CHAPTER ONE

Iím not one to pass much time thinking about things before I do them.  My father shakes his head and says thatís how his beauty Eliza got into this trouble.  My mother smirks and wonders out loud how I can think Iím so special when all I know how to do is get into trouble.

Alone in the midnight blackness, for once I do stop and think.  I stand on the riverbank thick with cottonwood and willow trees and stare at the water as it rushes past, brown like the mud that nearly brought me skidding to the hard ground as I stumbled to get here.  I shiver even in all Iím wearing, both my skirts over my drawers and corset, two blouses, little jacket, two moth-bitten shawls, stockings and best boots, the only ones with no hole in them.  I dare not leave anything behind.  Iíll need it all, the coins, too, tucked inside the string bag stuffed in the pocket of my inner skirt.  Even under all that, the chilly air squeezes in on me like a too strong boy who wants what he wants and sees no reason why he shouldnít have it.

I push my dark hair back from my forehead.  Tonight of all nights I dare not start thinking.  I should just lay hands on Johnís canoe and go.

Heíll hate me for it when he comes to.  But thatís the least of what heíll hate me for.  And what do I care anyway?  For every speck of hate heíll have for me, Iíll have twice as much for him.

The liar.  The cheat.  The brute I married.  Though now I half wonder if I really did.

I shake my head hard, as if that will clear it, and tell myself again that tonight is no night to dwell on the past.  I canít spare the time.  Or lose my courage.  If I linger too long, the drink will wear off and John will rouse.  Heíll come looking for me even before he sees my clothes are gone; I know it.  Then what?

I shudder.  Almost better that a wolf or bear find me first.  And either would be better than a ghost to rise before me, unearthly white from the plague that got him.  Who knows how many souls are buried along this river?  If you make the mistake of dying on a steamboat, thatís your fate: eternity under the riverbank or your corpse swept away with the water when it changes course.

Itís the fear of creatures both alive and dead that sends me edging again down the grassy slope, closer to the river.  Itís so dark I canít even make out the bank on the other side, but I know this clutch of trees and believe itís close by here that John lays his canoe.  The water is moving fastófaster than it looks when I see it in the day.  When I see it but have no scheme to climb inside that old boat and let it free on the river to carry me far, far away.  Now that I can truly imagine myself on that treacherous journey, I shudder again and my foot slips in my stupid shoe.  I give a little shriek and grab at the shrubs around me to stop from sliding into the current.

When finally I settle again, I try not to pant but to keep silent.  What if someone heard me cry?  Yet I pick up no shuffling among the trees.  I can hope itís too cold for anyone to be afoot.  And hard as my ears strain, all I can hear is the river.  No, I hear something else, too, that familiar screech.  A panther.   Distant, thank God.  And upriver, not the way Iím going.

Iím going to Hermann, I remind myself, where the Missouri meets the Gasconade.  I hear tell thereís a post office there, and somebody once said thereís an inn, not that heíd seen it.  I could find work, and not the kind I do here, that leaves my hands blistered and crusted with dirt and my back bent as if I were already old.

Iím not old yet.  Yes, Iím four and twenty, but if I hold my tongue and keep my eyes downcast I can pass for younger.  I still have my looks, near fresh as ever.  When my courage is up I donít doubt I could marry again, though I wonder why Iíd want to.  I know now all that does is make a man free to do what he wants with you and in near one year Iíve had enough of that for two lifetimes.  But if ever I changed my mind, whatís to stop me?  For if John Haycraft could amble into this town and forget everything that went before, why couldnít I go to Hermann and do the same? 

That thought makes me feel like a girl again, strong and bold.  I remember when I would lie in the grass and stare up at the blue, blue sky, dreaming of being far away from here, away from these rutted fields, away from these people who donít care if they never see past this stretch of river.  Even if they came from somewhere I canít conjure, from Kentucky or even Virginia, they donít think about that anymore.  Itís as gone from their minds as if they woke from a fever.  Even for my father itís that way.  When I was a girl I thought all the time about what lay beyond the curve in the river and for a time I was fool enough to think John Haycraft would take me there.  Lately Iíve started wondering about it again, knowing if I only dared, this coursing water could lead me to a different life than the one Iím stuck with now, these pitiful days that stretch out one after the next all the very same.  If I stay put here, the days wonít change until the day Iím dead.

Iíve walked further downriveródue to the fact thatís closer to our place and John is more likely to be lazy than notówhen I startle at a soft laugh behind me.

ďWell, well.  Whatíre you out looking for this time of night?Ē

A womanís voice and I know it in an instant.  My head spins around and I see my sister Sarah.

ďYouíre not looking for Johnís canoe!Ē  She says it in a triumphant kind of way, eyes gleaming, like sheís sure thatís what Iím after.  ďWhy do you need that?  Youíre not going anywhere.  You wouldnít go in the day,Ē she tells me, ďlet alone in the dark.Ē

If somebody had to find me I wish it were our sister Visa Ann, but she would never be out at this hour.  Even our brother Asa would be better to find me than Sarah.  But itís Sarah who can pick up a change on the wind.

She eyes me.  Sheís dark-haired like I am but older and harder of feature.  People shouldnít tell her that, but they do.  Even our father does.  ďYouíre not going anywhere,Ē she repeats.  Sheís sure sheís on top of me in this.  ďAnd even if you do, heíll come after you.Ē

I donít want to tell her much because every word will make it back to our motherís ears, and maybe Johnís, too.  ďThis has nothing to do with you,Ē I mutter.  That Sarah keeps telling me I wonít go puts even more fire in me.  I spin back around and lose my footing, which only makes her cackle louder.  I know she wonít think for a moment of helping me.  Sarahís our motherís daughter through and through.

ďYouíre wearing both your shawls, too,Ē she mocks me.  ďYou must think youíre really going.  Why this time?Ē and in that question I hear a curiosity she canít hide.  We all in our family live so close, one on top of the other, which means she knows my shame, and like our mother she enjoys it.  Look at our beautiful Eliza!  So special but still getting that from the man she begged to marry.

ďBecause this time was one too many,Ē I tell her.  I wonder if John will admit the true story once Iím gone.  I doubt it.  It casts no good light on him.  I doubt heíll stay, come to think of it.  Thereís nothing for him here.  Like us Harpers, John Haycraft owns no land.  Couldnít he hunt anywhere, and trap?  Heíd be better off trying his game somewhere new.  Heís the sort of man you donít mind seeing the back of once the shineís worn off and you have to look straight on at what little is really there.

But despite everything, the thought of John gone, forever gone, does pain me.  I feel a sting behind my eyes and look away to hide my face.  See?  It did me no good to start thinking again.

ďHe woke up, you know,Ē Sarah says, in that same triumphant tone.  I know something you donít.  ďI heard him calling for you and not in his nice voice, either.  I came out to warn you.Ē

Thatís a lie.  Sarah doesnít want me to get away from John.  She wants him to find me then see what he does after.  I put my back to my sister and keep moving, my eyes madly searching.

ďSo where you think youíre headed?Ē  My sisterís voice taunts as she matches me step for step.  ďHermann,Ē she guesses, and I hate that my plan is so obvious it rises to even her mind.  ďThatís not far enough,Ē she tells me.  ďHaycraft will sure enough find you there.Ē

Then I spy the canoe, my salvation, in front of me to the left, its paddle lying in the middle like itís aiming to split the boat in half.  Itís always John who puts the canoe in the current, laughing that Iím not strong enough, but tonight I will find the strength to do it.

Sarah must see the canoe, too, because she rushes forward to set herself between it and me.  She pushes her hands into my chest, hard, so that I stumble backward.  ďYouíre not leaving me to mind Mamaís brats on my own,Ē she tells me.  Now her voice is rough as her hands.  Then she puts her fingers in her mouth and lets loose a whistle so sharp and loud it could wake all those ghosts under the riverbank.

I scramble past her for the canoe.  And though she yanks on my skirts and my hair and bangs on my back, somehow I push it closer to the river.  I feel as if a kind of mad force has gripped me, as if I can do things I never could before.  Sarah whistles again, even more of a shriek this time, and after that I hear a commotion behind us and figure it has to be John coming this way, just my luck, scrambling fast through the trees and the shrubs.  So he was out already, roaming and looking, just like Sarah was.  They were a pair, the two of them.  My sister just found me first.  And if she was going to warn anybody tonight, it was going to be him and not me.

Sheís on his side and no wonder.  This wouldnít be the first time she wants what I have, but this time Iím ready to give it up.  Maybe sheís drunk the potion I mustíve drunk when I first met John Haycraft, which full wore off tonight.

Iíve got the canoe only a few feet from the river when he finds me.  I spin around to face him.  My clothes are torn from Sarahís pulling and my hair is crazy wild, but Iím calm inside now I canít undo what I started.  Sarah backs off a pace as I watch Johnís eyes move to the paddle Iíve taken in my hands.

ďPut that down, woman.Ē

I will not, but I donít spare the breath to tell him that.  I just raise the paddle higher in the air.

He stares at me, panting, hands on hips and eyes narrowing.  People didnít trust him when he showed up here out of nowhere, since they didnít know him and they didnít know his family.  It wasnít much more than a year ago, but I mustíve been young and stupid then because he won me over with his sweet talk and his stories.  Then his kisses started and that sent me over the edge.  Even now, when thereís dirt on his trousers and I can smell the drink from here, any woman would tell you heís a fine-looking man.  I mustíve thought that was good for something when I married him.

ďWhat I said before doesnít matter,Ē he tells me.

It does matter, but I wonít give him the satisfaction of another go-round on the topic.  ďJust let me go,Ē I say, though now I doubt I need his permission.

ďI donít think so.Ē  He cocks his chin at the canoe behind me.  ďDonít start thinking that belongs to you.Ē

ďIf Iím your wifeĒóI keep my voice lowóďIíve as much right to it as you.Ē

I hear a little whoop from Sarah.  She knows Johníll take those as fighting words and that she wants to see.

He steps closer.  I can tell itís one of those times he doesnít know how to handle me.  ďI say what youíve a right to.  And woman, you should know by now that Iím the one whoíll do the leaving.Ē

Truth to tell, by this sorry point Iím not sure heíd mind my going.  I think heís had enough of me like Iíve had enough of him.  I just think he doesnít want me to best him, especially not with Sarah watching.

ďShe means to go to Hermann,Ē my sister offers.  Then: ďSheís got coins in her skirts.Ē

John lurches forward faster than I can do anything about it and grabs the paddle from my hands.  He throws that aside and knocks me backward, pushing fierce on my shoulders.  I fall hard, half on the canoe and half on the ground.  Pain grinds through me and I taste blood in my mouth.

Heís on top of me then and I worry heís going to want to do what he always wants to do, never mind Sarahís watching.  That brings me to.  I push at his hands, beneath my skirts now, but for once itís not my drawers heís after.

ďHer pockets!Ē Sarah shrieks.

Heís ripping at me, heís tearing at me, I can smell the drink strong in my nostrils, and when I know heís going to find my string bag with the coins, I stop fighting.  That really makes him madóit always makes him mad when I pretend I donít care what heís doingóand I can tell Iím right because he doesnít just rip the bag out of my pocket.  He rips the whole pocket off then raises himself halfway up to hold it high above me in the air.  Still astraddle, he stares down at me for a moment then whips the bag down and across my face.

I close my eyes tight and donít let loose the tiniest whimper.  I know what he wants and I wonít give it to him.

So he does it again.

Behind John, Sarah makes a sound.  This might be too much even for her.

ďYou gonna cry, woman?Ē John grunts.

I will not.  I donít care how many times he does it.  I donít care how much blood I have in my mouth.  I didnít cry when he threw those words at me tonight and I wonít cry when he throws his fists at me now.  He hates when I go cold like this, when I donít react at all, because he knows he canít get to me then, whatever he does.  I surprise him with the strength I have.  Really, I surprise myself.

He relaxes and I find that crazy strength again.  I kick my legs out at him and hit him somewhere, I donít know where, or care, but this time itís him toppling backwards.  I scramble to my feet and whirl around and push the canoe closer to the river, itís so very close now, and then itís edged out over the water and I fling myself inside and the force of my body pushes the canoe all the way into the river.

The rushing water takes me fast, so fast.  I turn around on my hands and knees in the rocking canoe and see John and Sarah on the bank staring after me.  I donít think Iíll ever forget their faces, splotches of paleness in the black night, looking like theyíre seeing something theyíll never forget, either.

I feel a stab, then, quick and sharp, for the life Iíve lived here, for my father, for my younger sistersÖ I may never see little Minerva again, or Lucinda, or Visa Ann.

The canoe takes no heed.  Itís moving and Iím in it.  I have no paddle, I have no coins, Iím spitting my own blood out of my mouth, but Iím in it.



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