I Heard the Bells, page 1
I Heard The
a short story
Angela K Couch
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 Angela K Couch
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the author, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.
Printed in the United States of America
I Heard the Bells/ Angela K Couch
History—Romance. 2. Christian—Inspirational.
All scripture is taken from the KJV of the Bible
14 13 12 11 10 / 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
I Heard The
Virginia, December 1864
Gabriel’s heart pounded. Two days ago, he’d marched against hundreds of Confederate guns, yet facing death hadn’t affected him like the sight of that cozy farm house, smoke rising from the chimney, a light glowing in one of the windows. He paused at the edge of the orchard, the trees’ bare arms extending over his head. His breath billowed in the air. Dusk had introduced a biting chill and turned a gentle shower into flecks of white… just in time for Christmas.
Dropping his gaze from the frame house to the faded and muddied blue uniform he wore, Gabriel dragged his hat from his head. What was he doing here? The farm appeared to be faring well enough. His family was probably fine. Best for him to walk away.
Since when did he do what was best? Or easiest, for that matter.
With his hat tucked under his arm, Gabriel buried his hands in his pockets and jogged the short distance remaining. He wrapped his fingers around the latch, then froze. This was no longer his home. According to Pa, he wasn’t even a member of the family anymore.
His pulse thundered as footsteps padded toward the door. It opened with a creak. The tall, wiry frame of one of the most handsome women he’d known stood motionless with a backdrop of light from the fireplace as the sun continued its quick escape. She stared, eyes wide and brimming.
She blinked rapidly and swept loose strands of hair from her cheeks. The deep honey tones that had graced her head appeared faded, now laced with white. “Lord, be praised. Gabriel? Can that really be you?”
He nodded. His teeth gritted against the burning behind his eyes.
She opened her arms and he stepped into them, returning the embrace. “What are you doing here? And in that uniform? It can’t be safe.”
“Probably isn’t, but our troops are camped only miles away, and with no enemy lines between here and there…” He glanced around the room. The long table, the large stone fireplace, Mama’s rocker across from Pa’s high-backed chair—everything exactly as it had been three years ago, except empty. “Where’s Pa?”
“He’s dead, son.”
Gabriel’s head snapped back to his mother. “Dead? How?”
“Battle. In Pennsylvania just over six months ago. Near a town called Gettysburg, they said.” She squeezed his hand. “He left shortly after you.”
“Gettysburg?” The word slammed into his chest, ripping apart his lungs. He fought for a breath. “Not Gettysburg.”
She nodded. “Lawrence was there, as well.”
No. He couldn’t be old enough to be a part of this. “Did he…?” Gabriel couldn’t finish.
“He’s fine. He’s even come home since. His platoon has been through the area recently.”
Gabriel’s gut twisted. What if…? The fact that they had all fought at Gettysburg was bad enough. “I’m so sorry, Mama.”
He pulled her back into an embrace and buried his face in her neck.
“Oh, my boy, you have nothing to apologize for.” She braced his shoulders. “I don’t have a side. I never have. I made up my mind about that the minute you walked out the door and pointed your horse north.”
Everything had seemed so clear in his mind when he’d left, but the line between who was right and who was wrong had since been drowned in blood and heaped upon with corpses. Though in all likelihood the Union would soon have their victory, Gabriel was too weary to muster much more than thanks to God that it would finally be over.
He straightened, seeking his mother’s face.
She smiled at him, dark eyes shining. “I’m proud of you, son. You followed your heart, and did what you felt was right. And look at you…” She ran her finger over the gold bar on his shoulder strap.
Her praise only increased the ache in his chest, but he answered the question she’d hung between them. “First lieutenant.”
“Lieutenant Morgan. What mother wouldn’t be proud?” She patted his arm. “Now get over to that table and let’s get some vittles in you. You’re looking much too thin, my boy.”
Pulling off his muddy boots, and dropping his haversack, Gabriel did as ordered; though, if anyone looked too thin, she did.
“How long can you stay?”
He took hold on the closest chair to pull it out. “Almost three days. ‘Til Christm—”
The door burst open with a gust of winter air. “I came as soon as I heard about…”
Fugitive blonde locks clung to the young woman’s reddened cheeks. She stared at him, mouth agape. “Gabe?”
He fought the urge to sink into the chair. “Clara.”
Still as beautiful as ever—even more so than the image his memory had clutched the past three years.
Her gaze dropped to his uniform, and the moisture pooling over her azure irises was blinked away. Her eyes narrowed. “You need to leave.”
Gabriel forced a laugh. “You aren’t the one who decides that. What are you doing here, anyway?”
Clara twisted and pushed the door closed, cutting off the draft. “I have more right to be here than you.” Her chin jutted upward as she turned back. “Lawrence and I are engaged.”
“You and Larry? But—”
“You left.” She held her palm up to him. “I’m not here to reminisce with you, Gabriel. In fact, I should keep my mouth closed and let our soldiers find you. Better yet, I should tell them you’re here so they can drag you out and give you the whipping you deserve.”
Fire lit the ends of his nerves. So much for any affection she’d had for him. “You know they wouldn’t stop there. After they got done beating me within an inch of my life, they would put a bullet between my eyes. Now, what Confederate soldiers? Why are they coming here?”
Clara’s eyes darted between Gabriel and his mother. “Pa stopped by the farm to check on us… and to let me know that Lawrence has been hurt.”
His stomach formed a large knot as he stole a glance at his mother. Her palm pressed over her mouth. Not Larry, too, Lord. He looked back to Clara. “How bad?”
“I don’t know. But he’s being brought here. I thought they’d come by now.”
The whinny of a horse cut through the solid walls. His mother gripped his arm. “They can’t find you, Gabriel.”
After two steps, he pulled up the curtain in the window just enough to see through the snow to the party of three or four men and a wagon only ten yards up the road. Too late to try slipping out the front.
“In the loft, son.” She motioned him toward steep steps beside the bedroom door.
He gave a nod and squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mama.” He shouldn’t have come. Shouldn’t have endangered her, too. Scrambling up the stairs, he dove over the small bed that had served him as a youth, and pulled part of the patchwork quilt over his body. He’d grown a mite and he had to bend his knees to hide his feet… His feet. His boots remained near the door. And his haversack.
Below him, the hinges sang.
Clara’s heart thudded against her ribs, just as it had been doing since she’d walked in and found Gabriel here. As much as she hated the dark blue uniform he wore, she couldn’t deny how striking he looked. Especially his equally blue eyes. She laid a hand against her stomach. She had no time for the fluttering or the churning as a knock sounded at the door.
“Come in.” Martha Morgan’s voice cracked.
A soldier in grey hurried inside, stomping his shoes to knock the mud from them. Clara choked back a gasp. Gabriel’s tall black boots stood not two feet from the Confederate soldier. She wiped her moist palms across the sides of her skirt and attempted to keep her eyes averted from them and the military pack. Would they be recognizable as Union issue? Either way, they could raise questions about their owner.
The soldier addressed Martha. “Madam, we have brought your son, Private Morgan. He has a shoulder wound, but there is nothing more the surgeon can do for him and there are too many other men to care for. Since you lived so near, we thought it best to bring him here. Where would you like him laid?”
Clara looked from the soldier to Martha. The poor woman’s face had lost all color. “Why don’t I draw back the covers on the bed? That’s probably the best place for him.” Clara waved the soldier out of the door. “You go help bring him in.”
No sooner than the man turned his back, she snatched up Gabriel’s boots and pack. Holding them low so her skirts would shield them, Clara hurried into the bedroom and shoved them under the bed. She drew back the quilts as the soldiers trudged across the floor and heaved Lawrence onto the thin mattress. Her hand stole to her mouth. His right shoulder and most of his chest had been wrapped in bandages stained crimson, brighter shades of scarlet still seeping from the center.
As the soldiers left, Clara moved to his head and ran her fingers across his ashen brow, wet with sweat.
“Oh, Lawrence.” Martha fell to her knees at the side of the bed. She grasped her son’s hand. “Lord, please save my boy. Please… Oh, please.”
Clara blinked but only dislodged the moisture blurring her vision. Droplets rolled down her cheeks as a motion drew her gaze to the bedroom doorway. Gabriel’s large frame and blue coat filled it as he stepped through. The heavy trod of hooves and the squeak of an axle confirmed the Confederates’ departure. She glowered at him. “Look what you’ve done.”
He stopped. “How am I responsible for this?”
“You’re one of them.” She clamped her eyelids closed against the pain etching itself into his handsome features.
Lawrence groaned then coughed, and Clara pivoted to him. She glanced into his brown eyes, then to his mother’s.
Martha leaned over, hope lighting her face. “Lawrence?”
His voice came as a hoarse rumble from the back of his throat. “Mama?”
“I’m here, love. And Clara.” She brushed her thumb across his face, darkened with dirt and smoke. “Even Gabriel’s come back to us. We’re finally together again.”
His brow pressed together with confusion, and then a scowl. “Gabe?”
Gabriel hastened to stand behind Martha. He reached for his brother’s arm, but Lawrence jerked it away, wincing from the pain of the movement.
“Stay away from me.” His lip curled as he stared at his older brother. “Somebody, make him go away. I don’t want him here.”
“But, Larry.” Gabriel’s eyes widened with pleading.
“Get him out!”
Clara hurried around the bed and grabbed Gabriel’s arm. She tugged him toward the door. “The least you can do is respect his wishes.”
Gabriel’s gaze remained on his brother as he retreated from the room. His fingers tangled themselves in her sleeve. “Tell me something I can do for him. What does he need?”
“He needs you to stay away.” She swatted his hand. “You don’t belong here anymore. Go back to your army, Gabe.”
Not able to meet his gaze, Clara pushed the bedroom door closed. She leaned into the solid wood, the hurt on Gabriel’s face wringing her heart.
Gabriel stared into the blackness of the loft, his feet hanging over the end of his bed. The last twenty-four hours, since he walked in that door, seemed cloaked in a strange sort of haze. Much like clouds of smoke wafting over a battlefield.
The murmur of his mother’s voice tightened his chest. With sleep eluding him, he rolled to his feet, pulled on his trousers and crept to the head of the stairs. Now that Clara was gone, maybe if Lawrence slept, he’d be allowed to sit with him.
The flickering from the fireplace danced across the wall, the only light. Mama stood at the table, her hands braced against it, her head bowed. “I do not know Thy plans for my boys. I cannot keep them here or safe. I cannot even be sure my baby boy will survive the night.” Her shoulders trembled. “One more Christmas, Lord. One more Christmas as a family, with love and peace at this hearthside. And forgiveness. Just one more Christmas. All I ask.”
He shifted and the stairs squeaked beneath him.
Her hands wiped across her face as she turned. “What are you doing awake?”
Gabriel motioned to the bedroom door. “Am I supposed to be able to sleep? How’s he doing?”
“The bleeding has stopped again.” Weariness strained her voice. “He’s in a lot of pain, but seems to be resting all right.” She slipped into the nearest chair. “What about you?”
Gabriel dropped his gaze to the bottom stairs as he found a seat on them. “It hardly matters.”
“It does to me.”
He pushed the air from his lungs. “Numb.” That about summed it up. “Somehow, I pictured Pa still sitting there in his chair by the fireplace reading his Bible, or cleaning that old musket Grandpa used during the Revolution. I hoped to make my peace with him.” Gabriel pressed his thumb and forefinger into his temples. “Then, to see Larry all… and him hating me. And Clara. She was angry when I left, but I still held out hope that after the war…”
Everything that really mattered in his life was broken up—much like he was inside. But Mama had enough to worry about, so he straightened his spine and heaved himself to his feet. “I’m all right. I’d like to sit with Lawrence awhile, if I can.”
“Of course, though Clara’s still with him.”
He glanced at the door beside him. Great. “I thought I heard her leave hours ago.”
“Her mother came to see if there was anything she needed. You probably heard her.”
“I recognized the voice. Just assumed they went home together. Clara’s been in there for a full day. Can’t you tell her to go home?”
Mama raised a brow. “Why don’t you?”
Gabriel pulled his palm over the week-old beard clinging to his jaw then squared off to the door. “I think I will.”
A candle on the bedside table cast a gentle glow over Lawrence’s sleeping form and lit the delicate contours of Clara’s face. Her elbows rested on her knees, her hands clasped. She looked up. “What are you doing here?”
He moved to her and wrapped his fingers around her elbow. “It’s my turn to sit with him. Lawrence may be your fiancé, but he’s my brother.”
Standing, Clara folded her arms across her abdomen. “He doesn’t want you here.”
“That’s between him and me.” Gabriel reclaimed her arm and directed her to the door. “I’ll leave when he asks me to.”
Her feet slid to a halt as she twisted to him. Her mouth opened, probably with another re
Her chin trembled, and she tilted her face away.
“Why my brother?”
She looked at him, but not in the eyes. “I care deeply for Lawrence. And he’s not as foolhardy as you.”
“Granted. But do you love him—like you loved me?”
“Leave me alone, Gabriel. You left, remember?”
Yes. How could he forget? “Clara, I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry for what, exactly? You’re still wearing that uniform.”
He swallowed hard, but it did little to dislodge the lump expanding in his throat. “I’m sorry for hurting you. I’m sorry I disappointed you.”
“But not at all sorry that you turned your back on your community, your family. Tell Lawrence how sorry you are, Gabriel. Tell your Pa.”
Her words plowed into his chest, and he staggered back a step.
“It’s too late for apologies.” She twisted on her heel and yanked the door closed between them.
Clara clamped her hand over her mouth to block the sound of her sobs. She sagged against the closest wall. The memory of the agony in his blue eyes tore her. And she’d been the one to inflict it. Why his brother? Yes, she cared for Lawrence, loved him even, but mostly their engagement had been a way to pretend Gabriel didn’t exist anymore. She was pretty sure Lawrence felt the same way. Gabriel had abandoned them both, and they had exacted their revenge.
Across the room, Martha reclined in the rocking chair, the slow sway revealing that she was awake and had heard every word spoken.
Clara hurried to pull her shoes on, and her woolen cape.