Come Back My Love
 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Port Hudson, Louisiana
March, 2005

No one should die on a day like today.  God made days like this for living.
            Olivia Montgomery glanced across the Civil War battlefield, empty except for shadows cast by wind-swept clouds.  The bright sun offered hope for a warmer day, but for now, the brisk March wind held a chill.  Smoke from campfires and the sound of waking voices from nearby woods fueled her sense of adventure. 
            “Wait up, Olivia.”
            Joseph Underwood, all six foot two of him, ran toward her.  His clean, pressed, gray uniform showed no sign of wear, and definitely no sign of battle.  Gold braiding around the cuffs and on the forearms of his jacket complimented the ornate hilt of his saber.  Down the front of his jacket, a double row of brass buttons glistened in the sun.
            He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him.  “You look beautiful,” he said, giving her a quick kiss, “but your sense of direction stinks.  The battle is that-a-way.”  He pointed toward the parade ground.
            Olivia stepped back.  She smiled and smoothed the bodice of her lavender costume.  “I wondered if a handsome Lieutenant was going to join me,” she said, tucking a loose strain of long blonde hair back into her hairdo. 
            Laugh lines creased the corners of his light, brown eyes.  They sparkled every bit as brilliantly as his brass buttons.  Flecks of premature gray dotted sandy hair that fell in loose curls about a boyish face. 
            “Like I’d ever miss a chance to be with you.  I’d have been here sooner, but I couldn’t leave until my relief showed up.”
            Olivia had met Joseph last year while on a field trip with her American History students to Port Hudson.  As curator of the museum, he conducted the tour and entertained her class with stories about the siege.  A friendship developed, and they began dating.  
            “So, where are you going?” he asked.
            “Fort Desperate.  From those redoubts, I can picture the skirmishes so vividly.”
            “Hmm, and it’s secluded, too.”  He curled his mouth into a sly grin.
            “You never give up, do you?”
            “No, it’s not in me to surrender.”
            “Even if you’re losing the war?” she said in lighthearted banter.
            “We’ll see about that.”  His eyes lingered on her face.  “Where’s Sara?”
            “Over there.”  Olivia motioned to a group of women in costume at the far end of the field.  “My roommate insisted on moving closer to the action.  You know Sara, always on the prowl.”
            “Nothing wrong with that.  I’m just glad she finally convinced you to join the re-enactment, which by the looks of things will be starting before long.”
            A stream of Confederate soldiers spilled onto the battlefield and mustered into formation.  Above their shoulders, bayoneted barrels of muskets rose high into the air.  A lone flag bearer, banner unfurled and waving, scurried ahead of them, as much to keep from being trampled as to lead the charge.  Not to be outdone, mounted officers with flowing sashes and raised sabers flaunted their bravery in sudden charges.
            Olivia winced at the shrill cries of rebel yells.  The sounds evoked memories of the photographs in the museum--mangled bodies strewn across the steep slopes and shallow creeks of the surrounding terrain.
            “Maybe we shouldn’t glorify such tragedy,” Olivia said.  “Besides, most of the fighting took place in the ravines, not in this open area.”
            “Then where would we seat all the tourists?  So we fudged a little on location, it’s going to work.”  He drew his pistol, crouched and took aim at an imaginary enemy. 
            Although the dreadful images lingered in her mind, Olivia found Joseph’s excitement contagious.  “You’re right.  I need to get with it--get into character.  By the way, who am I?”
            “Who else?  Scarlett.”
            “Hmm, I don’t think so.  That’s a role for Sara.  I’m more of a Melanie.”
            “Well, Mellie dear, don’t look now, but the enemy just arrived.”
            On the opposite end of the field, squads of Yankees assembled, their dark blue uniforms a marked divergence from the soft gray of the Confederates.  Amid grunts, groans and shouts, they rolled cannons into place, loaded rifles, and attached bayonets, all in preparation for the bloody confrontation.
            “Oh, Joseph, it looks so real, like stepping back in time.”
            He nodded.  “I told you.  Teaching American History is one thing, but living it...well, you’ll see.”
            “Let’s just hope the battle isn’t too real,” she said, recalling the gruesome stories written by soldiers who had survived the siege.  “Blood is one thing, but I could never handle the stench of rotting flesh under a hot June sun.”
           “You do have a vivid imagination.  Aside from a little fake blood, I doubt anyone plans on stinking up his uniform.”  Joseph laughed.  “And, we don’t have to worry about a hot sun.”
            “But the actual siege took place during the summer and--”
            “Look at us, Livy.  Imagine wearing these costumes in a hundred-degree heat.  So what if this is March?  We’re not changing what happened, just when.”
            However pleasant the weather, Olivia didn’t like the idea of altering history.  As she watched the preparations, a lone Confederate soldier caught her attention--a tall man who stood apart from the troops, seemingly occupied with the contents of a shoulder bag.  As she watched him, he glanced over her shoulder.  Her gaze followed his, but she saw nothing.  When she looked back, he had fastened the flap on his bag and was moving in her direction.
            “We don’t have much time,” Joseph said, “so we’d better put it in gear.”
            Together, they turned and hurried toward the path that led to Fort Desperate.
            Dangling jet earrings swung in rhythm with each step, as Olivia’s long legs kept pace, and an antique locket gently bumped against her breasts.  She grabbed the gold heirloom and tucked it inside her dress.
            “Good move,” Joseph said.  “That’s a beautiful piece of jewelry.  I’m sure you wouldn’t want to lose it.”
            The cold metal against her skin triggered memories of the day her mother had given her the keepsake.  “No, I wouldn’t. My mother gave it to me just before she died.  She said the locket had mystical powers; that it would bring to me my one true love.”  Olivia hesitated.  “Do you believe in magic?”
            Joseph flashed a dubious expression then quickly opened his arms.  “Hey, it worked.  I’m here.”
            Olivia laughed.  Then in a gentle voice she said, “Sorry, Joseph, but you know how I feel.”
            “And you know how I relish a challenge.”  
            Olivia remembered the chain had tingled when it touched her skin but chalked it up to her mother’s power of suggestion.  Now, as if to test it once again, she pressed the locket against her chest.  Nothing happened.
            “Magic or no magic, I just thought the old piece of jewelry seemed perfect for my costume.” 
            The path to Fort Desperate rambled alongside a deep ravine where she caught another glimpse of the tall stranger, but he quickly vanished behind thick foliage.  Though curious why the man chose to leave his troops, she said nothing to Joseph.
            Suddenly, the path took a steep plunge.  “Whoa,” Olivia cried out, sliding atop loose pea gravel.
            “Gotcha.”  Joseph grabbed her arm.
            Thankful to still be upright, she drew in a shaky breath of relief.  “Thanks.  Maybe we should slow down.”
            “Can’t afford to.  The rest of the trail shouldn’t pose any problems, but I’ll make sure.  Joseph strode down the trail and disappeared around a sharp bend.
            In the depths of the ravine, only slivers of light pierced the dense foliage.  A patchwork of shadows camouflaged crevices sliced deep into the slopes.  Olivia edged closer toward one of the narrow trenches.  From all that she’d read, she knew these fissures had provided a place for an ambush; for others, they had become shallow graves.  This one harbored only tangled roots and cold, dead air.
            As if in confirmation of her morbid thoughts, a chilling gust of wind brushed against her face.  She drew the shawl closer around her shoulders and shivered.
            Olivia raked her hand along the rough bark of a majestic pine and wondered how many soldiers had died beneath its boughs.  Unsure how long she’d been standing there musing on the past, she automatically checked her wrist.  She chuckled. Of course, her digital watch was in the glove compartment of Sara’s van.
            “Joseph,” she called out.  He didn’t answer.  “We don’t want to miss the start.  I’m heading back,” she shouted, assuming he would soon catch up with her.
            When she reached the path that led to the parade ground, she felt a sudden twinge against her neck.  Thinking the locket’s chain had caught on her dress, she ran her hand under the links to free it then continued up the slope. 
            Atop the ravine, a cannon perched precipitously near the edge.  Its long barrel pointed toward the river, and a white plume of smoke billowed from its mouth.  Where had that cannon come from?  She didn’t remember seeing it on the way down.  And, if it had fired this close to her, the sound would have been deafening. 
            As she moved toward the armament to get a better look, gunfire sounded behind her.  She spun around but saw nothing.  Thinking the reenactment had begun, she scurried up the path.    To her amazement, the cannon above began to disappear, changing from a solid, iron mass to a quivering, black, illusion before vanishing. Shivers raced down her spine. 
            “How can--”
            “Yankees are firing! Get down!" someone shouted.
          Two men in Confederate uniforms charged past her and dove from the path into the ravine.  One of the bayonets dug into the ground and twisted the rifle from the soldier’s hands.  Then, just like the cannon, the soldiers faded away.
           “That can’t be.  Joseph, where the hell are you?” she screamed.
            Something hot pressed against her chest.  Loosening the top buttons on her dress, she reached in and clutched the locket.  It radiated heat.  “Good, Lord!” she cried, snatching her hand away.  
            Gunfire echoed from every direction.  Wanting to escape the madness, she bolted up the steep incline.  Halfway to the top, she froze.
            The cannon had reappeared.  Its menacing barrel pointed directly at her.  A Confederate soldier stood alongside, a ramrod in his hand.
            My God, he’s going to fire it!
            He never got the chance.  In the next instant, a projectile whistled overhead.  Pieces of his boyish face sprayed into the air.  His body crumpled to the ground.
            Olivia’s stomach wrenched.  She slapped her hand over her mouth, yet couldn’t hold back the nausea.  With hands braced against her knees, she bent over and heaved the bitterness from her throat.
            Afterwards, she wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to focus.  A few feet away, a soldier stared up at her with lifeless eyes.  Blood no longer flowed from the gaping hole in his neck.  It lay pooled on the ground around him.
            Olivia grabbed a sapling and pulled herself upright just as an artillery shell struck overhead into an embankment.  Mud, leaves, and branches pelted her. Shell after shell rained down in thunderous explosions.  She covered her ears to quell the deafening roar.  
            “Stop it.  This is all wrong.  The fighting shouldn’t be here, not in the ravines.  And why live ammunition?”  With her heart pounding in her ears, she called out again, “Somebody, please help me!” 
            No one answered.
            Caustic smoke filled her lungs and burned her eyes.  And a flame flickered in that acrid veil, just above the cannon’s wick.
            The cannon.  It was going to blow.  Olivia tried to will her body to run, but fear locked her muscles and she stumbled.
            Then, through the eerie haze and smoke, she saw him--the tall, broad-shouldered soldier she had seen earlier.  He burst from the mist with outstretched arms.  He shouted, but the explosions drowned out his words.
            The soldier lunged and wrapped his arms around her just as the cannon fired.  Heat from the blast stung her face, and the percussion tossed them like rag dolls from the path.  They fell, down and down.
            Olivia screamed.  Sharp roots jabbed her back and briars ripped her hands and clothing.  The back of her head slammed hard against a tree, and pieces of bark dug into her scalp.
            They tumbled over and over into what seemed like a bottomless pit.  The soldier’s weight forced the air from her lungs.  She gasped and sucked in fine grit that covered her teeth and tongue.  The man’s fingers, like railroad spikes, dug into her waist and shoulder as he struggled to hold her.  His arms, like bands of steel, tightened around her, while the hilt of his sword jammed into her stomach.
            Olivia finally drew in a deep breath of air as the slope leveled out, and their bombastic fall subsided into a gentle roll.  Lying still in a small, shallow creek, Olivia no longer felt a burning sensation from the locket, only the touch of something cold against her skin.  Every part of her body ached with pain.  She lay perfectly still, afraid to move, content for the moment to find refuge in the arms of the stranger who had risked his life to save her.
            When she finally found the strength to lift her head from his chest, he loosened his hold on her.  Confused and frightened, she clutched the sleeves of his uniform.
            “No, please, don’t leave me.”
            “I won’t,” he said, gently maneuvering her onto the ground beside him.  “I’m a surgeon.  I only want to help you.”
            His soft voice offered comfort, and something about it sounded familiar.  She looked up at a beard-shadowed face framed by long, dark hair.  But it was his eyes, brown pools swirling with compassion that commanded her attention.
            In the next instant, she blinked and faced reality.  None of this should have happened.
            “Are you insane?” she asked, not waiting for an answer.  “Now’s not the time to play doctor.  We need to get out of here.  Who are you, really?”  She watched a bewildered look cross his face.
            "Prentice Angelle, Ma’am.  I was seeing to my men, when...  He stopped and shook his head.  “How in the world did you get here?”
            “Why, I--”  She winced.  A sharp pain shot through her head, and something warm oozed down her neck. 
            Reaching back through her tangled hair, she fingered a gaping wound and remembered hitting the tree.  A small, hard object protruded from the cut.
            “Ouch!” she yelped as she jerked out a piece of bark.
            Blood flowed freely from the gash.
            “Let me see.”  He knelt beside her and examined her injury.  “You’re going to need stitches.”
            “Oh, that’s just great!  And I thought this was going to be fun.  You can bet I won’t do this again.”
            He knitted his brow as if he didn’t understand.
            The back of her dress soaked up the blood and clung to her skin.  Feeling faint, she pleaded, “Just help me up.”
            He took her hand and pulled her to her feet.
            Unable to maintain her balance, she swayed against him.  “I don’t think I can walk.  I’m too dizzy.”
            His strong, muscular arm encircled her waist.  “I’ve got you.”
            “What went wrong?” she whispered, holding on to the lapels of his jacket.  Her legs buckled, and the rest of her muscles felt like rubber.  
            “Your being here is what’s wrong.”
            As he lifted her into his arms, everything spun around her.
            “But I’m supposed to...” Her voice trailed off.  The flashes of light dimmed, and the cannon’s roar grew softer.

     

 

 



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