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Authors: J. R. Biery

The Milch Bride

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THE MILCH BRIDE

 

 

J.R. Biery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2014,
Janet Biery

All rights reserved

 

 

ABOUT THIS BOOK

A dear
friend I taught with
planned every day for the birth of her son. She
died
a few days after he was born,
never
realizing her dreams.
I couldn't stop mourning her
until I wrote this book.
I believe she is like the mother in this story,
an angel who is hovering over her son.

(I was surprised it ended up being set in Texas in 1872, but
there you go, writing is always a trip.)

 

DISCLAIMER

This book
is a work of fiction. Names, characters and
incidents are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual
events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 

DEDICATION

Dedicated to Jerry, my patient and loving husband, who has
always supported and encouraged me to follow my dreams, and to the members of
Cookeville Creative Writers' Association who prodded and nudged me forward to
actually publish some of my books. Special thanks to Sarah Holloway for reading
and providing me with a great critique.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

March, 1872, Mill
County, Texas

 

Jackson Harper stood at the edge of the grave and strove to
hold back the tears. Donna was gone. Gone with her, all the joy and excitement
about J.D. -- her hours of planning, sewing, and talking about how wonderful
life would be when their son was born. None of her dreams included death,
leaving him alone with their helpless son who was now growing weaker every day.

He knew women died after childbirth, but not women like
Donna. A rancher’s daughter, tall, strong, self-assured, she had been confident
that Jackson Dawson Harper would be a boy, healthy and handsome like all the
Harpers.

Why had he believed her? Because she had lived the charmed
life of the beautiful only daughter of the town’s biggest rancher, a powerful
man who was also president of the bank. She knew that whatever she wanted she
would have, even Jackson. He had resisted at first, not interested in her
father’s money or in Donna for that matter. Finally, he found himself enjoying
her charms, her happy laugh and her bold, daredevil ways. When the baby became
a possibility, he had done the honorable thing. Their marriage had been a happy
union with the promise of the child and a stable future.

Charles Dawson moved over, scowling at him. “Son, you don’t
have to worry about the baby. Irene and I will be happy to look after him. She’s
already planning to send to Austin for a wet nurse.”

“Thanks, but I promised Donna I would raise our son.”

“According to Doctor Jenkins, your baby isn’t able to digest
cow’s milk. He predicts that J.D. won’t make the week if you don‘t find a woman
to nurse him.”

“I’ll handle it.” Jackson stormed away before Charles could
argue. He didn’t believe the quack. Hadn’t he assured him Donna would stop
bleeding and be fine? Doc was wrong, but what if he were right about the baby.
They had tried canned milk, cow’s milk, even goat. None worked.

The doctor was waiting for him on the board walk, his bulk
well clothed in a brown wool suit. “You could steal a Choctaw squaw, if you
find one with a papoose board on her back. However, the only lactating female
in Star is Tom Stoddard’s daughter.”

Jackson stood beside the buckboard and accepted the tightly
bound bundle from the doctor. He checked that the quilt was still inside the
emptied wagon toolbox and tucked the baby inside, then pushed the wooden box
back into place beneath the seat. He stepped up, exchanging nods with the last
somberly clad friends and neighbors who were leaving the graveyard. Most of the
church people had stopped work and come to town for Donna’s funeral. But
Jackson could not respond to their sympathy the way they wanted.

The woman they had helped him bury was not his Donna. He
felt the sudden cold tightness in his chest and clucked at the horses to clear
the feeling and get things into motion.

“If she’s the only woman available, then I’m going to fetch
her home. I’m not losing J.D.”

Even as he wheeled the buckboard to head out of town, he
wondered if Indian milk wouldn’t be easier for J.D. and him to swallow. Tom
Stoddard had been a good man, but he hadn’t been seen in town since the
disgrace of his unwed daughter’s pregnancy became common knowledge. According
to some of the owl-hoots that hung around the saloon, the girl didn’t even know
who to name as daddy.

The morning rain which had stopped, as if by the banker’s
order so they could bury his daughter ‘properly’, once again poured down
relentlessly. For once, Jackson appreciated the cold rain. He didn’t need the
town folk’s pity, any more than he needed Charlie Dawson’s suggestions about
the proper thing for him to do. When they had come storming out to the ranch on
the baby’s arrival, his mother-in-law shooed him out of the bedroom, grabbing
his new son from his arms. She acted outraged that he had been in the room at
all.

Never an easy relationship, at first he had been grateful
for their help. His father-in-law’s effusive confidence that everything would
be great. J.D. would be the first of the half-dozen he and Donna could expect
to have. Charles had strutted about the study, crowing about how J.D. had the
best bloodlines in Mills County. The boy would be enrolled at Harvard, the best
Eastern college money could buy. Jackson wouldn’t have to worry because Charles
would pay for everything.

Jackson protested he would provide for his son if he wanted
that much education. Charles laughed, reminding him it was what his Donna would
expect. Who else would he spend his money on, if not his daughter and his first
grandson?

Jackson had swallowed his pride, along with a couple of
glasses of the bonded whiskey Charles had brought out for their celebration.
When he checked on Donna she had been pale and exhausted from the long labor.
But she had insisted he take her dad out to see the new bull and the other
spotted cows he had purchased during the last drive to Abilene.

Relaxed, his fears gone now the baby was here, he had
listened to them all. He should never have gone.

Charles had admired the stock but resumed their
long-standing debate about the new Hereford cattle that some of the cattlemen
were bringing into Houston from England. He was thinking of changing his herd
to the thicker, red stock and had already ordered a breeding pair for himself. That
had decided Jackson; he would never have anything to do with them. If Charles thought
they were so perfect, then they were too good for him. Besides, with cattle
still free-ranging, hornless cattle wouldn’t stand a prayer grazing on the
rough pasture around Star. Maybe if he hadn’t gone…

He had wanted only to sit beside Donna and watch her and the
baby.

By the time they had ridden back, it was dusk. Doc Jenkins
was gone, and Irene was frantic. He knew everything was wrong from the loud
wails of his son.

He hadn’t followed his father-in-law to the barn to unsettle,
merely swung down at the house.

“I sent one of your men after the doctor,” Irene wailed. “It’s
Donna, I can’t wake her, the baby is hungry and I can’t keep him quiet.”

Jackson had rushed into the bedroom, ignoring his
mother-in-law’s shocked protests. When he turned up the lamp, he recognized the
waxy pallor at once from men he had seen on the battle-field. Throwing back the
covers, he groaned and sank to his knees beside the bed. The heavy towels he
had helped the doctor position under her hips as birthing pads were red from
her blood.

The doctor burst into the room behind him. “Jesus, why
didn’t you send for me sooner?”

Jackson sat rocking, devastated. Why had he listened to any
of them? If he had stayed, stayed beside her, he would have seen what was
happening in time. He would have known to call the doctor back sooner.

Instead, he lifted her to let the doctor and housekeeper
rush to move the soaked towels into a wash basket, hurriedly piling clean ones
on top of the stained oilskins.

He laid her down, muttering his agonized apologies against
her cheek, listening to her shallow breaths. He had stayed this time despite
Irene’s protests, letting the housekeeper deal with his outraged mother-in-law
and the baby.

When he yelled at Doc Jenkins, the quack had paled. “You
know where I learned my trade Harper? As an orderly for an eastern doctor on
the battlefield. Do you know how many women were on the battlefield?”

“You have to try. You have to do something to save her.”

He had held his wife while the ignorant fool of a doctor
heated a polished metal rod to white heat. He had held her, feeling her
horrified scream in every inch of his body, as the doctor inserted it inside
her to cauterize the bleeding.

The first tears were for Donna. The next were for the other
children they would never have. After the first scream she had passed out, a
mercy if ever there was one.

When he was forced from her side, he left her mother and
father holding her hands as she lay, unknowing, hopefully unfeeling. The rest
of the night, he sat outside her room until his in-laws went to bed, then kept
vigil beside her. It was nearly dawn the next day when she finally slipped away.
It happened so quietly.

Numb, he had walked to the barn, grabbed a shovel and headed
to the hill behind the house where he had buried his dog Henry. He marked off
the grave, six by three feet, and dug in the hard rocky soil until he was below
six feet.

They had carried the baby to nurse twice during those last
twenty-four hours. They fed him with sugar water in between, and when he stayed
ravenous, canned milk in a bottle.

The canned milk gave him colic. They tried boiling cow’s
milk for him. It streamed out nearly as fast as he sucked it in. Desperately,
he demanded Doc Jenkins help him find a wet nurse.

In the meantime, his in-laws ordered a casket and arranged
for Donna’s funeral in town.

As the baby’s cries grew weaker he fled into the night long
enough to dig another grave on the hill, this one shorter and shallower. He
prayed until he had himself in hand, and then returned to the house to sit
beside his dead wife and listen to the weak cries of the baby.

Listening to the baby, he had almost run back to fill in the
small grave. He wasn’t going to die. Jackson was determined to do whatever it
took. Even if it meant having a trollop like Harriett Stoddard hold Donna’s
child to her breast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Hattie felt as cold as the dead babe in her arms. God had
taken him back because she had never wanted him. Sickly from the start, he had
come into the world on a whimper, blue and lifeless. Without help, he would
have been stillborn. How many times had she prayed it would be so?

But the doctor had been there. Thanks to her racing into
town, gun in hand, terrified she would not find him in time or that the same
men who had destroyed her life would find her first.

Her father had been grimacing in pain, holding his arm, his
whole body contorted. Pregnant as she was, she had headed into town, afraid to
leave him, terrified of what would happen if she didn’t go.

The Doc had driven them back in his buggy. Her labor began
before they reached the ranch, but she insisted the doctor continue the race to
reach her father in time.

When they arrived, her father’s attack was over. His
breathing was shallow and the right side of his body sagged as though an
avalanche had happened inside and everything on that half of his body had slid
downward.

The doctor admitted he wasn’t sure if the attack had been
Dad’s heart or merely apoplexy. He gave him one of the new “trinitin” pills
containing nitroglycerin, a compound that had been proving magical in treating
heart attack patients. Her Dad’s color had returned immediately, and the doctor
had turned his attention to Harriet and the sickly slip of a child that she
delivered.

He had cleared the baby’s throat, breathed into his mouth a
couple of times, and Hattie had watched the baby go from blue to gray.

At least coming a month early, the delivery had been easier
than she had feared. For the last few weeks, she worried that its delivery
would kill her and she would leave her father all alone. When Hattie accepted
the child from the doctor, she waited, wanting to feel the sweep of emotion,
the love of a mother for her child. Instead, she was swept with a heavy wave of
sadness. Her child, created in pain and violence, weak and helpless, was
blameless in the crime against her. She knew it, but it did not change how she
felt.

Passively she waited while the doctor laid the child on top
of her; placed her nipple in the baby’s mouth. At his weak tugs, the doctor
showed her how to stroke his cheek to help him nurse. When he let go, she
collapsed. The doctor spent the night, guarding all three of his patients and
Hattie slept.

When the doctor left the next morning, Hattie’s two weeks of
unrelenting toil began, working to tend her father and the struggling infant. She
cooked, cleaned, washed bodies, did laundry, and then fed each in turn. Doc Jenkins
thought her father was having a heart attack when she described his symptoms.
But the drawing on his right side was clearly the result of apoplexy. He left
her a small can with twenty of the precious miracle pills with instructions to
use only one if her father showed the symptoms of another heart attack; chest
pains, shortness of breath, flushed face and severe pain. All twenty of the
little explosives still rested in the small metal can.

When Doc came by a week later, he had patted her shoulder,
shocked to see her sitting with the babe at her breast, her free hand spooning
gruel into her father’s crooked mouth, mopping it up, and refeeding it to him.
Doc agreed to spend the night to relieve her.

As Doc left the next morning, he told her to prepare to lose
one or both. The baby still showed little interest in feeding. His skin was so
pale it was translucent, and his breathing so shallow his little chest barely
moved. As for her father, the doctor pointed out that the reason he could not
get out of bed, even with help, was because he’d had one or more additional
seizures. When he told her the strong man who had always taken care of her
would never be able to take care of his own needs again, she knew he would not
want to live.

Her father died a week later. At the end, Hattie had held
his head up, trying to help him breathe. He had smiled his new lopsided grin,
his eyes speaking to her. She heard in her mind the words, “Buck up Hattie,
you’re my brave girl, you can do it.”

She had smiled back at him. Even as he took his last,
gasping breath, she had whispered her reassurances. “I’ll be brave, Daddy. I’ll
be all right.”

But she had not been. When the realization came that she
would need to prepare her dad for burial and dig a grave, she felt a despair so
heavy it made her want to give up. Only the weak mewling cries of her newborn
put her back on her feet. First, she would clean and feed the baby. Then while
he slept, she would eat a bite and rest. In the morning, she would prepare and
bury her father.

She had finished bathing her father, putting him in his best
pants, shirt and black frock coat. It was a suit he had worn at his own
father’s funeral, his wedding, and on the rare Sundays when her mother had been
able to coerce him into accompanying her to church, and finally at her mother‘s
funeral. He had scoffed when she suggested he buy a new one. “It’s my
pall-bearer suit, probably be my burying clothes.”

With everything done, the bag of spices in his mouth, his
blue eyes closed forever, she turned to check on the baby.

Shocked at his stillness, the coldness of the soft skin, she
realized with pain why he had not stirred nor cried yet. He had died in the
hour just before dawn. The poor child was gone, lost, never loved, never to be
loved. He would never grow into a man like her father, or as she had feared,
like the animals who sired him.

She had been tearless for so long, tearless despite the
ordeal of the terror and shame of the pregnancy, and then her father’s suffering.
There was too much to cry about, if she ever started, she would never stop. There
was no time for self-pity, and that was what crying felt like. Besides, crying
for her father seemed wrong, knowing he was free and happy again to cast off
his helpless body. She had remembered his smiling eyes at the last and knew he
was now in heaven with her mother.

When she lifted the babe to her chest, no tears would come.
She wanted to shed hot and scalding tears for him, tears for herself, and tears
for the misery of her condition.

It was nearly noon before she could release the tiny body.
She had rocked and screamed in rage, but the emptiness would not leave her. Finally,
she forced herself up to do the rituals, to bathe another Stoddard for burial. Even
as she tucked the tiny closed fist into the sleeve of the drawstring gown, she
bent to kiss the downy head. When she laid the dressed body down, she tucked
the baby into the crook of her father’s arm.

She wanted to move but couldn’t, held by the beauty of the
two together in endless sleep. For the first time she noticed the dimple in the
boy’s chin, just like the one in her father’s. Why hadn’t she noticed, why
hadn’t she allowed herself to love him before it was too late?

Trembling, determined not to break again, she went to the
barn for the shovel. Dragging it behind her, she plodded toward the tall walnut
tree in front of the small cabin.

 

<><><> 

 

The wagon wheeled into the yard so quickly, Hattie raised
the shovel in defense.

“Whoa.”

The loud yell could have been aimed at the foam-flecked
mustangs or the soaked girl waving a shovel. As soon as he pulled the team to a
halt, he wrapped both reins around the brake handle and swung down to snatch at
the shovel in her hands.

Hattie fell backward but retained the shovel, as
insubstantial a weapon against the towering man above her as her clawing hands
had been against those men.

“Whoa,” he surprised her by backing away, holding both arms
in the air. “I’m not here for trouble. I’m looking for a young woman to help me
care for a baby.”

At the last words, Hattie surprised herself by letting the
shovel drop across her lap where she sat in the muddy yard. Her dry eyes burned
as tears pooled behind them. She sniffed to keep them at bay lest he think her
crazy.

Slowly he reached down; lifted the tool from her lap. Then
he placed both hands on her arms and hauled her to her feet. She took a step
backward, pulling free. It was then that they both swiveled at the loud bawl of
a baby. Hattie turned to look up at the man.

“My son will die if you don’t help us. My wife passed two
nights ago. J.D. can’t keep anything down and is starving to death. Canned or
cow’s milk, both come back out one end or the other about as quick as he’s fed.
Ma’am, you’re the only chance we have, according to Doc Jenkins.”

“Well, if you’re looking for desperate, you’ve come to the
right place. Bring him inside, Mr.…”

“Harper, Jackson Harper, ma’am, and J.D.’s my son.”

The first thing Jackson noticed was the smell. He stood with
the wagon toolbox in his hands, and then waited as she picked up a towel to
wipe her face and dirt streaked arms. She stared at him, shrugging. “They’re in
the back room. It’s why I was digging.”

Jackson put the box down gently on the table, noting the
broken backed chair that was wedged underneath one end to support it.

Dried off, Hattie leaned down to pull the squalling infant
from the box. “Fill that dishpan with water, there’s a rain barrel at the
corner of the porch. I’ll get him cleaned up so I can feed him.”

He glared at her, surprised at the sharp order. But she was
already removing the baby’s soiled diaper and wiping him clean with the front
of it. When he returned a minute later, the baby was undressed, angrily kicking
his feet and waving fists at her.

Jackson paused to stare as she wiped tears from her eyes,
her hand gently reaching to wipe the tears from the baby’s cheeks. The boy was
long and soft and very red, but even Jackson could tell she saw how perfect and
beautiful the baby was. Carefully she scooped him up from the table, cradling
him against her chest, tucking his face toward her neck as she cooed soothingly
to him and kissed his wet face. Instantly he stopped raging, making small
gasping sounds against her skin.

When Jackson moved forward to set the basin down, she shook
her head and sniffed. Using the clean front edge of his cast-off gown, she
dipped and scrubbed the baby tenderly, slowly removing all the waste, then
again pressing the naked, squirming body close.

“There are baby things,” she pointed, “on top of the
dresser.”

He carried them forward, shocked when she unbuttoned her
damp shirt and used it to dry and wrap the boy. Her chemise was gray and thin,
but he was relieved when she used the baby and old blouse to hide herself from
his view. He grinned, half apologetically, as he heard the greedy suckling
sounds of his child. A few minutes later, she raised him, rubbing his back as
she rearranged her clothes, then positioned him to nurse from her other breast.

Jackson stood embarrassed. There was nowhere to sit. He
noticed there was a pot on the stove and he lifted the lid to see bean soup. Restless,
he busied himself opening the oven, searching for wood, and then leaving to
return with three small logs, the only dry wood he could find. As the beans
heated, he leaned against the wall and watched them. Clearly, the child was
asleep, but he would suddenly start and make suckling sounds whenever she moved
even the slightest.

“Could you look in the bedroom for a clean shirt for me?”

A minute later he returned and shrugged his shoulders, “I
only found men’s shirts.”

“The red plaid will be fine, I’m cold.”

He brought both back, held the red one open while she put an
arm through the sleeve, and then leaned forward so he could wrap it around her.
She struggled to get her hand started in the other sleeve but when she could
not manage, he held it until she succeeded. Trying not to, but unable to keep
his eyes from the white fullness of her breast where the child was attached, he
pretended not to be looking when the baby’s head rolled back releasing the dark
nipple, a bubble of milk on his pursed pink mouth.

Blushing, she quickly grabbed and held the front of the
shirt closed as he reached for the baby. Timidly holding him with his bottom
resting on one big palm, his head cradled in the crook of his arm, Jackson gently
rocked his arm back and forth, terrified that the child might reawaken with
more crying.

As soon as he stepped back with the child, Hattie rose,
turning her back while she rearranged herself, buttoned, and tucked in the
shirt. Turning around, she busied herself, replacing the soiled quilt with a
clean blanket. Jackson gingerly nestled J.D. back inside the toolbox.

In whispers she said, “I need to get back to digging.”

He held up a hand, shaking his head and pointing at the
chair. “Just sit and eat while the food’s hot, I couldn’t find enough wood to
keep things going. I have a little ground Arbuckle’s out in the buckboard, it
looks like you’re out of coffee and lots more.”

Hattie sagged into the chair he pointed out and waited while
he carried the only bowl and spoon left on the shelf, as well as a tin mug that
he had brought inside with the coffee grounds.

“There’s a bit of corn pone in the pan inside the oven -
molasses on the shelf,” she said, even as she started to eat the warm beans.

He brought the warm bread and sorghum, and then looked
around again. He went outside and brought in the rocker from the front porch. Then
he used the empty coffee can to hold a cup of coffee. Breaking the bread in
two, he handed her half, then brought the bean pot from the stove.

He watched her eat like someone who had not stopped to eat
in a long time. Satisfied when he saw the bottom of her bowl, he refilled it,
then using a bent fork, crumbled his crust of bread in the liquid and ate just
as hungrily. When her coffee cup was empty, he refilled it and poured the
remainder in his empty can. “Tasted mighty fine,” he grinned at her, pleased
when she grinned back.

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