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Indiana Territory, April, 1812
Annie aimed the musket's barrel at the center of the deer hide shirt covering the stranger's broad chest and prayed she wouldn't be required to pull the trigger. At the same time, she sent up a silent prayer of thanks for the presence of her late husband's Irish wolfhound, Cap'n Brody. The big dogwhose muzzle easily reached the shoulder of the man's horseappeared to have the stranger effectively treed, lending an extra dose of courage to Annie. She strove to keep her voice strong and steady. "State your name and purpose, Monsieur:"
Willing her heart to slow its pace, she hefted the gun and glared down its barrel at her target. She knew all the residents of Deux Fleuves, and most of those living in neighboring settlements within a twenty-five mile radius. But she'd never seen this man, who sat unflinchingly regarding her from atop his black gelding. And she was sure she would have remembered one so comely. She guessed him to be not quite thirty years in age. Several days' worth of rusty stubble covered his angular face. His gray-green eyes held an intense look, glancing about as if attempting to ferret out additional threats beyond her musket and Cap'n Brody.
"Is this Jonah Martin's place?" His casual tone held no hint of fear, but the way he sat straighter in the saddle spoke of his respect for her weapon.
"Oui." Best not to offer too much information, but allow him to believe Jonah might appear at any moment.
"I mean no harm." He held up both hands, empty palms forward as if to demonstrate the sincerity of his claim. "I'd just like to speak to your pa."
"You have not yet said who you are, or for what reason you are here." Though his words had fallen short of persuading her he was harmless, he must know something of Jonah to realize her husband had been old enough to have a daughter Annie's age.
"I'm Brock Martin, Jonah Martin's nephew." He dragged off his black felt hat, revealing a shock of thick, russet hair.
The name sparked an obscure memory. Jonah had said very little about his extended family. According to Papa, there'd been some sort of falling-out between Jonah and his brother, Henry, years ago. But she did recall her husband once mentioning a nephew named Brock. She'd thought the name odd, and it had stuck in her mind. If this man was indeed Jonah's kin, he deserved to know his uncle was no longer living.
Slowly she relaxed her arms, allowing the weight of the weapon to pull the barrel downward. "I am sorry to tell you, Jonah is dead." Saying the words aloud jarred Annie, filling her with renewed sadness and a measure of the same disbelief now registering on her visitor's face. Even after two weeks, she could still hardly believe that the man she married only six weeks ago was no longer living.
"Your pa is dead?" Brock's soft voice held stunned disappointment.
"Oui. My papa is dead. But Jonah was not my papa. He was my husband."
Only a slight rise of his eyebrows revealed surprise at her statement.
"May I dismount? I've been riding for several hours, and I'd like to see my uncle's grave if he is buried here." He cast a wary glance down at Cap'n Brody.
"He is. Cap'n Brody, come here," she called. The dog moved away from the horse, but only far enough to allow the man room to dismount.
"You look nothing like Jonah." She voiced her thoughts while her gaze followed Brock's slow, deliberate movements as he dismounted and tied his horse to a low branch of a sycamore.
Though she kept hold of her musket, Cap'n Brody's congenial bark and happy swishing tail eased Annie's mind concerning the man's intent. Watching the dog trot over to greet Brock with a friendly lick on the hand, Annie remembered Jonah's comment that he'd stake his life on Cap'n Brody's appraisal of a man.
In his moccasin-clad feet, Brock Martin stood maybe a few inches short of six feet tall. As he walked toward her, his lean, muscular frame moved with a kind of tense grace that reminded Annie of a panther.
"Been told I took after my ma's family." His well-shaped lips tipped in an easy smile, and his gaze radiated a genuine friendliness.
"Hey, there, Big'un." He stopped to give Cap'n Brody a generous scratch between the ears, causing the dog to nuzzle his hand and beg for more attention.
Suddenly self-conscious, Annie reached up with jerky, ineffective motions, attempting to smooth unruly curls from her face. "I'm AnnieAnnie Martin." She offered her hand in greeting.
His warm, strong fingers wrapped a bit tentatively around her proffered hand, as if not quite sure what to do with it. After an awkward pause, he gave it a little shake. "Brock Martin," he said with a quick laugh. "Reckon I said that already." The shy way his gaze scooted from hers reminded Annie of one of Obadiah and Bess Dunbar's little boys greeting her at church.
"I'll show you where he's buried." Hefting the musket in her right hand, she led him to the gravesite several yards east of the cabin. Despite Cap'n Brody's approval of the stranger, it wouldn't hurt to remind the man she was still armed.
Neither spoke as they waded through a whispering stand of fragrant, knee-high prairie grasses with Cap'n Brody lumbering between them. At last they stood before the row of little mounds. For a few moments, they allowed the happy chatter of birds and the constant, deep-throated gurgling of Piney Branch Creek along the ravine behind the cabin to fill the silence.
Brock stared at Jonah's fresh grave while Cap'n Brody began his usual low, mournful whine when near his late master's resting place. Annie couldn't describe Brock's look as one of grief, but there was certainly a sadness that spoke of regret.
"You've not seen him since he and his family moved here from Kentucky?" Somehow a conversation with this man felt more comfortable with Jonah intervening, even if it be from the grave.
"I last saw him when I was five. I barely remember him." Brock's gaze remained fixed on the wooden slab bearing Jonah's name, age, and date of death. "What did he die of?"
Annie's throat tightened as she recounted how, two weeks ago, a neighbor had found Jonah dead a half mile from Fort Deux Fleuves with a Shawnee arrow in his back. Though theirs had not been a love match, she had held a fondness for her father's old friend who'd lately become her husband.
"II asked him to go to the fort." Annie's confession surprised her. She hadn't shared that with anyone else, even the preacher's wife, Bess Dunbar, who was like a surrogate mother to Annie. Since Jonah's death, the guilt she felt for that act had built up inside her with each passing day like a festering sore. As much as it hurt to say it aloud, it was high time she lanced it. It felt good to get it out.