1810. Grant Sievers pulled the matching black horses to a stop then glanced over at his wife. She was looking at the grey limestone building to their right. It was a three-story block with wings that jutted out at each side. It gave Grant the shivers. All the windows had bars on them. The grounds were kept neat with tall trees shading the walkway. A huge granite fountain stood in the middle of a garden, birds drinking from it. A black iron fence surrounded the property with sharp finials pointing to the sky. It looked like a prison, and in a way, it was. “You can still change your mind, Carrie,” he said softly.
She shook her head. “I need to do this today.” She turned back to face him; determination written on her face. “It's the last time I'll get to see her if she's still...”
He patted her arm. “I know.” They lived too far away for regular visits. Grant and Carrie had only been here once; on their honeymoon. Carrie had been depressed for weeks afterward.
He watched her crumple the letter in her left hand. It came from this place a month ago, stating that her mother was dying. Grant hoped that Mary was still alive, that Carrie would have a chance to say goodbye to her. A tear trickled down her cheek; he tenderly wiped it away. She didn't respond to his touch; he didn't expect her to. He drew back his hand and sighed. Then he reached for the door handle.
Grant got out of the carriage, walked around and opened the door for Carrie. She took his offered hand and stepped down. Together they faced the imposing construction. “You want me to come in with you?”
Carrie placed a hand on his arm. “Please.” She smiled uncertainly then headed toward the gate. Grant rushed forward to open it for her. As he reached for the latch, he read the sign on the pillar beside him. Kingston Insane Asylum. He gave Carrie's arm a quick squeeze as she passed through the gate. Grant stayed beside her as she walked down the sidewalk with purposeful strides, her head held high. Carrie had been timid when he married her and never would have done this. He’d been cautious when touching her, always gently as he held any impatience in check. It had taken him seven years to get this far with her. Still, he knew that Carrie's ordeal before he came along had a lifelong impression on her...for the bad, not the good.
He shook his head and concentrated at the task at hand.
Grant opened the heavy cedar door and followed Carrie inside. They were in a long, dark hallway with several closed doors on each side. Lit lanterns hung between each door, giving a little light and leaving dark shadows between them. Grant stepped into the open door on his left. An office, he presumed, where guests checked in. He was reading the sign on the wall that read All creatures belong to God when a tall nun hurried in. As he shook her hand, he wondered what role God was playing in a place like this. He smelled the mustiness of the old building and a dank order that could have been urine.
The nun eyed Carrie before introducing herself as Sister Beatrice. “How may I help you?” the nun asked as she sat behind a small desk.
Grant glanced at his wife and said, “We came to visit Mary Tanner.”
Carrie gave the nun her letter. Sister Beatrice straightened it out and read it. She opened a black book to the right page, then shook her head as she read it. “I’m sorry,” she told Carrie. “Your mother passed away a week ago.”
Carrie swayed. Grant grabbed her by the arm and led her to a chair. “I’m sorry,” he said as he knelt beside her. “I know you were hoping to see her.”
As Carrie cried Grant thought about the first time they’d been there. A different nun led them down the hallway. She unlocked a door, then turned left into the women’s ward. The screams and curses were ear-splitting. Carrie held her scented handkerchief to her nose. Grant wished he had one for himself. All he could do was keep swallowing.
A dark-haired woman sat against the wall, pointing a finger at him, calling him the devil’s spawn. Down further, two orderlies were slapping another woman as she tried to scratch one of their eyes out.
Another woman sidled up to Grant and tried to place his hand on her breast, smiling seductively at him. The nun pushed her out of the way without saying a word.
“In here,” the nun said as she opened a door with number 13 on it.
Grant had stayed by the door as Carrie went up to her mother. Mary was dressed in a white gown, sitting by the barred window. Her hair had turned silver, her face gaunt and jaundiced. She’d shrunk from her former self and her hands looked like claws with long talons. She was facing out toward the front of the building, but Grant didn’t think she was seeing the gardens or the fountain outside. By the blank expression in her eyes, her mind was elsewhere.
Carrie pulled up a wooden chair and sat down beside her mother. As she talked to her, Grant glanced around the room. It had been painted white a long time ago. Mold and dark stains crept up the walls. A pail sat near the unmade bed, with excrement in it that made the room stink. There were no sharp objects, no cords or anything Mary could hurt herself with. There was only a small table with a tattered Bible on it beside a single bed.
A nurse shuffled in and took Mary’s pulse. Then she gave her a spoonful of medicine. After she left, Mary spit it out.
Carrie gasped. Grant held in a chuckle. Mary didn’t even look at Carrie, who gave up trying to reach her mother after half an hour.
They’d stopped a doctor as he was rushing to another patient and introduced themselves. Carrie asked him, “Will my mother get any better than what she’s like right now?”
The doctor gave her a sympathetic look. “I’m afraid not, Mrs. Sievers. She prefers her own safe world. She doesn’t even know where she is.”
Sam Sievers grinned as he watched his half brothers struggle with a calf. Seventeen-year-old Johnny was pulling on the rope tied around the calf's neck. While Adam, fourteen, pushed from behind. “Give him a slap,” Sam yelled at Adam. Either Adam didn't hear him or was being stubborn. He just kept pushing on the calf's rear end.
Sam galloped his horse up beside them, stopped and jumped off. He could hear Adam grunting as he gave the calf a hard slap on the backside. The calf surged forward sending Johnny into the dust. He dropped the rope as the calf ran into the pen. Sam quickly shut the gate, locking the calf in with its mother. By the time he turned around, Johnny was on his feet.
“We had it, Sam,” he said, brushing the dust off his pants. He narrowed his light brown eyes that seemed almost translucent in certain light. Like now when the sun was beating down on them. Johnny swiped his brown hair that curled around his ears and glowered at Sam.
“You've only been at it for ten minutes,” Sam said, ignoring the threat in his brother's eyes. Johnny wasn't the hothead in the family. Sam turned to face Adam now.
“You don't have to show us up, you know.” Adam's face had turned red. “You do that to us all the time.” Adam was the same height as Johnny and still growing. He had deep brown eyes that bored into you as if he were prying your brain apart. But there was no doubt that these two were brothers. They had the same long nose and a prominent forehead. Their eyes were set wide apart, and they both had dark, unruly hair that kept getting into their eyes.
“Fine,” Sam said as he brushed past them. “Next time I'll just let you be.” He stormed down to the well and got himself a drink of water. Then he dipped his hanky into the bucket and wiped his face.
Sam led his horse across the bridge. The creek under it separated the Sievers brothers’ two farms. He could hear the tapping of a hammer before he entered the barn. Sam smiled at Lucas Sievers, stopping just inside the door to watch his adopted father nail a board into place. A horse kicked three boards loose that morning and Lucas wasn't one to put things off.
“You done yelling at your brothers?” Lucas asked as he hung the hammer on a nail beside a handsaw. He then turned and looked at his son, amusement etched in his eyes.
Lucas waited while Sam put his horse away then rested a hand on Sam's shoulder as they strode up to the main house. It was a long log house with an indoor pump, so the water wouldn't freeze in the winter. One of the things Lucas thought of when he built this house to make things as easy for his wife as possible.
Winda turned from the stove as Sam and Lucas walked into the kitchen. “Get washed up,” she told Lucas, before facing Sam. “Sophie's in your old room, putting the boys down for a nap. They've been nothing but hellions today.”
Sam gave his mother a kiss on the cheek then watched her eyes soften. She tried to sound upset about how rough his boys were. Sam knew she loved them just as much as he did.
“You know what day it is, Sam?” she asked.
Winda hugged him. “It’s the anniversary of the day we adopted you.”
“Yes,” Lucas said. “Seven years ago.”
“Wow,” Sam laughed. “Time has sure gone by fast. I remember the look on the lawyer’s face when we walked into his office.”
“Yes,” Lucas chuckled. “A white man and,” he gave Winda a loving gaze, “an Indian woman wanting to adopt a black boy.”
“Half black,” Sam reminded him. “I’m only half nigger.”
As Sam walked down the hallway, he thought about how happy he was. He stopped in the doorway of his old bedroom and smiled as he watched his wife, Sophie, pull a light blanket over his boys. Both were now sleeping. Ben was his five-year-old. Cody, two, had lighter skin than his, for which he was grateful. Cody had dark, wavy hair like Sam's. Ben's hair was lighter but not as light as his mother's.
Sophie gave the boys each a kiss on the forehead, then straightened. She smiled when she saw Sam and went up to him. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her hungrily. After he stood back and studied her face. He loved her blue eyes that were almost the same colour as his. Sophie had delicate features, small nose, thin lips. Her hair was almost white; long and wavy.
“One of the kittens scratched Cody on his arm,” Sophie said. “I put salve on it. It isn’t that bad, but he acts as if his arm will fall off. And Ben fell and scraped his knee, tripped over his own feet.”
Sam chuckled then said, “They are a rowdy pair, aren’t they?”
Winda called them from in the kitchen. Sam put his arm around his wife and together they headed that way.
Grant turned from the innkeeper with a key in his hand. He went back outside to get his wife and their carpetbags. Carrie was quiet as she followed him up to their room. She'd hardly spoken since they left Kingston. Her mother passed away last week, buried on the grounds of the asylum in the far back corner of the property. A pauper's grave with no headstone. When Sister Beatrice told them this, he said that he’d pay for her to have a decent grave with a granite headstone.
Carrie refused, leaving her mother where she was, not wanting to make a fuss. “She's dead,” Carrie said. “What difference will it make now?”
As usual, Grant gave in.
He studied her now as she paced the room, knowing better than to touch her. Instead, he unpacked a pint of whiskey. Grant was about to uncork the bottle when he hesitated, then set the bottle down. He leaned on the table and closed his eyes. Carrie’s first husband was an alcoholic.
Dusty Blackman drank heavily. Then he'd rape Carrie. Or beat her. Grant was not like that. He only took the occasional drink to help steady his nerves. And never had he raped or raised a hand in anger at his wife. That sort of behaviour was for cowards.
She stopped pacing and was standing by the window watching him. Was that fear in her eyes? A man deserved a drink on occasion. It was the only vice Grant had, and he refused to let her have her way in this. But today he knew it would be his wife’s undoing.
He didn't wait for her to accuse him of being insensitive; he crossed over to the door. “Coming for supper, dear?” he asked, as he pulled the door open and stepped out into the hallway.
Before Dusty Blackman died, he owned a tavern, a sawmill, a small cabin in town and the farm that Sam now maintained. Johnny and Adam were to inherit the rest of his estate. All three boys were his sons with different mothers. Grant and Carrie adopted Johnny and Adam two years after Lucas and Winda adopted Sam.
Johnny sat at the head of the dinner table on the farm he already thought of as his. He longed for the day he could ride his horse on top of the hill, look over his land and watch his cattle graze in the fields.
As far as he was concerned, Adam can take over the sawmill. That's what he said he wanted. Adam would rather work with wood, anyway; always building shelves or benches. The last thing he built was a hope chest for their sister, Megan. Gave it to her on her sixth birthday last November
Fat Aunt Gert turned from the stove and set the big iron pot in the middle of the table. Uncle Anthony, sitting at the other end, said a short prayer before digging into the stew and filling his plate. They were staying at the farm until Grant and Carrie got back from Kingston. And they were Carrie’s aunt and uncle, but everyone called them Aunt Gert and Uncle Anthony. They lived in the old cabin in town. Bought it from the estate. With the money from that and the sale of the tavern, plus whatever Grant contributed, they purchased a 500-acre farm next to Sam's. So, in the end, Grant owned half of the farm. Johnny was determined that one day he'd buy Grant out. He'd let Grant and Carrie keep this house and build one for himself. Just like Sam did.
Johnny ate hurriedly, wanting to get back outside. As usual, Megan copied everything Johnny did. He smiled before taking his last bite of bread. “You better hurry up, Megan, or your pony will die of loneliness before you get out there.”
She shovelled the rest of her food into her mouth, chewing loudly.
Gert looked up from her meal. “Manners, young lady.”
Megan grinned, then set her fork down, her plate empty. “May I be excused?”
“Drink your milk,” Adam ordered. “I don't milk the cows for nothing, you know.”
Megan finished her milk and then asked to be excused again. This time, Aunt Gert let her go. She slid down off her chair then wiped the milk from her upper lip, grinning at Johnny. “Come on then, slowpoke.”
Johnny led the way outside. Megan ran up and grabbed his hand. “Can I jump today, Johnny?”
He smiled down at her. “I don't see why not. The rails are still set up.”
They went into the barn and stopped by the stall that held Megan's brown and white pinto, the pony that Johnny had given to her on her birthday. Since then, he'd been teaching her to ride. Megan showed no fear and wanted to race him on his horse. “Not yet,” he told her. “Wait until you graduate to the same size horse that I ride.”
Sam's twin sisters, Amy and Sarah, were a year older than Megan. Amy, the taller of the two had dark hair like Winda with brown eyes and copper-coloured skin. She loved frilly dresses and experimented with different hairstyles.
Amy could sit for hours doing needlepoint or teaching Ben the alphabet. She loved to play with the boys, keeping Ben and Cody occupied while Sophie cleaned the house or worked in her garden.
Although Sam loved his sisters, he often thought of Amy as being flighty. She’d agree with him when he wanted to do something with the house, then side with Sophie when she thought his wife was winning the discussion.
Amy sat in the shade of an oak tree with his boys, playing with a litter of five puppies. She squealed and held a black and white puppy away from her as the puppy let out a stream of urine. “Don’t you pee on my dress,” she scolded.
Ben laughed as he hugged a brown puppy to his chest. Cody stood beside him, watching wide-eyed.
Sam continued into the barn, stopped just inside the big doors, and watched Sarah brush her horse.
Sarah favoured Lucas, with brown hair, lighter skin colour, and green eyes. She often wore her hair in a braid that hung down to the centre of her back. She’d rather wear britches and muck out stalls than do housework and meaningless stuff like needlepoint. Her idea of relaxing was reading anything she could get her hands on.
Sam taught her how to shoe a horse and mend fences. Someday she’d be able to run this farm just as well as he could.
Sarah smiled when she saw him. Sam stepped up to the stall and tipped his hat back. “I decided to keep the black and white puppy,” he told her. “He just pissed on our sister.”
Sarah laughed then said, “That’s the one I’d pick too.”
The next day one of the men sauntered up to Lucas with his hat in his hand. Lucas straightened from digging a stone out of his horse's shoe. The man shifted from one foot to the other. “I, aw,” the man stammered, then looked at Lucas head-on. “My sister and her family live on the north shore of Lake Erie,” he said. “With all the talk of war...” He gazed off to his left, his eyes focusing on a distant object.
“I see,” Lucas said, as he stared at the cornfield ready to be harvested. “I guess I can't persuade you to wait until after harvest.”
The man looked back at Lucas then shook his head slowly. “Sorry. I'm worried about my sister.”
He patted the man on the shoulder. “We'll miss you here.”
“I'd like my wages, if that's not too much trouble.”
“Winda will have your pay ready for you in an hour.”
The man nodded then headed toward the bunkhouse. Lucas stood there watching him, cursing under his breath. That was the third man they'd lost this year. All of them heading south.
He turned to see Sam walking up to him. “Just lost another one,” he said when his son stopped beside him.
“Damn.” Sam wiped the sweat off his upper lip with the back of his hand, the one holding a pair of pliers. He wore a heavy glove on his other hand and was holding a length of barbed wire. “Soon we'll have to put Cody and Ben to work.”
“Where are you going with that?” Lucas pointed at Sam's hand.
“Going to fix a section of fence on the far side of the valley. I noticed a hole in it yesterday.” He looked at the cornfield. “We should start picking soon.”
“Yeah. I think we could start first thing tomorrow morning. I was about to check the wagons, make sure the wheels are greased.”
Sam gazed out across the fields. “Damn,” he said again. “I was hoping we'd get that brush cleared this fall. But if we keep losing men.” He walked away, heading for his horse that was tied to a rail by the barn.
Lucas frowned as he looked over at the woods on the other side of the cornfield. They'd planned on clearing the trees from there, sending the logs to the sawmill and making enough money to buy twenty more head of cattle. He sighed then headed toward the house to tell his wife to prepare the man's wages and stroke him off the books.
Johnny looked up at the clear blue sky and prayed for rain. The beans needed it. So, did Carrie's vegetable garden. Everything was wilting. The creek was low, which meant that the well could run dry. He tried not to worry about that right now, forcing himself to pay attention to what he was doing. He wrapped the rope around the tree trunk and tied it. Then he stepped back as Adam snapped the reins and the horse pulled the rope taut. Johnny checked his knot, making sure it was going to hold. “Okay,” he said.
Adam flicked the reins several times as the horse pulled, then stepped back a few steps. “C'mon, there fella,” he coaxed. “Again.” Johnny encouraged the horse with slaps on the backside with his hat.
The tree trunk gave way a bit at a time, with every yank of the rope. Eventually, they pulled it free from the earth. Adam stopped to give the horse a rest. He patted it. “Good boy.”
Johnny walked up to his brother. “Thanks, Adam. I can take it from here. You better get that floorboard on the porch fixed. Before Mom and Dad get back.”
“Yeah, yeah. Thank you, boss.” Adam stormed off.
“Just reminding you.”
Adam didn't acknowledge that he'd heard. He just kept going.
Johnny took up the reins and directed the horse to the edge of the field. There he untied the stump then led the horse to the barn. As he was coming back out, he saw Uncle Anthony hitching a horse to his carriage. He went up to him. “Heading into town?”
Anthony turned around. “Yes. You need anything?”
“Yeah,” Johnny smiled. “Ten-thousand buckets full of rain.”
Anthony chuckled. “I'll see what I can do.” He got into the carriage and drove down the lane.
Johnny stood where he was for a bit and wondered what Uncle Anthony was up to. He didn't quite trust Anthony, especially when it came to money. Anthony used to be a banker and Johnny was sure that he wasn't an honest one. He and Aunt Gert seemed to have loads of money. Since his retirement, Anthony bought the general store in nearby Blackman Falls, where they lived. He hired a man to run it for him. He and Aunt Gert always wore new clothes and had gone back to York three times in the last six years. Johnny was sure that Anthony was still doing business with his old bank. Maybe that was where he had his money stashed and went back to get a sack full now and then.
Someone screamed. Johnny turned and raced toward the sound. He knew that it was Megan. She screamed again before he ran around the side of the house. She was jumping up and down, twisting her body this way then that. Adam was a few feet away, laughing at her.
“Adam,” Johnny yelled. “What did you do to her this time?”
“Get it out,” Megan cried. “Get it out.” She was trying to reach something on her back, under her clothes.
Johnny grabbed her. “Hold still, I'll get it.” She stopped jumping around but still squirmed. He reached down her back under her dress and pulled out a frog. As soon as he let her go, Megan ran after Adam and kicked him in the shins. He backed up, still laughing.
Johnny threw the frog away and stormed over to his brother. “You quit teasing her like that,” he balled up his fist.
Adam stopped laughing. “Yeah. You going to make me?”
Megan gasped as Johnny punched Adam in the stomach.