It can’t be.
They can’t have caught him—he must have escaped. He got away. He’s Lucien; he’s avoided pursuers this long--I’m sure he got away. He was able to persuade them that they have the wrong man, and they let him go.
Who am I kidding?
I rip open the sack I am concealed in, letting out a shout of protest. Maybe I can help him—maybe it’s not too late. The train wagon is pitch black, and I pound on the doors of it desperately, clawing on them like a caged animal with a wild frenzy in my eye.
Open up! I think angrily, I need to help him!
I push hard on the doors, trying my hardest to get them to budge open as though my life depends on it, but my effort is futile.
I feel a cold hand on my shoulder, and I whip my head back in shock.
“Shut the hell up for the love of God, or you’re going to get the rest of us killed too,” growls a deep voice, and I immediately place the face to Isaac.
“I need to save him,” I whisper helplessly, almost like a child.
“There’s nothing more we can do for him,” he sighs, “the doors are locked from the outside. You need to protect the others too, now. Get back in your sack before anyone comes to inspect the racket you’ve made.”
I fight back the tears threatening to cascade down my face, pushing his hand off of my shoulder in defiance.
“If he dies for this, it is now his blood on your hands as much as mine,” I hiss.
The chilling scream echoes in my mind, and I visibly shake my head. I never wanted anyone to get hurt for me. If Lucien had never found me in the forest, he’d be alive and it would be me in chains. It is a sacrifice I will never be able to repay. I have to stay alive and focused from now on; his capture is of my own doing. I have left a pure-hearted man, one of the only few left, in the hands of arrogant pricks, racist bastards, and money-driven backstabbers.
If he’s lucky, they only arrested him. But if I’m realistic, he was more likely torn to bits by the dogs and left to an inch of his life, before a lengthy interrogation by slave catchers. Once they got what they wanted—and mark my words, they always get what they want—they would deliver him into death’s greedy, waiting hands. I am no blind fool to what happens to those who disobey the white man’s law. I clench my fists in anger. Who am I to say my life is worth more than his?
The train is already miles away before I let go of the fact that there is no way I can help him.
“It’s all our fault,” I whisper sadly.
“Pretty much,” is Isaac’s response.
“That doesn’t help,” I spit.
“Neither does thinking about it. Just be grateful you aren’t Lucien right now. Or, even worse, Oscar. Reckon they’ve nabbed him by now, with that injured body of his. He can’t outrun them,” says Isaac coldly, “so if I were you, I’d imagine myself vividly being whipped to a post for hours until there ain’t no blood left in you. Not so bad how you have it now, is it?”
I fall silent then. I know the punishment for escaping.
I try to let myself fall asleep to the humming of the train on the tracks, as my own escape races through my mind on replay. I am still unable to believe that just two short days ago I slapped death in the face.
I wake up to the yelling of men and screeching of metal on tracks. The train has come to a stop.
“Are we there yet?” I ask sleepily.
“Shut your trap. We never will be if we’re caught. They’re checking cars,” hisses Isaac.
“Cover all the cabins till we find the runts! We got a reliable tip back in Mississippi that this is where they’ve hidden!” yells a voice, and light floods through the thin sack I am hiding in as the compartment door slams open. I hold my breath as best as I can, and vaguely wonder whether that reliable tip is from Lucien. I hear shuffling as things are tossed around, and hope we all escape this unscathed. There are plenty of other packages around us; surely they haven’t got the time to check them all. Grimly, I wonder what will happen if I’m in the few that they open.
I know some of us are praying right now. Mama taught me to--and yet I oft find it difficult. How can I thank God for my life when he gave me one of such misery? I am not thankful. How can I ask for His forgiveness when he has created these monsters and allowed them to rule the rest of us? I have yet to forgive Him. How can I ask Him to save me, when it is God who has brought me to such misfortune? So I do not.
Suddenly, I feel rough hands as my sack rips open. A man is facing me. He has thick, bushy eyebrows, and an intent gaze. He opens his mouth to speak, but I look at him wide-eyed, silently pleading him. My heart pounds furiously in my chest, and I’m worried that its beating alone is loud enough to give me away. His mouth hangs open in silent shock, and I hope with all my might that this one man, whose hands now hold my life, will spare me.
He turns his head slightly and surveys his surroundings. He nods briefly; then closes the sack.
“This cabin’s all clear!” he shouts loudly, as if to cover the sound of my heavy breathing.
I hear a grunt. “Mind if my hounds sniff around?”
My body goes tense and I clench my fists in terror. Those are the last words an escaped slave ever hears, before the claws of their catcher snatch them away. I don’t know how they caught up to us, but I do know that when a hound finds its pray, it barks loud enough for the whole county to hear.
The man sighs. “Look, Roger, we’re far behind schedule already. I’m getting old but I’d know a negro if I saw one. They’re hard to miss in the daytime.”
“How fortunate she escaped at night then, is it not?” he growls.
Guilt floods through me. The rest of them—the twins, Abigail, and little Mary Lou are all in danger because I was too careless in my escape and they tracked me down.
The man called Roger proceeds to inspect the compartment, tossing bags and leading his dog.
My heart has never beat so quickly, or loudly.
Thump. “Business slow then, Roger?”
“There’s been talk of civil war,” says Roger absent-mindedly, his ears pricked up and his eyes focused on any movement in the cabin.
“It’ll all die down I’d wager,” he continues, “but the last thing I need is a bad reputation. Can’t even fetch a little girl it seems.”
The hound growls menacingly nearby.
Thump. The knot in my stomach twists tighter.
“Hold on, I think the hound’s on to something. Come now, Maxie, what is it?” he says, almost sweetly. I hear the excitement in his voice, that of a predator right before he’s latched onto his pray.
“That’s enough, Roger,” says the man quickly, “I can’t understand why you lot won’t just increase security instead of slowing down our trains.”
The hellhound ventures dangerously close then.
Thump thump thump thump...
“But look at little Maxie, would ya?”
The hellhound stops beside Abigail, who is lying next to me in her own sack. He’s not after her, but it doesn’t mean he won’t keep the prize he uncovers. I was a fool to ever think I could escape, and now I’ve hurt so many more people than just myself, instead of suffering the whips until my death.
I hear Abigail snivel slightly and can only hope no one else did. The dog sniffs the sack and lets out a loud, satisfied bark.
I hear a chuckle then. A cruel and cold chuckle that can only escape the lips of someone who is depending on other’s misery for his happiness.
His hand reaches into the sack, first feeling only hay and then—
“I’m here!” I shout, in a desperate attempt to save Abigail instead of myself. She doesn’t deserve this. At the same moment, the train horn goes off again, signalling the train is about to leave.
“Out, Roger. Deliveries to make.”
I stare at them in surprise, unable to believe my luck. The loud train horn covered my shouting.
Roger grunts, stomping his foot like a child who’s toy is being taken away.
Roger squints, as if evaluating his odds.
“You’re up to something, Jack, and you’re sure as hell lucky these dogs can’t smell your own love for the ******s. If the war comes, I’ll see where your loyalties really lie,” Roger sneers.
“When the war comes,” the man says confidently.
The dog retreats then, whining in defeat in the same fashion his master did. He was only inches from where I am concealed behind some hay. I see the man looking in my direction as he shuts the door, an intense look on his face.
The compartment closes, and I let out a gasp.
Relief floods through my entire body, as the reality of what has just happened sinks in. Abigail is sobbing now, her entire body fiercely shaking.
I lie there in silence, unsure of how to comfort her.
It’ll be okay? It probably won’t.
You’re safe now? Well, you probably aren’t. To tell her that would be to lie to her, and myself.
“Abigail, is it?” whispers a voice, and my mind links it to Tom, Isaac’s brother, “hey, listen to me. You see what just happened there?”
A sob is all he gets in response.
“That man...he just saved our lives, yeah? And as long as people like that exist in this world, no one’s gonna hurt you anymore. If that nasty Roger character had found you, we’d all of sprung out of our sacks and jumped ’im anyway. Don’t you worry your pretty little head,” he comforts, and I hear the smile in his voice.
“Thank you,” she says softly, her sobs quietening.
No one speaks for the rest of the way, trying to find solace in Tom’s words.