A first love is never easily forgotten…
AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT — Marcia Gruver
Best-selling author Marcia Gruver’s southern-comfortable roots lend touches of humor and threads of faith to her writing. When she’s not pounding a keyboard, you’ll find her clutching a game system controller, riding shotgun on Texas Hill Country treks, or sipping mugs of hot tea on the front porch. Lifelong Texans, Marcia and her husband Lee have five children, thirteen grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren—so far.
August 15, 1863
Julian was missing.
His last letter arrived on April 15, four months ago to the day. Before now, a few weeks had been the longest span of time between letters. The wait for word had become Willow’s obsession, and a trip to the post office a part of Cletus’s daily routine.
He didn’t seem to mind.
Some days, like today, he took the surrey, and Willow rode along with him. At the post office counter, she knew no letter awaited her, even before her turn came to be served. The clerk avoided her eyes as she moved forward in the queue, then tucked his chin and cleared his throat when she stepped up to the window.
“Nothing again today, Miss Bates,” he said then lowered his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
She gave him a trembling smile and hurried outside.
Halfway home, Cletus broke the gloomy silence. “Don’t you worry, missy,” he called over his shoulder. “I’m sure he jus’ fine.”
He shot her a feeble grin. “That boy quick and spry. No Yankee musket got the better of Mistuh Julian.”
Willow’s heart lurched. Hearing Julian’s name mentioned in the same breath with a Yankee musket wasn’t exactly a comfort.
“Something is wrong, Cletus. I feel it in my bones.”
He turned on the seat. “You listen to old Cletus and not them lying bones. When they took Annie away, my heart grieved sore. But inside, I knew she wasn’t lost.”
He nodded. “I was right, too, thanks to you. Jus’ like I’s right about Mistuh Julian.”
He studied her with a slight frown, seeming to search for words as he swayed back and forth on the seat. “Sometimes life be like this old rutted road, lots of rattles and bumps. But the Almighty don’t ever take His eyes off His children, not even to sleep. He’s watching out for you and Mistuh Julian, jus’ like He watched out for my Annie. So don’t you fret.”
She met his eyes and drew comfort from the conviction burning there. “Thank you, Cletus. I’ll try to remember.”
They rode in silence again, though not the heavy quiet of dread. Willow sat back and rested her mind. God had used her, as unlikely as she was, to answer Cletus’s prayers for his daughter. She would lean on God now and trust He heard her many petitions for Julian.
She settled deeper into the tufted seat, drowsy in the shade protecting her from the blistering August sun. For the first time in days, she felt at ease enough to drift off in peaceful sleep.
Startled awake, she sat upright. “Did you say something, Cletus?”
Cletus strained forward, one hand shading his eyes. “Look yonder, coming this way.”
Willow leaned to see around him but saw only the horse’s bobbing head. She stood in a crouch beneath the fringed top, holding the back of the seat to steady herself.
Past the shimmering heat waves, past the pits and ruts dug in the dirt after the spring rains, she made out the shape of a man waving his arms. A man in slouch hat and Confederate gray.
She gripped Cletus’s shoulder so hard he flinched. “It’s Julian! He’s come home.”
Cletus placed his calloused hand on hers and squeezed. “No, Miss Willow, look again. Mistuh Julian be all legs and shoulders.” He squinted his eyes. “And he don’t have ginger hair.”
He glanced up at her, deep sorrow in his gaze. “That be Mistuh Hiram coming our way.”
Sick with disappointment, Willow slumped in her seat. Patting tears from her cheeks with her hankie, she fought for control. Hiram mustn’t think she wasn’t happy to see him.
The surrey drew alongside him, and genuine joy warmed her heart. She’d missed him more than she realized.
They climbed down, and Willow enveloped him in a welcoming hug. “Cletus, look. It’s our Hiram. I’m so happy to see you.”
Hiram held on to her for a few beats longer than proper. When he released her, he held her at arm’s length and feasted with his eyes. “Dear girl, I’ve missed you so.”
A look crossed his face, one Willow hadn’t seen in many years. A naughty boy caught in his transgressions. “I’m forgetting myself,” he said. “It’s a gift to see your face again, honey, but I’ve not come for myself.”
He ducked his head and swallowed. “I’m dreadful sorry to be the one—” He raised his head, and pain flashed in his eyes. “I wish I didn’t have to tell you.”
Alarm weakened her legs. “Hiram, please. What’s wrong?”
Her hands rose instinctively to cover her ears.
Cletus placed a firm hand on her back. “Just say it, boy. Don’t make her wait.”
Hiram pressed his lips together and nodded. “Julian is missing. Presumed dead. I’m so sorry, honey.”
She turned aside to escape his words, but the dusty road rushed up to meet her. Grasping hands and anxious voices were the last things she knew.