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Can grief cut deeper than love can heal?
USA Bestseller Maren Smith gives you Life After Rachel, starring Daniel and Ane!
There weren’t many folks who’d equate an Indian war party to a miracle, but Reverend John White did. He believed in miracles; it went with the job. But this particular miracle…well, it was a doozy and her name was Ane, the only surviving member of a doomed westward-bound wagon train.
In the span of a single day, the young Norwegian woman had lost her entire family, her husband, even her infant daughter. Having been in America for less than a month, she couldn’t even speak her rescuers’ language, but the Lord worked in mysterious ways and necessity had a way of making itself clear no matter what the obstacles.
So off Ane went, to a hardscrabble farm a few miles out of Redemption to care for the baby who needed her to survive and for the heart-broken man who, fight it though he tried, needed her even more
“Don’t you leave me, Rachel! Rach! Honey, don’t you dare leave me!” A big man, Daniel knelt in the middle of their bed, his beautiful wife of three years held tightly in his arms as he begged. He begged her, he begged God. Neither seemed to be listening.
“I can’t lose you,” he sobbed, his massive shoulders shaking. “Please, baby, breathe. Come on, breathe!”
He rocked her, his chin wobbling and big tears rolling unabashedly down his unshaven face. And Rachel did, in fact, breathe. Her whole body convulsed with the effort it took to suck that ragged gasp into her failing lungs. Her face was ashen, her eyes fixed and glazing as she stared unseeing up at the ceiling, those beautiful sky-blue orbs growing more unfocussed with every shaky gasp. Even the long blonde wisps of her hair looked limp and dull as straw dangling over his arm.
For the millionth time, Daniel reached for the bowl of cool water propped against his hip, nearly lost in the tussle of bedclothes surrounding them. He squeezed awkwardly to wring the excess drops from the cloth, getting more on his pants and the surrounding mattress than back in the bowl before tenderly bathing the cold, clammy sweat from her face. It was the only comfort he could give her, and Rachel, his sweet Rachel, was already beyond the mortal ability to feel it.
Across the room, lying in a makeshift bed fashioned from their lowermost bureau drawer, the baby that had left her like this was wailing for a nourishment his mother was beyond the ability to provide. Daniel refused to spare his son so much as a glance, not when, in his arms, Rachel began to spasm.
“No,” he wept. “No, no, no!”
He pulled her fiercely close, willing with all his useless strength for the convulsions to stop. But when they did, the raggedness of her breathing changed as well. No longer fast and hard, each gasp came with longer and longer pauses in between. Her whole body worked to draw in the next breath. His own chest ached with the effort, but there was nothing he could do. Rachel wound down in his arms like an old waistcoat watch.
“Please, baby,” he moaned, and shuddered along with her. “Please, don’t go.”
Finally, she stopped. With her head pressed to his heart, she grew limp and still, and very, very quiet.
Some pains stabbed too deeply for tears to express. In that instant, as the softest sigh fled from her lips, the deep well of Daniel’s tears grew abruptly dry. Everything inside of him that had up until that moment been alive—it all went still as well. Pulling his dead wife close, Daniel stroked her hair and silently died alongside her.
For three years, she had been the center of his life. Now, he knew, he’d never live again.
After battling childbed fever for eleven days, Rachel Abigail Bower gave up the fight. At seven o’clock that cool fall morning, she was lovingly bathed and dressed in her Sunday best by three of her closest friends. A few hours later, as the whole of Redemption arrived to pay their final respects, the twenty-four-year-old mother of one left her home for the last time. The loss of her was more than Daniel could bear.
Standing at the head of her grave, the blond mountain of a farmer stood in the shade of the old oak tree, dressed in the same dark suit he’d worn for his wedding, and watched without expression as the sum and total of his world was carried from the tiny farm house he had built just for her. Unable to afford even the plainest coffin, her fellow townsmen carried her across the yard, wrapped in a sheet on a plain board stretcher. Elizabeth White, the Reverend’s wife, sang Amazing Grace in her sweet soprano voice. Wrapped in a blanket in Daniel’s arms, his newborn son cried all the way through it.
To be honest, the baby hadn’t stopped crying in days. Sometimes it seemed he hadn’t stopped since the moment of his birth. Daniel, on the other hand, couldn’t make himself shed so much as one tear. Inside, all he felt was… nothing.
A soft breeze rustled through the leaves of the sheltering oak, tugging at Daniel’s short hair and making his gray eyes sting. Look away, he told himself, swallowing hard as the pallbearers neared the hole he and Reverend White had dug. She didn’t look right swaddled that way. This didn’t feel real, to take someone who had been so beautiful and vibrant and alive, put her into the ground and cover her in dirt and leaves. How could he just stand here and let such a thing happen? Yet he couldn’t force his gaze away. From the moment they lay the stretcher on the ground, he watched, unblinking and impassive, feeling as if his insides were being ripped out through his too-tight chest, while Rachel was gently lowered into her grave.
Reverend John White opened his bible and began to speak, but every word that came out of his mouth sounded foreign. Incomprehensible. Distant even, as if the man of God were speaking to him from a hilltop far away.
Everyone but Daniel managed through the hymn as Davis and Charles, twin brothers who owned the Mercantile and Grocery respectively, took up their shovels and filled in the grave. The first scoop of dirt hit Rachel’s chest, the second her head; Daniel couldn’t breathe. It was all he could do not to grab their shovels and chase the brothers away. Or jump down into that grave after her, rip the dirt and sheet away, and just look at her one more time. Just once more.
Inside he was screaming; on the outside, Daniel couldn’t make himself move so much as a finger-twitch. As still and stiff as the old oak behind him, he waited until the eulogy ended. Knowing Reverend White as he did, it must have been a nice one, though Daniel couldn’t for the life of him recall a single word.
Closing his bible, Reverend White lay a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Rachel is with God now, son. Her earthly toils are over; she’ll never suffer or feel another moment’s pain. There’s comfort to be found in that.”
Daniel stared at the Reverend’s moving mouth, but the words would not make sense. Something was expected of him now, he could feel it. Swallowing hard all over again, he made himself say, “Thank you for coming.”
Elizabeth touched his arm. Young and pretty, she could have been Rachel’s sister. Daniel had always thought so. “Daniel, I just want you to know… ”
He turned woodenly to face her, too, and watched until her mouth stopped moving. “Thank you for coming,” he said again. He raised his head, in some distant part of himself aware of the ocean of mourners staring silently back at him, gathered as they were around the freshly turned earth that covering his wife. “Thank you all for coming.”
Nobody said a word when Daniel excused himself. With his baby wailing nonstop in his arms, he walked back to the house, climbed the three wooden steps and, without a backwards look, closed the door between himself and the forty-some towns’ folk that called Redemption ‘home’.
“That poor man,” Elizabeth said, when the mayor’s matronly wife came to stand at her elbow.
“That poor baby,” Sara Evans replied. “How in the world will he ever take care of this farm and raise up a little one, too?”
“You don’t know?” Becky Simmons asked as she joined them.
Sara blinked, first at Becky and then at Elizabeth. “Know what?”
“The baby can’t take cow’s milk. We’ve been tryin’ all week. Only makes him sicker, poor thing.”
When Sara gasped, Elizabeth nodded in grim agreement. “Weak and frail as he is now, it’s only a matter of days before we’ll be right back here, putting him in the ground next to his dear mama.”
“How can you say that so matter-of-fact?” Sara told them, appalled. “We have to do something!”
“What would you suggest?” Elizabeth countered. “No one in town is nursing or even pregnant.”
Becky’s mouth tightened wryly. “That old nanny goat of the Thompsons’ got ‘et by Sacs last fall. There ain’t another in probably forty miles.”
“Martin could send someone to Clovervale. They could wire my niece in Montgomery. She’s still nursing her youngest…”
“Even if Martin could sneak past those damn Sacs, she’d never get here in time.” Shaking her head, Elizabeth said again, “Poor Daniel. He and Rachel had so looked forward to starting their family and now, in a day or maybe two, he’ll have lost them both.”
All three women turned to stare at the house, listening in quiet sympathy as the reedy-thin wails of the baby filtered through the fluttering lace of the kitchen curtains.
Reverend White came up behind them. He, too, fixed sympathetic eyes on the house before laying a hand on his wife’s shoulder. “Come along, Liz. It’s time to be heading home.”
While the women climbed into the backs of the assorted wagons that had brought everyone to the Bower farm, Reverend White turned again to the grave. Charles was just tamping the grave marker into the soft earth, a simple plank of wood that was carved with Rachel’s name. “Lord have mercy on this house,” he murmured under his breath. “That poor boy can’t bear much more.”
“Amen,” Elizabeth added. Her husband wrapped his arm across her shoulders as tears rose to dampen her lashes; Rachel had been her best friend.
“Come along,” he said, squeezing her in a sidelong hug that shared grief more than it gave comfort as they left together for home.
* * * * *
Daniel stood in the doorway between the bedroom and the rest of his small, two-room house, hardly able to breathe. Apart from the fussing of the hungry baby, his house was so quiet. So empty. So full of Rachel in every corner that he looked that he could all but see her. Physically see her, as if any minute now she would come breezing out of the backroom in her favorite blue gingham dress, that smile brightening her face as she slipped past him on her way to cook breakfast. The smell of death still lingered, but so did the honey-sweet scent of her perfume. She was in the yellow curtains she’d sewn and hung in both kitchen windows. She was in the neat stack of tin dishes that always lined the high shelf above the hearth, when they weren’t being set upon the table. She was in every stitch of the crocheted doily that was wrapped around the bible she read from each night, and in the cup of dry, brittle flowers sitting on the table. Twelve days old now, she’d picked them the morning she’d gone into labor. Was this to be his life now? A misery of solitude so haunted by her that he couldn’t think, move or function?
Walking into the only bedroom, he stared at the bed, reliving every night of passion and each breathy sigh that she had so lovingly fed to him, one soft kiss at a time. Against his will, his gaze was drawn to that old and elegant, Edwardian bureau she had insisted he pack safely into the back of the covered wagon that had brought them all the way out here from New York. Rachel had loved that dresser. It had been her grandmother’s and ever since he had known her, Rachel had weekly dusted and polished the aged mahogany with near religious dedication.
Right now, the bottommost drawer was doubling as a cradle for their son. In the last few months, Daniel had done his best to scrape together wood and time enough to carve a proper cradle, but with Rachel now gone and knowing his son was within days of following her, he saw no point in finishing.
Oh, but the bed… It had taken him three months to carve out the elaborate frame and almost two years of begging and bartering among the neighbors to fluff out the ten-inch-thick feather mattress. He had finished it three years ago, barely in time for his and Rachel’s wedding night. That, without a doubt, had been the best night of his life.
Daniel closed his eyes, breathing deeply, smelling Rachel with every inward draw. Their first night together, she had come to him dressed in a plain white nightgown and smelling faintly of soap. She had been trembling. So had he for that matter. It had been a night of firsts for them both.
He opened his eyes on a reality more painful than any physical hurt he had ever suffered in his life. Nothing compared to this. Not the time he’d been run over by a wagon, kicked by a mule or even the night he’d been near beaten to death by cattle raiders. Without hesitation, at this moment Daniel would eagerly undergo all three torments again if only it had to power to bring Rachel back to him.
Lying ignored in the bottom dresser drawer, swaddled in blankets, with his tiny fists flailing angrily, the newborn howled, but there was nothing Daniel could do for him. He knew his son’s tiny belly was empty and aching. It was only a matter of days now; he may as well start digging another grave.
Turning, Daniel walked out of the house. The last of the funeral guests had vanished down the long and winding dirt tracks that led through his fields of wheat, barley and corn, all the way back to Redemption. He was alone now, something he’d best grow accustomed to.
Closing the door so he wouldn’t have to hear his baby’s plaintive cries, he started walking down the steps and across the yard. His feet took him straight to Rachel’s grave. For the first time, he read the words carved into the simple wooden marker:
Rachel Abigail Bower
Beloved Mother and Wife
b. Mar. 4, 1835
d. Sept. 22, 1859
His knees buckled, dropping him beside the dirt mound. He struggled to hang onto that swell of nothingness growing inside him, but all the emotions that had so cruelly abandoned him that morning were now flooding back. An unstoppable tide, it crashed down over him, again and again, a reality too unbearable to be absorbed. Against his will and with no one around to witness it, a crack of weakness fragmented through the emotional havoc. Tears filled his storm gray eyes, but he covered them with his hand, pressing in hard to keep them from escaping.
“I miss you already,” he whispered, brokenly.
A soft autumn breeze rippled across the grass, rustling the leaves above him and tussling through his hair, feeling exactly like Rachel when she used to comb her fingertips through the short curls at the nape of his neck. Shoulders shaking, he bowed under the weight growing in his chest. The magnitude of his loss was smothering, without pity or reprieve. The awful pain crushed down on top of him, striking like a fist, pressing him into the freshly turned dirt. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t bear it.
“Oh God!” He bent until his forehead touched the dirt. “Oh God, Rach!”
He rocked. He cried. His big hands shook as he grabbed hold of the grave’s unyielding marker. He traced her name, then let his hands drop limp against his lap. Raising his face to the sky, he wept. Until his eyes hurt, and his head hurt, but it changed nothing. Rachel was still gone, the baby was still crying and he was still alone.
For the first time in his life, completely alone.
* * * * *
As the four-wagon funeral procession wound its way slowly back to Redemption, Reverend John White sat pensively in the lead cart, driving more by rote than any conscious thought. Behind him, the back was filled with mostly silent mourners. Children played quietly, for the most part too young to comprehend the true meaning of the funeral they’d just attended. The adults surrounding them, however, weren’t. Some talked softly among themselves, but most were every bit as quiet as he was. The loss of a good person tended to do that.
Beside him, Elizabeth leaned close to nudge his shoulder with her own. A cheerful person under most circumstances, she tried to smile despite her obvious sadness. “A penny for your thoughts.”
For her sake, he tried to smile. “The usual, I suppose. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”
“Dying always has been the price of being born,” Elizabeth said. “Eventually, Daniel will be all right. He has to be for the baby’s sake.”
“Liz,” John said, trying his best to soften the impact of what he was about to say. “You best resign yourself to it now. Nothing that can be done for that baby. It would be a miracle if he survives the week.”
“Aren’t we supposed to believe in miracles?” his wife asked, but the hopefulness of her tone did not match the worry that darkened her eyes. “I know everyone says it’s too far, but shouldn’t we at least try to send someone to Clovervale? We could bring back a goat… or maybe, if we took the baby there, then we could…”
“Clovervale is a three-day ride one way through Indian territory.” Shaking his head, John knowingly cut her hope short before she could allow it to grow any higher. “Who among us are you willing to sacrifice for an already dying child?”
“I’ll go!” Elizabeth swiveled in her seat, catching the back of the seat to steady herself. He knew that flash of stubbornness in her blue eyes, but the argument was cut short by the thunder of horse’s hooves galloping up fast behind them. “I ride better than half the men in town, and you know it.”
“No,” John said, steely sternness creeping into his tone. A watery shine began to flood through her blue eyes. He had to fight not to let it affect him.
“Don’t, John,” she whispered, though they both knew everyone in the back of their wagon was being privy to their argument. “Don’t you dare—”
“I said, no.”
“I will not sit idle by—”
“Keep pushing and you won’t be sitting at all.”
Her voice rose. “—while my best friend’s only child—”
Hauling back on the reins, Reverend John White drew his horses to a stop. He threw the brake, forcing the rest of the funeral procession behind him to pause as well while he turned sideways on the buckboard to face his upset wife. So upset, in fact, that she didn’t yet realize how thin the proverbial ground was beneath her wayward feet.
Letting his arm rest across the back of the seat, his hand found the small of her back. A small touch. Little more than a reminder, but one which she knew well.
“My darling love,” John began, soft but unyielding. “I have said my piece and the answer is no. One more contrary word, and you will force my hand. This I promise you, if I must command you to cut a switch here, in front of all these people, I will use that switch. Here. In front of all these people.”
Elizabeth stared up at him, her mouth opening, only to close again without speaking. A Reverend’s wife should be as strong-willed as the untamed land he was called to shepherd, and Elizabeth was certainly that. He wouldn’t change her, not for anything. But in matters such as this, he would be obeyed and he let his continued stare tell her as much.
Eventually, she swallowed and opened her mouth again, but before she could say anything a shout and the galloping of horses’ hooves riding up fast behind them stopped them both.
John shifted around to see the brothers, Davis and Charles, racing to catch up with them. They weren’t fully stopped before the younger of the dark-haired twins pointed out across the eastern horizon. A familiar tightening gripped his gut when John noticed the thin columns of black smoke rising into the sky a good half mile off.
“What is that?” Elizabeth asked, her voice softening as stubbornness faded into dread. Several men stood up in the back of the wagon, shielding their eyes from the rising sun to better see the hinted threat. Nobody had to say it, but ‘Indians’ became the instant forefront of everyone’s thoughts.
“Everyone out of the wagon,” John ordered. “You too, Liz.” That there might be wounded or people in need of help meant he never thought twice about riding out there himself, but he’d be damned if he took Elizabeth with him into what might well become a hostile Indian attack. He reached past her to grab his rifle from behind the seat. “Go home with Sara. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Elizabeth didn’t move. “You can’t go out there, John. You can’t.”
“Liz,” he said again, a little harder this time and he fixed her with a stern look. “Mind me, now.”
“Maybe it’s just a big camp fire,” she offered. “Or stragglers from that wagon train that came through six days ago.”
He turned on the seat, holding her gaze as he softly but firmly stated, “I am all done repeating myself today.”
A flush of pink staining her pale cheeks, Liz got down out of the wagon. Skirts kicking out behind her, she hustled down the line of funeral attendants to the wagon belonging to the mayor and his wife.
“Let’s go.” Steering his horses off the road, John started towards the column of smoke with Davis and Charles both riding ahead of him, their guns already drawn. He offered a quick prayer that they wouldn’t have any need to use them, but by the time they reached the base of the small grassy hill that separated them from the source of the fire, the Reverend’s hopes were dashed. Davis and Charles reached the top ahead of him, but when he saw them kick their horses into a wild gallop down the other side, shouting and shooting all the way, his worst fears were realized. The Indian war party was still there.
“H’yah!” He snapped the reins, urging the horses faster and reached the peak of the hill to find the worst of all possible scenarios spread out in the tall grass below. Three Conestoga wagons had been attacked. Whatever had forced their delay west, whether it be because of an inopportune birth, terrible illness or a serious accident, the fate met by the families below was even worse. The Sacs had already scattered. The sight of Davis and Charles (with the potential of other white men following them) had sent the small party fleeing back across the open fields of golden grass, but up until that moment, they had shown the white stragglers very little mercy.
They’d stolen the horses, flour and bacon. They’d killed one of the oxen, butchering it there on the spot. The wagons had been set on fire, and every man, woman and child lay dead on the ground.
“Dear God,” John moaned, counting out eleven bodies scattered throughout the smoking ruin. This was to be a day of funerals. Riding down into the midst of the worst, he set his wagon brake and climbed down. “Let’s get these poor souls back to town. A proper burial is the least we can do.”
Davis and Charles dismounted, and the three men carefully picked their way through the rubble of broken furniture, scattered dishes and clothes, and all the worldly possessions that Indians had little use for and which white settlers just couldn’t bear to leave behind. Without speaking, they loaded the dead into the back of the Reverend’s wagon: an elderly man and woman, two blond men in their mid-to-late twenties, a young woman who, judging by her eyebrows, might have been a red-head had the Sacs not scalped her, and four children.
A second young woman, her face and hair matted with blood from a gash in her forehead, was found lying under the deflated white canvas of a toppled wagon, her body still shielding that of her dead infant daughter. It wasn’t until Charles reached down to catch her by the arms that she groaned, long and low. Startled, he almost dropped her.
“Reverend!” he shouted, bringing both his brother and the Reverend running.
God help him, but John’s first thought when he saw her was neither sympathy for her bloodied condition nor for the loss of her infant child, although that still little body did figure into his gut response. As small as the baby was, she couldn’t have been more than a year old and that meant her mother had to have milk.
God, it seemed, had granted him a miracle after all.
* * * * *
The whole house reeked of soured milk. Not from what little liquid remained in the water skin, lying on the kitchen table, but from the small mountain of soiled rags and sheets that the baby had vomited on every time Daniel tried to feed him.
Lying in the bottom dresser drawer, covered by the only clean towel left in the house, the baby mewled, his pitiful cries hardly sounding human anymore. His face was swollen and dotted with bright red hives, and Daniel was at the end of his tether. Cow’s milk simply was not going to work, and there was nothing else around.
Sitting at the dining table, his hands folded before him, Daniel stared through the open kitchen window with blank, unseeing eyes. Past the curtains that fluttered in the breeze, he spied his plow mare grazing in the south field. Playing in the tall grass around her feet, her month-old foal romped around and through her legs before venturing in to suckle.
Daniel watched for a moment before reaching out to take the tin cup from the table. Absolutely no thought went into what he did. He barely even remembered walking across the yard, or stretching out his hand to touch the mare’s velvety muzzle before bending down beside her. Horses weren’t meant to be milked like cows. Not only did his mare not hold still for it, but for all the effort that went into the attempt, what little milk he managed to collect barely covered the bottom of the cup.
Still, it was something.
Daniel went back inside, rinsed out the water skin and poured the mare’s milk into it. Trying to get the baby to drink was a completely different battle. Of the tablespoon or two that he’d managed to obtain, significantly less made it into his son. The rest oozed out of the corners of the infant’s tiny mouth as he struggled to suckle from a device not made for suckling.
The last clean towel in the house was now soiled with mare’s milk, and Daniel had no choice but to face the cold and bitter reality. His son would not long survive on a tablespoon of milk.
Laying the baby back in his makeshift bed, he returned to the kitchen. Staring at the water skin in his hands, he stopped where he was in the center of the small front room. Futile anger exploded out of that bare instant of calm. He flung the water skin against the far wall. It hit the shelf, knocking every tin dishes and what few precious porcelain ones had survived the trip from New York to the floor. The porcelain dishes shattered, spraying white shards all across the floor. They crunched beneath Daniel’s boots as he walked out the front door. At the end of the porch was a rain barrel, still mostly full from last week’s downpour.
Glaring at the barrel, Daniel’s eyes burned as he considered his options. There were only two and they were both unsavory: either he let his son starve to death or he could end the baby’s suffering right now. His big hands clenched tightly. Clench and release, clench and release. Tense muscles jumped along his jaw, but there was really no choice left to make. Rachel was dead, their son was fated to join her, and after that, really, what would be the point of his continued existence?
Turning on his heel, he walked back into the house to get the crying baby. Even less thought went into this than did his attempt to milk the mare. He was going to kill his own child, and he honestly couldn’t make himself feel anything about it one way or the other.