Sunday, November 20, 2011

Promise Brides

Promise Brides
Barbour Books (November 1, 2011)
S. Dionne Moore

Chapter 1

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863

The prayer of the reverend, standing on a raised platform for all to see and hear, droned in Ellie’s ears. She saw him but did not see him. Her heart and eyes focused more on the huge arch designating the entrance to Evergreen Cemetery and the rising fog that still clung over the raw mounds of dirt, marking the fresh graves in the new burial site of Gettysburg, about to be officially dedicated.

Reverend Stockton got louder, his prayer building, the words plucking at the taut chords of her heart. “. . .because Thou hast called us, that Thy blessings await us, and that Thy designs. . .”


Witnessing the terror of her friends and family during those terrible days of intense battle between the North and South. This was a blessing? What of the mourning Wade family, grieved over the loss of Genny, their young daughter, killed by a stray bullet as she made bread? The stench of death, still a powerful memory in her mind, when bodies lay in the fields bloated and rotting. Ellie’s breath choked and she pressed her hand against her mouth. What of the blessing of a husband of less than two years lying in a grave in hated Southern soil, lost and forgotten except by the one person who had loved him?

“. . .in reverence of Thy ways, and in accordance with Thy word, we love and magnify the infinite perfections. . .”

Ellie pressed her hand tighter to her lips. A touch on her elbow made her turn toward her friend.


She could hear the concern in Rose’s voice.

“You need to rest. Why don’t we go home?”

Ellie took a deep breath. She couldn’t allow her own grief to pull her friend away from this very important program, not with the president set to speak. Besides, at some point she needed to distance herself from her grief if she was to be of any use to Rose. Her quiet friend’s swelling body and pale face showed signs of her own private torment, what with the impending birth of her first child and the continued report of her husband missing in action.

Ellie led her friend through the crowd, mostly women. Some reached out to her, widows themselves. She felt their isolation in a physical way that pinched her vision to a narrow tunnel, and at the end of that tunnel was the cold stone of a grave marker.

Sunshine broke through the haze that marked the beginning of the day and shone down on her head, yet she felt it from a distance, the warmth unable to penetrate the shell of her grief.

“I believe we will see some sunshine today after all,” Rose murmured, resting a hand on her stomach. “It will be good to feel warm again.”

“Yes. It would feel good,” Ellie said, more to placate her friend than from any feeling of conviction. How long had it been since she’d felt the lulling warmth of peace? Seven long months. Ever since the news came that Martin had died.

“You don’t have to stay for me,” Rose said.

Ellie closed her eyes and swallowed. Forced a smile. “You wanted to hear Mr. Everett. We should stay.” Mr. Edward Everett’s speech would be long. She knew the man’s reputation, and she was unsure what reserve of strength she would draw from to survive what was surely to be a long day of even longer speeches. “And Mr. Lincoln, of course. What a treasure to have him come and speak on our behalf.” She again pressed her hand to her lips, recalling the president’s own recent grief. To lose a child so young. She chided herself for being selfish. Others knew grief and still functioned. She must as well. “I—I think I’ll take a stroll.”

She felt Rose’s eyes on her, and when her friend held out a handkerchief, Ellie took it without comment. That Rose knew where Ellie’s stroll would take her didn’t surprise her. The sight of row upon row of neatly placed graves tore at her. She rolled with the wave of fresh grief, shocked anew by the bitter taste of despair that sucked away what fleeting strength she had tried to cloak herself with.

She stopped at the edge of the field of graves. Disbelief swirling. All of this was a mistake. It had to be. Martin should be here, in Gettysburg, not buried haphazardly in some Southern field. She closed her eyes and went to her knees in the damp soil, uncaring of those who might be staring. No, they would have their attention fastened upon the speaker, she comforted herself. She shifted, grinding dirt into her skirts, dimly aware that the long prayer had ended and music played. She made use of Rose’s handkerchief until it became a saturated mass.

The music went quiet, and a man’s rich voice began the slow rise that marked the beginning of a speech. Everett. Rose must be entranced. Having heard so much of the orator and his absolute support of the Union’s cause, her friend had been excited to hear him talk. Ellie caught only bits and pieces of the man’s speech as she walked along the perimeter of the crowd, too restless to sit, too grieved to stand still.

Her legs had begun to ache when a smattering of applause broke her reverie. Ellie headed back toward the place where she had parted from Rose. Thousands of people crowded around the raised platform. When Ellie could not discern the familiar shape of her friend, panic plucked at her. Rose wouldn’t leave her. She was sure of it. Her throat closed. Maybe something terrible had happened. Dread squeezed her chest. She would be alone. Again.

Ellie took in the smear of pale faces staring her way. One moved in her direction and touched her arm. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

She did not recognize the man, nor the woman beside him. A couple. She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.



She turned, and Rose’s small form hurried toward her. “I was keeping an eye out for you.” Concern etched Rose’s expression and dimmed the twinkle in her eyes. “You’ve been crying.”

“I’m fine.”

Ellie could see the protest form on Rose’s lips, but she turned her attention back to the speaker, steeling herself. She did her best to concentrate on the speech, but only when President Lincoln stood did she feel anything close to anticipation. Here was the man—black crepe around his top hat in honor of the death of his own son—who understood death in a personal way. President Lincoln’s presence injected a measure of life into the corner of her heart that the news of Martin’s death had withered.

Papers in hand, his higher-pitched voice strong with conviction, Lincoln began. “Fourscore and seven years ago. . .”


Theodore watched from the shadows of Rupp’s Tannery as a group of men on horseback cantered down Baltimore Street, passed him, then eased onto Emmitsburg Road. He pressed his back to the building that squatted parallel to Baltimore Street and prayed the moonlight would not reveal him. He withdrew to the back of the building, crossed the yard, forded a small stream, and passed through several yards before he reached Breckinridge Street. He stared at the house in front of him. It was the one he remembered from the day of his cousin’s marriage. His cousins’s bride’s house, left to her by her mother. The place Theo hoped to find her.

His tension eased when he realized the windows of the brick house were dark. A wide oak tree blocked the front of the house from view, but his cousin’s letters had described the clever entry to a cellar at one end of the porch and how his wife worked hard at putting up vegetables and storing various canned goods in the cool space. It was the place he hoped to call home for the night.

Theo rested against the cold brick and dared to close his eyes. His feet burned with rawness, a torture worsened with every passing day but endured out of necessity. He dared not loose the bloody strips of cloth he had tied on to relieve the pain in his bare feet.

In slow degrees, his body relaxed, but he jerked alert in the next breath. Exhaustion would be his downfall. He pushed himself away from the brick wall and went to his hands and knees. With ears keen from nights spent discerning the difference between the sounds of humans or animals approaching, Theo absorbed the atmosphere. Where his vision might fail, his ears would not.

Satisf ied that nothing out of the ordinary moved, he stood and hastened toward the house. Sweat broke out on his upper lip as the porch came into view. He squeezed himself up close to the brick wall of his cousin’s house and slithered toward the porch. In the darkness, he felt for the hinges of the cellar door and found the ring used to pull the door open.

Theo spit into his hand and smeared the wetness on first the top hinge then the lower one and prayed the added moisture would work as a lubricant and keep the door from squeaking. With trepidation, he eased the door toward him, drawing a breath only when the opening became large enough for him to slip through.

With the door firmly shut behind him, he felt his way along with his hands, a damp, cool wall of stone greeting his fingertips and scrubbing his palms. For a moment he stood perplexed. The porch ran the length of the house, a good ten feet by his estimate, yet he guessed that he had come only five feet. This stone wall must be to support the middle section to avoid sag. Sure his assessment must be correct, he followed the wall into a room that smelled of apples, with undertones of dust and mildew. But the scent refreshed him. He longed for a light to see by but dared not risk giving himself away, even if he had possessed a lantern.

His fingers skimmed the jars of produce and rough gunnysacks of apples and potatoes. Food. His hand closed around the smooth skin of an apple, and he sank his teeth into the fruit, surprised by the tart bite of the tender flesh. He munched as quietly as he could then began on a potato and finished with another apple.

A dull thud brought him up straight. His hands went clammy and he lowered the apple and cocked his head to listen harder.

The sound did not repeat. He took another bite, quieter this time. It must be someone in the house turning over in bed or falling out. If Martin’s wife, Ellie, was not alone, or if she had relatives living with her in the wake of her grief, his chances of being identified increased. The thought congealed the contents of his stomach into a heaving mass.

He put the apple aside and stretched out on the dirt floor, his body demanding rest. With his fist, he made a pillow of a small sack of apples. He closed his eyes and tried to plan how he would introduce himself into the household.

What would Ellie Lester be like in person? He had read so much about her in Martin’s letters that Theo felt as if he knew her. But among Martin’s personal effects, he never located a picture. Not everyone, he supposed, had the benefit of such a treasure to remember a loved one by, but he had hoped to remind himself what she looked like before coming face-to-face with her. His cousin’s wedding to the woman had been a long time ago, and though Theo recalled the day, the faces had receded a bit as the horrors of war had driven the pleasant memories into hiding.

Something tickled along Theo’s arm, and he slapped at the place, feeling the crush of a tiny body. A spider, no doubt. With a weary sigh, he rolled to his side and fell into a deep sleep.

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