When all else was crumpling around me, Lewis remained resourceful and confident. She has been through much more than she has ever shown me, of that I am certain. I see now that she feels no pride in stealing from those she loves, from hiding from others her entire life, and it is one of the many demons that torment her. Though she wears a proud and intimidated face every day, the one thing she cannot hide from me is her eyes. It is all there--the hurt, the longing, the grief--painted like a brilliant blaze in the angry specks in her eyes, like glowing ambers that have been ignited once more into a fire upon seeing the photograph of her lost love. I wish I could comfort her the way she has comforted me, but I too am broken.
“For what?” I ask honestly.
“For hearing me out. For letting me explain why I am the way I am. I’ve kept that bundled up for a long time, and I didn’t think anyone else cared to listen,” she says hesitantly, “I hope you don’t see me differently.”
“No,” I say, a small smile playing on my lips, “you’re still the sassy pain in the ass I know and love.”
Her eyes light up upon hearing me say that, and she pulls me up.
“Well, I think we’ve fulfilled the daily womanly hormone struggle that accompanies our monthly curses, don’t you?”
I laugh. “I think so, too.”
“Right. Let’s go then. Jim’s got a mission for us, dudn’t ’ee?”
Lewis checks once more to make sure the drawer is locked before leaving the room.
We walk up the narrow passageway leading to the secret exit in a comforting silence, each carrying the other’s burdens in a powerful partnership we didn’t have before.
I swing the port door open, revealing Jim. He’s seated at the oak desk, intensely scanning a piece of parchment as the low light from the dying candle flickers against his grey eyes, making them appear almost transparent.
I clear my throat to get his attention, and his eyes widen upon seeing us. He quickly stuffs the parchment into a desk, shutting it with one last glance and locking it before looking back up at us.
“Alice! Lewis! What a lovely surprise--I wasn’t expecting you so soon!,” he says, his voice slightly higher than usual, “is everything all right between you two?”
“Everything’s great,” says Lewis honestly, a bright smile still plastered on her face. I see a weight has been lifted off her shoulders, and I feel happy for her. Alex’s fate is something she’s had bundled up for a long time, and I’m honoured she chose to share it with me.
I squint at Jim suspiciously, but draw on a smile of my own.
“So...the mission? We’re ready to hear it,” I say eagerly.
“Ah, that’s good to hear, very good...” he trails off, “please, have a seat.”
We both draw up chairs across from Jim, and I focus on the brightly dancing flame, watching it slowly eat away at the wax candle.
“You are both undoubtedly familiar with Preston’s significance as a port city for fugitives from the South, yes?” he begins, and we both nod.
“Tonight, a train from Kentucky will be arriving harbouring a young slave who is stowed in one of many barrels of imported beer. It is crucial that he gets out undetected, as he narrowly escaped from his last destination and we need to secure him as soon as we can. Ideas?”
“It’s simple,” I say confidently, “all we need to do is fill up a wagon of the barrels that are already on the train--make it look like it’s our shipment, of course--and ensure that he’s in one of them, right? That’s how I got out in Tennessee a few years ago, blending in. Jim, you pose as a driver, and Lewis and me will be your helpers.”
Jim stares at me curiously, a smile tugging at his lips. “Unfortunately, while your idea does have some merit, it isn’t that simple. This isn’t a stack of hay in a huge shipment, and we don’t have the permits to take them out of the train the way your men did. Besides, you were taken to a farm. We’re dealing with a lot more people, in a much bigger place.”
I nod in understanding, but then something occurs to me.
I never told Jim how I escaped in Tennessee, or where they took me.
I quickly shove the thought out of my mind. I must’ve forgotten that I mentioned it, or maybe it’s a common trick among runaways, that’s all. Still, the nagging feeling that something isn’t right rests in the pit of my stomach. I tune back into the discussion uneasily.
“--there’s a problem though, Jim. It’s in identifying the barrel the boy is stowed away in. There could be hundreds of them in there; how will we know which one is ours without searching them?” asks Lewis.
“It’s simple,” I say in realization, and they both look at me quizzically.
“Well, he has to breathe, right? Unless we’ve got a superhuman in our midst, there’s no way he’ll be holding his breath that long. He’ll have popped open the cork from the barrel he’s in to breathe, but all the other ones will be closed so the beer doesn’t spill out. We just need to pick out the barrel with the open hole before anyone else does, and claim that one.”
“That’s good, Alice, very good,” says Jim with a bright smile, but I ignore his kind gesture and look straight into his crinkling eyes, trying to read the lie I know they contain.
“The only problem left is...how do we get the barrels out?” asks Lewis, staring at me as if I have the answer to that too.
“Well, Jim once told me he’s a master of disguise. Apparently, he’s an impeccable liar too. He had me fooled when I first met him,” I say, looking at him darkly, “we’ll leave it to him to convince them that the shipment is his.”
Jim looks at me curiously, amusement in his eyes, and I watch his hand subconsciously trail to the drawer’s handle, thumbing over it gently to make sure it’s locked.
“You flatter me,” he says politely, “I’ll make sure that’s handled. I’ve got connections with the brewery, I’m sure that won’t pose too much of a problem. What about the men at the station? They’ll be suspicious of what we’re doing, and why two young’uns such as yourselves are heaving a hundred barrels onto a wagon--and some fake paperwork isn’t enough to convince them that you’re the only men for the job.”
“We’ll have to judge that based on the situation--I’m sure they can’t be too hard to get around,” says Lewis, “the three of us can come up with something.”
I laugh. “We always do.”
“Well, then, I guess come morrow we’ll have a new man in our midst on his way to freedom. I’d better let Arnie know so he stops by in case we need anything,” says Lewis, standing up from the table.
“Be ready in two hours,” says Jim to her as she leaves the room.
“Everything all right?” he asks me with an amused smile.
We step out into the chilly night air, the harsh autumn winds nipping at our skins as we make our way to the train station. Jim’s artificial moustache and loosely combed hair, tied back into a ponytail, combined with a newly developed, slouchy posture and thick, bundled clothes make him almost unrecognisable. If it weren’t for his eyes, I would be fooled. Lewis, too, is surprisingly different. She’s wearing long johns and a frockcoat slightly baggy on her, making her appear more muscular and built than her slim, cat-like body would allow one to think otherwise. Her shoes are quite worn in, the leather peeling at places and hinting at a low-income lifestyle. She also has a wide brimmed hat to help hide her face. I’m donned in clothes similar to her own, and though it feels silly I can’t help but feel like I really am who I’m pretending to be.
We climb into the horse-drawn cart, Jim grabbing the reins as Lewis and I settle behind him.
It’s unusual for me to be sitting at the front of these. Usually, I’m either tied up like the horses pulling the cart and being whipped, or locked up in a cage behind the driver.
Power is a feeling I am not accustomed to, and it does not resonate well with me.
The usually clear night sky is cloudy and dark, effectively concealing us in the almost palpable darkness that has settled upon Preston . The moon and all the twinkling lights that accompany it are hidden by stormy skies.
Excellent, I think. It is much easier to slip through the town unnoticed and without questions in weather like this.
We reach the train station late into the night, but the train itself still hasn’t arrived. Jim studies his watch, then nods in understanding.
“It’s only 3 or so in the morrow, we’ve still got 10 minutes to get this wagon over to the cargo pickup. Plenty of time.”
Jim climbs off the wagon, motioning for us to stay and wait. He enters the warehouse, probably to sort out our bootleg paperwork.
Lewis is calm and composed, slouching back in her chair with her hat tipped low to hide her face, but I fail to mimic her. I still feel the same uneasiness I’ve been unable to shake off all night. My eyes dart left and right suspiciously, eyeing the other workers that are watching us with keen interest.
“Are we not supposed to be here?” I mutter to her.
She paints a mischievous smile, her eyes still covered but the amusement evident in her tone.
“Alice, darling, when are we ever supposed to be anywhere? I don’t reckon were exactly a wanted lot.”
“Yes, but these men keep staring at us. Should we move? I think they know who we are,” I whisper.
“How many are there?” She asks, her lips barely moving but caution now lacing her tone.
“Atleast six or seven.”
“White, broody-looking, built, coming this way--”
My eyes coil firmly around the reins of the horses, ready to take off if they take another step. The men have gotten up, and they’re approaching our wagon with alarming speed. They’re marching with a purpose, and I think that purpose is us.
“Is everything all right there, Petey? You been giving them good white folks some trouble again, aincha?” calls out a voice in the nick of time.
The voice bellows from the warehouse, and I’m relieved to see the tall figure of Jim approaching us. The men look at him curiously, and he shakes their hands to distance them between him and the cart.
“Names Larry. My men been troublin you?”
“So theez ah yor slayves, ah dey?” slurs one of the men.
“Nay, these are my hired hands. Free men.”
The men roar with laughter, and I clench my fists in irritation with their amusement.
“Free men as in you took em, you mean surely. Funny guy you are, Larry.”
He smiles with them, deciding it’s better not to correct them now that they’ve lost some of their suspicion.
“These beer barrels won’t load themselves, you know, and I needed someone to do it.”
“And you picked the scrawny niggers for the job? Why, they couldn’t even lift a stack of hay if their whole family pitched in.”
Another burst of laughter from the men, who seem to find any sentence with the word nigger funny.
“They were all I could find. Mayhap you could do a better job than they?” asks Jim in amusement, though I’m seeing the way his plan is coming together.
“Ah course we could, if you’re willing to pay, that is. We ain’t niggers and we won’t be doin it for free.”
They laugh again, and Lewis shakes her head slightly.
“I suppose I could spare some change if you can get the job done fast enough.”
They exchange coins, Jim turning to us with a satisfied smile.
“You boys make sure none of the barrels have leaked open,” he says with a wink, “we wouldn’t want one of those nasty corks to have come off.”
“Yessur,” says Lewis, catching his eye in understanding. The squeaking of metal on tracks catches my ear, and I dart my head to see an approaching train coming right on time.
The men pull the huge compartment door open, unlocking the metal bar from the hinge to reveal hundreds of neatly stacked barrels.
I groan, looking at Lewis in exasperation.
“Like finding a needle in a haystack,” she says with a wink.
The more the barrels are taken off the train, the more hope I begin to lose. There’s no way we’ll find him in time, and we need to deliver these barrels straight to the brewery.
This is our only chance to search them, and if we can’t locate him, some unfortunate drunk man will, and he won’t be too pleased to find a slave rather than a beer in his barrel.
“We need a new strategy,” I whisper urgently, and she nods in agreement.
“We have to slow the men down,” says Lewis, “they’re taking them out too fast. By this rate, it’ll be over in ten minutes.”
I smile, an idea already growing in my mind.
“Do you have a knife?” I ask, and she nods suspiciously.
“Stab one of the barrels. I’m sure our men wouldn’t mind a little drink after their hard work. It’ll buy us time.”
She quirks an eyebrow. “Abusing the white man’s addiction to booze. I like it.”
“Oi! You lot!” I shout, trying to keep my voice as low and manly sounding as a woman in her twenties can, “fancy a pint for your troubles?”
I crack open a barrel, motioning to the men to drink up. They drop what they’re doing and practically float over to the flowing beer, eager for free drinks. The stench makes me nauseous, bitterly reminding me of when Frederick used to get drunk.
But this time, it’s just the way we need them.
Lewis joins them to blend in, Jim maintaining conversation while I continue to scan the leftover train barrels.
That’s when something catches my eye--it’s a flash, gone quicker than it was there, but I know I saw it. I hastily make my way over to the compartment, my eyes darting left and right in search of what I know just moved. I study the barrels again, and realize that one of them is without a lid.
He’s escaped, I think in a panic. We probably scared him off with our supposed friendship with the white men out to get him.
I quickly run around the block of the train, searching for sign of him. I follow the darkest routes I can, knowing that if I were in his situation I’d be doing the same thing. A few fresh footsteps in the mud confirms I’m on the right path. I see the glimpse of a shadow for just a moment again, before the figure turns into a curving street and I lose sight of it. I try and cut him off, using one of Preston’s back alleys, which I’ve come to know well from all my adventures with Lewis. The pitch darkness is tangible here, with only the faintest rays of moonlight shining off the whiter buildings of the streets. I’m barely able to see my own feet. My abdomen is throbbing painfully, the stitches reminding me that I shouldn’t be running this hard.
Panting and wary for being out alone so late, I make one last effort.
“If you’re there,” I hiss, maintaining a brisk walk, “Jim’s sent me. I’m here to help you.”
No answer, but I keep following the path he’s left behind on the main road.
“I need you to trust me,” I say to the response-less air.
I begin to worry that he’s gone too far, my fast-walking pace turning into a jog.
“I know what it’s like going alone, and you don’t need to--”
A cold hand clamps over my mouth, and my eyes widen in fear. I try to shout and bite down on it, but instead it swings me into a small alley.
“Would ya stop shoutin, lass?” it hisses, “I ahready knew ya were tailin’ me, I dinnae need more of these bastards doin’ it too.”
“Are you him?” is all I can bring myself to ask.
“Aye, I am he, but only if you are who ya say ya are.”
“My name is Ade--”
“No, not yer name. What use is that to me?” he whispers, “you are with Jim?”
I nod, trying to stay calm.
“Tell him that you dinnae find me. I was too fast, and got away. Understood?”
“No,” I shake my head insistently, “you have to come back with us.”
He releases his grip on me, and I spin around to face him.
He quirks his thick eyebrows in amusement, a teasing smile playing on his lips.
He’s my age, and if Isaac and Tom had had a triplet, it would have been him. My heart stops in my chest and I feel the urge to embrace him, though he has no idea who I am.
“Well, Ade, I don’t really have to do anything. Except get away from dis place, really.”
I regain my composure, trying to appear taller and more frightening than my body allows me to.
“And how do you expect to do that without our help?” I ask, mocking his cocky tone.
“I’ve gotten dis far, ain’t I, and da only help I needed was from da one who got me here. But da last thing I need is endangering other folks, I only agreed to Jim’s help because da man in Kentucky wouldn’t let me on da train unless I agreed I would come wit Jim. But ya must understand, love, I neither need--nor want--his services. Now, if you would be a doll, I’d like ta be on my way.”
“Have you even got a plan?” I grumble, my eyes narrowing into slits.
“Nay, but I have got me mind and oft it gets me farther than any plan ever does. Look at yours, for instance. Yours failed, I’d wager, since I’m about to leave and you weren’t able to catch me.”
“I was, but--“I begin, him bringing a dirty finger to my lips.
“No, you weren’t,” he corrects with a smile, “thank you, but no. Dese safehouses can be more trouble dan dey’re worth. I was in one meself, but dey sold me out when dey realized how big da bounty on me head was. I barely made it out wit me valuable skin. Not even da most compassionate can be trusted where money lies too. You remember it, Ade.”
The mysterious, dark-skinned figure disappears into the alley before I can say another word. But this time, I don’t follow.