As they begin their perilous journey, they hope and pray that their path is one of promise where love sustains them, courage builds faith, and forgiveness leads to freedom.
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Path of Freedom
North Carolina, 1858
A shiver of excitement rushed through Flora Saferight at the thought of their upcoming trip to Virginia. It had been at least two years since she‟d seen her aunt and uncle, and even then they had traveled as a family by wagon. Now she and her younger sister would be making the trip by train.
“I think this is sensible for our journey.” Standing in Gilmer General Store, Irene held up a red shawl with a lining. Her blue eyes shone bright in the hope of Flora‟s approval. Blond curls framed Irene‟s heart-shaped face beneath her white bonnet. With a delicate nose and smooth skin heightened by a blush of enthusiasm, Irene was considered the beauty between them.
“Mother would prefer a sensible cloak,” Flora said. “Charlottesville can get awfully cold in the fall.”
Her sister bit her bottom lip and lowered her gaze in disappointment. A dramatic sigh slipped from her lips. Flora glanced around the general store and spied a rack of cloaks in the far corner by the front counter.
“Why not try one of those?” She pointed beyond a table displaying hats and bonnets, hoping to lift Irene‟s spirits. “Since we don‟t have time to make a new cloak and thee has grown out of thy clothes from last winter, I‟m sure Mother would approve.”
“True.” A bright smile lit Irene‟s face as she sailed over to investigate. “Now that I‟m taller than thee, I won‟t be inheriting thy clothes.”
The shop door opened, ringing the tiny bell at the top.
“Good morning,” Mrs. Edwards, the store clerk, called from where she stood on a small stepping stool, stacking bolts of fabric on the wall shelves.
“Morning.” Bruce Milikan stepped inside wearing a white buttoned shirt, tucked into a pair of black trousers. His reddish blond hair lay against his neck beneath his tall black hat. Heat pooled in the pit of Flora‟s stomach. She took a deep breath, eager to escape before he noticed her.
Bruce glanced back to ensure the door closed properly. Flora gulped and turned, taking advantage of his momentary distraction to hurry behind a shelf of oil lanterns.
“Flora Saferight!” His deep voice flowed over her like bittersweet honey before she reached her destination. She waited for the sting of a familiar insult. Other girls may have enjoyed his teasing and attention growing up, but she hadn‟t. She closed her eyes, cringing as his booted footsteps charged across the wooden floor.
She clenched her teeth and forced a smile as she squared her shoulders and prepared to greet him. Staring stared into his broad chest, Flora had to lean back to gaze into those amazing green eyes. When had he grown so tall?
The freckles she remembered had faded beneath a ruddy complexion and a slight tan. A smile eased his lips, revealing straight teeth—too perfect in her opinion. If only he would smile a little wider, then she‟d have the satisfaction of seeing the gaping hole on his left side. Too bad a fall from a tree had been responsible, for she would have dearly loved to claim the honor—especially after he‟d teased her about her two front teeth.
What was wrong with her? Guilt sliced through Flora. Her thoughts were much too bitter for a proper Quaker. They had been children. Still, all his barbed words had cut her to the core and continued to sting like a nasty bee buzzing around inside her soul. “Good morning, Bruce Milikan. I wasn‟t aware thee was back in town.”
It had been eight months since she‟d last seen him, but she did her best to avoid him prior to that.
“I arrived home a fortnight ago.” He blinked and his smile waned. “For a moment, I thought thee might be trying to avoid me.”
Flora lifted her chin and met his gaze. “Do I look like I‟m avoiding thee?” She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him with what she hoped was her best disapproval.
“Goodness, Bruce Milikan, thee acts as if I knew thee would walk right through that door. Since when has thee known me to back down from anything?”
His lips curled as two thin lines framed each side of his mouth into a smile. He shook his head in slow motion. “No, Beaver Face, no one could ever accuse thee of ignoring a challenge.” He shook his head with a reminiscing chuckle. “Thee is the most headstrong girl I‟ve ever known—and foolhardy at times.” He folded his arms and stared down at her as if she were still a wayward child.
“Foolhardy? Beaver Face? Really Bruce, one would hope thee would eventually grow up and leave the childhood name calling behind.” Flora bristled, heat searing through her boiling blood as it scalded her heart. “We may only be a year apart in age, but thee hasn‟t changed one bit.”
“Come on, Flora, I didn‟t mean it like that. It‟s more of an endearment now.” He stepped closer, leaning forward. “The rest of thy teeth have grown in and are now perfect.” He glanced behind him as if to see if anyone else was listening. “I‟m sorry. I wish I‟d never called thee that. I‟ve sure spent the rest of my days paying for it.”
She stepped back, too confused by his nearness and stunned by his apology. Flora swallowed, clearing her mind. The childhood taunts she could forgive, but the idea that he would insinuate she‟s foolish when she‟d worked so hard to become a proper young lady of eighteen, chafed her?
“Apparently, thee isn‟t sorry. For thee just called me foolhardy. I‟ll have thee know, there‟s a good doctor in Virginia who thinks very highly of me. As a midwife, he believes I‟ll compliment him his practice rather well.” Clint Roberts had only mentioned it once in a letter, but she chose to interpret his words to mean that. No need in letting Bruce know she exaggerated.
“What doctor?” The light left his green eyes and his lips dropped in a frown. “Is thee courting a doctor?” He shifted, placing his fists at his side.
Irene walked over with a dark purple cloak draped over her arm. The bell rang and a new customer walked in, greeting Mrs. Edwards.
“It‟s true,” Irene said. “Flora met him two summers ago when we were visiting our aunt and uncle. They've been corresponding ever since.”
Thrilled that her sister would come to her aide, Flora beamed at Bruce. “See? Perhaps thee is the only one who harbors such an opinion of me.” She stepped around him and joined her sister‟s side. “I‟m content to reside myself with the knowledge that I‟ll always be an ugly Beaver Face girl to thee, and thee will always be a mean-spirited bully to me—a childhood nightmare I‟m more than happy to forget.”
She linked arms with her sister and turned, leading Irene to the front counter. “For that dear sister, thee may have a purple cloak. Thee deserves something a little less…plain today,” Flora whispered in her ear.
“Flora, thee has an imagination to feed a pack of werewolves.” Bruce called from behind. “Thee is twisting my words. It isn‟t like that.”
“Indeed,” she mumbled loud enough for only Irene to hear. “The years have been much worse.”
An image of Flora Saferight came to mind. She wasn‟t as plain as she thought. In fact, she had grown into a beautiful woman, but he couldn‟t give her the satisfaction of knowing he thought so. Flora possessed blue-gray eyes that could captivate a man until he lost his senses. Her coffee colored hair matched her spirited personality, vibrant and alive.
Why had he called her foolhardy? He touched the palm of his hand to his forehead in disbelief. Now she had another grievance to hold against him in addition to his long list of past sins. While some of her decisions were impulsive, and she needed more time to mature, he didn‟t think of her as a child either. Flora was an enigma with the cunning ability to challenge and frustrate him. Yet, in spite of her annoyances, she intrigued him.
Wagons and carriages rolled by crunching pebbles and dirt in the road. Two women stopped to converse on the corner in front of the barber shop. He strained to see if they were Flora and Irene, but when they turned, he realized it was a mother and daughter.
Disappointment fueled his chest. He wanted to find out more about the doctor in Virginia. Was she serious about this man? Bruce strolled around the wagon and prepared to pull himself up into the seat.
“Good day, Bruce Milikan.” A familiar voice called from behind.
Bruce turned to see Pastor John Allred striding toward him from across the street. He had to dodge a rider before he reached Bruce. They shook hands in a firm grip, greeting each other with smiles.
“Glad to see thee back. When did thee arrive in town?” John asked.
“Almost a fortnight ago. I‟m sorry I missed meeting past week, but I plan to be there this Sunday. It was a long trip to Indiana. I‟ve been trying to catch up on some chores around the farm.”
“No need to explain.” John shook his head and waved his hand to dismiss the issue. “Thee is doing important work for the Lord. That‟s the main thing. Was the mission successful?”
“Yes, but I‟m looking forward to seeing everyone again and catching up on all the news. I just ran into Flora and Irene Saferight.”
“I heard they‟re about to leave on the train to Virginia.” John rubbed the back of his neck.
“Speaking of which, there‟s something I‟d like to discuss with thee. Would thee be willing to come over for supper tonight?”
Bruce rubbed his chin. What would Flora‟s trip to Virginia have to do with him? Curious, he nodded. “I‟ll tell Mother not to expect me for supper when I return. Flora mentioned a doctor she met up there two summers ago. Does thee know when they‟ll be leaving?” Bruce hoped his voice sounded casual. “I thought she was planning on being a midwife around here.”
“I don‟t reckon her plans have changed.” John shook his head, his brown eyes lit and a smooth grin spread across his face. “In fact, she helped Hazel Miller birth her latest child. I think Flora will prove to be one of our best assets to this community.”
Not if she moves away to Virginia. The sudden thought made Bruce‟s stomach churn. She was too young. What was she thinking? He‟d only been gone eight months. How could things change so fast?
“Well, Pastor John, I‟d better get these things home and put away so I can make it over to your place in time for supper.”
“Good idea, Bruce.” John slapped him on the shoulder. “I‟ll see thee in a little while.”
Bruce gave him a nod and climbed into the wagon. He took the reins, unset the brake, and guided the horse down the street. Bruce road past fields of tobacco and rows of tall corn until the two-story gray house came into view by early afternoon.
His mother came out on the porch, shielding her brown eyes from the sun. Her plump form was a welcome sight as she pulled her tan shawl tight around her and patted the silver bun on the crown of her head.
“Looks like thee brought the whole store back from town.” Her soft voice teased. She hurried down the porch steps toward the wagon and peered over the side.
“Just half of it.” Bruce winked, giving her a grin as he jumped down. When she smiled back, a ring of wrinkles encased her loving eyes, reminding him of how much she had aged in the last two years.
With two older brothers and a sister grown and married, his parents were now sixty. Only Bruce and Silas, his younger brother, remained on the farm.
“I ran into Pastor John while I was in town. He asked me over for supper. Said he needed to discuss something with me.” Bruce laid a hand on her shoulder. “So don‟t make a plate for me this evening.” He kissed her cheek.
“I hope he doesn‟t have another mission for thee so soon. Son, I believe in the work thee does for the Underground Railroad, but after so many months of traveling, thee needs a break. Can he not find someone else this time?” His mother wrung her hands as she followed him to the back of the wagon where he unhitched the latch and pulled down the gate.
“I‟m not sure, but I‟ll be fine Mother. Thee knows if I don‟t go, Father will. He‟s content to let me take his place, but he won‟t stand by and let the Milikan‟s miss out on what he thinks is an opportunity to save a life.”
“It‟s so dangerous!”
“Which is why Father should stay here. He can‟t handle the outdoor elements and the vigorous running and climbing over the mountains like he once did.”
“Holly!” His father rode his horse in a canter toward them.
Bruce and his mother walked to meet him where he slowed to a stop. His gray whiskers and side burns looked white rather than gray beneath his black hat with the sun casting him in a silhouette from behind.
“Some of the cows escaped.” He took a deep breath. “Part of the fence must have been weak”
“I‟ll help thee round them up,” Bruce offered.
“Thee can help after unloading.”
His father nodded toward the wagon. “Know where Silas is?”
“He was in the barn working on that harvest machine that Bruce made a while back.” Mother said. “Can‟t get it to work right.”
“I‟ll need his help. He can work on that later.” Father started to pull away, but she reached up and laid a hand on his arm.
“Eli, Bruce has another meeting with the pastor this evening.”
His father paused and his hazel eyes met Bruce‟s. “Do I need to be there?”
“He didn‟t mention it,” Bruce said.
“Well, all right then. Let us know if it‟s another mission.” His father rode away.
“I wish thee didn‟t have to go.” His mother sighed, watching her husband ride toward the barn.
“It may not even be about a new mission. Pastor John may only want a report on the last mission to Indiana.”
She grabbed his arm and smiled with relief. “Thee is right. I hadn‟t even thought of that. Perhaps that‟s all it is.”
“I still don‟t see why thee wouldn‟t let me stop long enough to put my cloak in the wagon. Besides, I thought we had more shopping to do.” Irene glared at Flora while they waited for a buggy to pass before crossing the street.
“I promise. We‟ll go back and finish our shopping after I‟m sure Bruce Milikan is gone.” Flora charged into the street and stomped across the dirt road.
“Thee cannot avoid him forever. Forgive him for the past and let it go. He‟s right. It was a long time ago.”
“It‟s true that Beaver Face was a long time ago, but his calling me foolhardy this morning isn‟t.” Flora blew out a puff of air. If it were possible for a human being to explode, she‟d be in a million pieces right now.
She swung open the post office door and an elderly woman stumbled out.
“Oh! Pardon me.” Flora reached for the woman‟s elbow to steady her.
“Goodness!” The gray haired woman righted herself and smoothed her skirts. She lifted her chin and glanced up at Flora and then Irene with brown eyes of stone. “You young people need not be in such haste. I daresay, this post office won‟t grow legs and walk, you know.”
“Yes, ma‟am.” Flora pressed her lips together to keep from laughing.
Inside, Flora blinked, adjusting her eyes to the darkness. She strode toward the open window where Joseph Miller, the clerk, greeted her with a genuine smile.
“Howdy, Miss Saferight and Miss Saferight.” He nodded to Irene standing by Flora. “Hazel and the baby are doing very well. You did a fine job delivering my baby girl.” He rubbed the top of his bald head, a thin layer of brown hair stretched from ear to ear.
“I‟m glad to hear it. I hope to stop by for a visit before we leave on our trip to Virginia,” Flora said.
“Hazel would like that. I think the confinement is starting to get to her.”
“It won‟t be long before she‟ll be able to go out into society again.” Flora pulled out a folded letter addressed to her aunt. “I need to send this to Charlottesville, Virginia.”
“That will be one penny.”
Flora dug into her skirt pocket and handed him the required change. Once they finished their business at the post office, they stepped outside the small wooden building into the bright sun. She shielded her eyes. She loved North Carolina in the fall. Soon more color would fill their world and cooler weather would bring in the harvest.
“I promised Mother we‟d stop by the train station and find out the prices of the tickets,” Flora said, as they made their way toward South Elm Street.
“This is exciting!” In a sudden burst of energy, Irene caught Flora‟s pace as a smile tilted the corners of her mouth. “Just think, we‟ll be going through the capital city of Raleigh and then into Virginia in comfortable passenger seats. No slow, bumpy wagon with a hard wooden seat for days on end.”
The sound of a distant train whisle bellowed through the air. White smoke shot into the sky over the gray roof of the wooden train depot as they neared. A shiny black engine appeared beyond the building, hauling several linked caboose cars taking off in an eastward direction. More steam unleashed its power, hissing and groaning against the wheels as they churned over the rails. The massive iron machine started out slow, but gained speed and momentum with each thrust.
They reached the side of the depot and rounded the corner of the building to the front entrance. Flora collided into a moving object and gasped, straightening her bonnet.
“Oh dear, please excuse me.” a woman said.
Flora glanced up. Concerned green eyes met her gaze. Whisps of auburn hair framed the woman‟s young face beneath a white bonnet. Recognition gripped Flora‟s muddled brain as she took a moment to sort through her childhood memories for a name.
“Kimberly Coltrane?” Flora tilted her head and gulped, hoping she‟d remembered correctly.
“Yes.” She blinked and after a moment her eyes widened. “Flora and Irene Saferight?” Her mouth dropped open, before she covering it with a delicate hand. “How long has it been?”
“It seems like thee moved from Centre to New Garden four or five years ago,” Irene said. “Thee has turned into a beauty.”
Her rosy glow deepened and she looked down. While she wore a simple gray skirt and white blouse, Flora agreed that Kimberly could never be considererd plain.
“What brings thee to Greensborough?” She glanced from Irene to Flora, raising an arched eyebrow.
“Shopping,” Irene said, holding out her new cloak.
“It‟s lovely,” Kimberly ran a gentle hand over the purple garment. “I wish I was in town to shop. I came with my father. He‟s inside buying a ticket for a business trip to Raleigh. Earlier I had to wait on him in the hardware store.” Her eyes brightened, almost like sparkling emeralds. “Guess who we ran into?”
Irene and Flora exchanged knowing glances.
“Would it happen to be Bruce Milikan?” Flora asked, trying not to show disdain in her expression or tone.
“Exactly!” She grinned, blinking in surprise. “He‟s changed so much. He‟s as tall as my father now. They discussed farming methods in the hardware store.”
“Indeed, we saw him in the general store.” Flora shifted in discomfort as Kimberly‟s expression transformed to a dreamy daze.
“Who would have ever guessed that Bruce Milikan would turn out to be so handsome.”
Kimberly touched her hand to her chest. “He‟s such a gentleman and so attentive. I hope he meant it when he said I‟ve grown into a sophisticated woman and he‟d stop by and call on us when he‟s in town again.”
“He called thee sophisticated?” The question tumbled from Flora‟s tongue before she could hold it back. Disappointment stabbed her anew, twisting her heart.
“Yes.” Kimberly folded her arms as if hugging herself and her smile widened. “Father seems to be impressed by him as well. He‟s talked of nothing else since.”
Rare jealousy sparked a flame in Flora‟s wounded chest. She had always wondered if Bruce Milikan was incapable of tenderness and pleasant gallantry. Now she had proof. He was more than capable—just not with her. The realization brought anger and then a fresh wave of bitterness.