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In Heaven's Shadow

Author(s): S, A, Bolich

The Yankees killed him, but Joab came home anyway. And magical Lilith is determined to make a life with him—no matter what the neighbors say.

Lilith Stark knows from experience that dead doesn't necessarily mean gone. Gettysburg took Joab's life, but her husband struck a bargain with Heaven to come home instead. She’s not about to turn away whatever the Yankees have left to her of their all-too-brief marriage. But when she inadvertently lets slip to the neighbors that not only Joab has come home, but one of the neighbor boys as well, she ignites a town already rubbed raw by the endless sorrows of civil war.

Lilith, hoping to salvage the situation, only puts her foot in it deeper when she offers the good people of Browns Corners, Virginia, the benefits of her strange and perhaps saintly father's magic elixir. With the neighbors fighting over the elixir, the Reverend Fisk convinced she's the lying daughter of a shiftless devil, and the bereaved mother of the ghost living in Lilith's barn turning the whole town against her, Lilith's happy penchant for creating unexpected rainbows curdles to a despairing gathering of black creepers instead.

A private little war between Lilith and the Reverend leads to a very public confrontation in which Lilith will either get the town to accept her--magic, ghosts, and all--or find herself locked away as a madwoman, deprived of everything that makes her life worthwhile.

Excerpt


Joab came around the team, smiling. Lilith flung her arms around him before she remembered there was nothing much to hug. He jerked up straight, shuddering.
“Oh, Lordy, Joab! I’m so sorry…I can’t seem to remember you ain’t really there.”
Joab shook himself, looking down at her with a face that couldn’t decide whether to crumple up with laughter or break down in tears. He opened his arms wide. “Come here, Lil.”
Cautiously Lilith stepped in close and slid her arms around his waist, feeling the rough, ghostly brush of his coat against her cheek and the half-alive feel of him moving against her. He hugged her with all the scant solidity he could muster and laid his cheek on her hair. He sighed, the wispy ghost of it stirring her hair.
“That’s all right, then.”
“Miz Stark…What in tarnation are you doin’?”
Joab stiffened, his head jerking up at Bert framed in the hayloft door. Lilith broke away, flustered to tongue-tied gibbers. “I-I—well …”
“Don’t answer him, Lil. He might decide you’re crazy after all.”
“Oh, hush up and let me think!”
“What?” Bert and Joab demanded together.
The silliness of it struck her all sideways. Lilith collapsed in the dirt and laughed, her nerves taking revenge in a gale of hysterics that would have done Tillie Martin proud. Joab stared down at her, his fine dark eyebrows twitching together in a puzzled frown, but she only laughed harder. And then Luke came running into the yard, and that set her off worse because he stopped when he saw her and stared with his jaw dropping fit to step on.
“Lilith!” Joab roared on top of Bert’s, “Miz Stark!”
Bert disappeared from the doorway and Joab stepped toward her. She tried to hush herself up but couldn’t manage it. Her ribs hurt and she couldn’t breathe and still the giggles just kept bubbling up out of her. Pretty soon she caught a wispy movement in the corner of her eye and saw the giggles turning to little floaty sparks bouncing around her like soap bubbles. The nearside mule snorted at one and bounced it back toward her. It splatted into another one, and they rained light all over the dirt in the barnyard and laid there, glowing sort of silvery gold.
“What in hell… ?”
That was Bert, arrived in the yard still clutching his pistol and staring like an owl. Lilith knew she couldn’t explain if she tried all year. She gave up on the notion and just let the giggles take her.
“Lil!”
Joab squatted down in the dirt beside her. “Come on now, pull yourself together. Bert thinks you’re loonier than Abe Lincoln. What’s the matter with you?”
Lilith tried to stop but her lungs locked up and she just couldn’t stop laughing. “Hysterical,” Joab muttered, sounding so disgusted that Lilith wanted to slap him but couldn’t manage that either.
She floundered around, trying to get to her feet, and found Bert Cummings waving a hand down in her face. She reached up to take it.
“Lilith Stark! What in the name of God are you doing?”
Even the mules shied from the outrage in the Reverend Fisk’s voice.
The laughter fled Lilith with the guilty speed of Calvin Fox fleeing his mother’s wrath. She sat there, legs splayed in the glowing dirt, with bubbles of laughter floating and dancing all around her and her two wide-eyed staring ghosts. Bert Cummings still had his hand stretched down but his face was turned toward the parson stalking across the yard from the house. Lilith couldn’t move a muscle, trapped same as a rabbit in a snare.
“Explain yourself!” Fisk stopped five feet away, looking like the judgment of God in his black frock coat and his prissy parson hat.
Lilith tried to swallow down a throat turned to dust. She caught Bert’s hand and let him pull her up. He stepped in front of her, putting himself between her and the preacher. “Who are you?” he demanded, his six-shooter stuck in plain sight in the top of his pants.
Lilith cringed. She still hadn’t gotten Bert’s shirt back to him and he hadn’t taken time to snatch up a blanket before coming down the ladder. Standing there with just his uniform pants on and hay stuck in his hair, he looked like he’d just gotten up from a good romp.
Fisk gave him a persimmon-mouthed onceover. “I would ask the same of you. I see it’s true, what Sister Carr reported to me.” His gaze swiveled to Lilith. “You are entertaining men up here.”
Joab lunged toward Fisk, his hands outstretched to throttle him. Luke yanked him back by the collar. Bert Cummings, shocked, said, “That ain’t so! Miz Stark got stuck with me when I couldn’t ride on because of stopping a bullet with my arm. What call you got to go accusing her of—of—” He couldn’t even say it, he was so taken aback.
Fisk’s frown never softened a whisker. “That does not explain the unseemly conduct I observed when I arrived, or you standing there half naked.”
He waited, staring down his long nose at Lilith. Bert reddened and turned tongue-tied; Joab, choking with Luke hauling his shirt up around his windpipe, quit fussing suddenly. A laugh bubble floated by his face, shining softly, lighting his paleness and the intense darkness of his eyes turned toward Lilith.
“Ask him what’s unseemly about laughter,” he said.
Lilith shook her head, shaken by the fixed coldness in the parson’s face. “I—was just…I tripped, and it took me funny,” she said lamely. “Mr. Cummings was helping me up.”
Fisk batted at a laugh bubble. “What are these things? What have you been brewing up here?” He squinted suspiciously into the barn. “I’ve been hearing about some potion you’ve been dispensing to all and sundry. You’re no midwife. What’s inspired you to this new foolishness?”
“It ain’t foolish.” Stung, Lilith ignored Joab waving at her to stop. “It’s real. You ask Jess Osbourne or Pappy Gallagher.”
“The whole county knows how Mr. Gallagher dotes on you, and Jess Osbourne is half mad. They are hardly reliable witnesses.”
“Then ask Drew Osbourne or Mac McNeil, or Jenny Carr or Mary Hoakum, who sneaked up here at the crack of daylight to get some when nobody would see ’em doing it! You ask Martha Fox why none of her kids have ever took sick since I dosed ’em with Pa’s elixir, and you look at Bert’s arm here, that’s almost healed after three days!”
“Bert, is it?” Fisk’s eyes flicked over the cavalryman and dismissed him. “This is some legacy of your father’s? I should have known.”
“What have you got against Pa?” Lilith drew herself up, sick to death of people invading her yard to lay their claws into her.
Fisk took a stride closer, barely missing Joab, who stepped aside in haste. “I was foolish enough to believe I could bring you to the Lord despite your upbringing. I see now that the evil in you is rooted too deeply. Upsetting Matilda Martin was unconscionable enough, but now you have taken it into your head to call yourself a healer, dispensing worthless remedies and claiming miraculous powers. This will stop. Now.”
“I ain’t evil, and I don’t claim nothing except what I know to be true. Pa’s water works and I ain’t apologizing for it.”
Fisk reared up in surprise; Lilith glared back. Meekness and manners hadn’t gotten her anything but confusion and misery, so let him chew on sass for a while.
Bert Cummings tried to speak up for her. “Lookee here, Reverend, Miz Stark’s a good woman who ain’t done nothing but kindness to a stranger. Two men come in here this morning and tried to burn her place down ’cause she wouldn’t give ’em the time of day. Why ain’t you over to that Willis place, laying into them insteada her?”
Fisk turned that holier-than-thou look on Bert. “What is that you say? The Willises?” His chin came down a tad.
“I believe that was the name. Ezra was the big one. Don’t know as I caught the name of the rat-faced young’un.”
Luke’s mouth twitched but Joab looked fit for murder. She couldn’t read the reverend’s face at all, it had gotten so dark. The laugh bubbles were floating away up toward the stars, bouncing on the breeze, trailing little fuzzy shimmers behind them. Only one hovered in the yard above the mules standing there half asleep. It shed silvery light over tufty manes and long drooping ears and set a soft shine on their mealy muzzles that was almost pretty. Lilith mourned the loss of those bubbles; she hadn’t ever seen them before, and it would have been nice to get a chance to enjoy them and let the wonder of them sink in before they floated off to entertain God up there in the sky.
He must be laughing pretty hard watching this, she thought sourly, looking at Fisk trying to back up without losing a big chunk of respect.
“I will have a word with Ezra Willis,” he said eventually. “If this is true—”
“What do you mean, if?” Bert said coldly. “You calling the both of us liars?”
Fisk eyed him standing like a prizefighter waiting to throw the first punch. “Of course not,” he said without much conviction. “The Willis clan is well known for making trouble. Though why they should feel compelled to try and burn down the Stark house is beyond me.”
Lilith stiffened. “Didn’t you see the black spot in my front room and what’s left of my best dress out in the yard? Or did you think it was the scorch marks of sin set there by God Hisself?” She was so mad, she didn’t pay any mind to Luke’s mouth turning into a round O of astonishment or Joab waving at her or Bert Cummings ducking his head to hide a grin. “Don’t you be coming up here no more, Reverend, less’n you got more on your mind than finding fault where there ain’t none!”
Four shocked faces stared at her as the words bounced off the barn and flew off into the night beyond recall. A little thread of uneasiness wormed through Lilith’s wrath; she glanced down quickly to see if there were any black creepers crawling out from her skirts.  It was too dark to tell for sure.
“Very well,” Fisk said, biting the head off each word. “Since you spurn both righteousness and honest interest in your welfare, I shall heed your wishes and trouble myself no further with the state of your soul. But I will not have you setting yourself up as some miracle worker, adding to the sorrows of any neighbor misguided enough to believe what you say. Where is this potion you’ve been dispensing?”
“Don’t tell him!” Bert’s voice chimed in with Joab’s and Luke’s, the three of them so alarmed that Lilith took courage from their belief in the elixir and her.
“That ain’t none of your concern, Reverend.” She gave him his due even though she didn’t want any more of his ministry.
“What affects my flock is my concern,” he said sharply. “I’ll not have some hill woman setting herself up as Christ come again.”
If he had poured cold water on her head, he could not have stolen her breath more thoroughly. “That’s—that’s—”
“Ridiculous,” Bert said, staring hard at Fisk. “Reverend, you got you a mighty strange way of loving your neighbors.”
“This, sir, is none of your affair,” Fisk shot back stiffly.
“Seeing as how I still got an arm because of that water, I think it is. Maybe if you tried it your own self, you’d see what everybody was on about.”
Fisk drew back as though Bert had offered him poison. “Don’t be absurd. ”
Joab came to lay his featherweight arm around Lilith’s shoulders. “Tell him to go,” he said in her ear. “This ain’t accomplishing nothing.”
Lilith stood up straighter, wishing he had heft enough left to him to catch her troubles like he used to. The fire inside her had gone out, leaving her tired and a little afraid. She didn’t see how she could set foot in church again after what she had just said to the parson, and what would folks think of her?
She wavered. Joab’s arm tightened. “Tell him!”
“Parson, I’m right sorry it came to harsh words. I am. You’ve tried to be kind in your way. I reckon we’re just coming at God from different directions. You told the folks in town they’re not my judges, but you ain’t neither, so I reckon maybe you’d best go. Please. I ain’t looking for trouble.”
“Lil!” Luke spun around like she’d betrayed him to the Yankees. “Don’t you apologize! You make him say he’s sorry!”
Lilith ignored him. Fisk stared down his nose at her, in no way appeased that she could see. “Please, Parson,” she mumbled. “I got to clean up the mess the Willises made.”
“Stop antagonizing people, and you will not find yourself in such circumstances.”
Luke, beside himself, reverted to about ten years old and flung a clod of dirt. It struck the preacher smack in the middle of the back and sprayed dirt all over the black broadcloth. Lilith, shocked, watched it dribbling off as Fisk swung around in fury. Luke looked poleaxed, staring down at his hand like he hadn’t seen it before.
“What was that?” Fisk stared from her to Bert, his mouth an ugly line. “Who struck me?”
Bert’s eyes appeared a mite shiny around the rims but he spoke right up despite not knowing how that dirt got in the middle of Fisk’s back. “Nobody hit you, Reverend, unless maybe it was God tapping you on the shoulder to tell you to be nicer to this lady.”
Fisk choked like he’d swallowed a whole bushel of nails. “Lady is hardly the term I’d choose.” He stalked away into the night.
“You take that back!” Luke yelled.
Bert gave her a hangdog look. Joab just stood there, but his arm tightened around Lilith until it felt as solid and real as when he was alive. Dazed, she turned to look at him and saw him staring after the parson with the most frightening look on his face she’d ever seen. She guessed he’d have called that preacher out and shot him dead in front of the church if Fisk had been fool enough to take him up on it. And if Joab could still have held a gun.
“Whooee, ma’am,” Bert said respectfully. “You sure do know how to make enemies.”


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ISBN (Print):
ISBN (Electronic): 978-1-62916-050-4
Genre: Historical
Date Published: 02/06/2014
Publisher: Taliesin Publishing

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