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Trouble is brewing on the plantation. When the overseer's daughter, Camellia York, accidentally causes the death of the plantation's owner who is also the father of the man she plans to marry, Trenton Tessier life as she knows it will never be the same.
As Trenton begins to pull away from her, Camellia seeks solace from Josh Cain, an older relative with a quiet, but unshakable, faith. But when Cain's own wife dies tragically, the stage is set for Camellia to discover the truth about her family's past and her own destiny.
Set against the backdrop of the Old South on the eve of the Civil War, Secret Tides is a saga of passion, greed, romance, and faith that you will not soon forget.
About the Author
Gary E. Parker is the best-selling author of ten novels and three novellas, including Secret Tides and Fateful Journeys. A Christy Award finalist, Parker has become CBA's source for sweeping sagas of faith and family. A PhD graduate of Baylor University, he serves as the senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia.
Read an Excerpt
Secret TidesThe Oak Plantation, 1858
of thunderstorms hit the beaches of the South Carolina lowlands the
day Camellia York accidentally killed the father of the man she hoped
to marry. The
storms didn’t come ashore all at once though. No, they gradually made their
way inland, slowly eroding the blue sky of the early November day with dark clouds.
the storms approached, Camellia stood barefooted about midway down
a long wood table in a plantation cookhouse about three miles from
shore. An old black
woman, so stooped she looked like she’d carried a rock the size of a washtub
on her neck for a long time, worked on the opposite side of the table. The woman’s
skin was so inky black that folks often said, if not for the whites of her eyes,
they’d never see her after night fell. Camellia’s skin was a soft
white, and her hair hung in rich brown waves past her shoulders. The black woman
wore a green bandanna, but it did little to contain the gray sprigs she called
hair. Camellia’s lips were full; she had all her teeth. The lips of the
black womanseemed to sink in around her mouth, and most of her teeth had long
since disappeared. A dip of snuff filled her right cheek.
Flour covered the hands of both women. Camellia wiped sweat off her brow, leaving
a smudge of the flour between her blue eyes.
The black woman grinned and pointed at the flour spot. “Miss Camellia makin’ her
sweet young face a mess. Lay on a mite more flour, and you be lookin’ like
a swamp ghost.”
Camellia laughed and bent forward. The older woman grabbed a rag and wiped off
“There’s not enough flour from Beaufort to Charleston to make you
a ghost,” drawled Camellia.
“That be true,” said the black woman, chuckling. “Stella be
black as the ink in Master Tessier’s pen, oh yes I am.”
The wood floor under the two women’s feet creaked as they worked. Flies
buzzed in and out of the open window to their right. The air hung heavy and hot
in spite of the clouds gathering outside. A low rumble sounded in the distance.
A fireplace as wide as a wagon covered the room to Camellia’s left, and
the fire in it made the cookhouse even hotter than the outdoor temperature. Camellia
faced the window and hoped to catch a breeze, but none came. She glanced around
the room—a rectangular space about twenty by forty feet. Pots and pans
and all manner of other cooking utensils hung on nails on the walls. Shelves
on two of the walls contained flour, sugar, salt, and vegetables they’d
put up in jars and cans. Barrels in the corners held cornmeal, rice, and wheat.
Camellia picked up a clay jar, poured flour into a bowl, took a touch of lard
from a pail, and dug her hands into the flour. Stella did the same. Her hands
turned as white as Camellia’s. A strange notion seeped into Camellia’s
head. Could it be that all people were the same color, under their skin? she
wondered. She held up her hands, covered with flour. “Look, Stella. Our
hands look the same.”
Stella spit into the snuff cup she always kept close by but said nothing.
Camellia wiped her hands on her apron, then scrutinized Stella. “Our clothes
are about the same too.”
Stella shrugged, obviously not catching Camellia’s meaning.
Camellia started to say more but then decided if she explained it, Stella would
just look at her like she’d lost her mind and wave her off. So Camellia
went back to her dough, massaging it steadily as her mind stretched with the
realization of how much like Stella she truly was: An apron covered her plain
brown dress, just like an apron covered Stella’s plain gray dress. They
both went barefooted except in winter or on the rare times they had traveled
to Beaufort, close to thirty miles away, to attend church. They both labored
from sunup to sundown on The Oak, a rice plantation of almost 3,000 acres and
Camellia blew a loose strand of hair off her cheek as sweat rolled down between
her shoulder blades. She patted out a biscuit and laid it by the ones she’d
already finished. Stella dropped one beside hers. Camellia studied the wrinkles
in Stella’s hands—although nobody knew for sure, most folks figured
Stella close to seventy. Camellia’s earliest memories brought Stella’s
face to mind instead of a mama’s or papa’s. Stella had given Camellia
a piece of peppermint—the first she’d ever had as a young child—and
the girl had seen Stella every day since. That, maybe more than anything else,
had stamped Camellia like a branding iron marked a horse. Now, except for her
color, a little more refined speech, and the fact that nobody owned her, Camellia
saw herself as real close to a darky.
The thunder rumbled again, this time closer, and Camellia hoped it would rain
and break the heat. Although they’d finished the harvest a week earlier,
the coastal lowlands often stayed warm right up to nearly December. Right now
the day felt as hot as July—a sticky suffocating blanket that made the
dogs stay under the porch of the manse and slowed everybody’s labor to
The thunder sounded once more. Camellia left the table and walked to the window.
Low black clouds put a mean face on the eastern half of the sky. To the west
the horizon remained blue, except for a few white clouds. Camellia scanned the
yard. The manse stood on four-feet-high stone pillars a good rock throw away,
a stately two-story white house with four columns on the front. Porches wrapped
both the front and back. An oak tree, at least a hundred years old and so wide
it took four people to get their arms around it, stood to the right of the front
porch. From this ancient oak, with its moss-draped branches, the plantation had
taken its name. About a half-mile to the left of the manse, snaking its way toward
the Atlantic Ocean, the slow-moving Conwilla River created the current that made
rice growing possible. A gravel drive, bordered on both sides by twenty-five
moss-draped oaks, connected about a quarter-mile away to a wide dirt road that
ran from Beaufort to Charleston.
Camellia wiped her hands on her apron. Although she owned none of The Oak and
labored as hard as any of the coloreds that made it run, she loved the place.
She loved the sandy soil that shifted under her feet; loved the crash and spray
of the ocean she visited almost every Sunday afternoon because she lived too
far from Beaufort to walk to church; loved the sounds of the frogs, birds, and
insects that made every summer night a throaty concert; loved the flowers that
bloomed almost year-round, their smells and color keeping everything alive. Mostly
though, she loved The Oak because she loved—
Lightning cracked the sky. Camellia jerked away from the window, her daydreaming
ended. Thunder rattled the cookhouse as she turned to Stella. “That thunder
sounds mean. Like it’s got something hurtful to say but no words to speak
“Maybe it’ll bring us some wet,” said Stella. “Cool us
down a mite.”
“It sounds angry, not wet.” Camellia eyed the odd sky—half
of it blue, half black.
Stella grabbed a handful of potatoes and started peeling them. “What you
know about angry thunder? A child your age don’t know such things.”
“I’m eighteen now.” Camellia picked up a stack of the potatoes. “I
can tell if a storm’s got rain in it. Just open your nose and smell—that’s
all you got to do. And when it don’t, it gets mad, you know that. Wants
to take out the anger on somebody.”
“You talk like a slave mammy,” said Stella. “Readin’ the
“A white girl can read storms,” Camellia claimed. “And this
storm”—she looked at the window again—“I don’t
know . . . feels frightful . . . like it’s a portent of something rough.” The
thunder mumbled again, and she shivered.
Stella stepped to the window, peered out, then moved back to her potatoes. “Got
some blue sky left. Maybe the storm won’t even get us.”
Camellia wiped her brow.
“Not sure which is better,” continued Stella. “We need the
rain, but the wind and the blow might do some damage.”
“That’s the way with storms,” said Camellia. “They bring
the good and the bad, one in hand with the other.”
Stella smiled. “There you go again with your philosphizin’.”
Camellia shrugged. “Just thinking. I mean, just look at that sky. Part
blue, part black. Which side will win? Which way will it go? And which is better?
We do need the rain. But what if the storm whips up a bad wind, enough to tear
up a house or two? So which is better? Storm or no storm? Hard to know beforehand,
right? You think one thing is better but can’t know for sure for a long
Stella kept at her potatoes. “You’re a smart girl. Too bad you ain’t
had a chance to get some learnin’.”
Camellia didn’t reply, but her hands peeled potatoes even faster. The fact
that a girl of her station had no chance for an education made her sad. But she
knew no way to change the matter, so she wouldn’t complain.
“When is Captain York gone be back?” asked Stella.
“Tomorrow,” Camellia said, thinking of her pa, a former cavalry officer
during the Mexican War. “He and Mr. Cain are hauling a couple wagons full
of supplies back from Charleston.”
“You reckon he’ll bring back the blue calico you been wantin’ for
that new dress? If he does, I’ll make a pretty one for you, just like you
“Pa’s not always dependable these days,” Camellia said, frowning. “You
know that. It’s like he can’t keep his head on real straight sometimes.”
“He’s got a lot on him, runnin’ this big place,” Stella
put in. “The Oak is an armful, that’s for sure.” She finished
her potatoes, dumped them in an iron pot, and started mashing them with a big
Camellia cut the last of hers and dropped them on top of Stella’s. Captain
York, her pa, served as overseer for Mr. Marshall Tessier. He managed the work
of all the Negroes, plus a couple of white men who helped him. Every night he
came home worn out and hungry. As the oldest child and only female in the house,
the duties of cooking, cleaning, and keeping house fell squarely into her lap,
in spite of the fact that she’d worked all day on the same plantation her
pa had run for as long as she could remember. Sometimes that seemed strange to
her, but since everybody in her world had their place and didn’t usually
squabble about it, she just squared her shoulders and kept quiet.
“That woman over in Beaufort said she didn’t want him courting her,” Camellia
said. “He took it hard.”
“That was half a year ago,” Stella commented sharply. “He ought
to be over any hurt she caused. She was a loose woman anyway.”
“He’s worse if anything,” lamented Camellia. “Like a
barrel rolling downhill, busting up more and more as it bounces toward the bottom.”
“How’s he worse?”
Camellia wiped her hands. “Oh, you know, his drinking. And he spends most
of his off time gambling somewhere. Cockfighting, horse racing, card games .
. . anything he can find to make a wager. He hardly ever stays home, even on
Sundays when he’s not at work.”
Stella’s hands stilled as she swiveled toward Camellia. “Look at
Stella took both of the girl’s hands. “Your pa got a lot of barky
edges. Always had them. That woman in Beaufort, even as loose as she was, kept
him with some calm. Now that she’s gone, his mean ways have bucked back
up. I seed it happen lot of times. A woman puts away a man, and he just goes
“Was he better before Mama died?”
Stella licked her lips. “That was a long time ago, child, back afore you
got any memory. No use castin’ your head back to them days.”
As usual, Camellia thought, nobody seemed willing to talk about her mama. In
her earlier years, Camellia had asked about her lots of times, but her pa always
shook his head and told her there wasn’t much to say. “She’s
dead,” he’d state. “Typhus got her a long time ago.” Gradually
she’d let it drop. But the mystery still haunted her sometimes.
“Pa’s got three of us left,” said Camellia, changing the subject. “I
can abide his crazy ways, but my brothers need a steady hand. When do you figure
Pa will settle again?”
Stella lowered her eyes. “I wish I could promise you he’s gone do
that. But I reckon you and Chester and Johnny deserve the truth. Maybe your pa
will, and maybe he won’t. I seed it go both ways.”
Thunder rattled the floor this time, and Camellia again moved to the window.
The black clouds now covered three-fourths of the sky, growing larger and darker
as the wind blew them closer. Lightning dropped and hit the ground a couple of
miles away. Camellia suddenly felt weak, as if something as dark as the gloomy
sky loomed over her. She wanted to cry. For as long as she could remember, she’d
tried to take care of her pa and brothers—Chester, now sixteen, Johnny,
just over a year younger—even as more and more duties had fallen her way.
But now it all felt too heavy to carry. Her heart sagged, and moisture glistened
in her eyes. But then her stomach steadied. Giving up never did anybody any good,
she knew, so she might as well not start now. She wiped her hands and took heart.
One of these days, maybe soon, she’d get married and everything would turn
Trenton Tessier’s face flashed into her memory, and she smiled. Master
Marshall’s nineteen-year-old son loved her. Hadn’t he said as much
this past Christmas when he came home from boarding school in Charleston?
Camellia remembered the best night of her life.
She and Trenton had taken a walk on the beach that Christmas Eve. Oh, she knew
she ought not to have gone with him without a chaperone. But sometimes society’s
rules needed some bending. Besides, the fancy rules of courting that governed
Charleston didn’t really fit their situation since they’d known each
other since childhood.
The stars twinkled like pieces of broken glass that night. The ocean splashed
gently toward shore, filling the air with scents of wet sand and salt. She and
Trenton, so handsome in his tan frock coat, black pants, and calf-high boots,
stopped about twenty feet from the water, and he took her hands in his.
“We’ve known each other most of our lives,” he began.
She lowered her eyes, afraid to speak lest he notice her unpolished words and
realize she didn’t deserve him.
“I’ve missed you every day these last three years I’ve been
away at school,” he continued.
“I’ve missed you more.” She looked up at him now, her shyness
put aside to make sure he knew of her affection.
“When I get home in the spring,” he promised, “we have big
decisions to make.”
As the night grew chillier, she shivered, and he pulled her shawl tighter around
her neck. Then he took her in his arms and held her for a long time. He kissed
her and she trembled.
Although he’d not exactly asked her to marry him that night in December,
he’d come real close, so close that she had no doubt he’d ask her
pa for her hand as soon as he got home in May. Then she’d have all she
needed—Trenton Tessier, a man of charm and strength and fine manners. That’s
all she truly wanted from life: Trenton to hug her every now and again, to tell
her he loved her more than anybody in the whole world.
“You be daydreamin’, child,” said Stella, bringing Camellia
back to the present. “Let’s finish this supper. I don’t want
to haul it to the manse once that lightnin’ moves closer.”
Camellia hurried back to the table.
“You be thinkin’ about Mr. Trenton, I figure,” Stella said
“You’re right about that.”
Stella spit into her snuff cup. “That boy ain’t good enough for you.”
Camellia ground her teeth. She and Stella had argued over this a lot. “I
know he’s got his faults,” she began. “Sometimes he thinks
too high of himself, spends too much time worrying about his clothes, the cut
of his hair. And, yes, he puts too much store in his hunting skills. But what
man of his quality and wealth don’t have a bit of the barnyard rooster
“Money don’t give a man the right to look down on folks,” argued
Stella. “I know it ain’t my place to say it, but he’s trouble,
that one. You mark my word.”
“You just don’t know him. He’s sweet and refined—as finely
educated as any man in the whole country. He’s charming too, you have to
admit. Enough to melt the heart of any girl in Charleston. What right do I have
to think less of him just because he’s aware of his outstanding traits?”
“I’m just tellin’ you what I think. Take it as you like. But
one thing I know: You be pure in heart and he ain’t. And you know it.”
“When we marry, I can help him,” insisted Camellia.
“A woman ought not marry for what a man can be,” said Stella. “She
be playin’ a losin’ game doin’ that. Best marry a man for what
he is, for that’s mostly who he’s gone stay.”
“He said he’d go to church with me when we marry,” Camellia
Stella grunted. “Won’t matter. He’s like his pa. Reckon even
the good Lord will have a hard time changin’ that.”
Camellia’s face flushed at the mention of Marshall Tessier. A touch of
anger ran up her neck. How dare Stella speak so ill of Trenton? She started to
argue more but then thought of how Stella saw her beloved Trenton. He did treat
the coloreds poorly sometimes, so no wonder most of them held him in low regard.
But he wasn’t the only white man with that fault. If she waited until she
found a man who handled the Negroes gently, she’d never marry anybody.
Besides, the darkies needed a strong hand to keep them steady with their work;
everybody knew that.
After she and Trenton married, she’d tell him to give the servants more
respect; she’d help him see how they kept The Oak thriving the way it did.
She smiled as she imagined the days after her marriage. So much would change.
She’d get a tutor and learn to read. Buy nice clothes so she could dress
up and make Trenton proud. Take him to Saint Michael’s in Beaufort where
they could sit in the front row and listen to the parson teach them the Word
of the Lord.
Lifted by her dreams, Camellia turned to her potatoes once more. Thunder rumbled
directly overhead, and the room turned dark as the sun disappeared completely.
Footsteps clomped on the cookhouse porch. Just who would come out in this storm?
Then the door swung open, and Mr. Marshall Tessier, master of the plantation,
pushed his bulky frame into the room. He wore shiny black boots and tan riding
pants. A brown ruffled shirt was open at the throat, and his eyes looked bright,
as if they had too much fire burning in them. He smelled like old tobacco and
stale ale. Camellia’s heart began to race.
“Mrs. Tessier wants you to come to the manse,” Tessier told Stella
without looking at her.
“I got potatoes left to mash,” Stella said, her eyes down. “You
reckon I might finish them afore I go to Mrs. Tessier? She wants supper on time,
Tessier glanced at Stella only for a moment before focusing on Camellia again. “You
go like I said,” he snarled. “No uppity smart mouth either.”
Stella muttered softly.
“I said git!” Tessier demanded. “Unless you want a switch on
your old hide!”
Camellia caught Stella’s eye and tilted her head toward the door. Although
she hated to face Tessier alone, she didn’t want Stella to be punished.
She’d seen him switch slaves before, and he was merciless.
“Be back soon as I can,” Stella told Camellia as she reached the
“I’ll finish up the potatoes,” said Camellia.
As soon as Stella left, Tessier stepped closer. “You fill out that dress
most amply,” he said, inspecting her head to toe.
Camellia’s skin crawled. Tessier had said such things a number of times
over the last year or so. Frightened by his attentions, she’d told her
pa about it a couple of months ago. But Captain York had laughed off her concerns.
She would never forget their conversation.
“You’re a strikin’ woman now,” her pa said when she confided
her fears. “Got to expect men to take notice.”
“But Mr. Tessier is a married man!” she protested. “And he’s
old too—got to be near sixty!”
Her pa rubbed his neatly trimmed black beard. “You handle this easy like,” he
finally said. “You can’t trifle with a man like Tessier.”
“I’m not the one doing the trifling,” she argued, a low anger
rising as she realized her pa, always so strong, might not stand up to Tessier
like she thought he should.
“Tessier pays the wages,” her pa continued. “Got to give the
man with the money a little rope. He’s just havin’ a bit of fun with
you; nothin’ to fret over.”
“You defending him?”
Her pa straightened then. “No. You’re my girl, and I won’t
let him hurt you. But you’ve got to keep steady here, understand the ways
of the world. Everythin’s not as pure as you see it. You’ve blossomed
this past year but still aren’t used to handlin’ men’s coarse
ways. Remember that Tessier can put me off this place at any second . . . and
you too. Just stay out of his way.”
“I’m trying,” she said. She wondered if she should tell him
about her plans with Trenton. Her pa, of course, knew they spent time together
when Trenton came home for visits. But so far nobody had said anything about
any romance between them.
“But he’s . . . Trenton’s father,” she finally stammered.
“What’s goin’ on with you and Master Trenton?” he asked
curiously. “He treatin’ you proper?”
She shrugged. “Trenton says we have decisions to make when he comes home.”
“A rich boy like Trenton is liable to play with a girl like you,” her
pa said sternly. “But he ain’t likely to marry you.”
Camellia pouted at the stinging words. She knew her station in life, how the
classes stayed separate—owners at the top, darkies at the bottom, white
trash who didn’t work just above the darkies, white folks who did work
on the rung above them. But Trenton would overlook all that. She felt certain
“Trenton will marry me,” she said, chin lifted just a bit. “He
When her pa grinned, she saw that he liked the idea of a marriage between her
and Trenton. Although strong in a lot of ways, Captain York had a weakness for
money, and he tended to give wealthy folks more respect than he did anyone else. “I
hope you’re right.” He beamed. “So stay away from his father.
That’s the best thing for everybody.”
Camellia had tried to do just that, and it had worked for the past few months.
Now she hoped she could escape again. She tried to move around Tessier, but he
stuck a boot between her feet and blocked her escape.
“I’ve had my eyes on you,” he said.
“You’ve been with a bottle,” Camellia said, her voice stronger
than she felt. “Smell like whiskey.”
“I won’t hurt you,” Tessier said softly. “Just want a
Camellia relaxed a little. Tessier had said similar things in the past, but she’d
always managed to keep him at bay.
“I’m not . . . not experienced in the ways of the world,” she
said, backing up slightly. “You can find better than me to kiss.”
“I can make amends for that.” He moved a little closer. “I
can teach you how to please a man.”
Camellia’s eyes searched past Tessier, looking for a way out. If she could
get to the porch, she could run, and Tessier, in his drunkenness, probably couldn’t
keep up with her. The room darkened even more as the clouds finally took over
the whole sky and wind whipped through the windows. Tessier stepped still closer,
until she could feel his breath on her cheek.
“I can give you anything you want,” he coaxed. “I can send
you to the best schools in the East, make a proper woman of you, clothe you in
the fashions of Europe, provide you with manners, culture—all the things
you surely want.”
“That’s a kind offer,” she said, still trying to stay polite. “But
I have no desire for such as that.”
“Money then; is that it? I have more than I can ever spend. You give me
what I want, and I’ll take care of you.” His fingers snagged her
hair. “Such luscious brown hair,” he whispered. “And skin as
soft as a swan’s feathers.”
Camellia’s stomach rolled, but she kept her voice even as she spoke. Maybe
she could still get out of this without any real harm. “What about your
wife?” she managed to ask.
Tessier chuckled. “She’s no concern of yours.” He touched the
back of Camellia’s neck and then bent to kiss her.
Camellia almost panicked. Master Tessier had never gone this far! What would
happen if she let him kiss her? Would that be the end of it, or would he want
more? Unable to tell, she began to pray for something—anything—to
end the unpleasantness. When Tessier’s lips touched her cheek, she twisted
away. He tried again, but she pushed him off.
“You reject me?” he bellowed, his face bunched in rage.
“Your son!” she cried, her voice now desperate. “He and I are—”
He laughed at her objection. “Trenton is a boy! He has no idea how to treat
a woman like you!”
“Just let me go!” she pleaded. “I won’t tell anybody.” She
tried to back up more, but the worktable stopped her.
“You think I care?” he yelled. “I’m the master of this
place, understand that? You, your father, my wife, or anyone else has no power
here!” He grabbed her by the shoulders and dug his fingers into her flesh.
“You’re paining me,” she whimpered.
As he twisted her face to his, rain started to pound the roof. Thunder roared.
In her fear and disgust Camellia almost collapsed. Then a bolt of lightning struck
close by, shocking her heart into pounding again and sending a reserve of strength
she didn’t know she had rushing through her bones. She wouldn’t give
in to such unwanted attentions without a fight, she decided. She wouldn’t
let Tessier kiss her, wouldn’t let him treat her like he owned her! No
one owned Camellia York!
As Tessier again bent to kiss her, she kneed him in the stomach. Doubling over
in pain, he backed up. Camellia rushed toward the doorway and almost made it
out before he caught her by the hair and jerked her back. She twisted and punched
at his face but missed. Wrapping his arms around her, he locked his hands at
the small of her back and squeezed.
“You’re a woman of fire!” he bellowed. “Just what I like!”
Seeing no choice now, Camellia reared her head back and thrust it into Tessier’s
nose. He screamed, let her go, and stumbled backward. Camellia ran again, but
he grabbed her once more, this time by the back of the throat, and spun her around.
His hands tightened like twin vises against her windpipe, and she fell back against
the worktable. She tried to scratch his face, but his grip increased until she
couldn’t breathe! Her lungs felt like they’d pop at any second! She
tried once again to kick him, but her legs couldn’t move. When her eyes
began to blur, she knew she’d reached the end of her fight.
“Pl...please,” she gasped.
“You made me do this!” Master Tessier panted.
Camellia tried to fight more but had no strength. Her body went limp. She closed
her eyes and prayed to die, hoped to die, wanted to die to avoid the humiliation
of what she feared Tessier would do to her.
She heard footsteps on the porch and opened her eyes just as Stella rushed in,
her head soaked from rain. Stella’s return gave Camellia renewed courage.
Raising both hands, she raked at Tessier’s eyes. He cried out, let go of
her neck, and staggered against the wall.
Stella grabbed the potato pot and threw it at Tessier. Mashed potatoes spilled
to the floor. The pot hit Tessier in the chest, but he knocked it away. Still
fighting for breath, she searched for a weapon, and her fingers closed on the
peeling knife. Holding it like a dagger, she yelled, “I’ll use it!”
“No you won’t!” Tessier rushed at her and she backed up. But
he kept coming. Feeling the table at her back, she stopped, poised to defend
herself. Just then Tessier lunged for the knife . . . but his feet slipped in
the spilled potatoes. Off balance, he fell forward. Camellia jerked out of his
way, but he grabbed at her as he toppled over. His right hand closed on the knife
blade as his head hit the table with a sharp thwack. His body sagged; his face
fell into the potatoes. He rolled over and tried to rise but fell again. His
eyes rolled back, then closed. A knot the size of an apple appeared over his
left eye, just past the temple. Blood dripped from a cut in his skull and from
his hand where he’d fallen on the knife.
Stella squatted and lifted his head. Outside the thunder and rain suddenly stopped,
as if listening to hear what would happen next. Tessier’s breathing sounded
ragged and shallow.
Camellia grabbed a rag, wet it from water in a barrel, and dropped to her knees.
“Is he all right?” she asked, rubbing the rag over his face.
“Reckon not,” said Stella, laying his head on the floor. “Busted
his skull right good.” She pointed to the blood seeping out.
“We have to help him,” said Camellia frantically as she held the
rag to his head.
Stella bent to his chest and listened to his breathing. “It ain’t
“We best go for a doctor!” pleaded Camellia.
Rising up, Stella took Camellia’s wrists into her hands. “Maybe he
be past our help. Or a doctor’s. Maybe the good Lord gone call him home.”
Camellia struggled against Stella’s hands. “We have to try!” she
urged. “Go for aid!”
“Give me one good reason why.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do!”
Stella let go of Camellia’s hands and pointed at Tessier. “That man
was goin’ to have his way with you. That be the right thing to do?”
Camellia shook her head.
“And what if he should live?” asked Stella. “He’d put
you and your family right off this place. Me too. After he whipped me, he’d
sell me fast, like a horse he don’t need.” She stood and toed Tessier
in the chest.
The wind whipped through the window, blowing Camellia’s hair. Rain started
falling again, but gentler now. Tears streamed down Camellia’s face. She
bent to Tessier again. “We just let him die?”
Stella patted her back. “He’ll live or die on his own. Not up to
Tessier took several shallow breaths.
“I did this,” said Camellia.
“He did it,” Stella countered. “You and me both know it.”
Camellia thought of the doctor again and started to stand. No matter what Stella
said she couldn’t just stand by and watch a man die. But then Tessier heaved
one last big breath and lay still.
Stella shook her head. “Not ours to worry about. He be gone.”
Camellia touched his chest. It didn’t move. She looked up at Stella. “How
will we explain this? They’ll accuse me of killing him, and they’ll
Stella grabbed a rag, handed another one to Camellia, and started cleaning up
the potatoes. “The man be drunk,” Stella said, as if talking about
the weather. “He come to check on supper, see what we was fixin’.
He tripped on this stool.” She took a two-step stool from beside the fireplace
and laid it by Tessier’s feet. “He tripped on this stool and fell
into the table. That’s all we got to say.”
“What about the cut on his hand?”
“A man falls, he grabs for the table, and his hand catches on the knife.
He cuts the hand as he falls. A simple thing to happen.”
“You think folks will believe us?”
“If we stick to our stories, they’ll let it stand, I reckon. How
else they gone say it happened? Two women knocked him on the head? What sense
that make? Just say the story over to me; I’ll say it over to you. Then
we take it to Mrs. Tessier.”
“But we’re lying,” said Camellia.
Stella took Camellia’s face in her hands. “Listen to me, child. This
is the way it gone be. Mr. Tessier tripped on a stool and busted his head. That’s
my story, and it best be yours. Any other way, and we both gone be messed up
for the rest of our lives. You got that?”
Too shocked to think of a good argument, Camellia nodded blankly.
“Now repeat the story to me,” ordered Stella.
Camellia started to protest. The notion of lying cut against all she believed.
Yet, Stella told it right. Mr. Tessier had caused this by trying to take advantage
of her. If he hadn’t made his shameful approach, he’d still be breathing.
He carried the weight of what had happened, not her. Why should she hand over
her life for a bad man’s sins? And what about Stella? If anybody ever heard
the whole truth, they’d hurt Stella too, put her off The Oak. Where would
she go at her age? What would she do?
Outside the thunder rumbled as the last of the storm died away. Like the storm
had fought with the clear sky to see which would win, now Camellia fought within
her soul. What should she do? She wanted to tell the truth but knew she had no
choice but to lie.
“You done no wrong here,” Stella whispered. “Mr. Tessier brought
this on. Just tell the same story, over and over. Nobody will ever know the difference.”
Camellia stared at Stella.
“We best go to the manse,” said Stella. “Tell your pa and the
others what happened.”
I’m fearful,” Camellia said.
Stella nodded wisely. “I been fearful all my life, child. But I got words
for you. You get used to it.”
Excerpted from Secret Tides by Gary E. Parker Copyright © 2004 by Gary E. Parker. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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