The Sugar Camp Quilt
History is thick with secrets in THE SUGAR CAMP QUILT, seventh in the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series from New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini. Set in Creek_s Crossing, Pennsylvania, in the troubled years leading up to the Civil War, friends and neighbors are set against one another and an extraordinary young heroine passes from innocence to wisdom against the harrowing backdrop of the American struggle over slavery.
A week after Uncle Jacob’s death, Abel Wright came to pay his respects. Dorothea Granger took him to the grave and stood some distance away while he bowed his head in silent prayer. Then he looked up and said, “I have something to tell you and your folks.”
History is thick with secrets in THE SUGAR CAMP QUILT, seventh in the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series from bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini. Set in Creek’s Crossing, Pennsylvania, in the years leading up to the Civil War, friends and neighbors are set against one another and an extraordinary young heroine passes from innocence to wisdom against the harrowing backdrop of the American struggle over slavery.
A dutiful daughter and niece, Dorothea Granger’s dreams of furthering her education are thwarted by the needs of home. A gifted quilter, her hope chest full of quilts is lost in a tragic flood. A superior student, she is promoted from pupil to teacher — only to lose her position to the privileged son of a town benefactor. But the ultimate test of her courage and convictions comes with the death of her stern Uncle Jacob, who inexplicably asks Dorothea to stitch him a quilt with four unusual patterns of his own design. After his life meets a violent end, Dorothea discovers that the quilt contains hidden clues to guide runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. Emboldened by the revelations about her uncle’s bravery, Dorothea resolves to continue his dangerous work. Armed with the Sugar Camp Quilt and its mysterious symbols, she must evade slave catchers and outwit unscrupulous neighbors, embarking upon a heroic journey that allows her to discover her own courage and resourcefulness — unsuspected qualities that may win her the heart of the best man she has ever known.
Told with Jennifer Chiaverini’s trademark historical suspense, THE SUGAR CAMP QUILT blends danger, moral courage, romance, and hope into a novel of antebellum America whose lessons resonate with timeless honesty.
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The Sugar Camp Quilt: Chapter One
“Abel Wright intends to purchase his wife’s freedom before the month is out,” Dorothea’s father said to Uncle Jacob.
“At long last,” Dorothea’s mother declared. “If Abel has raised the money he must do it quickly, before her owner can change his mind again. You will go with him, of course?”
Robert Granger nodded. They had spoken of this occasion often and had agreed that Robert ought to accompany Mr. Wright south to Virginia, both to share the work of driving the horses and to discourage unscrupulous interlopers. The Abolitionist newspapers told of pro-slavery men who became so incensed at the sight of a newly-freed slave that they would seize him and sell him back into slavery. Not even Mr. Wright was safe from their ilk, for all that he had never been a slave. If anything, his enslavement would bring them even greater pleasure.
Uncle Jacob’s face bore the grim expression that Dorothea likened to a block of limestone. “You can’t think of leaving in the middle of harvest.”
“Abel needs to leave at sunup,” Robert explained apologetically, as if humility would protect him from Uncle Jacob’s wrath.
“Surely he can wait a few weeks until the crops are in.”
“He said he can’t. He’ll go alone rather than wait for me.”
“Then let him go alone,” glowered Uncle Jacob. “Hasn’t he done so often enough to sell that cheese of his?”
“This time is different,” said Robert. “He will be exchanging a considerable amount of money for the person of his wife.”
“Wright raises goats. He likely has more goats than corn on his place. He can afford to leave his farm during the harvest. We can’t.”
Dorothea waited for her uncle to announce yet another visit to his lawyer. The implication was, of course, that he intended to change his will, and not in favor of his only living relatives. Dorothea waited, but Uncle Jacob said nothing more until mealtime gave way to evening chores. As they cleared the table, Dorothea’s mother remarked that Uncle Jacob had not expressly forbidden Robert to go, which in his case was almost the same as giving his blessing.
“According to that logic,” Dorothea replied, “if I tell my pupils not to put a bent pin on my chair, what I really mean is that I would prefer a nail.”
“Your pupils have far too much affection for you to do either,” said Lorena, deliberately missing the point. They both knew she was putting her brother’s obvious disapproval in a better light than it deserved. Dorothea knew her uncle would have expressly forbidden the journey for anyone but Abel Wright. Uncle Jacob had no friends, but he respected Mr. Wright for his independence, thrift, and industriousness, qualities he would have admired in himself if doing so would not have occasioned the sin of vanity. If Mr. Wright said he had to leave now, he must believe it to be true.
Uncle Jacob had never declared whether he was for or against slavery, at least not in Dorothea’s presence. According to Lorena, Uncle Jacob’s long-deceased wife had been a Quaker and a passionate abolitionist, but he never spoke of her and Dorothea had no idea whether he shared her views. Still, she suspected her uncle’s objections to the journey had nothing to do with his moral position on the subject of slavery and every to do with the pragmatics of farming. Despite Mr. Wright’s reasonable urgency to free his wife from bondage, Uncle Jacob likely could not comprehend how a sensible farmer could take off on any errand when the most important work of the year needed to be done. Of course, Uncle Jacob knew all too well that his sister’s husband was not a sensible farmer. If he had been, Uncle Jacob would not have been obligated by the ties of family and Christian charity to take in his sister’s family after they lost their own farm.
Later that night, Dorothea asked her father if she might accompany him, but her father said this particular errand was too dangerous for a girl of nineteen.
“But Mr. Wright has made the trip so many times,” protested Dorothea.
“You are needed at home,” said Uncle Jacob. “Already I will have to hire hands to make up for your father’s absence. I will not hire kitchen help, too.”
Even without Lorena’s look of warning, Dorothea knew better than to protest. Her uncle had not even looked up from his Bible as he spoke, but any interruption of his nightly devotion was unusual enough to reveal the strength of his feeling on the subject.
Robert left for the Wright farm as soon as the sky had lightened enough for safe travel. Though the sun had not yet risen, Uncle Jacob was already at work in the barn, but he did not break away from his chores to wish his brother-in-law a safe journey. Lorena had packed the horse’s rucksacks with so much food that they strained at the seams, and Robert thanked his wife for providing enough to eat for a month of sightseeing. Mother and daughter smiled as his joke, for they knew he intended to make the journey as swiftly as possible. They kissed him and made him promise to take care, then followed him down to the Creek’s Crossing road where they stood and watched until horse and rider disappeared into the cool, graying mists that clung to the hills south of the farm.
When they could no longer see him, Lorena glared at the barn and said, “See how little he cares for us. He might never see my husband again, and yet he cannot even stir from the barn to bid him farewell.”
Dorothea’s heart quaked at her mother’s ominous words, but said, “Likely Uncle Jacob knows how little we care for him and feels no need to make any pretense of fondness. Likely, too, he knows Father will certainly return.”
Immediately Lorena was all reassurance. “Of course, my dear. Of course your father will return. Perhaps earlier than we expect him. Mr. Wright will not want to linger in the hostile South.” She frowned at the barn. “If I would not miss him so, I would ask your father to take his time just to spite your uncle.”
Dorothea smiled, knowing her mother would never wish for anything that would part her from her husband. Dorothea knew, too, that her mother often spoke wistfully of small acts of disobedience none of them dared commit. They were beholden to Uncle Jacob and must not commit any transgression that might tempt him to send them away. Uncle Jacob had no wife and no children, and therefore, no heir save his nephew, Dorothea’s younger brother. If they served Uncle Jacob well and bided their time, one day Uncle Jacob’s 120 acres, house, and worldly goods would belong to Jonathan.
For five years her parents had clung to these hopes with almost as much fervor as they pursued the abolition of slavery. They rarely seemed troubled by the doubts that plagued Dorothea. Uncle Jacob might marry again. He was older than her mother but even older men had taken young brides, although Dorothea could name no young woman of Creek’s Crossing whose prospects were so poor she should settle on a stern, gray-haired, humorless man who had ample property but eschewed anything that hinted of romance. If he had once had a heart, he had buried it in the maple grove with his young bride and twin sons long before Dorothea was born.
Sometimes Dorothea suspected her parents were not entirely certain Jonathan would succeed in inheriting his uncle’s farm. From an early age they had fostered his interest in medicine, and for the past two years he had served as an apprentice to an old family friend, a physician in far-off Baltimore. Jonathan had learned enough about farming to earn Uncle Jacob’s grudging acceptance during his infrequent visits home, but he made no overt attempts to win his potential benefactor’s affection. Dorothea wondered if his assured success in the vocation of his choosing had made him indifferent to the inheritance the rest of his family relied upon.
Either way, Jonathan would surely have been permitted to accompany their father and Mr. Wright south to Virginia. Though he was three years younger than Dorothea, he was a boy. Dorothea felt herself restricted and confined every minute she spent beneath Uncle Jacob’s roof, even when he himself was not in the house. Her only moments of ease came as she walked to and from the schoolhouse on Third Street where she taught twenty youngsters reading, arithmetic, natural sciences, and history. When she felt the wind against her face as she crossed Elm Creek on the ferry, she feared that this was as close as she would ever come to knowing the freedom Jonathan took for granted.
At noon, Uncle Jacob and the two hired hands came inside to eat. There was little conversation as Dorothea and her mother served; the men, whom Dorothea knew to be lively enough in other company, were uncomfortably subdued under Uncle Jacob’s critical eye. It was well known in Creek’s Crossing that he had once fired a man for taking the Lord’s name in vain when a horse kicked him, breaking his jaw. Dorothea did not care for rough language, either, but even she could concede the injured man had had cause.
The men had seconds and thirds, clearing the platters of corn and baked squash and shoo-fly pie as quickly as Dorothea and her mother could place them on the table. The other men quietly praised Lorena’s cooking, but Uncle Jacob did not address her until after he finished his meal, and only to state that Robert’s absence had hurt them badly. As they did every year, the Creek’s Crossing Agricultural Society had arranged for a team from Harrisburg to bring a horse-powered thresher into the Elm Creek Valley. Every farmer of sufficient means paid for a share of days with the machine, and Uncle Jacob’s turn was fast approaching. Robert had left before the oats and wheat could be cut and stacked, and if Uncle Jacob did not finish in time, the threshers could not wait for him. He had no choice but to go into Creek’s Crossing and hire more men.
Dorothea and her mother exchanged a hopeful look. “May we accompany you?” Lorena asked. “Dorothea and I have many errands we were saving for a ride into town.”
“I have no time to waste on your errands, ” said Uncle Jacob, pushing back his chair, “and your time is better spent on your chores.”
The hired men recognized the signal to leave and bolted the rest of their food. One man quickly pocketed the heel of the bread loaf, while the other hastily downed a generous slice of pie in two bites.
“What errands?” asked Dorothea as the men returned to the fields.
“I would have invented some for the chance to go into Creek’s Crossing.” Lorena sighed and began fixing a plate for herself, and motioned for her daughter to do the same. “It has been three weeks. We might as well live a hundred miles from the nearest village.”
“If Uncle Jacob goes on horseback, we could take the wagon.”
Lorena shook her head. “Chances are we would run into him in town if not on the ferry. Even if we managed to avoid him, he would discover our incomplete chores upon his return.”
“No two mere mortal women could finish all he has assigned us.” Briskly Dorothea scraped the remnants of her uncle’s meal into the slop bucket for the pigs. “He cannot be satisfied. He knows you and Father are merely waiting for him to die so that Jonathan may have the farm, and he is determined to thwart our every attempt at happiness until then.”
“Dorothea.” Lorena laid her hand on her daughter’s arm. “Clearing can wait. Eat something. We have a long day yet ahead of us.”
Rather than argue, Dorothea complied, although the ravenous men had left little for the women to share. She resented her uncle for his power over them, but her parents’ morbid anticipation shamed her. She remembered a time when they would not have been content to live at the whim of another. Perhaps they had been too idealistic in those days, but at least they had insisted upon setting the course of their own lives.
Dorothea and her mother could not have stolen into town in the wagon, after all, because Uncle Jacob took it. Three hours after his departure, Dorothea heard the wagon coming up the road. She stopped scattering chicken feed and straightened, shading her eyes with one hand. What she saw made her want to duck behind the hen house and hide.
Her mother had also paused at the sound of the wagon. “It couldn’t be,” said her mother, with a soft moan of dismay. “Not Amos Liggett.”
“I wish it were anyone else.” Dorothea watched as the wagon brought the gangly, round-shouldered man closer. His red face was beaming with jovial pride behind greasy, unkempt whiskers. Uncle Jacob drove the horses stoically, apparently oblivious to his companion’s chatter. “I can almost smell the liquor on him from here.”
“Dorothea,” her mother said reprovingly.
“You don’t like him any more than I do.” For that matter, Uncle Jacob despised him. Every winter Mr. Liggett asked Uncle Jacob to exchange work with him at sugaring time, a request Uncle Jacob always refused. “I don’t want that blasted fool to set one foot inside my sugar camp,” he had grumbled the previous winter, after Mr. Liggett had cornered him in church before Christmas services to plead his case yet again. “He’s more likely to overturn the kettle and tap an oak than to give me a penny’s worth of real help.” There must have been no one else in all of Creek’s Crossing to hire, or her uncle never would have brought Amos Liggett home.
Mr. Liggett offered the women a gap-toothed grin as the wagon rumbled past. Dorothea and her mother nodded politely, but quickly averted their eyes. “Stay clear of him,” her mother cautioned, as if Dorothea needed the warning.
Mr. Liggett had brought his own scythe, an implement Dorothea surmised must be as sharp as the day he purchased it given his inattention to his own fields. Uncle Jacob put him to work cutting oats with the others. Through the afternoon, as Dorothea passed from the garden to the kitchen where she and her mother were pickling cabbage and beets, she glimpsed him at work, swinging his blade with awkward eagerness, with none of the practiced, muscular grace of the other men. More often than not, he was at rest, his scythe nowhere to be seen, probably lying on the ground. The blade would not keep its shine for long.
At sundown, the men washed at the pump and trooped wearily inside for supper, smelling of sweat and grass and fatigue. Uncle Jacob offered Mr. Liggett the loan of a horse so that he might return to his own home for the night, an uncharacteristic display of trust and generosity that astonished the women, but Mr. Liggett declined, saying he would spend the night in the hayloft quarters with the others. Then he said, “Before we retire, I surely would like to get a look at that sugar camp of yours.”
Uncle Jacob frowned. “For what reason?”
“Because everyone knows you make the best maple sugar in the county.” Mr. Liggett let out a cackle. “And you never let anyone near your sugar camp. I know folks who’d pay good money to know your secret.”
“I have no sugar-making secrets to share,” replied Uncle Jacob.
Mr. Liggett chuckled and waited for him to continue, but when Uncle Jacob said nothing, his grin faded. He had thought Uncle Jacob spoke in jest, which, of course, he never did. Dorothea doubted Mr. Liggett had noted her uncle’s careful choice of words. He did, indeed have sugar-making secrets, but he had no intention of sharing them with Mr. Liggett.
“Perhaps you burn the syrup,” suggested Lorena as she offered Mr. Liggett more mashed turnips. “It must be watched and stirred constantly or it will be ruined.”
“I can’t stand in front of a kettle all day,” said Mr. Liggett, scowling. Then he brightened. “Say, Jacob, how about we trade work this winter? I’ll help you with your sugaring, and you can help me.”
“Thank you, but my family will provide all the help I need.”
With that, Uncle Jacob excused himself and retired to the parlor. Mr. Liggett resumed eating, glancing hopefully at the doorway now and again as if expecting Uncle Jacob to appear and beckon him within. But Dorothea knew her uncle was by now well engrossed in his Bible, and would not have invited Mr. Liggett to join him in the house’s best room in any event.
At breakfast, Mr. Liggett spoke to the merits of various woods for producing steady flame, as well as the skill of local blacksmiths in producing cast-iron kettles of size and durability. When his hints about visiting the sugar camp became too obvious to ignore, Uncle Jacob said that too much work remained for them to consider indulging in idle sightseeing.
Dorothea was relieved when the men left the breakfast table for the fields, and in the two days that followed, she learned to dread mealtimes. When Mr. Liggett was not querying her uncle he was grinning at her, casting his gaze up and down her person with shameless appreciation, as if his sour smell alone were not enough to turn her stomach. Lorena kept her out of his sight as much as she could, and never left them alone together, but once he came upon her unaccompanied in the washhouse. He complimented her dress and had just asked if she thought she might like to go riding some Sunday after he had his horse breeding business going when Uncle Jacob rounded the corner and fixed them with an icy glare. Mr. Liggett muttered excuses and slunk away, while Dorothea stood rooted to the spot until her uncle ordered her back to the house. She left the laundry in the washtub and obeyed, shaking with anger, her cheeks ablaze as if she had earned the accusation in her uncle’s eyes. She wished her father would hurry home so that Mr. Liggett would no longer be needed.
Her father had been gone one week on the morning Mr. Liggett did not come to breakfast. Uncle Jacob ordered one of the hired hands back to the barn to rouse him from his sleep only to learn that Mr. Liggett had been gone all night. “He left right after sundown,” the hired man said. “He told us he desired to slake his thirst.”
“Perhaps he fell into the well,” said Lorena. Uncle Jacob sent a man to check, but when he found no sign of any mishap, Uncle Jacob told Lorena to serve the meal. His expression grew ever more grim as they ate in silence, listening for Mr. Liggett’s approach.
He did not come. The other men went to the fields to cut the last two acres of wheat, looking to the sky at a low rumble of thunder in the far distance. There were few clouds overhead, but the air was heavy and damp, and Dorothea knew they must hasten before rain pelted the heavy shafts of ripe wheat, dashing the grains to the earth, ruining the crop.
She was gathering carrots in the garden when Mr. Liggett returned, shuffling his feet in the dirt on his way to the barn. “Pray tell, Miss,” he addressed her, with slurred, exaggerated formality. “Where might I find the master of this establishment?”
“My uncle is cutting wheat with the others.”
He made a mocking bow and headed for the fields. Dorothea watched him as she worked. When Mr. Liggett reached the men, Uncle Jacob rested on his scythe, mopped his brow, and said something low and abrupt to the latecomer before raising his scythe again. Mr. Liggett took his had from his head and fidgeted as he tried to explain, but Uncle Jacob did not appear to respond. After a moment, Mr. Liggett slammed his hat back on his head and hurried to the barn for his scythe, muttering angrily to himself. Dorothea had never seen him move so quickly, though he stumbled and once nearly fell sprawling to the ground.
At midday, through the kitchen window Dorothea overheard the hired hands talking as they washed up at the pump. “Have to run home to care for your livestock, Liggett?
Dorothea recognized the teasing drawl of the youngest of the men, a former classmate named Charley Stokey.
“Never you mind,” snapped Mr. Liggett as the other men guffawed. It was well known that Mr. Liggett owned only one scrawny mare and a few chickens, for all that he boasted of one day raising prize racehorses.
“No, he was tending to his vast acreage,” said another, evoking more laughter. Mr. Liggett was forever bragging about the improvements he planned for his farm, though he rarely would lay hand to plow or hammer. Though he owned 40 of the valley’s finest acres, he had let all but a few run wild.
“I know more about running a farm than you two fools ever will,” said Mr. Liggett. “My people own one of the richest plantations in Georgia.”
“Then why aren’t you down there helping them tend it?” Charley inquired.
Another man answered before Mr. Liggett could. “His people don’t care for him any more than anyone else.”
Over the laughter, Mr. Liggett said, “I’m telling you, it’s one of the richest and the biggest. When I was a boy I could climb on my horse at sunup at the eastern edge of the plantation and ride west all day, and still be on my grandfather’s property at sundown.”
“I had a horse like that once,” remarked Charley. “We named him Snail.”
The men burst out laughing, and a moment later, Mr. Liggett swung open the kitchen door with a bang and stormed over to the table. “Are you going to feed us or let us starve?” he barked at Lorena.
She regarded him evenly. “We’re waiting for my brother. He will be in shortly.”
Uncle Jacob had come in from the fields ahead of the others in order to work on his ledgers. He entered the kitchen just as Lorena finished speaking, and took his seat at the head of the table with a stern look for Mr. Liggett. Mr. Liggett dropped his gaze and tore a chunk from the loaf of bread.
The men ate swiftly, mindful of the threatening rain. The wind had picked up; the low growls of thunder in the distance had grown louder and more frequent. Dorothea wondered where her father was and hoped he was well out of the storm’s path.
Not long after Uncle Jacob and the men returned outside, Dorothea heard a furious shout from the direction of the wheat field, followed by a string of curses.
“What on earth?” gasped Lorena as she and Dorothea hurried outside. Two of the hired men were heading for the house supporting Charley between them, his face covered in blood. Behind them, Uncle Jacob stood before Mr. Liggett, palms raised in a calming gesture. Mr. Liggett quivered and tightened his grip on his scythe. The blade was stained red.
“Put it down, Liggett,” commanded Uncle Jacob.
“I didn’t mean to,” shrilled Mr. Liggett as the woman ran to help Charley. “He got in the way. He came up behind me.”
Uncle Jacob again ordered him to put down his scythe, but whether he obeyed, Dorothea could no longer watch to see. Charley was moaning and scrubbing blood from his eyes as Lorena and Dorothea lowered him to the ground. Lorena tore off her apron and sopped up the blood. “I cannot tell where he was struck,” she murmured to her daughter. “There is too much blood.”
Dorothea, Charley’s head resting on her lap, snatched off her own apron and dabbed at his face. Distantly, she heard the voices of Uncle Jacob and Mr. Liggett coming nearer. “Here,” she said, pointing, as blood seeped from a long gash along Charley’s hairline.
“Is it bad?” one of the men asked.
“It is not as bad as it could have been,” said Lorena, a tremble in her voice as she pressed the cloth to the wound. Charley flinched, but Dorothea held him firmly. “Nor as bad as it seems. It is not deep, but cuts on the scalp bleed profusely. Dorothea, run inside and fetch my herbs and plasters.”
Charley let out a yelp, and as Dorothea set him down gently and ran for the house, she heard one of the hired hands ask Lorena if they ought to give Charley a strong drink to ease the shock and the pain. He might not know that Uncle Jacob permitted no liquor on his farm.
“Squeeze Liggett, and you’ll get a pint,” the other hired man said darkly.
Dorothea returned minutes later in time to see Uncle Jacob, the bloody scythe in his hands, order Mr. Liggett off his property. “It’s bad enough that you were too drunk to find your way back last night,” said Uncle Jacob. “It’s far worse that your drunkenness could have killed a man today.”
He waved Mr. Liggett off, gesturing toward the road. When Mr. Liggett realized that Uncle Jacob meant for him to walk home, he said, “What about my scythe? And my pay?”
“I’ll deliver your scythe to you tomorrow. As for your pay, consider it forfeit.”
Mr. Liggett flushed. “But I worked six full days for you. You owe me for six days.”
“You worked five and a half days. Bearing in mind what has happened here today, and considering that the work is not finished and that you have cost me Mr. Stokey’s labor as well as your own, you are fortunate I am willing to let you go without calling in the law.”
“I want what’s owed me.”
“I’ll give him what’s owed him,” said Charley weakly, lying on the ground as Lorena threaded a needle beside him.
“You,” jeered Mr. Liggett, but he took a step backward, then turned and broke into a trot.
“It was only a glancing blow,” said Lorena when Mr. Liggett was out of earshot, with an inscrutable look for her brother, which turned into a glance to the sky as thundered pealed overhead. “Help me get him up. This is better finished inside.”
The cloudburst soaked them before they could reach shelter indoors. As the furious rain battered the ground, Uncle Jacob glowered out the window in the direction of the wheat fields.
The threshers would not arrive for two more days, but they had done all they could. They had lost the last acre of wheat to the storm.
The next morning, Uncle Jacob paid the hired hands and agreed that Lorena could drive them back into town, and that Dorothea could accompany her to assist her on her errands. When Lorena suggested they deliver Mr. Liggett’s scythe to him, Uncle Jacob snorted and told them to spare the horse a few miles and leave it at the tavern. Dorothea had her doubts, but when Mr. Schultz readily agreed to hold the scythe for Mr. Liggett, she acknowledged that perhaps Mr. Liggett did indeed spend more time at the tavern than within the crude log walls of his cabin home.
Afterward, Lorena stopped the wagon in front of the general store, and as she shopped for coffee and sugar, Dorothea fingered the yard goods and thought wistfully of the dressmaker’s shop across the street.
“Dorothea,” a woman called from behind her. “Dorothea, dear, did you hear the news?”
Dorothea turned to her greeter, the mistress of the farm adjacent to Uncle Jacob’s property to the north. One stout arm was linked with that of her young daughter, a beautiful dark-haired girl not yet fourteen years old. Their simple calico dresses belied the prosperity of their farm.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Claverton,” said Dorothea, and smiled at the girl. “Hello, Charlotte.”
Charlotte returned her greeting softly, smiling but with eyes cast down shyly.
“Did you hear the news, dear?” repeated Mrs. Claverton eagerly. “Creek’s Crossing has acquired a prominent new resident.”
“Yes, I know,” said Dorothea. “My father is traveling with Mr. Wright to bring her home.”
“What?” For a moment confusion clouded Mrs. Claverton’s face. “No, no, dear. Good heavens. Not the Wright girl. Mr. Nelson. The young Mr. Nelson is coming to take possession of Two Bears Farm.”
“I had no idea the Carters intended to leave.” They had been the Nelson family’s tenants so long that few people in town remembered the farm’s true owners. Dorothea herself had never met them.
“As I hear it, they had no such intentions.” Mrs. Claverton lowered her voice in confidence. “The young Mr. Nelson forced them out.”
“Forced them?” Dorothea echoed. “He sounds very unlike his father. The Carters always referred to him as a generous man.”
“He was. And still would be, I suspect, if his son had not driven him to such ends.”
Intrigued, Dorothea glanced at her mother, safely out of earshot on the other side of the store. Mother disapproved of gossip. “What ends? This sounds dire.”
“By all accounts Thomas Nelson did not inherit his father’s strength of character. I have it on very good authority that he comes to Creek’s Crossing almost directly by way of prison.”
“Prison,” exclaimed Dorothea.
Mrs. Claverton shushed her, and lowered her voice to a whisper. “He says that he has been suffering ill health, and that his father sent him out here to manage Two Bears Farm while regaining his strength in our milder climate. What he does not say is that the depravities of prison caused his illness, and that his father banished him here, where his shame is unknown.”
“It will not be unknown for long,” said Dorothea, amused.
“I don’t doubt it, although if he wanted to avoid being the subject of gossip, he should have lived more virtuously. Unfortunately, many members of society will welcome him for his father’s sake, regardless of his past, and we can hardly shun him after that. ” She shook her head. “I confess I have some misgivings about exposing my daughter to such an influence, but as he will be charged with the education of our youth–”
“Mama,” warned Charlotte, too late.
“Oh, my dear,” said Mrs. Claverton, dismayed. “I certainly did not mean for you to find out this way. The school board has written you a letter.”
“Mr. Nelson is to be the new schoolmaster?”
Mrs. Claverton nodded. “After all, his father did donate the land and the funds to build the school. When he wrote to request a position for his son, well, the school board couldn’t refuse him, could they?”
“Apparently they could not, since it would seem the decision has already been made.”
“Now, Dorothea.” Mrs. Claverton patted her hand. “Don’t be angry. You do remember you were hired as the interim schoolteacher only. You may have been the brightest pupil in the Creek’s Crossing school, but before his more recent troubles, Mr. Nelson attended university.”
“Did he? Then if he is a felon, at least he is an educated felon.”
“Mr. Nelson’s minister assures us he has repented his crimes and that he has been entirely rehabilitated,” said Mrs. Claverton. “If we withhold from him the opportunity to contribute to society, he may never be able to atone for his misdeeds. You are a properly brought up girl; you shouldn’t need me to remind you of these things. You must drive your poor mother to distraction. You should look beyond your own apparent misfortune and find the opportunity.”
“I completed the Creek’s Crossing school years ago,” Dorothea reminded her. “Even if Mr. Nelson were qualified to teach at a secondary academy, I cannot imagine what education I should care to receive from him.”
“I was not speaking of your education. Did I mention that Mr. Nelson is unmarried?”
Dorothea could not help laughing. “Mrs. Claverton, did you not just inform me that Mr. Nelson is a former convict?”
“But a repentant one from a good family,” she retorted. “And, I might remind you, he is an educated man with a prosperous farm. Why, if my Charlotte was not already promised to your brother–”
The girl started, setting her two ribbon-tied braids swinging down her back.
“She didn’t mean it,” Dorothea assured Charlotte.
“No, indeed, I did not.” Mrs. Claverton gave her daughter a quick hug. “Well. It is plain to see young Mr. Nelson has already upset us. I cannot imagine what will happen when we are finally forced to meet him.”