In a secluded part of the yard obscured by dogwood trees, Mercy Wheeler sat on a small white garden bench under an ancient spreading beech. Unobserved, she watched her brother, Daniel Wheeler, and his wife, Norah, standing on the veranda of the regal country house to greet their neighbors.
"Thank you so much for your generosity." Norah's cordial words rang out over the lawn as another guest handed her a large basket. Norah peeked inside. "Your fried chicken and freshly baked bread will serve us well on our journey," she said as she handed the basket to older daughter, Saba.
Saba smiled at the tired-looking older woman, “Thanks to wonderful neighbors like you, the hams, boiled eggs, chicken, plus uncounted pies and cakes will save us from having to cook over an open fire during the first days on the trail.”
"Just the Shenandoah Valley way of wishing a family well," the woman answered and gave Norah a hug. “Nobody deserves our appreciation more than your family. You’ve helped us more than we can ever thank you for. You’ll be sorely missed.”
A deep voice from near the wagon parked at the side of the house rumbled out over the murmurs of the guests. "So you're a goin' west to Indiany?"
"That's right," Daniel answered and walked over to him. "Figure to homestead some of the best land to be had anywhere."
"Wish I could get my missus uprooted, but she's got her tap root clear to China. Nothin'll budge this woman but Gabriel. You're a lucky man, Daniel, to have such an obligin' lady."
Norah and Daniel beamed a tender smile at each other, but his lady folded her arms and sent him a look to melt lard. He gulped and put a protective arm about her shoulders. She shrugged his arm off and set out across the lawn toward a group of women tying a quilt. "Wouldn't trade her fer all the state of Indiany though!" he hurried to say in a loud voice. The fond look he bestowed on her came too late. She didn’t slow her pace or change her direction.
That is not going to be a happy home while he pays restitution for his insensitive remark, Mercy thought. Did these women have any idea how fortunate they were to have loving men who'd fight charging bears to protect them?
The cold lump in Mercy’s heart grew larger by the minute while she studied the farewell gathering, lingering on other couples and families. The young ones a-courting, stood apart, awkward, unsure, trying to learn of each other. Those now stooped and wrinkled held each other close—moving together with a grace and precision honed by time to a perfect rhythm.
Would that she could be a part of it all—the courting and the marrying, the babies, and the growing old together. There is no chance, Mercy. When will you accept that fact and be content with your lot? A tear escaped and she hurriedly wiped it away, all the while wishing she could erase the past as easily.
Stop brooding. You need to be eternally grateful that Daniel married such a loving generous woman.
She shifted to take full view of the veranda and the knot of well-wishers around Norah and Daniel. Why was her sister-in-law standing alone with the guests?
Uhm, most unusual. Daniel would not leave Norah’s side without good reason. Esther! Was her little niece in trouble? Mercy half rose from the bench so that she might view the entire lawn. That was when she first saw the back of an extremely tall man leaning against the rear wheel of the Conestoga wagon loaded for tomorrow's departure. Immediately Mercy's left hand stole to the cap ruffle and, without conscious thought, she pressed it tightly against the side of her face. He and Daniel were deep in conversation. Though she could hear nothing, from the look on her brother's face Mercy concluded their topic was serious.
Although she couldn't see the newcomer's face, she played her game—trying to guess about a person from what she could observe. His shoulders and back were broad, and well-toned muscles rippled under his fringed buckskin clothing. He looked like an Indian, his ebony hair curling from around his fur cap and over the collar of his jacket. But then he turned slightly and she could see he had a full beard. No Indian, he. Powerful fingers gripped a long-barreled Kentucky rifle resting butt first on the ground and against his leg. A woodsy from the west and Daniel's getting the latest information about the best route to take, Mercy decided.
When they came to the back of the wagon, the stranger spoke up. "You chose well. These broad-rimmed wheels will keep you from bogging in the mud of the trails." His voice was deep and melodic. "You say you have two yoke of oxen'?"
Her brother nodded, but Mercy couldn't hear his reply.
Daniel pointed in the direction of the barn, and the two men strolled from Mercy's view. Strangers were a commonplace occurrence at the Wheelers' place. Norah, from an affluent family near Richmond, loved to entertain, using the lovely things she had brought to the Shenandoah Valley with her. A successful farmer, Daniel had been able to provide for Norah a beautiful house with bedrooms enough for all the family, even Mercy, his maiden sister, and a spare one for the company who came often to the Wheeler house.
Mercy settled back on her bench. Looking again at the wagon with its white canvas roof, high and rounded with both ends open, designed to keep the sun off and yet permit plenty of air circulation, she could still see the woodsy figure standing there.
Her thoughts wandered to the barn with the men. She closed her eyes and saw again the woodsman's long coordinated stride, watched him place his moccasined feet silently on the gravel path, and imagined a buckskin covered arm scratching the oxen between the ears.
Somehow she knew he would do that and, even though she had not seen more than a rugged profile, she felt kindly toward him. His voice and manner of speaking bespoke a cultivated refinement unexpected of a true woodsman. The man piqued her curiosity. Perhaps he would reveal something of himself to Daniel. She must remember to ask.
More guests arrived and Mercy's attention was drawn to them. She had no idea the farewell gathering would be so large, attracting people from all over the valley. Mercy smiled, knowing how pleased her sister-in-law must be.
"Say Daniel, where'd you hear of the land in Indiana'?" called someone in a voice that carried over the group. People stopped talking to listen.
Daniel tucked his thumbs in his lapels and spoke with authority. "Congress recently purchased the central part of that far-off state in treaties with the Indians and then gave the land to Indiana. It's eighty acres of this `New Purchase,' as it's called, that I intend to buy."
"What's the askin' price'?"
"A dollar an acre, cash, for fine virgin farmland." Mercy's attention, too, had been diverted from her musings and, when she glanced around again, the stranger was gone. Unaccountably she felt a peculiar sense of desertion. Mercy, you silly goose! she scolded herself. You have not even been introduced to the man, will likely never meet him. What's wrong with you? But no amount of chiding removed the impression that something significant had transpired.
Her eyes wandered again to the big Conestoga wagon which stood by the back door, packed full, and ready to travel in the morning. Mercy thought it strange looking, with the front and back of the wagon built higher than the middle. Because of its shape, however, with the wheels removed, the wagon could be used as a boat.
Those wheels drew her eyes like a magnet, though—so large that Mercy would fit inside the spokes. Under the weight of a loaded wagon, they could crush anything in their path. The thought frightened her and she put the image from her mind.
Since so little was expected of her, her own needs were few, but still she mentally ticked off her belongings, carefully packed in one small trunk and stored inside. If she forgot anything essential, there would be little chance of remedying the oversight.
Looking fondly at Daniel, she could not help feeling he had suddenly become afflicted with some mental flaw. Whatever had possessed him to pick up and move his family over hundreds of miles of unsettled land and through the dark woods of the Indiana country, she was still unable to imagine. Nor would Daniel elaborate beyond his declaration that life was getting too easy here in Virginia, and he wanted his children to have the experience of living life close to the elements, of discovering basic values. She only hoped he didn't come to his senses somewhere along the trail and wonder what they were all doing there.
Not that Mercy really minded the move. In fact, she sought seclusion and solitude as trusted friends, and had never learned to relax in Daniel's home, despite Norah's hospitable nature. Why, folks always felt welcome to drop in, unannounced. And now that the children were growing up, their friends, too, came and went at will. The house was always full of people, and Mercy was forced to spend more and more time shut away in her room, a fact that Daniel had decried earlier this spring.
The back yard slowly emptied as the guests, led by Norah and Daniel, made their way to the front. Mercy sighed deeply and leaned back to enjoy a few carefree moments. Her thoughts were interrupted, however, when a small girl in a blue print dress and a white linen cap came streaking around the corner of the house.
"Aunt Mercy, Aunt Mercy," shrilled the little voice.
Much as Mercy adored her six-year-old niece, Esther, right now she would have preferred to sit quietly, undetected, able to watch the party without the distress of participating. She didn't relish answering the same questions over and over as Norah was doing so patiently and graciously.
Spying her aunt, Esther changed direction and dashed across the yard. She came to a panting halt beside Mercy. "Why didn't you answer me?" she scolded. "I've called and called for you all through the house and the barn. The preacher's here and everyone's waiting for you so he can bless our trip."
"Oh dear, Esther. 1 quite forgot. Are you sure I can't hear him from this spot'?"
Placing her arms akimbo, Esther shook her head. "Aunt Mercy, we're all 'posed to sit together as a family so all the folks can see us and cry over us." Esther tugged at Mercy's hand until her aunt finally stood.
Laughing, Mercy allowed Esther to lead her from under the beech tree. She quickly pulled down the extra-long lace-trimmed ruffle of her lawn mobcap and held it tightly against the left side of her face, while she permitted herself to be led across the lawn toward the neat, washed clapboard house and the benches set out on the front yard.
A tall masculine shadow crossed her path and swung into step beside her. Mercy's heart sprang into her throat and her hands grew suddenly cold. Having to deal with anyone other than the family always left her flustered.
Watching his shadow on the ground before her, it occurred to Mercy that this person might be the stranger she had seen conversing with Daniel earlier. She wanted very much to turn her head to look at him, but her neck seemed to have lost its ability to swivel.
A coarse voice drawled. "Howdy Ma'am. I bin huntin' you everywhere. You've sure succeeded in makin' yourself scarce."
This was not her buckskin-clad frontiersman. Fear leaped through her and flushed her face. Oh, please, Lord—not another insensitive person wishing to satisfy his curiosity, Mercy prayed. She moved quickly forward.
Rough fingers curled around her arm, pulled her to an abrupt halt, and threatened to dislodge her grip on the cap.
"Are you always this rude to your guests?" he asked, his voice bitter and cold. "You bin hidin' since we wuz introduced this mornin'."
Panic bound her chest until she could scarcely breathe. "I don't recall having met you," Mercy managed to whisper, directing her remarks at his feet which blocked the pathway.
Why at every gathering must there be someone bent on tormenting me?
"Sure didn't make much of an impression on you, did I, Miss Mercy?"
Through a fear-induced haze crowding her brain, Mercy vaguely remembered an unkempt young man earlier attempting to engage her in conversation. Then, she had excused herself and fled like a frightened quail into the house. Now there was no escape. Her tormentor was exceedingly strong, able if he chose, to snap the bones in the arm he grasped so tightly.
The rude man clutched her arm tighter and his voice hissed in her ear. "Well, I doubt you'll fergit me now."
A gasp escaped Mercy's lips.
"Mister, you let my Aunt Mercy alone!" Esther demanded. "You're scaring her!"
"Oh, I don't aim to hurt her none. Got me a little wager goin'. Bet the boys over there I could find out what's behind that mobcap."
An icy shiver ran through Mercy and she would have swooned had it not been for Esther.
"Aunt Mercy, look!" she cried.
Mercy's head turned in the direction of Esther's pointed finger. There, camouflaged by shrubbery fencing the yard, a number of gangling boys eagerly watched the proceedings. Mercy flinched at their grinning mouths and brutish eyes, narrowed to slits. The sight of the mocking faces penetrated deep to join the ranks of countless others that nightly marched through her dreams.
Slowly the man resumed twisting Mercy's wrist. She must soon either let go of the cap or, with her fingers, pull it off.
"Please don't!" she begged. "Please leave me alone!"
"Shall I go for Father'?" asked Esther, her eyes widening in fear.
"No need," said the stranger. "Jes' want to see what's so interestin' under that cap."
Mercy squeezed her eyes shut and felt tears wet her cheeks as she waited for him to jerk the ruffle from her face.
Suddenly the force of his grip lessened and then disappeared. When Mercy opened her eyes and looked about, the bushes were empty, and her persecutor, nowhere in sight.
"Wh-what happened'?" she asked Esther.
"A giant came around the side of the house," replied the five-year-old going on ten.
"May the Lord heap blessings on him," Mercy breathed in gratitude as she cast about for her champion. "Where did he go'?"
"I don't know. He just sort of disappeared." Esther reached for Mercy's hand. "We have to hurry, Aunt Mercy. Mama will be cross with us."
Straightening her cap and smoothing her dress as they walked, Mercy followed Esther down the path to the front yard.
Because of the encounter, they arrived at the meeting inexcusably late. Mercy felt every eye straining to follow their figures as they slid into their places on the front bench next to Norah and Daniel. Sitting on the other side of their father were Phelan, a squirmy ten-year-old, and Saba, twelve. On the end of the bench Mercy felt conspicuous, her face the target for all the curious. Daniel reached across Norah and squeezed Mercy's hand, his way of expressing his sympathy over the unavoidable ordeal. She thanked him with a wan smile.
Pressing the ruffle of her mobcap ever closer about the left half of her face and praying her heart and breathing rates would soon return to normal, Mercy attempted to ignore the stares, put her recent experience aside, and concentrate on the sermon. Since their planned journey was to take them into wild, unsettled country where there would be little chance for the practice of formal religion, this was likely to be the last such preaching she would hear for a long time. She wanted to store each precious word to examine in more peaceful moments.
Standing on a makeshift platform, the jolly-faced preacher opened his Bible. "My text today is taken from the one hundred and twenty-eighth Psalm . . . "Blessed is everyone that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways," the pastor began.
On the bench next to her, Esther wiggled. Being so fidgety was quite unlike the child. "What's the matter'?" Mercy whispered.
"I don't know. My legs itch and it's getting worse and worse."
"Shush!" her mother cautioned.
A look of grim determination settled over Esther's face and the squirming stopped. Mercy again gave her attention to the sermon.
"For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee."
It seemed to Mercy that the preacher was making their trip sound too easy, when she knew better. Had not she heard the stories of Indians, killer bears, impenetrable earth that rejected a plow'? The best news she had received was that the large unsettled tracts of land were devoid of unthinking people and their cruelty. There she could go about her business without having to constantly clutch a concealing ruffle over her cheek. She could already feel the trees sheltering her, protecting her from the kind of incidents she just endured today.
What were those little pricks on her legs? She moved slightly. The tickly feelings persisted. She shuffled her feet.
"Aunt Mercy, you're wiggling," Esther whispered. Here she was, a twenty-eight year old woman being justly chastised by a five-year-old child. But the trails of tickles continued to increase and grow more difficult to bear. Mercy looked at the stoic little Esther and wondered how she could sit so still if she were suffering the same irritation. The situation was rapidly growing worse, spreading up onto Mercy's thighs. Very soon she would not be able to sit with any degree of decorum.
She felt Esther give a violent shudder. Mercy looked down to see the child's hands clenched into little fists, knuckles white, gripping the skirt of her dress. Something was definitely crawling on them both. Slowly and carefully, in an attempt not to attract any more attention than necessary, Mercy examined the ground under the bench. Everything looked normal. She turned her head and inspected the leg of the bench. Nothing. Then, looking down at the small log she and Esther were using as a foot rest, she barely stifled a scream at the sight of an army of ants. They marched in ranks across the log, up over shoes, and disappeared under the dresses, continued along defenseless legs.
Taking no time for explanations, Mercy caught hold of Esther's hand and rushed her along the path down which they'd recently come and to the barn where it was safe to raise their skirts. Their limbs were covered with the little rust-brown creatures.
Mercy handed Esther an extra handkerchief, and working furiously, they swept away the ants. "1 don't know how you managed to sit still, Esther! You were so brave," Mercy said, giving her niece a big hug.
"I don't feel brave," Esther said in a weak thin voice. "I think I can still feel them crawling." Her chin trembled and china blue eyes filled with tears.
"I think I can, too." They both raised their skirts and inspected their legs once more. "I'm afraid we'll both have to believe there is nothing there but our imaginations." Mercy knelt before the white-faced child. "I think I can do it, if you can."
Esther gulped and wiped her nose. "I'll try." Mercy folded her arms tightly around Esther. "I know you will," she whispered in Esther's ear. And then the little body began shaking as the sobs broke from her control. "Baby, baby, what's the matter?" Now, Esther made no attempt to curb her tears, but clung to Mercy's shoulder, weeping out her misery. At last, she could talk.
“I pretended I wanted to go to the wilderness, but I don't. I want to stay here with my Boots and her new kittens." She pulled away and looked at Mercy with a tear-stained face.
"You don't have to go. You could stay here and I'd stay with you."
Tears gather and threatened to spill down Mercy’s cheeks. "I'm afraid I have no more choice about going than you do, Esther. We both must go and we must be brave about it, just as you were brave about the ants. It will be a great adventure and when we get to Indiana, I'll help you find a cat to replace Boots. That's a promise. Does that make you feel better'?"
The little girl nodded and wiped her cheeks with the back of a pudgy fist.
Mercy pulled her cap ruffle firmly down over the side of her face. "Then, come." She took Esther's hand and brushed a kiss across it. "We must go back. Your mother will worry. We'll stop at the spring and you can rinse your face."
"Do we have to go up in front?" Esther asked as they walked along the well-used path.
"No. We'll find a place at the back. Then after the meeting, we'll explain to your mother and father what happened."
They arrived in time for the closing hymn "When Shall We Meet Again?" Mercy joined in reluctantly, feeling guilty. The truth was, she hoped she would never meet any of these people again. In fact, she thought, I could live the rest of my life without neighbors to peek and pry. I would be perfectly happy without anyone but the family around. Could the constant fear of my face being seen be one of the reasons why Daniel decided to move to Indiana?
Many of the people were in tears by the time the hymn was finished and the benediction pronounced. Norah and Daniel, with Saba and Phelan went up to stand with the preacher.
Mercy looked down fondly on her small companion. "Do you want to join your mother and father and say goodbye to the people?"
"Only if you come, too."
"No, I'd rather not, but I think you should."
Esther started to leave, then turned back. "People will wonder why you aren't there."
"They won't miss me for a minute. Now run along."
Esther gave Mercy's hand a squeeze and ran happily to stand next to her mother.
The neighbors filed past, shaking hands and wishing the Wheelers well. Mercy gave silent thanks for the ants which had given her a legitimate reason to avoid this ordeal.
After paying their respects, the guests drifted away to their conveyances and drove off to the schoolhouse where the dance was being held.
Mercy melted through the milling crowd and made her way into the house and the shelter of her room, away from the peering eyes—eyes that followed her into sleep at night and caused her to awaken, trembling from the recurring nightmare. With the story of Mercy's accident and the marked baby well known throughout the valley, Mercy lived in constant fear that someone else might come upon her in an unguarded moment and catch a glimpse of her disfigured face.
From the privacy of her second story bedroom window, she stared at the wagon packed and ready for the early morning departure. Though she little understood Daniel's sudden decision to move, she accepted it gladly as an escape from the gripping terror and persecution she had endured for fourteen very long years.