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Authors: Jess Mcconkey

Tags: #General Fiction

The Widows of Braxton County

BOOK: The Widows of Braxton County
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Dedication

To my mother, Rosey Damsgaard Davis.

You were liberated before it was fashionable and

your example gave me the courage to pursue my dreams.

Thanks for setting boundaries, but never limitations.

 

Chapter 1

Summer 1890, the Krause Homestead, Braxton County, Iowa

H
annah Krause drew the back of her hand over her eyes and, careful of the squeaking bedsprings, slowly rolled onto her side. Her tongue felt thick and coated. She longed for a drink of water, but getting out of bed might disturb her sleeping husband, Jacob. She swallowed hard. It was never a good idea to wake Jacob. As she brought her knees up and tucked her hands beneath her pillow, she heard the clock in the parlor strike eleven. She’d slept less than two hours. Unbelievably weary after supper, it had taken twice her normal time to mix the bread dough for tomorrow’s baking. It had been past nine before she’d finally gone to bed. Jacob had complained of an upset stomach and retired before her. She gave a soft snort in the dark thinking of it. Too lazy and too full of the home-brewed beer that he’d shared with his son, Joseph, he’d plopped down on her side of the bed. When she’d finally gone to bed, she’d been forced to crawl over the footboard. She turned her head slightly and looked at the mound lying next to her. At least he wasn’t snoring.

Turning back, she gazed at the old lace curtains. They stirred lightly as the breeze floating through the open window carried the scent of wild petunias. Unfortunately, it also carried the scent of Jacob’s hog lot.

Hannah’s nose wrinkled. If she shut the window, the air inside the bedroom would be stifling. Closing her eyes, she tried to remember the scents of home—apple blossoms in the spring; wild honeysuckle growing around her family’s wide front porch; her mother’s roses. Even the musty, muddy odor of the Mississippi River would be preferable to the stench that surrounded her on this God-forsaken farm, stuck out in the middle of the prairie. An unbroken stretch of rolling hills and flatlands where the wind blew without end and winter brought snow so deep, she’d be locked inside for days; with summers so hot that not even the shade of the big maple tree in the front yard brought relief.

She thought of home and the hills of eastern Iowa. Her life there had included neighbors to visit, ice cream socials in the summer, sledding parties in the winter. And her books. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been allowed to read a novel. Jacob didn’t hold with her reading anything except the Bible.

A tear slipped down the side of her cheek. This wasn’t the life she’d wanted. It had been ten years, but her father’s reaction to her pleading still hurt. It had been nothing more than harmless flirting. Why hadn’t he believed her? Why had he forced Jacob on her? The gossip would’ve eventually died away once they’d learned it had no basis. Her hand beneath her pillow clenched into a fist. If her father had known what kind of a man Jacob truly was, would he have accepted Jacob’s offer to marry her? She should’ve fled when she had the chance. Run off to the city. A life working in a sweatshop wouldn’t have been any worse than the one she had.

She sniffed. “Stop it,” she whispered to herself. “No use crying over spilt milk.”

What had the minister said when she’d asked for his help? A woman’s place is to submit to her husband and that she should count her blessings? Her hand came out from beneath the pillow and touched the bruise on the side of her face as she glanced again at the still form of her husband. Slowly, she edged her body down toward the bottom of the bed. She had to get out of this room—get away from him, if only for a few stolen moments. That alone would be a blessing.

Hannah eased off the bed and, throwing her heavy braid over her shoulder, quickly shoved her arms into the sleeves of her cotton wrapper. She belted it as she crept from the room.

As she crossed the threshold into the kitchen, she closed the door softly. Pressing her back against it, she let out a long breath. She did have a blessing in her life, and he lay sleeping upstairs in the back bedroom.

She headed into the dining room and lit one of the kerosene lamps sitting on the sideboard. Her shadow bobbed and weaved across the walls as she silently made her way through the farmhouse and up the stairs into her son’s room. She went to the side of the bed and stood for a moment, staring down at him.

He lay on his back, his arms and legs spread wide across the lumpy mattress. Even in the faint light, Hannah saw the spattering of freckles across his nose.

“My precious boy,” she murmured as she bent to cover his legs with the thin sheet.

The boy stirred and his blue eyes opened. “Mama?”

Hannah’s heart seized with love, and with a smile, she sat down next to her son. “You kicked off your covers again.”

“Ahh, Mama. I’m not a baby—I’m nine years old. You don’t have to check on me in the middle of the night,” he grumbled, rolling toward her.

She brushed his blond hair away from his forehead. “I know, but I like checking on you, Willie.”

“Pa was really happy tonight, wasn’t he?” Willie asked, his voice hopeful.

Hannah turned her face to hide her scowl. Jacob did seem lighthearted tonight, but she doubted the change was permanent. It was more likely thanks to the beer and his plan to win a seat as a county supervisor. He and Joseph had talked of nothing else all evening.

She forced a smile. “Your pa had a good day and he’s looking forward to the Fourth of July celebration.”

His eyes suddenly widened. “It’s only two days away,” he whispered, his excitement lighting his face.

“I know.”

“Pa’s going to take us to town for the fireworks.”

Without thinking, her hand started toward her face. She let it fall. “I don’t think so.”

“But Joseph said we were going.”

Her lips tightened at the mention of her stepson. “Joseph was wrong. We’re staying here.”

“But he’s going with Pa.”

“Yes, but you and I aren’t.” She saw the frown crease his face. “It’s business,” she said quickly. “You heard your father’s plans tonight—he’s running for supervisor this fall, and he’s going to town to persuade people to vote for him. He’ll be too busy to look after us.”

“Why’s he taking Joseph, then?”

“Joseph is a grown man and doesn’t need looking after. Besides,” she said with a quick poke to his ribs, “we’ll have fun just the two of us.”

One eye narrowed skeptically. “Yeah?”

“Yes,” she said in a firm voice. “We’re going to have fried chicken, and I’m saving some cream back after milking tomorrow to make ice cream.”

“Ice cream—”

She leaned down and whispered in his ear. “
And
. . . I’ve got some firecrackers.”

Willie jerked up in bed “Fire—”

Hannah’s finger across his lips stopped him. “Shh. Your father doesn’t know about them. It’s our secret.”

“But—”

“I used some of the egg money, and you know what your father would say.”

“You were spending his money frivo— frivat—” He stumbled on the word.

“ ‘Frivolously.’ And, yes, that’s right. That’s exactly what he’d say.”

She looked away from Willie so he wouldn’t see the anger in her eyes. She was the one who cleaned out the henhouse, the one who fed and watered those nasty squawking birds, and the one who got pecked when gathering the eggs. It was only right that she should be entitled to some of the profit—especially if it meant making Willie happy.

“You’ll keep our secret, won’t you?” she asked, taking his hand in hers.

He nodded.

“That’s my boy,” she said, leaning in and placing a kiss on his forehead. Then she stood. “Now it’s time for you to go back to sleep.”

“Will you wind up my music box?” he asked with a sly grin.

“Do you promise to go right to sleep?” she asked indulgently.

He broke into a wide grin and nodded.

Hannah wound the box and the reedy sounds of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” filled the room.

After Willie had scooted down in his bed, Hannah fussed with his sheet, then brushed his hair back one more time. “I love you.”

“Love you, too, Mama,” he said with a grin.

With a lighter heart, Hannah left her son’s room and quietly stole down the stairs and toward the room she shared with Jacob. She was reaching for the doorknob when she heard it.
Tap, tap, tap
from the kitchen.

Raising the lamp, she hurried through the parlor and dining room. After rounding the corner, she noticed that the kitchen door stood wide open, while the screen door, moved by the breeze, gently knocked against the door frame.

Puzzled, her eyes scanned the room. She’d shut it before she’d gone to bed, and the house had been peaceful as she crept up to Willie’s room.

Nothing appeared to have been disturbed. The dough still sat rising on the back of the cookstove and the dishes were where she’d left them drying on the rack. Her attention flew to the door of the pantry. The egg money. She placed the lamp on the table and hurried into the pantry. Moving aside the sack of sugar sitting on the top shelf, she groped until her fingers felt the old tin coffee can. She pulled it down and, hugging it to her chest, raced to the kitchen table. Bright coins rolled across its scarred surface as she dumped the can and quickly began to count the money. When finished, she gave a long sigh. No, it was all there.

As she slid the money back into the can, her eyes roamed the kitchen. Maybe Jacob had risen and left the house to check the livestock. There had been a coyote bothering the chickens last week. After setting the lamp on the table, she stepped out onto the front porch.

The smell of the hog lot was stronger out here, Hannah thought as her eyes roamed the yard. The cabin where her stepson slept was dark. Joseph had drunk as much as his father, and she imagined he had fallen into a stupor similar to Jacob’s once he’d reached his bed.

Her attention focused on the apple orchard. No shadows moved beneath the trees, nor were there any lurking near the barn or chicken house.

With a shake of her head, she entered the house and spied Willie peeking around the door from the dining room into the kitchen. In the dim light, the boy’s face looked pale and his eyes were wide.

“Willie,” she chided, “you were supposed to stay in bed.”

“I heard something,” he whispered.

“It’s fine. Just the screen door tapping.” She gave him a stern look. “You scoot back up to bed, and I’d better not hear another peep out of you.”

He ran to her and threw his arms around her waist in a tight hug before doing as he was told.

As she watched her son go, a small smile played across her face while the love for her boy filled her.

She grabbed the lamp and headed to the bedroom. If Jacob were still in bed, he could get up and check the rest of the house. That door
had
been shut, and she didn’t care if getting startled out of a sound sleep did make him angry. He had a responsibility to protect Willie.

“Jacob,” she called sharply while she flung the door open and held the lamp high, “I think someone’s—”

As the clock struck midnight, Hannah screamed.

Jacob lay on his side, with his face turned toward the window—blood red sheets tangled around his legs, and a knife protruded from his back.

BOOK: The Widows of Braxton County
4.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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