Sarah McCoy is author of the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestseller The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central; The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico; and The Mapmaker’s Children (Crown, May 5, 2015). Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post and other publications. She has taught writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an Army physician, and their dog, Gilly, in El Paso, Texas. Connect with Sarah on Twitter, on her Facebook Fan Page or via her website.
Excerpt from The Mapmaker’s Children
©Sarah McCoy 2015
Jefferson County Jailhouse, Charles Town, Virginia
December 1, 1859
The Jefferson County guard took the knapsack from Sarah’s mother.
“I found a jackknife sewn up in a baby doll stomach and a note telling the prisoner where a horse was tied for the getaway. Lady swear she ain’t never known it was there.” He scoffed. “What she ’spect me believe? Doll swallowed it on its own accord?” He shook his head. “People trying to smuggle all kinds of unlawfuls, so I got to check everywhere.”
He plunged a rusted sword into the bread they’d baked from the last bit of ginger, sorghum, and salt in the pantry.
Since the raid on Harpers Ferry in October, the Brown women hadn’t the time, stamina, or courage to go to the general store, so their supplies had dwindled considerably. Not that any of them had noticed. Their appetites were gone. Their cheekbones looked more pronounced than ever, making the girls’ likenesses to their father striking. Little Ellen was the only one to retain her plumpness. They indulged her youthful ignorance by giving her spoonfuls of butter mixed with maple syrup from the autumn sugar-bush flow. The sound of her giggling and begging for more was a balm to their despondent spirits. In another time, John would’ve argued that the child would be spoiled, but he wasn’t there to speak and, soon, never would be.
The day before their scheduled departure for Virginia, Sarah had found her mother
hysterically rummaging through the empty cupboard. “Gingerbread is his favorite. We must bring gingerbread. We must, we must . . .”
So she and Annie had helped cull together the necessary ingredients for a single loaf, which they’d carried from New York. The loaf that this young solider was now stabbing to crumbs.
“No hidden weaponry on the visitors, sir,” he reported to his superior, who grunted as if surprised.
The soldier pulled together the ends of the handkerchief and handed it back. Mary
cradled the mangled bread as if it were a newborn, staring down, pallid as a ghost.
Sarah stepped forward, but the soldier moved into her path. His hands grazed her
forearms, and a blush rashed over his rutty cheeks.
“Not as yet.” He looked to his superior, who gave an encouraging nod.
“Can’t be too careful, Private Pennington,” the older man said. “Yankee girls—” He spat chewing tobacco into a spittoon on the floor. “They lie to their grandmamas and sass their daddies.”
Sarah clenched her jaw. Her gut burned.
“If we’ve done anything to cause offense, we do apologize,” said Annie.
Their father had praised Annie as meek. Sarah had never embraced the “turn the other cheek” tenet. It was the one area in which she dared to find her father duplicitous, his words incongruous with his actions. On the eve of her father’s execution, these southerners were wasting the precious time the Brown women had left. Yes, she’d lie and sass and do quite more than that if she could. She exhaled as loudly as possible and held her ground.
Private Pennington produced a weathered black Bible.
“Mrs. Brown, Misses Browns, I need you to swear to God and under oath of law as stated by the United States of America and the abiding Commonwealth of Virginia that you do not conceal any weapons in the folds of your petticoats”—he batted his eyes at Sarah, and she rolled her own in response—“or in the linings of other personal apparel that might be used to aid and abet the escape of the outlaw John Brown, convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, first-degree murder, and inciting insurrection.”
The Bible’s edges were coming unthreaded, just like her father’s. She wondered if they’d confiscated it and she was now agreeing to these outlandish condemnations on the very book her family had entrusted their lives upon.
“Please put your right hand on the Word and swear it so,” he instructed.
Her mother and Annie placed petite gloved hands on either end. “We swear.”
No weapons in her petticoats, but she brandished bitterness and a picture map. While her mother and Annie had slept away the dark hours of their carriage drive from the Washington train depot to the jailhouse in Charles Town, Virginia, Sarah had kept her eyes to the road and sketched every observable landmark she could catch by the flash of the horses’ canter.
She’d ripped off a ruffle of her muslin underskirt to draw on, then rolled the finished map into the top of her boot. As soon as there was a covert moment, she planned to pass it on to her father so he might follow the escape routes, just like all those he’d saved.
Slavery was an abomination. Every member of her family and plenty more in the
northern states believed that to be true. Thousands had made their way south to Jefferson County to voice their discontent and support her father. So many, in fact, that a curfew had been issued for nearby towns, and they’d had to have a military escort from the train station to the jailhouse. Only government-sanctioned individuals were allowed to visit John. None of his notable colleagues from the North had been authorized.
It was up to Sarah to save him, and she was determined that her picture map show him the way to safety on foot. But now this son of the South was asking her to swear on the Holy Word that she had brought nothing to aid her father’s life and work on earth? How dare he force her to lie! She knew that if she unclenched her jaw, she’d not be able to bridle her tongue again. She took after her father in that regard, whereas Annie and Mary were fretful spirits. The two had been inconsolable the entire train ride from North Elba.
“He is to be hung in the middle of town like a criminal,” Mary had sobbed, clutching their father’s letters to her breast. “No mercy or shame for what they do to a good man acting in the name of the Almighty!”
Annie had cried into her black taffeta sleeve, tears leaving stains even blacker than the material. “I tried to keep watch, Mama. I did every day,” she said over and over.
Due to her illness and slow recovery, Sarah had remained in North Elba with Mary and little Ellen while Annie and Oliver’s wife, Martha, went down to the Kennedy farm in Maryland to cook and provide a convincing appearance to neighbors while the men prepared for the raid. After its abysmal end and half a month in hiding, the two finally arrived home in North Elba as ghostly changelings of the girls they’d been when they’d left, retching with the memories of those few days. Watson and Oliver were dead. Owen on the run. Father wounded and imprisoned.
By November, Dr. Nash had confirmed that Martha’s physical ailments were much more than heartache. She was pregnant with Oliver’s child. She had taken to bed then and had not stepped one foot to the floor since. They feared the worst for her and the unborn. The mourning of widowhood was poisoning her to death. Now these enemies would make Sarah’s mother drink from the same blighted cup.
It was all too much for Sarah. “Vile devils!” she’d exclaimed in the train passenger cabin. “If I were a man, I’d take up a spear and run the judge through the middle. Damned slave owners!”
In one swoop, her mother had cuffed her cheek, strong enough to sting but soft enough that Sarah knew there wasn’t any venom in it. Annie had looked on in horror. Mary had never struck any of her children before. The rod had always been firmly in their father’s hand.
“‘Who so keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles.’ Proverbs 21:23,” Mary recited, smooth as a song. “You remember that while we’re in Virginia, Sarah. Even Jesus was wrongly persecuted and hung on the cross. Your father was much aware of the high price for salvation. You best be, too.” And so Sarah had sworn to bite her tongue.
Private Pennington shook the Bible in her direction. “Sweareth?” She flared her nostrils, put her hand to the leather binding, and nodded once. “Her throat’s been aching,” Annie said quietly. “She swears.”
Sarah harrumphed at the lie. Her throat was fine, thank you.
The superior officer took a large metal loop from his belt. The keys clinked like teeth in the cold.
“Come along then. Follow me,” he instructed, and the trio walked single file behind him into the maze of prison cells.
Sarah took up the flank. She dared to run bare fingers over the corroded iron bars, stinging cold and smelling of blood.
Her father was the solitary prisoner now. Despite his word of fair treatment and care by the local physician, he’d remained infirmed for his months in captivity. His wounds from the raid had been severe. For his sentencing, they’d had to carry him into the courtroom on a stretcher. He could rise to his feet before the judge and jury only by the strength of three decent men who’d volunteered to bear him up.
“Better he hang fast than die slow, the way he is now,” Sarah’s brother Salmon had told her in private. Not having participated in the Harpers Ferry raid or any of John’s warring in the Kansas Territory, he was the only living son able to attend the trial.
Salmon had not spoken unkindly. Sarah saw that now. Their father lay on a sturdy cot. A davenport desk was within arm’s reach; pen and ink were at his disposal, as well as a bowl of stew larger than any Sarah had been afforded in months. Her mouth salivated at the sight of meat and potatoes.
This time tomorrow Father will be worm’s meat, thought Sarah, and her hunger pains turned to nausea. She rubbed at the gap above her corset, which she had just begun wearing.
She’d received the hand-me-down bindings and corresponding petticoats as a birthday gift that September. Her mother had sewn a new frock from plum fabric originally ordered to refurnish two settees whose seams had split. Sarah didn’t mind that the dress looked like a sofa. She’d seen a likeness of the authoress George Eliot wearing a similar pattern and thought it terribly handsome on a woman.The deep-bruise purple was an omen of mournful days to come.
She hung her head low and considered her stomach cramping beneath the whalebones as penance for allowing hunger and daydreams to consume her thoughts while her father suffered.
“John,” her mother called through the bars.
The guard allowed them entrance, and Mary knelt at his side. Tiers of taffeta circled her like a raven rose. Crumbs from the broken gingerbread fell to the floor, and mice in an unseen nest began to squeak as loud as jaybirds. Annie mirrored her mother on the opposite side of the cot.
Sarah stood looking down at the trio, balling her hands to keep them steady. Her nails
dug into her exposed palms and formed red half-moons.
Her father opened his eyes, incandescent against the pallor of his skin. She took a step back; the vibrancy of his stare had always been proof to her that he was what they
claimed: a divine prophet.
“Mary,” he whispered. “Dear Mary.” He took her hands with his withered claws, and she kissed his fingers despite their grotesqueness.
Annie wept. He cupped her cheek, then looked to Sarah, his gaze like the flash of
gunpowder. She willed herself steadfast.
“Children, you will make men proud,” he began, then lapsed in a series of phlegmy
coughs. When he stopped, his eyes had closed, and Sarah thought that, like the prophet Elijah, God had seen fit to take him before the sickle fell.
Their mother ran her fingers over his chest, throat, and mouth, and he returned.
“It smells like Christmas,” he said. “Our Savior’s birth.”
“Gingerbread,” Mary whispered and pulled the handkerchief lump from her lap.
He smiled weakly. “How did you know? I had a vision that the angels welcomed me with ginger cakes.”
Her mother’s tears ran like sap. She lifted a soft wad of bread to his mouth. After he’d
taken the bite, she turned to Sarah. “Water.”
“Might you please give him something to drink?” Sarah asked the armed guard.
He looked round the cell, inspecting each of the women. Detecting no threat of intended escape, he nodded and strode off down the corridor, keys clanking with each step.
Once the guard was gone, her father pulled himself up on his elbows. “Closer, family.”
His voice was ardent and commanding—the voice she’d known her entire life. All three drew near.
“Listen carefully. Never be ashamed of our cause. I wish that my funeral attendants not be any of these policing Pharisees but the barefoot and impoverished slave children of Virginia. Hold them close to you, my dears. Be their angels. The abolishment of slavery does not end with me. You must carry on. I have given this same revelation to your living brothers by letter. You girls, Ruth, and little Ellen are the mothers of the next generation, which I pray will know no nation that places shackles on another man and stands on his back. ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?’ Promise me, daughters.”
“I promise.” Annie kissed the underside of his palm and laid her head on the wool
blanket over his chest.
This was an easy vow for Sarah to make. She could never have children, would never mother the next generation. No man, equal or unequal, would yoke her.
“You have my promises in life and in eternity, Father.”
She bent low by his side and pulled the muslin map free from under her skirt, but before she could slip it to him, he winced at some inward pain and rolled onto his side.
“We are each here to serve His divine will. I have done all that this mortal body will allow. I’m happy to leave this world having fulfilled my purpose. My deepest regret is that I won’t be here to watch my children discover theirs and see the blasphemy of slavery abolished.”
The clanking of keys returned, and the guard’s booted footsteps were not alone. Two men in fitted frock coats followed. Sarah stood up quickly and hid the picture roll beneath the overhang of her shawl.
“Preacher Hill and his son,” announced the guard. He’d forgotten the water.
Mary rose at the company, as did Annie. The three women turned to turned to greet the visitors, and Sarah gasped with recognition. She had met the preacher before—the night she’d first discovered her artistic aptitudes and joined the Underground Railroad’s mission.
“George, Freddy,” her father welcomed them.
“Hello, John,” said Mr. Hill. “May I presume you are Mrs. Brown?” He clicked his heels ever so slightly to Mary.
She extended a hand. “Preacher Hill.”
“Call me George. This is my son Frederick. Our pleasure to make your acquaintances.”
He bowed to Mary, then to Annie and Sarah but made no indication of recognizing her. How could he, though, she thought, without giving away their vowed secrets. She nodded courteously and feigned demure interest in the floor.
“George and his family have been blessings to me in this place,” John explained. “He pastors New Charlestown Church—a brother in Christ and a friend.”
They knew he meant more than a casual ally. Their father had no friends that did not share his beliefs absolutely. He didn’t see the point of befriending those who thought slavery right or, even worse, tolerable. Because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth. That was one of his favorites, and when he quoted it, he always spat for emphasis.
“These officiated ministers of the court have shifty vision. I have no need of exoneration from the likes of them. But George is virtuous. A more trustworthy man, I know not in the entire state of Virginia.”
Sarah knew that to be true. The guard tapered his eyes and adjusted the rifle at his side. Sarah took a reflexive step back. Yet unaccustomed to wearing the skirt cage in small spaces, she banged against the table and knocked a pencil to the floor. She attempted to retrieve it, but between the corset and the crinoline, that was a doomed endeavor. Frederick—Freddy, as her father had called him—saved her the strain.
“They roll faster than a waterwheel,” he said setting the pencil firmly back on the table. “Wiser to make them square so they don’t run away without meaning to.” He winked.
Something in Sarah cinched tight as plaited hair. Did he know her secret—her work in drawing maps for the Underground?
“My two middle daughters,” John said, introducing them. “Annie and Sarah. My eldest, Ruth, remains with her family, and my youngest, Ellen, is in the care of friends. Too young for this wretched affair.”
Both of the Hills dropped their heads to their chests in similar fashion. “Indeed,” said George. “Wretched.” Sarah looked up to fully appraise the men while their attention was diverted. Like her father, George wore a beard that concealed a majority of his face, but Freddy was clean-shaven. His cheeks were pale as churned buttermilk and round about the edges; his black hair was clipped short, with a hint of curl at the widow’s peak. Had they lived together in North Elba, she was sure he’d sit in a grade somewhere between herself and Annie.
Her gaze moved up from his collar and met his squarely. Unlike her father’s steel-blue eyes, Freddy’s were intensely warm: hazel or brown—green, perhaps. She couldn’t tell. They changed with the flux of the candle’s light.
“Best be on with the ladies, Preacher,” announced the guard. “Getting late.”
Heat rose quickly to Sarah’s cheeks. She couldn’t leave yet. She hadn’t given her father the map. Her heart thudded too fast, but the air remained at her throat, obstructed from reaching her lungs by the blasted corset! She had to do something before it was too late. So she did the only thing she could: she let herself go . . . straight down to the floor.
“Sarah!” screamed Annie. She bent to her sister’s aid and fussed with the upturned skirt ruffles. “The stays are too tight. She’s not used to it.”
That was somewhat true. No matter: an excellent smokescreen, in any case. The delicacy of a woman’s underthings flustered the guards and kept them from noticing while she slipped the muslin map to her father’s hand beneath the blanket.
Her mother stammered, “She’s not been well. Dysentery this spring.” Sarah thought she might truly be ill then. Talk of corsets and petticoats was one thing, but her damaged health was quite another—no business of these Virginia men.
“My poor Sarah,” said Mary.
The pity made her queasy.
Freddy gave her cheek a light smack with his open palm. He lifted his hand to do it again, but she grabbed it with ungloved hand.
“Mr. Hill,” she said firmly. “Would you kindly not do that.”
She had completed her mission and so was finished with the charade. She would not
stand to have this young man thwacking her as if burping a nursing baby!