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Chapter One
Whittaker, Missouri
October 1858

Three loud thumps echoed through the floor beneath Hester's feet-a signal that her guests had finally arrived. She quickly moved aside the rocker, positioned as always in front of the big bay window, then the heavy rug underneath which hid the trapdoor. The visitors were late by more than two hours and she wholeheartedly hoped the delay resulted from the fiercely raging storm outside and not some unforeseen trouble.

Mr. Wood, an old Quaker friend of her late Aunt Katherine's, appeared first on the steps leading up out of the tunnel that ran beneath the house. He acknowledged Hester with a terse nod and handed her a drenched and shivering tarp-wrapped child of no more than five years. Hester carried the boy to the fire and set him down as close as safety would allow, then quickly returned to offer assistance to the others in Mr. Wood's party.

In all, he'd transported six on this trip: one man, and a couple with their three children.

The small family had fared well considering the dangers of the journey. Hester knew from her own experience what they must have experienced escaping north. Along with having to place their lives in the hands of strangers, even such dedicated conductors as Mr. Wood, fleeing slavery-and the only life they ever knew-had probably been a very difficult decision to make. How-ever, they'd ridden the "train" together, and unlike some of the other guests who'd passed through Hester's station on the Underground Railroad, this family had arrived north intact.

The sixth visitor had not fared as well, Mr. Wood explained as he and Hester hurriedly made their way down the length of the lamp-lit earthen tunnel. "I wanted to take him on down to Harsen's Island, but he's hurt pretty bad."

The tunnel emptied out onto the banks of the Huron River, and outside the wind and rain swirled ferociously. Hester, fighting the force of the storm, pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. She had to squint against the deluge in order to help Mr. Wood undo the false bottom of the wagon. The man inside lay motionless. To Hester's surprise, he was dressed and rouged as a woman. The injuries had drained the color from his mulatto-gold complexion, but the angry red swelling and dark bruises associated with a severe beating stood out brilliant against the pallor of his skin. With the rain pouring over his face, he looked like a corpse.

"There's a price on his head!" Mr. Wood shouted to be heard in the storm. "You sure you want to do this?"

"I don't care," Hester screamed back. "Bring him in." Between them, Hester and Mr. Wood managed to drag the unconscious man back through the tunnel and into the room built behind the wall of the house's under-ground cellar and finally settle him atop a cot.

"Who is he?" Hester asked softly. Kneeling beside the unconscious man, she listened to his shallow breathing while she hastily shrugged out of the wet shawl. One side of his face had borne the brunt of the beating. The eye was swollen shut, the skin around it had turned a vivid violet and black.

"The Black Daniel."

With a shocked expression, Hester turned his way. "Are you certain?"

Mr. Wood nodded a grim confirmation. "It'll be very dangerous hiding him, Hester."

She agreed. His exploits were legendary; slave catchers had been hunting the elusive Black Daniel for years for leading slaves north. His condition left her few options, however. He didn't look up to going on to the next station, a thirty-mile trip, especially not in the bottom of a storm-jostled wagon. He'd have to stay.

Hester gently opened his heavy woolen coat. Her stomach lurched at the deep red stain saturating the right side of the old dress he wore. "Are you going on tonight?" she asked Mr. Wood.

"Not with this storm," he responded while she ran her hands lightly over Daniel's upper torso and shoulder blades in search of less visible injuries. A soft touch over the surface of his ribs made him moan and his battered face twisted with pain.

"I believe he has some broken ribs," Hester said, looking up into Mr. Wood's concerned blue eyes. "He needs more help than I can give. If you're not going on, I need you to fetch Bea Meldrum and bring her here."

Bea lived about a half mile up the road and did most of the doctoring for their community, and right now Hester prayed she was home. "Help me get him out of this coat, then go get Bea."

At fifty-six years old, Mr. Wood was still a formidable-sized man, but the strain of raising the Daniel so Hester could slip the coat off showed plainly in the old man's face. The Daniel was big. He towered over Mr. Wood's six feet by more than a few inches. He also looked to outweigh him by a good fifty pounds. Mr. Wood described it as trying to raise a mountain.

When she freed him of the coat, Hester tried not to dwell upon the blood staining the sheet where the Daniel had lain, and silently signaled Mr. Wood to ease him back down to the cot.

Hester placed a hand on his damp forehead; fever had set in. He was beginning to shiver and shake. Because he'd been concealed in the false bottom of the wagon, …

 

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