Aprils in Lecompte, Louisiana, were spectacular, especially af-ter a spring rain. New life was bursting forth with the world full of rainbow colors and delightful fragrances. The days could be long and lingering and the mugginess heavy, but it was all worth it in the beautiful countryside.
Liz sat across from her grandfather in the comfortable par-lor. The essence of gardenias and magnolias floated through the open window and filled the room with their sweet scents. The curtains fluttered and hung on the breeze.
She always felt secure and calm with her grandfather. Even at his advanced age, he still seemed strong as an ox. He stood tall, with a thick chest and a heart of gold. His thick gray hair and whiskered chin gave him a ruggedly handsome look.
With a smile that reflected the wisdom of many years, Grandpa Lucas took his work-worn hands and patted her small ones.
“So our decision has been made?”
It was a statement as much as a question. He looked at his granddaughter, and she remained silent. Liz had made her decision the night before while standing on the white porch as the rain poured down. But could she live up to it now? She knew her attitude would set the mood for all the other women. This plan had been in the making for quite some time and wasn’t new to any of them. But now, as the time grew clos-er and closer, she felt unsure. She had just lost her husband, Caleb, and now would be leaving her home too.
“Liz, I firmly believe this is the right thing to do. We will look back and be pleased with our decision.”
Lucas Mailly had always treated the women in his family with respect and allowed them to voice their opinions. He en-couraged their education and urged them to become leaders among their peers. He would never have forced any of this change on them.
Liz spoke softly and looked at his loving hands covering hers. “So do I. I’m ready to start planning and packing,” she said as she smiled at her grandfather, reassuring him with her choice. “We can be ready in a few weeks.”
Lucas stood up and faced the fireplace, his back to her. His hand went to the painting of his Claire up on the mantel and quickly moved to his face, making a rough sound on his cheek as an unexpected tear slid over the whiskers. This decision to leave, now upon them quickly, hit him unexpectedly.
Although he had turned away from her, Liz noticed as he wiped away the unwelcome tear, not meant to be seen by her. She blinked back a tear of her own and took a quick breath to steady herself. Trying to think of something to break the si-lence, she cheerfully said, “I got another letter from Abby and Emma yesterday. They received our letter and are coming with us! But their cousin Sadie won’t be traveling with us. Sounds like her father told her no.”
Liz knew that Grandpa Lucas Mailly had never been fond of the man who married his daughter. The Wilkes family owned a large plantation in Mississippi with many slaves. They had an arrogant nature about them and Lucas always felt they abused the women too. Katherine, his youngest daughter, had become a different woman after she married John and moved away to the Wilkes brothers’ plantation. He didn’t seem too surprised about Sadie not coming, and Liz knew he hadn’t been quite sure how his other two granddaughters could get away with leaving, but he’d been excited nevertheless with their decision to go.
Her grandfather had explained that he wanted to protect his family from the growing unrest in the South, and he felt it better to sell his timber mill now than to lose it in a skirmish. His son-in-law wouldn’t listen to him about selling out the Mississippi plantation and he called him a “crazy man.”
“Well, it’s just as well that Sadie isn’t coming. You may not realize it, Liz, but not all females are like you and your sister. Sadie could hold you back, even be a problem. Your cousins are not as strong as you and your sister.”
Liz blushed and answered, “It will be fine, Grandpa. I don’t want you to worry over it. Abby and Emma will be just fine with it all.”
She had grown accustomed to his praise and encouragement, well aware that women were treated differently in other families, and in the world in general.
Abby and Emma had confided in her and Megan about their father’s ways. They were going West, with or without their father’s blessings. But he was finished with the two rebellious daughters and more than ready to wash his hands of them. If their Grandpa Lucas wanted them, so be it.
Lucas paused, and Liz recognized the weighing of his words. “Liz, I know these last few months have been difficult. Caleb was a good man and a good husband. He was just like a son to me. And Luke isn’t little any more. He has grown into a fine young man.” Lucas covered his mouth and whiskers with his hand, holding his chin.
Liz spoke up. “Yes, this brings a thought to me. I’ve been thinking that Luke needs to stay here at the mill to work and go to school and . . . if Caleb is found . . . ”
“Sweetheart,” Lucas interrupted, “you know Caleb is gone. He won’t be found. We all saw the accident at the mill. You’ve got to accept that he is not going to find his way back here.” His hands rested on her shoulders as he lovingly but firmly spoke. “We have to move on. This thinking isn’t good, Liz. I know you know that.”
His eyes searched hers for a positive reaction. She blinked and shrugged. “It’s just easier.”
With a sense of urgency she stepped aside, brushed her skirt, and straightened her shoulders. She wouldn’t let her emotions get the best of her. For almost a year, she had been a weeping widow. The timber mill accident never strayed far from her mind and she hated the sense of losing herself to the horrible nightmare. She’d been drifting for months, and she wanted to take control of her life again. Her mind and heart demanded something else; selling the mill and making a move seemed to provide that. Luke had grown up so much over the past months and had grown even closer to his namesake, Grandpa Lucas.
The process of planning the move nudged the sadness away. Liz wanted and needed a new beginning, and the lurking trouble in the South was just the push to get her started.
Her dear cousins coming along would make it fun as they embarked on this adventure together, all of them starting a new chapter. New fortunes were ready to be made, the developing western territories ripe for the picking. The tremors of unrest in the South shook louder and longer, and they made her Grandpa Lucas even antsier to get his plan into action.
“Are you sure about Luke going west with us? It could be quite dangerous. I would feel so much calmer if he were here, safe with you. Who will see after you?” Liz gave a sneaky smile, trying to coax him to her way of thinking. She wanted the only two men in her life safe, away from the uncertainty before her.
“I can’t leave the mill and property until the sale is final. It could be months before I catch up to you.” He swayed back and forth as he pondered Liz’s request.
“Luke misses his dad, and he’s so content with you.”
He stepped closer to her. “Sweetheart, keeping Luke here won’t stop him from getting hurt, and it won’t bring Caleb back. I know it’s easier to just think of him as being away, but . . . ” His loving blue eyes embraced her tightly. “You know if he were alive he would have come back to us. The war is coming, we have a buyer for the mill, and it is a wise decision to go west. It’s not going to get any better for the South. With each election, the western expansion licks at the heels of the unrest. I’ve never had slaves at the mill, so some of it has eluded us, but nevertheless, we will get caught up in it.”
“Sorry. These senseless tears, I’m so tired of them,” Liz ad-mitted, pulling a lace hanky from her pocket to wipe her eyes. Grandpa Lucas stepped back and ran his hand across a wet spot on her cheek as Liz noticed Luke standing in the doorway. She would never forget what Caleb looked like as long as she had her son.
Her grandfather followed Liz’s gaze to the doorway where Luke stood straight as an arrow, his messy sun-streaked hair falling over his eyes.
Luke glared at Lucas as he pleaded, “Tell me you won’t let that happen, Grandpa. Tell me!”
Liz searched her memory for the part of the conversation that had angered her son. “You promised. You both said I was going west with the wagons!”
Grandpa Lucas’s expression told Liz he would handle the situation. “Yes, we are still considering all of the possibilities that lie ahead, Luke. The plans are still in the works. We know what you want and will consider that along with everything else.” He patted Luke’s shoulder as he walked through the doorway, finalizing the conversation.
“Good,” Luke huffed, his face flushed. “I thought I might have to go joining up with those Yankees!”
Lucas never turned around as he let out a big belly laugh, grabbed Luke by the suspenders, and pulled him out the door with him.
Liz watched the two of them from the window as they con-tinued to tease each other. She laughed. “Joinin’ the union?”
As they disappeared, she sank into a parlor chair. The sweet fragrance of flowers drifted across the room, reminding her to water them. Her eyes landed on the green Irish chain quilt she had made for Caleb as a surprise anniversary gift. That quilt—and her son—had been the only things to get her out of bed each morning after Caleb died. She had made it for their thirteenth wedding anniversary, and somehow the fabric squares held all of the joy and excitement of her married life. The quilt represented a celebration of their future together, her grief for the loss of her husband woven into every stitch .
Liz closed her eyes and dropped her head to the back of the chair. In an instant, she wafted back to the day that had changed her life.
The gray and gloomy day in May of 1855 had begun with clouds swirling. The rain left everything waterlogged and cold. It was the sort of day where something feels bound to happen; the sort of day where life’s brittleness is prodded from its sleeping place and made to crawl to the surface and roar for a while, out in the open.
The air didn’t feel quite right, and Liz recalled thinking that the rain seemed too . . . wet. She sat in the parlor, working on her most recent quilting project, the one she’d named CALEB’S CHOICE, when Luke crashed into the house, calling, “Mom, Mom, come quick!”
“What is it?”
“It’s Dad. He’s fallen into the logs.”
The saturated grass looked limp and lifeless as she rushed to the mill, her mind racing as the wind blew fiercely against her progress. Trees bent. Leaves clung. Horrible thoughts and possibilities pulsed like the intense rain against her face.
“A horse to slide, a dock to fall,” she’d said to herself as she approached the mill and waterway.
As always, they’d fallen behind on the timber orders. Grandpa Lucas and Caleb worked long and hard every day, never demanding more from their workers than they them-selves were willing to give.
Rain-soaked and muddy, she stood there with her hair pressed to her head. She watched the mill workers standing in silence with faces completely baffled and afraid.
“He’s gone, Liz. We couldn’t reach him,” Grandpa Lucas had confessed.
“I’m sorry, Liz; I couldn’t get to him in time,” Thomas, Caleb’s best friend, had cried in disbelief.
Their words still shot through her like the heavy bullets from a steel pistol. She’d looked away and fallen to the ground. No one revealed how long it had been between that moment and the one where she awoke in her own bed. Maybe days had passed. She recalled that the sun had broken through, leaving the property dry and the grass a brilliant green. She’d glanced down to find Luke asleep across the end of the bed. Her sister Megan sat in a chair that hugged the side of the bed as she threaded a needle with embroidery floss.
The clopping of horses’ hooves jolted Liz back to the pre-sent, her hands still shaking and damp with perspiration. She peered through the parlor window. Workers from the mill un-loaded wooden crates and old cloths for packing.
On the other side of the parlor, Caleb’s completed quilt rested over the back of a small chair. She walked over to it and brought it close to her face, hoping to smell Caleb on the quilt, even though he had never used it. She ran her hand over the sewn patches of tans, reds, and greens that represented their namesake.
Caleb would have loved this quilt, she thought.
Each piece and every stitch had come to memorialize his life with her. And now that completed quilt announced the final chapter of their book as well.