"Splendid—a distinctive clear-eyed perspective on a fresh corner of the Civil War." —Charles Frazier, New York Times bestselling author of Cold Mountain
"A wise and timely book." —Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of Serena
Rooted in the history of the only secessionist town north of the Mason Dixon Line, Daren Wang's The Hidden Light of Northern Fires tells a story of redemption amidst a war that tore families and the country apart.
Mary Willis has always been an outcast, an abolitionist in a town of bounty hunters and anti-Union farmers. After college, she dreams of exploring the country, but is obligated to take over the household duties and management of her family’s farm, while her brother Leander avoids his own responsibilities. Helping runaways is the only thing that makes her life in Town Line bearable.
When escaped slave Joe Bell collapses in her father’s barn, Mary is determined to help him cross to freedom in nearby Canada. But the wounded fugitive is haunted by his vengeful owner, who relentlessly hunts him up and down the country, and his sister, still trapped as a slave in the South.
As the countryside is riled by the drumbeat of civil war, rebels and soldiers from both sides bring intrigue and violence of the brutal war to the town and the farm, and threaten to destroy all that Mary loves.
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RAN AWAY from the subscriber on the 27 Dec., a negro man, 5'11", medium dark, known by the name of Joe Bell. I will pay $1000 CASH for delivery to me at Walnut Grove Plantation of HARPERS FERRY.
J. YATES BELL
(Newspaper clipping dated January 3, 1861, pasted into Mary Willis's journal)
The shoes had been sound when he set out, but the frozen fields and mountain crossings had worn through the soles, tearing apart the stitching at the heels and toes. Joe had bound them together three nights earlier with a length of rough twine he found by the side of the road and had not taken them off since, afraid they would fall apart and leave him nothing.
Every step broke the crust of snow with a crackling noise and the fine powder beneath sifted into his shoes through the holes and the split seams. The faint sound echoed across the frozen meadow.
He felt as if he'd been hungry forever. He had spent the day hiding in a luggage car under a horse blanket, and the crust of bread he'd eaten had been so dry it had made his gums bleed. The porter, a freedman named Mayfield, had brought it to him along with instructions: "Get off at Alden. The stop after that is Town Line, and the station agent there is a serious one. Checks for stowaways most every night. When we slow down, get yourself off the back of the train so no one will notice you. Stay away from the road. Head west and look for a barn with a white horseshoe. About three miles. Keep your head low. Don't mess around with no one else. There's copperheads in Town Line and they're looking for anyone they can make a reward from, free or slave."
"Is there a sign for Alden?" Joe asked.
"You read?" Mayfield asked, surprise in his voice.
"You don't sound like any fugitive I ever seen before," the porter said. He shifted baggage around to better hide Joe and make himself look busy. "There's a sign, but I don't know what it says. The conductor will call 'Alden station.' Fifteen more miles from there down to Buffalo and the Niagara."
Looking at his shoes Joe asked, "Can't I just stay in here until we get downtown?"
"All this sneaking around you done, you seen any of these fools with a penny pinned to their coat?"
"Copperheads," Joe said.
"They watch the trains down near Buffalo. You see one of them boys, you better run," Mayfield said. "The underground will get you to Canada soon enough."
Joe had been warned about copperheads after he crossed into Pennsylvania. Northerners looking to make reward money on any escaped slaves they could find.
Mayfield straightened up and turned toward the passenger cars.
"What's it like over the border?" Joe asked.
"Shh," Mayfield hissed, his eyes locked on the little round window in the compartment's door. "They see me talking to you, they'll send me back south with you."
He put his hand on the doorknob and looked down at the floor.
"They got no more use for us over there than they do here. There's whole camps of men begging for work, and there ain't nothing about you going to make it any different. But at least you don't have to call them massuh when you beg."
He shook his head.
"Now you stay quiet, cover yourself with that blanket, and don't get old Mayfield in trouble," he said.
When the town was called, Joe jumped from the train and cracked his knees on the frozen ground. Moments later the train came to a rest at a long building on the edge of the field near a clutch of horses tied to a post outside. Joe could see men standing at a bar through the yellow windows of the station and wondered if any were the bounty men Mayfield had talked about.
Joe moved as fast as he could, but the open fields left no place to hide and the full moon lit the field like a calcified sun. He winced as each footstep left a snow-white scar in the gray of the train's coal-ash trail.
He had measured nearly two miles when he heard horses and the bark of a dog on the nearby road. He dropped to his stomach midway through a field, and he turned his head to see the silhouette of two riders making their way up the road, passing a bottle between them. The riders were mismatched, one a skinny boy bundled under a threadbare coat and a knitted skullcap on a mare so swayback the boy's feet were on the verge of touching the ground, the other a giant of a man with an unkempt beard and a shearling coat open to the frigid night air riding a gray-black stallion.
The dog scampered from one side of the road to the other, nose to the ruts in the frozen mud.
Joe had always hated dogs. Whenever there was a runaway at the Bells' plantation, the foreman would take Bell's hounds out and their bays and yaps would echo across the Virginia hills for hours and hours. Afterward, they lazed by the back door of the big house, wrestling over a ham bone given in reward. He'd eye the bone, knowing that in his mother's hands it would have made a week of meals.
One time he raised a stick to his shoulder and sighted along it at one of the hounds, but Yates Bell had clubbed him from behind with a pistol and laughed as he lay sprawled on the ground.
Those Southern hounds seemed puny when he looked at the wolflike thing trailing the riders.
The boy on the swayback held out the bottle, saying, "I don't know why I let you drag me away from the fire to ride this damned road. I'm colder than a witch's teat, and I still ain't never seen a nigger."
"They pass through here, come through here near every day," the big one said, a strange accent marking his rumbling voice. "I seen their signs around. Marshal Kidder got eight hundred dollars last year for one, even after he killed it."
"You tell me that story every time, but I still don't have no eight hundred dollars," the boy on the swayback said. "Tomorrow night, I'm staying at the tavern."
"Nein," the other said. "I need the dog."
"Shit. Then I get a share, Jep gets a share, and you get the third. Gimme back that whiskey," the boy said.
The dog stopped downwind from Joe, whined, then barked into the field where he lay.
"Jep?" the boy asked.
The dog snarled in reply.
"She's got a scent," the boy shouted. "I think we got one."
The dog leapt into the field, and Joe jumped to his feet, breaking away from the road toward the looming forest.
The bottle dropped, shattering on the frozen road as the riders brought their horses around for the chase.
"You clumsy son of a bitch," the big rider shouted. "That's coming out of your share."
Joe could feel the hooves pounding the ground behind him as he ran.
At the forest line, saplings lashed Joe even as he raised his arms to cover his face. Even leafless, the trees closing in above drained all the light from the sky. His feet, numb and aching, slipped awkwardly on fallen limbs, snow, and slick leaves underneath. The ground sloped downward and he could hear the rush of water in front of him. The riders cursed as their horses drove them into the clawing overhead branches.
The frigid air burned Joe's lungs, and the sound of his own gasps drowned out the guttural noises coming from the cur as she closed in on him. He veered away from the moon-soaked flat of a creek bed at the bottom of the incline and ran into an opening cleared by a fallen tree. His shin cracked hard on a limb and he went down, slamming into the frozen ground. He felt the muscles of his left calf tear and snap as the dog ripped into them. Only the sear of teeth kept him from blacking out.
The bitter cold and the tears welling in his eyes clouded his vision as his hands splayed out in front of him. His hand found a thick, jagged branch a few feet long and he grabbed at it like it was his salvation.
Joe twisted around, and flailed toward where the dog gnawed his leg. He felt the limb connect with something. The dog howled and Joe could feel it retreat from him. He rolled onto his back, trying to knuckle vision back into his clouded eyes. The animal was on him again. He could smell the animal's breath, but he saw only the dark brown and the white blur of fangs.
He wrapped his arms around the animal's neck and pulled it to him, even as the teeth clacked at his left ear. Joe squeezed hard until he heard something pop. Sobbing, he let the animal fall to the ground where it lay whining.
He pulled himself up with the branch. He used it to limp out of the clearing, the blood from the gash spilling black on the moonlit snow. His breath came heavily and his teeth chattered. He crouched behind an oak to rest and bit down hard as he packed snow into the open wound.
He watched as the first pursuers stopped over the mewling animal in the clearing, his knuckles whitening on the limb as he took in the great size of the man, towering over the dog, musket in hand.
Joe tried placing weight on his ruined leg and choked off a sob of pain. He shivered, but couldn't tell if it was from the cold, the sharp burning of the wound, or the thought of fighting the man who knelt over the howling dog. He tightened his grip on the limb, measuring its heft, looking for cracks, noting the juttings of broken offshoots, then he pulled himself upright behind the tree and listened to the snow-damped quiet of the night.
"This bitch don't look like she's good for nothing anymore," the man shouted. "Get over here and shoot her. I need my load for the nigger. He's got the jump."
He stood and surveyed the clearing, spotting the blood-marked trail.
"He won't be getting far," he muttered and heaved his bulk forward, breaking to a full stride faster than Joe would have expected.
Joe's hands cramped around the limb. Coiled behind the tree, knees bent, breath slowed, he timed his swing to meet the face of the big man, gritting his teeth as the heavy limb cracked into his pursuer's face. Blood sprayed into the moonlight, and the man dropped to the ground. The impact sent pain humming through his cold-brittled hands and up his wrists and forearms.
Joe released the limb, flexed feeling back into his fingers, and grabbed the musket, noticing the copper pinned to the man's heavy coat. The blood on his hands froze to the cold metal and pulled at his skin. He braced himself using the long weapon and limped twenty paces before kneeling again behind a tree, waiting for the boy with the horses.
He'd never held a gun in his hands before. Back at the plantation, Yates Bell always had a shotgun hanging from his saddle, but putting his hand on it would have brought hellfire down on him.
This one was much longer than that, the end of the muzzle coming up to his chin when he leaned on it. The gun gave Joe a sense of power and he tried to brush away the snow that had frozen in the mechanism above the trigger.
The skinny boy led the horses into the clearing. He knelt down to the whimpering dog. "Ah, Jep. Look what he done to you, girl," he said, his words slurred with whiskey. He scratched the whining animal between its ears then crouched in silence, stroking the animal for a long time before he took up his own musket and backed up a few paces.
"I'll get him for ya, Jep, I swear," he whispered and pulled the trigger.
The shot echoed into the night woods.
Shoulders shaking, he muttered a blessing over the carcass, then stood silently before taking the leads of the two horses and turning to follow the trail. He had taken only a few steps when he came upon his companion lying in the snow and fell next to him.
"Wilhelm," he muttered. "Jesus Christ, look at you."
He dropped his musket and pulled a rag from a pocket to dab at the wound before scooping fresh snow onto it to slow the bleeding. The downed man jerked and moaned.
"Can you stand?" he said. "We gotta get you to Doc Pride."
Joe raised the snow-crusted flintlock to his eye and braced the long barrel against the tree. "I have the musket with a load and a bead on you, and you got nothing. I'm taking the big horse," he growled, pitching his voice low.
The skinny kid scanned the woods. He was little more than a boy, a wispy blond beard poorly masking his pimpled chin. His greasy coat, held together by a lunatic map of patches, was something Joe's mother would have used to stuff a mattress. Joe could see fear in his drunken eyes.
"That dog was the best I ever saw, mister," the boy said loudly. "She's all I cared about in this world. You can go ahead and shoot me, but I sure as shit ain't letting you take the horse."
Joe's hands shook with cold and the weight of the musket. His finger was wrapped tight on the thick trigger, but he could not bring himself to pull it.
"Goddammit," he whispered to himself. He lowered the heavy weapon to his side and limped away from the bloody clearing.
"Why do you come up here anyway?" the voice behind him shouted. "Nobody wants you up here. Why didn't you stay down there where you're from?" Joe limped toward the sound of the water.
"You'll pay for what you done," he heard shouted into the night behind him, and then nothing more.
"We all do," he whispered to himself as he shimmied out onto the edge of the ice to get to the flow at the center of the creek bed. He plunged his bloodied leg, shoe and all, into the glacial water.
The creek passed in near silence, and he listened for any sign of pursuit as the cold numbed the pain and slowed the bleeding to a trickle.
He stood and followed the flow of the water, first west then north, hopping awkwardly onto the broken segments of sheet ice jutting from the creek bank, avoiding the snow that had settled on the even surfaces. He slipped, and the musket fell into the water. He scrambled to keep from following it. His hands cramped again when he plunged them into the cold water to retrieve it.
As the creek bent, the south bank sloped steeply into a line of trees dangling over the water. He crawled up the embankment and found a black opening to a hollow under the shallow tree roots, washed out by years of spring rushes. He held his breath and listened to the dark of the cave, sniffing at the dank animal smells that wafted up and poking the muzzle of the musket into the darkness. He pushed his fear down, plunged in, and slid into a muddy pocket that smelled of piss and leaf mold.
The cave was about ten feet deep and three feet high at its tallest point, but it was empty and drifted deep with dry leaves.
His leg ached and started to bleed again. He pulled leaves to himself, lay still and tried to sleep, but his shivering kept him in a dazed wakefulness throughout the night.
In the morning, gray light filtered into the cave and he crawled out, desperate for anything to fill his stomach. The wound had scabbed, but his hands and feet were numb and the shivering had turned to fits of uncontrollable quaking. He slid down the embankment and drank at the creek.
He dared not move in the open during the daylight hours, so he climbed back up to the cave and hid again. An earlymorning dusting coalesced into a squall, and drifting snow constricted into a halo at the cave mouth.
The den warmed with his breath and he dozed. He tried to recall the warmth of the Virginia sun on his bare shoulders and invoked a memory of a picnic on a bluff overlooking the Shenandoah with his mother and sister. It was his tenth birthday, and somehow his mother had managed half a chicken for the occasion. She spread the treasure out on a cloth, and his sister, Alaura, a six-year-old with her hair tied with blue rags that passed for ribbons, stared at the riches with a look of amazement and joy.
"It's your brother's birthday," their mother said, the joy of putting good food in front of her children shining bright in her face.
His sister reached for the leg from the small pile of pieces, and he remembered thinking that was the piece he wanted, that it was his birthday and that he should get first pick. But then she cupped it in her hands like it was a precious jewel, and offered it to him.
"Happy birthday, Joey," she said, her dimples furrowing into her cheeks.
Joe took the piece of chicken, and bent over to kiss her, because he could not help but kiss her, and she wrapped her arms around him.
"You're my favorite brother." She giggled.
"Not that you have many choices," he said, laughing back at her, and waited until his mother signaled that he could take a bite.
His mother was gone now, sold down to Mississippi, and dead soon after. And now he had left Alaura all alone. He thought of the way that Yates Bell had often eyed her, and he wished as he had a million times that he had taken her with him.
He'd been saving to buy her papers before he ran, had even talked it over with old Mr. Bell, but he couldn't imagine how he could do it now. Not after the money was gone. Not after running. Not after nearly killing Yates.
"I'll get you free, I swear," he said to the thought of her, but he knew the words carried no more weight than the white mist they made in the cold air.
He slipped into a dream of the plantation and of the woods around Harpers Ferry, and the little shack near the sawmill where he used to sleep.
His fever came stronger, and it called other things into his dreams: the crack of the dog's neck jolting through his hands, the sound of the limb breaking on that man's face, the sight of the poor boy down the long barrel.
Excerpted from "The Hidden Light of Northern Fires"
Copyright © 2017 Daren Wang.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
LADIES OF THE NORTH COUNTRY,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,