“Joe, Sam, Estie!” I cried, arriving at our little camp in the woods, quite out of breath.
“What is it?” our conductor, Micah, asked.
“They’ve got wanted posters up in the grocers,” I puffed. “offering a cash reward for your return.”
“We need to leave,” Micah said. “There are probably slave hunters on our trail this very second!”
I could see the fear rising in Dessa’s eyes. She ran up in her usual way and flung her arms around my waist. She was trembling.
“Don’t be scared, dear. Everything will be all right,” I comforted.
“But what if they catch us? I don’t want to be punished by the mean man with the whip! Please don’t let them, please!” she cried.
The group grew silent. Dessa’s words were a sharp and painful reminder of the consequences they would face if caught. Why did it have to be this way? Why? Why must a 10 year-old girl worry about being whipped? I struggled to hold back tears of frustration and anger. I was not going to let that happen to her.
That night, we headed to another station. We were stumbling through the thick forest, with no light to guide us. The moon was shining, but the trees blocked its beams.
“Are you getting tired, sweetie?” Estie asked Dessa.
“A little,” came the reply. “but I can keep going.”
“That’s my girl,” I said, squeezing her hand. “It won’t be too long before we reach the next station. Right Micah?”
“Right,” Micah said, pushing away the thick brush in front of him.
“Shh! Did you hear that?” Joe hissed.
We stopped dead in our tracks. My heart began to pound in fear as I heard the terrifying sound that Joe had heard.
“The hounds!” Estie cried.
“Run!” Micah yelled. Dessa looked at me with panic-stricken eyes.
“Go, go, go!” I screamed, pushing her ahead of me.
Our feet pounded against the soft earth. It was too dark to see, but I could hear Estie crying as she ran. The dogs’ barks grew louder and louder. The noise was joined with the sound of horse hooves and men shouting. Suddenly I heard the crack of a gun.
“Get down!” I cried, almost tackling Dessa to the ground. We lay in the cool soil, hidden behind a wall of bushes. I fought the urge to gasp for breath, for the men were right beside us.
“That’s what you get for trying to run away!” one of them said, roughly. What were they talking about? I let go of Dessa and peered through an opening in the bush. I strained to see in the darkness. Two slave hunters were off their horses standing over a-no, it couldn’t be-a dead body.
“Claybourne wants any bodies taken back to the plantation. He said it’ll put away any thoughts of escape from the other slaves,” another said.
“This one wasn’t traveling alone. I saw some more,” the first one said, slowly. “They’re around here somewhere, I know it.”
I held my breath as I could hear the crunching of the leaves underneath the slave hunter’s boots. Dessa gripped me a little tighter.
“Come on, they’re gone.”
I didn’t relax until the sound of the horse hooves disappeared. We slowly emerged from behind the bush and saw Joe, Estie and Micah coming out of hiding, too.
“The poor boy!” Estie wailed. “So young…”
My mind still couldn’t wrap around what had just happened. Sam was dead. And Dessa, poor Dessa. What little girl should have to see a man shot and killed?
Still in shock, we pushed on with one less member. I don’t think any of us would forget what we had just seen.
To be continued!
Kathryn (aka Chatty Kathy)