Trials & Tribulations of Modesty Greene

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Chapter 21: Harriet Tubman

1850 – Dorchester County, Maryland, America

Pennsylvania was a fine place to be until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Then it just wasn’t safe no more. There was a high price on my head and I was collectin’ quite the reputation. You see, the Colonization Society and some of the Quakers needed more help gettin’ the slave folk free and I was just the woman to do it.

With the help of some fine folks both colored and white, I was able to make it all the way to Canada. It weren’t as pretty as Maryland, but it was nice enough and there was no slavery. In fact, the Canadians had a special order-in-counsel that had Royal Consent. It said they don’t have to send run-aways back to America. They don’t need to be upheld to the Fugitive Slave Act because that law didn’t apply to them. That made me feel much safer, even though I always seemed to be lookin’ over my shoulder.

I got a job at a hotel, cleanin’ rooms after guests checked out and I saved darn near every red cent I made. I’d been back to Dorchester twice, retrievin’ two different families and both times all I could think of was how badly I wanted to get John and my parents and my brothers and sister. I knew I had to have patience though, no need to tempt fate with the padda-rollers.

On the third trip back south, I had the round about where to meet two men folk that were gonna be sold south. I had taken to wearin’ britches since the Colonization Society had all them clothes. It seemed just dressin’ like a man I was able to walk where I couldn’t if I was perceived as a woman. I had me a fine lookin’ hat and thick coat with deep pockets for a pistol I carried. I hoped to never use it, but it was one of those things, I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

With this trip in particular, I went all out with my disguise all the way down to attachin’ a fake moustache on my upper lip with pine pitch. I left a day early, hopin’ to see John and my folks. It only made sense for us to leave on Saturday, knowin’ the paper press don’t run on Sundays.

After dark, I moved down towards the lane where John lived. I had to pass Calvin’s place and my heart ached to know how him and Shante were doin’ and if they had their child. Their curtains were drawn or I may have gone and pulled a peekin’ Tom.

My heart changed tempo when I saw my house I’d shared with John. It looked just the same, it did. I crept around the back and knocked on the door. I could hear him movin’ around and askin’ the air, “Well who could that be?” When he cracked the door open and asked how he could help me, I motioned for him to step outside. He did and swung the door half shut behind him. My stomach squeezed tight as my heart did flips. My husband was standin’ before me.

“Yes sir, can I help you?” he asked.

My face broke into the biggest smile of my life. “John, my love, it’s me.” The light behind him made it difficult for me to see his face so I clarified more. “It’s me, Harriet.”

“Harriet?” he said, astonished. I nodded waiting for him to come to me, embrace me. He stood stock still.

All my nervous energy poured outta me. “John, I’m free. I have a job and a place for us to live. I’m workin’ hard and some money squirreled away—”

He interrupted me, “Is it true you’re helpin’ negroes across the free line?”

“Yes!” I said, my voice bubblin’ with enthusiasm. “Let’s go.” It was just then the door swung wide and a woman stood at the thresh.

“Johny, darlin’, who’s there?”

The air between the three of us seemed to charge, snap, and pop.

“You remember Harriet, don’t you?” he asked, keepin’ his eye on me. The woman stepped further out onto the porch, the light from the house spillin’ over me. I nodded and tipped my hat, not knowin’ exactly what else I should do. “Harriet, this is Caroline.” He finished the formal introductions. Caroline looked me up and down then tilted her head back and laughed a full belly laugh. The giggles seemed to take over her whole body and she bent over in mirth.

“I ain’t never seen no woman with a mustache,” she managed to say. By this time, John was starting to laugh a little, too. That sound I had been cravin’ for over a year, to hear him laugh out loud, to hear the happiness roll off his tongue, but not like this. The heat rose in my cheeks up to my ears. “Johny, come on back inside, yo’ supper’s gettin’ cold.”

“Harriet,” he said and for two heart beats I thought maybe… “Caroline is my woman now,” he said. The words felt like a punch into my guts. “Good luck to ya’.” He turned and went back into the house, the door clickin’ heavy on the frame. I stood for a moment, waitin’, hopin’. It was then I heard them both begin to laugh and I couldn’t take no more. Darn near blind with hurt, I ran back to the house I was raised in at the Brodess place.

The reunion with my siblings was bittersweet. On one hand, I couldn’t tell them my heart had a deep black hole that only John Tubman could fill, but on the other hand, seein’ Linah’s new children made me so happy I could burst.

“I don’t know if I should have the children call you Auntie or Uncle,” Linah laughed causing us all to snicker.

Robert filled me in on the mergin’ of the two plantations and told me how Doc Thompson had been sellin’ off another round of the slaves each time the trader came through.

“It’s only a matter of time, he’ll sell us too.” There were agreements all around.

“Won’t be till after harvest,” Harry chimed in and we all knew he was right. Thompson needed them to keep his books in the black.

“I’ll send word before, but I’ll come and get you, all of you,” I said, smiling and thinking about my whole family with me, free in Canada. Hard as it was, I had to say my goodbyes and head into the night to meet the two men I was takin’ north. “It’s not goodbye,” I told them. “It’s see you later.”

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