He was tall and built well, firm, corded muscles glistening as the merciless sun beat against his bare back. Hard, lean thighs strained against tight denim pants as he doggedly followed the plow. The plodding mule struggled, pulling the plow through the dry, parched earth. Insects flitted annoyingly around man and beast. No breeze stirred, and the oppressive heat hung like a shroud.
Damn, it was hot. Travis Coltrane could feel his bare skin tingling, knew that already the sun was searing his flesh. But he would not burn. Before long, his skin would be the color of leather. Travis was a French creole, and naturally dark-skinned. He would only become darker. Sweat trailed down his forehead and into his gray eyes, stinging. He wiped the salty moisture away with one hand, ignoring the burning in the open blisters of his fingers and palms. Some were already bleeding from the rough, splintered wooden plow handles. It was this way every spring when he first began the plowing, but soon the blisters would close and become hard.
Suddenly the plow lurched sharply, hitting a mound of earth, and even as Travis saw the swarming wasps and realized he had hit an underground nest, the angry horde was upon him. He quickly dropped the worn reins, letting the mule trot away and escape. Travis stumbled backward, swinging his arms at the attacking wasps. Just as he felt a sharp sting on his shoulder, he ran across the field toward the bordering woods.
Reaching safety beneath the gnarled limbs of a great oak, he stared at the quickly rising welt, grateful to have been stung only once.
He leaned back against the rough bark of the trunk and breathed deeply, closing his eyes. Lord, how he hated this. He hated what he had been doing for the past two years and he dreaded what lay before him.
Two years. He shook his head, wiping at the sweat on his face. Had it really been only two years? Jesus, it seemed more like twenty. It was becoming harder and harder for Travis to remember any life other than the drudgery of the farm.
If this is all there is, he asked himself miserably, if this is what my life is all about, then why didn't I just die in the damned war?
Gettysburg. Antietam. Bull Run. He had been in all of them, by damn. One of the best officers and riders in the whole goddamn Union cavalry. That's what others had said about Captain Travis Coltrane, leader of the infamous Coltrane's Raiders, feared by the Rebels and respected and admired by the Union Army.
Sitting there, in the still, hot spring day, Travis could almost smell the sulfur and smoke once more, hear the shouts and cries of his men as they charged into battle, the clanging and clashing of sabers. And he had led those men, by God. They had looked up to him and--
The steely gray eyes darkened as bitterness and self-loathing washed through him. Was he on his way to becoming just like the old men who spent their days sitting in front of the courthouse in Goldsboro, telling and retelling their battle stories, each tale becoming more glorified as it was repeated? Some still wore their tattered Confederate uniforms, even four years after the war had ended.
People, he told himself, particularly old soldiers, chose to forget what was painful. And Lord, there had been so much pain in that infernal war. Now that it was safely in the past, it was all glory.
Was he becoming just like them, sitting here beneath a tree and staring at the empty fields and hating his life so much? Would he waste the rest of his life longing for remembered glories?
He lifted his gaze to the heavens as though there might be an answer somewhere up there. Why did it have to be this way? Year after year of coddling that goddamn ground, planting tobacco and corn and praying for rain, praying the insects would not come, praying for a good harvest in the fall so there would be money to get through the long winter and feed for the livestock he had managed to acquire. Was this all there was? Travis asked the sky.
He snorted with contempt. Pray! Hell, he never prayed. He just cursed life when things didn't go the way he wanted them to. Farmers prayed over their crops. Travis did not consider himself a farmer and he never would.
He looked across the field at the little cabin he had built with his bare hands from the smoldering ruin it had been. The neighbors had burned down the original house, for the good Southern patriots of Wayne County had not taken kindly to old John Wright marching off to fight for the North.
Now there were two rooms. It wasn't much, but Travis still felt pride over what he'd managed to do with the ruins. He had done it all alone, with sweat and grit. He had cut the oak trees, sawed them into planks, then smoothed the surfaces that would be on the inside. The results had been worth his hard work, for the interior walls shone brilliantly with the natural beauty of the blond oak wood.