September Free Fiction: Four Seconds

September Free Fiction: Four Seconds

 

November 1863

Chattanooga, Tennessee

       Oscar George rummaged through his darkroom chemicals and wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. Tennessee falls are gorgeous, but the early November Indian Summer and the meager ventilation in the boarding house offered no forgiveness from the heat and even less space for his supplies. It was not yet midmorning and already the sun was promising to be foe, not friend.

      Bottles of wet plate solvents and fixing agents clanked together in the wooden storage cabinet with the not-level shelving. A pile of haphazardly folded darkout cloths tumbled around Oscar's feet. A stack of glass plates toppled, thankfully landing on the mass of fabric, and only two chipped. Nevertheless, finding supplies locally will be impossible, and having them couriered not only risky, but unlikely.

      And supplies he would definitely need to deal with Mr. Bartholomew Barker's portrait orders. Oscar couldn't afford to be so careless.

      The only item he had successfully packed so far this morning was the camera and tripod. At least he'd had enough sense not to hitch up Corncob to the wagon yet. Mr. Umbry had once hitched her before the wagon was fully packed and secured. The sudden outbreak of musket shots over the ridge at the Battle of Belmont spooked the chestnut mare. A Missourian-born photographer, Mr. Umbry was bound and determined to document every aspect of the Union's horrors against the Confederacy. Corncob, his beloved horse (sometimes Oscar wondered if he loved that horse more than Oscar or photography), kept Mr. Umbry from succeeding in that endeavor, her skittish nature toppling over the chemical box and shattering the putrid colloidal mixtures. The wagon floor will be permanently stained from the ordeal, and poor potbellied Mr. Umbry took the lost opportunity with bitter rage.

      "Oscar, my boy. I've taught you well. Everything I know. But damned if I didn't forget to tell you not to hitch the horse until you're ready to ride." He'd taught Oscar everything he knew about capturing images and preserving them. That the plates must be kept wet. That the subject matter must be focused first. That the sun could be your best friend or your worst enemy. That day, Mr. Umbry taught Oscar how to clean the mess up without exposing himself to toxic photography fumes.

      Oscar gathered the plates and cloths, laid them on his unmade bed, and sat, staving off the uprising of still-fresh grief. Mr. Umbry had taken Oscar in as an apprentice and played the role of father to the boy for years after Oscar's parents died of typhoid. The pair had enjoyed grand travels—albeit with Corncob at the helm—and met such intriguing people. Diplomats, politicians, and socialites.

      Then the War.

      And Mr. Umbry went from a reasonable soul to hell-bent on documentation. Oscar understood the importance. Everything these days held extreme importance.

      Mr. Umbry's reputation grew throughout the South. The impeccable quality of his portraits of Generals and Confederate soldiers and his stills of the battlefield aftermath gave a boost to the local Confederates. The images were used to garner funds from the wealthy and, for those with no means, the pictures gave purpose to carry on. The South must succeed.

      Oscar rose and examined himself in the dull washstand mirror. In another time, he'd been filling out nicely, Mr. Umbry's occupation provided well for them. Not so much now. His face was thinner, his dark curls wayward, and his blue eyes looked like those of the soldiers he'd pass along his route. The War claimed lives and light.

      He poured water into the basin from the pitcher and splashed his face. A wooden crate under the washstand held Mr. Umbry's photographs that were prepped and ready to be delivered to some of the local business owners—or their wives, rather. He bent and took the lid off the crate and sat on the floor cross-legged. He was going to be late to the Barker's, but he could always blame it on the road blockades and influx of soldiers in Chattanooga’s streets.

      He thumbed through the first few photos. Shots of married couples. Shots of an old man with his hunting dog.

      He paused at the Barker's last family portrait shot. It took Mr. Umbry nearly three hours to wrangle the group, pose them, mediate arguments, and focus the camera, and have them hold the required four seconds for the exposure to take. The plates went dry three times.

      He told Mr. Barker that he would leave the job if he didn't get his brood under control and no reputable photographer would ever step foot at the Little White House ever again. Not wanting to be spoken ill of in any business or social circle, vain Mr. Barker laid down the law, and his family finally cooperated.

      In the photo, Mr. Barker was seated on a grand plush chair—red, if Oscar remembered correctly. Around him were four sons, spry and healthy. Alive. Before the War.

      Four daughters, all young and somber. Curls peeking from under their bonnets. All family members finally posed long enough to capture a nice portrait. All but the youngest girl, maybe seventeen, who defiantly refused to put on her bonnet, her mouth upturned and her head tilted to the side in a dare. Oscar remembered thinking how brave she must be to defy her father—and the social norms.

      He fanned through more of the photos. One wealthy family, all since deceased, had ordered portraitures of their slaves. Oscar paused on this image. Their eyes were so different from those of the whites. The lens captured a depth of sadness that passersby would never notice. Because they never dared look passerby in the eyes.

      Since the photo, their master passed, leaving them in a will, albeit unknown to the original owners, to a sympathizer, Mr. Henderson.

      Oscar inhaled, held his breath for a count of four, and exhaled slowly. From his trouser pocket he took a note. Troop movements. Command base locations. Snippets of conversations he'd collected while on deliveries and shoots. After a while, no one remembers the camera man is in the room, especially when he's busy with wash buckets and foul-smelling chemicals.

      He tucked the tiny piece of paper with its cipher between the photo and the copper frame, ensuring that the frame laid flat against the cardboard all around and replaced the image with the others in the box. He fanned them back and forth. From his inspection, he couldn't tell that one package of photos looked any different from the rest. Satisfied, he replaced the lid to the crate and lifted it to the bed with the plates and darkout cloths. He returned to the cabinet and packed the chemicals into the travel case.

      Oscar began making trips out to the wagon. Soldiers passed him on each load. He left the wagon unattended long enough to retrieve Corncob from the stall. As he hitched her, two soldiers asked him his business. They pulled the fabric back from the back of the wagon. "What’s all this?”

      For the third time that week, Oscar enlightened another pair of soldiers on his profession. He showed them the wagon’s inscription: Mr. Umbry’s Photographic Wagon. Umbry had enlisted Oscar’s steady hand to paint the letters onto the wooden slats long ago. They’d since lost their shine, like so many things had.

      One soldier used his filthy hands to pull the wooden crate to the wagon’s edge and opened the lid. Oscar wanted to scream to the man not to touch the photos—because of the dirt and the fear of finding his contraband—but he held his tongue. Don’t draw attention.

      “So you’re Mr. Umbry, then? Great man. I’ve heard of that one. Picture was in the paper of Braggs. Umbry took it then, yes?”

      Corncob stomped her front leg impatiently and snorted, her tail whipping back and forth. The Morgan horse was ready to ride. Right now. But Oscar was frozen to the spot at the back of the wagon.

      The second soldier pulled out the Barkers’ portrait from the collection then returned it. Sweat ran down the back of his neck despite being in fresher air than the rented room offered.

      Oscar nodded. “Umbry took it. I’m his apprentice.”

      “Well, give him our regards.”

      And before Oscar could correct them, they went on their way. He hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath. He resituated the crate and secured the tarp over the portable darkroom wagon.

      He went around the front to pat Corncob’s muzzle. She’d held it together and didn’t topple the cart. “Good girl. Steady now.” In her velvety ear he whispered, “Forgive me Mr. Umbry. A good Confederate you were, loyal to your cause. But your cause is not mine.” He ran his hands through Corncob’s midnight black mane. “Some things are too important.”

#

      Felicity lay on her back, staring at her ceiling through the empty frame of her canopy bed. Where once she’d watch the fine-spun lace dance and flitter with the breeze from the window, now she stared at a lone cobweb Ruthy had missed. The day she and Ruthy had to untack the lace from the frame was a sad one. Felicity didn’t think herself to be spoiled, but she did enjoy a few nice things. But alas, everyone must make sacrifices for the Confederate cause, and when the textiles ran low, the socialites still needed a way to upgrade their wardrobes—and handkerchiefs.

      A soft knock on the door from Ruthy.

      “Come in.”

      “Miss. Mr. Barker is pacing. Wondering why you aren’t downstairs with the rest. They gettin’ ready, Miss.”

      Getting ready. For Mr. Umbry’s Photographic Wagon to uproot their entire day. Felicity would rather hide up in her room, giving Ruthy her reading lessons. She may donate her lace to the confederates, but she’d give her soul to the North.

      “Well, we mustn’t keep Daddy waiting.”

      She slid from the bed, worked on the crinoline, and stepped into her peach dress. Ruthy settled into a chair next to the window and flipped through her reader. The black girl was a year or two older than Felicity, no one was quite sure. Ruthy was a gift for Felicity’s fifteenth birthday, a handmaid all her own. As the youngest child, Daddy doted on her more than any of his other offspring and more than overcompensated for his wife’s passing. Loved him, she did. But she also despised him. Some days it tore her soul into bits.

      But each time she’d catch Ruthy sobbing in the corner of the stables or behind the pantry, disgust over her family’s lifestyle shoved the love a little further into the dark.

      “Would you mind helping, Ruthy? I wouldn’t bother your studies, but this damned curl!” She never asked Ruthy to attend to her like a true handmaid when they were alone. In the main parts of the Little White House, they’d go about as proper lady and servant, but not here. And if, like today, Felicity was to present herself a well and true socialite, she always asked Ruthy for help, never ordered her about like her sisters did their servants.

      Ruthy smiled, knowing how much Felicity hated events and loathed photography sessions even more. She helped pin back an unruly blonde strand that Felicity couldn’t quite reach.

      “Perhaps, Miss, that fine young boy will be back with Mr. Umbry.” Ruthy fluffed the fabric and gave a playful tug on the hem of Felcity’s dress as she stood.

      “Oh, Ruthy. That was ages ago. Besides. Mr. Umbry tragically passed. I heard someone else took his place and they’d likely not keep on such a scrawny boy. Another mouth to feed and all.”

      “That there boy with the bright blue eyes wasn’t too scrawny, Miss.” Ruthy giggled.

      Felicity turned to her friend and gave her “the look,” and Ruthy nodded in understanding. She took a deep breath and left Felicity to herself. That look was part of the code the ladies had worked out, and it was by no means an unspoken rebuke. Sometimes they behaved so much like best friends in private that Felicity feared it would ooze out their pores for the world to see. Their gaiety had to be squelched long before the photographer arrived. The Good Lord only knew what side he was on.

      And if he was a spy.

      Down in the drawing room, Daddy was mid-way through imparting his hard-earned wisdom to a colleague. Poor Daddy. Trying so hard to fit into a class he didn’t belong to. Mother’s family came from old money, and in the early days Daddy did his best to bankrupt the estate with bad deal after bad deal.

      “—we’ll never know the effects. We’ll not see profits turn in this decade, maybe two. With all the rebuilding. Our battlefield boys better pick up the pace. The word is the North is pushing this way. What do you hear?” Daddy looked quite dapper standing there by the mantle in his best suit. He’d put on his cufflinks and the chain from his watch dangled from his pocket.

      The colleague was about to answer, but when he saw Felicity, he smiled and nodded to her, then looked back at Daddy for permission to continue.

      “Aw, she’s fine, Roger. Aren’t you, my sweetest? But where’s your bonnet?”

      “I outgrew it years ago, Daddy. Then I donated it.” She smiled at Mr. Roger Jones, a wealthy businessman from Nashville. Tall, lanky, and graying around his sideburns. Half Daddy’s age but twice hers. “You know. For the cause.” This allowed Roger’s shoulders to relax and a smile to emerge.

      “She’s my last unmarried child.” Felicity’s stomach tightened. Not again. “Beautiful, yes?”

      Roger moved in a little closer, offering her his hand. Felicity turned to look at the mantel, leaving him hanging his hand mid-air like a cold mackerel. She’ll not be paraded and passed around in courtship for all of Daddy’s overaged men determined to lead such barbaric lives.

      Daddy took her elbow roughly and whispered in her ear. “Don’t start. Not today. He’s a railroad man.”

      Felicity turned toward the man, offering a rushed apology. Daddy made excuses for her to Roger, with all the family’s losses, she could become quite emotional. Felicity stifled a growl and turned to focus on the photographs lining the mantel as the men’s voices faded into another part of their grand house.

      Mr. Umbry had begun visiting their home for portraitures years before the war started. Daddy was so proud of his children. Proud that he’d not squandered all of Mother’s money away and could afford to keep up the estate—and to add inventory of the human sort. She gazed into the images, the one right before Mother had passed held her attention. They were all there. In that photo. Two parents. Four sons. Four daughters. Felicity pulled herself away from the mantel and stared out the window. Now one parent was left grieving what the war took. Three of her brothers were dead. Franklin was “likely imprisoned up North.”

      But everyone knew he was as good as dead.

      The photographer couldn’t even make his way here in time to capture any of the extended family. Felicity’s sisters married off quickly—mostly Railroad Men, as Daddy preferred. But all of them signed up and shipped out to fight. None of them qualified for more than front-line fodder. None of them returned, leaving her sisters little more than second-hand goods in most suitors’ eyes. And most suitor’s eyes belonged to men too old for war or not fit to fight.

      Felicity remained unmarried. Unattached. Despite the flutter she felt at Ruthy’s mention of Mr. Umbry’s apprentice, what’s the point of love when the one you pine for could be in a pine box by next Tuesday?

      She ran her index finger over her mother’s image, gently. “Oh, Mama. If you could see the Barkers now. What would you think?”

      She’d think Felicity a traitor. That’s what she’d think. Mama died years before the conflict, and though she was never cruel to the estate’s hands, she was always pleased when Daddy procured another. And another.

      Felicity played the part her mother would have wanted her to portray. But it was an act. To her core, she despised being an available socialite who helped Daddy host railroad higher-ups and generals and commanders coming through to brag of victories on the bloody battlefields. She hated that her brothers had given their lives for this. Though they didn’t have a choice but to go, they did so with glee in their steps. Daddy’s shoulders squared, and the old man stood tall the day they left home.

      Had he known how real things would get, perhaps he’d have wept and held his sons a little tighter. Ruthy caught Felicity weeping that day and had crawled into the canopy bed with her and held her tight.

      Felicity shook her head, barring back a wave of sorrow. Ruthy. So brave despite her circumstances. Felicity didn’t feel brave at all. Not like the woman she’d read about in the papers. Southern papers, of course. One Elizabeth Van Lew. Risking jail and death to run a spy ring. Oh, to be brave enough to hand over secret messages to an imprisoned Yank in a custard pie.

      Had Felicity been brave, she’d not have donated that blasted bonnet. She’d have spent her time rocking on the grand balcony above the Little White House’s entry where Daddy’s guests lingered before leaving, sharing bits and pieces of vital information. Then, she’d have carefully sewn notes into the hems or the ties of that bonnet and found a way to pass it along. Like a custard. To a Yank.

      After gathering her limited moxie, she turned to face the day. The Photographic Wagon would be here soon, and the remaining Barkers would stand dutifully for their portraiture. True Confederates and proud Southerners, all.

      Well… Almost true. And almost all.

#

      Oscar unhitched the wagon near the front door and tethered Corncob to the closest shade tree nearest the front door of the Barkers’ home. Separating the two would assure that Corncob won’t upset the delicate solutions and darkroom setup in the back of the wagon.

      He retrieved the tripod and wooden camera case and turned toward the Little White House. He hated the nickname the locals had given the property. President Davis lived in and ran the South’s affairs from the Confederate White House. Built in the same style but much smaller, the Barkers’ home boasted eight grand columns supporting a massive overhang. Directly above the oversized entry door was a balcony wrapped in wrought iron. Mr. Umbry had said the house earned its nickname because of how integral Mr. Barker was to the cause, housing meetings of generals and leaders.

      Oscar remembered a strongly worded discussion about how no photographer sane of mind would do portraitures on that balcony with the oak branches whipping light rays this way and that and then run the plates down to the portable darkroom in the wagon. Fixing the images to the plates was time sensitive, and Mr. Umbry was not one for running up and down the staircase for hours on end.

      Knowing the goings on under the Little White House’s roof, the only good thing about this property was the view. Lookout Mountain rose high above Chattanooga, untouched by man’s insignificance. At least for now. Oscar stood for a moment and took in the bright oranges and yellows and fiery reds flowing from the mountain.

      Oscar felt in his bones—and had recorded notes on the same, tucked inside the photo frame—that this tiny part of the Appalachians wouldn’t remain unscathed for long.

      He wrestled his equipment up the front steps, and before he could knock on the door, it opened slowly. The autumn mountain view he’d admired moments ago evaporated, replaced by the most gorgeous creature he’d ever seen.

      Oscar froze.

      “Well, are you going to set up, Sir, or would you like to stand on the stoop a while longer in this heat?” She smiled at him, her emerald eyes full of spark, the midday sun dancing across the bust of her dress.

      In the sepia image he was about to hand over to her father from Mr. Umbry’s last visit, standing before Oscar was the young girl with the defiant, uncovered head and proud chin. But those eyes. The sepia didn’t do them or her justice.

      But time sure had.

      He composed himself. “Yes, Miss. I’m Oscar George. I’m—”

      “Here to put us through utter agony for hours. Hold still. Don’t fidget. Move here. Hold still again. Don’t move while I run about and mix this and that and hide under my little cover behind the camera.” She smiled again.

      “That’s about the sum of it.”

      “Fine then. I’ll tell Daddy you’re here. You can set up in drawing room. Daddy’s waiting in there. His throne is ready.”

      “Throne?” Oscar followed her through to the drawing room. He vaguely remembered the layout of the house. He vividly recalled those eyes.

      “That’s what my sisters and I call the chair he sits in while we all line behind him. He’s the King of Little White House. We are his loyal servants.”

      “I see.” Oscar hoped his gaze hadn't lingered too long on her face. He needed to stay focused. To be quick and clear headed. Mr. Barker was to host a grand dinner this evening for prominent Chattanooga businessmen. And not all of them as loyal to the South as they appeared. Oscar hoped to draw out the photography session long enough to be able to pass the photo from the wooden crate to the gentleman who bought the family in the portrait.

      He certainly didn’t need any distractions.

      “Hello, young Oscar. My, how things have changed.” Mr. Barker offered a firm handshake but then realized Oscar’s hands were full. “Sorry, lad—oh, but you’re much too old for lad, now, aren’t you? A shame about Mr. Umbry. Just a shame.”

      Oscar sat the equipment down, wiped his palms on his trousers, and then shook Mr. Barker’s hand properly, keeping the young lady in the periphery of his vision. “Yes, sir, and thank you. Mr. Umbry will be missed.”

      “A real hero. We appreciate his sacrifice.”

      Oscar, still so torn, nodded and turned to his setup. “I have your portraits from… from before.” His hands were so sweaty. Yards away under the oak tree was his act of treason. Yards away from this powerful man with powerful connections.

      “Fantastic. Felicity, dear, won’t you have Ruthy bring in some iced tea.”

      Felicity. That was her name.

      He thought he caught that same look of defiance over the bonnet in her gaze toward her father as she left the room. Oscar wiped his hands again—this time for a completely different reason—and headed for another armful of supplies from the wagon.

#

      Ruthy turned her nose to the air and went about making a pitcher of iced tea when Felicity entered the kitchen and announced Mr. Oscar George was indeed Mr. Umbry’s replacement.

      Felicity paced behind her friend as the tea boiled and spat, but she didn’t know why the nerves. Moments before, she had been reminiscing about her mom and pining to be like Ms. Van Lew. Then she could barely keep her composure once she saw those striking blue eyes.

      Oscar George.

      The little boy she’d found little more than interesting the last time they’d met had grown into quite the specimen. She smoothed the front of her dress and fussed with the pins in her hair and paced until Ruthy shooed her out of the kitchen. “Miss, you’ll ruin yourself before the photos. And before Master’s dinner.” Felicity moaned as she passed by Alma and Trudy busying with the roast and peeling potatoes. Several empty pie crusts lay draped over the tins waiting for apples and cinnamon. Daddy had begged, pleaded and borrowed from the wealthy around town for the affair to lay such a spread. Said it would further their cause if those in power were well-fed.

      She’d pushed the dinner of even more Railroad Rogers completely from her mind, choosing to focus on one horrid task at a time. She’d love to gather information, but to do so, she’d have to play the role of a flirt, but playing incompetent was exhausting. She’d get caught like old Rose Greenhow for sure. 

      And now there was Oscar. Though he may still be a bit backward, he definitely wasn’t a little boy anymore.

      She made her way back to the drawing room, where Oscar was adjusting drapes this way and that. His tripod was aimed at Daddy’s throne, and two sisters were gossiping by the mantel, removing old photos from their spots. Jenny was about to cry, as recent widows often do. Grace was telling her to keep it together, and Melody couldn’t ever bring herself to look at the mantel. She’d married first. Her wedding photo was among the collection.

      Felicity took the portrait from them and sat it back in its spot. It was so full of life. They were so full of life. “That’s enough of that, ladies. You don’t want to look blotchy for Daddy’s portrait, yes?”

      She remembered back to that day before the war. She remembered how long it took Mr. Umbry to set everything up. Oscar was doing the same now, the top half of his long form tucked under the cloth that hid the camera from the light as he used his foot to tap the legs of the tripod this way and that.

      “Mr. George. How long might you be? I’m only asking so as to let Ruthy know whether you’d like your tea now or after,” Felicity tried to lighten the mood in the room as her sisters huddled and adjusted hair, hats, hankies, and hoops.

      Oscar wriggled from under the cloth and carefully let the edges remain draped over the camera.

      “We’re about ready, and the light will change soon as the afternoon draws on. We best get started.”

      “Very good then. Girls, shall we?” Daddy escorted them to the throne.

      Dutifully, the four women positioned themselves behind the armchair in order of age as Daddy crossed his legs and rested his arms on the chair. Oscar waited as they fussed and fidgeted about, and then Daddy asked, “Are we good, sir?”

      As Oscar ducked under the cloth again, Felicity’s mouth went dry. For the next many minutes, she’d be frozen, unable to move anything but her eyes. And her eyes were not obeying her. She wanted to look at where the lens might be—not at his legs.

      And definitely not directly into his eyes as he emerged from under the cloth. He caught her gaze, and she smiled a bit, hoping one of her sisters was smiling at him too.

      “Felicity, was it Miss?” Oscar approached her. She swallowed hard and nodded ever so slightly, as she couldn’t quite remember exactly all the steps in this much-too-long process. “Your dress is out of frame. May I?” Then he paused and gave her a half grin. “You can speak, just don’t move too much else.”

      “Good, Lord, lad. Don’t tell her to speak, we’ll have no peace!” Daddy jibed, and her sisters all broke into giggles. “Now, now, ladies. We talked about this. We’re not to give Mr. George the same hell we gave Mr. Umbry, God rest his soul.”

      Felicity rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mr. George, do what you must to put us out of our misery.”

      As the others regained their composure, Oscar put two fingers on Felicity’s elbow and ever so gently led her to step in closer to Grace. A much different touch than earlier when Daddy had scolded her. She caught her breath.

      “That’s fine. That should be good,” Oscar said, and Felicity dared not allow her eyes to drift toward him.

      He stepped back under the black cloth, and she could see the outline of his hands moving the lens underneath. “That’s all perfect, Mr. Barker. Now, please. Remain totally still while I run out to the wagon. This will take a few minutes while I prepare the plate. Usually an apprentice does that part while I do this, so it may take me longer today. My apologies.” 

      “Poor Mr. George. Doing your job and Mr. Umbry’s. Best we don’t speak then. That’s what always gets us into trouble. Total silence, girls. Not a peep,” Daddy ordered.

      Oscar took long strides out of the room, nearly running.

      In the few moments he was gone, Felicity swore her heartbeat could be heard in the silence. Feared its beating would somehow show up as a blur in the photo right over her chest. She willed herself to calm down. Focus on something else. The dinner tonight.

      Perhaps she could begin devising a way to help the cause. The right cause, anyway. Her nose began to itch, but she dared not scratch it. The sooner Mr. George was on his way, the sooner she could get back to—

      Oscar burst into the room in a full out run toward the camera gripping a black box in his hands. He nearly dove under the black cloth.

      “When I remove the cloth and the lens, you must continue to remain perfectly still. Here we go… ready?”

      Oscar removed the black cloth.

      “Now.”

      Oscar removed the lens, and for a count of four, Felicity Barker and Mr. Oscar George fixed their gazes on each other until Oscar put the lens back on the camera.

      “Can we move now?” Grace asked.

      “Yes,” Oscar took the slim black case out of the camera and sprinted out of the room once again.

      Felicity remained frozen to her spot as her sisters and father stretched and chatted. In four seconds, the camera created an image that would last for generations. In four seconds, Felicity’s heart outranked her mind and dreamt a future that wouldn’t have a chance of lasting past the next round of musket fire.

#

      Oscar willed his hands to stop shaking and his brow to not drop sweat into the washpan as he poured the colloidal over the plate and tilted it back and forth. As he rinsed the plate, the image of the Barkers slowly emerged.

      He’d nearly overexposed the shot. He wanted to draw out the session—not waste supplies.

      While he was focusing the group in the frame, he could stare at her without anyone knowing under the safety of the darkout, albeit an upside-down image, but stare nonetheless. But out in the bright drawing room, and right there in front of her remaining family as they all aimed their gazes at the lens, he aimed his at her face.

      He’d almost dropped the lens cap at the end.

      He finished with the plate and cleaned it up to show Mr. Barker what the final product would be. Allowing himself to look full on at Felicity—and only Felicity—was out of character for him. And so was the thought dancing around in his head that when he got around to making the prints for the family, he’d make one for himself—

      “Mr. George, that was quite a smooth process, given you’re all alone.” Felicity’s voice sang out behind him. He turned to find her holding two glasses of iced tea. He placed the plate carefully in the darkroom and took the glass.

      “Thank you, Miss.”

      “Where will you go next?”

      I hope not too far. A good Barker brawl in the drawing room before the photo shoot would’ve helped assure that he could pass the message to Mr. Henderson.

      Oscar took a tiny sip of the tea. Maybe he could linger with this glass—and the girl—and moved toward the tree where Corncob stood. One of the stable hands had brought a bucket of water for the mare. Oscar ran his hands through her mane. “Wherever the portrait orders or the war—commands. Things move slow. Troops blocking roads. Roads destroyed. Supplies run low. It all depends.”

      “Will you follow in Mr. Umbry’s example? Battlefield photography?” She looked away from him as she brought her glass to her pink lips and took a long sip.

      “More than likely. It’s a good cause.” He had to be careful. As smitten as he was with her, she could be his downfall before he even got a proper start.

      “Isn’t it dangerous? Being so close to the battle? I mean, Mr. Um—” She caught herself. “I’m so sorry. How impolite of me.”

      “That’s okay. He knew the dangers. Usually we set up away from the battle. That time, the troops moved more quickly, and, well, he—”

      “You don’t have to speak of it, Mr. George.”
      He accepted her token of mercy. She must understand, having lost so many brothers. “I’ll go to the battlefields. Stay on the outskirts. Keep a close eye. And you can call me Oscar.”

      She smiled and nodded, returning to her tea, and averting her gaze again. He thought he caught a rush of color to her cheeks. He turned back to Corncob, lest his cheeks were turning a similar shade. As he did, the skittish horse jumped at the sound of an approaching carriage, knocking Oscar’s iced tea all down the front of his shirt.

      “Goodness!” Felicity stepped back as Oscar attempted to brush off some of the liquid. The carriage arrival and commotion with the horse brought out Mr. Barker from the house.

      “We’ll have to get you cleaned up, or the bees will be after you all the way to your next stop,” Felicity said.

      “Yes, yes. And so long as he needs a fresh shirt, he may as well stay for dinner. Felicity, fetch him one from Franklin’s wardrobe. He looks to be the same size as your brother, and Frank won’t mind. And a dinner jacket, too.”

      Normally Oscar would have refused such an offer. The look on Felicity’s face—her fetching something that belonged to her brother off to war and maybe dead—nearly pierced him. But he needed to hang on at the estate as long as he could. “Thank you, that would be very kind.”

      Felicity gathered the tea glasses and went back inside. He already hated being out of her presence, though he had no right to feel that way.

      Mr. Barker was greeting his guests, helping an older woman out of the carriage while a man came around from the other side.

      “Mr. George, meet Mr. and Mrs. Henderson. They’ll be joining us for dinner. And I do believe they may be interested in your portraitures.”

      Oscar smiled and approached the couple as if he’d never met them.

      Indeed. They would be very interested in what Oscar had to offer.

#

      Felicity hung tight to Franklin’s dinner jacket. Her brother’s room still smelled of his shave cream.

      “Miss, you don’t have to give Mr. George the coat. Just lend it for the meal.” Ruthy sensed her friend’s hesitation, but the source was misplaced.

      “It’s not about the coat. In four seconds, I fell for a man who’ll be dead or missing or captured by the time the next battle breaks out. Oscar said as much. He’s going to the front.”

      “You don’t know, Miss. Could be things turn out alright.”

      “Maybe. But by then, Daddy will have given me away to one of the railroad goons.” Felicity knew good and well that she’d never allow herself to be given away, but the thought of spending an unknown number of dinners in the Barker circle of influence was nauseating.

      Her stomach flopped.

      She draped Franklin’s clothes over her arm and strolled down the hall to the balcony doors. As much as she hated the meal, she loved seeing the carriages and wagons arrive at Little White House.

      She looked over the railing. So far, the only arrivals had been the Hendersons. Oscar was at the back of the wagon with Mr. Henderson. Oscar handed him something from a wooden crate, they glanced all around, and Mr. Henderson stuck the item inside his jacket and turned toward the house.

      Felicity’s heart sank. Oscar was a spy. Moments ago, on her way up the steps into the house, she’d heard the introductions between Daddy and Mr. Henderson and Oscar. First-time greetings. Not catching-up greetings.

      Then Oscar spotted her on the balcony, and she fumbled the clothing over the railing and fled inside.

#

      Oscar couldn’t keep his eyes off of Felicity all day, until dinner. Seated across from her, Oscar worked to engage in conversation with other guests, tried to savor the rare treat of roast and apple pie, and only dared an occasional glance in her direction when he thought she wouldn’t notice.

      Felicity bid her farewells to the room in a sing-song voice he’d not heard her use and feigned a long day in the heat as her reason for withdrawing. Oscar noticed outward disappointment from the two rail workers seated on either side of her father.

      After Mr. Barker dismissed the table to the drawing room for glasses of precious Scotch and the servants had entered to clear the table, Oscar excused himself, saying he’d be on his way and return the clothing via post as soon as he could. Mr. Barker said he’d have none of it and insisted Oscar stay at Little White House for the night. He ordered the stable hand to board Corncob and directed him to take Franklin’s room.

      Because Franklin wouldn’t mind. But he bet Felicity would.

      Oscar’s stomach knotted. He’d thanked Mr. Barker and went outside to secure Mr. Umbry’s Photographic Wagon and breathe the cooling night air. He needed space between himself and the Barkers as soon as possible—and space he may get. Rumors around the table indicated a push to action along the ridge. Lookout Mountain could be the next stage of the conflict. And Oscar wanted to document it.

      He climbed into the back of the small wagon, where there was barely enough room for his gear, let alone him. He prepped the supplies and crates, tethering them so he and Corncob had the best chance of making it at least part way up the ridge before any action started.

      “Mr. George, going somewhere? Daddy said you’d be staying.”

      Oscar nearly toppled out of the wagon, but he managed to save himself and the precious supplies.

      “Yes, Miss. I’m heading out tomorrow, first light.”

      “And in the meantime?”

      He paused before he answered. A trick Mr. Umbry used often; sometimes if you wait, you may know how to better answer the hard questions.

      Felicity had changed into a dark blue dress without all the hoops. She was no less stunning, even more so. A few locks of her hair had fallen loose from the rest and framed her face with soft curls which danced in the breeze. She stared a hole right through him.

      When he still hadn’t answered her, she said, “You’re a spy, then. Yes?”

      He remained silent. The questions were getting harder. He knew when the clothes toppled off the balcony that she’d seen the interaction between him and Mr. Henderson. There’s no way she could know what was passed. Or who was loyal to what cause.

      There’s no way to know what side she was on, either. Her father was a die-hard secessionist, but that didn’t make this defiant woman loyal to the South.

      A tear slid down her cheek and he wanted so badly to wipe it away, but this woman could be the very death of him. If she outed him to her father, he’d be imprisoned.

      “You’ve no idea, Mr. George, how I hate what you and my father and even dear old Mr. Umbry stand for. And Mr. Henderson and his wife scooped up an entire family as if they were a prized trinket or set of dishes. They’re people, for God’s sake!”

      Oscar’s heart flipped behind his ribs. He checked the door to the house—and the balcony—before moving in close. She was getting loud, and he feared she’d be overheard. “Felicity,” he whispered low. “You’ve got it all wrong. About Mr. Henderson.”

      “But Mr. Henderson is a—”

      “Unionist and trying to help that family go north. The message I passed was to help that process along. Not to bring harm.” Her eyes widened, allowing more tears to spill down her cheeks. This time he used the back of his hand to wipe them away. He tucked one of those unruly curls behind her ear. “You’re in great danger if you don’t compose yourself.”

      “Ruthy.” She stepped back.

      “What?”

      “Ruthy. Could you do the same thing for Ruthy? My servant girl.”

      Before he could answer—and he wanted to answer, there was no intentional pause—she blurted, “And teach me to do the same thing? Be a spy?”

      He laughed and said, “Well, the first step is not to be so loud,” which earned him a slap to the arm.

      “I’m serious.” She wiped some of her own tears away and straightened her posture.

      “I believe you are very serious, Miss Felicity Barker.”

      “So?” This time it was she that stepped closer to him. She placed her hand gently on his forearm where she’d smacked him and rested it there. “Four seconds.”

      “What?”

      “Four seconds for the photo to take. It was in those four seconds I knew you weren’t some Railroad Roger. Knew that there was some hope to be had for a future. But not if you get killed like—”

      “I have to go. I have to make some difference. All this has to stop, and I do believe Mr. Umbry was right in that the photos raise awareness and garner support. He was aligned on the wrong side of things. I have a chance to make a difference with Lookout Mountain.”  Concern danced across Felicity’s face. “When I get back, I’ll come to Little White House first. And I’ll help you with Ruthy.” He brushed her cheek with his knuckles, and she leaned into the caress.

      “How long will you be gone?”

      “Days. Weeks. Somewhere in between there my supplies will be gone.” He let his hand linger on her face, then leaned in and kissed her gently on her forehead. She laid her head on his chest. Her hair had soaked up the aroma of the apple pies.

      “How will you survive, Mr. George?”

      “Four seconds at a time.”