Authors: Cara Covington
Smart man, saddling Coco for the captain.
Kate used her peripheral vision to note that Captain Somerville seemed to perk up when the horses came into view. “Well?”
“Oh, what the hell. Ma’am.”
Kate grinned. The men quite often forget to censor their speech around her. She didn’t take that as an indication of a lack of respect. She considered it a measure of their comfort around her. “What the hell, indeed, Captain. Let’s get to it.”
She ached to stay and help, but both Benedicts waved her off. “Mother’s expecting you for tea, Major Wesley,” Charlie said. “I know you wouldn’t want to disappoint her.”
It hadn’t occurred to her until that moment that some things men wanted no female witnesses to—whether those females were superior officers, or not.
“We’ll bring the captain up to the house after we’re through here,” Samuel said.
Kate really didn’t get a chance to argue the point as Samuel had cupped her elbow and walked her back to her car. He was grinning the whole time, and Kate could only shake her head and give in gracefully.
Apparently the fact that she had on her uniform, clearly showing her rank as major in the United States Army, meant nothing to these men. To them she was just Kate, and they were her elders.
And really, wasn’t that a wonderful thing?
Since Captain Somerville appeared to be already deep into a conversation with Charlie—and stroking Coco’s neck, that little equine flirt—Kate nodded. She could have walked back to the house, but instead did as she was bid, and drove that little distance instead.
She shouldn’t have been surprised that Sarah met her at the front door.
“Come in, Kate. Tea will be ready shortly. Did you know that you can clearly see the front of the barn from the window in the great room?”
Kate grinned, and followed her hostess to the very spot. Since the house was somewhat shaded by an elm tree, and the sun was shining, the men standing around chatting couldn’t really see that they were being observed.
Of course, both Benedicts had to know that she was watching.
“If his arms and left leg are sound, he should be able to mount all right,” Sarah said.
“They are. Coco was a good choice for him. She’s already got a crush on him—and unless I’m mistaken, it’s reciprocated.”
Sarah made a sound of agreement, and seemed to be as riveted to the small drama playing out as she was.
Captain Somerville, because he wasn’t technically on duty at a base, had dressed for the day in civilian clothes. He’d even worn his straw cowboy hat—something she’d known his wife had sent him but that he hadn’t worn until now.
He looked like a cowboy, she realized.
After what seemed like a long time, the men shook hands. Charles mounted his horse, and walked it a few paces away from the captain and Coco. Then he turned and put his focus on the other men.
The captain took a moment to adjust the stirrups. Coco stood perfectly still while he performed this routine task. Finally he appeared ready to mount the horse. Samuel stood back, and Kate could see he was ready to step in, if needed.
Captain Somerville gathered the reins in his left hand, then grasped the saddle’s pommel. He placed his right hand on the back of the saddle, and then lifted his left leg and set it in the stirrup.
Kate held her breath, because his first attempt at pulling himself up onto the horse failed. He stayed upright and seemed to gather himself. His back was to her and she really wished she could see his face.
She found herself reaching, and when her hand met Sarah’s she hung on.
The captain adjusted his hold on the saddle, nodded, and tried again.
This time, he managed to lift himself up. The way he swung his prosthesis over the back of the horse looked a little awkward, but he was sitting in the saddle, and once more looking at the world from that perspective.
Kate exhaled, her relief immense. Smiling, she turned to look at Sarah and found her grin returned.
Sam walked around to the right side of the horse, clearly talking to the captain. Charlie, too, seemed to get into the conversation, angling his horse so he could look at what the other men were looking at.
“Maybe that prosthesis isn’t good for riding horseback.”
“I know I usually wear boots when I go out riding,” Sarah said.
Kate had known the elderly woman still liked to go for a ride now and again. She shook her head now. “I want to grow up to be just like you,” she said.
“Age is just a number, Kate. If you’re blessed to have a sound body, there’s no reason to stop doing what you love just because you get old.”
“Wise words I’ll try to remember.” Kate put her attention back on the scene unfolding by the barn. They must have decided to carry on, because Captain Somerville nodded, and then moved his horse away from the barn door. Sam disappeared inside, and came out moments later, leading his own horse.
Once he mounted up, they all three headed off at a slow pace, in the same direction Kate herself had ridden off in that first time back in September.
“Well, they’ll likely be gone for a while. Come and have tea. The boys will take care of your Captain Somerville, don’t you fret about it.”
Kate nodded. One thing she could count on was that the Benedict men would indeed take care of the captain.
Taking care seemed to be in the blood for this family.
“Tea sounds like a wonderful idea.”
Sarah put her arm around Kate. “Mattie made cookies,” Sarah said. “We best have some before the men return.”
“Yes, and peanut butter.”
“Perfect.” She let Sarah lead her toward the dining room, but took one last look over her shoulder. If there was a problem with the captain’s artificial leg, she’d bet they could figure something out. Perhaps they could devise something that would be more conducive to horseback riding.
Sarah must have been divining her thoughts. “We’ll figure it out, Kate,” she said.
“Yes, we will.” Kate nodded, then turned to look at Sarah. “We can do anything we need to do, once we put our minds to it.”
They exchanged the letters they were reading, one penned by each of their fathers. Gerald relaxed on his bunk, the stress of the day falling off him as he read the news from home. They were sharing a rare afternoon off, as they both had late training flights the day before, and very early ones that morning.
He tried to keep his mind on their missives and off the fact that despite a complete review of all the repair parts kept in inventory at the base, the investigation had
to turn up the cause of the intermittent malfunctions the planes were experiencing.
The brass had even been in touch with the plane’s manufacturer, wondering if, in their haste to produce these craft, corners had been cut, or tests not performed.
The response had been immediate, of course. There were no defects in either the Vultee planes or the Pratt & Whitney engines.
The fault, they claimed, had to lie either with the pilots or the maintenance crews.
Gerald was getting damn tired of everyone being so preoccupied with pointing the finger at everyone else. He wondered if they all had to wait until someone was killed before something was done to solve the problem.
It’s a hell of a thing to have to wait for someone to die before people just do their damn jobs.
He turned his attention back to the letter. “Dad says that he’s hired a part-time hand—a Craig Somerville from Colorado. Do we know him?”
Patrick looked up from the letter he was reading. “Remember that captain Kate was so concerned with? The one who lost a leg in a training accident, after having saved one of his men?”
“That’s right. He has a ranch himself in Colorado.”
“Yeah. Keep reading.”
He returned his eyes to the letter and read some more, then grinned. “Hell of a woman, isn’t she?” Kate had apparently worked to get the man a prosthetic leg. One problem with the one that arrived was the end was made to go in a shoe, not a boot, and the shoes kept sliding off the stirrup.
Gerald could read his father’s respect for Kate as he related how she’d sat at the dining room table at the Big House, with a table full of family
Craig Somerville, trying to come up with some modification they could manufacture that would help the man be a better horseman.
It didn’t matter to Kate Wesley at all that such a thing had never been done before. She’d stated, his father wrote, that they were Americans and ingenuity was their national trait.
“The carved end that Sam and Craig devised to fit over the prosthesis needs modification, but seems to be doing the job.
“I’ve been able to engage Craig in ranch-talk, as Kate requested, with a view to tackling all the things here that he’ll have to do at home, once he’s released and returns there. He’s coming along. I have to tell you, boys, how proud I am of your choice in bride. Kate has made us all feel as if we’re doing our part, instead of sitting on the sidelines during this damnable conflict.”
“It feels like longer than five weeks since we’ve seen her,” he said to his brother.
“It does,” Patrick said. “If it weren’t for the fact that I know she’s busy, and that the family is there for her, I’d be really upset.”
“I know.” Gerald set his father’s letter aside. “At the same time, we have to acknowledge that we’re pretty lucky, to be stationed so close to home that we can go there when we do get leave.”
“Do you think that will last?” Patrick set down their other father’s letter and looked at him.
“I don’t know. If they want us to stay here and train men until the end of the war, I can do that. If we get orders—” He stopped and ran a hand through his hair. “I know we’ll do what we have to do, but Christ, I’m torn. Part of me wants to go back over there, be a part of it.”
“We were over there for two years, but yeah, I feel the same way. But if we’re more useful here, or at any of the other army air bases, then that’s where we need to be. This war can’t last forever, can it?”
“God, I hope not.”
A knock at the door jolted him, and he turned to his brother. Patrick shrugged, signaling he wasn’t expecting anyone. They didn’t tend to get visitors, not even from their fellow officers.
Gerald was closer, so he got up and answered the knock.
“Sir.” An airman saluted him, and Gerald returned the gesture.
“Colonel Hamilton needs to see you both. We have a bird coming in, hot.”
Gerald asked only, “Command?”
He took off running for the building they referred to as Command, the hub of the field from where the flight commander observed the training activity. Patrick paced him, with the airman falling slightly behind.
He said nothing as they entered the control room. Tension thickened the air. Since the day Gerald’s plane had overheated, there’d been no other blatant problems of that sort, just a lot of coughing and spitting and, in one instance, a stall.
Colonel Hamilton held the microphone, and all eyes were on him as spoke into it, clearly addressing the pilot.
“Barnesdale, what’s your status?”
Gerald had met Rollie Barnesdale when they’d reported for duty that first day. He seemed a good man, and was reputed to be a hell of a good pilot.
“Sir, I’ve just ordered Lieutenant Peters to bail. His chute opened but I can’t fly back over to verify safe landing.” He rattled off the coordinates. With a hand signal, Hamilton ordered one of the other officers on deck to see to the recovery of the airman. “I’m going to try and bring this bitch back to base. Sir. The smoke is getting thicker, but I don’t know if there’re flames, or if it’s just an oil leak of some kind.”
“Can you ditch?”
“There’s a village down below. Once I’m a few miles clear of it, I might be able to. I’d much rather—”
Everyone in the room heard the sound, and every one of them knew, instinctively, what that sound had been.
Captain Barnesdale’s plane had just exploded mid-flight.
For a long moment, no one said a word. Gerald’s heart was pounding in his chest, and a sense of grief, sharp and immediate, assailed him.
He cast his glance around the room and noted the absolute shock on the faces of the men present. For some of them, this would be their first brush with death in this war. Others had more experience—but their grief would be no less immediate or genuine.
Fast on the heels of the grief came anger. Barnesdale’s death had been unnecessary.
Colonel Hamilton had closed his eyes. Now he opened them, and surveyed the men under his command.
“We’ll deploy recovery teams. Gentlemen, we’re on alert. The base is to be locked down except for those on recovery detail. No communications off base, either.”
Time was needed to begin an investigation, and for the brass to contact Barnesdale’s family before news of this tragedy got out.
He met his brother’s gaze, and saw his own emotions reflected there.