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Duncan Smoot presides as accidental patriarch, protector of his enterprising sister, Hattie, and his two rambunctious nephews. As Dossie busies herself with cleaning, cooking, and tending the chickens at Duncan’s homestead, she wonders: Could this man, her rescuer — so godlike in her eyes, so much older than she — expect her to become his helpmeet?. Tentatively, Dossie begins to put down roots — until a shocking act of violence propels her away from Russell’s Knob and eventually into the mayhem of New York City’s mean streets.
With the same storytelling brio that distinguished the acclaimed novels River, Cross My Heart and Stand the Storm, Breena Clarke weaves a richly dramatic story of interracial harmony in the Civil War era — and of one woman’s triumph in the crucible of history.
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SHOULD HE OR SHOULDN'T HE burn the lowlander's house? Was he a burner? Should he burn them people's house to free the girl? Did he know what way the wind was blowing? Was she safe in the barn?
Indians, Africans, and amalgamators! Always caught up in fire startin' is what the whites say. The lowland white farmers are scared of burnouts from hostiles. Ha! Well they ought to be. The People have redressed wrongs and prevented trouble by burning their enemies before.
Burning folk out—ruining what they built—is a serious thing, though. Maybe the slavery of one little girl ain't enough to make it justified? Ah, these people are not fit for their farm! Their enterprises have failed. They have brush near the house. The woman is lazy. They have no water trough close by. The man is stupid. They should abandon the place.
Maybe they will blame the boy who works for them? He is a white, but he's a motherless bastard they despise. That boy will be lighting out soon. He's putting things by. That boy will take a horse and head off as soon as he sees a chance. Is it horse stealing if you take a thing that is owed to you for the life you put into an enterprise? Duncan thought not!
Duncan Smoot has never honored a bargain that was breached by carelessness, disregard, dishonor. The boy was doing what any sound man or boy would do under the current situation. But with him gone these folk will put more work onto the little bond child. They will likely run her down to her skeleton.
Duncan Smoot, a practiced hunter, kept himself concealed. He looked up into the sky—into the trees—and saw few birds. But bird sounds reached him. They were incongruous. He observed the girl's travails. Is she the one he'd missed taking up because of the arrest of the Evangelist? Was this the very same girl after so long a time? He knew what happened to the Evangelist. Word was passed. They said the young girl was traveling with her. They lost her on the road when the Evangelist was taken up. It was the policy of those who transported the secret cargo on the canals and rivers that they off-load their responsibilities at different and varied stops so that risks were shared and watchers were fooled. It was vital also that, at the busy docksides and way stations, the wayfarer not be lost to the hands of a profiteer. Stationmasters and other agents of the shadow network knew when to expect their packages as information traveled ahead. Is this the girl he was to have taken up? Had the Abingdon ring grabbed her instead? If so, these lowlanders—these so-called farmers—had bought her off the Abingdons and were using her like she's a slave.
Evangelist Zilpha Seabold was a clever, well-prepared wanderer, but she had been caught. There was no reliable information about the girl she was conducting when arrested. Duncan Smoot was to have been the next link—the next conductor. He was to have met her near the town of Peach Bottom and taken her on to other helpers. He was a happy cog. He was satisfied to be neither the first nor the last of the chain. But the failure of this endeavor stung him. It irked him being unable to find the girl and know she was freed.
Duncan canvassed the colored towns and the fringe settlements looking for her. If she'd been taken in or helped along, then he would be content. He would know. He looked and searched in the woods where the girl was separated from the Evangelist. He talked to like-minded folk. News of Evangelist Zilpha Seabold was troublingly consistent. The hooting and hollering preacher woman was said to have been put in stocks and, by all accounts, tortured. Duncan's informants said her face was pulpy and her legs broken when they last lay eyes on her. No word of the girl. Reports of the pitiful state of the Evangelist surely meant that she had not given up any names or hideouts. Bless her, she had suffered for her folk!
It is time for a bold action! Duncan thought. He knew himself to be a man consecrated to a cause and pledged to a purpose. Mostly he worked within the system and was one of a chain of folk who followed on the information of others. Now was time for him to act on his own gut.
"What you thinkin' 'bout, Duncan? You're a-ponderin'?" Mama would say when he was small and thoughtful. Duncan had been a ponderer when he was a young boy. Then when his sister, Hattie, came, his mama forgot to hold off his tormentors. His cousins, a few years older, were cruel boys. They toughened him up and turned him quickly from a ponderer to a plotter, a schemer, a burner, and an eye gouger.
New York! New Amsterdam! Ach! Grandmother spit when she say it. She say "since when is new?" Grandmother's spittle runs into our creeks. It sustains us. We won't die of thirst in these hills. Our Grandmother sleeps there up ahead. She is taking her well-earned nap. Her lips fall back. Spittle runs out of the side of her mouth while she sleeps. The hills, the outcroppings, the ridges, these are her misshapen teeth. Them sharp juts are what remain when flesh pulls back from bone.
It is no doubt that grabbing off this girl from the lowlanders is against some law. Thou shalt not steal off your neighbor's bond servant, your neighbor's slave, or your neighbor's wife. Can you steal off a girl who has already been stolen? Duncan knew he was taking a lot on himself, but surely these lowlanders were holding her by illegal and immoral means. It itched him. It bothered him.
The ring had been uncovered and verified in Philadelphia. They were nefarious. They worked by chicanery to take custody of their victims. Josiah Abingdon and his confederates were a clutch of despicable pirates of all colors who operated a shadow underground. Young escapees were lured or fell into their hands then were sold outright to a variety of work situations. Profit from the sale of children was good because they offered little resistance, and their fear and confusion made them easy to control.
This much Duncan knew for certain: the child he had been searching for had passed into unscrupulous hands, was sold and taken off by this derelict farmer named Logan and his wife.
Was he so fixed on it because of what had happened to Pippy?
As Duncan advanced his plan he mulled the man whose destiny he was changing. Logan was a fool with no neighbors. He'd not even made a dam to exploit the stream that ran in back of his place. If he had water and buckets to dip it, he might save some portion of the house. He is stupid and lazy and not one who would stick in this place.
Duncan watched. They had no dog to raise an alarm that an interloper was nearby? He wondered at a keen man being so careless. At his home in Russell's Knob no unknown man or animal could come so close unobserved.
She's a wisp of a child. She's a bit younger than the boys—than Jan and Pet. Oh! His sensitive insides were softening for her? Pinched and burdened with work, she is losing strength with each day. They feed her little—just bread and what she takes from the cow. Pet's dogs sleep closer to the fire.
She is kept punishingly busy with tasks. The farmer's wife seems only strong enough to force the girl to lift and haul and sweep and fetch. She misses no chance to beat and slap at the girl.
Duncan flushed with remorse remembering his chastisement of his nephew, Jan. He'd been so angry that he'd forgotten Jan was a child. He was a willful, irresponsible child who was a bad influence on his younger cousin. But he'd been too hard with him. The child had knelt all night, had listened to him rail, had collapsed in a faint at dawn. Later he had run off.
He resolved to grab the girl up. He resolved to burn the lowlanders out. He figured they meant to use up the little girl, then sell her south. Neither of them was above it. They had a smell about them—an aroma of unconscionable avarice. They would sell her and have the money to go to fail in the farther west.
Duncan Smoot knew the house would burn as he meant it to. He resolved firmly to burn it for them.
He risked a lot of trouble for a little dross. No, no. No. They called her Dossie. Her name is Dossie. Was it for the little Dossie he did it? Was it on account of her that he did so grave a thing? Her tiny goodness and complete helplessness was what did it then—that convinced him? She has two eyes still! Take her up while she still has two eyes to see from. Dossie, Dossie, Dossie. Was it a chirrup from a bird he'd never before listened to?
Duncan attached a bundle of dry brush to the tail of a possum and lit it and chased the poor terrified animal into the yard that had more dry grass and brush. An untidy farmstead is a dangerous place. There is much fodder for flames. And because the wind came in from the northwest and Duncan Smoot knew that it would, it whipped the fire and pushed it toward the Logans' house and away from the barn.
Duncan knew there was time enough for Mister and Missus to run out of their beds and escape with their lives. They would be startled out. No dog to raise a ruckus! The boy would call out before he rode off. They would certainly rush for their clothes and their money.
And he could escape with the girl. Dossie. The name made him smile. He had heard them calling her in calloused voices. He knew it was a sound that sang and delighted the ear if the voice but said it right.
The girl had come to feel that the cow loved her—cared for her—was concerned with her fate. The animal responded kindly. She turned her head when her teats were touched, and her milk let down when the girl stroked her flank. Her tail brushed gently and distributed her smelly gases far and wide.
"You got a deliverer coming," the cow said with satisfaction. She moved her mouth in its customary circuit. "Stay alive until he comes," the cow exhorted upon an exhalation—a snort of breath that raised up chaff and dander. As the pressure in her udders eased under the girl's squeezes, she added brightly, "He's coming soon."
The girl was given only bread and the cow's milk. Since she was given no other thing—no meat or apple—to fill up, her stomach was stalled and queasy. The cow pitied her and wished she could nibble on grass. The cow swatted flies off her own ass and wondered what was taking the deliverer so long to come.
When in the morning the heavens were clear. Dossie opened the door to the barn a crack and peeped. The bright light startled her. It was the same as to open all the windows in a house and let the sunshine come in like streams of yellow glory. Dossie felt the hot air on her face and sang her morning birdcalls like Bil and Ooma would do when the day came bright. She stood in the doorway of the barn, looked back at the cow, smiled, and thanked her. Though she would leave off sleeping with cows, she was filled with a notion of kind regard for and heartfelt appreciation of cows. Dossie turned and walked off. She looked back again to see the boy leading a horse with a bundle tied to the saddle. She saw the unsteady, middling tree that stood aside the house fall in and crush what remained of the charred roof. Smoke smell was in the air. Feeling still in her head, she walked away to the clearing at the edge of the Logans' tract where their cries of alarm did not reach.
Duncan Smoot took the girl away from the Logan farm on foot uphill—her small hand buried completely in his much-larger one. They followed a trail cut by a stream and marked by slick boulders. Water ambled downstream and reflected sparkles of the sun. She walked behind him and troubled to keep step. Perhaps he lifted her from the ground? Yes, when they reached the tall marsh grass at the edge of the stream, he lifted her and carried her across it. Did he carry her through the dense cover that bordered the Logan farm? No. No. He put her down and her feet passed over the ground—over rocks, moss, through a dry streambed.
She felt herself borne along with the man as a mite in his pocket or a string on his sleeve. Her breath came ragged as they climbed. She was unused to the terrain. Her mind formed little or no idea about her fate. She ought perhaps to have been frightened, but she was not. She believed the cow. At every turn she was treated to a different wonder.
RUSSELL'S KNOB, THE VILLAGE he brought her to, was secreted. It was a hide, a hush-up, a keep-quiet-about spot, a conceal-and-bottle-up sanctuary, a curtain, a disguise, a dissemble place. The homesteads that formed it were laid so that they were encountered singly—knots along a string. If one homestead was set upon, folk could fall back and escape uphill to the next house and make a stand with their neighbor. Together they could push a flaming barrel down the cliff to discourage the interloper and, if they were overrun, they could retreat to the next place on the string. This arrangement resisted the possibility of a complete burnout as had happened once or twice in the early times at Russell's Knob.
The first building in the village was a small stone house that sat like a muddy brown bird hiding herself in dense foliage. Outsiders and casual climbers were meant to miss seeing the cleverly disguised house and the cut that led to the town. If you knew the cuts you could find the town.
The old stone house, built so the natural slope of the hill obscured it from view, was the last home of Russell Sitton, the village's founder. Old Ninevah Van Waganen, a great-granddaughter of Russell Sitton, lived there and kept a signal fire.
Russell's Knob—is it a town or a village or a country all to itself? Who is to say? They are what they have always been. They are refuge from bondage. Whosoever seeks to make them slaves will get a damn good fight. Whosoever starts trouble here will die here. So they survive by staying watchful, clever, secretive, and well armed.
Officially they began as Munsee. When others walked farther west, they laughed and spit and came to hide in the highlands. Warriors looted from their homes and shipped across the salt sea came to Russell's Knob when they could escape a mountain and find their way. Angolans brought from the sugar islands by their fat Dutch masters ran off to the highlands whenever they could. More black Africans and Caribs came when the patriots chased them and they couldn't keep their white gals in the lowlands and the white gals didn't want to go off to the cold in Nova Scotia or suffer heat in the West Indies. Coal-black and half-black gals came to the highlands after running off from white men, and some white men came chasing them and didn't go back. Black men and their black wives whom they would not be torn from came to escape. Fearful, unattached women of all colors came and were given sanctuary. Most of the women brought jumbled babies and, because they wouldn't give up their jumbled babies, they stayed alongside each other in the hills. The People of Russell's Knob were a blended soup of colors after a few generations and made their own circumstance. Amalgamators! Ach! It was a word that was hated here. To outside eyes they were an immoral mixture. Between themselves they were so tightly woven and bound up together that they were impenetrable by outsiders. They were staunch and strong.
Lowlanders who knew of their existence often said, "Oh, those Indians? Smelly ol' women and bucks and amalgamators that can't come in town like civilized folks."
The People of Russell's Knob, snug in their hide, came into the nearby towns regularly to trade and buy but did not sleep in the towns. The People of Russell's Knob came in town for commerce, then went back to their own hidey-holes. They lived their lives many colored—they dared it!—where it was high and dry and safe. They were known—when they were known at all—for clinging to each other tightly, defending their homesteads with their lives, and being fierce and living free.
It felt to Dossie, who had only known lowland flats and tangled brush, as if the trees around Russell's Knob created a house by fanning themselves out and meeting high up in the middle to form a shelter in the woodland. At one rise she pulled at the man's hand to halt him but was too timid to lift her head and look at his face when he turned. She stood and trembled before him with her hand in front of her lower self.
"Gwan then," Duncan said and indicated with a nod that he would wait for her to attend to her wants. She scampered off into the forest and did as she wanted behind a bush, picked some berries, and filled her mouth. When she was done and rejoined him, he smiled to see her blue-tinged face.
The way of settling in a string made for an extreme of privacy for the people of Russell's Knob. The pattern—the necklace—could not be fully appreciated except by long familiarity. Each of the houses was well back in a copse, most of them with small brooks running by. Smoot and the girl encountered no one else on their journey to his homestead, though the smell of cook fires attested to other folk and their vittles nearby. When they had reached the place, he gave her drinking water from the fast-running stream that cut through the hill and spilled out at the edge of his homestead. He seated her on a wooden bench over which trailed a grape arbor. He then went ahead into the house and brought out a bowl of berries for her refreshment. Mountain blueberries, held to have the power of magic healing in these environs, benefited the girl immediately. She gorged on them in a bowl of milk. It was said by lowlanders who had seen the mountain folk that they grew long-tall and lanky for reaching so far above their heads to dine on blueberries on the bushy tufts in the crevices of the highlands. Through the summertime in Russell's Knob, few of the children's mouths were colored anything other than dark purple. Each one a contented and laughing face.
The man's homestead had a welcoming, charred-wood aroma. While Dossie consumed her berries, he watched her. He seemed pleased that she ate. When she had finished, he rose up and left her sitting again. She watched him attending to his animals and wondered that there was no wife bustling about and no young'uns running out to greet him. He built up his own fire in the hearth. He drew up his own water.
He told her his name. Duncan Smoot pronounced his name clearly and proudly but did not ask hers. He retrieved her from the grape arbor and led her by hand into the house. The smell of cooked coffee dominated the aromas. The man himself smelled of sweet ale—an aroma she'd caught as the two climbed and sweated that was very different from the smell of whiskey and retching and yellow water of other men. She had the notion then that he was not so old as his hair might say. His hair was gray mixed with dusty brown and was soft-woolly—was of a kind that was disposed to snag at dust and seeds and bits of fluff. His eyes were a color that was like a dark mustard seed. Drawn by hand into the kitchen, she was led to a table, and a seat was indicated. He placed a small cup of coffee before her. She sipped timidly, concerned not to displease him by refusing to drink what he had offered. After a while he took her to a room with a large wooden bed laid over with a fluffy feather mattress. He seemed to present the room to her. He said nothing, but held his face in a gentle, firm expression. He showed her the night pan. When he left the room, Dossie stretched out on the rag rug and waited for the arrival of the woman whose room this must be.
Mr. Smoot's wife must be a wonderful woman, Dossie assumed in a comfortable curl on the well-worn floor. After a short while her urgency would not let her sleep. She left the room and saw that Mr. Smoot still sat at his kitchen table. He looked at her and pointed out in the yard to the privy. Now the smell of whiskey in the room dominated that of coffee.
No woman came that night.
Dossie knew 'twas a young'un's job to sweep a yard. As soon as it was light she found the bound-up stick broom and set to. She did not want Mr. Smoot to think she was a lazy gal.
Where is his woman? Dossie thought as she worked and looked around. She had peeped in the bed when she rose from the floor. There were many possessions about the house all set in good order, though many things were notable for their absence from this room. The bedroom of this woman was free of dust and belongings. She is got no hair that needs tending? She needs no rag to tie it? She need no shawl? Mr. Duncan's wife must've took his children and gone visiting with her people, Dossie thought to herself.
The solid house had good plank floors that cried softly from being stepped upon many times and worn in gentle ruts. It had wooden shutters and some glass panes in the windows like the house of Mr. Abingdon, though it was not nearly so big. It sat in the center of a clearing on a point of land higher than the surround. The house was ringed with a sitting porch on three of its sides and was ringed at the outer edges of the swept and pebbled yard with a low stone wall. Near to the house was a growing patch protected with a short wooden fence, and at back was the chicken coop, a small, well-built barn, and an outhouse.
After a day had passed in this idyll—abundant food and water to drink—Dossie wondered and questioned herself to know why she had come so quietly when Duncan Smoot took her by the hand. Was his hand the hand of God? Was this deliverer the answer—the consequence of her fervent prayers? Was this the know-everything God that Evangelist Zilpha had hollered about? Dossie was not troubled by her thoughts. She was only puzzled. When she slept on the first night she'd cried for Evangelist Zilpha not because she wanted help from the woman, but that she saw the horrible collar on her neck when she closed her eyes and saw the Evangelist's poor tongue hung nearly to her chin. In her dream she asked the Evangelist who was this man. The Evangelist could not answer because of the tightening of the horrible thing. Spittle and blood and small, hard white chips flew out of the Evangelist's mouth as she tried to speak. Only her eyes had spoken. "Gwan, gwan with him!" The collar came to be upon Dossie's own neck and she screamed.
Duncan Smoot was kind when her cries startled him. She leaped up like a small animal flushed out of its nest and ran smack into him standing in the passage. The sound of the wind shushing through the trees ringing his house lulled her back to sleep.
"Aw, Hattie, don't come here a-barkin'," Duncan Smoot said to a woman who stood on his porch when Dossie entered his kitchen from the chicken yard on the second day. The woman advanced on him with her knuckles pushed against her waist.
"Aye, Rooster, what kind of thing are you doin' in yer house!" She stood toe to toe with him. Her voice rose in volume.
"You're a good lookout," Duncan said and patted the woman's cheek. Her face was flushed with indignation, and he grinned to cool her. "You got it wrong. Come on in and meet the girl."
Dossie saw the woman's stormy face and heard her angry voice with alarm. At last the woman of this house had come! Dossie froze still, bowed her head, and braced herself. The woman was on a boil!
Harriet Smoot Wilhelm's cap fell back from her head in her excitement. Her hair, curled and napped like sheep's wool, fell well below her shoulders. She was Duncan Smoot done softer, smaller, more delicately turned. And she was as straight-back-up in this house as he was. She walked in boldly when he stood aside the doorway, and she came up to Dossie and ran her eyes all over her.
"This here is my sister, little gal. Hattie—Hat—is her name," Duncan said. He followed his sister into the house carrying the basket he'd relieved her of when she walked up. "Don't be scared of her. She don't always come in making a big blow," he finished and pecked his sister on her cheek. "Hattie, this is the little bird you heard about. This is Dossie."
Ah, the magic in his manner! Dossie's heart, which she thought of as so tiny in her chest, began to expand and swell. She feared that her senses would leave her. His voice was so lovely, and he spoke with so much fancy! Why she didn't even know that he knew her call.
"How do. Are you treated bad?"
Dossie, whose eyes became wide when Hat approached her, answered, "Oh, no, ma'am. How do, ma'am." Dossie tucked her chin with deference.
Harriet—called Hat, Hattie, or Pippy by her brother—screwed up her brow and folded her arms across her chest, then dropped her arms before speaking again. "Let's us have a cup of coffee," she said, finally smiling, and went to the stove. "You drink coffee before, girl?"
Dossie answered, "Yes, ma'am."
"Lesser stuff than this, I bet you. The lowlanders don't know 'bout coffee. We got the good Carib beans—mountain beans. Coffee is best the closer it grows to God. Duncan gets them beans down at the canal boats. He thiefs 'em," she declared breezily. "Like he thiefed you."
"Hattie," Duncan cautioned.
"She ought to know who she's taken up with," Hat teased. "'Tis only fair. And 'tis the best coffee. Our water is sweet, too. Put cream in your brew, though. You're a little girl. You're too young to have your coffee black."
Dossie watched Miz Hat put her shawl on a hook familiarly—without glancing—and go to the stove to pour a cup of coffee. Dossie knew then that this kitchen was her kitchen. Hat walked into the cook room and lay out the things she'd brought in her basket. She set a pan of biscuits near the fire to restore their warmth and put jars of jam on the shelf. She examined a basket of eggs that Dossie had gathered.
"These are good eggs, Brother," Hat called out, walking a circuit between the two rooms. "Shall I build you a cake? Let's us have a cake, little girl," she said in a manner of merriment. "Brother, you're not caring for your chickens good. Your henhouse needs tending. Maybe you got some help now?"
"Is nothin' wrong with my henhouse, Pippy, except that your son is lazy and won't do what I tell him. And the other one is spoiled and lazy, too. That's what is wrong with my henhouse," Duncan said. Hat heard the tone and, for the sake of her son and her nephew, said no more.
Dossie realized then, when Hat tied on her apron, that it was the sole piece of woman's clothes that she had seen in the house.
Watching Hat spin up a cake was like watching a sudden flush of butterflies or a swarm of lightning bugs in the dark. She was so pretty, Dossie thought. Miz Hat picked up one thing and another with such grace and skill! She flew through the steps and got the cake up to hang on the cookstove before one's head could turn.
Hat left the house while her cake was cooking and returned some time later with a bundle.
"The People of Russell's Knob are lawless," she said in a wryly humorous manner as she put a large piece of fluffy cake covered in a thick berry sauce before her brother. "We're a spurned people in a spurned town. This is where you're at, little girl. You not jus' in Duncan Smoot's back pocket. We're a town of people. We're not much wanted in the surrounding towns and we keep away from them."
- "Well worth your time."—NPR
- "Rich, readable, and full of authentic detail."—Bethanne Patrick, The Washingtonian
- "A page-turner. Clarke skillfully illuminates both the grime of shine of the age as her characters come to life."—Historical Novel Society
- On Sale
- Jul 7, 2015
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Back Bay Books