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Authors: Serena B. Miller

Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042040, #FIC027050

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BOOK: A Promise to Love
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Joshua climbed into the wagon. “Why did you take your sister's slingshot?” He took the reins from Agnes's fingers. One of the many challenges of raising his family alone was having to drag the girls along with him everywhere he went. Sometimes it felt like he was traveling with a circus. It was tempting to leave them all at home, but he was afraid he'd come back and find one of them strung up by her shoestrings.

“Ellie hit the rear end of Buttons with a big ol' rock,” Agnes explained. “He nearly run off, but I held him back.”

Joshua turned around and gave Ellie a hard stare. “Did you do that?”

“I didn't mean to,” Ellie said. “My hand slipped.”

“But you were aiming at Buttons when it slipped?”

“Yep,” Ellie admitted. It might have been his imagination, but he could have sworn he heard a note of pride in the little girl's voice.

“I'll take that slingshot away from you for good if you ever let it ‘accidentally' slip and hit that horse again.” Considering how things had been going around his house, he added just to be on the safe side, “Or if it ‘accidentally' hits one of your sisters.”

“It won't happen again, Pa.”

He made a clicking sound with his tongue, and Buttons obediently headed down the old logging road to their home. For a moment, he thought he had managed to establish peace among his girls. Then a wheel hit a rock and his youngest daughter, three-year-old Polly, let out a yowl. She had been in the process of standing up, and the bump had caused her to fall.

Ellie and Trudy scrambled over to comfort her. All three huddled in the corner of the back of the wagon, glaring at him like little animals—as though Polly's discomfort was all his fault.

Other men had daughters who were demure and well behaved . . . but not him.

Diantha had not been like other mothers. Some women endured childbirth, then forgot the pain and fell in love with their children, doting on them from the moment they were born. With Diantha it was the opposite. She always felt at her strongest while carrying a child, gave birth as easily as a cat, and then seemed to lose interest in each child soon after their birth. The older their daughters grew, the more disinterested she became. She went through the motions, but he could tell her heart was not in motherhood.

He had never figured it out. Coming home to his little girls every evening was his reward after a hard day's work—even if they
did
sometimes act like they had been raised by wolves.

Marriage to Diantha had meant being perpetually off balance because he had never known what to expect. During their courtship, he found her mercurial mood swings fascinating. After thirteen years of marriage, he wished her up-and-down emotions would even out.

Some days he would come home to domestic bliss. Diantha would be humming while doing some household task, and the girls would be gathered around the kitchen table, happily involved in some small project that she had created for them. She would be neatly dressed and she would have taken the time to smooth her hair back into a bun. She would greet him with enthusiasm, and the evening would be memorable.

Other times, especially after the birth of little Bertie, he would come home to find the children unkempt and hungry, the baby soiled and screaming in his cradle, and Diantha sitting on the front porch, her hair in tangles, staring into the woods, barely able to acknowledge his arrival.

He had been at a loss to know how to help her or how to read her. All he knew was that she sometimes struggled with emotions that he could not understand.

Well, at least she would no longer have to endure the hardscrabble life they had been living as they waited for his cherry tree orchard to mature. If he could hang on for one more year, and if the weather cooperated, he would have a good first crop next year.

His goal was to have enough to ship down to the markets in Detroit. If he packed the cherries well, they would survive the one-day steamboat trip just fine, and people were always hungry for fresh fruit after a Michigan winter.

Much of the land that had been opened by the timber cutters was not rich land. It had a thinner layer of topsoil than anyone had expected. The good first crop the farmers had gotten from the virgin soil had given everyone hope, but it was misleading. He was barely eking out a living with his oats, wheat, and corn. It was only a matter of time before the land played out. It had occurred to him that if there was one thing that Michigan soil appeared to be good at, it was growing trees. He figured if Michigan could grow giant pine trees and heavy forests of hardwood, it would also grow excellent fruit trees. A mixed orchard was his goal, to be built over a period of years.

There were already fine cherry tree orchards springing up all over the northwestern part of Michigan—progeny of the trees a Presbyterian missionary had planted back in '52 on Old Mission Peninsula. He saw no reason why he couldn't establish an equally lucrative cherry orchard. All it took was time and patience.

Sometimes he wondered if Diantha's strange behavior had been because her life was simply too hard—that it caused her to “go away” in her mind from time to time.

“I wish you were still here, sweetheart,” he whispered to a wife who was no longer beside him. “Just one more year and your life would have been so much easier.”

“Mama can't hear you,” Agnes pointed out.

“I know. It just helps ease the pain to talk to her sometimes.”

“But it don't make good sense—talking to someone who ain't here,” she insisted.

Agnes had been born with more common sense than some people achieved in a lifetime. He seldom bothered to argue with her, because it never did any good. Agnes knew what she knew.

“You're right.”

“Polly just filled her britches,” Ellie called. “Pee-eew!” From the nasal sound of Ellie's voice, he knew she was holding her nose.

Joshua glanced back. Polly was sitting in the corner of the wagon upon a little mound of straw, hugging her rag dolly with a guilty look on her face.

“I reckon I got to go tend to her now,” Agnes said. “I wish she'd learn to go to the toilet like a normal person. I'm sick of washing diapers.”

Agnes climbed over the seat into the back of their small farm wagon, turned her little sister onto her back, and removed the gray flannel diaper.

“We're in luck,” Agnes announced. “It ain't juicy.”

After Agnes had changed the little girl's diaper, she propped Polly up, handed her the doll, and then leaned back against the side of the wagon with her arm around her baby sister.

“Did you get Mr. Bowers paid off?” Agnes called from the back of the wagon.

“I did.”

“Took about everything we got, didn't it?”

“Mr. Bowers deserves to be paid.”

“Still, it's gonna be a lean summer unless you get another carpenter job.”

He couldn't argue with that. “Probably.”

“You ain't planning on farming us out to other people like you did little Bertie, are you?”

Farming them out? Was that what his children thought he was doing? He couldn't care for an infant while doing his spring planting. Virgie might be angry at him, but she was wonderful with her little grandson.

“No. Of course not.”

Not unless he was on trial tomorrow and did not know it. Millicent's comment worried him.

Another small altercation broke out between Ellie and Trudy. Joshua glanced back to see what the problem was this time. Evidently Ellie had managed to get her hand into Trudy's pocket, and now they were fighting over the marble again. Ellie refused to let go. Trudy held on, and the result was a pocket ripped and hanging by one corner.

“You girls stop fighting or I'll come back there and tan your hides!”

It was an empty threat, and everyone in the wagon knew it.

Agnes calmly reached over, captured the much-sought-after marble, and stuffed it into her stocking. Then she settled back again with her arm around Polly.

Ellie started to make a dive for the marble, but Agnes stopped her with one hand. “You just try it,” she warned. “You'll be eating mush without any milk tomorrow morning.”

Ellie settled back. If there was one thing the little girl loved, it was milk.

An uneasy peace settled over his family.

“We're going past Grandma's house,” Agnes said. “You suppose she'd let us see little Bertie today?”

“Doubt it,” Joshua said. “She wouldn't let me see him last week when I came by. She's having a real hard time getting over losing your mama.”

“Maybe she'd let me,” Agnes said. “Maybe she'll even let me hold him.”

“I'll stop, but don't get your hopes up. Your grandma is going through a bad time. She'll be easier to get along with by and by after she has time to sort things out in her head.”

Joshua pulled back on the reins and allowed Agnes to clamber out. He watched the girl knock repeatedly on the door of the cabin, but his mother-in-law chose not to answer. He wasn't surprised, but he did not understand. Even if she was embittered against him, there was no call to take it out on the girls.

Downcast, Agnes came back to the wagon. “She's in there, Pa. I heard her moving around, but she won't come to the door. Not even for me.”

It hurt him to see Agnes's disappointment. Big gray eyes, dark hair in two long braids, and a heart-shaped face like her mother's. He hoped she had not inherited Diantha's penchant for melancholy, but there had been no sign of it yet. Agnes was the most stable person in their whole family.

“It's just that she's hurting so bad over your mama.”

“Aren't we all?” Agnes muttered as she climbed back onto the seat beside him.

 2 

“Millicent doesn't mean to act that way,” George Bowers said as he placed canned goods neatly on the shelf of his small mercantile. “She's truly a sweethearted woman. It's just been too hard on her following me here to the wilds of Michigan. She misses the elegant home we had before the war.”

He was a medium-sized man in his late forties, balding, and he wore wire glasses that he polished obsessively when he was nervous—as he was doing now.

Ingrid was tired of hearing this area referred to by the Bowerses as the wilds of Michigan. In her opinion, the thumb area of the mitten shape of Michigan was beautiful beyond belief. Perhaps it was her Scandinavian background, perhaps some ancient Viking blood within her, but she loved living so close to the lake that she could hear the call of seagulls every time she walked out her front door.

Except that it wasn't
her
front door, it was Millicent's, and on Millicent's best day Ingrid felt like an unwanted, useless guest. The job that had drawn her here had turned sour the first day.

“Sweethearted? No!” Ingrid shook her head vehemently. “Not sweet.”

“I know she was a little upset over the tea set . . .” George said.

“Upset?” Ingrid touched her cheek, where two red welts throbbed. “Look! Your wife is very mean person.”

“Shush!” George looked about him nervously. “Someone might hear.”

“Things need change,” Ingrid said. “Or I not stay.”

“Everything will be fine.” George grabbed a feather duster and began to flick nonexistent dust off the shelves. “Just try not to break anything else.”

Ingrid found it odd that George did a job that most wives would have been happy to do. It wasn't as though Millicent had anything else to occupy her time—at least not with Ingrid waiting on her hand and foot.

Suddenly, she had an idea that would fix everything. “I work here—you stay home.” She smiled, pleased with herself. “You and wife spend more time together!”

He looked shocked. “That is not possible.”

“Why?”

He seemed at a loss for words. “Because . . . I said so.” He tucked the feather duster beneath his arm and nervously shoved his glasses higher up on his nose.

It was obvious to her that George was not anxious to spend all day every day with his wife, either. She gave up reasoning with him and brought up her most immediate problem.

“I am hungry.”

“What do you mean, you're hungry?”

“Millicent punish me for breaking tea set. She not allow me to eat all day. She watch me all time.”

“Oh, good grief,” he muttered. “I finally get her a servant, and now she tries to starve her to death.”

“Why you hire me?” Ingrid asked. “Millicent not old. She not sick.”

“Because she was always used to sla . . . er, servants. She really doesn't know how to do much on her own, and besides that, her health is delicate.”

“Delicate like horse,” Ingrid muttered.

George overheard her. “Do not speak of my wife in such an insulting manner.”

Obviously, there was not going to be any help from George. “I not work for wife anymore.” Ingrid made up her mind. “I go. I want pay.”

“I—I'm a little short on cash.”

“Mr. Hunter leave money. When he see Millicent hitting me.”

“Hunter saw that?”

“Ja.”

George rubbed his hand over his face and shoved his glasses up on his nose yet again. “I need that money to buy new stock.” His eyes would not meet hers.

“You not pay me?” Ingrid was incredulous.

“Millicent said she would rather I not. Perhaps if you could stay on for a while longer,” George wheedled. “Maybe then . . .”

“No.” Ingrid walked over to a barrel, lifted the lid, and fished out a fistful of crackers. She was so hungry she didn't care what George thought.

George cocked an eyebrow. “I explained when you first came that you could not help yourself from our goods.”

“I not eat all day. No food all time she mad. Millicent is mean woman!”

“Stop
saying
that!”

Ignoring his frown, she gobbled down the crackers and looked longingly at a small wheel of cheese sitting on the counter.

“Don't even consider it,” he warned.

She paid him no heed. Those few crackers had whetted her appetite, and now she was consumed by an obsession to fill her hollow belly. She had worked sixteen straight hours with no food. She grabbed a knife and stabbed it into the cheese.

“Stop that!” he cried. “That is for paying customers only.”

He started toward her, but some animalistic sense of survival came over her and she stood her ground—the knife held in front of her, keeping him at bay with one hand, while the other stuffed cheese into her mouth as fast as she could swallow.

Obviously seeing how hungry she was, he softened. “If you're that hungry—go ahead.”

She focused her whole attention on consuming as much of the buttery cheese as she could manage. It had been a long, long time since she had been completely full. Millicent had been parsimonious when it came to her food. Now, it felt as though her ravenous body had taken over her mind and her willpower. She could not have stopped eating if she had tried.

Finally she drew a breath. A large wedge of the wheel of cheese was gone—and if Millicent found out, she would probably try to take the cost of it out of her nonexistent pay. A pickle barrel was close by, and she lifted the lid and looked at him questioningly.

“Why ask permission now?” He leaned an elbow on the counter. “Go ahead and eat one, but I'd appreciate it if you would put that knife down first. You're making me nervous.”

She laid the knife on the counter and dredged a pickle, dripping brine, out of the barrel. She had been craving one of those ever since she had first seen a customer helping himself to one.

“Thank you,” she said between crunches.

“I'm sorry.” He patted her on the shoulder. “Obviously, Millicent has been treating you worse than I realized. I'll see what I can do.”

He was not a bad man, nor an unkind one, but he was, in Ingrid's opinion, an extremely weak man when it came to dealing with his wife.

Ingrid felt tears form in her eyes at his small show of kindness.

At that moment, Millicent came through the door.

If Ingrid had thought that her mistress had been upset over the tea set, she had been mistaken. That tantrum had been mild compared to the towering rage Millicent exhibited upon finding her husband's hand on Ingrid's shoulder.

Although the moment between George and Ingrid had been nothing more than one decent person comforting another, Millicent gave it the worst possible connotation.

“So
this
is what you've been up to behind my back!” Millicent said. “Get out of my store! Get out of my house.” Her voice took on a deadly pitch. “And you stay out, you little tramp!”

Ingrid skirted around the fuming woman as George began the placating speech she had heard before under different circumstances. “Now, calm down, sugar. Don't you go working yourself into a state. You don't want to bring on another sick headache.”

Three whole weeks of her life and the only thing she had to show for it was a torn dress, some whip marks, and a belly full of cheese. There wasn't much she could do with that, but she had no choice but to try.

While Millicent fumed, and George talked, she marched across the street, into the house, and up the stairs to the attic where she had been living. There wasn't much to pack, but what there was, she wanted. She stuffed everything she owned into the same battered valise that had seen her across the ocean.

Millicent had put the money Mr. Hunter had left in a small drawer in the table. As far as she knew, it was still there, and it tempted her mightily. They owed it to her, but she could not in all good conscience take it. She was not a thief—even if they were.

Lugging the battered valise, she walked north, out of town.

The children would be hungry when they got home. They seemed to always be hungry, no matter how much he fed them. He had never fully realized before how much time it took Diantha to feed their brood. Now that he looked back, he realized that she had been at it pretty much day and night except for the days when it all became too much and she developed that terrible, blank stare.

Now it was his most difficult challenge, coming up with ways to feed four children, three times a day. Agnes helped, but she was too young to take on the full load of a grown woman. She already had too much responsibility as it was. She had shouldered too much of it when her mother was alive as well.

There were other chores that had now become his on top of all his other work. It seemed like Polly was constantly in need of another clean diaper, and he didn't have the slightest idea how to train the little girl. All the children's clothes were perpetually in need of laundering. There were dishes to wash, noses to be wiped, scraped knees to be tended, and repairs waiting to be made to clothing that seemed to wear out on an almost hourly basis.

His list of responsibilities was overwhelming. It was impossible to even contemplate bringing little Bertie home because Joshua was seriously afraid the infant wouldn't survive in this household right now. His chest ached with missing his young son, and he felt like giving up—but real men didn't give up. Men soldiered on. Always.

The children were half-asleep now, jostled by the rolling motion of the wagon. Ellie and Trudy had given up their fight and leaned against each other, their eyes closed. Agnes's head lolled against her chest. Polly was curled up asleep in a nest of hay he had thrown in to cushion their trip.

He brought his mind back to what he would feed all of them when they got home. Cornmeal mush and warmed-over soup beans were the best he could come up with. They had been having a lot of that lately.

It almost made the rations he had eaten in the war look tasty.

“I don't need no hired gal.” The old woman's face lit up when Ingrid knocked on her door with her battered valise in hand. “But you're as welcome as rain to stay here with me awhile if you've a mind to.”

BOOK: A Promise to Love
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