Amanda's body shook as she bolted the cabin door, then stared at her bloody body and clothing. She checked on Lily, her infant daughter, who'd cried herself to sleep.
Amanda washed the blood from her body, then soaked her clothes in the washtub. She pulled on some of Jame's clothes.
She wondered what her family would think of her now. Several years earlier, Amanda's nickname, in Boston, was 'mouse' - she hated that. She'd been a small, shy, timid child and the victim of bullying. Her own brother started calling her, Mousee' and the name stuck. After today, she felt like a lioness.
This day, in southern Ohio, began as most since James left. Amanda dreaded going out into the fierce, freezing wind beating against the cabin, but they needed water and firewood.
She smiled as her baby girl's tiny rosebud lips suckled at a breast in her dreams. She loved her child with a fierceness she'd never dreamed possible and hoped and prayed that she could keep her alive. James was weeks overdue, and all over her food stores were gone.
Amanda thought back to September's clear blue skies and sunshine that warmed them as they kissed and said, fare well, not goodbye. The war was officially over, but the suffering and lawlessness brought no peace to survivors.
She pulled the red shawl over her head and shoulders, donned the matching mittens, and lifted the plank James installed before he left. The heavy board placed in its braces ensured their safety from intruders. She leaned it against the wall and stepped outside, closing the door against the old. A strong gust nearly blew her over as she tied the cloak tighter, then kicked the icy wooden pail free from where it had frozen to the porch.
Braced against the gusts and heavy snow, then counted ten steps to the well; it was so easy to get turned around in a heavy blizzard. Her skirts dragged, gathering snow, slowing her progress as if it tried to claim her for its own.
Orange, pink, and purple clouds announced sunset, but Amanda took no time to enjoy its beauty as she the bucket firmly on the ledge of the
rock wall surrounding the well. She attached the hook to the rope, lowered the bucket, listened for the splash, and wound the crank. It was heavy, but her arms had grown strong from several years of homesteading and civil war.
Something caught her eye as she turned back toward the cabin, but the snow and wind made it difficult to focus. She thought she saw someone far off, on horseback in silhouette against the colorful sunset. Amanda's heart swelled with hope, thinking it might be her beloved husband and with desperately needed supplies.
A skin of ice formed on top of the water as she carried it into the small cabin, that now felt warm after being out in the storm. She emptied the water into two metal buckets, replaced the sturdy wooden one on the porch, and brought in more firewood. She rebolted the door and hung her cape on a hook over the washtub to catch the melting snow. Then removed the three skirts she wore over her dress against the cold and hung them on a clothesline stretching across the room.
Lily still slept, and Amanda poured more water into the kettle that simmered over the fire; and chopped the last two carrots, a tiny seed potato she'd taken from the planting stores, and the root end of an onion. She shook the last dust of flour from the sack. The jars on the shelf over the cabinet were primarily empty now. They held herbs, dried berries, and shelled walnuts from the tree outside. Shelling them was so difficult, but worth it. Amanda took the jar marked 'parsley.' She added the minute amount left into the pot.
The cabinet was always locked because it also held powdered monkshood, and belladonna, which were helpful when treating headaches and chest complaints but were also deadly if used in the wrong amounts. Dried mushrooms of all kinds and a bottle of whiskey were also inside. Her aunt made a horribly bitter whisky that was useful for medicinal purposes. She smiled, remembering how her poor aunt cried, handed her the whiskey, and waved goodbye from the Boston train station. Her parents, brother, and aunt were certain she perish in the wild, unsettled farmland, especially because she was such a fragile, timid little thing.
Tired, she sat by the fireside and began knitting little socks for Lily
. She was so grateful when an elderly woman in tow called out from a chair on her porch, "Hello there! I
have some lovely things for sale today!"
James and Amanda saw several items, a cast iron skillet and a large willow basket filled with yarn that would be useful. She picked up a skein of deep red wool among the many beige, blue, and white ones.
The hunched-over woman with white hair wound into a knot on top of her head said, "You can have all that yarn for cheap, Mrs.! It belonged to my sister-in-law; rest her soul. I won't use red; it's the devil's color! Red has been known to summon the devi! I'm a refined lady and did French embroidery until my hands failed me. That pillow on the porch swing is mine and is not for sale."
Amanda looked at it; the work was beautiful, with the message stitched in black letters. "SUBMIT YOURSELVES, THEN TO GOD. RESIST THE DEVIL, AND HE WILL FLEE FROM YOU" James 4/7.
Amanda noted the irony of the "James" passage, but all this talk gave her a feeling of unease, but she quickly forgot about it. James bought all the yarn and the basket, which they agreed was perfect for a bassinet. Amanda was thrilled, thinking about all the blankets, hats, and little socks she would knit and crochet for her baby due in two months.
As James handed over the coins, the woman said, "You be careful now how you use that red."
"I don't mind any color if it keeps us warm," Amanda whispered to James as they walked away.
All throughout summer and fall, they gathered and dried everything from the garden and dried deer and rabbit meat. They felt proud of their stores but did not know how long and harsh those months would be.
Lily awoke and made her cute little grunts and giggles. Amanda climbed into bed and lifted the baby, still wrapped in her layers of coverings, and nursed her.
She checked the soup, stirring it with a large wooden spoon; she knew the vegetables were undercooked; the scents of the onion and herbs made her mouth water, and she sipped a cup of its weak broth. Amanda climbed into bed, snuggled with Lily, and fell into an exhausted sleep.
"THUD!" outside awoke her, and she instinctively grabbed the baby, hugging her to her chest. She figured it was just something thrown against the cabin by the shrieking wind. Then two more loud thuds hit the door, and a man's voice called out, "Hello?"
Amanda jumped, and Lily gave a startled cry that quickly grew into a loud squall. Amanda put Lily to the nurse and kept her silent.
More pounding against the door, then, "Hey! I mean, you no harm, but I'm freezing! Please let me in? I know you're in there; I saw you in your red cape earlier, and there is smoke from your chimney!"
Amanda carried Lily to the door, saying, "Get water from the well for you and your horse; use the well bucked, and please return it to the porch. You can take shelter in the barn."
"Is your name Amanda? Amanda Walker? I'm a friend of your husband's; my name is Jake Wilson. I have a letter for you from James."
Amanda bent down and removed the rags chinked against the cold. "Slide it under the door."
"I'd really rather come in and get warm, Mrs. Walker. I have a letter from your husband and supplies."
"Give me the letter first!!" She watched a white envelope stamped with a wax seal move toward her under the door. She carried it closer to the firelight and tore it open. It was Jame's handwriting!
I am sorry I've been away so long. The work here is much more complex than I had anticipated.
Jake Walker is delivering this letter as well as supplies to you. He and I fought side by side near Gettysburg.
A List of what he brings: Dried deer strips, 2 woolen blankets, ten pounds of flour, three pounds of butter, one pound of sugar, some salt
4 candles. I wish I could send more; the twenty dollars in this envelope should help you.
All My Love, James.
She heard the horse Whinney outside and felt sorry for the poor animal. "Water your horse, take it to the barn, and feed it some hay."
She heard the bucket as he pulled it from the porch and his footfalls descended the stairs.
Amanda removed her skirts from the line and pulled them over Jame's; they were still damp near the hem. She'd sewn deep pockets into the skirts, making it handy to collect herbs and mushrooms. She wore all of her skirts over her dress in cold weather. She put the carving knife in one pocket and knitting needles in another. She'd learned to be prepared and careful out here.
She listened as the man returned and climbed the steps. She considered telling him to leave the supplies near the door and sleep with his horse, then looked again at James' letter, She crossed the room and slid it, and the money into the Bible, then hid it behind other books.
She was reluctant to open the door, but what if James were in the same situation? Could she really live with letting a man freeze to death? No, she had to take the chance and desperately needed those. She thought about telling him to leave the stores near the door and sleep with his horse but couldn't. She crossed the room and slid it and the money into their Bible, and hid it behind the bread tin.
She lifted the heavy bar and opened the door. The man removed his hat and stepped inside, brushing a layer of snow covering him. "Thank you, Ma'am."
His was the first voice she'd heard in months. She shook from the cold, fear of the unknown, and lack of food. Amanda sat in her chair and put another log on the fire. Jake sat beside her in James' chair, which made sense but felt like an intrusion.
"You must be hungry; this soup is all I have to offer."
She filled a cup and handed it to him.
He nodded a thank you, stared at her as if assessing her, and then turned back to the fire. His thick sandy colored hair fell over his forehead, and a mustache and beard covered most of his face. She couldn't quite read his dark eyes.
"Have you brought any supplies?" Not mentioning the list in Jame's letter.
"Well, that's a sorry tale, Ma'am. I was ambushed by a band of outlaws. There are many of them now, men in blue, gray, and everything in between. This land is a dangerous place now.
Amanda's heart sank, and she feared she'd cry in disappointment, but she took a deep breath and listened.
"I'd set up camp two nights ago; I hadn't seen another soul for days, so I let my guard down. I was sound asleep when they came and took everything except my horse and saddle because I had her still saddled and loosely tethered to scrub out of sight, so she could run off if need be. And she did; I feared she'd never return, but she did! I still have her, my saddle, which held some tobacco and a piece of hard tack; you're welcome to it. I'm really sorry, Ma'am."
She wanted to scream and hit him, pull his hair out. They needed food and needed it now!
She stared at the fire as Jake propped up his boots on the hearthstone. They looked exactly like Jame's boots; his right one had a deep gash from a farming accident. She couldn't see that side from where she sat but became more concerned as she noticed the patch near the bottom of the blue Union pant leg and recognized it because she'd had to use black thread for the repair.
Amanda walked to the bed, lifted Lily, and got a look at the back of that boot. It was clean and polished, but the rough gouge across the back remained.
Jake turned, asking, "Would you have anything stronger than broth to drink?" He looked at her and narrowed his eyes. He saw her studying the boot. "Ma'am? Everything Okay?"
Amanda nodded and tried to smile, "Yes, I'm just tired and hungry, that's all."
"Oh, well, I'd be grateful for a drink of anything strong."
She put the swaddled baby on the table. Her voice shook and became breathless, "I have a little whiskey, and I'll get it."
He watched her unlock the cupboard. This corner of the small room was dark, and her body blocked his view. She quickly removed the cork, added the monk's hood, and swirled the nearly full bottle. She carried it and a small glass to him, but he grabbed the bottle and took a big swig, and coughed. "Jesus, this is the worst whiskey I've ever tasted, and I've tasted a lot! Are you trying to poison me?"
She feigned a laugh, "My Grandmother's whisky was famous for tasting horrible, I use medicinal purposes, so I can't speak for the flavor.' She picked Lily up and sat back by the fire.
He drank more, walked across the room, sat on her bed, and removed his boot. James's boots! "Comon' over here, Amanda. It's pretty cozy."
She kept her back to him, hugging her infant closer to her chest, feeling naive, chiding herself for letting him in. Had he killed James and robbed his corpse? She wondered how long it would be before the drink took effect? Or would it even work? She'd never used it in such a way but knew Monks Hood was deadly in large quantities. She bundled Lila and placed her into her basket, moving it closer to the fireplace, not wanting her to be warm and not witness what might come next.
Jake shook his head and chuckled, "Amanda, come here; I'm sure you miss a man's touch after being alone for so long." He patted the mattress.
"You're quite presumptuous, Mr. Walker. You sleep in your bedroll next to the fireplace."
"I left my bedroll in the barn."
She backed away, but in one quick stride, he grabbed her wrist, dragged her to the bed, then pushed her flat on her back. She let out a gasp but didn't scream, thinking of Lily. "Stop it, get off me!"
He slapped her across her face with such force her ears rang! In one quick movement ripped open the top of her dress, exposing her breasts. 'My, my, aren't those pretty."
Jake's speech slurred slightly when he grinned at her, "Time for some fun. Jame's was a lucky man."
"Oh God, "was!" Amanda felt painful sadness, then rage, as her vision became red. He began unbuttoning his pants; she reached into her skirt pocket and grabbed a knitting needle. As he lowered himself toward her, she stabbed him with all her strength below his left eye.
Jake screamed, growled, and grabbed her throat; Lily cried, adding to Amanda's desperation. Jake grabbed his face as blood ran between his fingers. He pulled the knitting needle out and threw it wildly across the room, then leaned down, grabbed Amanda by the hair, and slapped her hard again. She quickly rolled off the bed, pulling the knife from her pocket. The drink was starting to work, and he stumbled blindly toward her. Amanda grabbed the cast iron skillet from the mantle and swung it at his head. It was only a glancing blow, and he lurched back and came toward her again.
She slashed at him, cutting his wrist, and more blood spurted from the wound and onto Amanda's bared chest and clothing, but Jake didn't seem to feel it.
She stood bent at the waist, knifing the knife in one hand; she grabbed the nearby broom leaning nearby and held the handle out like a sword.
"Get out of here!" she screamed and stepped closer, backing him toward the door to the cabin. The brace still leaned against the wall. He grabbed her again, and she rammed the broom handle hard against his chest, and he stumbled back.
Amanda circled behind the bleeding, growling monster and opened the door. He started toward her again but misjudged. He staggard back and out onto the porch. His knees gave way, and he knelt as if in worship before her, then fell sideways and didn't move.
Amanda slammed the door shut and quickly replaced the board. Her chest and breasts, exposed to the cold, were covered in blood, as were her hands and clothing. She dropped the knife, too weak to run to Lily, who had cried herself to sleep. Amanda washed off the blood and collapsed onto the bed, still wearing her bloody clothes. She was hungry but too tired to eat the soup and swung off the fire.
She collapsed onto the bed, amazed at how she'd them from this murderer. She took comfort in knowing she now had a horse and saddle to ride when the weather broke. And enough meat to get them through the winter.