We reached the spot in the woods where Ella Mae had told us to go. After waiting a few minutes we could hear a group of people approaching. A beam of light appeared, growing bigger each second, until at last we could see four people-three men and one woman.
“Hello,” I whispered. “I’m Charlotte and this is Hadessah.”
“I am your conductor, Henry. This is Joseph and his wife Esther, and this is Sam.”
The strangers nodded their heads in greeting. Joseph and Esther were middle-aged. Sam was young; in his 20s I would guess. I could tell from the moment I saw him that he was an independent man who longed for freedom and would give anything and everything for it.
We didn’t talk much, for fear of being heard. We traveled through the dark woods at a quick pace, and Hadessah struggled to keep up. It was a very dangerous trip for even the strongest of men, let alone a small 10 year-old.
We walked for hours. By the time we stopped to settle down for the night, we were all ready to collapse. But we wanted to get as far away from the Claybourne plantation as possible. You never know when a group of slave hunters might be right behind you.
Having a light to sleep by was impossible; it would give us away. So in the jet-blackness of night we all laid down on the cold, wet grass. Hadessah snuggled up close, for the poor girl was shivering. I gave her my shawl, but it didn’t do much good when the night breeze blew.
I stared up at the black trees above us, the leaves rustling softly. It reminded me of the nights back in camp. You could always hear the trees rustling and sometimes the hooting of the owls.
Soon my eyes could stay open no longer, and I fell asleep to the sound of Hadessah’s soft breathing beside me.
“Everyone up! Come on! We must hurry!”
I groaned at the sound of Henry’s voice. My eyes opened slightly and I was unhappy to discover it was still dark out. Hadessah stirred beside me.
“Why must we leave now?” I asked.
“We will reach de first station at dawn. Dere we will rest till night,” Henry said. “But we must hurry!”
So the six of us trudged through the woods once again. We were all very hungry and still a bit sleepy. I tried to stay positive, but sometimes it was just so hard.
But Henry was right. Just as the sun began to rise, we reached the first house or “station” as he called it. The “stationmaster” living there would help us.
The woods had thinned out a bit, and there was now a dirt road. In clear view from the road was the white house where would be staying. Looking both ways, Henry quickly led us to the front door. An old, white-haired lady answered and let us in.
“Follow me,” she said, leading us up the stairs with a candle.
We were taken to the attic, and then to a secret room hidden by a sliding panel. The lady was most kind, and gave us food, blankets and anything else we needed. It was nice to rest and talk without worry of the slave hunters being right behind us.
Our conductor returned to his home, but another one was supposed to meet us when we left the house that night.
Meanwhile, we were able to learn more about each other. Joseph and Esther already knew Sam somewhat, from the plantation. And they had seen Hadessah, but since she was new they hadn’t been able to talk to her.
“Well, we’ll start, eh Estie? I am Joseph, but you can call me Joe. This is Esther, or Estie, my wife,” Joe said. “We’ve been slaves all our lives and we’re ready to be free.”
“It’s nice to meet you both,” I said, extending my hand.
“I’m Sam… Dere’s not much to tell ‘bout me. I’m 21 and was born a slave. My parents are dead, and I’ve got nobody else. I want a new life. I don’t want to be nobody’s property! I want to be free!”
I could hear the passion in Sam’s voice.
“I’d feel the same way,” I said. “Well, my name is Charlotte. But you can call me Charlie, like everyone else does. I’m a nurse for the Union Army. My husband, Jack, is a first lieutenant. I traveled here to bring Hadessah to the north, like her father asked me to,” I said, gently stroking Hadessah’s curly hair.
“Was your papa a soldier, child?” Estie asked.
“Yes mam. He left to fight when I was 6.”
“And your mama?”
“She died when I was a baby…” Hadessah answered. Suddenly her face lit up.
“If I can call you Charlie then you can call me Dessa, okay?” she said, unintentionally changing the subject. I laughed.
“Okay, it’s a deal.”
I stared at Hadessah as she chatted on with the others. I was growing quite attached to the little girl. I couldn’t help but laugh when I remembered Harriet Sorenson’s last words to me. How could anyone do anything but love this child?
Night came quickly, but we were ready to travel again. Thanks to the socks and sweaters that the kind lady had given us, we were a bit warmer, too. So out into the darkness we plunged again, ready to continue our journey.
“Don’t pout, silly. I’ll be back soon.”
It was a few days later, and I was heading into a nearby town to get food. It was too risky to take Dessa, and she wasn’t very happy.
“Hurry, okay?” she said.
“Yes, pumpkin,” I laughed, pinching her cheeks.
In town, I headed into the grocers. Of course no one suspected me of helping slaves escape, but I couldn’t rid the uneasiness I was feeling. Every time someone else came in the store and rang the bell I would jump. I quickly bought the food and started to leave the store when a paper hanging in the window caught my attention.
Cash reward offered for four runaway slaves:
Joseph-middle-aged, tall, black hair, dark brown skin
Esther-middle-aged, black hair, brown skin, wears bandanna in hair
Sam-age 21, tall, brown hair, dark brown skin
Hadessah-age 10, small, brown hair, light-brown skin
- Hubert Claybourne, Belmont, Tennessee
My stomach did a somersault. They had caught up with us! I clutched the food a little tighter and hurried out the store.
To be continued!
Kathryn (aka Chatty Kathy)