When War Reaches Clarissa’s Back Door, the Trustworthy Become Even Fewer. Journey into Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, of 1863 where Clarissa Avery Ross lives a full life. By day she is the daughter of a respectable shoemaker being courted by seminary student Kyle Forrester. But by night she is a conductor on the Underground Railroad, working with a mysterious man called Liberty. She would like to share her work with Kyle, but he refuses to enlist when the war breaks out. How can she remain true to a man being labeled a coward? When the war comes to her back door in an epic battle, the greatest challenges to her faith and love are yet to come.
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Saturday night, early December 1860 Adams County, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Five miles north of Gettysburg
It was so black she could not see her hand even if she held it so close it touched her face.
To the left and right she could not even pick out the trees on either side of the forest path.
It did not matter.
Overhead, where tree branches were not closing together to form a canopy, she could see the stars burning and recognized every one of them — she knew the constellations well and where the North Star blazed, no matter what season of the year it was.
Under her boots was the deer trail she had walked many times, day and night, so how dark it was did not concern her — her feet knew the way, and she never had a misstep. Even if her eyes had been blinded and her legs shackled, she would not have lost her sense of direction. The path to freedom was carved in her heart.
No snow on the trail, but the cold bit. Never mind. They were dressed for it.
"Mizz Clarissa," whispered a woman behind her. "Ain't we ought to have got there yet?"
But the whisper was too loud.
Clarissa turned swiftly.
"Hush!" Her whisper was low but sharp as a musket shot. "It is only another mile. But this is the most dangerous stretch. Slave catchers are aware the Underground Railroad has a track that runs through this region. Not another word. If you must talk, talk to God in your soul."
Dark as it was, she could just make out the five faces behind her: two older women, two children, and one young man. She felt their fear. But she also sensed the courage that would not let the fear overtake them. Doubting they could see the smile that was famous with friends and acquaintances, she let it part her lips anyway.
"'Behold, I go forward, but he is not there,'" she recited softly, "'and backward, but I cannot perceive him: on the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him: but he knoweth the way that I take: when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot hath held his steps, his way have I kept, and not declined. Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.'"
She could barely see their faces in the pitch dark, but she felt the smiles form that matched her own.
"Amen," said the two women and the young man together.
Clarissa resumed her cautious but persistent pace along the trail.
She had not gone more than seven steps before someone seized her and yanked her off the path.
Her wide-brimmed hat flew off her head and into the trees.
A hand clamped over her mouth.
Startled and frightened, she still managed to fight back by biting down as hard as she could on the hand and delivering a strong kick to her attacker's knee. He grunted in pain, and she felt his leg buckle. Thrusting a hand under the ragged men's coat she was wearing, which was three sizes too large, she gripped the butt of the revolver tucked under the wide leather belt that held up her men's pants, also three sizes too large, and began to tug it free, cocking back the hammer.
But a large hand closed over hers and practically crushed it. She screamed her agony into the flesh of the hand over her mouth and was unable to push the revolver into her assailant's stomach or squeeze the trigger.
"For an itty-bitty scrap of nothing," hissed a man's voice in her ear, "you sure put up a heck of a fight, little missy. Now stop struggling and be still before I take your head off."
She screamed into his hand, this time in rage and fury, bit into his flesh even harder, and kicked his knee twice more, so that his leg gave way and they both crashed to the earth.
Trying to roll over and scratch out his eyes, she was prevented from doing so by two things — the man's hand closed over her nose as well as her mouth and began to choke out her breath. And he whispered several Bible verses quickly into her ear.
"'How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through thy precepts I get understanding: therefore I hate every false way. Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path. I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep thy righteous judgments.'"
Clarissa immediately went rigid.
It was the night's password for the Underground Railroad.
Either her attacker was a slave catcher who had learned the password, which was entirely possible, or he was an operator with the Railroad who was doing what he was doing because of an emergency. Not entirely sure what he was or wasn't, but needing to breathe again, Clarissa ceased struggling, and he gradually loosened his hand so that she could take in air.
But her left hand slipped slowly toward a bayonet tucked away in a concealed scabbard in her boot, a men's boot that, unlike her clothing, actually fit her perfectly because her father, a shoemaker in Gettysburg, had made them just for her.
"Walk your ten thousand miles to freedom," he'd told her the day he gifted her with the sturdy black boots, "and, God willing, take ten thousand souls with you, my girl."
Now her attacker was pointing her Navy Six revolver at the five people she had been guiding through the forest.
"Get into the woods," he growled in a low voice.
"Stay put and don't move," he growled again. "Or I'll shoot every last one of you."
No one moved.
Clarissa remained motionless. Except for her left hand, which was curled around the bayonet.
Harriet Tubman had threatened men twice her size with her revolver. Clarissa reckoned she could do the same thing with the bayonet. She was certain she'd have no problem thrusting it into her assailant's leg. Or even his stomach. It meant saving her passengers' lives, and any one of theirs was worth ten of his.
The blackguard, she seethed.
Or maybe not a blackguard. But she wasn't going to wait much longer to find out. If he was a slave catcher, he'd sell her passengers back into bondage. And skin her alive. She began to count to one hundred.
Lord Jesus, she prayed, if he is an angel from heaven, let me know right quick. If he is an angel from hell, let me dispatch him right quick. Just let me know. Right quick.
Despite the circumstances, she half smiled to herself. She could imagine her mother shaking her head and saying, "And you call that a serious prayer to God Almighty?" And she would reply, "Well, it is mighty serious, ma'am, and it sure isn't a prayer to the mayor of Gettysburg, is it?"
"Stop muttering to yourself." The hand closed tightly over her mouth once again. "Do you want to be killed?"
Her anger boiled up in her. Do you?
Her grip tightened on the bayonet.
And her count reached eighty-seven.
God forgive me, she prayed as she slowly brought the bayonet free of her boot. And God let my hand strike swift and sure.
Ninety-two ... ninety-three ... ninety-four ...
Then everything in her stopped cold.
Men's voices, low but distinct, came along the trail in the direction she and the others had been heading.
She made out two, three, four bodies moving stealthily through the darkness.
Carrying guns and whips and clubs.
"I thought you said Bobby would bring the hounds," grumbled one voice, and the voice was loud.
"That's right, Billy," snapped another man, "tell the whole county we're here. That oughta help us catch those runaways real easy, huh?"
The reply was still grumbly but too low for Clarissa to make out.
The four reached the spot where the man had her pinned in his arms and her passengers crouched in the trees.
"My spy in Gettysburg said they'd be in this forest tonight and pushing for a hiding place north of town," one whispered.
"It's a big forest," another whispered back.
"Not that big. And we got men on the other trails."
"A three-hundred-dollar reward for all five. I can pretty much taste it."
"Taste is all you're gonna get if we don't get the chains on 'em."
"We need those hounds!"
"Shut yer mouth about the hounds! We're the hounds! Now sniff 'em out!"
"I can't believe a little scrap of a girl is capable of running us in circles."
"She ain't no girl. She's the devil. A Yankee's devil."
It was the second time that night Clarissa had been referred to as a "scrap." If she had been free to do so, she would have pounced on all four men and kicked their legs out from under them. Then turned on her attacker and dealt with him as well. All she could do was grit her teeth. And clench her bayonet until she was sure her knuckles were white.
The men lingered nearby for several minutes, arguing among themselves.
Her attacker's revolver, which was her revolver — something else that annoyed her in the moment, doubly annoying because she could not immediately do anything about it — was now pointing at the slave catchers. Which counted for something.
Or maybe not.
He could be a rival slave catcher who wanted the three-hundred-dollar reward all to himself.
Or he might have plans to sell them off for double that.
And then string her up from a tall oak tree as a warning to other do-gooders and slave lovers.
"Standing here ain't helping none." It was the grumbling whisperer again.
"Then let's keep going, smart-mouth. And you can lead the way." A snort. "I hear tell she has a Navy Six. And that she is a devil of a shot to go along with that devil of a heart. Why, Billy, it could be that little scrap of nothing is what'll put you in the ground permanent-like."
Three times she had been called that!
With the grumbler still grumbling and growling, the men continued their creep along the forest path.
A minute went by without Clarissa or her attacker or her passengers moving.
Then the man said, "Let us get the passengers to safety. The catchers don't know it's Prickert's barn. If they did, they'd have men there. I am going to release you, Joshua." He had used Clarissa's secret name. "No screeching or hollering or they'll come back for us. I'm sorry I was so rough. I didn't have time to explain. They were almost on top of us. Are you going to make a fuss?"
Clarissa shook her head.
"All right," the man whispered. "Now please put your bayonet back in your boot."
Clarissa made a face of acute irritation he could not see and shoved the bayonet back in its scabbard.
"Now I am going to let go of you and climb to my feet. I'd rather not receive another boot to my knee. You kick like a Missouri mule. And we are on the same side, even if I did have to manhandle you. For which I apologize again."
Apologize all you like, Clarissa growled to herself, it won't save you.
"And in case all of that is not enough to assuage your spitfire temper — your reputation precedes you, missy — you should know my code name is Liberty. I'm sure you've heard of me."
Clarissa had indeed been planning a kick to his leg, both of them, when he used his code name.
That can't be! she almost shouted out loud — except his hand was still on her mouth. Liberty runs the whole Railroad to Prickert's barn and Methuselah's tavern. He's guided runaways to New York and the Great Lakes. The Amish in Lancaster know about him. Even Harriet Tubman knows about him. He's ferried passengers across Lake Erie into Canada. He's been shot and whipped.
His hand came off her mouth.
They both got to their feet together.
He was considerably taller than her. Which fit the description she'd heard about him.
He wore the kind of long, heavy coat a sailor shipping out of port in Philadelphia might wear. What they called a peacoat or pilot jacket. Which was also right.
And a black hood covered his head. With two slashes for the eyes and no openings for the nose or mouth. Which also was part of Liberty's look.
He handed back her revolver.
She took it and tucked it in her belt.
And slapped him as hard as she could across the face.
"Don't ever try that on me again, mister!" she snapped, and not in a whisper. "I don't care if Lucifer himself is on the path! Understood?"
"Understood?" Liberty nodded. "I do understand."
She poked around in the undergrowth for her hat, found it, reshaped the brim, and planted it back on a head of tightly pinned-up hair.
"And another thing," she snarled, lowering her voice. "Don't call me an itty-bitty scrap of nothing ever again. I don't care if Harriet Tubman thinks you're the cat's cream and the hero of the commonwealth. I don't. So never call me a scrap again."
She thought she detected a smile under the hood.
Which did nothing to calm her down.
"I assure you I won't," Liberty responded.
He bowed to the five passengers. "I am sorry for my rough-and-ready actions. But you were all in danger of being captured." He glanced at Clarissa. "And one of you was in danger of being flayed alive."
Clarissa narrowed her eyes. "I can take care of myself."
"What are you? All of sixteen?"
She flared up. "None of your business! And I'm nineteen, sir! Nineteen!"
"Are you? With a mop of red hair to go with your temper! It must take a thousand pins to keep it from tumbling down like the walls of Jericho."
Oh, the man infuriated her! Was he capable of doing nothing else but bring the blood to her face and murder to her heart?
"My pins and my hair are also none of your business, sir! And God has taught me how to control my temper!"
"Until tonight," he added.
"Until tonight!" she spat. "And until you!"
Once again she was sure she detected a smile under the hood and wanted to smack him a second time.
But he was beginning to move off quickly through the woods.
"We can't use the trail anymore tonight," he said, looking back over his shoulder at Clarissa and the five runaways. "We may never be able to use it again. Follow me. We'll cut a new path through this scrap of forest and be at Prickert's in less than an hour. You have no objections if I call this part of the forest a scrap, do you, Joshua?"
Clarissa continued to boil. "Be my guest, sir."
She gestured to her five passengers, and the seven of them began to pick their way through the trees.
Ten minutes later it began to snow. For which Clarissa thanked God. Since they were no longer on the path, the slave catchers would not be able to track their footprints in the fresh snowfall. And the snowflakes falling faster and faster would make visibility difficult for their hunters. Especially once she and Liberty had to guide their passengers across open ground. There was the additional hope that if the flurries turned into a storm, it might discourage the slave catchers and make them seek out their lodgings, a warm fire, and a glass of brandy. And bed.
No one spoke. They moved, thought Clarissa, like dark ghosts through a forest that was turning increasingly white. Or like gray wolves. Fast, silent, a mystery to anyone who caught a glimpse of them, and, with her bayonet and revolver, lethal to anyone who got in their way.
She found herself wondering about Liberty as she followed his back through the snowfall and past hundreds of tree trunks. It was an irritating line of thought, but she couldn't help herself. Who was under that hood? Did he carry a gun or knife like she did? Where did he live? What did he do when he wasn't an agent or conductor working the Freedom Train? How many times had he taken baggage right into Canaan or Heaven or the Promised Land — into Canada? How long had he been an operator and a conductor? And how old was he anyway? It bothered her that now he knew her age and she didn't know his. It bothered her that he knew what she looked like (hair pinned up, thank goodness!) but she had no idea what he looked like. In fact, everything about him bothered her. If only she could hear his voice properly she might be able to identify his age or even, if he was a resident of Gettysburg, who he was. But the black hood muffled everything he said.
As if he'd been reading her mind, he glanced back at her through the swirling snowflakes. "I wouldn't trouble myself too much if I were you, Miss Clarissa Avery Ross. If I want you to know who I am, I'll tell you. If I don't, it will be the secret I take to my grave."
Oh, how did he know what I was thinking? And who told him my real name? I could strangle the man! Speaking of graves!
"Don't flatter yourself, sir!" snapped Clarissa, unafraid of how loud her voice was, since the rising wind was even louder. "No man on earth could be farther from my mind. I would prefer to memorize Greek verb conjugations than dwell on any aspect of your unfortunate existence."
"I know Greek," Liberty responded quickly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Heart Belongs in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania"
Copyright © 2018 Murray Pura.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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