Today’s Fiction Friday is the fourth letter dated 1853 that Sarah Miller writes to the man she loves, Amasa Stone, about the events that’s happened on the Miller farm in rural Shenandoah County, Virginia. This letter is written on the same day as the last one, which I featured in two parts beginning two weeks ago. After sealing her first letter to Amasa that day, she experienced an unwelcome surprise which she then relates to Amasa later in the evening.
These excerpts comes from my novel Endless Chain, the second of the Shenandoah Album novels. While most of the novel takes place in contemporary times, Sarah’s letters, which relate to the contemporary story, too, continue through the book. I think you’ll enjoy this peek into pre-Civil War life in a county that had a fair number of residents who disapproved of slavery, even though that position was extremely unpopular.
The letters are divided in two parts here, to keep the blogs a reasonable length, and the beginning of the first letter debuted in Fiction Friday on March 21st. If you click on Fiction Friday under categories on the right and scroll down to that date, you can read the letters in order by scrolling up for each one.
Here’s the first part of the next letter.
June 4, 1853
As I was about to seal this letter so I could read your next (a childish game I play with myself), when all manner of excitement occurred here. I am sorry to tell you none of it bodes well for us or for Dorie. I will set it on paper now but have no hope that this letter will make its way to town in the coming days for even if a neighbor stops by, I can not entrust these pages to anyone. Jeremiah is now afraid to leave even for so long as half a day, a justified fear I am sorry to say. I will explain.
Last night Dorie and I were sitting on the porch, taking our ease as the sun sank in the sky. I re-read my letter to you as Dorie read our Bible. She is fascinated by the story of Moses and the Promised Land. I, too, find the similarities uplifting. Since the Fugitive Slave Law was enacted, the Promised Land for Dorie and other enslaved peoples is Canada. How sad there is no place in this fertile valley where she can live undisturbed. Tell me, Amasa, of what do we have to be proud if we can not defend the rights of all people to live without fear?
I was so absorbed in what I had written that the barking of our dogs soon became a familiar noise like that of crickets or bullfrogs by the creek. I will confess I imagined you opening the letter, your hands stroking the paper and your smile blooming slowly. Lost in this reverie I wasted precious seconds. Dorie herself woke me from it.
“Horses,” she said. “More than one. They’re coming quick.”
I looked up and in a moment I realized she was right. And what a start this gave me.
Jeremiah was out in the barn, and I knew that even if he heard our visitors, he could not travel the distance from barn to house before their arrival.
With one mind Dorie and I ran inside to the shelves where our dishes and staples are kept. We moved what we had to, lifted two shelves and pushed open the door. Dorie escaped inside and left me with the task of returning everything to its place with hands that trembled badly enough I nearly broke a dish.
We have all grown careless here. What reason is there to suspect this little family of harboring a runaway? Even as Jeremiah fashioned the secret room, I had little thought we might use it. As I returned to the porch I saw our bible on one chair and my letter to you (a letter that speaks clearly of our guilt) lying on the next. I closed the bible and slipped your letter inside, holding it against me as three men drew close to the house. As they slowed their mounts I wondered what other signs of Dorie’s presence I had left in the open for all to see. An item of clothing that was clearly not mine? The trundle bed made up as it would be if a guest were here?
Of course I knew the latter might not be apparent to men like these. These are creatures who could never fathom my delight in having Dorie close at night, her soft, even breathing a reassurance she grows stronger. If they believe Jeremiah and I harbor Dorie or others like her, they believe we exile her to the barn or the chicken coop, not keep her safe in our home and hearts.
A more scurrilous lot of men I have never encountered. The dogs barked and nipped at the heels of their mounts as if they, too, suspected the worst. One man raised a whip to beat Blue until I told him that if he harmed one dog I could not be responsible for what the other four might do to him.
In truth, as you know, our dogs are a useless pack, more adept at lying in the sun than guarding us. But the man, who did not know this, lowered his whip.
I called Blue, and all dogs moved closer to the porch. There they remained snarling between me and the men, their round canine eyes suspicious. For once I felt well protected.
I will endeavor to report our conversation, such as it was.
“We’re looking for a slave girl,” the biggest of the three declared. “Name of Dorie.”
I should describe the slave patrol briefly. The spokesman was large enough to do damage to any horse unlucky enough to be saddled by him. He was nearly toothless, but this has not deterred him from eating, for doubtless, he has consumed enough food in his lifetime to feed several others.
The second was not a young man, but wiry and strong, and his watery gaze never stopped darting to shadows and windows, as if he expected Dorie to materialize momentarily. The third was hardly more than a boy, but he had already learned the insolent sneer of the others. Unlike them he stared only at me, as if to curdle my blood or reduce me to vapors.
I don’t think Sarah will be reduced to vapors, do you? She’s already shown courage and resolve. Can you imagine yourself in this situation? Throughout history ordinary citizens have been called on to protect the innocent, who, through no fault of their own, have been put in harm’s way. Do you wonder what you might do if you were Sarah and how you would feel?
Next week, the conclusion of this letter.