At the back of the buggy, dressed in black, Amanda ladled soup and passed out bread. Though many of the Negroes gathered around sent suspicious stares, women with small children took advantage of her assistance. Like the time during the war when she had smuggled blockaded medical supplies for sick and wounded soldiers, she was helping those in need. Dismounting his horse, Wil approached her.
She glanced around. "Wil, what are you doing here?"
"Lily was worried."
"Fiddlesticks." Continuing to scoop out soup, she forced a smile. "There are hungry people to feed, and I have food to give. I've got some cloth in the buggy for mending and next time, I'll bring books for schools."
Wary faces pressed closer. Wil grasped her elbow, and she dropped the ladle to the pot. "Amanda, it'll be dark soon. It's not safe here for a woman."
"Wil... I need to be useful."
"Then come back during the day. I'll escort you."
This argument seemed to sway her. She nodded. Even Lily sighed in relief. Wil helped her gather her supplies together and loaded it in the buggy. After tying his dapple-gray mare to the back, he climbed in beside her and cued Amanda's red stallion to a trot. Tense men stepped out of their way, and Amanda sat back in silence.
"Please, no lecture."
"All right, no lecture. You knew exactly what you were doing just as you did when you smuggled supplies for me during the war."
"Thank you for understanding." She fell silent again and a mile passed before she resumed speaking, "Alice says you're having difficulty with the transition to civilian life."
He slowed the stallion to a walk. "Did she put it that politely?"
"No," Amanda admitted. "But I also don't believe that you've suddenly resorted to gambling as a way of life."
"Then you don't know me as well as you think you do."
"Stop it, Wil! Don't lie to me!"
She knew him better than--anyone--including Alice. But it wasn't something he could openly admit. "What else is someone with my military experience and suddenly no career left supposed to do?"
"You were trained as an engineer at West Point," she suggested.
"And nearly failed. Why do you think I was assigned to the infantry?"
"Wil, you were almost dismissed the first year due to demerits. John took some on your behalf to keep that from happening, but you did not nearly fail."
He should have known that her first husband had told her about their experiences at the Point. Over the years, they had come to know each other too well. By nightfall, they reached Fredericksburg. Moonlight illuminated dreary chimneys and buildings still shattered by war. He halted the buggy out front of the brick house that he shared with Alice. After climbing down, he helped Amanda. For a brief moment, she was in his arms. She felt good. But he had to keep those thoughts to himself. So many secrets--he could no longer keep track of them.
As they went up the walk, Alice stepped onto the porch. "Amanda..."
"I was at the shanty village. Wil was kind enough to escort me here."
Alice looked in his direction. "How did you know she was there?"
"Lily told me."
"And Lily found you--let me guess..." Tapping an impatient foot, Alice crossed her arms. "At the tavern."
"Alice," Amanda interrupted, "some tea would be lovely right now."
"Of course, Amanda."
As Alice turned, Wil sent Amanda a thankful glance for intervening. And true to her word, Amanda made the trek from her farm to the shanty town twice a week. The residents grew less suspicious, and her mood brightened from helping those in need.
On a fine Indian summer day, two weeks later, the shanty village faded into the background. "Wil, stop the buggy," Amanda said with a smile.
Wil hadn't seen her smile since losing her baby. He clambered from the buggy, then helped her down. As he secured the stallion to a sycamore tree, she strolled along the edge of the river. Removing his hat, he joined her on the rocks near the bank.
She lifted her face to the sun, seeming to relish in the warmth. "I thought all of our problems would be over when the war ended."
"In many ways, it was only the beginning."
Raising her black skirt, Amanda scrambled over the rocks to a sandy edge by the river. She stumbled and skidded in the dirt, but he grasped her elbow and kept her from falling. "I was naive."
He glanced out to the river. Unlike the day that he had nearly drowned, the Rappahannock waters were peaceful. "Naive?"
"You heard me correctly. Not only was I naive, I was a fool. The war made us delay any thoughts for tomorrow, but if we didn't resolve issues back then, we're left facing them now."
It was uncharacteristic for her to speak in riddles. Totally perplexed, he met her gaze and asked, "What issues?"
Suddenly red faced, she shook her head. "Forgive me for bringing the subject up. It wasn't proper."
"Proper? Amanda, we've been friends for years." But there was one topic they could never broach. The letter... If only he had mailed it, she would have never married Sam. So close, yet so far away. He nodded in understanding.
"Wil, I think it's best if you don't accompany me anymore, unless Alice is along." Her skirts rustled, and tears streaked her cheeks as she dashed past him to the buggy.
So he wasn't the only one who felt the tension. The Rappahannock waters churned, carrying him under. Sputtering and gasping for breath, he managed to put his head above water. At the end of the murky tunnel, Wil saw Amanda. It had always been Amanda, and no one else.
Excerpt is Copyright Kim Murphy 2005.
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