Author's Note: This story takes lyrics from "Mama, He's Crazy" sung by the Judds, and inspiration from Martina McBride's songs, "Concrete Angel" and "Independence Day." The videos of both Martina songs are a must-see. Also, for the purposes of this story Jeremiah is only two years younger than Louise.
She really missed her mother. In her mind, their conversation was clear as day.
"Mama, I've found someone like you said would come along. He's a sight, and so unlike any man I've known."
She remembered his first proposal. She'd turned him down partly because she didn't want to give up her independence, but mostly it was fear, fear of the strange, new feelings he awakened in her.
"I was afraid to let him in, 'cause I'm not the trustin' kind." She smiled. "But now I'm convinced he's heaven-sent, and must be out of his mind."
It still amazed her that he'd even looked twice at her in her boy's clothes, her skin tanned by the sun. No, not very ladylike, but he hadn't minded - most of the time.
"Mama, he's crazy, crazy over me. And in my life is where he says he always wants to be."
Well, if he was crazy then so was she, but she thought they'd be all right. She thought about her parents' marriage. Through all her father's rages, her mama had never stopped loving him, somewhere deep inside. As an adult, Lou could understand her feelings, even as she packed up her children and fled. But the man she loved wasn't like that and never would be.
"I've never been so loved. He beats all I've ever seen."
For a moment she heard her mother's voice clearly. "Mama, you always said 'Better look before you leap.' Maybe so, but here I go lettin' my heart lead me."
Besides, it wasn't as if they were rushing things. It had taken two tries before she'd come to her senses and realized she couldn't live without him.
"He thinks I hung the moon and stars. I think he's a livin' dream."
She wished her mother were here with her now comforting and reassuring, calming her nerves. They'd share a pot of tea maybe and talk about love and marriage, what can go right, and what can go wrong.
Louise tried to push away the dark memories that came when she thought about her parents' relationship. "No, I don't want to think about that now."
She must've been about seven that summer. She and her ma were out in the garden picking beans when they heard the wagon pull up, its rattling wheels unmistakable. Her ma had stood, stretching her back, and sighed.
"Mary!" His voice boomed over the yard.
Mary Louise McCloud closed her eyes and seemed to shrink even smaller than she already was. Then, she looked over at her oldest child and smiled.
"Think you can finish this row for me Louise? You pa's sure to be tired and hungry. I'll go fix him something."
"Yes, ma'am." Louise brushed away her bangs, leaving a smudge of dirt across her forehead. "I'll keep an eye on Theresa, too." The baby lay in her basket under a nearby tree, sleeping soundly.
Her mother dropped a quick kiss on top of her head. "Thank you, sweetie. What would I do without you?" She hurried into the house.
Louise picked for a while longer, but her ma did not return. Reaching the end of the garden row, she put down her basket. She wiped her muddy hands on her apron and made a face. The stains wouldn't come out of the white cotton, no matter how hard she scrubbed, and she didn't have another. A noise from the house made her pause. Quietly, she slipped into the lean-to and pushed open the kitchen door just enough to peek through.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine, and even when they did, she wasn't sure she was seeing correctly. Her mother stood over the stove, stirring something. Her hair had come loose from its long braid and her blue calico dress was rumpled. Lou's pa sat impatiently at the table, his green eyes blazing with anger. Lou pulled the door shut a little more, even though she was sure he couldn't see her.
Mary turned from the stove with a plate of stew, and Louise gasped aloud. The entire left side of the woman's face
was bruised and blood still trickled from her split lip.
Had her pa done this? She knew her parents argued. Or, rather, her pa argued. His raised voice had woken her up on more than one occasion saying something about how business was bad lately, but she'd never seen him hit her mother. Frowning, Louise tried to think. Sometimes, her ma had bruises on her face or wrists that she explained away as "accidents." Now, she understood how those accidents had happened.
As she watched, her ma turned back to the stove, but her pa grabbed her and pulled her into his lap. Grinning he dragged her head down to his and kissed her roughly. She stiffened but did not respond. He laughed and whispered something in her ear as his hands started to unbutton her dress down the back.
Gently, Louise closed the lean-to door and walked back out to the garden. She started on another row of beans, picking automatically, her thoughts in a whirl. Were all fathers like hers? Did they all hit their wives? The girls at school never said anything, and when she saw them at church their families seemed happy. Not that Louise's family went to church very often.
Theresa began to fuss, and Louise hurried over before the baby's crying escalated into full-blown howls. Lifting her sister from the basket, she settled down under the tree. Feeling in her apron pocket for something to distract the child, Lou pulled out her half finished sampler. Her ma said she had a good hand with a needle, and she'd soon be sewing on real clothes, not just doll clothes. Carefully, she bit off a piece of red thread and held it up for Theresa to see. The baby's whimpers disappeared as she focused her blue eyes on the bright string.
Suddenly, the front door slammed, and both girls jumped. Louise gathered up Theresa and headed across the yard, just in time to see their parents walk out of the house and over to the wagon.
"I'll head into town for some supplies, Mary," their pa said. "I should be back before supper."
"Yes, William." She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. "We'll finish up the beans this afternoon. I'll keep some out to cook tonight."
He nodded. He looked over to where Louise now stood next to her mother as if noticing her for the first time. "You helping your ma, girl?"
"Yes, sir." She kept her eyes down, afraid he'd see her fear. She'd never been afraid of him before, but now she couldn't help it.
"That's all right then." He looked around the yard. "Where's that brother of yours?"
From the corner of her eye, Louise saw her mother stiffen. "He's playing with the Richards boy."
Her pa's jaw tightened. "He'd be better off helping around here. Those water buckets don't fill themselves." Then he relaxed. "Well, a boy needs to be around friends of his own, I guess. I think I'll take him fishing tomorrow."
Louise's heart jumped. She loved fishing! She and Jeremiah went occasionally, but they hadn't had a chance all summer.
"What?" He looked up from checking the horses' harness.
She swallowed nervously. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. "Can I go with you? Fishing?"
Quicker than a striking snake, his hand flashed out and cracked across her cheek. Stunned, she felt herself falling to land in the dirt on her backside, her arms tight around Theresa. She looked up through her tears as he stood over them.
"Fishing!" he spat. "You need to be learning to cook and clean and keep house, not fishing. If I hear you talking like that
again I'll give you something to cry about." Climbing into the wagon, he drove away without a backward glance.
"Come on, honey. Let's go wash your face." Her ma helped her up. Taking Theresa, she wrapped an arm around the older girl's shoulders.
"Yours too." Louise said, staring at the rapidly darkening bruise on her mother's cheek.
To her surprise, her mother smiled. "Oh, I'm fine Louise." She gently touched the swollen skin around her eye. "Your father didn't mean to hurt me. He's just very worried lately about his business. It costs alot of money to feed all of us. We have to help him as much as we can."
"Yes, mama," Louise said, but she had a scary feeling that her mother wasn't telling the truth.
"Throw it back Jeremiah."
He frowned. "But why can't we take it home? It'd make a good dinner, tonight." He studied the trout gasping for breath on his hook.
"Cause I don't want pa to know we've been fishing," Louise explained dropping her own line back in the pond.
If their father caught them - or rather her - with fishing poles, he would be furious. She knew it was a risk, but she was tired of being cooped up in the house or out in the garden all day helping their ma with the never-ending chores.
She wasn't strong enough to milk the two cows yet, but she led them to water every morning first thing. Then it was time to cook breakfast, wash clothes, mend or iron. She'd be glad when school took up for the summer term next Monday.
When she found herself with a free afternoon, she'd wasted no time in hunting up her little brother. A couple of long sticks, some twine and bent pins made serviceable fishing poles. The two children settled themselves by the pond, eating fallen apples from a nearby tree when they got hungry. Now, it was growing dark, and Louise knew they'd better head home.
"You think Ma's back yet," Jeremiah asked, throwing the fish back in the water with a sigh.
Louise shrugged. "I dunno. She said babies sometimes take a long time to come. She might be at the Jackson's all night."
"I wonder if it'll be a boy or a girl?"
"Does it matter?" she asked. She wasn't friends with Rebecca Jackson who'd been in her First Reader class last year.
She'd sneered at Louise's worn calico dress, although her own wasn't much better. And she always had a pert remark when the teacher praised Louise for a particularly well-done recitation.
Well, ma had promised they'd go into town tomorrow and buy enough cloth to for new school clothes. Jeremiah would be starting school this term in the primer class with the other five-year-olds, including his best friend and Rebecca's brother, Tommy.
Pushing away thoughts of the hateful Rebecca, Louise gathered up the two buckets of blueberries they'd picked. The sound of wagon wheels startled her, and one bucket fell to the ground with a clang, spilling the fruit everywhere. Hurriedly, she tried to gather them up.
Louise felt her breath freeze in her chest as she looked up to see their father climbing down from the wagon. The look in his eyes was the same one she'd seen a month ago when he'd slapped her. He strode over and hauled her roughly to her feet.
"What did I tell you girl?" he shouted. The smell of whiskey on his breath nearly choked her.
"We...we just picked some berries, pa," she stuttered, hoping he wouldn't see the poles they'd dropped.
He shook her. "Don't lie to me! You were fishing weren't you? Weren't you?"
"Yes, sir." Louise knew there was no point in denying it. She cringed, waiting for the slap, but instead he shoved her
towards the waiting horses.
"You kids get in the wagon. I'll deal with you at home."
On the ride, Louise kept still as a mouse where she sat between her pa and Jeremiah. Her father concentrated on driving and didn't even glance her way. Jeremiah reached over and squeezed her hand. Somewhat comforted, she squeezed back and didn't let go.
As they pulled into the yard, their ma hurried to meet them. "William, what is it? Are the children hurt?"
"No, but I found them fishing at the pond." He turned to Louise who was climbing over the wagon bed. "Louise, wait for me in the house."
Miserable, she started for the house. Jeremiah followed her, but their father's voice stopped him. "Son, you go fill the water buckets."
"But it was my idea too," Jeremiah tried to protest.
Louise felt her heart swell. The fishing trip had been all her plan, but she knew her brother wanted to protect her. "That's not true and you know it," she contradicted.
Their pa glared. "I don't care who's idea it was. Louise is old enough to know better. Now you go do what I told you."
The boy grabbed the buckets from the lean-to and headed off to the creek, glancing back worriedly.
Raised voices carried to Louise as she stood nervously in the middle of the kitchen.
"Mary, she deliberately disobeyed me and then lied about it."
"She's just seven years old, William! I know she's sorry."
"And I'm gonna make sure of it." His voiced faded as if he were walking away.
Louise shivered. What would he do to her? When kids got in trouble at school the teacher made them stand in a
corner, or hit their hands with a ruler if they had been really bad. She turned her palms up and studied them, wondering how much that would hurt.
On the table she spotted her mother's shopping list headed by: calico for Louise's dress. Oh, why hadn't she stayed home? Then she could be looking forward to tomorrow instead of whatever punishment her pa had in mind.
The door opened, and her pa came in, holding a thin tree branch. Louise backed away in alarm, but there was nowhere to run.
"Didn't I tell you I'd give you something to cry about?" he asked standing over her.
"Yes, sir," she whispered, never taking her eyes from the switch.
He pulled out a chair and sat down. "Come here."
She walked over and stood next to him, shaking a little. Would he hit her hands like the teacher did?
"Pull down your drawers."
For a second she didn't understand, and then she stared at him in shock.
"Didn't you hear me, girl? Now!" His face was stern and hard.
She hitched up her skirt and worked at the button of her drawers with clumsy fingers. Finally, it came free and she slid the underwear down to her knees, grateful when her dress feel back down to cover her. Her face flushed with shame. but her pa didn't seen to notice.
He jerked her to him, and pulled her face down across his lap. He flipped up her skirt, the air cool on her bare bottom. The switch whistled as he swung it, burning like fire across her exposed skin. Instinctively, she put at hand back to protect herself and the next blow stung across her palm. She jerked her hand away and stared at the red welt. She shrieked and kicked, but he held her down as more blows followed, so quickly she could hardly breathe. It seemed to go on forever.
When it was over, he pulled up her drawers and set her back on her feet.
"You're old enough to mind Louise. From now on, if you disobey me, this is what you'll get." He snapped the switch in two and tossed it in the stove. "Go to your room and stay there until your ma calls you in the morning." He turned away, dismissing her.
"Yes, pa," Louise sobbed and stumbled out of the room. She threw herself down on the bed and buried her wet face in her pillow.
"Don't you dare go to her, Mary," she heard her pa say. "She has to learn to obey me."
After a while she could smell dinner cooking and the sounds of the others eating. Her stomach rumbled, and she would've been glad for even a dry biscuit. When Jeremiah came to bed, she turned her face to the wall and pretended to be asleep.
"Louise?" When she didn't answer, he sighed. "I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault 'Miah." Carefully, she turned over gasping as the welts stung. "I should've minded pa like he told me."
He stood by the bed watching her closely. His lower lip trembled and she could see he was close to tears. "He scares me."
The little boy nodded. "I should've been punished too. Tommy says his pa thrashes him all the time." He hesitated then asked curiously. "Does it hurt much?"
Louise shook her head. "Not too much. Now, go to sleep before pa hears us talking. We're going to town tomorrow, remember. Maybe ma'll buy us some candy!"
That cheered him up and he snuggled under the covers peacefully.
Louise lay away for a long time and even the thought of the next day's shopping failed to lift her gloom. It wasn't so much the switching itself, though that had hurt more than she'd let on to Jeremiah. It was the person her father had been while he did it. She had never seen him so angry and out of control. As she fell asleep, she prayed it wouldn't happen again. But she was afraid it would.
Louise was awakened by her mother's hands gently rubbing her back.
"Good morning, sweetheart."
For a moment she was confused, but then the events of the previous night came flooding back. She tried to turn over, but her ma stopped her.
"Wait, I have something that should make you feel better. Just lie still."
The hands unbuttoned her wrinkled dress and pulled it off. Then her drawers were eased down, and Louise felt something cool smoothed over the welts on her bottom and legs. She turned her face away. She felt like baby Theresa who needed to be cleaned up.
"There. Is that better?"
Louise nodded and rolled over carefully. She threw her arms around her mother's neck, breathing in her lavender scent.
"Shh...It's all right." Her ma held her tightly. "I know pa's sorry for what happened last night. But you were wrong to go fishing when he told you not to."
She sniffed. "I know."
Her mother smiled and kissed her. "We'll say no more about it, then. Now, how would you like to wear your pink dress today?"
"Really?" Her pink dress was reserved only for church and special occasions, unlike her navy dress for everyday.
"I don't see why not. A trip to town sounds like a special occasion to me, don't you think?"
Louise clapped her hands. "Oh, yes ma'am!"
With her ma's help, she was soon dressed in the pink frock with matching ribbons on the end of her long brown braids.
Louise was glad they walked to town. She didn't think the wagon seat would've felt very good to her sore bottom that morning. She decided to be a very good girl from now on. Maybe then her pa wouldn't need to punish her any more.
The school term started, and Louise once more had Rebecca Jackson to deal with. But she soon noticed the girl wasn't as spiteful as the year before. Jane Andrews whispered at recess that Rebecca had to do most of the caring for her new brother as her mother was sickly.
Louise could understand that. She bathed and changed her little sister all the time too. The next day at lunch she invited Rebecca to play Uncle John and was surprised when the other girl accepted. Within days, they became close friends, giggling and writing notes to each other on their slates.
At home, both Louise and Jeremiah were on their best behavior, as neither wanted to make their father angry. He was away more often now, but when he was home, he spent most of his time drinking and muttering about money.
Early in October, the stagecoach manager, Mr. Thomas, brought out a large crate that had come all the way from Boston. Louise and Jeremiah jumped up and down in excitement, but their mother burst into tears.
"It's from your grandparents," she explained. "When I married your father and we moved out here, they refused to have anything to do with me. This is the first I've heard from them in seven years."
She had Jeremiah fetch the crowbar and pried open the crate carefully. On top were dresses and boys pants and shirts. Beneath, were several children's books, a wooden train for Jeremiah and a set of small tin baking pans for Louise, just the right size for doll cakes. It felt like Christmas had come early.
The weather grew cooler and the time came to harvest the small garden and do the fall housecleaning. With their father gone, Louise and Jeremiah worked hard on the weekends and after school.
One Sunday morning, the children hauled buckets of water from the creek for the weekly washing. The clouds were dark and rain threatened. Their ma looked worried.
"We really need to work in the garden today, but your clothes simply must be cleaned. Well, I suppose there's no help for it." She looked over to where Louise stood shivering in front of the stove dressed only in her chemise and drawers.
"Louise, I'm sorry I haven't had time to make you another dress. You're just growing so fast! I promise we'll go to town as soon as we can for the material."
Louise nodded. "I know! I'm finally taller than Rebecca."
"I bet she'll catch up soon. She comes from a tall family." Her mother frowned. "I still wish there was a way...." she broke off and hurried into the bedroom.
She came back carrying a pair of boy's trousers and a shirt from the things their grandparents had sent. "Here, why don't you wear these while your dress dries? They're too big for Jeremiah, but they should fit you."
Jeremiah chortled. "Girls can't wear pants!"
Louise glared at him. "Sure I can! I got two legs, same as you!"
"Now children, don't fuss," their mother said. "Jeremiah, why don't you go in the kitchen for a few minutes and let
Louise get changed? You can sample those oatmeal cookies we'll be having after lunch."
He whooped and raced out of the room.
With much giggling and a little help from her mother, Louise pulled on the boy's clothes.
"There! You look very cute," her mother kissed her.
Louise walked across the room and back. "It feels funny, but I like it."
"Well, don't get used to it. It's just for a few hours. Now, why don't you go bring in the eggs for me? I'm afraid a storm might upset the hens." Her mother turned back to the washtub.
Louise ran to the henhouse just as the rain began to fall and realized the trousers didn't wrap around her legs the way a dress did. Jeremiah sure was lucky to be a boy!
She was carrying out the basket of eggs when she heard the wagon driving up.
"Louise!" Her father's voice shook with anger. What had she done?
"How dare you wear clothes like that!"
Her pa jerked the horses to a stop, vaulted over the wagon box and strode toward her.
In panic, she dropped the basket, and broken eggs spattered across the ground. He grabbed her arm hard enough to bruise and dragged her into the barn where snatched up a leather strap that hung on the wall.
She squirmed as he pulled her into the house. He shoved her into her bedroom slamming the door in her mother's face.
"Pull those pants down and bend over the bed!" he shouted. She hurried to comply, crying now.
The strap landed with an ear-splitting crack across both cheeks. She yelled. It felt like she'd sat on a hot stove. Again and again the strap fell and she writhed, screaming in pain.
"Shut up that squalling!" her pa demanded and Louise gritted her teeth nearly choking on her sobs. As the strap continued to fall, she felt herself drifting away. The pain was still there, but far away where it couldn't hurt her as much. She squeezed her eyes shut and pictured herself riding a horse across the plains, faster than the wind. Dimly, she realized the whipping had stopped.
Her father was breathing hard from the effort. "If you want to act like a boy, I'll thrash you like one. I don't want to see you wearing anything like this ever again. Is that understood?"
Louise nodded as best she could through her tears and cried out as the strap snapped down again, burning the back of her thighs.
"What was that?"
Her pa went on, "You come find me every day after school this week, and we'll continue this lesson."
"No..." She sobbed harder. "Pa, please don't..."
He strode out of the room without another glance at her.
She smelled her mother's lavender soap and let herself be lifted onto the bed.
"I'm so sorry, baby," her ma whispered, rocking her. "I never wouldn't told you to wear those clothes if I'd known your pa would be so angry."
Louise sniffed. "I know." Sitting on her mother's lap hurt, but it felt good to be held right now. She shivered at the memory of her father's eyes so full of rage.
Her ma gently changed her into a nightgown and helped her lie down on her stomach. "I'll put something on your bottom so it won't hurt so much."
A cool wet rag and some comfrey ointment did soothe the aching, but Louise knew she'd still be sore tomorrow. And tomorrow her pa had promised another whipping.
She lay awake, afraid sleep would make the day come faster. Finally, she dozed and woke to her mother calling at dawn. She sat across from her father at breakfast and tried not to fidget too much. He ignored her, and she hoped he had forgotten his words of the night before.
As she and Jeremiah left for school, he looked up and said, "Louise, you remember to come straight home after school. We have some more talking to do about your behavior."
"Yes sir," she gulped and followed her brother out the door. They walked to school in silence. Jeremiah glanced at her several times, but said nothing. When the schoolhouse came in sight, she stopped him. "Please don't tell anyone 'Miah."
He pouted. "'Course not. I wouldn't do that."
"Not even Tommy?"
"No. I promise, Louise."
She hugged him quickly. "Thanks."
He shrugged away, grinning and ran to see the frog Matt Harkins had caught in the tall grass..
To Louise's disappointment, Rebecca wasn't in school that day. At lunch, Jeremiah mentioned that Tommy's baby brother had been up all night with the colic and so Rebecca had stayed home to rest.
Without her friend to talk to, Louise found herself dwelling on her father and his dislike of her. Why didn't he love her? It wasn't her fault she wasn't a boy like Jeremiah. And for some reason he didn't like it when she dressed or acted like one. She liked sewing and learning to cook, but she like fishing and riding their wagon horses too.
She remembered how, when she was very small, her father had lifted her onto the horse's broad back and led her around the yard. He'd been happy then, she thought and he seemed to love her. Had she done something wrong to make him hate her so much?
Finally, the day was over and the children burst from the schoolhouse shouting happily. Louise looked for Jeremiah, but he was walking with Tommy and did not notice her. With a heart full of dread, she started home, dragging her feet.
She knew what waited for her and the thought was terrifying. Sitting all day on the wooden bench had been hard enough.
For a moment she considered running away so she wouldn't have to face her father. But where could she go? She was only eight years old. Pa would surely find her, and that would be even worse.
As she rounded the last bend, she hoped wildly that her father would be gone, but no, he stood by the woodshed chopping logs. He set down the axe and wiped his forehead as she approached. "Go in the house and wait for me," was all he said.
She shrank back. "Yes pa."
He came in the kitchen a moment later. "Bring me your ma's hairbrush."
Louise stumbled into her parents' bedroom and brought it to him. It had a smooth wooden back and she knew it would hurt her already sore cheeks.
In short order she found herself over her father's lap as he paddled her. It didn't hurt as much as the strap, but on top of the previous night's treatment it was enough to make her bawl like a baby.
"Alright. You can go." She stood shakily and pulled up her drawers, fighting the urge to rub away the sting.
She lay down across her bed, her bottom on fire. She heard her mother come in from the barn.
"Haven't you punished her enough, William?" she asked. "I'm the one who told her to wear the trousers while her dress dried."
"No," her pa replied. "It's not just that Mary. She's acting more and more unladylike. If I have to whip it out of her, I will."
Her mother pleaded. "But she's your daughter! How can you hurt her like this?"
Her pa's next words hurt Louise like no strap ever could.
"Let's get one thing straight, Mary," he growled. "I never wanted a daughter. Girls aren't worth anything - best to get them married off quick. And no one will ever marry Louise if she keeps acting like she does. Jeremiah will carry on the business and that's all that matters." He slammed the door as he left.
Feeling as if her heart had been shattered into tiny pieces, Louise cried herself to sleep.
The next day, her pa waited for her with a switch. She lowered her drawers without being told, and once again imagined herself riding the horse. It was a little harder this time, but she managed. Late that night, her mother crept in with the salve, and Louise bit her lip to keep from crying out as the healing ointment stung the cuts.
"Shh...I know it hurts, sweetie, but it will keep them from getting infected," her mother whispered, brushing Louise's hair out of her face.
Louise turned on her side and hugged her rag doll tightly. She wanted to ask why her mother did nothing to stop her pa, but in her heart she knew. Her ma was just as helpless as she didn't dare help Louise openly.
Wednesday was the worst yet. As soon as she saw the strap in her pa's hand, Louise let her mind flee to the horse, but with the first lash, the horse stumbled and the pain shocked her into awareness. She bolted upright and clutched her throbbing cheeks.
"Get back down!" her pa shouted. "That's five more." He pushed her down again. Standing on her left side, he pinned her right hand behind her back.
Unable to move, she could do nothing but endure the blows. The pain grew until it was her entire world. By the time the whipping ended she lay limp and breathless.
Thursday it was the switch again. She found the horse, already so sore and bruised that she hardly noticed the new welts.
That night she lay staring at the wall, unable to sleep from the pain. Her parents' conversation drifted to her from the kitchen. "William," her mother began hesitantly. "When are you going to end this with Louise? She can't sit down; she can't sleep."
Her pa snorted. "That's the point," he told her. "She's got to learn. I intend to blister her bottom good tomorrow and that will be the end of it."
"Haven't you already done that every day this week?" Her ma's voice was sharp. "She's just a little girl! What are you trying to prove?"
Louise gasped at her ma's bravery that she could stand up to her pa like that.
He exploded in rage. "How dare you question me!" he shouted. "I'll discipline my children as I see fit and I don't need your advice!"
Louise buried her head under the pillow to shut out the rest of the argument.
The next morning she went to school with Jeremiah as usual. She tried to study, but her aching bottom on the hard bench made it hard to think, not to mention her dread of the evening. She couldn't remember how to spell the simplest words and the other children laughed. She was too miserable to care. She sat alone at lunchtime unable to eat, her stomach twisting in fear. Several times she thought she would be sick.
The walk home seemed both endless and over too soon. Her pa waited for them, sending Jeremiah off to the barn before steering Louise into the kitchen with a hand on her shoulder.
"Take off your drawers. You won't need them tonight."
As she stepped out of the underwear, she caught sight of the hairbrush, strap and a switch on the kitchen table.
Panicing, she tried to run, but he caught her easily, dragging her across his lap as he sat down.
"William! Don't do this!" Louise's mother cried grabbing his arm.
He shook her off roughly and picked up the hairbrush. "I told you not to interfere, Mary." He let the brush fall, and
Louise felt her bottom go numb for a moment before the pain flared up. She bit her lip and looked up to see her ma
watching them with an anguished expression.
She stared into her mother's eyes for a long moment seeing the love there.
"Be brave," she whispered. Louise nodded slightly before dropping her head again. She clung tightly onto the rungs of
the chair, determined to show her pa how strong she could be and not make a sound.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she imagined the horse as hard as she could. Its black mane rippled in the breeze as it stood on the plains under a cloudless blue sky. She clambered onto its back, and they began to run in the warm sunshine.
Some part of her realized her pa was leading her into the bedroom. Automatically, she leaned over the bed, reaching across to hold onto the far side. As the switch descended, she concentrated on the horse. It had a shiny black coat and a white star on its forehead. It nuzzled her hand looking for a treat. A loud crack made it rear in fright and it galloped away.
Louise came back into awareness with a jerk. The strap fell again at the top of her thighs, the end snapping at her hip and she couldn't hold back a yelp.
She waited for the next blow, but it never came.
"Mary, what're you doing woman?"
She looked back and saw her mother standing in the doorway leveling the shotgun with shaking hands. "Step away from her, William, or I swear I'll shoot you right now." Her face was streaked with tears, but there was a new strength there Louise had never seen before.
He laughed. "You're talking crazy! You won't shoot me."
She cocked the hammer. "I wouldn't be so sure."
He froze and dropped the strap.
"Get out and don't come back here tonight. We'll be gone in the morning." She gestured with the gun.
"And just where're you gonna go?" he sneered moving slowly toward her.
Mary shook her head. "I don't know, but it'll be far away from you. I don't care what you do to me, but I won't allow you to hurt the children any more."
He smiled. "Alright. But you'll be back within a week."
"Never!" She coughed, a deep hollow sound.
He pushed past her and they heard the wagon rattle out of the yard.
Louise tried to pull herself up on the bed, but she hurt too much. She was hardly aware of her mother's gentle hands removing her dress and washing the wounds with cool water. She began to shiver, feeling hot then cold. The slightest pressure of the bedclothes on her raw skin made her sob. A lullaby put her to sleep at last.
After a long time her ma's voice came clearly. "Thank you so much for helping us, Reverend."
"Where will you go? Louise's fever is very high."
"I think St. Joseph. There's a Catholic mission there. They'll help...." Her next words were drowned in coughing.
Someone lifted her, wrapped in the blankets and Louise opened her eyes long enough to see the preacher's face above her. She thought he looked very sad. He carried her to a waiting wagon and laid her in the back next to Jeremiah. She tried to smile at her little brother, but darkness took her again.
In later years, Louise could remember the long journey to St. Joseph only as a blur of pain and fear. The high fever from her infected wounds brought on awful dreams in which her father chased her with the strap. He never caught her, but she was terrified he would.
Sometimes she awoke to her mother's coughing and her little sister's cries. She tried to get up so she could help them, but the darkness always came back.
One day she opened her eyes to a whitewashed ceiling and the feel of cool sheets around her. She moved her legs slightly, relieved to find she didn't hurt any more.
She turned her head and saw a woman sitting in the chair next to her. The woman wore the black dress that her mother had told her nuns wore. Where was her mother?
"Oh, praise the Lord you're awake!" the nun said, coming over to Louise. "We didn't think you would wake up in time."
Louise struggled to sit up. "Who are you? I want my ma!"
The nun smiled sadly. "I am Sister Mary Catherine. You've been a very sick little girl. Come, I'll take you to your mother."
With Sister Catherine's help, Louise stood shakily. She was in a large room with three other empty beds. The nun led her to a door and opened it. Louise gasped. Her mother lay on a bed inside, looking very pale and weak.
Her mother held out a thin hand. "Louise! Thank goodness you're awake! How are you feeling?"
"I'm fine but mama, what's wrong? Are you sick?" Louise wanted to crawl into her mother's arms, but she didn't dare.
"Oh, I just have a little bit of a cough. Don't worry about me." She patted the blankets beside her. "Come up here; I want to talk to you." Sister Catherine stepped forward as if to protest, but then she stepped back and left, shutting the door behind her.
Carefully, Louise settled herself next to her mother sighing happily as her ma embraced her. They lay quietly for a few minutes, then her mother sighed.
"I don't have much time Louise, so I want you to listen and remember what I tell you. Can you do that?"
Louise nodded solemly.
"Always take care of Thresea and Jeremiah. They're your family, and family always comes first." She coughed slightly. "Don't...I don't want them to think badly of your father. Tell them he was a good man. I know he hurt you, but in his own way he loved you very much." She sighed at her daughter's frown. "Oh honey. You don't understand right now, but one day you will. One day you'll find a man of your own. Don't let your pa's meaness spoil it for you."
Louise didn't understand, but she knew this was important. "Yes, ma."
"Good. I love you, Louise." Her mother took a raspy breath and began to cough, the spasms shaking the bed. It went on and on.
"Mama!" The door flew open with a bang and the room suddenly filled with people. Sister Catherine pulled her off the bed and Louise kicked and screamed to get free. Her mother was gasping for breath, blood spilling between her lips.
Then someone pushed the door shut.
Louise struggled to get free of Sister Catherine's arms, to go back to her mother, but the nun would not let go. She sank to the floor, holding the sobbing child against her until her tears stopped and she slept.
As the sun came up on her wedding day, Louise McCloud smiled through her tears. "Mama, you were right." It had taken ten years and some horrible times, but she'd found the man she was meant spend the rest of her life with.
A breeze from the open window carried the scent of lavender. "I love you, mama. And thank you....for everything."