June, 1880, Bethel Springs, Alabama
Truett Beverly aimed his rifle at the noose above James’s head. He would only get one shot to sever the rope, but that wasn’t what bothered him. How to get away from the half dozen men, all armed and standing near their able-bodied horses after he fired the shot—that was what bothered him.
Even as the sun sank low, the summer heat sent sweat trickling down his neck and over his collarbone. The dark hood concealed Truett’s face. Strands of hair clung to his sweaty temples. The long cape hid everything except his boots, but his black gelding was more likely to be recognized than his boots. He could only hope the descending darkness would prevent that.
Sheriff Suggs took the noose from a low, thick branch of the white oak tree and placed it around James’s neck. The pale rope stood out against his friend’s dark brown skin. In the light of the torches the small lynch mob was holding, Truett imagined he could see James swallow, his throat bobbing against the stiff noose.
Heat boiled up from Truett’s gut.
The sheriff’s beefy jowls shook at his own words, something about protection of women. He was lynching James for trying to rape his daughter. But it was a lie. James would never do such a thing, not to Almira Suggs nor anyone else. Sheriff Suggs would jump at any excuse, rumor, or made-up story to lynch a black man—especially the one his daughter was in love with.
Truett forced himself not to blink or even breathe as he curled his finger around the trigger. He must do it now, before Sheriff Suggs ended his rant, turned, and sent James’s horse charging out from under him.
Truett squeezed the trigger.
The cracking boom of the gun echoed through the woods. The sheriff and his men pivoted, searching the semi-darkness of the woods for the source of the gunshot. After a moment of stunned silence, they called out to each other, struggling to catch their skittish horses’ reins and mount them.
Truett had already shoved his gun into the holster on his saddle. He urged his horse into a gallop.
He kept his eyes on James, who leaned forward over his horse’s neck. He clutched the pommel of the saddle with his bound hands and hung on, pressing his heels into the horse’s sides to move her into the trees, away from the sheriff and his men.
“There he is!”
A glance over his shoulder showed the six men kicking their horses in pursuit. They pointed, cursing and shouting, “Get him!”
Truett hunkered low over Colonel’s neck, anticipating the shots that would be fired at him. His heart thundered against his ribs, and he stifled the whoop of triumph that rose into his throat.
As the men closed in on them, Truett caught up with James and the brown mare, and they crashed through the brush.
The whites showed all around the mare’s eyes. If only she would keep running, following the lead of Truett’s black gelding.
The shouting continued behind them. James turned his head toward Truett.
“We’ll never outrun them.” James said.
Truett sent his horse tearing down the side of a tree-covered embankment. At the bottom, in the dark and dense foliage, the trail was barely discernable. Truett followed it until he saw a half-fallen tree and turned Colonel sharply to the right.
James’s horse followed him. Truett drew to a stop and slid from the saddle. He grabbed both horses’ reins and led them into the mouth of the cave. James dismounted as well.
Truett cocked his head toward the cave entrance, listening. His heart beat so hard it vibrated his chest.
The seconds dragged on. Where was Sheriff Suggs and the other men? Had they gone another way? Or were they waiting outside to pounce on them when they ventured out? Truett laid his hand on his gun, straining his eyes toward the entrance of the cave.
Hoof beats approached. The sound grew louder and louder until they were right outside. He pulled his gun out of its holster and braced his feet apart.
The sound gradually grew softer, until Truett once again heard only silence.
The cave was so dark, he could barely make out James’s form and couldn’t see his face at all. They both just stood there, not moving or making a sound. The quiet was almost a palpable presence in his ears. After almost a full minute, Truett finally took a deep breath.
“Is that you, Truett?” James whispered.
“Who else?” Truett stepped into the half-light at the entrance of the cave and flipped the hood off his head. He grinned at his best friend.
James shook his head. He whispered, his words barely audible, “Truett Beverly, you’re the beatinest sight I ever did see. You saved my life.” His voice hitched at the last word.
Truett swallowed past the lump in his throat. Sheriff Suggs would’ve taken James’s life and never felt a moment’s remorse. He took a step toward James and enveloped him in a bear hug. James didn’t hug him back. Then Truett remembered—his hands were still tied.
Truett stepped back. He lifted his hunting knife from its sheath on his belt and sawed the ropes that bound his wrists in two.
“I thought I was dreaming when I heard that rifle crack and the rope fell.” James rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes. “But Tru, you could have been killed. If Sheriff Suggs finds out it was you, he’ll kill you yet.”
Truett placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “I had to do it, James. Besides, I couldn’t let Suggs lynch another innocent man. And you know saving lives is my calling.” He grinned.
“Always the hero. You always want to be King Arthur or Sir Gawain, going around saving people, and it’s gonna get you killed.”
Truett’s chest grew tight and he shifted his feet. “Nah, James. Anybody with any conscience woulda’ done the same.”
“No. Most people wouldn’t.”
“You’re the one you should be thinking about, James, not me. You gotta light a shuck out of here or Suggs’ll finish what he started.” Truett kept his voice low just in case Suggs or one of his men had circled back around.
“I’ll have to leave, now, tonight.”
“Where will you go?”
“Ohio, I guess.”
It was where he had gone to school. “I’ll go with you, make sure you get safely north.”
The urgency in James’s voice stopped Truett’s hand as he reached for his horse’s bridle.
“There is something I need from you, but you gotta be careful.” He scrubbed his hand over his short hair and sighed. “I need you to keep an eye on Almira.”
James bowed his head. “We— I— She may be . . .” He shook his head. “I knew better, but I was weak, Tru. I hope God will forgive me.” James rubbed his face, then the back of his neck. “No one should blame her. It was my fault. I should have been strong, for her sake. Maybe I deserve to be lynched.” He pressed a hand to his forehead. “I’ll come back for her. You have to tell her that. I’m coming back as soon as I can to take her back with me.”
Truett’s heart dropped to his gut. “Does her father know?”
“I don’t think so, but he knows enough to justify killing me—at least in his mind. Just promise me, if you find out that she’s with child, you’ll write and tell me. Suggs will want to kill her if he finds out.” He pointed a finger at Truett. “But don’t do anything to let him know you’re helping me. He’ll kill you. And this town needs its doctor.”
There was something else this town needed much worse, and that was a sheriff who didn’t think he was above the law, a lawman who didn’t judge innocence and guilt by the color of a man’s skin.
But James was right. If Suggs ever discovered who had saved James from being lynched, he would be glad to lynch Truett in his place.
* * *
Sitting alone in her room, Celia Wilcox reread the letter her sister had sent her.
Please come and help us. Mama just sits and mumbles. I’m scared. We have no money, and Daddy’s horses broke down the fence last night and ran away. Will has been searching for them since before daylight. Without those horses, I don’t know what we’ll do. Daddy spent the last of our savings buying them. But the scariest thing is Mama. She doesn’t even remember that Daddy’s dead sometimes, and when she does remember, she cries for hours. She hardly knows the rest of us exist. I’ve been taking care of Harley and Tempie, trying to cook on this awful stove—I need you, Celia. I don’t want you to give up your dream of your own seamstress shop, but surely Mama will get better. Please come and help, just until things get a little easier around here.
Your affectionate sister,
Celia cried when she read the letter earlier that afternoon, a fist of guilt squeezing her chest. She immediately started packing her trunk, barely able to see through the blur of tears.
Her father had died in February, and it was nearly summer now. She’d spent two weeks grieving with her family, the only time she’d visited since they’d moved to the farm in north Alabama.
Nashville was her home. Her father had agreed to her staying at Mrs. Beasley’s boarding house while the rest of the family moved. She loved her father, but . . . a tinge of anger mixed with her sadness now as she contemplated the events of the past year. How could her father have chosen to throw away his money and good sense to buy a farm, leaving his position as a mathematics professor at Vanderbilt University to be a horse breeder?
The decision never made any sense to Celia, and she’d told her father so, as tactfully and respectfully as she could. But he didn’t listen. Her poor siblings and mother. They’d happily gone along with Father’s scheme, never knowing what heartbreak would come of it.
Ruminating over it wouldn’t help. Her next course of action was clear. She had to go and help her little sister take care of her family.
Celia’s stomach twisted. She looked around at her drawings, the dresses she had designed, the patterns she had made. Her sewing materials couldn’t be contained in one basket. They were all over. What if Mother was never able to come out of her fog? Never able to deal with the younger children and the household chores? Celia might have to give up her dream of her own seamstress shop.
But she couldn’t think about that now. Her family needed her.