Wildwood Creek | Chapter 26 of 37

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

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Chapter 21

JULY 1861

Four more are gone this morn’, two being a young couple who were wed only months ago. Now I’m recalling that they passed by the schoolhouse not a week before this. He smiled at her the way a girl dreams of, as though the sun wouldn’t rise to a world without her in it. There was the swell of a coming child around her middle. They spied me there, and he shifted her to the other side of the street, away from where I was. They didn’t look my way, either one.

I wondered if they feared I’d put some manner of hex on the babe. Rumors fly ’round Wildwood like damselflies on a summer’s eve, seeking places to light and molt into something new. Another girl from Red Leaf Hollow has gone missing day before yesterday. Last thing anyone remembers was her coming from the schoolhouse after stopping over to ask if I had any buck flour to spare. At least, that is the story they tell. In truth, I never saw the girl.

It could be that she came to the schoolhouse, though. Maggie May and I have gone out to forage in the woods as often as we can. With the declaring of martial law by Mr. Delevan, goods are scarce of a sudden, and the townsfolk are keepin’ their extra for themselves. There’s more talk around that this warring between the states will grow worse before it gets better. That it will become much more dire than Mr. Lincoln thought. The calls for a military draft increase steadily, strangers coming from other places in hopes of joining a well-funded regiment here in Wildwood and traveling east to fight. What little goods remained from our last freight are locked in a warehouse now, commandeered by Mr. Delevan’s growing legion of men.

The town has the feel of a powder keg with a fuse burnt too close to it. And then there are the Gonefolk, the ones who’ve vanished from their homes and shanties. I pray they’ve run away, making their escape from Wildwood while they’re still able.

“None so far this morn’.” Maggie pokes her nose in from the schoolroom after she checks it. Folks are keepin’ their children home, holding them close by, despite the directive that the children be sent to classes.

“Can you blame them, Maggie?” When Mr. Delevan’s men discover the children truant, they give them a lashing and chase them to the schoolhouse. The children believe I’ve told the men to do it. “Can you blame them at all, with the parents tellin’ the children that if I’ve mind to, I’ll tempt them from their beds at night and drown them in the river? Who would say such a thing to a child? They’re scared witless of me.”

I’ve tried to discern for myself who may be behind this rumorin’, but save for the kitchen women in the Delevan household, there’s barely a soul who’ll speak a word to my face in all of Wildwood. They’ve declared me to be the paramour of Mr. Delevan, a wicked enchantress of some sort, and just as much a devil as he. My scars have been found out as well, while I was doing our washing at the creek. It’s all the more fodder for whisperin’ and supposin’. Some believe I may have died once already and come back to wander as a spirit.

The sound of footsteps on the front porch turns Maggie ’round. I hurry across the room, catch her shoulders, and pull her behind me. I understand the fear the parents have, and their reasons for keeping their children away. They’re worried that Mr. Delevan will use their own children against them, in more ways than one. I’ve been told to leave off all other means of educating them, and for now teach only doctrines supporting the rightness of raising a regiment and defending The Cause by any and all means. I’m to teach them from the Bible that it is God’s way of things.

It’s good that Mr. Delevan’s men are well occupied with their patrolling of the hillsides and that no one supervises the lessons. I’ll not be schooling children in such filth. I’ll not be supporting the idea that a man made by God has not the rights of a man. That his body and soul can be purchased by another.

It’s only a matter of time before the Delevans find me out. And then no telling what may happen. I fear that I sealed the fate for Maggie May and myself the day I first signed my name to his paper. There’s not a citizen in Wildwood will help me, and I’ve seen no further sign of Mr. Hardwick since Big Neb gave him my message for the captain. Likely his freight wagons have been intercepted by the regiments scouring the countryside for more men and supplies to add to their numbers.

The school door opens, and a pair of children tumble in. This time, the men have ridden their horses onto the porch and simply thrown the little ones through the door. I rush forward to gather them up. They’re sniffling and covered in filth, wide-eyed. The Riley children. Only a week ago they disappeared from school, and their father from his tannery shop up the street.

“Sir! What is the meaning of this? These are children!” I protest of the rider closest me. He can’t be over fifteen years old himself, but I do not know him.

The children on the floor look as if they’ve not eaten in days, their cheeks gaunt, their noses crusted over. Just seven and nine years old, young Brady and Catherine, cowering on the floor, weepin’ for their lives.

The men on the porch are undaunted by me. The one farthest away delivers a hungry look in my direction. “Found these whelps hiding in the dugout with their mama along the river. No sign of their man.”

They pull their horses away and the nags stagger and stumble from the porch. I’m left with nothing to do but comfort the children, yet they’re scared mindless of Maggie and me. Even after I’ve washed them up and given them each a small portion of peas, still they shy away. They’re afraid to eat the food at first, lest I might’ve poisoned it, but then their hunger compels them to take the risk.

They’ve finally begun to settle when more children are brought. Five altogether. I begin dividing the peas in smaller portions. They’re the last I have. None of the children will speak of where they’ve been or what has happened to them. They’re watching me now, wary as little animals. Their faces tell a tale I’ve known before. Their terror is that of Maggie May, just four years old as we’re dragged away behind Comanche ponies, the rawhide lashed around our necks.

Klara Baum staggers through the doorway, bloodied and holding the seams of her dress together at the shoulder, and I cover my mouth to keep my stomach at bay. In her fourteen-year-old body, I see myself, and I’m at once wondering what has happened to her and also knowing by the shame in her eye.

I follow as she runs to a corner and hides her face. There’s not a thing I can do but stroke her hair and try to comfort her. “You’re safe now,” I tell her, but such isn’t true. Evil’s come today, and I’ve no way of knowing what it’s here for, but I know it’s the end of the waiting.

“I see they found a few of the whelps.” Mr. Delevan himself steps in the open door without warning. “It is impressive what the addition of a little bounty on their heads will do. Before long I’ll have the parents bringing them in themselves. The Irish would sell their souls for the price of a keg of whiskey.”

Klara cowers deeper into the corner, her fingernails scratching the wood and drawing blood as if she’d claw her way through. I rise up without thinking, and I’m to the door before I’ve caught up with my mouth. “What is the meaning of this? Those men! These are mere children.” Inside I cling to a final, desperate hope that my employer knows nothing of what these men have done while he’s been away to yet another of his war meetings.

He studies the children as merely a curiosity, then draws a clean white kerchief from his breast pocket to wipe a smear of blood from the door. I’ve no way of knowing whom the blood belongs to or how it has come to be there, but I watch it stain the white cloth, and I think of the day I signed the paper that brought me to Wildwood. That sold me to him. I’ll not be making the same mistake again.

“They should not be truant from school, now, should they?” He carefully folds the bloodied kerchief and tucks it into his breast pocket. “And it is their parents who have abused them, not I. Have I not provided them with books, a school, and a teacher? Yet their parents choose to hide them out in dugouts along the river, under the floorboards of their homes, in the woods, and let them starve. With the storm brewing over the mountains today, they could have all been washed away, should the river come up. Such shamefulness. Such foolishness, don’t you think, Bonnie Rose?”

He awaits my answer, and I know I am being tested. I bite hard on my emotions and tuck them down deep, as I’ve learned to do in my time on the prairie. A show of weakness only brought on the beatings. As did a show of resistance. Like all of those conscripted to a master, I’ve learned the value of displaying apathy. “I believe all children should be in school.” I meet his eyes, and there is nothing in them but blackness. It is as I feared. He is not a man unwittingly caught by the terrible forces of a brewing war. This brutality is his doing, every bit. It is his nature.

“Very good.” He stretches a hand across the space between us. His long slim fingers trail over my face, and I do not shrink away from it. Instead I hold steady. “You are so beautiful. It is no wonder that Mr. Hardwick was so taken with you.”

Again, I am careful in my reaction. “I know very little of Mr. Hardwick, I can assure you.” But my mind is racing. What has he been told? What has he discovered? I think of Mr. Hardwick and the captain. Have I brought disaster to all of us by answering James’s letter?

“Interesting,” he murmurs. His hand trails down my neck, his fingers coming to a rest on the ribbon, his thumb teasing the edge of it. I feel the fabric being drawn lower.

His eyes demand mine. “Remember where I found you, Bonnie Rose. There are few places in the world for a woman such as yourself, no matter how beautiful. Please me, and you will be well taken care of.” He looks over his shoulder at Maggie May. I see her from the corner of my eyes, her mouth agape. “And so will she.” His words upend my stomach. “Do not become a disappointment. I take care of my disappointments as well.”

“Of course, sir,” I say.

He seems well enough satisfied with the answer, with the sincerity of it. “Keep the children in the schoolhouse. Hold them into the evening, if need be.”

“And if their parents come for them?” The simple question becomes a fearful thing. I’m dreading what the answer may be.

He’s turning to leave now. “They shall not . . . anytime soon, I will wager. Hold the children until you hear otherwise from me.”

“I’ll keep them safe.” But it’s a promise I fear is beyond my ability. I know without a doubt that I’ve become a pawn in the devil’s plan. This evil will swallow us all before its hunger is satisfied.

And then he is gone. Maggie runs to me, and we cling to each other, mindless of the children watching and the girl weeping in the corner.

“We must get away, sister,” Maggie breathes against me.

“Shhh,” I whisper to quiet her. She’ll only frighten the others.

Outside, thunder rattles and rain begins falling. I think of the children who were found hiding with their mother along the river. If more are there, what’ll become of them, should the waters rise?

I can’t fathom whether to be hoping that Delevan’s men find them, or that they don’t. But it’s not up to my wishing either way. As the day passes, three more are brought to me, one carrying a babe in arms, her tiny brother. I have no milk for the babe, who needs his mother’s breast. He cries pitifully for hours before finally falling asleep.

There’s no sound in the town at all, then. None but the rain beating hard on the roof, the roll of thunder, the split of lightning. I try to reassure the children that their parents will be coming, but the day is almost gone out. The clouds smother the last of the light. There’s been enough rain that by now the river may be rising. I must do something, I know.

The children have begun to tell their secrets, whispering stories of their parents being taken off by Delevan’s men. Two of the older boys plot to find rifles and go after them. There was to’ve been an uprising today, a reckoning of sorts. Those who remain, who’ve resisted signing the loyalty oath and refused to serve in Mr. Delevan’s regiment, made a pact to gather in force to demand they be allowed to leave with their livestock, their possessions, and their families. Many had hidden the women and children in the wood, so as to keep them safe if a fight ensued. But Mr. Delevan heard of it ahead, and his men began rounding them up. He’s holding them somewhere, and these children in my care are no longer students, but hostages.

I tell the boys they cannot go. They are needed here to help with the younger ones. I must find a way of getting us out . . . but how?

The babe wakes again and wails bitterly, the sound filling up the schoolhouse, settin’ all on edge. I take the tiny boy from his sister and walk the floor, trying to quiet him as the storm rages outside. He won’t be still, poor thing, so I bring him to my room, hoping to find a bit of sugar to mix with water and a rag to suckle him. It’s a trick Ma used with baby Cormie. I remember it now.

There’s a clatter at the rear door while I’m searching, then a soft knock. I think first of the reverend, but three days’ve passed since I’ve seen a sign of the man.

When I open the door, it’s Essie Jane on the other side. She stumbles in, nearly drowned from the rain, shrugging off the blanket she’d pulled over her head. It falls to the floor in a puddle.

“Essie Jane, why have you come?” No doubt, just as with myself, the slaves have been told to keep to their places. I search for something dry for her to mop off, and then hand over the empty flour sack I washed the day before.

She wipes her eyes with it, then wrings it tight around her hands, blinking as droplets from her headscarf fall into her lashes. “Asmae tell me come fo’ you. Tell me come fo’ you and the chil’ens. Somt’in happen. Somt’in pow’ful bad. He done somt’in, miss. He done some badness to dem peoples. Now he gone do what need doin’ to get it hid. He even shot some a’ his own men, Big Neb say—dem what wouldn’t go ’long wit’ the killin’. Miss Peasie in such a fit up to the big house. She got a simple mind, but she love dem little ones, love to watch ’em play. Asmae say we got to take the chil’ens. Get away befo’ the Massah come back outta the wood wit’ his mens. Big Neb, he waitin’ wit’ a mule wagon and food up to the big house.”

My senses depart me then, bolt like a panicked saddle horse with the reins tangled ’round its feet. “We’ll never make it out. Not with all these children. Essie Jane, we’ll be found and . . .” Horrible pictures torment my mind. “They’ll put us to death, all of us.”


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Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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