Authors: Marcia Gruver
© 2011 by Marcia Graver
Print ISBN 978-1-60260-949-5
Adobe Digital Edition (.epub) 978-1-60742-554-0
Kindle and MobiPocket Edition (.prc) 978-1-60742-555-7
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
All scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, except characters based on historical people. Any similarity to actual people, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental.
For more information about Marcia Gruver, please access the author’s website at the following Internet address:
Cover design: Kirk DouPonce, DogEared Design
Published by Barbour Publishing, Inc., P.O. Box 719, Uhrichsville, OH 44683,
Our mission is to publish and distribute inspirational products offering exceptional value and biblical encouragement to the masses.
Printed in the United States of America.
Table of Contents
I dedicate this book with love to George Edward Breshears Sr. I miss you, Daddy.
My husband, Lee, for your desire to see me soar.
For what shall it profit a man,
if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Pearl River, on the Natchez Trace, June 1, 1882
ariah Bell reached the bottom landing, stumbling under the weight of the most precious cross she’d ever had to bear. Balancing her father’s lifeless body as best she could, she reeled across the kitchen to the door she’d propped wide with her boots, a yawning gateway to the backyard and the early morning darkness.
A breeze laden with the smell of magnolias met her at the stoop. The fragrant gust wrapped around her face, and her labored breaths sucked in the scent of the blooms. Mixed with the odor of Father’s pipe tobacco and the vile stench of his illness, the cloying wind threatened to turn her stomach.
Searching blindly with her toes, she found the top step then allowed the drag of her load to shift her forward and over the threshold. Heart pounding, her panting gasps a roar in her ears, Mariah tottered briefly at the edge of the second step.
Exhausted, she surrendered to the pull of the earth, and her trembling legs staggered wildly to the ground. When her bare feet touched the cold, wet grass, she glanced over her shoulder at the shaded windows of Bell’s Inn and whispered a grateful prayer.
If one curious lodger peered out and caught her struggling along the hallway, knees bent beneath her unlikely burden, she’d be undone. With her clumsy gait and heavy tread, not to mention the squeaky step at the bottom of the stairs, it amazed her they hadn’t.
"Just a little farther," Mariah whispered, a catch in her throat. "Almost there."
If she could get Father’s remains secreted away without Mrs. Viola Ashmore, the most meddlesome woman in Mississippi, pressing her nose to an upstairs window, the unthinkable scheme might work.
Last night, the widow Ashmore—Miss Vee, as she liked to be called—had returned from her sister’s down in Natchez. Her arrival threatened to ruin everything, and Mariah regretted the hasty decision to summon her home.
She trudged to the waiting wagon bed and eased Father down, her muscles straining from the effort to lower him gently. Clutching his nightshirt with determined fists, she lifted him aside to raise the tailgate.
Three months ago, toting him ten feet would’ve been impossible to imagine, despite her work-honed arms and sturdy Choctaw ancestry. Squinting in the moonlight at the dear face of the man who gave her life, his once burly frame reduced to a frail skeleton by the wasting disease, she bit off a cry of pain.
Not now, she ordered herself, choking on scalding tears. There’d be ample time for mourning once she hid the body. Covering up his disappearance would be another matter entirely.
From the time she’d leaned over Father’s sickbed the night before to find him still and cold, she’d known exactly what to do. She sat at his bedside until the parlor clock struck three times, long past the hour when even the restless Miss Vee had doused her lamp.
Slipping inside the barn, she’d hitched Sheki to the wagon and loaded a shovel before pulling around to the door. The hard part, the dreaded part, had been carrying Father through the house. It took all the strength she could muster, of both body and soul, but somehow she’d managed.
Mariah reached over the tailgate and smoothed his hair. "Forgive me,
," she whispered. "It’s the only way." Straightening, she wiped her eyes and steeled her trembling chin. She’d come this far, and she’d see it through.
Stealthy as a cat, she eased the back door shut, leaning inside at the last minute to snag her boots. Struggling, almost tripping, she pulled them on then crept to the rig.
The side springs moaned when Mariah climbed aboard. Wincing, she settled carefully onto the seat and lifted the reins, clucking her tongue at her little paint pony. Sheki eased forward, any noise from his hooves or the creaking wheels muffled by thick green tufts of damp summer grass.
Fearing a chance meeting with an approaching rider, Mariah avoided the road and crossed the backyard. She held her breath until the horse cleared the lawn and reached the bank of the river.
Sheki picked his way in the meager light, trudging down the yellow, sandy slope alongside the Pearl and into the welcoming shadows of a woody trail. Before the indigo brush and towering birch swallowed them whole, Mariah cast one last glance over her shoulder at the murky outline of the inn.
Just one more storm to brave. Searching the starlit sky with streaming eyes, she pleaded with God not to leave her to face it alone.
Mariah let the horse’s nose guide them until they’d gone a fair piece upriver. Unable to bear the darkness another second, especially with her unsettling cargo, she lit the lantern and hung it from a post beside the foot brake.
Soon a swarm of flitting bugs joined the somber procession, dancing wildly around the swaying light. In a strange way, she welcomed their company.
They reached the high bluff overlooking the bend in the river before she allowed Sheki to slow his gait. Pulling up to the broad trunk of an oak, she tugged on the reins and brought her makeshift funeral bier to a halt next to her mother’s grave.
In the scanty glow of the lamp, she squinted to read the inscription, though she knew every word by heart: O
"The morning light" was a fitting name for her mother. Daylight had gone from Mariah’s life the day she died.
Lifting the shovel from the wagon, she glanced at the sky. Dawn would wait for no man, not even the beloved proprietor of Bell’s Inn. Drawing a shaky breath, she set to work digging a deep hole beside Mother’s humble resting place.
Once she laid him in the ground, swaddled in a soft quilt and facing east as he’d requested, Mariah had a moment’s hesitation. It felt wrong to be the only mourner for a man like John Coffee Bell. He deserved better.
Biting her lip so hard she tasted blood, she snatched the shovel. Careful to look away while the dirt rained down on her father, she quickly covered him before she changed her mind.
Hiding the site as best she could, she scattered rocks and dead leaves over the patchwork of grass she’d carefully pieced together over the busted clods. Her efforts might fool the casual eye, but it would take a heavy rain to settle the earth and root the grass again. Many days could pass before her secret was safe.
Unable to walk away and leave the spot unmarked, she hefted a sun-bleached stone and carried it to the grave. Sinking to her knees with an anguished cry, she bowed and placed a tender kiss on the strand of painted beads around her neck, a precious treasure placed there by her mother.
"I’ll keep the promise, Mama. I swear on my life." What Father hadn’t managed, for all his good intentions, Mariah was destined to finish. Pulling off the wooden beads, she gave them one last squeeze before tucking them beneath his unlikely tombstone.
Against the night sky, the oak tree stretched welcoming arms around her parents’ graves. Ancient mourning songs crowded Mariah’s throat as she draped her shawl around her head with trembling fingers. Clutching her stomach, she doubled over and wailed her lonesome grief in time with the oak’s moaning boughs.