The train comes to a screeching halt a few hours later, waking me abruptly from a nightmare. Frederick was in it, so let’s skip over that section of my most fortunate life. I sigh impatiently, my body is aching to stretch from this rather inconvenient position.
“Isaac,” I whisper, then mentally slap myself for asking him of all people.
“We’re here, your majesty,” he says curtly, the sarcasm oozing in his voice.
The compartment door slides open, and light floods in.
“Load up the wagons!” yells a voice.
The sack I’m hiding in is roughly picked up, and I’m crudely tossed into a pile of hay (rather unceremoniously, might I add, for a royal member like myself). I suck in my breath as long as I can, trying to not draw attention to myself. A few other bags are thrown into the cart, and I hope that all of us stayed together. The wagon sags under the weight of two more people, who I realize are now sitting at the front.
“Where are these off to?”
“Brooke’s farm, I reckon. It’s a Tuesday, she’ll be expecting us, aye?”
“Have the sacks been checked? We don’t want a repeat of last time, now do we?”
The first voice groans in complaint.
“They didn’t need to be until recently, and anyway, no man could survive not eating since Mississippi. We’ve either got hay or a cart of corpses now, but it’s old Brooke’s problem anyway,” he cackles.
Clearly, the first voice belongs to a spoiled white man (preferably a grotesque looking, pudgy one to soothe my anger) who’s never gone a day without a meal.
Well, I’ve gone four days, and I don’t wager I’m a rotting corpse.
“Unbelievable, this talk of war. I can’t wrap me finger around it. Those bloody abolitionists been starting it all, I tell you. Who ever heard of a black man working alongside a white one? It’s rubbish, I tell you.”
My blood boils.
“It’ll only end badly; way I see it. Prices going up for us, and some unhappy rich folks.”
The cart stops abruptly as the wagon wheel slides on a rock, tossing some of the hay out onto the road.
“Ye stupid, good for nothing brute!” one of the men shouts, the hiss of a whip cutting through the air, “whaddi feed ya for?”
“Come on then, faster! Haven’t got all day for ye laziness, have I?” All I hear is lashing and the horses neighing in complaint. I cringe every time I hear the familiar crack.
I try my hardest not to make a sound as the cart tosses up and down on the rocky road.
I realize that I am whipped in this way too. I am at their feet, with reins and no where to go but the leash I am given.
I am treated like an animal; a subhuman.
No, I correct myself. Not even an animal should be treated in this way. I feel an overwhelming urge to grab the whip from their hands, and use it against them. To let them see how it feels to be taken away from everyone and everything they’ve loved. To have to live in fear of the slighest sound.
The cart stops again. “Janice!” yells one of the men.
The name sounds familiar. This is the woman who will harbour my life. I hope she holds it with two hands.
“So soon arrived, lads! I was beginning to worry you’d lost my shipment along the way!” she says, the double-meaning only apparent to us.
“Come come, let’s unload them then.”
“How much do I owe you?” she asks
“It’ll be fifteen for the lot.”
“Fifteen! And you’ve lost some of the hay, have you? I’ll give you twelve, and you’ll like it. Don’t keep me waiting next time.”
The men grunt in protest, but clearly they respect her as they don’t say anything else.
They begun unloading the wagon, emptying the cart onto a hay pile.
“Would you like tea for your troubles along the way? Perhaps a nice chit chat?”
“Always a pleasure, Mizzus Brooke. Reckon we’ve got some time to spare.”
The barn doors shut closed, and darkness creeps through the room. I wait for what feels like forever, gagging on the stuffy smell of the barn and afraid of speaking in case the men are still here. Why did she invite them in? I thought she was on our side...but maybe this is our chance to escape. Perhaps she is distracting them, and we shouldn’t be waiting here. My mind is plagued with worry, but I can’t seem to get myself to move or open my mouth.
“I’m bored,” whispers Mary Lou, and I giggle despite our situation.
Situations like these make me thankful for my straw bed at the plantation; which was marginally more comfortable than this. Is escaping really just a series of uncomfortable sleeping positions? I had imagined it differently, suffice to say. More running from dogs and shouting curses at white men, rather than hiding like a frightened alley cat.
A torch is lit nearby, and I hear a voice. This one is younger, and I soon realize it belongs to a little girl.
“Grammy grammy! Come on, they must be near starving by now!”
I laugh bitterly at the girl’s easy use of near starving, for that was me days ago.
Rough hands shake open the sack, and I look up to see a women far older than what I’d expected. Maybe in her late sixties, she has crinkly eyes that are warm and brown, as well as tanned skin from being out in the Sun so often. She wears a red bandana to pull her hair back, but gray wisps still come out in curls. Her voice is croaky when she speaks.
“Hungry, are ye? I’d reckon so, judging by the state of ye. I must apologize, I thought those men would never leave. They just went on and on about their miserable lives, I reckon I’ll never be asking them again. I have to afford them my pleasantries, it’s all part of the cover, you must understand. I can’t have them thinking I’ve got something to hide. Come now.”
Soon, the others are pulled out and I witness Tom, Isaac, Abigail, and Mary Lou in equally fragile states. Our knees buckle and we fall to the ground, forgetting how to stand from being cramped in a sack for so long.
We all look at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing. Tom’s hair is larger than mine and the definition of bedhead, and he has large straws of hay sticking out from behind his ears. Abigail’s got large swabs of hay stuck under her armpits --“shaving’s for the weak, eh Abby?” I tease- Mary Lou’s legs are numb from being cramped for so long, and she’s still trying to get up but is laughing too hard. I can only wonder how great I look at this point, but I hardly care as long as I’m upright again.
Isaac’s just sitting there thoughtfully, chewing on a straw between his teeth and looking at the little girl carefully.
“Will she talk?” he asks.
“Won’t shut up, now that she’s got friends m’fraid,” responds Janice seriously.
He frowns. “You know what I mean.”
“Annie here is my helper, see? She’ll keep mum.”
“I won’t tell a soul,” the girl promises solemnly, sticking out her pinky finger to Isaac, who only studies it like it’s some foreign animal, his hand recoiling in suspicion.
I offer her a small smile. She catches my eye and immediately breaks out a huge grin. Her short red hair is tied back into two pigtails, and her nose is speckled with freckles. She wears a green dress and in her right hand holds a teddy bear with an eye missing.
“Come inside now,” offers Janice, “we can’t stay here any longer. Annie, put out that torch or--”
The faint but recognizable sound of yelling men is heard in the distance.
The colour drains from Janice’s face. “You were followed,” she whispers in fear.