Monday, September 15, 2014

A Tale from the Underground Railroad

“Sweet Jesus, is it hot!” Jacob muttered, fumbling through mosquito-laden fog with a fading lantern swinging from an extended arm.

Another masked light bobbed lazily twenty feet behind him.  “Eli, close that shutter a bit,” Jacob hissed.

Between the lamps, four dark-skinned figures huddled close to one another, their features lost in the muggy darkness.

Jacob fished in his vest pocket, producing a white handkerchief, brilliant in the night, and mopped salty streams from his brow.

A moment’s hesitation and he sensed panic exuding from between the lanterns.  Jesus, take their fears, he prayed silently.  “Just a few more miles north, then east.”  He strained to dilute the statement with a soothing tone.

“Jake, I see a faint light over some,” Eli gestured, and the muted lantern swung sharply in his grip.  Jacob flashed an angry glare, but the absent moon hid his face.  “Sorry, Jake, I’m as eager as anyone to get there.”  Jacob resented Eli’s fervent cowardliness, but he expected no less from hired hands.

As he surveyed the surroundings, Jacob reconsidered the wisdom of hiring a lookout – another pair of eyes, sure, but eyes of grace or greed?
Slowly, like a hunted man on a city street, Jacob led the party across an intervening lawn toward a small cottage.  A dim amber glow shone through shuttered windows, and a picketed horse stirred at the group’s approach.

Jacob smiled reassuringly at his passengers, glancing between slats of the shuttered windows.  A shadow passed in front of the faint light.
“Karen,” Jacob rasped, rapping lightly on the closed portal, “it’s Jake.”  The heat extended time, and Jake heard Eli’s impatient huffing through a million wings buzzing about his head.  The interceding shadow shifted, letting soft light through the wood visors.

"Go to the cellar door,” a soft voice replied. The orange hue vanished from between window slats, snuffed out.  Jacob motioned his companions around the corner of the house.  A heavy bulkhead creaked open, and a young woman with fiery hair rose from the basement.  She nodded to Jacob, a spluttering candle dripping tallow on stone stairs.  The frightened four descended, guided by Karen’s tiny flame.
Jacob faced Eli, fishing a small leather bag from his vest.  He dropped it in Eli’s palm, turned, and descended without a word.  Lord, let him do his job quickly and be gone, Jacob recited in his mind.  The momentary lapse of motion or sound caught Jacob’s throat, but then Eli shut the bulkhead and departed in haste.

The basement smelled of dried fruits and spices, and sealed jars lined numerous wooden-plank shelves.  Barrels and sacks sat in piled heaps, testimony to Karen’s labor along the railways.  Jacob watched quietly as Karen filled a pack with provisions, tying it securely shut.  She stood up, handing it to Jacob with a solemn nod.  They both turned to the passengers, white eyes and teeth gleaming in the gloom.

“Jacob will get you safely through this – God willing.”  Karen spoke earnestly, her eyes full of sympathy.  She gave them fist-sized apples and flasks of water, letting them eat while sitting on sturdy crates scattered about the floor.  Jacob walked over to an aperture in the wall, peering into the sudden darkness of the tunnel beyond.

“This will take us to a depot?” Jacob asked, peering into the blank tunnel.  Karen nodded, turning a concerned gaze on the strangers sitting silently nearby.  “Thank you for the provisions and assistance, Karen – God bless you.”  Jacob meant it – people make a difference when their heart is in it.  “Okay, follow me, and we’ll be out of this in no time.”

“Take care of them, Jake.”  Karen spoke in hushed tones, her eyes sliding down Jacob’s side to the holstered pistol at his hip.  “God save you if you need to use that,” she nodded at the gun.  Jacob took her hand, kissing the backside of it, and motioned for his passengers to follow.

Jacob entered the forlorn passage, opening the lantern a bit to light the way.  The passengers, cemented hand in hand, stepped cautiously – yet eagerly – in Jacob’s wake.  The smell of damp earth, the sound of skittering critters, combined to affect an atmosphere of eerie anticipation.  Jacob knew their destination, and he prayed all was well on that end.

They stopped twice but traversed the miles swiftly, as if pursued by hungry hounds.  Jacob remembered working on many such tunnels; the laborious digging and testing to ensure safety – all the while pressed for time, the free lives of so many waiting.  Jacob saw twenty souls to freedom, but each new expedition caused the fear to resurface: fear of losing one passenger, fear of losing his way, fear of never returning home.

The tunnel terminated at a heavy door, set firmly and barred from the opposite side.  Jacob hung the lantern on a peg protruding from the earthen wall and rapped on the wooden portal.  Creaking stairs answered, and the door edged open.  Pudgy fingers slid into the seam, pulling the entryway wider.  A bleary, reddened eye peered through the murky crack.

“Jake?” the man squeaked, licking his lips nervously.  Jacob nodded curtly, shifting to allow sight of the four folks behind.  The door widened, and Jacob led the quartet into a stocked cellar.  The short man, Francis Young, seemed unusually unsettled: sweat beaded on his balding head; crimson splotches decorated his rotund cheeks and neck; and his tired-looking eyes shifted between Jacob and the passengers.

Francis stuffed both hands in his trouser pockets, smiling broadly.  Jacob looked around, scrutinized Francis, and glanced up the stairs.  A polished pine door sat ajar at the top of the stairs, and bright light filtered down into the basement.  “Come on up, we’ll have a bite to eat before discussing anything else.”  Francis slid over to the stairs and began waddling up them, the back of his shirt streaked with sweat.

Jacob took notice of the nervous tone, abnormally sweaty hands, and dilated eyes – his suspicions stirred.  He turned to his passengers, “Stay here for now, I want to make sure it’s safe.”  Jacob reassured them with a weak smile, and slowly ascended the stairs.  Lord, what is wrong here?  Guide my steps, and guide my judgment, Jacob prayed through the growing tension.

At the top of the stairs Jacob paused and listened: he heard Francis milling around, opening a cabinet, and uncorking a bottle.  Jacob repositioned his Colt for easy access and eased open the door.  The floor creaked as Jacob passed a short hall, entering a broad dining area lit by hanging glass lanterns.  Francis attempted to pour liquor in a cup, spilling more than half as his hands shook.  “Why do you seem so unsettled?”
“I’m sorry, Jake, I really am!”  Francis reacted to the question, breathing explosively and wringing his hands.  His eyes widened, and one hand snatched a half-full cup of whiskey.  “They found out I had offered to host a depot and threatened to skin me alive!  What was I supposed to do?”  He drained the cup in two hearty gulps.

Jacob crossed the interceding space, stopping directly in front of Francis.  He placed both hands on the table, casting his eyes up in a threatening glare.  Francis stood breathless, the empty whiskey cup still in hand.  “I’m so sorry, Jake.  I shouldn’t have done it,” he whispered hoarsely.

“What the hell are you talking about?  What have you done?”  Jacob barked.  Francis jumped, and the empty glass shattered on the hardwood floor.  Francis stood motionless, shaking his head as tears pooled in both eyes.  “Francis!  Answer me!  What have you done!”

Jacob received no reply.  He heard footfalls on the landing, just outside the main door.  Francis slapped a hand over his mouth, mumbling incoherently.  Jacob moved toward a window, to glance out on the porch.  Francis fell to the floor, wiggling his way under the table.

The front door opened violently, crashing against the interior wall and breaking from its hinges: four men, robed in white and crowned with pointed hoods, consumed the entryway.  Dark, malicious eyes penetrated from beneath the hoods.  Jacob shot hot eyes at the cowering form of Francis.  “You sold them to the Klan!  You filthy son of a bitch!”  Jacob reached for the hilt of his Colt.

Jacob heard the four passengers scream; he heard a door slam and a shelf fall.

Run fast, he thought, race for your life, for your freedom, along your hijacked railway.

No comments:

Post a Comment