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Authors: Linda Spalding

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BOOK: The Purchase
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houting from the front of the wagon the next morning, Daniel asked Ruth what books she had brought to read in the wilderness. Only a few days before, he’d watched her shifting in her broken boots and running her hand along his sideboard’s polished grain. “I have three warrants for land,” he had said that day in the dining room to the girl who was not much older than his daughter. “If we take my children to Virginia, thee could travel as a wife.” It was possible, he supposed now, looking back at her unwashed face, that she had never had a book of her own. “Thee may borrow my
,” he called back to her, “with due care to its binding.” He turned to smile, but she had lowered her head and did not see.

But I am reading it just now, Mary wanted to say. That book was the one thing she shared now with her father. It was theirs. She stayed silent.

They were entering that earthly system of hills and gaps called the Shenandoah Valley, said to be ablaze with rhododendron and carpeted with blue grass in the summer but just now covered with early frost and air bitter to the hands and face. Daniel thought for a moment of his house, his table, his chair and his bed, the radiant life he had lost. “I have decided this day that we will give up our ‘thees’ and ‘thous,’ ” he announced, speaking only to Mary, who sat tense at his side, “so that we
do not set ourselves too much apart from our new neighbours.”

“I have given up enough,” Mary replied, throwing a meaningful glance over her shoulder now at Ruth Boyd, who had come to them as a servant and stolen their name, causing them to lose home and friends. Ruth Boyd! She’d seen her fingering linens hand-cut and embroidered by Grandmother Grube. She’d seen her fingering the silver ladling spoon. She said sternly, “Jeptha, who was a judge in Israel, did thee and thou his daughter, and she did thee and thou her father the judge.” She had left her grandparents. She had left her school. She had left her mother in the ground of Brandywine. And Luveen, never to be seen again, never to listen to troubles or joke or sing about a better world. She had been shunned by the children she’d always known. Except for Taylor Corbett, they had turned their backs on her and refused to speak. Because her father had married Ruth Boyd. A Methodist. She thought of the things her father had sold, things she had known so dearly and touched so often, even the camphor trunk with its tropical smell. She had lost everything but her brothers and the babies, one of them thankfully female, but now that she thought of it, maybe the two of them were not fairly blessed. “Thee and me,” she said, pulling Jemima, who was almost two years old, up to the front of the wagon to sit on her lap, “are we heading into a bitter world?” She liked to mix up the two words:
. She did it now on purpose, but as a baby, first learning to talk, she had been teased by her parents for saying after scoldings, “I be bitter now.” She thought of her father making up his mind to move all of them away from home and family and friends. Would a mother make such a demand? And now he wanted to give up their way of speech. “What of that?” she asked, pointing at his big Quaker hat. “Is thee going to throw it away?”

“The People called Quakers will not put off their Hats, nor bow, nor give flattering Titles to People.” Daniel could quote the old Catechism as well as Mary. “You,” he said, turning to try out the new word on Ruth Boyd. It was a simple word, but it stung his lips. “I asked, what books did

Ruth bowed her head and said nothing. She sat on the floor of the wagon and her muscles ached and she longed to stretch but she could not run alongside the wagon like the other children. She was married now. All day the road had been muddy and rutted or icy and slick, and even when the children stayed under the canvas, crammed together for warmth, she sat behind the riding board in the wind. She slept with the children on the bed tick Mary put down in the wagon while Daniel lay on the ground underneath, but she was apart from the others all the same. “My mother stirs just this way,” Mary would say when they prepared a meal. Or “My mother picks those dark kernels out and throws them away.” Mary would not speak of her mother as a person who had passed on to Heaven, which Ruth knew to be fact. She would not seem to realize that Rebecca Grube Dickinson was no more part of this earthly life and that Ruth had taken her place as Daniel’s wife. In a family, everyone thought alike and ate alike and prayed alike. She had never been part of a family, but she could imagine the narrowness of belief it must require. In this one they were Quakers, so-called, who did not have a preacher and dressed in an old-fashioned way, the men in long coats and short breeches and wide-brimmed beaver hats, the women in gowns without pattern, without colour, without lace. And if any person’s thinking or praying got a little different, the different person could not send his children to the school or visit with a neighbour in the street. No one would employ him or give him trade. “Is it myself here in your house that makes trouble?” she had asked one day in Brandywine when
she’d stood across from her employer. She’d wanted to say, I am nothing but what God made me, but his thin face had darkened and his eyebrows had come together and she would not defend herself. She could not read, but she could think and see! She had stood by the sideboard, running her hand along the ribbony grain while her employer had stared at her uncombed hair and soiled dress. He was sitting at the table and had one boot braced against his knee. This was the way he liked to sit and now he put his hand on his heart and laid out his plan, as if speaking to himself and never to her. “I shall travel and settle where land is nearly free.” She had listened and felt the smooth wood and looked at his face and then looked away. She had felt sorry for the widower. Then the clock in the dining room had started to chime and he’d said softly, “Thee could travel as a wife.” How could she ignore the defeat in his voice? But she could count enough to tell the hour and she counted while outside in the street a donkey was braying and upstairs Luveen was rocking a baby whose mother was cold in the grave. One … two … three … four … The clock had not finished its chiming when Ruth said, Yes.

hat had he told his children? He’d said that this road had been there since the Creation. Indians and herds of buffalo had used it. The boys sometimes listened. The newborn cried. Benjamin and Isaac got out of the wagon and ran alongside as the ancient trail pulled them up through a gap or across a creek. Fording, they climbed back in and held on and shrieked, sometimes getting soaked by icy water. On the road, they listened to Mary’s stories about a flying horse named Pegasus. Borne through space, what would the road below look like? How small would the wagons and travellers be? Pegasus was white, and he had great feathery wings.

In Harrisonburg they stopped for a night in the company of several Mennonite families who were going to make a settlement there. Mary said Tick’s milk should be shared and the strangers were glad of it. “Papa, please,” said the tired children. “Let us stay here.”

But Daniel shook his head, wanting no part of another pious sect. He watched his boys run with the other children as clouds began to gather and the wives covered their cook fires with their capes. He watched the men unhitching their horses and putting them to grass. He untied Tick from the back of the wagon and let her wander at will and watched as his family melted in with the others so easily. Men he had known for years had turned
away from him in Brandywine. The Elders had so quickly condemned him that the door to the Meeting House had been locked when he arrived to pray. I will go into the wilderness, he had told his father, and labour for myself. His mother had said something about locusts and honey.

“Papa, there is a boy standing there all bare to the skin.” Mary pulled at her father’s sleeve.

Daniel studied the naked child, who stood on the far side of a creek that ran through the stopping place. The Mennonite men had gathered in a cluster of concern near their wives.

“He must be cold,” Mary whispered.

“Will he scalp us?” asked Benjamin.

Daniel climbed into the wagon and came out with a quilt. Mary bit her lip hard to stop herself from crying out that it was her mother’s best. She felt a twist in her heart that was both pleasure and pain. A moment later, her father was sloshing across the creek in his boots and putting the quilt around the boy’s thin shoulders while everyone stood still and watched. “Bring him to me,” Mary whispered, wanting the boy, but Daniel returned alone and spoke quietly to the waiting Mennonite men. “He says Shawnee are coming. He says it is dangerous for us here. He is Cherokee.”

“Wants to be rid of us,” said one.

“Listen not to savages.”

Mulberry and Miss Patch had not yet been unhitched and now Daniel sent Isaac for Tick and turned back to the road. Soon snow began to fall while he sat straight with the reins in his hands and, for a few minutes, felt the light in himself again.

Two days later they came to Looney Ferry, which would take them across the James River. “Here,” said the children again
because at this point of land, where the Allegheny and the Blue Ridge mountains touched, the ferryman had built a mill and there would soon be a town. “Here, Papa, please.” But Daniel told the ferryman to load up the wagon and brace its wheels. He brought Tick and the horses aboard himself and held their leads in his hands. When they had disembarked, he studied his map, putting his finger on Wallens Creek. It had been forty days since they’d left Brandywine under a cloud that seemed to follow them, and now they crossed the James and turned north, fighting to keep the wagon steady on the narrow track. Days later, when they came to the great Powell River, the horses skirted a ridge that was narrow and icy and laid their ears back. Snow pelted the wagon and Daniel spoke to Miss Patch in the voice he reserved for her. “Now then, good lady,” he said, “we have a trial ahead.” He had taught this chestnut mare to pull a buggy without long lines by tapping her on her right or left shoulder with a willow stick. He had taught her to whinny in reply to his questions, and now she looked down at the rushing water with flattened ears and rolling eyes while Mulberry, whose darker coat matched her disposition, stood at the edge of the river tossing her head and pawing at the ground.

“We should stop right here,” said Mary firmly. “In the morning we will find a better crossing. Think of poor Tick!”

Daniel had set his teeth. “We will cross here and now.”

“The bank is too steep, Papa, and the river is wide here and just look at the terrible current.” In a smaller voice she said, “It is much too fast.”

Daniel folded the map and tucked it under his hat and, because he was unsure of himself, cracked the willow stick and started the horses down the slope at a slant, pulling back on the reins as he urged them forward with his voice. The water was tumbling past with such a roar that both horses balked at
the edge, locking their legs as the weight of the wagon pushed them fast into the current, where they ran against branches and fallen trees. Tick had disappeared briefly and resurfaced, paddling her four legs as if she would climb into the wagon and sit with them there. Mulberry began to roll and kick, causing the wagon to tip and Benjamin and Jemima screamed. The baby wailed and Ruth reached to pull him out of the cradle while Mary grabbed at the reins Daniel held. “Lord, have mercy, dear Jesus!”

“Quiet, Ruth Boyd!”

If one of the horses foundered, all of them would be swept downstream over whatever rapids lay ahead. The children were sobbing. The wagon bucked and bounced, cold water streaming in over its sides. Tick choked and bellowed, swimming hard.

“Quiet!” Daniel yelled at the elements.

Ruth clutched the howling baby to her breast. If they were going to die, she would hold on to something. The mares crashed against branches, legs swirling as the wagon plowed into the hitch and the tailgate fell open and all of them heard a heavy splash as the trunk with their store of food slid out. Corn flour and white, bacon, dried beans. The mares pawed at the water, eyes rolling, chests heaving, and the sealed trunk floated for a moment, then sank. Daniel was shouting at all of them, at no one. Mary was holding hard to the reins, bracing herself with her feet, more afraid than she had ever been. This, too, was all because of Ruth Boyd – exile, danger, and foolishness. But four-year-old Benjamin flung himself at Ruth and buried his head in her lap. It was the only triumph of her journey since none of the children had touched her even once since she had first come to their Brandywine house. Now little Benjamin held on to her for dear life, and she put an arm around him and took him into her heart with a love that would never change. Lord
Jesus, have mercy, she said again, but only to herself, and some minutes later the horses were crawling out of the river, heaving the wagon up its short bank, and Ruth saw that Daniel’s hands covered his face. Tick had not drowned, but she stood apart from them sullenly as they climbed out of the wagon shivering, cold, and wet to the skin. Ruth asked Benjamin to collect some dry branches for a fire, patting him with a confidence she had not felt before so that he ran off bravely, and some minutes later they all stood by a warming fire, small as it was.

BOOK: The Purchase
13.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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