The Winding Trail
They were almost there that night when Caesar suddenly grabbed Harriet and pulled her into the bushes. His large left hand cupped her mouth and chin, but her eyes, large with shock, looked questioningly at the burly coachman.
Peering anxiously down the dirt road, Caesar raised his right hand, beckoning Harriet to get down. Then he lowered his other hand from her face.
Harriet froze, trying to make out the danger that her traveling companion saw in the Maryland countryside. Then she heard it. The drumming of horses’ hooves rapidly approaching them. Patrol riders!
Harriet caught her breath. She didn’t want them to see her and Caesar. If they did, they would demand the pass allowing them to be out from their master’s plantation this late. They had no pass.
Harriet was sneaking off to see her 1-year-old son, who lived on another plantation from the one on which she worked as a field hand. Caesar was one of the male slaves who accompanied her from time to time for her protection.
If the patrol riders discovered their mission, they would cart the pair off to their master. They would be in big trouble and would get a whipping or worse.
The patrol riders brought their horses to a halt near the slaves’ hiding place.
“Thought sure I saw something moving near the road and then dart into the bushes,” one of them drawled, less than 15 feet away from the trembling Harriet.
“Probably just your imagination, Bill,” his partner responded, glancing about and seeing nothing. “Or it could’ve been a deer. In the dark, their antlers sometimes make them look human, especially when they’re moving fast.”
“But it looked like two persons.”
“Well, could’ve been a doe and a buck. They often travel together.” Not quite satisfied, the other man drew his pistol and advanced toward the bush in which Caesar and Harriet were hiding. She felt Caesar tensing, readying himself to charge the horseman if they were discovered. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She couldn’t be caught.
Dear God, she implored, please blind him to us. Fred needs me so!”
The slave catcher stopped six feet short of the pair, but after a moment skirted around them. Finally he retreated toward his waiting partner.
“Guess you’re right, John,” he sighed. “Been so long since I’ve caught a slave that I’m mistaking animals for them.” He guffawed, bending forward and patting his horse’s neck.
“Gets that way sometimes,” the other man consoled. “Don’t worry, though. God’ll help us break this dry spell. He knows we sure need the money we get from catchin’ slaves.”
With that, the men turned their horses away from the clump of bushes, vanishing in the direction from which they had come.
After the hoofbeats died away, Caesar motioned for Harriet to get up.
“Sorry about covering your mouth. Hope I didn’t hurt you none.”
“No need to apologize. I’m fine. Just happy you heard them.” She smiled as they again entered the roadway.
“If it hadn’t been for you—” She trembled at the thought of being deprived of seeing her little Frederick.
During the rest of their secret journey the two slaves uttered not a word, so ill at ease were they by their narrow escape. Forever glancing far down the road and at some distant spot ahead, they seemed not to hear the rising chorus of insects, accompanied, now and then, by the soft cries of owls starting their nighttime hunt.
Even the striking beauty of sky and woods bathed in moonlight could not induce them to drop their wariness. They were ready at a moment’s notice to hide away in the bushes and emerge only when absolutely sure there was no danger.
Minutes of tension melted into relief when a tired Harriet saw the outline of her mother’s cottage. A rush of energy swept over her as she thought of her son.
Fred will be fast asleep, she noted. He won’t even remember that I’ve been to see him when he awakens in the morning. But that’s all right.
Every chance she had gotten over the past few months Harriet had walked the miles between the two plantations. She could do it forever, she told herself, just to see her growing son. To hear his voice, though muffled by drowsiness, as he murmured “Mama” and smiled up at her before drifting back to sleep. To know that he was all right, instead of relying on messages her mother sent from Tuckahoe.
If only there were some way Fred and I could be together again, she yearned. “Well, praise God, we’re here,” Caesar sighed as they stood before the doorway of the shabby cottage.
“That we are,” Harriet responded, flashing a quick smile. “I couldn’t have made it without you. Fred and I are powerfully grateful to you for sticking by me tonight.”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” he said, almost sheepishly. “You’ve done me many a favor. I’ll never forget the times you got Hepsibah to sneak me food out of the big house when I was hungry.” Harriet beamed at the memory of the huge man wolfing down leftovers that she sometimes carried to his hut.
“Just enjoy your time with Fred and Miss Betsy. Tell her howdy for me. I’m going up the quarters a piece to visit some of my folk. I’ll be back directly.” With that, Caesar turned and walked toward a series of cabins some distance away.
Harriet watched him for a moment. Then she lightly rapped out a coded signal on the door. Her smiling mother whisked her into the one-room cabin.
Inside, she quickly spotted Fred huddled among several other children asleep on the earthen floor. Stepping care- fully over the pile of legs and arms, she gathered her son in her arms.
Her mother motioned her to a vacant corner where she could sit and cradle him, undisturbed. Harriet had just an hour with her son before Caesar’s own coded knock would signal her away.
Between kisses she stroked the child’s face and rocked him. In the light from the pine knots on the walls, she marveled at how much like her mother Fred looked. Peace filled her. Nothing seeming able to disturb it. Then she shuddered as she thought of the distance between her and Fred and the patrol riders haunting the roads.
That’s no way to think, she scolded herself. God’s still on the throne. He’ll make a way for us.
With that thought cheering her, she hugged Fred closer and smiled. The present was enough. God would take care of their future.
Derek C. Bowe