Beaufort, North Carolina 1730
The voice called from behind.
William increased his pace. Not now, please, not now.
“Willie! Mama says you are to help me!”
Five minutes. He only needed five minutes.
The voice now panted.
He really should stop. There was no way her little girl legs could keep up with his long full-sized strides. But William strode faster toward the summit.
“Willie, please wait for me!”
His conscience poked him, but his goal was in sight. He could not hold back. He needed this moment, the briefest of solitudes to take in what his soul craved.
Finally, at the top of the bluff, the panorama of the shore opened. The ocean’s breeze smacked him in the face, and he smiled from the inside out. This is what he needed, what he’d missed. The scents, the atmosphere, it all fed him as he closed his eyes and stretched out his arms, embracing everything. He could feel the currents, ride the waves, soar the blue while the
wind caressed his cheeks. In all his almost twenty years, this was the one thing that calmed the storms raging inside him. He inhaled one last breath of freedom when he felt the tug on his breeches.
“Willie, why didn’t you wait? Didn’t you hear me?”
William opened one eye and glanced down.
His youngest sister held on to him while gasping for breath. “Oh, Willie, I’m going to tell Mama!”
He scooped her up in his arms, though she was getting too big for him to do that anymore. “Aw, Janie, you don’t want to tell Mama. See!” He pointed to the bay. “See all the ships? All the goods coming in? I’ll bet Mama has something special for us before the day is out. That will make her happy. You wouldn’t want to spoil that, would you?”
Sarah Jane’s forehead squished into thinking wrinkles. She shook her head. “I guess not. But why wouldn’t you wait for me?”
William hugged her and set her back on her feet. “I needed an alone moment, Janie. That’s all.” He couldn’t help the sigh that followed his admission.
She seemed to accept his explanation because she dropped the subject and grabbed his hand. “So, will you help me with my sums, then?” Her earnest face reminded him how much he had missed this little pest.
He stole one more glance at his ocean before swinging her hand. “Sure.”
Leading her to a sweet gum tree, standing tall in a lonely spot near the cliff’s edge, they sat beneath its shade and cracked open the book Sarah Jane had lugged along. “Where are you having trouble?”
“Mama says I need to practice carrying over. She says I forget to add that in.” She squished up her mouth and gave him a sideways glance.
Now he understood why she was sent to him instead of one of his other many siblings—that was a lesson his mother managed to get him to understand when he was the same age as Janie—seven. Truth be told, he still imagined Mama’s voice in his head when he tallied up sums. Willie, don’t forget to include what you already have. He set the book aside and grabbed a twig from the ground, scratching number problems in the dirt. “Try this one, Janie. Talk it out so I can hear what you are thinking.”
She took the twig from him, using it like a pointer. “Seven hundred and fifty-six—”
“Don’t say the ‘and,’ Janie. It means something different if you say ‘and’.”
“Seven hundred FIFTY-six plus three hundred an…” she glanced at him, “I mean sixty-nine. I need to add the nine and six first.”
He smiled and nodded, trying to stay focused, but hearing the call of the ocean’s waves.
“That’s fifteen so I write my five and put the one over the top of the five in the next column. Then I add five and six, oh, and the one. That’s the same as six plus six, so I know that is twelve.”
Now she smiled, acting pretty sure of herself. “I write the one and put the two up on top of the seven…?”
He wasn’t sure if she made the mistake to see if he would catch her or if she really thought that. His instinct told him she knew what she was doing, so he kept his mouth shut, curious what she would do.
“What do you think, Willie?”
“You can figure it out. Give it a try.”
She sighed and fixed the placement for the parts of the twelve. “Like this, the two goes into the answer and the one goes over the seven.”
He smiled and nodded again. She was a manipulator with more than numbers. But she was tenderhearted to a fault. He pointed to the final column. “Finish it.”
She did. “Seven plus three plus the one I carried over comes to… eleven.” She added that to her answer. “So, seven hundred fifty-six plus three hundred sixty-nine equals one thousand, one hundred twenty-five, right?”
“Right you are, Janie.” He gave her a wink. “Ready for another?”
Just as she nodded another voice called. “Sarah Jane, William. Mother wants you! Now!”
Their fourteen-year-old brother, Jason, crowned the hill. He stopped before coming any closer than necessary. Fear of catching the infirmity that kept William forever in trouble with his parents was most likely what held him back. Oh, well. No need of Janie catching his disease. “You go on. I’ll be along soon.” He helped her. “You don’t want to get in trouble along with me, Janie.” He winked at her and sent her off with Jason.
As he turned, he spotted the arithmetic book still on the ground. “Oh, Janie girl, you are going to end up a black sheep like me.” He bent to retrieve it when a small chunk of bark landed on the cover. He glanced up in the tree.
A rustle having nothing to do with the wind in the leaves brought a smile, and he shook his head. Little sister Martha must have finished her studies early and scrambled up the tree so as not to get roped into more chores. Still the tomboy at age ten, Martha preferred running and climbing to about anything else. His eight-year-old sister, Mary, on the other hand, would be too prissy to climb, but Martha didn’t know the definition of prissy. “Time to come down, now, Martha. I’ll walk you home.”
No answer. No movement. She would make this difficult.
“Come down, lass, before I must come after you.”
That wasn’t Martha’s voice.
But it was a lovely voice. An intriguing voice. “So, you are not Martha. Who are you?”
“It be none of yer business who I am, so away with ye. Leave me be.”
Rather than intimidate William, the voice sent funny little tingles through his soul. “I don’t think I can do that.”
“And why, pray tell? Do ye mean me harm?”
Harm her? He wouldn’t hurt a fly! “Oh! You cut me to the quick, miss… whatever your name might be. I do not mean you harm. It’s just that you have aroused my curiosity. It would delight me to make your acquaintance.” He paused, searching for the best idea. “Shall I come up and join you on a branch or would you prefer to come down?”
Rather than a reply, the leaves again rustled. She made her decision. Soon shoes and legs dangled overhead and then a full person appeared, dropping to the ground at his feet. She rose to her full height, standing no taller than his breastbone, her raven hair slipping in soft wisps from beneath her mob cap. Her back skirts were pinned at her waist from where she had pulled them between her legs, so she untucked them. She smoothed her clothes, transforming herself into a proper young lady of sixteen or seventeen years of age.
William held out his hand. “I am William Crockett, Willie to my sisters and brothers. With whom have I made the acquaintance?” She placed her hand in his and made a small curtsy. “My— BEE!” In one motion she pulled her hand from his and flipped her apron over her head.
William couldn’t stop the laugh that burst from him. “Maybe? Your name is Maybe?”
Indignation seeped through her linen apron, dripping chagrin all over him, even before she pulled the cloth from her face.
He stopped laughing.
“Is it gone?”
“Is what gone?”
“The bee! Oh, they terrify me! Please tell me it’s gone!”
He glanced about. So that’s what scared her. “I’m sorry. Yes, it’s gone. I didn’t realize. Shall we start again?” He bowed. “I am William the Oaf Crockett, and you are?”
“My name is Elizabeth Boulay.” She curtsied again, paused and then snickered. “You thought my name was Maybe?”
William snorted, and they laughed together. “I didn’t know what to think. Elizabeth is a pretty name, Miss Boulay, but I must confess, I prefer Maybe.”
Sarah continued to pump the treadle of her spinning wheel, tugging the wool into a thin, tight string. If Da could see her now. She shook her head, wondering what he might think of the fine lady he had wanted her to be. She wouldn’t trade her life, this amazing life she’d spent with Joseph and their children, for all the emeralds in the world. But a house full of children in a settlement situated between the wilderness and the deep blue sea meant she worked hard. The whole family did. They needed to pull together.
Why didn’t William see that?
Oh, her Willie boy. Now he was a young man and should be finishing up his studies at William and Mary. Joseph worked hard to get him into the university. But it was William’s job to stay there until they graduated him. Not that it was easy, but it was necessary. He needed an education.
Instead, he popped in here last evening saying he was done with schooling. It was not for him. Oh, the look on Joseph’s face!
“Mama, you will pump your spinning wheel to death!”
Sarah glanced into the concerned eyes of her daughter, Mary. “I’m sorry, darlin’ girl. Had me head in the clouds, I reckon.” She chuckled, slowing the wheel as she did. “Now I know where your sister gets it.” She leaned over and tweaked the child’s chin.
“More like where Willie gets it. He always seems to be wondering about something out there somewhere.” Mary wrinkled her nose as though “out there” was not a pleasant place.
She chuckled and found a stopping spot before going to the fireplace. Using the tongs she pulled the kettle hanging from the hook where she might stir and check for doneness. “Yer father will be home soon, with yer brother. Ye need to be helping set the table for dinner.”
“Yes, Mama. Shall I set places for Joseph Louis and Jeanne?”
Sarah shook her head just as William burst through the door. “I dinna think it took that long to follow yer brother and sister home.” He brushed a kiss on her cheek.
“I’m a grown man now, Mama. Sometimes I need to be about manly things.”
“You are a man when you show us you can behave as one and not go gallivanting around when you should be working with your father.” She sounded sterner than she meant to, but if she could smooth things before Joseph came home, it would be so much better.
His sigh didn’t escape her notice. “Mama, all I wanted was a day or so to just breathe in freedom before getting tied down to responsibility all over again. Is that too much to ask?”
“That depends. Have you gotten yer breath of freedom now so ye can start working with yer father in the morning?”
He stared at the floor. She’d seen this before, when he felt blocked. “Yes, Mama.”
She caressed his face. “It isn’t a bad thing to be a responsible adult, ye know. Now, go get washed for dinner.”
He turned and left, tossing a towel over his shoulder as he exited. Her miracle baby, born during a storm at sea. Something about the ocean called to him, louder than all the love and guidance she and Joseph could give.
When God blessed her with baby William, Sarah had promised God that she would be the best mother she could be. The red-faced, bellowing snippet of a thing with a down of strawberry hair captured her heart. Since that moment, there were days where living with Willie amounted to living with a hurricane, but inside that storm beat a tender, loving heart that craved acceptance.
The sound of boots scraping caught Sarah’s attention. She rehung the ladle just as Joseph entered, hanging the towel back by the door, followed by John and William. “Go call the others,” she directed at Mary before greeting her husband with a warm embrace. “Dinner is ready to dip. I’m glad yer home.”
Joseph returned her squeeze and placed a kiss on her cheek before getting out of her way. They knew each other’s every move, and she knew that he understood that feeding their sizable, crazy family took maneuvering. In groups of two and three, the rest of her children still living at home found their way to the table—the large, family table Joseph had made for her when the family began to grow at a rapid rate. They had six sons, one she left in a grave in Ireland and another was still at William and Mary, where her William should be. The eldest, Joseph Louis, was a married man so, though she longed to see all her children around the table, there was always someone missing. The bittersweetness of that thought made it difficult to be too upset with William when he filled his chair at mealtime.
Everyone stood until Joseph asked the blessing. Both William and Jason grabbed at her chair, vying for the honor of holding it for her. William won the skirmish. Jason pouted. She’d have to speak with him after dinner.
Once she was seated, the girls brought the food to the table and dinner was underway.
“Tell us about your day.” Sarah hoped this request of her husband might spark a desire in her son to help his father.
“Like any other day, I imagine. Between working the field and carving on the rocker for Jeanne, it was another day. Joseph Louis gave me some help with the steamer, and John worked on an order from Master Pratt.” He paused and gave John a smile. “Oh, and I got the sideboard to the docks to sail back to Ireland. Should bring a pretty penny.”
“That is wonderful. We had a lovely day of lessons. I think Janie is getting better at her sums.” She winked at the child. “Mary, Lettie, and Martha are getting on so well with multiplying and dividing, I think they will need a better teacher soon enough. Beth and Jason, suppose you share with us what you’ve been reading.”
Jason opened his mouth, but before he got out a word, his father cleared his throat. Jason pouted again, glaring at his food.
“Ladies first, Beth.”
Beth’s steady gaze on her plate was a telling sign that she hoped Jason would go first and take so much time that they’d forget her. Sarah could not comprehend the crippling shyness that attacked her daughter at every turn—Sarah had never had a shy day in her life—but she felt the pain. Even now, Beth’s head dipped, her quiet words falling onto her plate. “I read—”
“Speak up, girl, we all want to hear.” Joseph meant it kindly, and his tone was gentle, but the words still bruised.
Beth cleared her throat. “I read Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.” Her eyes began to search her plate as if something else captured her interest.
“What did you think of the story, Beth?”
“It… it made me cry.” Again, her voice was soft. But as she raised her head, she began to quote from the play. “‘The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ’Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes the thronèd monarch better than his crown. His scepter shows the force of temporal power, the attribute to awe and majesty wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings, but mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute to God himself. And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.’”
William gave his sister a slow grin as he added to the monologue. “‘Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this —that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.’” He nodded to her. “You did well, Beth.”
“So did you, son. I am glad you remember that from your mother’s lessons.” Joseph smiled and Sarah’s heart swelled a mite.
She spotted the silent nods between William and his father. Whatever happened, it would work out.
Joseph still marveled at how well Sarah got the children to help. After dinner, Jason fetched water to heat for dishwashing while the girls cleared the table. John hung the chairs out of the way and pushed the table against the wall while Beth swept the floor. They all knew what to do, no one begged off, and quicker than Joseph ever imagined, they set the room in order. He had an inkling Sarah had learned this from Anne Fontaine over in Bantry Bay. That was a forever ago. Yet Sarah’s eyes still flashed like emeralds when their gazes locked, just as they had back then. She still stood tall and lithe, and her auburn mane still thrilled him when she let it down to brush. He longed to watch her brush it all day. Even after all these years. Even after all their children.
Joseph found his heart mellowing with his thoughts. He wouldn’t be as strict as he should with William.
But why was the boy home? James was still at college, at least according to Willie. What made him leave his younger brother and return? Joseph had an idea. Should he demand to know? Should he send him back straightaway? Should he let William find his own path? If Joseph ever needed wisdom, it was now.
“Willie, let’s go for a walk.” Hopefully that wouldn’t make the boy too defensive. He didn’t want to ignite that short fuse.
“Sure, Da.” William stood, and Joseph was taken with how tall he’d grown. Even more since being away. Willie held the door for his father.
Joseph nodded, grabbing his hat from the peg by the door as he passed. Willie followed, pulling the door shut.
They walked, Joseph waiting for his son to say the first word. Back home in Ireland they would have walked to the River Foyle. Here, it was safer not to venture too far into the wilderness. The docks were a busy place with the recent arrivals, so he headed in the direction of the center of Beaufort.
Once at the Commons, he found a tree with a good-sized rock near its base. He could sit on that and lean back, still waiting for William to speak.
Finally, after kicking at oyster shells and scuffing his toes in the sod, the boy found his voice. “I suppose you’d be wanting to know why I came home.”
Joseph nodded. “That might be the place to start.”
William sighed and began to pace. “I’m just no good at this school stuff. I thought Mama had taught me enough to make it, but it is like they speak a strange language.”
“You are not stupid. What seems to be the problem?” He was in no hurry to push the boy. If he could hold his tongue, William just might use his to explain it all.
“Well, I feel stupid. And it is so boring! All anyone does there is study. Read. Read. Read. No one takes a break to see the town or just live. I felt so… confined.” He stopped pacing, meeting his father’s gaze. “Da, I’m not cut out for classes or classics or antiquated philosophies. I’ve got to move and breathe and experience things. Da, I want to travel, to see places, not just hear about them. I get excited when ships pull in, imagining where they’ve been. I want to go to sea.”
“You do not understand what you are asking, son.” The words were out before he could stop them. The look on William’s face told him he should have tried harder. “Son.” He reached for him.
William pulled away. “You don’t understand! I’m trapped here.” He raised his hands, palms out, as is to push back any arguments. Turning on his heel, he left in the bluff’s direction.
The place called to his son. He’d seen him up there, allowing the sea breeze to pour over him. It was better to let him go. At least he wasn’t heading for the docks. Yet his heart told him Willie would head in that direction soon enough.
William had promised himself he wouldn’t lose his temper. And he knew his father tried to listen. What an ignoramus he was! He didn’t give his father a chance. His father, who worked so hard to pay for him and James to attend William and Mary College. His father, who took care of his family, loving each of his children. His father, the man he admired and wanted to emulate.
“I am so daft!” He shouted to the wind. Of course, his father didn’t understand. He was solid, strong. The protector. Craving freedom wasn’t in his father’s blood. Perhaps the storm that brought him from his mother’s womb left him bewitched, for if ever there was a person to embody a mix of thunder, lightning, and wind, that person was he. And right now, the storm within raged beyond his control.