Aicha Zoubair

Jessica Bell

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Above and Beyond: A Novel of the Civil War by Jessica James

Chapter 1

Looks like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.

—Shakespeare, MacBeth (Act I, Scene V)

June 1862

Major Douglas Benton rode in front of his men, his straight, broad back giving no indication of the hard-fought battles through which he had recently passed. To anyone watching, he appeared the epitome of rugged masculinity and imposing power, yet beneath the stalwart exterior of muscle and strength rode a man with straying thoughts.

With the fighting well over and the enemy long gone, Benton’s wandering mind had turned to more peaceful pursuits. He was daydreaming—mostly about things like shade and a cool draught of water but also of kindly succor at the hands of a beautiful maiden. It was a dream that had little chance of becoming reality, dusty and dirty and disheveled as he was. But it was his to dream nonetheless as he and his horse, with his staff and troop behind him, plodded wearily down an overgrown bridle path.

Two days and nights in the saddle is enough to dull most men’s thoughts of women, but Major Benton found that fatigue did little to diminish his appreciation for the opposite sex. Recently entrusted with his own command, Benton’s orders had kept him engaged in tracking and harassing the enemy for the past few weeks, which had resulted in an unusually long isolation from feminine society. So hot as it was and as parched as he was, Benton still dreamed of warm smiles and womanly charms, deciding he would gladly forego the water and shade if only for a few minutes diversion with a female face and form.

“Sir?”

“Yes, Lieutenant, what is it?” Benton’s voice betrayed his annoyance when the young officer interrupted his daydream. He knew only the name and rank of some of those he now commanded—and not even that for others.

“Sir, I don’t think…”

“There’s a house up ahead, Major,” another one of his men interrupted.

“Yes, finally.” Benton’s weary gaze fell upon a well-tended home sitting amidst a clump of old oaks. Aha, the trees prove evidence of bountiful shade, and the stone well in the yard testifies to the existence of water. Now all that is needed

The lieutenant interrupted again just as Major Benton began turning his horse off the path to the wagon track toward the house. ““Sir…as I was saying…”

“It will have to wait, Lieutenant.” Benton stuck spurs to his horse to ride in advance of his men. He’d already noticed the place itself was a thing of singular beauty, offering the added advantage of remoteness and isolation. He had only another quarter mile to dream about who might inhabit it.

* * *

The yard smelled of roses and appeared carpeted with velvety grass. The sun fairly gleamed from the broad, white bosom of the majestic ivy-covered house, making it appear almost celestial in nature. As he drew close, the slight hint of a breeze caressed Benton’s brow; he felt like he was part of a dream.

As Benton tugged on the reins to slow his anxious horse, his gaze fell upon a womanly form sitting on a garden bench with her head bent intently over a book. He pulled his horse to a halt and took in the scene, then reached down to open the latch of the gate. It was then that she stood and turned her face toward him, and it was then that Benton’s movements were for a moment arrested. Even a dream could not equal the perfection of beauty that stood before him. Astonished, Benton moved his horse forward and removed his hat, bowing low over his saddle. “Pardon the intrusion, miss. My men are tired and thirsty and would be much obliged for a place to rest.”

Benton was close enough now to see two blue eyes regarding him unemotionally from above the high collar of a drab, black mourning dress. Although he thought he had caught a glimmer of welcome at first glance, he could not help notice now the straight, authoritarian bearing of her stance, a trait he tended to find disagreeable in women. His gaze drifted down to the book she held in one hand, and its scuffed and tattered cover. As black as her dress, it reflected hard usage, but he could still read the title in barely recognizable gold letters: Holy Bible.

“Conscience compels me to decline the honor.” She spoke softly yet firmly, never removing her eyes from him as she slowly let the Bible drop to the bench behind her.

“We wish you no ill, miss.” Benton leaned on the pommel with negligent grace, confident of his effect on women. “Surely you are aware there is no refreshment more delicious than that afforded by shade.” He nodded toward the large canopy of trees to his right as he spoke, yet it took no intimate knowledge of his character or familiarity with his dream to know that shade was not necessarily the refreshment he was seeking.

The young woman’s eyes swept across his uniform, then over his shoulder to the approaching horsemen. The suspicion in them turned to intolerance. “I have offered you no invitation, sir,” she said in a cold voice.

Benton laughed as much from amusement as from surprise at her tone and examined her in such a way as to surely make her feel he knew her better than he possibly could. He continued to sit erect and poised, full of manly strength and confidence. “I see you are in mourning, and offer my condolences for your loss. But you are mistaken if you think we mean you harm.” He loosened his reins, making preparations to dismount.

“I have made no mistake.” The woman’s voice turned clearly hostile as she lifted an ancient shotgun from the folds of her skirt. In another instant, the gun was locked expertly between her side and elbow and was pointed straight at his chest. “But if one of your boots dares touch this soil, you may claim the responsibility for making one.”

“But I am Major Douglas Benton—” He stopped short when he saw the look that radiated from her eyes.

“Yes, I gathered that.” Her gaze remained locked on his. “I am no stranger to your character and reputation.”

The words were said in such a tone that it was clear she believed his character and reputation were not features to be proud of. Benton looked at her incredulously. In her expression, he could behold no friendliness or affection, yet the voice was distinctly Southern, gentle and drawling.

“Surely you do not mean to deny water to the soldiers defending you.”

She spoke unemotionally, not deigning to lower the gun. “I can deny water to those who are trespassing on my property.”

Benton looked down at her now with blank astonishment and then back toward his men still some twenty yards away. He saw out of the corner of his eye that she shifted her gaze to the east with a look of grave concern, but by the time he turned back around, her full attention was once again upon him.

“Come, my dear, where is your loyalty to Virginia?” Benton knew his tone revealed his agitation and made an attempt to sound less surly.

“I am loyal to the only authority I recognize,” she snapped, loud enough now for his approaching men to hear.

Benton let his breath escape him in a loud sigh of exasperation as he thought of the many battles he had fought to achieve his renowned reputation as a fighter. Yet not quite knowing what to do or say, he stared at the foe before him. “You intend to deny shade and water to these men?” He purposely asked the question in such a way as to indicate he did not think he had heard her correctly the first time, and wanted to give her another chance.

Her reply was simple. “I intend to defend my property. If you do not wish me to bestow the contents of this gun upon you, I suggest you urge your men to move on.”

In the heat of the moment, Benton completely forgot his dream. “And I urge you, miss, to put down that gun!”

Although he possessed a voice of easy command, Benton knew he was in a situation in which he was losing control. Indeed, if eyes possessed the power to kill, he knew he would be departing the earth for good, because her gaze, like the two barrels of her shotgun, remained locked on his heart.

“You may have the power to make that request, Major Benton—but most assuredly not the authority.”

“Madam, I did not request you. I ordered you!”

Benton looked from the gun to her face and saw no sign of fear or compromise. Then his agitation became obvious. His face kindled with the fire that was wont to burn there when on the battlefield. “I beg your pardon, young lady, for seeing the necessity of giving advice,” he said from between tightly clenched teeth, “but as we are men worthy of respect, I must insist that you drop that weapon.”

The woman remained unflappable. “As you have kindly begged my pardon for giving me this advice, I must beg yours for not taking it. To be frank, sir, you ought to have more prudence about where you request hospitality.”

Benton sat back on his horse as if having suffered a physical blow. Staring at his opponent with a look of intense annoyance, he dropped the focus of his gaze to the muzzle of the gun, which he noticed had begun to lower ever so slightly. Lifting his eyes to hers, he saw they had softened considerably as she followed the approach of a horse and rider behind him.

“Major, this isn’t a place you want to stop.” The soldier urged his mount forward and then drew rein beside Benton. “It’s the home of a traitor.”

The woman’s cheek twitched slightly at the words, like the spontaneous quiver of a horse’s hide when touched by a fly.

“You are acquainted?” Benton scrutinized the same lieutenant who had attempted to stop him earlier from turning down the lane.

“Sir, I have the unfortunate duty to report that this is my sister. Well, that is… was my sister.”

“I am still your sister, Jake,” the woman said softly, all the callousness gone from her voice. “The war cannot change that.”

The lieutenant did not answer her, just turned his head and spit into the dust as if that was a sufficient response. Then he addressed Benton again. “As I tried to tell you earlier, sir, there is a loyal family only another mile down the pike.”

Benton looked from one to the other for a moment and then decided to take his lieutenant’s advice. For a moment, he considered warning the woman about her unpopular stance in the region and the possible danger to her welfare, but one more look into those fearless, ice blue eyes changed his mind on the necessity. “Lead the way, Lieutenant.”

Riding at a swift pace, it did not take long for the band of warriors to put the house called Waverly behind them. As they trotted up a small rise, a scout came galloping out of the tree line and pulled his horse to a sliding stop in front of Benton. “Found this in the old tree, sir.”

Benton opened the communication and scanned the missive quickly. Turning his horse back toward the east, he scanned the landscape a moment and looked over at his next in command. “You see anything suspicious out there, Captain Connelly?”

Connelly squinted against the late-afternoon sun and then pulled a spyglass from his saddle. “Yea, looks like something’s kickin’ up some dust down there.” He handed the spyglass to Benton. “Might even be heading to Waverly from the direction they’re heading.”

Benton stared through the lens briefly then closed it in disgust with a loud snap.

“If that’s from Sid, looks like he’s right again.” Connelly nodded toward the piece of paper Benton still held.

Benton merely grunted in reply as he leaned over his pommel and studied the horizon with a scowl. “Whoever Sid is,” he said at length. “He seems to know every movement the Union army makes in this region—and I don’t even know who he is.”

The two officers sat silently and assessed the situation as the moving cloud of dust slowly transformed into a small band of cavalry wearing blue uniforms.

“Well, I reckon it’s a good thing we didn’t hang around Waverly.” Connelly shifted his weight in the saddle. “Looks like nothin’ but a small scouting party, but they could have caused some headaches.”

Benton took one more look, and then turned his horse back around. “Well they are welcome to Waverly—and its inhospitable occupant as far as I’m concerned.”

“Speaking of which, what do you reckin’ we should do with that one?” Connelly tilted his head back toward the house from which they had come.

Benton sighed heavily, trying to erase the image of those brilliant blue eyes filled with hostility, and attempted instead to imagine them shining with the devotion with which he was accustomed. “Frankly, I’m inclined to cut off the tail and hope it dies when the sun goes down,” Benton muttered as he tried to reconstruct the dream that had been ruined by the only woman he’d ever met immune to his charms.

Above and Beyond

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Genre - Christian Fiction

Rating – G

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