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The night brought a soft wind. It came gently, flowing through the gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains and spilling over the valleys below, rustling the leaves outside the big house. They rustled, were still, then again they stirred.
Mat Brionne, who was not quite seven, lay awake, listening.
His father was in Washington to see President Grant, but was expected home soon, and Mat was eager for any sound that might herald his coming.
Mat loved his father, a tall, fine-looking man in uniform or out, a superb horseman, and as the neighbors said, "as fine a shot as ever held a gun."
The rustling of leaves stilled momentarily, and in the silence Mat heard a faint stir of horses moving up the lane from the highroad. These horses moved almost silently, which was not like his father's coming would be.
The curtains at the window were open, and in the faint light Mat could see the hands of the clock. He had just learned to tell time, and was very aware of each hour. It was past midnight. As he listened, the sounds ceased. Uneasy, remembering the stories of Indians and of renegades, he slipped from his bed and peered down into the yard.
For a moment he saw nothing, and then he caught the shine of an empty saddle, then a surreptitious movement in the shadows near a tree.
Frightened, he went down the hall to his mother's room. He opened the door, went in quickly, and touched her arm.
"Mother . . . there's some men outside. I heard them."
"It's your imagination, Mat. Your father won't be back until tomorrow."
"I didn't think it was pa. They're acting very quiet. I'm scared."
Anne Brionne got up and took her robe from a chair. There had been no trouble to speak of in Virginia since the end of the war, when James had been rounding up renegades.
"It's alright, Mat. No one would come to bother us. They know your father too well. Anyway, Sam would have heard them. He's sleeping in the gatehouse."
"Mother, this is Friday. Sam's never there on Friday. He goes to the tavern."
Nobody was supposed to know that, but Mat had overheard the overseer telling Sam to be careful–that if the Major heard about it he would be discharged.
Anne Brionne stood very still, thinking. The nearest house was four miles away. Burt Webster, their overseer, had gone to visit his sister in Culpeper. The field hands were cutting firewood back in the mountains, and if Sam was gone they were alone on the place, except for the Negro maid, Malvernia.
"There's nothing to be afraid of, Mat. We'll go downstairs."
Their feet made no sound upon the soft carpets. James kept his guns locked in a cabinet in his study, but when they reached the foot of the stairs Anne Brionne paused, facing the front door. Someone was trying the door, turning the knob ever so gently. Mat heard it, too, and his grip on his mother's hand tightened.
For a moment she stood perfectly still, and in that instant she felt fear for the first time. Suddenly she knew who the men must be–in Virginia, at this time, it could be nobody else. This was a time of peace. There had been little lawlessness since James ended the raids by the guerilla bands left over from the war.
Two years had gone by, but she still remembered the courtroom and the evil, hate-twisted face of Dave Allard as he hurled threats at her husband, Major James Brionne.
The Allards—it was a name they adopted after leaving Missouri—were a renegade family of doubtful origin who had been petty thieves before the war, and who blossomed into full-time thieves and murderers under cover of the war.
Dave Allard, several times a murderer, had been tracked down and captured by Major Brionne. At his trial it had been Brionne's testimony that convicted him, and he was sentenced to be hanged.
Allard had lunged from his chair screaming, "They'll kill you, Brionne! My folks'll git you! They'll see you an' yourn burn! Burn, I tell you!"
Anne Brionne forced herself now to think calmly. There was no one else it could be, and she had always feared they might come someday, although James had derided Dave Allard's words as the wild threat of a man never sound mentally.
If these were the Allards, they would be looking for James. Without a doubt they expected to find him here, and they had probably watched Sam leave for the tavern, to be sure no one else was in the house.
Now they would try the other doors and the windows. When they tried the dining-room window they would find it open, for the night had been warm and she had left the window open, as she often did, for the breeze off the mountain. She had neglected to close it, and Malvernia would not have been in that part of the house after dinner.
"Mat," she said calmly, "I want you to go down into the cellar and leave by the old root-cellar door. Go to your cave and stay there until one of us comes for you. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, stay there until either your father or I come to get you."
"Do what you are told, Mat. That is the way your father would want it."
Still he hesitated. "Go," she repeated. "Go now."
A moment longer he hesitated—he did not like to see his mother standing there, so quiet and pale. Then he fled.
Anne Brionne's glance from the study window showed several horses under the trees . . . she counted seven, and there might be others.
She unlocked the cabinet and took out the shotgun James used for hunting wild boar. It was loaded with heavy buckshot. Then she took out the pistol, a small derringer made in Philadelphia, that James had given her shortly after their marriage. It had two barrels, one under the other.
The doors from the dining room and the study faced the wide entrance hall on either side. She went up the six steps to the landing. From there the steps mounted in two wide, sweeping staircases to the second floor. On the landing there was a straight-backed chair.
Seating herself carefully, she arranged the folds of her robe about her, concealing the small gun in her lap under an edge of the gown. The shotgun she held across her knees. And there, her heart beating heavily, she waited.
This was her home. Here she had come as a bride, and Anne Brionne came of stubborn stock. Here she had lived in happiness. Here she had given birth to her son.
Generations of pioneer ancestors did not allow her to take the ownership of a home lightly. One had a home; one defended it. This was something she understood perfectly well.
She had never expected to be called upon to defend her home, although her grandmother had once defended a log cabin in this same state against an Indian attack. No, she had never expected it, but now that the moment had come she was prepared.
It was not an easy place to defend. She must frighten these intruders away, if possible. If poise and dignity could not do it, the shotgun must. In any case, Mat would be safe. The passage from the old root cellar, built for a pioneer house long ago, would allow Mat to escape to his river-bank cave. Even if they should find the passage, used only by Mat playing war games, they would not find the cave under the roots of the old oak.
After a moment, she rose. Taking a candle, she lighted it, and walked from place to place, lighting each candelabrum until the hall was as bright as for a party. Then she went back to the chair and seated herself as before.
There was no hope of keeping them out if they were determined to enter, but she hoped the shotgun might be sufficient to stop them and force them to leave. Yet deep within her she knew the man she had seen in the courtroom, shouting his threats, would not have been frightened off. Nor would his brothers or his cousins.
Fortunately, Malvernia was living in her own house behind the garden, and was not likely to be in danger. Her husband was off with the woodcutters, and she, too, was alone.
The footstep was faint, the door from the dining room opened ever so gently, and a man stood there. He was a big man with almost white hair, but he was young and strong. The muscles swelled the chest and sleeves of his shirt, a shirt that was soiled and worn, as was the vest he wore over it.
Slowly, he looked around, obviously amazed at everything he saw. A second man appeared, this one from the study door. He was slighter, and, if possible, he was dirtier than the first one. It was he who saw her.
He leaned forward, staring, as if unable to believe what his eyes told him. "It's a woman!" He spoke with astonishment. "Jest a-settin' there!"
Cotton Allard stepped further into the room. The newel post at the foot of the stairs bulked between them.
"You have come here to see Major Brionne," Anne Brionne said calmly. "He is not at home. This is not an hour at which we welcome guests. If you will come again, I am sure he will be most pleased to meet you."
"Now there's manners for ya." Cotton Allard was frankly admiring. "There sets a real lady. I allus wondered what them kind was like. Looks like we figure to find out."
"I would suggest"—Anne Brionne's voice chilled "—that you leave now."
Cotton Allard deliberately rolled his quid in his jaws and spat tobacco juice on the Persian rug. "I reckon with the Major gone we'll just have to make do with what's here." He turned toward the other man. "You tell the boys to take whatever they want from the house afore we set it afire. I aim to be busy right here."
"You tell 'em," the slighter man said. "I ain't a-goin' no place."
Cotton was cautious, keeping the newel post between himself and the woman. He had not yet seen the shotgun, which was partly hidden now beside her knee. Cotton could see only something dark by her hand, and something unnatural in her position.
The second man was less cautious. He stepped around in plain sight. Upstairs a door creaked faintly. So they had come up the back stairs too.
At that moment the slender, stoop-shouldered man rushed. Anne Brionne lifted the shotgun and shot him through the body.
In the hallway the boom of the gun was enormous. Anne saw the man caught in mid-stride, saw the expression of horror mask his face, and he slammed back as the charge hit him, and sprawled on his back on the floor.
Cotton Allard vaulted the banister, landing light as a cat on the landing beside her. From above, another man dropped off the balcony and the shotgun was torn from her. Coolly, she dropped her hand to the derringer, turned it on Cotton, and fired. It missed, and in almost the same instant Anne Brionne shot herself through the heart.
This it was that young Mat saw from the balcony where he had crouched, unable to leave his mother alone, but not knowing what to do. When Anne Brionne fell he gave a choking cry, and would have rushed to her.
Cotton saw him. "It's the kid!" he shouted. "Get him!"
Mat fled. Down the back stairs he went, down the steeper steps into the utter blackness of the cellar, but he needed no guide light to find the door to the old passage to the root cellar. He fled through the darkness, emerged under the trees, and glanced back toward the house just in time to see a man touch a candle to the curtains, those beautiful lace curtains his mother had imported from Alenton. The flames leaped high.
He crept down the bank, shivering and frightened. Behind the roots was his cave. He crept in and lay still, stiff and numb with shock.
The Allards ran from the house, clutching bottles of whiskey and brandy. Dimly, Mat heard their drunken shouts above the crackle of the flames. A long time later he fell asleep, remembering with horror the face of Cotton Allard, and of Tuleson, the one who had dropped from the balcony.
There under the roots Major James Brionne and Malvernia found Mat, curled up and asleep, on the following morning.
Major James Brionne glanced across the table at his son.
"Make the most of this, Mat. Soon you'll have to put up with my cooking."
"I like your cooking, pa."
The boy was subdued, too much so. In the four months that had gone by since the death of his mother, Mat had been very quiet. He talked only when spoken to, asked no questions, but stayed right at his father's heels as if he feared to lose him too.
Little by little he had told the story of that night– of his mother's quiet courage, of the awe-struck renegades; he had even told that last remark, heard as he hesitated briefly in the door, the remark made by Cotton Allard. "By the Lord Harry," Allard had said, "that there was a woman!"
But his words had come rarely, and Brionne had not tried to prod the boy into talking. There was no thought of returning to the estate the Major had loved so well. It was all too fresh in the boy's mind. What was needed was change, a complete and drastic change that would bring fresh interests, fresh demands.
"It is a lonely place to which we are going, Mat. We will see other people only when we go for supplies, but the town will be very small, I imagine."
James Brionne was a tall, wide-shouldered man of thirty-three, his face strongly boned, and darkened by sun and wind. He possessed that rare quality known as presence, and beneath it there was something else, for those who knew men of violence had a way of looking twice at James Brionne. Under the dignity, the poise, the military bearing there was something very tough and dangerous.
"We will be riding the steam cars, Mat. We will ride them for several days. You will be seeing a lot of new country."
"Will there be Indians?" Mat asked.
It was the first question, the first stir of interest he had shown.
"A few, I expect. I hope there will be no hostiles."
Suddenly a man in uniform was beside their table. "Major? The General is upstairs. He wishes to see you."