I'm back after having writers block and lack of inspiration. Thanks to you readers sticking with me, enjoy!

It was dawn, and Cap had already been awake for several hours. He was out in the woods with his rifle, doing his best to make no sound while he hunted through the bush. Others of the Hatfield's clan were out scattered out in the woods as well, paired off while in search of intruders on their land. It wasn't just McCoy's they were watching for, but also predators. Either wolves or coyotes had been poking around the Hatfields lands, digging by the fences and stealing their chickens. They had set traps, but none of the ones Cap had checked had been tripped.

There wasn't much chance of spotting the pesky invaders now that they would be retiring before the hot sun of the day would break, so Cap kept his sight on finding some breakfast instead. He wasn't alone. Cotton was with him, trailing behind with clumsy steps that was making far too much noise for Cap's liking. He didn't reprimand him though. Maybe because he was feeling a little on edge himself.

He halted when he spotted a light brown hare crouched in the low brush, nibbling on grass. Cotton bumped into his back, not noticing he had stopped until he got a mouthful of his coat. Cap shot his cousin an annoyed look over his shoulder as he gestured at him to be quiet, with a finger held up to his lips. Cotton followed his gaze towards the rabbit, a despondent look growing on his face for the animal. Cap had the hare lined up in his sight, but before he could take the shot, a twig broke beside him as Cotton took a step forward. The rabbit fled, never stopping to look up as it disappeared back into the forest.

"God damn, Cotton," said Cap as he straightened up to look out into the quiet wood.

"Sorry," Cotton mumbled, his bottom lip protruding as he looked at the ground.

Cap sighed with his rifle rested at his side. He hadn't meant to snap at his cousin. "S'all right. Wasn't hungry anyway." He ruffled Cotton's white hair until he smiled again.

"Cap, I don't think I could kill animals."

"No, I reckon ya couldn't," Cap agreed. He remembered the one spring a few years back. Uncle Ellison and his Pap had been in the slaughter house when Cotton had stumbled upon them by accident, after escaping his Ma's supervision. He had cried so hard over seeing the dead carcasses that he had made himself sick. It had taken Uncle Ellison a week to finally get him right again. "Good thing you n' yer daddy's land hasn't been plundered by dogs."

"Hey Cap?" Cotton asked. "Would it be easier killin' a person, ya think?"

"That's not sumthin' you should ever have to know," Cap answered, glad at the moment that his Uncle had kept Cotton out of the McCoy fight. "C'mon, let's start headin' back."

Cotton lumbered beside him. "Are you seein' Clara today?"

"I don't know." Cap frowned. In truth, she was the reason for his foul mood. Not her directly actually, but rather her absence. Since she and her father had attended supper at his family's home, he hadn't seen or heard all from her. It was pissing him off. She had kissed him…and nothing. Of course, he hadn't gone looking for her either, nor had he been within sight of her porch. If he was to properly court her, he should have done that. Maybe that's what she was expecting. He just never had time, between working at the timber yard, and helping out around home. If he was being honest, he missed her something terrible.

"I think you should," Cotton piped up. "She sits outside all day, rockin' in the chair, jus' starin' ahead. I don't know wut she's lookin' at."

"Really?" Cap envied his cousin the view from his home. If Clara was only a field away from his window, he'd constantly be sneaking out to be with her. A piece of him understood Johnse, though his elder brother had constantly been enamoured with a number of girls. Clara was the first for Cap, and maybe the only one. He was serious about marrying her, and Uncle Wall's courthouse was getting harder to walk by every time.

"Uh-huh. I think she jus' misses you," Cotton continued. "I would'a asked, but daddy didn't want me buggin' the Darlings."

"I doubt you would'a bothered Clara." As for Mr. Darling, Cap couldn't say. He had thought about the bizarre and intimidating man a lot since talking across from him at his mama's table. What had seemed like encouragement to pursue Clara had turned out to be more of a challenge. Perhaps it was a challenge Cap was losing. He hadn't gone to see Clara in close to a fortnight.

He emerged from the wood with Cotton at his side, whistling a tune that had managed to stick in Cap's head. The sun struck his face, and he was in a decidedly better mood with his resolve strengthened. He sent Cotton up to the house for breakfast and with a message for his mama. Cap wouldn't be eating with the rest of his family. He was going to saddle up and head on down the road to the Darlings. His plan was to do something special for Clara, and he hoped he could summon up some of that same charm he had used during their moonlight walk. If only he knew what that was. Cap didn't put much thought into sweet-talking, but Clara had found reason to press her lips on his, and he would like for that to happen again. He wouldn't tarnish her innocence though, and he kept in mind what Uncle Jim had told him in Mate Creek before.

"Bye Cap," Cotton called from the porch, waving enthusiastically.

Cap waved back and grinned under the brim of his hat as he started a slow trot down the road off the property of his family's land. The day was young, and he had an early start to get to Clara's before noon. He didn't know what her normal day consisted of, but hopefully she could spare some time to be with him. It would be a perfect opportunity to get to know each other better, so he could answer questions properly about her when asked. He had an eagerness to learn more about her travels in Europe, and even in the North of his country, though he wouldn't say that around Uncle Jim. Talk of Yankees would only earn him a slap.

He kept his eyes forward, and his ears open as he traveled down the road. Uncle Ellison's property was coming up on his right, and he could see Clara's home from a distance. Its gloom was easy to spot through the green trees, and there was a steady stream of white smoke coming up from the chimney stack. He imagined Clara dancing about the kitchen, the metal clanking of cast-iron pots around her while she bumped closed cupboards with her hip. It brought a smile to his face, and he had his horse speed up, spurred on by anticipation.

The porch was devoid of a presence as he got up to the house. He thought maybe that he would see her there in the chair like Cotton had described her, but perhaps she was busy in the kitchen instead. He leapt off of his horse, giving him a gentle brush on the head before climbing up the porch stairs. The last time he had escorted her home, he had not gotten this close to the house. It was rickety by the looks, but the structure was sturdy beneath his feet, and he did not feel the wood or stone give under his steps. He raised his hand, and knocked on the door twice before taking a respectful step back for room. No need to crowd her.

Footsteps approached the door, right before stopping by the wooden blockade. "Who's there?" Clara's voice called, muffled.

"It's Will," He answered.

The door swung back, and there was Clara, looking much like his mama did when she was tending to things in the kitchen. Her braided hair had come loose, and there was white wisps of it tickling her face. The sleeves of her blue blouse were rolled up to her elbows, half of the hem remaining tucked into her brown skirt, though it hung free in the back. She brushed her forehead with the inside of her wrist, a delicate act even when he could see she was tense.

"Will, you're back," She exclaimed, as if she believed he wouldn't return. He frowned slightly. That was his doing of course. "God, and I must look like a mess."

"Nah, yer jus' as I remember you," He said, and she immediately stopped groping at her hair to smile at him. He could have called her beautiful, something like Johnse would do, but what good was the word when she was more than that to him?

"Oh, why don't you come in? She asked, stepping aside as she used her usual manners.

Cap followed her into the cozy cabin, surprised at how warm it was as he became enveloped by the heat from the fire in the stone hearth. The home smelt like candle wax and potatoes, and as he stepped inside to the kitchen, he noticed the small hill of peeled potatoes sitting in a colander in the basin sink. He wondered how long she had been at the peeling.

"I guess I got carried away," She said, noticing where his stare had landed.

"You plan on havin' company or sumthing?"

"No," She let out a small laugh as she stepped past him to the sink. "My eyes are bigger than my stomach sometimes."

A moment of silence stretched, and Cap felt his guilt creep back on him. "Clara,"


"Er—I'm sorry, 'bout not comin' by sooner. Seems like a rotten thing after everything," He said, hiding away under his hat.

He was surprised when she invaded his space with a strong embrace, nearly knocking him back on his rear while he grabbed at the table behind him to steady them both. Her warmth was familiar, and he felt a stirring in his blood from her presence. "I did miss you Will, though I'm afraid I wouldn't have been the best companion these past days. I haven't been feeling well."

Cap took a step back and placed his hand over Clara's forehead, like his mama used to do when he or his siblings were under the weather. In Mate Creek, a cold was enough to kill a grown and fed man in the dead of winter, and Clara didn't have half the strength of someone like Uncle Jim. Fear for her crippled him.

"Yer alright though?"

"It's nothing I haven't dealt with before," She assured, removing his hand carefully while leaving a wet kiss upon it. Her eyes were alert and alluring, more daring than the painted up girls at his favorite watering hole. Cap couldn't look away.

"Clarice!" He hadn't heard another presence in the room, and it unnerved him to be so caught off guard with Clara in his arms.

Her father stood at the doorjamb from what was likely his study, a stern expression creasing his brow as he regarded his ward. She took a step back from Cap, but looked miffed to doing so. It was nothing at all like the obedient behavior she had displayed at dinner. She stood before her father with a small scowl.

"Did we disturb you?"

"Not at all," He remarked curtly. "But you did not inform me about having a visitor. I wouldn't want him catching what you've got."

"I'm all better now," said Clara bluntly.

"That remains to be seen," Mr. Darling refuted before turning to Cap with a bland smile. "Master William, it is good to see you well. I confess, I expected a visit from you sooner."

"My family needed me," said Cap respectfully.

"A loyal man, that's good," He said while striding into the room. "Clarice, might I speak with you a moment?"

"No," She said back. "Will and I were just about to leave for a walk around the fields. Later perhaps?"

Mr. Darlings jaw tightened, a sign of his impatience for her. Cap didn't know what new troubles he had stumbled upon, but the tension was palpable. "And does a young man ask her father's permission?"

"By yer will, sir," said Cap, stepping forward as he took off his hat. "Can I borrow Clara's company fer a time?"

"She will not be missed," He agreed. "But never off the property, not until her health is in a better state."

"I promise, on my family's name, I'll keep her within sight of yer home."

Clara took his hand into her, and all of his worry about Mr. Darling went away. Her presence was cooling, but it lacked the certainty that she would behave herself when out of her father's presence. Mr. Darling seemed to sense this, his stern gaze waning to exhaustion.

"Clarice, don't cause any amount of trouble for Master William."

"I'll be the lady," She vowed, before giving Cap a sharp tug on the arm in direction of the door.

Cap just managed to replace his hat back on his head as they hit the porch, Clara still leading. He let out a chuckle, completely surprised by her wired disposition. She had shown the same fierceness when dealing with Tolbert McCoy in Mate Creek that day. "You really wanna go fer a walk, huh?"

"A walk and a talk," she said, smiling back as she led him past his horse tied up at the front of the Darlings property. The noon sun caught her face, causing her eyes to glow brightly, and even with half sight, Cap was bewitched. She clung to his side, and he gladly took in her warmth despite the heat of the day already on him. "Maybe something more?"

He didn't know what she meant. He didn't care. Cap followed her blindly, all while the tall, black figure of Mr. Darling was left standing on the porch, an unease cast upon him as he waited.

Review your thoughts, the mystery of the Darlings is building!