John Falconer made it through the days in very
Ada's illness had come with the first winter
storm, which gripped the Carolinas for eleven days
with fierce winds and hard-slung ice. Falconer had
sat at her bedside, hands knotted on the coverlet,
and stared at the beloved face. Ada looked as
white as the snow now gathering on the window
ledge. His lips felt stiff as he whispered first
her name, then prayers he scarcely heard himself
utter. He bowed low over his clenched fists,
finally breaking the room's tense silence with a
In just a year and a half, Falconer's heart had
been so altered he could scarcely recall a time
before Ada's love filled his days and warmed his
nights. Eighteen months earlier, he and Ada had
stood before the bishop in their Moravian church
and said their vows. Young Matt had stood proudly
at Falconer's side, delighted in his new father
and overjoyed by his widowed mother's newfound
happiness. Falconer touched Ada's face, with its
sheen of perspiration, and wished his physical
strength truly counted for something. If only he
could wrest back the days now gone, peel back
time, and have her smile at him once more.
And then Ada had passed with the storm.
Everything had been so impossibly swift. The
illness, the decline, the passage, all in less
than two weeks. No one knew precisely the cause.
She had slipped away from them, gentled into a
slumber that did not end. The elders gathered,
called it a tragic wonder, and murmured to each
other how she had been so softly called home. Why
was it that one so crushed, but still so
strengthened, by the ferocious winds of life was
now gone from them?
Telling young Matt was the most wrenching task
Falconer had ever set for himself. The two clung
to each other, rocking slowly back and forth.
Though Matt's grief drenched Falconer's shirt,
Falconer found himself unable to weep. Perhaps it
was the exhaustion, for he had scarcely eaten or
slept since Ada's illness had begun. He had known
men who were hard stricken in the heat of battle
and felt nothing until the dire threat was gone.
But for him, even after it was over, the only
thing that touched him at all was his son, not of
his flesh but certainly of his heart. Falconer
spent uncounted hours holding Matt and letting the
boy weep for the both of them.
They buried Ada on a wet Tuesday morn, a
fiercely cold day in February so dark the chapel
bell's tolled regrets were echoed by the sky and
the wind. The community of Moravians, who had
known Ada all her life, shared the ceremony and
the profound sorrow with stoic but no less genuine
understanding, watching Falconer and Matt with
eyes full of sympathy and questions. What would
happen to them now?
The day after the funeral, Falconer shuttered
the inn he and Ada had run and accepted the
invitation of her uncle and his family. Together
with Paul and Sarah Brune and their children, the
two mourners might slowly find comfort in the
sharing of an impossible burden.
Impossible that a woman so full of life, love,
and goodness could be stricken and lost so
swiftly. Impossible that Falconer could know the
blessing of home and family for scarcely a year
and a half. Impossible that he was expected to
nurture a boy who had lost both blood parents and
now had only a wounded sailor for a guardian.
The spring was slow in coming. He and Matt
worked the Brune farm and prepared the land and
tended the animals. Falconer, dressed in the
simple homespun of the Moravian community, did the
work of three men. He allowed his beard to grow in
dark and rich. The good North Carolina earth
worked into his hands, and the physical labor
toughened him in ways the sea never had. The work
and the good people proved a strong and healing
balm. But what saved Falconer, what kept him
rooted to the world and the day at hand, was his
The dogwoods finally bloomed a month and more
late. The pear and apple orchards added their own
white fragrance to the hills and the softening
breeze. And suddenly the winter was gone. The
entire world leapt into rebirth. The farming
valleys were alive with the bleating of newborn
lambs and the mothers' chucklings. New shoots rose
from what had been empty furrows. The sun rose
higher and stronger, and the men shucked their
coats and worked in shirtsleeves. The entire
community reveled in the hope of spring.
Evenings, when the sun dipped and the Brune
family gathered upon the porch to watch the
westering sun and the daily promise of glory to
come, Matt nestled next to Falconer on the porch
swing. It was an uncommonly wet summer, and the
day's rain clouds dispersed in bands of copper and
gold spread across the Salem valleys. Eventually
Matt would sing, his voice at first small and
fragile, but as the summer progressed, stronger,
Sometimes Sarah Brune joined in, her alto
adding a lovely harmony to Matt's pure, bell-like
melody. The young lad sang his favorite Moravian
hymns, many of them in their original German. That
did not matter in the least to Falconer, who spent
the evening hours thus, his earth-stained fingers
stroking the boy's fine blond head, listening to
the promise of peace cloaked in sunset and
In July, the church elders came and spoke with
him about the Moravian community's only inn, still
in disuse after all these months. They carefully
talked of widows in Salem who needed a good man.
They gently challenged him toward finding hope in
spite of the world's woes. Falconer stood with
them, nodding and accepting their words, trusting
their wisdom. But in truth, what occupied his mind
was the sudden realization that he had never wept.
As he watched their horse-drawn rigs return to the
village, he wondered if he would ever feel
anything else besides this pervasive numbness.
That night as they sat on the porch, Falconer,
his voice low, asked Matt if he wanted to return
and reopen the inn. Matt buried his head in
Falconer's chest. Falconer did not raise the
Two days later Falconer went alone into Salem.
He met with the elders and arranged for a young
couple who had helped with the inn's chores to
take over as innkeepers for him. While he
discussed the list of duties with them,
townspeople approached Falconer, appearing as
though drawn from the sunlight and the summer
heat. Although they saw him and Matt every
Sabbath, they took his visit with the elders as a
sign. Even without Ada's sanctioning presence,
they quietly welcomed him fully into their
August arrived with a blistering heat, and the
rains subsided. The deep-blue dome of the sky
presided over an increasingly parched land.
Falconer shared the community's fear of a lost
harvest. They all began stocking what they could
for a long winter of grumbling bellies. Breakfasts
were reduced to grits and fatback, noon fare
became biscuits and whatever fruit they found
lying upon the ground, and the evening repast
might be a simple stew from a farm animal no
longer able to feed. The Brune house garden was
harvested and replanted, and every dawn Matt
joined the other children drawing buckets from the
well to water the vegetables by hand. Falconer ate
his simple breakfast to the dry squeaking of the
well handle, paired with his silent entreaties for
intervention from the Almighty.
Falconer found the Sabbath worship a time of
both peace and confusion. He was glad he had never
felt a need to become angry with God. Why this had
not happened, he could not say. As he sat and
listened to the community choirs join in song, or
bowed his head in prayer, he felt the faintest
glimmers of divine peace enter his wounded breast.
On the homeward journey, though, Falconer stroked
his beard and wondered if he would ever waken from
his largely empty inner state.
The first week of September, after six
scorching weeks without rain, the skies darkened.
The wind whipped up clouds of precious earth and
flung them in billowing waves across the valley.
The dry leaves of corn and wheat and tobacco
rattled in thirsty anticipation. Shriveled apples
and pears dropped like nature's drumbeats upon the
parched earth. And then the rain came.
The entire Brune family raced about the muddy
front yard. Falconer stepped off the front porch
and tilted his head to the sky. He felt a hand
slip into his and looked down at Matt. The boy's
hair was matted to his forehead and turned so pale
it looked silver. Falconer felt his face stretch
in unaccustomed lines, the action so foreign it
took him a long moment to even recognize it as a
smile. The rain had washed away the impossible
distance, and Ada appeared once again to Falconer
in the clear eyes, in the upturned face, in the
rain that poured in pewter rivulets over his head.
Ada was still there. She had not completely left
Falconer swept the boy into his arms. Matt's
own arms came up and around Falconer's neck. The
two stood in the rain without speaking. The boy's
cheek rested upon Falconer's beard as they watched
the Brune family dance and laugh and frolic in the
wet joy and the new hope.
* * *
Two weeks later a stranger arrived, asking
about Falconer. The Salem community counted
Falconer as one of their own. None would give up
information about a fellow Moravian without first
making sure the attention was welcome. These were,
after all, evil times.
Some time earlier, the North Carolina capital
had moved from the coastal community of New Bern
to Raleigh. The stated purpose was to extend the
government's reach further inland. Even so, much
of the state had fallen into administrative chaos.
Brigands ruled many of the smaller Carolina roads.
The Moravians were called enemies by the newly
elected state administration, which disliked how
the Salem community took in escaped slaves and
formed a vital link in the Underground Railroad.
And Falconer had done more than most to further
this work. All the proceeds from his share in a
Carolina gold mine had gone to purchasing slaves
and spiriting them away. A plantation he had
acquired in Virginia became yet another stop on
the Freedom Train line northward. No, this was not
a time to be open with an outsider—not until they
had taken his measure.
When word finally came to Falconer that a
well-dressed stranger was asking for him, he
saddled his horse and rode into Salem town to his
own inn. As he approached it, he saw the man, who
turned out to be no stranger, seated on the very
same bench Falconer had used for his own morning
devotions when he and Ada ran the
"Hello, Reginald," he called as soon as he
recognized his visitor.
The owner of Langston's Emporium, along with
any number of other business ventures, squinted
against the morning sun.
"Falconer?" The man closed the Bible in his lap
Falconer slipped from the saddle and roped the
horse to the railing. Reginald Langston lost his
footing as he stepped off the front stoop, his
eyes round as he approached the taller man. "Is
that really you?" he asked, his voice sounding
"Have I changed so much?"
"Have you ... Don't you see yourself in the
"The Brunes don't own a looking glass."
Reginald stepped in close enough to grip
Falconer's wrist. His fingers did not come close
to connecting. "As I live and breathe. It is
Falconer accepted the other man's handshake,
realizing he was not the only one that had
changed. Reginald Langston had always been ready
with a smile and a laugh, large in girth and
trusting in nature. Instead of the dark broadcloth
suits preferred by most Washington men of stature,
Reginald wore doeskin trousers tucked into boots
of fine English leather, a soft brown traveling
coat, and a waistcoat with gold buttons. But not
even these fine clothes could mask the weariness
and the worry in his gaze, or his features sagging
with far more than the months since their last
meeting. Falconer took note of the two armed men
who shadowed Reginald, far enough away not to
intrude, yet there and ready just the same.
Reginald took a step back and said, "I can't
tell you how sorry I am about Ada. I only heard
Falconer directed a nod toward the packed
earth. "I am sorry I did not write."
Reginald waved that away. "How long has it
"She left us in February."
"How are you, my man?"
Falconer looked up. "Coping. Sometimes more
"And the boy?"
"He's just gone ten. A strong, fine lad. He no
doubt has kept me as sound as you find me."
"Might I pay my respects to your wife?"
Reginald ordered his men to stay behind. The
two obviously were not pleased, but did as they
were told. The day was harvest fair, a faint hint
of breeze out of the north, not cool so much as
comfortable. The village was empty of men and many
women, as almost everyone used the good weather to
bring in the crops. Even so, Falconer felt unseen
eyes upon them as they proceeded through the
At the gravesite Reginald said a silent prayer.
Then, "She was an extraordinarily fine woman."
Falconer nodded and pointed at the
weather-beaten cross beside her own. "I had her
put to rest beside her first husband. I felt it
was important for our boy."
"You amaze me," Reginald said quietly. "Can we
sit here for a moment?"
The bench they selected was the same one where
Ada had spent long, lonely days, staring at the
cemetery and her first husband's grave, before
meeting Falconer. Ada had brought him here twice.
The first visit had been upon the day of his
return from jail, where he had been incarcerated
for buying, then freeing, a group of slaves. She
had told him of her own lonely struggle and the
multitude of hours she had sat and yearned for
what her heart could not even name. The second
time was the evening before they were to wed. They
had sat in this very spot for almost an hour. Then
she had risen and smiled and embraced him.
Falconer's heart lurched as he remembered her arms
around his neck, his whispered words in her ear.
He sighed and almost imperceptibly shook his
When Reginald finally spoke, it appeared to
Falconer as a response to an unspoken question.
"Were it not for my own dire need, I would not
dream of asking anything of you now. One look is
enough to know of your woes, my dear friend. But
ask I must."
"Is it something to do with ... with Serafina?"
Falconer found it uncommon strange that he now had
to search to recall the name of a woman whom he
had dearly loved, though never claimed as his
"My dear friend, not at all. Perish the
thought. No, the lovely lady is fairly trembling
with joy. She and her husband both. Though I must
say the two of them are more than upset with your
lack of communication."
"I'm sorry, but I could not bring myself to
answer her letters."
"And now I see the reason why. She will be very
sad to learn the reason for your silence."
Reginald fumbled with a button to his waistcoat.
"She should be delivering their first child any
"Please tell them I wish them every joy."
Falconer waited a moment, and when Reginald did
not speak, he pressed gently, "So it is not
"No. It is myself. And my dear wife, Lillian.
We are at our wit's end, I tell you. Our wit's
end." Reginald Langston became agitated, and he
rose and began pacing before the bench. "Lillian
had a son by her first marriage. You knew she was
widowed, of course."
"Yes." Falconer remembered Reginald's wife had
previously been married to an earl, rather a
scoundrel of English society who had squandered
his money on ill-fated ventures.
"Byron was to succeed to his late father's
titles, but Lillian had sold them," Reginald went
on. "She was penniless and heavily in debt and had
no choice. Byron, however, failed to understand
either the need or the deed. He was always a
difficult son, impetuous and rather a snob. Very
much like his late father, so Lillian tells me.
The boy ran through his inheritance in a few short
years. Also Lillian had left him quite a nice
London town house, which he mortgaged. Without
telling his mother, I hasten to add. And he spent
all that as well."
"Gambling?" Falconer wondered. Another wayward
son of wealthy parents.
Reginald clearly was reluctant to speak ill of
the lad. "Does it matter?"
"I really cannot say until I know the
"Then, yes. Gambling and vile women, by all
accounts. He loved the trappings of power and
accepted none of the responsibilities. He went
before the magistrates once too often. A duel over
a married woman, though married to neither of the
men dueling, as it happened. Lillian begged for my
help, which of course I gave. Our London partner,
as you know, is Samuel Aldridge, a former
diplomatic agent and a man of considerable
influence. And of course you know Gareth and Erica
Powers. Through their intervention, we managed to
have the lad released. On one condition. Byron was
to leave his past, his ways, and his London life
behind. Samuel arranged for him to take a position
of assistant manager at a new trading
Falconer realized he was already caught in the
hunt. Not by the story. But by Reginald's need.
For this was what Falconer knew he could never
refuse. He could not say no to a friend. Falconer
"Marseilles. Do you know it?"
"The harbor. The port. I've not been further
inland than the seaman's market fronting the
quayside." He could smell the place now.
"Never been there myself. But our office is on
the main avenue leading up from the port."
Reginald had not stopped his pacing before
Falconer's bench. "Byron arrived as scheduled. He
worked there for six months. That is, he came in
occasionally, mostly to collect his wages."
"He kept to his past ways," Falconer surmised.
When Reginald continued to pace in silence,
Falconer picked up the story for him. "He did no
work. He lived for the night and dark deeds. He
again got into debt."
Reginald stopped pacing and stared at the
Falconer said quietly, "He owed money to the
"So we have been informed," Reginald agreed,
his voice low.
"Is Byron alive?"
"We were desperately afraid that he was not. We
heard conflicting rumors. He had taken up with
vile merchants, he had been found in an
alley—nothing that could be confirmed even by our
Falconer waited for a time, then asked more
softly still, "What have you learned?"
"A letter arrived from Samuel. He was
approached by a missionary's wife, that is, his
widow. She appeared in London. Traveling from
Algiers. She claims to have seen Byron. Not merely
seen him. Been shown him, like ... like a prize
"Or a slave."
Reginald stared at him, his gaze hollow.
"According to this woman, he had been sold to a
North African brigand by the name of Ali Saleem."
Though Falconer's intake of breath was very soft,
Reginald caught it nonetheless. "You know
"The name. Every seaman who traverses the
southern Mediterranean has heard of Ali Saleem. He
is the last of the Barbary pirates."
"So I have been informed. This Ali Saleem let
the poor woman go, even arranged transport back to
civilization, upon receipt of her oath to pass on
this information. The brigand has offered to
release Byron for gold. Quite a large amount of
Falconer rose to his feet. "I must speak with
Reginald's face was grim with old woes. "I will
not have you doing this out of any sense of
indebtedness. You owe me nothing. No matter what
we might have said in the past. We are friends. I
release you from any promise you might have made
to me. Do you hear what I am saying?"
Falconer gripped the other man's arm. He turned
Reginald around and guided him through the
cemetery gates. "You are a friend, Reginald."
The man said miserably, "I wish I had not
come." Falconer's squeeze on his arm was the only
Falconer left Reginald at the inn's front
entrance and rode his horse back out to the farm.
Keeping his horse to an easy pace, he lifted his
hat to a pair of women returning from the fields,
his thoughts all the while racing far and wide. He
tried to rein in the blood surging through his
veins. He tried to pray.
But all the while, his mind turned over and
again to a single reality.
Though they were six days' hard ride inland,
his nostrils were filled with the scent of the