Early Morning, Saturday, January 1, 1881
Four in the morning wasn’t early on a farm. Not even in the dead of a Nebraska winter. And the dark kitchen radiated with heat from the old-fashioned wood-burning range. Nevertheless, Caro Sutton could see the blankets around her younger cousin Grace’s shoulders tremble from the uncontrollable shivering that had racked her ever since Caro found her half-buried in a snowbank.
Caro thought, “Could Grace have really intended to take her own life?”
“Your uncle has gone to harness up the horses to take you to the train,” her aunt said to her quietly, coming to stand beside Caro in the kitchen doorway.
The old retriever, who sat next to her cousin Grace, looked up at the sound of a voice, then put his chin back down on the young woman’s lap. Her cousin showed no sign that she’d heard her mother. Instead, she patted the head of the dog and leaned forward in her chair, staring at the flames that flickered in the stove’s grate.
Caro’s aunt said, “My dear, I’ve heated some bricks for your feet, but mind you keep your head well covered. You should be at the station around dawn.”
“Thank you. If there aren’t any delays, I’ll arrive in California at the Berkeley station by Wednesday morning. I’ll send you a telegram as soon as I get settled in.”
“And write every day. Promise?”
Hearing the anxiety in her aunt’s voice, Caro said, “Every day. And I will let you be the judge of whether or not to read parts of my correspondence to Grace. But I expect to get frequent letters from you in return, honest ones. No trying to hide the truth about your daughter’s condition from me.”
“Are you sure you should still go? I know the only reason you agreed to take classes at California’s university this coming spring was because Grace asked you to join her. But now that she’s not going back, everything’s changed. What if you hadn’t been here when she ran out into the night?”
“We have been over all this. She has you, and her father, and her brothers, and old Jacko there, to watch over her. Something terrible happened to her at the university…and for some reason she can’t or won’t tell us what it was. You know me. I can’t just sit and wait and pray that she will recover fully on her own. Patience has never been my virtue. I need to find out what happened and who’s responsible.”
Sounds from the yard told Caro that the wagon had pulled up, and the door to the kitchen opened as her oldest cousin Bradley came in and picked up her large valise, which was standing by the back door. He glanced at his sister Grace, then over at Caro, and said gruffly, “I’ve put your trunk in the back of the wagon. Father said not to keep the horses standing.”
Caro made sure her hat was securely pinned, shrugged on her heavy wool coat, and was winding a scarf around her neck when her two other cousins came into the kitchen. Benny, the youngest, came over and gave her a big hug, while Josh, the middle one, shyly nodded and went to wrap up the hot bricks in a small blanket. Benny grabbed a basket that held enough food to get her at least through the first day of train travel.
The boys went outside, slamming the door behind them. Caro kissed her aunt, picked up her purse, and went over to Grace, who’d shrunk into herself at the entrance of her brothers.
Caro kneeled down in front of her cousin, taking one of her cold hands in hers, and said, “Grace, I’m off to Berkeley, as we planned. I’m hoping that in a few weeks you will feel enough better to come join me. But I will come back to you, if you want me here. You just need to say the word.”
Caro looked into her cousin’s face, searching for even the slightest hint that Grace heard her. But there was nothing. Just the dark blue eyes that looked right through her, as if she weren’t there.
She flashed on the memory of a poor rabbit she’d once found that had been pursued for miles by a local farmer’s hounds. The animal had sat shivering, staring at nothing. Suddenly it had keeled over, having died of fright.
Biting back a cry, Caro stood up, kissed her aunt good-bye, and went out into the darkness, determined to find the fiends who had frightened the life out of her sweet, kind, loving cousin.
When she found them, she would make them pay.