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Battle of Wills

By Marolyn Caldwell All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Fantasy

Chapter 15

Carol was so tired by the time they reached home mid-afternoon that she headed for her room. “Wake me up when it’s time to fix dinner,” she said. “I’m exhausted.”

Needing to see a patient at the clinic, the doctor excused himself. Lorie and Jeff were left alone. They wandered out to the screened-in porch and sat on the swing close together, holding hands. The day was heating up, but it didn’t matter.

“I have a confession to make, Lorena,” Jeff said after awhile. “I took a few things from the green box before we left Oak Hill.”

“Something besides your mother’s ring?” She gazed at it. It was a beautiful piece of jewelry, flashing in the sunlight. Worth a small fortune to others—to her, the whole world. No matter what happened, she would never let it leave her finger.

“There was more.” He pulled from his back pocket a small journal. “My sister’s journal. Do you mind if I read from it? I haven’t had time, what with certain distractions—”

She smiled at him and touched his cheek gently, knowing what the distractions had been. “Of course, my dear love.”

“I’d like to know how she handled my … .”

“I understand, Jeff. Please go ahead.”

He opened the book. The cover showed signs of age, but the paper inside was not brittle and the handwriting was dainty and precise. He read silently for awhile, sometimes scowling, sometimes chuckling. Then, suddenly, he closed the book and looked up. “I don’t know if I can go on.”

“Do you want me to screen it for you?” she asked softly. “I can leave out the bad stuff.”

Silent, he handed the book to her. He had stopped at the page dated July 15, 1864. She saw, in neat script, “I am going to Fox Haven, no matter what Father says. Jon has sent me a letter saying he needs me urgently. Moses doesn’t like it, but he will take me.”

The next date was August 4, 1864. “’Brother is gone,’” Lorie read aloud. “’Captain Manning has talked with the soldiers who found Sergeant Ross’s body, and they told him the officer who was with him was surely killed, as they have no record of holding a Confederate prisoner. They have not found his body, but they really did not have time to look, what with the push toward Atlanta. If he is found we will have a proper burial. Captain Manning says to be brave. That might never be. I don’t know how I can bear this. My husband’s death has been confirmed. Everyone in my family is gone now, even my best friend Moses on whom I relied for everything.’” Lorie paused, seeing the expression on Jeff’s face. “Are you sure you want to hear this?”

“I must.” Tears were welling in his eyes and streaming down his cheeks.

“Okay. The next page is dated August 18, 1864. ‘My little Johnny is a month old today. He is so beautiful and he is growing so fast. He is my dearest hope for the future. Captain Manning has been extremely attentive to my needs. He brought me to Jeff’s summer home at Oak Hill when I told him where it was. Then he found Sergeant Ross’s wife, Ellen, and she has been here to cry with me and care for me, bringing some of her many children to fill our lives with much needed lightness and laughter. I believe Captain Manning wants to move us all north, far out of the war zone. He is a wonderful person. I don’t know how I could have been so lucky as to be placed in his capable care. It was all Brother’s doing, of course.’” Now Lorie’s voice began to choke up and tears blurred her eyes. “Crap!” She handed the book back.

“It’s okay.” Jeff put his arms around her.

They were very quiet for a time, wrapped in each others’ arms. Then Jeff cleared his throat. “Okay, let’s see what she says next. It can’t be much worse.”

He opened the book again. “’August 19, 1864. Here I recount my memories of those dreadful days.’ Well, maybe it can be worse!” He handed the book back to Lorie.

She took it, cleared her throat, and said quietly, “I’ll try. ’The attack began the minute we reached the house at Fox Haven. They were lying in wait for us, probably a dozen or so men. Except that it was getting dark, I would not have had a chance. Moses told me to run as fast as I could up the hill to the spring house, and then to open the doorway he had put in the rock wall against the hillside, and into the cave that was there. He said to wait until Brother came for me, as Rastus had been sent from Riverside to find Jeff. If it had not been for the baby inside me I would not have left him. But he insisted. He had brought Caleb and Ezekiel with us for our protection, but there were too many of them against us.’”

Lorie looked at Jeff. She could see the anguish on his face. “Should I go on?”

“Please. I must know what she says.”

“Okay. But I’ll quit if you tell me.” She cleared her throat. “‘Even as far away as I was from the house, I heard terrible screams that seemed to go on forever. I held my hands over my ears, but it did not do any good. The screams went on and on. And finally there was nothing to hear. I heard people outside, cursing and talking rudely, and tearing down the spring house shelter. But they did not find the entrance to my refuge and they finally left. I sat there for hours and hours in the dark, not knowing if it were day or night, afraid to come out. Then I heard Brother’s voice calling, and Sergeant Ross’s voice, and I came out and called back, and there they were. I crawled out and fell into Brother’s arms. I must have fainted. When I opened my eyes I was wrapped in blankets and lying in the wagon bed. The horses were taking us past the house. I wanted to look. Jeff did not want me too, but I was stubborn, as usual. I was wrong. I will never ever forget the horror of what I saw. Brother had cut Moses down to prepare him for burial, but I saw his naked body lying there in death. He had been beaten horribly. His wrists and ankles were covered with blood where they had tied him up. They had cut the shape of a diamond on his chest, and worse yet, they had cut away his manhood.’” Lorie stopped. “I can’t … .”

“Please.” Jeff spoke quietly.

She cleared her throat and read, very softly. “’I fainted again at the sight.’”

“Is there more?” he said.

“Yes.”

“Go ahead.”

“’The next time I woke,’” Lorie continued very softly, “’Brother was handing my care over to Captain Manning. The captain tried to help them escape by giving them his personal mount and that of Elijah Benning, his young miracle-worker. He had found Elijah treating war wounds on the battlefield and was taking the boy to the field hospital to help serve somewhere away from the front when Jeff and Sergeant Ross, in Rebel uniforms, stopped them at gunpoint to ask for help. It was great good luck that Jeff knew Captain Manning already. Their paths had crossed at West Point, and they had long since developed a mutual admiration for each other, even before they met on the trail. The horses were retrieved eventually, but not the men who went away on them.’ Jeff, I’m not sure … ”

“I can handle it.” His face was very white.

“Okay, here goes. ’Jeff told Captain Manning how to take me home to Father. But when we reached Riverside, there was even worse waiting for us. The house was burned to the ground and still smoldering. All the servants, every one, had been stripped, beaten and killed. When I saw Father I fainted again. He had been treated the same way Moses had. That kindly old man who hardly knew what he was doing—that once-strong man whose sharp mind died the day he had to bury his beloved wife and five of his children because he had, in a moment of weakness and under the influence of his so-called friends, purchased a slave who brought contagion to Riverside. They had strung father up and beaten him and carved a diamond on his chest. And they had cut his manhood, too. I will never forget what those fiends did to my father and my true friend Moses, and all the others. If it is ever in my power to destroy them, I will. Even if I have to return from the grave!’”

“Lorie,” he said very softly, “now I know exactly why I am here. And you were right. These are truly the same people. Pirates in the past. Slavers. Vicious criminals. I suspected my father had been one of them—until he met my mother. And I had thought it might be revenge against me they were after because they saw me as a traitor. I do know that played a part in their timing. They would not have moved against my family as long as they thought I was a genuine Confederate hero. But it is the diamond they’re looking for—still looking for. They thought Father had it, or that he had given it to Sara, and they could cover up their crimes by blaming the Yankees for the destruction. But Lorie, Moses told me it never reached my father and he would have known.”

“That’s why they burned two houses to the ground and tortured and killed human beings? To find a diamond?”

“There is no diamond, Lorie. If there had been a diamond, Moses would have been a free man.”

“Maybe you’d better tell me about Moses.”

“That wasn’t really his name,” Jeff began, speaking softly. “He tried to teach me a few of the African languages, but I could never pronounce his African name correctly—not the way he did. He spelled it for me. N h l a k a n i p h o.” He tried to pronounce it, in a halting voice. “Nhlakanipho. It’s a Zulu word that means ‘wisdom.’ He was the son of a king. He was very fit, very handsome, and very black. He spoke English as an Englishman. Because he was so elegant, my father bought him for his new bride, thinking to please her.

“But Mother was horrified. She was a New England Unitarian and she vehemently hated slavery. She tried to free Moses. But there were strict laws against manumission in Georgia—so she kept him rather than letting him fall into unscrupulous hands. He respected her and called her ‘Sister’ and he did anything she asked him to. He was the planner and the chief guide when she established her section of the Underground Railroad right under Father’s nose. After Mother and the other children died and our father had his breakdown, Moses became my tutor and guardian as well as Sara’s. Moses had studied engineering and carpentry in France. Most of what I know about it, I learned from him. My West Point education added only the military aspect to what I had already learned from that wise man.

“We heard from some of the other servants that Moses’s father tried very hard to get him back. He was willing to pay a king’s ransom for his son. The price was a large uncut diamond from Africa. We also heard around the quarters that someone had come from Africa with the diamond.

“But no one ever saw it. Most likely the emissary from Moses’s father was robbed and killed somewhere along the way. Father’s business associates assumed my father got the diamond and kept it. They never gave him a moment’s peace after that because they claimed they had sold Moses to him not knowing his true worth. Father swore the diamond never reached him. When I asked Moses, he confirmed that Father was telling the truth—no matter how confused he was about anything else.”

Lorie’s mouth had dropped open. She shut it. “Good grief!”

Jeff smiled gently. “After one hundred fifty years without it, I guess it’s a little hard to understand the concept of human slavery.”

“You got that right!”

“I never once questioned the evil of that institution. I am sorry to see remnants of it intruding so prominently into new centuries. It should have disappeared with the Confederacy.”

“Jeff, you’ve had a very hard life.”

“Theirs was so much harder.”

Lorie shook her head. Jeff put his arms around her and they continued to rock quietly on the swing in the soft warmth of a late summer afternoon. The little book had gone back into Jeff’s pocket, to be read more thoroughly at a later time.

“Lorie,” Jeff said after a time. “I need to think about something else. Would you tell me about your life?”

“It’s dull and boring compared to yours,” she said softly.

“Let me be the judge of that, my love. Please tell me. Where did you grow up? Why did you want to work with the ill and injured?”

She was quiet for awhile, wondering what she could say that he could relate to. “My father was an officer in the army when I was born,” she finally began. “Marsh and I were army brats. We moved often and lived on army bases or small towns. It was fun, and disruptive, and we learned a lot. But there was no continuity to it. Marsh and I were never in one school system for more than two years at a time. Our parents finally decided we were getting too wild, and my father was increasingly disgusted by fighting what he called ‘rich men’s wars.’ He got out so he could become a science teacher. We settled in a small river town in Illinois where Aunt Carol had bought a home. It was a good place to finish growing up. We both graduated from high school there. I took pre-med—beginning medicine—at the University of Illinois and then went into a nursing program because of Aunt Carol.”

“Why because of your Aunt Carol?”

“When she was young she lost her husband and new baby in an automobile accident. She escaped without injury, but she felt that if she had known something about emergency medicine, she could have saved her family. Probably not so, but she felt very strongly about it. So she fought her way through school and finally got her degree as a Physician Assistant. It brought her back to life. She’s a wonderful strong person. I want to be just like her. But … ”

“You faint.” He smiled. “Lorie, this ‘failing’ of yours will pass. And when it does, you will exceed all expectations.”

“You really think so?”

“I know it, Lorie.” He reached for her hands and brought them to his lips. He kissed each fingertip in turn. Then, very quietly, he asked, “Have you ever had a special … man in your life?”

She started slowly, knowing it had to be said. “Well, you’ve seen the little pills, and you know what they are for and why I am taking them, so you know there was someone serious. He was an intern at the hospital where I was finishing my certification. Everyone thought I was going to be a good nurse then, if not a great one, and I think he figured I would be a steady source of income for him while he went through his training. When I started to have trouble,” she frowned, still irritated, “he dumped me and found another starry-eyed minion to support him.” She stopped speaking, realizing that instead of her usual anger she was experiencing a great surge of relief that her difficult affair had ended. She grinned broadly. “I escaped that trap just in the nick of time.” When she looked at Jeff, he was grinning too.

He put his arms around her, kissed the top of her head, and then her lips, lingering there. Love enveloped her.

Inside the house, the phone rang. Lorie heard Phil’s voice and then the doctor came to find them.

“Mac and Harris are on their way over,” he said to Jeff. “They found something in the ravine they want you to see. And they’d like to get a DNA sample from you. Come on, let’s eat a little something before they get here.”

Phil had already heated up a lasagna casserole. He prepared a fresh salad and brought out the ever-present iced tea. Carol came down from upstairs wearing a colorful Caribbean print caftan and looking much fresher than when she had gone up. “Phil,” she said, “again you have created a miracle meal.”

“All in a day’s work, beautiful lady.” He smiled lovingly at Lorie’s aunt. He reached for her hand and escorted her to the table.

As Jeff took his seat, he asked the doctor, “What is a DNA sample?”

“Nothing to it,” Phil said, not quite connecting with the question asked. “They’ll take a swab of saliva from inside your mouth and send it to the lab. For some reason they want to check your identity against this item they found. They’ll tell you all about it. Probably.”

Jeff looked at Lorie and frowned. She tipped her head briefly, her signal that she would explain later. Now she was really curious.

Sunlight was glittering in the leaves at the tops of the western trees, dinner was behind them and all the dishes washed when the Crown Vic pulled into the driveway. Mac and Harris emerged from the car, dressed as usual in suits with ties, although both ties were pulled loose and hanging askew. Mac was carrying a large white box.

Everyone gathered around the kitchen table. “Jeff,” Harris said, his dark face unsmiling, “we’ve been doing a pretty extensive search of that ravine you climbed out of—that’s where Randy is, in case you’ve missed him—and we’ve found a few things we’d like you to take a look at. Tell us, please, if you recognize any of them.”

Mac pulled on some thin latex gloves, opened the box, and lifted out a series of ropes. Some were knotted fragments with frayed ends. “Does this mean anything to you?”

Jeff reached for one of the ropes.

“Don’t touch them, please,” Mac said. A sharp warning.

Jeff looked up at him, surprised.

“Contamination,” Lorie said to him softly. “I’ll explain later.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Jeff shook his head. “The ropes look chewed. I can’t think what it would be.”

“Restraints,” Harris said. Lorie cringed.

Mac pulled another item from the box. Sweatpants. Gray. Discolored by grass stains, ground-in mud, and something that looked suspiciously like blood. Again Jeff shook his head.

“One more thing,” Harris said. He pulled out a long-sleeved sweatshirt, muddy and as blood-stained as the pants. The only distinguishing feature was a name screened across the left side of the front in black ink: MARATTI.

Phil Barnett stared. “What the hell?”

“Our words exactly,” Mac said.

“You know what these look like?” the doctor said, indicating the clothing. “Like something worn in a rehab hospital. On an army base. We see lots of them here. Any explanation?”

“We hoped Jeff would know. There’s one more item.” From the box he pulled a soft hospital slipper, also gray, also stained.

“Only one?” Carol whispered.

“The other could have got lost somewhere along the way,” Harris said. “We’re looking for it.”

“Randy’s wacko explanation,” Mac said, “is beginning to make a little more sense.” He turned to Jeff again. “Does this ring any bells with you?”

Silent, Jeff shook his head. Lorie could feel his confusion. That was very unlike him, and a nagging unformed worry arose deep within her.

Mac said, “Let’s get some DNA, and if we get any hits we might be on the track to finding out who you are.”

Jeff’s saliva was taken very quickly. When Phil asked the detectives if they’d like to linger over a cup of coffee, they both declined. “We’re hot on this thing,” Harris said, “and we want to get back out to the site. We’ve still got people ripping up bushes, trying to find things that shouldn’t be there.” Harris turned to Jeff. “We’ll keep you informed. If you can shake any information from Maratti, we’d like to know about it. Until then, we’re keeping these things under lock and key.”

“We will try to ask the proper questions,” Jeff said quietly.

“We see the judge tomorrow morning,” Carol said to the men. “We’ll call you with the outcome as soon as we leave the courthouse.”

“I wish we had some contacts over there in Randolph City,” Mac said, “but as is, we have to keep a very low profile. We don’t want them to know we’re investigating what should be their case.”

They left. “Now what?” Lorie said.

The phone rang. Phil answered quickly. “Sid. What did you find out?” He was silent for a moment, frowning. “That’s not very helpful, is it? Well, we’ll have to dig deeper.” He hung up the phone and turned around. “Sid checked with George Garnett about the furniture at the courthouse. Garnett doesn’t know where it came from. He says that any one of the judges could have brought it. The city council doesn’t like to allocate tax funds to furnish the building, so often judges bring their personal furniture to spruce up the place.”

“Did he give you the names of the other judges?” Lorie asked.

“He’s going to call me back on that. Sid says he doesn’t have much to do with judges in his line of work, unless they have an earache or a sore throat and come to the pharmacy.”

Lorie spoke softly to Jeff. “It’s time for you to write out a list of items or furniture to look for. We may have to creep around private homes looking in windows.” He nodded.

Again the phone rang. This time it was Ewen Taylor. Phil answered and handed the phone to Jeff. Seeing him fumble, Lorie remembered that this was the first time he had actually used the phone. “Put it to your ear and say ‘hello,’” she whispered.

“Hello?” He seemed startled to hear a voice talking back. “Yes,” he said, and placed the receiver where it needed to be. He looked at Lorie and grinned. The conversation was largely a series of “yes’s” and “no’s” and occasional “interesting ideas” and finally he said “thank you” and handed it to Lorie, who hung it up.

“Okay. What did he say?”

“He said he had an enthusiastic crew working on the holograms and that they should be ready any time now. He asked me about ideas, but I think his are fine. He has an old woman in one window, a child in another, and a man and woman dancing in one of the other rooms.”

“Which means,” Carol put in, “that we have a little homework to do this evening. I’ll call Sue and find out if a few extra people can join the lawn service crew next time they go out to the house.”

“And we,” Jeff said, including Lorie in his team, “will work out what questions we need to ask our anticipated guest or guests.”

“Very curious,” Phil said, speaking under his breath, and everyone knew he was talking about the sweatshirt marked with the name “MARATTI.”

“I think that might be one of the primary questions.” Jeff then added to Lorie, more softly, “And I have a few questions to ask you, Wife.” They wandered back out to the porch. “How do the voices get into the machine?”

She stared at him, speechless; thought about it, then hurried back into the house to retrieve the computer. “Ask away,” she said, seating herself on the swing. She opened the case. “If this little sucker doesn’t know the answers, nobody does.”

It was a productive evening, and the horrors of the journal were put off for another day.

During the night, however, when he came to her bed, she saw again how disturbed he was by the detective’s report, saying, “What if this body—my body—belongs to someone else?”

“I think you’ve just asked me something the computer can’t help us with.” She moved more tightly into the circle of his arms. Then she began to get worried, too. “Jeff, you look just like the portrait at Randolph House. How could you be someone else?”

“I haven’t been able to make out why I’m functioning in my own body. My flesh died a long time ago. My bones lie scattered … . Jim Bailey looks enough like that picture that he could easily have posed for it. Am I inhabiting someone else’s body, someone else who resembles that picture? Someone I don’t know? Who?”

“Let’s not go there,” Lorie said quickly. She unfolded his arms from around her and sat up. “Okay, say you’re borrowing someone else’s body. Wouldn’t you be able to tell if that person was still in it with you?”

He was quiet for a time. “I don’t hear anyone telling me to go away. And surely this would be the moment. With this beautiful naked woman looking down at me.” He turned on the bed light. He was smiling his dear crooked little smile.

“Maybe he’s—Jeff, I don’t think we ought to talk about it. It makes me nervous.” She turned off the light and returned to the warm spot she had staked out earlier. But now she couldn’t get quite comfortable. If he had doubts about who he was … what if there was something to what he was thinking? Sue’s son, Jim, certainly bore a resemblance to that painting in Randolph House. Except for the eyes, she thought. And the scar. Still … “Jeff,” she said softly, “you won’t get angry, will you, if I ask you a few questions?”

“Lorena, ask any questions you like.”

There were things only the real Major Preston would be privy to. Things that hadn’t been written up in journals and eagerly read by those who were curious about the way life was lived many years before. “What happened after you left Ben with the Yankees?”

“I wasn’t sure what I was doing right then, Lorie,” he said very softly. “I think I was in shock, losing Ben.” He paused for a time. “Let me back up several days to tell you more fully why we were there. The Federal troops were still engaged with the Confederates at Kennesaw when the general called for my assessment of the situation in Atlanta. Ben and I would have had plenty of time to get to Atlanta and back before troop movements to the south began. But Rastus, my father’s caretaker, caught up with us at Oak Hill just as we were moving out. He told us that Sara had received a letter from Jon asking for help and that she was on her way to Fox Haven with Moses and two of his strongest men. Fox Haven is in the mountains northeast of Oak Hill. I suspected that the letter was a ruse, a trap. Ben concurred. Strongly. So we went northeast instead of south. Lorie, now you can travel a long distance in an hour. Across the state in a day. We couldn’t do that. It took us two days steady riding to get to Fox Haven.

“By then it was too late to do anything except hand my little sister over to Captain Manning, who happened upon us only by accident. Of course we would have no way of knowing that Riverside had been targeted, too.”

He paused for a time, trying to find his voice. Then, more softly. “Afterwards we tried to salvage our assignment. But too many troops were already on the move. Now I realize we didn’t have a chance to get past them.” He was very quiet now. “Moses had been my mentor, my teacher, the rock under my feet after my mother and Will and the babies died, and my father lost his mind. Why was my friend Moses slaughtered like an animal? I can’t get that picture out of my mind, the way he was strung up.

“We were still under orders to see what we could find out about the situation in Atlanta. But we had lost too much time. We thought we could do everything. But there is a limit. As we approached the river we realized the troops had moved up faster than we expected. We let the horses go and hid for a while, waiting for dark. We had had no food for two days, no water except rainwater running down from leaves. Our rifles had gone with the horses. But we wouldn’t have shot at our own troops anyway. We should have surrendered and started all over again. It was a fatal decision, Lorie.

“Ben was my best friend. He had a sweet wife and eight children waiting for him at home. And I was the cause of his death because I wouldn’t surrender to our own troops.” Now he began to sob. She held him in her arms for a long time. She didn’t need to know anything more.

She had her answer.

He slept for a time as she held him. When he woke, his arms went around her and he found her lips. “Carpe diem,” he whispered. “I won’t worry about whose body I’m inhabiting right now. No matter what happens in the future, I am going to love you right now, right here, my dear one, with this body and this mind. And we will live each of our days to the fullest while we have them.”

Lorie thought she wanted to cry, but not right now, because his lips were working their way across from her ear and her cheek to her own lips, she had some idea by now of where they would go from there, and she really didn’t want to interrupt the real progress they were making toward seizing the day ….

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