Jeremy placed his hands in his pockets as he strode up to Mr. Thompson. The corners of the older man’s eyes crinkled as he smiled. His blue irises matched the refreshing shade of the skies above.
It struck Jeremy how remarkable it was that liars could lie even with their eyes.
“Jeremy, my boy. How’s life been treating you?”
“Very well, Mr. Thompson. How have you been?”
“I have been feeling so great that I’ve been sleeping like a baby.”
The older man’s obnoxious smile sent a chill over Jeremy. He kept his composure, because it was the only way that anyone could survive mingling with serpents. He feigned an easy smile.
“It has been a while since we went fishing or shooting together. Are you free this afternoon, Sir?”
Mr. Thompson lit up.
“I’ve been longing to do some shooting after doing so much reading these days. Yes, I happen to be free today.”
“After church, then?”
“Jeremy!” called Gabriel.
At the sight of his old friend, Jeremy broke into a run. He reached Gabriel and they shook hands. He had never been so happy and so worried all within the same moment.
“It is so good to see you, Gabriel. You look well.”
“You, too, Jeremy.”
Just behind Gabriel stood a willowy blonde. Curious brown eyes peered beneath her pink bonnet. Jeremy returned her warm smile.
“I’d like you to meet my new bride, Mary.”
She reached out to shake Jeremy’s hand. He took her hand and shook it once, a little surprised at her use of the masculine gesture.
“Pleased to meet you, Mary,” he said.
“Likewise, Jeremy,” she said with a nod.
“It is good to be back here,” said Gabriel. “I am very sorry to hear about your Pastor Davis. He was a good man.”
“So am I ,” said Jeremy. “He will always be missed.”
Pastor Scottson walked by and glared at Jeremy. He had clearly heard them talking about Michael.
“Good morning, Pastor.”
He walked into the church without replying.
“It looks like he’s going to be my teacher and mentor for the next couple of years,” said Gabriel.
“So it does. I think it’s great that you’re going to be a pastor one day. It would suit you.”
Mary took Gabriel’s hand and squeezed it. “He is going to make the best pastor.”
Sally walked up to them then. Gabriel introduced the two girls to one another; Sally appeared to be less than pleased to be standing next to Mary as they exchanged pleasantries.
“Well, we should go inside or we’ll be late for the first hymn,” she said quickly.
She linked her arm with Jeremy’s and led him into the church. He choked back a laugh at her odd behaviour.She never told him what to do in public.
Pastor Scottson’s sermon lacked warmth, but he seemed to make an attempt to reel in the threats this time.It was a struggle to sit in the very place where Michael would still be preaching. It had become a house of murderers leading a congregation of gullible sheep and the worst part was that there was nothing he could do. Even if he personally told every single person the truth, few would believe him and the few that did might react rashly and get themselves killed. Gabriel would be among the latter.
When the service was nearly finished, Jeremy looked at Sally sitting next to him. She met his gaze and flashed him a brave smile. He longed to continue their previous night, but he would instead be spending a hellish afternoon with a man he once respected.
After a quick lunch at the Thompsons’ home with the women, Jeremy and Mr. Thompson set out for the pond with their shot guns. They crept up on the swimming ducks and one of the green-headed males took flight, sacrificing his life for his mate. Mr. Thompson hit it with one shot as the rest of the flock retreated.
“I never miss,” he said with a wink.
They moved on to find another spot. At the lazy, low river, they found another raft of ducks. They each shot one drake.
“We should make a big meal for the church next weekend,” said Jeremy. “We could feed a lot of hardworking people.”
“I was thinking of something a little more intimate. The pastor and his wife, the deacons, and their wives would be better. And of course, Gabriel and his new wife.”
It was no surprise that the deacon wanted to exclude what he referred to as ‘regular folk’. If Jeremy hadn’t married Sally, he likely would have been ignorant of the corruption that defiled the church for the rest of his life.
Jeremy nodded. “That would be great.”
“What do you say we go pluck and clean these ducks now? The women are likely missing us.”
As they walked back to the Thompsons’ home, Jeremy cleared his throat. It was time.
“Forgive me for asking this, Sir, but it has been eating away at me for weeks. Michael’s betrayal has been difficult for Sally. She’s also been very jumpy since Jacob sneaked up on her in our house. Who was the man?”
“Jacob was one of my slaves. I treated him very well as I did for all of my slaves before the Yankees ruined our great world. The man was freed years ago and felt that I needed to pay for owning him in the past.”
“So it was about a grudge.”
“Basically. He planned to hurt me the most by going after my daughter, but then he must have thought the better of it. He was going to kill me.”
Jeremy felt ill at the idea of some man having it out for a gentle little girl like Sally – no matter how much of a monster her father was. He didn’t want to believe that was all there was to the story. It made some sense, but it still did not explain why the elders thought Michael deserved to die. He would have helped any person who needed refuge. Jacob would have been no exception.
“I swear to protect Sally with my life.”
“I believe you like the idea of protecting her, but allowing her to wander the wilderness at will isn’t exactly keeping her safe.”
He hadn’t been paying attention to what Sally did during the day. She always had the house clean, the clothes mended, washed, and folded, and the meals cooked. He assumed that she wasn’t gallivanting around the countryside all day. She would soon have his children and it was better that she enjoy her freedom of mobility while she still could.
“I’ll talk to her about it,” lied Jeremy.
Deacon Thompson shook his head. “You don’t talk to women, my boy. You tell them what to do, or they will walk all over you. I love my daughter, but she’s the sort who thinks she’s special.”
Jeremy’s neck grew warm beneath his collar.
“Sally is very special.”
“Watch your tone. She’s also your wife. I expect you to look after her as you promised.”
“That’s what I like to hear. That girl needs a baby to keep her head in the right place.”
Jeremy sighed. He had to test his luck one more time. For Michael.
“About Pastor Davis… why do you think he betrayed you?”
“Michael held beliefs that went against the way God wants things to be. I tried to mentor him, but by the time Jacob arrived, it was already too late for our young fool. He was willing to put me and my family at risk to protect a stranger who was created by our Lord to be a slave.”
Jeremy gritted his teeth. Michael had always taught that all lives were equally important. He promised himself that he would never be like the narrow minded deacons no matter what they threatened him with.
Mr. Thompson looked over at him. His penetrating eyes seemed to pierce his soul, reading him like a book.
“In case you feel like I am sounding a little harsh, young Jeremy, I advise you to read the Bible. It condones slavery. Some people are made to be inferior to others as God wills.”
“With all due respect, Sir, that’s in the Old Testament.”
“Watch it, Jeremy. You’re beginning to sound like our tragic Pastor Davis.”
His sparkling blue eyes narrowed, turning predatory as they sized Jeremy up. In their cold depths, Jeremy could sense the man’s hunger for his next bloodshed.
“Forgive me, Sir.”
He stared down at the grass as the tornado of thoughts raged inside of his head. Sally was right. They would need to leave the town and soon. No farm was worth staying around there for.
“I knew you’d see it my way, lad.”
With a smirk on his face, the deacon walked ahead to the slaughter house. Jeremy peered over at the house and saw Sally staring out the window at him. Her curious gaze worried him. She was not someone who could be easily controlled. Neither was he. They were living among snakes that could strike and inflict their venom with any wrong move.
With a loud sigh, he joined the deacon inside of the stuffy building. They would need to leave the town very soon.
Sally slipped out of the covers and peered out the window to see if it was raining. Thick grey clouds filled the sky, but they hadn’t burst yet. Her conversation with Jeremy about his talk with her Papa echoed in her mind. She looked over her shoulder at him still sleeping on their bed. Their times together passed too quickly and she found herself missing him during the day. Most evenings, he was exhausted and fell asleep quickly. She felt guilty for having help from Mama’s maid during the day while he literally slaved.
Seeing Gabriel again with his new wife had been a little unsettling, but she recovered from it quickly as her affection for her own husband intensified. The first thunder clap of the day sounded and awoke Jeremy. He sat up and grinned at the sight of her.
“Good morning, ” she called.
“Good morning. Come here.”
She jumped onto the mattress and crawled toward him.
“Thank you again for talking to my father about Jacob. It must have been so hard to do.”
“Could we forget about this town for now?”
He gathered her into his arms and kissed her. She deepened the kiss, enjoying the flutter in her lower abdomen. Only Jeremy could do that to her.It felt so strange to be so happy when they were close. Being with him drowned out the darkness for a little while.
When it was over, they lay entangled in one another until he at last rose and dressed for another hard day of work. She hugged her knees as she watched him get ready to go outside and work.
“I could help you do some of the chores. I’ve painted six pictures while you’ve been working so hard.”
He shook his head.
“Absolutely not. You’ll have your work cut out for you soon enough. Give it another year or two.”
Her hand went to her flat stomach and she wondered if a life had already begun inside of her. She hoped not. She wanted to be a little older like her school teacher had been when she had her first child. Some things about the world were starting to change. Some women were waiting longer to start families as they pursued education, careers, adventures. She still felt like a child in a lot of ways and though she was already married, she wanted to postpone motherhood as long as possible. Jeremy loved her slender waist and having a baby might ruin it.
While Jeremy was in the barn with the cows, she got started with the day’s laundry with her servant. The woman was serious and cold like the deacons which made her company less than enjoyable, but at least she helped Sally to be productive in the mornings.
After lunch, she started to paint another picture, thinking of Michael and then of Jacob. She ended up painting two sets of eyes -one of Jacob’s hazel ones and one of Michael’s brown ones. She decided that she would finish it the next morning. The memories of those odd few seconds with Jacob infected her thoughts and she wandered across town to go visit Mama again.
Mama appeared anything but happy as Sally approached her in the garden. She removed her gardening gloves and strode briskly up to her.
“Hi, Sally. Would you please tell Jeremiah to never ask your father such intrusive questions again?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your Papa told me all about your husband gleaning for information about Michael’s death after church yesterday. It sounded like he was implying that he didn’t believe Jacob murdered him.”
“Oh, I am sure he never meant to challenge Papa.”
“He saw it as a challenge. It’s best that you and I don’t visit today.”
Mama crossed her arms. Her eyes were wide and misty; Sally wondered if a storm was raging within her mysterious mind.
“Papa is very cross and it’s best that you go home now. I’d rather not have him see you here.”
“Go home before you get caught in that storm!”
Mama turned away and stepped back into the house.
Sally stared after her feeling the familiar emptiness starting to bore a hole through her gut. They really had to leave town soon. She backed away from her childhood home as thunder rolled over the countryside. She had hoped that she could have watched it with Mama from the window as they sipped their hot tea.
Sally shuddered at the thought of Mama being married to a man like Papa for so long. It must have been a terrible existence for her and she was still a young woman.
“What must it be like?” she wondered aloud. “My poor Mama.”
Lightning zig-zagged across the sky. Sally ran home.