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April 16, 1861:
Wilson Family Farm, Stampers Creek, Indiana

The sounds of gunshots echoed across the field, each one making Emily clench her teeth tighter together until her jaw ached. For an hour, she’d listened as her menfolk shot at whatever they were shooting at, and she’d told herself to stay out of it. She knew they were doing more than hunting by the way they’d whispered among themselves when David arrived home from town and then grabbed their muskets and headed to the creek. With each shot, her imagination conjured an explanation that was worse than the one before. A rabid dog. A pack of wolves. Brutal Shawnee here to reclaim their land.

She moved the soup pot off the stove and yanked on her warm coat. She was through waiting. If no one saw fit to inform her of the danger, she’d discover what it was herself and help dispel it. She’d been shooting all her life alongside her brothers and often bagged game for dinner. Whatever was out there, she could handle it. Women weren’t supposed to be the strong ones, but she did not always have to pretend to be weak.

She reached for a musket behind the door but found the men had taken them all. Looking around, her gaze landed on the kitchen knife. Any weapon was better than none. Gripping it firmly in her fist, she set out across the fallow cornfield toward the creek. She couldn’t see anyone, but the gunshots directed her to the wooded area where she and her brothers had spent countless hours playing as children, back before Mama died and Emily had become the woman of the house.

As she reached the trees, the sound of three shots firing almost simultaneously made her jump, and she realized she’d best announce her presence before one of them shot in her direction. “Pa, I’m coming your way. Don’t shoot!”

Holding her knife firmly, ready to attack anything that might run toward her, she followed the path into the clearing, her heart pounding in her ears as loudly as the gunshots. But she was ready. She’d defend herself and her family against whatever threat awaited her.

What she saw made her stop short.

There was no danger.

Her brothers lay on the ground with muskets in hand, calmly listening to whatever Pa was telling them. Uncle Samuel stood behind them, puffing on his pipe and watching, his own musket resting in the crook of his elbow.

“No, not like that,” Pa said to Ben. “You want to lie flat on your belly and only raise up as much as you must to fire. Make yourself into the smallest you can be so you’re harder to hit.”

Emily released her pent-up breath and watched as Ben straightened his legs so he was lying flat on his belly. Propping himself on his elbows, he sighted the shot.

“Now imagine there’s a secesh hiding in those bushes,” Pa coached. “Take a breath as you aim, and as you exhale, pull the trigger.”

As the musket fired, a puff of smoke rose from the barrel. David, lying beside Ben, fired his weapon. Both of her brothers rolled to their backs to reload without sitting up.

Emily crossed the clearing and stopped next to Uncle Samuel. “What’s a secesh?”

He glanced at her before returning his gaze to her brothers. “It’s what they’re calling people from the seceding states.” He grunted. “Short for secessioner.”

“Why are we shooting at them?” She watched as her brothers fired again.

“Keep going,” Pa said to the boys. “Try to make your shots hit that beech tree there by the water.” He stepped over Ben’s legs and came to her with a sheepish smile. “Did we miss supper? Sorry, Em.”

Emily shrugged. “Why are you pretending to shoot at secesh?”

Pa sent a look to Uncle Samuel, who lifted one eyebrow and kept puffing on his pipe, and then he turned to her. “I don’t want to worry you, but word has come that we’re at war against the Southern states who have seceded from the Union. President Lincoln called for volunteers yesterday, and Governor Morton says we’re to gather in Indianapolis for training.”

She stared at him. “Who is to gather?”

Pa shuffled his feet and looked away. “The Indiana volunteers, of course.”

He didn’t need to say it for Emily to understand he would be one of them. She watched her brothers fire on the beech tree. Both missed. Calmly, she reached for the musket Uncle Samuel held, trading it for her knife. “Is it loaded?”

Samuel left the pipe clamped between his teeth and wordlessly handed her a paper cartridge from the pouch at his waist.

As the men watched, Emily expertly ripped the cartridge open with her teeth, poured the powder into the barrel and shoved the ball inside, pulled out the rammer, pushed down the shot, and replaced the rammer. Then, shoving her skirts out of the way, she settled onto her stomach on the ground between her brothers.

Without saying a word, she cocked the weapon, aimed, and fired. A chunk of gray bark flew off the beech, right where she’d aimed.

Satisfied, she got back to her feet, handed the musket to her uncle, and faced her pa. “I’m coming with you.”


Present day:
Lakewood, Washington State

Larkin Bennett grabbed hold of the cold, steel handle and noticed her hands were shaking. She felt as vulnerable as if there were armed insurgents on the other side of the gray metal door, but it was only her best friend’s storage unit. She blew out a breath and shoved the rolling door up so hard it rattled and banged. When the light flickered on, she saw only stacked cardboard boxes, a couple of lamps, and bulging black garbage bags. The innocuous objects might as well have been insurgents firing on her for the pain that swept through her entire body.

For several long moments, she could do nothing more than stare at Sarah’s belongings. Mentally, she went through all the reasons why she had to do this now rather than run far, far away. It was December. The rental contract on the unit would end at the close of the month, and there was no reason for Larkin to waste money renewing it.

The storage unit was an hour away from her hometown, two with traffic, and she had no plans to come back to this area anytime soon. She needed to deal with it while she was here.

There was no one else to take care of this, and besides, Sarah had wanted her to have these things.

The last one was the kicker.

Nausea rolled through Larkin as she reached for the nearest box and stacked it on the rolling cart she’d brought up in the elevator. She intended to load everything into her car and take it all to her grandmother’s house, where she’d be living until she figured out what to do next. Once she got Sarah’s stuff there, she could go through it another day, when it wouldn’t hurt so badly.

Moving robotically, she stacked another box on the cart and reached for a third, trying her hardest not to think about Sarah or why she wasn’t here to clean out her own storage unit.

This third box was heavier than the last two, and Larkin grunted as she lifted it. Pain shot through her legs and back, and she welcomed it.

Larkin’s cell phone rang from where she’d stuck it in her back jeans pocket. “Damn it,” she muttered as she lurched to the cart and bent her knees to set the box down. She misjudged the placement, though, and it tilted sideways and crashed onto the floor, the top seam bursting open and scattering Sarah’s things.

Her damn phone was still ringing. Larkin yanked it from her pocket without looking to see who was calling. “What?”

“Larkin, is that you?”

Guilt shot through her, and she took a moment to draw a breath in through her nose to calm down, her eyes squeezed shut. Her grandmother didn’t deserve her temper. When she trusted her voice to come out evenly, she opened her eyes and answered, “Yes, Grams, it’s me. Sorry, I just dropped something.”

“Where are you? I thought you’d be here by now.”

Larkin eased herself down onto the edge of the flatbed cart and dropped her head into her free hand. “I’m sorry, Grams. I decided at the last minute to take care of something. I’m in Lakewood, down by Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Cleaning out Sarah’s storage unit.”

Silence greeted this announcement, and then Grams’s voice came softly through the line. “Lark, are you sure that’s a good idea? If you wait, one of us could drive down there to be with you.”

Larkin looked at the spilled contents of the box in front of her. A silver tube of lipstick, an old MP3 player, a silver bracelet, a brown leather book. “I was passing through and didn’t want to have to drive back down here, you know? It has to be cleaned out this month, and I know you are all going to be busy with the holidays.”

“If you’re sure.” Grams didn’t sound convinced, but she went on with the reason for her call. “How long will it take? Tomorrow is Sunday, and I was hoping to invite everyone over so we could welcome you home properly. Will you be here?”

By “everyone,” Larkin knew her grandma meant her entire extended family of parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Grams kept the family connected, and it was at her house where everyone gathered. All fourteen of them.

Even though Larkin had planned to load her car and finish her drive to Grams’s tonight, the idea of a family gathering sucked the energy from her. “I’m so sorry, Grams,” she lied. “I don’t think I’m going to make it tonight. Probably not even until late tomorrow night. Sarah has some furniture here that I need to get someone to pick up and too much stuff to fit into my car, which means I need to sort through it and donate what I don’t want to keep. It’ll take some time.”

The tiny closet of possessions stared back at her, mocking her lies. Larkin turned her back on it.

“I guess we can celebrate your return in a few weeks when everyone is here for Christmas anyway.” The disappointment in Grams’s voice made Larkin’s already raw heart ache even more. “But you’d better call your mom and tell her. They were excited to see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, I will.” Larkin pushed stiffly to her feet. “I’ll see you tomorrow night, Grams. Love you.”

“I love you, too, soldier girl,” Grams replied, using the nickname Larkin’s grandfather had given her years ago. Hearing it made tears come to her eyes. “I’m so happy you’re finally coming home.”

Larkin swallowed. “Me too.” She hung up, wondering if that was a lie. She really had no idea.

She dialed her mother, then righted the box and started putting the spilled items back in as she waited for her to pick up. When she did, Larkin got straight to the point. “Hi, Mom, it’s me. Grams told me to call you since I won’t be home tonight after all. I won’t be there in time for a party tomorrow either.”

“Why not?”

Larkin explained about the storage unit and that she would rent a hotel room tonight. Her mother, already angry Larkin was moving in with Grams and not back into the house where she’d grown up, did not hold back from laying on the guilt. “Oh, Larkin, I am so disappointed. Your father will be, too. Can’t you at least stop and see us on your way through town? It’s been a year, and after all that’s happened, we need to see you.”

“I know, Mom. I’m sorry.” Larkin was about to explain, yet again, how she needed the peace and quiet at Grams’s house, and also that Grams didn’t work and both of her parents did, which meant she’d have someone around to help her adjust to civilian life again. But she didn’t say any of this because her mother already knew all of it, and really, Larkin just wanted to get off the phone. “I’ll stop by on my way through Seattle tomorrow, okay? What time should I be there?”

“Oh, good. Your father will be happy. How about six?” Kathryn Bennett sounded smug. “We’ll order some dinner.”

Resigned, Larkin agreed and ended the call, feeling the last of her energy drain away. She stuffed the phone back in her pocket and picked up the book that had fallen out of the box, intending to toss it back.

It looked well used with a stiff, brown, extra-thick leather cover sporting an embossed floral design. A leather thong wrapped around the book and tied it closed.

Curious, for she’d never seen Sarah with the book, Larkin undid the thong and opened the first page. In an old-fashioned hand, someone had written The diary of… followed by something that had been scratched out, and written below that was the name Jesse Wilson. She looked closer at the scratched-out part and thought it looked like… Was it Emily?

Something nudged at the back of Larkin’s brain, and she turned the page to the first diary entry, dated 1861. Flipping quickly through the rest of the book, she found it full of the same old-fashioned and difficult-to-read handwriting. Every now and then a word jumped out at her. Union. Army. Battle. Musket. The memory that had been poking at her burst forth.

It was the day she and Sarah had graduated from Norwich University and were commissioned as second lieutenants into the U.S. Army. Sarah’s family hadn’t been there, of course, and so Larkin had made her an honorary member of her own since her parents, grandparents, and two of her cousins had flown in for the ceremonies. After everyone had gone back to their hotels and Larkin and Sarah had returned to their dorm room for their last night as roommates, they’d gotten to talking about why they’d wanted to join the Army in the first place.

For Larkin, it had been because of her grandpa, who had fought in the Korean War, and because of the trip she’d taken with him to Washington, DC, in junior high when she’d learned that women were in the military, too. It wasn’t only for boys. Sarah had an even better story, though. She’d told Larkin that night about an ancestor of hers who had disguised herself as a man and fought in the Civil War. The news that women had fought in the Civil War had blown Larkin’s mind. Sarah’s grandmother had given her the diary when she was a little girl, and Sarah had wanted to be like Emily Wilson ever since.

This had to be that diary.

Larkin’s hands shook. When she’d learned that Sarah had left all of her possessions to her, she hadn’t expected to find anything so valuable. Surely there was someone in Sarah’s family who should have this instead?

But Sarah hadn’t been close to her family. They’d done nothing but hurt her, and ever since they were freshman rooks at Norwich, Sarah had said Larkin was her only family. Larkin had never had a sister, but she grew up with two cousins close to her age who were like sisters. She’d missed them terribly when she’d moved across the country for college, and Sarah had filled that hole. Now, there was a Sarah-shaped hole in her life that would never be filled.

Maybe Sarah really had meant for her to inherit this diary.

Larkin would much rather have Sarah back.

A splotch of water fell onto the open diary page, and Larkin realized she was crying. Damn it. She never cried.

She wiped away the tears and moved to shove the diary back into the box. But then she stopped. No. She wouldn’t leave it crammed in some box. The diary would stay with her.

With her new plan to stay at a hotel overnight, she didn’t want her car full of boxes that might tempt someone to break in. She returned the boxes to the storage unit, rolled the door back down, and fastened the lock. She had all day tomorrow to face this. For now, she’d get something to eat and a good night’s rest.

Back in her car, she carefully placed the diary on the passenger seat, next to the urn that she had buckled in with the seat belt. Sarah’s final requests had specified that she was to be cremated and her ashes placed into a biodegradable urn made out of pink Himalayan salt. Larkin was to scatter her ashes on the beaches of Sarah’s home state of California, and when they were all gone, she was to throw the urn itself into the ocean where it would dissolve, leaving nothing behind for anyone to have to deal with in the years to come.

Larkin had driven from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where she’d processed out of the Army, to San Diego, where she’d had every intention of following Sarah’s instructions. But once she got there, it was too soon to say goodbye. So, she’d driven north up the coast toward her final destination of Woodinville, Washington, intending to stop at another beach to scatter the ashes once she was stronger.

She’d stopped at ten different beaches, and each time, she hadn’t been able to part with Sarah. She couldn’t let her go yet.

“Look what I found,” she said to her friend as she latched her seat belt and started the engine. “It’s that diary you told me about. I’ll start reading it tonight, as soon as I eat something.” She hadn’t eaten since Eugene, Oregon, over five hours ago.

As she pulled out of the storage facility, she saw a hotel next door and a Mexican restaurant across the street. Perfect.

She thought about taking her dinner to go, but a beer sounded too good to pass up. She drank a Corona with lime while she waited on her food and asked for another as a huge plate of cheese enchiladas was placed before her.

She didn’t realize how hungry she was until her first bite made her salivate. Heaven on a plate, that’s what this was, she decided, savoring another bite. She hadn’t had good Mexican food for over a year. No surprise, of course, that she couldn’t find any in Afghanistan, but even when she’d returned to the States, she hadn’t found enchiladas like this in Memphis or Missouri.

She was so caught up in her food that it took a moment for the conversation at the table behind her to sink into her consciousness. But when it did, she found she could focus on nothing else.

“Yeah, she’s hot,” said a young male voice. “Just be warned. They say women in the military are either bitches, sluts, or dykes. I vote for the middle category.”

The two men laughed and went on boasting about what they would do to the women in question, each claim filthier than the last. Larkin looked around to see who they might be talking about and found two women in Army combat uniforms paying for a take-out order at the bar. They had no idea the two perverts were talking about them and, from the fatigue clearly weighing them down, had likely just ended a long day and wanted to go home and eat their meal in peace.

Larkin had dealt with men like them her whole military career—from JROTC in high school through her last deployment to Afghanistan. From civilians and military members alike. She’d learned to ignore the comments and to make sure her behavior was always above reproach.

But she wasn’t in the military anymore, she realized. She no longer had to worry about jeopardizing her career.

Before she knew what she was doing, she picked up her full glass of beer and pushed to her feet to go stand beside the men’s table. As she’d thought, they were college kids, full of their own importance and the erroneous belief that women existed only for their pleasure.

“Hey, boys.” She greeted them with a smile. “I heard you talking about those women.” She motioned to the two soldiers with her beer and then took a sip, acting like she wasn’t pissed.

“They are real pretty, aren’t they?”

The blond kid, who had the look of a star athlete, smiled at her, his perfect teeth so white they had to have been bleached. He looked like he was going to agree with her, but his buddy, a more studious-looking guy with glasses, shot him a look and asked Larkin, “Can we help you?”

Larkin stopped pretending to be nice. She slammed her beer on the table and leaned on both palms so she was hovering over them. “Yes, you can help me. First, by apologizing to those women and paying for their meals. Second, you can thank them for volunteering to put their lives in danger for your freedom. And third, you can never let such sexist and shitheaded words leave your mouths again.”

The blond sports star scowled, arrogance making his perfect face turn ugly. “Why would we do any of that?”

“Because,” she told him, allowing the disgust she felt for them to deepen her voice. “You disrespected members of the military who work hard every day so that shits like you have the freedom to jack off in your daddy’s basement and congratulate yourselves on being men.”

A clapping sound made her look over, and when she saw the two women watching her with huge grins on their faces, Larkin realized she’d been speaking louder than she thought.

She looked around and saw the entire restaurant watching her. Many of the customers were in uniform, as they were only a couple of miles from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, also known as JBLM. Most smiled and nodded at her. Some had already turned back to their meals.

Larkin looked back at the two men in the booth. “So? Are you going to apologize to these women, or do I need to teach you some manners?”

Sports Star laughed. “What are you gonna do? Pour your beer over us? I’m so scared.”

Larkin deliberately lifted her beer to her lips and downed the final few gulps. When her glass was empty, she gripped it tightly in her palm and raised her arm to smash it against the asshole’s head. As she began to swing, though, someone grabbed her wrist and the glass slipped out of her hand, crashing to the floor.

Furious, she looked to see who had stopped her and was surprised to see a familiar face.

“Don’t do this, Captain.”

She had to look at his name tape before she remembered who he was. Cohan. Tim Cohan. They’d been in training together at JBLM a couple of years ago, though they’d never really been friends. She was surprised he remembered her. “I’m not a captain anymore.”

He nodded curtly. “I’d heard. I’m sorry. But still, you don’t want to do this.” Before Larkin could say another word, he ropped her hand and turned to the men at the table. “I suggest you pay for your meals and get the hell out of here.”

Anger made her whole body feel like it was buzzing, but she held herself completely still as the two jerks dropped money on the table and slid from the booth, their faces smug as they brushed past her and disappeared out the door.

Larkin turned on Cohan. “I had it under control.”

He stepped back with his hands held out to his sides. “I was only trying to help.”

All the anger she’d felt when she’d heard the men’s sexist comments earlier still boiled in her belly. It called forth the rage she’d always had to push aside over her years in the Army as she put up with such comments or men like Cohan, who thought every woman needed a man to save the day. Gritting her teeth, she stepped forward until she was right in his face. “Men like you need to back the hell off. You got that? We can’t even have a fucking meal without being degraded, and then you step in and tell me I’m not allowed to demand a little common decency?”

“You were about to smash his head in, Bennett.”

“Maybe he needed his head smashed in.”

Cohan swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “I see your PTSD treatment didn’t work.”

Larkin reared back. How the hell did he know? What had he heard? She opened her mouth to demand the answers but realized it didn’t matter. He didn’t matter. None of this mattered.

Deliberately, she turned away from him and reached for the rucksack that served as her purse, which she’d left on the bench seat at her table. Without another glance Cohan’s way, she drew out enough money to pay for her meal, dropped it next to her plate, and walked out.

For several long moments, she sat in her car in the dark and battled back the sting behind her eyes.

“I wish you were here, Sarah,” she said when she finally calmed down enough to speak. “You would’ve kicked their asses and been done with it. I looked like an out-of-control loser in there.”

She imagined she heard Sarah laughing, and it made her smile. “I did manage to scare those shitheads at least a little, didn’t I? Maybe they’ll think twice before saying crap like that again.”

She started her engine and drove across the street to the U-shaped, one-level motel where she planned to spend the night.

Her room was a total dive. A bed was crammed into a corner with a piece of orange Naugahyde-wrapped plywood attached to the wall as a fake headboard. An old brown towel was thumbtacked over the window where a curtain should be, and in the bathroom, a round toilet seat barely covered an oblong-shaped toilet bowl. Water dripped into the stained bathtub.

It was just one night. The door locked, and the bed looked clean enough.

She carefully placed Sarah’s urn on the middle of the tiny, scarred table and dropped her travel bag on the chair next to it.

The floor looked too questionable to set anything on.

Soon, Larkin had her teeth brushed and her pajamas on, and she settled into bed with the diary.

She had no idea what to expect from the story other than what Sarah had told her, but all she really wanted was to feel close to Sarah.

And so, she unwrapped the leather thong and opened to the first entry.

April 18, 1861: Today, Pa and David answered Lincoln’s call for volunteers for the United States Army, where they will fight against the secessioners and make our country whole again. Pa says they’ll be home in three months, but I hope the Southern rebellion ends much sooner. Pa gave me this diary so I can write down and remember everything to tell him about the farm and Stampers Creek when he returns. I wish he had let me go with him instead. I can shoot a musket as well as, if not better than, David!

We got the beanpoles constructed and vegetables planted. Ben plowed the north field. Uncle Samuel kept us busy until nearly dark, what with being shorthanded now. Being busy did not keep me from missing Pa and David. Three months is going to be a very long time.