Authors: Jennifer Chiaverini
Tags: #Historical, #Adult, #Romance, #Mystery
“I want what’s owed me.”
“I’ll give him what’s owed him,” said Charley weakly, lying on the ground as Lorena threaded a needle beside him.
“You,” jeered Mr. Liggett, but he took a step backward, then turned and broke into a trot.
“It was only a glancing blow,” said Lorena when Mr. Liggett was out of earshot, with an inscrutable look for her brother, which turned into a glance to the sky as thunder pealed overhead. “Help me get him up. This is better finished inside.”
The cloudburst soaked them before they could reach shelter indoors. As the furious rain battered the ground, Uncle Jacob glowered out the window in the direction of the wheat fields.
The threshers would not arrive for two more days, but they had done all they could. They had lost the last acre of wheat to the storm.
HE NEXT MORNING
Jacob paid the hired hands and agreed that Lorena could drive them back into town, and that Dorothea could assist her with her errands. When Lorena suggested they deliver Mr. Liggett’s scythe to him, Uncle Jacob snorted and told them to spare the horse a few miles and leave it at the tavern. Dorothea had her doubts, but when Mr. Schultz readily agreed to hold the scythe for Mr. Liggett, she acknowledged that perhaps Mr. Liggett did indeed spend more time at the tavern than within the crude log walls of his cabin home.
Afterward, Lorena stopped the wagon in front of the general store, and as she shopped for coffee and sugar, Dorothea fingered the yard goods and thought wistfully of the dressmaker’s shop across the street.
“Dorothea,” a woman called from behind her. “Dorothea, dear, did you hear the news?”
Dorothea turned to her greeter, the mistress of the farm directly to the north of Uncle Jacob’s property. One stout arm was linked with that of her young daughter, a beautiful dark-haired girl not yet fourteen years old. Their simple calico dresses belied the prosperity of their farm.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Claverton,” said Dorothea, and smiled at the girl. “Hello, Charlotte.”
Charlotte returned her greeting softly, smiling but with eyes cast down shyly.
“Did you hear the news, dear?” repeated Mrs. Claverton eagerly. “Creek’s Crossing has acquired a prominent new resident.”
“Yes, I know,” said Dorothea. “My father is traveling with Mr. Wright to bring her home.”
“What?” For a moment confusion clouded Mrs. Claverton’s face. “No, no, dear. Good heavens. Not the Wright girl. Mr. Nelson. The young Mr. Nelson is coming to take possession of Two Bears Farm.”
“I had no idea the Carters intended to leave.” They had been the Nelson family’s tenants so long that few people in town remembered the farm’s true owners. Dorothea herself had never met them.
“As I hear it, had no such intentions.” Mrs. Claverton lowered her voice in confidence. “The young Mr. Nelson forced them out.”
“Forced them?” Dorothea echoed. “He sounds very unlike his father. The Carters always referred to him as a generous man.”
“He was. And still would be, I suspect, if his son had not driven him to such ends.”
Intrigued, Dorothea glanced at her mother, safely out of earshot on the other side of the store. Lorena disapproved of gossip. “What ends? This sounds dire.”
“By all accounts Thomas Nelson did not inherit his father’s strength of character. I have it on very good authority that he comes to Creek’s Crossing almost directly by way of prison.”
“Prison,” exclaimed Dorothea.
Mrs. Claverton shushed her and lowered her voice to a whisper. “He says that he has been suffering ill health, and that his father sent him out here to manage Two Bears Farm while regaining his strength in our milder climate. What he does not say is that the depravities of prison caused his illness, and that his father banished him here, where his shame is unknown.”
“It will not be unknown for long,” said Dorothea, amused.
“I don’t doubt it, although if he wanted to avoid being the subject of gossip, he should have lived more virtuously. Unfortunately, many members of society will welcome him for his father’s sake, regardless of his past, and we can hardly shun him after that.” She shook her head. “I confess I have some misgivings about exposing my daughter to such an influence, but as he will be charged with the education of our youth—”
“Mama,” warned Charlotte, too late.
“Oh, my dear,” said Mrs. Claverton, dismayed. “I certainly did not mean for you to find out this way. The school board has written you a letter.”
“Mr. Nelson is to be the new schoolmaster?”
Mrs. Claverton nodded. “After all, his father did donate the land and the funds to build the school. When he wrote to request a position for his son, well, the school board couldn’t refuse him, could they?”
“Apparently they could not, since it would seem the decision has already been made.”
“Now, Dorothea.” Mrs. Claverton patted her hand. “Don’t be angry. You do remember you were hired as the interim schoolteacher only. You may have been the brightest pupil in the Creek’s Crossing school, but before his more recent troubles, Mr. Nelson attended university.”
“Did he? Then if he is a felon, at least he is an educated felon.”
“Mr. Nelson’s minister assures us he has repented his crimes and that he has been entirely rehabilitated,” said Mrs. Claverton. “If we withhold from him the opportunity to contribute to society, he may never be able to atone for his misdeeds. You are a properly brought-up girl; you shouldn’t need me to remind you of these things. You must drive your poor mother to distraction. You should look beyond your own apparent misfortune and find the opportunity.”
“I completed the Creek’s Crossing school years ago,” Dorothea reminded her. “Even if Mr. Nelson were qualified to teach at a secondary academy, I cannot imagine what education I should care to receive from him.”
“I was not speaking of your education. Did I mention that Mr. Nelson is unmarried?”
Dorothea could not help laughing. “Mrs. Claverton, did you not just inform me that Mr. Nelson is a former convict?”
“But a repentant one from a good family,” she retorted. “And, I might remind you, he is an educated man with a prosperous farm. Why, if my Charlotte was not already promised to your brother, I might consider Mr. Nelson for her.”
The girl started, setting her two ribbon-tied braids swinging down her back.
“She didn’t mean it,” Dorothea assured Charlotte.
“No, indeed, I did not.” Mrs. Claverton gave her daughter a quick hug. “Well. It is plain to see young Mr. Nelson has already upset us. I cannot imagine what will happen when we are finally forced to meet him.”
N THE WAY HOME
, Dorothea told her mother about the arrival of Mr. Nelson only to discover that she already knew. She had learned from the shopkeeper, who was also the mayor, that there would be a party in Mr. Nelson’s honor on Sunday afternoon at the home of the school board president.
Dorothea wondered if the shopkeeper had mentioned the rumors circling the guest of honor. “I would rather not attend.”
Mother regarded her, eyebrows raised. “You would prefer to stay home with your Uncle Jacob?”
Dorothea said nothing.
“It is a pity you lost your position so close to the start of the new term, and after you spent all summer preparing your lessons,” said her mother. “But you mustn’t sulk. You did a fine job and will receive a good reference from the school board. You will find something else.”
“Perhaps it is Mr. Nelson who ought to find something else.”
Her mother said nothing, the silence broken only by the sound of the horse’s hooves striking the hard-packed dirt road. “Your father and I wish we could afford to further your education, but since we cannot, you must make the best of it. You need not set your heart on the women’s academy in Philadelphia when you have a library full of books at home. Look to books and nature for your teachers. You shall learn more from them than in any classroom.”
Dorothea nodded, although she did not entirely agree. She had read all of the books in her parents’ modest library at least twice, even the dullest collection of essays. As for learning from nature, for most of her first twelve years she had explored the forest and fields of the Elm Creek Valley until she had learned them by heart. She knew every bend of Elm Creek, every type of tree that grew along its banks. A woman of Shawnee heritage who had lived at Thrift Farm for a time had taught her the lore of local herbs and roots. She knew which leaves to brew into a tea to ease the pain of toothache and where to scrape the bark of a tree for a poultice to reduce the inflammation of wounds. Jonathan had abandoned this knowledge as soon as he left to study real medicine, but it was all Dorothea had and she cherished it.
When Uncle Jacob declared that it was unseemly for a girl her age to wander about in the wilderness without an escort, her heart constricted in grief, but she resolved to learn as much as she could within the confines of her uncle’s farm. Indeed, she did learn much from her uncle about the raising of crops and the husbandry of animals, but she mourned the loss of everything she would never learn. She tried not to envy her brother and told herself the people of Creek’s Crossing were fortunate that books and nature alone were not considered adequate teachers for a future physician.
When she was the schoolteacher, Uncle Jacob had claimed half her wages, but Dorothea had saved every penny of what remained. Even that was not enough for one semester’s tuition at the women’s academy. Dorothea shook her head and told her mother, “If I do not have enough education to teach the pupils of Creek’s Crossing, where people know me and have confidence in me, I cannot see how any other school would have me.”
“Then you cannot see far enough.”
Dorothea frowned at her quizzically, but her mother looked beyond her. “Look,” she said, nodding to the pasture. “Father is home.”
Dorothea heard the clanging of a cowbell and quickly spotted her father driving in the two Guernseys and the calf. He waved his hat and shouted something, but the breeze carried his voice away.
“He’s home a day early,” exclaimed Dorothea.
“Yes, and already your uncle has him working. We lingered in town longer than we should have if he has had time to begin your chores as well as his own.” Dorothea’s mother chirruped to the horse and shook the reins to quicken his pace. “Your uncle will be stomping around the fields like an old bear, wondering why I have not started his supper.”
“If we hurry, perhaps he won’t see us. He won’t know when we arrived.”
“Deception by an omission of the truth is as bad as a lie,” her mother chided, but mildly. Dorothea was expected to speak respectfully of her elders, but her parents often made an exception for Uncle Jacob if no one but themselves were around to hear.
It was not for Uncle Jacob that her mother hurried to the barn, Dorothea knew. Her father met them there, and her parents greeted each other with a warm embrace and a discreet kiss Dorothea pretended not to observe. When her father removed his hat, she saw he was sunburned beneath his thinning blond hair. He was slender, although years of farm labor had added muscle to his frame, and he was scarcely as tall as his wife.
“Tell us about your trip, Father. Please,” she remembered to add, hungry for news of the world beyond the valley. “Did Constance’s master change his mind again? Did you have to elude slavecatchers?”