Janice began packing our food for the next few days--as much as we could carry that wouldn’t slow us down, while John prepped us on what to do next. I sat beside Tom, who as far as I could tell was asleep on the couch.
“This is entirely different from what you’ve been doing so far. There won’t always be a train ride or a wagon for your convenience, or a nice safehouse to feed you for the night. Don’t get too comfortable”
I scoffed, as if we ever were, but Isaac’s glare silenced me.
John merely glanced at me and continued. “Days, even weeks, will pass before you see the next one and there won’t be anyone to tell you if you’re going the wrong way.”
No one else spoke as we memorized his every word.
“You’ll be walking to a different safehouse up in Kentucky.”
John pulled out a map outlining our trip. I didn’t dare tell him I couldn’t read it though, for the first time I felt ashamed. We weren’t allowed to learn, no slaves were, so I just had to listen hard. He said we were heading northeast and crossing the Tennessee River. Next; we’d head for the town of Dover on the Cumberland River where an unnamed man would be providing us with supplies and giving us further instructions.
Mary Lou spoke for the first time in a while then. I looked at her carefully, smiling to myself as I realized that she was only 9 and already full of courage and confidence. Beady, curious eyes, attentive to everything that was being said. She didn’t even look scared. She had had no childhood though, it was taken from her.
“Mr. Parker,” she asked “I was just wondering. All these safehouses...how are they organized? Who...who made them?”
“Excellent question my dear. The lovely house you currently find yourself in is only one of many safehouses across the country, all in the name of freedom to get folks like you to Canada. The network is called the Underground Railroad.”
She frowned. “Well, if it’s a railroad...why don’t we just get on a train to Canada? Why are we walking?”
He chuckled. “Unfortunately, it’s not a real railroad. See, we considered building one but we figured the white folks would notice a giant, loud metal bullet crossing the country full of slaves.”
She didn’t quite get the joke, so he cleared his throat and continued.
“Well you see my dear, the Underground Railroad is like an organization. It’s just routes and places for slaves to rest and hide. We use codewords for everything. You are cargo, or passengers, and we are the conductors on this vast railroad to freedom.”
We all smiled at his attemps for dramatic flair.
He continued. “No one knows where all the safehouses are, or who is involved, because it’s very secret. In fact, Janice herself only has contact with Lucien and the man whom you are going to now. Unfortunately, Lucien was caught on his last adventure, and he’s in jail. That makes it hard for me to get slaves out of Mississippi.”
“Lucien was arrested?” I croaked, sad that he’d just confirmed my suspicions.
“He’ll make it out one way or another. Don’t you worry m’dear, master escape artist that man.”
I sighed, trying to take it all in.
“Now, back to the plan. You’ll be walking 8 or 9 hours under the cover of nightfall for about four days. Do not stop unless you have to. This is crucial. Walk lightly, carry little, and don’t talk to anyone, not even fellow blacks, about who you are, and where you’ve come from. Remember the Fugitive Act. People will do anything to earn a pretty penny around here.”
I frowned. “Mr. Parker?”
“Yes; Alice is it?”
I nodded. “How will Tom keep up with us?”
Janice frowned. “My dear, I don’t think Tom is coming with you. He’s crippled at this point. I can hardly wake him up as it is”
“I’m not going either then!” I found myself yelling, “we’re not leaving him behind. I’ll carry him if I have to.”
Isaac whispered, “Alice...we don’t have a choice...”
“THERE’S ALWAYS A CHOICE! IN EVERYTHING WE DO! YOU WERE PERFECTLY OKAY WITH LEAVING OSCAR BEHIND BECAUSE HE WAS CRIPPLED; AND NOW YOU’D LEAVE YOUR OWN BROTHER? WHAT’S THE POINT OF FREEDOM WITHOUT PEOPLE YOU LOVE?” I shouted.
I was confused because Isaac’s lips didn’t move, he only looked at me as if I’d just slapped him. I turned and realized it was Tom who had silenced me.
“Tom...?” I croaked.
“They’re right. You have to let me get better.”
“I’ll wait” I interrupted.
“They’re looking for you of all people. Your plantation’s got a hefty price for your return. A strong, brave, 17 year old girl that took down the overseer? That challenged his rules and tried to save another slave? People have heard about you, you know. I’m sure. News spreads like wildfire in Mississippi.”
I blushed as everyone stared at me with some newfound appreciation. But I was still the same, plain old me that just didn’t want to leave without Tom. They thought I was being brave, maybe I was just stupid.
“I don’t want to lose you” I found myself saying.
“Listen, this is all very lovely... but night has fallen. It’d be best for you lot to be leaving now. Alice...I’m headed to Kentucky as well. Perhaps, I could take Tom in my carriage. Try and get him as far as possible. Who knows, maybe you’ll see each other again.”
We said goodbyes then. I hugged Tom fiercely, not wanting to let go. He was sweet and caring and I felt great sorrow knowing he wouldn’t be with me for the rest of the journey.
“It’ll be alright” he tried, “hell, I might even make it there first. I’m riding first class, see?”
I didn’t smile.
“You take care of yourself, alright Lis?”
I nodded as tears rolled down my cheeks.
Why couldn’t it be Isaac? said a small, evil part of me that I shoved back down. Those were selfish thoughts, I should be glad everyone’s made it this far.
The problem is, we can’t take our thoughts back. I know I meant it.
I hugged Annie next, stroking her red hair.
“I’ll miss you, Alice. Take care of Mary Lou for me?”
I smiled. “Of course Annie, I’ll miss you too.”
I turned to leave, when I heard her mumble my name again.
“What is it, Annie?”
“I think...I think Tom likes you.” she giggled
“Maybe,” I mumbled, ruffling her hair and turning to the door.
“Ready, everyone?” asked John. He took our silence as an answer, then led us off.
“Follow the path until you reach the crossroad. Keep to the right of the road until you hear the river. Cross it and stop there for the day; that should be far enough. Good luck, kids.”
Kids. Really, that’s all we were. Why were we here...why did we have to run?
I tried to stay positive as we walked down the gravel path, me turning back occasionally until I could no longer see the little house with the red roof.