The night brought a soft wind. It came gently, flowing through the gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains and spilling over the valleys below, rustling the leaves outside the big house.
Mat Brionne, who was not quite seven, lay awake, listening. His father was in Washington to see President Grant, but was expected home soon, and Mat was eager for any sound that might herald his coming.
The rustling of leaves stilled momentarily, and in the silence Mat heard a faint stir of horses moving up the lane from the highroad. These horses moved almost silently, which was not like his fathers coming would be.
Uneasy, remembering the stories of Indians and of renegades, he slipped from his bed and peered down into the yard.
For a moment he saw nothing, and then he caught the shine of an empty saddle, then a surreptitious movement in the shadows near a tree.
Frightened, he went down the hall to his mothers room. He opened the door, went in quickly, and touched her arm.
Mother... theres some men outside. I heard them.
Its your imagination, Mat. Your father wont be back until tomorrow.
I didnt think it was pa. Theyre acting very quiet. Im scared.
Anne Brionne got up and took her robe from a chair. There had been no trouble to speak of in Virginia since the end of the war, when James had been rounding up renegades.
Its alright, Mat. No one would come to bother us. They know your father too well. Anyway, Sam would have heard them. Hes sleeping in the gatehouse.
Mother, this is Friday. Sams never there on Friday. He goes to the tavern.
Anne Brionne stood very still, thinking. The nearest house was four miles away. Burt Webster, their overseer, had gone to visit his sister in Culpeper. The field hands were cutting firewood back in the mountains, and if Sam was gone they were alone on the place, except for the Negro maid, Malvernia.
Theres nothing to be afraid of, Mat. Well go downstairs.
Their feet made no sound upon the soft carpets. James kept his guns locked in a cabinet in his study, but when they reached the foot of the stairs Anne Brionne paused, facing the front door. Someone was trying the door, turning the knob ever so gently. Mat heard it, too, and his grip on his mothers hand tightened.
Suddenly she knew who the men must be -- in Virginia, at this time, it could be nobody else. Two years had gone by, but she still remembered the courtroom and the evil, hate-twisted face of Dave Allard as he hurled threats at her husband, Major James Brionne.
The Allards -- it was a name they adopted after leaving Missouri -- were a renegade family of doubtful origin who had been petty thieves before the war, and who blossomed into full-time thieves and murderers under cover of the war.
Dave Allard had lunged from his chair screaming Theyll kill you, Brionne! My folksll git you! Theyll see you an yourn burn! Burn, I tell you!
Mat, she said calmly, I want you to go down into the cellar and leave by the old root-cellar door. Got to your cave and stay there until one of us comes for you.
Mother, I --
Do what you are told, Mat. That is the way your father would want it.
Still he hesitated. Go, she repeated. Go now.
A moment longer he hesitated -- he did not like to see his mother standing there, so quiet and pale. Then he fled.
She unlocked the cabinet and took out the shotgun James used for hunting wild boar. It was loaded with heavy buckshot. Then she took out the pistol, a small derringer, that James had given her shortly after their marriage.
She went up the six steps to the landing. From there the steps mounted in two wide, sweeping staircases to the second floor. On the landing there was a straight-backed chair.
Seating herself carefully, she arranged the folds of her robe about her, concealing the small gun in her lap under an edge of the gown. The shotgun she held across her knees. And there, her heart beating heavily, she waited.
She never expected to be called upon to defend her home. No, she had never expected it, but now that the moment had come she was prepared. After a moment, she rose. Taking a candle, she lighted it and walked from place to place, lighting each candelabrum until the hall was as bright as for a party. Then she went back to the chair and seated herself as before.
The footstep was faint, the door from the dining room opened ever so gently, and a man stood there. He was a big man with almost white hair, but he was young and strong.
Slowly, he looked around, obviously amazed at everything he saw. A second man appeared, this one from the study door. He was slighter, and, if possible, he was dirtier than the first one. It was he who saw her.
He leaned forward, staring, as if unable to believe what his eyes told him. Its a woman! He spoke with astonishment. Jest a-settin there!
Cotton Allard stepped further into the room. The newel post at the foot of the stairs bulked between them.
You have come here to see Major Brionne, Anne Brionne said calmly. He is not home. This is not an hour at which we welcome guests. If you will come again, I am sure he will be most pleased to meet you.
Now theres manners for ya, Cotton Allard was frankly admiring. There sets a real lady. I allus wondered what them kind was like. Looks like we figure to find out.
I would suggest -- Anne Brionnes voice chilled --that you leave now.
Cotton Allard deliberately rolled his quid in his jaws and spat tobacco juice on the Persian rug. I reckon with the Major gone well just have to make do with whats here. He turned toward the other man. You tell the boys to take whatever they want from the house afore we set it afire. I aim to be busy right here.
You tell em, the slighter man said. I aint a-goin no place.
Cotton was cautious, keeping the newel post between himself and the woman. The second man was less cautious. He stepped around in plain sight. Upstairs a door creaked faintly. So they had come up the back stairs too.
At that moment the slender, stoop-shouldered man rushed. Anne Brionne lifted the shotgun and shot him through the body.
In the hallway the boom of the gun was enormous. Anne saw the man caught in mid-stride, saw the expression of horror mask his face, and he slammed back as the charge hit him, and sprawled on his back on the floor.
Cotton Allard vaulted the banister, landing light as a cat on the landing beside her. From above another man dropped off the balcony and the shotgun was torn from her. Cooly, she dropped her hand to the derringer, turned it on Cotton, and fired. It missed, and in almost the same instant Anne Brionne shot herself through the heart.
This it was that young Mat saw from the balcony where he had crouched, unable to leave his mother alone, but not knowing what to do. When Anne Brionne fell he gave a choking cry, and would have rushed to her.
Cotton saw him. Its the kid! he shouted. Get him!
Mat fled. Down the back stairs he went, down the steeper steps into the utter blackness of the cellar, but he need no guide light to find the door to the old passage to the root cellar. He fled through the darkness, emerged under the trees, and glanced back toward the house just in time to see a man touch a candle to the curtains, those beautiful lace curtains. The flames leaped high.
He crept down the bank, shivering and frightened. Behind the roots was his cave. He crept in and lay still, stiff and numb with shock.
The Allards ran from the house, clutching bottles of whiskey and brandy. Dimly, Mat heard their drunken shouts above the crackle of the flames. A long time later he fell asleep.
There under the roots Major James Brionne and Malvernia found Mat, curled up and asleep, on the following morning.