Whenever she thought back to that morning years later, or told
friends about how life was before the whole world changed, it was the warm spring sunshine and the brightness of the sky Lyndel spoke of the most. That and the green scent of the grass over which a morning rain had just come and gone, the opening of red snapdragons, and the talk of the men on the porch being lost to her ears as robins and larks opened their throats on that second day of April, 1861, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania
The cows had already been milked and Lyndel’s three younger sisters were hard at work with the butter churn in a room just off the kitchen. She was heading to the barn to open the doors and lead the dairy herd out to their spring pasture. A sudden pause in the birdsong allowed the men’s voices to reach her as she crossed the yard.
“Jacob, they have seized the federal forts in South Carolina and Mississippi and Georgia. Their intent is clear. I see no hesitation on the part of the states that have left the Union. They mean to have their own country.”
“Just wait. It’s only a ploy to force President Lincoln to take their demands seriously. All will be right as rain by summer.”
“I’m not so sure, Jacob. They mean to keep their slaves. They are afraid of Lincoln.”
“So you don’t think the president can stop the Southern states, Samuel?”
“I don’t know. Only I don’t think they’re merely spinning tops and playing games. They will have their slaves and they will have their own country.”
Lyndel was surprised to find the cows pushing against the barn doors, more eager than usual to make their way to the pasture. Once she opened them, the herd rushed out, almost knocking her to the ground. Without Lyndel having to say a thing, Old Missus rapidly led the way to the pasture gate so that the young woman had to run ahead and swing it wide.
The cows shouldered through side by side, a few of them bawling, and traveled at least a hundred yards before deciding to stop and crop grass. Latching the gate, Lyndel went back to the barn to see if she could find out what had disturbed them. Perhaps a snake had found its way in among the straw.
Picking up a pitchfork to chase away any pest she encountered, she began to walk through the barn, glancing often at her feet as she stepped through the dirty straw.
Looking into the first stalls, she found they were empty of anything like porcupines or skunks or badgers. She stopped and listened a moment but heard nothing.
Slowly she made her way to the back of the barn, holding the pitchfork at chest height. Sunlight trickled between cracks in the walls and through the dusty skylight so she could make out what was in the corners. But by the time she reached the end of the barn there was still nothing. She didn’t bother taking a look at the last two stalls and turned to head back. Whatever had spooked the milk cows was long gone. But suddenly she heard a groan.
She whirled, fear pricking her chest. Brandishing the pitchfork she stepped toward the last stall on the left, expecting to see a wild dog or a coyote or fox. Instead, in the dim light she saw two sets of human eyes—then teeth as a face grimaced, struggling to breathe.
“We mean you no harm!” a voice cried and a hand shot up to ward off a blow.
Lyndel immediately lowered the pitchfork and stepped closer. “You’re slaves!” she said in astonishment.
“How long have you been here? What has happened to you?”
One man was holding the other in his arms. He was the one who spoke to Lyndel, while his friend could only fight for air and wince. “We’ve been on the run from our plantation in Virginia for three weeks,” he said, holding the wounded man close to his chest. “We made good time riding the boxcars. But we had to jump while the train was moving last night and Charlie got hurt pretty bad.”
Lyndel was wearing a traditional Amish dress of navy blue over which she had tied a large black apron. Leaning the pitchfork against the wall, she knelt and took the apron off. The man named Charlie had a deep cut at the side of his chest, and she folded the apron twice and pressed it against the wound to slow the flow of blood. She used the apron strings to tie it tightly.
“Have you had anything to eat or drink?” she asked the man who was doing the talking.
“There’s plenty of water in the streams and rain barrels. But we haven’t had anything to eat. Not for two days.”
“Let me fetch you something.”
A hand grabbed her by the wrist. “Don’t tell anyone. They’re hunting us. This is the third time Charlie’s tried to escape. They said they’d hang him if they caught him running again. They’ll cross the state line and comb this county.”
Lyndel, still kneeling, fixed her eyes on the frightened man. “I will only tell people I can trust. I won’t tell anyone who would go to the sheriff in Elizabethtown. He would feel bound by law to tell the slave hunters if they showed up here.”
“They’ll show up here.” For the first time a smile came over the man’s face. “We may not look like it right now but we’re worth a lot of money.”
“And why is that?”
“Book learning, ma’am. I was taught to read and write by an elderly gentleman at the plantation. He had me read the Bible to him and all sorts of books written in America and England. Seven times I read the Bible through from beginning to end for that fine man.”
Lyndel paused. Smiling back, she patted the man on the arm. “Then we must take good care of you.”
He released his grip on her wrist and she stood up. “I will be a few minutes,” she said. “Please don’t worry. I will not betray you.”
He was still smiling. “I believe you.”
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“My name is Moses Gunnison,” he said.
She reached down and took his hand in hers. “I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Gunnison. I am Lyndel Keim.”
“Pardon me for saying so, but you have large hands for a woman, ma’am. And some strength in them.”
“I have been a farmer’s daughter all my life, Mr. Gunnison.”
“Do you have a husband, ma’am?”
“Oh, no. There’s been no time for that. But I do have a brother. He’s the one I will go to. He will help you. We will both help you.”
“Thank you, ma’am. God bless you.”
Lyndel straightened and brushed the straw off her dress. “Why, God bless you too, Mr. Gunnison.” She adjusted the black prayer kapp on her head and looked down at Charlie. “You are going to be all right.” He stared up at her, his eyes exhausted from fear and pain. “I will be right back with my brother Levi as well as food and drink.”
She thought quickly as she walked through the barn and out into the morning sunlight. The men were still seated on the porch and still talking politics. Her father, the bishop of their Amish community, sat in the middle of them, tall and slender, his beard night-black, listening carefully to the different opinions, now and then leaning forward and interjecting. She loved her father—indeed, she cared for all the men seated with him, several of whom were the church’s ministers. But she also knew how law-abiding they were. If she told them about Moses and Charlie they would offer as much assistance as they possibly could. Yet they would also feel bound to hitch up a wagon and drive into Elizabethtown and inform the law there were two runaways hiding out in the Keim barn. Instantly she decided against confiding in any of them, including Papa. She smiled as she walked past them toward the stable, where she knew her brother was doing the work of a farrier and trimming their horses’ hooves now that it was spring.
Levi was wiping his face with a red handkerchief, sweat running down into the collar of his white work shirt. He was speaking to someone who was bent over and holding a horse’s hoof between his legs and fighting to get the nipper in position to cut. Lyndel hesitated. Even though the man with the hoof nippers had his back to her she recognized his build, and when he answered her brother she knew for certain: Levi’s good friend, Nathaniel King, was the one wrestling to trim Dancer’s left front hoof. She had not expected to see him today but Levi must have asked him to come over and lend a hand with the horses.
Her brother glanced over and grinned as she came into the stable. “Hello, Ginger. You’re just in time to help. Nathaniel can’t get Dancer to cooperate and since she’s your mare, can you reason with her?”
“I can try.”
She walked over and stood in front of Dancer, who whinnied and allowed Lyndel to hold her head and scratch her between the ears.
“That’s better,” grunted Nathaniel. He moved quickly with the nippers and the mare was done. He released the leg and stood up, stretching his back and smiling at Lyndel. “Danke.”
“May I call you ‘Ginger’ too?”
“No, you may not. You both know I don’t like it. Only Levi gets away with it.”
“So just plain old Lyndel?”
“Yes, just plain old Lyndel. You make me sound like one of Levi’s horses.”
“My apologies. You certainly deserve better than that. Hair like fire. Eyes like sky.”
Lyndel felt the heat in her cheeks.
Levi laughed. “Are you going to court my sister? I thought you came over to help me.”
“I did,” smiled Nathaniel. “But now we’re finished.”
“Ja, well, how about sitting down for a coffee before you ask her to go for a ride in your buggy?”
“Sure, a coffee would be good right about now.”
Lyndel walked Dancer out of the stable and into a bright green paddock with two other horses. “You don’t need to talk as if I’m not here, you two,” she said over her shoulder. “And the older men are sitting on the porch.”
“Still here?” groaned Levi. “What do they find to go on about for so long?”
“Oh, the South. These things work themselves out.” Levi glanced at Nathaniel. “If we want coffee we will have to run the gauntlet. They’ll probably make us sit with them and offer up our opinions.”
Nathaniel shrugged. “I don’t have an opinion on the South. They live what they live and we live what we live.”
Lyndel turned from closing the stable gate. “And what if others can’t live, Nathaniel King? What is your opinion on that?”