ProloguePea Patch Island, Delaware: April 23, 1864
"You're a dead man, Chancellor!"
A musket ball whined over Chance's head, and he dropped to his knees in the wet sand and buried his face in his best friend's chest.
"Put me down," Travis whispered hoarsely. "It's no use. I'm done for."
Chance could hear the baying of the dogs above the guards' shouting. Another few minutes and the starless night and the waist-high tangle of brush and driftwood wouldn't hide them from the bullets or the cold steel of a guard's bayonet. Travis was hurt bad; he'd taken a hit to the side and another through his thigh. Chance could hear the grate of bone against bone as he cradled him in his arms.
"Leave me!" Travis rasped.
Chance's mouth tasted of ashes; he could feel the strength draining out of Travis's body. "Can't do it, buddy. I owe you one. Remember? It's my turn to play hero."
"This is ... different." A shuddering groan escaped Travis's throat. "No need ... for both of us to die."
Fear twisted in Chance's gut. He couldn't see the Delaware River through the swirling fog, but he could smell the salt wind and hear the slap of waves against the beach.
He wanted to live.
Death had come for him at the Second Manassas and later in the reeking mud of a farm lane at Fredericksburg. He'd been afraid of dying before; hell, any soldier who said he wasn't scared was either a liar or a madman. But in three years of war, he'd never felt the brush of the dark angel's wings as he did at that instant.
Another musket boomed, lighting tha night with a flash of fire.
"Over here!" a man shouted. "Footprints. They ran through here!"
A lantern bobbed, and Chance caught a glimpse of a barrel-chested man in a blue Union cap. The hounds sprinted closer by the second. The lead dog's bellow rang out through the clinging mist.
"Leave me, damn it!" Travis insisted. "You can still make it."
Tears streamed down Chance's face. "What do I tell Mary?"
"Tell her to name the baby after you."
"No! It's both or neither of us." Chance staggered to his feet with Travis still in his arms and dashed toward the water's edge. Travis had lost two stone of weight since they were captured at Gettysburg, but he was still almost more than Chance could carry.
"There!" a Yankee screamed.
A volley of musket fire exploded behind Chance. Something slammed into him with the force of a sledgehammer. There was no pain, but he suddenly found himself sprawled on the sand, losing his hold on his wounded friend.
"Travis! Travis!" Chance's voice croaked like an old man's, and he felt curiously weak as he tried to rise.
Hot on their scent, the dog pack spilled across the narrow beach. Chance could scarcely make out the guards' curses for the frenzied barking of the animals.
Chance had trouble telling up from down. Spinning stars whirled in his head, and his legs felt heavy, his muscles too weak to carry him.
"Don't let him get away! Four days' pass for any man vat blows his head off!"
That guttural Pennsylvania Dutch accent pierced Chance's stupor. Sergeant Daniel Coblentz.
The venom in Coblentz's words did what Chance's will couldn't. Rising on hands and knees, Chance began to crawl toward the smell of water.
Another bullet struck the sand beside him, driving needles of grit into his face and arms. And then an incoming wave washed over his hands.
"Swim, damn you!" Travis yelled. "Swim for--"
A dull thud cut off his friend's shouts, and then Chance was on his feet and plunging knee-deep into the bay. "I'll come back for you, Travis!" he swore. "I promise you--I'll come back!"
When the water reached his waist, Chance took a deep breath and dived under. The frigid tide enveloped him, blunting the force of the spinning musket ball that tore a furrow of fire along his hip.
Chance swam until his lungs screamed for air, then surfaced long enough to gulp a breath and hear the clamor of his pursuers from a patrol boat a dozen yards away.
"Rebel bastard. Hope he freezes to death."
"... not goin' anywhere. He left a trail of blood on the beach."
"Futterin' waste of our time. Current don't get him, the sharks will."
A searchlight skimmed the tops of the choppy waves. As the beam neared Chance's head, he let himself sink into the black water until his fingers touched the bottom before he began to swim again.
He was past hope, but if the river took him, it didn't matter anymore. He would die a free man.Chapter 1
Rachel's Choice Plantation, Murderkill River, Delaware: May 1, 1864
Rachel Irons scattered a few handfuls of corn on the hard-packed earth beside the weathered barn and watched as the chickens pecked at the kernels. "That's the last of it," she said. "From now on, you'll have to scratch for yourselves."
Agatha, the speckled black-and-white hen with a bald spot in the center of her back, eyed Rachel with a beady stare and clucked ominously as it ruffled its remaining feathers.
Rachel couldn't help laughing at the ill-tempered bird. "I mean it, you old biddy. Find your own worms, or it's the pot for you."
Her mood sobered, and she nibbled at her lower lip. It would be the chopping block for her remaining chickens anyway if the soldiers came again. First they had taken her horses, then both oxen, her mules, and finally the pigs, the sheep, and the ducks. All she had to show for her livestock and poultry were a few promissory notes and empty pens.
She sighed and rubbed the ache in the small of her back. It was still early; the sun hadn't burned the mist off the fields yet, but she'd been up and working for hours. She'd milked the cow, churned three pounds of butter, washed a basket of wool, and used the spade to break up a small section of garden for planting beans.
Without the horses, mules, or oxen, she couldn't plow. And if she couldn't plow, she couldn't raise corn or wheat or a decent crop of vegetables. She was getting bigger and clumsier every day. Lord knows what she would do when the babe came, and she had no way to provide for either of them or to pay her overdue taxes.
Straightening, Rachel smiled as a mockingbird lit on the roof of the well and began to imitate the cheeping of a newly hatched chick. It was hard to feel sorry for herself on this bright May morning when her daffodils were bursting with blooms and a few sprays of lilac still filled her yard with their glorious scent. She'd never been a whiner, and she wasn't about to start now. Things would work out for her; they had to.
"Bear! Lady!" she called to her dogs. "Time to check the traps."
Lady, a ginger-and-white collie, darted back and forth, wagging her tail excitedly. The younger dog, Bear, raised his massive head, unfolded his thick, shaggy legs, and yawned as Rachel fetched her sheep crook and crab basket from the shed.
Crabs and fish were a major part of her diet and also fed her dogs. Although few people would buy hard crabs, Rachel found a ready market for her spicy crab soup at Thompson's General Store, where she traded her eggs and butter.
Indian Creek branched off the Murderkill River and ran through a corner of her meadow not far from the house. Last night's rain would stir up the mud on the bottom and make for poor fishing or crabbing, but she checked her nets and traps morning and evening, seven days a week, regardless of the weather.
The damp clover felt pleasantly cool under her bare feet as she crossed the meadow to the creek. Bees buzzed and circled over her head, but she wasn't alarmed. She'd always had an affinity for bees; they rarely stung her, even when she raided the honey from the colony in the hollow walnut tree on the far corner of her farm.
Friends and relatives had often asked how she could stay alone on Rachel's Choice so far from any neighbors in wartime, but the solitude suited her. She'd been born and raised here. Rachel's Choice was hers, left to her by her mother's father, and as long as she could keep the farm, she'd never wish to leave it.
"I won't be alone when you're born, will I?" she murmured to the babe under her heart. Boy or girl, she hoped her child would love this land as she did.
The dogs had run ahead to the small tributary that opened off the Murderkill River. Now Lady's warning bark startled Rachel from her musing. Bear's deep-chested growl raised the hairs on the back of her neck. "What is it?" she called. "What's wrong?"
She hurried toward the grove of cedar trees that blocked her view of the creek bank. Her first thought was that the dogs had surprised a blacksnake. Bear hated snakes since he'd been bitten by one as a pup. If it wasn't a snake, maybe Lady had treed a raccoon, Rachel mused. She'd missed a few chickens a month ago.
She pushed aside a pine bough that blocked her view of the creek and the agitated dogs. "What are you two--" She broke off and stared at the water's edge. Bear and Lady stood on the muddy bank, barking furiously at the spot where she'd anchored one of her crab traps the night before.
"Lady! Bear! Down!" Rachel's breath caught in her throat as she glimpsed the flash of a man's bare thigh and buttocks.
In the shallows, amid a tangle of crab trap, rope, and muddy grass, lay a naked man. The stranger's back was to her, but his blond hair and upper body were streaked with blood.
Rachel took another step toward the creek bank, preparing to plunge in and help him. But then caution overrode her instinct to go to the man. Hadn't two escaped prisoners from Fort Delaware murdered a fisherman off Broadkill Beach last month?
"Hold him!" she shouted to the dogs. "Stay!" Then, heedless of her advanced pregnancy, she turned and ran back toward the house.
"Shhh, shhh. Easy," Chance whispered hoarsely to the dogs. The incessant barking had penetrated his fog of exhaustion and forced him to open his eyes and drag himself up from unconsciousness.
Two dogs. Not a pack, but only two. Real, flesh-and-blood animals, not the devil's hounds his fevered mind had conjured up from his escape at Pea Patch Island.
Futilely Chance tugged at the snarled line that held his legs as he murmured to the black mastiff that threatened to tear him limb from limb.
The collie might give alarm with her yapping, but she wasn't vicious. Her eyes lacked a killer's gleam. It was the black one he had to worry about.
The snarling beast stood as tall as a six-month-old calf, and his lips were curled back to reveal ivory fangs that could snap a man's leg bone like tinder.
"Good dog," he soothed.
Somewhere in the long rainy night, Chance had been certain that he'd died and gone to hell. Only hell wasn't fiery hot as the preachers claimed; it was bitter cold.
He hadn't cared much. He was past caring whether he survived or not. The pain in his arm had driven him beyond the point of wanting to live. He could feel the poison pumping through his veins with every beat of his heart. Soon there would be only blessed blackness and an end to fighting the water.
He didn't know how long it had been since he'd fled the Union prison. Days and nights had run together in his fevered brain. He hadn't eaten, and he hadn't been warm--not once. Hunger didn't tear at him, but thirst did. All this water around him and none to drink ... The Delaware River and Bay were salty; not even his periods of dementia had made him crazy enough to drink from them.
He'd thought the river would take him; he'd almost hoped that the water would close over his head one last time. But now it seemed he wasn't meant to die by drowning. He was about to be devoured by dogs.
The collie's barking took on a hysterical note, and the hair on the black mastiff's neck stood up. "Easy," Chance repeated. "Good dog."
And then, behind him, he heard the ominous click of cold steel. "Don't move!" a woman's throaty voice commanded. "Put your hands in the air."
Chance twisted around to stare into the double barrels of a twelve-gauge shotgun. "Miss," he began. Her thumb rested on one hammer. A slender finger tightened on the trigger.
Her brown eyes widened in shock. Her already flushed cheeks burned a deeper crimson, and Chance realized that the ruins of his trousers were caught in the crab trap. Awkwardly he tried to cover his shriveled sex with his good hand.
"I ... I said, get your hands up!"
He sat down in the water.
Her voice trembled, but the twin barrels of her shotgun held steady. "Are you deaf? Or do you want me to shoot?"
"Miss ... ma'am ..." Chance's head was thumping like a drum, and waves of nausea washed over him. But even in his impaired state, he could see that the lady was dark-haired, comely, and great with child. Her charms meant little at this moment. But since she was holding a gun on him and seemed confident she could hit what she aimed at, no sensible man would infuriate her any more than necessary. Therefore, prudence was in order. "As you can see, I'm--"
"Naked as a blue jay?"
"I've had ... an accident. If you'd just call off your dogs, I can explain--"
"How you're an escaped rebel prisoner from Fort Delaware?"
"No, ma'am." In spite of his chills, he could feel the sweat running down the back of his neck. "No, ma'am, I'm not." Lies were pouring out of his mouth faster than a horse could trot, but he could see that she wasn't believing a word of it. "My boat sank. I'm a merchant from ... from London, on my way to Philadelphia and--"
"Save your breath, Johnny Reb. Your fine Southern accent gives you away. Not Maryland. Virginia? Richmond, maybe?"
He winced at the accuracy of her barb. "No, ma'am, I told you, I'm British. My business is in London, but my family hails from the Indies."
"And I'm President Lincoln." She cocked the second hammer. "You thought if you got rid of your gray uniform, I wouldn't have the sense to know what you are?"
A wave of weakness swept over Chance, and he gritted his teeth to keep them from chattering.
She was right again. He had stripped off his coat and shirt that first night he'd gone into the water. He'd meant to steal some other clothes, but he'd never gotten the opportunity.
"Out of the creek," she ordered, "before I let you have a belly full of buckshot."
She took a step closer. "Don't mess with me, Reb. I'll drop you where you--"
"No! Don't shoot. I'm tangled in this line." It was getting harder and harder to summon the strength to speak. He was so damned cold, and the sun reflected off the water so that spots of light danced across his brain. "I don't mean you any harm."
It was hard to keep his eyes open. "If you mean to shoot me, then do it. Just give me a drink of water first."
"Why should I?"
"A lady should--"
Her obsidian eyes narrowed. "How dare you tell me what I should do for you, you traitor?"
"If you won't give me a drink, then shoot and be damned."
"Maybe I will. I'm sure there's a bounty on your head."
"You're a hard woman to deny a man a drop of water before you send him to his Maker."
"You take me for a fool? A fisherman was murdered near here last month by escaped rebel scum. And before Christmas a woman just across the bay was ravaged by two others."
Chance rubbed his swollen eyes. It was hard to think with his head hurting so, and it was harder still to make his words come out straight.
Fine lawyer I am, he thought. My life is hanging on the verdict, and I can't match wits with a barefoot farmer's wench.
"Do I look like I'm in any condition to commit rape?"
"That's the first honest thing you've said to me."
Wearily he sagged until his chin touched the water. He was so tired. If he rested for just a few minutes, maybe he could summon the strength to break loose and fight his way past the dogs.
"Stay there," she said.
The irony made him smile. Where did she think he was going? The black humor brought a chuckle from deep in his gut. He slumped forward into the shallow water and drifted into oblivion.
Minutes or hours later--he had no way of knowing which--pain knifed through his bad arm. He gasped and tried to open his eyes.
"Get up!" the woman ordered. "I can't carry you." She struck him sharply across the face. "Get on your feet and walk!"
"Go to hell."
The palm of her hand cracked across his cheek again, and he staggered to his feet.
"That's it. You can do it. A little more," she urged, tugging at his good arm.
His left foot slipped, and she couldn't hold his weight. He sprawled face down in the mud, and his wounded arm felt as though it were on fire. He spat out a mouthful of dirt and tried to bite back a scream of agony.
The hurting became a hell of jumbled sounds and pain. Once Chance fancied he felt himself being dragged over the ground. He smelled the dogs, and a woman's newly washed hair.
Dark ... it was dark hair, he remembered. Dark brown with a hint of chestnut where the sunlight sparkled on it.
And then he sank into a cushion of black forgetfulness where the only intrusion was the occasional bark of a dog and the blessed taste of freshwater in his parched mouth.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Rachel's Choice by Judith E. French. Copyright © 1998 by Judith E. French. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.