Last week we began Sarah Miller’s fourth letter to the man she loves, Amasa Miller, from my novel Endless Chain. These letters are the brief historical portion of a novel set mostly in contemporary times. But the events of 1853, as described by Sarah, have their counterpart in the lives of the contemporary characters.
Endless Chain is the second of five books in my Shenandoah Album series, which is about the lives of a group of women in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Quilts feature in different ways in each story, and the titles are taken from traditional quilts or quilt blocks.
Stay tuned for updates about the continuation of the series, which so many of you have asked for.
If you haven’t been reading along with the letters and wish to catch up, click on Categories at the right, then click on Fiction Friday. Scroll down to March 21, Sarah’s Letters from Endless Chain, then after reading that–the first one–scroll up to the next, and so on. Blog posts display from newest to oldest, so you’ll need to start down the page with the first, then scroll up and up again, until you finish them all.
At the beginning of this letter Sarah reported to Amasa that a band of men, looking for a fugitive slave named Dorie Beaumont, arrived at their farm. Here’s the end of that letter and that event.
“Why have you come here?” I demanded. “No one has ever suspected us of harboring fugitives.”
“You seen her?” he asked, ignoring my question.
“We are law abiding citizens,” said I. (And we are, dear Amasa. God’s law, of course, takes precedence always.)
I had been afraid to take my eyes from the men. Luckily I saw a movement beyond their loathsome circle and knew Jeremiah had joined us. I am not a brave soul, and relief flooded me.
“Good evening,” my brother said calmly. “What brings you here this night?”
The large man explained again. Jeremiah listened without interest. “There is no one here except those who belong here,” he said. “And no reason for you to tarry.”
The man was undeterred. “We got word you might be keeping runaways,” he said. “We’ll just have a look around.”
“You’ve been led astray,” Jeremiah said. And truly, they have been, Amasa, since their mission strays far from God’s law.
“Don’t matter. We’re looking,” the man said.
Jeremiah might have protested, I suppose, but it was clear that these men would do as they intended no matter what we said to them. My brother took the wisest course and said nothing more, simply nodding and gesturing to the outbuildings. “See for yourself.”
They said they would check the house first. Jeremiah nodded to me and I stepped aside. I’ll confess my heart pounded as if it would flee my chest. Clutching the bible I allowed them to pass, although I think the dogs would not have let them by if Jeremiah had not called them to his side.
I followed the men inside, as if to be certain they did no damage, and Jeremiah accompanied me. How sad it was to see these men pawing through our possessions. I believe they find pleasure in destruction. They touched everything, pausing often to see if we watched them, for I believe they were intent on stealing anything they could. Upstairs the youngest lingered in my room, stroking my clothing, gazing in the silver hand mirror that was my mother’s wedding gift from her own mother.
One frightening moment came when he lifted the coverlet on my bed, exposing the side of the trundle. He knelt and looked beneath but seemed satisfied no one was there. Perhaps he is too limited in intelligence to see that the bed was ready to be slept in. Or perhaps he knows nothing of the need to wash and air bedding when it is not in use? Whatever satisfied him, he left my room reluctantly, and later, as darkness fell, all three men left to continue their journey.
But I make this too easy, because before they rode away they lingered beside the shelves and wall that separated them from our terrified friend. They asked for water and I gave it to them. They asked for food and I gave them that, as well. They remained there, Amasa, as if to torment us, as if they knew Dorie was only a cough, a sneeze away from capture.
And then, at last, they disappeared into the night.
Jeremiah told me afterwards that he believes the patrol’s arrival was his fault. Alas our friend and neighbor Hiram Place was also in town that day. Upon seeing the announcement of Dorie’s escape Jeremiah spoke his feelings out loud. “No person can own another,” Jeremiah told him. “How can this woman flee a condition which does not exist? She is free in God’s sight, and one day the law will see that she is free, as well.”
Mr. Place and his son butcher hogs with us each fall. His wife and daughters come to gather apples from our orchard and bring us sweet cherries each June. He has no slaves, but perhaps this is only because he can not yet afford them.
Perhaps Mr. Place did not send the patrol to our doorstep. Perhaps they came on their own accord, searching every house along their route. But I will never again look at my neighbor without suspicion. What destruction slavery wreaks, even on those who do not practice it.
Dorie stayed the entire night in her secret room, and in the morning she stayed near to it, in case the patrol returned. But this evening, as we sat inside (no longer confident to sit on the porch) she told us she must leave immediately. She is afraid she has put us in harm’s way, for the penalties for harboring fugitives are steep.
She is not yet well or strong enough to travel. Jeremiah insisted she must remain awhile longer. He has already made inquiries on her behalf in Maryland through a minister there. He hopes to hear about her daughter’s fate in the coming weeks.
Dorie is torn, for she is now our friend and wishes us no trouble. Too, I suspect a rare kinship forming between her and my brother. Where once he spoke to Dorie only through me, now when I come upon them I often find them conversing.
She is both lovely and intelligent, a woman few men could ignore. Jeremiah seems to delight in their conversations. His scowl, which I had thought a permanent part of his face, has smoothed, and his eyes are no longer lifeless, but filled with inquiry and even, at times, humor. If he is not the brother I once knew, he is more mature, a man who has survived a great loss and begun to move beyond it.
I am exhausted, my dearest Amasa. This will have to be the end for now, with one last thought. After the slave patrol rode away I found I was still clutching our Bible against my chest. I opened it carefully to preserve your letter and found I had inserted the pages into Second Corinthians.
As I removed them my eyes fell on this verse: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
Your prayers are needed, and you have mine, as always. But I believe with all my heart, that God is with us here.
Dorie knows she’s putting her new friends in danger. What do you think she’ll do next?
The next letter next week.