Liam had a gash that followed the outer curve of his shoulder, a wicked slice that bit deep enough to flash the white under layers of skin. Rees pressed her lips together against a wave of nausea when she peeled his shirt away and caught her first blood-smeared look of it.
“Ruined my second coat,” he said as she prodded the edge of the laceration with a tentative finger. “What a rare thing it is to have two coats these days.”
“What was it?”
“Saber. I ducked it, but it got me anyway.” His tone was casual, even as he leaned heavily onto the table and fresh blood leaked from the wound.
Theo stood on the other side of the table, expectant, anxious, and almost boyish in his concern. “Well?”
“Well, it’s going to take me a bit,” she said, sparing him a disgruntled look. “But I think so, yes.” She swallowed. “I’ve sewn clothes and quilts…but never skin.”
“It’s much the same, really,” Liam said. He gestured to Theo and his tall, slender friend went to his oilskin jacket where it was draped on a chair and produced a flask that he tossed over. Liam tipped it back and then handed it over his shoulder to her. “Here, darling, so your hands don’t shake.”
“My hands won’t shake,” she said. “And this is going to hurt.”
“Well.” He drained it in three swallows; Rees estimated he’d had almost five shots – that would have been enough to put her husband well under the table; but for a man used to drink, it would just get him nice and numb. “Cheers to your hands, then,” he said, tossing the flask back.
Theo caught it deftly and disappeared it again. “I don’t suppose you have anymore?”
She lifted her brows. “Haven’t you gone through the house already?”
The man was incapable of looking sheepish, she guessed. He scratched at his dark beard. “We couldn’t find the root cellar, though.”
“Knowing my mother, there’s nothing in it. Now.” She reached for the bundle of linen she’d stripped off the one remaining bed. “Can I get to work?”
Theo muttered something and then nodded.
Rees’s eyes dropped to her patient. He was even thinner than she’d thought, not much more than bone and lean stretches of muscle. He had a redhead’s complexion that had seen some sun, golden across his shoulders and down the middle of his back. It had been a long time since she’d seen a man’s back, and that had been William’s, and he hadn’t been hungry and thin, strong and sinewy.
“Ready?” she asked.
He turned his head a fraction toward her. His hair was limp and greasy; road dirt dusted the creases along his eye. His lashes were pale, but long; she could see them flutter as he blinked. “Yes.” Something about his voice was warm; maybe it was the whiskey, but she swore he was trying to soothe her, reassuring her though he was the one about to have a needle through his skin.
Rees nodded and took a deep breath. On one strip of linen, she’d laid clean needle and the ugly, coarse black thread that was all she had. A knife, also sterilized in boiling water. Beside it was the tea kettle, the water still steaming from its mouth, and linen for cleaning. She’d washed her hands with a last precious sliver of soap that had been hidden inside a false bottom of a drawer. As she reached for her supplies, she glanced up –
Theo was gone.
He wasn’t alone. She’d followed him outside, the little one. Annabel. Brat. Little shit. Without turning his head, he could just see the flash of fading sunlight on the finely-spun gold of her hair. Her dress was a raggedy, dark thing, too big and cinched tight around her waist with a leather belt, the hem tattered where it dragged the ground. Her shoes were too-thin house slippers turned the color of mud.
“You’re not too good at sneaking up on people, you know,” Theo called over his shoulder.
“Yeah, well you’re not too good at…” She made a frustrated sound as she grappled for a retort and he almost smiled. These girls were absolute hell. “…Not too good at…being respectable,” she finished. He heard her steps hasten as she sought to catch up with him.
“I wasn’t trying to be.”
“Some Southerner you are. You act like a Yankee jackass.”
“Do I? How many Yankees have you met?” He reached the edge of the tree line, and the thicket of felled pine boughs he’d been searching for, and turned to face her.
Annabel pulled up short before she could get too close to him, scowling fiercely. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, a tiny waif of a thing, with dirt smudged on her fine-boned face and arms. If she’d fill out, and stop snarling, she’d turn out more than pretty one day. But for now, she was both pitiful and annoying.
“I met one,” she said, lifting her chin. “I…well, I saw him, before…” Her dark eyes widened and her mouth pinched up tight as she thought better of what she was about to say.
“One whole Yankee. That’d make you an expert then.”
Her eyes narrowed to furious dark slits.
He put his back to her. The hope chest he’d dragged out of the house was still where he’d left it, hidden under a mountain of pine limbs. They were loose, and he brushed them aside, finding a thick spotting of sap on the lid of the chest. Damn. He’d have to strip the wood if he ever wanted to sell the thing…if Rees never found out what he’d done to her furniture.
When widow Cornish passed, the house became a safe point, a place where they could stop for the night on their trips through town. They’d taken what they could sell, and what they could use. Their last trip through, Theo had been forced to leave the axe behind – it was too heavy to carry that far, and too valuable to leave out for deserters to find. So he’d hidden it, two half-bottles of whiskey, candles, ammunition, and a dozen stolen trinkets he planned to sell at some point, under a quilt in the cedar chest. Inside, it still smelled like clean wood and candle wax, and the ax was right where he’d left it.
“What are you doing?” Annabel demanded behind him.
“Do you really want to ask a man with an ax that?” He lifted it for her to see as he turned; sunlight caught the curve of the blade, glimmering down its length.
She folded her arms and puffed up her flat little chest. “You don’t scare me.”
“Then you’re stupid.”
He sighed. Bantering with the oldest Harwood sister had the potential to be entertaining. This one…not so much. “You have two logs left for the fire. Do you want me to chop you some more, or do you want to hound me and eat cold mush for supper?”
Her expression caught, frozen somewhere between surprised and suspicious. Without her sister-in-law’s embarrassment, she shrugged and said, “We don’t have enough food for supper, anyway.”