MARCH 31, 1871
WHITE ROCK, MICHIGAN
Joshua Hunter had survived four years of war, led men in battle, been honored for his courage under fire, and had turned sixty acres of lumbered-over Michigan land into crop-producing fields . . . but he was helpless in the face of his wife’s agony.
“Maybe a cup of coffee would help,” his father-in-law suggested. “Coffee sometimes cures my headaches.”
His wife’s father, Richard Young, was every bit as worried as he. Neither of them had ever seen a woman in such pain. She had not suffered this badly even in the birthing of their five children.
“Diantha,” Joshua asked, “do you think you could sit up and drink some coffee?”
She nodded feebly and allowed him to put two pillows behind her back to prop her upright. Her mother went to fetch the coffee.
“It’s lukewarm, honey.” Virgie hurried back into the bedroom where her daughter lay. “It’ll be easier for you to drink that way. I’m sure this will help. You know what a bad headache your daddy gets when he don’t get his coffee regular.”
Joshua brushed the damp hair off his wife’s forehead as she reached for the cup. Diantha took after her mother’s side of the family—a handsome people. Her skin was lovely, with an almost olive tint to it, but now it was the color of paste. Her pallor was greater than he had ever seen—even during her worst moments of labor. Beads of sweat clung to her forehead as she tried to hold the cup to her lips and her hands trembled.
“I can’t do this,” she said.
He grabbed the cup before it could spill onto the coverlet.
“Please try to sip some, sweetheart.” He held the cup to her lips.
She took two swallows before she fell back against the pillows. “My head hurts so.” She pressed both hands against her temples. “I can’t stand it.”
“Give the coffee a chance to work, honey,” her father said.
“I’m so cold.” Her teeth began to chatter, in spite of the fire Richard had built in the fireplace. “Josh, get me another blanket.”
Virgie whipped a heavy quilt from the foot of the bed. “Here.” She handed it to him, her face pinched with worry.
He tucked the quilt around his wife, wondering how she could keep from suffocating with so many layers over her.
Suddenly, she writhed beneath the quilts, grabbed her stomach, and threw up into an empty bucket her mother had placed beside the bed when she had first complained of feeling ill.
She fell back against the pillows once again, her eyes closed tight against the pain, her face twisted into a grimace. Joshua had seen a great deal of suffering in his lifetime, especially on the battlefield, but he had never seen anything like what his wife was experiencing.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said, as much to himself as to Virgie and Richard. “She was fine this morning at breakfast.”
“What did she eat?” her mother asked.
“Cornmeal mush and milk.” He shook his head, unable to think of anything that could have caused this. “She ate from the same bowls as the children and me, then she drank a cup of tea while we planned our day.”
Virgie poured water into a washbasin on a nearby stand, dipped a washrag in it, wrung it out, and placed it on her daughter’s forehead. “There, honey. Maybe that will help your head feel better.”
“She went for a short walk in the woods behind the cabin,” Joshua continued. “With that good rain we got yesterday, and with the dogwood tree blossoms the size of a squirrel’s ears—she wanted to hunt for some morel mushrooms she could fry for supper tonight.”
“Could she have gotten ahold of some kind of poison mushroom?” Virgie asked.
“The girl has enough sense to know the difference between a good morel and them poison mushrooms some people mistake for ’em—like the ones that killed that poor woman down by Forestville last spring,” Richard said. “I taught Diantha myself. She knows how to be careful. I guarantee it ain’t mushroom poisoning.”
“I didn’t eat any mushrooms,” Diantha said, pulling the damp cloth from her forehead and dropping it on the floor. “Can I have some water?”
Richard left and came back with a tin cup. He held it to his daughter’s lips. “Here, honey. I just now drew it up from the well so it would be nice and cool.”
Diantha took one sip and began retching.
Joshua grabbed the bucket and held it while his wife emptied what little remained in her stomach. “My head hurts so bad!” Diantha pressed her hands against her temples again and rolled her head back and forth on the pillow. “Make it stop, Mama, make it stop. Please make it stop!”
“We need Dr. Allard,” Joshua said. “We need him right now.”
“I’ll go,” Richard said.
“No.” Joshua looked up from where he was sitting on the side of her bed. “My horse is faster, and I’m a better rider. I’ll go.” He realized how arrogant that sounded. “I’m sorry, Richard, I meant no offense.”
“It’s true, though,” Richard said. “After four years in the cavalry, you’re a much better rider than me. You should be the one to go.”
Diantha grappled at his shirt. “Don’t leave me, Josh!”
Joshua had never been so torn in his life. He wanted to get Doc Allard as fast as possible, but how could he leave his wife when she was begging him to stay?
At that moment, her body began writhing in pain and then she started convulsing and tearing at her hair. A moan escaped her lips, her body arched, went limp, and she was suddenly and completely . . . still.
Joshua and his in-laws looked at each other, all three of them wild-eyed. Virgie began to shake her roughly. “Diantha! Wake up!”
Joshua reached for her wrist and felt for a pulse, but there was none.
“Don’t you do this to me, Diantha Mae,” Virgie cried. “Don’t you lay there playing possum, a-trying to scare me like you did when you was a girl!” Virgie slapped her daughter in the face, over and over. “You wake up now. You wake up right this minute!”
“Stop it!” Richard grabbed Virgie and pulled her away from the bed.
Virgie shook him off, ran for the smelling salts, and waved them frantically beneath Diantha’s nose. When there was no response, Virgie’s shoulders slumped in defeat. She sat down on the floor beside the bed and began to wail, holding on to her daughter’s hand, rocking back and forth in her great grief.
Virgie’s cries sounded as raw and primal as those of a wounded animal. In some far-off place of Joshua’s mind, he wondered if his mother-in-law could live through this after already having buried six other children.
“Not her too, Lord,” she sobbed. “Not the only baby I got left.”
“I’ll go for the doctor now.” Richard’s voice was tired and resigned. He had endured this agony six times before, and the weariness of grief was already etched deeply into every line of his body.
Joshua was paralyzed with shock. They had four little girls and a three-month-old baby boy. The girls were upstairs in the loft playing. The oldest, twelve-year-old Agnes, was keeping an eye on her three younger sisters and baby brother.
He should go to them, but he couldn’t seem to stop sitting there, staring at his wife, trying to pull his mind together, trying to absorb the fact that she was . . . gone. How could Diantha just up and . . . die?
The rhythmic hoofbeats of Richard riding off to fetch the now-useless doctor filled the room. Virgie lay sobbing on the floor. Joshua steeled himself against giving in to an outpouring of grief. He could not allow himself the luxury of falling apart. Not yet. He needed to go to his children.
Drawing upon every bit of willpower he had, he closed his wife’s lovely green eyes, took one last look at her perfect face, ran his hand over her dark brown hair, placed a kiss on her forehead, and then pulled the sheet up over her body and face. She had never been a large woman, barely coming to his shoulder. Now, in death, beneath the sheet, she looked so very small.
MAY 19, 1871
“You stupid cow!” Mrs. Millicent Bowers leaped to her feet and swished her rose-colored silk skirt away from the broken tea set lying on the floor. “Why my husband ever hired you, I’ll never know! The cost of that steamboat ticket to bring you here from Detroit was a complete waste!”
Millicent was furious; her glossy brown ringlets—which took Ingrid forever to curl each morning—trembled.
Ingrid ducked her head, avoiding her mistress’s blazing eyes, and fell to her knees, gathering the broken pieces back on to the heavily laden tea tray she had dropped.
“That set was imported from England and it cost the earth! What’s wrong with you!” At that point, Millicent burst into tears, fell facedown upon the sofa, and began to beat the cushions like a child throwing a temper tantrum. In Ingrid’s opinion, this was ridiculous behavior for a grown woman, but it wasn’t the first time she had witnessed it. Millicent—an aging belle from Virginia who had not yet reconciled herself to living in the “wilds” of Michigan—was, in Ingrid’s eyes, a spoiled brat.
She seldom understood why her mistress acted the way she did, but it wasn’t her place to understand. She only had to work for the woman, a job that was getting more tedious every day.
Still, she was aghast at the breakage. The tea set had been lovely, with hand-painted cabbage roses on a creamy white background, and it was not easy to come by nice things in this “godforsaken, backwoods hole in the ground.” At least that’s what Millicent told everyone within earshot on a daily basis.
Perhaps the state of Virginia had been next door to heaven before Mr. Lincoln’s war. Ingrid didn’t know and she didn’t care. In her opinion, a woman with a roof over her head, money to spend, and a husband who doted on her did not have any reason to complain. However, if there was ever a woman determined to make a career out of being unhappy, it was Millicent Bowers.
“I am sorry.” Ingrid struggled to speak the words correctly. Millicent hated it when she spoke in broken English. “It was a—accident.”
As she mopped up the mess with a dishcloth, saddened by the waste of the good pastry over which she had labored, she felt a stinging sensation across her shoulders. She jerked around and, to her astonishment, saw Millicent leaning over her, a look of flushed triumph on her face and a riding crop in her hand. Before Ingrid could recover from her surprise, the crop came down upon her again and again, slashing across her face and ripping a tear in her dress before she could put a hand out to stop it.
“I’ll teach you to destroy my things,” Millicent crowed.
Ingrid fell onto her bottom and scooted backward, shocked speechless.
Her mistress was a fretful, thoughtless woman with no responsibilities and countless imagined illnesses. She frequently gave in to small, verbal cruelties to relieve her boredom, but she had never before physically attacked her.
As the blows rained down upon Ingrid’s head and shoulders, she saw that Millicent’s face had changed from complete despair to unabashed glee.
Fortunately, her mistress was not in the best of shape. Her indolent half-invalid state had robbed her of stamina. Her corset made it impossible for her to draw a full breath.
Millicent stopped, pressed her hand against her stomach, and tried to recover by breathing in short, shallow, dog-like pants. This gave Ingrid enough time to scramble to her feet.
For the first time since her decision to come to America, Ingrid felt real anger. Dropping a tea set was unfortunate, but being beaten for it was not acceptable. After working for Millicent this past month, she felt bottomless sympathy for the woman’s former slaves.
She stepped over the broken china and snatched the riding crop away. Millicent raised her hand to slap her—just as a male voice sliced through the air.
“What’s going on here?”
Millicent’s hand dropped. In an instant, she arranged her face into a picture of simpering, sweet womanhood. Ingrid watched, amazed, as Millicent deliberately exchanged one facial expression for another, as quickly and efficiently as changing a hat. Ingrid had never learned the art of pretending to be anyone except exactly who she was, a twenty-four-year-old Swedish woman who could outwork anybody she knew.
“Oh—it’s you.” Surprisingly, once Millicent turned and saw the man, her voice did not drip honey.
“Is your husband here, ma’am?” the man asked.
She turned her back on him.
The rudeness of her attitude came as another shock. Ingrid had yet to see the man whom Millicent did not try to captivate.
“I came to the mercantile to pay my bill,” the man said. “Your husband wasn’t there.”
“Leave the money on the table.” Millicent nodded toward one of many useless decorative pieces of furniture crowding the sitting room. “Then, I’ll thank you to leave, Mr. Hunter.”
Hunter? Ingrid searched her memory. Why was Millicent, who loved the attention of a male—any male—being so dismissive? It was especially surprising because Mr. Hunter was an exceptionally handsome man. He was over six feet tall, broad of shoulder, and perfect in form.
He pulled some worn-looking bills from his pocket and laid them on the table. Something about the way he unfolded and smoothed them out made Ingrid think that the money had not come easily.
“Are you all right, ma’am?”
To Ingrid’s surprise, he appeared to be speaking to her. He was dressed in a farmer’s work clothes, had the bluest eyes she had ever seen, and yes, they were most definitely looking straight at her. She noticed that his chestnut-brown hair, which curled over his shirt collar, was in bad need of a trim.
“You’re bleeding,” he pointed out.
Ingrid’s hand flew to her face, where there was a trickle of blood. She wondered how much he had seen through the open door before he interrupted. Heat suffused her neck and face at the realization that he had seen her being treated like a disobedient dog.
“Don’t worry about her,” Millicent said. “This clumsy girl cut herself when she broke my tea set.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Get back to work, Ingrid.”
To Ingrid’s astonishment, Mr. Hunter did not allow himself to be dismissed. “Shouldn’t she have those cuts tended to first?” His voice held real concern.
Ingrid blinked. Her wounds meant nothing to her at the moment. She was too busy studying this man who was taking up for her.
Mr. Hunter was worried about her—an overworked, badly treated housemaid.
It was the first real kindness she had received since arriving in White Rock, Michigan. At that moment, in the blink of an eye, Ingrid fell head over heels in love with a perfect stranger.
Millicent had a different opinion of Mr. Hunter. She slowly turned back around to face the man. “When I want the advice of a wife killer, I’ll ask for it.”
The man looked as though he had been punched in the stomach, but he quickly recovered.
“I’d take it kindly if you wouldn’t go spreading that rumor around, Mrs. Bowers. I have little children to raise.” He politely tipped his hat to them and left.
Ingrid’s eyes followed him. There was something about Mr. Hunter, his concern for her, as well as the calm way he had dealt with Millicent’s accusation, that made her wish she could follow him right on out the door.
“That tea set will be taken out of your pay, you know,” Millicent hissed when he was out of earshot.
Ingrid wasn’t at all surprised.
Shaken by Millicent’s accusations, Joshua Hunter walked to his wagon outside the Bowerses’ home. His daughter Agnes sat on the wooden seat, holding the reins of their patient driving horse, Buttons.
He had come to town to pay his bills and to pick up supplies. Although he knew that there had been some crazy talk from his mother-in-law about him being responsible for Diantha’s death, he hadn’t expected anyone to take her seriously. A coldness had developed between him and Richard, with whom he had always had a cordial relationship. He figured his grieving in-laws were resentful that their daughter was gone . . . and he was the one left alive.
But wife killer? Is this what people in town were saying about him?
No wonder there was going to be an inquest tomorrow into the cause of Diantha’s death! The official who had given him the subpoena had not told him that he was a suspect.
Overwhelmed with the care of his children, dealing with his own grief, trying to get his fields planted—he had not realized that others might be echoing what Virgie had been saying.
He knew, of course, that a small town starved for news would manufacture its own, but Diantha’s death had evidently set the gossips’ tongues wagging in ways he had not anticipated.
When he returned to the wagon, a fight was brewing in the back between two of his little girls, Ellie and Trudy. It seemed like there was always some sort of altercation going on between those two. His wife had not been much of a disciplinarian, but things had gotten worse since she died.
Unfortunately, he had little idea of how to deal with the girls’ disobedience and perpetual fussing with each other. Give him a regiment of men, and he knew how to lead them and keep proper discipline in the ranks. Give him a battle, and he would fight and, if given half a chance, would probably win.
He knew how to fight a war, but military battles had not prepared him for a house filled with little girls. Domestic issues left him at a complete loss, which reminded him of that young Swedish woman whom George Bowers had hired. She was definitely having a hard time of it. A whip, for goodness sake! Millicent had been using a whip on her! He didn’t even use whips on his animals. The scene he had walked into had been a shock. He was glad he had been able to interrupt it.
The hired girl had worn a shapeless brown garment that was faded and worn. She was also as thin as a rail—shockingly thin. There was no excuse for this. George’s store was well stocked and prosperous. The Bowerses could certainly afford to give her a new dress and enough to eat.
George was a decent enough man, except for being a complete pushover when it came to his wife. Joshua had never particularly cared one way or another about Millicent, but now he felt a real revulsion toward her.
“Pa! Pa! Ellie’s a-hurting me!”
“Now what’s going on?” Joshua was exasperated. “What are you two fussing about now?”
Twelve-year-old Agnes seemed unperturbed by the battle taking place between her sisters in the back of the wagon. She rolled her eyes and shrugged at his questioning glance.
“Ellie keeps taking my marble.” Trudy, his six-year-old towhead, wiped her nose on her sleeve and then pointed her finger at her sister.
“Why are you trying to take your sister’s marble, Ellie?”
“I gots to have me somethin’ to play with.” Ellie, a solid little five-year-old with curly brown hair and freckles, stuck out her lower lip. “Aggie took my slingshot away.”
Joshua climbed into the wagon. “Why did you take your sister’s slingshot?” He took the reins from Agnes’s fingers. One of the many challenges of raising his family alone was having to drag the girls along with him everywhere he went. Sometimes it felt like he was traveling with a circus. It was tempting to leave them all at home, but he was afraid he’d come back and find one of them strung up by her shoestrings.
“Ellie hit the rear end of Buttons with a big ol’ rock,” Agnes explained. “He nearly run off, but I held him back.”
Joshua turned around and gave Ellie a hard stare. “Did you do that?”
“I didn’t mean to,” Ellie said. “My hand slipped.”
“But you were aiming at Buttons when it slipped?”
“Yep,” Ellie admitted. It might have been his imagination, but he could have sworn he heard a note of pride in the little girl’s voice.
“I’ll take that slingshot away from you for good if you ever let it ‘accidentally’ slip and hit that horse again.” Considering how things had been going around his house, he added just to be on the safe side, “Or if it ‘accidentally’ hits one of your sisters.”
“It won’t happen again, Pa.”
He made a clicking sound with his tongue, and Buttons obediently headed down the old logging road to their home. For a moment, he thought he had managed to establish peace among his girls. Then a wheel hit a rock and his youngest daughter, three-year-old Polly, let out a yowl. She had been in the process of standing up, and the bump had caused her to fall.
Ellie and Trudy scrambled over to comfort her. All three huddled in the corner of the back of the wagon, glaring at him like little animals—as though Polly’s discomfort was all his fault.
Other men had daughters who were demure and well behaved . . . but not him.
Diantha had not been like other mothers. Some women endured childbirth, then forgot the pain and fell in love with their children, doting on them from the moment they were born. With Diantha it was the opposite. She always felt at her strongest while carrying a child, gave birth as easily as a cat, and then seemed to lose interest in each child soon after their birth. The older their daughters grew, the more disinterested she became. She went through the motions, but he could tell her heart was not in motherhood.
He had never figured it out. Coming home to his little girls every evening was his reward after a hard day’s work—even if they did sometimes act like they had been raised by wolves.
Marriage to Diantha had meant being perpetually off balance because he had never known what to expect. During their courtship, he found her mercurial mood swings fascinating. After thirteen years of marriage, he wished her up-and-down emotions would even out.
Some days he would come home to domestic bliss. Diantha would be humming while doing some household task, and the girls would be gathered around the kitchen table, happily involved in some small project that she had created for them. She would be neatly dressed and she would have taken the time to smooth her hair back into a bun. She would greet him with enthusiasm, and the evening would be memorable.
Other times, especially after the birth of little Bertie, he would come home to find the children unkempt and hungry, the baby soiled and screaming in his cradle, and Diantha sitting on the front porch, her hair in tangles, staring into the woods, barely able to acknowledge his arrival.
He had been at a loss to know how to help her or how to read her. All he knew was that she sometimes struggled with emotions that he could not understand.
Well, at least she would no longer have to endure the hardscrabble life they had been living as they waited for his cherry tree orchard to mature. If he could hang on for one more year, and if the weather cooperated, he would have a good first crop next year.
His goal was to have enough to ship down to the markets in Detroit. If he packed the cherries well, they would survive the one-day steamboat trip just fine, and people were always hungry for fresh fruit after a Michigan winter.
Much of the land that had been opened by the timber cutters was not rich land. It had a thinner layer of topsoil than anyone had expected. The good first crop the farmers had gotten from the virgin soil had given everyone hope, but it was misleading. He was barely eking out a living with his oats, wheat, and corn. It was only a matter of time before the land played out. It had occurred to him that if there was one thing that Michigan soil appeared to be good at, it was growing trees. He figured if Michigan could grow giant pine trees and heavy forests of hardwood, it would also grow excellent fruit trees. A mixed orchard was his goal, to be built over a period of years.
There were already fine cherry tree orchards springing up all over the northwestern part of Michigan—progeny of the trees a Presbyterian missionary had planted back in ’52 on Old Mission Peninsula. He saw no reason why he couldn’t establish an equally lucrative cherry orchard. All it took was time and patience.
Sometimes he wondered if Diantha’s strange behavior had been because her life was simply too hard—that it caused her to “go away” in her mind from time to time.
“I wish you were still here, sweetheart,” he whispered to a wife who was no longer beside him. “Just one more year and your life would have been so much easier.”
“Mama can’t hear you,” Agnes pointed out.
“I know. It just helps ease the pain to talk to her sometimes.”
“But it don’t make good sense—talking to someone who ain’t here,” she insisted.
Agnes had been born with more common sense than some people achieved in a lifetime. He seldom bothered to argue with her, because it never did any good. Agnes knew what she knew.
“Polly just filled her britches,” Ellie called. “Pee-eew!” From the nasal sound of Ellie’s voice, he knew she was holding her nose.
Joshua glanced back. Polly was sitting in the corner of the wagon upon a little mound of straw, hugging her rag dolly with a guilty look on her face.
“I reckon I got to go tend to her now,” Agnes said. “I wish she’d learn to go to the toilet like a normal person. I’m sick of washing diapers.”
Agnes climbed over the seat into the back of their small farm wagon, turned her little sister onto her back, and removed the gray flannel diaper.
“We’re in luck,” Agnes announced. “It ain’t juicy.”
After Agnes had changed the little girl’s diaper, she propped Polly up, handed her the doll, and then leaned back against the side of the wagon with her arm around her baby sister.
“Did you get Mr. Bowers paid off?” Agnes called from the back of the wagon.
“Took about everything we got, didn’t it?”
“Mr. Bowers deserves to be paid.”
“Still, it’s gonna be a lean summer unless you get another carpenter job.”
He couldn’t argue with that. “Probably.”
“You ain’t planning on farming us out to other people like you did little Bertie, are you?”
Farming them out? Was that what his children thought he was doing? He couldn’t care for an infant while doing his spring planting. Virgie might be angry at him, but she was wonderful with her little grandson.
“No. Of course not.”
Not unless he was on trial tomorrow and did not know it. Millicent’s comment worried him.
Another small altercation broke out between Ellie and Trudy. Joshua glanced back to see what the problem was this time. Evidently Ellie had managed to get her hand into Trudy’s pocket, and now they were fighting over the marble again. Ellie refused to let go. Trudy held on, and the result was a pocket ripped and hanging by one corner.
“You girls stop fighting or I’ll come back there and tan your hides!”
It was an empty threat, and everyone in the wagon knew it.
Agnes calmly reached over, captured the much-sought-after marble, and stuffed it into her stocking. Then she settled back again with her arm around Polly.
Ellie started to make a dive for the marble, but Agnes stopped her with one hand. “You just try it,” she warned. “You’ll be eating mush without any milk tomorrow morning.”
Ellie settled back. If there was one thing the little girl loved, it was milk.
An uneasy peace settled over his family.
“We’re going past Grandma’s house,” Agnes said. “You suppose she’d let us see little Bertie today?”
“Doubt it,” Joshua said. “She wouldn’t let me see him last week when I came by. She’s having a real hard time getting over losing your mama.”
“Maybe she’d let me,” Agnes said. “Maybe she’ll even let me hold him.”
“I’ll stop, but don’t get your hopes up. Your grandma is going through a bad time. She’ll be easier to get along with by and by after she has time to sort things out in her head.”
Joshua pulled back on the reins and allowed Agnes to clamber out. He watched the girl knock repeatedly on the door of the cabin, but his mother-in-law chose not to answer. He wasn’t surprised, but he did not understand. Even if she was embittered against him, there was no call to take it out on the girls.
Downcast, Agnes came back to the wagon. “She’s in there, Pa. I heard her moving around, but she won’t come to the door. Not even for me.”
It hurt him to see Agnes’s disappointment. Big gray eyes, dark hair in two long braids, and a heart-shaped face like her mother’s. He hoped she had not inherited Diantha’s penchant for melancholy, but there had been no sign of it yet. Agnes was the most stable person in their whole family.
“It’s just that she’s hurting so bad over your mama.”
“Aren’t we all?” Agnes muttered as she climbed back onto the seat beside him.