by Ann Nolder Heinz
****First Place Winner Dragonfly e-Book Awards Competition, Historical Fiction Category****
A desperate flight from brutal oppression—and everything to lose if it fails...
Two women, one white, the other black, find themselves trapped in bondage on a South Carolina plantation in 1850's America. Their unique friendship gives each the strength to endure until circumstances threaten not only to rip them apart but to place their very lives in jeopardy. They undertake a harrowing flight with the aid of the Underground Railroad. Will slavery’s powerful tentacles hold them? Or will they find the freedom they crave?
978-1-59431-925-9 History, Heritage, Underground Railroad
October 23, 1852
The distant baying of the hounds echoed through the stagnant swamp air like anguished cries from the bowels of hell. Julia pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. Despite the sweat bathing her body, she felt a chill. The chill of fear. Of agonizing doubt. Of irreversible destiny.
A menacing symphony of night sounds bombarded her ears. The discordant voices of myriad frogs. A muted splash as some unseen reptile slipped into the water. The occasional hair-raising shriek of an owl. The incessant whine of mosquitoes. The dull whack as Jacob beat a stout stick into any shadows where a venomous snake might lurk.
The air reeked of decay and mold. Julia had lived in South Carolina long enough to know that every time she and her companions drew the unwholesome lowland air into their lungs, they risked becoming infected with one or another of the dreaded swamp fevers. Yet any such mortal danger paled before the far greater one posed by the men and dogs now hunting them.
The advantage seemed to lie with the hunters. A full moon hung high overhead, its silvery light penetrating the tree branches and reflecting off the murky water. They had taken precautions to cover their tracks, but they could still hear the hounds in full cry. The promised rescue seemed as elusive as a dream. Seized with panic, she reached for Fanny's hand.
She felt the calloused fingers close around hers in a gentle but firm grip. She sought her friend's eyes through the gloom, memory recalling their placid brown depths. Moments passed. Gradually she felt Fanny's strength flow like a current of calm into her heart. Her companions had so much more to lose in this rash venture than did she. For them, the consequences of failure would be dire beyond description, putting her own paltry fear to shame. She took a deep breath and settled back to wait.
She and Fanny had levied themselves as high as possible onto the knee of a cypress tree, their backs pressed against the bole, their knees drawn tight against their chests. In Julia's twenty-one years of living, she had never experienced such misery of body. Her heavy tallow-and-tar-treated brogans were waterlogged from trudging through the sticky muck. The coarse homespun dress was too small and chafed at her neck and under her arms. Her head ached from the tightly-bound turban. Her skin itched beneath the sooty goo masquerading her face and hands.
To help the interminable minutes pass, she thought back to the day it had all begun. It was a cold, rainy late-April morning when Ellen came into the parlor with the daily post. Julia put aside her mending, reached for the thin packet, and smiled with pleasure when she saw the familiar ivory-colored paper addressed in flowing script to Miss Julia Bigsby, 224 Fourth Street, Troy, New York.
April 24, 1851
The letter was astonishing. Julia abandoned her seat by the meager parlor fire and carried it to the chillier but brighter front window. A late spring rain distorted the view into the street. As a child, she had thought such a scene must have inspired Saint Paul to write in sacred Scripture:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.
Today, inspired by premonition, she saw the window glass as a shimmering gateway beyond which she might come face to face not with her God but with an exciting new adventure. She adjusted the page so the maximum amount of light fell onto its creamy linen face and read again from the beginning:
Dearest Cousin, I must beg your forgiveness as it has been many weeks since last I rote.
Julia smiled. Her Cousin Mary had benefitted from the finest education available to a young woman. Yet despite her years at the renowned Troy Female Seminary, her spelling was little improved from the years when the two little girls had studied at their mothers' knees. She continued reading:
Truth be told, it is difficult these days to find anything cheerful enough to warrent putting pen to paper. Ever since Mama's passing into the arms of the Lord, a terrible pall has fallen over our household. Papa either snaps like an old turtle or sits staring into the fire for hours on end, more like a fantom than a flesh and blood parent. With Brother Jeremiah off at Princeton, I am left to deal with this dizmal state of affairs by myself. At times I feel as if I cannot bare it another moment.
Julia had also spent many hours grieving for the aunt who had been her guide and stay after her own mother died when she was eight. That the Leeds family was still in turmoil barely ten months after the dear lady's surrender to pneumonia came as no surprise.
There now, enough of gloomy talk. My mind's eye sees the sympathizing tear on your cheek, and I chastize myself for causing such distress to my heart's best friend. I hope to brighten your mind with a proposal that I pray will find favor with you--but especially with my esteemed uncle so he will be inclined to give it his blessing. Jeremiah informed us in a recent letter that he will stopfor a fortnight at the Village of Saratoga Springs before continuing home after term is finished. I suspect he is motivated by the anticipated presence of a certain fair damsel from Princeton town who vacations there with her family each June, for his recent letters have been filled with her prayzes. Might wedding bells be in my dear brother's near future? But I digress. Jeremiah proposes that Papa and I join him at the springs. Not only has Papa agreed, but he insists our little Julia must come as well and has comishioned me to send this invitation forthwith.
The very thought of such a visit sent Julia's heart into a paroxysm of joy. She had been deeply grieved when her uncle moved his family west to the town of Buffalo three years before. The parting was made even more bitter by the knowledge that her father, the Reverend Samuel J. Bigsby, D.D., would never condone much less finance any attempt by Julia to see these in-laws whose wealthy lifestyle he abhorred. Now she allowed her imaginings to soar, if only for a brief moment. She returned to the letter:
I must make it clear that this trip would be at Papa's expense. You would have a ready escort in Jeremiah, who will be stopping in Troy regardless since that is where he must board the cars for Saratoga. Once at the springs, you would share our acomodation as if you were one of our small family, which of course you surely are, in spirit if not in tecknicality. When our holiday is over, we three would accompany you back to Troy, where we plan to spend a week or two renewing old aquaintences. Given these facts, I cannot imagine our proposal drawing serious objection from any quarter.
A pointed reference to the sure response of Julia's father.
Indeed, it would be considered a niece's Christian duty to offer solace to her stricken uncle and cousins and ease their pathway back to happiness. To say nothing of the benefit from the medicinal waters of that storied place, from which we shall return to our ordinary lives in better health and ready to resume our duties with fresh re--
Here a large blot of ink obscured the intended word. Mary's penmanship had always been prone to careless drips and drops from the tip of her steel pen. This letter was no exception. Julia supplied the word resolve from her imagination and continued:
There, I have made my case. Now I must bring this episel to a close and send it off in today's post. We shall all await your reply with great anticipation. I remain your loving cousin, Mary Leeds.
Julia shivered and went back to the fire. Despite the recent cold weather, the Reverend Bigsby had consulted the calendar, determined that spring had come, and turned his frugal eye to the coal bins in the cellar. With several tons still remaining from the winter's allotment, he had decreed that the furnace would henceforth lie dormant so the leftover coal could be saved as a hedge against rising prices the following year. This edict did not stop their housekeeper Ellen O'Leary from bringing a scuttleful of the precious fuel to the parlor fireplace on days such as this so that Julia would have some small measure of comfort as she went about her morning tasks.
She tucked Mary's letter into the pocket of her apron, returned to the large rocking chair, and took up the other letters. There was a notice of payment due from the Troy Gas Light Company, and she laid it aside to be dealt with on a day more suitable for a walk to the company office. The amount was so paltry it hardly seemed worth the effort. Although the parsonage had been fitted for gas at the same time as the church the previous year, the house fixtures were lit only when there were church members or other important persons to be entertained. The remainder of the time, the household relied on the camphene lamps that had been their staple long before the newfangled devices became available.
The two remaining letters were addressed to her father as pastor of the Fourth Street Presbyterian Church. As his defacto assistant, Julia did not hesitate to open them. One was a letter of gratitude for the Missionary Society's recent gift to a minister laboring among the heathen in the western territories. The other invited Samuel to attend a meeting of a group of regional Presbyterian ministers who shared an affinity for the Old School branch of the church. The meeting was to be held in nearby Albany in a month's time and was to feature a lecture by James Henley Thornwell of South Carolina, a leading voice among those fighting to protect the church and her teachings from the nationalistic and reformist tendencies of the New School. Finding themselves in the minority among the presbyteries and synods of the northeast, these stalwart men met periodically to bolster their resolve and make contact with the southern brethren who were the major standard bearers of their beliefs. Julia knew her father would make every possible effort to attend.
At the moment he was secluded in prayer, study and meditation prior to composing his weekly sermon. She would join him after dinner, at which time they would discuss the letters and any other necessary business. Then Julia would take up her pen for his dictation of the sermon itself, a service she had been providing ever since a crippling rheumatism rendered him unable to write them out himself.
She reached once again for her mending. She was repairing a weak seam on her father's Sunday frock coat, a garment that most men would have discarded long before due to excessive wear. Not the Reverend Bigsby, who would continue to wear the wretched thing until the fabric disintegrated from his very body. She sighed and lifted the work close to her eyes. She had taken but three stitches when her hands fell idle and her thoughts returned to Mary's letter.
The longer its contents nestled into her mind, the more she yearned to accept the offered invitation. It was an opportunity so palpable she could feel it as a physical ache beneath her breastbone. She had never traveled more than a few miles outside the City of Troy, much less to a fashionable resort such as Saratoga Springs. The thought of the amazing sights she would see as well as the excitement of traveling there was enough to take her breath away. Yet even these prospects paled before the notion of spending a fortnight with her much-cherished and only remaining relatives. Was there any way she might persuade her father to allow her to go?
She created and discarded a dozen strategies over the remaining hours of the morning, each more preposterous than the last. By the time Ellen rang the dinner bell, she was no closer to a plan than she had been when she first read the letter.
She crossed to the dining room as her father emerged from his office at the far end of the hall. The Reverend Bigsby was a tall, gaunt man of forty-nine, slightly stoop shouldered but with a staid and lofty bearing. He wore his graying hair long and in an old-fashioned que. His ice-blue eyes, bushy eyebrows, and high domed forehead gave him a look of severe intelligence that intimidated those who had the temerity to disagree with him but earned him the pride and respect of his congregation.
He caught his daughter's eye and gave a slight nod, waiting for her to seat herself before he took his place at the head of the table. They bowed their heads while he intoned a blessing. Ellen had prepared a dinner of mutton chops, boiled new potatoes, pickled cabbage and soda bread. They ate in silence, the only sounds those of their forks clinking against their plates. Casual conversation had never flowed easily between them, but an awkward incident some months before had thrown a pall over what little there might have been. Given this chronic air of tension, Julia could not bring herself to broach the subject of Mary's letter.
Ellen came in to clear their plates and serve a dessert of rice pudding. The housekeeper had been in Samuel's employ ever since he moved into the parsonage as the church's newly-called pastor twenty-three years before. She was a tiny woman of seemingly boundless energy whom Julia assumed to be well into her sixties, although her exact age was a secret known only by her family and priest. She had iron-gray hair drawn into a high knot, a pasty complexion, and watery blue eyes on the right eyelid of which rested a large mole. She was a kindly soul but mindful of her station. She had done what she could to ease Julia's path as a motherless orphan, but her sense of propriety had prevented her from establishing the warm connection that would have provided the most comfort. Nonetheless, Julia loved her and dreaded the day when old age would of necessity take her away from them.
When the meal was finished, father and daughter went into the small parlor that Samuel used as his office. Books cluttered every surface except the small writing desk where Julia took her dictation. The air was chill and damp, the fireplace cold, and she shivered as she crossed to her chair.
She held out the two letters involving church business and said, "These came in the post."
He took them, hooked a pair of spectacles over his ears, and read in silence. He handed them back, saying, "Make a note of the meeting date. And perhaps you would do me the favor of reading the other out at the next meeting of the Missionary Society."
"Very well, then." He began to pace. Cleared his throat and said, "I have been contemplating the twelfth chapter of Romans and have decided to use the third verse as the text for this week's lesson. If you will prepare yourself?"
Julia suppressed a sigh, took out a fresh sheet of paper, and dipped her pen into the ink.