Bittersweet Days

Near Brandy Station, Virginia
Spring 1866


“I really wish you’d stayed home, Dani.”

Danica Anderson’s chin hardened. “I’m tired of being left behind, Star. And Woodhaven is home.”

“Barely,” Starla muttered and gripped the reins tighter. The team of horses tossed their heads as her tension communicated itself to them.

They’d joined the old plank road not too long before. The wagon wheels made a loud rattle on the half‑buried timbers.

“Would you at least put your bonnet back on?”

“I can’t see anything with it on,” her sister complained. “Besides, you’re not wearing a hat. Why should I have to?”

Star glanced over at Danica’s creamy skin, then down at her own tanned hands on the reins. A rueful expression. “Dani, I doubt my skin will ever again be as fashionably pale as yours. Nor do I think you want the sunburn you’re going to have if you don’t put that bonnet back on. You’re already starting to turn pink. You really want to be a red, peeling mess?”

She almost added, “In front of Rob?” but bit back the words before they left her mouth. While her sister’s infatuation with Robert Black was painfully obvious to the entire family—except Rob himself, it seemed—there was no need to tease her about it.

Perhaps Dani heard the unspoken words after all, because her face flushed an even deeper pink and she yanked her bonnet back over her red‑gold curls hurriedly.

Star glanced over her shoulder at the pile of supplies in the wagon she drove, then further back to the second wagon in their little caravan. Travis noticed her attention and waved. Star managed a smile for her husband, and a little wave in return, before turning her focus back to the road before her. Her smile slipped, though, as they crossed through the ford over Mountain Run. Beside her, Dani gripped the wooden seat excitedly; Star’s knuckles whitened and her lips thinned. The road curved, Woodhaven came into view, and Danica gasped in dismay.

“I do wish you’d stayed in Pennsylvania,” Star repeated softly, sadly.

The beeches that had lined the drive to their home were gone. All of them. Gone too were the many trees that had graced the grounds, that had given the estate its name. As they started up the hill, they could see that the massive oak that had sheltered Cornia’s dogwood still towered over the back of the house. It was one of only a bare handful that remained. An ancient catalpa growing close to the north wing of the house had also survived; Star drove into its shade and stopped the horses.

Dani’s eyes were now focused on the house itself. The shutters hung crazily from the windows, where they still hung at all. One of the tall white columns was missing. The brickwork looked as if it had been used for target practice. She swallowed hard, turned once more to the numerous stumps in the yard, then closed her eyes and burst into tears.

Star was comforting her as best she could as the other two wagons drew up alongside them.

“She all right?” Travis mouthed. Star shook her head, but only said, “Would you and Rob mind scouting out the stable, see if it’s in good enough shape to use? It’s on the other side of the house. Iris can show you the way.”

Both brothers gave her a little salute, climbed down from their seats, and untied their mounts from the back of the wagons. Then all four followed the little gray mare towards the stable.

“How did you know, Star?” Dani finally said, sniffling.

“I Dreamt it,” Star admitted. “Back last summer.”

“That’s why you didn’t want me to come?”

“Yes.” I would have spared you this pain, cariad. Heaven knows you have enough pain to carry already.

But her little sister dried her tears on the edge of her fashionably‑large sleeve, then straightened in her seat. “Well, there’s certainly plenty to do here, Star. Likely you can even find work that I can handle,” she said stoutly. “So I’m glad I came after all.”

A smile tugged at Star’s lips. “That’s the Anderson grit, Dani.”

Travis and Rob reappeared, walking up the hill from the stable, a cavalryman’s swagger still apparent in their stride. They paused at the edge of the path, had a short conversation, dark heads close together. Rob headed towards the house and disappeared behind it. Travis came over to them, but said nothing as he helped both girls down.

Star looked at him sharply. “Is something wrong? What’s Rob doing? Where’s Iris?”

Instead he turned away, walked over to his wagon and started digging under the seat.


He straightened up, a revolver held in each hand. “Iris is checking the home pasture. Stable’s still in good shape. Too good. Almost looks like someone’s been using it regularly.”

Star tensed. He handed her a big black gun. “Here’s my Colt, a chroi. Stay here with Dani while Rob and I scout out the house.”

He checked his own weapon, then joined his brother, who had reappeared around the south wing and now waited on the chipped front steps.

When they returned, both faces were sober.

“Well, no one’s been using the house,” Travis reported. “Probably not since our cavalry left two years ago.”

His voice was carefully neutral. He’s trying to shield me from something, she realized. Just as I tried to shield Danica. His next words confirmed her suspicion.

“Star, you don’t have to do this. We can find a hotel in Culpeper, or back in Fredericksburg, settle you and Dani in, then Rob and I will come back and do some clean‑up work before you return.”

Rob nodded his agreement.

“Is it really that bad, Travis?” she asked, voice almost breaking.

He hesitated, then grimaced. “Yeah, it’s that bad.”

“You know I’m still going in there.” And just like Dani, I choose to face reality head on. We’re not much for coddling, we Andersons.

“I know, but I had to try.”

She took his hand, squeezed tight. “Thanks for trying.” A deep breath. “Let’s get this over with.”

“I’m coming too,” Dani said.

“No!” three voices told her in unison.

“Dani, for once will you not argue with me about this?” Star asked. She saw the lips tighten, knew her sister was going to start arguing anyway.

Unexpectedly, Rob spoke up. “Danica, this isn’t about sheltering you emotionally,” he said in his most reasonable voice. “We’re just not sure if it’s safe in there, and if for some reason we did have to get out quickly, you would be most at risk. I’ll stay out here with you, and we can dig through the wagons and see if we can put together a meal of some sort. I don’t know about you, but I am rather hungry.”

Danica looked torn between her desire to see the house, and her desire to spend time with Rob. In the end Rob won out.

“Fine,” she said in a small voice. “I’ll stay and help Rob.”