It takes all my willpower to open my eyes the next morning. For fear of being back where I belong, back where my whole life I have been told I deserve to be. I physically shake my head; willing myself to believe there is somewhere I can truly call home. I don’t know where somewhere is, but it must be better than where I have come from.
My body aches from lying on the forest ground all night. I hear water rushing nearby, and only then realize I am the thirstiest I have ever been. I quickly scramble to my feet and head towards the sound. Greedily, I plunge my hands into the cold river, drinking up as much as I can and washing my face. It feels sticky from the dried blood where my cheek was slashed. I stop for a moment when I see myself reflected in the water. A scrawny, 17 year old girl. My face is gaunt and thin, and my thick black hair is matted and a mess. I look more a beast than a human.
But you’re alive, I remind myself and it fills me with pride I have never felt.
I inspect my arms and legs with a sort of childish wonder. Not even one rope or chain binds them. I realize if I’m going to keep it that way, I need to start moving.
The punishment of death is a strong source of motivation, that much I have come to learn. I study my surroundings nervously, constantly listening for the slightest suspicious sound. Summer is ending, and though I move quickly and quietly, the weight of my feet on top of the fallen, rotting leaves makes noises that a slave catcher has come to recognize and track down well. Afraid of going in the wrong direction and walking right into Frederick’s waiting arms, I decide to hug the river bank until I reach a village where I can get help.
After a few hours, I grow weary and my hunger for food begins to overpower my hunger for freedom. I realize that if I’m going to make it anywhere, I need to rest and play it smart. Tiredly, I decide to hide in a cluster of bushes, where I can be close to the river bank but fairly well hidden. Unable to fall asleep for fear of being discovered, I study the forest canopy in wonder. The rush of plantation life leaves little time to enjoy such simple pleasures. The leaves are dancing gracefully in a tango with the wind, in all sorts of brilliant hues--some violently red, with a passion that cannot be matched, others as orange as a sunset, and more still some cheerfully yellow as they fall weightlessly to the ground. Where before they were nothing but a dreadful reminder of the coming winter, now they are a comforting spirit that brings me hope.
My ears prick up a few moments later, as I hear harsh whispers coming not too far away. I sit up immediately, attempting to search for the source through the gaps in the bushes.
I scan the river bank, when I spot two people, one tall and imposing, the other small and plump, a fair distance away. I do not recognize them from my plantation, and momentary relief floods through me. As long as they are not slave catchers, I may make it through this unscathed. Curiously, I strain my ears to hear their conversation.
“You fool!” spits the plump one, “you could’ve just ruined the lot of us. Reckon they’ll be by the shelter by tonight checking up. Five slaves?!”
“Ah dinnae tink heed notice anyway,” chuckles the tall one, “dat bumblin idiot Johnson’s got two ’undred of dem and counting in dat retched hellhole.”
“Where do you plan on hiding them anyway?! In the basement? With the four others we’ve already got hiding from the Jensen Plantation? You’re willing to save anyone but yourself here! They’ll have our necks, I tell you.”
My blood boils and I clench my fists in anger. They’ve been stealing slaves from plantations to make their own profit off of an already dirty game. I feel my whole body compress, as if shrinking will make it harder for them to notice me. Where there is fury, I feel fear. If they discover me, I will wish I had stayed tied to that post with a knife to my neck.
“Well whadda you expect me to do, sit in me house ev’ry day knowin the poor soul’s er slavin away but a few miles from ’ere?”
“Yes!” the other groans, clearly exasperated. “You are not a peacekeeper! It is not your duty to help every slave escape this blasted country. It would do you some good to leave it yourself for God’s sake!”
The tall one chuckles. “Small breakfast and takin eet out on me, eh Wally?”
The plump one grumbles. “You’re going to get me killed, you know that?”
My eyes widen as I realize who it is that I’m looking at, and gratitude courses through my veins where anger bubbled like poison moments ago. They’re not stealing slaves. They’re rescuing them. I am tempted to reveal myself, but I need to know more about them before I do anything rash. I lean forward, trying to get a better look, but my hand leans on a twig, and it snaps loudly in half. Silently, I curse as the voices stop. I hope they did not hear me over their intense conversation and the loud river.
“Did ya hear that, Lucien?”
There is a bout of silence, as the men scan their surroundings. I dare not move or make a sound, lest the motion attract them. I swear the one called Lucien looks me right in the eye, as his head pauses for a fraction of a second and his eyes flicker with recognition, before he turns away. He may have nodded, but I cannot be sure.
“Lord, tell me no one tailed you. The last thing we need is the police on our backs; I’ve already got every robbed man in the state doing so.”
“Eet is autumn, the forest dances to a tune of eets own. Mayhap a fox or summat.” Lucien looks in my direction again knowingly, but this time I shift my head slightly out of his vision.
I flush with relief when I see the plump man relax. He fiddles with his thumbs absent-mindedly as the two stroll the river bank.
“You know,” he begins again, “I heard a slave escaped from the Jackson plantation last night. All on her own too. Frederick wasn’t his cheery self this morning, came to our kitchen and babbled on and on about a missing girl and demanded he search our place.”
“Deed you let ’eem?”
“Ah, of course. I had to, or our cover would slip. He didn’t find anything, don’t you worry. Martha’s got everything, or rather everyone, stashed well and out of sight.”
The tall man lets out a sigh of relief.
“Reckon the masters are angry he let one slip away. No one escapes Jackson Plantation, it just simply isn’t done without outside help. He says he’ll be checking every other plantation in the state. He reckons she can’t make it without aid, and she’ll have found refuge in a slave house. Apparently, she was badly injured and in a weak state as it was. He says she won’t make it far. Wherever she is, I’m praying for her.”
My hand traces absent-mindedly over the scar on my cheek, and the throbbing pains all over my body make themselves known. I shudder at the memory of Frederick’s ghostly face, and the sickly sweet smile he give me right before he carved the line into my cheek. Even my stomach grumbles, though I choose to ignore such a minor issue as hunger in the grand scheme of things.
Thankful for this valuable piece of information, I smile to myself, knowing I had some victory against Frederick. He has underestimated my capability, and it will cost him dearly. At least I know he isn’t searching the forests. It gives me the most valuable head start of all--time.
“Listen, I must go back to the kitchens or someone will notice I’m gone.”
“Yeh know wher tah meet me then?”
“Yes yes, the barn two miles west from here at sunset. I’ll bring food as usual.”
I hear leaves crunching as the plumpy one walks away. I rest against the bush in relief. I’ll need to be much more careful from now, otherwise anyone could--
“Naice day fer a walk, eesn’t it?”
My heart skips a beat as I turn to run, but he is too quick and grabs my arm.
“Why, dis must be the liddl lady Wally’s gettin on about. Right fine job you did, gettin out of der all on yer own.” He smiles kindly.
I simply look back at him. I have spoken very few words to men of his kind.
“Lucien’s the name, slave robbin’s the trade. Help poor souls like you get as far away as ye can.”
I stare back, unsure of how to respond.
“Now, I understand if ye mam taught ye not teh talk teh strangers, but I reckon she’d be willin to make an exception teh an old man like me.”
He’s a tall man indeed, around 6′4. He has a kind face and warm, silver eyes that form crinkles around them when he smiles. His hair is graying, and he must be around sixty or so.
He looks at me expectantly, waiting for a response.
“What’s yer name then? I know teh a fool like Frederick yer just a number, one of the masses, but I can’t count past seventy-four and I’ll be needin’ somethin easy tah call ya by.”
“Alice,” I mumble.
“Well, Alice. I don’t give loaves of bread tah just anybody, but I reckon I can make an exception for such a strong young lady.”
I eye the bread greedily as he pulls it out of his satchel and hands it to me. I am suspicious, but the crunchy wheat between my fingers, complemented by the chorus of agreement from my hungry stomach, makes it hard to resist. I take a bite into the fluffy bread, and the monster inside me roars with delight.
“Thank you,” I say quietly.
“Well, eat up then, Alice. Next meal’s not till sunset, dincha hear?”
“I don’t know anything about you,” I say protectively, “what makes you think I’ll come with you?”
“Tha promise of more bread?” he tries, with a smile.
We walk towards the barn for the next hour or so, as I tell him how I escaped.
“Dat’s a nasty scratch yeh got on yer cheek indeed.”
“It stings like hell,” I respond bluntly.
“But I tell yeh what, everytime it hurts yeh let it remind you without it yeh might nat have escaped. We all need dat push sumtimes to get us where we need tah go. Twas a brave ting you did, tryin tah save dat man.”
“So you’re like Robin Hood then, aren’t you?” I ask. “My mother used to tell me stories about him, helping the poor and stealing from the rich?”
He grins. “Something like dat, but I don’t use no bow and arrow.”
“Do you work at a plantation too?” I ask.
He grunts, and I feel his body stiffen.
“No. I could never face what what you once did, every day. Der are some injustices in those walls too much for me to handle. I work for the railroad.”
I look at him curiously. “Like a conductor?”
“No little lady, the Underground Railroad.”
I frown at him in confusion, and he smiles brightly when he sees my puzzled reaction.
“Some wood call eet a counter-productive job. The plantation owners buy the slaves and take them to the farms, while I...free the slaves and take them away from the farms.”
He laughs awkwardly, while I stare at him, waiting for further explanation.
“You’ll learn more, in time. But for now, we have bigger affairs to attend to. Welcome to your first safe house.”