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Writers’ Trust nominees: Linda Spalding

Ruth learned about the runaway slave at the Prayer Meeting, where the sermon was about property. "What we own, it is our earthly duty to tend," the pastor told his little flock. "What we own, we tend, for the Lord has given us everything that is ours." At one time, Methodists had been fiercely abolitionist. They had broken away from the Episcopal Church with Francis Asbury as their first bishop and in those early years evangelists rode across Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, preaching against the evil of slave owning. But the Southerners had considered the churchmen wrong in this preaching, feeling that to emancipate their slaves would lead to social chaos, and now some churchmen had surrendered to the doctrine of necessity and Pastor Dougherty was among them. "The fowler's snare is knotted with secrecy," he told the listening Christians.

Daniel and Ruth were sitting on a bench they had brought in the wagon, Ruth with her feet crossed at the ankles and tucked back so as to hide her split-open boots. The pastor was saying, "And in spite of the words of Paul to the Ephesians – that each slave must obey his master – I am informed by our brother, Jester Fox, that one of his own dark children has rebelled and is living without protection in contradiction of God's law. This child is in error and must be returned to Mister Fox because we form a community here in Jonesville based on Christian laws." He looked around solemnly, searching each face, as was his weekly habit, and several of his parishioners answered back in the affirmative. Satisfied, the pastor raised his voice to address the Almighty: "Lord! We ask Thee now from our humble church and humble hearts . . . we ask Thee to admonish the one who is fled and teach her the example of Jesus Christ, who gave His life to redeem her in spite of her selfishness and grievous ignorance. Let that her selfishness not lead to an outbreak of the same among other workers," the pastor continued, striking at the one fear his congregants held in common and launching then into the parable of the prodigal, proving the nature of repentance and the Lord's readiness to welcome all those who return to His guidance. "It is a sin," he announced, "to look upon God's gifts as a debt due to us. I say this with regard to the sinner who harbours another sinner, to that one who is tempted by secrecy, dashing into the fowler's net when destruction stares him in the face. He will commit a sin that is condemned by the law of the land." Here, the pastor's eyes stopped for a moment to regard the closed and wary countenance of Daniel before moving on restlessly to other faces.

Ruth also looked at Daniel, who looked down at his feet. She wondered where he had gone when he'd ridden away under the light of the moon only a few thin hours after Jester Fox had accosted him. She remembered the vehemence on both sides of the argument. She had never seen Daniel truly angry until that moment when the terrible words fell on him just as she came to the window to hear what was being said. But the anger had taken a cowardly form as he spoke through his gritted teeth, trying to be reasonable.

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When she and Daniel filed out of the church, people were shaking their heads over the ingratitude of a girl who had been allowed to work in a house among white people.

Copyright © 2012 Linda Spalding. Used by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd.

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