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Authors: Jeanne Williams

Woman of Three Worlds

BOOK: Woman of Three Worlds
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Woman of Three Worlds

Jeanne Williams

This book is for

Edna Hastings, my dear neighbor, who first got me interested in Fort Bowie;

Bill Hoy, guardian of the Fort, who shared his knowledge and material so generously and who has done much to preserve the spirit of that place
,

And Eve Ball, faithful chronicler of the Apaches, to whose work I owe much inspiration and background
.

I

Brittany wept as she placed fragrant white dogwood blossoms on Tante Aurora's grave after Jem Harrison, the stocky, grizzle-haired circuit-riding Methodist minister, spoke the last words and closed his Bible. He had earlier helped Brittany build a fence around the raw grave to keep out the razor-back hogs that foraged through the woods.

There was nothing more to be done for her foster mother, part Cajun, part black, part Cherokee, and wholly loving, faithful, and practical about keeping herself and her young mistress alive on the decaying plantation adjoining the mirrored dark waters of Caddo Lake, on the Texas-Louisiana border.

Jem Harrison cleared his throat. He was a dedicated man who risked his life to desperadoes, swollen creeks, and freezing northers to preach the Good Book to his far-scattered flock. He was old enough to be eighteen-year-old Brittany's father, and she was as close to a daughter as he'd ever have. He'd taught her to write, cipher, and read till she'd devoured all the books in the musty library where her father had solaced himself after the death of her mother.

When Brittany was three, Fulkston Laird had ridden off to fight for his native Virginia, though he was long estranged from his aristocratic family, who had cast him off for marrying a beautiful Cajun girl when he'd gone out to Texas. Fulkston died at Shiloh. If his family knew about the orphaned child in the bayous, they did nothing, but they must have faced ruin themselves after the war and had neither thought nor energy to spare for a waif they suspected of mixed blood.

It was doubtful that Cajuns, descended from the French Acadians exiled from Nova Scotia by the British after the French and Indian War, had mingled more than any other whites with blacks and Indians. Whatever the bloods that had produced Brittany, she had grown into a woman so lovely that Jem, in spite of his fatherly devotion, felt a stirring and desire he hastily prayed against.

The poor child had no one else to help and advise her. Unbefriended, what would befall a lass with such creamy, flower petal skin, a proud head set on a long curving throat, weighted back with a mass of glorious black hair that provided a shocking contrast to wide-spaced gray eyes? Perhaps some wouldn't have thought the triangular face, with its high cheekbones, soft enough for female beauty, but Jem liked that tang of angularity, the modeling of strong bones. Showed character—which she was going to need.

“Brittany,” he said gently, “when I stopped by here this spring, I saw Tante couldn't live much longer. I took the liberty of writing your father's family. Your father's lawyer in Jefferson had their address. When I stopped through town on the way out here, this letter was waiting.”

He reached into his coat and drew out a crumpled letter that bespoke the long miles it had traveled. “From Arizona Territory,” he said, privately regretting there hadn't been a fine Virginia mansion for this girl to take refuge in. “Your cousin Regina's married an officer at Camp Bowie. She's sent money for your stage fare and offers you a home.” When the girl's dark eyebrows drew together in shocked displeasure, he said hastily, “You'll have to agree it's kind of your cousin.”

“Oh, I'll agree to that. Very kind. And kind of you, dear Jem, to worry about me.”

The stairs of the house creaked as they went up them into the back part of the rambling building, where Tante and Brittany had lived in two bedrooms, the library, a small parlor, and the kitchen. Fulkston's lawyer, Bruce Hackett, had helped Tante survive by selling off the handsome furnishings after Fulkston's shipping business collapsed during the war. Tristesse had never been a working plantation, only a gracious country home for the Virginian and his darkly beautiful bride. The few house servants were free and all except Tante left when there was no longer money to pay them.

Growing up without a father or mother, Brittany couldn't miss what she'd never known. Secure in Tante's rapt devotion, she'd run wild in the woods, paddled her slim pirogue among the cypress knees and giant trees marking the lake, exploring its curves and bends, coves and small islands. Nearly every day she brought home fish, and the woods yielded mayhaws and berries in the summer, nuts and acorns in the fall. With chickens and a big garden, they'd seldom gone hungry.

After the war Tristesse had been confiscated and sold, but the new owner was a carpetbagging speculator who had died before he could see his acquisition in the bayou. His heirs either had not known about it or hadn't bothered to claim such a remote holding. Brittany thought of the place as hers and Tante's.

It was a shock now when Jem sighed and reluctantly extracted another letter from his wrinkled black coat. “Even if it was fitting for you to stay here, child, I'm afraid you can't. Lawyer Hackett had this news from Tristesse's owner with the same post that brought your cousin's letter.”

“What news?”

“Mr. Bradley Eustis, son of the man who bought Tristesse, has completed his education, traveled for a time in Europe, and is now ready to assume full charge of his father's affairs.” Jem faltered at Brittany's look; he'd seen that same amazed disbelief in the eyes of a fox as a trap snapped on its foreleg. His throat ached. Dumbly he thrust the second missive into Brittany's hand. She read it quickly. Bradley Eustis announced his intent to visit Tristesse and decide whether to sell it or install a manager to make it productive.

“He'll be here this week,” she said in a stunned voice.

“Yes.”

Brittany stared unseeingly at Tante's rocking chair beside the hearth. Jem said gently, “Read the other letter, my dear.”

Rousing, Brittany shook her head so fiercely that the black waving mass of hair escaped the yellow ribbon holding it at the nape of her neck. “I'll talk to Mr. Eustis. There's a fisherman's cabin around the bend of the lake. Maybe he'd let me stay there if I'd help with the work.”

“But child—”

“This is my home!” Brittany cried. “I love it! I don't want to go out to that desert and live on the charity of relations who thought themselves too good for my mother.”

“It wouldn't be charity,” Jem said with a quirk of his lip. “You'd be governess to two children and ‘generally make yourself useful.'”

Brittany put both letters down and poured boiling water to steep in a pot with mint and blackberry leaves. “I'll wait for Mr. Eustis.”

Jem was preaching that Sunday in two small communities. He left next morning, troubled as he grasped Brittany's hand. She was so young, so unaware of the ways of the world. He doubted that she'd ever even talked with a young man except for an occasional fisherman or hunter.

“I'll stop back on my swing west,” he told her. “If you can't come to an agreement with Mr. Eustis, I'll help you arrange to go to your cousin or do whatever seems best.” He took a deep breath. “If—if Mr. Eustis is not a gentleman, get yourself to Jefferson at once! Lawyer Hackett will find accommodations for you till I return.”

“Unless Mr. Eustis is an ogre, he can't object to my living in that old cabin,” she said, natural confidence coming back. She squeezed the minister's hand. “Bless you, Jem, you're good to worry about me, but you needn't! Have a safe journey.”

She waved him off. As his mule disappeared along the overgrown wagon road that twisted through hickory and oak with a towering overgrowth of pine, beech, and magnolia, her smile faded. She felt suddenly very alone. Going to sit on a log by Tante's grave, she got out her cousin's letter.

Dear Reverend Harrison: Your saddening news was sent me by my mother, who is in frail health. The war ruined my family. None of them have the means to take responsibility for my unfortunate young cousin. It is upon me, therefore, to aid her in her distress. In spite of his merits, my excellent husband, Lieutenant Graves, has not received the promotions he so greatly deserves, so I cannot offer my cousin an idle life till she shall marry, but if she would come to us at Camp Bowie, serve as little Ned and Angela's governess, and generally make herself useful, we would give her a home, the respectability of a brother-in-law both officer and gentleman, and provide the chaperonage she must direly need. I will also do my best to remedy those defects in social graces and deportment sure to occur in one reared in the swamps by a servant. Because of the difficulties and slowness of communication and since I cannot believe my cousin has any other recourse, I enclose sufficient money for her journey. Camp Bowie is set in villainous desert country, and she must steel herself for the hardships I endure gladly for my dear husband's sake. At least the savages have not yet attacked the post, though they make quick work of isolated parties
.

Regina Graves

Brittany made a face, trying to picture the woman who had penned these dutiful, cool lines. Brittany assumed that with young children, Regina was not too much her elder, but no glow of high spirits or friendliness warmed the invitation.

Glancing at the great trees, the bowers of jasmine and honeysuckle, the deep grass, flowering dogwood and redbud, Brittany shuddered at the thought of a desert. No, this was home! Even if he was the son of a carpetbagger, Bradley Eustis would be stony-hearted to deny her the old cabin, which was of no use to anyone else.

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