining hall for a late meal. By ten-thirty, Chris was in his room sleeping. Garrett was in his room as well, but he knew sleep wouldn’t come easy. Not when he was this close to coming face to face with Matt Bentell.
The attorney general stood at the window and looked down upon Stockton’s quiet streets. He knew it was foolish, but each time a man passed on the sidewalk below, he’d wonder if that was the Carterson survivor he was looking for. The survivor who knew the real circumstances behind Avery’s death. The survivor who knew why there’d been no body sent back to Garret for burial.
Come on, Garrett, get a grip on yourself. You can’t look for Avery in the face of every young man you meet. Just because most of the men in his unit were from this part of California, doesn’t mean you’ll get lucky enough to find one here.
Garrett went to bed thinking about his wife, and the way the memory of Carterson Prison was destroying their marriage. Madeline claimed he was obsessed. She’d been furious with him when he told her about this trip. She’d refused to help him pack, and stood in the doorway of their bedroom with tears running down her face.
“It’s been eleven years, Garrett. Eleven years! Janie’s grown from a little girl into a young woman in that time, and you’ve barely noticed. You’re never home. If you aren’t at work, then you’re off seeing this person or that person, trying to find information out about Matt Bentell, or Carterson Prison, or the men who were held there. This has been going on since the day we found out Avery was dead.”
Garrett swiveled as he threw a shirt into his satchel. “Of course it’s been going on since we found out Avery was dead! He was our son, Madeline! Our child! And Bentell murdered him.”
“Avery was a prisoner of war, Garrett. A lot of men, both from the North and the South, died in those prison camps. I know all the reasons why, and for a long time it broke my heart whenever I thought of Avery dying as a result of a beating, or from disease brought on by unsanitary conditions, or of a battle wound that went untreated. But after a few years I began to realize it didn’t matter how Avery died. Finding out the details isn’t going to change the fact that he’s gone - that our boy is gone from us forever. I’ve had to accept that and move on. I’ve had to tuck Avery into a place in my heart where I could smile each time I thought of him instead of cry.” The raven haired Madeline had approached Garrett then and laid a hand on his tense back. It had been so long since they’d touched. So long since they’d made love. “We have six grandchildren now, Garrett. There are four grandsons who would love to get to know the grandpa they never see. Little Avery--”
“I wish Frances hadn’t named the boy that. I asked her not to.”
Madeline’s hand fell from his back, and he felt her turn away. She sighed with disgust as she headed for the door. Garrett turned around.
“I love my grandsons, Madeline, but they can’t replace Avery.”
Madeline also turned, so husband and wife were facing one another. “I never said they could. They aren’t meant to. Each one of them is a separate and individual gift from God, just like each one of our children was a separate and individual gift from God. But you’re ignoring your gifts, Garrett. You’ve been ignoring them for the last eleven years. If you don’t face that fact, and face it soon, there will come a day when you regret it.”
that supposed to mean?”
“It means that Janie will likely be married within the next year. It means that once she is gone from our home, my purpose here will be done. Our children will have been raised.”
There was something in Madeline’s tone that caused Garrett’s stomach to cramp. “So you’re saying?”
“So I’m saying I’d like to have my husband back, rather than the obsessed stranger who moved in here the night we got the news about Avery. I still love you, Garrett. A part of me will always love you. But I can’t live like this anymore. I can’t live with the spirit of our dead son tearing us apart. Avery would hate to see us like this. You know that.” Madeline gave a small smile. “I can hear his voice now. ‘Come on, Mama and Pop, kiss and make up.’ He always used to tell us that when we’d get into a spat. But this isn’t just a silly marital spat that can be resolved with one quick kiss. We’ve been at odds over what happened in that prison for so long now. If we can’t call a truce, and somehow find the love we used to share before the war, then I’m leaving you.”
“Yes. I’ll file for divorce.”
“But what if I won’t grant you that?”
“Then I’ll leave anyway. We’ll go on being husband and wife, but in name only. Which really isn’t any different than how we’ve lived for a decade now.”
Garrett had crossed the room and taken Madeline into his arms. At first that action was stiff and uncomfortable for both of them, but soon the awkwardness faded to familiarity. The attorney general ran his hands up and down his wife’s back as he held her against his chest.
“I don’t want you to leave me, Madeline. I don’t want a divorce. I was eighteen years old when I married you. You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved. But I can’t let Matt Bentell walk free if there’s some way justice can be served. I wasn’t in the position to do that ten years ago when he was brought to trial, but I am in that position now. Please, Madeline. Please. Just stand by me through this. Please.”
Madeline had looked up into Garrett’s face. “But what if you can’t bring him to trial? What if your attempt fails? Are you prepared to face that possibility, and then come home and be my husband again? Be the husband I need, as opposed to the stranger who’s been living here since August 12th of 1865, when we received confirmation that Avery had died at Carterson?”
Garrett held his wife tighter as he kissed her forehead. “Yes,” he murmured with all the conviction he could muster. “I’m prepared.”
But now as he reclined in bed in his Stockton suite, Garrett knew he had lied to Madeline. He knew if he didn’t see Matt Bentell hang, then his marriage over. He knew, without that event, he could never go back to being the man Madeline remembered. The man who had five precious daughters, and a cherished son named Avery.
Garrett and Chris ate breakfast in the hotel’s dining room at eight-thirty that morning. By nine-thirty they’d been to the telegraph office where Garrett retrieved the wire that had arrived from John Laramie just a few minutes earlier.
Garrett read the wire, sent one in return, and then moved to the far end of the counter where the clerk couldn’t see what he was doing. Chris watched as Garrett pulled out his list of Carterson survivors. He saw the disappointment in the attorney general’s eyes as he went about crossing off thirty names.
“That takes it down to sixty,” Garrett muttered under his breath.
“Does that really surprise you? You had to know a good number of those men didn’t survive during the early days after their release.”
“No, it doesn’t surprise me, it’s just not the news I wanted to hear. It makes me wonder how many more we’ll be crossing off before this investigation comes to an end.”
“I don’t know. But keep that pencil handy, because I have a feeling you’ll be using it again.”
The two men exited the telegraph office. They walked down one side of Stockton’s main street, getting a feel for the town they were going to call home for a few days.
Garrett folded his paper. He put it and his pencil in his shirt pocket. He pointed to a distant sign that read Harper’s Livery.
“Come on. Let’s go see about renting a couple of horses and getting directions to the Barkley ranch.”
“I said, why bother. Look over there.”
Garrett’s eyes followed Chris’s to the row of buildings across the street. Outside one of those buildings hung a square sign with thick black lettering.
Jarrod Barkley, Attorney At Law.
Garrett smiled. “I’d say that’s as good of a place as any to start, and just might save us a trip, too.”
“Exactly. And spare you the expense of renting two horses.”
Garrett laughed at Chris’s wry sense of humor. Each day he was more and more grateful to Sam Grant for suggesting Chris accompany him. He found it remarkable that this man could possess such spirit, self-confidence, and quiet dignity, considering what he’d been through at Andersonville.
This is exactly the kind of man I need to testify against Bentell. I need a man as resilient as Chris. I need a man who’s learned how to live with his Carterson demons.
The pair crossed the street to Jarrod’s office. They took off their hats as they entered. A secretary sat at a desk to the left of a closed door. The woman looked up from the papers she was inserting into a file folder and smiled.
“Good morning, gentlemen. May I help you?”
Garrett was dressed in a casual gray cotton shirt and black trousers, and wore black boots on his feet. He’d been planning to ride to a ranch, not have a meeting in a law office. Chris’s choice of clothing mirrored his companion’s. He’d been wise enough to shed his military uniform, knowing that if Bentell was in the vicinity of the Barkley ranch, he might bolt if he saw a U.S. Army Major ride up to the front door.
“We’d like to see Mr. Barkley, please,” Garrett told the woman.
“Do you have an appointment?”
Garrett hid his smile. Of course he didn’t have an appointment, and no doubt this woman who worked for Jarrod Barkley five days week from nine a.m. until five p.m. knew that. The question was just a formality, meant to enable her to chase away a pesky cowboy that Barkley didn’t have the time to see.
“No, we don’t have an appointment. But please give Mr. Barkley this, and tell him I’d like to meet with him at his earliest possible convenience.”
Karen Saunders looked down at the engraved business card she was handed. With wide eyes she looked back up at the man standing before her.
sir. I’ll do that, sir.” She turned to Chris. “And you are, sir?”
“Major Christian Fletcher of the U.S. Army, ma’am.”
Karen entered Jarrod’s office and closed the door behind her. He glanced up from the case file he was studying.
Barkley, there are two men outside who would like to speak with you.”
Jarrod’s eyes returned to his papers. “See if they can come back tomorrow, please. I’ve got to get my notes finished for the Nelson trial.”
“If you’ll pardon me for saying so, sir, I don’t think you want to turn these men away.”
“Oh.” Jarrod looked up as a small grin formed on his face. “And just what makes these two men so special? I don’t suppose my brothers have come to see me for favor, have they? No, no, that can’t be it, because if that were the case, Nick would have simply barged through the door without knocking.”
“No, sir, it’s not your brothers.” Karen held out the business card Garrett had given her. “And this is what makes your visitors so special.”
Jarrod read the card twice, simply because the first time he didn’t believe what he was seeing.
A. Garrett Reece, United States Attorney General
attorney general is standing out there?”
“That’s who he says he is, though he’s not dressed in the fashion I would expect to see a man of his position. To tell you the truth, he looks more like he’s getting ready for an extended ride on the range. And his friend doesn’t look much different.”
“And just who is his friend?”
“An army major by the name of Christian Fletcher.”
Jarrod’s right eyebrow arched. He stood up and grabbed his suit coat from the back of his chair.
“Well, Karen, we shouldn’t keep the attorney general of this great nation waiting any longer. Send him in please, along with Major Fletcher.”
“No interruptions of any kind while they’re here.” Jarrod smiled and winked. “Unless, of course, my next visitor is President Grant.”
Karen chuckled. “Yes, Mr. Barkley.”
The woman exited Jarrod’s office, only to return seconds later with his guests. She was correct about how they looked - not much different from the way Nick and Heath looked if they happened to stop by the Barkley Law Office during the working day, though minus the trail dust. But Jarrod knew immediately this was the attorney general standing across from him. He’d never met the man, but he’d seen his picture many times in the newspaper and in law journals.
Jarrod walked around his desk with right hand extended, while Karen exited the office and quietly closed the door.
“Mr. Attorney General, I’m Jarrod Barkley.”
Garrett shook Jarrod’s hand. “Mr. Barkley, it’s a pleasure to meet you. And call me Garrett, please.”
“Only if you’ll call me Jarrod.”
Garrett nodded his consent to that request, then turned to Chris. “And this is Major Christian Fletcher.”
Jarrod shook Chris’s hand. “Major.”
“Mr. Barkley. And it’s not major when I’m out of uniform. Chris will do.”
“And it’s not Mr. Barkley if you’re not a paying client,” Jarrod returned.
Chris smiled at Jarrod’s sense of humor. He followed Jarrod to the other side of the office, Garrett right behind him. Jarrod indicated to a grouping of four red leather chairs that formed a circle.
“Have a seat, gentlemen. And allow me to take your hats. There’s a rack right here in the corner.” While Jarrod hung each hat on a brass peg, he asked, “May I offer you something to drink? Coffee, tea, water? Or perhaps something stronger?”
“No, no,” Garrett said as he sat down in one of the chairs. “Nothing for me, thank you.”
“Me either,” Chris replied as he, too, claimed a chair.
Jarrod took a seat within the grouping, the whole time wondering about the reason behind the attorney general’s visit. He didn’t have to wait long. Garrett Reece was not a man who beat around the bush.
it’s my understanding that your family currently employs a man by the name of
Jarrod’s eyes traveled from one face to another, but nothing significant was revealed to him by either man’s expression. “Yes, that’s correct. We do.”
you know who Matt Bentell is?”
“If by that you mean, am I aware of the fact that Matt was the Confederate officer in charge of Carterson Prison, then yes. Yes, I know who he is.”
“Whatever other members take part in the family business. Do they know?”
“The other members who take ‘part in the family business’ as you put it, Garrett, include my siblings and my mother. And yes, they know.”
“And your father?”
“My father is deceased.”
“I see. I’m sorry.”
Jarrod merely nodded his head at the man’s offer of sympathy.
“You must be a very open minded family to employ Bentell.”
Jarrod forced himself to get a rein on his temper before speaking. He didn’t appreciate anyone, not even the attorney general, coming into his office and implying that his family was doing something illegal.
“As you well know, Matt Bentell was tried ten years ago and found innocent of all charges. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t employ him.”
“The fact that only sixty men are still alive out of the thousands incarcerated at Carterson doesn’t make you think twice about offering the man a job?”
“Attorney General Reece, you’re beginning to sound a lot like one of my brothers. I have no intention of going through this argument again. The Barkley family is not harboring a criminal. We’re doing nothing wrong by giving Matt Bentell the chance to get his feet back on the ground. Everyone in this country would do well to put the war behind them and move forward.”
A long, tense silence filled the room. Garrett finally cleared his throat.
“I’m sorry, Jarrod. I didn’t mean to offend you, or to imply that your family has done anything wrong. Will you allow me to redirect this conversation, thereby explaining why we’re here?”
As much as Jarrod wanted to dismiss the two men, he had to admit he was curious about their interest in Matt Bentell.
“President Grant has authorized the Justice Department to reopen the Bentell case. I’m currently in the process of tracking down Carterson survivors. No one who walked out of that prison was brought forth as a witness at Bentell’s trial ten years ago. I plan to rectify that.”
“For what reason?”
“To prove that a man who committed numerous acts of murder was set free.”
Jarrrod resisted the urge to massage his temples. A headache was starting to form behind his eyes, but he didn’t want Garrett to discern that he had a personal stake in the direction this conversation took.
“Whatever Matthew Bentell may or may not have done, those acts were committed during a time of war,” Jarrod said. “During a time when proper food, clothing, and medication was difficult to obtain. He ran a prison camp. Men died. It was tragic. I know it was tragic, and allow me to assure you, I’m not making light of those tragedies, or suggesting that some of them couldn’t have been prevented. What I am saying is, it ended a long time ago. A second trial for Matt Bentell won’t bring men who perished back to life.” Thinking of Heath, Jarrod added, “And I don’t think it will be of benefit to the men who survived, either.”
first time since being seated, Chris spoke.
“What makes you say that?”
“I’m a veteran of the war myself, Major. I do not believe opening old wounds, or rehashing what ended eleven years ago, will be productive. I believe it will only cause more problems than it will cure.”
And have you ever asked a former POW what his feelings are on the subject?”
Chris’s question forced Jarrod to pause and reflect on the blow-up in the Barkley study over a month ago now. No, he hadn’t asked Heath how he felt. No one had. Of course, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that day, since Heath’s shouts made it pretty clear how he felt. But a little voice in the back of Jarrod’s mind suddenly told him he hadn’t been fair to his brother. If Heath had been one of his clients, he would have allowed him time to cool off, then broached the subject again. That’s what he should have done when Heath returned from the line shack three days after that initial upset, but he hadn’t. Instead, along with Nick and their mother, Jarrod had sat Heath down like one would a five-year-old child, and had told him he had no choice but to escort Matt Bentell to the lumber camp and act as Bentell’s body guard and assistant.
When Jarrod realized the major was waiting for him to answer, he admitted quietly, “No. No, I’ve never had the...opportunity to ask questions of a former prisoner of war.”
Chris smiled. “Well, now you do. So ask away.”
“I spent two years in Andersonville. So go ahead. Ask any question you want.”
I see. Now this is starting to make some sense. Reece will handle the legal end of getting Bentell to trial, while Fletcher convinces any Carterson POW they can get their hands on to testify. Gentlemen, you’ve just about worn out your welcome with me. And with the Barkley family. We need you around like we need an ill-tempered stallion.
Jarrod gave Chris his most charming smile. “Thank you for the offer, Major, but that won’t be necessary. I don’t have any questions.”
“No?” Chris arched a questioning eyebrow. “You mean you don’t want to hear about the nightmares that plague the sleep of ninety-seven percent of all former POW’s? You mean you don’t want to hear about the feelings of isolation and loneliness that will cause at least one in twenty-five of us to commit suicide? You mean that you don’t want to hear about the short-temper or irritability a man like me is prone to for what appears to be no reason at all? You mean you don’t want to know that quite likely I won’t live as long as my peer group because of the physical hardships my body underwent those years I was in Andersonville? You mean you--”
“Look, Major, I’m sorry for what you went through. I have nothing but the utmost respect for each and every man that was in your position in any prisoner of war camp throughout this country. But I see no point in rehashing the Bentell case at this late date.”
“You see no point, Mr. Barkley, because you weren’t there with me. You see no point, because you didn’t personally experience what I did. I was proud to serve my country. I was well aware that I might be maimed doing that, or even die doing it. And if I had lost an arm, or a leg, people would stand up straighter when I walked by and nod to one another in acknowledgment of my sacrifice. And if I had died fighting, people would give respect to my memory, and respect to my family, for the son and brother they sacrificed for the love of country. But I wasn’t maimed, and I didn’t die. I was captured by a rebel platoon and taken to Andersonville. You can’t see my wounds, because I no longer bleed. You can’t see my scars, because I carry them inside of me. You can’t see how much the memory of those days haunts me, because you’ve told me the war is over. You’ve told me to put its horrors in the past. Well, I can’t completely put its horrors in the past, because they live in my head, and they revisit me every so often in the form of nightmares that are so real I don’t sleep again for days. But you see, no one wants to hear this. No one wants to try and understand wounds that aren’t visible. But the scars, Mr. Barkley...the scars will never fade, regardless of whether or not you, or anyone else, wants to acknowledge them.”
Jarrod never took his eyes off of Chris’s face. It was odd, but for just a moment it was like seeing Heath’s face. Seeing Heath’s face whenever Jarrod found him staring into the fireplace during the early morning hours, like he had on several occasions during recent weeks. Or seeing Heath from afar, working a horse in the corral, while at the same time it appeared as though his mind was in another time…another place. It wasn’t a face filled with anger, or sorrow, or preoccupation, but instead, it was blank. It was a face void of expression. Or maybe void of life, was a better way of putting it.
That last thought scared Jarrod. And it also made him realize how little he really did know about Heath’s time in Carterson. Nonetheless, it didn’t change his position.
“So you believe, Major Fletcher, that if Matt Bentell is brought to trial this act will benefit the Carterson survivors?”
A tired smile tugged at the corners of Chris’s mouth. “If you’re asking me if a trial will heal all the wounds those men carry inside, then I have to be honest and say no. No, a trial isn’t some magic cure for memories that will always be a part of us. But with justice, comes some degree of healing. And as well, a feeling of empowerment.”
“If there are Carterson men willing to testify, and those testimonies result in some sort of sentence against Bentell, then I guarantee you it will be a personal victory for them.”
“It will make them realize that Bentell no longer controls them. It will make them realize that they do have the right to stand up for themselves, and make them see that no one is going to flog them for doing so. It will make them realize they have the right to tell their story in their own words. And maybe, just maybe, it will garner them the respect and admiration from their fellow citizens that they are so long overdue.”
“And if their testimonies do no good?”
Chris’s answer was a noncommittal, “Talking always does a person good, Jarrod. Always.”
In other words, if Bentell is cleared again, the poor men who testify against him take two steps backwards instead of two steps forward. Sorry, gentlemen, but I just don’t see what purpose this will serve.
Jarrod directed his next question to the attorney general. “In order to try Bentell again, you’ll have to bring forth evidence of wrong doings that differ from any presented at his trial ten years ago.”
“I realize that.”
“And just what evidence do you have?”
“None yet. But I’ll get it.”
makes you so certain it’s out there to get?”
“The men, Jarrod. The Carterson men who never testified. They hold the key to my case.”
The urge to stand and pace the room was a strong one, but again, Jarrod would not risk giving these men any indication he had a personal reason for wanting to see this proposed trial swept under the rug.
“And just what is it you want of the Barkley family, gentlemen?”
“First of all, to confirm that Matt Bentell is still employed by you.”
“He is. He’s running a lumber camp for us.”
“So he’ll likely be on your payroll for quite some time?”
“Good,” Garrett replied. “Then I must request two things of you.”
“First; that you tell no one of our visit, nor its purpose. Most especially not Matt Bentell.”
“What about my family?”
“If you think it’s necessary to share this with the family members who are also your business partners, then there’s not much I can do to stop you. But please, it’s important that you emphasize to them this must not be spoken of outside your home.”
“All right,” Jarrod agreed, while at the same time wondering what his options were in regards to Bentell. Granted, the United States Attorney General had just told him Matt Bentell couldn’t be told of this visit, but legally, did Reece have the right to do that? Jarrod had a feeling he’d be conducting a good deal of research as soon as Garrett walked out of the door. “And the second thing?”
“The second thing I’d like you to do is take a look at this list.” Garrett reached into his shirt pocket and unfolded a piece of paper. He leaned forward in his chair and handed it to Jarrod.
“This is a list of the men who survived Carterson. Anyone who’s crossed off is now deceased. I’d like you to take a look at the ones remaining. A large percentage of the Carterson inmates were originally from California. I know your family employs many men. Do you recognize any of those names?”
Jarrod took the paper with an amazingly steady hand considering the feeling of dread that had taken up residence in the pit of his stomach. He didn’t allow his eyes to wander from the top of the page, where the POW’s names were neatly printed in alphabetical order with their last name listed first, followed by their first name and middle initial. He gave an internal sigh of relief when he got past the B’s. Not that he was necessarily expecting to find it there, but that was a possibility.
As Jarrod’s eyes scanned down the list he discounted name after name, not recognizing any of them, until he came to the T’s. Damn, how he suddenly despised the letter T.
The name seemed darker than all the rest. Bolder. As though it was shaking a finger at the lawyer while admonishing him not to ignore it.
Thomson, Heath M.
After a few seconds, Jarrod forced his eyes to move on. When he came to the last name on the list, he handed the paper back to Garrett. He didn’t hesitate to meet the man’s eyes when he said in a firm voice, “No. I don’t recognize any of the names on here. I don’t know any of those men.”
For the first time in his life, Jarrod Barkley told a lie without a trace of guilt trailing along behind it.