Janice’s eyes widen in fear. “How do they know you’re here?”
“They stopped the trains an hour or so from Tennessee to check cars,” says Isaac.
“Roger was on board. He knew we were there, his hound was on to us, but the train left before he could prove it,” I confirm.
I squeeze Abby’s hand for comfort; knowing how close she was to being sent back.
Janice stares at us curiously. “He’s never gone this far before for a few slaves. Why he did now, I can’t pretend to understand.”
We must be special, I think grimly to myself.
She gives us a curt nod and says, “Come, quickly now. We haven’t much time.”
We scramble out the back door of the barn and enter the dilapidated, Southern style farm house.
“Quickly!” she hisses, beckoning to a staircase, “Alice and Tom downstairs. Annie, take these three up to the attic. You know where the lever is. Make sure they keep mum, you know how the floorboards creak.”
Tom and I give each other a quick nod and follow Janice’s instructions. My heart beats furiously and I feel the tension mounting with every passing second.
Just as we reach the last step and enter the cellar, I hear a faint rapping at the door.
“Janice? Janice, open up and don’t keep me waitin’!” I shudder at the angry voice of the man.
“Alright, alright, I’m comin’, ye arse. I’m an ole lady, ye know!” she shouts, her fear brilliantly masked by her taunting.
I hear the door swing open.
“Roger! Why, it’s been ages! What brings you here?”
“Some problems with the business back at Jackson--escaped slaves. Wanted to see if you knew anything. There’s a large sum ah money waitin’ for the bloke or lass who turns them in, you know, and your farm is gettin’ rather run down since the last time I laid eyes on it, reckon your crops ain’t doin so well...”
Escaped slaves were valuable to Roger—not only because of money, rather the examples he made of them when they were returned. Janice clears her throat, but says nothing, and I can only pray that she isn’t considering his offer.
“So then, you don’t reckon you’ve seen some scrawny kids around here, early this morning? Probably 15 or 16?”
17, I mentally corrected. And I was scrawny because somebody fed me next to nothing.
“Surely you haven’t lost ones that young! Jackson Plantation’s security is losing its touch, I see. ” Janice chuckles, ignoring his question.
“One of them had a knife according to Frederick, ” Roger protests, ” There were three or four other slaves helpin’ too; said he was overpowered.” I can’t help but grin to myself at his blatantly obvious lie. Just me, plain old Alice caused this much embarrassment to them both. I can’t imagine the look on Massa Jackson’s face when he found out I was missing.
“Say, where’s little Annie? She at her aunt’s then?” asks Roger sweetly.
“No no, she’s playing in her room,” responds Janice.
“I see,” Roger muses, clearly not satisfied with her answer.
Janice picks up on his hesitation, then as an afterthought adds, “Annie dear! Could you make some tea for me? I’m feeling a little under the weather”.
“Yes Grammy!” shouts Annie, and I hear the stairs creak as she comes down from the attic.
“Shame about her parents, really. Annie’s I mean. But that’s what they get for dealing with abolitionists and their sort, only likely for them to pick up some disease from the niggers.”
I frown deeply. Annie’s parents are dead?
Tom picks up on my sadness and squeezes my hand for support.
“Are you alright?” he whispers.
“They did a good thing, and there’s a place for them in heaven. Don’t you worry,” he reassures.
When I don’t respond, he lifts my chin and smiles. “Doubt I could say the same for you.”
I roll my eyes and I nudge him playfully.
I study his features then; the deep thoughtful eyes and furrowed brows. His lips are naturally curled into a smile, so he always looks like everything he is seeing is right in the world. His posture is very different from his twin brother, making him appear far more approachable and comforting compared to the stern and hard Isaac.
“We should keep listening,” he reminds me.
Janice says nothing at first, perhaps regaining her composure after the insult to Annie’s parents.
“Well, I’ll certainly let you know if I see anyone out of place. Goodbye!” Janice she responds finally, her voice a little higher than appropriate.
A thud. He is blocking the door. “You’re sure?”
“But of course! Now you really must be going, you can’t have them getting away.”
“It would be a shame to see this place go up in smoke, you know. People have lit fires before--the smoke weeds the piggies out of their little hiding dens, and I’m not afraid to do it. If anything out of the ordinary comes up... you be sure to let me know.”
“Is that a threat?” she growls.
His voice is laced with venom, and I can feel the evil smile that utters his words.
“Think of your granddaughter. They’re dangerous.”
“Grammy!” Annie interrupts, “should I make some tea for them too?”
The old woman chuckles nervously. Roger lets out a sigh. “Annie dear, for who?” he asks innocently.
“For—” Annie begins.
“Annie has some new imaginary friend--” Janice interrupts.
His voice drops lower, angrier, all trace of pleasantries erased. “Janice...you really oughtn’t be messing with the Jackson Plantation’s business. You know the charges for harbouring a slave.
“Yes, yes,” she hurries him anxiously.
“Then you wouldn’t mind if I check the house?”
“You’ll be needing a warrant for that before you lay one foot further onto my property--” she begins, but he cuts her off and I hear the door slam wide open as hurried footsteps echo through the house.
“How dare you--why I’ll have you arrested for--” she growls.
That is all the cue we need.
“We need a way out and now,” I say quickly.
I scan the cellar, looking for some form of concealment. There is only one door, but it is rotting and blocked by large boxes.
Tom runs to it without a second thought, and together we try freeing the exit. The boxes are too heavy to lift, even with our combined strength. Even if we could move them on a normal day, we’re both too sleep deprived and famished to budge them.
“Shit,” he hisses, “now what?”
“Maybe he’ll only check upstairs?” I say weakly.
“No, he won’t stop till he’s satisfied,” Tom sighs, running his hands through his hair in desperation.
“Let’s think about this for a moment. She wouldn’t put us down here if there was no way out,” he muses.
“She didn’t even have time to hide us! You don’t know that,” I spit back, annoyed.
We study the room for a bit, but nothing seems useful. Some old lawn chairs, farming equipment, empty boxes--and then I find it. Our way out.
“Tom, the window. Up there! It’s small, but we can make it.”
“How are we gonna reach that high, Lis?”
I smile despite the situation at my new nickname.
“The empty boxes. Push them under the window, and then we’ll climb our way out of here.”
We push as quickly and silently as we can, and we hear voices from the room upstairs. I can only hope he hasn’t discovered the others. Roger’s search is for me and me alone. I would never forgive myself if he found the others instead of me.
“You first,” Tom says simply after we’ve stacked the boxes.
There is no time to argue. Tom stands next to the boxes and lifts me higher. I prop myself onto the window sill.
I push it several times with all the strength I can muster, but the rusty window won’t budge.
“It’s jammed!” I hiss.
“Well, try again!”
“I’m not strong enough!” I moan in defeat.
In a last ditch effort, he jumps up to the window sill too, slashing his leg on the rusted edge in the process.
The cut is deeper than it looks, and the more he pushes against the window, straining his muscles, the more blood flows across it.
Finally, the window cracks open, letting in some much needed air.
“Let’s go,” I say desperately, thinning my body as best as I can to fit through the tiny window. I force myself out into the open air, grateful to be outside.
I turn but Tom isn’t coming out behind me.
“Tom! Come on!”
“I can’t move my leg!” he cries.