Tree of Heaven: A Singular Village Mystery

Chapter 1
18 September 1833
Zoar, Ohio

“I’ll get what’s coming to me, I will!”

The bellow of a man’s voice punctured the late morning’s peace and brought Adelaide Bechtmann to a standstill outside their leader Josef Bimeler’s log cabin.

Ducking under the low-hanging branches of an apple tree, Adelaide froze at the tug on her bonnet string. Unsure what to do next, she whirled around, relieved to see the tie was only snagged. She jerked it loose and sucked in a breath in an attempt to still her beating heart.

Had anyone seen her?

Smoke curled from the bakery’s fire next door, and hammering across the way told her that the tinsmith toiled inside his shop. Nearby cabins, though, stood empty, their inhabitants gone to their assigned tasks for the day. As all dutiful Separatists were required to do.

A hired hand hurried by, a rake over his shoulder, but he paid her no mind. Opposite Josef’s cabin, August was busy in the garden, raking fall’s debris into piles for composting. Thank goodness, he’d not heard the argument. The man could keep nothing to himself.

Should she barge into the argument ahead? Risk Josef’s ire at her? Again.

She had come to ask Josef’s approval. Adelaide needed her sister, Nellie, to join her on her birthing rounds, but he’d not want her interrupting him now, not with the stranger a witness to their doings. Although why he worried that outsiders would trouble themselves with their business, she couldn’t imagine.

No. She’d stay outside the cabin, close enough to hear and peek into the window, find out what the stranger wanted of Josef, then see how she could help. She’d helped him before. She could help him now.

Josef faced the stranger across the table that centered the one-room cabin. His fists tightened on the edge of a chair. “I owe you nothing, nothing.”

Adelaide studied the man. He was stylishly dressed in gray and white striped trousers, checkered waistcoat, and long-tailed black coat. Though she’d seen men similarly attired when she attended birthings in the city, the Separatists, plain-dressed and plain spoken, never wore such finery,

The man shook a paper in Josef’s face. You owe me for—”

“She died, you fool.” Josef batted the paper away. “You can’t collect from a dead woman.”

What dead woman? The only women who’d died recently had been murdered. A flush of pride rushed through Adelaide. She’d caught both killers, yes she had. A shake of her head rustled leaves about her, but the men paid no heed. 

The stranger’s chin jutted. “You signed for her.”

Whoever is he talking about?

“I signed for them all. I was, am, their leader. And I settled all my debts before I left Philadelphia.”

What had he signed? A debt?

The stranger waved toward the outdoors, and Adelaide jerked back against the tree. “All this land, this industry, this prosperity you’ve built on the backs of these people. You’ve the money to pay.”

“Even if I wanted to, and I don’t, I could do nothing. The money belongs to all.”

That was true. Any money the Separatists brought with them to America had gone into their common coffers, enriched by income from selling their excess crops and from the patrons who stayed at their hotel.

“But you control it, don’t you? All of it. All of them.”

That was also true.

“No, sir. I do not,” Josef said, his tone reasonable though Adelaide knew the effort it took for him to keep his temper in check. “Everyone here has a say. Even the women.”

It was a point of pride for the Society of Separatists that women could vote in their village of Zoar though nowhere else in America. It made them all equal, men and women alike. So the men insisted. But Adelaide knew otherwise. Had they ever elected a woman as trustee? Or to the standing committee to settle disputes? Not until a woman took her proper place as a decision maker in the Separatists’ society would Adelaide be convinced they practiced true equality.

“I thought to give you one last chance to repay your debt but, as I expected, you refuse.” “How many times do I have to tell you.” Josef slammed his palms on the table. “I owe

you nothing.”

“It matters naught. You’ll be answering to the authorities.”

Anxiety crept into Josef’s voice. “You’ve no cause to report me to the Americans.”

The man folded the paper and tucked it into the pocket of his waistcoat. “You’ll hear from them, you will.”

Color drained from Josef’s face.

Adelaide wiped sweaty palms on her apron. They all knew what the authorities meant back in their native Germany. And the Americans were no better, unwilling to pursue the truth, no matter how she’d insisted in the coroner’s court that Johanna’s death had not been an accident.

A branch creaked above. Adelaide peered through the straggly leaves remaining on the apple tree. A patch of calico dangled above legs clad in high-button shoes.

Nellie? What was her sister doing here? 

The girl bent forward, peering intently through the Bimelers’ open window. It wasn’t Nellie but Magdalena, the young girl apprenticed to the matron of the Anstalt, the girls’ dormitory. Where Magdalena should be now.

Adelaide was not really surprised the girl had wandered off. The newly assigned matron wielded little control over the younger girls, much less a spirited adolescent like Magdalena.

Magdalena brought a finger to her mouth and commenced chewing on the nail.

She should shoo the girl away. This was none of her business. But then she’d bring attention to herself and she’d not learn what the stranger wanted.

            “And the way you treat these people,” the stranger went on. “As if they’re slaves, your slaves!”

“Out!” Josef screamed. “Out of my town! Now!”

“Your town?” the man said. “It won’t be for long, I promise you!” He stomped out the door, perspiration dotting his shiny face. “You’re done for, Bimeler,” he shouted, slamming a black top hat on his head.

He skidded to a stop in front of Adelaide and studied her with unnerving attention. Squinted black eyes stared from a pock-marked face. “No. You’re not her.” He stank of sour sweat. “Too old,” he said as Adelaide backed away.

Black coattails flapped in his wake.

What should I do now?

It was past time to teach her sister midwifery—no matter that the girl had often and loudly voiced her disinterest in it. She had to work. Everyone worked in Zoar.

He’d not want to tell her, but Adelaide would also demand that Josef explain what the argument was about. Her high-button shoes clacked on the steppingstones, and Josef opened the door.

He waved her in. “Adelaide. What do you want?”

“Who was that?”

“Why are you here?” Though he was the leader of the Society of Separatists, Josef’s clothing mirrored the common clothes of them all. A loose, gray smock topped trousers held up with leather suspenders, a rough-woven shirt underneath.

“Who is he?” she repeated.

“Nothing for you to worry about. He’s from Philadelphia, and he’ll soon return there.”

“He threatened you. Said you cheated him.”

Josef’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know that?”

“I was on my way to see you,” she said, straightening her shoulders. “I heard him shouting at you.

“It’s none to do with you.”

She planted her fists on her waist. “It is now. I heard him accuse you of cheating. What did he mean?”

Josef blinked, presumably at her audacity. “Do you really believe I’d cheat anyone?”

“Of course not. But he thinks you did. Why?”

“It’s the other way around. He’s trying to cheat us.”

“How? And what did he mean about a debt?”

He waved away her questions. “Never you mind. It’s all in the past.” He turned toward his desk.

“Why won’t you tell me? He said he’d report you. What if he does? You don’t want the Americans back again, do you?” The coroner and his court had invaded their town a few months back and, although they found no wrongdoing, none of the Separatists were eager for their return. Especially Josef, who’d had his authority usurped.

Josef neatened papers on his desk into a pile but remained standing as if contemplating their importance.

“Please, Josef. Tell me about it. You know I can help.”

He shoved the papers to the side and turned around, his bulging left eye studying her. His voice softened. “Nothing more will come of it, I can assure you.”

The clang of the nearby dinner bell interrupted them.

Adelaide nodded. She could do no more at this moment. But she’d return. Return to find out what the stranger wanted and if he was a threat to their village.

Outside, she leaned against the tree, its fresh apple scents failing to settle her.

Magdalena had disappeared.

#

Back in her own cabin Adelaide kindled the fire in the stove and stirred the chicken and broth until it came to a boil, then beat the dumpling batter she’d readied earlier. Trying to quell her curiosity about the stranger, she dropped spoonfuls of dough into the bubbling pot while she kept her eye on seven-month-old Olivia scooting underfoot.

Benjamin entered, his blue-gray work shirt speckled with sawdust and his longish black hair mussed. Her husband gave little thought to his own appearance, and Adelaide despaired of changing him. He thought only of whatever was before him—be it his work or his family. What he looked like to others? He never considered it.

He scooped up Olivia and dangled her overhead. She gurgled with delight. “Soon you’ll have a new sister or brother.”

Adelaide patted the slight paunch on her belly, still too small to be noticeable. But significant enough to remind her that threats to the village endangered even the tiniest citizen.

She ladled chicken and dumplings into bowls. Her clean-scrubbed table held pottery plates and cups, gaily decorated in Zoar blue. Crisp radishes, fresh from her kitchen garden, and pickles overflowed a plate. Holding the bowls aloft, she stepped around Olivia’s blocks to place them on the table.

            “Smells good,” Benjamin said, depositing his daughter on the child-size seat he’d built for her in his workshop.

            Regardless of Josef’s assurance, the stranger’s accusation lingered. The man meant what he said. He would report Josef for some real or imagined wrongdoing. What was it?

“Where’s Nellie?” Benjamin pushed Olivia’s long-legged chair under the table. “Your sister should be here helping you. You need to sit more.”

            Adelaide sliced the bread. “She’s out picking up apples. All the children are.”

Apple butter time. Again. The thought made her grit her teeth. She didn’t mind the day spent peeling and chopping apples. No. She never shirked her duty. It was the women’s noisy chattering and gossip she couldn’t abide. No time to herself, no time for reflection.

            Should she tell Benjamin about the stranger’s threats? No. He’d only worry, as she well knew. 

            Benjamin glanced toward the door and then went to stand by the entrance, his hands planted on his hips. “Picking up apples, eh? That’s not what she’s doing now.”

            Adelaide joined him. Her sister leaned against the almost-bare apple tree. Young Wilhelm, son of Old Wilhelm, rested his arm on the branch above her head, his palm braced against the trunk. Nellie gazed upward at him, her cheeks abloom.

            Her sister’s body had caught up with her lanky arms and legs, softening into womanly curves. Unlike Benjamin, Adelaide welcomed this sign that Nellie was becoming a normal young girl. After her sister’s harsh treatment at the hands of the former matron in the girls’ dormitory, she had worried her sister would never come out of herself. It seems she had.

            “Nellie,” Benjamin shouted. “Get in here.”

            The girl cringed.

            “And you,” he said to Young Wilhelm. “Away with you.”

            The boy scurried out of sight, and Nellie slid inside, her face flushed.

            “Why are you so harsh on them?” Adelaide asked Benjamin in a whispered aside. “They’re nearly fifteen. Of course they’re drawn to each other.”

Benjamin’s face darkened. “You know the trouble a young girl can get into with a boy.”

“We stole moments to ourselves, and we didn’t …”

“Need I remind you her friend Brigit succumbed to a man’s wiles?”

Brigit. Her sister’s dearest companion until a few months ago. The girl had survived an unfortunate encounter with another stranger to their secluded village, and now she lived with her older sister and helped her manage the canal tavern.

Adelaide sighed. “I’d best talk with Nellie.”

Nothing more was said about Nellie’s harmless flirtation during the meal. After dinner, Adelaide wiped out the dishpan and hung the towel on the drying rack as Nellie stacked clean plates and bowls on the table. She had delayed too long talking to her sister about safeguarding her chastity. But she must. And soon.

A knock at the door brought Benjamin from the back of the cabin. He opened the door, and Adelaide heard his groan.

Another birthing woman.

A disheveled man stepped inside. “She be needing you, Missus.” The man clutched a battered hat in his grubby fingers. “She say you must come.”

            “I’ll get my bag.”

“Can I go with you?” Nellie asked.

            “Yes,” Benjamin said. “It’ll be safer if there’s two of you.”

            “Benjamin, please, you promised. You needn’t tell me what to do.”           

“It’s not far, Missus,” the man said. “Not even as far as Dover.”

She laid her hand on Benjamin’s arm. “I know you think I need extra protection now, but you must leave me to decide.”

Nellie’s eyes darted back and forth between them. “I can stay here if you want.”

“No. You should come with me.” She ought to have Josef’s approval to train Nellie before taking her along. Leaving their lands without permission was a punishable offense. But this was the first time her sister had expressed interest in going with her, and Adelaide wanted to encourage the girl. Even if Adelaide’s own condition must be ignored for propriety’s sake, the elders must surely realize another midwife would be needed during her inevitable confinement.

It was past time for her sister to learn birthing. She’d handle any complaints about Nellie’s absence later.