Lana McGraw Boldt

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Fionna's Will

Chapter 1


      There was a steady crunch as the wagon wheels rolled over the ice-glazed ruts in the road.  Fionna Barry pulled her rough woolen coat more tightly about her slender neck and flicked the reins. "C'mon, Fitz-James," she urged with foggy breath, "hurry it up a bit and I'll give you an extra handful of oats."
      The horse twitched his ears and maintained his plodding pace.
      "Faith, it's cold this morning," she said, looking at the leaden sky.  "I never should have talked Father into letting me make the delivery instead of Matthew."
      The Barry farm in western Virginia was a depot on the Underground Railroad.  Two nights ago Donnell Barry, Fionna's father, had greeted a man who was only a nameless shadow to the Barrys.  Hidden under his load of hay was a runaway slave woman.  The nameless man left in the dark and the badly frightened woman slipped into the barn, where she could spend the night.
      Fee had gone out to take her a blanket and a plate of food but Nilly, which the man had assured them was her name, was nowhere in sight.  Fee called, then called again.  The haystack rustled, then Nilly emerged, covered with hay and trembling.  "They's got men a-followin' the Railroad," she'd confided.
      The rumor that the Underground Railroad was doomed had been rampaging through the plantations.  Teams of men were said to follow escaping slaves, allowing  a few to get through until they learned all the stops and "safe houses."  Then they would kill all involved.  Nilly had been haunted her whole journey by visions of moving shadows and furtive shapes lurking in the dark.
      Fee assured her that it was probably just a rumor started to frighten slaves and keep them from running away.   Fionna felt a burst of motherly protectiveness toward this poor shivering slip of a girl, for that was all she was, being merely fourteen - a full three years younger than Fionna herself.
      Returning to the farmhouse, Fee announced to her father that this was not a job for a youthful boy but for a mature woman.  Not Matthew but Fee would drive Nilly to the next house.  She would protect her newfound charge personally.  No manner of protest from her father or younger brother would change her mind.  In the end, her father gave in and Matthew sulked as Fee drove the wagon out of the farmyard at dusk.  Her load of cornstalks was for the Edwards' pigs - and under the cornstalks shivered Nilly, once more on her way out of the slave states into the free state of Ohio and then on up to Canada and freedom.
      They'd arrived safely around midnight.  She'd taken the quilt Mrs. Edwards had left on her rail, the one with the log cabin pattern with black squares quilted in to indicate that this was a "safe house", and put Nilly in the barn, assuring her that there were no shadowy followers.  Then Fee had slipped into the house and crawled into bed with the Edwards' seven-year-old daughter, Della, for a few hours of  sleep.  Fee had awakened in the pre-dawn dark to return home.  Mrs. Edwards gave her some corn bread and a piece of cold side pork to eat on her way.  She was cresting the hill above the Edwards' place by first light and was two hills beyond  by sunup.
      Now, as she shivered in the cold morning light, she was anxious to get back to her father and brother and warm herself by the fire.  To keep her mind off her aching hands and shivering legs, Fee thought about tomorrow, when she'd be riding into town with her father and brother to pick up their monthly supplies, always a social occasion.
      She wondered if Mrs. Lane had had her baby yet, if little Rosie Harbrick would remember her this time, and if Mr. Adams would give her a horehound drop.  There might be a letter from her sister, Siobhan, who was attending school in Philadelphia, according to their late mother's wishes and legacy.          
      Fee was going to follow in her sister's footsteps this fall.  Her mother had kept aside a portion of her dowry for the education of her children, maintaining in the hard times that it was better to go hungry now so they'd be able to feed themselves for the rest of their lives.  Fee should have left four years earlier, but her mother had died.  Each year since then her mourning father had kept her on the farm to help out, promising her freedom as soon as he felt back on his feet .  Fee didn't mind terribly; she enjoyed the authority she wielded over her brother and father.  Still, she'd long ago finished her schooling at the tiny eight-grade schoolhouse, and she was more than ready to go on.
      Fee looked forward to her sister's letters, but the postponement of her own schooling made it difficult to hear about Siobhan's latest scholastic triumphs.  How could she possibly catch up with her older sister, who had been at school so long?   Siobhan had said in her last letter that she'd applied for a position as a teaching assistant for next year.  The possibility of having Siobhan as her teacher galled Fee even more.
      Her father had tried to continue her education by providing Fionna with all sorts of reading material.  They regularly discussed science and history, as well as the literature she loved.  She even took care of the accounting for the farm.  Still, it was not the same.
      A rabbit scurried across the road and Fitz-James shook his head and snorted.  "We're about halfway there," she murmured, as much for herself as to her horse.  It was lonely in the cold morning mist.
      Fee thought again of her night's dangerous errand, and of the angry words she'd read in recent newspapers.  Her father believed that the Untied States was going to be torn apart by war, but Matthew believed that was impossible.  Fee hoped Matthew was right, but she tended to side with her father.
      For months now they had been part of the Underground Railroad.  Her father's Irish sense of freedom led him to assert that no human should be kept in bondage, and his actions followed his words.
      Fee agreed.  Even Nilly, who had whined the whole trip and risked detection, didn't deserve to be enslaved.  She shook her head as she remembered their parting exchange.
      "I's just don' know what I's goin' to do," Nilly had cried as Fee helped her into the barn.  "See, I's gonna have a baby, an' bein' in Canada all by myslef - "
      At that Fee had lost her temper and snapped, "You'll just have to make do, like the rest of us.  Work."  She'd closed the barn door and stormed into the Edwards' house.  Yet now in the cold morning light, she felt a twinge of guilt.  She understood Nilly's fears.
      A sudden noise brought her out of her reverie.  The whistle of the chill wind was overlaid with the faint sound of hoofbeats.  Someone was coming up behind her, riding hard.  She reached under the seat and checked her rifle.  It was loaded and in easy reach.  Should she stop?
      As the hoofbeats came closer, she turned and watched a clearing in the bend of the road below her.  She caught a glimpse of the rider through the trees and relaxed a bit.  The coppery red hair under the fur cap was a dead giveaway.
      It was Nathanial Coughlin, who periodically stopped by and visited her father.  Fionna considered him footloose and irresponsible, unduly influenced by the popular accounts written by explorers of the frontier.  She thought at twenty-three he should have been thinking of settling down.  Instead he'd chosen a wandering life, trapping furs and taking odd jobs logging in the new state of Minnesota.
      Nathanial was the one who'd first told them about the Underground Railroad.  Fee had listened surreptitiously from the kitchen as he'd exchanged books and ideas with Donnell Barry.  He always asked Fee to play the piano for him.  Since he'd spent the last nine years alone, tramping the wild frontier, Fee figured his soul hungered for music.
      Now why on earth was he in such a lather so early in the day, she wondered as she reined the wagon to the side of the road to let him pass.  It wasn't good for a horse in the cold like this.
      Then, as he came up beside her wagon, he suddenly leaped from his saddle to the wagon seat, leaving his horse to run alongside  Without so much as a word of greeting he grabbed the reins from her hands and whipped Fitz-James into a run.
      "What are you doing?" Fee cried as she was thrown back on the seat by Fitz-James' sudden lurch forward.  "You can't just come up and...Slow down, you fool!  There's a curve ahead."
      Ignoring her protests, he looked over his shoulder then glanced at Fee as he turned his attention back to the road ahead.  "You got a gun?"
      "Yes, and I'm thinking I might have to use it on you."
      "Get it out and start praying."
      Suddenly frightened, Fee pulled the rifle from under the seat and checked to make sure it was primed.  The ride was so rough she had to keep grabbing the sideboard to keep from falling.
      She looked behind them.  Nothing was in sight.   Beyond the rolling hills and through the mist she could see a column of smoke rising from just about where the Edwards' farm would be.
      "What's happening?" she cried.
      The wagon swerved around the bend, careening over the rough wagon tracks and suddenly off the road, through the brush and behind an outcropping of rocks.  Before Fee could pick herself up from the floor of the wagon, Nathanial was out and breaking off a branch to use in covering the wagon's tracks.
      "What in blazes is going on?" Fee demanded as she shoved her bonnet back over her dark curls and crawled down from the wagon.  She checked Fitz-James to make sure he hadn't been hurt by the rough handling.  "You'd better have a good reason for..."
      "Look down the road," Nathanial commanded.
      Fee crawled up and peered over the rocks.
      "Seven riders, coming fast.  Who are they?"
      "Rebel marauders.  They burned out the Edwards'.  Figure they're heading for your place next."
      "But why?"
      "Shh!  Hold that horse's nose and pray they don't figure out where we've gone."
      Fee stroked Fitz-James' ears and gently cupped her hand over his nose, trying to calm him, hoping that he couldn't hear the hammering of her heart.
      The riders came closer.  Fitz-James reared his head and Fee pulled it down, covering his nose with her coat.
      They thundered past, never slowing their pace.
      Within a minute Nathanial was in his saddle.  "Where are you going?" Fee demanded.  
      "Got to warn your folks."
      "I'm coming, too."
      "And slow me down?  Can't take a wagon through the woods, and that's the only way to outrun those murderers."
      "What'll I do?"
      "Wait here.  If you don't hear a warning shot, come out in fifteen minutes and go at your regular pace down the road.  If anyone stops you, just say you're heading into town.  Give them some mad-up name," he added over his shoulder as he disappeared into the underbrush.
      Fee watched the movement of the brush as he urged his horse up over the hill.  Within seconds the noise of the horse faded and she was left alone with early morning winter-bird sounds.
      She waited, trying to understand what was happening.  Why did he call those men marauders?  Was it something to do with the Underground Railroad?  Was Nilly right?  Had they been followed last night?  She shivered at the thought.  Maybe Father was right.  Maybe the whole country was going to explode into a civil war.  There was that business of that fanatic abolitionist John Brown who tried to seize the Harper's Ferry armory last year.  Maybe this was just the beginning...
      She looked back over the rocks and saw the smoke from the Edward's farm.  The smoke rose above the hills now, thick and black.  What had happened to Mrs. Edwards and chubby little Della, whom Fee had slept with last ngiht?  And Nilly?  Suddenly Fee realized that these same men were riding towards her home - towards Daddy and Matthew!
      She didn't know how long she'd been waiting, but it was long enough.  She grabbed Fitz-James' harness and guided him out of the brush and back to the road.  Jumping back up on the seat, she whipped the reins and urged the horse into a run, causing the wagon to careen wildly down the road towards their farm.  The speed was too much for the old wagon on the rough winter road.  With a crack and a jolt a wheel broke off and spun down the hillside.  Fitz-James stopped short, halted by the suddenly cumbersome load.  He turned a puzzled look at Fee, steam rising from his back and nostrils.
      "Damn!" she cried, then grabbed the rifle and ran down the road, leaving the horse and crippled wagon behind.
      Running as fast as she could, she soon stumbled, her full skirt tangled between her legs.  Panic rose in her throat.  Quickly she tucked her skirt into her waistband and continued running, harder and faster.  Each breath burned in her throat by the time she saw the lightning-split tree.  Just a mile farther.
      Was that a tiny column of smoke curling above the mountainside?  No, it couldn't be.  Not Daddy and Matthew!  Barely able to force her legs to run, she climbed the last hill.  Her heart denied what her eyes saw and her mind knew even before she crested the hill.  Thick black smoke was billowing above the land.
      Flames consumed the entire farm.  The neat two-story clapboard house, the barn, the chicken coop, even the storage shed; all were burning.  Seven men were riding around the farmyard, flaming torches in their hands.  On the ground lay two lifeless bodies.
      Raging, Fionna dropped to her knee and took aim from the top of the hill, her vision blurred by her tears. 
      Just as she started to squeeze the trigger she was thrown backward.  A rough hand clamped over her mouth and dragged her back into the bushes.  Seeing Nathanial's red hair out of the corner of her eye, her terror turned to anger.  She tried to break his grip and club him with the stock of her rifle.
      "Stop it!" he hissed in her ear as he deftly pinned her arms with one hand.  "It's too late to save them, but I can save you - if you'll stop fighting me.  There's too many, and they're too close.  We'd get off two shots, and they'd be on us as we reloaded.
      She stopped struggling.
      "Promise to keep quiet and I'll let you go." His gray eyes were serious.
      Fee nodded, and Nathanial took his hand away.  Quickly she scrambled up the rocks cresting the hill.  Nathanial followed, his coarse whisper frantically cautioning her to keep down.
      She had no intention of giving away their hiding place.  Even in her anguish, she'd understood the logic of his words.  She just wanted to see, to confirm her worst fears.
      Below them, through the smoke, she could see a twisted body.  It was Daddy.  He was wearing the bright green shirt she'd made for his Christmas present.  Deathly still, he lay sprawled where he'd fallen.
      Matthew was lying on the ground near the barn.  Distance gentled the scene, making it look as if he'd gone to sleep after work.
      "No," she whispered.  "Not Daddy...not Matthew..."  She smothered her rising sobs in the crook of her arm, hiding her eyes from the massacre, hoping it would be gone when she looked again.  Her tears spilled onto the cold rock.  She looked up once more to see the horror of flame and blood.
      "Daddy...oh, Daddy..." she cried softly.  "Matthew..."
      The marauders were leaving.  The last one turned his horse and threw a torch on the haystack.  As it burst into flames, they began riding up the hill toward Fee's hiding place.     
      She dropped back behind the rock, ducking her head beneath a bush and quickly wiping away her tears.  Nathanial was to her left, covering the nose of his stallion with his hand.  He was hidden from view of the road by a thick growth of underbrush.
      Fee held her breath and watched from behind the rocks as the men galloped by.  They wore the leggings of mountain men from back east.  One of them was wiping the bloody blade of his long knife on his leg.  She shuddered.  They were all strangers, but she'd remember their hate-twisted faces until the day she died.
      As the sound of their horses faded into the distance, she cautiously raised her head and watched the diminishing figures.  They took the right fork in the road.  They were going into town.  Her pain-numbed brain wondered dispassionately whom they would kill next.  Who was the next one on the Underground Railroad?  The nameless man who brought Nilly?  She didn't even know how to warn him.
      "They're gone," she said flatly.
      "Where'd you leave the wagon?"
      "'Bout a hundred fifty yards from the fork in the road.  They took the town fork.  They won't see it."
      Nathanial came forward, leading his horse.  "I'm sorry."
      Fee pulled her skirt out of her waistband, covering her muddied pantaloons.  She turned to him, holding her head high, ignoring the tears coursing down her cheeks.  "Could I trouble you to help me bury my kin?"


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