Read an Excerpt
Five-year-old Hunter Newman Jr. stood at the door of his mother’s bedroom, fear clouding his eyes. His arms and legs felt heavy and his pulse raced as he watched Thora Kemp and Bessie Caterson labor over his mother.
Florence Newman had come down with a severe case of typhoid fever. It had been two days since Dr. Riley had examined her.
Hunter bit down hard on his lower lip when his mother rolled her head and shook as if she were penetrated to the core by incredible cold. Was he going to have another living nightmare, as when his father had died almost a year ago in a hunting accident?
Although Hunter had been only four years old at the time, he had taken his father’s death hard. For the first three months after his father was killed, Hunter had awakened his mother and baby sister two and three times a night, screaming. Though the nightmares had almost stopped by the time his father had been gone six months, Hunter still remembered, and he trembled at the thought of them.
Now Hunter stood at his mother’s bedroom door and looked on in horror as her rapid breathing grew raspy and shallow. She was so pale. Emblazoned in Hunter’s mind was the picture of his father’s body in the coffin. Hunter feared his mother would die and leave him, too.
Thora and Bessie tirelessly bathed Florence in cool water, trying to reduce her fever. Dr. Riley, the only physician in a thirty-mile radius, had left medicine when he’d been there last and told Bessie and Thora what to do to help keep the fever down and relieve her suffering as much as possible. If she got worse they were to send for him.
While the women continued to wring out cloths in the cool water, Bessie whispered, “Hunter’s at the door. The little guy looks scared out of his wits.”
Without glancing at him, Thora said, “Why don’t you take him outside and talk to him? I’ll look after Florence.”
Bessie wiped perspiration from the sick woman’s brow for the hundredth time that day and handed the cloth to Thora.
Florence laid glassy eyes on Bessie and asked with thick tongue, “Is Hunter all right?”
“He’s just worried about you, honey. I’m going to talk to him.”
Florence swallowed hard, trying to focus on Bessie’s round face. “Tell him…tell him I’m going to be fine.”
Bessie nodded and turned away. She walked quietly to the small sandy-haired boy and said, “Hunter, let’s go out and see how Jane Louise and little Lizzie are doing.”
Hunter shook his head. “No, ma’am, please. Mama’s gonna die. I don’t want to leave her.”
Bessie bent down to Hunter’s height, looked him in the eye, and said, “Your mama’s awfully sick right now, but Miss Thora and I are working on her. Jesus will help us to make her well. Come on, let’s go see about little sister.”
Hunter stiffened, gazing toward his mother. Thora spoke to him gently, “Hunter, it will make your mama feel better if you go outside and see about Lizzie.”
Florence rolled her head on the hot, damp pillow and choked out the words, “Son…Miss Thora’s right. And let Miss Bessie talk to you.”
Hunter nodded and let Bessie take his hand. “Come on, honey,” she said. “You can come back and see Mama later.”
Hunter glanced once more over his shoulder as Bessie led him away from the door and through the house to the porch. It was early May in western Virginia, and in spite of the heavy gray sky, the air was warm.
Jane Louise, Thora Kemp’s fifteen-year-old daughter, was sitting on the porch swing, holding little Lizzie Newman. Lizzie was two years old and, in contrast to Hunter, had dark eyes and hair. She was chewing on the hand of her rag doll when she saw her brother. “Hunna!” she said, and smiled.
Hunter dearly loved his little sister. He managed a crooked grin. “Hi, Lizzie.”
Jane Louise gave Bessie a look and said, “How’s she doing?”
“Not very good right now. Your mom’s staying with her so I could bring Hunter out here for a while.”
Hunter let go of Bessie’s hand to stand close to his little sister. “Mama’s real sick, Lizzie, but Miss Bessie says she’ll be okay.”
Lizzie nodded as if she understood, then held up her rag doll. “Hunna wan’ play wif Daisie?”
“No, Lizzie. You play with her.”
“Hunter,” Bessie said, dragging two straight-backed chairs close to the swing, “come and sit down so we can talk.”
The boy climbed up in the chair, looking at Bessie with eyes longing for assurance, and waited for her to speak.
Bessie leaned close and took both of his hands in hers. “Hunter, in the Bible Jesus said, ‘I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.’ Do you know what that means?”
Hunter adjusted his position slightly. “Mm-hmm. Mama read that to me out of the Bible not very long ago. It means that Jesus is always with us, even though we can’t see Him, and He will never ever go away.”
“That’s right, honey.” Bessie smiled, squeezing his hands. “Jesus won’t ever leave your mother, either. He’s right here to take care of her.”
Some of the fear went out of Hunter’s eyes. He knew that Bessie Caterson and her husband, Bill, had a close relationship with his parents– as members of the same church and as good friends. Bill Caterson and Hunter Sr. had spent a lot of time together. Bill had been on the hunting jaunt along with two other men, Zack Peterson and Dave Mullins, when Hunter Sr. was accidentally shot and killed by Zack Peterson. Shortly thereafter, the Petersons had left McCann’s Run and moved to Richmond.
The Catersons, along with widow Thora Kemp, had stayed especially close to Florence and the children after the accident. Bessie knew that Hunter Jr. had been asking Florence a lot of questions about Jesus and the cross and sin but didn’t yet understand it all. Bessie prayed quickly for guidance as she chose her words carefully. “Hunter, Jesus loves your mother, and He loves you and little Lizzie. And because He does, He will always watch over all three of you.”
Hunter looked at the porch floor, his mind working out what she had said. At the same time, Lizzie wanted off Jane Louise’s lap to play. Lizzie carried her rag doll to the edge of the steps and looked back at her brother. “Hunna pway wif me.”
“He will pretty soon, sweetie,” Bessie said. “We’re talking right now.”
Lizzie nodded and looked down the dusty road to the east. Her attention was drawn to a horse and buggy in the distance.
At last Hunter said, “Miss Bessie…”
“If Jesus is going to take care of Mama, why couldn’t He take care of Papa when Mr. Peterson’s gun went off and killed him?”
Bessie’s heart ached for the boy. “Well, honey, it wasn’t that Jesus couldn’t take care of your papa. He could have kept that gun from firing.”
Hunter searched her eyes as he asked, “Why didn’t He want to keep Papa from being killed?”
Bessie silently asked God for wisdom, but before she could put the words together, Jane Louise spoke up. “Hunter, Jesus wanted your papa up in heaven with Him. He had a special place of service for him there. So your papa is with Jesus now, serving Him in heaven.”
Hunter pondered Jane Louise’s words for a long moment, then said with quivering lips, “Maybe Jesus wants to take my mama to heaven, too…and she’s gonna die like Papa did.”
Bessie and Jane Louise exchanged a glance as if to decide who would answer. It was Lizzie who got them off the hook. “Tom!” she squealed, pointing at the rider turning off the road toward the house.
The two-year-old laid down her doll and clapped her hands as Tom dismounted from his horse and picked her up, lifting her above his head. “You’re just getting cuter every day, Lizzie!” he said.
Hunter, who considered sixteen-year-old Tom Jackson his best friend, slid off the chair and bounded down the steps. Tom held Lizzie in one arm and hoisted Hunter up in the other. For the first time that day, Hunter smiled and relaxed. “Can I help you chop wood, Tom?” he asked.
“You sure can!” Tom drawled. “It always goes faster when you’re there to pick up the wood and stack it.”
Tall, black-headed Tom Jackson lived with his Uncle Cummins and Aunt Ophelia Jackson at Jackson’s Mill, some four miles west on the road toward Clarksburg.
Tom’s father, Jonathan, had been a lieutenant at the head of a cavalry company in the War of 1812, and several men on his father’s side of the family had fought in the American Revolution. As far back as Tom could remember, he had wanted to be a soldier. He was planning on a military career once he finished high school. He had already contacted his congressman, desiring entrance into West Point Military Academy.
When Tom’s father died of typhoid fever at the age of thirty-five, Tom was only three. His mother, Julia, died three years later, and Tom was obliged to live with his Uncle Cummins and Aunt Ophelia. His siblings went to other relatives.
Cummins Jackson was a hard-drinking man, but Ophelia was a member of the Presbyterian Church in McCann’s Run and had taken Tom to church with her ever since he had come to live with them. At nine years of age, Tom had asked Jesus Christ to be his Saviour.
For the past year–since Hunter Newman Sr. had been killed–young Tom had come to the Newman house twice a week to do the necessary chores, such as chopping wood, cleaning the chicken house, weeding the garden, repairing worn and broken things. He knew the Newman family well from church, and did the work for Florence without pay.
While holding the Newman children in his arms, Tom looked at Bessie and Jane Louise. “How’s Mrs. Newman doing?”
Bessie frowned. “Not very good, Tom, I–”
“Oh, Tom! I’m so glad you’re here!” Thora had come out onto the porch. “I heard your voice from the back room. We need your help.”
Thora looked at Bessie. “Her fever is getting worse…much worse.” Then to Tom, “Will you ride to Smithburg and bring Dr. Riley? He told us to send for him if Florence’s condition worsened.”
Hunter’s face turned white as Tom set him down and placed Lizzie in Jane Louise’s arms. Tears welled up in Hunter’s eyes and he dashed up the steps of the porch and bolted through the door, heading toward his mother’s bedroom.
Tom vaulted into the saddle and galloped away as Thora turned to Jane Louise and said, “Run to the parsonage and bring Pastor Poole! Hurry!”
As Thora and Bessie, who carried Lizzie, approached the bedroom, they could hear Hunter sobbing, “Please don’t die, Mama! Please don’t die!”
“Hunter, listen to me,” Thora said. “Tom is going after Dr. Riley. He will come as quickly as he can.”
Florence was shaking with chills, even as perspiration flowed down her brow. She clumsily patted her son’s tear-streaked face and said in a slurred voice, “Hunter, don’t cry now.”
Soon Lizzie leaned forward in Bessie’s arms, extending a small hand toward her mother, and broke into tears. “Mama-a! Mama-a!”
“Hunter,” Florence choked out, “you’re scaring Lizzie. She needs to see you be strong. Remember, you’re the man of the house.”
Hunter had taken pride in that title since his father’s death and had done his best to live up to it. His mother’s reminder took hold, and he looked around at Lizzie. She was sniffling, her eyes fixed on him.
He slid to the floor and walked over to her, waiting for Bessie to lower his little sister to the floor. Then he put his arms around her and said, “It’s okay, Lizzie. Jesus is here with us, and Dr. Riley’s coming.”
From the Hardcover edition.