Within the Setting Sun

Massachusetts, August 15, 1688

Forward

“Give me your hand.”

Becca stretched a slender, sun-stained arm toward the old lady and relinquished her hand without reservation. Obscure stories about this woman, Gypsy, had long entertained town folk. People said she prophetically told the future. Now Becca had come to see for herself. Many feared the woman, but Becca wasn’t afraid.

“You have two lifelines.” The old lady bent from the waste, pointed to the palm of Becca’s left hand, and then leaned back in her chair.

“What does that mean?” The handsome, wiry boy standing beside Becca leaned over the wobbly, little table and gazed at Becca’s open palm.

“No matter to you. You’re as good as dead,” the Gypsy woman spat.

The boy, Jason, threw his head back and bellowed. “If you want a good wage, tell us something good, woman.”

“Well.” Gypsy slipped her dry, wrinkled finger’s around Becca’s soft hand once again. “She will have two strong children.”

“Of course, all of our children will be strong.” Jason bent at the waist and rubbed shoulders with Becca. He stretched an arm around her thin, taut frame and drew her close.  “Although we’ll have more than two.”

“You shouldn’t talk of having children with her.” Gypsy grunted hoarsely.

“Why not?” He clamored, a twinkle in his eye.

“Because you’re siblings.” Gypsy squeezed her black eyebrows toward her nose. Little grey hairs peeked out from beneath her scarfed head.

“We are not siblings.” Becca jerked her hand from the woman. “Why does everyone think we are brother and sister?”

“Because you both have crow-black eyes.”

“Oh, my goodness, half of Salem has black eyes.” Becca shirked Jason’s arm from her shoulder and slumped into her seat, brooding.

Gypsy relaxed the muscles flanking her long nose but shook her head. “But none like yours. Your eyes tell the secret of your soul.”

Becca considered the woman’s mien. When she saw sincerity in her eyes, Becca stiffened.

“I have no secrets,” she said, sharply.

She was beginning to regret coming to this crazy, old lady.

Gypsy leaned slowly forward and whispered. Her hoary skin inched toward the table’s flickering candle, illuminating a face speckled with age spots. “Yes, you do.” Her cold stare grabbed Becca’s complete attention.

Defiantly, Becca stared back, her body as still as a cat waiting to pounce. Jason’s typical jollity broke the silence.

“Forget the secret. I want to know more about my children. Will they be boys or girls?” His mirth seemed to annoy Gypsy as much as Becca, but if he noticed their irritation, he ignored them. “I need a boy to carry on my name.”

“You’ll have many heirs,” Gypsy answered. Her eyes never left Becca’s. “Each will have their own ability, but one, one boy will be heroic many years from now when you are not even a memory.”

“What will his name be?”

“I don’t know his name, but they will call him—”

And before Gypsy could finish her sentence, Becca interrupted and finished it for her, narrowing her eyes into near slits as she did. “Theodore.”

Gypsy edged back in her seat, away from her.

“Yes,” she said. She seemed not to breath. “Theodore.”

*****

No one had ever been able to see what she was seeing. And in all the years she had read palms, Gypsy only half believed her own predictions. Since she was a little girl, the simple touch of her fingers against a person’s palm relayed instantaneous visions. Images of life and death. She had no idea where they came from.

Over the years, people said she had a gift, and she began to believe them. However, in the back of her mind, Gypsy had wondered if it was simply all her imagination.

But if so, how did this girl know the name that flashed in her head before she spoke it? At her age, Gypsy no longer believed in coincidences. No, the girl with the stunningly beautiful face, flowing hair, and piercing eyes had a secret.

“Theodore, I believe the name means gift from God.” The boy who had come along with the girl stood. He seemed to be preoccupied, mistakenly thinking he was bound for good fortune.  “He’ll be the mightiest of the mightiest then.”

“Not the mightiest,” Gypsy said, recognizing a timidity in her own voice. She gazed at the girl nervously. She could almost see steam rising from her head, feel the rage brewing in her soul. For the first time in over forty years of reading palms, she was frightened.

“There will be one mightier—a girl—Becca’s descendent.”

A stillness found the room that even the boy could not ignore. A soft wind blew the flap of the tent slowly open and crossed the little table to touch the three of them. The candle flickered, extinguished, then sparked a light again. A chill ran up Gypsy’s spine and down to her wrinkled, old extremities.

“You say you know my secret, woman, then tell me what it is,” Becca spat at her, appearing unaffected by the oddity.

Gypsy leaned back, releasing her locked stare with the girl. She began to tremble.  She gazed slowly around the small tent to make sure the setting sun reflected no shadows on the tent canvass. When she was satisfied that there was no one outside listening, she leaned so close toward the girl and boy that the candle on the table singed a few hairs on her head.

“You’re a witch,” she whispered.

 

 

Pennsylvania, May 1833

CHAPTER 1

When she realized the men with the guns were about to hold up the stagecoach, Caroline’s mood shot from irritation to elation. The ride had been long and laborious, and she’d been forced to listen to Francis Fairchild brag about her pretty little self for days. So, any distraction was welcomed—even these two dimwitted gunmen—if for no other reason than Francis was terrified and finally shut her mouth.

The two robbers were harmless; Caroline knew that. They had strewn the passenger’s baggage from atop the coach into a heap on the ground and hadn’t confiscated a thing. From the lax way they held their rifles, Caroline wondered if this holdup was their first.

She laughed unintentionally, then coughed deliberately and covered her mouth with a balled fist to camouflage the humor she found in the situation.

She was more likely to be shot by a stray bullet at a carnival than by one of these two amateur bandits. Their backwoods diction reminded her of southern stupes who talked big but couldn’t shoot a can off a log if it were five feet in front of them. She’d spent nearly four years in North Carolina trying to avoid the type but to no avail. The fact that she crossed paths with such imbeciles now that she was back in the North both annoyed and humored her. She listened calmly, hiding an occasional smirk with a gloved hand as they talked.

“I tell you, Harry, there was a darky with them. I saw him with my own eyes.”

“You thought you saw darkies in Philly, too, and they were kids dressed in black, playin’ Murder in the Barn.”

“No, this time I did see one,” the smaller man said, spitting tobacco in the dirt and wiping his lips with the back of his hand. “He saw him, too.”

The man motioned with his head, holding out a stubby arm and pointing a finger toward the man beside Caroline, Nathaniel Witherspoon. The little guy’s other arm hosted his rifle.

Caroline sighed. She didn’t mind the diversion, but she hoped there wouldn’t be a fight, she wanted to get home. She glanced toward Nathaniel and watched him raise his eyebrows and place a hand on his chest. Childhood memories rushed her.

“Me?” he asked cooly. “Are you talking to me?”

He approached the shorter of the two men with slow easy steps. Although he was cautious, he wasn’t afraid. Caroline had known Nathaniel her whole life. He feared no one.

“Yeah, you, Mister.”

“I didn’t see anyone.”

“I think you’re lying.”

“I’m going to say it again.” Nathaniel paused casually. He lowered his eyebrows and gazed at the man from beneath his hat. “I didn’t see anyone.”

Caroline watched the gunmen. Their vim seemed mildly ruffled. She smiled.

Nathaniel always could scare a person with the slow harsh tone of his voice. As a child, all he had to do in the schoolyard was lower his chin, deepen his voice, and let his stare scare the be-devil out of a person. That black stare amalgamated with his ruggedness made the other boys afraid to fight him. She could see the quality had followed him into adulthood.

“You insult me and now, I’ll have to defend myself.” Nathaniel took his coat off slowly and handed it to Caroline, winking at her before rolling up his sleeves and turning toward the men. “Please, sir, put down your rifle and fight me like a gentleman.”

“There you go, Horris, now you’ve made him mad—and a gentleman, too.” The taller man shook his head at the smaller one. “How did I get a brother dumb as you? We searched every inch of the stagecoach and a mile ’round. There ain’t no slaves with them. Now drop your gun and let them go.”

“I suspect you’re right. They don’t look like no a-boy-lutionists.”

“Ah hell, Horris, what do you think one looks like?”

“I don’t know. I expect kind of grungy. Old clothes, riding boots—”

Caroline watched the little man lower his gun heedlessly. She sensed his inept inadequacy was genetic since his brother seemed lacking, too. One’s expression was more confounded than the other’s. The two were a sorry sight.

“Can’t we go home, Harry? Pa says we couldn’t catch a slave if one came up and bit us in the—”

“I told you; we ain’t going home ’till we make some money.”

The two men became oblivious to their hostages. They turned their backs to them, befuddled by their own conversation.

“Maybe if we go back to Philly we can pick up some money at the ice house. I seen a sign they needed workers.”

“Shoot, Horris, you can’t lift a block of ice no more than you could lift that old cedar chest Ma asked you to move last month.”

“I could ‘a lifted it if I wanted to. I just didn’t want to.”

They rambled on in a slow southern drawl. Their feet shuffled as slowly. Caroline could hear their voices long after they were out of sight. Eventually, the cool, crisp woodland absorbed their conversation.

“Slave catchers!” Francis Fairchild, her face blushing, slipped her trembling hand around the stagecoach driver’s arm to steady herself. “I thought they were going to shoot us!”

“No harm done, but we should move on as quickly as we can.” The driver held his elbow which sported Francis’s hand, steady as he leaned gingerly and grabbed his hat with his other hand. He replaced it on his head.

He tugged at his mustache and waited for Francis to recover. He replied “yes ma’am” respectfully to her idle chatter. Finally, when she quieted, he helped her into the coach and lent a hand to Nathaniel who assisted an elderly passenger, Charles Fletcher. Once Mr. Fletcher was inside, the driver raised a hand to offer Caroline help, but she stopped him with her frown. He glanced at Nathaniel and quickly stepped back. He tipped his hat toward them and circled the coach to repack the baggage on the other side.

Caroline handed Nathaniel his coat and waited for him to speak.

Three days had passed since they left North Carolina. Three long, bumpy days where she had learned more about Francis Fairchild than she ever wanted to know. Watching her bat her eyelashes at Nathaniel Witherspoon made Caroline wonder if Francis didn’t have southern blood running through her veins. She and Nathaniel had talked incessantly. But in the last few hours, since the coach left Philadelphia, Nathaniel had quieted. Even Francis couldn’t coax more than a word from him.

Caroline stepped back and studied Nathaniel’s cool face. She’d known him since childhood, and although he would never be accused of monopolizing a conversation like her brother, Joshua, he was hardly quiet.

Pensively, she watched him. Something was wrong.

He slipped on his coat and crossed his arms, shifting his weighty frame from side to side. Finally, he laid a long finger against his lips and motioned for her to follow him. He edged his way down the side of the carriage and stopped at the back. When she stepped beside him, he leaned slowly toward her. The languid gesture reminded her of her childhood, when he and her brothers were about to reveal some woe-begotten secret.  As kids, they were in trouble more than not. It was the reason her father had sent her away—to keep her from the boys. Now here they were all grown up, and she knew by the look on his face, once again, he had some deep, dark secret to reveal. He hadn’t changed a stitch. She wondered if her brothers had.

“Can you keep a secret?”

She widened her eyes and nodded vehemently. Oh, how she loved a secret.

“Are you sure?”

She nodded rapidly, again. She could be good at keeping secrets when she wanted.

He hesitated only briefly before leaning forward and running his hand along the bottom of the stagecoach.  His fingers stopped and Caroline her a faint cling, like he’d touched an iron lever. His big hand pulled something to the right, and he caught a long narrow panel on the back of the coach that popped open, exposing a compartment beneath the floorboard of the stagecoach.  He moved a finger to his lips once again and whispered softly.

“I need your help.” He leaned toward the hole in the coach, lifted its rawhide cover, and peaked inside. “You must never tell anyone what you are about to see.”

He stood staring at Caroline for a moment, and she could see his mind working. He was still debating whether to show her or not. She attempted a trustworthy guise.

“I’m afraid I have no choice.” Despite the cold, he was beginning to sweat. He wiped the perspiration off his forehead with the back of his hand and opened another door beneath the rawhide.

“Calvin Aimes was supposed to be driving this rig.” He was talking more to himself than Caroline. “Daniel Miller was to meet us here.”

He cast one last futile glimpse around the area then sighed. “Your father is going to skin me alive.”

*****

He knew there was no avoiding it; he needed her help. He glanced over his shoulder at Caroline and caught a quick glimpse of her elated expression. Surprised, he took a second, longer look. Instantly, her anxiousness made him forget the magnitude of his task at hand. The reflection of the dim sun seemed to dance in her eyes, and although he knew she had no idea what she was about to get into, her raw curiosity jogged him. In the middle of calamity, he smiled. Her unbridled demeanor still managed to grab him after all these years.

“Remember.” He tried to sound serious. “Not a word.”

Her head shook with a quick admonition of no. He smiled again.

“You’ll have to distract the driver. Make sure your skirts block his vision in case he looks under the coach. I have to help them out.”

“Who?” she mimicked; no words were uttered.

He motioned for her to come closer with his long finger, and they bent together and peaked inside. He covered her mouth with his large hand before she gasped. She looked at him and then back into the hole. It was dark inside, but the dim sunlight allowed just enough light for her to see them. There were people inside! Black men! A small compartment had been built beneath the stagecoach floor, and three black men were cramped inside.

“I’ll have to help them to the woods. Their legs will be stiff.”

At the edge of the woods, inside the thick pines, a fourth black man came into view. He raised his hands and eyes to the sky, touching his fingertips in prayer as if giving God a thank you or a request, Caroline couldn’t tell which. Instinctively, she hurried to the opposite side of the carriage to watch the driver. He was busy gathering the scattered baggage. She nodded to Nathaniel and kept watch in both directions.

Nathaniel helped the first man out and led him toward the woods and into the other man’s arms. He hurried back for another and then another, but the last man’s legs were cramping, and as Nathaniel slowly escorting him toward the pines, the carriage driver began mounting the side of the coach. Caroline knew he’d have a clear view of Nathaniel over the top. She hurried toward the driver and grabbed the bag he was lugging.

“Oh, no you don’t. This is mine and it goes on last.” She tugged the bag with all her might. “I don’t want my grandmother’s jewelry box crushed—if you haven’t mangled it already. Put this one on top of the rest.”

“But, Miss Wadsworth, I’m sure this was on the bottom. It’s the biggest.” He stepped down and let go of the bag.

“I don’t care if it is the largest.” She raised her voice to sound angry. “It’s going on last!”

“It can’t go on last, Miss. It’s too big. It’ll crush everything beneath it.”

The door of the stagecoach cracked open, and Francis Fairchild’s pretty face peaked through the opening.

“Are you sure that isn’t mine?” she called out.

“I think it’s mine.” Caroline bent over and read the small-embroidered initials on the bag, “F F. Oh! It is yours.”

She set the bag down and stood with her hands on her hips. Her eyes wandered over the luggage. “Here’s mine,” she leaned over and picked up her own bag. Thank heavens she had brought it. Most of her belongings had been sent home a month ago. What remained was packed mostly in bandboxes. “Could you make sure you pack this one gently?”

“Yes, Miss, I can do that.”

“The jewelry box is nearly fifty years old. Did I mention it was my grandmother’s?”

“Yes, Miss—-”

“Would you like to see it? It’s truly lovely.”

“I’m sure it is, but we do have to be on our way. It’s nearly noon. We’re a good hour behind schedule.”

“Noon? I must have slept all morning!”

She peaked toward the back of the carriage. There was no sign of Nathaniel, so she pulled the carriage door from Francis’ hand and opened it wide.

“Did you hear that, Mr. Fletcher? It’s nearly noon. Isn’t that wonderful?” she fumbled for conversation.

“Wonderful? We were nearly killed!” the old man grumbled.

She threw her head back and laughed, “Don’t tell me you were afraid of those two pickle heads. Why, they weren’t going to shoot anyone! We’re almost home!”

“Yes, yes, almost to Northampton and take a look at yourself. You’re a mess. You haven’t put a comb to your hair or straightened yourself.”

She glanced toward the back. No Nathaniel.

“Well, that wasn’t very nice,” she huffed. “If I’d known we were going to have company, I would have tidied myself.”

“Company? You call those bandits company? Why don’t you do the rest of us a favor and sit with the driver,” the old man scowled. “Lord knows you’re as disheveled as him.”

Caroline glanced down at herself. He was right. She was a mess. She had finally fallen asleep at dawn and awoke when the coach was held up. She glimpsed the pretty Francis Fairchild sitting primly inside, and felt blood crawl up her neck and tighten her jaw.

“You don’t have to be rude about it,” she spat at him.

She pulled the hairpin from her chignon, allowing her hair to fall wildly over her shoulders. She hoped the gesture provoked a comment from Mr. Fletcher. They’d been badgering each other with insults the entire trip. Pestering him had been her only source of entertainment. She shot him a cold stare, inviting comment.

He accepted eagerly.

“My dear girl.” He leaned toward the doorway with curled lips. “If I never see you again it will be too soon. You are the most annoying person I have met in my sixty-five years. For heaven’s sake, do something with that hair before we arrive home!”

“It appears stunning to me—falling loosely over her shoulders like that. Almost makes her—” Nathaniel interrupted them, pausing briefly. “Attractive. Wouldn’t you say, old man?”

He slipped one arm around Caroline’s waist, another beneath her knees, and before Mr. Fletcher had time to respond, Nathaniel lifted Caroline into the coach and sat her next to him.

“Attractive? Hmph. If you two will stop the tomfoolery, perhaps we can be on our way.”

“He’s right.” Nathaniel patted Caroline’s knee. “We’re behind schedule. I’ll help the driver with the bags.”

He winked and left her, closing the coach door. She sunk into the slightly-upholstered seat that, after days of riding, suddenly seemed comfortable. Mr. Fletcher continued badgering her, but she ignored him. She didn’t care if Francis looked radiant and she rumpled.  She had done her job. No one had seen the hidden men. Even Mr. Fletcher couldn’t annoy her now.

Cyndie “CJ” Zahner is a freelance writer at www.athletchic.com and www.cyndiezahner.com. Follow her on Instagram at  @CJZahner or on Twitter @Tweetyz.

 

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