Monday, July 18, 2011

heaven on earth

It is 150 years since 1861 when the American Civil War began. For the next several years, right through to 2015, Americans will be commemorating various battles and events that occurred between 1861-1865.

I have been contracted by a publisher in the USA to write a book on that war. I presented my plot outline and they accepted it without my having shown them a single chapter - the first time in my life. Of course they have seen other things I have written so they are basing their contract commitment on that.

I was eager to write the book. With family on both sides of the CAN-US border, and being trained as a historian by my second Masters degree, I felt I could do a creditable job (see, I am talking 19th century talk). Moreover, I have been reading about that war and how it affected America since I was about ten years old. I have a lot of research in me and I have seen some of the battle sites. I intend to see more before I am done.

I want it to be one of the best books I have written. This is chapter one. I won't be posting any other chapters. But please let me know what you think of the first 3000 words and whether or not the story interests you.

God bless. I pray he will help me find not only the words I need but the depth I need for this important book.


Chapter 1

Whenever she thought back to that morning years later, or told her children and grandchildren how it was before the whole world changed, it was the warm spring sunshine Lyndel spoke of the most and the brightness of the sky. That and the green scent of the grass over which a morning rain had just come and gone, the opening of red snapdragons, and the talk of the men on the porch being lost to her ears as robins and larks opened their throats for the second of April, 1861, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

“Was it beautiful, Mama?” her children asked when she would tell the story around a fire on a sharp winter night cut open with stars.

“Tell us how beautiful it was, Nana,” her grandchildren pleaded when she was older and they sat together on the summer grass while the sun fell slowly from the sky.

“It was very beautiful,” she always responded, laying a hand on each of their heads, “and I was very young.”

“And beautiful also,” Sarah would say, “just like the month of April.”

“Yes,” she smiled, “I think so. That is certainly what Nathaniel King always told me.”

Lyndel remembered that the cows had already been milked and that her three younger sisters were hard at work with the butter churn in a room just off the kitchen. She was heading to the barn to open the doors and lead the dairy herd out to their spring pasture. A sudden pause in bird song allowed the men’s voices to reach her as she crossed the yard.

“Jacob, they have seized the federal forts in South Carolina and Mississippi and Georgia. Their intent is clear. I see no hesitation on the part of the states that have left the Union. They mean to have their own country.”

“Wait. It is only a ploy to force President Lincoln to take their demands seriously. All will be right as rain by summer.”

“I am not so sure, Jacob. They mean to keep their slaves and Lincoln made many speeches against slavery.”

“So you say it was wrong for the President to make speeches against slavery, Samuel?”

“I did not say it was wrong. Only I do not think they are spinning tops and playing games. They will have their slaves and they will have their own country.”

Lyndel was surprised to find the cows pushing against the barn doors. Once she opened them the herd rushed out, almost knocking her to the ground. Without Lyndel having to say a thing Old Missus rapidly led the way to the pasture gate so that the young woman had to run ahead and swing it wide. The cows shouldered through side-by-side, a few of them bawling, and traveled at least a hundred yards before deciding to stop and crop grass. Latching the gate Lyndel went back to the barn to see if she could find out what had disturbed them. Perhaps a snake had found its way in among the straw.

Picking up a pitchfork to chase away any pest she encountered she began to walk through the barn, glancing often at her feet as she stepped through the dirty straw. Looking into the first stalls she found they were empty of anything like porcupines or skunks or badgers. She stopped and listened a moment but heard nothing. Slowly she made her way to the back of the barn holding the pitchfork at chest height. Sunlight trickled between cracks in the walls and through a dusty skylight so that she could make out what was in the corners and by the time she reached the end of the barn there was still nothing. She didn’t bother taking a look at the last two stalls and turned to head back. Whatever had spooked the milk cows was long gone. But suddenly she heard a groan of pain.

She whirled, fear pricking her chest. Brandishing the pitchfork she stepped towards the last stall on the left, expecting to see a wild dog or a coyote or fox. In the dim light she saw two sets of human eyes and a lot of blood. Then teeth as a face grimaced, struggling to breathe.

“Don’t hurt us!” a voice cried and a hand shot up to ward off a blow.

Lyndel immediately lowered the pitchfork and stepped closer. “You’re slaves!” she said in astonishment.

“We’re men.”

“How long have you been here? What has happened to you?”

One man was holding the other in his arms. He was the one who spoke to Lyndel while his friend could only fight for air and wince. “We’ve been on the run from the plantation in Virginia for three weeks,” he said, holding the wounded man close to his chest. “We made good time riding the boxcars. But we had to jump while the train was moving last night and Charlie got hurt pretty bad.”

Lyndel was wearing a traditional Amish dress of navy blue over which she had tied a large black apron. Leaning the pitchfork against the wall, she knelt and took the apron off. Charlie had a deep cut at the side of his chest and she folded the apron twice and pressed it against the wound to slow the flow of blood. She used the apron strings to tie it tightly.

“Have you had anything to eat or drink?” she asked the man who was doing the talking.

“There’s plenty of water in the streams and rain barrels. But we haven’t had anything to eat. Not for two days.”

“Let me fetch you something.”

A hand grabbed her by the wrist. “Don’t tell anyone. I know they’re hunting us. This is the third time Charlie’s tried to escape. They said they’d hang him if they caught him running again. They’ll cross the state line and comb this county.”

Lyndel, still kneeling, fixed her eyes on the frightened man. “I will only tell people I can trust. I won’t tell anyone who would go to the sheriff in Elizabethtown. He would feel bound by law to tell the slave hunters if they showed up here.”

“They’ll show up here.” For the first time a smile came over the man’s face. “We may not look like it right now but we’re worth a lot of money.”

Lyndel paused. Smiling back, she patted the man on the arm. “Then we must take good care of you.”

He released his grip on her wrist and she stood up. “I will be a few minutes,” she said. “Please don’t worry. I will not betray you.”

He was still smiling. “I believe you.” He extended a hand while with the other he held the folded apron to his friend’s chest. “My name is Moses Gunnison.”

She reached down and clasped his hand in hers. “I am pleased to meet you, Moses. I am Lyndel Keim.”

“Pardon me for saying so but you have large hands for a woman, ma’am. And some strength in them.”

“So I have been a farmer’s daughter all my life, Mr. Gunnison.”

“Do you have a husband, ma’am?”

“Oh, no. There’s been no time for that. But I do have a brother. He is the one I will go to. He will help you. We will both help you.”

“Thank you, ma’am. God bless you.”

Lyndel straightened and brushed the straw off her dress. “Why, God bless you too, Mr. Gunnison.” She adjusted the black prayer kapp on her head and looked down at Charlie. “You are going to be all right.” He stared up at her, his eyes exhausted from fear and pain. “I will be right back with my brother Levi as well as food and drink.”

She thought quickly as she walked through the barn and out into the morning sunlight. The men were still seated on the porch and still talking politics. Her father, the bishop of their Amish community, sat in the middle of them, tall and slender, his beard night black, listening carefully to the different opinions, now and then leaning forward and interjecting. She loved her father, indeed, she cared for all the men seated with him, several of whom were the church’s ministers. But she also knew how law-abiding they were. If she told them about Moses and Charlie they would offer as much assistance as they possibly could. Yet they would also feel bound to hitch up a wagon and drive into Elizabethtown and inform the law there were two runaways hiding out in the Keim barn.

Instantly she decided against confiding in any of them, including Papa. She smiled as she walked past them for the stable where she knew her brother was doing the work of a farrier and trimming their horses’ hooves now that it was spring.

Levi was wiping his face with a red handkerchief, sweat running down into the collar of his white work shirt. He was speaking to someone who was bent over and holding a horse’s hoof between his legs and fighting to get the nipper in position to cut. Lyndel hesitated. Even though the man with the hoof nippers had his back to her she recognized his build and when he answered her brother she knew for certain. Levi’s best friend, Nathaniel King, was the one wrestling to trim Dancer’s left front hoof. One of her hands went to her mouth. She had not expected to see him today but Levi must have asked him to come over and lend a hand with the horses.

Her brother glanced over and grinned as she came into the stable. “Hello, Ginger. You’re just in time to help. Nathaniel can’t get Dancer to agree to a manicure and she’s your mare, isn’t she? Can’t you reason with her?”

“I can try.”

She walked over and stood in front of Dancer who whinnied and allowed Lyndel to hold her head and scratch her between the ears.

“That’s better,” grunted Nathaniel. He moved quickly with the nippers and the mare was done. He released the leg and stood up, stretching his back and smiling at Lyndel. “Danke.”


“May I call you Ginger too?”

“No, you may not. I don’t like it. Only Levi gets away with it.”

“So just plain old Lyndel?”

“Yes, just plain old Lyndel. You make me sound like one of Levi’s horses.”

“My apologies. You certainly deserve better than that. Hair like fire. Eyes like sky.”

Lyndel felt the heat in her cheeks.

Levi laughed. “Are you going to court my sister? I thought you came over to help me.”

“I did,” smiled Nathaniel. “But now we’re finished.”

“Ja, well, how about sitting down for a coffee before you ask her to go for a ride in your buggy?”

“Sure, a coffee would be good right about now.”

Lyndel walked Dancer out of the stable and into a bright green paddock with two other horses. “You don’t need to talk as if I’m not here, you two,” she said over her shoulder. “And the older men are still sitting on the porch.”

“Still here?” groaned Levi. “What do they find to go on about for so long?”

“The South.”

“Oh, the South. These things work themselves out.” Levi glanced at Nathaniel. “If we want coffee we will have to run the gauntlet. They’ll probably make us sit with them and offer up our opinions.”

Nathaniel shrugged. “I don’t have an opinion on the South. They live what they live and we live what we live.”

Lyndel turned from closing the stable gate. “And what if others can’t live, Nathaniel King? What is your opinion on that?”

The strong tone in her voice made Levi and Nathaniel stare at her.

“What do you mean?” Nathaniel finally responded, wiping his hands on a large blue rag.

“Would you favor slavery for yourself or your family?”

Nathaniel met her gaze. “No. I would not. I have read about these things and thought about these things. That is why I am still Amish and still a Northerner.”

“How is it you have been coming to our house for years to visit my brother but I have never heard you express these thoughts?”

“Why, the occasion for it has never occurred in your presence.”

She kept her eyes on him, turning what he said over. Ever since she had seen Nathaniel in the stable she had been debating with herself about what to do – should she tell him about the men in the barn or not? Now she made up her mind to find out what sort of person he really was behind his soft brown hair and shining green eyes. “I need your help, both of you. Two men are in the barn. They have run away from a plantation in Virginia. One of them is wounded. I am afraid to tell the elders. I do not want them to go to the law.”

“Slaves?” asked Levi in shock.

“They do not like to be called that.”

“What are they then?”

“What you are. What Nathaniel is. Men who are hungry and thirsty.”

Nathaniel kept his eyes on her. She wondered if he was looking at her red hair and blue eyes or waiting to hear what she had to say. For a brief moment she realized she hoped it was both. Then her thoughts returned to the crisis at hand.

“Levi, can you get a sausage from the smoke house? I don’t dare go into the house for bread, Mama will ask what I’m doing.”

“Why can’t we tell her?” Levi demanded.

“Because then everyone will find out and someone will speak with the sheriff. And if slave hunters come the sheriff will tell them two men are in the Keim barn.”

“Are they headed for Canada?” Nathaniel spoke up.

“I did not ask,” Lyndel replied, “but that would only make sense.”

“All right.” Nathaniel reached for a bottle on a shelf. “You said they had wounds? This alcohol will help with that. Can I draw some water from the well for you while Levi gets the sausage?”

She gave him a small smile, wanting to make up for some of her harshness. “That would help.” Then she glanced around her. “My problem is bandages. I can’t go into the house. And I already gave the man who is wounded my apron to staunch the blood.”

Nathaniel nodded. “I have a clean shirt in my wagon. To change into after helping your brother. It is just under the driver’s seat.”

She did not mean to give him her full smile but it opened upon her face before she could stop it. “Thank you so much, Nathaniel.”

“My pleasure. And an honor.” He gave her a long look. “You know, you really are something, Lyndel Keim.” Then he walked out of the stable in the direction of the well.

A feeling went right through her like light.

Lord, what is all this about?

She went out to the King wagon that was parked near the house and was surprised to see that the porch was empty and all the visitors’ buggies gone. She patted Nathaniel’s bay named Good Boy who stood patiently in the shade of a crab apple tree and reached under the seat for the shirt. It was wrapped in a thin blanket to keep it clean. She ran her hand over it a moment and thought of Nathaniel wearing it, a young man so tall, so strong, so pure. Then she tucked white shirt and blanket under her arm and walked towards the barn doors where he and Levi were already waiting for her. They entered the barn together.

As soon as he saw them Moses said to Lyndel, “There are three of you.”

“Yes, Moses. This is my brother Levi. He’s brought you meat from our smokehouse. And this is his best friend Nathaniel who has brought you a pail of water.”

Moses stared at Nathaniel. “Can we trust him?”

Lyndel knelt and began to rip Nathaniel’s good cotton shirt. “Well, he gave me this for Charlie’s bandages. Let us give him an opportunity to prove himself, ja?”

Nathaniel set down his bucket. “I have some well water. And a tin cup. Can I give your friend a drink?”

“Give me the cup,” growled Moses. “I’ll give Charlie the drink.”

Lyndel dipped a square of Nathaniel’s shirt in the water and mopped Charlie’s forehead and face. “How is he?”

“Now and then he starts to shake. The blood seems to have stopped coming out of his wound though.” Moses put the tin cup to Charlie’s lips. “Come on now. You got to take some of it in.”

Lyndel pried the folded apron from Charlie’s side. It was thick with blood. She reached her hand towards Nathaniel. “May I have that bottle of alcohol now?” He tugged out the cork stopper and gave it to her. She poured some alcohol onto another cloth and pulled Charlie’s shirt back from his wound. She began to clean the gash and the sting made him cry out once and then clench his teeth together. Sweat covered his forehead again.

“Levi?” Lyndel asked her brother. “Could you take another piece of Nathaniel’s shirt and wipe Charlie’s face?”

Levi had been standing there taking it all in. He squatted down and, not knowing where to put the two large rings of sausage, placed them on Charlie’s lap. “Are you hungry? It is very good sausage. My mother’s recipe and her mother’s also.” Then he splashed water over a cloth and patted Charlie’s face and neck. “How is that? Is that all right for you?”

“Perhaps I should go back to my house,” said Nathaniel, “and get some blankets and pillows. We need to make them comfortable here. They will need a few nights of rest before they move on.”

Lyndel glanced up at him. “That sounds like a good idea.”

Moses shook his head. “No. They’re on our trail. Reason we jumped from the train was we could see a whole gang of them waiting on the station platform a quarter mile ahead of us– bloodhounds, rifles and rope.”

“But we have to get Charlie’s wound closed up first,” protested Lyndel. “He’ll bleed to death if you run too soon.”

“They’ll hang him from the tallest tree on your farm if we run too late.” Moses looked around at their faces. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I’d heard there were good people hereabouts, good Christian people.” He gripped Lyndel’s hand. “But they’re going to hunt until they find us. One more night here and then we have to get up to New York and Ontario. I tell you, we’ve got to move on no matter how bad Charlie is.”

Nathaniel nodded. “In that case we have to make sure you have a very restful night. I will fetch bed linen for you and Charlie from my home. And a poultice recipe of my mother’s she swears can close any wound.”

“No need to go all the way back to your home when there is a spare bedroom here.”

Lyndel jumped to her feet. Her father was standing behind them. His eyes cut dark and sharp right into her.

“You should have told me daughter,” he said. “You should have trusted me.”

1 comment:

Bill L. said...

A stimulating, powerful time of history, crisp imagery, vital, jump into one's heart and mind characters... I really enjoyed reading this; wish I had written it.