Hearts of Mercy

Hearts of Mercy

by Joan Donaldson

Paperback(First Printing ed.)

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“A captivating tale about father-daughter relationships, personal independence, and second chances.” –KIRKUS REVIEW

When Viney Walker’s long, absent father arrives in the 19th century Utopian Community of Rugby, TN, he begs her to return with him to the Great Smoky Mountains. Viney’s sister, Lizzie urges her to go, because a new setting will help Viney heal from a broken engagement. Viney acquiesces and in her new home, she meets her Walker cousins, including handsome and brawny James. The couple’s romance angers the White Caps, a vigilante group that whips lewd women, and they warn Viney to mend her ways.

Seeking revenge and the freedom to love James, Viney joins a counter vigilante group. She plots a trap for the White Caps, but finds herself tied to a post, with a whip racing toward her.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781684330911
Publisher: Black Rose Writing
Publication date: 06/28/2018
Edition description: First Printing ed.
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.48(d)

About the Author

Joan Donaldson is the author of two picture books, two young adult novels, and an essay collection. Her last novel, On Viney's Mountain won the 2010 Friends of American Writers Award, represented the State of Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival, and appeared on the Bank Street List of the Best Books of 2010. She received a Master of Fine Arts from Spalding University, and earns her living growing organic blueberries.

Read an Excerpt


The last time I'd hiked to this lookout and gazed across these hills, Charlie's fingers had caressed my shoulder. His gentian blue eyes had scanned my face with longing before he kissed me good-by. Blast it all! Charlie's dratted letter ending our engagement felt like a porcupine slapping me with his tail, lodging his barbs into my heart. The harder I yanked at the quills, the more pain swept through me. I blew my nose, and stuffed his letter beneath a chunk of sandstone. Let his words rot.

I refused to give into silly lady-like vapors, swooning over my recalcitrant beau like some girls did after their fellows returned to England. Those gents weren't worth the powder to blow them to hell, but Charlie had been different from other foreigners. My Englishman had been eager to understand our ways, and had tried to buy land in the settlement. Then troubles came to Rugby and Charlie fled north to apprentice in Michigan. How could he prefer living where folks didn't eat grits?

As my feet slapped the trail, I vowed to stay single, and weave coverlets until called to my heavenly home. Designing new patterns and weaving brought me more pleasure than a fickle man. I'd make my aunt's land prosper with a flock of sheep and a goat for milk, and would build rail fences surrounding pastures. Another quill bit me; I had reckoned on Charlie's hands to work with me. He would have split the rails while I stacked them, pausing now and then for a quick kiss.

When I reached the pike, men in slouch hats shouted to teams of oxen pulling wagons, filled with lumber. The scent of freshly cut pine boards trailed behind them, and the oxen's big hooves left half-moons in the dusty road. The settlers' English accents still jolted me; they had come to experience Mr. Hugh's Utopia. We highlanders gossiped about how the English stopped at four o'clock, changed into starched collared-shirts, and sipped tea from thin china cups while eating tiny sandwiches. Come evening, they would swing a tennis racket or toss horse shoes, or their women played the piano and sang. Between hoeing corn, and scything hay, most ridge folk hadn't time for such foolishness. We went visiting on Sundays.

At first, I had hated how the foreigners had cut down our trees and built a town, with boarding houses, a print shop, and a library. But then I had met Charlie who called cumulus and nimbus clouds by their names and praised my weavings. The settlement's grand Tabard Inn had burned last year, but a flock of carpenters now sawed and whacked nails as they constructed a new hotel. My Charlie should have been raising a hammer amongst them. His shoulders straining against a homespun shirt stitched by my hands. Despite the ruckus, I was grateful for the wealthy summer guests who spent their cash money for my coverlets at the Commissary. Money that was supposed to help Charlie and me on our farm.

I turned down a dusty side street, and marched toward the gray clapboard boarding house where my sister, Lizzie lived. Maroon gingerbread, like rolling waves, edged the house's gables and a rising sun expanded over the screen door. Mounds of red, white, and pink dianthus bloomed around the porch steps and scented the air. The screen door slapped shut behind me. I bumped into Mrs. Carroll who ran the place.

"Ah, Viney, your sister's in the parlor, with an elderly gentleman who's been waiting for you." With red, curly hair and blue eyes, Mrs. Carroll resembled a drawing in a book of Irish folk tales that I had found in Rugby's library. As soon as Mrs. Carroll spoke, folks realized she had come from across the Great Waters.

"Thank you, ma'am." I slipped into the room smothered in red velvet from the heavy curtains to the plush settees. Red roses decorated the rounded shade of the hanging kerosene lamp, and the prisms along the bottom of the shade jiggled as I walked to a rocking chair. Big pink and red cabbage roses splashed across the wall paper, and a huge oriental rug covered the wide pine flooring. All that plush and roses made me stifle a sneeze.

Lizzie nodded toward a white-haired, bearded man sitting beside her. He wore patched trousers, a blue collarless shirt, and a fraying brown wool vest. Lizzie and the man stood up. "Viney, meet our Daddy."

My mouth felt full of wool. Three days after our mama had died from birthing me, our father had run away, leaving our two aunts to raise my sister, my older brother, Jacob, and myself. Not once in nineteen years, had we received a letter, a few dollars, nor had a passing stranger delivered a word about this man. Our aunts had lectured us to forgive him, but I hadn't. Instead, I had spun my anger into thread, strung it on my loom, and whacked the beater against reconciliation. While I had wondered what sort of man my father was, I had named him a coward for abandoning us. Now, I certainly wasn't going to call this fellow, "daddy" and blubber about his return. But our aunts had taught us manners.

"Pleased to meet you, sir," I crossed the room. My belly twisted when I recognized the shape of his face matched mine. I had always thought my oval face and ash blond hair came from my Mama. "How can we know you are telling us the truth?"

"Viney!" Lizzie frowned, and plopped down on the settee.

With shaking hands, the old man pulled a small Bible from his coat pocket and gave it to me. "Look at the first page, where your mama, God rest her soul, wrote in Lizzie's and Jacob's birth dates. Your Aunt Alta had to write in yours, 'cause of your mama dying."

Sliding onto the settee next to Lizzie, I recognized Aunt Alta's handwriting, and because of the weaving drafts our mother had lettered out, I knew that the other script was hers.

"After all these years." Lizzie said, as tears puddled in the corner of her eyes.

I stared at the gent. "How do we know you didn't steal this from our father?" I wanted to add, if'n you are our daddy, why couldn't you be bothered to write in my name? What if this man had found out about Aunt Alta dying, and had come to claim the farm she had deeded to me?

From the back of the Bible, he took a piece of linen paper and unfolded it to us. "What they gave me when the war ended. Saying that I fought for the South, God bless her. If'n you don't believe me, go talk to your brother. I spent last night with Jacob in our old cabin."

I glanced at the document and stood up. "Well, reckon we need to step out, and talk things over with Jacob."

"Yes," Lizzie wiped her eyes. "Let me fetch my bonnet. Please excuse us, sir. If you would like a cup of tea while you wait, I could speak to Mrs. Carroll. And she just baked shortbread, too."

The old feller sighed. "Thank you, daughter, that's right kind of you."

A few cumulus clouds floated over the mountains, and their shadows brushed the hills like black moths, as Lizzie and I headed across the ridge to where Jacob and Hazel lived. My sister had been old enough to fix a few memories about our father, so I reckoned that was why she was teary-eyed. Or perhaps it was because her intended had died of the fever last year, leaving her soul bruised. Slender, with black, curly hair and lavender eyes, Lizzie drew suitors like bears to a honey tree; men stumbled when they spied her curves. But she still pined for her Englishman, George, and avoided frolics and dances. Lizzie preferred working a few days for Mrs. Carroll and spent her free time, knitting fine lace, and reading novels.

"Lizzie, with all the ruckus about our supposed father, I couldn't tell you that Charlie broke off our engagement." I held my breath, hoping Lizzie would tongue-lash the scoundrel.

"I'm so sorry." Lizzie gave me a one-arm hug around my waist. "But men can be capricious, wait and see if Charlie changes his mind."

"Is that the best you can do?" My words trembled. I'd expected her to bawl with me, stamp her feet a little. My tears threatened to spill, but I swatted them away. I was weary of crying over him.

Lizzie paused, wrapped her arms around me, and kissed my forehead. For a moment we stood in silence, as a catbird chortled. Here was my sister who knew how to soothe my heart and offer hope when clouds surrounded me. I breathed in the scent of the rosewater she splashed about her face. Even if all the men in the world abandoned me, I had Lizzie, and for her, I would do almost anything. Oh, we scrapped and fussed at each other, but before the sun went down, we forgave each other.

"Truly, I'm sorry, losing a beau is hard. But ever since Charlie left, I wondered if things between you two would unravel. Perhaps you both need time to ponder your feelings. But having Daddy back is good news."

"If this man truly is our father ... don't forget how he rejected us and didn't even bother to write." I wanted to curse, but Lizzie's look squashed the words.

When the woods cleared, I spied Mama's pink roses blooming near the porch, and inhaled their heavy scent. Brown-haired Hazel sat churning butter with her babe playing on an Ohio Star quilt. Another little one rounded her belly, pushing up her dark green calico dress and muslin apron. Jacob would soon have a flock of youn'uns to help him.

But as we climbed the porch steps, my mind flitted to sitting here in the twilight, with Charlie holding my hand. We had chattered about the farm we would have where Charlie would breed new varieties of apples, and I would raise sheep to mow the orchards. Now, I reckoned he planned to grow his apples in the north. At least I had my wooly friends.

"We knew you would come," Hazel said. "Jacob's expecting you. He's hoeing corn."

We headed toward the corn patch where I spied Jacob chopping weeds. My heart splintered. One year ago, Charlie had worked with me in the same field, until blisters rose on his soft palms, but by the end of summer, callouses had thickened his hands. Now, I would never see him again. Why had our father returned instead of Charlie?

"You're wanting to know what I think about Daddy." Jacob leaned on his hoe. "Let's sit under the big oak. Got a jug of water, there."

Lizzie and I settled on a log next to Jacob while he gulped, water dripping onto his beard. He poured a little on his head and swept back his brown hair as the rivulet trickled down the front of his sweat-stained shirt. Jacob wore a pair of britches from wool that I had woven.

"He showed you Mama's Bible, and his Confederate papers?" Jacob took another big gulp.

"Yes," I said. "But how do you know this man didn't take them from someone else?"

"He showed me the puckered line of skin on his shin, where shrapnel grazed his leg at Chancellorsville. I remember Daddy telling me stories about the battle and seeing the ugly scar. If you look at the back of the Bible, you'll see where I penned my name. I was so proud that I could write it, but Daddy tanned my hide for messing with the Good Book."

Lizzie wiped tears off her cheeks. "So he's telling the truth. Our daddy's come home. I wish Aunt Alta had lived long enough to see her prayers answered."

My stomach tumbled to my toes. "But why would he come back, now?" How could Lizzie so easily welcome the man who had run away from us? Until he apologized to me, I wanted to spit at his feet.

"He's got the palsy, and figures he hasn't long to live. So he wants to make peace with us." Jacob ran his fingers through his hair. "It won't be easy, but I reckon our aunties would want us to do what's right. Even if you don't want to make amends with him, Viney, you should do it for them."

* * *

I jumped off the log and circled my siblings. "I'm done with men. Charlie just wrote and ended our engagement." Every inch of me felt as if I'd been thumped up and down in a butter churn until I'd clabbered. "And don't forget that this old gent didn't want you, two."

"I'm sorry to hear about Charlie," Jacob said. "Maybe you'll be gentler with the next fellar who comes courting."

I ignored him. "So what does our long-lost father want?" Whatever it was, I refused to give it.

"To know his children. Hazel and I offered for him to live with us. But he said this place, especially the cabin, held too many memories of Mama." Jacob unfolded his lithe frame and paced in a circle. At age twelve, he had taken over the farm and Aunt Alta had moved back to her sister's cabin. Plowing and chopping wood had sculpted Jacob's shoulders and powerful thighs.

"Appears that after leaving the ridge, Daddy wandered as far west as the Rocky Mountains. When he came back east, he felt too ashamed to come here, so he settled near a brother living in the Great Smoky Mountains. Daddy plans to return to Wear's Cove, to the little cabin he built on our uncle's land."

"Sounds like a dandy idea. When does he leave?" Good, I'd only have to endure a few days of this carrying-on, celebrating the repentant father. Shouldn't the prodigal be a child and not the parent?

"Daddy wants you and Lizzie to go with him," Jacob said. "But he's a-feared to ask you." Jacob picked at a scab on his thumb. "He needs someone to take care of him."

"What? He expects us to keep house and nurse him? That's the most addle-pated idea." I threw a rock into the woods. "Why should we? Must be some other kin living in the cove who could move in with him."

"You don't have to go, Viney, and I won't fault you if'n you say no," Jacob said. "I wouldn't agree to uproot my family and move, but you and Lizzie are not wed."

"That's not fair! We both had plans ..." I stuck out my foot to trip Jacob, but he dodged it.

Lizzie took a deep breath. "Burying George, set me to pondering about everything that's happened in my life, and what I want to do. Too many years have been wasted, we should share whatever time Daddy has left. After my cottage is built then I'll come to him."

Jacob put an arm around Lizzie. "Our aunties would be proud of how you've grown into a generous woman."

My brother might as well have said, but I'm not proud of you, Viney, because you are acting like a self-centered child who has no place in her heart for her father.

"How can y'all expect me to head out with a stranger and move to a foreign place?" I studied their expressions. Why couldn't they understand the pain of losing Charlie? And now, they wanted to snatch me from my home and my weaving?

"Well, what's keeping you here?" Jacob stretched his arms in front of him, locked his fingers, and pulled, his way of expressing his frustrations.

"What about my weaving? My flock of sheep is growing. I need to put up hay, hoe the corn, fill in the chinking to the cabin, there's always something to do. And I'm hoping the visitors would buy stacks of coverlets. I've no desire to go gallivanting off." As I listed each fact, I broke a piece off a stick and flung the bit over my shoulder.

"I'll ask Mr. Hill to find a settler to care for your farm. Daddy told me that our Uncle John has a passel of girl cousins with looms, spinning wheels, and they live about a mile up from Daddy's cabin. Appears they even grow flax and weave linen. Besides, you should be thinking about helping your family and not about earning money."

"You might enjoy spending time with our cousins," Lizzie said. "You could learn some new weaving patterns. You know how everywhere I look, memories of George haunt me. You're going to see Charlie by every tree and porch swing, sometimes a new place helps ease grief. Please Viney, do this for me. You go for the summer, then I'll come in the fall."

"Oh, Laws." After her months of sorrow and grieving, Lizzie knew I wouldn't deny her request. And my sister was usually right about men and love. "Only 'til the end of August. Then Lizzie can swap places."

Jacob grinned. "What if you meet a sweetheart? You might not want to come back."

I picked up his jug and doused him. "Maybe our girl cousins are single because there aren't any good men in those mountains."


Charlie Breckenridge thrust his hands in his pockets and walked away from the Traverse City, Michigan Post Office. Viney should have received his letter at least three weeks ago, and could have written back by now. He shouldn't have sent that letter. He should have known Viney would be furious and not answer him. Despite the pain of watching his friend, George die, Charlie should have stayed in Tennessee. He shouldn't have fled north to Michigan. The tap of his boots on the wooden walkway beat out, he shouldn't have, he should have.

A sharp breeze off Traverse Bay blew down the street lined with shops, hotels, and saloons. Men drove wagons filled with crates of chickens, milk cans, and barrels. Huge stacks of logs lined sections of the wharf where men loaded them onto schooners. Charlie headed north on the road running along the east peninsula, a finger jutting out into the bay. Orchards covered the low hills with endless rows of apple and cherry trees.


Excerpted from "Hearts of Mercy"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Joan Donaldson.
Excerpted by permission of Black Rose Writing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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