Authors: Jennifer Chiaverini
Tags: #Historical, #Adult, #Romance, #Mystery
Dorothea, who had not acquired his wariness, never shamed her brother by trying to cajole him out of his fears. She had decided, after their adventure was over, that the river had twice endangered them and had twice left them unscathed. If Elm Creek intended to claim their lives, it would have done so already. Knowing her conclusion was irrational, she confided it to no one, but wished her brother shared her quiet certainty that the creek would not harm them.
The ferry reached the opposite bank, and before long the travelers were back on dry land aboard the wagon. Dorothea hoped Uncle Jacob would drive through town on the chance she might encounter some of her friends, but as she expected he took the longer route south past the wood and limestone buildings, then turned west to rejoin the road along Elm Creek. Uncle Jacob usually preferred direct routes, but he would go out of his way to avoid unwanted conversation.
Not far south of town, Elm Creek diverted from the roadside as it curved around an oxbow to the west, and the road continued past several well-tended farms. Dorothea knew the families—the Shropshires, the Craigmiles—and waved to acquaintances as they rode past. The third and largest farm was Two Bears Farm, which until recently Dorothea had always thought of as the Carter farm. She recalled the two youngest children, girls she had taught at the Creek’s Crossing school, and wondered how the family had received the news that they were to be evicted. It was not uncommon for an eastern family to own land in the region and to allow others to live upon it in exchange for improving the land and raising crops, but in the Elm Creek Valley, most tenants eventually bought out their distant landlords. The Carters probably had assumed they would one day, too. Perhaps, with that possibility in mind, they had saved enough money to give them a good start somewhere else. Dorothea hoped so.
She saw several figures working in the fields with horse and plow, but did not wave in case Mr. Nelson was among them. Far likelier he was sitting inside an oak-paneled study in the white house on the hill, reading a book or writing a letter home, begging to be released from his exile to the hinterlands.
“Mr. Nelson has one hundred sixty acres,” remarked Lorena. “He does not look to have even half of them harvested yet. Does he expect the oats and rye to wait until he has time to attend to them?”
“He started late,” said Uncle Jacob. “A better question would be why the Carters did not finish the harvest before he arrived.
one felt obliged to ask such questions, and stick his nose into his neighbors’ business.”
Lorena said no more, but Dorothea wondered. Perhaps the Carters had known or suspected that they would soon be evicted and decided not to complete the harvest any more swiftly than necessary. She could not blame them for begrudging Mr. Nelson the benefit of their labor under such circumstances. At any rate, Mr. Nelson would not have to complete the work himself, or even share in it. According to Mary, who lived in town and heard every rumor, he had advertised in the
Creek’s Crossing Informer
looking for hired hands. Many had responded, some from as far east as Grangerville, the town of Dorothea’s birth, the town founded by her great-grandparents.
They passed the well-tended fields of Two Bears Farm and approached a thickening forest, where a rough dirt road barely wide enough for a wagon disappeared into the trees. Dorothea had never had occasion to venture down it, but she knew it led to the small clearing Mr. Liggett called Elm Creek Farm. She and Jonathan had explored his land as children—uninvited—as they followed the creek through the valley and discovered the places where local legend claimed the waters were narrow enough to be crossed by a bridge. When Dorothea asked her parents why the region’s first residents had not built a bridge there instead of the ferry north of town, her mother had suggested that perhaps no one had known of the easier crossing because of the thick trees, or that perhaps once the narrows had been discovered, the owners of the ferry and the town founders had not wanted another ford built lest they lose the prestige and commerce their passage over the waters brought. Dorothea’s father had chuckled and remarked that it was fortunate the narrower places had not been discovered earlier, or Creek’s Crossing would have been built on Elm Creek Farm, and Mr. Liggett would own most of the town. Then both parents warned the children to avoid Mr. Liggett and his land, because he was reputed to be a drunkard and violent.
Dorothea and Jonathan would have stayed away, except the creek was so pleasant there, and it would have been a shame to waste so many wild blueberries on the birds, especially since they were the sweetest either child had ever tasted and Mr. Liggett apparently never picked them. It was not only the blueberries he ignored. He had built only one bridge that the Granger children could find, and they had never seen more than a tiny patch of tilled land and one rough log cabin on his forty acres.
Uncle Jacob despised drunkenness, and he held little regard for Mr. Liggett after learning that soon after buying his land, Mr. Liggett felled and burned a half-acre of maple to plant corn. A half-acre of corn would be barely enough to support one man and his livestock, so Mr. Liggett would find no profit in it. In Uncle Jacob’s opinion, Mr. Liggett should have cut an acre or two of oak instead, sold the wood to the new lumber mill in Grangerville, and saved the maple from the flames. More recently he had embarked upon a harebrained scheme to raise racehorses—racehorses, when draft animals and the occasional fancy mare to pull a lady’s carriage were all anyone ever saw need for in the Elm Creek Valley. Uncle Jacob could not abide the man.
As only infrequently happened, Dorothea’s parents shared his opinion, though for Mr. Liggett’s poor moral character rather than his questionable business acumen. Seven years earlier, when Thrift Farm still stood above water, Mr. Liggett had secretly purchased a slave woman in Virginia and set her to work in his fields and his grim little cabin. After too many drunken confidences in the tavern, his secret became widely known, and a committee of citizens of the Elm Creek Valley, led by the residents of Thrift Farm, called the law upon him. They demanded that he release the woman, since by law, once in the North, she was immediately free. Mr. Liggett then insisted that the unfortunate woman was not his prisoner but his bride, a claim that outraged an entirely different segment of the local citizenry and one that the woman vehemently denied.
With the entire valley against him, Mr. Liggett had no choice but to acquiesce. When the sheriff visited to be sure he had complied, the woman was gone. Mr. Liggett claimed to have freed her, but months later other rumors surfaced: He had not, in fact, given her the necessary papers, fifty dollars, and passage to Canada as he had claimed, but had taken her south and sold her. Outraged, Abel Wright and others sent word to an organization for freedmen in the city to which Mr. Liggett said she had gone, but as best they could determine, she never arrived.
This alone was not sufficient evidence to convict Mr. Liggett of any crime, and the local law enforcement seemed reluctant to pursue the matter after so much time had passed. Still, it was enough to condemn him in the opinion of many residents of Creek’s Crossing. Isolated and shunned, he became even more of a recluse than Uncle Jacob, which was perhaps why Mr. Liggett had thought he spied a kindred spirit in him and had persisted in the misunderstanding that they were friends. Dorothea surmised that recent events had disabused him of that notion.
Not long after they passed the road to Elm Creek Farm, Dorothea heard horse’s hooves on the road behind them. Uncle Jacob stiffened, but he did not turn. Expecting to find Mr. Liggett, Dorothea peered over her shoulder to see who followed them and was surprised to discover Cyrus Pearson urging his horse into a trot.
As he caught up to them, Cyrus slowed to match their pace. He greeted Uncle Jacob and Dorothea’s parents before turning his smile to Dorothea alone. “Good morning, Miss Granger,” he said. “It’s a pleasant day for an outing in the countryside, wouldn’t you agree?”
“We are farmers,” said Uncle Jacob without looking at him. “We don’t take outings in the countryside. We live in it.”
“Quite right, sir,” said Cyrus genially. He glanced at Dorothea; she gave him an apologetic shrug. “Those of us who live in town are not so fortunate.”
Uncle Jacob snorted, but before he could say anything more, Dorothea quickly asked, “What brings you this way, Cyrus? Surely you didn’t come so far just to bid us good morning.”
“I wish I could flatter you by saying I had, but as you surmised, I am out on a matter of business.”
His gaze shifted away from hers before he finished speaking, which told her he did not wish to elaborate. At once she suspected he had been to see Mr. Nelson, as his stepfather was on the school board.
“We’re on our way to the Wright farm,” she told him, ignoring the urge to press him about the visit. She did wish to know what Mr. Nelson had thought of her pupils, but suspected he was unlikely to have said anything favorable about them or Dorothea’s teaching.
His eyebrows rose. “Are you?”
“There’s plenty of work if you want to help,” said Uncle Jacob.
“I wish I could, but I’m afraid I have obligations elsewhere.” Cyrus returned his attention to Dorothea. “I see you are too busy for me at the moment. I had hoped to speak with you about the upcoming benefit for the library.”
“I was not aware of any benefit,” said Lorena. “You’re welcome to call on us at home to discuss it. I’m sure we would all be glad to assist such a worthy cause.”
Dorothea’s father glanced dubiously at Uncle Jacob, who hunched his shoulders but otherwise ignored them. Since he voiced no objection aloud, Dorothea said, “Please do call on us.”
“Is Sunday too soon?”
“Not at all,” said Lorena, and it was quickly agreed that Cyrus would come out the next Sunday afternoon. Then he bade them good-bye, turned his horse around, and headed back toward Creek’s Crossing.
Shaking his head, Dorothea’s father murmured something to Lorena, who let out a laugh and murmured something back. “What are you whispering about?” said Dorothea, amused.
Lorena shrugged. “We were merely agreeing that it is good to see a young man so committed to improving our city’s access to fine literature.”
“I quite agree,” said Dorothea. “And naturally, as the former schoolteacher, I ought to be involved.”
“I wonder if the new schoolmaster will want to be involved as well,” said Robert.
Dorothea frowned. “Surely Cyrus would know better than to invite us both after—” She broke off when she realized her father was teasing her. “I for one would welcome Mr. Nelson’s advice. No doubt he has seen the country’s finest libraries and would be delighted to tell us exactly how and to what degree our plans fall short.”
Not long after that, the Wright farm came into view. From a distance Dorothea spied Mr. Wright already at work in the fields; closer to the house, a tall woman in a head scarf worked in the kitchen garden. A dog barked, another answered, and suddenly the pair burst from a nearby field and raced down the road to the wagon. The dogs escorted them to the house, tails wagging in a frenzy of welcome.
Mr. Wright greeted them outside the barn with a courteous nod and handshake for Uncle Jacob and warmer smiles for Dorothea’s parents. Constance Wright hung back, unsmiling, even as Mr. Wright proudly introduced her to the visitors. When he spoke Dorothea’s name, Constance’s gaze fixed on hers in a silent, bold challenge, and Dorothea looked away first. She had not expected Mrs. Wright to be a girl close to her own age, as Mr. Wright was nearly as old as her parents. Nor had she expected such a cold welcome.
“Congratulations on your marriage,” said Lorena, clasping one of Constance’s hands in hers. “And on your emancipation.”
Constance allowed a small nod. “Thank you.”
“We hope you’ll not think us too forward, but we hoped you would indulge us in a belated wedding celebration. We brought a cake, if that will tempt you to say yes.”
Lorena handed over the covered cake plate, which Constance accepted with some surprise. “We jumped the broom two years ago,” she said, peeking under the cover. “Seems a little late to celebrate.”
“Does that mean you don’t want the cake?” teased Lorena, reaching for it.
At this, Constance gave a tentative smile. “I didn’t say that,” she said, holding it out of reach. “I suppose a little party won’t hurt none.”
“Our daughter has a gift for the bride,” said Robert. “Dorothea?”
With a start, Dorothea remembered and returned to the wagon for the quilt. Constance wiped her hands carefully on her apron before accepting the bundle, then slowly unwrapped the muslin dust cover. She said not a word as she held it up, arms outstretched, face expressionless.
“My,” said Mr. Wright. “That sure is a pretty quilt.”
“It’s a new style fashionable in Baltimore, or so my brother tells me,” said Dorothea as Constance studied the quilt, and, in an echo of her mother, added, “You can quilt it if you like, or leave it as it is for a summer quilt.”
“Thank you.” Constance carefully folded the quilt top and wrapped the muslin around it. “I’ll quilt it and keep it nice for company.”
It was soon agreed that Dorothea would assist Constance in the garden while Lorena prepared a meal and the men worked in the fields. “We’ll take these inside first,” said Lorena, indicating the cake and baskets of food, still in the wagon.
“This should go in, too,” said Constance, handing the quilt to Dorothea as the men left for the fields. Caught off guard, Dorothea almost dropped it. Without another word for her guests, Constance headed for the garden.