Wildwood Creek | Chapter 23 of 37

Author: Lisa Wingate | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1673 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter 18

BONNIE ROSE
JUNE 1861

Dear Ms. Rose,

I’d not thought, upon your departure from the New Ila, to inquire as to your permission that I might address you by your given name. I hope, in light of the distance between us now, that you will forgive my taking this familiar liberty. Many’s the hour since watching you disappear into the distance, that I have cursed my lack of courage in not saying more. Indeed, were that scene to play itself out again, Bonnie, I would have committed whatever egregious breach of etiquette might have been necessary to prevent your leaving altogether.

It is my belief that trouble may befall you in Wildwood. I pray that I am quite mistaken. I pray that this letter reaches your hands, finding you unharmed and at the very least somewhat contented in your new position there. I pray that your gentle spirit and bold, independent nature are not dimmed by the realities of life in such a town as Wildwood.

I have long held concerns as to the nature of our in-common employer and his intentions for his holdings, as well as for those who are bound financially to his employment. With shots fired this spring at Fort Sumter, and the entry of Texas into the conflict as a Confederate state, animosities draw to a boil all around us. It may well be that I will soon be forced to scuttle the New Ila to prevent her from being conscripted as a tool in the Confederate cause. While I may not own her lock, stock, and title, she is my boat, and I will not see her used against the union of these United States.

If our employer should intercept this letter, if you should find it with the wax seal broken, it may be that I am already deceased, or otherwise detained. If so, my greatest regret, other than allowing you to disappear from my sight on that last day, is that I will not be capable of coming to your aid, as I had promised on our parting.

But know this, Bonnie. If it is a man’s heart and his prayers that can preserve him and rejoin him again with another human soul, I will find you. Know also, that there is another in Wildwood who watches over you. If you recall our final conversation onboard the New Ila, you will and do know the identity of this person. Should the need of your rescue from Wildwood become imminent, go to him. He will help you to find a way.

Please, Bonnie, forgive my impetuous declaration of love in these words as I write. I have, many nights, struggled to reason myself from them. But there are times when a man’s soul knows what his mind cannot yet comprehend.

If there is a possibility that I may find you again in this world, I will do it, if only you would bid it of me.

Could you ever love me, Bonnie Rose?

Yours affectionately,
James

I sit lookin’ at the letter, touching my finger to the stroke of the pen, and inside, my heart flutters like a shore bird bound in a fisherman’s net. I’m feeling I must escape and I must surrender, all at once. Alone in the darkness with Maggie asleep nearby, I read it again and again, hoping with one breath and fearin’ with the next.

Could the eyes of love ever take away my scars, my shame? Could such eyes look at me and see the soul beneath the broken skin?

An ember lights inside, and I hold the letter close. I feel it flickering up. Hope.

An answer comes snarlin’ and pantin’ and nippin’, cutting the hope from my mind like a lamb from the herd, driven off to the hills to wander. No decent man could ever love you, Bonnie Rose, the voice growls, sneers, and whispers. None can look beyond the scars. None have until now, after all.

He’s only seeing what he believes to be true. He knows nothin’ of your shame. If you’ve feelings for him in the slightest, you’ll save him ever hearing of it.

I know it is true. I must bid him to go about his life without thinking of me. For a decent man such as he, there would be only guilt in knowing the truth and being forced, as surely he would, to rescind his proposal of love. Or worse, to honor it. A burdened heart, a soiled body . . . that’s all I have to offer him.

I begin again to reply, to say what I must—that I’ve met another here in Wildwood, that indeed, I’ve settled well into my position here and I’ve no fear of my own safety. None is true. Not a word. Quite the opposite, but I’ve only a few more hours to respond to the letter. I’ve only received it thus, because Mr. Hardwick was kind enough to hand it to Maggie May directly this evenin’. He could be bringing trouble upon himself by doing this, I know. But she has charmed him, my little Maggie May. Hers is the only face that can coax his smile. When he looks at her, I find myself believing he’s seen the shadow of someone else he’s known, some child he has loved, but I’ve no way of guessing who it might be. He’s not a man to share his stories.

He has told Maggie, should she bring my letter of reply to him before the freight travels tomorrow, he will personally carry it with the post and deliver it to the New Ila himself. Both of us know, should such a letter pass through the mail in Unger’s Store, I’ll likely be among those who’ve gone away in the dark of midnight, leaving behind all their belongings as if they full well expected to wake and live another day in Wildwood.

I’ve lost count now of how many have vanished since the young woman from Red Leaf Hollow flung herself from the cliffs. Unlike that girl, whose body was fished from the river, many of the others have disappeared and not a trace of them found.

I fold the letter on the desk and lay my head down upon it, not knowing what more to do. I want the answers to come clear, but they refuse, and time is running out. Mr. Delevan has been away this past week to one of his gatherin’s of men who will raise troops from Texas to move east and join in the fighting of what’s fast become a larger war. James Engle is no fool, for certain. From the New Ila, he’s seen it growing clearly enough, swellin’ like a fog that’ll slip over us all before it’s finished.

These weeks that’ve gone past since Essie Jane brought news of that young woman drowned in the river, Mr. Delevan’s meetings have kept him mostly away from Wildwood. It’s been a mercy for my own situation that he’s had no time to devote his attentions toward me, but he’ll be returning soon enough, and what then? Even now his men patrol the town, and there’s no explainin’ those who’ve disappeared into the night. There is only fear. And talk of monsters and men bewitched and renegades raiding in the night, taking only a few at a time.

I feel my mind asking the questions and drifting over answers I cannot bear. In a dream, I’m going the way of that poor girl from Red Leaf. Over the bluffs and down into the river, dead. And Maggie May along with me, or worse yet—left behind in his hands.

My dreaming mind sees that they’ve dressed little Maggie up for tea, paintin’ red upon her lips and hanging baubles ’round her neck. She steals away down the kitchen women’s path along the spring creek and comes looking for her sister, but I’m nowhere she can find me. I’m lyin’ on the river bottom, and I see her there above, but I can’t speak. He comes to find her then, slips his hand upon her shoulder, whispers to her, “Come away, Maggie. Your sister’s gone and left you behind. You have only me now.”

From the river bottom I’m screaming, but she can’t hear me.

I wake to the feel of her shaking me, her fingers clutched tight over my arm. “Sister. Sister, wake up,” she whispers.

I find her standing over me in her nightdress and cap. Outside the window, the day is risin’ over the hills. I’m frightened of knowing what it will bring. Each morning, more disturbing news circles the town. More folks gone from their places.

Maggie catches my cheek with her palm. I’m soaked to the bone beneath my shift. My sweet sister doesn’t trouble with asking why. She’s found me this way many nights before, tossing and sweat-covered, drowning in a pool of my own fear. “You were callin’ out my name,” she whispers, and she curls herself over my shoulders, hugging away the cool kiss of the night air against my dampened skin.

“I must’ve fallen off and been gone in a dream. I can’t remember a thing of it.” I tell another lie. There’s no good in her knowing one more morsel that a girl of just nine years shouldn’t. “I’m sorry for wakin’ you.”

“I don’t mind it,” she says. “I’ll put the coffee on.” She’s giving me no trouble these days. No fuss about keeping shoes and stockin’s on her feet, no wandering off in the wood. She’s heard the talk around town. She knows the fear that’s about. All the whispering.

“It’s time for wakin’ up, anyway.” She nods toward the sound of the good reverend’s door opening onto the porch. The man often goes outside and sits in his rocking chair, drifting into sleep at odd hours of the day, the bottle tucked in his breast pocket. But at night I hear him beyond the wall, shifting and murmuring in his bed, and on occasion crying out.

I wonder sometimes if his dreams are as troubled as mine. How could they not be? Each day he delivers a lesson in religion to the schoolchildren, practically telling them that Mr. Delevan is seated at the right hand of the Father. It’s their duty to obey Mr. Delevan’s authority, to respect his decision that the men of this town come forth in support of mustering for the Confederacy now, rather than waiting for a draft order to begin. On Sundays, the good reverend seeks to instruct the adults of the same thing. Mr. Delevan’s men force them to gather here on the Sabbath now. Outside, the slaves listen in, silent on the benches that’ve been placed ’neath the windows for them. There’s no hint of their thoughts or even what understanding of these events they’ve been given. Only what the Delevans have told them, I suppose.

Big Neb sits at each service, his bulk making the bench seem a toy as he folds his hands and bows his head in prayer. He’s the one the captain has told to look after me, I know it. But he’d be risking his life if he did anything to help me here. I cannot ask that of him.

Maggie notices the captain’s letter, still waiting there on the desk. From outside the window, the first of the light catches the paper. I hear the sounds of the town coming to life. The day is beginnin’. My time for answering the captain is nearly gone.

“Have you written a letter for me to take to Mr. Hardwick?” Maggie is hoping for a reason to slip away from school and see her friend before he leaves Wildwood with his freight wagons today. Perhaps she knows more is at stake than just the writing of a letter, but I can’t see explaining to her my reasons for rejecting his proposal. She needn’t know more about my stains than she’s seen already. Someday, perhaps, there can be a place in the world for her without the shame in it. There are no scars on Maggie May that anyone else can see. I pray that her beauty and her sweetness will one day bring a man to love her.

I’ll not do anything to steal that hope from her.

“I may write later,” I say. “For now we should be up and about. I’ve the lessons to study for the school day. Go out and fetch the butter and milk from the springhouse, and be mindful of snakes. Keep an eye as you go. Don’t wander off the path. Only to the springhouse and back, Maggie May.” Most mornings I walk there myself, but today I need a moment for reading the letter again, then hidin’ it away in my pocket, where I can keep it close to me. “I’ll watch out the window after you.”

“Yes’m.” She scampers ’round to make herself ready, pleased that I’ve let her have the task. For a moment she’s forgotten about the trouble in Wildwood, and I am glad of it.

I watch her go, then stand at the window with the letter in hand. I read it again, my heart torn down the middle, and then I leave it unanswered.

We move through the rhythms of the morning, pretending today is another common day. When I ring Big Neb’s bell to call the children in for school, one is missing. My heart falls and tears gather inside me, but I hold them away from the children. It’s little Helma who is gone this morning. The tiny one with a crippled leg below the knee. Just a week ago, Big Neb added a brace to her shoe. Just yesterday, she was laughing as she played stickball with the children outside the school. She was finally able to run with the rest of them.

The others see that her space is empty. I’m hoping perhaps she’s only sickly, home safe in her bed, but my heart fears something worse. Just days ago, her father presided at a meeting of the German folk, in secret in the wood. Maggie heard of it from the other children, but not of the subject of it. The children are careful around us. They don’t know what to make of me, and they’re takin’ no chances. Each day my young students become more withdrawn and suspicious. The parents wouldn’t be sending them to school at all if old Mrs. Delevan didn’t insist that they must.

“Has anyone news of Helma Kalb this morning?” I ask, and little eyes flutter up, then down again.

“Anyone?” I’m trying not to seem as fearful as I feel. Little Helma won’t survive the trip ’cross the wilds, if that’s where her parents have gone in the night. She’s a frail thing, and her mother not much better off, the family having suffered a terrible fever last year.

Please let them only be at home for the day, I hear myself askin’. I wonder if God has turned His back on this place. I’ve heard others say the same.

“Shall I take her lessons out to her when school is finished, do you think?” I ask.

I can see it in the children’s eyes, the terrible answer.

“The river people took ’em.” Little Brady Riley blurts from the other side of the room where the Irish children sit. “They’re Gonefolk now.” Some of the older children have told tales to the wee ones, making them think that the river people have come from the water and lured away those who’ve left Wildwood. There’s such terror in the children now. Some believe I am one of the river people—their queen, and all of this is my doing somehow. Gonefolk is what they’re callin’ the ones who’ve vanished.

But some of the German children say it’s the Irish who’ve done it, hoping to take over the emptied claims. All those gone missing so far are German folk, save for the girl from Red Leaf Hollow who threw herself into the river weeks ago when it all began.

Now the Irish children sit on one side of the schoolhouse, and the German on the other. There’s no mixin’ of the wee ones nor the grown folk. Only worry, suspicion, and whispering. The number of Mr. Delevan’s men grows by the day in Wildwood. They patrol the town and the countryside with guns—to keep the peace, he says.

Little Brady Riley’s sister, Catherine, elbows the boy hard. “Shhh!” She hisses, lookin’ at me, fearful.

Young Brady is rebellious this morn’, though. He’s seeking answers to questions his seven-year-old mind can’t comprehend. Yesterday Helma was playing in the grass outside and today she is gone, with no trace left. “My da milked their cow this mornin’, no sense it goin’ to waste. Not a thing’s been took from their place but the mule, Da says. Could be the river people drug it under too. Could be they drowned it and made a meal of it and hid the bones.”

The children are watching me now, to see what I’ll say about this, to see how I will respond to the news. They watch as if they half expect blood and sinew clinging in my teeth.

“There’s not such a thing as river people, Brady Riley. They’re nothing but a made-up tale, like wood fairies and sprites. A boy who sits in church on Sunday ought to know that much. If folks are leaving Wildwood, they’re leaving of their own accord and on their two feet, not carried off by creatures that live in the make-believe.”

But even as I’m saying it, I’m wonderin’: Why would a family go without so much as taking a bit of canvas off the roof to carry along for shelter, a pot to cook in, food to sustain them on the trail, a skin to carry water? There’s no sense in it. I’m seeing little Helma’s face in my mind, and my stomach weaves knots.

“Or the Irish got her,” one of the other children murmurs as I turn away.

“We’ll have none of that,” I scold and pass a stern look back. They freeze and fall silent as pillars of stone. In front, Maggie folds herself lower in her seat. I’ve moved her closer to me to stop all the tormenting. If they’ve decided that I am one of the river people, then they’ve named her one as well.

I try not to think of it as we move through the business of the day, but my hands shake mercilessly. There is little point to any of the teaching now, and my mind won’t settle. I release the children early, and they run from the school like rabbits from the lion’s den, not a one of them looking back. It is just as well. I’m planning to walk out to the shanty where little Helma lived, and it’s best that none of them see.

“You keep yourself in the room and set the bar in the bracket,” I tell Maggie May. “I have an errand to be about. If anyone should rap at the door, don’t answer. Pretend you’re sleepin’ and haven’t heard.” I hurry to be off. It’s nearly time for Mrs. Delevan to send her biddings for afternoon tea. Last night’s dream presses my mind. Maggie, rouged and dressed in false finery. “Remember what I’ve said. If anyone should come ’round the door, don’t answer.”

Maggie asks to go along with me, but she doesn’t argue when I tell her no. I’m down the path to the spring creek when I see Essie Jane walking from the big house. She’s come to bring me for tea.

“Tell her you haven’t found me,” I plead, and I know she’ll do it. “Tell her I’ve gone off after one of the students who was away from class today, to take the lessons out.” I consider now that I haven’t brought a book with me, and I should’ve thought of it, but I can’t take the chance of going back.

“Yes’m,” There’s a small gash healin’ beside Essie Jane’s eye. I reached toward it, and she pulls away. “The massah be home dis evening ’fo dark-time. Asmae say he bringin’ mo’ men to chase off dem river people dat been draggin’ folk away in the night.” A shudder runs underneath her starched gray dress. Even she seems uncertain of me now, afraid to come close.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I’ll find out what is happening here in Wildwood. There is some way of explaining it, and it’s not involving any river people.”

I rush away into the trees, not catching a breath until I’ve left the sounds of town behind, and there’s not a thing ’round me but the quiet of the wood.

I don’t know what I’m expecting to find at the Kalb shanty—what answers I’m thinking will be there—but when I reach the place, there’s little to tell the tale. The cow is trapped in the pen, the chickens shut up in their coop. The place is still as a picture, not a thing movin’ but the canvas stretched over the roof beams of the little shelter dug against a rock hill.

I move closer, calling out to the family, telling them why I’ve chosen to visit. “It’s only Miss Rose,” I say. “I’ve come to ask after Helma, to bring her lessons to her.”

The door hangs askew a bit. Through the gaps in it, there’s not a thing but darkness. When I touch the latch, the wood shrinks away, the leather hinges foldin’ in. It’s all as young Brady Riley said—everything in place as it should be, from the blankets on the bed to the kettle by the fire pit. A schoolbook even waits beside the pillow on little Helma’s pallet, the covers mussed as if she might’ve been readin’ by the lamplight before she vanished. The larger bed above hers is still made up.

A coldness slides over my body as I stand looking. I can’t bring myself to walk into the place. What’s gone on here? What terrible thing?

The brayin’ of a mule outside stands me up straight. If anyone should find me here, they’ll only spread more rumors that this is somehow my doing. Were it not for the favor of the Delevans, for the number of times I’m called up to their home for tea, there would’ve been a witching party after me already, to be certain. I can’t be seen near the home of those who’ve gone missing.

I press the heels of my hands to my forehead and try to think what I should do. Where I should go. Where I can run or hide.

The deep sound of a man’s voice comes through the trees, and I recognize it. That’s Big Neb, and in a moment, I see him leading the mule through the wood. My heart stills its wild fluttering, but I step behind the shanty and don’t show myself until it’s certain there’s no one but him and the mule.

“Dis here mule been foun’ wanderin’.” Big Neb indicates the animal, standing tuck-tailed just now. There’s a trail of bleeding scratches over its flank, as if a mountain cat or a black bear’s been after it in the wood. “He Mis’a Kalb mule. I put a shoe on ’im las’ week. Look like he been on da bad end’a somp’tin las’ night. I salve it up a bit befo’ I bring ’im back.”

“There’s no one here,” I tell him, but his face shows that it’s dawnin’ on him already. His gaze darts about the shadows, fearful now, and I understand the fear. “They’ve left the place. The cow wasn’t milked this morning, and Helma was gone from school. Not a sign of them. Nor a word of where they might be.”

Big Neb marks the cross over his broad chest and backs away a step, his eyes white rimmed. “Dis a bad place, miss. Dis a bad, bad place.”

I lay a hand over my stomach and try to calm myself, to reason it out, but the panic wells up, tellin’ me to bolt, take Maggie and run away. How would we do it? Where would we go? Whom can we trust?

Is there anyone?

Big Neb twists the lead rope in his hands, looking down at it. There’s something inside him struggling to come out.

“Not a soul is nearby but the two of us,” I say. “I suspect that Essie Jane has told you things of me. Things of my . . . person, discovered by her onboard the New Ila.” There were no secrets between Essie Jane and me as she nursed me through my sickness. She’s seen the scars, but we’ve not spoken of it. “Things not known to all in Wildwood.”

His downcast eyes say that, indeed, he is aware. Merciful heaven can only say what the two of them have made of it in their minds. Likely anythin’ but the truth.

It matters little now. “If you’ve something to say, Neb, you must say it now.” I wait, watching his courage gather like a storm brewing under his dark skin, straightening his body to its full height, tearing the bonds of restraint. I believe he’ll snap the lead line any moment. Even the mule goes skittish, snorting and backing to the end of the rope.

“Dis family with da Gonefolk now, ain’t dey?”

My stomach rises, and I swallow hard, nodding. “I fear the worst. Little Helma’s too weak to have made a trip overland on foot. Her parents would’ve known that, and they loved her very much.”

He nods grimly before regarding me with a directness I’ve not known from him before. “Cap’n say I’z to be watchin’ aft’a you. He mighty feared when we lef’ off da New Ila. He give you to my care, miss. Say I’z to get a message out wit’ da freighter, dere be a need.” He pauses then, cocks an ear toward a rustle that’s caught the mule’s attention. Only when it’s passed does he continue. “I been prayin’ ever’ night. Seekin’ da Way. Missus, maybe it be too late already, but you give me a message for Cap’n, and I get on dis mule right now, and I catch dat ox freighter ’fo he get far pas’ da river ford.”

“You’d be risking yourself.” It drums in my mind, the terrible reality of what he’s offerin’. I’m beset by pictures of what can happen to a slave who’s thought to be running away. “If you’re caught . . . Mr. Delevan’s soldiers patrol in the wood, especially along the river.”

He seems unafraid now, surprisingly so. “I gots me a way to go up Wildwood Crick. Be back fo’ night come. Nobody know nothin’, but dat I’z gone lookin’ afta dis mule,” he says, as if to persuade the both of us. “Cap’n, he a good man. He come.”

“I fear there won’t be time for it.” It is difficult now to imagine that there could be. Whatever is afoot in this place, it grows by the day. Still, I slip the captain’s letter from my pocket and turn toward the shanty. Inside, the darkness seeps over me like the soil of a grave. The only thing I find for writing is a bit of twig burnt off in the fire.

I lay open James’s letter atop little Helma’s schoolbook, kneel by her bed, and smell her scents—the mattress stuffed with leaves and sprigs of rosemary, the faint lingering of soil and summer grass, the scents of a child living close to the ground, knowin’ all the tiny things the others don’t see. A sheen of water covers my eyes as I turn over the letter and scratch carefully on the back of a page, Come for us, James. Please. Bonnie Rose

I bring the paper to my lips, then kiss it softly and close my eyes, praying it may not be too late. I pray for the body and the soul of the child who lay only a day ago wrapped in this bed, and for all the others.

I pray that the Kalb family is safe.

In God’s hands, either way.

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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