“I was hoping we had at least another week...” she muses.
“For what, Lewis?” I repeat.
“Saving our skins, of course-if you get what I mean.”
* * *
“No, I don’t,” I say, “you’re the one who’s been in here multiple times and you’ve never escaped. We can’t just do it now because of some guy.”
“Some guy?” she hisses in a hushed whisper, “have you seen your eyes, dear? They say what you can’t put into words, and I sure as hell know he isn’t some guy to you. Now shut up and hear me out.”
I nod, mulling over what she just said.
Lewis darts her eyes quickly towards where the nearest guard is sitting. His eyes are closed and his breathing is raspy and faint.
He’s asleep, I assume.
“I may not have escaped personally-but people have before. Preston is a business town in more than one way. The rail road runs through it.”
“Yeah, we passed the tracks on the way here,” I say obviously.
“No, no,” she shakes her head, “the Rail Road.”
My eyes widen, and I say,“Go on.”
She sighs. “Listen, there’s little to be spoken of. Especially here and now; with spring coming. It’s peak time for trading slaves. Hard to notice a few extras passing through the town, is it not?”
I point to the bars in front of me. “Small problem with getting out of here and into town.”
“When there’s a will, there’s a way, ay?”
“Yes...” I say slowly, waiting for an explanation.
“We’ve got people on the inside too, Alice. And they can get us outside.”
Lewis turns around in her cell and I glare at her back in frustration, hoping it’s enough to make her turn around.
“These people. Tell me more,” I say eagerly.
She sighs and says, “Give me time to think,” without another word.
I frown and return to my own thoughts. People on the inside? She couldn’t mean inside the law itself-it’s different when citizens help out the slaves, but I can’t imagine an officer being able to-or wanting to-help. My faith is not that strong in the monster that sleeps next to my cage. Why he is outside it and I am here, I will never fathom.
I lean against the cool cell bars, staring out into the empty hallway of the jail. The lights are dimmed and give off a warm glow. The floating dust reflects through it, dancing in the musty air like a swarm of fireflies. I sigh and close my eyes, clearing my thoughts and lulling myself to sleep.
I wake up to almost complete darkness, save for one light at the end of the hall, giving the whole corridor an eerie glow. I hear voices down the hall, approaching me. I open my lids slightly to try and see what is going on. I make out two figures that stand facing the cell next to mine, talking in hushed tones.
“He’s to hang for sure, then?”
“Can’t do nothin’ more, m’fraid. It’s a right shame-could’ve made a fair penny selling him. I know you never pass off something for the black market, if you get my pun.”
The first man grunts. “There are always more things to be done. Perhaps we could switch him with another one of these men, and by the time the change has been realized, I could-”
“The guards won’t fall for it-I’ve no reason to take him out of his cell now that the court decision’s final. They all know he’s to bite the dust come morning.”
He makes a finger motion across his neck, pretending to gag. I shudder at his gesture. The second man, I realize, is the cell keeper.
“This one, Jim, we’ll have to pass. I’m sure I can get you another. How bout that fellar over there?” he whispers, pointing to Isaac, obliviously asleep.
My blood boils.
“No. I need this man. With the right price, then, perhaps we could get him out...the guards are underpaid-it can’t be hard to get past them using any man’s favourite thing of all...”
“Aye-but he’s a murderer. Killed his own Massa! Can’t imagine why anyone would want him anyway on the market, and I’m not too keen on releasing him, see? It all comes back to us if he’s found missing. Wait it out and I’ll just get you another bloody slave to put your humanitarian mind at ease,” sighs the cell keeper.
“He is wrongfully convicted-I know it. The man’s family, you should see them. They say he’d never hurt a fly, and I believe it. I’ve a particular interest in this man and you know I cannot allow his hanging to take place. You’ll get your share of the money, eh? Enough that you can quit the job before they fire you come morning when he’s ‘discovered’.”
I recall a man, in about his forties, is in the cell they’re talking about. He’s never said a word, and the two stare at him with a gleam in their eye.
The cell keeper sighs. “How much of the cut do we get? Me and the guard o’er there.”
“A hundred between you.”
“A hundred, you say?” he growls lowly, “I won’t do it. The law’ll have my head for what! The scrap pickings?”
The man, Jim, pushes the cell keeper harshly against the wall, and my breath stops abruptly. Though it is almost complete darkness, I feel entirely exposed.
The man hisses dangerously low, enough that I have to strain my hearing to make out the words.
“Aye, a hundred. He’s not worth a penny more to you, though I’m happy to settle for less. It is all the family can afford.”
The cell keeper’s breathing is heavy.
“Take your business elsewhere, mate. I’m not about to set a madman on the loose for a month’s income,” the cell keeper says proudly.
“You’ll regret that the day it’s your neck on the noose and it’s the black man hanging you,” the man growls. He steps away from the cell keeper, giving him a long and hard look before turning away.
“Wait!” I blurt out, before realizing what I’ve done.
The man turns back at me in confusion.
“Help us. Please,” I say, not knowing entirely what I mean myself.
“Come on, Jim. You need to leave,” says the cell keeper, shooting me a vicious look.
Jim looks at me, brows furrowed.
“I am sorry. There is nothing more I can do as long as men like this are given authority and driven by their own greed.” He frowns and turns away without another word, and I find myself staring at my last chance at freedom walk away.
* * *
They wake us up early the next morning with the loud clanging of the bell. The cell keeper slides in trays of oats for us to eat, giving me a long and hard look as he recalls me hearing his conversation from the night before. When we’re finished, a trail of guards enter the corridor. I look at them peculiarly, wondering why so many have come at once. I see the man in the cellar next to mine stand up, his eyes glazed and unreadable. I remember it is his execution today, and feel a pang of grief. I give him a small smile, but he shows no sign of acknowledgement.
They open his cell door, and he puts up no sign of a fight. I see a family, somewhere far away, waiting for the news of his return, late last night, only to realize their bribery failed and the next time they see their father his eyes will be shut, with the marks of a murderous rope around his neck.
I wish I could tell him that someone cared-that only last night while he lay asleep, a man tried to save him from the grasp of Death. I wish I could tell him he was not alone in life, and that he would not be in death.
I wish I could save him myself.
His hands are chained and he walks away, back straight and chin up, with an escort of two guards. A few guards remain, and I stare at them, puzzled.
“As for the rest of you, it’s your first time out of your cells in a few days, is it not? The Chief has requested for you to join the town in this public execution. An example to be made of him for you all, I think. Make no mistake-if you try to escape, there will be no place to run or hide. We will catch you and put the rope around your neck. I will personally walk you to the gallows.”
Our hands are bound with chains, and we are escorted through the jail. I walk side by side with Isaac, who fiddles uncomfortably with the metal on his wrists. We reach the whites section, where I search eagerly through the cells for my last glimpse of Jarrah before his trial tomorrow. I recognize none of the faces and frown when I see an empty cell with a slept- in bed.
Where could he have gone?
We reach the gates of the jail, which are pulled open by a set of guards.
I set my eyes upon the most inhumane thing I have ever witnessed.
And the saddest thing of all?
It’s the most humans I’ve ever seen in one place.
* * *
Hundreds of civilians stand in a crowd below us, jeering at the gallows that lie at the heart of it all. They whistle and shout, a sort of sick excitement in the atmosphere as they gather to witness what can only bluntly be stated as premeditated murder. We are quickly pushed to a small porch on the side of it all, Isaac and Lewis beside me. A guard stands behind us.
“It’s quite a sight, isn’t it?” she says, “they’re common in Preston. The people love to watch death. It’s seen as a sort of...public spectacle.”
“You mean...he won’t be the only one?”
“No, I don’t think so. They wait a few weeks, you know. Usually execute them in groups. Almost like your monthly festivities. It’s been happening my whole life.”
“Why didn’t you ever leave?” asks Isaac.
“I can’t leave the others. I have a duty to my people.”
“What good are you doing to them if you stay?” he asks.
Lewis smiles. “Isaac, what wouldn’t you do for the people who need you?”
“Nothing,” he says firmly.
“Then you’ll have to take my word for it.”
“Ladies and gentleman! The time has come!” yells the Chief, standing on the stairs of the square, grinning from ear to ear.
The crowd murmurs as they all turn to face him.
“We have gathered here today to witness justice. To punish those that would threaten our security, our well-being in the name of God and of our free country of America. Shall we not bring out the prisoners?”
The crowd cheers its approval, and my stomach forms a knot.
I watch a few men shuffle towards the gallows, chained together as they come out a back door. I see one man, standing straight and tall, exit last. His head is craning in all directions, searching the crowd eagerly.
In an instant, I know. He’s the man from my corridor-and he’s looking for his family.
“The men you see before you would take away the peace and liberty we hold so dear. I tell you now that the town of Preston will not stand for it. These man have been tried by the law and found guilty. This day, April 14th, 1854, under the witness of the Lord, they shall hang until dead.”
The square is thick with tension. A musty, warm air hangs over us, and I find it difficult to breathe. I feel it, for the first in a long time. Death is in the air, an unmistakable looming presence waiting to grasp its next victim. I think of the man’s family, cherishing these last few moments with the man they love. The sadness spreads to my core, a gut-wrenching, unforgettable feeling that I haven’t felt since Arnie died. I know loss, and the grief that I have tucked into the darkest corners of my mind comes seeping through. I turn to squeeze Isaac’s hand, the only person who has been with me since the beginning. He hesitates for a moment and pushes it away.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, my voice raspy with emotion.
I don’t know exactly what for, but I do know there are things I have done wrong; and things I have failed to do.
He looks at me long and hard, his brows furrowed and his eyes blank. I see an anger in his eyes that I didn’t notice before; an unreadable and distant stare, as if he has accepted his fate before it has been served to him.
I can’t make out the exact faces of the prisoners, but I recognize three black men and a white man. The whole audience holds its breath as the Chief starts reading the list.
“Jonathan Wilburck, sentenced to death for the rape of Mistress Mia Abbott.” The audience boos him as the rope is wrapped around his neck and secured tightly. The whole thing is systematic, almost like a ritual. The Chief names some terrifying crime as the square is full of silence, and then the audience roars its approval at the punishment.
If this is what justice is, then I can’t even begin to imagine how Jarrah’s trial will go.
The men, one by one, are lined up. I stand there in horror, unable to look any more.
“Arthur Kingsley, sentenced to death for treason in the assistance of no less than three slaves.”
I send him a silent thank you for his help to anyone out there like me, while the audience boos and spits at his feet.
“Abraham Williams, sentenced to death for the murder of his honourable Master.”
Now I know his name-the man from my cell that couldn’t be saved last night. I feel his grief at never being able to escape his chains.
“And lastly, for attempted murder, assault, holding fugitives, perjury, and running from the law, I am delighted to announce that the court has sentenced Jarrah Whitley to death.”
* * *