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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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 4 

Joshua tried to take the measure of Judge Cornelius Carver, who now sat at a table, reviewing some papers that A.J. Rogers had given him.

Carver looked like a man who had ridden hard for too many miles and was not particularly happy to be here. His black suit was dusty and his eyes were red-rimmed. He did not strike Joshua as a man who intended to put up with much. There was only so much territory one judge could cover, and although this was life-and-death to him, Joshua knew that it was just another crowded makeshift courtroom to this court official.

Joshua settled himself stiffly on a chair, with Polly on his lap and the other three girls grouped around him. His in-laws were seated only a few feet away, but except for one guilty glance from his father-in-law, neither of them looked at him.

Little Bertie was nowhere to be seen, which was a disappointment. Aunt Almeida was probably keeping the child at home. A courtroom was no place for an infant—but it would have been nice to catch a glimpse of his son.

“Pa.” Ellie tugged on his shirtsleeve. “I gotta go bad.”

Joshua nodded toward the open door. “Go ahead but come back quickly.”

“I will.”

Ellie escaped the confines of the cabin. Through a window, Joshua watched the little girl head straight for the outhouse. Unless he missed his guess, that would be the last they saw of Ellie for a while. After finishing up in the outhouse, she would find a toad, or an ant colony, or some other child to play with. Sitting still was not Ellie's strong point.

“Tell the people to come in now, if they're going to,” the judge said to A.J. “I do not intend to tolerate interruptions.” Carver continued to peruse the sheaf of papers he had been studying earlier.

Joshua saw Hazel and the hired girl find a place on the benches that had been placed around the wall. It irked him that Millicent wore silk while allowing her to be reduced to wearing rags and what appeared to be George's cast-off shoes.

She was in good hands with Hazel, and he knew Hazel could use the company. If he could afford help, he would give the poor girl a job himself. It would be wonderful to have someone who would come and cook for the children every day.

Polly squirmed on his lap.

“Please be good, Polly,” he whispered.

The little girl stuck her thumb in her mouth and settled back against his chest.

“Can I go outside, Pa?” Trudy asked. “Ellie's still out there and it's getting hot in here.” She ran a finger around the collar of her dress for emphasis.

Even though it was nice outside, the makeshift courthouse was filling up, and it was already getting stuffy.

“Go ahead,” he said. “But please try to keep your dress clean.”

“I will, Pa.”

After ruining that one little dress, he had been up half the night trying to get their clothes ready without scorching anything else. His own shirt and pants were easy compared to the girls' little things.

“Is Joshua Hunter present?” Judge Carver said.

“I am, sir.”

“I'll take your testimony now.”

He handed Polly off to Agnes. He hoped she wouldn't be too much for her big sister to handle. This was not a good time for his children to misbehave. As he made his way forward, there was a slight murmuring among the people who had wedged themselves into the small space. He saw that the windows had been opened so that the people outside could watch and hear.

The judge nodded to A.J. “Swear him in.”

Hand on the leather-bound Bible, Joshua promised to tell the truth.

“Were you the husband of the deceased, Diantha Hunter?” the judge asked.

“I was.”

“Please have a seat, Mr. Hunter,” Carver said. “And tell the court what happened the day your wife died.”

Joshua took the seat they offered. “Where do you want me to start?”

“This is an inquest, not a trial, Mr. Hunter,” the judge said. “Just start with that morning and tell us anything you consider important.”

He cleared his throat. “My wife fixed breakfast about six o'clock that morning. Then she took a walk in the woods while the children and I ate. Afterwards, she sat and drank a cup of tea with me while we made our plans for the day. She then took the children down to her mother's to help her with some spring cleaning. About two hours later, she started complaining of a bad headache. She died about twelve-thirty, about two hours after the headache started.”

“Had she complained about any symptoms or pains prior to that morning?”

“No, sir.”

“Was she given to walks in the woods in the morning?”

“Sometimes. She said it calmed her nerves.”

“Did your wife have trouble with her nerves?”

“Occasionally.”

As the judge wrote something on his papers, Agnes spoke up from where she sat with Polly on her lap.

“Mama said me and my little sisters got on her nerves a lot, sir.”

Soft laughter rippled through the courtroom.

“I can imagine that she did,” Carver said kindly. “But I'm asking your father questions right now.”

“Sorry.” Agnes's face had turned red from the laughter.

“Please continue, Mr. Hunter.”

“Later that morning, Agnes came running to the barn where I was working and said that her mother had fallen. I ran down to the Youngs' farm, thinking Diantha had hurt herself, but when I got there, she came walking out to the gate. I asked her if she was sick. She laughed a little and said she had just gotten a little dizzy-headed, and then she went back into the house.”

“And what happened then?” the judge asked.

“I helped my father-in-law load some lumber, then went to check on Diantha to see if she'd had any more dizzy spells. I found her out in the backyard drawing water from the well to start dinner. She said she felt fine. While Diantha and Virgie cooked, I went inside and visited with Richard for a while. About that time, my wife came into the sitting room from the kitchen and said her head was hurting.”

“That was the first she mentioned a headache?” Carver asked.

“It was. She sat down a spell, and I asked if she was sick in any other way. She said she wasn't. Then she got back up and went on out to the kitchen again. It must have been after eleven o'clock by that time. I was there about five minutes when Agnes came to get me. She said something was wrong with her mother again. I went into the kitchen, and my wife was sitting in a chair, saying her head ached. I helped her go into her parents' bedroom and lie down.”

Joshua looked out over the crowd. The rapt expressions on some of their faces made him feel slightly nauseous. It seemed as though some were practically feeding on the story of the events preceding his wife's death. Others, his closest friends, were staring down at the floor as though trying to give him some privacy as he recounted the most painful hours of his life.

“What measures did you take to help her?” the judge asked.

“We put a wet cloth on her head and gave her some coffee to drink. She started getting chilled, and we built up the fire and tried to make her warm.”

At this, his voice choked up. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to pull himself together.

“Please go on, Mr. Hunter,” the judge said impatiently.

“It was so hot in there that I was sweating, but Diantha was shivering. Her mother put an extra quilt over her, and Richard built the fire up even hotter. Soon after that, she started complaining that her head was worse. I started to go for the doctor, but she grabbed hold of me and begged me to stay with her.

“At that point she started writhing around underneath all those covers. She started convulsing and . . .”

“And?”

Joshua took a deep breath. “She died about a minute later. Her father went for Dr. Allard, who got there about one o'clock. He said he thought the cause of her death was some sort of burst blood vessel in her brain.”

“Did he mention any other possible cause of death?”

“He did.” This was the moment that he had been dreading—the comment the doctor had made that had set Virgie off. “He said that the convulsions we described could also be symptoms of strychnine poisoning.”

There was a gasp in the courtroom.

The judge nodded as though acknowledging that this is what he had expected him to say. “At any time previous to her death, did you hear your wife say that she was tired of living or that she would commit suicide?”

Joshua was blindsided by this question. This was private information—something he thought was just between him and Diantha. He had never mentioned it to anyone.

Judge Carver noted his hesitation and glanced up from his papers. “Please answer the question, Mr. Hunter.”

“She was in one of her bad moods one day.” Joshua picked a piece of lint off his army pants. “She said she was tired of living and wanted to drown herself. There were some days when she would talk like that to me when the children weren't around. She didn't mean it. It was just something she would say to let off steam. The next day she would laugh about it.”

He wished he had been warned that he was going to have to repeat these words. If so, he would have sent Agnes out of the courtroom.

There was a buzz in the air as everyone absorbed this shocking information. He had planned to go to his grave never telling anyone about those conversations with Diantha.

He glanced at Agnes, who was sitting stone still. Her eyes were wide with shock. She leaped up, hiked Polly onto her hip, and ran out of the courtroom. He wished he could run after her, but Judge Carver was already following up with another question.

“Had you secreted about your house previous to her death any strychnine or other poison?”

“No.” He shook his head emphatically. “I have small children in my home. I would not have risked keeping that sort of thing anywhere around them. Richard told me he hadn't bought any, either.”

He didn't tell the court that he had been so afraid that Diantha might do something to herself on one of her bad days that he had made certain there was nothing about the house which she could use to hasten her death. He had even hidden his guns away in the barn and had removed all but the dullest knives from the house.

Judge Carver seemed to have lost interest in his testimony. The next question was so trivial he wondered why the judge even bothered to ask.

“What was your wife's age?”

“She turned thirty November first of last year.”

“Describe your wife for the court.”

“Her hair was brown, her height was five foot and two inches, and her eyes were green . . .” He hesitated. Those words seemed so inadequate to describe someone like Diantha—a woman he had loved with all his heart. “And she was the most beautiful woman I have ever known.”

The judge scribbled something on a piece of paper. “You may go back to your seat. We'll take a short break.”

During the break, Ingrid saw Mr. Hunter standing outside beneath a large tree, talking earnestly to Agnes, who had obviously been wounded by the things he had been forced to reveal about her mother. Her heart broke for him and his daughter.

BOOK: A Promise to Love
11.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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