The cool autumn wind swept down over the rooftops creating a nice breeze. The clouds covered the sun and the air had just the right amount of chill. Mary sits on her porch with her woven blanket wrapped around her shoulders and a hot cup of tea with lemon. She takes in a deep breath of the streets and earth around her, she always loved the way it smelled after it rained.
With that she returns inside to her small abode, she didn't live in a large house, it was nice and quaint and just the right size for her. Exactly what she sought after when she left her home in Kentucky, but the longer she remained away the more she grew to miss her family. She missed her mother and father, and her brothers. Hell, she even came to miss the damned tick hound, Bo, who she had truly found to be a blundering and frankly disgusting creature.
She left to escape the emptiness, the complete void of purpose that came to own you more and more with each passing day. There was no future for her out there, or at least, none that she would have wanted. No, there was nothing out there but dead ends and broken people.
Here she could make a life for herself. She found a job teaching, shaping the minds of our future, there was a career, something she could feel proud of. And yet, as she stared over the assignments, grading and analyzing them, she still felt incomplete. A need for more despite achieving more than she even set out for.
It filled her deepest dreams and fueled her greatest nightmare, of dying without purpose and living without a cause. On this evening she found herself in desperate need of supplies and had made her way to the local store just as it approached dusk. As she was returning home she came across a carriage broken down to the side of the road. A large man was standing right offside of it holding a lantern as another man knelt beside it and examined the wheel axel.
"Are you in need of help, neighbors?" Mary asks pulling her carriage to a halt.
"Oh, nothing to trouble yourself with missus. We just—" The man holding the lantern begins to say before being interrupted by the man on the ground.
"Well hold on, we may have crossed state lines but these parts still ain't friendly. If someone's offerin' to help, maybe we should take it." The kneeling man says up to the large man with the lantern.
"We can get the wheel back . . . "
"No, we can't." The other man replies before looking to the woman, "Is there any chance we could get a ride miss?"
"Mary, Mary Ford, where do you need to go?"
"Near eleven miles due west of here, I'm Joseph and this here is my wheel-horse William."
"How do you do?" William asks removing his cap.
"Just fine and that shouldn't be too much trouble, hop on," Mary responds from atop her carriage.
"Just one moment, we just need to grab our things," Joseph says before they unload two large suitcases and climb up onto Mary's wagon.
Once they get seated, Mary cracks the whips and takes the west road towards the riverbanks.
"So what happened to your carriage?" Mary asks.
"Looked down for one second and hit a rock, knocked the damn wheel right off." Joseph hollers back from inside the wagon.
"That's a shame, so where are we heading?"
"Well, we just need a ride to the river from there we should be fine . . . "
"Alright," Mary replies staring into the star-filled sky.
She felt truly alive, carried off by the hands of fate to ends even she did not know. In a way, times like these, her destination unknown and her outcomes uncertain, were the only times she felt alive. The routine of life was too mundane, too predictable. There wasn't enough adventure in it, and she yearned for that adventure.
"So tell me, Missus Mary, do often find yourself giving rides to strangers in the dead of night?" William asks with a chuckle from out the door.
Joseph smacks William's leg, "Hush now!"
"No, never actually."
"Well then we are mighty lucky aren't we?" William replies through a chuckle returning inside to find Joseph agitated.
"Don't push it, we're close, we just need to stay focused."
With that William's candor becomes apologetic, "I'm sorry, you're right. Got caught up in the moment is all, she seems nice."
"We're fine, we just need to raise as little alarm as possible."
The next hour passed by mostly in silence aside from the occasional attempt at small-talk or passing observations. The moon was seated firmly in the middle of the sky by the time they approached the river.
"There it is." Mary says down to her passengers, "Where would you like me to take you?"
"Just up the road a ways . . . if you wouldn't mind."
"No bother at all. Tell me, what are you all doing out here?"
"Just meeting some friends," William replies quickly.
"Ah," Mary says continuing down the road.
"Here, ma'am, this should be fine," Joseph says leaning out the wagon.
Mary pulls the wagon over and waits for her two passengers to disembark. They exit the wagon and grab their things stepping down next to the horses.
"Thank you, Miss Mary, you did a fine thing for us . . . and we won't forget it."
With that, Joseph and William walk off down the road and Mary watches them disappear into the darkness from atop her carriage. And as they do she feels her joy fleeting with them. How many times does one get in their life to plunge into the great unknown? Mary ties her horses down and extinguishes her lantern's light as she climbs down from the wagon. She stumbles in the darkness trying to keep her footing on the slick, wet stones beneath her feet. Her heart was racing with excitement, her entire body felt cold and she was penetrated by a feeling like she was being watched. Her mind flooded with wonder of what she would find as she walked through the darkness. Part of her told her to turn back while the rest of her screamed to continue forward.
As Mary comes around a bend in the road she can see down from the overlook to her left a group of men speaking down by the river. They stand next to a barge tied down and floating just off the shore. On it, there were some thirty men, women and children all huddled together at its center. As the men spoke she could see the two standing in front of the man as her riding companions, Joseph and William. The other man she did not recognize. After another moment of speaking they hand the man their suitcases and he turns to examine them in the light.
Just then, Mary turns as she hears the sound of twigs snapping somewhere in the forest. She looks to see shadowy figures sneaking through the woods behind her with the sure glimmer of steel clutched in their hands. Even in the darkness, she can make out their white sack hoods. Mary looks back down to the men and then behind her again, she knew if she did nothing they would certainly die. It seemed as though they didn't notice her nestled in the trees in her dark black dress.
Mary climbs down over the edge of the sandbank and tries to find her footing in the side of the hill, she loses her grip and slides down the sand,
"There are men!" She yells out as she rolls and slides down the bank, "In the forest!"
"Missus Mary?" William asks helping her to her feet.
"There are men in the woods! They have guns!" She exclaims trying to catch her breath.
Suddenly gunfire erupts around them as men begin to yell out from above,
"There they are!"
They quickly board the barge and disembark the bank pushing off and sailing down the river. The bullets whiz around them tearing through the wooden beams and boards of the raft. After a few minutes, they seemed to have lost them to the current.
"Are they gone?" Mary asks, still reeling from the attack.
"Well, we seem to have given them the slip . . . at least for now." William says rolling himself a cigarette.
The barge-man steers at the back of the raft while Joseph sits up near the front staring into the darkness with a wary eye on the tree line. Mary looks around them seeing the other passengers all knelt terrified. They were dressed in little else than rags and were covered by damp blankets. A man lies on the deck still twitching and moaning as one of the women tends to his wounds. The others sit clutching their loved ones, not knowing what was to come next. A feeling she had reveled and been enticed by her entire life, she saw how for the first time for someone with everything to lose that same feeling of uncertainty could bring nothing but utter horror.
"So you mus' be wonderin' what you got yourself into by now, no?" William says from behind the glow of his cigarette.
"I am, who are all these people?"
"Slaves, or, they used to be . . . now they're in search of a new life, a free life."
"And who are you?"
"Smart one, huh?" William asks with a grin, "My frien's call me July, or Ol' July if ya like."
"July? That's a strange name." Mary says still looking around them and trying to keep warm from the cool winds blowing off the water.
"I suppose it might seem so, but it's the only name I've ever owned."
"So, July, who are you?"
"Well, they call me a conductor, and this here is my cargo." July says pointing to those around them, "You should know, Missus Mary, by bein' here with us . . . you're breaking the law."
"Is that that what those men were? Lawmen?"
"No, they was slave catchers. Hired by those who used to own 'em, they've been on our tails since Virginia. We gave 'em the slip oh, some twenty miles back by splitting up on the waters . . . but it looks like they foun' us again."
"So they're just . . . hunting you?"
Ol' July draws in a deep breath of smoke from his cigarette lighting up his face as he stares back silently to Mary.
"That's awful. To what end?"
"Oh, might just be lookin' for a reward, or they might be fixin' to kill us."
Mary falls silent as she looks around her seeing all the people around her huddled in fear fighting for their very lives.
"So what can I do to help?"
July chuckles, "Well, I'd say you've done us quite enough help already."
Mary continues to stare to July.
"Alright, well, you could pass these out, they must be hungry," July says handing her a small sack of nuts and dried berries.
Mary walks from person to person pouring small handfuls of nuts and berries, most are hesitant to trust her, but their desperation outweighs their fears and they take them gratefully. She returns to July once the bag runs empty.
"I need more." Mary says walking up to July and handing the bag back to him.
"Ain't no more, not until we can stop and forage up s'more."
"So we will stop then?"
"Yes, Missus Mary, and I think that's where we should part ways."
"But . . . I don't understand, I want to help."
"Look, those folk ain't gonna pay you no mind if you run off from us . . . and you'll be safe." July says taking her hands, "You've helped us enough, you saved our lives tonight."
With that, he releases her hands and withdraws back to silence as he turns and stares out onto the waters. Mary then turns to Joseph, who still kneels to the side of the barge staring into the passing tree line.
"Have you seen anything?" Mary asks holding her arms tight to her chest from the cold.
Joseph continues to kneel without saying a word, just as Mary turns to walk away he responds in little more than a whisper, "No . . . but they're out there . . . somewhere."
"How do you know?"
"They're always out there."
"What are you sorry for? You saved us." Joseph says finally turning and resting for just a moment.
"I'm sorry you have to live like this."
"Don't be sorry for us, they ain't gon' wake up and sleep at the beckoned call of others no more, they'll be free men and women now, free to live a life worth livin' . . . and me, well I get to help my brothers and sisters get that freedom. That's God's work if ya ask me."
At this Mary is surprised and, despite the atrocity of it, she saw hope. His words opened her eyes to the true nature of the world around her. There was no fair, there was no right and wrong, and there was no justice. Not unless we make it.
"So, is Joseph your real name?"
"May I know it?"
"How do you know July?"
"I did'n lie about that, we've been friends for a long time. Hell, we escaped the same plantation."
"So it's just you two?"
Samuel waits a while before responding, staring Mary up and down, "No, there's more of us, I'm sure you heard of the Underground Railroad."
"Is that where we are going?"
"No," Samuel replies with a smile before turning back and resuming his post.
She turns back to July and asks for a cigarette.
"You sure you wan' one of these?"
"Please, my nerves."
Ol' July smiles and agrees, rolling her a cigarette and lighting it for her. She takes the stick and draws a long puff before coughing out profusely, July begins to laugh.
"This isn't tobacco, is it?"
"No 'tis, mostly." July says smoking and looking up to the night sky, "Fo' all that's in it, this world is beautiful."
Mary continues to smoke her cigarette and joins him in savoring the view. It was another several hours before they made port, and not a moment too soon. The air had grown to carry a chilling frost and they all were beginning to feel it. They float into a bank at the end of the river-way and disembark the large barge, thanking the barge-man before he turns and leaves them.
"So where are we going?" Mary asks shivering, she was so cold her feet had begun to feel numb, it bit all the way down to her bones.
"We're close now," July says leading them through the forest.
The trees had started to frost over as a light shower of snow formed around them. They abandoned their blankets as they were damp and only worsened the cold. They walked as close as they could to combat the cold. But it did little good. Their hands and feet were beginning to grow frostbitten. They carried the children when they could no longer walk, as well as the elders. After what could have been an hour or an eternity to them they finally arrived at their destination. A small log cabin at the edge of the forest with a lantern-lit over the doorway.
"Alright, y'all stay here. I'll be back." July says to the group before walking out into the open and approaching the log cabin.
Mary goes to step forward before Samuel grabs her arms and shakes his head, she does not fight him and stands with the rest of the group behind the brush. Ol' July walks up to the front door and knocks five times, first knocking three, pausing and then knocking the remaining two. He is met with three knocks from the other side and he motions for the group to come forward just as the door unlocks and opens before him. An older man with pasty white skin and dark graying brown hair welcomes them in.
"Come, come. Please, warm yourselves by the fire." The man exclaims as they all step inside.
They all make their way inside and gather around the fire. Their host and his daughter pass out wool blankets and dry clothes as they prepare warm tea and bread and beans.
"Hello, stranger." The brown-haired man says before hugging July, "It's been a while, how have you been?"
"Gettin' by. Come, meet our new friend, this is Missus Mary Ford, Mary this is Donald Elliott."
"Pleasure to meet you," Donald says taking Mary's hand.
"So July, how long will you all be staying for?"
"This was all rather rushed but I was able to secure some basic amenities. Should get you by for a while."
"Thank you, Donald."
Donald leaves and returns bringing several packed sacks full of food and supplies. As he begins distributing them there is a loud knock at the door.
"Open up! I know what you're hiding in there! We seen ya take in them slaves, mister! Them ain't your property!"
Their attention quickly turns to the door as Donald and Alice ensure the windows are secured and covered. Donald motions to his daughter and she walks to the center of the room, pulling back the rug and revealing a trap door. She opens the door and then walks over to a wooden chest and retrieves a gun belt and revolver which she fastens around her waist.
"Come on!" Alice says waving for the others to go down the stairs.
Once they are all down Mary stands with Samuel waiting for Ol' July and Donald to join them.
"Go on now," Donald says look to the door, flames abruptly appear from under the doorway.
"Come on out now! Give us what ya got and we may just let ya live!" The men yell from outside.
"What? No, they'll kill ya." Ol' July replies surprised.
"Do as I said July, I can talk my way out of harm, distract them maybe. The cellar leads to a dry well on the far side of the property. You all can make your way out through there."
"We'll see ya out there then," July replies, resistant to go.
Donald nods and July grabs the last sack and joins Mary and Samuel in the cellar. Donald shuts the trap door and covers it back over with the rug. Mary finds Alice already leading the remaining slaves through the small tunnel, hidden behind a bookcase. She looks to Mary, Samuel and July seeing her father is not with them.
"He said he'd buy us some time," Samuel responds before stepping past her down the tunnel.
Just then they hear the door break open above. Muffled voices yell back and forth before they hear the blasting of gunshots.
"Papa! No!" Alice cries out.
Mary and July grab her and prevent her from running back upstairs as she pleads and cries in desperation. But it was too late, the men above ransack the place entirely, it was only a matter of time before they found the cellar.
"Come on, we have to go," Mary says gently before grabbing Alice's hand and leading her down the tunnel.
They meet the rest of them at the end of the tunnel, still climbing up out of the well. As they peer up through the narrow tunnel above they hear a voice call down from the top of the well.
"How many more of ya down there!?"
Mary looks to Ol' July seeing the same look of fear in his eyes as well.
"Tell me! Or I start blowin' away every last fucker up here!"
"Not much more!" Samuel calls out.
A moment passes in silence as those still at the base of the well stand anxiously waiting to see what would happen next.
"Good! Come on up!"
Those remaining look to July and Samuel for guidance, July turns shooting his eyes from each face trying to find the words to say.
"It's all going to be alright, come on now, go on up." Mary says breaking the quiet.
They begin to climb out followed by Samuel and then Ol' July, finally it is just Mary and Alice left at the base of the dried out well. Mary looks down at the girl, the brim of her father's hat hanging over her face.
"Come on n—" Mary begins to say before being interrupted by Alice,
"Go." She says, her voice as cold and hard as raw iron.
Mary stands for a moment before resigning and climbing up out of the well. She is pulled out by one of the men, ripping the collar of her dress, and thrown into the arms of Ol' July. There are four men in white sack hoods standing armed with rifles and scatterguns.
"The hell you doin' with these runaways?" A man barks out holding his rifle up to her.
"Excuse me?" Mary asks.
"She is one of 'em, helpin' 'em." One of the men hollers out.
"Dirty bitch!" Another yells out.
"Alright! Enough!" One of the men exclaims, stepping forward and removing his hood revealing a middle-aged man with a crooked eye, "Got a good haul here, hell with what that fucker was gon' pay us we can get a hell of a lot more on the open market for all this!" He says while fixing his shotgun on them.
"Should I go get the others?" One of the men asks.
"Yeah, tell 'em to hurry the hell up! Now move!" The crooked eyed man yells.
They all get to their feet and begin to walk as they are marched through darkened woods, only lit by the glow of the raging fire now engulfing the cabin. Just as they start to move into the forest gunfire erupts behind them. They all stop and turn seeing the burning cabin in the distance through the trees. Suddenly the gunfire ceases and again the woods fall silent. The hooded men all stand nervously clutching their guns as they look onto the ominous threat behind them. They all begin firing recklessly in all directions at every noise made around them.
Again a shot rings out and then another and another, the hooded men all fall over dead until it is just the crooked eyed man left standing.
"Who are ya!? This here's my haul goddamn it!" He yells out.
Just then two shots ring out and the crooked eyed man's knees burst open sending him to the ground. Finally, the last man falls over dead as Alice walks up and blasts a hole through his head. She retrieves the crooked eyed man's shotgun and takes all the ammunition she can carry. Alice approaches the group handing a rifle to Samuel. They all stand, seeing it is over. Several men, women and children lie dying on the ground as they reach to their loved ones with bloodied hands, writhing in pain from bullet wounds.
Samuel looks over his shoulder and rushes back through the trees to find Ol' July lying on the ground behind them. Mary approaches them seeing Samuel holding July in his arms, crying.
"It's alright, I'm alright." July says through a pained mix of a grunt and chuckle, "Sa . . . Samuel, you gotta get 'em there . . . get 'em there, Samuel." And with that, July passes on.
Samuel closes his eyelids and lays him on the ground, he then stands and walks away, regrouping the others and getting them to their feet. Many are broken, crying out in desolation as they huddle over the cooling bodies of their loved ones. Samuel and Alice get them up, however, and before long they are again moving. The next miles were walked in silence, their hearts heavy with loss. And just as they approached the edge of the valley, snow began to fall.
It had been some time since they left the Elliott's cabin, yet death continued to follow them. The grounds were thick with snow and every day only seemed to grow colder. They were far from civilization with no end in sight. Only Samuel knew where they were going, and he had grown cold himself, withdrawn and angry, he had barely spoken a word since they left the woods that night. Several more fell to the frost as they made their way through the country.
They did not have time to bury their dead, instead, they removed what they could use and continued walking. The only thing Samuel would say to anyone when asked how much further was,
"We're close now."
However, as the weeks pressed on the others began to lose hope. There were only five of them left, including Mary, Alice and Samuel, and then there was a new mother and her young child. And they were growing less optimistic. Alice was quiet, but she was incredibly determined, every day at dawn, when the others were just barely waking, she was already out hunting and looking for food for the group. Mary was impressed at her will and her resourcefulness, but even that did not stop her from seeing the likely fate awaiting them all. It felt as though they were just waiting out the clock, seeing who would be the last to fall.
The days pass into night, they all sit huddled around a dim fire burning cold and dampened wood, shivering in the freezing cold as the snow falls around them. A young mother across the fire begins to mutter something just under her breath,
"Baby . . . gotta . . . care of . . . " She says before she stands and begins to walk off into the forest.
Mary watches as the woman takes several deep steps into the snow and then plummets to the ground holding her baby. Mary stands and rushes over to the young mother. As she approaches her, she reaches out up to Mary and pulls her in close with what little strength remained,
"Look after . . . my baby . . . please . . . pl . . . plea—" Just then she takes a final breath and falls over dead in the snow.
The snowflakes fall in a flurry around her, the dead silence of the forest made even stronger in its presence. All she could hear was the crackling of the embers as the baby begins to cry. Mary pries the child out of the young mother's arms and holds it close to her chest. She returns to the other side of the fire and stares at the body of the young mother across from her and then to the others who lie sleeping. All except for Alice who watches Mary closely and then looks back into the fire. She begins to sing, a low humming that is intended for the baby but honestly soothes every one of them. Mary thinks back to grading papers and drinking tea on her porch, she remembers feeling the futility in doing so. How naïve she was. Now, staring into the real nature of the world, she saw what truly mattered. All that mattered was life. She realized what her mother had tried explaining to her thousand times over back in Kentucky, but she had been too stubborn to listen. She thought that the meaning she was searching for was out there, but it was inside her all along. It was in the young mother doing everything she could to save her baby's life to her very last breath. It was in the way that your brothers might pick on you or your mother may nag at you or your father will discipline you. They do it from love. That love, it is life, it's what gives life meaning, and Mary finally understood that.
She stayed up through the night with the young babe clutched in her arms, making sure she was fed and cared for. The following morn they set out at first light. There were just the four of them now, Mary, Samuel, Alice, and the child. The days were growing bleak, their water had run out two days prior and their food supply was all but gone. The snow offered some reprieve from dehydration but did little for an empty stomach.
As they drag their legs through the thick piles of snow Mary asks once more, "Sam . . . Samuel, how much further?"
"We're close now." He says, using his rifle as a walking stick, forcing his way through the snow and creating a slight path for Mary and Alice to follow in.
Just as Mary contemplated collapsing into the snow, her legs so numb she could no longer feel them burning, Samuel says something from the front of the group,
Before them, just at the top of a lonesome hill covered by snow and ice, was a lodge with a lantern-lit hanging over the doorway. They press on through the snow, summoning all the strength they have left and make their way to the door.
Samuel knocks on the door three times, pauses, and then knocks another two. He is met with three knocks from the other side. The door opens revealing a young man and woman within, they greeted them with warmth and hospitality and cared for their wounds. Two of Samuel's toes had been lost to frostbite, his ribs were cracked and he had a broken wrist. They were all dehydrated and frostbitten, except for the baby which had been kept warm and fed as best they could.
"She's beautiful, does she have a name?" The young woman asks Mary who sits by the fire feeding the baby.
"What? Oh, no." Mary replies now withdrawing from her thoughts, "Maybe Caroline, Caroline Elliott, what do you think Alice?"
Alice stands to the left of the fireplace wrapped in a thick wool blanket silent, in her typical stoic nature. She nods still staring at the crackling fire. The young lady smiles and gently rubs Caroline's tiny head before walking away.
"Where will you go now?" Mary asks still looking at Alice.
"Out west, maybe. Things made more sense out there for me."
"You used to live out west?"
"Arkansas." Alice pauses before turning to Mary, "You're welcome to come with me, though I have no money."
"I have a house, a small amount of property in my name, more than enough to purchase a wagon and supplies."
Just then Samuel enters the room and joins them, covered in bandages and wrappings.
"And you Samuel? Where will you go now?"
"Keep doin' the Lord's work."
"So you'll stay here?"
"For a time," Samuel replies sitting close down to the fire.
And for a moment, just a moment, they all found peace in the warmth from the fireplace and amongst each other's company. It was a rare feeling for all three of them, one they did not let pass by lightly. They sat there for a while before they each went to bed for the night.
The next morning, Mary awoke to the repetitive banging of something outside. She checks young Caroline and Alice, who are both still fast asleep, and goes outside to find Samuel hammering a cross into the cold soil with a large rock.
"Is that for July?" Mary asks, her breath fogging out before her, wrapping herself tighter in her blanket to ward off the bitter early morning chill.
Samuel finishes hammering it down and drops the rock before standing silently for a moment, "It's for all of them," he says solemnly before returning inside.
Mary places a hand on Samuel's shoulder as he passes by and then takes a moment to remember their fallen. As she does, the clouds break above her in the sky revealing the sun and letting its rays fall and warm the earth. The heat of the sun bears down on Mary's face and she takes a deep breath in with a smile, the sky was finally clear.