Read an Excerpt
Beyond the Valley
Book 3 The Daughters of the Potomac Series
By Rita Gerlach
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Rita Gerlach
All rights reserved.
Sarah Carr would never look at the sea the same way again, or listen to the waves sweep across the shore while in the embrace of her first love. Drawing in the briny air, feeling the wind rush through her unbound hair, now spoke of danger and loss. Basking in blue moonlight under the stars and having Jamie point out the constellations was now a thing of the past that could never, in her mind, be repeated.
Tonight a hunter's moon stood behind bands of dark purple clouds as if it were the milky eye of evil. Along the bronze sand, deep green seaweed entwined with rotted gray driftwood. The scent of salt blew heavy in the air, deepening the sting of tears in her eyes, and tasting bitter on her tongue.
She had pleaded with Jamie not to go down to the shore with the others when they beat on the door and called out that a ship had wrecked in the harbor. But an empty pocket and a growling stomach influenced him to go. For over an hour, she waited for him to return and then she could bear the anxiety no longer. Sarah slipped on her worn leather boots and hurried down to the beach, working her way through the tangle of frenzied scavengers in hopes of finding him.
People rushed about her, some with torches, others carrying glowing tin lanterns. There were calls and shouts over the howl of the wind and the noise of the sea. They carried sacks, barrels, and crates, which had been tossed in the surf and washed ashore; others were taken perilously from the sinking vessel. The groan of its timbers caused Sarah to shiver, as she thought of the poor souls trapped aboard. She could make out its black hulk in the moonlight, its main mast shooting up through the boil of waves like a spear.
"Have mercy on those left behind, O Lord." She shoved back her tangle of hair and watched the hapless ship go down into the dark depths of an angry sea.
A bonfire threw sparks over the sand. The foamy edge of the surf seemed a ribbon of gold near her feet. The few sailors who had survived looked on wide-eyed and drenched to the bone. They shivered in the cold, with no weapons to fend off the looting.
A firm hand moved Sarah back and she gasped. "Come on, girl. This is no place for ye to be." She turned to a man in untidy clothes. His wet hair corkscrewed around his ears and hung over his forehead. He had turned up his collar against the drizzle and wind. She recognized him as one of the villagers, a fisherman by trade, but did not know his name.
"You must leave this place before it gets too rough, Sarah. We'll take Jamie to the chapel with the others. Come with me."
She shook her head at his meaning. "Jamie? Where is he?" she shouted over the blast of wind as she glanced at the chaos around her. "Why must we go to the chapel?"
The man did not answer. Instead he shifted on his feet, frowned, and glanced away. Then, still silent, he took her by the arm again and led her across the sand. Her hair, the color of burnt umber, floated about her eyes, where the mist blurred her vision.
"Are we gathering there to pray?" she asked. "We need to pray for those poor souls caught in the sea." She lifted her skirts and stepped unsteadily. Her limp made it difficult to navigate the beach.
"Ah, let me help you." The man threw his arm across her back. "Over this way. Watch your step. Steady now."
He took her to a place where the rocks made a barrier between the village and the sea. In the orange firelight, Sarah saw bodies stretched out on the sand in a row, their clothes soaked and splattered with sand. Faces were ashen in the torchlight. Their arms were crossed over their chests. The worst of her fears exploded into reality. She trembled and felt her knees weaken.
Upon a blanket lay her husband, Jamie, his youthful face whiter than the wet shirt that clung to his lifeless body. His eyes were closed. His dark hair, soaked, clung to his throat. Sarah gasped. "Jamie!"
She shivered from the cold wind that shoved against her, that pounded the waves upon the beach, from the grief that struck a merciless fist against a breast once content with love, thinking it would last forever.
"No!" She fell beside him and threw her arms across his chest, wherein lay a silent heart. "Lord God, do not take him from me. Bring him back!" She shook with weeping, and someone pulled her away.
Four men wrapped her lad in the blanket and lifted him. She followed. Her skirts twisted around her limbs as the wind gusts grew stronger. A storm had battered the Cornish coast, and another whisked across sea and land behind it. Within moments, clouds smothered the moon and stars—the bonfire and a few lanterns the only lights to guide their steps up to the centuries-old stone church.
To rally her strength, she took in a deep lungful of air. Instead of relieving her, its mix of smoke from the bonfire and the brackish wind choked her. Behind her, she heard the waves break over the rocks, rush over the sand and pebbles, and suck at the shipwreck. A few lights in the cottages afar off glimmered in the darkness. She stumbled, regained her footing, and brushed away the tears that stung her eyes.
* * *
Fifteen sailors from the shipwreck and five villagers were laid to rest in the parish churchyard the next morning. Four somber widows walked away in silence with their fatherless children, made poorer by their loss.
Sarah drew her shoulders back, determined to rise above her grief and face what life had just thrown at her. But her heart ached, and she knew no amount of fortitude could stop it. She tipped the rim of her hat downward to hide her tears.
"What is done cannot be undone," she said to the woman who walked beside her. "God asks of me to go on. And I shall for my child's sake."
Her neighbor, Mercy Banks, placed her hand over Sarah's shoulder. She was as tall as Sarah, and lean, with a pleasant countenance and large brown eyes. Known for her kindness to those in need, Mercy's touch comforted Sarah.
"You must come home with me, Sarah. The least we can do is give you a warm meal and a bed for the night. It would be too lonely in your little cottage without Jamie."
Sarah glanced down at the three children as they walked alongside their mother. Their heads were as blond as sand, their eyes like Mercy's. Two clung to Mercy's skirts. The oldest boy walked ahead and swung a stick at the geese in the road.
"Thank you, Mercy. But I am leaving Bassets Cove." She could not impose on her neighbors who had young mouths to feed. "My landlord is not a rich man. I can expect sympathy, but not charity. He and his wife need a paying tenant. So I have told them I am leaving."
Mercy's face crinkled with worry. "You are leaving this minute? Let me speak to my husband."
"Do not worry. I will be fine."
"But where will you go, Sarah? You have no family, no parents, brothers or sisters. Have you a distant relative who would take you in all of a sudden?"
"I am going to Jamie's sister, Mary, and her husband. November is around the corner and the cold weather will be here. I must go while I have the chance."
Mercy pressed her lips together then let out a long breath. "To the Lockes? It is said Lem Locke is a smuggler, that he will stop anyone by any means if they get in his way. It isn't as if he is helping any of the poor in Cornwall, for it is also said he hoards his goods in the caves along the coast, and sells rum and brandy at a high price to the gentry. You should reconsider."
"I have nothing to fear, and nowhere else to go. I am sure it is only a rumor you have heard about Lem. Jamie told me if I should ever need help to go to them. Why would he say that if they were bad people?"
"Perhaps Jamie did not know Lem Locke as well as he should have. Not only that, they must have heard the unfortunate news by now and will come for you if they have any Christian charity in them at all. But why are they not here already?"
"I had no way of sending word. Paper is so precious, and I had none. I imagine they may hear from others before I reach them, but only of the wreck."
Mercy cocked her head. "Have you met them before?"
"Only Mary. It was a few days before Jamie and I were wed. She was quiet but not completely cold. Yet, I do not think she approved of our marriage, and would have rather seen her brother marry a fit woman. She never said where Lem was."
"Away smuggling, no doubt. I pray he is kind to you, Sarah. It is what you need right now."
Once they reached her cottage door, Mercy kissed Sarah's cheek. "I wish you well, and will keep you and your child in my prayers. If you should need to return, come to my door before anyone else's. Understand?'
"Yes, thank you." Sarah hugged Mercy and watched her walk away with the children in tow, down the sandy lane that led into the heart of the village.
Before stepping inside, Sarah glanced up at the gray sky that whirled above. "If only you would clear the clouds away, Lord, I might feel better if I were to see the sun. But if not today, then tomorrow."
Pushing the door in, she stepped over the threshold and paused. The sparse little room seemed neglected, as if no living soul lived there anymore. They owned little, and few things were left of Jamie's—his pipe, and Bible, and one change of clothes. She packed them in a sack with her own scant possessions—brush, comb, and one pair of stockings. The rest she owned was on her back.
Determined to be strong, she wiped away a tear and heaved the bag into her arms. After she shut the door behind her, she took the path to the rear of the cottage and slowly climbed the grassy slopes. It would take her longer than the average person to reach the moorland above, for having been born with one leg slightly shorter than the other hindered her gait, enough to cause her stride to be uneven. It had been the source of ridicule growing up, orphaned and living in a workhouse for children. Told her mother was dead, her father unknown, she wondered if she were an abandoned child, an embarrassment to some gentry family for being flawed and possibly illegitimate.
Abused and starved, she had kept to herself and barely spoke to anyone, until a good-looking young man came down the lane that bordered the field she worked in. The wheat had been scythed and she, along with other able bodies, stood in a line to gather it into bundles. He leaned on the fence rail and watched her. The next day, he offered her water from his canteen. Given ten minutes to rest, he approached her on the third day, sat beside her and told her his likes and dislikes.
"I hate the smell of wheat," he told her. "It makes me sneeze." She remembered how his comment had made her giggle. "I'm a net maker, but I hate eating fish. Don't like the bones."
"What do you like?" she asked in a quiet voice.
"Bread and butter ... and pretty girls like you."
She hid her face in the sleeve of her dress, for she felt the burn of a blush rush over her.
By the fourth day, he suggested she leave with him. "I live in Bassets Cove, not far from here," he told her. "It's a beautiful place. The sea air is good for one's health, you know. I am alone. You are alone. I could use a wife."
Sarah stood and brushed the bits of chaff from her dress. "You could not possibly want me."
"Why not? You're very pretty, Sarah. And I like the way you think."
"Hmm, haven't you noticed my way of walking?"
"Yes, what of it?"
"I am crippled." She leaned down, emphasizing the words.
He jumped up and put his hands on her shoulders. "I do not care. Marry me."
He had been the first man to ask, the first not to care about her imperfection. He was a means of escape and the start of a new life, a net maker by trade. She reasoned he would protect her and take care of her, and understood they would never rise above a humble existence. If not Jamie, who on God's green earth would have her?
"Well," she had told him while looking into his blue eyes. "I suppose the Lord has brought us together. You need a wife, and I need a protector. I accept you as you are, not a rich man, if you will accept me as I am—a cripple."
She never forgot the expression on Jamie's face, how his eyes lit up as he gazed into hers. "You may limp, Sarah, but you are healthy. You and I shall not be alone. Not for the rest of our lives. We will have lots of children and grow very old together. And I shall become a wealthy man one day. You will see." And he leaned down and kissed her cheek.
Inside the little cottage, life seemed abundant. Jamie wove the finest nets and mended those of the local fishermen. There was food on the table and rent paid most of the time. But after only a few months wed, he stopped showing her affection and never said he loved her, which began to disappoint Sarah. She never mentioned it to him, deciding she would sacrifice romance for a roof over her head, food in her belly, and companionship.
And so, at age seventeen, she left the wheat fields, with him strolling alongside her as the sun went down. Married only six months, she now found herself alone in the world again.
She came to the little church that overlooked the sea. Sunlight glimmered in the windows. But the gray stone gave it a cold appearance. She stepped over the thick grass, and drew near Jamie's marker, a small narrow stone with his name and date. She stood in front of it and sighed, her cloak fanning in the wind.
"You did not kiss me good-bye, Jamie. You spoke not a word to me, but rushed out the door without a second thought. How I wish you had listened when I warned you not to go. But it was not your way. You showed little attention to my pleas. You made it clear your business was your own and I need not be concerned, only be happy when you returned home with a sack full of goods. Even so, I shall miss you."
She closed her eyes, spoke a prayer for his soul, and moved on. Once she reached the crossroads, she headed south along the coastal road and tried not to think of how hungry she was. Her last full meal was on the night Jamie left to plunder the shipwreck. She thought about how he had gulped down the humble potato stew, grabbed his hat, and rushed out the door at the urging of his mates.
The bag slipped in Sarah's arms. She pulled it up, held it tighter, and glanced back. Leaving the village and the blue cove caused a wave of sadness to ripple through her. She wished some of her long-time neighbors, besides Mercy, had followed, begged her to stay, urged her not to go, and gave her all the reasons why, offered her work, some kind of position to keep her from starving. Then she hoped to see a wagon or coach heading in her direction. But the road remained lonely and windswept.
Her homespun dress opened at the front, and her beige striped petticoat fluttered about her slim legs. The hem was a bit tattered and soiled from wear. Her straw hat lay between her shoulder blades. The blue ribbon, faded gray, looped around her throat. No point wearing it upon her head, for the wind would blow it off or worsen the wear on the brim.
Six miles later, she set the sack down on the roadside and gathered her hair in her hands and twisted it into a braid. Her dress felt tight against her waist. She loosened the stays before going on.
A half-mile further, misty sunbeams shot through the clouds and plunged toward earth and sea. Sarah gazed with awe at the heaven-like spears and the distant patches of blue. For a moment, the sight soothed her soul and eased the pain that lingered in her heart.
She watched sparrows dart across the sky and land afar off. Then she moved on down the sandy road. This time she strove to walk with ladylike grace. But as it had so many times before, it proved to be a task too difficult and wearisome to do.
Excerpted from Beyond the Valley by Rita Gerlach. Copyright © 2013 Rita Gerlach. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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