Authors: Leanne W. Smith
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 by Leanne Wood Smith
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Scripture references are from the Holy Bible, King James Version, public domain, except for those where the New International Version is used.
1 Corinthians 11:15 taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version
Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.
Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
The John Donne poem “No Man Is an Island,” excerpts from
A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens, and “The Star Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key are in the public domain.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to reprint lyrics from the following hymns:
“Blue Bell of Scotland,” traditional Scottish folk ballad by Dora Jordan
“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” slave spiritual, author unknown
Published by Waterfall Press, Grand Haven, MI
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Waterfall Press are trademarks of
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Cover design by Shasti O’Leary Soudant
Interior map by Mapping Specialists, Ltd.
To Stan, who waters my flowers.
Thank you for traveling the road with me.
Marston is a fictional county in Tennessee.
Several years ago I had the idea to create a fictional county to which all my stories connected. My only explanation for why this appeals to me is that when I was a girl, still small enough to lay my body across the narrow shelf behind the backseat of a car, I listened, as we traveled Highway 13 off I-40 west, while my parents told stories of the families they knew.
I grew up in Nashville, but my parents were from Perry County. When we visited relatives, they talked and I listened. The stories they told didn’t all happen in a single time period—they were stories that wove in and out of decades and lingered in the mind.
Later, I married and moved to Hickman County, which neighbors Perry, also west of Nashville. An old statue stands in the middle of a field there, visited only by cows, birds, sunshine, and rain. If the statue could talk, what stories might it tell of the interesting people it had observed over time?
Marston allows me a common spring from which to dip for all my stories.
Western Migration and the
is a fictional story about a woman who joined the westward migration movement with her children after the Civil War. She wanted to know why her husband had never come home. She wanted to secure her own and her children’s futures now that Reconstruction had begun. In short, she was pursuing the American Dream.
This quest for the American Dream that drove all settlers—white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and otherwise—ever westward into lands already occupied by native peoples is a controversial one. The settlement of America by non-natives had a dark side, as does the settlement and history of many nations in the world.
I have not sought to glorify or justify westward expansion. History accounts and diaries written by both men and women on the wagon trains paint differing views: natives who seemed lazy, dirty, and beggarly and natives who seemed ingenious, majestic, and proud.
Depictions of the pioneers themselves are also mixed. They senselessly shot bison and prairie dogs for sport, carelessly raped and pillaged the land along the routes, and gave little thought to the native people they were impacting or the ecological effects of herding thousands of cattle, horses, oxen, and a migrant people through lands that had been home to tribes and beasts. They’ve also been depicted as hardy, hardworking, determined, and deeply religious.
There is likely some truth in all of these depictions. People were—and still are—multidimensional and varied in both their characteristics and perceptions of one another.
I’ve characterized most of my travelers in this story as hardy, hardworking, determined, and religious because those are the kind of people I admire and wanted to write about.
An early-morning sunbeam reached through the glass of the post office window and laid a warm hand on Abigail’s shoulder as if it knew she would need some anchoring.
She unfolded the letter.
Dear Mrs. Baldwyn, It is my duty to inform you that your husband, Captain Robert Baldwyn, is not deceased as previously reported . . .
Abigail’s eyes kept sliding over the ink, but few of the other words would come into focus. Feeling the gaze of the postal clerk on her, and wanting to protect both her family and her heart from any more Marston gossip, she refolded the letter.
The sender’s name sat with a commanding finality at the bottom of the page:
Major Frank Talbot.
She eased the letter back into its stiff governmental envelope and pressed the flap down, then smiled up at the clerk and reached for the door.
How could Robert be alive after all this time? And why was she hearing it from someone other than Robert himself? Surely this was a mistake. The cold wind whipped past her face and her heels click-click-clicked on the brick sidewalk as she walked home, helping her heart find its rhythm again.
The brick turned to gravel, then dirt.
When the sole of her boot swiveled and she turned up the sidewalk, Abigail peeled off a glove and reached out to fan the brown limbs of the willow tree—the tree she had planted the year she pledged herself to Robert. She caught a branch and brought it close to her eyes—eyes still seared with the imprint of Major Talbot’s words.
The bark scratched against her fingers. It felt good. The rest of her was numb. Her fingers traced the bumps along the draping stems. The buds would soon sprout. God and the seasons could always be counted on . . . If only men were so reliable.
Sudden movement from the corner of the Baldwyn home drew her eyes. Her feet followed. Behind the house, a man poked his cane at the light snow that still covered plants at the base of the springhouse. Her breath caught as he turned.
“Mr. Palmer!” The banker. Relief washed over Abigail. “For a moment I thought . . . I thought . . .” Abigail stopped herself. Of course it wasn’t Robert; this man was too short. “What brings you by the house, Mr. Palmer?”
Mr. Palmer rushed to remove his hat. “No one answered my knock. I shouldn’t have taken the liberty, but was curious about your gardens. They have rather a reputation here in Marston.”
With his Northern clip, Abigail was surprised anyone in Marston would tell him anything. But there was no denying it: the Baldwyn gardens
lovely, even in winter.
Her heart sank nearer to the frozen Tennessee ground as Abigail realized why Mr. Palmer was poking around her springhouse. “This is not really the best time to see them. Perhaps you could come back . . . later in the year.”
“Ah . . . yes. About that.” Mr. Palmer took a sudden interest in his cane.
A strong wind swirled around Abigail’s neck, caressing it with icy fingers. She closed her eyes and wished that when she opened them the banker would be gone.
Abigail took a deep breath. “Would you like to come inside, Mr. Palmer?”
As she walked up the front steps and pushed open the wide oak door, Abigail’s hand trailed over the railing . . . the copper knob . . . the etched glass in the center. She turned and saw Mr. Palmer’s eyes cataloguing the walls and the furniture.
“When could I bring my wife to see the house?”
Major Talbot’s letter had ripped open an old wound, and now the banker was laying a fresh knife in the tear.
“She’s welcome anytime.”
Mr. Palmer stepped down the hallway, craning his neck toward the bedrooms. Abigail’s upbringing demanded she be polite, but she refused to invite the banker to nose through every room so he could decide if all would be to his wife’s liking.
As he turned back to the parlor, he noticed marks on a door frame and pointed with his cane. “What is this?”
Abigail loosened the folds of her wrap and sat down on the mahogany sofa. “That’s where my husband marked the children’s heights. Don’t worry, we’ve not marked them on all our door frames.”
“Oh. Yes. Novel idea.” He took the upholstered chair across from her. “He must have marked those before he left. I understand he supported the Union.”
Abigail wondered what else Mr. Palmer had heard about her and Robert. He seemed unable to look her in the eye, but she was used to that. Few men would hold a steady gaze with her. Instead, his eyes traveled around the room, taking in the butter-yellow walls, the deep-purple curtains, the pale blues of the furniture and the green plants in porcelain pots that gave even the inside of the Baldwyn home a garden-like quality.
He glanced back to the door frame. “You have four children?”
“Yes. Lina—the youngest—isn’t on there. She was born after Robert left.”
“Oh? How long after?”
“About nine months.”
The banker’s face reddened. “I see. I understand you have a woman slave?”
“A helper. Slavery was recently outlawed.”
“Of course.” He twisted his hat in his hands. “And what does she do?”
“I see. Did she make all these fancy window coverings?”
He was stalling and Abigail resented it. Why not just say what he’d come for?
“I do the sewing.”
“I heard you worked in the gardens.”
“I do work in the gardens.”
“So what else does she do?”
Patience abandoned her and Abigail stood, wishing the conventions of the day would allow her to toss the little banker out the door. “Just say it, Mr. Palmer. Why are you here?”
He stood to face her, clutching his hat with both hands as if to use it as a shield. “As you know, Mrs. Baldwyn, the bank, like every other business in Marston, has over the past few years suffered losses that are . . . no one’s fault.”
“I was hoping to have the money by now.”
“We are a business, Mrs. Baldwyn.”
“I understand that, Mr. Palmer.”
“You borrowed against this house. If you can’t pay the loan, you’ll have to forfeit it.”
“There’s been a delay.”
“What sort of delay?”
Abigail reached into her pocket and ran her fingers around the sharp edges of the major’s letter. Why did her and the children’s fates always rest in other people’s hands? “My husband might be alive.”
Mr. Palmer slapped his hat against his thigh. “Mrs. Baldwyn! You led us to believe he had been killed.”
“That’s what I was told, Mr. Palmer. Robert was a committed husband and father, he . . .”
How could Robert be alive? Had she driven such a wedge in their marriage when he left that he didn’t want her—or the children—anymore?
If Robert was alive and had deserted them, she had no way to pay back the money she’d borrowed to keep them fed and clothed. She pushed down a surge of panic and lifted her chin.
“I asked the army for confirmation of his death so we could draw his benefits, and now they say he isn’t dead.” Abigail held out Major Talbot’s letter to show the Washington postmark.
Mr. Palmer reached for the letter, but Abigail pulled it back. She wasn’t even sure what most of it said; she’d only caught a few words after the first sentence.
“Then where is he?” Mr. Palmer demanded.
Abigail’s confidence dropped. “He might be at a fort in Idaho Territory.”
“Might be? Idaho Territory? In the
“I question the validity of such a claim myself.”
Mr. Palmer pursed his lips and jerked his head side to side. “Regardless, Mrs. Baldwyn, your payment on the loan is past due.”
“Will you give me an extension so I can investigate? If he is alive, he’ll surely return and resume his law practice.”
“Will he?” The banker’s eyes narrowed. “Why hasn’t he done so already?”
Abigail felt a hot rush of blood to her face. “I can’t answer that.”
Mr. Palmer looked out the back window at the springhouse, then circled the room again with his eyes. “Even if Mr. Baldwyn—”
“Even if Captain Baldwyn returns and resumes his law practice, it could take months—perhaps years—for you to pay your loan, Mrs. Baldwyn.”
“If the major is wrong, we’re still due his death benefits.”
Mr. Palmer’s eyes narrowed. “How do I know this is not some trickery you and Mr.—Captain Baldwyn have contrived?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“It would not be the first time I’ve been lied to.”
The nerve of the banker, to suggest she’d intentionally deceive him!
Abigail held the letter up again, working hard to keep her voice steady. “This same Major Talbot wrote to me in 1862, only months after Robert left, to say he had been killed. But I kept receiving letters from Robert through 1864, so the major was wrong. The government tried to send his death benefits then, but I sent them back, because contrary to what you may think, Mr. Palmer, I am not dishonest. But Robert’s letters stopped coming two years ago. I kept thinking we would hear something. I wrote to the government once, before I came to the bank for the loan, but was told it was taking time to process things. Finally, last fall, I wrote again asking for information and to collect his death benefits if something had, indeed, happened to Robert, and now they say he is alive.”
Mr. Palmer took his hat and cane and stepped toward the door. “This sounds like it could take a while to sort out, Mrs. Baldwyn. The bank has been generous to wait this long. So unless you have other ready resources, you’ll have to vacate.”
Independence lingered thick in Hoke’s mind—thick as the early-morning sunbeams on the Texas trail he now traveled. Twenty years he’d avoided the Missouri town, and then she showed up in his dreams three times in a fortnight.
If the stallion hadn’t alerted him to danger, thoughts of Independence might have been his last. But when the shoulders of the black horse tensed, he felt the sudden rise of his own neck hairs.
Hoke didn’t wear spurs—he didn’t like the way they dug into a horse’s flesh—but his swift kick and jerk on the reins were enough to send the stallion off the trail and crashing into the brush.
He heard James, several yards behind him, pull up his horse and cock the hammer of the Colt Walker that was never far from his hand.
Hoke just caught the shape of the mountain lion over his shoulder as it sprang. He hadn’t been aware of reaching for his own gun but felt it kick as he twisted in the saddle and squeezed off two quick shots.
Four bullets in all ripped through the formerly peaceful woods, then through the head, heart, and soft underbelly of the mountain lion, the shots’ echoes followed by the hard thud of the animal’s carcass landing on the ground.
Hoke relaxed the squeeze of his legs on the stallion’s middle and waited a minute for the horse’s pulse to slow before stepping him over to look at the cat. The stallion didn’t like it, but the sure stroke of Hoke’s hand on his neck was convincing.
James couldn’t get his horse to go near it—it danced nervously a safe distance away. “Good thing you moved over. How’d you know that cat was up there?”
“What do you mean you didn’t? You spurred left, didn’t you?”
“I knew it was somethin’ but I didn’t know it was a cat.”
“You didn’t see it move?” James looked up at the ledge. “Another cat could be up there now and a body couldn’t see it. How do you do that?”
“I felt it.”
.” James looked up at the ledge again. “You don’t feel any more up there, do you?”
Hoke shook his head.
James looked back down at the cat and shivered. “I don’t know how you know things, but I ain’t complainin’ about it.”
As they traveled on, Hoke was careful not to let his mind wander again. A man couldn’t afford to daydream in the wilds of northern Texas. But that cold February night when he and James made camp, he pondered the isolation of his existence. Had he been killed by a mountain lion that morning, who besides James would have felt it enough of a loss to mourn for him?
The man’s uniform jacket lay at the top of a neatly folded stack of clothes, caught in an early-morning sunbeam. He had been the one to fold them, not the woman who reached across him now, her black hair sweeping the top of his chest.