General Fiction posted March 8, 2016


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Henry knows Canada is his best chance.

Freedom's Ride

by mfowler


The early light of morning pierced the forest trees. Henry felt a hint of warmth after the frosty coating of the night hidden among the ferns. But this small compensation in comfort failed to allay his fears of being found.
 
Two months of travel and hiding since he left Maryland had taught Henry to listen and watch out like a frightened bird. He knew not to trust sounds that had no place in his surroundings, and to take flight at the sight of other human beings.  His rendezvous with his benefactors was an uncertain but necessary risk he needed to take if he was ever to reach the safety of Canada.
 
Morning birdsong filled the forest as the sun ascended. For a moment, Henry revelled in its innocence. Suddenly, his private reverie was broken by the snap of a twig some yards away. He sunk back into the greenery and peered between the fronds. He felt the sweat of his brow rolling down his face and his dark eyes widened with the intensity of his search.
 
Could this be the Quaker people who Jerry had promised? The location was right. The time was about right, but promises and plans had ways of being abandoned or changed at the last minute on this dangerous journey to freedom. He knew he wasn't far from Lake Erie where the promise of escape from Pennsylvania was his best chance.
 
A small rabbit appeared near the source of the noise, twitched its nose, and scampered off into the undergrowth. Disappointment, yes, but nothing to worry him too greatly. His grumbling stomach reminded him he hadn't eaten since old Jerry left him here the morning before.
 
'Henry, you stay well hidden, boy, till them kind white folks shows up. They take you to the lake. You hear.' The instructions were simple enough. Comforting. Hopeful. But fraught with dangerous possibilities.
 
He nibbled on the hard cheese and bread Jerry had given him. He thought how much better these meagre rations tasted in this tentative state of freedom, than such food did back on Mr Hersey's farm in Maryland. There, food was plentiful enough, but so too were the whippings and humiliations a slave would endure. He shuddered as his mind wandered to the beating he'd taken the day before deciding to escape.
 
Click! Henry froze as he heard the cock of the gun's hammer and felt the cold circle of steel as the muzzle pressed into the nape of his neck.
 
'Well lookie here, Quentin. We got ourselves a run-a-way. Countin' the two bucks we got tied up back at camp, I'd say the huntin' season in Pen-sile-van-eear is gunna prove mid-ee profitable.' Henry could smell the stench of leather, sweat and tobacco as he listened to the bounty hunter's brag.
 
'Yes-sir-ee, Rev'rend. This boy'll be worth a pretty penny.'
 
'Now turn round slow like and face yer master, nigger.' The Rev'rend's voice began to sound like the overseer's back on Hersey's farm, but when Henry turned to face his captors, he realised this one was old, fatter than a barrel of beer, and dressed in the garb of an itinerant clergyman.
 
The small one bore the scars of a man more used to scrapping than doing a hard day's work. He said, 'Well, nigger where ya from?'
 
Henry's heart beat like a frightened puppy and his throat was drier than a stone. He bowed his head and offered nothing.
 
The Reverend lashed out at Henry with a small whip, knocking him to the ground. 'Listen, boy. When a white man talks to ya, ya answer, hear!...Why, ya should be grateful that yer friend, Jerry, yeah, that's his name, told us where ter find ya. Now you aint a runaway no more. You can go back to yer natural home in the fields.'
 
'Yeah, yeah,' agreed the small one. 'Ya should be mighty thankful ter the Rev'rend fer bringin' ya back.'
 
'Maybe God in his prov-er-dence will forgives ya for runnin', boy. But, you got a lot of prayin' ter make up fer yer sins.' The Reverend applied the whip again and Henry cowered low among the grass and ferns.
 
The small one wrapped Henry's wrists with a leather thong.
 
'Yer friend, Jerry, aint as lucky as ya. He be dyin' a slow, nasty death with the buzzids pickin' his gizzids where the Rev'rend gutted 'im like a sheep. Teach 'im not ter give yer niggers help.' His rancid breath filled Henry's nostrils with each vitriolic word.
 
The two horsemen towed Henry through the trees as he struggled to keep his footing across the uneven forest floor. The small flicker of hope he'd felt through the early morning light now faded away as he was dragged back to his old world of enslavement.
 
'Ya hear that, Rev'rend?' said the small one, bringing his mount to a halt.
 
'Riders,' said the Reverend. 'I hear voices back there...Listen boy, ya keep that black trap of yers shut if ya don't want ter end up as buzzid meat...'
 
'Don't ya think we oughta get a move on?' said the small one anxiously.

'Don't worry, Quentin, weeze got a legal right ter be huntin' vermin in Pen-sile-van-eear. Ya let me do the talkin', hear.'
 
Three strangers on horseback appeared through the trees. They moved slowly towards the bounty hunters.
 
'Good morning to thee, sirs. I be Jacob Herman and these be my sons, Seth and Aaron,' said the oldest of the three men. 'I see thou hast found our friend, Henry.' He smiled with the assurance of a man who seemed to know he was right with the world.
 
Henry looked up carefully. He saw that none of them were armed, and hopes of an unforeseen rescue quickly fled his mind.
 
'Rev'rend Jonas Livingstone of Maryland at yer service. And this fine fella be Mr Quentin Brown of Kentucky. We's here doin' the biddin' of Henry's rightful owners. Takin' a sinner back ter his flock, ya could say.'
 
'But, Reverend Livingstone, our friend, Henry is a free man in the state of Pennsylvania, and thou, sir, needs respect that.'
 
Henry had no idea what the men were talking about, but felt an immediate affinity with the strangers.
 
'The Few-jit-tiv Slave Act of 1850 says diff-rent, Mister Herman. The politishuns in Washin'ton itself says people like me have ev'ry right ter take these niggers back ter their masters.'
 
'Yeah, ev'ry right,' emphasised Quentin.
 
'We welcome free men in these parts, black or white, Reverend. And surely, thou, as a man of God, believe in justice.'
 
Henry could see the Reverend becoming agitated with the talk. His horse stirred and milled nervously about. He felt his tether tighten, then quickly loosen as the horse moved.
 
'Justice,' roared the Reverend. 'This here is justice. This nigger belongs right-ferly ter his white owner. He's the sinner and fer his sins he will pay right-chus-ly.'
 
'Hast thou not heard of the mercy of God? Let the black man go and feel the compassion of Jesus himself,' said Jacob Herman. 'Surely, as a Christian, thou knowest of these things.'
 
Quentin drew his pistol. 'Don't ya go spoutin' God talk ter the Rev'rend, yer yeller bellied Quakas,' he called. 'Now move aside.'
 
The three Quaker riders edged their horses closer to the bounty hunters, blocking their immediate path.
 
Quentin, in the closeness and anxiety of the moment, discharged his pistol which echoed through the woods with a frightening clap. His mount spun around on the spot, whinnied loudly and reared high. Quentin fell heavily to the ground.  A flock of tiny birds scattered from the ground cover nearby and took to wing.
 
The Quakers spurred their mounts which turned wildly, adding to the confusion. Henry, who'd been watching and listening with great care throughout the conversation, realised his captors were distracted.
 
As Quentin lay stunned on the ground, he tugged furiously at the tether attached to the Reverend's saddle horn. The horse shifted violently to the right, and the leather lead slipped off. Henry bolted into the forest heading away from the morning sun. He used the undergrowth and the trees to great advantage as he escaped.
 
The Reverend took moments to regain his senses and realise his captive had fled. He cursed the Quakers, Heaven, Quentin and bad luck in one nasty outburst before urging his steed to go after the runaway.
 
Henry lay flat in a clump of box huckleberry behind a large white pine. His breathing was heavy, but he covered his mouth to stay safe. He heard the wild cursing of the Reverend and the intermittent ping of bullets ringing out in the forest nearby. Suddenly, the shouting and the thunder of hooves seemed very near. He could see the heaving chest of the horse coming directly towards him as it burst through the vegetation.
 
Without knowing exactly why, Henry stood upright and yelled, 'Freedom!' at his pursuer. The horse, spooked by Henry's sudden appearance, veered sharply, stumbled on a hidden branch, and fell to the ground. The rider crashed even more heavily and lay screaming in agony.
 
Henry had no mind of mercy for the Reverend. He quickly realised the horse had recovered and had moved off into a nearby clearing where it chewed on the forest grasses. He knew how to ride, as Master Hersey had entrusted him to bring supplies back to the farm from the township if the kitchen should run unexpectedly short.
 
He climbed onto the animal's back and rode off into the forest. Old Jerry had told him the lake was very big and in the opposite direction of the rising sun. The horse carried him for the remainder of the day; no sign or sound of pursuers.
 
Late in the afternoon, Henry emerged from the forest onto a grassy ridge. The view beyond was panoramic. He could make out the tops of trees of a lowland wood and open grassland beyond. On the horizon he could see the sun lowering into a dark body of water.
 
Henry had never seen a lake of any size, only the small ponds on the farm back in Maryland. This must be Lake Erie.
 
For the first time since his moment of morning freedom, Henry let himself believe that he was on the verge of something new, something wonderful. He'd seen the savagery of white men back home, felt its ugly lash at the hands of the bounty hunters, but also known the compassion of men like old Jerry and the three Quaker saviours.
 
He wasn't there yet, but freedom lay beyond that lake. In the morning he would take the final steps.

 


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Between 1820 and 1847, Pennsylvania waged a back-and-forth battle against the federal government with a series of laws intended to blunt the effect of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Ultimately, in 1850, Pennsylvania lost.

The Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers.
It required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law.

The Underground Railroad reached its peak in the 1850s, with many slaves fleeing to Canada to escape U.S. jurisdiction. Along the way abolitionists and many brave anti-slavery supporters assisted their movements as a counter to the laws they couldn't abide.

The Quakers are known to have helped in whatever ways they could to assist in escapes. Their faith did not allow them to see any man enslaved so by pursuing whatever 'non-violent' action they could accommodate, they resisted and blocked the ways of bounty hunters and those tracking runaways.

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