Authors: Catherine Richmond
Tags: #ebook, #book
“It was only the Reverend, Ellen, Mr. Ferguson, and the children.”
Ellen had told her.
One eyebrow arched. “Just because my friends couldn't be there doesn't mean you couldn't invite yours. Then what?”
“Reverend Mason read the ceremony.”
“And this Ferguson said my part?”
“No, he hasn't spoken since the War. The Reverend said the vows on your behalf. If you'd rather notâ”
“No, this is great. We're married, all legal and official, and didn't have to spend a dime. No preacher's fee, no extra train fare for me to ride to Fargo.” He folded the certificate into his pocket. “Well, much as I respect my brother, I'd just as soon have God hear it straight from me.”
He dropped the reins. The ox slowed to a stop. Now what? He stood, pulled her up, and lifted his face to the clear sky. “Dear Lord, I come before You today to marry this woman.” He smiled down at her. “I, Jesse, take you, Susannah, to be my wife, to love, honor, and cherish, as long as I live.”
A long minute passed. His thumbs pressed her palms. She whispered, “I, Susannah, take you . . . Jesse, to love, honor, and obey, as long as I live.”
“What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” He grinned at her. “Now we'll put it in writing.” They sat. From under the bench, Jesse brought out a worn Bible, a metal ink bottle, and a pen. He opened the book to the first blank page. “Let's see: âUnited in Holy Matrimony, August 26, 1873, Dakota Territory.' Now sign your name and I'll add mine.”
Her hand shook so hard, her signature was unreadable. His marched across the page, past the allotted line. Duty complete, he replaced the book and snapped the reins. “Seems kind of short. What else?”
“Ellen read some verses.”
“âThough I speak with tongues of men and angels . . .'” He went on and recited the whole thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. “âAnd the greatest of these is love.' And now, music. What's your favorite hymn?”
“How about one of Wesley's?” He sang “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
Susannah leaned against the backrest. His deep voice flowed over her, easing a particle of tension from her shoulders.
“Sing with me,” he directed, starting “Amazing Grace.” Susannah took the alto part.
“You sing so well,” she said when they finished. “Did you consider going into ministry too?”
“Susannah, we can't talk about that in the middle of our wedding. I still have to kiss the bride!”
She clutched the seat. As a girl she'd dreamed of a first kiss, the dream fading through years without suitors. Now, here it was, a first kiss on her wedding day, no less. His lips, warm and soft, brushed hers. She opened her eyes. He tilted his head, eyebrows drawn together. She'd disappointed him again.
He stared off into the distance. After a while, he cleared his throat. “Yeah, I did consider the ministry, but God didn't call me. Matt's better at bookwork anyhow. I need to be outside, moving around. Can't sit still. Could've stayed to help my little sister and her husband run the old farm, but I wanted somewhere new, a challenge, a chance to build a place all my own.”
He leaned toward her, his head inches from hers, and wiped his brow with his bandanna.
Susannah reminded herself.
“So I took the train as far west as the tracks were laid.”
He was a talker. Good. He spoke in staccato phrases, drawing out the last word, punctuating with easy movements of his wrists. His voice sounded half an octave lower and rougher than his brother's polished speech. He paused and looked at her. Her mind had wandered, and she hadn't the faintest idea what he was saying.
“Do you have neighbors?”
“Ivar and Marta Vold.”
Susannah looked where he pointed. No smoke from a wood-stove, no plowed field, no path. Just empty prairie.
“Ivar showed up my first fall. Couldn't speak a word of English, but I talked his ears off anyway. Helped me get the first harvest in, then we built his soddy. Wouldn't stay in it, though. 'Round about Christmas, he made skis and hiked over from his place. About choked on my grub when he banged open my doorâI sure wasn't expecting any visitors. He looked like Saint Nicholas himself, his beard and eyebrows crusted with snow, nose bright red. Must have decided I wasn't all that good of company. First sign of spring he sent for his wife.”
A low chuckle rolled from deep in his chest. He unbuttoned his cuffs and folded up his sleeves. Dark brown hair curled across his forearms and lay flat over the back of his hands. His skin was work-worn, ruddy from the sun. “Last winter Ivar stayed over at his place. He couldn't leave his wife, what with a baby on the way.”
Two veins formed an x before his third and fourth knuckles. The fingers of his left hand twitched and his right wrist moved side to side for no apparent reason. His ox ignored the oscillations of the reins.
“Don't know if winter was so much worse, or I'd just had enough of my own company, but soon as the weather broke, I wrote Matt asking if he knew anyone he'd like as a sister-in-law. Sure am glad I won't have to face another winter alone.” His warm hand pressed Susannah's. “I'm talking too much. Your turn.”
“What should I say?”
“Anything. Tell me about you. Ever been out of the city?”
She'd never been farther from home than Detroit's outlying farms, making calls with Father. She'd never visited New York City or Washington City or even Toledo. “No.”
Enthusiasm drained from his voice. “Sidestepping all my questions, like your letters: âThe weather has been pleasant.' Susannah, I want to know you, what you like, what you want.”
What she wanted? Since when was that important?
Susannah's throat tightened. She'd spent days on those lettersâ composing drafts, searching for words that were not too forward or self-serving, then feeding her poor efforts to the fire. Finally she had copied samples from a correspondence book, using the fancy pen and stationery she'd received for graduation. “I'm sorry.”
He groaned. “All right, back to talking about my brother.”
Ah, a safe topic of conversation. “He's well. The Reverend preached my parents' funerals. Ellen packed for me.”
The prairie dissolved. Back in Michigan, Ellen and her husband tucked their children into bed. She could see Reverend Mason, with his Lincolnesque stature, bent almost double under the rafters. The two oldest girls had given up their bed for Susannah and were curled on a pallet, covered with quilts. The Reverend listened to their prayers, which included entreaties for traveling mercies for Susannah. Smoothing their hair, he kissed them good night. Ellen sat by the stove, rocking the baby's cradle with her foot, hemming a shirt for the older boy.
“Where did you go?” Jesse broke into her reverie.
“I'm sorry. I was thinking about the children.” And wondering if she'd ever have a family.
“How many nieces and nephews do I have these days?”
“Four and one on the way. They may have to change churches if the congregation doesn't add on to the parsonage. It's only four rooms, same as ours. I mean, same as Father's.”
“Five children! We've got some catching up to do.” He winked.
Susannah swallowed and looked away. This couldn't be real. Not this man. Not this place. The wagon lurched and a splinter dug into her finger. It was real. She had better get used to it.
“Susannah.” He touched her chin, bringing her to face him. His stare dissected her, cutting to the core. She focused on the brim of his hat, fighting the urge to put space between them.
“Your eyes are the same color as the sky right now,” he said. “Best part of the day. Time to stop work, look over all you got done.”
He let go. She inhaled, her breath sounding like a gasp, and turned away from him. A gray animal darted out of the draw ahead. “Wolf!” Susannah tightened her grip on the seat.
“It's a dog. Norwegian elkhound. From Ivar's first litter.”
The animal bounded into the wagon box. He hopped over the luggage and stuck his wet nose into Susannah's neck. His frame was more compact, with shorter legs and a wider chest than the wolf specimen mounted in her father's office. Unlike his wild counterpart, the dog's tail curled tightly over his back.
“Handsome boy.” Susannah rubbed his soft fur.
The dog complied.
“You've trained him well.”
“He's all I've had to talk to until you.”
“Well, please don't stop talking to him on my account. I don't want him mad at me.”
Jesse grinned. “Jake, let's give Susannah the grand tour. On your left is the spring.” Sunlight reflected off a narrow band of water edged by saplings. “On your right, the barn, then our mansion.”
A stovepipe and black barrel marked the roof of the sod house. A plank door was set deep in walls over two feet thick, centered between a pair of six-pane windows. A sod stable with a woven willow enclosure abutted the east side. To the west a sapling vibrated in the wind, red knobs decorating its branches.
“You have an apple tree.”
“You didn't know Johnny Appleseed made it this far west?” Jesse leaped down. “Brought it out on the wagon with me. Thought it'd died by the time I got here, but it's growing good now.”
Susannah gathered her skirts.
“Wait.” He held up a palm. “We may not live in a castle, but I'll treat my bride like a queen.” He put an arm under her legs and another around her back. Before she could figure out what to do, he lifted her off the seat and carried her inside. “Welcome home.”
Afraid he might kiss her again, Susannah twisted out of his arms. With a glance she took in his house: one room, dark. Fried pork and wood smoke odors mingled with the overriding damp-earth smell. His letter said he'd built it from sod bricks, but she hadn't expected it to resemble a cave. She averted her face, trying to hide her shock.
“I'll unload the wagon.”
She followed him out. “If you'll tell me where those plum trees are, I'll pick more.”
“Try the thicket along the crick.” He stepped close and whispered, “The outhouse is behind the apple tree.”
Lord, I know You don't make mistakes, but maybe
Matt made one. Well, we're married, so I'm asking
for a heavy dose of wisdom. Don't hold back.
esse unhitched Pa Ox and sent him into the stable with his supper of grain. Then he ran to the south field for Ma Ox, who'd gained weight this summer and wasn't inclined to move.
“C'mon, slowpoke.” He clapped his hands behind the beast. “Got my new bride to take care of.”
A new bride. Who brought to mindâwell, she bore no resemblance to the laundress, wife of the big galoot with a big name, from down Binghamton way. Van Valkenburg. That's it. Probably weighed more than two of Susannah. So why think of her?
Corporal Van Valkenburg hadn't come back when the shooting stopped, so the missus set out hunting him. When she didn't return, the other laundresses raised a fuss and sent Jesse to find her. She'd left a trail, rolling over each casualty, folding hands on chests, even those who'd been blown to bits. Even the Rebs. Even the wounded. Sometime in the night, she'd found her husband and managed to get him laid out. But instead of stopping, instead of coming back to camp, she'd kept on, working her way through the cornfield, down Bloody Lane, along the fences. Jesse caught up to her by one of the bridges. The hem of her dress dragged with blood and her hands were covered with offal. When he called her name, she kept going. Finally, unable to stand the smell, he'd grabbed her elbow. She'd flinched and screamed, more afraid of him than the dead.
Jesse could understand Mrs. Van Valkenburg being afraid. But why would her look, eyes wide and staring through him, show in Susannah's face? Susannah hadn't been to war. No battles had been fought in Michigan. Nothing happened on the train, she'd said. So then where'd she get her case of cannon fever?
While Jesse's mind wandered, Ma Ox had stopped to chew a clump of big bluestem. “Get along now,” Jesse said to the cow and to himself. The last place he should let his mind go was the War. Lord Almighty. Anywhere but the War.
Back at the stable he settled Ma in, then unloaded the wagon. The cabin was empty. Where'd his scared little rabbit bride run off to?
He lit the lantern and checked his reflection in the window. He was overdue for a barbering but otherwise presentable. And ready for supper. When he pulled a chunk of meat from the brine barrel, the smell brought Jake in. “Hey, she seems to like you all right,” he said to the dog. “Go find Susannah!” Jake licked his chops, then loped out.
Why was she so skittish? Was it the soddy? It was built solid, plumb and true. He had tidied up the best he could.
Maybe she was used to fancy. But no, she'd had the shakes from the very beginning, back at the siding.
A twig snapped in the clearing as Jake led Susannah back. The set of her shoulders, the way she held her elbows close, her measured steps, was like she was heading for the hangman.
“Lord,” he whispered, “I don't know what's wrong, but I sure hope You'll show me how to fix it.”
She stepped inside just enough to set the pail on the table. “Is the dog allowed . . .”
“It's your house now.” Jesse kept his voice quiet. “You make the rules as you see fit.”
Jake went into begging mode, complete with wagging tail.
Susannah fell for it. “It's all right. You can stay.”
He plopped next to the bed, watching for dropped food.
“Shouldn't I be doing the cooking?”
Jesse wiped his palms on the seat of his pants. He was sweating up a storm, not a real attractive quality in a bridegroom.