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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Spotlight: Enter the Black Oak Black Oak Series Book 1 by Monique Edenwood

 


Enter the Black Oak
Black Oak Series Book 1
by Monique Edenwood
Genre: Dark Romantic Suspense



Falling for a man like Jackson Wilder was not something I had planned.

He was wild, experienced and savagely beautiful. He was also damaged and dangerous. Our love was a cosmic collision of lust and obsession that left me scorched by exquisite flames of desire and domination.

Jack possessed me. He educated me. Loving him was the greatest pleasure I'd ever known... up until the moment I discovered the dark secrets he had been hiding.

I could never have imagined that pulling myself out of the agony of betrayal would lead me to reconnect with a former friend, Cameron O'Neill, scion of one of Manhattan's wealthiest and most powerful dynasties, and sworn enemy of Jack.

Cameron's craving for me was acute. The relentless force of his devastating masculine beauty and his powerful, controlled virility was dizzying. Desire colored his fierce gaze. I knew it was wrong. Jack would never allow it. I had to do everything within my power to resist him, even when he pulled me down the rabbit hole where I uncovered dark truths about Manhattan's most secret society that led me to the brink of madness...

Enter The Black Oak is a thrilling romantic suspense set in Manhattan's high society and the first novel in the Black Oak series by author Monique Edenwood.

Enter The Black Oak will take you on a dangerous journey through lust, desire, betrayal and obsession that will leave you breathless by the end and desperate for more.

Mature Audience.

Please note that Enter The Black Oak features a love triangle between the heroine and two men who are sworn enemies. The early stages of the novel explore the multi-dimensional complexities of infidelity. It features a strong female lead who is initially thrown off balance by the discovery of her partner's infidelity and who regains her strength and power as the novel progresses. The infidelity is a catalyst for the rediscovery of an old friend. The novel features two alpha males, one quite dominant, and is an homage to radical female strength and stunning masculine beauty. If depictions of powerful, beautiful, dominant but damaged men are not your thing, this may not be for you!





Black Oak Burning
Black Oak Series Book 2


Cameron’s relentless craving for me never seemed to end, even when it seemed that he may end up claiming his victory over Jack.

The irresistible odyssey into his dark dreams of domination thrilled me to my very core, breaking some of the chains holding me to Jack and setting my soul on fire with the fervor of relentless lust and unspeakable threats of ecstasy.

The incessant magnetic pull of his hard, capable body and the yearning in his determined eyes overpowered all attempts at reason. And he knew it acutely.

Just as it seemed the storm had begun to still, demons that had long haunted Cameron started to resurface and Jack launched an all-out assault on my senses and need for protection, pulling me into his dizzying vortex of indecent desire and fervent obsession and making it clear to me that I would always belong to him.

I had no idea the Society would be watching our every move, waiting for the moment to strike, allowing Manhattan’s most powerful patrons to take their revenge on Cameron.

And Jack.

And me.

If I let them.

Would we all make it out?

Black Oak Burning is the scorchingly hot sequel to Enter The Black Oak and Part 2 of the Black Oak Trilogy. It starts with an explosive release which will leave readers breathless and giddy as they prepare to experience the ecstasy and torment of those who enter The Black Oak.




Black Oak Scorched
Black Oak Book 3


I did everything in my power to resist Cameron's never-ending need to have me as his own. The heat of his hunger and the fervor of his attacks on my will was merciless, wearing me down as I struggled under the weight of Jack's ceaseless craving and possessive need to reclaim me… as well as his surveillance of my every move.

I was also forced to fight Sebastian Gravier's growing desperation to have me submit to him so that he could educate me in the dark pleasures of the Black Oak Society that have been so carefully crafted by his wicked deviance.

What the resistance didn't know is that as they were finalizing their plan to take down Quercus Velutina once and for all, the Society were mounting one of their own, with brutality and betrayal that no one could have ever imagined.

Despite the victory of his bloodshed, Sebastian's restless hunger for suffering and revenge never abated, and once Cameron made it clear to Jack that he intended to take me for his own, Gravier finally got what he had ached for--Jack declaring all-out war on Cameron, restless and ready to hand down his own special brand of justice.
_______________________________________________________________

He thinks he has won, but the war will not be over until Jessynia belongs to me and me alone. And my craving for her flesh and my need to possess her soul will never end...
_______________________________________________________________

Black Oak Scorched is the third novel in the Black Oak series and is the first book in the series featuring multiple narrative points of view.

For mature audiences.



 
Monique Edenwood is a British-Canadian author based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Her love of the magical trees and forests that she grew up surrounded by helped to inspire her first novel, Enter The Black Oak, book 1 in the Black Oak trilogy.

She loves helping people escape their daily lives for a short while with the help of some intrigue, suspense and some smoking hot fictional boyfriends!

When she isn’t writing or reading, she loves hiking and cycling around beautiful Vancouver.
She's also an epic fantasy geek and lover of 80's and 90's music.

Monique absolutely loves hearing from readers of her novels so please feel free to contact her!





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Friday, April 23, 2021

Spotlight: Three Missing Days by Colleen Coble

Three Missing Days

by Colleen Coble

April 5 - 30, 2021 Tour

Synopsis:

Three Missing Days by Colleen Coble

Book Three in the gripping romantic suspense series from USA TODAY bestselling author Colleen Coble.

A chilling murder.

Chief of Police Jane Hardy plunges into the investigation of a house fire that claimed the life of a local woman as well as one of the firefighters. It’s clear the woman was murdered. But why? The unraveling of Jane’s personal life only makes the answers in the case more difficult to find.

Her son’s arrest.

Then Jane’s fifteen-year-old son is accused of a horrific crime, and she has to decide whether or not she can trust her ex, Reid, in the attempt to prove Will’s innocence—and whether she can trust Reid with her heart.

Her stolen memories.

Three days of Jane’s past are missing from her memory, and that’s not all that has been stolen from her. As she works to find the woman’s murderer and clear her son’s name, finding out what happened in those three days could change everything. It all started with one little lie. But the gripping truth is finally coming out.

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery, Suspense, Thriller
Published by: Thomas Nelson
Publication Date: April 6th 2021
Number of Pages: 352
ISBN: 0785228543 (ISBN13: 9780785228547)
Series: Pelican Harbor #3 || These books are Stand Alone Mysteries but are better if read as a series!
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | ChristianBook.com | Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

“I know what you did.”

The muffled voice on her phone raised the hair on the back of Gail Briscoe’s head, and she swiped the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. “Look, I’ve reported these calls. Don’t call me again.”

She ended the call with a hard finger punch on the screen and stepped onto her front porch. The late-May Alabama air wrapped her in a blanket of heat and humidity, and she couldn’t wait to wash it off. She should have left the light on before she went for her predawn run. The darkness pressing against her isolated home sent a shudder down her back, and she fumbled her way inside. Welcome light flooded the entry, and she locked the door and the dead bolt with a decisive click that lifted her confidence.

She stared at the number on the now-silent phone. The drugstore again. Though there weren’t many pay phones around anymore, the old soda shop and drugstore still boasted a heavy black phone installed back in the sixties. The caller always used it, and so far, no one had seen who was making the calls. The pay phone was located off an alley behind the store by a Dumpster so it was out of sight.

The guy’s accusation was getting old. Counting today, this made seven calls with the same message. Could he possibly know about the investigation? She rejected the thought before it had a chance to grow. It wasn’t public knowledge, and it would be over soon. She clenched her hands and chewed on her bottom lip. She had to be vindicated.

But who could it be, and what did he want?

Leaving a trail of sweaty yoga shorts and a tee behind her, she marched to the bathroom and turned the spray to lukewarm before she stepped into the shower. The temperature shocked her overheated skin in a pleasant way, and within moments she was cooled down. She increased the temperature a bit and let the water sluice over her hair.

As she washed, she watched several long strands of brown hair swirl down the drain as she considered the caller’s accusation. The police had promised to put a wiretap on her phone, but so far the guy hadn’t stayed on the phone long enough for a trace to work. And it was Gail’s own fault. She should have talked with him more to string out the time.

She dried off and wrapped her hair in a turban, then pulled on capris and a top. Her phone vibrated again. She snatched it up and glanced at the screen. Augusta Richards.

“I got another call, Detective. Same phone at the drugstore. Could you set up a camera there?”

“I hope I’m not calling too early, and I don’t think that’s necessary. The owner just told me that old pay phone is being removed later today. Maybe that will deter the guy. It’s the only pay phone in town. He’ll have to use something else if he calls again.”

“He could get a burner phone.”

“He might,” the detective admitted. “What did he say?”

“The same thing—‘I know what you did.’”

“Do you have any idea what it means?”

Gail flicked her gaze away to look out the window, where the first colors of the sunrise limned the trees. “Not a clue.”

“Make sure you lock your doors and windows. You’re all alone out there.”

“Already locked. Thanks, Detective.” Gail ended the call.

Ever since Nicole Pearson’s body had been found a couple of months ago, no one needed to remind Gail she lived down a dirt road with no next-door neighbors. No one wanted to buy the neighboring place after such a lurid death, so the area remained secluded other than a couple of houses about a mile away and out closer to the main road.

She stood back from the window. It was still too dark to see. Was someone out there?

Pull back the reins on your imagination. But once the shudders started, they wouldn’t stop. Her hands shaking, she left her bedroom and went to pour herself a cup of coffee with a generous splash of half-and-half from the fridge. She had a stack of lab orders to process, and she couldn’t let her nerves derail her work.

The cups rattled as she snatched one from the cupboard. The coffee sloshed over the rim when she poured it, then she took a big gulp of coffee. It burned all the way down her throat, and tears stung her eyes as she sputtered. The heat settled her though, and she checked the locks again before she headed to her home office with her coffee.

No one could see in this tiny cubicle with no window, but she rubbed the back of her neck and shivered. She’d work for an hour, then go into the lab. The familiar ranges and numbers comforted her. She sipped her coffee and began to plow through the stack of papers. Her eyes kept getting heavy. Weird. Normally she woke raring to go every morning.

Maybe she needed more coffee. She stretched out her neck and back and picked up the empty coffee cup.

Gail touched the doorknob and cried out. She stuck her first two fingers in her mouth. What on earth?

The door radiated heat. She took a step back as she tried to puzzle out what was happening, but her brain couldn’t process it at first. Then tendrils of smoke oozed from under the door in a deadly fog.

Fire. The house was on fire.

She spun back toward the desk, but there was nothing she could use to protect herself. There was no way of egress except through that door.

If she wanted to escape, she’d have to face the inferno on the other side.

She snatched a throw blanket from the chair and threw it over her head, then ran for the door before she lost her courage. When she yanked it open, a wall of flames greeted her, but she spied a pathway down the hall to her bedroom. Ducking her head, she screamed out a war cry and plowed through the flames.

In moments she was in the hall where the smoke wasn’t so thick. She pulled in a deep breath as she ran for her bedroom. She felt the cool air as soon as she stepped inside and shut the door behind her. Too late she realized the window was open, and a figure stepped from the closet.

Something hard came down on her head, and darkness descended.

***

Excerpt from Three Missing Days by Colleen Coble. Copyright 2021 by Thomas Nelson. Reproduced with permission from Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Colleen Coble

Colleen Coble is a USA TODAY bestselling author and RITA finalist best known for her coastal romantic suspense novels, including The Inn at Ocean’s Edge, Twilight at Blueberry Barrens, and the Lavender Tides, Sunset Cove, Hope Beach, and Rock Harbor series.

Connect with Colleen online at:
colleencoble.com
Goodreads
BookBub: @ColleenCoble
Instagram: @colleencoble
Twitter: @colleencoble
Facebook: @colleencoblebooks

 

 

Tour Participants:

Visit these other great hosts on this tour for more great reviews, interviews, guest posts, and giveaways!



 

 

Giveaway!:

This is a rafflecopter giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours for Colleen Coble and Thomas Nelson. ONE (1) winner will receive ONE (1) physical set of the first three books in the Pelican Harbor series. (U.S. addresses only). The giveaway begins on April 5, 2021 and runs through May 2, 2021. Void where prohibited.

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Friday, April 16, 2021

Spotlight: Sweet Paradise by Gene Desrochers

Sweet Paradise Banner

Sweet Paradise

by Gene Desrochers

April 5 - May 7, 2021 Tour

Synopsis:

Sweet Paradise by Gene Desrochers

In this harrowing Caribbean noir murder mystery, we meet Private Investigator Boise Montague, a man on the brink who is trying to get his life together after his wife died. He has returned to his childhood home and he’s started a private investigator firm of one. Since returning, his drinking has accelerated and he needs clients desperately before the life insurance money dries up.

Enter Junior Bacon, grandson of Francine Bacon of the Bacon sugar and rum empire. Granny’s gone missing and Junior wants Boise to figure out what happened.

As Boise delves into the mystery of the missing matriarch, a reporter associated with her winds up dead in his new office, dramatically raising the stakes. Now Boise must contend with questions from the police, the newspaper president, and the reporter's widow.

As Boise investigates he uncovers surprising truths about a woman seeking redemption, a family on the brink, and why no matter how hard we try, the past can sometimes never be fixed.

In the end, Boise must not only confront a killer, but the island's dark history and his own inner demons.

Kudos:

“Boise Montague, intrepid St. Thomas, V.I. private investigator, returns in SWEET PARADISE. Talented author Gene Desrochers delivers a suspense-filled tale overflowing with duplicitous characters and greed-driven agendas in lushly authentic Caribbean environs. A mature generation is determined to hold tight to the empire that provides them with every luxury, while the next generation attempts to fulfill its dreams … Others will compromise all that is decent. And Boise Montague will do what he does best as he separates the winners from the losers and the innocent from the guilty. A 5-star read.”
--Laura Taylor - 6-Time Romantic Times Award Winner

“Boise is back! Gene Desrochers returns his readers to the island paradise of St. Thomas. You’ll feel the warm tropical breeze as Private Investigator Boise Montague must discover [what happened to] the matriarch of a wealthy island rum producer. The deeper he digs, the closer he gets to his own mortality. Wandering and sometimes stumbling through his investigation, Boise learns about family secrets—and they could kill him. Outstanding writing and the vivid setting will keep you transfixed.”
--R. D. Kardon, award-winning author of Flygirl and Angel Flight

Book Details:

Genre: Murder Mystery
Published by: Acorn Publishing
Publication Date: April 6th 2021
Number of Pages: 299
ISBN: 9781952112379
Series: Boise Montague, #2 (Each book in the series is a stand alone mystery)
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

The first coat was drying. More droplets of sweat rivered between my shoulder blades as I slugged water and Guinness alternately. Two in the afternoon was no time to be painting in the October heat, but I didn’t know what else to do and sitting around worrying about my looming penury seemed pointless.

The used old-timey clock radio I’d picked up at Bob’s Store babbled on about hurricane warnings as reception fizzled in and out. It was the latter part of hurricane season and we’d seen minimal storm damage in the region. We might dodge hurricanes for one or two years running, but it was never long enough to truly get complacent about them the way places like New Orleans had.

The overhead fan whirred. Outside my door sunlight filtered thinly through a cloud, illuminating the traffic circle a faint ocher. As I considered the faded lines denoting parking spaces and the cracked pavement, a young man bobbed into my line of sight. He was one of those people who walked on his toes at all times, like the tendons in his calves were so tight his heels couldn’t touch the ground for more than an instant before popping up again. He squinted at the building, turning his head back and forth, then perusing a sheet of paper clutched in both hands. A green Osprey backpack hung loosely off his shoulders. People in California used them for hiking. He tugged at the built-in sippy straw and sucked. The bubbly slurping of the last drops of water in his pouch filtered up to me. Disappointment clouded his face.

His attention snagged on my door. I grinned and gave myself a mental pat on the back. He shifted one hand to his hip and gave a slight lean. I wasn’t sure whether I should let him see me in my ratty painting outfit, but figured that could be explained by the wet door. A spooge of cantaloupe paint dominated the center of my gray t-shirt. I eased the door open a couple more feet.

“Help you?” I asked. “You look lost.”

“Nice door.” He pointed at his forehead and swirled his finger around. “You got some.”

He was college-aged and his face was sunburned, as were his arms. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and khaki pants, a classic tourist outfit.

He continued to stand in the same spot, squinting and considering the sheet of paper. I returned to my inner office, needing another sip of water and the breeze from the fan. Out my open doorway, I could barely make out the top of his Caesar-style haircut.

“You should get a hat!” I hollered out.

His head rose up from the paper and he pushed up on tip-toes so I could see his eyes. “The sun’s doing a number on you,” I said. “Want a drink of water?”

He stared at me a while with a strange stillness, like he was in no hurry as he weighed every option. This boy was a local and he would pull me into events that would rock one of the largest industries in the Virgin Islands.

“Do you have Perrier?”

***

Excerpt from Sweet Paradise by Gene Desrochers. Copyright 2021 by Gene Desrochers. Reproduced with permission from Gene Desrochers. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Gene Desrochers

Gene Desrochers hails from a dot in the Caribbean Sea called St. Thomas. He grew up with minimal supervision and free-roaming animals in a guesthouse that also served as a hospital during wartime. If you ask, he will regale you with his Caribbean accent and tennis prowess.

After a lifetime of writing and telling short stories, he ventured into the deep end, publishing his first novel, Dark Paradise in 2018. Sweet Paradise is Gene’s second published novel in the Boise Montague Series.

He lives in Southern California with his wife, step-daughter, and two cats.

Catch Up With Gene Desrochers:
GeneDesrochers.com
Goodreads
BookBub - @problemsolvergene
Instagram - @authorgenedesrochers
Twitter - @problemsolverge
Facebook - @ggdesrochers

 

 

Tour Participants:

Visit these other great hosts on this tour for more great reviews, interviews, guest posts, and giveaways!



 

 

Enter To Win!:

This is a rafflecopter giveaway hosted by Partners in Crime Virtual Book Tours for Gene Desrochers. There will be two (2) winners. Each winner will receive an Amazon.com gift card. The giveaway begins on April 5, 2021 and runs through May 9, 2021. Void where prohibited.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Spotlight: Death In The Great Dismal by Eleanor Kuhns

Death In The Great Dismal by Eleanor Kuhns

Death In The Great Dismal

by Eleanor Kuhns

March 22 - April 16, 2021 Tour

Synopsis:

Death In The Great Dismal by Eleanor Kuhns

Finding themselves in a slave community hidden within the Great Dismal Swamp, Will Rees and his wife Lydia get caught up in a dangerous murder case where no one trusts them.

September 1800, Maine. Will Rees is beseeched by Tobias, an old friend abducted by slave catchers years before, to travel south to Virginia to help transport his pregnant wife, Ruth, back north. Though he's reluctant, Will's wife Lydia convinces him to go . . . on the condition she accompanies them.

Upon arriving in a small community of absconded slaves hiding within the Great Dismal Swamp, Will and Lydia are met with distrust. Tensions are high and a fight breaks out between Tobias and Scipio, a philanderer with a bounty on his head known for conning men out of money. The following day Scipio is found dead - shot in the back.

Stuck within the hostile Great Dismal and with slave catchers on the prowl, Will and Lydia find themselves caught up in their most dangerous case yet.

Kuhns’ vivid portrayal of the community that developed inside the swamp captures a group of naturally cunning and vigilant people who provided a family for one another when most had none. . . the story shines for its historical backbone and atmospheric details.

~ Booklist

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Published by: Severn House Publishers
Publication Date: January 5th 2021
Number of Pages: 224
ISBN: 0727890239 (ISBN13: 9780727890238)
Series: Will Rees Mysteries #8
Purchase Links: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Goodreads

Read an excerpt:

Prologue

‘You want me to do what?’ Rees asked, staring at the man next to him. He had not recognized Tobias at first. When taken by the slave catchers, Tobias had been a young man. He was still a young man in Rees’s opinion, but he no longer looked like it. Now gray threaded his hair, grooves scored his forehead and his eyes were haunted. He looked as though he’d experienced the worst of what man had to offer. Rees felt a burst of sympathy.

‘I want you to accompany me to Virginia,’ Tobias repeated. ‘To the great swamp.’ When Rees sat back in the creaky porch chair without answering, Tobias rushed on, ‘Please. Ruth is pregnant and wouldn’t come north with me. She was afraid. And it was difficult, so difficult, even with the help of the Quakers. I don’t dare go south to fetch her without help.’

‘But you made it back home,’ Rees objected. ‘Won’t the Quakers help you again? I don’t understand why you need me.’

‘I don’t think they run the railroad south,’ Tobias said with a faint smile. ‘Besides . . .‘ His eyes drifted away from Rees to the yard and the barn behind it. It was late September and the hills behind the farm were a mosaic of gold, orange and red interspersed with the dark rich green of the firs.

‘Besides?’ Rees repeated. Tobias was keeping something back; Rees knew it.

‘Besides it is even more dangerous now.’ Tobias’s gaze returned to Rees. ‘A man named Gabriel Prosser led a slave revolt. Planned it anyway. Right around Richmond. Everybody real tense. I need a white man beside me. Ruth trusts you. You’re the only one I know who will travel.’ He swallowed, his expression beseeching.

Rees still said nothing. Several years previously, Tobias and Ruth, both free blacks, had been snatched off the streets of Dugard, Maine and taken south.

‘How did you find me?’ he asked instead of acknowledging Tobias’s question. He was tempted, no denying that. Most of the harvest was in and he’d finished his final weaving commission. After a summer spent working on the farm, he felt restless and was ready to do something different.

‘I went to Dugard first. It was your son that told me where you were. He said you gave him your farm.’

‘Yes. We moved to this farm.’

‘Will you help me?’ Tobias asked, leaning forward. Rees looked at the eagerness on the dark face peering into his. Rees hesitated. He should say no, he knew he should.

‘Maybe,’ he said instead. What would Lydia say? His journey would leave her alone on the farm with the children for several weeks; he couldn’t see her agreeing to that.

‘I think we should go,’ Lydia said, stepping through the front door.

‘Really?’ he asked in surprise.

She nodded. ‘I know the signs; you’re getting restless.’ She paused but Rees did not speak. Since the circus had come to town in the spring and he’d been attracted to the beautiful rope dancer, the relationship between him and his wife had been strained. She was edgy with him. Sometimes he caught her staring at him and lately she’d become prone to crying fits, for no reason he could see. ‘But, if you go,’ she continued, ‘I want to accompany you.’

‘What?’ Rees jumped to his feet and the chair crashed to the floor behind him.

‘I’d like you to join us,’ Tobias said eagerly, turning to face her. ‘Ruth will join us readily if there’s another woman.’ Then, catching sight of Rees’s expression, he added, ‘If possible.’

‘It’s too dangerous,’ Rees said.

‘Predictable,’ Lydia muttered.

‘It’ll be easier to travel through the South if everyone thinks you are just a man and wife with your slaves.’ Tobias’s mouth twisted into a grimace. Rees leaned forward to clap the other man’s shoulder in commiseration but before he touched him Tobias flinched away. The involuntary cringe made Rees himself jerk back. What had happened to Tobias in Virginia?

‘It would be a long trip for my horse,’ Rees said. ‘Especially pulling my wagon.’

‘We could take the cart,’ Lydia suggested.

‘You couldn’t get them through the swamp anyway.’ Tobias said. ‘Unless,’ he paused a moment, thinking.

‘You could leave them at a livery in Norfolk.’

‘Hmm,’ Rees grunted. He didn’t like the thought of leaving his horse and wagon anywhere. ‘We’re finishing up the harvest. Even if I wanted to help you, this isn’t a good time.’ He made that one final objection.

Tobias turned to look at the fields. The corn and wheat were cut to stubble, but pumpkins spotted the fields with orange and buckwheat, the second planting, waved in the breeze. ‘You wouldn’t be gone long,’ he pleaded, his eyes reddening as though he might weep. ‘Plenty of time to finish this.’ He waved his hand at the fields.

Rees, who could not abide tears, especially in another man, held up his hand. ‘All right, I’ll think about it.’ Of course he couldn’t go. It was a long distance and even if they hurried, they might not return until mid-October or later. By then Maine could see snow.

‘Please,’ Tobias repeated, sensing Rees’s longing and pressing his advantage. ‘Most of your crops are in and you got help bringing in the last of them.’

Since that was true, Rees did not argue. The Shakers had made good on their promise to assist him and some Brothers were even now in the fields. Besides the Shakers, Rees had hired a few of the landless men who wandered the roads looking for work. ‘If I were to accompany you,’ he said, ‘and that’s a big if, Lydia Rees must remain here.’

‘If you go, I go,’ she said. Rees shook his head, but she ignored him. Turning to Tobias, she said with a smile, ‘I know Ruth well. Let my husband and I confer. Come back tomorrow for our answer.’

His face lighting up with hope, Tobias rose to his feet. ‘Tomorrow then.’

As Tobias jumped off the wooden deck and began crossing the yard, Rees said to Lydia, ‘You know this isn’t possible.’

‘If you leave without me, I will follow. You know I will,’ she said.

Rees frowned at her. Always watching him, that was his wife. He felt a combination of shame and irritation that she still did not trust him. ‘Lydia,’ he began. But she interrupted him.

‘We need to talk about last spring and what happened,’ she said. ‘Here, at the farm, we are too busy and always distracted.’

‘It will be a long and grueling journey,’ Rees warned, hoping to discourage her.

‘You know some of the Shakers are traveling south to check on their Georgia and Florida communities,’ Lydia said. ‘We can follow them in the cart. And Annie and Jerusha can watch the children.’

Chapter I

Rees felt a trickle of sweat roll down his back. Although it was late September, the heat and humidity here in Virginia slammed down like a hammer. He wasn’t used to this heat, especially at this time of the year. In Maine the weather was already cooling, and the air was as crisp and tart as a fresh apple. Here every breath was thick with the cloying scents of a hundred different plants.

Rees looked back over his shoulder at Lydia. They’d been walking over three hours, but she seemed to be bearing up well. As Tobias had suggested, they’d left horse and cart in Norfolk. The Shakers had brought them the rest of the way, dropping them off within walking distance to the swamp. As soon as they had left the road where they’d said goodbye to the Shakers, Lydia had taken shelter behind a bush and changed into her boy’s clothing. Once belonging to Rees’s eldest son, the shirt, vest and breeches were worn, almost tattered, but thoroughly disguising. She’d put her auburn hair up under a hat as Rees stowed her dress in the satchel he carried over his shoulder. Rees also had changed – from his better breeches, shirt and jacket to old and worn breeches and shirt.

Now Tobias waited for them several paces ahead. Rees hoped the other man knew where he was going. As far as Rees could tell, there was no discernible path through the tall pines and the thick undergrowth below. Although they’d passed fields of tobacco and cotton, Tobias had been careful to stay within the bands of trees.

‘We’re going to cross a road,’ Tobias said now. ‘Be real careful there.’

Rees did not think the drops of perspiration on Tobias’s brow came from the heat; he was nervous. No, he was scared. Rees began looking around, waiting for some large animal to jump out at them. But except for birdsong and the faint whisper of the wind through the trees, within the patch of woods it was silent.

Tobias paused at the edge of the dirt road and peered through the thorny greenbriar vines. Seeing nothing, he cautiously circled the brambles. Pausing within the undergrown, he looked up and down the road once again. Seeing nothing, he burst out of the shelter and started across the road. But a white dust cloud at the top of the hill heralded the arrival of something – or someone. Two riders came over the hill. When they saw Tobias they increased their speed, galloping straight at him. He tried to reach the other side of the road, running for all he was worth, but the horses easily caught up. The riders reached him as he plunged into the underbrush on the other side.

‘Stop runnin’, boy.’

‘Massa,’ Tobias shouted.

Taking the musket off his back and pulling his powder horn and shot bag from his satchel, Rees turned to Lydia. ‘Stay here,’ he said before leaving the shelter of the trees in his turn and racing across the road.

As the white riders dismounted and went after Tobias, Rees followed the sound of voices into the underbrush.

The two white riders had Tobias in their grasp. “What’re you doin’ out here alone,’ the tallest of the men asked in his slow drawl. He wore a buttercup yellow coat despite the heat and a white waistcoat. Tall black boots, now dusty from the road, went almost to the knees of his newly fashionable trousers.

‘Nuthin’.’ Tobias sounded different, his speech losing the crisp Maine consonants. His posture had gone from upright to a kind of servile crouch. The young, shorter man, dressed more casually but wearing a top hat, shook Tobias threateningly.

‘Where’d you get those boots?’

‘Hey,’ Rees said loudly.

‘Go about your business,’ the tall rider told Rees.

‘He’s mine,’ Rees said, trying to mimic the other man’s leisurely dialect.

Both men examined Rees, their gazes fixing on his musket. ‘Out huntin’?’ The speaker turned to look at Tobias. ‘He looks like a strong young buck. I’ll give you $50 dollars for him.’

‘Not for sale,’ Rees said curtly. He thought for a moment that these men would not listen to him but after a brief pause the two men brushed past him and returned to the road. Rees followed them, making sure their horses galloped away. Then he pushed his way back to Tobias.

‘You all right?’ he asked. Tobias nodded although he had collapsed to the ground. Perspiration glistened on his skin and big damp moons darkened his shirt under his armpits.

‘You took a big risk,’ he told Rees in a shaky voice. ‘Just because you’re white doesn’t mean you’re safe.

They could have figured you for an abolitionist and whipped you just as hard as they would me.’

‘I’m going to get Lydia,’ Rees said. He was trembling so hard he wasn’t sure he could hold his musket. Instead of sprinting across this dusty lane, he walked on legs that shook uncontrollably. Lydia came out to meet him, taking his arm.

‘Esther was right,’ Lydia said. Rees nodded.

Sister Esther, an escaped slave who’d made her way north to the Shakers, had scolded them when they left. ‘You’ve no business going south,’ she’d said. ‘You’re totally unprepared. I hope and pray you don’t get Lydia killed on this mad adventure.’

‘We’re committed now,’ Rees said.

Tobias had recovered enough to stand up. ‘It’s not far now,’ he said when Rees and Lydia reached him.

‘What happened?’ Lydia asked.

Tobias and Rees traded glances and wordlessly agreed to say nothing. ‘We don’t have time now,’ Rees said. ‘I’ll tell you later.’ He was still shaky and Tobias was clenching and unclenching his hands, whether from fright or anger Rees couldn’t tell.

Tobias started off, setting such a punishing pace neither Rees nor Lydia could keep up. He began to worry that they would lose their guide; the thickness of the trees, the brambles and other plants meant that Tobias disappeared within a few yards.

The third time that Tobias waited for them he said tersely, ‘We need to get out of sight while its daylight. Hurry.’

‘We’re going as fast as we can,’ Rees said, turning to look at his wife. Both of them were panting and her cheeks were scarlet. ‘We’ve been walking for hours.’ And he was hungry. None of them had eaten since breakfast that morning and it was now several hours past noon. Tobias grunted.

‘We’re not that far from the lane,’ he said, turning and disappearing once again in the greenery.

It wasn’t just that he was fast. He snaked his way through the underbrush without making a sound or breaking any branches. Rees, taller and probably two stone heavier, couldn’t do that. Even his steps were noisy, crunching over the leaf litter on the ground with crackling thumps.

Tobias led them toward a large downed tree. Rees couldn’t understand why – until the other man lifted a board artfully covered with branches and leaves, revealing a hole underneath. ‘This way,’ he said, squirming through the opening. Rees struggled to press his huskier body through, discovering that the small cavity opened up to a much larger hollow. A rough ceiling had been formed above their heads and tree roots poked through the dirt that made up the walls. Stone steps led down into the gloom. Ducking his head against the low ceiling, Tobias descended into the darkness underneath.

Lydia followed him and then Rees, bending almost double.

A cave had been dug deep into the soil. It smelled powerfully of damp and dirt. Dimly lit by several oil lamps, the den was occupied by several people in ragged clothing. A family, Rees thought, since he saw several children. They fled to the comfort of their mother’s skirts when they saw the big white man enter their home. But, to his surprise, they didn’t cry.

The men all rose from their stools, their shoulders tensed. Although weaponless and barefoot, they were ready to fight to protect their friends and families. Rees’s heart began to race and he stood straighter, fists clenched. He was taller and heavier than anyone else here, but he knew he could not battle four or five men at once. There was no room for fighting in this den either.

‘He’s helping me get Ruthie,’ Tobias said as he collapsed to the ground. Both Rees and Lydia looked at him and she went to his side.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked. He nodded, blowing out little puffs of breath. ‘You must love Ruthie very much.’

‘I do,’ he whispered, turning his head aside.

There’s more to this story, Rees thought.

‘What happened?’ One of the men asked Tobias although his eyes never left Rees.

‘Two-.‘ Tobias cut his eyes to Rees. ‘Two white men tried to take me. ‘Lucky for me, my friend Rees here jumped in.’

Some of the tension left the room. Rees relaxed a little. He had never thought of his white skin before. But now, in a room full of black people, with he and Lydia the only whites, he experienced a sharp realization of how it felt to be an object of suspicion and fear because of that skin. He didn’t like it and turned a glance of surprised sympathy upon Tobias.

‘We be eating soon.’ One of the women stepped into the center of the cave. ‘Join us.’

Rees opened his mouth to accept. He was very hungry after his day hiking through the woods. But Lydia spoke first. ‘Are you sure you have enough?’

The woman, who carried herself with an air of authority, looked at Lydia – and her boy’s clothing - with interest. ‘Yes, chile. We do. Swamp food.’ She paused and when she spoke again it was to Tobias. ‘You plannin’ to leave at nightfall?’

‘Yes. We’re heading for the Great Dismal.’

‘Mos’ people head the other way out of that swamp,’ she said with a chuckle.

‘Ruthie’s there,’ Tobias said.

‘Oh honey,’ said the woman, ‘she could’ve been recaptured by now.’ The words ‘or worse’ hung unsaid in the air.

‘I have to try,’ Tobias said stubbornly. The woman offered him a pitying smile but said nothing further.

When night fell, people began to move outside. The women pulled away the branches and other debris disguising the fire pit and set up a cooking fire. The scanty smoke drifted lightly across the ground as they made a corn porridge and roasted game meat over the fire.

‘It’s turtle,’ Tobias told Rees in a low voice.

The steady whine of mosquitoes and the sound of slapping punctuated the quiet conversations. Frogs croaked nearby, filling the air with sound. Lydia reached into the satchel for a small stone crock. ‘What’s that?’ Rees asked.

‘Esther gave it to me. Something to keep the mosquitos away.’ She tugged at the lid but it was so tightly closed she couldn’t budge it. Rees took the crock and with some effort twisted the lid off. A fresh minty scent flooded Rees’s senses. When he inhaled deeply, he caught other fragrances: lemon and something else that was sharp and astringent, and underneath it all the sweetness of honey.

‘What is it?’

‘Herbs. Pennyroyal I think. Lemon. Maybe sage. All pounded into a salve with beeswax and oil.’ Lydia spread some on her face.’ She promised me it would keep away the mosquitoes.’

Rees hesitated. The paste smelled feminine. But he could already feel stings on his hands and neck. After a few seconds, he took the pot from her and liberally smeared the mixture on his skin.

‘Eat up,’ Tobias said, handing first Rees and then Lydia wooden bowls filled with the yellow mash. ‘No hot food tomorrow, or any food most likely.’

Lydia looked at the bowl. ‘Spoons?’ Tobias, smiling, shook his head. So Lydia and Rees imitated the others and dipped their fingers into the hot cereal. Rees decided he had to eat it quickly. Not only was it still quite warm but it was not tasty. He did not think it even included salt.

As soon as they finished eating, the men began to drift away, vanishing into the forest. The family went next, a young man guiding them.

‘Headin’ north,’ Tobias said when Rees wondered aloud where everyone was going. ‘Everyone but Auntie Mama. She lives here. Keeps this space for travelers.’ He put down his wooden bowl. ‘And we got to get going too. We still got a long way.’

Chapter 2

Morning found them at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. Rees, who had spent a restless night slapping at mosquitoes – despite the salve that was meant to keep the insects at bay, awoke groggy and irritable. Although Tobias had not pushed them as hard during the night, he had still set a rapid pace. All of them were hungry but far worse than the hunger was the physical discomfort. The insect bites maddened them with their itching and the scratches from the branches and brambles they had pushed through in the dark stung and bled.

As the first light of dawn poked its fingers into the swamp, Rees looked around. They had bedded down in a stand of loblolly and long leaf pine trees. Pine needles carpeted the ground. Not far away, at the end of the piney growth, was an alien landscape. Trees reached to the sky. Rees recognized oak, maple and hickory but what were those trees with the skinny narrow leaves. Underbrush; thick thorny greenbriar vines and a variety of bushes, made a solid green wall underneath. Tobias found an opening in the thicket and gestured to Rees and Lydia.

‘Walk exactly where I walk,’ he said. ‘Mostly we’ll be on dry ground. Mostly. Not always. And watch for snakes. Lots of copperheads and cottonmouths here.’

They stepped inside. Although he expected the swamp to be silent, the air reverberated with the sound of insects; a high- pitched rattling whine. He looked up but could not see the source of the drone. Thick greenery and tall trees occluded the sky. Despite the bright sun and the blue sky above, the light within the swamp was dim. Glittering black water snaked across the ground in every direction. Vast trees with swollen roots like the thighs of some enormous giant sprang from the wet. Now Rees knew why Tobias had advised not taking his horse and wagon; there would be no way to get them through the tangled underbrush and mud.

He wished he had worn stout boots instead of shoes.

‘Is it safe to travel in daylight?’ Lydia asked Tobias, looking around her in concern.’ ‘Safe from slave takers, I mean.’ Like Rees, the blotchy marks of many mosquito bites marred the skin of her face and neck. She’d rolled her long sleeves down to cover her arms and hands and pulled her stockings up to her breeches.

‘Usually.’ Tobias bit his lip. ‘They come here sometimes with their dogs hunting the escaped slaves. We’ll have to be careful. And real quiet. But the swamp is too dangerous after dark. Besides snakes, bobcats and bears hunt here. Alligators too, so I’ve heard.’ As Rees gulped, Tobias nodded. ‘If we’re lucky and don’t meet any of them, we’d be as likely to fall in the water and drown as anything.’

Rees looked around once again, understanding why people called this dark place dismal, and shivered despite the steamy warmth. He wished his desire to help Tobias hadn’t overridden his sense. Most of all he wished they hadn’t come. Lydia slipped her hand into his and he squeezed it comfortingly even though he was scared too.

Tobias handed around the stale bricks of day -old cornbread. Rees took a bite of the hard dry bread. ‘Water?’ he asked.

The other man gestured to the black water. ‘It’s drinkable,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry; it doesn’t taste bad.’ Rees stared at the black pools surrounding him. A faint green scum drifted across the surface and ripples betrayed something moving underneath. He did not think it was fish. He shook his head. ‘Let’s go,’ Tobias said as he turned and started forward. A plop as some animal jumped into the water sounded nearby. Lydia jumped. Rees exchanged a glance with her, and they ran to catch up to Tobias.

The ground below their feet was black and moist and it shuddered a little with each step. It was disconcerting and more than once Rees found himself jerking to one side or the other to keep his balance.

They walked deeper into the Great Dismal until it seemed that this was all the world, and nothing else existed outside its borders. The dense vegetation, the water and the thick peaty earth muffled the sound of their footsteps. Still the insects loud buzz whined overhead.

Rees had put Lydia in the middle; between him and Tobias, and he looked around frequently – just in case a slave taker was behind him. After a few hours of walking he saw she was beginning to flag. ‘We need to rest,’ he said, and then repeated it more loudly. Tobias slowed and then stopped and turned.

‘All right,’ he said. He took a small bag from under his shirt and handed around the remaining chunks of stale corn pone. ‘That’s the last of it,’ he said.

It was, Rees thought, even harder and less edible than it had been before. Lydia sat down on the ground to eat hers. Rees looked around for a tree stump or something and spotted a dead fall a little way away. He had to tiptoe through a pool of black water to get to it. Just before he reached it, his left leg sank into the ground up to his ankle, then to his calf. ‘Help,’ he cried. He could feel his leg sinking even further.

‘I told you not to go off the path,’ Tobias said, hurrying to Rees’s side. Bending over, he grasped Rees’s knee and tugged. With a horrible sucking sound, as though the maw of an animal was only reluctantly surrendering its prey, Rees’s leg came out. Tobias pulled him back to the drier ground.

Thin brown mud coated Rees’s leg from knee to foot. Trembling, he just sat where Tobias had left him, despite the uncomfortable sensation of damp soaking through the seat of his breeches.

But Tobias couldn’t settle. He paced restlessly around and around. “Not far now,’ he said, cracking his knuckles.

‘Why is he so nervous?’ Rees wondered. The swamp? Slave takers? ‘How much longer do you think?’ he asked aloud, glancing around uneasily.

‘I hope to reach the village by nightfall,’ Tobias replied. Rees and Lydia exchanged a glance. They were already tired. When they started walking once again Rees took Lydia’s arm.

Although trees covered the sky and the sun was only occasionally visible, the temperature rose steadily. It was so hot and humid the air felt solid. Both Rees and Lydia began gasping for breath.

‘I’ve never perspired so much in my life,’ Rees muttered.

‘You ever come south before?’ Tobias asked. Rees shook his head.

‘No point. I weave for the farm wives who’ve been spinning all winter. Here, in the South, there are already weavers.’

‘The slaves,’ Tobias said, his tone flattening. ‘Every plantation has at least one weaver. And the owners rent out their slaves to the little farmers so even they don’t need a traveling weaver.’

‘It’s not right to own another person,’ Lydia said. A former Shaker, she was a firm abolitionist. Tobias glanced at her.

‘Better not say that to a white person down here,’ he said. ‘You’ll get whipped or worse.’

Lydia nodded, her lips tightening. Rees heard her mutter, ‘It’s not right.’ Tobias was too far ahead to hear her.

It was late in the afternoon when they reached an even more low -lying area filled with water. Cattails grew thickly around it. ‘Rest,’ Tobias said. He picked one and stripped off the outer covering. He handed pieces to both Rees and Lydia and when they stared at it in bewilderment, he bit off a chunk, chewed and swallowed.

‘It’s edible,’ he said.

Rees took a cautious bite. It tasted bland but was not unpleasant.

‘We’ll make one last push,’ Tobias said, gesturing at the black liquid stretching away from them. Rees peered at it. He couldn’t see through the black tint and that made him nervous. How deep was it? Trees with the swollen bulges grew out of the water, their leaves fluttering against the sky.

‘What is that tree?’ Lydia asked.

‘Cypress,’ Tobias answered.

‘Why is the water so dark?’ Rees put his hand in it and stirred, watching the dark tint fade as the water came up in his palm.

‘Don’t.’ Tobias reached out as if to grab Rees’s arm but hesitated. ‘Let me check for gators first.’ Rees snatched his hand out so fast drops flew everywhere. Tobias picked up a long branch and stretched it into the water. He thrashed it around until the water foamed up. When he pulled the stick from the pond, he stared at the water carefully. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘We go through it.’

‘There’s no other way?’ Lydia asked, her voice rising to a shaky falsetto. Tobias shook his head. ‘How deep is it?’

‘Mmm. Up to your knees maybe.’ He turned and added, staring at both Rees and Lydia intently, ‘Follow me exactly. Understood?’

Rees gulped. When he spoke he tried to sound just as usual. ‘Yes.’ He looked at Lydia and tried to sound reassuring. ‘I’ll walk right behind you.’ He realized he’d failed to appear unafraid when both Lydia and Tobias gazed at him in concern.

‘You’ll be fine,’ Tobias said. ‘Just follow me exactly.’

‘I’ll carry the satchel above the water,’ Rees promised Lydia.

She managed a brief nod but said,’ That’s not what I am worried about.’

Tobias stepped into the water and began walking forward. Rees put his hand on Lydia’s shoulder and squeezed. Lydia swallowed and tentatively put her foot into the pond. Rees followed closely, putting his left hand under Lydia’s armpit to keep her stable. With his right hand, he lifted the satchel to his chest to keep it and its contents dry.

Despite the warmth of the water, it hit with a shock. Clouds of silt spiraled upward and drifted through the black water in a brownish film. The footing was fluid and unstable and so slippery every step had to be taken with care. Rees stumbled, losing his grip on Lydia as he fought for his balance. She stopped and he could hear her sharp exhalation. Regaining his equilibrium, he stepped forward and grasped her shoulder once again.

Tobias was moving quickly. His eagerness to reach the opposite bank – and obvious nervousness about remaining in this water any longer than he had to -filled Rees with dread. He began pushing Lydia forward.

They were halfway across when something slid around Rees’s lower legs. Uttering a scream, he jumped, lost his balance and fell backward. ‘What?’ Lydia cried, turning. ‘What?’

‘I don’t know. Something touched me.’ Rees gasped in a big breath, tasting mud and dirty water.

‘Hurry,’ Tobias shouted from the bank. ‘Hurry.’ He pointed at a brown snake lying coiled upon the water.

Lydia began plowing ahead, using her hands at her sides like scoops to help. Shuddering, Rees hurried after her. Why had he agreed to do this? And with his wife. Guilt stabbed him, sharp as a knife.

Although the journey felt as though it had lasted an hour, it was probably no more than a few minutes. Rees felt as though he’d be trapped in this filthy water forever when, finally, the ground beneath their feet began to rise. The water dropped to Lydia’s knees, to her ankles and finally all three of them stood on the dry ground under a stand of loblolly pines. Rees took off his shoes and shook them. The leather, like his clothing, was soaked through. His linen shirt, his breeches and his vest were stained brown everywhere the water had touched.

He glanced at Lydia, sitting beside him on the muddy ground. Dirt streaked one sunburned cheek. ‘Sorry,’ he whispered.

‘I wanted to come,’ she said, without looking at him. ‘You tried to warn me.’

‘I didn’t know it would be like this.’

When he’d told her it would be dangerous, he’d thought of bad food, bad roads, bad weather. Not the casual threat directed at Tobias that, at best, could have cost him his freedom. Or this alien landscape with its treacherous ground and swarms of insects and the snakes and alligators hiding in its black waters.

Would she have argued so hard to come if she had known what they would experience on this journey? More to the point, would she have wanted to accompany him if she had trusted him? Nothing had happened with the rope dancer, that was the truth. But Rees had desired her, and she had responded with warmth. They’d enjoyed a friendship that might have become something more. Now he was many months removed from that time he could admit Lydia had been right to worry. He did not want to believe he would have left his wife and family behind but had to admit he had been so enthralled it was possible.

His behavior had left Lydia was so frightened for the future of her marriage she’d felt she had to watch over him. To do that she had to leave her children behind. She would never have been willing to abandon them otherwise.

He looked at the snake still floating on the water and shuddered. What would happen to their children if he and his wife died here? They would be orphaned because of his selfishness.

Lydia suddenly leaned over and touched his hand. ‘Don’t feel so guilty,’ she whispered. ‘I insisted on coming. You could not have prevented me.’

But it was his fault she’d insisted.

‘Only a few hours of daylight left,’ Tobias said, breaking into Rees’s thoughts. ‘We’d better hurry.’

Rees glanced at the sky. From what he could see, it was still a clear intense blue. “We’ve got a few hours still,’ he said.

‘It gets dark early under the trees,’ Tobias said. ‘Besides, most of the animals come out as soon as it starts getting dark. Especially snakes.’ He pointed to a ripple in the water. Rees peered at the v- shaped ripple. ‘Cottonmouth,’ Tobias said. ‘They swim under the water.’

‘Snakes,’ Lydia said weakly. ‘Are they poisonous?’

‘ Cottonmouth sure are.’

Rees thought of the thing slithering past his legs in the water and gulped.

‘It might not have been a snake. That touched you, I mean,’ Tobias said, correctly interpreting Rees’s reaction. ’There are other creatures here.’ Rees did not think he wanted to know what they were. When Tobias turned and started up the slight slope Rees helped Lydia to her feet and they scrambled after him as fast as they could.

Chapter 3

The ground continued to dry out as they passed through the pines. Although the soil remained damp it no longer bounced underfoot. But, as Tobias had warned, the light began fading beneath the trees. ‘Not far now,’ he said, puffing a little as he trotted up the slope. Neither Rees nor Lydia replied. The effort to keep up with Tobias left them breathless. Tobias was not moving in a straight line but sliding through the thick vegetation in a serpentine path. Rees, terrified that he would lose sight of the other man, kept pushing Lydia ahead of him.

Tobias’ path straightened out; Rees saw his pale blue shirt at the end of a long fairly straight tunnel, roofed by interlaced branches. The dim light shone upon them with a greenish cast and their feet crunched over the dead leaves on the forest floor. The loud crackling was shocking after the quiet steps on the peaty ground. When they reached Tobias on the other side he said, ‘Now we wait.’

‘Wait for what?’ Rees asked as Lydia pulled the pot of salve from Rees’s satchel. She smeared more of the insect repellent on her face and neck and handed it to Rees. Although he thought he smelled the faint fragrance of burning wood that odor was overpowered by the penetrating minty scent of the salve.

‘I hope we don’t use it all before we leave, and have to travel back through this swamp,’ Lydia murmured.

‘Here they come,’ Tobias said.

‘Who. . .?’ Rees began as three men materialized out of the trees.

Of differing shades, from very dark to white, the men were clad in rags and barefoot. One had almost no shirt at all. And all three were armed. One carried a scythe with a long handle but the other two brandished guns. One was such an old musket Rees doubted it would fire – although he didn’t plan to test his guess. They stared menacingly at Rees and Lydia.

‘What’d you done?’ The darkest of the men shouted at Tobias. His white teeth shone against his dark skin. His top two front teeth were separated by a large gap.

‘I come for Ruthie, Scipio,’ Tobias replied. rolling his shoulders forward. ‘He’s helping me.’ He gestured at Rees. Although the other two men stared at the white intruder, Scipio never removed his gaze from Tobias.

‘Ruth don’t want to go with you,’ he said, laughing mockingly. ‘There’re other men . . .’ Tobias lunged forward, fists up. As Rees grabbed him, the man with the lightest skin clutched Scipio’s arm. He was a handsome fellow with large hazel eyes, light brown hair and fair skin lightly tanned. Rees would have thought him white but for his hair, as curly as a sheep’s.

‘All right, Neptune,’ Scipio said, stepping back. ‘All right.’ Tobias strained forward as though he would follow.

‘Don’t,’ Rees said in a low voice. Tobias breathed hard for a few seconds before he visibly forced himself to relax. Rees cautiously took away his hand.

‘I want to talk to Jackman,’ he said.

‘You risked all of us,’ said the third of the men.’ No white man knows this.’ He gestured behind him. ‘Until now.’ This man was older than the other two and he held his scythe with easy comfort.

‘Let me talk to Jackman,’ Tobias repeated. None of the black men moved. ‘You know me, Neptune, Toney,’ Tobias added pleadingly.

The three guards exchanged a silent message. ‘Take ‘em to Jackman,’ Scipio said. ‘But first –.‘ He gestured to Rees and the gun he carried.

Neptune moved forward and relieved Rees of his musket. He did not resist. He did not think these men were killers, but he didn’t know. Besides, they were protecting their home and families and he could see the fear in their eyes and in the stiffness of their bodies. Maybe not as frightened as he and Lydia were – he could feel her trembling next to his arm – but anxious about what danger they might bring to their home. Sometimes, fear could cause a man to lash out without thinking and be sorry afterwards so Rees did not want to give them any reason to strike.

Besides, he reassured himself, with Tobias as their guide they most certainly would not be harmed.

Lydia reached over and clutched his arm. When he glanced down at her, she looked up with a face as white as milk under the mud and insect bites. Her eyes were huge. But she managed a shaky smile. Together they followed Tobias and the other men through the thick underbrush deeper into the swamp.
#
They reached the village as night was falling. The concluding leg had taken significant time although Rees suspected they hadn’t traveled a great distance. The ground had continued to dry, pine trees became more plentiful. They walked until confronted by a thick wall of thorny greenbriar vines. Everyone stopped for a moment of rest.

‘Just got to get through the canebreak,’ muttered Toney.

‘Follow me,’ Tobias said, turning to Rees. ‘There’s a path.’

There may be, Rees thought, glancing at the expressions on the men. But it would not be an easy one. All of them were steeling themselves for this, the final and ultimate challenge. Huffing out a breath, Toney took the lead through the narrow and spiraling path through the brambles. Even following Tobias as closely as they dared did not spare either Rees nor Lydia from numerous cuts and scratches.

The ground sloped up slightly. They slid through the protective barrier and climbed the short slope, stepping in the circle of buildings that were barely visible in the gloom. A fire burned in the center, the orange flames reflecting from the face of a woman who stood over the fire. Smoke eddied out from the burning logs and Rees could already feel the difference in the number of mosquitoes around him. Lydia dropped heavily upon the ground and put her face into her hands.

Scipio and Neptune grabbed Tobias and urged him toward the fire. ‘You want to see Jackman? Come along.’

Rees, his legs almost too shaky to hold him, collapsed next to Lydia. She leaned against him and closed her eyes in exhaustion. Rees felt like doing the same; he was so tired he no longer felt afraid. But he knew if he relaxed, he too would fall asleep and he did not want to do that until he knew they were safe. Instead, he looked at the young man guarding them.

‘What’s your name?’ Rees asked, his voice rusty with disuse.

‘Cinte,’ he replied, sounding startled. He was very fair and his hair glittered with flashes of gold when he turned his head. Rees guessed he was probably little more than twenty. ‘Here they come.’

A group of people were slowly approaching. Backlit by the fire, they were only silhouettes. Rees stood up and pulled Lydia to her feet. If he were going to be executed, he wanted to be upright.

His leg muscles had stiffened while he sat and he felt the pain of the long walk through the swamp. Just standing made his muscles quiver. At least that was the explanation he gave himself for the trembling that made him almost too weak to stand.

The group of people halted in front of him. Rees had the sense they were inspecting him. Since he faced the fire, he was visible in the flickering firelight but he could see nothing of their faces and could not guess what they thought.

One of the figures, a woman in a head scarf, detached itself from the group and approached Lydia. She opened her eyes and for a moment the two women stared at each other.

“What’s your name?’ One of the men spoke to Rees.

He started and brought his attention back to the band of men. The speaker stood a little forward of the others and Rees could see the gray threading his hair. ‘Are you Jackman?’

‘Yes. Who are you?’

‘My name is Will Rees.’

‘Why’re you here?’

‘Tobias is a friend of mine. I’ve known Ruth since we were kids. I came to help them go north, to the District of Maine.’ As he spoke, Rees felt some of the tension ease.

‘These people know where we are,’ Scipio put in. ‘They’re a danger to us and our kin.’

Jackman turned and made a sound. Scipio slapped his hand on his thigh but did not continue the argument.

Jackman turned to the woman. ‘Feed ‘em, please Aunt Suke, while I think.’

Rees extended a hand to Lydia and together they followed Jackman to the fire. Scipio and Neptune followed, so closely Rees twitched with nerves. He knew Scipio saw him as a danger and feared he would lash out at the slightest provocation.

The fire and a few dish lamps bathed the camp’s center in a dim rusty light. Jackman gestured to a log. Rees and Lydia took their seats.

The woman turned and handed them both bowls of soup, redolent with strange spices. With no spoons on offer, Rees tipped the bowl so that the savory soup could run into his mouth. After a few seconds, Lydia did the same.

‘Thank you, Madame,’ Rees said. ‘It’s good.’ Instead of being energized by the food, he felt even more tired.

‘You can call me Aunt Suke, child,’ she said.

‘You not be thinkin’ of believin’ him,’ Scipio cried. In the fire light Rees could see details about Scipio and the other men that had not been visible earlier. Scipio was missing an ear. Just a few ragged stubs remained. And when he turned to demand an answer from Jackman the firelight picked out the ridges on his back through his ripped shirt.

‘Tobias swears for him,’ Jackman said softly.

‘Tobias!’ Scipio started to say something else, but Jackman shook his head at him. Appearing out of the darkness, Tobias walked with Ruth.

Rees rose clumsily to his feet.

Ruth was clearly pregnant, at least five or six months, Rees guessed. He could clearly see her trim brown ankles under the ragged hem of her dress. But a new ribbon -blue Rees thought although it was hard to see the color - had been sewn around the frayed neckline. She still cared about her appearance. She smiled at Tobias but the space between her brows was pleated with worry. When she saw Rees looking at her, she put her hand on her belly and bowed her head, reluctant it seemed to meet his gaze. She seemed embarrassed. He suddenly wondered if she really wanted to go north with Tobias or not.

‘Ruth?’ he said.

When she met his gaze, her eyes were full of tears. ‘Oh, Mr Rees. He involved you in our business?’ She threw Tobias an angry glance. He lowered his eyes to the ground.

‘Oh damn,’ Rees muttered. Had they made the difficult and dangerous journey for nothing?

‘Come here, you sweet thing,’ Scipio said, opening his arms.

‘You leave her alone,’ Tobias said, stepping in front of Ruth.

‘But Ruthie wants to stay here, with me, don’t ya, Ruthie?’ As Scipio stood up, Ruthie smiled at him. But, before she had an opportunity to speak, Tobias surged up with a roar and flung himself at the other man. As Jackman shouted at them to stop, punches smacked into flesh with a meaty sound. Scipio was taller and heavier but jealousy and anger energized Tobias. Staggering back, his nose streaming blood from a blow that had landed squarely on his face, he picked up a stick and lashed at Scipio with it, striking his arm and cutting it. Glistening in the flickering light, the blood began running down Scipio’s arm. Ducking and weaving, he danced forward and wrenched the stick from Tobias’s hand. Laughing, Scipio tossed it aside.

Tobias hurled himself forward once again and they went down to the dirt. They rolled over and over, punching, kicking and biting. The firelight shone on the arms and backs of the fighters, reflecting in flashes of copper. Scipio shoved Tobias aside, but he came back, pounding at the other man. Scipio shifted away, rolling into the fire. The kettle rocked on its stand as sparks flew into the air. Scipio yelled loudly; his shoulder had gone into the burning embers, and with a heave he pushed Tobias to the side. But the smaller man would not surrender and, throwing himself to his knees, began pounding at Scipio. slapping, punching, kicking and biting.

Jackman limped forward and tried to catch hold of Scipio. Cinte jumped in to help. Rees moved forward to pin Tobias’ arms to his sides and drag him away. For his pains, he suffered a clout to his cheekbone from one of Scipio’s blows. When Neptune joined the fray, helping Jackman and Cinte drag Scipio away, the fight was over. Tobias shrugged out of Rees’ grasp and stood to one side, wiping his bloody nose on his sleeve. Scipio too bore battle scars. Besides the arm that had been scraped and burnt, his good ear now streamed with blood. Tobias had bitten it. Although he had not succeeded in tearing it away, blood ran down Scipio’s cheek and neck and onto his shoulder.

Tobias went to stand by Ruth. She stared at him in embarrassed horror and shifted away.

‘Clean up while I ponder what to do,’ Jackman ordered the two combatants, his voice vibrating with anger.

‘Come here,’ Aunt Suke said. Exasperated, she pointed at a space next to her. ‘You boys don’t have good sense.’

As Tobias sat down on the ground in front of Aunt Suke, Lydia said, ‘Sit by me, Ruth,’ and patted the log next to her.

Scipio said incredulously, ‘‘That boy a woman?’

‘That’s how we know they safe,’ Aunt Suke said, turning a mocking smile upon him. ‘No slave catcher bring his wife.’

As Rees went to sit beside his wife, Aunt Suke put out a hand to stop him.

‘Wait,’ she said. ‘I need your help.’ Such was the strength of her personality that Rees did stop and wait for further instructions.

She looked at Tobias first. The blood had already stopped gushing from his nose but it was swollen and his eye was almost completely shut. Taking his face in her hands, she turned it this way and that to catch the best light. Then she raised his shirt and examined the cuts and bruises marring his torso. ‘You’ll live,’ she said at last. ‘I’ll make a poultice for you.’

Shooing him away, she gestured at Scipio. Although he stood almost six feet and outweighed the woman by at least one hundred pounds, he obeyed her, coming to sit at her feet like a naughty child. She looked first at his ear. “If Tobias bit harder,’ she said, ‘you’d a lost this one too.’

‘You’d match,’ Cinte said, laughing. ‘Two torn ears.’ Scipio joined in, his robust guffaws rolling through camp. Rees, who couldn’t help but smile, wondered at the bond he sensed between these two men.

‘Did you lose the other one in a fight also?’ Rees asked Scipio. He shook his head.

‘No.’

‘Here, hold his arm.’ Aunt Suke told Rees. When she disappeared into a hut, Scipio continued.

‘One of the times I ran away,’ he said, ‘an’ they caught me, they nailed my ear to a post.’ Rees gasped. ‘They do that,’ Scipio continued, ‘to keep the runaways home. But I pulled free. Nothin’ can hold me,’ he added with quiet pride.

Rees could find no words. One heard about the evils of slavery, especially in Maine, a state full of abolitionists. But he’d never really thought about the reality of it. Now, although the reactions of those around him told him Scipio’s story was true, Rees struggled to accept it.

Aunt Suke came out of the hut with a small brown bottle and what looked like mashed leaves in a cup. ‘Hold ‘im tight now,’ she said to Rees. ‘To the light.’ She handed the bottle to Scipio. ‘Take a drink of the laudanum. This’ll sting.’ He took a healthy swig and she removed the bottle from his hands. Then she began dabbing the leaf mixture on the scorched and bloody wound on Scipio’s arm. He groaned and tried to twist away. ’Some turpentine to clean it. And now . . .’ Singing a wordless melody, she smeared a thick paste that smelled strongly of lard over the burn. ‘That’ll feel better and help it heal. You be fine.’

Scipio jumped up with alacrity but he didn’t voice a complaint.

‘I’ve decided,’ Jackman said. ‘You, Scipio, go back to your job at the Canal.’

‘The Canal?’ Rees repeated, whispering to Aunt Suke. He was beginning to feel he had truly left his own world, the one he understood, behind. This was an unknown land.

‘White men be digging a canal. Only the biggest and strongest survive that work.’

‘I make the shingles,’ Scipio said. ‘Fastest shingle maker they got.’

‘Stay there until they finish for the winter,’ Jackman continued. ‘By then we’ll know what Ruth want to do.’

‘Aw,’ Scipio said. ‘That’s two months from now.’ But he didn’t argue. Jackman was older than the others, probably Rees’s age and carried himself with the authority of the head man.

‘First you had to mess with Sandy and now Ruth, another man’s woman. We can’t have it.’ Jackman shook his head. ‘We can’t be fightin’ among ourselves.’

‘Too bad if other men can’t keep their women,’ said Scipio, looking across the fire at Tobias. ‘You like that ribbon I bought you, Ruth?’ Tobias took a step forward to the sound of Scipio’s roaring laughter. Ruth caught Tobias’s sleeve and held on.

‘You know better,’ she said in a low voice.

‘Who’s Sandy?’ Rees asked Aunt Suke.

‘My niece. She run off from the Sechrist plantation all the time so you’ll probably meet her.’ Suke shook her head. ‘Scipio does love his women. But Sandy? No, he’s not interested. She too young. He just messin’ with Cinte.’

Rees glanced at the fair-skinned man. He was laughing too and as Rees watched he slapped Scipio on the uninjured shoulder. So why did Scipio want to mess with him? And why didn’t Cinte seem to mind?

‘I want you gone by sun-up, hmmm,’ Jackman continued.

‘All right.’ Still chuckling, Scipio looked at the other men. ‘How about a game tonight?’ He took some bone dice from his pocket and rolled then in his large palm.

‘I’ll go too,’ Cinte said, rising to his feet. ‘Keep my brother company.’

That answered one of Rees’s questions.

‘How about it, Neptune?’

‘No.’

‘You’ll double that runnin’ away money,’ Scipio coaxed. ‘And you, Peros?’

‘I’m in.’

‘Cinte? You got more money than any of us,’ Scipio said. His brother shook his head and turned away.

‘C’mon Neptune. Don’t be no fun with only two.’ As Scipio did his best to persuade Neptune to join the game, Rees turned to Cinte.

‘Do you work in the Canal too?’ he asked, eyeing the other man’s slender build and fair skin.

‘No. I make banjoes. And I got one to deliver to one of the other shingle makers at the Ditch.’ With that cryptic statement, Cinte ran down the slope to a distant hut.

‘What’s a banjo?’ Rees asked himself.

This was truly a foreign place.

***

Excerpt from Death In The Great Dismal by Eleanor Kuhns. Copyright 2021 by Eleanor Kuhns. Reproduced with permission from Eleanor Kuhns. All rights reserved.

 

 

Author Bio:

Eleanor Kuhns

Eleanor is the 2011 winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime novel winner. After working as a librarian, she transitioned to a full time writer. This is number eight in the Will Rees Mystery series.

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