Read Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt Online

Authors: Jennifer Chiaverini

Tags: #Historical, #Adult, #Romance, #Mystery

Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt (2 page)

BOOK: Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt
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D
OROTHEA AND HER MOTHER
could not have stolen into town in the wagon after all, because Uncle Jacob took it. Three hours after his departure, Dorothea heard the wagon coming up the road. She stopped scattering chicken feed and straightened, shading her eyes with one hand. What she saw made her want to duck behind the hen house and hide.

Her mother had also paused at the sound of the wagon. “It couldn’t be,” said her mother, with a soft moan of dismay. “Not Amos Liggett.”

“I wish it were anyone else.” Dorothea watched as the wagon brought the gangly, round-shouldered man closer. His red face was beaming with jovial pride behind greasy, unkempt whiskers. Uncle Jacob drove the horses stoically, apparently oblivious to his companion’s chatter. “I can almost smell the liquor on him from here.”

“Dorothea,” her mother said reprovingly.

“You don’t like him any more than I do.” For that matter, Uncle Jacob despised him. Every winter Mr. Liggett asked Uncle Jacob to exchange work with him at sugaring time, a request Uncle Jacob always refused. “I don’t want that blasted fool to set one foot inside my sugar camp,” he had grumbled the previous winter, after Mr. Liggett had cornered him in church before Christmas services to plead his case yet again. “He’s more likely to overturn the kettle and tap an oak than to give me a penny’s worth of real help.” There must have been no one else in all of Creek’s Crossing to hire, or her uncle never would have brought Amos Liggett home.

Mr. Liggett offered the women a gap-toothed grin as the wagon rumbled past. Dorothea and her mother nodded politely, but quickly averted their eyes. “Stay clear of him,” her mother cautioned, as if Dorothea needed the warning.

Mr. Liggett had brought his own scythe, an implement Dorothea surmised must be as sharp as the day he purchased it, given his inattention to his own fields. Uncle Jacob put him to work cutting oats with the others. Throughout the afternoon, as Dorothea passed from the garden to the kitchen where she and her mother were pickling cabbage and beets, she glimpsed him at work, swinging his blade with awkward eagerness, with none of the practiced, muscular grace of the other men. More often than not, he was at rest, his scythe nowhere to be seen, probably lying on the ground. The blade would not keep its shine for long.

At sundown, the men washed at the pump and trooped wearily inside for supper, smelling of sweat and grass and fatigue. Uncle Jacob offered Mr. Liggett the loan of a horse so that he might return to his own home for the night—an uncharacteristic display of trust and generosity that astonished the women—but Mr. Liggett declined, saying he would spend the night in the hayloft quarters with the others. Then he said, “Before we retire, I surely would like to get a look at that sugar camp of yours.”

Uncle Jacob frowned. “For what reason?”

“Because everyone knows you make the best maple sugar in the county.” Mr. Liggett let out a cackle. “And you never let anyone near your sugar camp. I know folks who’d pay good money to know your secret.”

“I have no sugar-making secrets to share,” replied Uncle Jacob.

Mr. Liggett chuckled and waited for him to continue, but when Uncle Jacob said nothing, his grin faded. He had thought Uncle Jacob spoke in jest, which, of course, he never did. Dorothea doubted Mr. Liggett had noted her uncle’s careful choice of words. He did indeed have sugar-making secrets, but he had no intention of sharing them with Mr. Liggett.

“Perhaps you burn the syrup,” suggested Lorena as she offered Mr. Liggett more mashed turnips. “It must be watched and stirred constantly or it will be ruined.”

“I can’t stand in front of a kettle all day,” said Mr. Liggett, scowling. Then he brightened. “Say, Jacob, how about we trade work this winter? I’ll help you with your sugaring, and you can help me.”

“Thank you, but my family will provide all the help I need.”

With that, Uncle Jacob excused himself and retired to the parlor. Mr. Liggett resumed eating, glancing hopefully at the doorway now and again as if expecting Uncle Jacob to appear and beckon him within. But Dorothea knew her uncle was by now well engrossed in his Bible, and he would not have invited Mr. Liggett to join him in the house’s best room in any event.

A
T BREAKFAST
, M
R
. L
IGGETT
spoke to the merits of various woods for producing steady flame, as well as the skill of local blacksmiths in producing cast-iron kettles of size and durability. When his hints about visiting the sugar camp became too obvious to ignore, Uncle Jacob said that too much work remained for them to consider indulging in idleness.

Dorothea was relieved when the men left the breakfast table for the fields, and in the two days that followed, she learned to dread mealtimes. When Mr. Liggett was not querying her uncle he was grinning at her, casting his gaze up and down her person with shameless appreciation, as if his sour smell alone were not enough to turn her stomach. Lorena kept her out of his sight as much as she could and never left them alone together, but once he came upon her unaccompanied in the washhouse. He complimented her dress and had just asked if she might like to go riding some Sunday after he had his horse breeding business going when Uncle Jacob rounded the corner and fixed them with an icy glare. Mr. Liggett muttered excuses and slunk away, while Dorothea stood rooted to the spot until her uncle ordered her back to the house. She left the laundry in the washtub and obeyed, shaking with anger, her cheeks ablaze as if she had earned the accusation in her uncle’s eyes. She wished her father would hurry home so that Mr. Liggett would no longer be needed.

Her father had been gone one week on the morning Mr. Liggett did not come to breakfast. Uncle Jacob ordered one of the hired hands back to the barn to rouse him from his sleep, only to learn that Mr. Liggett had been gone all night. “He left right after sundown,” the hired man said. “He told us he desired to slake his thirst.”

“Perhaps he fell into the well,” said Lorena. Uncle Jacob sent a man to check, but when he found no sign of any mishap, Uncle Jacob told Lorena to serve the meal. His expression grew more stern as they ate in silence, listening for Mr. Liggett’s approach.

He did not come. The other men went to the fields to cut the last two acres of wheat, looking to the sky as a low rumble of thunder sounded in the far distance. There were few clouds overhead, but the air was heavy and damp, and Dorothea knew they must hasten before rain pelted the heavy shafts of ripe wheat, dashing the grains to the earth, ruining the crop.

She was gathering carrots in the garden when Mr. Liggett returned, shuffling his feet in the dirt on his way to the barn. “Pray tell, Miss,” he addressed her, with slurred, exaggerated formality. “Where might I find the master of this establishment?”

“My uncle is cutting wheat with the others.”

He made a mocking bow and headed for the fields. Dorothea watched him as she worked. When Mr. Liggett reached the men, Uncle Jacob rested on his scythe, mopped his brow, and said something low and abrupt to the latecomer before raising his scythe again. Mr. Liggett took his hat from his head and fidgeted as he tried to explain, but Uncle Jacob did not appear to respond. After a moment, Mr. Liggett slammed his hat back on his head and hurried to the barn for his scythe, muttering angrily to himself. Dorothea had never seen him move so quickly, though he stumbled and once nearly fell sprawling to the ground.

At midday, through the kitchen window, Dorothea overheard the hired hands talking as they washed up at the pump. “Have to run home to care for your livestock, Liggett?”

Dorothea recognized the teasing drawl of the youngest of the men, a former classmate named Charley Stokey.

“Never you mind,” snapped Mr. Liggett as the other men guffawed. It was well known that Mr. Liggett owned only one scrawny mare and a few chickens, for all that he boasted of one day raising prize racehorses.

“No, he was tending to his vast acreage,” said another, evoking more laughter. Mr. Liggett was forever bragging about the improvements he planned for his farm, though he rarely would lay hand to plow or hammer. Though he owned forty of the valley’s finest acres, he had let all but a few run wild.

“I know more about running a farm than you fools ever will,” said Mr. Liggett. “My people own one of the richest plantations in Georgia.”

“Then why aren’t you down there helping them tend it?” Charley inquired.

Another man answered before Mr. Liggett could. “His people don’t care for him any more than anyone else.”

Over the laughter, Mr. Liggett said, “I’m telling you, it’s one of the richest and the biggest. When I was a boy I could climb on my horse at sunup at the eastern edge of the plantation, ride west all day, and still be on my grandfather’s property at sundown.”

“I had a horse like that once,” remarked Charley. “We named him Snail.”

The men burst out laughing, and a moment later, Mr. Liggett swung open the kitchen door with a bang and stormed over to the table. “Are you going to feed us or let us starve?” he barked at Lorena.

She regarded him evenly. “We’re waiting for my brother. He will be in shortly.”

Uncle Jacob had come in from the fields ahead of the others in order to work on his ledgers. He entered the kitchen just as Lorena finished speaking and took his seat at the head of the table with a stern look for Mr. Liggett. Mr. Liggett dropped his gaze and tore a chunk from the loaf of bread.

The men ate swiftly, mindful of the threatening rain. The wind had picked up; the low growls of thunder in the distance had grown louder and more frequent. Dorothea wondered where her father was and hoped he was well out of the storm’s path.

Not long after Uncle Jacob and the men returned outside, Dorothea heard a furious shout from the direction of the wheat field, followed by a string of curses.

“What on earth?” gasped Lorena as she and Dorothea hurried outside. Two of the hired men were heading for the house supporting Charley between them, his face covered in blood. Behind them, Uncle Jacob stood before Mr. Liggett, palms raised in a calming gesture. Mr. Liggett quivered and tightened his grip on his scythe. The blade was stained red.

“Put it down, Liggett,” commanded Uncle Jacob.

“I didn’t mean to,” shrilled Mr. Liggett as the women ran to help Charley. “He got in the way. He came up behind me.”

Uncle Jacob again ordered him to put down his scythe, but whether he obeyed, Dorothea could no longer watch to see. Charley was moaning and scrubbing blood from his eyes as Lorena and Dorothea lowered him to the ground. Lorena tore off her apron and sopped up the blood. “I cannot tell where he was struck,” she murmured to her daughter. “There is too much blood.”

Dorothea, Charley’s head resting on her lap, snatched off her own apron and dabbed at his face. Distantly, she heard the voices of Uncle Jacob and Mr. Liggett coming nearer. “Here,” she said, pointing, as blood seeped from a long gash along Charley’s hairline.

“Is it bad?” one of the men asked.

“It is not as bad as it could have been,” said Lorena, a tremble in her voice as she pressed the cloth to the wound. Charley flinched, but Dorothea held him firmly. “Nor as bad as it seems. It is not deep, but cuts on the scalp bleed profusely. Dorothea, run inside and fetch my herbs and plasters.”

Charley let out a yelp, and as Dorothea set him down gently and ran for the house, she heard one of the hired hands ask Lorena if they ought to give Charley a strong drink to ease the shock and the pain. He might not know that Uncle Jacob permitted no liquor on his farm.

“Squeeze Liggett, and you’ll get a pint,” the other hired man said darkly.

Dorothea returned minutes later in time to see Uncle Jacob, the bloody scythe in his hand, order Mr. Liggett off his property. “It’s bad enough that you were too drunk to find your way back last night,” said Uncle Jacob. “It’s far worse that your drunkenness could have killed a man today.”

He waved Mr. Liggett off, gesturing toward the road. When Mr. Liggett realized that Uncle Jacob meant for him to walk home, he said, “What about my scythe? And my pay?”

“I’ll deliver your scythe to you tomorrow. As for your pay, consider it forfeit.”

Mr. Liggett flushed. “But I worked six full days for you. You owe me for six days.”

“You worked five and a half days. Bearing in mind what has happened here today, considering that the work is not finished, and that you have cost me Mr. Stokey’s labor as well as your own, you are fortunate I am willing to let you go without calling in the law.”

BOOK: Elm Creek Quilts [07] The Sugar Camp Quilt
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