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Authors: Eileen Clymer Schwab

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

Promise Bridge

BOOK: Promise Bridge

Praise for Promise Bridge

“Eileen Clymer Schwab’s debut novel takes us to the antebellum South to offer us the story of a friendship between two remarkable young women: Hannalore Blessing, a Southern belle, and Livie, a runaway slave. Defying the casual brutality of slave hunters and slave owners, Livie and Hannah become fully human to each other, forming a bond that transcends the narrow categories of race and social class.
Promise Bridge
is a courageous novel that never ceases to surprise and delight with unexpected twists and startling revelations. In it we find life lived to the fullest, not by the motto ‘what if?’ but by the motto ‘why not?’”

—Mary Mackey, author of The Widow’s War

Promise Bridge
is a stunning debut that is sure to become a classic. With gorgeous writing and characters you’ll come to love, Eileen Clymer Schwab has written a beautiful story of a young woman’s awakening during the volatile years preceding the Civil War.”

—Maryann McFadden, author of The Richest Season and
So Happy Together

Published by New American Library, a division of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
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Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by NAL Accent, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Printing, July 2010

Copyright © Eileen Clymer Schwab, 2010

Readers Guide copyright © Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2010
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:

Schwab, Eileen Clymer.
Promise bridge/Eileen Clymer Schwab.
p. cm.

eISBN : 978-1-101-45612-5

1. Female friendship—Fiction. 2. Underground Railroad—Fiction. 3. Master and servant—Fiction.
4. Fugitive slaves—Fiction. 5. Plantation life—Virginia—Fiction. 6. Virginia—History—1775-1865—Fiction.
I. Title.
PS3619.C4845P76 2010
813′.6—dc22 2010009224

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

To All Those
known and unknown
who dreamed,
who dared,
who delivered us
to a better place and time.


First and foremost, to Ray: my husband, best friend, and fellow daydream believer. Each and every day, you bless me with your encouragement and support and with your wacky sense of humor, which reminds me that laughter is good for the soul. Our journey has been extraordinary. Love and gratitude to my four amazing children, Connie, Ray, Brian, and Griffin, who encourage me to be both mom and author. I love you all.

Love and gratitude for the unwavering foundation provided by my parents, Clair and Joan Clymer, from whom all good things in my life were first made possible.

Heartfelt thanks to my wonderful agent, Kevan Lyon, for embracing my novel, believing in me, and “bridging” me into the world of publication. Your insight and expertise challenged me and raised me to new heights. I will be eternally grateful.

To Ellen Edwards, my incredible editor. I feel so blessed to have landed in your very proficient and talented hands. Your gentle guidance and editorial prowess strengthened this book from beginning to end. Thank you for embracing this story and these characters when we needed you most. You brought us across the finish line in grand style.

My sincere appreciation to Kara Welsh and her amazing team at NAL. Your support and effort on behalf of this book exceeded any hope or dream I harbored. I am deeply grateful. Thank you to Anthony Ramondo and his art department for the beautiful cover.

Thank you, Kara Cesare, whose belief and unending enthusiasm opened the door. Your contribution to and advocacy for this book will never be forgotten.

To the “Girl Cousins” who always cheered, encouraged, and believed.

The bond between friends enriches and blesses our lives in ways too numerous to count. I thank all those who have given me their gift of friendship.

And last but not least, I hold dear the “Big Snack,” a family tradition in which countless precious memories and my love for storytelling are rooted.

Often inspiration is born of stirred emotion. “Love Can Build a Bridge” written by John Barlow Jarvis, Naomi Judd, and Paul Overstreet, performed by The Judds, Wynonna and Naomi—your beautiful song stirred my heart.

Chapter 1

ife at its very core changed forever the day I asked “please” of a colored man. I intended no harm or outrage; my manners got the better of me is all. In fact, the cedar mounts cradling Echo Ridge all but quaked the moment the word floated from my careless lips as I eased a heavy bundle toward Winston’s outstretched arms. His playful eyes stoned into a stunned gaze, and though with two hasty blinks the ever-present smile recovered across his mahogany face, my heart sank into the pit of my stomach as his eyes hedged from mine and braced for the inevitable.

On the steps of the general store behind me, Twitchell Grayson stood with his worn snakeskin boot fixed heavily on a stool. Winston’s son, Elijah, knelt at Twitch’s crooked heel, wiping away dusty clumps of dried clay as best he could with a fistful of oil rag in his capable ten-year-old hand. Following Winston’s glance, I turned in time to see Twitch’s jaw clench fiercely around the stub of a cigar wedged beneath the coarse charcoal mustache thicketed like a horseshoe around a barely recognizable mouth.

“You forget your place, boy?” Twitch kicked the stool against a crested apple barrel wedged alongside the mercantile door. Poor Elijah tumbled backward onto his threadbare britches as an avalanche of ripe red apples plunked down around him.

“No, sah, I’s jes’ helpin’ Miz Hannah,” Winston said with a compliant nod in my direction.

“Seems to me if you did your work proper, your mistress wouldn’t have to ask you for nothin’, much less beg you

Twitch had one dead eye, blinded long ago, when for perverse amusement he propped up a peach basket using a stick and a string, with the aim of trapping crows. I never heard such depraved whooping and hollering as when he held each captured bird by its feet, swinging it over his head while he stomped and danced around me until I dropped to my knees in tears. My frantic pleas made his wild eyes glimmer with savage excitement as he spat into the palm of his hands, then twisted off the wings of each disoriented crow before tossing them onto the dirt. I remember how he howled with laughter as they flopped helplessly on the ground at his feet. Seven young crows were tortured by Twitch that wretched day, until my cries brought my dear friend Colton racing like a guard dog across the upper meadow, barreling headfirst into his longtime nemesis. The two boys hit the ground with a thud, and when Twitch lost his grip on the mother crow, she bounded loose in a flutter of feathers and delivered two fierce pecks to his unprotected face, taking the sight of one eye as revenge for the dark, lifeless mounds scattered across the blanket of heather surrounding us.

Being close to him in age, I had watched Twitch grow from a devilish boy into an ill-tempered, deviant young man who now found the same wicked pleasure in clipping the wings of the errant flocks some say migrate northward through the night.

“Slave catchin’ is a messy business,” he often boasted upon returning from one of his monthlong missions across the western mountain peaks into northern Kentucky. “If any ol’ sucker could do it, there wouldn’t be no slaves to catch.”

I suppose it was one of the few truths he ever spoke, but I paid him no mind. All I knew was, whatever his unseemly trade entailed, it took him far off from the Ridge, allowing us to maintain a peaceful balance despite the growing unrest whispering beyond the mountains on the Virginia horizon.

Now, with my milky cheeks flushing in the warm spring breeze, I wished I had taken notice of him as I carried Aunt Augusta’s purchases to the carriage. In three charging strides, Twitch stood nose to nose with Winston. Disguising my terror with one flutter of my Southern belle eyes, I tugged at the sheepskin vest hanging from Twitch’s bony frame.

“Oh, leave him be, Twitch,” I pleaded politely. “He didn’t do anything.” The roll of my Virginia drawl, a subtle mix of hill-country twang and Southern society, was as unmoving as the determined scowl chiseled on Twitch’s craggy face. My weakly delivered attempt at interceding on Winston’s behalf went unheeded as Twitch unraveled his bullwhip from his belt.

“Get over to the livery stable, boy,” Twitch said as he spat what remained of his soggy cigar across Winston’s muslin shirt. Jutting his whiskered chin toward the wagon house across the dusty street, Twitch raised his whip and with one long swirl cracked it at Winston’s feet.

“Hannalore Blessing,” snapped a shrill voice behind me. “A proper young lady would be sitting in the carriage, unengaged in slave matters.”

My face paled beneath the starched brim of my cotton bonnet as I stepped back in muted obedience and allowed Aunt Augusta’s tall, prim figure to march past my lowered eyes. Though she was my dear, departed mother’s only sister, I feared her as you would a resentful and domineering marm of an orphanage. My eyes lifted with false courage once I realized she was wasting no venom on me.

“What is the meaning of this, Twitchell?” she demanded with a cool arch to her brow. “You have no right to lay a whip against my property.”

“I mean no disrespect, Augusta,” Twitch said with a tug of his frayed slouch hat. “But this thickheaded buck is makin’ familiar notions that ain’t proper for his kind to presume outside his own. Partic’arly with a young lady of such fine and privileged upbringin’ as Miss Hannah.”

My voice rose in protest, though my mutterings were quickly swallowed as Aunt Augusta silenced me with a frosty glance. Still, her fierce presence gave me hope for Winston’s safety. Not even Twitch would dare challenge the mistress of one of the longest-established plantations in the county. Her wealth and standing were second only to that of her husband’s brother, Mooney Reynolds, who boasted two hundred acres of tobacco and hogs. When I became Aunt Augusta’s ward, I was required to address him as Uncle Mooney, though he was no uncle to me, by blood or affection. The fact that Twitch was Uncle Mooney’s overseer in slave matters would be of no concern to Aunt Augusta. Unlike her genteel Southern counterparts who only concerned themselves with the social duties associated with their husbands’ successful lot in life, Aunt Augusta was a force to be reckoned with. Widowed nearly fifteen years before, Aunt Augusta maintained a modest but highly profitable tobacco plantation beyond the foul breezes of Uncle Mooney’s hog pens. She bowed to no one, least of all the son of a drunkard murderer, who was hanged for slicing the throat of his young wife.

“Now, Augusta, this here buck may be yours, but overseein’ is my business. And none does it better than me. I seen plenty of them who rise up thinkin’ they deserve more, ’cuz no one beat sense into ’em when they start believin’ what them Yankee abolitionists say. We know how to handle our slaves here in this part o’ the Virginny hills. That’s why me and Mooney are gettin’ rich fetchin’ them runaways over in Kentucky. They wanna know how come our stock stays put here on the Ridge, and I tell ’em its ’cuz Twitchell Grayson can smell a runaway from a hundred miles. Fact is, I can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voice before they even get a foot out the door. It all starts with the believin’. And I have a knack for whippin’ the believin’ out of them who needs it. No abolitionist is gonna find a believer in these parts. That’s why the path runnin’ north is worn bare across the bluegrass of Kentucky, but not even a paw print dares to cross these blue-shaded peaks of Echo Ridge.”

Twitch laughed heartily as he wiped the back of his hand across a trickle of brown tobacco juice moistening the hair framing the corners of his mouth. Aunt Augusta remained cool and unimpressed, although I knew from the Vigilance Committee meetings often held in the parlor of our home that she was a strong leader in opposition of the Northern-funded abolitionist movement pervading its way south. In spite of being the lone female in an organization of concerned men of commerce, it was often her voice I would hear above all others, making plans and outlining strategies that would keep their slave labor from being threatened. True to form, Aunt Augusta did not so much as blink an eye when she said, “Fine, Twitchell, do what needs to be done. But I will be making a trip to Cumberland Gap in two days, and I expect Winston to be at the reins of my carriage as he always is. I have no interest in breaking in another driver at this late date.”

“Don’t worry, Augusta. Your business won’t be interrupted on his account, even if it means draggin’ him up onto the wagon mount myself. But I guarantee, once I have his hide, he won’t be thinkin’ anyone owes him
for his efforts.”

“Be quick about it, then,” Aunt Augusta said as Twitch led Winston toward the stables. “I want to get these quilting supplies home.”

“Aunt Augusta,” I pleaded as she turned back toward the carriage, “don’t let him hurt Winston. It was entirely my fault.”

Her eyes bore into mine and grew harder as she approached. “Your foolishness has hurt Winston more than any bullwhip, my dear.” Her cold hand reached up and clenched me under the chin. “I have a reputation to uphold in this county and well beyond. I’ll not have you cast doubt on all I have worked for.”

The hiss of her words and sizzle of the whip blended as the distant crack ignited Winston’s cry in the afternoon air. I took off and ran from the sound as fast as my feet would take me.


Despite Aunt Augusta calling after me, the snap of another lash drove me into the thicket at the edge of town. The flounce trim on the bottom of my skirt tore as I escaped deeper into the woods and across the cedar knoll leading to the upper meadow. When I broke into the sunshine of the meadow, I pulled my bonnet from my head and collapsed into the plump milkweed. Using my bonnet to muffle my sobs, I thought of my mother and wished I had her arms around me, so I could feel the protective embrace of an understanding heart, and my feelings would not be scorned as foolishness. Stretched out on my back amid my tears and the scent of honeysuckle, I was, as always, alone and afraid.

“Hannah?” A deep, rugged voice floated down from above. “Why are you hiding here with the grasshoppers?”

I pulled the bonnet away from my swollen eyes and saw a shadowed face staring down at me.

“I do declare, Hannah, you look a sight. What has you running up here to the meadow all by yourself?”

Holding up a hand to block the brilliant rays that gleamed over the broad shoulders hovering above me, I saw the familiar gold-flecked brown eyes of the only soul on earth who would not judge me in my mortified state.

“Colton Reynolds, is that you?” I asked as he knelt down on one knee beside me. He leaned casually against the polished rifle propped at his side.

“Lucky for you, it is me and no one else, or you might be mistaken for one of those demon-possessed women they send to the state asylum to rest in respectable seclusion.”

No one understood my secret emotional quandaries like dear Colt. Raised in the same extended family, he often witnessed the frustration and confusion I felt in the confinement of well-bred society. He was tall and lean, with loose chestnut curls that were in boyish contrast to the rugged cut of his cleft chin. His nose sloped handsomely toward his full mouth, where a crescent scar below his lower lip gave him an adorable poutiness whenever he was not smiling. Colt had none of Uncle Mooney’s boorish traits, and his tender heart always sensed when I needed to cry my way through a sorrow or giggle away a deep hurt. As he slid his gentle hand under my elbow and eased us both to our feet, I knew today would be no different. Even in my high-laced shoes, I barely reached his shoulder. I looked up into his concerned face, wondering where to begin.

Not rushing me to words, Colt stroked some loose locks of hair from my face and tucked them behind my ear as he waited for me to speak.

“I hate myself, Colt,” I finally burst. “I simply hate myself.”

“Now, Hannalore Blessing,” Colt said, his dark brow folding into a frown. “Stop talking so harshly about my favorite girl.”

“It’s true, Colt,” I shot back with a stomp. “I don’t have the stuffing to speak my mind or defy a scolding, even if I witness wrongdoing. I am just a coward who does as I am told even when every inch of me wants to do the opposite.”

Colt reached up and scratched behind his ear for a moment, then with a shrug gave up the thought of debating. “I suppose you are right, Hannah, but I don’t think you should hate yourself for doing what’s expected of you. There are things we have no choice in. Believe me, I understand. It’s hard being forced to go along with popular ways when every instinct within you pushes in a different direction.”

“How can it be hard for you, Colt? You are a man. And men do as they please, making their own decisions, coming and going as they see fit.”

Colt laughed with bitter amusement. “I wish it was that simple, Hannah, but I have expectations to fulfill just like you.” He hoisted his rifle up across his shoulder. “Do you know what I am doing out here? My father sent me out on a hunt. He says I am not to return home without something to skin. He says I am softhearted like my mother was, and he’s determined to toughen me into a man.”

“Why, that’s just silly, Colt,” I said, realizing he was feeling as wounded as I. “You are the finest man on this mountain, even though you are barely twenty-two years old.”

“Well, I am not one for taking the life of any creature, but I will make my father proud by doing as he says. I am as much a man as that hellion Twitch, even if Father says different. And I will not hate myself for proving it. Sometimes you have to accept things as they are, whether you like it or not. It’s part of growing up, Hannah.”

“Well, then, Colton Mooney, you are nothing but a big ol’ coward.”

“Shhh,” Colt shushed as he put a fingertip to my lips. Scanning the mulberry bushes and ragweed growing thick at the edge of the meadow, he drew in a deep breath. “I think there is a pheasant over there.”

No sooner had I looked in the direction of his nod than a subtle rustle moved across the brush. I stepped back as Colt slid the rifle from his shoulder and lifted its target sight to his fluttering eye. He slowly cocked the hammer and tightened his finger around the trigger. He held still for a breathless moment before relaxing his grip.

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