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BOOKS BY DOROTHY GARLOCK
After the Parade
A Gentle Giving
Love and Cherish
More Than Memory
Ribbon in the Sky
River of Tomorrow
The Searching Hearts
Sins of Summer
The Listening Sky
This Loving Land
Wild Sweet Wilderness
Wind of Promise
WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 1993 by Dorothy Garlock
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Hachette Book Group
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New York, NY 10017
Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
First eBook Edition: September 2009
* 1 *
He was… he was b-by the bed when I woke u-up… ohh… I was so scared."
"I can imagine!" Jesse hugged the young girl sitting on her father's examination table and wiped her tear-wet face with a damp cloth.
"Try not to cry, Bertha, and tell me exactly what happened."
"I… just saw his outline before he… before he covered m-my eyes with one hand and my m-mouth with the other."
"Then… he said he… was going to tie something over my eyes and if I made any noise he'd cut me with his… pocket knife."
"Did you recognize his voice?"
"He… he whispered."
"He made you take off your nightgown?"
"Yes, and… and made me put my arms up and my hands under my head."
"Lord have mercy! Then what did he do?"
"He lit the l-lamp. I heard him strike the match. He sat down on the bed and put his hands all over me. I cried and he said not to cry, he just wanted to look at me and t-touch… me. He… rubbed my titties a long time and… and made me spread my legs."
With conscious effort, Jesse suppressed her indignation and encouraged the shy girl to say more. "Did he go inside you, Bertha?" she asked gently.
"No. Oh, it was so… awful. He felt of me with his hand and ah… spread me so… he could see—I guess. I just… wanted to die!" Wracking sobs shook her slight frame.
"You poor child." Jesse put her arms around Bertha and held her until she quieted. "How long did this go on?"
"A long t-time."
"Could you tell if he was young or old? Did he have whiskers or a beard?"
"His face was rough like he hadn't shaved, but he didn't have whiskers. He put his face on… on my belly."
"Try to remember everything you can so that we can tell Marshal Wright."
"No!" Bertha grabbed Jesse's arm. "If I tell, he'll come back and hurt me. He said he would. Please, Miss Jesse, don't tell anybody. You promised! Oh, I shouldn't have come—"
"Shh… you did the right thing to tell me. A girl can't keep something like this to herself. I'll keep my promise. I won't tell, Bertha, if you don't want me to. But I think your father should know."
"Not him! He'd… say it was my fault."
"How long will he be at the work camp?"
"Another month. The bridge isn't half finished yet."
Jesse thought for a long moment. The man who did this knew the children were alone! It made her blood boil.
"Bertha, didn't your little brother or little sister wake up?"
"No. They play hard and sleep like rocks."
"Is there anyone you can get to come stay with you?"
"I'd have to tell them… and I can't."
"From now on all of you sleep in the same room. And bring that old dog of yours into the house. Where was he last night?"
"I reckon he was off chasin' a coon. I got to be goin', Miss Jesse. The kids will be comin' home from school. I told 'em the reason I wasn't goin' to school was cause I was sick."
"If you remember anything else, come tell me. I'll not tell anyone but my father, and you can trust him not to say anything unless you want him to. But he should know this in case it happens to someone else."
"Bye, Miss Jesse."
"Bye, Bertha. Come by tomorrow. I'll be anxious to know how you're getting along."
Jesse watched the girl hurry out the side door, run past the lilac bushes and dart between the gap in the hedge of bridal wreath that divided their yard from that of their neighbor. She followed the girl's path across the yard to the sidewalk that paralleled the brick paved street.
In the town of Harpersville, Tennessee (population two thousand and forty, or two thousand and forty-one if Doctor Forbes had delivered the Burlesons' sixth child), what had happened to Bertha, and to one other woman of whom Jesse knew, was not supposed to happen, even in the wild and promiscuous year of 1902.
Jesse clenched her fists in outrage. Something should be done to find this sick, miserable excuse for a man. But what?
"It's a disgrace that something like this can happen here in Harpersville."
Jesse had just finished repeating Bertha's story to her father. She spoke over her shoulder while she put away gauze, swabs and iodine. The last patient, a boy who had gashed his bare foot on a piece of glass, had limped from the office and Jesse finally had the chance to speak to her father alone. Doctor Hollis Forbes had watched with pride while his daughter cleaned and stitched the cut on the boy's foot. She had spent two years at nursing school, but the two years she had been his nurse had increased her knowledge tenfold. She was as calm and efficient in an emergency as anyone he had ever known. He mused, as he often did, whether it was fair to his bright, elder daughter that she spend eight to ten hours a day here in the surgery and then manage the rest of the house and see to the upbringing of her sister and brother. So much responsibility piled on her shoulders didn't give her much time for herself.
"Papa, who could be doing this terrible thing?"
"A pervert," Doctor Forbes said tiredly. "The women are lucky that all he wants to do is look. I only hope that's all he does until he's caught."
"It could be someone passing through town," Jesse suggested.
"My guess is that it's someone from nearby who comes to Harpersville occasionally. Bertha makes two women that we know of who have been subjected to this. There may be more who aren't telling."
"Someone knew when Mrs. Johnson's husband was gone and when Bertha's papa was working on the bridge and staying in the work camp."
"That information could have been picked up at any store in town. You know how people like to talk."
"Surely no one who lives here would dare do such things to a woman. Mr. Harper would have him tarred and feathered for dirtying his lily-white town."
"Now, now. You sound bitter."
"Not bitter, Papa, just tired of the Harpers telling people what to do—and think. Did you know Mrs. Harper is still trying to match me up with Edsel? I saw her yesterday at the post office. 'Oh, there you are, dear,' she said. 'Just this morning Edsel was speaking of you. He thinks you're the prettiest girl in Harpersville.'" Jesse's mocking of Mrs. Harper's voice brought a smile to her father's tired face.
"What did you say?"
The doctor's eyes twinkled as he watched Jesse poke at the knot of chestnut hair at the nape of her neck with her index finger. She tilted her head, held up her hand as if to put on nose-pinching spectacles and looked down her straight nose in a perfect imitation of the town's leading socialite, Roberta Harper.
"I told her I was too busy to think of affairs of the heart; we were expecting an epidemic of the black plague and had to get a place ready to lay out the dead."
"Shame on you." Doctor Forbes wore an expression of amused affection on his face.
Jesse's grin was mischievous. Large blue-gray eyes sparkled and her even white teeth flashed. Jesse had a beautiful smile, her father thought, and worried again that he was stealing her youth. She was graceful and… womanly, and it was too easy for him to take for granted that she was perfectly happy spending her days in the surgery, tending the house, or calling on their patients. She must sometimes want to go to parties, dances, picnics or ball games.
"There's a ball game Sunday afternoon. Why don't you and Susan go and take Todd? You know how Todd loves ball games."
"What brought that on?" Jesse asked, the smile fading from her face.
"It'll do you good to get away from the house. Bush-man's Dairy is playing Burleson Lumber. They're calling it the battle of the B's." The doctor's twinkling blue eyes watched her over the top of his spectacles.
"The battle of the B's? Oh, that's clever, very clever. They'll have to fight it out without me. On Sunday afternoon I catch up on things I can't get done through the week. You know that, Papa."
"Reverend Pennyfield says it's a sin to work on Sunday."
"Reverend Pennyfield doesn't have a ten-year-old brother with holes in the knees of his britches, or berries to pick, or a kitchen floor to scrub."
"Can't Susan do some of that?"
"She helps. She hangs the clothes on the line and does most of the ironing. But fourteen-year-old girls have more interesting things on their minds than picking berries, making jam and scrubbing floors." Jesse watched her father rub his tired eyes. "Go take a nap, Papa, while I clean in here. You've been up since two o'clock this morning," she said gently. "Supper will be ready when you wake up. I've got a chicken roasting in the oven."
"Chicken on a week night. Aren't you getting a mite extravagant?"
"I bought it from Mrs. Arnold. It was all cleaned and dressed and ready for the pot. She said she was culling out the hens that had stopped laying. But I suspect they need the money."
"And you couldn't resist?"
"Go on with you," Jesse retorted affectionately. "You wouldn't have resisted either."
In the weeks that followed, two more women spoke about having been stripped and fondled by The Looker, as he was now being called since the word had spread through the town like wildfire. That brought the total of women and girls whom Jesse knew about to four. It was reasonable to believe that others had suffered the same treatment and were too ashamed to make it public. And some must have remained silent because, although they felt violated, they had not suffered any bodily injury nor been raped.
Boyd Harper was furious when the story appeared in the Harpersville Observer. Ralph Marsh, the owner and publisher, was the only man in town, other than Doctor Forbes, who dared to stand up to the Harpers. The headline read: LADIES BEWARE. In the article, the editor cautioned women to lock their doors and stay off the streets at night. Outraged at the unwritten suggestion that the offender was a town resident, Boyd Harper or his son, Edsel, appeared at every public gathering declaring that The Looker was someone from the colored town on the other side of the wooded hills that ringed Harpersville, or from nearby Frederick or Grover.
At supper one night, Doctor Forbes told his family the latest rumor was that The Looker was Wade Simmer, a man who lived in the hills and who came into town only when necessary.
"Wade Simmer? He's got a mean look. I saw him real close up… once. Yup, I bet it's him." Susan, at fourteen, had more than a mild interest in anything that had to do with sex.
"Why do they think he's the one?" Jesse passed the cabbage and pepper slaw to her father.
"'Cause most folks don't like him."
"'Cause he doesn't give them the time of day, I reckon."
"What's that got to do with it? You don't accuse a man of such a terrible thing just because you don't like him."
"H-h-his p-p-pap-a w-w-was—" Todd's stuttering was much worse when he had what he considered valuable news to impart to the family.
"Talk slowly, son, and the words will come out," Doctor Forbes said.
"His papa was hanged?" Susan's interest was piqued. "For what?"
"K-k-killin' Mr. H-H-Harper's brother."
"Lord!" Susan exclaimed. "That'd do it. That'd twist the tail on the donkey. How'd you find that out, you little twerp?"
"That greasy old man who's aways foolin' with motor cars? What does he know 'bout anything?"
"H-h-he knows M-M-Mr. S-S-Simmer, that's w-why." Todd looked defiantly at his sister, glanced to see if his father was looking, then stuck out his tongue.
"Mr. Simmer is a man who tends to his own business and expects everyone else to do the same." Doctor Forbes helped himself to another helping of creamed potatoes and peas.
"You've met him?" Jesse asked.
"Yeah, I've met him. Remember the woodcutter who split his leg open with an axe last fall? It was Wade Simmer who carried him out of the woods to the road. Another time he stopped me and asked me to look at the colored boy who lives on his place."
"Well?" Jesse and Susan said at the same time.
"Well, what?" The doctor was being deliberately obtuse.
"You know," Susan said. "What was he like?"
"He had the belly ache from eating too many green apples. Simmer thought maybe it might be something serious."
"I mean Mr. Simmer. What was he like? Does he and that nigger boy live under a brush arbor? Does he have a woman up there? Is he mean as folks say he is?"
"Susan, for crying out loud," Jesse exclaimed. "Do you listen to every gossip? And I told you not to say `nigger.' "
"How am I going to know anything unless I ask? I bet you don't plug up your ears when Papa tells us about Mr. Simmer."
No, she wouldn't, Jesse admitted silently. She had been as curious about him as everyone else. It was simple curiosity, a perfectly normal reaction to a man who was practically a recluse.
"He lives in a house. I didn't see any women," the doctor said. "Jesse, is there more cornbread?"
"Of course. I'll get it." Jesse left the table and went to the kitchen. "Oh, for goodness sake. Todd, you didn't empty the pan under the ice box. There's water all over the floor."
"That's your chore, young man," Jesse said, returning to her seat at the table. "You can clean up the mess before Susan and I do the dishes. And don't forget to put the card in the window. The iceman comes tomorrow."
The next morning on her way out of town to visit families in the hill country, Jesse stopped at the modern two-storied brick schoolhouse, the pride of Harpersville. She had glimpsed the blond head of her friend, Pauline Anthony. The teacher was holding a child who had fallen from the giant stride, an iron pole that sat in the ground much like a maypole. Instead of ribbons and flowers, chains with hand grips hung from this pole. Holding onto the chains, the children ran around the pole until the momentum lifted them off the ground so that they made "giant strides" around the pole, hence the name. If one of the chains was not in use, it oftentimes swung free and struck one of the children. Jesse had always thought it a frightfully dangerous thing to have on the playground.
She pulled the horse to a stop, stepped quickly from the buggy and called to Pauline before she entered the school.
"Is she hurt?"
"No, I don't think so. She got a little bump on the head. You all right now, Fredda?" She set the small girl on her feet. "Go in and get a drink of water. You'll feel better."
"That plaything Mr. Harper insisted on having in the school yard is a menace," Jesse said.
"I agree. I try to keep the big kids off while the little ones are playing nearby." Pauline looped her arm into that of her friend. "Where are you off to, Nurse Forbes? Wherever it is, I wish I were going with you. I hate being cooped up in a schoolroom on such a lovely spring day."
"I'm going up to Mill Springs to check on Mrs. Bailey's ingrown toenail. Papa cut a hunk of it out last week. Granny Lester's goiter is getting bigger. Soon her neck will be the size of a waterbucket. Papa wants me to try once again to get her to come down and let him send her to Knoxville and have it taken out." Jesse grinned at her friend. "How is that for a romantic afternoon?"
"Oh, you!" Pauline's brown eyes sparkled. She was not as tall or as willowy as Jesse, but her skin was flawless and she had a ready smile. The two had been friends for two years—since Pauline had come from Knoxville to teach in the new school.
"How do you find them?"
"There's only one road, silly. I'll just keep going until I get there. It isn't as if I haven't been up there before."
"My foot! You shouldn't go alone. You could run into that idiot that's got the women in this town scared out of their wits."
"The Looker? I'll be back before dark."
"Wade Simmer lives up there."
"You think he's The Looker?"
"Everybody else does."
"Papa wouldn't let me go up there if he thought it was dangerous."
"I saw Wade Simmer at the depot once. He looked mad enough to bite a nail in two. He was having a set-to with the agent about something he'd expected to come in on the train. He seemed wild and… kind of exciting. Now that I think about it, he didn't seem the type to look and not do anything else. He was pure-dee male from top to bottom. But then… you never know. Could be a horse kicked it or he got it caught in a fence and all he can do is look." She giggled at the look of exasperation on Jesse's face.
"Pauline! For goodness sake—"
"Yes, yes, I know. I've got a nasty mind. Tell you what. I'll come help you put up your raspberry jam if you'll go to the ball game Sunday."
"That's a bribe. You know how I hate making jam, but I also hate letting berries go to waste."
"It's a deal? I'll be over Saturday morning." The school bell rang, and, laughing over her shoulder, Pauline dashed for the school door.
"I've been hornswoggled," Jesse called.
"You sure have," Pauline retorted, and disappeared inside.
Jesse stood on the walk for a moment and watched the children file back into the school. Some of them were in awe of her, she knew. Once a month she visited the school to talk about the importance of clean hands and teeth. While she was there, she swabbed throats, treated boils and ringworm and a dozen other minor ailments.
Today she wore her nurse's apron, white and starched, over her blue gingham dress. The square bib came up to the neckline. The long, wide straps that went over her shoulders crossed in back, fit into loops at the waist and tied. The little round, stiff white headpiece that was anchored to the crown of her head and the apron that covered her skirt identified her as a nurse. Jesse was proud of her uniform; she had spent two years away from home and family to earn it.
She walked back to the buggy, climbed in and slapped the reins against the animal's back. It was a wasted motion. Molly was a well-trained horse. She knew that when Jesse or the doctor got into the buggy, she was to go. She also knew that when they got out, she was to stay until they came back.
The buggy moved past the creamery, crossed the bridge that spanned the creek and turned onto the road that led up the mountain. It really wasn't a mountain. The Great Smokies were ten or fifteen miles to the east. What Jesse was driving through was more like a cluster of high wooded hills that rammed against each other, divided only by the rocky streams that cut a deep gash to the rich bottomlands. The ride was quiet and peaceful. Jesse let Molly travel at her own speed while her ears drank in the birdsong and her eyes feasted on the beauty of wild flowers.
Where the road rounded a curve, the trees opened up and Jesse could see the town below—Mr. Harper's town. The wide brick-paved streets were laid out in straight lines, fanning out from the main street that ran through town. Business places filled the four-block area around the park square. In the center of the park was a statue of the town's founder. To the intense irritation of Boyd Harper, the statue had become a favorite resting place for pigeons and starlings and needed periodic washing down to maintain its dignity.
Farther out on Main Street Jesse glimpsed the large, Victorian house where she had lived since she and her father had moved here from Knoxville when she was five years old. Here he had met and married Dora Gilbert. Jesse's own mother had died giving birth to her, and much of the time she had been shuffled among relatives until her papa remarried; Dora, his new wife, had been all Jesse's young heart had dreamed a mother could be. The family had had ten wonderful years together before Dora died when Todd was still a baby in diapers.
The windows of the white, gabled house gleamed in the morning sun. Set well back from the street with a narrow walk leading to the wide steps of the veranda that curved around two sides, the home was much like the others that lined the main street beyond the business section.
The Harper house, of course, was much bigger. The town's leading family lived in a square red brick building set in the middle of two acres of well-tended lawn. The white pillars rose up to support an upper porch. On the side were two sets of bay windows on both the ground floor and the upper floor that extended to smaller bays on the third-floor attic rooms. A fretwork railing circled the flat roof. Every eave was decorated with the elaborate scrollwork. And, fluttering in the breeze, the United States flag hung from a pole that jutted out from the porch, as if, Jesse thought, to identify it as an official residence.
Jesse's smile was one of indulgence as the horse followed the meanderings of the road. Unlike most people in Harpersville, she felt no animosity toward the Harpers because they were rich or because they thought they owned the town fifty-five years after their ancestors founded it. To her, their struggle to be important was almost childish.
At the crossroads Jesse took the trail through an un-fenced pasture and passed a tobacco patch before entering the cool woods again. All was quiet except for the chirping of the birds and the chatter of a squirrel now and then as it scampered to the tops of the birches that stood white and clean. A mockingbird trilled high up in a treetop and a bluejay scolded him from the sumac below.
"You old fussbudget," Jesse teased as she passed by.
Molly pulled the buggy on up the hill. The sun was warm and bright. It was a sweet-smelling May day, a bright blue day and one that would stay in Jesse's memory for a long, long time.
* 2 *
Mules, horses and teams were hitched to the rail in front of the mill when Jesse drove by. A man was unloading sacks of corn and a woman with a stiff-brimmed sunbonnet stood holding the hand of a small child. The woman waved. Everyone in a four-county area knew Doctor Forbes's buggy. They also knew that it was his daughter in the white uniform of a nurse.
Jesse promised herself that if she had time, she would stop at the store on the way back and visit for a moment with the miller's wife, Mrs. Frony. She usually found the tiny woman crocheting. She made everything from baby booties to doilies and tidies to bed and table covers. On her last trip Jesse had delivered a box of thread that had come in on the train, and Mrs. Frony had given her a lacy dresser scarf.
On down the road she found Mrs. Bailey barefoot in the garden with only a dirty stocking covering the toe that had been a bloody mess a few days earlier. Jesse persuaded the woman to soak her foot in a washpan of warm water, then liberally doused it with iodine and put a bandage on it. A half hour later she took her leave with a jar of dill pickles and a glass of chokecherry jelly that had been carefully sealed with beeswax. The poor but proud hill folk never sent the doctor or his nurse away empty-handed.
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2009
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing