The land was wild and untamed, but Thomas Cooper was a man on a mission. He had to clear the land quickly, so Ann could have the home he promised the day she accepted his proposal, and Jane deserved somewhere to run and play. Somewhere safe. He filed his homestead claim with the Critter’s Notch land office six months earlier and had worked day and night ever since to cut back some of the woods and build Ann her cabin.
“There,” he said, setting the last thatch on the cabin’s roof. Up North, he would have needed sod, but not down here. Thatch would work well enough.
“Now you can come home, Ann,” he told the night sky, wishing her and Jane were already there.
In the morning, he went into town and asked the postmistress to write Ann a letter. Mail was slow, and it would be another two months before Ann and Jane could join him but come they did. They came home just before July 4, 1843.
It wasn’t a big cabin, but it felt like the mansions they had seen back East. Ann spent the days dreaming of a garden where she could grow strawberries and watermelon. She spent her nights holding hands with Thomas as they watched Jane chase fireflies in the setting sun. Jane spent her days running barefoot through the earth that Thomas tilled for Ann’s garden. She ran barefoot through the small pasture he cut for their winter cow. By the end of summer, her little feet were so tough she even ran through the brambles without a care. Life was good on the homestead. Thomas had dreamed of having a loving family who cared for him as much as he cared for them. He couldn’t offer Ann much, but she loved him for his strength, tenacity, tenderness, and spirit. Together they poured so much love into Jane that she glowed from morning to night. Yes, the little homestead just outside of Critter’s Notch was paradise for the Cooper family.
Autumn came and brought with it talk of the Christmas dance and party at the town mercantile.
“Isn’t it exciting?” Mrs. Howard asked Ann. “Critter’s Notch first real party.”
“Oh, yes, it is quite exciting, Mrs. Howard,” Ann agreed, looking at bolts of muslin and cotton. “May I have a yard of each of these, please?”
“Of course, dear.” Mrs. Howard happily cut the fabric and gave a candy stick to Jane for being so quiet and well behaved in the Merc.
“My, my, won’t you be a pretty thing in that when you get it done,” Mr. Marsters said, taking the fabric from Ann and holding it up to her.
“Good day, Mr. Marsters,” Ann said, avoiding eye contact, taking the fabric from him. “Jane, sweetie, it’s time to go.”
“Go?” Mr. Marsters stepped in front of Ann blocking her path. “Why you leaving so quick? You wouldn’t be scared of little ole me, now would you?”
“Henry!” Mrs. Howard yelled up the stairs. “HENRY!”
“Yes, dear.” Henry said, walking down the steps, sighing. “Oh.”
“Something I can do for you Robert?” he asked, giving Ann and Jane enough time to escape. “Have a nice day Mrs. Cooper, Jane,” Henry said, nodding as the ladies passed.
“Leave them alone, Robert.” Henry warned again, sighing. “She’s not interested.”
“She will be.” Robert Marsters stormed out of the Merc, knocking over a display of canned food.
“That boy means trouble,” Mrs. Howard said, beginning to pick up the cans.
“Yep.” Henry retreated back upstairs to finish his nap.
Weeks passed, and little was seen of Robert, but there was talk floating around town that he was trying to round up a few more boys, but nothing seemed to come from it. The night of the Christmas dance arrived, and Critter’s Notch was alive with all the townsfolk coming from miles away. Preacher Olsen delivered a wonderful service about giving to others before oneself. Jane looked radiant in her new muslin dress. Mr. Howard read a poem for the children called “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Thomas enjoyed listening to the poem, holding Ann’s hand. It was a perfect evening. He could not ask for anything more than the loving wife and daughter he had by his side. When the festivities were over, everyone said their goodbyes and returned to their homes.
“That was a lovely evening,” Ann said, wrapping herself around Thomas’ arm while Jane played in the wagon behind them. “Oh, Thomas look at those stars.”
Thomas looked up and said a silent thank you to his creator that brought Ann to him when he was about ready to give everything up. Thomas had a hard life. Fought for everything he ever had. He had to. It was hard being an orphan on the streets of New York. He left the city when he was 16 and never looked back. Life down South wasn’t any easier, but his whole life changed when Ann’s family moved to Charleston. He was twenty years her senior, and he was sure she would reject him as all the others had, but he was exactly what she wanted. Someone to love her, not show her off. Someone to sit next to and watch the clouds float by. She was sent heaven for him, and he for her. She accepted his proposal nine years earlier and he was looking forward to giving her the stove she wanted for their 10th anniversary. Life in Critter’s Notch was just what both of them wanted…and needed.
Thomas lifted his sleeping little angel out of the wagon when they returned to the cabin. “So much like her momma,” he thought, thanking heaven for giving her to him.
Safely tucked away in her bed, Thomas and Ann sat on the porch holding hands for a spell watching the winter wind blow the tops of the hickory and birch trees surrounding their cabin.
“I love you,” Ann said, kissing Thomas’ hand.
“And I you.” Thomas traced the outline of her jaw with his thumb, giving her a little kiss on the cheek. “Shall we retire?”
Content and happy, she sighed and nodded. They held hands walking in the cabin, closed the door, and slid the wood bolt Thomas had installed after Henry paid him a visit nearly a month earlier. They blew out the candle and retired to their room.
A few hours later Thomas and Ann were jolted awake by three loud bangs on the front door.
“What’s wrong?” Ann asked, still half asleep. “Jane.”
“She’s fine,” Thomas said easing her fear. “Someone’s at the door.”
“Thomas.” Ann protested. She didn’t want him to leave the safety of the bed, but she was also worried for Jane.
Thomas patted her arm and kissed her on the cheek. “It’s okay.”
Heading out the bedroom, Thomas grabbed his gun and loaded it quickly and quietly.
Three more knocks landed on the door, starling Jane who began to cry for her mother.
“Go to your mother,” Thomas instructed, opening Jane’s door.
Sounds of little footsteps behind him made him grin. He was sure that nothing bad would ever happen to him and his family.
He opened the door and a flash of light blinded him. Powder from the rifle stippled his arm as the bullet was swallowed by the darkness of the cabin. Ann’s scream filled the cabin, announcing who Robert’s bullet had struck.
The peaceful homestead instantly turned in chaos as Robert, distraught at missing his target and harming the object of his obsession, tried fleeing from the scene. Thomas fired two rounds into the dark outside the cabin. Loud thuds declared targets down. In the chaos no one saw Jane run from the cabin in fear. Robert stole Cooper’s wagon that was still hitched to the team of horses and tried to drive them away. He made a sharp left turn, the wagon bumped, nearly throwing him out of the seat. Thomas’ aim was true, and the wagon collided with a tree as Robert slumped in the seat.
Thomas returned inside, tears flowing down his cheeks as he lit the candle and cradled his wife. She was already gone, but he couldn’t leave her.
“Jane,” he called. “Jane.”
There was no response. He sat cradling, rocking Ann until dawn broke, while calling for Jane. She never came.
Voices from outside brought Thomas out of his stupor. He stumbled out of the cabin. Mrs. Howard gasped.
“Thomas? You hurt?” Henry asked. “Ann? Jane?”
Thomas heard the sounds, but he was not hearing the words. He looked around the front of his homestead. Little Adam lay dead by his front door, and Junior was face down a few feet away. I killed them, he thought.
“Jane,” he began calling, walking around the front of the homestead. “Jane!”
His wagon was stuck in between two trees and the horse’s body was only being held up by rigging that was stuck on a branch.
“Why?” Thomas asked no one. “Why.”
Turning to go back into the house—back to Ann, he saw Jane’s lifeless body in the garden.
Slowly, he walked over to Jane, rolled her over, and saw the look of terror in the little girl’s face. He picked her up and carried her back into the house.
The only account of what happened next were found in Mrs. Howard’s diary.
Thomas Cooper emerged from the cabin with a look of pure evil on his face. He stood in the middle of the doorway and cursed Robert Marsters, and all his descendants. Knowing that would do little to bring his Ann and Jane back to him, he began cursing God, shaking his fist at the sky.
“Why give them to me, just to rob me of them!” he shouted. “I renounce you!”
Mrs. Howard swears that Thomas’ eyes turned as black as coal after that.
“Get off my land!” he shouted at the Howards. “Make it known throughout the township, that anyone who dares disturb me will pay with their lives!”
Thomas returned to his cabin, slammed the door, and slid the lock. News of the events spread like wildfire across the township, and most heeded his warning. Those who did not paid with their lives. Years after people were sure he would be dead, foolish young men would tempt fate by knocking three times on Old Man Cooper’s front door. Few lived to tell the tale. They say Old Man Cooper can see into people’s souls and knows who is malicious and who is not. Perhaps if he had that ability when he was alive, Ann and Jane would have lived through that fateful Christmas night in 1843.