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You wouldn't expect to find a confused and disoriented Union soldier rambling around the parking lot of the dentist's office, but that's exactly what Dixie Lee Smith saw in the dwindling hours of a beautiful spring Saturday afternoon in Yewville, South Carolina.
As she slid behind the wheel of her car, she noted that he was tall. He was handsome. He was uncommonly pale, even for a Yankee.
She turned on the car engine. And then she shot him.
Looking incredulous, he braced his back against the trunk of a nearby oak tree, and slid slowly to a sitting position on the ground. A dark stainblood?marked his upper left chest beside the toothbrush sticking out of his pocket. The toothbrush bore the dentist's logo: Gregory Johnson, D.D.S.,Yewville, SC.
How could she have shot the man? She didn't even have a gun. Still, there had been a terribly loud bang, and no one else was around. Horrified, she scrambled out of her car.
"Are you in pain?"
"No. And yes. It's not what you think," the man said, using the tree trunk to pull himself up.
"What do I think?" Dixie said, not quite believing she'd asked such a stupid question. Her excuse for her own present befuddlement was that she'd been pumped full of lidocaine after being talked into two fillings when all she wanted was her teeth whitened. It tended to numb her all over, lidocaine did.
"I only lost my balance," the soldier said. He cupped a hand around his jaw as if it hurt. "Well, I was shot, but not really. Don't worry about it. That noise scared me, that's all."
He must be joking, she thought, taking in the elaborate epaulets and dashing sleeve insignia on the blue uniform. He's not making sense. On the other hand,she probably wasn't, either.
Uppermost in Dixie's mind was that when some years ago her father had been administered morphine for postoperative pain, he was certain he'd spotted Senator Strom Thurmond attired in a Batman outfit reclining on a cloud outside his hospital window. He'd insisted the senator had been eating a chocolate banana on a stick like the ones they sold at the Southern Confectionery Kitchen right here in Yewville. It had taken a heap of talking to persuade Daddy that Strom Thurmond was still in Washington and not hitching rides on stratocumulus Batmobiles.
So maybe this was the same kind of thing. However, did hallucinations go to the dentist? And concentrate on their jaws when they'd been shot in the chest? He said he hadn't been shot. Or did he say he had? Dixie was growing even more confused.
The man lurched on wobbly legs toward a vehicle that appeared to be a cross between an ice-cream truck and the local coroner's van. He dug his car keys out of his pocket.
"Your car backfired," he mumbled. "You'd better get it checked."
Well, that would explain the loud bang. She'd had the Mustang's carburetor adjusted yesterday.
"Shouldn't you see a doctor? For that chest wound of yours? There's a hospital here, eighty-eight beds and a good emergency room."
The man regarded her balefully. "I need a motel where I can stay for the night. I'm not really hurt. I'm a Civil War-battle reenactor, and the blood is fake."
Okay. How was I to know? "The Magnolia Motel's out on the bypass. They should be able to fix you up with a room."
"I checked there on my way into town. They're full up."
"Oh, must be another tour bus. Lately the Magnolia never has vacancies on weekends." The fact that the town water tower was painted like a giant peach but more closely resembled a fuzzy pink derriere had something to do with the recent increase of tourism in these parts.
"Are there any other hotels in town? I'm desperate."
She'd like to help him out, but that uniform turned her off, as it would any respectable Southerner even so long after what was still referred to around here as the War of Northern Aggression. Or as he called it, the Civil War, though Dixie was quite sure that there had been nothing civil about it.
While Dixie tried to figure out what to do, the Yankee dropped his keys. Right at her feet.And bent over in an attempt to retrieve them only to straighten in pain, giving a little moan.
She picked up the keys. It seemed the polite thing, and besides, she hated to see anyone in pain.
"I'd better not drive," he said unsteadily. "Is there a taxi service?"
"A boardinghouse? Anything?"
She tried to think. "The only boardinghouse closed when the last Pankey sister died."
"I could sleep in the back of my truck. I have a sleeping bag," he said.
"Our local police chief tends to hustle vagrants out of town real fast."
The soldier leaned against his truck and closed his eyes. They were several lovely shades of golden brown, putting her in mind of autumn leaves floating on the tea-colored water of Sycamore Branch. His hair, at least what she could see of it peeking out from under the cap, was a gingery color, or maybe chestnut depending on the amount of light glinting through the trees. He was a handsome guy if you didn't mind the sharpness of his nose.
Dixie wondered at the wisdom of getting involved in this situation.
"Look, uh, sir," she said. "I could ask my friend Bubba if you can stay in his spare room."
"Anything," the soldier said. "Anything at all."
He recognized her indecision for what it was and looked her straight in the eye. "I promise I'm harmless, and I've never been in trouble with the law," he said, adding, "except for a parking ticket when I was seventeen."
Dixie whipped out her cell phone. "Bubba, would you consider renting your spare room for the night?" Bubba had recently married, but before that, he'd endured a succession of boarders in the second bedroom of his small brick house.
"You got to be kidding," Bubba said. A television set provided background roars, which let Dixie know that Bubba was watching a NASCAR race on TV.
"I'm not joking," Dixie said with the utmost seriousness.
"I have a man in need here, and the Magnolia Motel is full."
"Listen, Dixie, I always like to help someone out, but my old coon dog and her new puppies are occupying the spare bedroom at present." A pause. "Hey, did you hear that?"
"I maybe heard a tire blowing out."
"That was no tire. That was the caps popping off the beer I made."
"You make beer now? Is that legal?"
"As long as it's for my own consumption."
Dixie opened her mouth to ask why the bottle caps were popping, but Bubba was back to business. "Sorry, Dixie, but I really can't take on a guest right now. My bride wouldn't take kindly to the intrusion. Katie's pregnant, in case you haven't heard."
"Yes, she told me. Congratulations," Dixie said, but Bubba and Katie's news hit hard. With so many of her friends already married and having babies, Dixie was convinced that life was passing her by. She deserved a husband. She deserved a family. But when was it going to happen for her? Soon, if she had anything to say about it. That's why she'd embarked on a self-improvement program that included teeth whitening.
"Well," she said to the Yankee after she clicked off, "that didn't work out." To say the least.
"I'm sorry to be so much trouble," the soldier said apologetically. "I have an overblown reaction to anesthetics sometimes. Since Dr. Johnson isn't my regular dentist, I suspect he gave me more than I can handle." He spoke with a Midwestern accent, certainly not Southern. Which, Dixie supposed, was to be expected. No self-respecting Southern man would ever entertain wearing that uniform, reenactor or not.
Still, he was counting on her, and Dixie wasn't prepared to give up. "Just one more phone call, okay? This one in private."
The soldier only stared.
"Are you going to be all right standing there?" she asked him. "Maybe not. I'm going to sit down on that bench." He navigated sideways to a white wrought iron bench situated beside a forsythia bush in full bloom.
She waited until he sat and cautioned, "You'd better drop your head between your legs. You look a bit puny."
He seemed as if he'd pass out any moment. She steadied him by holding his arm, figuring that even if he was Jack the Ripper, he was in no condition to do her any harm. After a time, he lifted his head. "Wow," he said wonderingly. "I felt as if I was going to faint."
She released his arm as soon as he rallied but not before noting the firm bulge of muscle beneath the blue fabric. She hadn't wrapped her hands around a muscle like that since the local National Guard unit shipped out to the Middle East. It occurred to her that she wouldn't mind feeling this one again under the right circumstances.
"Like I said, I need to make another call," she told him before hurrying to her car. Keeping a watchful eye on the Yankee, who continued to sit hunched on the hard bench with his elbows balanced on his knees, she dialed her friend Jasper Beasley, Yewville police chief, and recited the number on the truck's Ohio license tag.
"I'll run the tag, see what I can find," Jasper promised, not even asking her why she needed the information. Dixie and Jasper went all the way back to the first day of kindergarten when he'd smashed her flat in the school yard at recess and then picked her up, dusted her off and offered her a moon pie. They'd remained good friends.
Dixie waited in the car, observing the Yankee from a safe distance. Those uniform sleeves were a bit short, exposing thick wrists and large meaty hands. He had a mole on his left cheek, kind of sexy. His hair tended to curl at the back of his neck, and she wished he'd take off that danged cap so she could study the shape of his head. Her grandmother's belief was that you could divine a lot about a man from the shape of his head; a high forehead meant an intellectual bent, a rounded curve at the back of the crown meant more room for a brain to develop, and a pointy headwell, Memaw Frances always cautioned not to get involved with one of those.
Her phone played the crazy ka-ching ka-ching cash-register ring that she'd chosen after starting to work full-time as a real estate agent.
"Dixie, that license tag comes up clean," Jasper told her. "The vehicle is registered to Kyle T. Sherman of Ledbetter, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. No priors, no record of any kind."
"All right," she said, eyeing the Yankee. He didn't seem like a Kyle. He looked more like a Brian to her, or a Scott, but he wasn't responsible for the name his parents gave him any more than she was for being named Dixie Lee. Kyle was a decent name, hunky but not overbearing, trendy without being funky.
"Anything else I can do for you?" Jasper asked.
"No, that's all for now. Thanks, Jasper. Tell Lori I said hi."
"Sure will. When you coming over for dinner again?"
"Next time Lori makes Brunswick stew," she told him.
"She'll call you. I got to shoot a mess of squirrels first." They hung up, and Dixie slid out of the car. At her approach, the Yankee lifted his head as though he'd been run over by a tractor. The only thing he lacked was tread marks. "Come on," Dixie said brusquely. "I'm taking you home with me."
"Don't wanna be any trouble," he said. "I'm a little wobbly at the moment, that's all."
"You can sleep in my cottage," she said, not adding that it had once been a child's playhouse. She'd stored plant containers there with the intention of using the building for a potting shed, but right now it could provide shelter.
"Is it all right to leave my truck here?"
"Doc Johnson probably won't mind."
"My name's Kyle Sherman," the soldier said after he folded himself into the passenger side of the Mustang. "I can't tell you how grateful I am."
"No problem," she assured him, though she had her misgivings. It was ingrained in her to be hospitable to strangers. She couldn't imagine walking away and leaving him sitting outside the dentist's office when he had no place to stay.
"You haven't told me your name," he reminded her.
"Dixie Lee Smith," she said without elaborating. She could have told him that she'd lived in Yewville all her life, that her house was only ten minutes outside of town, that she'd bought it as a fixer-upper and moved in less than a week ago. She aimed a covert glance at the Yankee. His jaw was solid, and if Memaw's theories held true, this bespoke a strong character. He had square teeth that put her in mind of an advertisement for Chiclets, and his ears, though partly hidden beneath the cap, were rather large. He was cleanly shaven, which was all to the good, since she'd never been partial to facial hair. She believed that sometimes men who grew a mustache or a beard had something to hide, like a short upper lip or a weak chin. That was not the case with Kyle Sherman.
An odd thought occurred to her, but she brushed it away. Sherman was not a respected name around here, considering that General William Tecumseh Sherman's men had swept through South Carolina in 1864, burning the state capital only seventy miles away and pillaging Yewville and other small towns after their famous march to the sea.
She hoped this reenactor was not related to that Sherman. Lordy, if he was, and if the ladies of the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy ever found out she was assisting him, she could forget about joining the chapter, even though her grandmother was one of its most respected members.
"Uh-oh, I'm going to be sick," Kyle said. His face had gone a peculiar shade of green.
She pulled over, lurching onto the shoulder of the road just in time for him to wrench open the door and upchuck into a tangle of briars.
He leaned back into the car. "Sorry," he said.
Wordlessly she handed him a bottle of water from the cache she kept on the back seat. He drank, wiped his face with a handkerchief and inhaled a deep breath.
"I swear, I've never felt so awful," he said. "Is it far to your place?"
Embarrassed for him, she shook her head. "Just a few more minutes."
As he slumped back into his corner, Dixie eased the Mus-tang back onto the road and mashed hard on the accelerator, not caring in the least if she exceeded the speed limit.
"Do you always drive this fast?" he asked.
"When someone in my car is sick, yes."
He didn't comment, and she reached home in record time. She braked to a stop beside the old playhouse.
Kyle got out of the car before she asked if she could help him. "The fresh air clears my head," he explained, inhaling deeply several times.
"How's your stomach?" she asked.
"Better now." He'd regained some color, and he sounded stronger.
The playhouse had been there for years, the children who had once enjoyed it long gone. The path was overgrown with encroaching azalea bushes, the rough-hewn arched door almost obscured by drooping vines. Her guest had to duck his head and shoulders to enter.
The structure was a one-room affair with a cramped bathroom. A real kitchen ranged along one wall, though everything in it was only three-quarter size, and a narrow cot was squeezed into the space under a round window.
"A Hobbit house?" Kyle mused as she shoved aside several flowerpots and a bag of potting soil.
"Not quite," she said, though the description was apt. "At least it's a place to sleep. I'll run over to the house and bring back sheets and pillows."
While she was speaking, he inspected the cot and lifted the quilt. "It already has sheets," he declared. He sat down heavily, making the springs squeak and releasing a slightly musty odor. "I'm still pretty weak," he offered in explanation.
She'd figured that out for herself. "Be right back," she told him.