I had just set down 'side the fire to do a bit of needlework when I heard a blow on the front door. It reminded me of that storm last summer when our tree struck the corner of the house. It startled me something fierce. Henry was asleep in his chair, his black mustache curled on one end and his head slumped over on his shoulder. He was snoring softly. He can sleep through anything, that man. I hit him and told him somebody was at the door. He grumbled and turned over in his chair. I shook my head and dropped my needlework and crossed the parlor to see who it was. I peered out the window 'side the door. Two women were standing there. No bonnets. No coats. The snow must have been over two feet deep, well past the ends of their pantaloons.
I threw open the door and told the women to come in before they caught their death of cold. They were wet from head to foot, which put me into an awful state of alarm. They were rather handsome looking women: well-poised, fine-featured, hardy and delicate at the same time. Their words were different than ours: well-refined, eastern, almost British. They reminded me of a picture of a highborn eastern gal I had once seen printed in the Quincy Whig.
I asked them what they were doing and why they were here and out in the cold and all wet too. They said they did not have time to explain. They were in a hurry and needed some clean linen and a kettle of hot water. I asked them whatever for. They said there was a woman down by the river that was having her baby.
I yelled Henry's name in that shrill tone that is always sure to prick his ear. He leapt out of his chair with a wild sort of expression and blinked a rapid set of disorderly blinks and rubbed his head and looked at the two ladies standing in our parlor. Henry, I told him, there is a woman down by the river that is having her baby. She'll need clean linen and a kettle of hot water. I'll fetch the linen and slip down to the river with these two ladies right away. Heat some water and bring the sleigh around and meet us at the river. Henry nodded, having cleared his head a bit, and went to work like an obedient husband. When Henry is aware of a need, he is the first to act, that man.
As Henry set the kettle on the Hangford-iron, I fetched my coat and offered the ladies two others. They took them gladly and thanked me liberally for being so kind and willing to help. I told them it was no trouble at all. Needless to say, my head was still ripe full of questions. I followed the ladies out the door, and by the time we reached the river my dress was drenched and dragging at the ends of my pantaloons. Those ladies trod quickly, and I had a devil of a time keeping up. So I hadn't yet any time to discover who they were or what they were doing here or why there was a woman giving birth down at the river and in that horrid, un-saintly weather.
It was snowing, and the wind whipped it into my face.
Everything was black, the mighty Mississippi as black as get-out. The banks were unusually crowed and thick it seemed—all that winter-stripped Black Ash, Bitternut Hickory, Poison Ivy, and Elderberry brush. We picked our way through, and I tore my dress. I stopped to unsnag myself, but those two ladies kept on. I yanked my dress loose, and the fabric retched at me, but I didn't have time to worry about that because I was set on keeping pace with those two ladies.
Their worry was unquestionably great and mine was growing—I was balled up about the whole thing—and then the ladies stopped, and I managed a breath and began to form a question, when I saw a small knot of folks gathered 'neath the trees. The faint lights of Quincy filtered through the branches behind me. Black chunks of ice floated down the Mississippi. A smooth rug of snow stretched between us and that small huddle of people. The two ladies pressed on, and I suddenly hoped that Henry would be able to find us and feared that he might not. Ma'am, I said, catching the second lady's elbow, I am not sure that my husband will be able to find us in all this dark and hidden in all this thicket and neither of you has told me who you are and I should greatly like to know.
She answered me that they were Mormons, and I was seized with such surprise I couldn't find the words to speak. I had heard too many stories of Mormons, many of them too queer to tell, not to be afraid and suspicious of them all at once and all together. She seemed to notice my change of manner and quickly allayed my fright by repeating how grateful she was that I had been so willing to help them. They were able to hire a ferryman to bring them across the river, she said; but when he found out who they were, he forced them off the ferry before they reached the shore. One of the children drowned. She said it was the child of the lady who was having her baby.
Her account nearly crushed my heart. Who could be so cruel, even to a Mormon? On reaching the cluster of bodies, I found them to be entirely women and children, attended by a single man who wore a long white beard and had what looked like a broken nose. His head was bandaged, and he was leaning on a crutch. Every last one of them was wet from head to foot, and none of them was wearing any shoes, and for the first time I was aware that the two ladies leading me were not wearing any either and that they had left a ragged scarlet ribbon behind us in the snow.
At that point, I was certain of two things: these people really did need my help, and my husband would not have any trouble finding us.
The woman giving birth was lying on a wet blanket on the ground surrounded by the women and older girls, who were standing shoulder to shoulder and holding up blankets and the ends of their dresses to shelter her from the wind and falling snow. The midwife told her to breathe. The woman did as she was told, her breaths attended by small cries. A strand of wet, black hair was scribbled across her face. I quickly handed the linen over and stood back. Of the two women I had arrived with, the first joined in helping the others hold up the blankets. The second woman stood back with me.
My husband will be along with the hot water, I assured her. She nodded. Is this your husband, I asked, pointing to the old man; are you polygamists? No, she said. She kept her voice low, hardly above a whisper, and I had to stand close to her to hear over the wind. None of their husbands ever had more than one wife, she said, and said that man had been helping them all along. His wife had died of exposure before they reached the river, and they were forced to leave her without a proper burial.
When I asked her why, she said that they had been chased out of Missouri by armed mobs. I asked her where her husband was. She said she didn't know. She said most of their husbands were taken by the mobs; others shot. They didn't know if most of them were alive or dead. I asked her why they didn't defend themselves. She said the state had taken away their arms.
The other woman who came for the linens and water, she said, turning her back to the group and whispering to me so quietly I could hardly hear her, was woken in the middle of the night by an armed mob that broke into her house and forced her husband out-of-doors into the snow, begging and crying for mercy. They tore off his shirt, stole his boots, and beat him bloody with the butt-ends of their rifles. From her doorway, the woman witnessed her husband's life leave him 'neath the flicker of their torches. The men kicked her husband's dead body around and shot it a couple of times and then rode off on their horses.
The woman was crying when she said it, her hand to her mouth.
I pulled her into my arms and held her tight. I held her fiercely. Twenty minutes before, I wouldn't have believed it was possible that any man or band of men would do such a thing. The wind curled around my face. It sounded like crinkling paper. It was the only sound.
I no longer heard any cries from the woman giving birth behind me, no sound of the midwife's steady instruction, no sound of a newborn baby, no sound of voices, no sound of anything but the wind and the distant bells of my husband's horse and sleigh.
The moon glided into sight through a small break in the clouds. The stars peeped between the tattered pieces. Broken fragments of snow-laced ice drifted in the slow gray-blue of the Mississippi. The banks of the river around me were no longer black, no longer cold, no longer bleak and barren and frightful, but soft and white and silent.