Hadley, the rattlesnake-toting patriarch who took his comfort where he found it — in the Bible, the bottle or the bed... Minerva, the lusty, stubborn woman he loved, shepherding her young through the harsh realities of the way west and the terrifying passions in their own hearts... Will, the brawling, hard-drinking sinner who sought salvation in the arms of a savage... Bobbo and Gideon, boys at the start of a journey, blood-stained men at the end... Bonnie Sue, too young to love, too ripe not to; a child forced to womanhood in the wilderness... Annabel, the youngest, whose quiet courage was tested in an act of unspeakable savagery. The Chisholms — a family as raw and unyielding as the soil of Virginia they left behind; as wild and enduring as the dream they pursued across the American continent.
The Chisholms: A novel of the journey West
This is for my wife’s parents
Mary and Vann Hughes
They had put out whiskey and cakes, as was the custom, and had left the cabin door wide for mourners to come and go with their condolences. By a quarter past eleven, half a dozen of the men were drunk. The women sipped more politely, but the whiskey loosened their tongues as well, and their chatter in the cabin mingled with the laughter and the loud voices and the keening of the wind outside.
It was a blustery day, for all the sky’s brightness. In April, there was early morning fog here in the mountains, but it generally burned off an hour by sun; Hadley Chisholm had watched it from the cabin window, tearing away in tatters that drifted down the valley. By the bottomlands, there were cowslips in bloom. This was springtime. You didn’t think of dying and burying when the land was turning green all around you. But they had put Hadley’s mother to rest this morning in a rock-lined grave. He had knelt beside the open grave afterward. Reached down. Picked up a handful of earth. The soil was parched and pebbly. He let it trickle through his fingers onto the pine coffin below.
Benjamin Lowery was coming across the cabin toward him. He was carrying a pewter cup in his hand, drinking whiskey from it as he navigated his way past the table in the center of the room, weaving, stumbling into a split-bottomed chair. He giggled, caught the chair before it fell to the floor, and then reeled to where Hadley was standing by the fireplace. Throwing an arm around him, he said very seriously, “Hadley, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Hadley said.
“Hadley, I’m worried about you.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“You’re not drinking, Hadley. At a time like this, Hadley, a man’s mother passes away, it’s fitting for him to have a drop. Hadley, let me get you some whiskey.”
“Ben, you needn’t bother. I’m just fine.”
“Fine then,” Lowery said, and nodded, and then caught at Hadley for support. “Hadley,” he said, “what did you think of the new preacher?”
“I’ll tell you plain,” Hadley said.
“Yes, tell me.”
“He had no right talking of her like he’d known her.”
know her,” Lowery said.
“Didn’t know her a damn. Put together bits and pieces of her life, is what he done. Got it from neighbors along the ridges.”
what he done,” Lowery said, and suddenly sat on the puncheon bench against the fireplace wall. The cup fell from his hand. In an instant, he was asleep. Across the room, a cluster of men laughed at a joke the farmer Henry Soames had just told. Hadley longed for a drink. Thinking of the preacher had got him mad all over again, and a bit of corn liquor would... but no, he could not afford to get drunk. He had not yet told the family of his decision, and he didn’t want it spewing out in a cloud of alcohol fumes. He quenched his thirst with anger instead, thinking again of the damn fool preacher talking about his mother like she’d never had no more life in her than a rag doll.
Had all the facts, oh yes, dug them all up and recited them like his alphabet: A is for Antrim, the county whence Eva Chisholm had come in the year 1768, the bride of young William Allyn Chisholm. B is for Boston Harbor, to which Eva’s first son had fled two months after Hadley was born. C is for Chickasaw, who had slain Hadley’s father when Hadley was but fifteen; wonder the fool preacher hadn’t mentioned that William Allyn was drunk at the time and that he and the Indian had been fighting over a black wench on the Bailey plantation.
“Loved that woman like she was my own mother,” Minerva said. “Wasn’t a day went by she didn’t tell me how beautiful I was. Which I’m not, but it was nice her saying so.”
Ah, but you are,
Hadley thought, and looked at his wife where she stood with the other women, and thought of that heart-stopping moment when first he laid eyes on her. He’d been over to Cedar Creek to deliver some whiskey, saw her walking a cow along the road, big stick in her hand, humming as she ambled along. Bright summer day, hair as golden as the sunshine. Dust rising on the road. Barefooted, she was.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s a little girl like you doing with such a big cow?”
like I’m doing?” she said.
“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Hadley said, and smiled.
“Anyways, I ain’t little.”
Nor was she. Tallest girl he ever did see; top of her head came almost level with his eyes. Blondest damn hair, sun glinting on it. In the tall grass, flies buzzing.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Nineteen,” she said.
“You want some whiskey?”
“Made it myself.”
“So who don’t?” she said, shrugging.
“Never saw nobody with eyes so green,” Hadley said.
“Well, you’re seeing somebody now.”
“That I am,” he said. “Want me to come visitin sometime?”
“Want to kiss me?”
“Hah!” Minerva snorted.
Hadley smiled with the memory. He would tell her his decision later, when all the well-wishers had gone home. Tell her and the family. He did not know what to expect from any of them. He went to Minerva and put his arm around her waist. She was in the middle of a sentence; she acknowledged his presence with a brief nod.
“... said he was going to marry me. Well, Eva looked me up and down, head to toe, sitting in that rocker right there near the fire, didn’t say a word for the longest time. Then she said, ‘You’re Ian Campbell’s daughter, are ye not?’ I admitted as I was....”
Wore her hair long then, Hadley remembered, curled like a shell at the back of her neck. Hands folded in her lap, she’d nodded to his mother and said, “I’m Ian Campbell’s daughter, yes, ma’am.”
“Your father’s a scoundrel,” Eva said.
“I love him,” Minerva said.
“Aye, as a good daughter should,” Eva said. “Which makes him no less a scoundrel.” Eva smiled suddenly. “But that’s not to say I find his daughter disagreeable.”
Minerva was twenty by then. She’d returned Eva’s smile and the women had reached across to clasp hands as if they were helping each other to ford a stream. As she related the story now, tears formed in her eyes. Standing close beside her was Millie Bain, who lived not half a mile away on the ridge. She immediately put her arm around Minerva and patted her shoulder.
“Touches me every time I think of it,” Minerva said.
“Ain’t no sin to weep,” Millie said. “Thirty-some-odd years ago, and I can still remember it plain.”
“What about the time with the hoop snake?” Millie said, and laughed. She was four or five years younger than Minerva, forty-eight or — nine, Hadley didn’t know which. A short chubby woman with a dumpling face and merry blue eyes, the closest friend Minerva had in all the world. It was she had helped to deliver their first son, a breech birth it had been, Millie and Eva both struggling to bring the baby into the world. He’d been named William Allyn Chisholm in memory of the soft-spoken man who’d been Hadley’s father.
“You tell one more time about that hoop snake...” Hadley warned.
“Oh, just cause you know all about snakes,” Millie said, and laughing, shushed Hadley with one plump little hand. “It was when you was carrying Bobbo, do you recall?” she said.
“Here comes the damn hoop snake,” Hadley said, and rolled his eyes heavenward.
“Hush,” Millie said. “And we was walkin in the woods with Eva and little Gideon beside us in his pinafore. He musta been six or seven years old—”
“Five,” Minerva said, smiling.
“We was out there lookin for ratbane.”
“That’s right,” Minerva said. “Will was coughing up his innards, and we was wanting to brew him a little syrup.”
“Walking along in his pinafore, Gideon was.”
“I remember it clear.”
“Big old hoop snake came rolling across the path, Gideon hightailed it for the nearest tree.”
hightail it for the nearest tree,” Hadley said.
“Now hush, Hadley,” Millie said. “Was Eva took after that snake with a grubbing hoe, yelling at Min not to even
at the ugly thing, lest the newborn babe be marked with a circle.”
“Didn’t look at it, neither,” Minerva said.
“People roundabouts claim a hoop snake can kill a full-grown tree just by sticking their tail spike in it,” Millie said.
“I don’t put much store in that,” Hadley said.
“Well, one thing you know is snakes, I guess,” Millie said.
“That’s for sure,” Hadley said, and suddenly wanted these people to be gone, friends though they were, wanted to be left alone with his family so that he could tell them the secret he had carried inside him for more than a month now. He could remember a time — but ah, the land was new then. When he was a boy, when his father was still alive and even afterward, in the years of his young manhood before he met Minerva, the land they owned on this Virginia mountaintop had been rich enough to provide them with all their needs. Not only corn, no, this had always been good corn-growing country. But beans, too, in the field the other side of the cabin, and pumpkins and pattypan squash, and peas, and watermelons on the hillside. And in the land they’d cleared of stumps and cane roots they planted flax, which later they rotted and dried and then crushed in the brake Hadley and his father had themselves built. They shook out the bits of bark they called the shoves, and then Hadley’s mother would get to work with the hackle, its iron teeth sticking out of the paddle-shaped board as she stroked and cleaned and separated the fibers into tow cloth, which was good for cleaning out rifle barrels and not much else. The finer fibers she used to spin the thread that went to make their fanciest garments. The seeds were used to make linseed oil; there wasn’t much lost in the flax plant, save for the shoves, and a field of it in flower was as breath-taking a sight as a cloudless blue sky.
Flax, aye, and corn enough to feed the squirrel, the crow, and the family besides, with bushels left over for baking bread and feeding the hogs and horses and distilling a little whiskey as well, though in those days Hadley’s father made whiskey only for the family and his still was small and hardly industrious. They grew she-corn for hominy, and sweet corn and popcorn, turnips and onions and cabbage and okra. His father even planted a small patch of tobacco, which he did not smoke, but bartered instead for things they could not grow or make. The yard in front of the cabin bustled with chickens and hogs, and there was a single milk cow, earmarked, branded, and belled; a goodly part of Hadley’s childhood was spent chasing animals out of the herbs and flowers his mother planted, shooing them away from the doorstep tansy or the lavender and chives. The land was dead now, as dead as the beloved woman they had put to rest on this nineteenth day of April.
Engulfed in sound, Hadley looked about the cabin, searching for his loved ones. He located his three sons and two daughters, and studied their faces for answers to the question he hadn’t yet asked.
It was one in the afternoon.
The mourners were gone.
“There’s somethin I’ve got to tell you all,” he said. “I been thinkin this ever since my mother took sick a month ago. I knew she was going to die this time, knew there wasn’t nothin we could do to save her, she was an old lady heaven bound, God rest her soul. And I thought when she dies, we ought to leave this place. Well, now she’s dead, we buried her this morning, we said our prayers over her grave. There’s nothin here no more but land that’s as barren as the company of the godless. I want to leave this place.”
Minerva was standing at the fireplace, near the Dutch oven. She turned to look at her husband as though he had spoken blasphemy against the dead and the living both. He caught her glance and nodded — in affirmation, or in defiance.