Welcome back to Saturday Sample. In this scene from Gone for a Soldier, the Owen Family Saga novel that will be released later this summer, Ella Ruth Allen's shopping trip to Harrisonburg has been hastily terminated.
The journey home began even earlier in the day than had the one to Harrisonburg. The buggy moved through a ghostly mist that swirled as high as the tops of the wheels and obscured Ella Ruth's sight of the hills and gaps that she knew lay out there in the semi-darkness.
She sighed. Mist nearly always made her feel giddy, a bit excited, especially if she were on her way to meet Benjamin. But such was not the case today. Today, she thought, today is not the same. Today the mist caused her an unfamiliar sense of unease, a chilling sensation that all was not well, that the mist was not friendly, would not hide her escape from the house to meet Ben.
Ben. Perhaps she would never, ever see him again. That was entirely her own fault. She might never see Ben because...
She drew a quick breath. Please don't let Poppa hear me if I cry, she thought, struggling against the emotion sweeping through her body. Grief, hard as granite and bitter as quinine, ripped at her insides, tearing open a hole in her heart that only Ben could fill. She had nothing upon which to lay the blame but her own stiff pride.
Only that stubborn pride would get her through this moment, mask the trouble in her soul from Poppa, keep her alive in the unfulfilling future she saw stretching before her, endless and sterile. A future without Ben.
"You're quiet this morning." Poppa's voice broke into her solitary thoughts. "Disappointed not to spend my money on a new bonnet?"
She shook her head. "I suppose I'm tired," she answered, knowing it to be partly true. Her brain and bones and sinews reeked of tiredness. Was she disappointed that her shopping party had been terminated so abruptly? No. Not really. Her overwhelming pain stemmed from the grief, and yes, anxiety, on top of it all.
Poppa had mentioned a battle. Ben had gone for a soldier. Had he been involved? Was he wounded? Had he been... She couldn't even bear to think of the word. Ben, so alive, so vital, so...
She shifted on the seat cushion. He would not be dead. She would not entertain the notion. She glanced sideways at her father. Perhaps engaging in conversation would rid her of this pall.
"You're a mite quiet yourself," she said, struggling to put a tease into the words.
Poppa looked over at her. "I have a few things on my mind," he said. "I don't fancy ruination, daughter."
Ella Ruth did not answer. Poppa seemed too preoccupied to pay mind to her. So be it. She would be silent and endure the ride home as best she could.
When the sun finally lifted above Massanuten, the mist began to burn away, revealing first the treetops, then more foliage, then entire trees, glistening with dew, green and tall and comforting, and at last, the pike.
They were alone on the Valley Pike, she and Poppa. The wheels chattered slightly on the rock surface. The clip-clop of hooves behind them reminded her that one other person accompanied them. Thomas. She wondered if he was annoyed at Poppa's early start for a second day in a row. He was growing older, with grizzled white patches on his head where there had always been black kinks before. Older folks sometimes complained of rheumatism and such. No matter. It was his duty to obey Poppa's directions, even if they were tiresome at times. Like this morning.
Presently, another vehicle approached, coming toward them in some haste. Poppa moved the horse from the center of the road to allow the wagon van to pass their buggy. The wagon had canvas sides, rolled down and tied, and several dark, blotchy stains on the material caught her eyes, but not before the appalling sounds of moans came to her ears. Hideous, terrible moans.
"Poppa, what is th—"
"Cover your ears, Ella Ruth," he said, his command sterner than the one of last night at the hotel.
Her hands, obedient, flew up to do so. What was causing that noise?
"Ambulance wagon," he muttered as the din faded in the distance. "Do not look next time," he added.
Those blotches on the sidewalls. Her heart shrank. Blood. Of course they were blood. An ambulance carried wounded men to the hospital. Were they going all the way to Staunton? She looked back, unable to restrain herself. How many of the wounded would be alive when they arrived?
Was Ben among those poor boys in the wagon?
She asked herself the same question each time they passed another ambulance, until the flood of them moving south up the pike had her sobbing, biting her veil to bits with the anxiety of not knowing the answer.
What is the reality of war teaching Ella Ruth? What kind of change do you see in her from the previous scene? What emotions do you think she is experiencing on this day?
I hope you enjoyed this scene from Gone for a Soldier. Thank you for visiting. I love to read your comments, so if anything in the sample compels you to speak up, rest assured that I eventually read what you write and will reply, if needed. Questions? I'm open to them, too.
Please come back next Saturday for another sample. Thank you!
Marsha Ward is the award-winning author of an acclaimed novel series featuring the Owen family. Her latest book, Spinster's Folly, won the 2013 USA Best Book Award for Western Fiction. A former journalist, Ward has published over 900 articles, columns, poems and short stories. She is the founder of American Night Writers Association aka ANWA.