Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles] (2 page)

BOOK: Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles]
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Jane didn’t even look at her. Only shrugged and kept staring west.

Agnes turned her back to the window and leaned against the bars while she stared at Jane. “You got to learn to do the time.”

Jane frowned and glanced her way. “Am I bothering you?”

Agnes shook her head. “Don’t bother me one way or the other. But the way you’re staring west, I’m thinking you got somebody out there you care about. Maybe they care about you; maybe they don’t. Either way, you got to learn to do the time, or you ain’t gonna live long enough to find out.” She jabbed a finger at Jane’s waistline. “You ain’t been eatin’. Dress hangs on you. Fit right smart when you come in.”

Jane put her hand to her waist. She hadn’t really noticed, but Sweeney was right. She could pinch at least a couple of inches of the gray waistband between thumb and forefinger.
Gray.
They all wore gray, a color she’d always avoided, thinking it made her look washed-out. She shrugged again.

“Here’s the thing. I done time down Texas way. Now
that
is hard time. The thing is, sooner you learn to cope with the truth of where you are, the better chance you got of surviving it. Miss Dawson’s an angel compared to the witch of a matron in Huntsville. Food here’s better, too. Exceptin’ for you, we ain’t violent offenders, so you find a way to just ‘do the time,’ and you’ll be all right.” She nodded toward the west. “No way to tell if they’ll still be waitin’ when you get out. My man said he would. But he didn’t. Either way, whether you do the time hard or easy, it’s mostly up to you.”

Jane didn’t suppose Agnes Sweeney would ever realize that she just might literally have saved another woman’s life with those few words of hers. Thinking on Agnes’s words, Jane had realized that she already knew quite a bit about “learning to do her time.” Essentially, that was what she had done to survive marriage to Owen. And that had been very hard time. From what Jane could tell of prison life so far, Agnes was right when she said that whether or not the time was hard or easy would be mostly up to her. She decided to do what she could to make it easy.

At first, Jane thought making her time easy meant being what people expected when they learned she was here for manslaughter. When the moment seemed right, she let the others know she was doing “ten years for killing my husband. He deserved it, and I’d do it again, so leave me alone.” No one bothered her after that.

Then a few months into her sentence, Dr. Max Zimmer came to visit.

October 1876
Lincoln, Nebraska

Max Zimmer just wasn’t the kind of man people expected to visit a woman in prison for killing her husband—even if the charge was “only” manslaughter. Lean and ruggedly handsome, the doctor had turned heads wherever he went back home. Jane had never let herself think about it while she was married to Owen, but some nights when she lay in the dark in this place, she wondered if her life might have been different if Zimmer had arrived in Dawson County a few years earlier than he did. She remembered his hand at her waist during that one dance and the kindness in his gray-green eyes and thought that surely that hand would never be raised against a woman in anger. Whether it was those eyes or his kindness or something else, when Jane was summoned to the barred door and heard that Dr. Max Zimmer had come to visit, her pulse quickened.

The visit began well. The doctor sat across from Jane at the plain oak table in the visitor’s room and said he was going to petition the governor for a pardon. He insisted that if Jane had only allowed him to keep a proper record of the bruises and that cracked rib, no judge in his right mind would have handed her ten years. Then something odd happened. As Zimmer sat there, making his case, Jane realized that looking into those gray-green eyes was going to make the next few days after he left really hard. The longer he talked, the more panicked she felt at the prospect of going back up those stairs to the third floor and hearing the door clank as it locked her back inside.

Finally, she cut him off in midsentence. “That’s not going to change anything, and we both know it. The judge was a friend of Owen’s, and Owen didn’t allow me to visit, so I never did make friends of the neighbors. No one is going to believe anything but that it was exactly what it looked like. I wanted the ranch and plotted to get it. Owen found out, confronted me, and we fought. I got hold of his gun.”

The doctor stood up while Jane was rattling off the story that had come out in court. He actually reached across the table as if to take her hand. The guard stepped forward. Jane pulled her hands into her lap and leaned away. “Just leave me be.”

He shook his head. “I won’t. I can’t. You don’t belong here.”

Jane saw the guard’s expression transform into a barely concealed sneer. She swallowed and looked away. “The only thing I want from you is for you to hang on to that little trunk until I get out and send for it.” She cleared her throat. “Don’t come back. If you do, I won’t see you.” She turned toward the guard. “Take me back. Please.”

After that visit, he became
Max
in her thoughts, and the memories and longings and the dreams his visit resurrected were a torment. She lost her appetite again. She worried about Rose. And she prayed. But still, God was silent.

The other women’s teasing didn’t help. They hadn’t seen much, but they’d flocked to the windows to watch whoever had visited Jane Prescott head back into town. Seeing a lone man astride a handsome gray was enough. And then Adam Selleck, the guard who’d monitored the visit, added to her troubles with snide comments about her “handsome lover.”

She began to fear she’d give up the truth one day. What if she talked in her sleep? Terrified at the prospect of who might be hurt if that happened, she crawled inside herself and stopped talking, hoping the others would take her silence as a sign she was a hardened criminal. She convinced the matron, Miss Dawson, to stop bringing her the letters Max wrote. “Send them back,” she begged, even as she blinked away the tears she hoped Miss Dawson didn’t see. She would keep writing Rose, but that was all. Rose would keep her alive—not some false hope involving Max Zimmer’s championing her case and getting a pardon.

Max didn’t come back, and toward the end of the first year, Jane realized with a jolt one morning that most of the time life wasn’t unbearable. She and the other eleven women shared a decent, dormitory-style bedroom, dining room, parlor, and bath on the third floor of the prison’s castle-like central building. The windows might be barred, but they let in plenty of light. The food was adequate. Truth be told, the hardest thing about the place was the monotony. There just wasn’t enough to do.

The men had all kinds of industries. From dormitory windows that looked down on the yard inside the walls, the women could watch them filing from here to there, a human chain created by each man’s right hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him. They worked in the brick kiln or the clay kiln or for Great Western Stone Cutting. The buildings along the western side of the compound housed a woodworking shop and the laundry, among other things. But here on the third floor, the women had hand-sewing, mending, and reading. They never went outside. The days were long, the nights longer.

Agnes Sweeney had been right about Miss Dawson, though.

The matron was in a position to make life miserable if she had had the mind to do so, but Mamie Dawson had no such mind. She was firm but fair, and beneath her serious exterior, Jane saw evidence of true kindness. In another life, the two of them might actually have been friends.

Most of the time, Jane was able to take Agnes’s advice and concentrate on doing her time as easily as possible. Every bell and every sunset marked a few less minutes until she’d be released and be able to try to rebuild a life for herself and Rose. She couldn’t quite imagine what that life would be like. Rose would be a young woman. When tempted to worry over it, Jane told herself,
Just get through today.

No one must ever know the truth about that night when a drunk Owen Marquis raised his hand against her for the last time. Justice demanded payment for Owen’s death, and Jane would pay it. She got past Max’s visit and the resurrected emotions and spun a cocoon around herself. She did the time, one long day at a time. And then, toward the end of the first year, a postcard arrived from Flora that threatened to snuff the very thing keeping Jane’s flickering hope alive.
Rose has mourned her loss and is happy with me as her new mother. It is not wise to stir up memories of the tragic past.

Jane kept writing for a few months, but every letter came back unopened. Finally, she asked Miss Dawson if the returned letters could be kept for her in the prison safe along with her other personal items. Miss Dawson agreed to see to it, and Jane stopped writing. The cocoon grew darker, but still she managed to slog through the days. God might not be listening anymore, but something in her would not let go. She couldn’t imagine what her purpose on the earth was, yet she clung to hope. She would survive and get out. She’d find Rose and… something. Most of the time her daydreams ended with finding Rose. Lacking knowledge of what Rose looked like now, she envisioned a younger version of herself. That would do for daydreams and fantasies. She’d deal with reality when the time came. For now, all she could do was the time.

Fall 1876

M
ama! Mama, no! Papa! Papa, stop!” Nine-year-old Rose Prescott flailed against the darkness, fighting whatever it was that held her in bed. Her heart racing, she tried to kick herself free.

Aunt Flora’s voice sounded through the fog. “Rose… Rose, honey, wake up. You’re having a nightmare.”

Arms encircled her, and Rose inhaled the comforting aroma of lavender as Aunt Flora held her, rocking back and forth, back and forth on the bed. “Shhh, sweet girl, shhhh now… you’re safe. Safe with Aunt Flora.”

Clutching at her aunt’s sleeve, Rose began to cry, whimpering for Mama, wishing the bad dreams would go away.

“I know, sweetheart, I know. They will. You’re safe now. No one can hurt you.”

“Not me,” Rose murmured. “Not me… Mama.” Finally, she gathered the courage to open her eyes and peer over Aunt Flora’s shoulder toward the golden glow of the lamp in the window. The lamp they lit every night, just in case Mama came looking for Rose. So she’d know where to look. Aunt Flora said the angels would bring Mama right to Nebraska City, and Mama would see the light in the window and come for her.

Aunt Flora began to hum softly. Finally, weariness took over. Rose relaxed, clutching Aunt Flora’s sleeve with one hand and the doll quilt Mama had made her with the other.

CHAPTER 2

Early April 1880
Brownville, in Eastern Nebraska

I
an McKenna, whatever are you talkin’ about?!” Ellen laughed as she looked down the length of the new, cherrywood dining table to where her husband sat, waiting for her to answer his question. He had to be joking—didn’t he?

“You’ll like it in Lincoln,” Ian said. “We’ll get Jack his own horse to ride from home to school. It’s less than three miles. In a few years, he can attend the university instead of going away. You can’t tell me you haven’t already started dreading his leaving home.”

Blast those blue eyes, anyway. Using their only son to persuade her—even if it was true that she’d already started to complain at how fast Jack was growing and how he’d be leaving home in the blink of an eye. Ellen dreaded the day more than she’d let on. Something about that little grave off in Missouri made her unwilling to think of Jack growing up and leaving home. Ian was right. The idea of the university just a short ride away made the offer almost appealing.

“There’s a new house,” he offered. “Two stories. Brick. Reminds me of Belle Rive a little. In fact, the ladies of Lincoln will likely envy you the parlor and the wide porch. We can screen it in.

You’ll entertain in style.”

“Belle Rive,” Ellen said, allowing just the slightest bit of the Southern drawl she had worked to eradicate back into her voice, “wasn’t in the shadow of high, stone walls sportin’ guard towers.” Ian just sat there, tugging on his mustache, waiting for her to acquiesce.
What would my parents say? How could I possibly write home and tell them Ian McKenna’s latest idea of providing for his family was hauling them to Lincoln, Nebraska, so he could be the warden at the state penitentiary?

“Two years,” Ian said and extended two fingers. “If you hate it after two years, I’ll quit. As for living in the house across the road, give it six months, and if you hate that, we’ll get something in Lincoln—although it won’t be nearly as grand. And you’ll have to put up with an absentee husband now and then if I can’t make it home every night.”

Taking a deep breath, Ellen pushed herself away from the table and stood up. She crossed the room to look out the windows at the freshly turned earth just outside. She had a lovely garden planned for that spot—as exact a copy of the garden at Belle Rive as Nebraska’s comparatively harsh climate would allow. Thinking on that garden brought back such memories.

No one, least of all herself, had expected Ellen Sullivan of the Lexington Sullivans to marry someone she’d only known for a few weeks. Her family had not approved, not one little bit. When her father threatened to disown her “over that Yankee,” Ellen threatened to elope. On the last day of August in the year of our Lord 1861, sixteen-year-old Ellen Sullivan and her beau stood on the front steps of Ellen’s childhood home just outside Lexington, Kentucky, and promised to love and cherish one another until death.

When, little more than a year later, Ellen’s husband donned his new blue uniform and left her on their farm in Missouri, Ellen refused to agree to her family’s pleas that she return home to Kentucky. Firm in her resolve to support President Abraham Lincoln’s Grand Army of the Republic and equally firm in her resolve to keep the vows she had made to follow Ian McKenna wherever he went, Ellen wrote home that death might take Ian from her, but nothing else would, least of all a little skirmish over a state’s right to secede from the United States.

Death almost did separate Ian and Ellen, but not in the way the young wife feared. In 1864, it slithered into the McKenna’s bedchamber along with the moist breeze of a summer night while Ellen labored to give birth to her first child. He lurked in the corners of the room, and at one point hovered over the bed, expecting to see Ellen’s soul depart her body. But another Spirit won that night. Another Spirit seen not by Ellen and not by the doctor, and certainly not by Ian who, home on temporary leave, knelt by the bed and watched his wife’s pale face and prayed. But Death heard that Spirit’s voice.
The days are written. Today is not that day. Begone!
And so Death slithered away, leaving behind not only an exhausted woman, but also a redheaded baby girl they named for Ellen’s mother.

BOOK: Stephanie Grace Whitson - [Quilt Chronicles]
9.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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