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"And it is the decision of this special Military Tribunal that you, Elizabeth Montbleau, having been judged guilty of the willful murder of the gallant Colonel Frederick C. Dobbs, Confederate States of America, will be taken at once to a place of execution where at sunrise tomorrow, April 18th, 1865, you will meet your death by a firing squad. May God have mercy on your soul."
Elizabeth Montbleau looked directly at Colonel Davis M. Clark, highest ranking officer of the five-man Confederate Military Tribunal, as he spoke those dooming words.
Her hand tightened reflexively on the drawstrings of her small reticule and her heart almost pounded its way out of her chest. A flush of icy heat swept through her slender frame and her stomach contracted painfully. But she did not make a sound. Did not beg the tribunal for mercy. Expressed no remorse for what she had done.
Dusk was descending over the northern Louisiana fortress and Elizabeth stood, as she had throughout the long, warm afternoon, with her feet together, her hands at her sides, her back as militarily rigid as the condemning officer she faced. Her chin was tilted minutely upward and her blue eyes did not glisten with unshed tears. Her lips quivered not at all, nor did her body tremble.
No sooner had the sentence been handed down than the temporary court's double doors burst open. A gust of cool April air rushed into the stuffy room. Flames flickered and wavered in globed glass lamps. Shadows danced on the stark gray walls and on the rigid faces of the seated tribunal.
Four young, uniformed soldiers marched forward and Elizabeth knew they had come for her. She gave one last slow, deliberate look at each of the five stern men seated behind the long table, turned on her heel, and left with the escort.
Outside on the flat stone porch she paused, drew a deep breath of the fresh night air, and mentally girded herself for the humiliating trek to the fort's stockade.
It was the longest walk of her life.
Holding her head high, she looked neither to the left nor the right. But shouts and catcalls and whistles from loitering troops followed her as she was ushered across the silent parade ground, past the row of officers' quarters, between the barnlike infirmary and whitewashed bakery, until finally they came to the fort's small brick military stockade set apart at the far east perimeter of the quadrangle.
Glad it was too dark to see their faces clearly—and they hers—Elizabeth Montbleau sighed with relief when she reached the rectangle of light that was the stockade's open front door. Inside, a burly, barrel-chested guard was seated behind a small, scarred desk, head down.
He looked up. His light eyes immediately widened and he swiftly pushed back his chair and rose. Lank blond hair stuck out in unruly tufts all over his large head. His wide nose appeared to have been many times broken. A snaggle-toothed grin spread across his broad face and made him appear not quite bright.
"Delivering the prisoner, Miss Elizabeth Montbleau, for immediate incarceration," said Lieutenant Clayton Bailey, chief of the escort. "You're to see to it, Private Stark, that the prisoner is kept behind bars at all times until the hour of her execution."
The foolish grin never leaving his ugly face, the beefy night guard, looking only at Elizabeth, nodded and saluted the lieutenant with a hurried, jerky movement. Left alone with the prisoner, he eagerly circled his desk, wiped his hamlike right hand on his trouser leg, and offered it to her.
"I'm Davy Stark," he said in a gravelly voice. "Might as well get acquainted before I lock you up."
Elizabeth ignored the outstretched hand. She said nothing. She clung tightly to her reticule and glared at him, her eyes icy. Davy Stark shrugged massive shoulders, hooked his thumbs into his low-riding gray trousers, and slowly circled her as though examining a bit of merchandise.
Gap-toothed grin still firmly in place, he eyed her up and down and soon decided she was not really to his liking. He preferred big, bosomy, wide-bottomed blondes. This red-haired girl had barely any meat on her bones, her eyes were blue, and her skin was so white, he had a notion that if a man so much as grabbed her arm, he'd leave his fingerprints.
Furthermore, she had that haughty, don't-you-dare-touch-me look in her chilly blue eyes, as if she thought she was a mite better than him.
Continuing to circle her slowly, he decided it wouldn't hurt to give it one more try. This pretty little redhead might not act so distant and uppity if she thought she could trade a favor for a favor. She might get downright friendly with old Davy Stark if she thought there was any chance of escaping. 'Course he had no intention of letting her get away, but she didn't have to know that.
Stopping directly before her, Stark crossed his huge arms over his chest, grinned suggestively, and said, "I guess I ought to get you on back there to the cell." He paused, winked his left eye, and added, "Then again maybe you'd like to try to convince me not to do it for a while yet."
"On the contrary," said Elizabeth in a calm, even voice, "I demand that you lock me up at once." Her eyes narrowed. "A darkened death cell is far preferable to spending any more time with you, Private Stark."
It took a second for her reply to register. When it did, the private's wide gap-toothed grin disappeared and his light eyes filled with disappointment, then anger.
"Suits me just fine, you snooty red-haired skinny bitch." He picked up the lamp from the corner of his desk, grabbed Elizabeth's arm, and roughly propelled her toward a narrow hallway. "Damned cold-blooded murderess and still you think you're better than me," he muttered. "Well, missy, I'll lock you up all right. Be happy to. And when you start begging me to let you out—and you will—don't count on me paying you no attention whatever."
At the end of the short, shadowy hallway, Elizabeth, remaining silent, paused before shiny steel bars. Private Davy Stark pushed a long, nickel-plated key into the lock and the barred door swung open. Grinning again, he motioned her inside, saying, "Get on in there, where you belong."
Elizabeth swept inside, slowly turned about, and said in conversational tones, "Good night to you, Private Stark." She yawned dramatically to show she was relaxed and perfectly calm. "I think I'll get a little sleep."
Davy Stark laughed aloud. "Do that, missy. Yes, sir, you just try and do that." He turned and went back down the hall, taking the laughter and light with him. Elizabeth's breath came out in a rush and she automatically reached out to clasp the bars with both hands.
The steel cylinders were cold and solid. All at once she was overcome with a frightening feeling of suffocation. It stole the very air from her lungs. She felt faint, dizzy, as though she might black out.
But she did not.
She released the bars, turned slowly and squinted, attempting to adjust her vision to the darkness cloaking the cell. A small wedge of moonlight, spilling through the one high window, revealed a wooden crate, just inside the bars, pushed up against the west wall. On its top were a pitcher, a basin, and a small linen towel.
Not moving, Elizabeth continued to look about. She saw no cots or bunks. Only loose straw scattered about on the hard stone floor. She squinted, peering into the cell's back corners, untouched by the moonlight. Total darkness. She could see nothing. She considered feeling her way further into the thick blackness in search of a bed.
Promptly, she dismissed the idea. No telling what kind of disagreeable night creatures lurked back there in the darkness. The prospect of disturbing a black widow spider or a hungry rat unnerved her. Elizabeth shivered involuntarily.
The chill passed and she was warm again. Too warm. It was close and stuffy in the stockade cell and just looking at the strewn straw made Elizabeth's skin prickle and itch. Tossing her small reticule down, she opened the top two buttons of her bodice and fanned herself with an open hand.
She looked again at the pitcher and basin. Could it be possible there was actually water in the pitcher? She ventured forward, picked up the pitcher, and was relieved to find it full. She eagerly poured water into the empty basin, set the pitcher aside, and bent to scoop up handfuls of water to splash over her hot, flushed face.
The cool water on heated flesh felt so good, Elizabeth pulled aside the collar of her dress, dipped her cupped right hand into the basin and brought a palmful of water up to bathe her perspiring throat. Lost in the luxury of the moment, she sighed gratefully and stood there in the moonlight, leisurely bathing her face and arms and throat. Eyes closed, face tilted up to the moonlight, she picked up the linen towel and patted her clean skin. Face covered with the towel, Elizabeth caught the scent of ... what? She wasn't sure. She sniffed curiously and detected the faint but unmistakable aroma of tobacco.
She frowned, lowered the towel, and shuddered with revulsion. Obviously it had not been laundered since the last prisoner had occupied the cell. She shook her head, threw the soiled towel down, and turned away, allowing her throat and arms to remain wet.
She shrugged. Dirty towel aside, the cleansing of her hot skin had been enjoyable. The thought occurred to her that this simple act of bathing her face was to be her last joy on this earth.
That sobering reality immediately sapped all the strength from her legs. They turned to water beneath her. She picked out a spot on the straw—a place where the moonlight was likely to remain longest—and sank down to the floor. She curled her long, slender legs beneath her, spread her skirts out over her feet, and leaned her back against the wall's cool, hard surface.
Slowly tipping her head back against the wall, Elizabeth could no longer put off thinking about what awaited her. Dread and fear rushed in to overpower her. When dawn broke, she would be taken out of this small cell, marched to the fort's high stone wall, and ... and ...
A sulfur match flared in the darkness.
All thought of tomorrow was immediately forgotten as Elizabeth's heart lurched, then stopped beating entirely. Her mouth fell open. Awestruck, she watched in mute fascination as the tiny flame was placed to the tip of a long, thin cigar. The cigar was slowly puffed to life.
The match was extinguished.
But a circular pinpoint of light remained, glowing red hot in the invisible lips of a mysterious specter.CHAPTER 2
Elizabeth's hand went to her throat. She tried to speak, to move, and found she could do neither. Frozen in place she could only stare, transfixed by that circle of bright orange light in the darkness.
Heart thundering, she swallowed, then swallowed again as the orange circle grew larger. Moved closer. And closer.
All at once a dark head emerged from the stygian blackness, slowly rose, and there before her was a man's face, awash in the moonlight.
Darkly tanned with hooded, drowsy eyes, a high-bridged nose, prominent cheekbones, and a full, firm mouth yawning broadly in a thick black curly beard that covered his jaws and chin.
Those sleepy eyes widened, flashed, and boldly assessed her. The yawning mouth stretched into a wide, threatening smile that split the darkly whiskered face, revealing a double row of white, gleaming teeth.
Then a deep, sleep-heavy voice said, "Sweet Mother of God. Have I already been shot and gone to heaven?"
His voice shattering the tense silence snapped Elizabeth out of her temporary paralysis. She sprang to her feet with the quickness of a cat and began shouting at the top of her lungs.
"Private Stark! Private Stark, come here at once! Hurry, please hurry!"
She clung to the cool steel bars and screamed for the night guard while from behind her that low, masculine voice murmured, "Forgive me, miss. I didn't mean to startle you."
Elizabeth whirled around and her fear accelerated. The bearded man had come to his feet and now stood not six feet from her. He was tall and slim and dangerous-looking.
"Don't come any closer!" she ordered, her back pressing against the ungiving bars. Then again, without turning away, "Private Stark, come quickly!"
The stocky night guard, carrying the lamp, came sauntering down the corridor, taking his own sweet time. At last he stood before the locked cell.
"What's all the shouting about, missy?"
"You must let me out of here," Elizabeth shrieked, spinning to face him. "There's a man in this cell!"
"Oh!" said Stark, grinning his gap-toothed grin. His eyes lifted briefly to the tall, bearded countenance, then returned to her. "Where? I don't see no man, missy."
"Are you deaf and blind!" She whipped her head around, her red hair blazing in the glow of the lamp Stark held. "There! Him! He'd been hiding in the darkness and —"
"What, that there?" Stark cut in. "That what that is?" He made a face then and said, "I ain't so sure. Don't smell like no man I ever knowed. Smells like a Yankee to me."
Elizabeth's eyes widened more than ever. "Stark, get me out of this cell or —"
"No, sirree, that ain't no man," Stark broke in again. "That there's an animal. A dirty, stinking Yankee spy!" He spat on the floor.
"Well, now my feelings are hurt," said the bearded man, a definite edge of sarcasm in his low voice.
Elizabeth looked from one to the other. "Dear Lord, you're both crazy! Stark, I demand that you take me out of this cell immediately."
"Do you now, missy?" The beefy night guard moved closer, reached out and wrapped his short, stubby fingers around the slender white ones clinging tightly to the steel bars. "I told you a while ago you'd be begging me to let you out. 'Member that?"
Struggling to free her hand from his, Elizabeth said, "Let go of me!"
He didn't. Stark stood there chuckling, enjoying her anger and impotence.
"Drop her hand," came the bearded man's low, commanding voice.
Stark's gap-toothed grin broadened with defiance. "You stay out of this, Yankee."
Before the sentence had completely passed his lips, Elizabeth felt a hard chest slam up against her back and saw a gray-sleeved arm flash through the steel bars. Tanned fingers gripped Private Stark's fleshy throat and the low masculine voice took on a deadly, mean edge when the Yankee said, "The lady asked you to let her go."
Sputtering and nodding, his fearful eyes beginning to water, Private Stark's sausage fingers immediately released Elizabeth's. At once the Yankee spy's hand left Stark's throat and retreated to settle on the bars alongside hers. The burly private swiftly backed away, coughing and gasping.
The Yankee remained where he was. His other hand came up to curl around the steel bars and Elizabeth was trapped inside his long enclosing arms.
She felt the faint vibration of his chest against her back when he said to Stark, "Apologize, Stark. Come here and tell this young lady you are sorry you were rude."
Stark, rubbing his red throat, looked warily at the tall, bearded Yankee. He moved a bit farther back from the bars, far enough to be sure he was out of the Yankee's reach.
Then his gap-toothed grin returned and he said, "I ain't gonna do it. And she ain't no lady. You two deserve each other. A dirty Yankee spy and an uppity southern bitch! Sweet dreams to the both of you."
Stark turned and started back down the corridor. Watching him walk away, Elizabeth was torn. She was left with the Yankee. She considered calling Stark back. He looked far less threatening than the tall, bearded man who stood uncomfortably close.
When Stark lumbered out of sight, taking the lamplight with him, Elizabeth immediately began to squirm and hotly order the bearded man to back away from her. She was more than a little relieved when his hands fell away from the bars and he stepped back.
She whirled about to face him and held a hand out protectively before her. "Don't come any closer. Not one step, do you hear me?"
"Well, I like that," he said, feigning injured feelings. "Fight for a lady's honor and this is the thanks you get."
She glared at him. "Not one step closer!"
"Whatever you say. But, please, at least allow me to introduce myself, I am —"
"I don't care what your name is," she cut in quickly. "I know who you are. You're a filthy Yankee spy."
Excerpted from The Legend of Love by Nan Ryan. Copyright © 1991 Nan Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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