(Scene begins inside coffee-shop in Leastone)
Their voices faded as Cora’s attention focused on the mass of townspeople milling around a group of begrimed, wild-eyed—and bloody—men. “Ann Company!” Cora knocked the table behind her over in her haste. Ann Company, Nat, white cloth napkins and pocket-book sequins blurred in one massive obstacle between her and that group of people. She tore herself from Nat’s gentle touch and dashed out of the coffee-shop. Cold air struck her full in the face like a slap from an unseen hand. Cora stumbled over a frozen rut in the muddy road as fear swept her forward toward the crowd. She could see into the mob now, and what she saw sent fingers of terror winging across her skin.
Those men—those in the center of the group—wore the same denim cover-alls Frank wore when he worked on the rail-way bridge crew. He was there today, Cora knew. Whatever fate had befallen those workers, Frank must be a part of. Her body did not feel like her own as she neared the mob.“What happened?” She heard a woman say—the voice was icy, immobilized, and fearing. Then Cora realized it was herself that had spoken. She repeated the question, hardly recognizing the sound of her voice, yet feeling her lips move. The crowd parted briefly and she caught sight of the crude stretcher, borne by four of the grimy, muddied men. Instinct told her to turn back, to shelter herself from the truth, but Cora could not take her eyes off the stretcher and the man’s form crumpled upon it. The mob swallowed the vignette as hastily as it had flashed it, and Cora was left on the edge of the crowd again.Fainter than her own heart-beat, Cora heard Ann Company’s call for her to come away, and Nat’s deep voice seconding the command, but it was no use. Fear spurred Cora to action.“Let me through!” she yelled, and stamped her foot with hysteric impatience as the teeming mass before her paid no heed. “I will look! I will!” she cried, and as she reached up to brush her hair out of her face, she felt her tears, warm and wet against her chilled hands. It was the cry of a stubborn child, thwarted in his purpose, but Cora had to know. By some miracle she passed through the spheres of the crowd—first the interested, chaotic hum of the outer ring, then the pinched, sorrowful faces of the middle ring, and finally to the stunned core. Some hands strived to hold her back, others pushed her forward, but through it all Cora was of a single purpose:To find Frank, to know he was well and whole, was her whole world. She stumbled into the center, directly in front of the stretcher-bearing men, and she searched each face hungrily, longing for a familiar feature in any of them.A man with a red-stained bandana tied around his head and a deep gash on his cheek seemed to be the leader of the group. His eyes stared dully ahead as he bore his sad burden.“Please, sir, where’s Frank Williams?” The voice that spoke now was hoarse as a raven’s and twice as foreboding. Frightened, Cora put a hand to her throat and tried again. “Tell me he’s okay. Just tell me!”The man shook his head, jaw clenched. The gash deepened.“He’s fine. I know he is. He’s gotta be okay.” Cora was reaching hysteria. The red on the man’s bandana flowed a vibrant, ghastly crimson against the white of the cloth. Cora’s stomach knotted and twisted till she thought she’d be sick. “Just tell me he’s okay,” she whimpered. A heavy, heavy hand descended on her shoulder, and a voice echoed dully the agonizing cry in her own heart:“Dead. Wouldn’t leave th’bridge till th’last man was out of th’way…I’m sorry, Miss.”Dead. Dead. Dead. Cora pushed past the well-meaning but clumsy man and approached the crumpled figure on the stretcher. Knotted around his head was the handkerchief she herself had marked. How they had laughed over the little daisy she’d stitched in the corner. It had been so white—every petal dainty and pure—and now stained with the crimson tide that would not stop. Trembling in every fiber of her being, Cora touched Frank’s dark hair, caked with mud, and traced the noble lines of his forehead. The noise of the crowd—the weeping, the questions, the chaos—faded in the face of this great sorrow to a distant hum, no more threatening than the far-away traffic at that old stop-sign on Beaumont Street.A pair of hands tried to remove her from the scene.“Leave me be!” she screamed, tears coursing down her cheeks and dropping on Frank’s clay-streaked face. The stretcher-bearers stood in respectful silence, and the crowd ceased talking. Silence, like the heaviest of sentences descended on the scene. Cora laid herself over Frank’s poor body and buried her face in the homespun cotton of his shirt. His denim coveralls scratched her cheek, and the brass buttons pressed, cold against her hot tears. Her soul keened with murdered joy as a longing for one of Frank’s bear-hugs overwhelmed her senses. The faint scent of Bay Rum after-shave still clung to his neck, and Cora breathed it in. This was it then. This was goodbye.“Goodbye, Frank…I love you,” she whispered, stroking his cheek with a trembling hand.Heart screaming for the familiar reply, the jaunty, “Back at ya’ Corie,” Cora kissed him with quivering lips and spread the coffee-shop napkin over his still face.She dropped, then, into Nat Dartmore’s waiting arms and wept as she had never wept before.