New Castle County
Christina River Valley, 1740
Heedless of the home-stitched stockings showing at her knees, Raelene Strattford ran down the tree-lined lane, her skirts flying behind her. Strands of hair from her crown of braids came loose and flailed in the cool breeze. After being cooped inside the house for the past week, abed with a fever, it should have been refreshing, but Raelene was distracted by the lone wagon coming toward her.
It wasn't the one she expected. This one belonged to her neighbors, not her mother and father. One man drove it at a dirge-like pace as another walked alongside, both with heads down. But what made Raelene run even harder were the two workhorses tied behind it. Her family's workhorses! That could only mean. . .
A sob tore through her body.
Her pounding heart beat her voice dead in her throat, but not the furtive prayers for this not to be what it seemed, what she feared. As she reached the wagon, her mouth as parched as the dirt beneath her feet, the driver halted the horses.
Raelene couldn't recall her neighbors' names, not with the panic racing through her mind.
"I am sorry, miss," the larger of the two said, stepping between her and the wagon. The cocky farm boy had actually had the nerve to ask her father permission to court her. What was his name?
"There is no way to break bad news," the older man interjected.
Bad news. His heavily accented words halted her steps, as if delaying facing what she feared might change things. But her mind refused to stand still. What would she find? God forbid, they couldn't be dead. They just couldn't be. She wouldn't know unless she looked. But could she bear it?
The wall of a man stepped out of her way. His large, gentle hand cupped her elbow, nudging her forward. With hesitant steps and dread filling her being, Raelene reached the solid wood gate across the back of the serviceable wagon. She looked inside.
Mama used to tease her that she had a wild imagination, but nothing Raelene could conjure in her mind compared to this. This was horribly real.
Mama and Papa lay in the back of the wagon, bloodied and battered. She covered her mouth to catch the moan rising from the center of her anguish, but it escaped. And with it, Raelene's strength. Her knees buckled, and she would have landed on the ground had it not been for two strong arms that held her upright.
"Here now! Do not fall. You are safe."
Bewildered, she looked into a pair of striking and sympathetic indigo eyes. Gustaf Hanssen. That was the name of the man who had disrupted her life last year with his suit, focusing more on her land than on her. The older man was his father, Jarel.
"If you say what you want us to do. . ." Gustaf broke off, awkward, his choppy English making it difficult to follow. He seemed to have trouble only when speaking with her, but somehow she managed to grasp his meaning.
What she wanted them to do? She wanted them to make this go away. But for all the compassion in his gaze, he couldn't do that. She had to deal with this herself.
At the sound of a moan, Raelene shifted her gaze back to the bodies on the ragged bed of hay and blankets.
They were alive! God had heard her half-formed prayers of panic and answered them.
Raelene tried to climb onto the wagon bed but couldn't find footing until Gustaf gave her a boot up.
"Hurry," she told him. "We have got to get them home. . .in bed. . .where I can take care of them."
Their clothes were torn, and fresh blood seeped through the makeshift bandages over their numerous wounds. Neither of her parents answered her call or opened their eyes. They both lay still, but the slow rise and fall of their chests gave Raelene hope.
As the wagon lurched forward toward the house, Gustaf's father gave his account of what had happened.
"Accident. . .horses scared. . .runaway. . .loose bolt. . ."
The words barely penetrated. Her focus remained fixed on the labored breaths of her beloved parents. She wasn't going to lose them. The idea gripped her heart like a vise. No, she'd take care of them, nurse them back to health like they'd done for her on many occasions. And for that, she had to be strong.
Raelene spoke softly to her parents, assuring them they'd be fine, but cut off her words when the wagon stopped in front of the little three-room farmhouse. Puffs of smoke curled up from the chimney, but the usual comfort that filled her at the sight of her home deserted her.
Gustaf lifted her down from the wagon as though she were a doll. Mr. Hanssen descended from the seat to stand beside his son.
"We sent for doctor. I pray he come before—"
"Before what?" Raelene pulled away from the big hands enveloping her waist, took a step back, and shifted her gaze between the two men. Gustaf spoke first.
"Your parents, they are broken inside and out."
Cringing at the thought, Raelene held her ground. "I appreciate what you have done, sir, but if you would get them inside, we will let the doctor be the judge of that."
Neither her mother nor her father regained consciousness as Gustaf and his father carried them into the bedroom off the kitchen. Both men ducked as they stepped down into the room. At a loss for what to do, Raelene set about warming water to wash the dirt and blood away, while the men stepped outside to wait by the wagon. It helped to stay busy. Busy meant she didn't have to think about what the young man had said. And she had to keep praying.
Yet for all her prayer, words of comfort, and care, Mama and Papa remained unresponsive.
"They are here, Doctor." Mr. Hanssen's voice carried from just outside the main door.
Doctor. Raelene hadn't heard his carriage arrive. Hope surged in her chest. Everything would be all right. It had to be.
Dr. Schuylar asked Raelene to leave the room. She watched the door close behind him and stared at it. She had hated closed doors since she was little. Even the stairs by the fireplace that led up to her loft had a door that she always left open. Closed doors separated her from the people she loved.
No, she was just being foolish. Raelene raised her hand to her forehead and found it warmer than it should have been.
Lord, this is no time for my fever to return. I must be well for Mama and Papa.
A chair scraped near the stone hearth. Raelene turned to find Gustaf seated on a bench at the small, round table by the diamond-paned window. His father pressed a steaming cup of tea into her hands before mumbling something about fetching someone else. The heat from the cup seeped into her skin. Emotionless, she raised the tin cup to her lips and drank the hot liquid. The strong flavor awakened her taste buds. Warmth flowed through her body, bringing her back to some semblance of reality.
Raelene glanced about the small room, bringing the handcarved shelves in the little kitchen into focus. In slow order, she saw the whitewashed walls and the cast-iron cooking supplies hung or placed around the fireplace. Minimal personal treasures retrieved from the chests of items stored in the doctor's barn in town decorated the shelves. Papa had plans to build a larger home, and until then, he'd allowed Mama to set out a few things. Her perusal stopped when she again looked at Gustaf.
His brown doublet strained across broad shoulders and barely concealed the work-hardened muscles of his upper torso. The beige breeches disappeared into dark stockings, both covering long, lean limbs. She raised her gaze to his face. Gustaf 's chiseled jaw and wide mouth gave way to a narrow nose and deep-set blue eyes.
Realization dawned on her the moment she caught Gustaf's sympathetic gaze. The memory of his strong arms holding her steady and the piercing intensity of his eyes made her skin tingle. Heat stole into Raelene's cheeks. Why did Gustaf Hanssen have to be the one to find her parents?
"We put horses away and give them food."
Raelene forced herself to focus on his words.
"Far go to bring Mor."
Some remnants of the hospitality Mama ingrained in Raelene surfaced. "Thank you, Mr.—"
"To please," he interrupted. "I am Gustaf."
But that wouldn't do. She didn't want to give him any ideas when she'd settle for nothing less than a gentleman as a beau. "Thank you, Mr. Hanssen, for bringing my parents home."
She glanced at the cup in her hands. His father had seen to her needs. She should do the same for Gustaf. Rubbing her hands on her skirts, Raelene started toward the hearth, where Mama always kept a kettle of water heating.
"Can I pour you some tea? I imagine the doctor will want some when he is through. . .and Mama loves tea." She was rambling. She couldn't help it. "She says tea is good for all occasions."
Raelene reached for the handle of the teakettle, realizing too late that she'd forgotten to use a towel. With a gasp, she let it go and jumped away as the kettle struck the stone hearth, splattering its scalding contents. The liquid sizzled on the open flame.
In an instant, Gustaf was at her side, sweeping her out of harm's way. "Here." He took her hand in his. "I look."
Tears that had refused to spill at the sight of her parents' injuries flooded her eyes as the young man blew on the burn. A shiver ran up Raelene's arm, and she tensed her muscles in response.
"You have medicine?" Gustaf asked between breaths.
He had a strong, rugged face, Swedish fair. The room swirled around it at a dizzying speed. Raelene's head felt like she'd been twirling with a vengeance and then stopped to look at the sky. Except this sky churned with dark clouds rushing in from all sides, blotting out the light—and nearly everything else. It made her sway.
The floor beneath her seemed to give way, and she floated above it. Jostled and shifted until her new position became comfortable, Raelene realized Gustaf carried her. The heat from the fireplace warmed her, but she shivered. Gustaf's arms tightened around her back and legs. Raelene leaned against his solid chest, seeking the comfort and strength she had lost.
She buried her head against Gustaf's neck, hot tears soaking through his coarse shirt. Not a thought was given to propriety. Raelene only knew she needed the reassurance he offered. As Gustaf pivoted around the table in the center of the room, the roof began to spin above her, and Raelene succumbed to the blackness that welcomed her.
* * * * *
When Raelene opened her eyes, Gustaf sat in a chair next to her cot by the back wall of the kitchen. Since her fever, her parents had moved her cot to the kitchen from her bedroom in the loft.
"You are awake. This is good."
Raelene opened her mouth to speak but found her throat dry. She swallowed several times. "What happened?" Even that sounded hoarse.
"You burn your hand on teakettle." He nodded toward her hand, now wrapped and resting across her abdomen. "Your recent illness make you sleep longer. Doctor give me medicine and bandage. You lucky burn not worse."
She cradled her injured hand with her other one and looked away. "Your kindness is appreciated."
"It is least I can do."
Raelene took a deep breath and exhaled. At the footsteps sounding from her parents' bedchamber, memory of their battered bodies returned. "My parents!"
"Doctor is with them still."
She looked at Gustaf. "Mr. Hanssen, tell me about the accident. Please."
Gustaf ran his hand over his mouth and whiskered jaw and sighed. He reached out and clasped her hands in his, as if preparing her for the worst. "A snake scare the horses as your mor and far come from church. The horses kick up and shake bolt loose. Far and I try to stop them, but they run at full gallop. Wagon was not able to handle bumps and holes in road." He paused. "Before we catch them, the bolt came out, and the wagon fell over side of hill. Your mor and far fall down with it."
Raelene withdrew her hands from his large ones. She immediately felt the loss of his warmth and touch, but stared straight ahead. "Thank you," she whispered, growing warm beneath his compassionate gaze. Although the man lacked the polish of her English cousins, he was kind. . .and gallant in his own awkward way.
"I wish I can do more."
The opening of the bedchamber door spared Raelene from replying.
Dr. Schuylar emerged. "Your father is asking for you."
Raelene brightened. That had to be good. She shot to her feet, astonished when she had to lean on Gustaf 's proffered arm. With the shock of all that had happened and having barely recovered from a fever, it was no wonder.
"I–I am fine now," she said to Gustaf, when his touch lingered.
"No, wait." Dr. Schuylar held her back. "Sit down, dear."
"But he is ask—"
"Raelene, your mother is no longer with us."
Raelene sank into the chair Gustaf had just vacated, struck with disbelief. What would she and her father do without Mother? God, please let this be a nightmare. Please let me wake up and find it's all the fever.
Dr. Schuylar placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "There is more, child."
Raelene stared unseeing at the hooked rug she and Mama had made, its pattern nothing but a blur.
"Your mother. . .she. . ." He squeezed Raelene's shoulder. "She was with child."
Child? The word numbed her thoughts. Then the pain resumed with renewed fervor. She couldn't have imagined the situation worse, yet it was. The answer to her parents' sixteen-year prayer also taken away. A tortured sound strangled in her throat.
What kind of God would allow this?
"You must pull yourself together as best you can for your father, dear," Doc Schuylar continued. "I am afraid he does not have much time."
Raelene's head shot up. "But he is talking."
"He is holding on for you, Raelene." The doctor helped her up from the chair and led her to the bedchamber door. "God will be with you."
He hasn't been thus far. Raelene gathered what remnant of strength remained, facing the door as if it were an executioner. God hadn't been there for her mother and the baby. He wasn't there for her father. Her father was dying. No, if Raelene had to be strong, it would be on her own.
"Thank you, Doctor," she said, her voice that of an oddly calm stranger. "I know you have done all you can."
Raelene paused at the threshold as if stepping over it would force her to face the cold, hard truth. Her mother and the baby she carried were dead. Her father lay dying. She couldn't let him see her in tears.
Taking a step down into the small room, she walked toward the two straw beds that lay against the opposite wall. A pitcher and basin with fresh water rested on a stand between the beds. Flimsy white curtains fluttered at the windows, but the fresh breeze couldn't hide the smell of death hovering around the room. A lone wooden chair sat in front of the stand, and Raelene approached it. She placed her hands on the back, trying not to look at her mother's corpse.
Her father's hoarse whisper drew her to his bedside. He lay bathed in sweat, a mere shadow of the strong man she knew and loved. His square jaw was bandaged, and his silver-streaked, dark brown hair matted against his face. The life had all but gone from his light blue eyes.
Raelene brushed back a stray lock of hair from her father's forehead. She held her tears in check. He'd always admonished her to be strong, no matter what atrocities and unfairness were dealt in the hand of life.
With difficulty, Papa took Raelene's hands in his own.
"Oh, Railey," he whispered. His next breath sounded garbled, and she knew their time together would be brief. "What will. . .do without me?"
Raelene tried to choke back a sob but couldn't. "Papa. . ."
He squeezed her hand. "Shh. . .no tears. . .rejoice. Eternity awaits."
She glanced over her shoulder at the other bed. Was that where Mama and the baby were now? "But, Papa. . ."
Duncan followed her gaze and sighed. "I shall be with her soon."
Joy touched his gaze. How could he feel joy in the midst of this tragedy?
He squeezed her hand. "With God. . .we will watch. . .you." A pain-filled but reassuring smile formed on his lips. He winced, and his breath caught. "Our land. . ."
"I'll take care of it, Papa. But I can't do it alone." Raelene sniffed. "I need you, Papa."
Her father struggled to take another breath. His pain added to hers. "Not alone. . .have help."
Help? From where? From whom?
"God. . ." He closed his eyes, then opened them and looked straight at her. "Remember. . .God. . .is with you."
"I need you, Papa, not God. Do you hear me?"
He put his hand on Raelene's lap, his gaze fixed across the small divide where his wife lay. "Help me, Railey. I want to touch her once more."
Numb, Raelene took her mother's still-warm hand and joined it with her father's, holding the two together with her own.
She didn't know how long she held them, her eyes squeezed tight against the flood of tears building behind them. Raelene couldn't think. She could only feel the loss of the present and of that to come. It was unbearable, yet she was bearing it.
Bearing it in silence. The labor of her father's breath no longer racked the room. She opened her eyes to see that his eyes were closed as if he'd slipped off to sleep, a sleep as still and eternal as that of her mother. Their pain was gone.
Hers had just begun.
The depth of that pain hit her. She cried for her mother, for her father, for her unknown brother or sister, for the family back home across the ocean. Finally, she cried for herself, for how much she would miss them, for how unfair it was that she couldn't be with them. What would she do now?
Bitterness and anger welled, joining the desolation that filled her. Not wanting to stay in the room where death filled every crack and crevice, Raelene wiped her eyes, stood, and headed for the kitchen. Four people watched her as she emerged, but grief blinded her to their identities.
"They are. . .they are both gone." Her announcement carried a sense of finality, taking her last sliver of strength.
Raelene took one stumbling step before her legs gave out. The crash of a wooden bench reached her ears at the same time two strong arms caught her. Anger at God was the last thought Raelene had before she succumbed to the blackness that welcomed her.