There was a question at the yahoo board regarding the moment Scarlett told Rhett she killed a Yankee soldier. This is a story examining that moment.
Some familiarity with the basic plot of Shakespeare's Richard III, while not absolutely necessary, might increase your enjoyment of Rhett's banter.
I own nothing, except for the magic wand of boredom.
There were still at least two hours left before sunset, she thought tiredly while driving her buggy on the dusty road that led to Atlanta. She had departed from the mill earlier than it was her custom, and that alone would have to do for Frank. That morning, propped up in bed and wincing at the pains in his gouty foot, he had shyly asked her not to go to the mills and she in turn had rolled her eyes, and promised to return home early. And in a way she was keeping her promise; she had done everything in her power to hasten things and leave earlier and she would undoubtedly be home long before nightfall.
But as the hot May afternoon closed in on her, making the green blanket she wore loosely around her waist to disguise her condition increasingly heavy and oppressive, she could not stop from cursing both Frank and his illness. One more hour spent at the mill would have gone a long way towards taming the humid heat and increasing the shadows of the trees overlooking the road. And besides, every minute that she wasted now was a minute lost forever, because the day she wouldn't be able to leave the house anymore was fast approaching and she dreaded its arrival.
She wanted to feel gratitude and tenderness towards Frank, and at times she really did. He had been her salvation, even if through his sheer gullibility and nothing more, and for that she would always think kindly of him. And the idea of having an old husband was not repulsive in itself. Men were in their prime far longer than women and she knew girls that had married men who could have easily been their fathers, if not grandfathers. But if only her old husband were just that, the idealistic picture of a grandparent to whom one looked up with respect and nothing more. If only he didn't have a body, and said body didn't have hairs, and bumps, and yellow teeth, and sagging skin. If only he didn't talk in that annoying voice that made her want to hit him.
She wished she could feel sorry for him, because she knew he was in terrible pain from his podagra, but she couldn't, not really. The sight of his foot, red and swollen, caused her stomach to clench with a nausea that made morning sickness look like a mild dream. And for the first time in her life she thanked God she was with child, for otherwise she would have had no excuse to delegate Frank's tending to Mammy and Pitty. As it was, not only had she managed to avoid nursing him, but she had obtained separate bedrooms for the time being.
During his flare of gout, Frank was very sensitive and every movement of the bed felt like daggers in his inflamed foot, every rustle of the bedcovers elicited groans of pain from him. Scarlett, on the other hand, trashed a lot in her sleep trying to find a comfortable position, and was not exactly happy to be constantly woken up by Frank's complaints. So, after a sleepless night, she had declared she needed her rest and would spend the nights in Melanie's old room until the podagra ran its course. And in that room she found more than the comfort of sleeping alone. She found an alleviation of her longings, because at Melanie's bedside there still was the framed picture of Ashley. How nice it was to fall asleep while the moon was casting silvery shadows on Ashley's familiar features. How long it had been since she had last seen him, how long!
She was feeling increasingly alone. She no longer had friends in Atlanta. The only persons she could talk to were Frank and Pitty, and not only that she wasn't interested in what they had to say, but she couldn't help but see it in their eyes: they were judging and condemning her, even while serving her with sugar-coated words.
The only person left that would listen to her without offering moral judgment, the only person that she could rely on these days, was Rhett. He had seen her at her worst; there was no doubt of that. He had been present during the single most disastrous moment of her social life, the moment she had vomited in public, offering tangible proof of her delicate condition. He should have been disgusted and ended their acquaintance, and she would have died of shame and humiliation. But oddly enough, he hadn't avoided her or treated her any differently and in turn she found she could look him in the eye without blushing. She was more at ease with him now than ever before, for he had been so kind after that incident that in a strange way she felt she could trust him no matter what.
Scarlett found herself grateful for his presence, just like she had been during the war when he would appear in his buggy and take her away from her duty at the hospital. But, as much as she had come to be more sincere and open during most of their conversations, she would never admit such a thing to Rhett; that she was looking forward to meeting him every day. Just like he would never openly say he was accompanying her to the mills because he cared for her safety. But she knew it; she was sure that his joking words had held some of the truth, and he was indeed there to look after her, even if it was obvious that he didn't love her.
But then, the week before, he had disappeared without warning, and she had been strangely disappointed because this seemed to refute her theory. If he had been driving her to the mills to protect her, then he wouldn't have left like that, without a word, without making sure she would be safe while he was away. It didn't take long, however, for her spirits to rise again, because day after day patrols of Yankee soldiers happened to share her route, as if by accident. Their captain, with whom she had made polite conversation during these rides, was one of Rhett's drinking friends, and she knew it, since it had only been the previous month that she had secured a contract to provide lumber for his house through Rhett's intervention. So this wasn't a string of coincidences, it was Rhett making sure she would be looked after during his absence, she concluded triumphantly. And once again she was impatient for his return, though she wasn't sure if it was to thank him for his thoughtful gesture or tease him about his uncharacteristic bout of chivalry.
But today she hadn't caught sight of the blue uniforms on her way to the mill, and, for the first time in her life, she regretted their absence. Her expectations had been frustrated yet again and she began to doubt Rhett's involvement in the entire thing. She must have been wrong the whole time, for after all why would a man with so many agreeable activities at hand occupy his time worrying about her?
She kept her gaze fixed on the road, watching the play of lights and shadows upon the yellow dust and wishing she could find a more comfortable position on the seat, because her feet had swollen during the day; she felt them heavy and strange, as if they belonged to another person. She was brought out of her reverie by a sudden change in the horse's pace, a sign that it had sensed the presence of another animal nearby. Scarlett raised her eyes and reined up at the sight.
There, at the crossroad, was Rhett, with his big black horse and his white suit, an alert look in his eyes as he was scanning the road, but otherwise so motionless that one could have mistaken his profile against the pale sky for one of a statue.
And she suddenly felt warmed by a feeling she couldn't entirely analyze. She was happy because she knew he was waiting there for her, and it had been so long since anyone else had done that. Because they were all there to rely upon her strength and, in days like this, she felt drained and wanted nothing more than to be cherished for no reason other than the mere fact that she existed. And strangely, Rhett waiting there with no ulterior motives was enough to make her feel better. Of course, one could say Frank was also waiting for her, but then he was supposed to, and besides he wasn't waiting for her, Scarlett, but for his wife and to him it would have made no difference if the woman fussing around his swollen toe were named Suellen. Or Pittypat, for that matter, her mind added wryly.
She saw Rhett's face break into a smile and she knew she had unconsciously returned the gesture, for his grin widened. She was expecting him to get down and tie his horse at the back of the buggy like it had been their custom, but he remained mounted and only greeted her with a flourish of his wide hat.
"Mrs. Kennedy, a pleasure to see you, as always. But didn't you promise me you'd be more careful? How exactly is stopping at crossroads to greet men of dubious reputation good for your safety?"
He shook his head with a mock scowl, waiting for her answer, but Scarlett, who was covering an amused grin with her gloved hand, was not up to the challenge, and so he continued in the same tone.
"I see. So my precious advice has fallen on deaf ears, just as I feared. At least I hope my other suggestion was of more use." And then he leaned forward in his saddle and asked in a suddenly somber tone, "Do you carry it with you at all times, like I asked you to?"
She got his meaning with a shiver and pressed her elbow lightly along her hip, feeling the outline of the gun hidden in her skirts. His seriousness made her feel as though they were in immediate danger, but she decided to play flippant and not let this unexpected change of atmosphere ruin the conversation.
"Why, Captain Butler, of course. Had I known the 'shoot first, offer your greetings later' policy was to be applied to you as well, believe me, I would have wasted no time. But I'll be sure to remember that in case we meet again."
"Sweet words and the promise of a bullet, that's all you have for me? And to think I have been looking forward to our reunion," he mockingly sighed, but then turned serious again "How have you been these days, since I've last seen you?"
There was undisguised kindness in his face and she found herself grateful to him again. As much as she had previously resented the concern of those at home and their incessant questions about her health, now that Frank and his suffering were the center of attention she couldn't help but feel slightly neglected.
"Quite well, thank you," she answered softly.
She didn't know what else to say, since she couldn't possibly touch any further on the subject of her pregnancy. She looked at him expectantly, but he was just peering at her with an odd expression, as if somehow trying to assess the truth of her statement by scanning every inch of her face. Finally she was the one to break the silence.
"Well, are you waiting for someone? It's been nice to meet you, but I'm afraid I have to continue my ride now. Unless, of course, you want to join me back to town." She smiled prettily, already sure of his answer.
"Actually, I am waiting for someone."
Scarlett couldn't hide the small, disappointed twitch of her mouth, and he smiled lightly. "I am waiting for an exquisite creature that I want you to meet. I think you will both benefit from the acquaintance. But since you are here earlier than usual, earlier than I had anticipated, I find myself in the position of having to detain you for a while longer. I am afraid you will have to keep me company for the time being."
She frowned. "Keep you company? You are quite brazen, you know. I have no need to meet any 'exquisite creature', so there's no reason why I should waste my time here, in the middle of nowhere. I can't see what you are up to."
Rhett reined his horse closer to the buggy before answering in an amused voice.
"Surprisingly enough, honorable things, my dear. Like a true gentleman, I am here to fulfill my promise. You surely haven't forgotten about it, have you? I have found a horse to replace the one you are using now."
"Oh," was all she could gather to say. She had indeed forgotten about their talk. During one of their rides he had told her the horse she was driving was stubborn and dangerous, and that it would be better to trade it for a gentler one or, at very least, use a heavier curb bit. She had acquiesced. The very next day he had replaced the curb bit, so she had assumed that would be the end of it and didn't spare the matter a second thought.
"It's one exquisite mare, and especially trained for this purpose. But you will soon have the chance to convince yourself of all of its qualities. I had someone bring it here and take away your horse, since it would have aroused some suspicion if I were seen walking around town with Frank Kennedy's present and former horses, don't you think?" he smiled briefly. "So you see, you have to stay here until they arrive."
She smiled again, appeased by his explanations. "Well, yes, I guess I can wait, but not for long, Rhett. I really have to go home. They need me there. Frank is sick again."
"I am sorry to hear that," he offered in a bland tone, his face not showing any striking regret. "Is it something serious?"
"No, just his podagra, but he complains as if he were going through childbirth itself." She colored slightly, realizing how uncaring her words must have sounded and to Rhett of all people, who could be trusted never to miss an opportunity to mock her.
"Podagra you say?" Rhett began to laugh softly to himself. "Oh, Scarlett, my sincerest apologies. I have severely underestimated you. But never again, my dear."
He shook his head at her baffled expression. "You see, I have to confess I was a little disappointed with you for failing to secure a wealthier match, even if the circumstances were less than favorable. But now I see it—it all makes sense and I bow before you and your womanly superiority. You married right."
"What on Earth are you talking about?"
"Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but podagra, that is the rich man's disease." His mischievous smile indicated that he took great amusement in the situation.
"So I assume there must be a part of Frank's finances that has escaped my knowledge, but that you were privy to when you accepted his proposal. Really, Scarlett," he said, shaking his head, "to keep that information from an old friend, when you well know nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing you safe and wealthy."
She chuckled dryly, not particularly pleased with this turn of the conversation. She could see the irony, but her marriage and pecuniary situation were two topics she would rather Rhett didn't discuss.
"Very amusing, Rhett. You really are a black-hearted rogue to laugh like that at other people's misfortunes."
"Frank's or your own?" he inquired with an innocent expression.
"I am sure I don't know what you mean," she replied, glancing coldly at him. "Now, if you'll excuse me. I don't see any horse arriving, so I am obviously wasting my time here."
She meant to tug at the reins, but Rhett moved with amazing agility and got hold of her hand, before she could do it. When he spoke, his voice was deceitfully plaintive.
"Mrs. Kennedy, is it possible for you to be that blind? That you failed to notice the fact that the horse is indeed arriving," he theatrically pointed towards a cloud of dust at the horizon, "is not a crime. But not to see the lengths I go to to steal a minute longer by your side…"
He shook his head in mock heartbreak and straightened up in the saddle. "When I have given if not my kingdom, at least the pecuniary equivalent of one to purchase a horse worthy of you…"
And then he stopped, his dark eyes sparkling briefly with amusement at an idea, before facing her again. "And if you ask why, I shall answer like the hero of that tale: for your smile alone, my sweet lady Anne."
She knew from the inflection of his voice, if not through complete understanding of what he was saying, that he had once again been seized by the demon of mischief. If she didn't interrupt him promptly enough, he would not stop till he exhausted all of his barbs.
"If this is some obscure and twisted way of…"
"No," he raised one hand in defiance, "no matter what you were going to say, this is not obscure. It is plain as day. As great a story as it has ever been told. As you undoubtedly know, the very handsome Richard—you will forgive me the license," he smiled conspiratorially, "but we have to adapt the characters to suit our particular actors—wooed his weeping lady Anne over her dead husband's body."
As she half-followed his analogy, her eyes widened. "How can you suggest such things, you cad? Frank is not dead, he's not even seriously ill, and you, you…"
"Oh, but I wasn't talking about Frank," he carried on, undisturbed. "I was thinking more about your first husband and how I lured his widow out of mourning. Though now that you bring it up, I can see the slight resemblance to the current situation as well."
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "But no, alas, I'm wrong, that is not a play for us. For I have much more taste than to propose under such, er, funerary circumstances. And, let us forget not, you would never cry over any of your husbands."
"This has gone far enough. Your audacity is outstanding," she said casting him a murderous glance. "You are vulgar, and you talk of things that would make normal people shudder and I don't care to stay here a minute longer and listen to your…"
But her angry speech was interrupted by a swift wave of his hand. The distance that separated the promised horse and its rider, a small black boy, from the buggy was now too little to provide discretion.
Taking advantage of the situation, Rhett leaned towards her and spoke in a low voice, his poise that of a gentleman making polite conversation, but his words heavy with barely suppressed laughter. "You are quite right in your assessment, so I'll let my character say one departing line, before leaving the scene forever." He paused for added emphasis, before whispering, "Forget your scorn. For kissing, lady, not for such contempt thy lips were made."
He seemed to expect an outburst from her, and under different circumstances he wouldn't have been disappointed. Out of her previous feelings, there was nothing left, not gratitude, not joy at seeing him, not even disappointment at the fact he had departed from his kind behavior of these last weeks. All Scarlett felt was white, leaping rage, ready to be embodied in an angry reply. But instead of that, she was forced to give him a benign smile, as the boy drew rein next to them.
And then as she looked at the mare, her anger subsided. Two things were immediately obvious to her mind: that this was a horse that neither her own father, nor Beatrice Tarleton would have been ashamed to have in their stables in the good times before the war; and that it must have cost a great deal of money. Everything about it showed that it was a thoroughbred. It was a stout animal, but the lightness of its movements and the elegant position of its slender neck compensated the first impression of sturdiness. As the mare halted, Scarlett found herself admiring its docility. It was more than a quick reaction to its driver command; it was an instantaneous response, as if it had divined what the boy's wish would be before he even drew the reins.
The boy dismounted and, after a small bow in Scarlett's direction, and a quick exchange of words with Rhett, started to take down the harness of Scarlett's horse.
She was unsure of what to do next. She wanted to get out of the buggy and take a better look at the chestnut mare, but at the same time she felt ashamed to let go of the lap robe that masked her condition. It was as if Rhett had guessed her reticence, for he dismounted from his own horse and drew the mare closer to the vehicle.
She couldn't understand this man. A few minutes ago he had been taunting her with insolent remarks, and she had wanted nothing more than to hurl insults at him and wipe the infuriating grin off his face. But now, he was acting so differently, that one could hardly believe he was the same person. The look in his eyes was one Gerald had worn so often when bringing her surprise gifts from his trips—a strange, but not unpleasant mixture of smugness and disguised expectation. And much like then, she couldn't help but smile warmly, gratefully at the man in front of her.
There was one unsettling aspect about this entire situation though. It was obvious that this wasn't a fair trade; actually, she doubted it could be called a trade at all, for her horse was not worth the tenth part of what this mare must have cost. It puzzled her, the fact that Rhett had gone to such great lengths for something like this, and she wasn't sure accepting it was the right thing to do. She gently stroked the mare's neck before asking in a soft voice.
"This was a very expensive horse, wasn't it?"
"Yes," he admitted calmly. "But if you are trying to warn me against sealing a bad deal, put your mind at ease. It was worth every penny. It gave me a unique opportunity to help a person I care deeply about and for whom I can't always do as much as I want."
Her eyes widened, but before she could interject he smoothly continued.
"You see, an old friend of mine from Tennessee is raising and training this type of horse. After the war he's managed to somewhat revive his business and now sells his horses up North and, through intermediaries, in the new western territories. I've tried to buy horses from him before, mostly to help him, since the breed doesn't hold any particular charm for me, only that he's seen through my schemes and refused me each time. In turn, he's been insisting that I accept a gift from him, in honor of our long acquaintance. Our battle of generosities had reached a dead point, I'm afraid, until you offered the perfect pretext for an acquisition and secured me the victory." He grinned widely at her. "You didn't really think you were the only reason I bought this horse, did you?"
Scarlett shook her head with as much force as she could muster and he smiled again before leading the mare to the front of the buggy.
The boy had finished unharnessing and Rhett helped him move the saddle from the mare to the horse he had just unhitched. They exchanged a few whispered words, and Scarlett understood the boy was to leave with her former horse while Rhett would harness up the mare. And then as she was watching the kid mount she came to a realization. He was dressed in a clean livery, the pattern and color of which were familiar, though she had failed to recognize them at once. He was part of Belle Watling's staff, she realized with a small pang of displeasure.
Rhett extended his hand with a gratuity, and then the boy took his leave. Scarlett had involuntarily followed with her eyes the crisp green paper exchanged between them. It was only when she saw Rhett's lifted eyebrow that she realized the inelegance of the gesture and averted her gaze with a blush. One corner of his mouth went down.
Damn him. It wasn't her fault that he threw money around like that. That kid had received at least thrice the sum he deserved, and then she was sure he was living in the lap of luxury anyway, being Watling's employee. Rhett was so careless with his money, she sighed. And as beautiful a gift as it was, the mare was proof of that. He had paid good money for it when he could have gotten it for free. If only someone offered her horses for free like that, she thought grimly, the present situation conveniently escaping her mind.
She could have used additional horses for Tara. As it was, Will and Ashley had to make do with just one horse and a couple of mules. Any other animal would have been of great help, even the stubborn horse she had used up until now to drive her buggy. And then an idea presented itself to her mind, making her green eyes glimmer in anticipation of the outcome.
Rhett surely didn't need her old horse. She had bought it and the buggy with the money he had given her—and he had insisted not to add that sum to her total debt—but even so it had been a thrifty purchase. She knew better than to buy the cheapest horse, but the one she had chosen still had obvious flaws that, while they didn't bother her too much, would undoubtedly make it an animal Rhett wouldn't keep. So if he were to give away the horse, why wouldn't he give it to her for Tara? If she played her cards right, he might even offer it as a gift.
"Rhett," she started in a sweet voice, "what are you going to do with the other horse?"
"Send it to the glue factory," he answered curtly, while fitting the breast collar on the mare.
"Oh, be serious. I was thinking maybe you could sell it to me. Of course, you would have to accept a lower price than what I initially paid for it. I'm not exactly at the height of riches, you know."
He bent over to secure the girth and hide an amused smile. She was something, this woman, trying to get her greedy little hands on everything she could and employing all her charms to that end. He managed to keep his voice bland as he asked.
"What do you need that horse for?"
"Well, I was planning to buy another horse for Tara. I want to extend the crop fields, and for that they will need some extra help. We only have one horse, and though we were lucky to have even that during the war when all our neighbors were bereft, now…."
"Surely not the Pegasus I stole that fateful night?" he inquired.
Scarlett frowned at the interruption. "If you mean the old rip that got us out of Atlanta, no. It died the night we got home." She tried not to look back at those times, because they were associated with his desertion, and she couldn't afford to be mad at him, now that she was trying to manipulate him. "We had the Yankee's horse."
She had meant it as an explanation that would appease his curiosity and allow her to proceed with her coaxing, but it was not to be, for Rhett's hand stilled for a second on the breeching, before he asked, "The Yankee's horse?"
She froze realizing her mistake. At times talking to Rhett felt like she was talking to herself and she often forgot that there were details he couldn't possibly know. During their previous conversations, he would occasionally interrupt and ask for clarifications and she would recount little things from the past to him, mildly surprised they had escaped his knowledge so far. But this was something she could not, would not tell him.
"Oh, we call it that because we—well, we assumed it came from the Yankees. It was too well fed to have come from our army and no one in the vicinity had horses and…" She realized her words didn't sound too convincing, so she hastily began to recite the story she and Melly had told everyone at Tara about the horse's sudden appearance. "One day, I was just in the house and heard a noise outside and…"
"And then you opened the door and the horse said, 'Madam, I am sorry to bother, but if you have a stable around here I think I will stay and help at working the fields.' Scarlett, you don't really expect me to believe that story, do you? In times of war, horses are often more precious than men. And that truth stands for the Yankee army in particular, because horses are less easily replaceable than soldiers; they don't come in ships from Ireland to fight for 3 dollars a week. I doubt that a well-fed horse would have made it to the recesses of rural Georgia like that."
He had finished harnessing and came to lean his elbows on one side of the buggy, a devious smile playing on his lips.
"So what did you do? Hid behind the bushes and shot Yankees off their horses? And more importantly who did you do it with? I have to confess you and Mrs. Wilkes are not exactly what I had pictured bushwackers to be."
His words had the effect of a physical blow on Scarlett. For a moment she allowed irrational fear to obscure her better sense; she couldn't control her reaction because she failed to recognize them for what they were, a sarcastic guess. And thus she betrayed her secret.
Rhett's smile faded as he watched her face go suddenly white. He had assumed she was only fibbing to extract some further benefit from him. Of course, he knew he would probably end up indulging her. He would give her the horse, there was no doubt of that, but before he wanted to have some fun watching Scarlett getting entangled in her little story. There were few sights in the entire world as entertaining as Scarlett trying to find her way out of a lie. But seeing the way she flinched at his words, he realized there was more to it. He had stumbled upon something and the outline of that thing made his heart constrict. He put one dark hand on her knee and said in a low, somber voice, "Scarlett, look at me."
When she kept her gaze fixed on her hands, he knew.
"You did, didn't you? You killed a Yankee, that's how you got the horse." It was a statement more than it was a question, but he still clung to the small hope of a negative answer.
She raised her eyes in panic and looked around, as if afraid someone might have heard him, and, for a moment, Rhett fought the overwhelming impulse to grasp her shoulders and shake her till the words tumbled out of her lips. Instead of that he just asked, "When did this happen?" in a voice so calm that it was a surprise to his own ears.
She opened her mouth once and then closed it in hesitation, exhaling loudly. "After we returned from Atlanta. A couple of weeks after that."
A couple of weeks after Atlanta's fall. Where was he at the time? He could have, should have been there. The day she had visited him in jail, the day he had seen her hands and heard her story, a seemingly insolvable question had received its answer. He had been wrong in leaving her at Rough and Ready. Even before yielding to the momentary attraction of bravery and death that led to his enrollment, he had yielded against better judgment to Scarlett pleas to head for Tara. He had allowed the fierceness with which a nineteen-year-old child clung to the idea her house was still standing and her parents were waiting for her to sweep him along. And he dreaded the outcome. For part of him wanted to find the house burnt to the ground and everyone gone. And then he would have closed all paths for himself except one: keeping Scarlett with him. In the end, he told himself, the decision wouldn't be his, but fate's. But somehow he resented the possibility that, once they reached their destination, she would walk into her parents' arms and she wouldn't need him anymore. Nonetheless, he would have made sure she was safe. Except that he hadn't—he had abandoned her before that.
"He was a deserter and a thief. He had come to our house to rob us."
He had abandoned her and she had faced exhaustion, and pain, and starvation. And now this. He had to listen to her words; that was the only way to find out what happened. But try as he might he couldn't fight against the tightening in his chest. Her tone was so steady and metallic, devoid of any inflection. She was staring straight ahead. What was she seeing when she looked back at that day?
"He was going to steal everything that was left, everything that the first ones didn't take. He was going to take my mother's jewelry, to touch her things. He was going to take our food."
Her voice rose with the feelings of that distant day, and the steady coldness was gone. He knew he couldn't interrupt her now, that she had to recount things at her own pace, but her words were simply not enough. He needed all the details so he could build a clear, well-drawn picture that would replace the amorphous sea of presumptions and fears. He needed to be in her head, see through her eyes and know how everything had come to happen. He felt helpless waiting for her to finish her story, and his mind started weaving its own scenario. Her coming through the doors of a house, the looks of which were halfway between a cottage and Twelve Oaks, and aiming the gun at the dismounting figure of a man. Was it day or night when it happened? The image of Scarlett facing the Yankee in a thin wrapper, like the one she was wearing when he had brought Gerald home, crossed his mind. No, it just had to be day, he hastily decided.
"I couldn't let him. We were all hungry. He wasn't, he was a damn thief and he wasn't going to touch the food that I myself hadn't touched, even though I could have because they were not at home, the rest of them, and I was so hungry. But it was the food that had to keep all of us alive so I didn't and…"
Rhett's voice interrupted her incoherent words. "You mean you were alone when he came?" There was a hint of something in his tone, the strangest blend of dread and anger, but it went unnoticed by Scarlett.
"No, I was with my sisters and Melly, but they were upstairs. They were sick, my sisters were recovering from typhoid and Melly –you know—she was weak for a very long time after Beau. They were frightened when they heard the shot—Carreen and Suellen, I mean—because they hadn't heard the Yankee coming, like I did. But Melly heard him and she came downstairs with the sword."
She hadn't been alone in the house to face a thief, a possible murderer. She had been with three other women, out of whom only one was able to even get out of bed. If she had been caught unprepared, if she hadn't heard the horse or if she hadn't had that pistol at hand, there would have been no one to defend her. There would have been no one who could at least run and call for help.
"She would have tried to fight him, the fool," Scarlett continued with a faint smile. "She didn't have enough strength to kill a fly and she wanted to kill a Yankee soldier. Only that by the time she got there, he was already dead. Melly found a lie for Suellen and Careen so they wouldn't know the shot they heard had killed a man, and then she helped me clean while I buried him. She knows. And now you do, as well."
She finally turned her head to face Rhett, waiting for him to say something, but he didn't. He was deep in thought, like she had never seen him before, and the look on his face was oddly similar to the one she'd had when recounting the way the Yankee had touched her mother's belongings. To Scarlett his expression meant nothing, but his silence was ominous. It wasn't the reaction she had expected from him.
During his days in the army, the fact that he had left her alone to face the world had tormented him in more ways than one. He knew he had been the one to draw the paths of their lives that night, that the decision had been his and his alone. And, at the same time, he knew it had been as inevitable as if the gods above had dictated it. If he were to return to that moment, he would only do the same thing. Both reason and love would ineluctably lose in front of a vague "it has to be done" and he couldn't change that, for it was ingrained in his being. To stay with her and ignore his nature would have been the sure road to misery. Leaving her and going to fight for a lost cause was the road that had led to his present torture. So there had been no right decision to be made, his tired mind would finally conclude after hours of going around in circles.
But there had been less subtle ways for him to inflict pain upon himself. One was to let his mind be imbued by the sights of death that were all around him. And then, inevitably, it would rise before his eyes, the image of her lifeless body lying in a ditch near Rough and Ready. On good days, he would blink and it would go away. On bad days, he would punish himself to the limit of resistance delving upon it. And on the worst days, his mind would slyly whisper that there were fates worse than death. And then he would fight with a savagery that seemed incompatible with modern times. Those were the moments he wanted to kill as many enemies as possible, with his own bare hands if possible; he wanted them all dead. He was killing to erase the idea from his head, that she might have been cornered by them and…
"Did he touch you?" he barked, his hand closing on her knee in a painful grip.
Taken by surprise by both his harsh tone and his inappropriate action, Scarlett deduced he was somehow accusing her, so she answered defensively. "No, but he would have, so I had to shoot him, I couldn't…"
Rhett exhaled sharply and withdrew his hand. With an effort, the fierce light in his eyes was extinguished and his face fell into more composed features. She had misunderstood him, and for that he was thankful. His voice had sounded ferocious even to his own ears. No matter how one might look at it, if they'd guess the truth or just assume what Scarlett had assumed, he was a fool. This wasn't what she needed from him now.
He would never know. He would never know where she was standing when she fired the gun, if the breath of that man had touched her face, if the fierce rage that she professed had been her only feeling or she had been frightened to death. His peace of mind was not worth enough for him to force her to relive that day, so he would never know. And that would be his punishment for the fact he hadn't been there when he should have. It was a small price to pay, because she had survived to tell the story, she was here with him.
"You are absolutely right. He would have and you did well. It was the best thing you could have done. The only thing you could have done."
He wanted to tell her more things, to tell her he was proud of her, that he was grateful for the strength and courage that had saved her that day. But he couldn't trust himself to stop at that once he started talking. His emotions were too close to the surface right now.
"It's getting late, we should head to town. I'll drive, you had a hard day," he said, stepping away.
Scarlett nodded softly, and he hitched his horse at the back of the buggy and climbed beside her. For a minute they remained in awkward silence and he knew there was something else bothering her. She looked confused. She had removed her gloves and was twisting them nervously.
"Rhett," she hesitantly started, "I don't think I am sorry."
"Why would you be sorry? You did nothing wrong."
"Well, I am guilty of crime," she said meekly.
He stared at her pensively. As always, her mind had reasoned correctly, rejecting unnecessary guilt, and then it had begun to raise obstacles for itself. She had surely been taught that taking someone's life was the greatest sin a person could commit. And the punishment for that sin was not only damnation after death, but also constant anguish in life. And he could bet that her father had added a few ghost stories to that religious upbringing, for good measure.
"No, you are not. In times of war, they are not called crimes. You were the exact equivalent of a soldier defending his country. No one can condemn such an act, not even the Church. So there is no point in torturing yourself with abstract guilt."
He was halfway to his desired result, he could see it. She needed explanations for her lack of remorse and providing her with them was the least he could do at this late date, if he hadn't been there to protect her when the supposed reason for remorse took place.
"Because it is only an abstraction, you can be sure of that. Real guilt, eternal damnation or whatever it is that has you so preoccupied would have come if you hadn't killed him. You would have not only been dead, but also guilty for the deaths of others in that house. You protected them and saved their lives."
Admiration was slowly creeping into his voice. He took one of her hand in his. She didn't protest and he knew she was nearly convinced by his argumentation. There was one more thing that could aid him now, and that was making appeal to her practical nature.
"And then, think about all the other things that came with his death. You said no one else had a horse and you did." He stopped briefly, remembering one of their previous conversations. "And he had more things on him, didn't he? I assume he's the dead person that left you with the diamond earrings?"
She looked at him and nodded. "Yes. He had stolen jewelry in his knapsack and he had some money in his wallet."
"See, that helped you, it gave you a good start. You saved your life and ensured your survival afterward, neither of which are reasons to feel guilty or ashamed."
She seemed to ponder on his words for a minute, and then she raised her chin in that way he had always admired despite himself. "You're right. It couldn't have been wrong. I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't killed him. And I would do it again if I had do."
His face darkened at her words. "You won't have to."
He had to find a way to make sure of that, he thought, lowering his gaze. Her palm was turned upwards and he could see its contours roughened by constant contact with the reins, despite the glove's protection. He stared for a minute at her hand just like he had done that day in prison and, much like then, he realized with a pang that he couldn't do anything, that life had taken her from him twice, on both occasions being as much his fault as it was fate's, and had returned her changed, hardened. It pained him to watch her transformation, as much as he admired her strength and tenacity. It pained him that he hadn't been able to do more for her at the right time. Her hand wore the symbols of his failures—the calluses and Frank's ring. If he could make them both go away, he would not ask for anything again.
He fought with himself not to take up the gesture from where he'd left it that day in jail. He had been about to kiss her upturned palms, before realizing the real reason of her visit. But if he yielded to that impulse now, it would only cost him her confidence. She trusted him and, if he was to help and protect her to any extent, he had to keep that trust intact. So he just gently linked her hand through his arm as he picked up the reins.
"Let me know when and where you want that horse delivered," he said calmly as if that was what they have been discussing all along. "And you might want to think about what you'll tell Frank."
She looked up at him, her face holding such a mixture of genuine surprise and poorly disguised satisfaction that for a second he thought about closing the space between them and kissing her, reason be damned. "You'll give me the horse for Tara?"
"Yes, how could I not? Now that I know how you usually get your horses, I'd have to love life too little to refuse you."
She was silent for a few seconds and Rhett feared he had gone too far, but then he felt the weight of her body as Scarlett, seized by laughter, unconsciously leaned into his arm. She sat there for the rest of the ride, uncharacteristically calm, filling him in on the details of her business. And, as they approached the town in the gathering dusk, she slowly withdrew her hand.
Maybe one day… A fleeting question about the deadliness of podagra crossed his mind. Well, if not by itself, podagra and 5 grams of lead would surely prove a fatal condition. Maybe Gloucester was not that bad a person after all, he thought wryly.