Chapter Oneaugust 1801
"Mama!" came the frightened wail of a child. "Mama!"
Sabina Erhardt, being pushed along by a noisy throng, stopped at the sound of terror. Bracing herself against the crush of people, she looked quickly around her, searching through the sea of gathered skirts and men"s leggings. If a small child fell in this crowd, she might easily be trampled before anyone noticed.
To Sabina"s relief, she spotted the little four- or five-year-old youngster fighting her way past swirls of gingham and calico to stumble right into Sabina"s waiting arms.
As Sabina pulled her close, the carrottop looked up with wide green eyes and a freckled nose. "I can"t find my mama."
Sabina lifted the child up into her arms. Then, hoping to calm the little one, she asked teasingly, "Did that careless mother of yours get herself lost?"
The child stared back, speechless, until the fear in her gaze melted away. She jutted out her frail chin. "Yes, she did. Mama needs a good hard spankin"."
Sabina laughed. "I think mayhap a kiss and a hug is more what she"ll be needing. Your mama"s probably real scared right about now that she got lost."
The pigtailed redhead frowned, studying on Sabina"s words. "Maybe that would be better. Besides, you know how mamas like bein" kissed."
Sabina couldn"t help laughing again as she lifted the girl higher. "I surely do. Climb on my shoulders. Perched up there, you"ll be able to see into the whole clearing."
Sabina noted that her own mother was being swallowed up by the multitude leaving this afternoon"s wondrous session of the great revival meeting at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Twenty-five thousand people, she"d heard said, twenty-five thousand, who"d traveled here from all over Kentucky and Tennessee_more people than Sabina had ever seen in one place. More people than she"d thought even lived in the vales and coves west of the Allegheny Mountains. "Mama! . . . Greta!" she called to her still blonde and slender mother, and was grateful to see the older version of herself stop and wait for her to catch up.
Once Sabina had the child with her blue-plaid skirt collaring her own neck, she worked her way through the human stream to reach her mother.
"I see you"ve grown a bit taller," Sabina"s mother remarked with a curious glance.
"You mean my new friend, here. She"s misplaced her mama."
With that gentle way of hers, Greta smiled up at the child. "I see. Mayhap she"s gone on to your wagon. Can you point us to where your family is camped?"
The little girl swiveled back and forth. "I think it"s_no, it"s over yon_no. It"s . . . maybe it"s_"
The camping sites had been laid out in a series of orderly rows surrounding the meeting area, and to a small child, Sabina reckoned every wagon and makeshift tent looked alike. "Do not worry. All the people will be settled in their own spots soon, fixing supper. We"ll just walk down all of the lanes till you find your folks."
Besides, it wasn"t as if she and her mother were in any rush to get their own supper on the table_Kurt, Sabina"s stepfather, probably wouldn"t show up to eat till past midnight. Gamblers preferred playing their games of chance within the cloak of darkness, especially in a holy place such as this. And if Kurt and his cronies got caught luring young farm lads into their dens of iniquity, they"d probably be tarred and feathered and ridden out of camp on a rail.
If only Kurt had joined her and her mother at the meetings this week. It would"ve been impossible for him to withstand the Holy Spirit"s awesome power that had filled the clearing betwixt the seven preaching stands. Seven preachers, all calling out from every direction for the almighty power of God to come down and smite the devil from amongst the people. . . . A shiver raced up Sabina"s spine every time she recalled the gloriously electric wind that had swept across the clearing in wave after wave, and of the thousands of "new lights" for Jesus that were being brought forth day after day_new lights in a territory where such a heathen darkness had reigned for so long.
"By the by," her mother said, looking up at the child on Sabina"s shoulders, "what"s your name?"
The little one leaned down toward Greta. "Lilac. An" my mama"s name is Violet, an" Pansy"s name is Pansy. Daddy says we"re his bouquet of flowers."
The child"s innocent bragging touched Sabina. Lilac"s father sounded like a man who treasured his family. He probably provided a cozy home for them, too_a place where a body could set down roots_unlike her own gypsy existence.
"Lilac! Lilac Wallace!"
Sabina swung toward the sound of the young voice. A half-grown girl came straight for them through the thinning crowd. Pansy, perhaps. But seeing the girl"s large doelike eyes and hair as richly brown as a beaver"s pelt, Sabina couldn"t imagine the two youngsters being sisters.
As the girl reached them, she turned back and hollered. "Papa, over here. I found her. I found Lilac."
A man approached in long strides. He had the older child"s expressive eyes, but in contrast to her simple blue-checked gingham, he was dressed in the tailored attire of an Eastern gentleman rather than the coarse linen or deerskin of the usual Tennessee homesteader. Over bronze silk breeches, he wore a waistcoat of gold-and-bronze brocade. And his shoes! The shiny silver buckles were fit for a king.
Sabina curled her own bare toes deeper within the drape of her faded gray linsey-woolsey skirt as she took in the remainder of his features, which were aristocratic, reminding her of the landed gentry of Virginia. To be sure, he was a man of social prominence. But more important, if this fine gentleman brought his family to this great gathering, he had to be a Christian. A Christian father.
The gent swept his tricorn from his head. "Baxter Clay, at your service, ladies."
The lost child"s last name was Wallace, Sabina noted. The handsome man was not her father, then.
"We are immeasurably grateful to you kind ladies," continued in a voice as pleasing as the rest of him. "I thank you for your merciful kindness in taking charge of Lilac. Her mother, Mrs. Wallace, is frantic."
"And that she should be." Sabina winked at him. "Getting lost like she did. Lilac and me has been searching all over for her. Ain"t that right, Lilac?"
"Yes, ma"am. I"m gonna give Mama a good talkin" to when we find her."
A grin lifted the corners of the gentleman"s firm mouth. "And I know just where to look." He reached for the child. "Why don"t you climb on up here," he said swinging her astride his own strong shoulders. "Delia and I will escort you to your family."
While he settled the child, Sabina quickly straightened her simple shawl collar that had gone askew, then folded her hands as she"d seen so many of the more gently bred women do.
Mr. Clay turned back to Sabina and her mother. "Again, thank you, ladies." After another slight bow, he replaced his braid-trimmed hat and caught his daughter Delia"s hand; then the threesome strolled off with the two girls chattering happily away.
The lost child was not his, Sabina knew as she watched them go. Yet the expensively dressed man had not felt he was above joining the search. And neither of the children seemed to fear his wrath in the least. He was undoubtedly a loving father and a good neighbor. The kind of man any woman would count herself blessed to marry.p>When he and the girls were swallowed again by the dispersing crowd, Sabina hooked her arm into her mother"s. "Rich or not, that is a man after God"s own heart. That one shouldn"t have no trouble getting into the heavenly kingdom."
Her mother patted her hand as they started walking in step again with the remaining stragglers. "He"s the kind of man I pray you"ll marry one day. If only we could light in one place long enough to give some good decent fellow the chance to come courting."
Suddenly, the joy was sucked from the day. "We"ve talked about this so many times before, Mama. Even if we did stay some place long enough and some fine young man actually did want to come calling, how would we explain away Kurt and his gambling ways?"
"My sweet daughter, you are speaking doubt again. Don"t forget, `The salvation of the righteous is of the Lord: he is their strength in the time of trouble. And the Lord shall help them, and deliver them: he shall deliver them from the wicked, and save them, because they trust in him." "
"Yes, Mama, but nowhere in the Bible does it say I"m guaranteed a godly husband."
"You are `like a green olive tree in the house of God," the psalmist says. `I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever." "
"That"s well and good, Mama. But I think maybe God has already showed his mercy by turning the curse of my tainted birth into a blessing for us both_the blessing of us always being together, sharing our love for the Lord. It may very well be that my destiny is to never leave your side, what with Kurt carrying you from one gambling den to another. Like Naomi and Ruth in the Bible. `Whither thou goest, I will go." "
"You"re right. Ruth was faithful to Naomi, just like you are to me. And you"ve traveled with me now till you"re into your twenties. But don"t forget, God eventually sent Boaz to Ruth. And my prayer is that you, too, will soon have your Boaz. For years now, my nightly prayer has been that you won"t always be burdened with the sins of my youth . . . the shame of your birth."
"Mama, please don"t never think I would wish for any other mother. `Tis true, us living with a loose-footed vagabond such as Kurt is like trying to keep house on a seesaw. But you always been my solid place, my home_you and the Lord_the place I always know I can go to for love and mercy. I really don"t need nothing else. Especially not one of them no-accounts Kurt keeps trying to pawn me off on."
"Poor Kurt. He really does do the best he can by us, considering he"s abiding in such a dark place. I pray for him day and night."
"I know you do," Sabina sighed wearily.
Greta squeezed her hand. "Don"t lose heart. Just keep your ye on the true path, and I know somewhere along the way the Lord has a Boaz waiting just for you. You"ll see. Someone fine and upstanding, like that Mr. Clay fellow."
The loud cry brought Sabina from a dead sleep. Was that her mother? She flung off the light flannel sheeting and sprang up from her pallet. Quickly she oriented herself, remembering that she stood in her own small tent, located on the fringes of the great religious gathering. Surely none of these good church people would try to harm her mother. But at any large assembly there were those who lurked around the fringes, waiting to take advantage.
As she rushed toward the canvas opening, she heard the slightly slurred whisper of her stepfather. He"d been drinking again.
"You don"t understand, sugar. I didn"t have nothin" else to bet with. Ever" cent I had was on the barrelhead. And I had the winning cards. I was sure of it. You gotta believe that, sweetie. I was stone sure. I would"a bet my own mama."
"But you didn"t," her mother retorted in a fierce whisper. "You bet my daughter."
Stunned, an ominous chill seized Sabina as she slipped out into the mild summer night. But her parents were not within sight. Then she heard Kurt"s besotted pleading again, coming from the tent he shared with her mother.
"Now, honey, you know I think of Sabina like she"s mine, too. Ain"t I raised her since she was just a pup? An" listen_I was thinkin" this over on my way here. If I had to lose her to someone, I couldn"t have picked a better sort. Oh, an" by the by, I"m gonna need to sell that brooch I bought you last month. Like I said, I"m plumb busted."
"Who did you lose her to?" Greta"s voice sounded angry and as frightened as Sabina now felt.
With her fists knotted as tightly as her stomach, Sabina started for their tent.
"Shockley . . . Tom Shockley." Kurt answered his wife with a hint of hesitation in his voice. Even liquored up, he knew he"d crossed the line. That had to be in her favor.
Sabina paused outside their tent. Her mother would have more luck talking some sense into him if she stayed out of the mix.
"That hulking bully?" Greta charged. "He"s got the gambling fever worse than you do."
"Are you sayin" I ain"t done right by you and Bina?" His slurring whine had turned stubborn. "When I took you and your fatherless babe on, you was purt" near starved, with nothin" more"n the rags on your back. Since you been with me, you ain"t missed hardly a meal. An" I"ve bought you plenty of purties, like that brooch. An" ain"t I been a good an" faithful husband to you? That"s more"n I can say fer a lot of them holier-than-thou braggarts I seen struttin" around here this week. I"d take odds, them what ain"t tiptoein" off to Curly"s tent to visit his girls will be sneakin" upstairs at some dockside tavern come next week."
"Curly and his girls are here, too?" Her mother"s shock was laced with disdain. "But that still don"t_"
"No more buts," he overrode gruffly, outtalking Mama, as usual. "You know Shockley"s been wantin" to marry up with Sabina fer years. Ever" time our paths cross he asks about her, sayin" as how he"d sure like to have a sweet cornsilk gal just like I got. Even after she"s turned him down. Twice."
"So you just naturally knew he"d be willing to take Sabina as a wager."
"Blast it, woman, Sabina"s twenty-two. Practically an old maid. No less"n a dozen of my acquaintances has come askin" for her. An" that uppity gal wouldn"t settle on none of `em."
"Acquaintances? You mean your boozing, brawling, tavern mates?"
"Insult my friends all you want, but what"s done is done." A deadly hardness wiped the last slur from his speech. "Sabina belongs to Tom now, and he"s got my IOU to prove it. Now shut up and let me get some sleep. Shockley"s comin" in the mornin" to take her over to one of them preacher men_you know, them blackbirds what"s been yammerin" an" hollerin" round here all week. And as excited as Shockley was about marryin" up with Sabina, he"ll probably be here `fore the sun is halfway_hey, where you goin"?"
"Out," Greta retorted harshly, then softened her voice. "Out behind yon tree to_you know."
The man grunted his acknowledgment as Greta, in a muslin night rail, stepped out into the darkness and almost stumbled into Sabina. Urgently, she motioned for her daughter to follow her into the woods.
Hoping, praying that this was nothing but a bad dream, Sabina trembled as she followed her mother into the deeper shadows of the nearest trees, the only light coming from the flashes of fireflies. This had to be a nightmare_she absolutely couldn"t find herself trapped into a godless marriage such as her mother"s. Surely the Lord didn"t want that, either. Surely he didn"t. This could not be her destiny. Gambled away on a losing hand of cards.
Please, Lord, tell me it isn"t so.
Pausing for Sabina to catch up, her mother grabbed her hand. "Hurry!" she whispered, moving fast again, heedless of the fact that they walked barefoot across twigs and roots into pitch blackness. "I need to get back before Kurt starts wondering."
With no more than a stubbed toe or two, Sabina and her mother passed enough trees and shrubs to shield them from the outer row of wagons and tents. They stopped behind a thick tree trunk.
Sabina didn"t wait for her mother to speak. "I heard everything, Mama. Everything."
"Then you know we have to act fast."
Hope flickered. "What do you mean?"
"As soon as you hear Kurt take up his snoring, I want you to gather up your things. Don"t chance putting fire to your lamp. Then I want you to circle around to the other side of the camp and hide out in the woods. With tomorrow morning being the last preaching service, most everybody will be heading out soon as it"s over. Maybe even before. Let the Lord direct your steps. He"ll find you a safe passage out of here. When he does, promise me you won"t hang back like Lot"s wife did at Sodom. You just go and keep on going."
"But what if the Almighty doesn"t show me where to go? I can"t just sit out there forever."
"O ye of little faith," her mother chided. "You trust the Lord just like we always done. He don"t want you marrying some no-account gambler no more"n I do."
"But, Mama, what about you? I"d be leaving you here all alone with no one you could talk to or pray with. Won"t you be sorrowful lonesome without me?" Even the mere thought of leaving her mother ripped unbearably at Sabina"s heart.
"You know I will. But Kurt is determined you"re leaving us tomorrow anyway. So it"s on your own tonight or with Tom Shockley in the morning."
"Then you come with me. Let God lead us both out of here."
Greta clutched Sabina"s shoulders. "I would give anything to go with you. But I can"t. Kurt is my husband. I married him of my own free will, for better or for worse till death do us part. I"m bound to that."
"But, Mama, I won"t never be able to come back to see you. And the way Kurt keeps moving from place to place, I won"t even know where you are or if you"re alive and well. I couldn"t bear that."
"I know, sweetheart." Her mother expelled a sad breath. When she spoke again, her voice held more promise. "We"re headed north of here to a river stop on the Ohio. Cincinnati, I think it"s called. Kurt says there"s a lot of cash crops being hauled down the river this time of year. And folks laying over for the night. He figures there"s lots of money to be made. He says we"ll probably hole up for the winter there. As soon as you"ve found a safe place, you get someone to write a letter for you and send it off to Cincinnati."
"But you can"t read any more than I can write."
"Don"t you worry about that. I"ll find someone I can trust. A local preacher, maybe. And I"ll have him write a letter straight back to you. We won"t lose each other, I promise."
"Oh, Mama, it all sounds so risky."
Greta pulled Sabina close. "You and me, we"re going to pray every night for the good Lord to bring us back together again. You and me. The minute the sun sets_the very minute it drops behind the hills_we"ll both start praying. That"ll be our pact. Remember, `if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven." "
"But, Mama, I still won"t know_"
Her mother hushed her with a finger to her lips. "Shh, my sweet. Don"t you worry. Just trust that every hair on our heads counts with the Lord. He loves you and me that much. Even when I fell into sin and ruined my life, he saw me through. And you_" she stepped back, holding Sabina at arm"s length_"promise me you"ll do everything I said. Promise me now, `cause I"m out of time. I got to get back to the tent."
Sabina"s throat began to clog. This was to be their farewell, and the darkness prevented her from seeing the love, the sadness, she knew were in her mother"s eyes. "I will. And Mama, it will happen. We will find each other again. We will."
Greta sucked in a sob, then ran a motherly thumb along Sabina"s cheek. "Fare thee well, my precious gift. Don"t you never lose faith." Then Greta whirled around and was gone, running back to the camp.
The tears that had been filling Sabina"s eyes spilled down her cheeks, streaking across the place her mother had just touched. It had been difficult enough for just the two of them together to stay true to their Lord among all the gamblers and thieves, but alone . . . ? This would be a purely hard test. For the first time, Sabina understood how Jesus must have felt when he left his family to go into the dangers of the wilderness. Her head bowed with the weighty thought of it.
Finally, gazing up through the trees, she wiped the wetness from her eyes. Give me the trust of Jesus, Lord. I will go wherever you lead . . . but, please, mark the path big and bold, so I don"t make a wrong turn.