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Chapter One
Whittaker, Michigan
April 1859


Sixteen-year-old Belle Palmer's feet burned like they were on fire. She knew the pain came from all the walking she'd been doing in the too-large boots, and that the soles of her feet were probably raw and covered with blisters, but she couldn't stop and rest. It had now been five days since slave catchers descended on their small party of Kentucky runaways, and Belle and her pa had been separated in the bedlam that followed as everyone ran for their lives. Five days of sleeping on the ground; five days of eating whatever she could find in the fields; and five days of being lost and alone. She'd come North looking for freedom and found only the freedom to starve. With no idea where she was or how to find someone she could trust, she had no choice but to keep moving. The White man who'd guided them into Michigan told them all what to look for should a disaster occur. Folks friendly to escaped slaves hung colored quilts out on their clotheslines; other houses had little Black-faced jockeys out front, and if the lantern in the jockey's hand was lit, it meant fugitives were welcomed. Belle had passed many farmhouses but had seen no such signs.

She'd also committed to memory the secret phrases Underground Railroad conductors sometimes asked to determine if a runaway was indeed who they claimed to be. She remembered all the corresponding answers but couldn't find anyone to ask her the questions.

The early April weather had turned colder last night. She pulled her threadbare coat tighter and forced back the tears filling her eyes from the agony in her feet. Her ugly, homespun trousers were no match for the Michigan chill and she shivered in the gray dawn air. She thought about home and what she'd be doing if she dadn't come Nor& She'd be just getting up from her pallet on the floor in her mistress' room and seeing to breakfast. Belle tried not to think about food because her stomach ached with emptiness.

The sudden sound of wagon wheels made Belle quickly seek cover in the thick undergrowth beside the narrow dirt road. Hidden by die weeds she prayed whoever it was would drive on by. Her heart was beating so loud she just knew the sound of it could be heard back home.

"Hey, you boy. Come on out."

The male voice froze her. She'd been seen. What should she do? Maybe if she didn't show herself the man on the wagon would think he'd only imagined seeing someone and move on.

"We know you're in there," called another voice -- female this time. "We won't hurt you:'

To Belle's ears, the girl sounded young.

"I'll bet you're hungry," the male voice added. "We can get you something to eat.'

Belle found that offer so tempting she almost stood right then and there, but held off Suppose they were slave catchers, she asked herself Although she didn't remember hearing of any catchers that rode with young women, this was the North and maybe such things occurred here.

"It's going to get colder and colder today," the man pointed out. "Wouldn't you rather be someplace warm?"

Belle wanted that too. Her nights of sleeping on the ground bad taken their toll. Her clothes were filthy, her body as well. She was tired, sore and sick to death of being lost alone in this strange land. For a few moments more she pondered his offers, then decided she didn't care if they were catchers or not, she just wanted to stop running.

Bolstered by the last of her courage, Belle stood to meet her fate. To her surprise, the young man and girl had brown skin just like hers. They were Colored, she saw with astonished eyes, and were more finely dressed than anyone she knew back home. The man had on a well-tailored brown suit, his female companion a simple gray cloak and matching bonnet that fit her as if it had never belonged to someone else.

He was walking in the brush toward her and even as Belle took a wary few steps backward, she realized hecouldn't be but a few years older than she. He was hand-some too. The dark brown skin and matching eyes were setin a face that had very pleasant features. "I won't hurtyou, " he assured her in a gentle voice. "What's your name?"

"Belle"

His brown eyes assessed her dirty face beneath her battered hat, and then her filthy, ill-fitting clothes. "That's a funny name for a boy."

She almost took offense, but being tall and thin, and dressed Re a boy, she said instead, "Yes it is, but I'm a girl."

He had the decency to look chagrined. "Sorry, miss:' He then asked, "Are you seeking deliverance?"

Belle paused. It was one of the secret questions. Even though Belle knew how to respond she hesitated because the guide also warned them to be extremely cautious when approached by strangers; some folks, both Black and White preyed upon runaways for monetary gain.

But with nothing left to lose, Belle replied, "Yes. Is deliverance near.

He assessed her for a long moment more before offering, "Yes, it is:'

Belle wanted to drop to her knees and weep with joyful relief She knew he could see the sheen of tears in her eyes, but he left her dignity by not calling attention to them.

"My name is Daniel Best and that's my sister Josephine back there on the wagon."

Belle looked out at the girl who seemed to be carefully scanning the road ahead and behind, then heard her call out, "Come on, Dam. Bring him along before we're seen."

"He's a she, Jo," her brother called back...

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