Smoke River Family(9)

By: Lynna Banning



 “It was worth it,” she said on a sigh. “I said goodbye to Cissy.”

 Zane flinched. He still couldn’t face seeing Celeste’s grave. Maybe he never would.

 “Nathan—”

 “Zane,” he corrected. “It’s been Zane ever since I was ten years old and my baby sister couldn’t say ‘Nathaniel.’”

 “Zane, then. If you didn’t leave the roses, then who did?”

 “Damned if I know,” he muttered.

 “You haven’t visited her grave, have you?” Even muffled under the wet napkin, her voice sounded accusing.

 “No, I have not.”

 “Why?”

 He lifted the cloth from one of her slim forearms and swung it in the air, then settled it again. “I don’t know why. Well, yes, I do know.”

 He swung the other napkin to cool it. “I— As long as I don’t see her grave, she’s not really gone.”

 Winifred pulled the cloth from her face and stared up at him. “But you saw her buried!”

 Zane took the napkin from her hand and turned away to flap it in the air. “Yes, I know that I was there, or at least my body was there. Much of it I don’t remember.”

 “Oh,” she breathed. “I felt that way when our mother died. Cissy was probably too young to remember much, but for years afterward it was as if I had dreamed it, the funeral, and Papa weeping. There are still parts I don’t recall clearly.”

 Zane folded the cooled cloth and laid it across her forehead. Her hair was loose, he noted, spread out on the pillow in a tumble of dark waves. It smelled faintly of cloves. Carnations, he guessed. Celeste’s hair had smelled like some kind of mousse.

 “Nath—Zane—you must visit Cissy’s grave. I think it would help.”

 He choked back a harsh laugh. Help? Nothing would help. Nothing would ever be the same again.

 “No,” he said at last.

 She held his gaze, the blue-green eyes he knew so well unblinking. Celeste had never challenged him like this. He found he didn’t like it.

 “No,” he said again. “You have more guts than I do, Winifred. And while I take exception to your bluntness, I envy you your courage.”

 By the time Winifred had thought up a proper retort, she heard the door to her bedroom close behind him.

 * * *

 In the morning, Winifred found the skin of her face and arms stiff and so parched her cheeks and arms stung. And her nose... She could not bear to look at it in the mirror over the yellow-painted chest in the bedroom. Gingerly she drew on a soft paisley skirt and shirtwaist, braided her hair and descended the stairs. She’d overslept. And, oh, how she needed a cup of Sam’s coffee!

 But Sam was not in the kitchen. And the saucepan she’d used to heat the baby’s bottle still sat on the stove.

 The back door swung open and Zane tramped in, a load of firewood stacked along one arm. “Morning,” he said. “Sam’s not going to be with us for a few more hours.”

 “It isn’t chicken pox, is it?”

 “Hardly. Too much hard cider at Uncle Charlie’s last night.” He dumped the wood into the wood box and bent to stir up the coals in the stove. “I’ll make the coffee this morning.”

 The doorbell clanged.

 “Damn that thing.” Zane clunked a hefty piece of oak into the firebox and went to answer it.

 Voices drifted from the entrance hall, a man’s deep baritone and a child’s trilling chatter. Winifred laid out plates and silverware on the dining table and tried not to listen.

 “How’d she get up into the tree, Colonel?” Zane’s voice.

 “How does she get anywhere, Doc? She climbs or crawls. Some days I think she can fly.”

 She heard Zane’s chuckle, then, “All right, Miss Manette, let’s have a look at your arm.”

 “It hurts,” the child said.

 “I bet it does. Nevertheless, let me feel along the bone and see if you can make a fist. Ah, good. What were you doing up in the apple tree, hmm?”

 “Looking for worms.”

 “Worms? Anyone ever tell you there’s plenty of worms in the ground?”

 “Not the right kind of worms,” the girl insisted.

 “Colonel, did she hit her head when she fell?”

 “Don’t know. Knocked the wind out of her, though,” the man said.

 “Might have a concussion,” Zane said quietly. “Manette, does your head hurt?”

 Silence. Apparently she was shaking her head.

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