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Brides of Ohio
Three Historical Tales of Love Set in the Heart of the Nation
By Jennifer A. Davids
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Jennifer A. Davids
All rights reserved.
Ostrander, Delaware County, Ohio March 2, 1865
Katherine Eliza Wallace looked around her with wide eyes as she stepped off the train. Rising over the top of the tiny railway station were the false fronts of buildings, their painted signs announcing the Ostrander Hotel and Decker's Dry Goods. Yet another store advertised furniture notions to her left. But it wasn't the sight of the simple country shops that caused her to stare. A light snow was falling, the first the South Carolinian had seen in the twenty-two years of her life.
Her companion watched her with a gentle smile. "I've missed snow," she said as she also watched the tiny flecks of icy softness swirl through the air.
Katherine turned to look at the woman, slightly embarrassed. "It's lovely," she declared in her soft Southern drawl. Then she shivered in spite of her warm wraps. "But my, it's chilly!"
The older woman chuckled. "It'll be spring in a couple of weeks. I warned you it would be different than living along the Congaree."
"I don't mind." Katherine's face grew pensive. "You know I had nowhere else to turn."
Mary grasped her hand. "Welcome to Ohio," she said with a grin. "Ten to one it'll be warmer tomorrow and then freezing the day after." They laughed.
A shrill cry rang out, and they turned toward it. "Mary O'Neal!" A graying, scarecrow-like woman was bearing down on them from the direction of the dry goods store.
Katherine looked at Mary nervously.
The older woman smiled reassuringly and smoothed back a strand of Katherine's dark hair, tucking it back into her bonnet. "It'll be fine," she whispered and turned to the new woman's outstretched arms. "Ruth Decker!" Mary smiled as she gently returned the strong embrace. "It's so good to be home."
Grasping her friend by the elbows, Ruth smiled back as she examined Mary's face.
"We thought you might be here soon. I'm so glad. We heard about General Sherman's march. The Delaware Gazette said he went right through where your plantation stood." She drew a little closer to Mary. "Did the general ... burn your house down?" She finished the last sentence in a sort of loud whisper.
"No, he was very good to us while he and his officers stayed at the house."
Ruth gasped and her eyes became so large, Katherine thought they looked just like those of the tree frogs that were so common in her home state.
"Mary O'Neal," she gasped. The train began to leave and her voice rose above the laboring engine. "You met General William Tecumseh Sherman and didn't tell me straightaway!" She picked up one of the carpetbags Mary had set down on the platform. "Now you just come with me and tell me everything!" Mary gave Katherine a droll little smile, and they picked up their other bags and followed.
With the train gone, Katherine got a glimpse of the rest of the town. The tall spire of a church rose up further down, and across the street and a block or so closer was a brick schoolhouse. Several other homes dotted the rest of the town, and in the distance she heard the distinct sounds of bleating sheep.
"A purebred sheep dealer a street or two over," Mary explained.
They stepped up onto the wooden boardwalk outside the dry goods store, and Katherine noticed there was a post office just around the corner. Evidently it was also taken care of by the Deckers, for Ruth stuck her head in as they passed to tell her daughter, a young lady named May, to mind the counter; she would be "back in a bit."
The walkway ended at a stone-lined path, at the end of which stood a quaint whitewashed two-story house. Quicker than a body could say "knife," Ruth Decker had them out of their wraps and sitting in her elegant little parlor sipping tea out of a china service she claimed her grandmother had brought over from Ireland.
"Now," Ruth said as she came into the room with a plate of cookies, "tell me everything." She sat down next to Mary and took her hand.
Mary smiled gently at her friend. "If you don't mind, Ruth, first I would like to introduce you to my dear friend, Katherine Wallace."
"Good heavens, where are my manners?" Ruth leaned over and patted Katherine on the leg. "I am so sorry, dear. I was caught up with seeing Mary again."
"Please don't give it another thought, ma'am," Katherine said softly. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."
Ruth started at the sound of the young woman's gentle accent and looked at Mary.
"Katherine's family owned the plantation next to ours, Ruth." Mary calmly took a sip of tea. "The Wallaces. I'm sure I wrote you about them."
Ruth looked at Katherine a moment longer. "Oh, of course. Yes. How do you do?"
Katherine noted the cooler tone to the woman's voice and flushed slightly as she took another sip of tea. It wasn't the first time since they had passed the Mason-Dixon Line that she had been snubbed in such a way. But it hurt just the same. She lightly fingered the long, thin scar that lined her left jawline.
"For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart."
The verse sprang into her mind of its own volition, and Katherine remembered it as one Mary had quoted after a particularly bad incident in Springfield, west of Ostrander. Katherine felt her face cool a little and, dropping her hand away from her jaw, took mind of Mary and Ruth's conversation.
"You mean General Sherman used your house as his headquarters!" Ruth was gushing.
Mary smiled. "Well, not exactly. He and his staff simply stayed the evening. We gave him what we could, and he provided Katherine and me with a horse and wagon, which got us up to Lexington. There was no catching a train so far south. He'd ruined the lines."
The tree frog eyes appeared once more. "You traveled from South Carolina to Lexington, Kentucky, all by yourself! Mary O'Neal, wasn't it dangerous?"
"No." Katherine spoke now with a soft voice. "There are many refugees on the roads these days. We had a great deal of company on our way here." She looked at Mary. "I'm afraid General Sherman has made many a family homeless."
Ruth gave her a sharp look and then turned to Mary. "What is the general like?"
"He's a bit rough, but he's a good man," Mary said with a sympathetic glance at Katherine.
When Sherman's army had arrived at her family's plantation, they destroyed everything, including burning the house to the ground. Katherine and her aunt Ada had fled to the O'Neals', whose plantation was mostly spared when General Sherman discovered it housed a fellow Ohioan. Her aunt had been quite indignant over that fact, but Katherine had been very glad her friend's home had been spared.
"My people were so happy to see him," she said. "He remarked that many former slaves clamor around him as if he were Moses."
Ruth looked at her friend with reproof. "I still can't believe you and John actually owned slaves. How could you, coming from a family like yours? Your people have been abolitionists for years."
Mary patted Ruth's hand. "Well, you know my husband's inheriting the place was quite a surprise to us. We had intended on freeing our people and selling the land, but a stipulation in the will demanded the plantation couldn't be broken up. It would have been given over to a distant cousin we knew to be terribly cruel. So we thought it best to keep it." Mary smiled at Ruth. "We were kind to our people and kept them well cared for."
"And you were the least popular family for it." Katherine smiled broadly. "Folks said they would turn on you because of your kindness."
Ignoring Katherine's comment, Ruth clasped Mary's hand once more. "Dorothy told us about John and Thomas. We're so sorry."
Katherine looked compassionately at her friend. The mention of the loss of Mary's husband and son had brought a strained look to her face. Her husband, John O'Neal, and their son, Thomas, had sneaked north and joined the Union army not long after the surrender of Fort Sumter. John had been with a Pennsylvania regiment and Thomas with one from New York State. Thomas had perished at Chancellorsville; John only two months later at Gettysburg. With her son and husband gone, Mary had longed for family and decided to abandon her plantation and return to Ohio where her sister, Dorothy, lived along with her three sons. Dorothy's husband had died before the war, and other relatives had either gone west or passed on.
Katherine frowned as Ruth prattled on about who else in Ostrander had lost loved ones in the war. Couldn't she see how tired Mary was and how sad the news made her? When the woman finally paused to draw breath, Katherine spoke up. "Shouldn't we be getting along to your sister's farm, Mary? You said you wanted to go there directly, seeing how it's been so long since you had a letter." Mary shot her a grateful glance.
"Oh, of course," Ruth exclaimed. "I've been keeping you! I'm so glad you're on your way to Dolly's. It's been at least two weeks since I've seen her here in town."
"Two weeks?" Mary immediately rose and made for their wraps, which hung on an oak hall tree near the door.
Katherine followed her lead.
"Well yes. Elijah Carr was coming to get her mail —"
"Mr. Carr has been coming to town for my sister?" Katherine started at the stern look on Mary's face as she handed her things to her.
"Well yes, to get the mail and buy a few things." Ruth looked in wonder at Mary's confused look. "Toby ran off and joined up nearly two years ago. With Jonah and Daniel gone fighting, she needed the help."
Mary paled and leaned back against the door.
Katherine thought she might faint and grasped her arm.
"Oh Mary, I'm so sorry!" Ruth exclaimed. "I thought you knew! I was sure she'd written —"
"Hush up!" Katherine snapped. Seeing Mary so distressed made her sharp. Ruth stopped her chatter, but Katherine could feel her eyes on her as she began to rub Mary's wrists. "Mary, are you well?"
Taking a deep breath, the older woman nodded. "May we borrow your horse and buggy, Ruth? I need to see my sister."
* * *
At least the woman is efficient, Katherine thought as she tooled a little black buggy down the road out of town.
It hadn't taken Ruth Decker long to get them going. She had even offered to get a boy to drive them, but Katherine had insisted on performing the task to the woman's great surprise; she hadn't seemed to believe her capable. Two weeks ago she would have been right, the young woman mused.
The trip up from the South had forced Katherine to learn and do things she had never done in the whole of her privileged life — like driving a horse and wagon and cooking over an open flame. She was glad to have learned them. She'd never felt very comfortable having others do things for her or being prim and proper as was expected of a Southern belle. She was glad she was becoming more self- sufficient, particularly now.
Ruth had given Mary her sister's mail for the last two weeks, and she knew Mary would want to look at the correspondence in private, meager though it was. There were a grand total of three letters in the bundle, two of them from Daniel, one of Dorothy's sons, and one from someone whose name Mary hadn't recognized. Katherine had noted it was from a Union officer and hoped it wasn't bad news. She wasn't sure how much more Mary could take today. Her friend now flipped through the letters one at a time, her steel blue eyes pensive and a loose strand of ash-blond hair tickling her face, trying in vain to gain her attention.
"Maybe you should open one," Katherine suggested softly.
Mary glanced at her and looked as if she might refuse.
"I'm sure your sister wouldn't mind."
Biting her lip, Mary opened one of Daniel's, the most recent one. "He's in Petersburg, Virginia, with General Grant." She breathed a small sigh of relief. "He says homesickness is all he's come down with in the last month."
Katherine nodded and sent up a prayer of thankfulness. Sickness was such a problem in the army camps of both sides that it was feared almost as much as combat.
Mary looked at the other letter from the unknown Union officer. "This is dated before Daniel's," she muttered. She turned weary eyes to Katherine. "It may be about Jonah. ... I ... can't ..." She raised a hand to her eyes.
"Then don't," Katherine said. "You're so tired ... I regret suggesting it."
Mary tucked the missives in her reticule and looked around. The familiar scenery seemed to soothe her, and Katherine sensed her tension ease and a little of her weariness fall away.
The road they traveled down had trees thick on both sides, and every now and then a squirrel, not long from a winter nap, dashed in and out of the leaves. The snow had not lasted long at all, having only served to make a light coating on bare patches of grass and frost the sides of the road.
When they rolled past a neatly kept brick church, Mary mentioned that was where her family had attended since before there was even a building to meet in. She sincerely hoped Katherine would enjoy Mill Creek Church.
Katherine bit her lip and glanced out away from Mary's eye. I know I'll enjoy it, but will the church enjoy me?
She thought back over their visit with Mrs. Decker. Were people like Ruth Decker the kind of folks she had to look forward to? In spite of the woman's chilly behavior, she regretted being so sharp right before they left. And comparing the poor woman to a tree frog! She felt the color rise slightly in her cheeks. I ought to be ashamed of myself.
Katherine was hoping to start a new life here, far, far away from the one she had left behind in South Carolina. Ohio was to be her home now.
I surely got off on the wrong foot with Mrs. Decker, Father. Help me to behave better the next time we meet.
"My, but Mill Creek is high."
Katherine started at the sound of Mary's voice. She had been so lost in thought she had not noticed a rushing sound that was quickly becoming a roar. They were approaching a creek — Mill Creek, according to Mary.
Katherine stopped the horse for a moment to look. The creek was a tumult of rushing water running quickly past them as if on serious business that would not wait. The spring thaw had made the waters run high and fast. It seemed slightly smaller than the Congaree, the waterway near the plantation where she grew up. But according to Mary, it wasn't called Mill Creek for nothing. It powered more than one mill along its banks.
A covered bridge spanned the creek, and Katherine urged the horse forward. Not long afterward they came to a crossroad, and Mary instructed her to turn east. After crossing the creek once more, the trees began to thin and Katherine noticed Mary's face take on a gentle, happy look, much to her relief. The creek was on their right, and the road now followed the base of a gentle slope. As they rounded a slight corner, the rear of a farmhouse came into view.
"There it is," Mary murmured.
Katherine pulled the buggy up the sloped driveway and turned to see a kindly, cozy-looking farmhouse. Painted a simple white with a slate roof, a little dormer window capped the square front porch. The pine-green shutters on the windows were open and welcomed all to come in. Smoke was rising from one of the twin chimneys that rose from either side of the house, and Katherine found herself longing to sit before its fire away from the chill.
"This isn't right," she heard Mary say. "Dolly wouldn't stand for the farm to be in such a state."
Confused, Katherine turned and saw that her friend was looking out at the scene in front of the buggy. She had been so absorbed admiring the house that she hadn't noticed the rest of the farm. The yard and other farm buildings were in poor condition. More than one rail in the garden fence was broken. The barn door was standing half open, and several chickens, loose from the coop, wandered here and there.
Before Katherine could say a word, Mary was out of the buggy and in the house.
Katherine looked around for a place to leave the horse and buggy, eager to follow. But Ruth's horse, a gentle old mare, had already raised one hoof and appeared to be dozing. She secured the brake and followed Mary into the house.
Finding herself in a little entry hall with stairs in front of her, she was unsure where to go. To the right was a charming little parlor with rose-print wallpaper, comfortable-looking chairs, and a sofa; a dining room with a long, sturdy table and chairs lay to the left. Mary was nowhere to be found.
Hearing her friend's call, Katherine immediately ascended. Halfway up she heard the worst coughing she had ever heard in her life, and the sound made her dash up the last few steps. There were several doors to choose from at the top. All were closed save one. She entered the room and nearly gasped at the sight of a woman in bed, covered with a handmade quilt. Her face was drawn and pale, and it grieved Katherine to come to the conclusion that this was Dorothy Kirby.
Mary sat on the edge of the bed trying to urge her sister to drink from a cup. "The fire's low. Go through the dining room and there should be some wood in the kitchen."
The tightness in the older woman's voice gave Katherine speed, and she flew down the stairs as directed to the kitchen in the rear of the house. The wood box had several logs in it, and seizing a few of the thicker ones, she lugged them back upstairs. It didn't take her long to get the fire going again.
She turned to find Dorothy looking at her. She swallowed hard. It felt like a walnut with its green spring husk still attached was trying to go down her throat. Would her presence alarm the sick woman? Dorothy couldn't possibly know who she was.
She started to step out of the room when Mary motioned for her to come near.
"Pneumonia," Mary stated as she approached.
"Is that Katherine?" A catch grew in Katherine's throat at the sound of the poor woman's hoarse, weak voice.
"Yes, but hush now," Mary soothed. "We'll save introductions for later, Dolly."
But the woman shook her head. "Been praying for her. Like you asked." She made an attempt to give Katherine a weak smile but began to cough again.
Excerpted from Brides of Ohio by Jennifer A. Davids. Copyright © 2011 Jennifer A. Davids. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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