This is one story that
will have you clutching the pages from start to finish. Again,
like Lover's Leap, it's another winner. Set during the time of the
underground railroad, this saga tells the efforts one young
American slave to reach the "Promised Land," Canada. Only death could stop him,
yet in one instance it didn't. He used determination to overcome
fear but little did he realize that freedom came with a price
a very expensive price. Was he that willing to pay the
price through the UNDERGROUND TO FREEDOM?
It was a journey without a beginning
|Publisher:||Hollis Books (New York, Alexandria)|
|Barnes & Noble.com|
|Address:||1 Ingram Blvd. La Vergne|
|TN 37086-3650, USA|
A deathly silence fell over the plantation of Uriah Cooke. It was past midnight, and a glowing full moon sprinkled rays of silver on the vast stretch of cotton that dotted the fields around it. It was a ghastly yet beautiful glow. The stars glittered in all their glory on a night that even the sick would want to go for a walk.
However, there was one group that couldn't have taken that trip unless it meant an escape to freedom - the slaves who worked the plantation six days a week. Tonight, their weary bodies had gone into retirement but only for a few hours. However, come the light of day, it would be another grueling experience for the nearly thirty men, women, and children whose fingers would be pricked repeatedly by those razor-sharp thorns on the cotton trees.
Once again, the sun would bring a light but annoying burden to their backs. They would feel its hot rays trying to absorb the wetness from their sweat-saturated clothes. The clothes would be so wet that occasionally they would feel the sweat crawling down their spine. It was a kind of pleasant misery. At least, the sweat provided a cooling effect to their wretched torment.
This cotton plantation was typical of the hundreds of others that graced the American deep South in the year 1845. Cotton was the lifeblood of the economy and slavery was the oxygen it needed to be kept alive. Whether they liked it or not, the slaves had to work like mules to bring the crop to harvest. At the same time, they had to endure the hawk-like eyes of their overseers. The Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia, fourteen years ago, had given owners ammunition to be more vigilant and merciless in dealing with any suspicion of defiance, or planned escape through the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad.
Harvestown, Alabama, which was tucked away in a small valley, a few miles from the Tennessee border, was again experiencing another quiet Saturday night in June. It had been like that for some time now, except for those times when the coyotes broke the silence with their howls echoing across the valley. Tonight, though, was unusually quiet. in fact, too quiet.
"Benji! Olive! Get up...wake up!" the voice whispered. It was that of their mother Elsa Curtis. "It's time to go. Look!" she said, pointing through the half-broken window of their small shack, "the moon is out."
Benji sprang to his feet like he was answering a battle cry. The rags, which made up his bed, all flew into different directions, when he vacated his sleeping position. Benji's sister, Olive, was awakened by the sudden movement of his body. She could see the startled look on his face as the moonlight shone directly on it through the broken window.
Benji was 18 years old, the firstborn of Elsa's two children - Olive being the other. He was a handsome young man with lot of ambition. A look of innocence was what gave him a very pleasant personality. His eyes were jet black, sparkling, but at the same time was telling a story of the need to be free - to take care of his mother and sister, whom he loved dearly. Benji and Oliver never knew their father and Elsa dismissed their questions as soon as they came up. However, their light-skin colour told them their father might not have been a slave.
Olive was a rubber-stamp of her brother. The resemblance was startling and the manner in which they speak, act, and even laugh, could make them pass for identical twins, except that they were eighteen months apart. Olive was strikingly beautiful and was the heartthrob of the Cooke and nearby plantations. Slaves and even owners were captivated by her stunning beauty. Olive was conscious of that, but made no move to capitalize on her natural blessings. She supported her family in serving their master diligently and giving praise to the Almighty God in heaven. However, a time had come when the three of them realize that probably the God that they serve was clearing a way for them to enter the free world - Canada.
"W-w-what mama?" Benji grumbled, a tinge of fright in his voice. He looked around the almost dark room, his eyes searching until they came to focus on Olive. "Oh-oh! It's time to go eh," his smile lighting up his drowsy face. "Time at las' Dear God," said Olive. She clasped her hand and gazed into the ceiling mumbling something that was inaudible to both Elsa and Benji. Elsa, a medium-built woman in her mid-forties, grabbed a small bundle beside her. She had been a slave all her life. Her face carried a picture of hard work, stress, and lack of sleep. Elsa's glittering eyes and fleshy face made her appear younger. She wasn't a bad-looking woman and it could easily be seen that some of her traits had been passed on to her children.
Elsa had waited for this night - too long. It was here, and they couldn't afford any mistake whatsoever. A pastor from the Quaker church in Morganville,Tennessee, had organize their passage to freedom. Their destination: Buxton, Ontario, home to hundreds of runaway slaves who had already arrived there through the so-called Underground Railroad movement. Elsa's brother, Lucas, made a successful escape last year. The pastor didn't say but Elsa suspected Lucas had arranged with some "conductors," who posed as church pastors, to have his sister and children escape the wrath of Uriah Cooke and his overseers. One of the pastors, Albert Mahoney, came to the Harvestown Church last Sunday. He came under the disguise as a guest preacher. However, because the Quakers had a very sophisticated network of church leaders and abolotionists working to assist as many slaves as possible to win their freedom, it was somewhat difficult for plantation owners, and slave traders, to find out their true motive last Sunday, the turnout at the Harvestown Church was phenomenal. It was much more than the expected crowd. A few "trustworthy" slaves were given the opportunity to hear Pastor Mahoney exhorting them to be obedient to their masters and their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who would one day give them their true reward. The pastor held an all-white service first and then a separate one afterward. Plantation owners loved when their slaves visit church; they would be more obedient to their masters and less troublesome. Well, the message Pastor Mahoney brought for Elsa and her family was that their day of reward had come in this life. As soon as he had finished the service, he took no time in spotting the recipients of the reward. The method of escape that he used was one family or person at a time. He preferred one person to a family because it was easier. In fact, this family would be his first attempt using the Underground Railroad. All his other successes had been single individuals. At first, he had doubts about pulling this off, but a "Station Master," who he knew and worked with before, encouraged him to try. He felt anything to get slaves out of their plight was well worth it.
Pastor Mahoney, followed by another man marched over to Elsa and her children. Elsa saw them coming and her expression changed from fright to nervousness when she recognized Douglas Walters, who once owned plantation in Harvestown. He had sold out everything and moved north. Douglas was the one who sold Elsa to Uriah about ten years ago. She never saw him since that time. Elsa lived with the pain for many years of having to move to a new master. Douglas had treated her exceptionally well. With Uriah, it was like the opposite. Why was he here today? She wondered.
Each time she had seen visiting pastors, Elsa kept her ears out for any word from Lucas in Buxton. At nights, she dreamt of him and his newly-found freedom north of the border. Her aim in life now was to get her two children to freedom. Under no circumstances should they ever live the life of their ancestors. She aimed to keep that vow.
She watched both men approach and at one stage she was about to step into the other direction. By this time, most of the slaves had disappeared and the small room they all had packed in was now wide open to human traffic. Elsa looked around and was soon convinced that they were coming to see her. Benji and Olive saw them and all kinds of thoughts flashed through their adventurous minds.
Elsa glanced at her children and her eyes wanted to tell them there was word from their uncle, Lucas. She wished she could have said that quickly before they came, but then was she right? She would know within a few minutes. Yet anxiety had crippled her entire nervous system and it was as if she wanted the answer instantaneously. She was nervous about seeing Douglas, and at the same time, she wanted to hear what good tidings they had carried with them.
"Elsa,." Pastor Mahoney said simply. "Glad to see you." "Hi Elsa," said Douglas, "it's been a long time." If eyes could have fallen out of their sockets because of fright, then Benji's and Olive's would have departed their residence at that very moment. They were speechless because both men knew their mother.
"M-Master D-Douglas. You is alive?" a trembling Elsa blurted out. She looked at Pastor Mahoney, not recognizing him any at all, and then peered back at Douglas. "He is alive," said the pastor," alive and well as you can see. By the way, I'm Pastor Albert Mahoney," he said, with outstretched hand. 'These must be your children." "Yes pastor. Olive an' Benji...two good children...my life, my reason for livin'." Douglas stared at them, a faint smile rippled across his wiry face. Douglas had gone on in age, Elsa could easily discern. He must be about sixty years old now. Wrinkles were evident around his mouth, eyes and across his forehead. He looked thinner now and most of the side of his head were taken over by grey hair. His hawk-like nose stood its ground but his teeth had fallen victim to tobacco stain. Each time he open his mouth, his parted lips reveal teeth badly in need of some care.
"You have taken care of them Elsa," said Douglas. "A try to do mi best," she said. "You know him mama?" Benji interjected, having recovered from the shock. "Dat was from a long time ago son...a long time. Too long fer you to remember." "It's good to see you again Elsa under more pleasant circumstances," said Douglas, smiling broader this time. "Pleasant?" asked Olive. Douglas eyes never left her. They darted from Elsa to Olive. What a beautiful young woman, he thought. "Yes pleasant," said pastor Mahoney. "We are here to tell you that God is on your side my dear and today you are getting the news of your deliverance." Elsa and her children stared at the men without even venturing to contradict or express their disbelief at what he was telling them. "We don't have much time but next Saturday night...six days from today, you will all leave your quarters at midnight. Take whatever food you can, clothes, and follow the trail along the mountain side until you come to the Nickajack Lake right on the Tennessee border. A boat will be tied to a tree behind the biggest rock along the side of the lake. Take it and go across the lake and a "Station Master," will meet you there."
"Station Master? What is that?" asked Benji, almost laughing out loudly. "He will be your guide to freedom," said Douglas. "Is Lucas doing dis?" asked Elsa. "Don't your worry about that," said pastor Mahoney. "The important thing for you now is to start making preparations right away." "Is this a joke? Suppose we get caught," said Olive, looking around the room for anyone who might have slipped in. "That could very well happen," said Douglas, " but it won't if you don't allow it. It's either do or die."