It was midday, but the smoke from numerous fires gave the sky a dusky pallor. A stream of people straggled eastward, most with only the tattered clothes hanging from their weary, famished frames. The fortunate ones had been able to pile a few possessions in a wagon and flee as bands of Jayhawkers plundered their farms.
Since before sunrise, Lorena gazed at the procession, willing her body to arise and join the exodus. She slumped against the trunk of a hickory tree, hoping to find some shade from the August sun. Warren and Edwina clung to their mother’s calico skirt. Their tears and whimpering for Papa had long been smothered by hunger pangs.
Lorena had not told the children their papa was shot while trying to save his herd and crops. She wished the past day had just been a nightmare and any moment she would awaken in her bed with Harrison by her side.
“Mama, hungry.” Edwina tugged on her mother’s arm.
Lord, what do I do?
In the distance came the sound of clopping hooves followed by hollers and gunshots. The sound pierced through the fog in Lorena’s mind and she scrambled to her feet, tugging the children. They ran through the woods until the only sounds were from the trees rustling in the breeze and the chirp of an occasional bird.
Pausing to catch her breath, Lorena heard a crunching sound. Before she could decide whether or not to run, a large man appeared in her path. All she could see was the rifle he grasped in his mahogany hand.
“Don’t,” Lorena stammered. Her eyes darted trying to find a path of escape as she pushed the children behind her.
“I’m not gon hurt ya,” the man said. He set the rifle against a tree and held up his hands. “Name’s Zeke.” He tipped his straw hat revealing curly, graying hair. “Don’t get white runaways ’round here.”
“We’re not…” Lorena tried to explain but the words caught in her parched throat.
“Must be hungry. Come on. Abigail’s got dinner goin. Shot rabbit this mornin. Got plenty.” He turned around, picked up his rifle, and strode off deeper into the woods. Hunger overtook fear and Lorena and the children followed.
In a clearing, thin curls of smoke rose into the air carrying the scent of roasting meat. “We’s gots guests,” Zeke announced.
Abigail stirred a large pot and fanned herself. “Just bout ready. Sit yourselves down and I’ll dish up.” She pointed to a patch of grass in front of a tiny wooden shack.
Bewildered, Lorena searched for a table and chairs. Zeke poked two fingers in his mouth and let out a loud whistle. In seconds, a woman emerged from the shack balancing a baby on her hip. Three children raced into the clearing and froze when they saw their visitors.
“Naomi and Martha, come get these plates. Jeremiah, show our guests where to sit,” Abigail said. The boy pointed to a patch of grass beside where Zeke sat. Lorena and the children crouched onto the ground as Naomi handed Lorena a plate piled with stewed meat.
When everyone had settled down, Zeke bowed his head. “Father, God, thanks for this fine food and for guests to share what you’ve generously provided. Amen.”
Before she could ask for a fork or spoon, Lorena watched in shock as everyone dug into their shared plates with their fingers. Warren and Edwina copied the others and grabbed chunks of meat before their mother could instruct otherwise. Lorena hesitated until hunger overruled manners and she dipped her fingers into the plate.
The children ate and scrambled off to play, with Warren and Edwina shyly following. They laughed and ran as if they had been lifelong friends.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” Lorena said staring into her empty plate.
“No need,” Zeke said. “Where you headin?”
“The river. We have family on the other side. I just need to know how to get back to the road.”
“Rest a spell. I’ll make some cornbread to take,” Abigail said.
The coolness of the shade and a full stomach lulled Lorena into sleep. She snuggled into the grass and dozed, giving thanks for the kindness of strangers.
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