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By Tracie Peterson
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2011 Tracie Peterson
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Chapter OneAngelina County, Texas February 1886
"Deborah, wake up! Deborah, hurry!" At the sound of her mother's frantic voice, Deborah instantly awoke, bolting up from her bed as if the quilt itself were on fire. Her mother crossed the room—a lamp in one hand, Deborah's robe in the other.
"Sissy needs you."
"Sissy? But why? What's wrong?" Deborah pulled on the old dressing gown and tightened the sash.
A moment of silence hung heavily between the two women. "She's ... been attacked."
Deborah met her mother's worried expression, illuminated by the lamp she held. The single light gave Euphanel's face an eerie, unnatural glow. "Attacked? By animals?" Deborah felt her heart pick up its pace; dread pulsated through her veins. "What time is it? When did this happen?"
"Two, or thereabouts. Just come with me and you'll see for yourself. She's been wounded, and since you've been studying with Dr. Clayton, I thought you could help."
Deborah nodded and followed her mother. Downstairs she could hear Sissy wailing and the voices of Lizzie and G.W. trying to calm her. What in the world had happened? Deborah saw her brother's form heading out the back door just as she arrived in the kitchen.
Sissy sat on a ladder-backed kitchen chair. Her normally rich brown skin was now a sickly sort of gray, and blood streaked her skin and clothes. Deborah rushed to her side and assessed her wounds. The worst was a deep gash on the side of her head.
"What happened, Sissy?"
The woman rocked back and forth while Deborah carefully examined her. She noted a swollen eye, cut lip, and numerous scratches. But it was the nasty head wound that held Deborah's attention.
Her sister-in-law brought a basin of warm water and several towels. "Best as we've been able to understand, some men came to the house threatening David and George. I sent G.W. for the doctor. They're going to stop by the Jackson cabin first and then come here," Lizzie said.
"They said ... blacks had to be taught their place ... that they was ... the White Hand of God, "Sissy choked out the words." Said they ... was sent to do ... God's will."
"The White Hand of God?" Deborah asked, looking to her mother.
"G.W. said it's a group of white men who go about with their faces covered so no one knows who they are. They cause trouble for folks of color, but of late it's gotten more violent."
Deborah shook her head and took up a towel. Dipping it in the water, she began to clean the head wound. "How did they do this to you, Sissy?"
"A big fella done hit me with the butt of his rifle," Sissy said. She looked to Deborah's mother. "You s'pose Mr. Arjan and Mr. Rob will get there in time to he'p my boys?"
"I'm sure they'll do what they can," Mother replied. She looked over Sissy's head to Deborah. "For now, let us tend to your wounds and get you safely in bed."
Deborah nodded and rinsed the bloody towel in the basin. "Mother, please get me the scissors. I need to trim back some of Sissy's hair from the wound site." She looked at the older woman and bent close to her face. "I'll not cut away too much of your covering glory." She gave the woman a sad smile. Sissy had helped Deborah dress her hair many times, always reminding her that Brother Paul in the Bible called a woman's hair her covering—her glory. Sissy didn't so much as try to respond.
Mother handed her the scissors and shook her head. "I just don't know what kind of men would do such a thing."
"Hate-filled ones," Lizzie replied. "Only bitter and hateful people could even consider hurting another human being in such a way."
"Right after the War Between the States, there were such heinous groups—men who would kill Negroes just for the right to say they'd done it," Mother replied. "The government had to step in and make laws to keep such things from happening—not that it was very effective in some areas. I have often prayed that such things would come to an end, but I suppose they never will—at least not in my lifetime."
"It is hard to rid the world of hate," Deborah said, carefully trimming the wooly hair. The wound was deep and splayed out in jagged tears. Sissy had lost a lot of blood; no doubt the woman was in shock. "I think it would be best if we could put Sissy to bed and get her feet up. I can tend her there." Deborah stepped back and seriously considered whether the older woman could even walk.
"No, I don' wanna go. I need to be here for George."
"Sissy, you can't do anything down here that you can't do upstairs in bed. Prayer is the best thing any of us can do. "Euphanel gave the woman a tender smile. "Your husband wouldn't want you refusing treatment on his account."
"Mother is right," Deborah replied in a soothing fashion. She gave Sissy's head a gentle stroke as she looked for any wounds she might have missed.
"Let's put her upstairs in my bed," Mother declared. She reached for her friend's left arm while Deborah put the scissors aside and put her arm around Sissy from the right. A moan escaped the injured woman's lips.
"I'm feelin' a mite poorly," Sissy murmured. Her knees seemed to buckle with every step. "They kicked me pretty good."
"Oh, Sissy! What a horrible way to treat such a gentle soul," Mother said, tears running down her cheeks.
"They weren't thinkin' of me as havin' a soul, Miz Euphanel— they said I was no better than an old cur. An old cur ... what had turned on his master."
She staggered and fell against Deborah, exhausted. She'd walked the entire way from her cabin to the Vandermarks', in the deep of night, injured. The poor woman likely struggled through the woods to reach them, for she would have been too afraid of her attackers to take the easier roadway.
Lizzie led the way with a lighted lamp, while Deborah and Mother mostly carried Sissy up the stairs. Lizzie opened the door to Mother's bedroom and they guided Sissy to the recently vacated bed. Mother left to light another lamp. "It's cold in here," she said with a backward glance. "I'd best stoke up the fire."
"I wish you wouldn't fuss so," Sissy said, looking to Deborah. "It's George and David I's worried 'bout. These old scratches ain't gonna hurt me none."
"Your wounds are more than mere scratches," Deborah told the older woman.
"I'm sure the men will help them," Mother said in confidence. But Deborah could see her mother's concern for the men's safety. Trouble had been brewing for months in their little community, and stories from surrounding counties didn't sound much better. It was hard to imagine where it was all headed.
"The boys are in God's hands," Mother added, but Sissy never heard. She had mercifully surrendered to unconsciousness.
* * *
By the time Arjan and Rob arrived at the Jackson cabin, the attackers were long gone and the house was on fire—clearly too far gone to save. Rob immediately caught sight of the ghostly apparitions hanging from the front oak tree.
"They hanged 'em," he said, urging his horse forward. He came to where David's body swayed ever so slightly from a hastily fashioned noose. Flames from the burning cabin gave enough light to show that the man had been badly beaten before being strung up. David's arms hung at awkward angles, leaving little doubt they'd been broken. Just beyond David was his father. The place where his face once had been was now nothing more than a mass of blood and mangled flesh.
Rob looked away as his stomach tightened. His uncle said nothing, but it was clear he was equally disturbed. There was no shame in being sickened over such a sight. He was glad supper had been some hours before, or he'd certainly have lost it at this scene. Surely only the monsters who'd done this evil could look upon it and not feel the effects.
"Let's get them down. We can't save the house," Arjan said, coming alongside Rob. He handed Rob the reins to his horse and climbed down. "Thankfully the cabin is in the clearing and there isn't any wind. I'm thinkin' it won't catch to the trees."
"I ain't never seen anything like this," Rob admitted.
Uncle Arjan took his horse and tied him to the hitching post in front of the house. Rob dismounted and asked, "Why would a fella want to hurt George and David? They were good people."
"Good people with the wrong color skin," Arjan replied. "At least wrong in the eyes of those that done this."
Rob secured his horse and followed his uncle back to the oak tree. The older man reached for the rope that held George. It had been tied off at the base of the tree—knotted in such a fashion to allow quick release. He gently lowered the former slave to the ground while Rob guided George's body into a position on his back.
"Look, there's some kind of note," Rob declared, reaching for the bloodstained paper. The scrawling was poor, but legible.
"What's it say?"
Arjan nodded. "I heard it used often during the war."
Rob shook his head. "Do you remember what it says?"
"'Fraid so.' Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.'"
The verse chilled Rob to the bone. "It's signed, 'The White Hand of God.'"
They said nothing more, but instead went to where David's body swayed. Working together as they had for George, they lowered David to the ground. Another note had been tacked onto David's bloody shirt.
"'Let others be warned.'" Rob shook his head and reached out to remove the paper, only to realize that it had been affixed with a nail—a nail driven into David's chest.
He covered his eyes with his hand. "They were good men— good workers, willing to help anyone who needed it. This oughtn't have happened," Rob said.
"It's gonna keep happenin' as long as decent folks let it," Arjan replied.
They heard a wagon approaching and turned to see two men seated on the buckboard. G.W. had finally arrived with Dr. Clayton. Another man approached on horseback. As he drew closer, Rob could see that it was Ralph Nichols, the town constable.
Arjan stepped forward. "They're dead."
Dr. Clayton jumped down from the wagon and went to the bodies as if to confirm the statement. Rob went to where G.W. stopped the wagon. He couldn't contain his sorrow.
His voice broke. "We were too late. Too late." He shook his head. "Just ain't right."
"Who did this? Did you see them?" G.W. questioned.
"They were long gone when we got here. The cabin was burning and the men were ... were ..." He fell silent and regained his composure. "They were hangin' from the oak."
G.W. glanced past his brother but said nothing. The constable walked up to the brothers and pointed over his shoulder. "Doc confirmed they're dead."
Anger coursed through Rob at the matter-of-fact statement. He turned and glared at the man. "Of course they're dead. The question is, what are you gonna do about it?"
* * *
The minutes ticked by ever so slowly, worry and fear taking each moment captive. Though Deborah was relieved to see that the bleeding had stopped, she still worried about the degree of damage done to Sissy's head. The swelling in her face had increased, making her nearly unrecognizable. She'd balanced precariously between wakeful moanings and unconscious peace ever since being placed in the bed.
When they finally heard the wagon pull into the yard, Deborah breathed a sigh of relief. Mother hurried to the door. "That will be G.W. with Dr. Clayton!"
Sissy stirred but didn't open her eyes. "Mebbe my men, too."
"I'll bring them right upstairs." Mother left Deborah with Sissy.
Deborah patted the woman's leathery scratched and scarred hand. She pressed a kiss on her cold fingers, pleading silently with God for good news. The older woman struggled to open her eyes. "Sissy, stay awake. Look at me—it's important you not sleep. We need Dr. Clayton to examine you first."
"I's tryin', Miss Deborah."
Soon she heard the sound of boots in the hallway and Dr. Clayton strode into the room. "How is she?" Christopher asked, meeting Deborah's gaze. He put his bag aside and began to take off his coat.
She raised a brow. "Very weak. I've cleaned the head wound and managed to stop the bleeding, though she's not able to stay conscious. There's fresh water in the basin by the bed."
He nodded and rolled up his sleeves. Next he took up the bag and drew out a brown bottle of carbolic acid. She waited as he washed his hands, then handed him a clean towel. His handsome face contorted in worry.
"Bring me more light."
Deborah did as he instructed. Shining the lamp just right, the wound was quickly revealed. Seeing that Sissy had once again passed out, she asked softly, "What about George and David?"
He said nothing as he studied the wound. Finally he glanced up momentarily, but his look told her everything. Deborah felt a sob catch in her throat and bit her lip to keep from crying out. She fought back tears and forced her mind to focus on the matters at hand. Steadying her voice, she pointed out the obvious.
"She has a swollen eye and ... and ... lacerations. She ... well ... they hit her with the butt of a rifle."
Christopher nodded and threw her a brief but compassionate look before retrieving several things from his black bag. "You did a good job here. The wound is extensive, but the skull appears intact. A miracle, to be sure."
"Sissy would tell you that she's hardheaded, "Mother announced from behind Deborah.
Christopher looked up. "Sometimes that benefits a person, eh?"
Deborah saw her mother nod, but the look on her face revealed that she, too, was overwhelmed with grief. Straightening, Deborah took hold of her mother's hand. "We have to be strong for Sissy."
Her mother nodded. "I know."
Sissy remained unconscious for most of the doctor's ministrations. As Christopher and Deborah worked together to close the gaping wound, Euphanel maintained a hold on her friend's hand.
Deborah couldn't help but think of the years the two women shared. Sissy had once been the property of Deborah's grandparents. Mother, however, had been happy to see the slaves set free and had welcomed Sissy into her own home as a paid worker. But more important—as a friend.
They had gone through so much together. Sissy had been there for the delivery of each of the Vandermark babies. Mother, in turn, had helped Sissy deliver David.
They had doctored and cooked, cleaned and gardened together for so long that each woman could very nearly guess the next move of the other. The color of their skin had never been important. Mother always said she'd never had a friend so dear as Sissy.
Moaning softly, Sissy opened her eyes as the doctor moved to exam her ribs. "Doc Clayton?" she asked. She struggled to focus.
"I'm here, Sissy. Rest easy now."
"My men. Where's my George? My David?"
Euphanel interceded. "Now, Sissy, you know we can't be worrying about that just now. You're hurt mighty bad and we have to get you mended first. Arjan and Rob are taking care of George and David."
This seemed to calm the woman. Both eyes were now swelling, making it difficult for her to keep them open. When Christopher touched a particularly tender area on her side, Sissy couldn't help but cry out.
"I would say you have some broken ribs," he told her.
"They was kickin' me and kickin' me. I ... liked to ... never got away."
Deborah frowned. "We will see to it that they pay for this, Sissy. It's hate, pure and simple—and it cannot be tolerated. Not by good Christian folk."
But Sissy never heard the words as she slipped back into sleep. Christopher straightened. "I'll keep watch. The next few hours will be critical. We'll pray there's no brain swelling, but it seems likely there will be. We may have to drill a hole through the bone to release the pressure."
"Now then, Dr. Clayton," Mother said with an edge of reprimand to her voice, "you either believe the Good Lord is faithful to answer the prayers of His children or you don't. We'll pray His will and trust that it includes Sissy's healing. I can see death being a more perfect way of meeting that, but I would be sorely distressed to lose my friend." Mother squeezed Sissy's hand one more time, then slowly released it. "I'm going to go start some breakfast. I'll bring you both a plate when it's ready."
"Thank you, Miz Vandermark," Christopher replied. He went to wash the blood from his hands as she exited the room.
Deborah stared down at Sissy's damaged body. The older woman had been a part of their family as long as Deborah had been alive. She had taught Deborah to weave baskets from reeds, to can her first batch of grape jam, to catch catfish in the river. The woman could truly do almost anything. At least she had been able to do those things. What would happen if she was unable to function normally?
Excerpted from Hearts Aglow by Tracie Peterson Copyright © 2011 by Tracie Peterson. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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