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Authors: Linda Spalding

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Then there was Wallens Creek to be crossed the following day, and it was not so terrible as the river but it made a rushing noise in its shallow parts that worried the horses after their last experience. On the other side, they came to a flat length of ground surrounded by hills and stopped to rest where there was only low brush and emptiness and a few birds holding forth. The boys were longing to be loose and ran off into the field while Mary sat with her father and Ruth stayed in the back under the canvas with the baby.

“Is it you are looking for some place?” A shape had appeared out of cooling mist. Words from an apparition.

Daniel started. “I seek a place indeed, yes.”

A wood grouse fluttered in the underbrush. “I got a piece to go,” said the apparition, who was wrapped in oilcloth as if rain might descend upon them.

Mary groaned. “No, Papa. Not here,” but Ruth moved cautiously up to Daniel’s side. They had come to the end of Virginia, and she pushed her hair back and pinched her cheeks. A few miles beyond, the Cumberland Gap divided the world into halves, the far side belonging to Napoleon or King George or to Philip of Spain. But here were mountains and hills and trees dark and bare. The horses were pawing for grass under a thin layer of snow. Daniel got out of the wagon and the two men
walked back and forth, talking in voices not to be heard by Mary or Ruth.

That night the family camped under two huge sycamores with brittle, clattering branches, Mary saying this was no place for children to be raised with no houses, no school, no store, and the boys saying they were afraid of wolves and bears while Ruth held little Benjamin and Joseph lay in his cradle. One of the sycamores was almost empty in its middle so that a fort could be imagined within it by the boys and all of them used it for hide and seek, chasing through the dark. In the morning, the field around them was studded with small icy flowers, as if they had sprouted under the snow as invitations to stay and Daniel said it was a sight to behold. Later, having studied the six acres offered by the apparition in oilcloth, Daniel offered him a warrant worth one hundred dollars. He had not much else to give. He’d sold the furniture and china and flatware. He’d been sorry to do so, but he’d exchanged those goods for two hundred dollars and three warrants of the type given to veterans by the government. Veterans of the War of Independence had thereby bought this Quaker pacifist his six acres – the first land he had ever owned – but he could smile at the fact of it and scuff up the dirt that was dampened by melting snow and even bring Mary a small yellow flower. He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, which had not been washed since he’d left Brandywine, and set to work building a lean-to, using logs he cut with his axe. The logs did not fit together but they could be chinked. It was cold in the hills of southwestern Virginia, but there were plentiful trees and Daniel worked up a sweat so that by Christmas Day, the family could sit in the lean-to for a cold hour of silent prayer after which Mary served up a pot full of beans she’d been
given by the apparition’s wife. They were German settlers who also provided a side of venison, a bag of cornmeal, and fodder for the two horses and weary Tick. The fire burned feebly on a piece of ground that was cleared of snow, sheltered by the wagon’s oiled canvas, while Daniel reminded his children to be thankful and the children thought of their mother, sharing one homesick mind. The younger ones thought of her as a ghostly presence while Mary knew her as an absence, a hole in her life. More and more, the person she missed was Luveen, who had been like a tree they were allowed to hold and climb. When their father told the children that the Lord had brought them to a place of tolerance, each of them heard the words differently, some with bitterness, some with sadness, some with anticipation of coming events. There was variation in character among the children, but there was not one among them who refused this Christmas feast.

I
t had been snowing and the air was so cold that Ruth could watch her breath forming the words. “Would you learn me to write?” She was holding the baby, rocking him this way or that. Ruth could not read a word but she would not say so.

Mary put down her quill and slapped at the baby’s damp coverlet. “Feel this now, Ruth Boyd. It’s shameful, our baby so wet. And I cannot ‘learn’ thee. And I have no time to teach thee when I must see that poor baby is dry and then be a mother to the rest.” Mary tilted her head. “And who would thee write to, Ruth Boyd?” Leaning her back against the rough headboard her father had made from logs, she bent her knees so that Ruth’s view of her paper was blocked. She poked her quill into the small pot of ink that rested on a ledge.

To Taylor Corbett What Adventur we are haveing among Red Indians and bears. A naked boy took my mama’s best-made quilt for his need was greater than ours but we have come to a wild land here where no school waits for us and no store has food for us and we will have to build a house made of trees. I guess I shall ask a travllor to carry this letter with sincer best wishes from

Mary Amelia Dickinson January 1799

“There now, Ruth Boyd,” she said, blowing on the wet words to show her resolve. “Best move those snooping eyes and look after baby.”

Ruth grabbed Joseph and tied him tightly to her front, then walked out into the snow, slamming the worthless door behind her angrily. “The Lord don’t give a thousand warnins,” she shouted, kicking furiously at the ground and feeling the shame of tears because she wanted so very much to read and who was there to teach her but this girl? She kicked at the snow with her still-split boots and what she saw underneath was dark, loamy soil. “So it was never open yet,” she said out loud, ignoring the baby tied to her front as a sweet smell rose up from the wet earth and clouded her in the first happiness she had known for months. Dirt. This was the skill she had kept to herself – this knack she had learned where the orphans, always hungry, had to grow what they ate and enough to feed Matron as well. Ruth had made of herself in those years a studier of soil and a collector of seeds. She had tried the raising of five different types of corn and knew well her preference for which to give pigs and which to save for seed and which to send to the cook to grind and bake. She had seen Matron make use of everything in sight – old husks of grain for mattresses, hog hair to fertilize – there was no end of usefulness for anything on this round ball of water and ground the Lord had made. Squalling baby or not, Ruth had saved the ashes from every cooking fire since they arrived, and now, as she dug at the soil with the heel of a shoe, she promised to scatter some in for good measure, as a way to put something in before she took away. She had no way of reading the labels on the seeds Daniel had packed, but she knew them well enough: wax beans, string beans, lima beans, cabbage, turnips, yams and taters, beets, pumpkins, and squash. Soon. Soon. The snow would melt away. The corn she was bound to
sort but she found no shell peas to plant, no onions or carrots or cucumbers. What kind of kitchen could do without? And radishes! She liked them cooked.

That night, when Joseph was twitching and wailing in his cradle and the other children were wrestling themselves to sleep, Ruth thought of those seeds. She thought of the ashes she had saved and the clatter she would make with the cooking pot, even though Mary had laughed at her wrongful idea of a cake for Daniel’s birthday. “I would fix him johnnycake,” she had told Mary, “if I had an egg.”

Mary had laughed. “To think my pap would celebrate his thirty-sixth birthday as if
he
is poor as thee! My mama made real risen cakes, Ruth Boyd. Just believe.”

Lying stiff in the crowded bed, Ruth remembered her angry reply. “We must be poor in the same way,” she had answered, “your papa and me, for I am his wife.” But she did not know how to bake a cake, and the next morning it was Mary who told her that Daniel had left for an auction, that it was a long way he had to go, and that he would not return for at least another day.

T
he road was narrow, full of climbs and turns and so overladen with heavy wet trees that Daniel’s wool coat was soon damp. He had thought of leaving Mulberry behind, for her right front leg seemed to bother her a little more each day since the long wagon-pulling trip. He had no one to mention such worries to now. Unlike his daughter, he no longer had a friend to whom he could write, since he had kept a girl in his house after the death of his wife and, worse, had quickly married her, and she a Methodist. Everyone had turned against him and if Daniel had need to converse now, he spoke to his mares in slow, thoughtful sentences. “I bring you only to speed our journey,” he told Mulberry. “But I will make it easy for you, as will Miss Patch.” At midday, he stopped to eat his bread and speak his further concerns to Miss Patch, who, like his dear wife Rebecca, listened but never judged. This mare might glance at him or twitch an ear, as if aware of the self-interest in his debate, but unlike Mulberry, who had no real breeding, Miss Patch was a fine chestnut out of a famous sire and thoroughly compassionate. She had consoled Daniel on many occasions, and now she moved at a pace to keep the man as well as the doleful Mulberry placid.

For a while Daniel hoped, as he drove the mares south and east, that someone might stand up on the roadside and offer himself for hire. Then he gave up that thought and began to
imagine a runaway slave dashing through the trees and begging him for refuge. This thought excited him a little and he allowed his mind to play over details of such an encounter. He had asked his German neighbour, Jonas Frederick, who preferred to be known as Frederick Jones, about the availability of hired help. That good neighbour had a son named Wiley who was old enough to work but was much needed at his own homeplace. The neighbour had then looked at Daniel in a friendly way and told him to speak to Jester Fox, who lived on the north side of Sawmill Creek. “Have you not seen his house? It was built by black hands skilled enough.”

Daniel had said, “I am abolitionist.”

His neighbour had shrugged and Daniel had gone then to see Jester Fox in order to put the question of paid labour to him.

“You be takin on trouble,” Jester Fox had said when Daniel found him. “But the only choice in this here county is to buy yoursef a nigra, rare though they be.”

Daniel had said he would do no such thing.

“Well, I speak God’s verity,” Jester Fox had said. “When it comes to house raisin and not ta mention if you desire ta farm in these parts, you got no realistic choice less your sons grow into workers overnight.”

Astride Miss Patch, Daniel had gazed up at the frame house inhabited by Jester Fox and his family. Every human being was part of the divine; enslavement was abomination, nothing less. Daniel wondered how he could love such a neighbour and looked at him unsteadily, as if the very looking implied complicity. His neighbour was red-haired and red-bearded and his freckled face was featureless – eyes, nose, and mouth all sunk into pale flesh.

“Nothing I’d like better’n ta help out by offering a nig for hire,” the neighbour had said. “ ‘Cept here is what I come up
agint. We got our clearin brush and trees, and the wood ta split and cartin manure and sowin now it’s comin spring. Hear me out now, sir, rather than turn your face away. In buyin, you gone ta give to a nigra a life better’n whar he come out of and most likely whar he is.” The red beard, shovel-shaped, bristled, slightly wet. The teeth were small and separate. “They be happier in our care,” the neighbour said, adding that there was to be a slave auction down by the Tennessee Line and that Daniel would do best to go on down there and pick up the tools he might also need in order to farm. “I see you got no local expertise, so I aim to set you up fair and square. The whole of a farm down at the line is to be sold off so as to put a widow lady’s financials to the right. You’d be doin your Christian duty to her alongside your own.”

Daniel had lost cornmeal and sugar and wheat flour and bacon in crossing the rushing river, along with the salted meat and beans. He needed, as well as food, a good many tools for building. His cow was tethered to the side of the lean-to, since he had not yet built a fence. To begin his house, he needed a pole axe. To split shingles and shim, he’d need a shingle knife. For tilling, he would soon need a plow.
To press deep behind a groaning ox
, he told himself, since Virgil kept his spirits up, although his Pennsylvania mares would have to do for now.

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